Under the midday sun, they came to the gates of the town. Shadow was rolling a wheelbarrow they had appropriated from a nearby farmhouse, and in the wheelbarrow they had put the shaman. His bottom half below, and his top-half piled on top, because that seemed somehow appropriate. Shadow had reasoned that if his two halves were to reconcile, get back together, and heal, this would facilitate the process, but Notch knew better. At the bottom of the wheelbarrow, the guts and viscera of the man slid out, pooled, and formed a foul-smelling stew.
The gates were shut. When the watchmen saw them approaching down there, on the cobbles, one of them loosed an arrow that pierced Shadow’s cheekbone and stuck there. Shadow winced and shook his head in annoyance, but Notch stayed his hand.
“Calm down, love. We don’t want to do the same to the others.”
“But that hurt,” he whined.
Notch’s face was just at his shoulder level. She kissed him on the shoulder, took his arm and called up to the watchmen on the wall above.
“We have your shaman here. We would like to have peace! We’ve come to return him to you and clear up this misunderstanding.”
There was a commotion above. The wall was rough grey stone and mortar, eight meters tall. Shadow muttered grudgingly to Notch, “I could learn about building forts from them.”
Among the figures above came a fat man in black furs with a black beard wearing a red hat. “Who are you?” he bellowed.
Notch whispered, “Let me do all the talking.” Then she shouted, “We are gods from the realms above! We acted only in self-defence, and this has been a misunderstanding,” followed by a scoff and some muttering among the figures atop the wall.
“I’m the mayor,” the fat man said. “My people have seen your magic powers, but the shaman said you were demons. Evil spirits, not gods.”
Shadow had set the wheelbarrow down and was working the arrow out of his face. He pushed it through the back of his head, withdrew it, and tossed it to the ground. There was a small round hole in his cheek, which began to seal itself immediately. No blood. The men atop the wall were watching this with mouths agape.
“Don’t be dramatic,” Notch whispered.
“I’m not being dramatic,” Shadow said fiercely back. “It was itchy.”
After a moment the mayor called down again. “We’ll take back the body of our shaman. And then we expect you to be gone from our lands and cause no more trouble.”
“Fine. Come get him,” Notch said.
Maybe they hadn’t anticipated that or didn’t know exactly what to do next. There was a pause and then a mild commotion from above as they seemed to be deciding who would go down and confront the gods.
Meanwhile Notch stood with arms crossed and some petulance in her, staring down at the vivisected man in the wheelbarrow. She should not have agreed to leave. There was evidence of a great conspiracy unknown to her or anyone in her circle. This violent mystery begged solving. It might even be of great cosmic importance.
When the gate eventually cracked open, everybody came out. The mayor, about fifty of his guards, and some gathered others. A scrawny young man wearing a tooth necklace, animal bones on his limbs, and the same furs as the shaman did. Perhaps another shaman, or a successor. The guards all had their bows and crossbows pointed at Shadow. Notch was the more dangerous of the two, of course, but they didn’t know that.
At the urging of the mayor, Notch backed Shadow off with a hand on his chest and they withdrew with palms up. The mayor looked in the wheelbarrow and balked with his hand at his face. A couple of the soldiers also looked inside and fell back, astonished. One of them was retching on his hands and knees.
“It made them sick,” Shadow mused. “To look at him.”
There was anger on the faces of the villagers. Weapons held in unsteady hands, gritted teeth and scowls. The mayor turned weakly upon Notch and Shadow. “How could you claim to be gods? And yet kill so viciously?”
A new word. Notch felt a light go on inside her. “And do what viciously?”
The mayor shook his head and waved a hand at the wheelbarrow without looking at it. “This. Murder.”
Notch looked at Shadow, who shrugged. The languages of all people were known to them. A word they could not understand was one that to them had no meaning, no parallel in their own home worlds.
Notch said to the mayor, “We don’t understand your words. What has happened to your shaman?”
The mayor looked at her for a long time uncomprehending. Then he said, “He is dead.”
“Then that is the word you have for this state of being!” Notch said, with growing excitement. The mystery was unravelling. A new state of existence. This was a major discovery. “Dead. Kill,” she went on. “Can you tell us more?”
The mayor was clearly taken aback, as were his men. All looking at one another, muttering. Only the young man who looked like another shaman was staring at them in astonishment. It looked for a moment like they were going to take the wheelbarrow and simply leave.
Then the young shaman said, “’When the gods walk upon the earth and the time of upheaval has begun, then they will know nothing of death.’” He grew in confidence, coming forwards, smiling broadly. He looked at the mayor. “Have you forgotten what has been prophesied? They are true gods. Where they are from, there is no death. Where we all will go.”
That gave the mayor pause. A visible calm came over the crowd as they looked to the young shaman. The mayor looked in the wheelbarrow, then squinted at Notch with a new look in his eyes.
“Is it true?” he called to them.
Notch hesitated. It was never wise to become a deity for a lesser civilization, in her experience. But this new phenomenon needed to be investigated. And it required no deception. What the young shaman had said was true. Though no prophet from this world could have the vision to penetrate to higher planes of existence and see gods like them. It was perhaps just luck.
“We have never seen this phenomenon. Death.” She indicated the wheelbarrow. “There is no such thing in our world. This is true. But I know of no prophecy.”
The young shaman approached her and Shadow, arms upraised. The bones he wore clattered as he came. When he got closer, Notch saw there were tears on his cheeks. The mayor was extending an ineffectual hand to the shaman to warn him off, but nobody said anything.
The young shaman reached to try to touch Notch’s face, gently, but she withdrew and scowled. With that, the man went to Shadow and touched him, feeling his face at the now tiny pockmark where the arrow had pierced.
Shadow grinned at Notch as the man ran his hands reverently over his chest. “We should be their gods,” he said. “It might be fun.”
“It’s a lot of work to be somebody’s god,” Notch said.
The young shaman had fallen to his knees before Shadow and, with the spirit’s hands in his own, kissed them where even still the blood of the previous shaman lay brown. He looked up at Shadow with clear blue eyes, weeping openly.
“Stay with us. Live among us. I beg of you.”
It was exactly what Notch wanted. She needed time to find out what was going on here. Living with the villagers would be the easiest way. She would have time to run tests.
“We accept,” she said, glancing meaningfully at the mayor.
The mayor didn’t look too happy with that. But behind him, there were some among his retinue who like the shaman had fallen to their knees in worship. Notch had never really understood this kind of thing, but then, she was the highest order of being. She had no one to deify.
The tentative crowd moved past the mayor and came to them. Prostrating themselves or reaching to touch them as the shaman had done. Mewling lowly, asking for blessings. This was precisely the kind of thing Notch hated about being someone’s god.
She sighed and sagged against Shadow, and they allowed the gathering to sweep them along into the village.
It was two nights later, in the low candlelight of the shaman’s home. On the hill in the centre of the village, a fine house with a wood frame. Not even the mayor’s house was larger. The whole village was built out around it, the roads like spokes in a wheel.
The old shaman had been buried underground in the tradition of these people, with due pomp and ceremony. Now Notch sat in conversation with the new shaman, questioning and finding answers. His name was Nako.
He sat nervously before her, still dwarfed by the position and the house he had inherited from the man who had died. He burned incense on the table between them as she pored over the books that the old shaman had collected. Histories and rudimentary science from this tribe and others.
Shadow was off somewhere playing with the boy Kren.
Late in the evening, the mayor joined them and Notch asked the question that had been burning within her.
“Where did he go?”
The shaman Nako looked at the mayor before responding. Both of them looked confused. At length, Nako responded, “To your world. To heaven.”
Notch blinked at the audacity.
Nako went on, “His immortal soul left his body and went to…to heaven…”
Halfway through the sentence, Notch had leaned back, drumming her fingers on the table. “Ah. A soul. This is a sort of word for spirit. I can feel the absence of this in him. Or rather, I can feel nothing from him. I can feel you here, the pair of you. Heat and life and things that came from stars millions and billions of years ago. But from him I feel no such thing. I can sense him down there, in the ground where you put him, like a blank space in my mind.”
Nako opened his mouth, closed it again, then sat forward and tried his best to explain. “His body is dead.”
“That’s what this is? This absence. You call it death.”
“His body…” Nako paused to think. “His body was a vessel containing his spirit and his thoughts. Now that he has died, the body is empty. That must be why you don’t feel his presence with your powers.”
Notch scowled. “But where did he go? His sentience.” That was the word. The important one she’d been missing. Sentience. That was all that mattered. In all the universes there were, only sentience mattered. “Not to other worlds, surely.”
The shaman Nako was adamant. “Yes. Another world.” He was nodding vigorously. “Your world.” This last word said almost hopefully, “Heaven.”
This was another word she hadn’t known. A word for a world in a high power-base where the dead go.
There was no such thing.
She didn’t have the patience to explain this all to them, how wrong they had it. How could they understand the myriad things that she felt with her magic, as plainly as they could see with their eyes? If his sentience had somehow jumped across planes, she would have immediately felt that travel. If there were these so-called ‘dead’ people from lower planes arriving in her world, everybody would know it.
There were none.
He had simply vanished. To where? Sentience didn’t just go away. That was a fundamental law of the multiverse. Sentience was the most sacred of things. Impossible to destroy, wasn’t it?
And if it wasn’t?
Notch went cold.
A week later, under a big full moon, Shadow and Kren walked along the parapet wall at the edge of the town. Snowflakes drifted down from above and they tried to catch them on their tongues. Kren was much better at it that Shadow, who resented it more than was probably appropriate for a creature as old as he was.
“You gotta be patient,” Kren said around his outstretched tongue.
“Patience isn’t what I do,” Shadow admitted. “Notch always says that.”
He looked back over the village to the shaman’s house, where for the past several days Notch had been shut in. Doing her experiments, her tests. Poking and probing into the fundamental laws of this universe. Decoding what was and what wasn’t with her magic. This was something she had done every now and then in their travels when they had come to a peculiar place, such as this one.
This was the longest she had ever spent in one world.
The shaman no longer lived in that house. Not even Shadow had been allowed in to disturb her. This he knew by sensing the tenor of her mind, in there. Working and stewing furiously. Unhealthily. He could see her thoughts, but he could not understand them. Building and building like a gigantic machine. What he felt made him uneasy because he could sense her own unease.
Inside the house, her magic burned like a black star.
“She’ll be ok, Shadow,” Kren patted his forearm where it dangled down. “She’s really smart.”
“Yeah, I know.”
They looked out together over the darkening slopes. Kren couldn’t see over the parapet, so Shadow lifted the boy onto his shoulders, cold small hands holding onto his forehead. They looked out there for a long time, and then Shadow half-turned and looked back inwards at the village.
Notch was coming. He felt her presence.
As the boy looked far afield, Shadow gazed backwards and watched her approach. Bringing with her a darkness of a new kind. Starless. The fear inside her took hold of Shadow and he closed his eyes and shook his head. What was this new clawing dread that followed her?
She mounted the steps to the wall and was before him.
There were tears on her white cheeks. Shadow took Kren from his shoulders and set the boy down with one hand. Kren looked up with confusion at them.
“Notch,” he said. “What’s up?”
Shadow went to her and took her in his arms, and she put her forehead against him and wept, the fall of black hair spilling over his arms. He said nothing. Did nothing but feel the waves of her grief wash over him, buffeting him. He tried to let his warmth and his love flow into her, but her own feelings were overpowering.
Finally she looked up at him plaintively.
“Shadow, it’s horrible.”
“They go away and don’t come back. They disappear forever.” She took in a shuddering breath and clutched at his chest. “And go nowhere. They cease to exist.”
Shadow rocked his head back and looked up at the moon. He was thinking of Kren. “All of them?”
She nodded and sniffed. “They call it death. They have a superstition that when they die, they go to a higher world. But I tested it and…and…”
“What?” He took her head in his hands and kissed her forehead, her cold nose. “And what?”
“There’s nothing, Shadow. How can they be sentient and disappear like that? Do you realize what this means?”
Shadow looked away, drawing back slightly. “You tested it?”
“It’s an abomination. A sickness. It could spread.”
“How?” He looked into her eyes, seeing a night sky, but dark, as though obscured by black clouds.
“A million years ago, there were no sentient creatures on this world. No life. No death. Now there are both. This universe is wrong. The laws are rotten to the core. It should never have existed.”
“Notch, love.” He took her hands in his and put the fingers one by one to his lips. “Let’s go. Let’s leave here and never return.”
She looked at him wildly. “You don’t understand. This is a disaster. With time, other universes could become like this. All of creation could one day die.”
He whispered in her ear, his eyes closed. “Let’s go. Please. It’s fine.”
She sniffed and wiped a tear from her cheek, standing on tiptoes to embrace him. They were cheek to cheek. “You know what we have to do.” She kissed him. “We have to destroy it.”
Slowly, he pulled back and looked in her eyes again. “The world?”
“The whole universe. We have to destroy it while this sickness is confined to one plane.”
“But…but…” Shadow looked aside to find Kren, but the boy had wandered off. “But, Notch, there are people here. You said they won’t come back. They’ll disappear forever.”
She nodded and kissed his cheek. “I know. But that’s their lot, I’m afraid. Eventually that would have been the outcome anyway. This universe is destined for that. Nothing can save them from that. But this could save the entire multiverse from the same fate.”
“Notch, come on.” Shadow scoffed and cocked his head at her. “We can’t do this.”
“We can and we will.” She cocked an eyebrow at him. She pointed a finger at him meaningfully. “Who knows more about these things, Shadow? You promised to follow my lead.”
But Shadow looked away for a long time and thought about it. Notch was always right, wasn’t she? But what was this discomfort within him? He stood there for a long while with her in his arms, looking down at the village.
“Now come along,” she said as she patted his chest. “We’ll put out all the stars and be done with this wretched place.”
“How do you know?” he said quietly.
“How do you know this is so wrong? That this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
She blinked at him. “Shadow, don’t be an idiot. Of course it’s not supposed to be this way. People dying. Sentience being snuffed out. Who knows if they even think and feel really? How could a thinking feeling person just cease to exist? Maybe it’s a trick.”
“We can’t know that.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Kren interrupted, coming back up the stairs and grinning at Shadow. The boy said, “Are you two still kissing?” He chuckled, then hesitated when he gauged the atmosphere between them. “Is everything…ok?”
Neither spirit looked at him. Notch said, “I understand. You feel an attachment here. You worry about him.”
She went to Kren, still without looking at him, and scooped him up with one hand by the front of his shirt. “Notch – hey – whoa.” She held him out at arm’s length like he weighed nothing.
“This child.” Notch gazed impassively at Shadow. “You care for him. As is typical, you miss the larger picture here.” She put her other hand on Kren’s neck and squeezed gently. He coughed and looked at her with wide eyes. “You don’t see how fragile he is. How young. So are they all. They are not important. They exist for fleeting moments and then vanish forever. I will not risk the existence of all of creation for such meaningless people.”
Shadow lifted a hand in warning, grimacing, inching towards Notch. “Notch, please. Don’t do this. I’ll come with you. I promise. Don’t hurt him.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “He’s the only thing holding you here. You wouldn’t be misbehaving like this if you hadn’t found a little friend. Once he’s gone, you’ll see I’m right. You’re wasting your effort.”
She made her hand into a blade and drew back to strike along the boy’s neck to break him like a twig.
“No!” Shadow shouted as she moved, and he moved with her.
There was a sound like a lightning clap and Notch staggered back, the skin at the corner of her mouth broken, smoking. Shadow had struck her in the face with his fist and taken Kren from her with his other hand. She sagged against the wall, sobbing, a hand at her face.
“Shadow…you…you…” She looked away, weeping. Quietly, “How could you?”
Shadow looked at his fist, disbelieving. The knuckles where he’d struck her flattened from the force of the blow. Kren coughed, falling to the floor, sucking in breaths. Shadow looked at Notch, lowering his fist. What had he done? She was the only thing worth caring about. The only thing. He felt such shame that his first instinct was to turn to Kren and crush his head. An apology. Submission. But when he looked at the boy, wheezing, crying, he knew he could not do that.
“Notch,” Shadow said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“No.” She shuddered, backing away. “Don’t you dare. You promised me. You promised me.”
“Please. I love you. Let’s leave here.”
“Get away from me.”
She shrank away, slid down the wall and sat, becoming very small, staring at him with such pain in her that Shadow wished that he could become like one of these people and disappear forever from existence.
Tears blurred his vision and fell hot upon his cheeks. “Please. We’ll go. Together.”
“No.” She stood, fists balled at her side, eyes and hair a deeper black than the night around her. “Find your own way home, though it will take you a thousand years.”
“Notch, please.” He was on his knees before her. “Please.”
“This is the way it has to be.” She trembled with fear or rage. “The only way you’ll learn. I’ve been coddling you for too long.”
“I love you,” he said.
“And I you.” Notch leaned over him, touched his cheek and kissed his forehead. Then she turned and vanished from the universe.
Shadow was left kneeling alone. He put his hands on the ground and hung his head down, tears dotting the stone. Kren crawled over and hugged him from behind.
A few minutes later, the moon disappeared. It plunged everything into blackness, save for the expanse of stars above them. There was no dawn. No sun rose again. The planet grew cold. Aimless, it wandered loosed of its orbit. There were no years, anymore. No ways left to measure time. The stars seemed to go out one by one as the last of their light reached the planet. In truth, they had been destroyed the moment she left. Then there was no light in the void. Only night.
For uncounted eons, Shadow knelt alone on the frozen world, the mausoleum. Exiled. Surrounded by death. Then he stood, looked up into the empty sky, leapt free of the planet, and sailed through the dark and the cold. And began to search for her.