There it lay, right at his feet: the Vale of Mercy. Two hundred leagues wide from the foot of the Milky Mountains to the Peaks of Gellia. Now that the long climb was over, he could finally make out the jagged ranges lining the black horizon. All was still, but for the wind ferreting through the cliffs and the faint murmur of a stream. He wished he could have looked down from a height like this onto another valley all those years ago, when the two hosts had faced off, each ready to grind the other into bloody dust. He wished he could have heard the beating of the drums at the time, and known in advance how it would end. Because then he might have made it back in time to her, the woman now standing behind him. But too many years had gone by.
* * *
“How did you find me?” she asked.
Only in early spring was it this easy to breathe. The plain was covered in a new coat of green. The air was as transparent as the finest Odalan glass. It was still dry, but soon the rains would come and all this sun-baked earth would teem with life. One could hardly imagine a better place for flocks to graze. Unfortunately Lokk, a hive of bandits, lay on the other side of the valley; and that’s why there were no flocks or freshly tilled fields or hunters here, nor a single hut for six hundred leagues from Vandila forest to Hel, where the Qimra held sway. Even the bandits were afraid of the Qimra. But there were scarier things than the Qimra in Hel.
And yet, why did Hel cross his mind if even hunters were afraid to wander into these parts, let alone merchants… Not more than once or twice a year did the merchants venture into the valley, and then only under heavy guard.
Was this why the place was so quiet and green? And why was it so easy to fill his lungs with this air and yet not get enough of it?
* * *
“How did you find me?” she demanded.
* * *
He was a tall man and, judging from his stature, a sturdy warrior. To look at his face you would think he was approaching old age. But stare into his dewy eyes and you would take him for a young man enchanted by the beauty of spring in Terminum.
He turned around, yet the first thing he looked at was not the thin, nettlesome, middle-aged woman with the white hair. Instead he threw a glance at the snowy caps of the Milky Mountains piercing the blue sky and blinked his eyes blissfully as if he could feel their long wished-for coldness wash over him.
“You almost killed me,” he said and raised his staff. A crossbow bolt was sticking from it.
“Do you mean to tell me you’re mortal now?” she asked.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
“If I wanted to, I could have killed you. Answer me, Blance!”
“Hopper,” he corrected her and dropped the bag from his shoulder. He put the damaged staff to rest against a rock and sat down on a broken piece of white pillar. Only then did he slip off his knitted Gebonan cap to wipe the sweat from his clean-shaven face with it.
“Call me Hopper. Everybody does. Or at least they have for the last fifty years. So, you didn’t kill me because you didn’t want to? At least that’s something… Your name still Amma?”
“What do you care? I am who I am.”
She lowered herself carefully onto a piece of masonry ten paces from her unexpected visitor. She laid her cocked crossbow down and rattled the scabbard of her old sword. She sat motionless against the background of the ancient ruins and the simple hut that stood in their midst.
Close by was a paddock with a small flock of sheep, a short-legged Qimran mare and her filly, and two enormous savanna dogs. Dogs like those could rip you to shreds in a couple of seconds and were far more reliable than a crossbow or a sword like the one that had once gleamed so splendidly in Amma’s strong hands. The dogs were trained and lying on their paws, but didn’t take their eyes off the visitor.
“Look, I’m ready to go by any other name. Just say it. I see you never found your sword?”
“That’s none of your business,” Amma replied, pursing her lips.
“Of course it isn’t. You haven’t changed at all. How many years has it been since we last met? It’s a scary thought.”
“It’s been seven hundred and two years. Frankly, I hoped I’d never see you again.”
“You know I looked for you,” Hopper mumbled, staring down at his boots.
“Well, I never looked for you,” Amma snapped. “For a time I even thought you were one of the…”
“I survived, Amma,” Hopper said. “Not through any doing of my own, mind you. An enemy arrow pierced my arm and then they carved up the rest of this bag of bones. I’m the only one who survived. I’m the thirteenth one.”
“So…” She narrowed her eyes, staring intently at Hopper’s face.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Nothing to be proud of. The other twelve averted—or was that postponed?—the calamity without my help. They did it by becoming mortal… They cast a spell on themselves and turned into a dozen tiny menhirs.” Hopper gave a laugh that sounded more like a cough. “Funny little menhirs, like idols. Then they crumbled into dust, along with their weapons and their armor.”
* * *
Again the beating of the drum in his ears and the horror rolling down from the north. The monsters behind their palisade of spears. How long was it since he last saw them in his dreams? Two years? Or three? At one stage, it had been almost every night…
* * *
“That’s how it really happened?” She narrowed her eyes again.
“Probably.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a keen observer. While this was happening, I lay sprawled among the other dead bodies, almost a corpse myself… But what they’d done was enough to put an end to the last harvest. The blight was over. The monsters returned to their lairs and the Northerners withdrew because they’d lost half their men.”
“And then I woke up. They’d won the battle without me. It would have been strange not to have woken up. Anyway, I looked for you for many years. Whatever your reasons may have been, you hid yourself well. How many of our kind are left, Amma? You should know.”
“Thirteen,” she replied.
“Well I never. So the others are all still around? Our kind really clings to life, wouldn’t you say? But it turns out we Umbra are mortal too. Almost like humans.”
“Nothing’s changed in seven hundred years,” Amma said. “Just like nothing changed in the three hundred years before that. Only thirteen of the twenty-five Umbra are left. Five superior Umbra continue to be faithful servants and the eight inferior ones are the unfaithful ones. The eight Curros… I’m not surprised you survived. You were always the craftiest…”
* * *
The craftiest… The only thing his cunning had been good for was to land him in the very thick of battle. And yet all he was supposed to do was raise the knife and do what he and his friends had decided to do. But then he got three arrows in a row—one in the stomach, one under his left collarbone and one in his right arm, pinning it to his chest. What went through his mind at the time? Her, yes… Of course, only her…
* * *
“It isn’t craftiness.” Hopper rolled up his sleeve and showed her the scar on his forearm. “It’s fate. I have more of those on the rest of my body.”
“Are you trying to make excuses?” She made a wry mouth. “You always liked making excuses.”
“And if I’d died there?” he asked. “Would you have been happy?”
“It’s been a while since anything made me happy,” Amma said. “How did you find me, Blance?”
“This time I wasn’t looking for you,” he confessed. “Although I won’t deny I’m glad to see you. I was looking for this.”
“This?” She aimed the crossbow at him, cocked her head to see what he was looking at and raised her eyebrows in surprise. “My hut?”
“That cozy nest?” Hopper snorted irritably. “I imagine it’s a lot cozier on the inside. You were always good at arranging things… And you’ve been living here for what, six years?”
“Five.” She pursed her mouth. “It took me a year to build. And, yes, everything’s cozy inside. But not for you.”
“Pity,” Hopper sighed. “There was a time we got on well together. Until that quarrel just before the battle. I still don’t understand what upset you. I mean, how could I not have gone to battle? It wasn’t all for nothing, Amma. Think about it. Seven hundred years of peace! That’s quite something.”
“It’s the blink of an eye,” Amma whispered.
“Well, I suppose your right. It’s an instant for us and almost an eternity for mortals. Mind you, we’re also mortal, as it turned out. But that’s all in the past.” Hopper sighed. “I’m not here because of you or your hut. I’m here because of the ruins.”
“The ruins? Are you a gold scavenger now?” Amma asked in surprise. “There’s no gold here. At least, I didn’t find any. Nobody’s set foot here since the time of the Arrival. Maybe even longer than that. The pathways have all collapsed. There used to be a monastery higher up, to the north of the slope. On the Day of Divine Judgment it slid down, taking a piece of the slope with it. It’s only a heap of rubble now. The road to the top is gone as well. Has been for over a thousand years… And I concealed the road here so well that… that only you could find it. Did you leave your horse down below?”
Hopper nodded. “I won’t overstay my welcome. The horse would have made it up the path but I didn’t want to risk its life. The Vale of Mercy isn’t all that merciful and I am still going to need that horse. I sensed life at the top, but I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“The ruins are just a bunch of stones,” Amma said and peered at Hopper with suspicion. “It’s well over a thousand years since they’ve last been a temple. They weren’t destroyed on the Day of Divine Judgment. Time destroyed them. Time and oblivion.”
“A temple of the Thrice-Arrived One stood here once,” Hopper said. “That was three thousand years ago, so I can’t imagine many remember it any longer. By the way, before the Arrival the years were reckoned from His last sojourn. So, this was one of His first temples. Of course, it’s unlikely that He ever came here. Although…”
She raised her eyebrows. “What are you looking for in the ruins?”
“The same thing you found, I think,” he said and their eyes met for an instant. “Scraps of parchment, stone tablets, stelae, frescoes, ceramic shards with writing on them. Anything that contains at least part of a word or an image.”
“And why would you need that trash for?” she asked with irritation and got up.
Hopper remained seated. He lowered his head. “For seven hundred years I’ve been looking for answers, trying to understand what happened.”
“You won’t get any explanation from me,” Amma said through clenched teeth.
He raised his head hopefully. “Do you know anything?”
“Only what you told me. That a lucky arrow saved you from your chance to become a hero.”
“Stop that,” Hopper said with a frown. “Nobody planned any heroics…”
“You certainly managed fine without any acts of heroism.”
She knew how to be heartless, but he pretended not to hear her. “We went there to fight. There were too many of the Abominations on the other side.”
“They’re Enses, not Abominations,” she said, barely audibly.
“Whatever.” Hopper grimaced. “Enses, Abominations, all those pretty creatures just waiting to sweep away the rulers of this world, and us with them, or to turn us into mute slaves again. You have to agree, even if those three hundred years of freedom weren’t the most peaceful, they changed us. We realized that this world, and the humans sharing it with us, were worth defending.”
She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Worth being hunted down, you mean. Didn’t your side torment and murder men and women, young and old alike?”
Hopper’s face grew somber. “That wasn’t us.”
“So, what were you and your companions trying to achieve?” She stood motionless.
“Survival,” he sighed. “The worst thing we thought could happen to us was that we’d lose our beloved bodies. We blabbered about the rest, but nobody expected to die.”
She narrowed her eyes. “So you thought you were going to wave your swords around, die glorious, heroic deaths, soar up into the sky and then, after a bit of effort, settle into new bodies? Not much of a price to pay. Maybe a bit awkward to begin with. How the hell did they manage to actually kill themselves? Ah, but I forget… You didn’t die, did you, Blance? You conveniently passed out. Somehow it all doesn’t tie up properly. How did the other twelve manage to kill themselves?”
* * *
Kill themselves? What would it feel like to die? To catch an arrow in your chest and choke on your own blood? To writhe in agony? To lie in a heap of limbs and torsos? To look for the sun through the shadows? And then it came back to him again: that unexpected stare of a brother-in-arms just as he thrust the stone knife into his throat.
* * *
“There…” He pulled the bag closer, unfastened the cord, put his hand into the opening and produced a small bundle.
Amma recoiled. “What is it?”
“A knife.” Hopper carefully unfolded the cloth and took out a stone weapon. The gleaming, polished blade was three fingers wide and sported a braided leather handle.
Amma went pale. “Who made that?”
“What are you afraid of?” Hopper asked in surprise. “Yes, one of us figured out how to extract a shard of menhir in such a way that it doesn’t lose its power. Incidentally, that’s the only power capable of defeating our kind. It’s not an easy thing to do, not like making amulets out of strixes … although you have to mess around plenty with those as well. I was able to fit a stone like that to my staff—the one you damaged—but that was much later and I don’t really have that kind of ability. You need to understand, Amma. Not only did we not want to die, we didn’t want to lose our freedom and become servants again. That’s not the reason we became free. Who could have thought that our choice was actually a choice between servitude and death? A knife like that could even have ripped a higher umbra—a reaper, as they’re now called—right out of his flesh. Or at least that’s what we thought. No one should know this, but—”
“Listen here,” Amma said, not taking her eyes off the knife. “Why were all these wars necessary? Why didn’t a single one of you want to become a reaper and taste what it feels like to have the power of a god and to be filled with a strength that is now out of reach for all of us? To rise above all this weakness and randomness? Submission in the present would unlock all those dreams in the future.”
“That is not a dream worth living,” Hopper said, shaking his head. “We’ve discussed this before, and I haven’t changed my view. In any case, it’s impossible because it’s not in our power.”
“It would take just a bit of submission and obedience for that old dream to flourish again,” Amma whispered. “Submission is amply rewarded by those who have the power. They can even give you some of that power…”
“That’s enslavement,” Hopper remarked.
“Or absolute freedom,” Amma shot back and then suddenly winked at Hopper. “For as long as the gods are asleep…”
“Asleep?” Hopper gave a strained laugh. “That’s a very deep sleep… Are you testing me again, or are you making fun of me? You do realize Groggy Deep was the first battle where Umbra were prepared to fight other Umbra? Do you know what a war between half-demons is like? The whole world could have been destroyed!”
“I remember an event like that, only more terrible,” Amma whispered as if her thoughts were elsewhere. “But though it lasted a thousand years, not one of us got killed.”
“Except for the twelve,” Hopper objected. “They died by their own hand, but they’re dead all the same. Thirteen took out knives. But only twelve thrust those knives into their necks. An arrow pinned the thirteenth one’s arm to his chest, together with the knife he was holding. And when I lost consciousness I didn’t know how it was all going to end yet.”
“It didn’t end.” Amma’s voice was barely audible.
“Back then it did,” Hopper said gruffly as he wrapped the knife in its cloth again. “Were you looking forward to this moment for seven hundred years, just to make me angry? If only you knew the anguish I felt when I realized that I hadn’t died with the others… and the elation when I realized that their sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.”
“So it was a sacrifice after all?” Amma asked wryly.
“No it was not!” Hopper jumped to his feet, took one step in the direction of Amma and instantly got a bolt in the stomach. He bent over, clenched the wooden shaft in his hands and tumbled sideways onto the rock with a hoarse cry of pain.
“You’re out of your mind!” he groaned.
“At least I didn’t age,” Amma sighed with relief. “Did you forget that I never joke? Let me help you remember. And while we’re at it, let’s see how much you suffered in the Battle of Groggy Deep. Lie on your back and don’t groan like that. Nothing important’s been hurt. Put your arms under your back and don’t twitch, otherwise I might push it in deeper.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to pull out the quarrel…”
* * *
And yet again Groggy Deep shimmers into view. Corpses. Smoldering pyres in the distance. A black sky with a scattering of stars and the moon’s disc. And arrows in his stomach and chest that he’s going to have to pull out himself. The battle is over and there’s nobody at his side except for twelve stone figures that are beginning to crumble into ashes in the spring breeze…
* * *
“You’re awake? You didn’t lie. You really cling to life. You can sit up now. I used a strong remedy to cover the wound. Tomorrow it won’t so much as twinge.”
She was sitting in her old spot examining his stone knife. Her crossbow was in the same place, cocked again. Hopper shook his head and touched his stomach carefully. The knee-buckling pain wasn’t gone, but it had subsided and didn’t feel as if it would keep him down for long. Few among the Umbra were Amma’s equal in archery or sword fight. Most of them were capable of shooting a man while talking to him. Amma had never been, though. Time was merciless in different ways.
“And this is the woman I searched for seven hundred years,” Hopper hissed through his teeth then sat back on the rock.
She allowed herself a smile. “You should realize I’ve got far more bolts than you have safe spots on your body. Strange thing. You’re the only one who never changed bodies. Why?”
“I’m not the only one.” Hopper touched his stomach with a frown. “How much do we know about the higher Umbras? Almost nothing. Even the local ones. Just take Chirlan who’s grown attached to his jolly half-pint of a body over the centuries… And don’t forgot about yourself…”
“I never forget about myself,” Amma answered. “And in my case, it’s all rather simple. I can’t say I have any particular fondness for this shell, but I’ve invested too much effort in it. I’m used to being in this body. And over the years I’ve started taking on its features. I’ve grown into this host and I can’t imagine existence without it any longer.”
Hopper carefully straightened his back. “Well in my case I just don’t want to,” he sighed. “Laugh all you like, but that’s the one sin I haven’t said enough prayers for. It’s not as if our bodies were gifted to us. We stole them.”
“Well, well,” said Amma. “An umbra with a conscience… Is the old wolf shedding tears in the sheep pen?”
“It’s not like that, Amma.”
“I’m not interested in your inner struggles, Blance,” she said and almost bared her teeth. “So, you’re saying what happened in Groggy Deep was no sacrifice. What was it then?”
Hopper shook his head. “You’re the only one I could forgive for saying something like that…”
“Come on, less idle talk.” Amma’s voice rose.
“I think we tried to avoid enslavement. I didn’t hear everything that was said. I hardly made it to the battle in time. Yes, the death of my friends turned out to be a sacrifice, and it even diminished the higher Umbra, but who could have known this? To or three Umbras we could have coped with. We’d definitely have been able to cut them loose from their bodies. But all five met us on the battlefield. We couldn’t move. We were stuck like flies in a spider’s web…”
“Why did you hesitate?” Amma asked. “Was it doubt or fear?”
“Fear?” A smile flicker across Hopper’s face for an instant. “I don’t know what my comrades felt, but I heard a voice. It told me things I must have known all along. Every day I dream of hearing that voice again. I’ve never experienced such happiness in my life. It sang in my chest. It burned there. It was my voice. I wept when I heard it. It comforted me. It said death is like an eternal dream. And other things too… And that’s when I hesitated, although I already held the knife to my throat.”
Amma nodded. “So you heard that honeysweet voice again? Don’t you feel as if the same thing happened before to us, in another place?”
“Wouldn’t you want to have that experience again?”
“Knowing what the consequences would be?”
This time it seemed as if she wanted to hear his answer.
“Consequences? Not everyone possesses the gift of prophecy. And nobody’s been able to prove a link between the voice and the disaster. The voice sounded as if it wanted to die with us! To sacrifice itself for my sake. Just like the man whose temple stood on this spot. Long before the Arrival, he, too chose death to prevent the previous disaster that hung above this world.”
“Really?” Amma leered. “The previous disaster? And what about the next one? Very well, suppose twelve Umbra sacrificed themselves to buy this world seven hundred years of happiness and prosperity. What next? But of course, there are thirteen more of us, right? But wait, what am I talking about… I haven’t made any plans to say goodbye to life, and you’ll just find another excuse in the end. So, who do we have left? Surely you don’t think the ones who didn’t follow you back then will do so now? Or was seven hundred years long enough for them to lose their love for life? Especially now that their fate has been settled? And can you promise them that they will hear the god’s voice? They may be longing for it, but a thousand years have gone by. High time they abandoned that dream… You’re the one who’s forever going on about freedom. Freedom is also worth something. Or isn’t it? Answer me, Hopper!”
“You still don’t get it,” Hopper whispered. “That voice wasn’t trying to take our freedom away. It wasn’t forcing us to do anything. It just revealed itself. But what if that voice belonged to somebody from this world, somebody who saved this land long ago? This story goes back more than a thousand years. It is much, much older. And if this world’s god could awake seven hundred years ago, it can awake again. There has to be a clue, some kind of key that will help us to get through to him. And we just need to find that key…”
“You’re raving,” Amma snorted.
Hopper shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“And is that why you’re poking about in ancient ruins?”
“And have you managed to find anything?”
“Not much,” he said with a heavy sigh. “The Temple of Divine Retribution has declared the old beliefs heretical. It’s been hunting down their vestiges for centuries.”
“But you won’t give up?” Amma asked.
“No. Provided I don’t run into you more often,” Hopper replied.
“Alright,” she said after a minute’s pause. “I did find something. Not a special power, of course, unless its power has been swallowed up by the power coming from these ruins… But wait here while I go and fetch it. Come on, boys! Keep an eye on this…human.”
The dogs got up instantly, bared their teeth with throaty growls and took up the watch at Amma’s seat. The woman he had sought for seven hundred years returned a couple of minutes later.
“There.” Amma showed Hopper the bundle. “This scroll contains the complete life and prophecies of the Thrice-Arrived One. Curious reading, I’ll tell you that. I found it in a bricked-up alcove in the cellar. But it’s just a book stitched together out of some ancient pieces of parchment filled with illuminated Old-Berkanan letters. Nothing more. There’s no magic in this book.”
“`Perhaps the magic is in the meaning of the words and not the pages,” Hopper whispered. “What do you want in exchange?”
“Your stone knife,” Amma said.
Hopper was surprised. “What do you need it for?”
Amma shrugged. “If you give it to me, I’ll tell you.”
“You’re already holding it.”
“I had to hear you say it,” she said and tossed the bundle towards him.
He removed the wrappings from the ancient book and gently began to leaf through the pages, all the time muttering under his breath: “My god, this scroll is unbelievably ancient. And without emendations. It’s a complete document!”
“Are you going to be at this for a while?” Amma asked, her voice tense.
“Forgive me.” He got up, wrapped the book and put it back in the bag. “It has no magic, to be sure. It’s just words. But what words!”
“Do you still think you heard the voice of a local god seven hundred years ago?” She looked at Hopper searchingly.
He met her gaze. “I don’t know what you mean by a local god,” Hopper said. “But I’m convinced that—”
“Convinced?” She shook her head. “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been carrying some or other conviction. Very well. Is that all?”
“All?” he asked in confusion. He cupped his wound with his hand and glanced around. “You’re quite something, you know? Just look at the way you organized everything here… I can hear a stream, so you must have cleaned the well too. And you took position high up so you could see everybody without being seen yourself. You don’t even have to fear for your life every time you stoke the oven. But it must be rather boring all on your own…”
“Who or what was I, Blance?” she asked.
“Hopper,” he corrected her again. “I’ll rather be Hopper if you don’t acknowledge my old self. And you are Amma, unless you say otherwise. You are an Umbra, like me. And you’re a Curro, like me. An outcast by choice. You found freedom in a foreign land. And you are fearful of everything. But does your ability to foretell the future sometimes forsake you? Look how much my visit surprised you.”
“Your visit is like a mosquito’s flight. It would be silly to predict something so petty. The only thing about my future I can predict is my own death.”
“And when will that be?” Hopper asked, his curiosity piqued.
“I don’t know.” Amma narrowed her eyelids. “The truth seldom reveals itself fully. But two things I know for sure. Firstly, you’re the one who will kill me… and secondly, you will do it with this very knife.”
He froze. He stared at the woman who had hidden from him for seven hundred years.
“Merciful gods,” Hopper whispered. “I’m going to kill you, and with this knife? And you’ve been carrying this knowledge with you for seven hundred years? So, that’s why you— But why would I kill you?”
“That’s what the premonition says,” Amma answered. “As for the reason… That I don’t know. But you have your share of talents too, don’t you? I don’t just predict the future. Just like you, I can sense the exact number of Umbra walking the earth. But unlike you, I can’t enter a person and charm him completely. That’s a rare gift.”
“I can’t always control it,” Hopper said. “Only when they reveal themselves, or when even their stealth can’t overcome the circumstances… Or when they become heralds. And even then…But tell me one thing. Why didn’t you kill me? I mean, rip me out of this body? If you knew that my existence is threatening to you, why did you aim for my staff? Or did your hand also waver?”
She was silent for a couple of seconds. Then she spoke reluctantly: “One of my prophecies failed to come true. Perhaps this one is wrong too?”
“What prophecy of yours was wrong?” he asked breathlessly.
“You weren’t supposed to have survived. All thirteen of you were supposed to die. Thirteen. That’s more than half of all the Umbra that have materialized in this world. And that was only a part of the prophecy. All the remaining ones were supposed to have been swept into the abyss. Instead we got away with seven hundred years of weakness and peace. All thanks to you… Or that voice you heard.”
“So you weren’t angry at me?” Hopper whispered. “You thought I had left?”
“They’ll be back soon, Hopper,” she blurted out.
“What do you mean?” Hopper asked perplexed.
“Yes.” She closed her eyes. “It isn’t you I’ve been hiding from. That harvest wasn’t the last. The third harvest is drawing closer and it will be the bloodiest; perhaps it will really be the final harvest. It will be different from the others. Compared to it, all previous harvests will seem but the slightest of afflictions…”
“When is it starting?” Hopper hissed.
“Soon,” Amma replied.
“In a week. On the day of spring equinox.”
“In the south-west. In Albius, a little town on the shores of the Mannaz. And in the north…” She frowned. “It will be in a small town at the foot of the mountains. Near the head of a large river, where an ancient railroad track passes through a tunnel.”
Hopper nodded. “That’s obviously Wodan. Well, Albius is closer. I probably won’t be in time for the beginning of the festival, but I should be there by the time people start handing out presents.”
“And you think you can stop the disaster with this?” Amma nodded at the book.
“I don’t know,” Hopper answered.
“Wait.” She held him back. She took a step towards him and touched his shoulders with the tips of her fingers. “I haven’t said the most important thing…”
“What thing?” Hopper turned around.
“Who’s he?” Hopper was puzzled again.
“Him,” she repeated forcefully. “Whoever caused us to end up in this world. The one we fled from. The one who always walks in shadow. He who deprived us of our gods, even though he might be one of them.”
Hopper went pale. “How do you know that? And what makes you say our gods are dead?”
“You’ve also suspected as much.” Amma smiled and spread her arms out. “And do you know what? There really is something about this ancient temple. This place is truly good and pure. It shelters and it hides. You lied to me when you said you’d sensed life here. I read it in your eyes when you made the climb to my hut.”
“This was before you shot at me?” Hopper asked.
“The first arrow was only aimed at your staff.” Amma said, trying to conceal her smile. “You looked surprised to see me.”
“I was stunned when I saw you, Amma,” Hopper confessed. “I had to turn away so I could hold back my tears.”
“One should never be ashamed of tears,” she said slowly.
“So, are you hiding here from him?” Hopper asked. “Or have you gone mad? Don’t you know that if he’s here, there can be no hiding from him.”
“Listen.” She swallowed away her tears. “There are thirteen of us left. I don’t know what happened to the Silentium, if such a place even exists, but there are no more Umbra left in it. If it exists, there are only Enses and bestia in it, I think. Ordinary men and warriors that have been sleeping and will go on sleeping. There are many of them, and there will be many more, even if the next harvest casts them out in their thousands. But no Umbra. Five of us are still active, just like the higher Umbras. And yet it increasingly appears to me as if only four are active, while the fifth one… the fifth one seems to have been concealed in shadow for hundreds of years. But he or she is alive. As for the four — whom do they serve?”
“Our gods,” Hopper answered. “Who else could they serve?”
“Perhaps,” Amma said and blinked against the sun’s rays. “But one thing I don’t understand. How can they serve without hearing the voice? Or does he come to them as he came to you? Alright, so there are five of them. Eight Curros here in the south. Three as before have dressed up as clergymen and try to fight the other five. Three more are just quietly living out their lives. That leaves two — you and me.”
“So?” Hopper frowned. “That’s right. Thirteen.”
“There’s one more,” Amma whispered barely audible.
“A fourteenth one?” Hopper asked in surprize. “A stranger? Or is one of the gods awakening?”
“I don’t know.” She gave a deep sigh. “There are thirteen of us. But someone else is hovering above one of the thirteen, as if on invisible wings. Something predatory, like a dragon-fly quivering inside a chrysalis. An enormous and deadly sword hidden in the tiny sheath of an ordinary knife. And I’m not even sure this thirteenth one understands what’s happening to him. But that isn’t the main thing. The tips of my fingers started to perspire from the horror. Just like they did back then. Not here in this world, but in the other one. The place where it all began and ended, which we no longer inhabit. Before the Great Departure.
Hopper looked at the palm of his hand, reached out and touched Amma’s locks. The white hair clung to his fingers and reached out to follow them, like fluffy silk down. Hopper gave Anna a bow, turned around and walked away.
“Why can’t you find peace?” she shouted after him.
“I want to be the master of my own fate,” his answer came back.
“And what do you intend to do?”