[Author's Note – Dirge Danorum follows FREEDOM, which follows THE WAY HOME. Both are available, mostly, on FF – and also at pseudozone dot blogspot dot com – the story is pretty developed at this part, and might be difficult to follow without being caught up on what's come before. Thanks for reading.]
I wasn't dozing. Dozing would suggest I actually got some rest. No, I was just sitting with my back against the wall of Grigor's cottage, resting my eyes. It was pleasantly warm, and that was worth something. Maybe under different circumstances, I would have wanted to sleep.
Grigor had given up his cot to Velvet, and last I'd noticed, he'd been quietly packing things from around his little home. After all, he had agreed to come with us.
Now it was morning. There wasn't anything sudden about it. Velvet was by the window, sort of letting down her fatigues in the back, and looking over her shoulder at her reflection, trying to see the tattoo. She was kind of wiggling around on her toes to get a better look, and also trying not to let her fatigues slip down too far. Heaven forbid anyone see her bare back.
I got tired of watching her do that, so I got up and went over. "Stop it," I said, and took out my PDA. I snapped a picture of the exposed portion of her back and showed it to her. She gave me a reproving glare – of course she'd stiffened up the moment I touched her – but took the PDA and looked at it. She stared for a couple of moments then handed back, looking resigned.
"You should've talked about the font before you signed off on it," I said. She punched me in the gut. I looked over to see Grigor checking over a Mosin-Nagant. At the time I couldn't have told anything more than that it looked ancient, and that it was some kind of bolt action thing. Now, I know it was an 1891/30, if you're the kind of person who cares about that stuff. He loaded a clip of intimidatingly large looking bullets into it, and slung it over his shoulder. Then he donned his pack – also quite ancient, and put his canteen around his neck.
"Is that all you need?" Velvet asked, hands on her hips. She looked around the cottage. He didn't have a lot of things, but he was still leaving quite a bit behind.
"For travel, yes. What I require for my work, what I cannot scavenge at Yantar, I will require you to provide."
"Done." Velvet picked up her pack and her MPL. She paused, looking at me. "You don't look so good," she said.
"You look nice."
She gave me a funny look, then shrugged. We left the cabin. Grigor didn't seem very attached to anything in it, and Velvet had been quick to accept his terms. She seriously believed she needed him to make this work. And maybe she did. I didn't know better. I felt like I was always either giving her too much credit or not enough. There are people you can pin down, and there are people like Velvet.
The world from before was gone. There was no fog, no titanic gears, no abandoned carnival to find our way through – just breezy grassland. The world that Velvet and I had found our way through to reach Grigor wasn't an illusion. It was a real place – just not this place.
Velvet paused to orientate herself, but Grigor put his hand over her compass.
"No need," he said gently.
"Leaving the valley isn't as simple as just walking out."
"What do you mean?"
"It can't be explained. You'll have to see it for yourself."
Now that there was no fog, it was like we could see for miles – but that was impossible, because there were no trees. The prairie seemed to go on forever. That was all right for me. I found the walk restful, and I couldn't complain about the company. Grigor and I had only just met, but I liked the old timer. I liked him in spite of things.
I'd lost my carbine to the Blood Demon, but that didn't bother me. I could always get another weapon – but it wasn't just that. The change was on a deeper level. Having no weapon wasn't a problem, because this place wasn't here to be fought.
I wondered how much danger there would be in the Zone if every stalker just put down his weapons. I had my suspicions.
Change was coming.
I understood now, why people avoid places like the Valley. I hoped I would never have to come back here. No, that wasn't true. It wasn't this place I hated, it was what I had to do to get here. It wasn't the Valley, it was the road. The toll was too high. I hadn't been able to afford it the first time, not really. Doing it again? Impossible.
There were no anomalies to watch for. The Valley was the anomaly. There was nothing to fear, and the only worry was to remember to put one foot in front of the other. Grigor didn't seem to be one for light conversation, and Velvet was understandably subdued.
I felt a certain familiarity here. Following people who had been in this place longer than I had, taking them at their word, not even knowing where I was going. The fact that I could do this at all meant I had changed. Certainty was no longer a part of my life. I'd given it all up. For this year, I wasn't myself anymore. I was like one of the Apostles, putting everything down to follow. Only it wasn't the son of God I was following. And it wasn't Velvet either, though I was always staring at her back. I couldn't see the tattoo through the fabric of her fatigues, but I knew what it looked like. Everything had changed. The Zone wasn't what it used to be, and neither was I.
The Morton Stalker was walking beside me, though of course, he made no sound in the tall grass. I looked down at my hand, and peeled away my glove. The black spot was bigger now. Before I hadn't been sure of it, but now I was. It was growing.
I pulled my glove back on and reached into my pocket. The spheres were still there. I took them out and looked at them in my palm. Their surfaces no longer swirled with color. They were deep black, now, but there was a depth to them – as though they were a window to another place entirely. I realized I was being pulled in. They were forcing me to stare, to lean down to look closer. I closed my hand and put them back in my pocket.
I touched Lunch Box. The pistol weight almost five pounds, but in my right hand it felt like a toy.
But the changes that had already taken hold were nothing compared to what was coming.
And speaking of changes, we were undergoing another one. It was barely noticeable, but I realized with a start that we'd left the Valley. We'd left the Valley without ever taking one step uphill. Velvet noticed as well, because she stopped. The Morton Stalker was gone.
The sky was no longer sunny. It was gray and cloudy, and I couldn't remember how it had gotten that way. There were buildings in the distance, and I didn't recognize them. The grass we were walking in wasn't the soft, green stuff from the Valley, it was the harsh, brown, irradiated stuff from the outside. I spotted a nebulous anomaly overhead, shifting in and out, warping the light around it. It wasn't even warm anymore. It was downright chilly.
Velvet said a few words in what sounded to me like German, but I would later learn was her native Norwegian. Hey, look – European languages aren't my thing, all right? There are German-sounding languages, and there are… other ones. I'm Canadian for crying out loud, and I've spent so much time in America that I spell words like they do. So don't look at me like that.
"What just happened?" This time she asked in English. Grigor turned back.
"The Valley is not in the Forest," he said calmly. "Only the road."
As I thought. Velvet took that in. "So where are we now?"
"Northeast of the Plant," he replied, pointing. Indeed, off in the distance was the dark patch on the horizon that represented Chernobyl NPP. My compass confirmed it. We were far north.
This was Day Eight.