I was very small when we killed my uncle.
Like every fisherman in Badger Stone, my uncle Mallard owned the thick wool-and-leather gloves, sleeves, and vests that protect you from serk bites. But they slow down your hands and hobble your fingers, and in the summertime they are miserably hot. On the most sweltering day of the year, he took off his sleeves to haul the net into his boat more quickly. The two serk in the net bit him before he knew it.
He made the best of his affliction, building four houses and clearing an acre of timber in the two days of strength the serk gave him. He didn’t hide it from anyone, which some serkers try to do. When the strength left him and the early stage yielded to the late, my poor uncle was sitting in a circle of us, his friends and family, all gathered around him to say goodbye. We were ready when the madness took him, and his brothers killed him quickly, before he had the chance to murder any of us.
It’s the civilized way to do it. I’ve heard stories of whole families, even half a village, killed by a late serker. A responsible, loving man like Mallard couldn’t let that happen, so his kin took him as humanely as they could.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the serk, like warnings not to touch knives or stick your hand in a fireplace. But they’re so rare that no one I knew had ever seen one before.
Maybe it’s my imagination that my mother used to smile more often when I was little, that there were more jokes told back then. That whole year, after the accident, she never let me or my brother out of her sight.
I was nine when Marmot the sorcerer told me how the serk do what they do.
Dipper and I were watching Marmot as he tended to Starspots, who’d stopped giving milk. Like anyone who knew things we didn’t, Marmot fascinated us children; we hoped to see something wondrous in the cool spring morning. But at first he just walked round and round Starspots, doing nothing that I could see but staring, and before long, Dipper got bored. She whispered that we should go swimming. I started to whisper back that it was too cold, but I saw Marmot’s stare turn on me, and he wasn’t smiling.
“Swimming?” he asked. “You mean in the river? While the rapids are still rushing?”
That wasn’t what Dipper meant, and I saw her pale skin start to turn red as she tried to stare him down.
“Dipper,” he said. “You don’t mean in the lake. You know better than that!”
“Never happens,” she muttered.
“What?” said Marmot.
“It never happens,” she said louder. “No one gets bit.”
“It happened to my Uncle Mallard,” I said. She shot me a look that said traitor. Mallard had been the only one bitten in my or Dipper’s lifetime; the last serker had been thirty years before. We’d all swum in the lake, although it was usually Dipper’s idea.
“Listen to Scuffer,” said Marmot. Dipper nodded, though I knew she was seething. Marmot pursed his lips, then turned back to Starspots.
He started by putting her to sleep, which involved a strange sculpting movement of his strong hands in the air. She lay down on the dirt and curled up like a cat. Then he continued to dance with his hands, stopping as if to feel the texture of the air, then repeating a figure, then stopping again. This was much more interesting than a swim; we were transfixed. I think we expected to see sparks or hear a roar from the heavens, but nothing like that happened. Eventually Marmot put his round face to the Starspots’s, sighed, and said, “I think that will work. There was a blockage.”
“How did you get her to sleep?” I asked, forgetting altogether about the lake and his warnings.
He glanced at me. “I turned some of the lines of potential in her brain.”
Dipper scowled. Sorcerers always talk about potential when they’re discussing something complicated. He laughed, but not unkindly.
Dipper asked quickly, “Could you make her sleep for longer? All night?”
He paused; I don’t think she fooled him for a minute. “Longer than that, if I had to. Days. Some sorcerers might be able to make her sleep for months or years, although that’s too intricate for a bumpkin like me.”
I put my hands protectively over Starspots. “Would she starve?”
“No. Her whole body would slow down, as it did today.” He did something else with his hands, and Starspots shuddered and started to rouse. “She’d still age, very slowly, but she wouldn’t need food or water.”
Marmot stood up, brushing the dirt from his knees. “Now, about the lake—”
Dipper interrupted him. “Why does a serk bite make you strong?”
He frowned. “If I were you, I’d worry more about what happens afterwards.”
“But how? How does it work?” She knew Marmot never could resist the chance to explain something.
“Well, we think that they carry something in their fangs that changes the lines of potential within a man or woman.”
I rolled my eyes when he used that word again. Dimples appeared in his sunburned cheeks. “I’m sorry, Scuffer. There’s no other way to explain it.”
“Is it hard to—to see potential?” Dipper winked at me when I asked the question.
Marmot laughed again. “It’s like juggling four tools in the air while trying to read a book and scratch your left leg with your right toe. Then actually doing something with it, like untangling a knot, requires double the attention.”
“What does this have to do with the serk?” I asked. Dipper glared at me; I wasn’t following her plan.
Marmot looked into the distance. “Listen, I have to see Fox and Robin now. If you’d like me to say more, you’d better trot along with me.”
As we climbed over the four hills between my parents’ farm and Fox’s, Marmot said, “The lines of potential around an early serker seem to bend towards him, as if the air, the trees, even the earth are feeding his muscles, his nerves, his bones. To a sorcerer, he looks as if he were a hundred men wrapped into one. Do you remember the Warrior Serker?”
“That’s just a story,” Dipper said, eager to show how grown-up she was. Everyone knew the tale: the Lord of the Plateaus sent an army from the eastern plains looking for plunder and slaves, leveling towns, murdering thousands, sweeping across the valley. Then an early serker confronted them, and they were all dead by sunset. My friends had decided it must be a fairy tale, like the Water Maidens or the Sun Spitter.
Marmot shook his head. “No, it’s true, or I think it is. It goes back, oh, two hundred years, but it fits with other stories from that time. The destruction of the Plateaus army is a fact, and no other explanation makes sense. They say that the army was only a few days’ march from here when it happened. Some people think that the Warrior Serker sought the serk on purpose.”
It’s one thing to hear stories at bedtime; it’s another to hear a sober man tell you that they really happened. Thousands of heavily armed soldiers, destroyed in an afternoon by a man like a demon, moving too fast to see, strong enough to crush skulls with a fist—I shuddered.
“Why does the early stage last only two days?” I asked.
“Sometimes three, and I don’t know. The potential lines change abruptly. The muscles and bones no longer seem to draw power from the world, but the potential in the brain changes—the lines twist.”
“They’re crazy,” said Dipper, unable to stop herself.
Marmot stopped walking and pursed his lips. “Well. The late serker thinks that everyone he knows is determined to kill him, that they’ll succeed unless he kills them first. No sorcerer has ever been able to untie that knot in the mind, although we can see it. The serker becomes crafty, smarter than anyone around him; he stalks his friends, even his own children, and picks them off one by one, unless they’re forewarned and can act together.”
“How long does it last?” I asked.
“Your uncle Mallard was the only serker I’ve seen with my own eyes, and he was in the late stage for only a few minutes. My teacher told me that the lines of potential in the brain continue to change subtly. I don’t know what would happen if the late stage lasted months, or years. They’re never allowed to live that long.”
We got to Fox’s farm about then, and Marmot went on to the house without us. Dipper and I didn’t go to the lake, not that time.
I was twelve when I began to read the book.
On my older brother’s Naming Day, Dipper and I were playing around in the big room in my house. We had sneaked away from the party and spent an hour trying to find my dog. Bigfeet hated crowds, and I wasn’t surprised that he avoided the Naming, but he wasn’t in any of his usual hiding places either. Eventually we got bored with the search, and Dipper wanted to take down my mother’s book.
My mother had it from her father, who didn’t remember how it had come into the family. On strong linen pages bound by soft maroon leather, blue-purple ink made flourishes and complicated designs on every page to accompany lines of strange, unfathomable characters. We thought it had come from far away, for no one in Badger Stone had the skill to make such a thing, nor had anyone ever been able to read it. Even learned men like Marmot and his teacher Bear could make nothing of the strange writing.
Dipper knew that the book was an heirloom and that children were forbidden to touch it, but that was exactly what drew her, my daring friend, and I loved watching her eagerness.
I climbed to the high shelf—Dipper was ready to do it herself, and she was my height, but I was mindful of my mother’s wrath and promised myself that I’d hold it myself, not let Dipper handle it. She plopped down on the floor, squirming with excitement and getting her black hair all tangled, waiting for me to show her the pages. I sat down next to her and opened the book cautiously.
In the middle of the page I opened, amid all the strange gibberish, sat a line written with perfect clarity:
Take the left path on the way to the river.
I gasped, and Dipper turned to me, concerned. “What?”
I pointed at the sentence on the page. Dipper frowned and squinted at it. “Pretty,” she said, “but so what?”
“But it says something!” I said.
“Maybe, but we’ll never know.”
“But we do. Look at it, it says, ‘Take the left path on the way to the river.’“
“Scuffer.” She snorted and shook her head. “You can’t read.”
“I can read this.”
Dipper motioned me to bring the book closer, and she put her nose a few inches from the page. “Where?”
“You can’t read either.”
“Show me anyway.”
“Sure, if you say so.”
She couldn’t see it, and after a few minutes, neither could I; the page became a confused jungle again. I put the book back where it came from, wondering how I could ask my mother about this without being punished.
Dipper went home not long after. The party had broken up, and I followed the path down the hill to delay helping my parents clean up after it. The tall grass fluttered and bent in the wind, as if shooing me back toward my home and chores, but I paid it no mind. I came to the fork in the trail, intending to turn right, towards one of my favorite lairs, but then I stopped. Take the left path on the way to the river.
The left path, not nearly so well-used as the right, was obscured by grass and almost invisible now. I had let it lead me for ten minutes when I heard a familiar whine.
Bigfeet lay on his side next to a clump of bushes. He was bleeding from his neck, foreleg, and snout, and he couldn’t get up. I didn’t see any tracks, but I was sure he’d tangled with a lynx or a raccoon, or some other animal he had no business fighting. I picked him up and stumbled in the direction of Marmot’s house.
Marmot confirmed that it had been a lynx, washed out the wounds and did one or two strange things that eased Bigfeet’s pain. When Bigfeet calmed down, Marmot asked where I’d found him. When I told him, he looked up. “On the eastern path?” he repeated.
I nodded and felt my face get warm. He narrowed his blue eyes and asked, “How did you know to look for him there?”
It was in my mind to lie, but those eyes told me it would be useless.
“A book told me to.”
“A book?” He looked confused; then he stared. “Not the old red one your grandfather had?” I nodded. “You were able to read it?”
I nodded again. “Only one line, and only for a few minutes.”
After I told him the story, he said, “The ink did not change. If it had, then Dipper would have seen it too—and you shouldn’t have been able to read it, even if it were written plainly.”
“I—yes. Yes, I guess so. But I didn’t make it up.”
“No, I know you didn’t. The ink didn’t change; you did.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I,” he admitted. “But I think I’d better take another look at this book.”
My father did not thrash me, probably because of Marmot’s interest. With my parents standing nearby, Marmot examined the book, frowning. Then he handed it to me and told me open it. When I did so, a line of text jumped out at me:
For your eyes alone.
“Remarkable,” said Marmot. “When Scuffer opened it, I saw some sort of commerce between the potential in his brain and the potential of the book. It’s the work of a very accomplished sorcerer—more accomplished than I am, anyway.”
“Do you think it’s doing something to him?” asked my mother, losing color in her face.
“No, rather the opposite,” said Marmot. “Somehow the book is responding to things that are in Scuffer’s thoughts.”
We passed it around, but no one else caused any change in the book, and none of them could read the line of writing that I saw.
“How long has this book has been in the family?” asked Marmot.
“At least seventy years,” said my mother.
Marmot wove his fingers together and twiddled his thumbs. “The genius who made this contrivance wanted it to respond to a particular person, or a particular kind of person, maybe at a particular time. I can’t say why it’s chosen Scuffer, or why now.”
“What should we do?” asked my father.
Marmot puffed out his cheeks. “On the one hand, the maker went to a lot of trouble to find someone like Scuffer; there was probably a good reason. On the other hand, we don’t know what that reason was, malignant or benign.”
He walked about all of us in a slow circle, scrutinizing me and the book from different angles. Finally he said, “I think Scuffer should keep the book, at least for the time being. But Scuffer, think hard about the sorts of things it tells you, and on no account follow an instruction that seems to put anyone in any danger.” I gulped a little at this last admonition.
Over the next months I kept the book by me, opening it several times a day. Usually it told me nothing; perhaps once in a fortnight it would give me some advice, leading me to find a lost object, or avoid a wasp nest, or something just as trivial. Once, after a particularly bitter row with Dipper, it said simply, Apologize now. Marmot chuckled when he heard about that; he was as puzzled as I that so little of consequence was happening. Was it for such trifles that a sorcerer a hundred years dead bent reality itself to speak to me?
I was thirteen when the book saved my life.
On the last warm day of autumn, Dipper wanted to go swimming in the lake. She might have swum in the river; she might have gone alone and not asked me; I might have said no. I didn’t try to talk her out of it. Everyone knows the danger of walking outside during a thunderstorm, but people do it anyway, and how often is anyone struck by lightning? It was common lore that the serk stay near the deepest bottom, that decades go by between sightings.
Nor did I consult the book. I didn’t ask its permission for every little thing, and anyway, for four days it had had only one message: The day approaches. I could make no sense of that, so I’d stopped looking at it.
Dipper and I ran down to the lake as if our bodies had unlimited energy, tall grass whipping our legs and the fall sunshine warming our scalps. At the lake’s edge, she told me to turn around while she undressed, something she’d never asked before. It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach and behind my eyes when she asked, but I didn’t understand what it was, not then. After a few minutes I heard her splash into the water, and she called, “Hurry up!”
I stripped off my clothes and rushed in after her. The water near the shore was sun-warmed, but further away it got colder, and my skin tightened against my bones. We began splashing about in earnest, playing silly games, dunking each other and diving for stones. It was the last morsel of summer, and I felt that it was the last taste of childhood too. Some part of me, the part that swallowed hard when I averted my gaze from Dipper, knew that I would not be coming to the lake with her the same way again. I sensed that, by the time spring warmed the shore and made the lake swimmable again, she and I would stand clothed in a profound change.
She swam further out in effortless, confident strokes. I didn’t follow, at least not far. I lay on my back and propelled myself with lazy flutters of my arms and feet.
Then I heard Dipper grunt, a soft little “um,” the way she did when she’d forgotten something she needed and had to go home for it. I looked over the water to her, and for an instant it seemed to me that she’d stopped moving altogether. Did I see a flash of color in the waves? But Dipper started swimming again, slower, more deliberate strokes, and I decided that it was nothing.
I decided it; I knew what it might be, and I put it out of my mind. Was it love that made me pretend that nothing was wrong, or would it have been love to act?
Before Dipper got to shore, she asked me to get out first and dress again, looking away from her while she dressed. When I faced her again, her limbs looked smooth and lithe, sun-touched and wind-cooled, the same as she’d ever been. We wandered to our homes, drying in the sun but still smelling of the lake, and did not touch before saying goodbye.
I heard nothing from Dipper the next day, nor the day after. This was comforting; it made the muffled voices in my head seem silly and fretful. I did my chores and helped my father with the harvesting, a long, hard job that took us until after sunset. I wondered how I’d ever found the time to go swimming the day before, and fell into bed exhausted.
In the middle of the night I woke, for no reason I could tell. I was suddenly cold, and I felt, with the urgency of a full bladder, the need to open my grandfather’s red-covered book.
There was a full moon, and I could see the markings clearly from the light pouring through the window:
She will kill you.
Take to the rafters.
Fear squeezed my stomach. I did not let myself understand the full meaning of the warning, but I had come to trust the book enough to believe I was in danger. There were no rafters I could reach in the room where I slept, so I crept from it, taking the book with me, and padded into the big room, from which I could scramble up to the highest part of the house.
It was dark as earth in the rafters, but the floor below was lit by moonlight from the windows. The rough beams on which I sat were painful, but I stayed still. Perhaps ten minutes later, the outer door opened.
I would know her silhouette anywhere, even from above, even stretched and distorted by the angle of the moon; I knew Dipper almost as well as I knew myself. But now I knew her not at all.
She was barefoot and carried in her left hand a long, thin knife, the sort used for boning meat. My terror was sharp, but my grief was sharper, for now there was no question what had happened. Dipper, my Dipper, was a late serker. She was mad, cunning, and vicious, and would kill me if she could catch me—and at that moment I hoped she would kill me, because the days, perhaps the hours remaining to her could be counted on one hand, and I could not bear it.
With less sound than a cat stalking a mouse, Dipper glided to the door from which I had just come. She vanished within it, and it stayed open for several minutes as she searched the place for me. Had I not wakened, had I not seen the book’s warning, she would have dispatched me easily in my sleep. She reemerged, turning her head from side to side, as if hoping to find me lurking in a corner. She turned toward my parents’ room, then towards my brother Weasel’s, and for a moment I thought she would go there to kill him. But she shook her head, then looked straight up.
My chest nearly burst with the effort of stilling my breath. Could she somehow penetrate even the shadows above her?
No, she couldn’t. She passed out of the house the way she had come, closing the door softly behind her. For what seemed a long time I waited, certain that she would surprise me as soon as I climbed down. She didn’t.
I needed to warn the village, before she killed anyone else. For all I knew, her parents were already dead. Soon, she would be dead herself.
The book had saved my life; I hoped that it could tell me which way to turn. I opened a page, and a new message confronted me:
Go north into the mountains.
Do not wait. Do not stop.
I stared at the words in the cold light. Leaving Badger Stone without waiting would mean deserting Dipper in her time of crisis, abandoning the village when it was beset by a serker. But the book had never been wrong. I bit my lip to avoid sobbing aloud.
I knocked on my parents’ door, something I hadn’t done at night for years. After too many heartbeats, my father pulled the door open, squinting at me in confusion.
It didn’t take long for me to explain what had happened; my father knew that we must wake Marmot immediately. He began to dress but balked when I told him of the book’s instructions to go north.
“Now wait a moment, Scuffer; not at your age. You can’t just light out—”
“Father, the book told me! It knew about Dipper. It’s never been wrong. I have to.”
In the lamplight I could see the whites of his eyes. Finally he said, “At least put on some warm clothes and pack some food.”
I grabbed a sack and stuffed it with the bread and cheese we had in the larder, then wrapped myself in my wool cloak and my warm boots. My father squeezed my shoulder while I was dressing and then ran out the door. I was only a few minutes behind him, and soon I had left Badger Stone behind me.
When you travel north in the valley, you don’t meet any rivers or lakes, and for the first several miles it’s all farms and easy hills. Then come the woods, then the foothills, then the mountains. Every step is a challenge, and the trees prevent you from seeing far, even in daylight. At night it’s slow, and it seemed even slower to me.
What would I do when I got to the mountains? It was three days’ walk. Was the book protecting me from Dipper? Having failed to kill me once, she’d try again, this time more subtly and harder to evade.
But my gut told me otherwise. There were many places I could have gone; north into the mountains was too specific for mere protection. The book and its long-dead maker had their own reasons for wanting me in the hills, and I had no way to guess what they were. I was a toy on a string. For all I knew, I might be sacrificed as easily by my guide as by my friend. I wondered, was it better to be killed by a friend? Bitterly I thought that Dipper at least had some cause.
I reached the mountains on the third day. As I sat shivering under a tree with the last of my food, I opened the book again:
until the three white stones.
I was being led to a particular place. Had I been older, maybe I would have balked immediately and gone back to Badger Stone. But I was a boy of thirteen, and already there was Dipper’s madness and soon her death on my conscience. Obeying the book gave me a direction, something I could do without taking responsibility, something to take my mind from the agony of never seeing her again.
I found the three white stones, lined up like soldiers across my path, and turned east. The book led me along switchbacks, twists and hidden crossings—a path no one could have followed if he did not know it was already there.
Near sunset on the fourth day, I came to a grassy mound, twice a man’s height and wide as my house, supported on its sides by smooth grey stones the size of cattle. Moss and small trees grew on it, and some of the stones had been split by the roots. It was old.
Obeying the book, I found a place on the north side where a boy my size might move several smaller rocks and enter. Earth and plants came away as I pulled out the stones, and the slanting light preceded me into the mound.
I grabbed one of the stones, expecting perhaps to be bowled over by a giant animal with claws. Nothing came, and I passed into darkness.
First the smell came to me, sour and musty, so thick it was like a warm wave of water. I gagged. Then my eyes learned to see; faintly, the inside of the hollow mound appeared. Smooth stones lined the whole interior, a dome just tall enough to stand in. In the center, on another huge rock, lay the body of a man.
An old, old man: sunken eyes in a starved skull, white hair spilling onto the earthen floor. His bones stuck out like tumors. His clothes were tatters but had once been fine; I recognized weaving like my mother made for holidays. He was covered in dust.
Obviously I was in a tomb. But as I stepped toward the slab, the man’s eyes came open—slowly, as if he had forgotten how.
I gasped, and the head turned toward me. Those eyes went huge and wild, and he screamed.
I retreated to the doorway, preparing to throw my stone; but the old man had risen and backed away to the far side of his tomb, cowering and shaking, dust falling off him in little cascades.
“Don’t hurt me!” he whimpered, holding his hands in front of his face. “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me.” It was a rough, raspy voice, like the voice of a man recovering from an illness in his throat. Or a man who had not used his voice in years.
For a moment I could not speak. Then I said, “I won’t hurt you.” But this only made him shriek again, and he tried to dig into the walls of the mound to get away, snapping some of his long fingernails. On his clothes I could now see brown stains, stains that looked like old blood.
Horrified, I backed out into the dusk that was still brighter than the living grave within.
I opened the book. There was only one word:
I choked on my own spit. I turned the pages, and on each one I found the same word, over and over:
Marmot’s words came to me, clear as water: On no account follow an instruction that seems to put anyone in any danger. All the book’s kindness now seemed like bait in a trap. From the start it had wanted to make me into a killer, and that was why it had befriended me.
I wanted to hurl the book to the ground. I actually raised it into the air, dropping the stone. Then I brought it close to my face, staring at the ugly words. For the first time, I spoke to it aloud.
“I won’t,” I said. “I won’t.”
The characters on the book blurred, crawling around the page sickeningly. When they stopped, they said:
Kill the serker
before it’s too late.
Dipper flashed before my eyes again, Dipper swimming away from me in the lake, Dipper with the boning knife in her hand.
Was this terrified wreck a serker? That made no sense. If he were an early serker, he’d have tossed me aside and burst through the mound with one hand; if a late serker, then he’d have tried to kill me already.
The old man sobbed from inside the mound. “Go away, go away, go away!”
I spoke again to the book. “There’s no reason to kill him. He’s just some old man.”
The words moved again:
When I made me,
I needed to plan my death.
I didn’t understand—but for the first time, I felt the “commerce” between me and the book, of which Marmot had spoken. The book reacted to me, seemed to squirm in my hands with the discomfort of my own confusion. Then—there’s no other way to say it—it tried again:
When he made it,
He needed to plan his death.
When the time came, I found you.
Then I realized something: The book had said “I.” It had referred to itself. The trees seemed to fall away, the desecrated tomb to shrink; thunder was in my ears.
When I was able to speak again, I asked something I should have asked the first day the book spoke to me: “What are you?”
The words swirled:
The sorcerer of Badger Stone.
The sorcerer of Badger Stone? Marmot? No, Marmot knew nothing about the book; he had been trying to decipher it since before I was born.
I turned the next page. It said:
The Lord of the Plateaus came.
There was no other way.
The sorcerer became a serker.
Then I did drop the book.
The Lord of the Plateaus. A serker. No other way. I knew who the old man was.
Marmot had said that Warrior Serker sought the serk on purpose to save his people. If he was also a sorcerer, he could have made this book. If he was a “genius” sorcerer, as Marmot had said....
I could see it in my mind: the desperate sorcerer, obliterating the host of the eastern plains but fearing that he would turn on his own kin. While the early strength was still in him, he raised this mound and sealed himself inside. And then....
He could not have known what would happen, not for sure, as he lay down in his tomb and worked the sleeping spell on himself. This must have been his hope: that time, years, would somehow change him into something less deadly, less murderous, than a late serker.
But it was only a guess, and so he left the book. To do what?
I picked up the book again.
I did what I had to,
but a late serker could not be allowed to live.
He might find a way out.
I needed to find someone. I needed to find hands.
That was my role: I was his executioner, in case the experiment failed.
But had it failed? I said, “That’s not a serker. It’s a scared old man.”
All at once the letters began to compose and recompose themselves into different messages so fast that I could barely read them, as if the book were arguing with itself:
Not a serker.
Scared old man.
Serkers cannot be allowed to live.
Not a serker.
Scared old man.
It went on this way for half a minute. Then the page went blank, and I thought it had finished.
It makes no difference.
Tern is gone, and Hider, and Gull and Minnow.
All is desolation.
There is misery and fear.
For pity’s sake, kill.
Hider—a child’s name. Tern, Gull, Minow—his family and friends? His sweetheart? If this was the Warrior Serker, everyone he had known was dust long before my grandfather was born. He had lost everything.
But the book was wrong, I was sure of it. He didn’t need to be killed. I understood wanting to stop himself from wiping out the people he had saved, but this was different. Yes, he was frightened and probably filled with more grief than I could imagine, but he was no longer a danger to others.
Then it came to me.
Dipper didn’t have to die. If she was not dead already, if she could be put to sleep as the Warrior Serker was, then maybe she could live.
I knew I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t know whether ending like this old man would be worse for Dipper, but maybe Marmot could help him. Or maybe I could help Dipper, care for her, comfort her. If she wasn’t already dead. Hope pounded in my chest.
I needed to ask Marmot, to show him the Warrior Serker. I hoped that the old man’s survival, and his change, would teach Marmot something that would help Dipper.
But the Warrior Serker was starved, probably close to dying of thirst. He was petrified of me. Several times I tried to speak to him, but each approach only increased his terror.
Then I had an inspiration and went in holding the red leather book in front of me. As I hoped, his eyes focused on the book rather than on me. He was still frightened, but this time the fear was mixed with incredulity and confusion.
“My....” His voice was still harsh, but calmer, less bestial. “My—my enemy.” I thought he was talking about me, but he was staring at the book. “My enemy.”
I held the book out to him, and he took it, first raising it to this nose and sniffing, then turning it over in his hands, opening the pages, his eyes wide and bright as he looked over the convoluted characters, his mouth open.
Then he squinted at something. “Potential diameter could be tighter,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“What? Potential?” I blurted.
“Without a tight helix, it won’t call. Won’t work.” He was still talking to himself. “Won’t persuade. Useless. Pointless.”
“It worked well enough,” I told him.
He turned his troubled eyes on me, then on the book, then back on me. “Found one. Found one.” Then he looked back at the pages in horror. “Lies!” He shouted. “Don’t believe it. Lies! Don’t hurt me.” Then he started whimpering again and would have pulled back, but I put my hand out.
“Please,” I said. “You saved Badger Stone.”
He squinted at me, confused. One shaking hand came out and poked my shoulder as if testing whether I was real.
“Badger Stone,” he said.
He sucked on his lips, wincing. “Saved?”
“Tern?” Youthful hope came into his face. “Hider?”
“I—I don’t know.”
His face sagged; then he caught a glimpse of his own hand on my shoulder, and he turned it back and forth, horrified. He raised the hand to his cheeks, feeling the hundred cracks in the skin and the jowls under the chin.
“How long?” he whined.
I swallowed. “I think, maybe two hundred years.”
“Gone,” He said. “All gone, all dead.” He looked down at the ground. “Useless, pointless.”
I put both my hands on my chest. “I’m Scuffer,” I said.
He coughed, then coughed harder, deeper, sitting down on the ground. “A child,” he wheezed.
“Who are you?”
He stared as if the question made no sense. Then he said, “Hare.”
“I’m going to get you some water,” I said. “Will you stay?”
He looked me in the eyes. “Nowhere to go.”
It took a while to find a stream, but I filled my flask and brought it to Hare. He emptied it in one draught.
“Hare,” I said to him. “Will you go with me to Badger Stone?”
He thumped the book with his hand. “All dead. Desolation. Nothing.”
I put my hand on his arm. “There is a whole village there,” I said, but I knew what he meant.
“Tern!” he wailed, and put his face in his hands.
“Hare,” I said. He sobbed into his fingers. “Hare, please listen.”
He shook his head. I grabbed him by the shoulder of his ragged clothes, by the bones that felt like they would burst both skin and fabric. “Listen! There’s a girl, and she’s been bitten by the serk.”
“Doomed,” he moaned. “Dead, mad, doomed.”
“No, listen. Hare, you’re alive. You’re not—” I wanted to say You’re not mad, but the words wouldn’t come. “You’re not a killer. Maybe we can save Dipper. Maybe she can live. Please—” The tears came down my face, and I could not control my voice. “Please. I have to. She. . .” I choked.
He put his hand on my chest, then on his own. “You want to turn her into this?”
It took me a few moments before I could speak. “I want to try. I want to try. Please, Hare.”
He shook his head. “Fool,” he said. Then he stood up. “We will try.”
I did feel like a fool; I was clinging to a wish of a hope of a chance. But it was all I had.
It took even longer to return to the village than it had taken to leave it. Hare was weak and could not move quickly, and there was nothing to eat but a few wild mushrooms and onions. Every few hours his panic would overtake him, and he would begin to climb back up the mountains. Each time I approached him with my arms open and pleaded softly. Each time he relented, his wish to help me just barely winning the battle over his fear. A man who could fight his own demons over and over again, when every instinct told him to flee, must have an indomitable will.
When finally we arrived, it took all my pleading to get him to walk into the village; it frightened him more than I did. I had to get down on my knees and beg.
Dipper was still alive. Her parents were alive too, although she had already killed our friend Climber by the time my father raised the alarm. Together the villagers had surrounded Dipper and locked her in her own house.
My own departure, it seemed, was what had stayed their hands. Marmot had reasoned that the book, which had protected me from Dipper, had urged me to go north. The book and I were both pieces of this puzzle, he had argued, both somehow connected to Dipper, and “We should not take an action we can’t undo until we know how the puzzle fits together.”
I think that he just could not bring himself to countenance the killing of a child, no matter how deadly. In fact, had I followed the book’s commands and executed Hare, it would have done nothing for Dipper at all. But here we were.
Marmot was fascinated by Hare. Once he understood who Hare was, he scrutinized him with that strange gaze sorcerers have. “A third-stage serker!” he whispered. “A sleeping sequence that lasted two centuries! And he performed it on himself!”
Then he looked up. “The patterns are discernable,” he said. “They’re much simpler than what we see in a late serker.”
“Monodirectional adjacent helices,” muttered Hare.
Marmot’s jaw dropped. “Uh—yes. Yes, exactly.”
“Don’t hurt me.”
“Not for the world.” Marmot looked at me. “There’s nothing you can do for a late serker. But this is something more familiar. I might be able to figure out how to untangle it.”
While Marmot tried to work out the contours of his spell, I tried to see Dipper—but the house was locked tight with neighbors guarding all sides of the place, night and day. They had to open the door to feed her, and I saw her wild black hair. She saw me too and called to me.
“Scuffer.” Her voice was musical and coaxing, not like Dipper at all. “Scuffer, I need to see you.” The door closed, and I felt its click in my chest.
I would have stayed outside her prison all day, watching and waiting, wanting to plead for forgiveness and wishing she had killed me. But Marmot came and led me away, saying he needed my help with Hare. As always with Marmot, there was more in his mind than in his mouth; I might have gone mad myself, dwelling on Dipper’s fate and my own guilt.
It took Marmot a day’s laborious concentration, his hands and lips moving, his eyes staring into Hare’s scalp, sweat pouring down his cheeks. I sat before Hare the whole time, holding his hands. He shuddered from time to time, his fear sometimes overmastering him, but each time I squeezed his hands and told him he was the bravest man I’d ever heard of.
When the process was complete, Hare turned his face—his sober, sharp, haunted face, utterly different from what he was before—on Marmot’s exhausted eyes. “Thank you, Sorcerer. We both need to sleep.”
I spent the days of Hare’s recovery in a near-hysteria of impatience, pacing outside Dipper’s house whenever anyone would let me. My parents, Weasel, and Marmot tried to keep me occupied, but I could not let it be. Hare’s cure, miraculous though it was, had not saved Dipper, and I still did not know whether that was possible. And I had not yet realized what I myself needed to do.
Hare quickly regained most of the skills of sorcery he had had as a young man, although he told us, flatly and without concern, that he would not live more than another five years.
“You can slow down aging with the sleeping sequence, but two hundred years is still two hundred years. My heart has only so many beats in it.”
He had been Marmot’s age when news of the Plateau Army reached Badger Stone. He had left secretly, leaving the beautiful book for Tern, his intended bride, hoping she would keep it as a relic. How it wound up in my grandfather’s hands we could not guess.
Seeing how the potential in Dipper’s brain had changed in the days since she had been bitten, and comparing it with Hare’s, Marmot and Hare believed that the transition to the third stage required “merely” one century, not two. Although Marmot could not weave a sleeping sequence that would last so long, Hare could; he did it gently, softly, like man blessing his children.
We set Dipper in a newly-built hut of stone and wood, checked every day by a friend or member of the family. Most days, I do it myself. When she wakes, Marmot’s apprentice, or his apprentice’s apprentice, or whatever sorcerer we have by then, should be able to untangle the cords in her mind and restore her to herself.
And Hare taught the long sleeping sequence to Marmot, so that he can pass it on, so no serker ever need be killed again.
I am sixteen as I join her.
Once I had my Naming Day, I took the right to decide my own fate. I told the sorcerers that I wished to sleep beside Dipper, to join her exile in the future. When she rises, in body a middle-aged woman but in mind still a girl of thirteen, confused and mad with fear, she will not be alone. I owe it to her, and more.
My parents and Weasel were distraught, and Marmot tried to talk me out of it. But Hare just smiled and told me I was a good lad.
Now I sit in Dipper’s hut, looking down at her sweet sleeping face, her black hair combed sedately over her shoulders, remembering her excitable voice when she was really Dipper, and I wait for Hare and Marmot to give me my heart’s desire.
We will awaken together in a strange world, older and exiled from all that we know, as Hare was. We don’t have his courage; affection will have to do.
Return to Issue #96