But others do not fade. Other becomes heroes in the minds of those they have saved. Some make such an impression that their stories are passed from person to person, tales leaping from tongue to ear and with each whispered rumor or shouted exclamation the weight of their deeds grow.
Heroes become legends. Legends become myths. Myths linger and with them, they bring hope.
They say the world was once far different. That once it was covered in people who filled every inch of it, digging deep into it’s skin and building tall shining buildings that pierced it’s sky above. That humanity then was a multitude, spread out across continents, vast and ever-growing, ever-striving, ever-greedily consuming the world they lived upon.
They say that in time, that world crumbled. The dead rose and devoured the world, adding to their ranks, a pestilence that swarmed through the once-shining cities and the woods and the mountains alike until the old world was gone and only the survivors remained.
Those were The Dark Times. When the dead outnumbered the living who fought to survive as the truths of humankind were laid bare, as if the world had cracked open their ribs and exposed the depths of their hearts, be they rotting with evil or shining with goodness, or any myriad of the shades in between.
But in time humankind would rise again. In time they would band together, carving out little pockets security within a dying world. They clung to life like a flower that sprouts from the cracks of a rock. Like the roots of a tree digging in deep and clinging to the skin of the earth, outstretching branches to soak up every last drop of sun to try, and try, and try to survive.
And in time, they managed it. Humankind began to grow in number again though it is far from what it once was. Pockets of safety became walled fortresses, a network of villages and towns spread out across the land once known, according to the elders, as the United States. There is one such town in the east, rumored to be one of the oldest of them all It sits upon the banks of a river, just a short distance from the ruins of an old city whose name it has inherited.
It is to that town that your pilgrimage has brought you. It is a pilgrimage for truth, for knowledge, for understanding.
You have been told of the old wise woman who lives within the walls of this village, same as her family has for many generations before her. All elders are revered in this world, but few as much as this woman. She is the Wise Woman, the Priestess of the Saving Angels, the Keeper of Songs. Everyone knows of her, and everyone has told you that your quest for knowledge can be satisfied by a single meeting with her.
She lives in a large home by the banks of the river. It’s rooms were once filled with children and grandchildren, all of whom have gone out now into the world. She spends her evenings sitting by the fire, in a chair that creaks as loudly as her old bones as it rocks back and forth. In her old age her eyes have gone cloudy and hazy, but her mind has never fogged. She knows all the legends that flourish in this new world as crisp and clear as the first time she was told them by her mother, who learned them from her mother before them, and her mother before that.
Her door is always open, they say, and sure enough it is open from you. Come in, she calls from within at the sound of your knock, however shy and hesitant it is. Her voice is strong and clear, but heavy with the wisdom of her old age. “Come in,” she says in invitation. “Come in and sit down. Let the fire warm you and welcome you. And let me tell you a story. Let me tell you of the two they called the Saving Angels…”
In the beginning of the end of the Dark Times, the darkness still lingered. Humankind had carved out safety behind walls, but the dead still roamed across the skin of the earth with snapping jaws and hungry moans. Many took shelter within the walls which would in time become the towns and villages we now call home. Within these fortifications they banded together in love and hope, fighting for survival even as they strove to rebuild, to create the footholds that civilization could cling to.
There were others, of course. There were always others. People who chose not to hide behind walls, people who continued to roam the land overrun by the dead. Some were scavengers, others were simply lost souls, too traumatized to do anything but keep fighting, to keep moving. We have stories of some, good and evil both, but many others have faded forever out of time and memory.
There are plenty that survived, though. Stories passed on through the generations, kept safe by those whom they had saved, those who they had affected in some way or another. Of all the stories that remain, many of them are of these two, the ones whose stories you came seeking; the saviors of the world, the enders of the Dark Times, the bringers of hope.
They were known as the Hunter and the Healer, or the Stealthy One and the Singer of Song, or together, as the Saving Angels. It is said that one had the wings of an angel upon his back and the other, his mate, had hair so golden it shown in the sunlight as if it were a halo upon her head. It is said that they were kind, that they were good, but that their wrath could be swift and fierce; not only against the dead but against any who caused pain and strife for the remains of humankind.
They lived within the woods and some stories claim that they were one with those woods, as if they belonged to the forest and the trees in heart and soul but were too good at heart to forsake humankind completely. Like the other creatures of the forests they would come from the trees without a sound and melt back just as silently into it’s shadows, leaving behind only what they had gifted in help, with little needs for thanks.
He was called the Hunter and the Stealthy One, for it was said he was so adept at tracking and hunting animals that it seemed as if he could speak to them somehow. The stories tell of how he could find what was lost faster than any other tracker, that he had the eyes of the hawk and the silent steps of the most adept of predators, but he never sought to do harm to any who were unworthy.
She was the Healer for her hands which could set any wound, and her knowledge of the natural remedies, able to mix a poultice from the herbs of the forest to cure most ails. She was the Singer of Songs, a voice so angelic that it was said to be like a balm to the wounded heart, that it’s sweetness could sooth the most broken of souls.
They were inseparable, never seen except at each other’s sides. Equals in everything, never one placed above the other, always united. Soul mates. The oldest of stories say that they were separated once and it was not just fate that brought them back together again but their own strong wills. It is said that they fought with everything they had to get back to the other, and that upon that clasp of reunited hands, they were never to be parted again.
The stories say that they could never be found by those who went looking for them, but in times of need they would somehow appear, as if drawn to the struggle or need. At times they were warriors, fierce and implacable, standing back to back with their bows upraised, their arrows striking into the undead with deadly precision until the forces of the risen dead had been turned away.
Other times they were providers to those near starvation, struggling to survive in a harsh, cruel world. They would come bearing a deer between them, a brace of rabbits, a net of freshly caught fish. They would bring the bounty of the forest, not just meat but herbs, nuts, roots, berries. Many of the farms and gardens from which we now survive are said to have come from seeds gifted by their hands.
They were our protectors, our warriors, our providers. They were our saving angels.
The old lady rocks in her chair, the creak of it’s wooden limbs mingling with the crackle of the fire. She sees the interest that lights your eyes, that brightens your face far more than the flickering flames as you lean forward in your seat, eyes intent on her.
She smiles, slow but sure, and her milky eyes fix on you despite the haze of her vision.
“You want more,” she murmurs, confident in her assessment of your eager anticipation. “You want stories. I can see it in your eyes. Very well. Of the Saving Angels I have stories aplenty.” Her eyes close but just for a moment, until she hums in acknowledgement. “Hmm. I know.” With a flutter of her eyelashes, she fixes her clouded eyes upon you and begins, “Let me tell you then, of the origin of the Song of the Mountain Pass...”
There was at the time only one stronghold up in the mountains in which this story is set. The people who founded it had made their walled home up in the safety of it’s heights, and found their survival there, where the heights provided safety against the wandering hordes and the land itself provided the nourishment they needed. But in time as more and more settlements were strengthened around them, the people of the mountains found a need to create a sort of trade route between their town and others below, to open up the lines of communication with the other survivors of humankind.
Thus every two months they would send a group of their strongest down the mountains paths to the nearest fortified towns. To say it went without incident would of course be incorrect. The undead still plagued the land then, and if there were not as many up in the mountains there were plenty to be found when the people descended into the valleys and forests and followed the paths to the towns they traded with.
The undead were drawn, perhaps inexorably, to the living. To the scent of them, the sound of them, to the rhythm of their still-pulsing blood.
The story does not say how the herd of the walking undead found them, only that it did, and in the worst and most unexpected place up in the twists and turns of the mountains paths. Perhaps the herd had followed their scent, or the sounds their footsteps made echoing across the tight stone walls and bouncing off the mountain peaks.
How they came to be there is not as important as that fact that they were; dozens of them, their hungry moans and dead, rasping groans echoing across the stone as loudly as the shuffling of their feet. The people of the mountains were trapped, terrified, cut off from the pass that would lead them back home and with no solution… until they heard it.
A voice, echoing through the tight walls, singing a haunting melody.
They said afterward that the sweet song echoed back and forth until it sounded like the voices of many, but it was only one. The Singer of Songs, drawing the undead down the narrow pass and away from the trapped mountain people. And as the shambling dead followed the lure of her siren song, death rained down on them from above. Arrows lit aflame plunged from above, arching through the air with a hiss to fly into the bodies of the monsters until they writhed and fell to the ground, until a rain of unlight arrows and bolts followed, slicing into the heads of the walkers until they moved no more.
When the last of the undead fell unmoving to the ground, the people of the mountain took to the narrow pass themselves to make their way to freedom, and as they looked up, they saw them. The Saving Angels, the Hunter and the Healer, standing side by side atop a nearby peak with their bows in hands.
The Singer of Songs smiled down upon them, her hair aglow in the light of the sun beyond, and her song followed as they made their way safely through the pass and to their mountain home.
When the wise woman stops and gestures to the fire, it takes you a moment to stir, so caught up are you in the tale that you can almost hear the Singer’s voice in your mind, echoing through the narrow mountain pass.
After a moment you rise, placing another log on the fire to keep it crackling, and as you settle back into your seat you realized the old woman is softly humming, a hauntingly beautiful melody that seems to twine itself around you. It is both eerie and lovely all at the same time, and you cannot help but wonder…
“Yes,” the Keeper of Songs murmurs with a knowing smile. “Of her songs, many are lost, but not all. Some have been kept, passed down generation by generation through my family. Every year I make my pilgrimage into the woods, as did my mother before her and her mother before that. My bones may be weary but I shall go again this year, too. To sing her songs, to remind her that we have not forgotten, that we know that someday…”
You shift in your seat and she pins her cloudy gaze on you with a hum of understanding. “Oh yes. Someday…”
See, it is said that as the undead began to disappear at last, that the Saving Angels were seen less and less. That with their final kill and the destruction of the last of the hungry undead, they faded into the woods at last, never to be seen again except in vision and dream.
Some say they are still alive. Some say they cannot die, that they will never die. That they have become one with the woods and the mountains, that they exist within it because they are a part of it. They say that those in need may still find help from them; that those lost in the woods will pray to them and find signs to guide their way, that those hungry will find food left by them. They say that some nights when the moon is high and the air clear, in the depths of the forest her voice can be heard, the Singer of Songs’ beautiful haunting melody echoing through the trees.
There are others that say they are gone now, from mortal lives. That they lived out their lives and died, together in the end as in life, that they moved to a world beyond our own.
But the legend goes that if the world ever needs them again, they will return. The Hunter and the Healer, the Stealthy One and the Singer of Songs, the Saving Angels. The world’s guardian angels, destined to return should death’s army ever threaten the world again.
Should that time come, The Keepers of the Songs shall be all of us ready. Ready with her songs on our lips to call her back, to bring back She and her Partner to the world that needs them once more.
As you rise to your feet, your gaze strays to the carved wooden figures that stand upon the mantelpiece of the wise woman’s fireplace. The slender young woman with the compound bow, the muscular man beside her, one hand in hers and the other clutching the crossbow at his side. The Saving Angels. It is far from the first time you have seen them. They feature on the mantlepieces of nearly every home here along the eastern coast and dipping down into the south as well.
Never have you seen as many of them as you have here in Alexandria, the town that exalts them as their patrons; not just carved figurines but paintings and drawings, twisted into wire to hang from necklaces, or as dolls created of straw or grass sitting in the windows of the homes snug within the city walls. On your way here you passed a shrine in the center of town, their figures carved in stone atop it and offerings below it of herbs, flowers, dried venison, broken arrows, and jars of what you are told later is the local brew, something they call moonshine.
You stand in front of the Wise Woman but do not leave. Something still plagues your thoughts, a question still niggling at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your tongue, hesitating only until she looks at you and states, “Ask.”
With your hands stuck in the pockets of your wool trousers, you rock back on your feet to the same rhythm of her creaking chair, and ask breathlessly, “Who are you? How do you know all these things?”
The wise woman’s hazy eyes turn away from you to fix on the mantle above her fire. Through the dim lighting you can just make out a photograph settled in a frame there, a remnant of the past that must have been passed down through the generations, taken before film became a relic of the old world.
You step closer, unable to resist. The frame is made of wood, the glass still intact and beyond it there is what you can only assume is a family. A man, tall with dark hair and a beard that looks peppered with gray. Standing in front of him is a boy; a young man really. He has long dark hair and his father’s build, and there is a hat perched on his head with a glint of what you think is some sort of gold badge like the one the peacekeepers who patrol the towns carry. In the boy’s arms is a young girl, perhaps barely two. She has a thick head of hair and sweet chubby cheeks and a smile on her lips, and her eyes… her eyes are not milky, but they are so very familiar…
Beside you, the old woman whispers, “Judith. My name is Judith. I was named after my Great-Great-Great-Grandmother, Judith Grimes, who was blessed to call the Singer of Songs one of her many mothers, and had so many of those songs sung to her when she was but an infant. She was the first Keeper of the Songs, and it was she with the help of her brother who passed the songs and the stories down through the generations here in Alexandria. To her daughters, and their daughters, and to their daughters after. Just as I passed it down to mine, and as mine will unto theirs, until...”
You look from the eyes of the girl in the picture to the ones of the wise-woman before you; cloudy and milky with age, but still the same eyes as her ancestor.
Perhaps it is even the same wise voice, whispering across all of time, “Until the Saving Angels are needed again...”