The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 38

A Song in a Storm

Issa hurried to the window, pondering a banishing of ghosts, as she watched the elf reform his light well and disappear into the night. Gates and locks and keys were fairly common wards, adaptable to many uses, but she had never heard of this banishing before, and as one advanced in the ways of the Itri, she should have known it, if it were not forbidden.

As was the case in many cultures, the Itri believed that sometimes the souls of the dead remained stuck in the mortal world, living a kind of half-life, in which they repeatedly tried and failed to accomplish important things they regretted failing to accomplish while living, which understandably made them seem like monsters, to those who happened into their tales. But these were just stories Issa’s people knew were impossible, because they received the prophecies through Om’s Veils. They knew the paths each life would take, before they set out. Everyone was born and reborn into Om, in many lifetimes, or so she had believed. Yet, everything she had witnessed, herself, in Noel Loveridge proved this was not always the case.

Why would the Itri have a ward against ghosts, if ghosts did not exist? Why was that ward for banishing them forbidden to the Children of Danguin? And more importantly why did it work to block Issa’s possession of Noel?

In truth, many forbidden things had happened in their mountain of late. Her father had been allowed to use on her the powerful tonic, brought there by Noel, though the Mothers quickly deemed it a violation of Mdonyatra and Ftdonya. The Mardraim allowed the elf to utilize the light well, though it was forbidden to Issa’s people too. But this was different. How had an elf, who claimed to know nothing of Itri fahmat, learned to use a forbidden ward? Clearly, someone in the mountain taught him, but few of the Mothers’ children were ever taught forbidden things.

Which meant the elf was right. There was a great deal the Mardraim was not telling Issa, either because he believed her state too delicate to keep her informed, or because he was concerned about what she might do as a result. The elder could have told her about the wards, on the night he explained the possession, and she would have trusted his guidance, but instead he kept that knowledge from her, blatantly, and Issa had eagerly accepted this product of his distrust. By the way Noel spoke, it did not sound as though the elder taught him the banishing either.

Her memories, of what happened the night Noel Loveridge made his way through Moag, were vague at best, as if lived by another self in some other lifetime, but she recalled the Felimi had anticipated her death, believing Issa, herself, should be grateful for it. Possession was forbidden, but she had not performed this magic on purpose— she did not even know how she managed it. Their tenets were strict, out of necessity, built on countless lifetimes of wisdom gained by their people, but accidental violations were always forgiven. It made no sense that the Mothers would have wanted the end of her life, simply because she stumbled into a forbidden magic she did not understand, especially if they knew a handful of wards could be used to provide relief from the cursed thing. But no magic was forbidden without just cause, and what little Issa did know of possession was enough to warrant its prohibition, which made her wonder: what about the banishing warranted its restriction? There must be more to possession than the Mardraim had been willing to share— things the Mothers had been happy Issa’s death would prevent anyone else from knowing.

Might the Felimi have taught Noel the wards?

Bitterness blurred her vision, threatening more tears, but Issa bit them back, grinding her teeth at her inability to keep emotions in check. Questioning Ohamet about the wards, how they worked, and just who taught him and why, would have to wait until the following night, she thought, closing the tangible man out of her head, as she closed the shutters and turned to face the fragment of Noel, presently lingering there by the window, a dismal phantom, barely discernible in the lantern light. A ghost, she supposed.

The wisp had not waited outside, to be let in with his corporeal self, but slipped in through the crack under the door, while the rest of the elf paced the stoop. If he was going to be forced to wander the world as a fractured soul, for the remainder of his existence, she imagined she should not hold against him taking what little advantage his discorporate state afforded him, and perhaps she might find some advantages to be gained by him too, she thought, dimming the lantern with the snap of her fingers, hoping to make his form more apparent. It did not help.

At least now she understood why she could see the wisp so vividly, the first night Ohamet touched Moag. As though amplified by his own presence, every time the elf drew nearer to the fragment of himself in his pacing, the intensity of his minor, detached aura grew. This did not explain why he shined so brightly in the forbidden place, or why Issa seemed to be the only one who could see him, but at least it was progress, a bit of knowledge only she possessed and could put to use.

“He does not know about you,” she whispered to the shade, nodding in the direction of where Ohamet disappeared.

The light of the wanderer moved closer, brushing against her hand, and soon a sulfuric thunder of long-suffered lonesomeness filled her with regret that tasted of oblivion and radiated a violent, unforgiving hue, which tugged at her insides like the whisper of betrayal. Before she could commiserate or question why he felt betrayed by himself, the notes of the old song lilted, on the storm of him, and she smelled in their heaviness the desolation of Moag and her own inevitable extinction.

“I should ask the same of you,” she answered him coldly, an unexpected sting rising on her cheeks, as she pulled her hand back and turned for the table, leaving the light to drift in its circuitous way, close behind her. If he thought he could convince her not to return to that tunnel, he was mistaken.

It was not exactly concern for her safety that caused Noel to warn her away from Moag, though it was clear he knew she was destined to die, that Moag would be the end of her, and that this was not what he wanted. Rather, it seemed she was needed alive for now, to fulfill a purpose by her death, though she could sense within him that he was not certain what that purpose was, which she suspected was why she had found him in the tunnel. He was searching for answers, the same as her.

“I deserve to know the truth of things, as much as you. If you are opposed to that, Ghost, you can follow the rest of yourself back to the forbidden place,” she added, standing before her chair, leaning with her hands against the table, her jaw set in defiance. “I will not apologize for searching for the truth, and I will not stop. And I should not have to remind you, I have already lived my end once. Moag is a certainty that does not frighten me.”

Moag did not frighten her, but she was surprised to find connection with the wisp did.

Back in the tunnel, she felt that the spark of Noel’s soul spent much of the nine days she was lying unconscious there in her hut, lingering with her, mingling, waiting for her to recover. She was not certain why he remained or why he left, in the moments just before she woke, but there was a grave familiarity, in the notes of that song that played within him. The song, it seemed, was his feeling of her, she thought, frowning.

She had felt his fears, as well, as he recalled trying to cling to her, while Moag devoured her soul, leaving him unbound. The darkness did not take him, and neither did Om, he was simply left to wander in this ghastly form, yet his fear, in that moment, was not in being lost in the world, set adrift as he was, alone. It was a fear Issa understood, all too well. She had felt the same way, watching Harvey’s Omdet Filim brush the cloister floor, as he disappeared into Moag, even as the life left her body.

It appeared the fragment of Noel knew her, intimately, or at least he believed he did, which meant it was likely Noel’s spark could sense her when they mingled, in much the same way she sensed him— completely, which was unnerving. In their connection, everything the light gave was raw truth, as though Issa was experiencing a part of him that existed prior to thought, at the purest level of intention, unfolding within memories ingrained in his very being. As an empath, she was accustomed to feeling what was at the soul of a person, but Issa’s attainment of the wanderer was so much greater than anything she had ever known before. It made even her connection with Harvey seem as though she had spent lifetimes barely grasping at the surface of him, never truly knowing him.

It was a wonder she had not really considered before how much of a person an empath could never feel, but then again what an empath felt was often too much. This was why they were trained to carefully guard their sense of self, because it was not uncommon for young Ther to develop unnatural attachments to others, which almost always ended tragically. But Noel Loveridge had no training, and Issa was not certain her own training would help either of them, where the effects of this possession were concerned.

Even the corporeal Noel claimed to feel her, but at least that could be stopped by the wards. This connection between her and the wanderer existed only when they mingled, and the mingling worked even while Noel Loveridge was warded. The problem was that the depth of understanding it afforded Issa was exhilarating and frightening all at once, because as her heart raced in her chest and her breath quickened, she knew she wanted to feel more… and could feel he wanted more as well.

Such temptations were dangerous.

Unfortunately, if she wanted answers from the wisp, she did not see any choice but to proceed.

“The first night the elf touched Moag, you came here with him,” she whispered carefully, narrowing her eyes, hoping to improve her focus on the light of him. “I did not know it was you I was seeing, though I should have thought better, now that I understand what you are.” She chuckled uneasily at her mistake, at last taking her chair, adding, “In truth, my mind was so broken, when I first saw you, I believed you were the portion of my own soul, held captive in Noel Loveridge. I hoped I could find some way of saving myself from him.” She raised her chin at the door, willing herself to look unimpressed, though at present she was a bit awestruck by this forbidden magic and the greed that swelled inside her, as she tensed herself against the longing.

“I remember feeling you,” she continued, squeezing the arms of the chair, trying to concentrate on the grain of the wood under her fingers, rather than the strange hunger that resonated, not within her physical body, but in the spaces between the atoms of her, where she had felt him moments before. “Or at least I have a vague sense some part of me remembers you being there, while I recovered from the injuries I suffered through Moag. The Mardraim told me that I sometimes spoke of you, after I woke, though no one else could feel you— not even Harvey. They were likely looking for you in all the wrong places, because you have not come to be with me since the morning I woke, even though you know I am the only one who can sense you. You should not have stayed with me, but I think I understand why you did.”

What if whoever taught Noel the wards was trying to protect them? Did that matter now? She could not sit by and do nothing, and she fully intended to go to Moag with Noel the following night, to find out just how eager he was to work together. She could not wait, while everyone else acted in whatever ways they would, leaving her a prisoner in her home, tortured by her own fragile mind, a slave to the whims of Ohamet, as he wandered in search of whatever it was he was searching for.

Did he even know anymore? If he did, she had yet to feel it in him. But she wanted to—desperately— to feel… everything of him.

Brow furrowed, she shook her head, against the desire, and tried hard to remember what was important. She needed to know what the wisp knew, to know where he had been and everything he had seen in the weeks since she woke. She needed to understand what was happening to them, and if possession was dangerous because of the inclinations it fostered, as she was beginning to suspect, and that was why he left her, she thought that spark of Noel would surely show her, soon enough, one way or another. But the quickest way to the answer was to ask the question, and the only answer she would get was through the mingling. The Mardraim, wise as he was, had given her little choice, leaving her in the dark as he did, so she sat back in her chair, braced herself for the worst, squeezing the armrest like it might gird her up against herself, as she held out her other hand, waiting for the light of the wanderer to rejoin her, the longing a guilt-ridden tide within.

The aura drifted to her side, and the energy of him grazed her fingertips once more, with a residual taste of eagerness that lingered on her tongue like the notes of her motives might not be pure. He doubted her.

Issa smiled. “You can sense me,” she whispered, biting her lip. “Why have you not approached me before now? Why did you leave when I woke?”

Turbulent skies broke loose within him, as the melody of her played, its chorus of honey and almond flowers flowing, melancholic, backward and perfect, treacherous and delicate, with its notes as scattered as her mind had been, ever since he left her. She was not meant to belong to him, it was not his purpose there, to be with her, yet the whole of Om and Moag could not stop him from being pulled into the space of her, even now. The acrid scent and roar of a tremendous force of magic, expanding through constant and chaos, met with her and doomed them both to their present circumstances, while teaching him of the heartbreak of discovering something he should never have known and of wishing to forget what could never be forgotten. Her. But mouldering soup and the Mothers’ hateful words separated them, allowing Moag to rip her from this world, as soon as Noel Loveridge entered the darkness. He thought he’d lost her.

“The cloister? I do not understand.”

She felt the troubled breath of him in her hand, as a primordial sigh, his purpose, imbued with that tremendous force, and with this purpose came the taste of his blood on her lips and a dream, from which he never wanted to wake. The possession. All at once, Issa felt the Breath of Light she had given him, as a poison that dripped from the tip of a gracious blade, and all he wanted was feast upon it, until it ended him, which he would have gladly done, but the wards at the cloister— mouldering soup and the Mothers’ hateful words— broke them apart.

“The cloister is warded,” she whispered, as he stirred within her and the realization of what had happened became a thought between them, as though the thought belonged to him as much as to her. “The Felimi knew the wards would break the possession, and they had Harvey bring me there. They were not simply going to allow me to die. They tried to make certain it happened.”

The terror of the loss of her, as her soul disappeared into Moag, turned to a mad flight, ending in flash of light contained in a whispered breath that tasted of friendship and laughter, and she returned to him, hardly a memory of the wonder he knew her to be, but still impossible to resist, though he could only linger in the space of her now— a visitor. This was not the way it was meant to be, though. The stench of that magic of constant and chaos clung to him, even as he clung to her, knowing the Mothers had not brought her to the cloister to break the possession, but to stop Noel from accomplishing whatever it was that made the possession necessary.

“No one would know what I had done,” she hissed. His purpose for coming there… The Mothers had ended it.

Before she could ask the next obvious question, his answer flooded the cells of her. A squall of pain rose in the wanderer, holding back a billion moments that passed between them in an instant. This pain Issa also knew. It was a feeling of complete evisceration that came of knowing far too much, of holding onto every particle in the universe at once, as they stretched and morphed into something unrecognizable. It was built of a future, made of Noel Loveridge, evolving within a millisecond, as he flew through Moag and Issa fell into that vast chasm of nothingness, calling his name, even as he turned to fly to her, changing the course of everything. Because of the wards his purpose was lost, and he did not know what that purpose was, but that force was still working its magic.

“Wait. You saw the prophecies? Through me? When Moag took me, you saw the changes too?” Issa growled in anguish. She had been struggling since she woke, left to deteriorate, waiting for the elf to touch Moag, to draw forth the prophecies one at a time, but the spark of him knew them all along? “You might have helped me, yet you let me suffer?”

Like a bolt of lightning, the wisp struck at her core, the energy of him overwhelming her, no tenderness left in her song. In his fervor to make her understand, she saw the reek of a festering meal left to rot, its maggots and pustules giving it a life of its own— himself, whatever he was. He hated himself for everything he was doing. He hated himself for his lack of concern for her, as if she were an afterthought, and for being drawn to her, with every moment that passed, like a lover, driven to madness. He hated himself for touching Moag, for not touching Moag, for using the wards, for not using the wards, for meeting Taree, for wishing he had never met Taree, for ever coming to speak to her, for not coming sooner, to hear from her own lips— notes gentle and wretched— what harm his actions had caused, to accept the rage he deserved from her. He hated himself, for every breath he took on this earth in freedom, for all that he stole from her in his dreaming, for all that he lost when he lost her and when she returned. He hated himself for believing in Hope, for never truly believing, and for wishing there might still be Hope yet, when he was certain Hope was lost. Of course, he let Issa suffer her broken mind, alone, because he had his own brokenness to suffer, but she could never hate him for this, as much as he hated himself, even though he knew he had no choice.

And he wanted her to hate him, so he could leave her, without regret, and never look back, because the notes of her always had him looking back, wishing for more.

Issa was transfixed. She thought she would have run from him, if she were able, but as though she was caught up in an electric frenzy of him, all she could do was shake her head, as he pressed her into her seat, with the full force of his own anguish, but the truth was she would not have run, because she was looking back too, wishing for more as well.

“Noel,” she gasped, struggling against his self-loathing, the voracity of him causing her heart to thunder, matching him, until his hatred burst through her veins.

Dismal and minute as he was, the wisp was far from helpless, and Issa’s only defense against him seemed to be the very thing he was trying to build between them— animosity, resentment, abuse, anything but the craving of possession.

As tremendous as this hatred was, this was not all that Issa felt within the light of Noel. There was an unimaginable grief there, and the music of her swelled, triumphant as the voices of a thousand horns calling up the waters of Om, to wash over them. He despised her for feeling anything that was not to be despised in him, even as he begged her not to continue questioning, not to continue pursuing, not to feel any more, to stay where she was safe, to stay safe in that hut, without him, and let him figure out how to right what had gone so very wrong.

In this brief moment of weakness, Issa tried to break free of his grasp, but the hold he had on her was not on some physical part of her. It was as though he was affixed to her essence, to her very spirit, consuming her as she consumed him. He squeezed tighter at the light of her, demanding to know if this was the truth she longed for in him, if this was the wanderer she would have help her to know the prophecies of Moag, the changes he made, because this was who he truly was— cruel and selfish, with concern for no one else in this world, least of all for her, even though she could feel for herself, as she played within the torrent of him, that he did have great concern for her— more concern for her than for anything or anyone, more for her than he wanted to have, yet he could not stop himself from being sick with her. Prophecies or no prophecies, he stayed away because he knew no good could come of him being there, like that, and she should stay away from him, as well, because the two of them would be that poison to each other, so long as they existed, every time they touched.

All along beneath his fury, Issa could hear in the storm of him that it was not meant to be like this, that if he had any choice in anything that happened, it would be different, but he had lost his way because of her, and he had to repair everything he had done wrong. The magic had gone terribly awry. This was not for them. This was not for them, and he was sorry, and he would beg eternally for her forgiveness, for involving her, but he could not let himself betray his people by failing now.

“Please, Noel,” Issa whispered, and at last, as though touched by the whimpering of her voice, he relented. But while he set her free, the light of him remained millimeters away from her lips, as though daring her to give him another taste. She could almost see his soft eyes glimmering there, darkened with anger, tinged with fear, yearning.

“You are not speaking of the possession and wards anymore. What magic went wrong?” she asked, her breaths ragged, exhausted by his turmoil, but at least in his cruelty he gave her the truth, which was more than she could say of anyone else, and as she had learned at the Mothers’ knees many lifetimes ago, those who hated the bitter and relished the sweet rarely tasted the truth.

“Who is Taree? This dream… Is it how you got here? What have you done, Noel? Allow me to help where I can. Show me.”

The shade did not move, but only held the space between them, like it was the walls of a fortress he wished would crumble, even as he was forced to hold them up against her, forced by his loyalty and honor and pride and rage, and he would shoulder that burden until Om and Moag tore each other to shreds within him, if he had to… to protect her.

He did not mean for her to feel this, but she could not help but feel it, even though they no longer mingled. She already knew his desire to protect her was not for her own preservation. His need was to keep her safe, until he could figure out how to complete the magic that had brought him there. They wanted the same thing.

Issa lifted trembling fingers, to what she imagined was his cheek, and beneath them Noel’s soul visibly shuddered. As he pulled away once more, she smelled the worn and weary pages of the book, on the table where Ohamet left it, and among its pages she felt the words of a prophecy, so old that even the Mdrai feared its cause and consequence. In that shudder, Issa simply understood that Noel had gone to a Shaman, half a world away. He had used the man’s old knowledge, in form of a potion, to find the Children of Danguin, hidden there in their mountain, to make sense of an impossible expanse of time, eons of waiting, and there in that old knowledge he met with a source of energy he called Creation.

And echoing still within Issa, in the shuddering of Noel’s soul, was another force at work, a force that was not his own, not the Shaman’s, not even belonging to this energy of Creation that had enveloped him within its folds, showing him the way to the mountain, the way inside, and had even killed him, to bring Harvey to save him. All of their wills were bent by its purpose— the whole of existence bent, by this singular, omnipotent power. It had come from some other place, outside of time, from some other existence, perhaps even before existence existed, and it had taken hold of every part of Noel, and would not let go, until he completed the Wanderer Lives, somehow. It had saved him from Om when he died, saved him again when Issa was lost to Moag, left him to wander as that shade, while it made a thousand new ways, prophecies that poured out of the darkness of Moag and Noel himself, because the magic it intended was not complete… because of Issa, because she saved him, and then she called his name, while she was dying, and he had flown to her, willingly, a choice that could never have been anticipated, even by a force so awesome.

That choice, it seemed, was something stronger than the magic that had been cast to shake eternity to its very core, to reshape Om and Moag and make them what it willed. Issa did not know what the magic was, but that thing that was stronger— that choice— was definitely the wrong energy she had told Noel about, the energy she had called to him with, as she lay dying— the energy that drew him to her, even now.

In his shudder, she felt the inevitable end— The Wanderer Lives. She smelled her death in Moag and the purpose Noel had been brought there to instigate. It would be completed. There was no way to stop it, though the corporeal Noel seemed to be doing everything within his power to try. This was his betrayal.

“Echteri Amu Schripat,” Issa whispered. “You know what we are meant to do?”

No. No! She felt Noel cry against her, as the light of him brushed her fingertips, begging her not to pursue it. He was growing weak. She was taking everything out of him, or rather his attempt to resist her was, and Issa could feel herself growing stronger by the moment. They were enemies, not allies. This Noel felt with vehemence, and he quickly pulled away from her, moving several feet off, cowering like a wounded animal.

“Enemies?” she whispered, offended by the idea. “Look at what I have become! Even a glimmering fragment, as faint as you, has more strength than I have! Noel! Look at me! I want the end of this, not to be your enemy, not to stop you! I want to complete that magic that brought you here, so I can be released from this, even to my end! Om and Moag have both forsaken me, and you would forsake me as well, as a living, breathing being, pretending we can work together to right Om’s way, but only to use me, to take what you need from me. Would you forsake me as well, as a whisper of a shard of soul, groveling in the dark of Moag, because you cannot decide which is worse, the fact I am destined to die or the fact you are destined to live without me, once the poison you covet is gone?

“Should I not be allowed to determine my own path even now? Should I be subject to your way, as well as to Ohamet and Om and Moag and Creation and this Fahmat you cannot understand that comes from this nameless place no one can possibly know? Should I not be allowed to choose my own death when I want it? What is this purpose, sent here by this force? What does it want from us? Show me! With you or without you, I will complete it myself!”

The light rushed forward again, but rather than attack, he fell into her chest and drank deep, as a universe built of agony swirled within him, within her, doubling and redoubling in the rain and the song, until it was infinite. He could not allow it to hurt her, yet he had no choice but to let it. Still he fought, like she was the only thing to be fought for any longer, even if it meant hurting her. He was desperately trying to protect her from the pain he would cause, no matter what he did.

“Pain?” she stammered, unable to understand how he could possibly believe he was stopping her from feeling the absolute agony she had felt ever since she woke, by simply ignoring her. “You cannot lie! You knew how I hurt! You can feel it in me! You knew how fractured my mind was, even before I woke! You could have helped me, all along, but you left me, to ache alone, because it hurt you! If we are enemies, Noel, it is only because you are right! You are cruel and selfish and have made enemies of us, unnecessarily!” she spat, and from somewhere within her, in the wounded glow of him, she heard the shadow of his voice beg in answer, “I do not know what to do, Issa!”

She shivered against the emanation, like a flood of that poison rising, delicious, willing them both to drown. “You left me in misery,” she answered.

“I could not stay,” his whisper echoed, reverberating off of the empty halls of her being, as if he ran through her, searching for the strand of her light, to catch hold of her once more, so he could cling to her, as though by suffocating her with his own guilt, wringing the poison out of her with his loathing, he could console himself, by drinking her down, all at once, and make her despise him enough to force him to leave her forever. “I cannot stay with you. We will destroy each other, like this. You feel it. I know you do. I cannot stay. We feel too much.”

Every word he spoke drained his will, but the words played as her music, and beneath them, in the rain of him, drops of Noel pouring over and through her, in the taste of his blood on her lips and the song of her dancing within him, within her, in that poison, she scented the force behind that magic that had brought him there, to her end, to his victory, to Hope’s salvation— the force resonating from outside of space and time and existence, that power, inconceivable, even knowing both Om and Moag, even knowing what Noel felt of Creation in that Shaman’s old knowledge— a force conceived long ago, born there in their own universe, of the death of the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves.

Issa gasped, jumping to her feet, the light of Noel falling away through her, as she grabbed the book lying on the table, but as soon as she touched it, the visceral remnants of thousands, still contained in the worn fibers of its binding, stung her hands, as though the book itself was made of the fires of their energy. Startled at feeling so many at once, so unexpectedly, she dropped the book, even as the light of Noel Loveridge met her, his anger with himself momentarily assuage and his strength temporarily renewed, by the prospect of what Issa felt within the book— what he might feel through her.

“Yes,” she nodded, her empathy surging between them. “Yes, we will read it together, Noel.”

Hands quavering, Issa ran her fingers over the cover, breathing a breath of awe at what she found, feeling her fear and inspiration reflected within Noel, who had never felt anything like it. The book was overburdened with the remains of those, who had touched it before them, including Noel himself, over the course of many years. All of them had reached for its pages in question, seeking that dead prophecy, even the Mdrai, every one of them bound by its power.

Afraid she would lose the understanding that converged, in that place where she and the wanderer mingled, Issa quickly turned the book open, ignoring the searing weight of all those hands with their questions, and took another deep breath, this one to steady herself for work more mundane but difficult. It was not simple magic, drawing on the intentions of others, often left within inanimate objects, and with something touched by so many, it was quite possible she would use up every measure of strength the two currently possessed between them, never sensing the person she sought, if there was anything of the author left to be found among those pages, considering the extraordinary age of the book.

Resting her hands on the table, she leaned over the tome, closing her eyes, trying to still her thoughts, but almost as quickly as she thought to be still, her mind drifted. Even if she had been in perfect health, she was certain the task would be too difficult for her. Harvey would be better suited for this, she thought, and as she thought of him, tears spilled down her cheeks.

Harvey…

He was likely sound asleep, completely unaware of what was happening to them. He had such incredible power as an empath, yet even he was unable to feel the wisp, though he had been the first to feel Ohamet speeding to their mountain, thousands of kilometers away. The wanderer believed that through the force of that dead prophecy Creation itself had somehow sent Noel tumbling down in the avalanche, to bring Harvey to his rescue, for Harvey to bring him into the mountain. And then what?

Issa shivered, refusing the idea, but it was already cementing itself inside her.

Though they saw each other daily since she woke, it had been weeks since she had truly felt her friend, and she spent so much time in states of confusion, between the prophecies and the possession, that Harvey seemed a world away from her now. Yet their whole lives, they had shared empathy with one another. For as many lifetimes as she could count, he had been as close to her as her own soul, their journeys through Om entwined… eternally, she had once believed.

Issa missed the readiness of him, his mocking impatience at her willfulness, his certainty of so much, though he was not Zhe, his very presence warm, reassuring. He was an unbelievably strong empath. Though it felt as though they had always been a part of each other, she had never understood how strong Harvey was, until Noel came to their mountain, bringing with him all of his chaos, his desperation, his will.

She smiled, her tears falling onto the pages.

From the first moment Issa felt Noel, her own willfulness had been provoked. She felt in him passions she had never felt in anyone, eagerness she wanted to understand, as he flew up the face of her mountain to the summit. She wanted to know what it was that drove him to such desperation. She had not been afraid of him, though everyone else seemed to be— including Harvey.

Had he known?

He had called Noel her wanderer in play, but they never hid anything from each other, and she knew he had felt within her the temptation of knowing something different, a spark of wanting more that had always existed within her, in every lifetime. Harvey brought her with him, to the entrance to the mountain, to help him save Noel’s life, he told her, but the moment she felt the soul of Noel Loveridge clinging to his body, refusing death, Issa had reacted without thinking. She had not known what she was doing. She had only known she wanted her wanderer back.

Why had Harvey said that? When he took her to the Mothers’ cloister, why had he told her not to forget that she was not the only one who felt drawn to save Noel? Might he have been the one, meant to perform that act of salvation through the possession? It made sense. He had greater talent than her— greater than anyone— and she had always known he would likely be Mardraim one day, though they were not supposed to consider their future lives, because as the Mothers taught them, the present was the only moment Om required. But Harvey was so much more capable than everyone.

If that force that caused all of this was so all-encompassing that it could reshape destiny, why would it allow the magic to go wrong when Issa met Noel? Why would it allow her to take Harvey’s place? What was the wrong energy between her and Noel that had driven her to rush to his aid, that energy she felt every time they were near to one another, that energy she felt even now, though they no longer mingled as he gave her space to prepare? Did they possess the power between them to change things by choice? Could they make this right? Could they rebuild that purpose together?

Though she knew better, Issa pushed against the boundaries of herself, reaching out into the night for Harvey, to see if she might be able to startle him awake, like she used to do when they were children. But as the forces of the Mdrai pushed back against her desire for her friend’s guidance, constraining her, her heart fell. The elders had built up an extraordinary fortification of occlusion around her, to keep anyone else from accidentally feeling what was going on inside that hut, inside her. Even with the wanderer there, she was too weak to break their binds, yet the occlusion did not seem to affect the possession at all.

Why did an Itri ward for banishing lost souls of the dead work? And why only sometimes, in some ways?

Growling, she shook her head, furious with herself for wasting time and energy when there was a place for work right in front of her. It had been weakness that drove her to save the elf, against her tenets, she thought, squeezing her wrists in anger. It was weakness that made her call out to Noel, as he flew through the darkness, when she knew she would die, wanting only for him to know her before she went. That wrong energy had forced her to feel Noel, clinging to life, to save him. If she had not done it, Harvey certainly would have been the one Moag took, and Noel would have completed the Wanderer Lives. She suspected her friend had known it all along.

“Baga,” she whispered, gritting her teeth at her foolishness, wiping the wet from her cheeks, sniffing back the roil of anguish that caused her heart to ache for her soul mate. She had done the right thing. As horrible as things were, as difficult as it was living this way, removed from her abilities, half the time her mind not her own, riddled with changes she could not see, without the help of Noel Loveridge and Moag, she had saved Harvey’s life when she saved Noel, and she would do it all again, a million times over, to save them both.

The ghost of the wanderer’s hand fell on her back, his rain and her song and the dead prophecy, waiting there on that table, but none of them more important, in that moment, than for her to understand what she had just done. In his rain, she heard the trickle of blood running down her hand, as the salt of his tears in her song.

“Oh…” she breathed, rubbing her palm against her temple, looking down at her wrist in confusion, quickly blotting the blood away on her skirt tail, shame filling her gut. Because of the wards, it had been weeks since she had worn a bloodstained gown, and this time she did not have Moag to blame, for her mindlessness. “I am… sorry… I do not…” She fell quiet, uncertain how it had happened, though she clearly remembered the pressure of her own flesh against her fingertips, as she dug her nails in, ripping it open.

This was the first time she could remember the act.

In answer, the wanderer was silent as a dawn mist, but she did not need him to show her, in order to know the truth. The poison they shared in the connection of possession endangered them both. The longer they stayed together, the faster they would fall apart, that is why the wards brought her stability, and that is why he left. Though together they could generate some incredible powers of their own, there was not enough of Issa’s light left within her, to keep her mind safe in the presence of him. She might destroy herself before he got the chance. It was as he said. They could not be together.

“We should hurry.” It was strange and comforting to feel him there, as a hand between her shoulder blades, holding her up, but as his energy waned, in the effort to maintain some physical presence, for her benefit, she shirked him away, huffing, “This may be the only chance we get to work in this way. The energy is precious. Do not waste it consoling me.”

Determined to focus on the book alone, she began to read, allowing the tips of her fingers to draw across the first sentence, hoping beyond hope that she and the wanderer were still strong enough, to sift through the remnants of all of those, who had entered the book before them, but it turned out she need not have been so concerned. The Book of Ages was begun long ago, by an elf claiming himself to be the great grandson of one of the only elfin survivors, of a terrible war between the races that had left no corner of the world untouched. Though the author did not write it out in so many words, Issa felt in the sage that countless millions had died in this war, millions of Noel’s people, brutally slain.

“This descendant of Eurial…” She shook her head, confused by the strength of the writer’s presence on the page. “It is almost as though he left himself here, to be felt by us, as though he knew someone would search for him.” The wanderer felt him too, and in his rain Issa tasted his pondering, but she thought surely he would be more likely to know why than she was.

The author was elderly, well over a century when he began his undertaking, and in his initial words, Issa understood that the book had been his final labor of love for Hope— to convey the prophecy. Intrigued, she delved deeper, to uncover a greater sense of this elf, in the story he told of a great flood, but in the drawing out of the next few lines, she felt a marked hesitation in his words, and the wanderer panicked.

“He knows what he is writing is in part—”

A lie, Noel felt, as the scent of his storm became staggered and striated, with foul sounds and putrid images of countless lives wasted, waiting for Hope. Issa tasted in him the oils from the fingers of those thousands, who had turned the pages of that text, searching for answers, just as Noel had done, too many times to count, just as Issa was doing now. The long snowfalls of his youth were tinged with curiosity and expectation, honor and laughter, and the vicious hand of his father, all bound up together in him, in the words on those pages. Lies.

Issa spurned the feeling, trying to maintain her sense of the author, but the wanderer’s uncertainty thundered within her, belonging to all of them— to all of the elves, born since the Fall, including the author himself. These were the questions Noel Loveridge brought to their mountain, thousands of questions that went unanswered, so many questions pent up in his agitation and urgency, all tightly woven into the dead prophecy, with his snow and his hearth fire, his stout drink and his disgust, with his beloved friends and his self-hatred… all for naught. The idea the book might intentionally not hold the truth for anyone disturbed him, yet Issa knew he had always felt this, deep down.

Noel believed the lie was the prophecy itself. He wanted Issa to show him why.

“The prophecy…” she answered uncertainly. “You know the Mdrai could not read it. I felt their confusion when I picked up the book as well.” She stretched her fingers against the memory of all those hands, burned into hers, and wiped away a small trickle of blood from the three crescent shaped wounds on her wrist, wondering how long she and Noel could maintain their connection before her mind would be lost completely.

She knew she would not be able to read the prophecy, but the Mdrai would have done everything they could to understand it, which meant they would have used all of their talents, to gain some greater sense of what was at the soul of the one who transcribed it, just as Issa was doing with the grandson of Eurial. She could have simply felt what the Mdrai left behind, but instead she whispered, “Show me.”

She tasted the desolation of Moag and a fiery orange sunset of disappointment in Noel’s rain, the blood on her lips and the poison that threatened them both, but the wisp leaned in beside her and brushed himself across the edges of the book’s leaves, and surprisingly a few pages turned, causing Issa to laugh, even as she recalled sitting in front of Noel, in a library where she, herself, had never been but understood to belong to the Mardraim— a secret place filled with an impossible number of books about magic.

That was where the wanderer had learned he could muster enough forces to act in the corporeal world when he needed to, though just barely, but his idiotic self had not realized he was not alone in that keep, no matter what the wisp did to show himself, and for him actions took a great deal of energy, so he stopped trying to make the rest of him see, and soon the Mardraim warded the library anyway, which meant the wisp could no longer enter there.

Issa smiled, knowing Noel had been fruitlessly searching for the wards among the pages of those books. That was where he always disappeared, that warded place the Mardraim made for him. She felt the magic that lingered there and understood the way inside, and as she did so the wanderer realized his mistake and pulled away from her again, taking with him all of the energy he could.

As soon as he left her, she felt the empathy drain from her. She stared at him, a violence rising up within her. It felt strange, to want to strike at him, to want to hurt him. It was not a reaction she would have had a few short weeks ago. “If we are to do this, you cannot be afraid of how much I will see or feel within you,” she demanded quietly, continuing to scan the work without him, hoping the author’s revelations would come, even as they faded. She hated that she needed him, but she did. It was as if he was Velhim to her—her only source. “We do not know how long we will be able to build this energy between us, to give us both room to work. I need you for this, and you need me, to help you figure out what you are meant to do. Where is the prophecy?”

The wanderer flew into her, and together they turned the next few pages, the shadow of his light intertwined with her, skin and bone. He did not want to leave, and at the same time he knew he must, not because he was afraid of what she would feel of him— that had been a mistake. He chose to trust her, just as she chose to save him. She tasted the poison in him, blood on her lips, and together they drank, both knowing he was right, it would destroy them, but out of that destruction would grow understanding and strength, and if they were lucky, answers. They wanted the same thing— the completion of the Wanderer Lives— though they knew they were both doomed by it— Issa to cease to exist altogether in Moag, and Noel to wander, lost, without her, likely for the rest of time.

Eurial’s great grandson died before he could finish writing the known history of his people, and care for the Book of Ages changed hands, again and again, over the course of generations, as the stories of their predecessors and descendants were recorded for posterity. As Issa and Noel flipped through the pages, they felt each new scribe grow decrepit in his longing, as though the authors themselves waited for the dead prophecy to be revealed, as much as Issa and Noel did. And indeed, they were all waiting.

The prophecy was mentioned many times in passing, yet no one recorded it, though it was clear by their writings the elves believed they were waiting for the birth of a girl, who they expected would right great and many wrongs in her lifetime. It seemed everything they believed they knew about her was made up, like a tale to pass the years, like stories of ghosts that were never quite true. As each new author began the labor, their intention to record the past in the hope for Hope’s future remained clear in their devotion, and in the weight of their forbearance, Issa knew this book was meant to belong to this girl, not to them. Still, they grew lonelier and wearier, as years carried on, even as the wisp of Noel grew lonelier, wearier, there within Issa, and all of the questions of all of his people grew lonelier and wearier, for want of answer.

There was good reason for their fatigue. Along with the lie, these authors carried a secret between them. Like the prophecy, each one held it fast, as though his life and all of the future depended upon it, and it flowed through the undercurrent of their words, so deeply ingrained in them that it belonged to each of their souls, as a part of them, as though it bound them all together, anchoring them to each other, in their responsibility to its keeping. The secret was a heavy burden to bear, but with each passing of the book to new hands, came the passing of lie and secret, both more precious than the book itself.

The lie had to be the prophecy, the wisp fervently believed, but he did not know this, and as none of the authors seemed to know the actual prophecy either, it was impossible to say with any certainty what the lie might be about.

“The prophecy is real, Noel, just broken,” Issa whispered, flopping back in her chair, pulling the book into her lap, trying desperately to scrutinize the fahmat that bound the keepers of that book, so she could unlock the truth for him. Both secret and lie were protected by as much magic as all them could muster.

“I destroyed the prophecy coming here,” she heard Noel whisper to her bones.

“No, I think the magic that brought you here was searching for why it was broken, to rectify it, but you and I broke that magic, somehow,” she answered, growing impatient, fanning through the pages quickly, until she felt the dead prophecy drawing nearer to her hand, and at last, the wanderer became a torrent for her to stop.

There it was, the Prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves, dead as dead could be, utterly devoid of intention and Veils, very near the end of the book.

“Is this not strange that it would be here?” she asked, flipping back and forth between the surrounding pages, following her sense of the Mdrai.

The spark of Noel laughed within her, a laugh that felt to her like the sort of laughter she made, when she pretended to be impetuous with Harvey. This was exactly what the Mdrai had done— exactly what Noel had done… exactly what everyone had done, it seemed, when faced with the prophecy’s peculiar location in that book.

“Why place it here?” she frowned, but she felt in Noel that her empathy would be better than all of the guesses he might make in answer. “Well, it was written long ago, long before the original author set his hand to the first pages, even before the book was bound, Noel. And the words feel much older still, even older than the event that left Eurial one of the solitary survivors of that war that damned your people, yet it interrupts a story written by another, and he was just as lost to know the prophecy’s meaning as you are, both before and after inserting it here, purposefully, in the middle of his own story. It is included without reason or elaboration. Why record the prophecy, so close to the end of the book? Did they truly never know it before then?” she asked, and the wanderer became a cataclysm of crashing sensations, a hurricane of everything he wanted to say but could not.

In his tumult, Issa felt as though she gulped down all of the waters of The Deep Beyond Time and tasted in their sweetness so many apprehensions of the Mdrai, so many more secrets and lies the wisp was not supposed to know. She smiled, looking up at the wanderer, expecting to find Noel, grinning down at her, at her realizing what he had done, but instead she found only the light of him glistening with pride, willful, desperate. Shaking her head free of this image, she added, “You stayed.”

The light pulsed with the taste of eternity and the questions of purpose and meaning that had plagued the hearts of every man, woman, and child, who had breathed a single breath of Creation since the dawn of time. Of course he stayed, and the Mdrai, it seemed, drank and drank of the waters, even after Noel Loveridge left Om’s chambers, but they were no closer to understanding the prophecy than any elf had ever been, because it truly was broken, and they knew it, and they did not bother telling Noel the truth.

“They doubt you, just as you doubt them. Let us feel what they felt, then,” Issa answered, continuing to read, now soaking in the remnants of the hand that put the prophecy to page, thousands of years ago.

From the start, it was clear the person who recorded those words firmly believed in them, believed in the truth of them, as a prophecy, and believed they were protecting that same secret that all of the other authors of that book kept, though this prophet did not seem to know what the actual secret was, as though the secret itself became after her and birthed the lie. She was the only woman, before Issa, to leave an imprint of herself in that text, and whoever she was, Issa could feel, in the energy of her presence, coursing through the very ink of her words, that she was a Child of Danguin— a powerful one.

“She was of my people,” Issa whispered excitedly, and again the wanderer was a furious storm of anticipation and laughter, and she found herself laughing with him, “You will need to show me slowly, Ghost, so I can understand. Show me everything the Mdrai said, but not all at once! We will see what they know.”

For a moment, she felt his joy at the sound of her laughter, and like a sigh, the scent of rain was filled with song, and without words the fragment of Noel’s soul whispered, into Issa’s every nerve, the story no author would ever write in that ancient book— the story of what happened in her mountain, the day Noel Loveridge brought the dead Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves, to the waters of the Wellspring of Fate, to be read by the Keepers of Knowledge.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37, Pt. 38

The tale of two mountains– pt. 37

Isabella Asan

Noel leaned his forehead against the door, squeezing his palms into his temples, to stop himself reaching for the handle. They weren’t supposed to be together? Surely, it was a bit late for realizing that? Of course, barging in on her wasn’t the answer to their troubles either. But what was she thinking, going into the tunnels?

Gripping the frame of the entry, against his ragged breaths and the rush of adrenaline still coursing through him, Noel closed his eyes, trying to settle the sick in his stomach, but like some horrible accident, his mind replayed the moment she disappeared in the dark and the desperate wail of a noise that escaped him, as his heart seized and he bolted forward to stop her— too late.

In that split second, he’d believed she’d finally done it— surrendered herself to that abysmal black. He’d felt that desire to return to Moag, in her all along, but while he was doing everything he could to avoid that happening, he’d never actually worried about her physically going in. In his mind, she’d always been a fragile thing, safely tucked away in her hut, and his fears, to that point, had primarily revolved around what would happen to him, as a result of the possession, when the inevitable occurred, and the piece of Isabella Asan inside of him took control and forced him to enter Moag. His concerns for her life and her safety were all secondary to that, and he’d felt sure, until that moment, the wards were the solution, to give him time to figure out something better. A fat lot of good they did him if she was going to go traipsing off into the darkness herself!

In that moment, when she disappeared, as he stared around himself in horror, thinking she’d stepped backward into Moag, Noel knew that everything was over. Not just him or Issa, or the Last Hope or fate, in all its apparent forms. She vanished, and it felt like the bottom fell out of the bloody universe and the whole damnable thing collapsed inside of him. He wanted to run in after her, but he couldn’t. Every part of him wanted to tear into the endless black, searching her out, to pull her back into this world, where he could protect her, but he couldn’t move even an inch. Something else was stopping him.

Of course after a moment of waiting for the rest of the world to crumble in around him and disappear through the hole Issa had left inside him, he remembered Edward telling him the woman could transvect, and then he realized she hadn’t actually moved from the spot she’d been standing, and he found himself, once more, flying in a mad rush to her hut, hoping to find her there— though this time it was the sound of his own mortified cry that fueled his flight.

What the hell had she been doing there? How had she even gotten to that place on her own? Why would she go anywhere near Moag, after everything that happened to her? And how was he supposed to protect her, if she was bound and determined to get herself killed… again!? Everything he and Harvey had been working on these past few weeks had been about taking care of her. She was important. Whether he liked it or not, she was a part of him, integrally bound. Isabella Asan was the very heart and soul of that gut-wrenching, universe-shattering, sickening finality that rent at his insides, in a way that made no sense. She was…

“Vital,” he whispered a laugh, remembering how she clung to the word, trying to make him understand.

Even warded, the threads of this woman— this perfect stranger— were so thoroughly woven into the fibers of him, he doubted he could ever escape her, even if he were to cover himself with all the wards in the world, even if they could find a way to end the possession.

If it was true, what Harvey told him about what he felt of Noel’s purpose, prior to the possession, there was no escaping whatever was going happen to Noel in all of this, because everything he was doing was part of something greater than any of them could comprehend. This… force… or whatever it was that Harvey felt with Noel the day Isabella saved his life, had a tremendous and inexplicable power, but it was tenuous. Delicate. Its purpose was set, but it didn’t seem to mind how Noel managed to complete that purpose, and Noel had to protect it, long enough to figure out how to get Issa unwoven from it. Her involvement had been purely accidental, a thing of chance no one could have anticipated. Apparently, that force had to protect Noel too, because he knew the only thing that could possibly have stopped him from going into Moag after Issa, in that moment, had to be something not of this existence, because as far as he was concerned, when she disappeared this existence was finished.

His obsession with his possessor was only getting worse.

Noel and Harvey had agreed. They were going to figure out how to get the piece of Issa out of Moag. They were going to figure out how the possession worked and find a way of undoing it completely, so Harvey could possess Noel instead, as Harvey was convinced was the original plan of this mysterious force, and then they could play this thing out, to the bitter end, the way Fate, or the Dreaming, or whatever was guiding them, intended. Noel had made a pact to protect Issa, no matter what— the first promise he’d made in that mountain that he had every intention of keeping. He’d thought he failed her. He’d thought he’d lost her. Why the hell had she gone there?

Shaking his head against the cool grain of the wood, Noel twisted around on his feet, leaning his back against the barrier between them, rubbing a hand over his face, as he stared out into the night. He’d felt her desire to give in, all along, like she knew what had to be done and would force it, he thought, slumping over, pressing his palms into exhausted eyes. If he’d gone in after her, like he wanted, they’d both be dead right now. He was sure she would return to Moag, given the chance, because he couldn’t help going there himself. What were they supposed to be doing? What did she know?

“Damn,” he whispered, pushing himself away from the door, clutching the amulet, hung around his neck. Had Issa seen their future through Moag? Edward had warned him to stay away from her, to not talk of the prophecies, but did it matter now what the old man thought, if Noel was running out of time? She’d gone to the tunnels for a reason, and it wasn’t just to end it all. He had to know what she was thinking.

The amulet… Noel rubbed his thumb over the intricate engravings in the polished stones, he’d only finished carving that afternoon. These wards seemed to be working well enough. If he pulled them free now, just so he could get some sense of the woman’s state, she would be swept up in her usual insanity, and Edward and every other empath in that mountain would know Noel was there with her. Some of them were bound to turn up, demanding to hear why he was skulking about, outside her hut, in the dead of night. That would end poorly for both of them.

He saw little choice but to try and get her talking, so blowing out a great puff of nerves, he turned back for the door and gave his politest knock. “Issa, I…” The trouble was what could he possibly say to her? “I… understand you do not wish to speak with me… but I cannot leave here until we do.” That was weak.

The floor creaked beneath the woman’s feet, and he heard the distinct hiss of an exasperated breath. He smiled, imagining the hard look in her soulful eyes, full of fire, furious with him for catching her out. He suspected she would be angrily willing him away right about now, and the part of her inside of him would’ve no doubt been working to force his feet to leave the porch, to head back to the keep and give herself some space.

These wards did what he needed them to do, but would he ever be allowed to use them again, once Edward found out Issa was in the tunnels? Noel wasn’t sure how she had gotten there without the elder noticing, but the old man would have to know what happened eventually, and surely that would end the use of wards for the foreseeable future, unless someone could persuade Issa not to go back. But what if she was supposed to return and simply couldn’t help herself? Noel couldn’t help himself. Could she feel Moag too? The way he felt it?

“Issa,” he knocked again, “open the door, and I will share with you everything I know,” he hissed, knowing there was not much he could share, not much he knew for certain anyway— nothing at all she might find very helpful… Except for the wards. He swallowed an anxious laugh, the thought of giving up the only advantage he had over the possession not at all appealing, but he needed to know what she knew. “Let me in, and I will show you how I block the possession,” he added plainly, no longer bothering to check his voice, as he knocked again, this time louder.

Those were the magic words. The latch clicked free, but the door moved barely an inch, exposing only a sliver of the shadows beyond. Leaning forward, he listened to the silence, as the wood planks hung still on their hinges. “Does this mean I may enter?” he asked, cautiously.

It was too quiet. She might have fled again. She’d transvected before, without hesitation or warning, and that took some serious energy. He knew several right and proper demigods, who could barely muster the forces necessary to transport themselves three meters, across an empty pub, dead sober on a Sunday morning, if their lives depended upon it. She had traveled a fair distance, with solid rock and Moag all around her. Isabella Asan was powerful, amazingly so. But power and madness tended to be a precarious mix.

At last a warm glow grew up in the crack of the door, and the dim lantern light filtered through the slats in the shutters, casting stripes of gold on the garden path. Noel breathed a small sigh of relief, as the Isabella muttered a soft, “Come in, and be quiet, unless you intend to be discovered.” Nudging the door open, he stepped inside and pulled away his light well.

Issa stood across the room, beside the washstand, the table and chairs arranged like a castle parapet and her sentry standing guard between them. Her back was against the wall, arms braced tightly over her chest, dark hair a wild mess of waves that half hid her hardened face. Her eyes fixed upon his, flashing with anger that barely disguised her fear.

With a guilty shake of his head, Noel pushed the door to, moved several feet to the right, and leaned back against the wall as well, letting his hands fall easily at his sides, stooping his head slightly, hoping to set her at ease. “You want to know how I break the possession, yes?” he asked, imagining it best to offer his concessions first.

She gave a firm nod, even as her chest heaved, with a terrible breath, and she loosed a slight shiver, but she recovered quickly, her jaw tensing, as she tightened her grip on herself.

Christ, Noel thought, letting out a heavy breath of his own, tugging the amulet on its leather cord, from the neck of his caftan, holding it up for her. He took a tentative step forward, but her eyes widened, and she bristled, somehow shrinking further into herself, even as she stood taller. Noel retreated, falling back against the wall and offering softly, “They are wards of the Itri. Three of them work— or seem to— to give us some relief from the possession. You know Itri Fahmat, do you not? Harvey said you are proficient.”

Issa’s brow furrowed at mention of Harvey’s name, but she nodded again, her eyes shifting back and forth, from the amulet to Noel’s face. She was calculating. That was a good sign.

“I do not know their magic, myself, or I know only this much, because I had to learn, to help us,” he shrugged, casually tucking the amulet away. “Some time ago, Edward— the Mardraim— made a warded place for me to go, to give you peace from Moag.” Wincing through a smile, he bobbed his head side to side and corrected himself. “To give you peace from me. But I wanted a way to move freely through the mountain.”

Isabella grimaced, and Noel paused, leaving her plenty of space to answer. He would have happily accepted a berating, if it meant she would relax. When she said nothing, he plodded on. “I was in the warded place tonight, but grew—” Why was there no Danguin word for expressing boredom? He pulled his foot up against the wall behind him and settled onto it, searching for the right word. If there were words for restless or impatient or frustrated or eager, he did not know any of those either, so he continued with a frown, “…alone.”

This was true enough— truer than he’d expected, actually, but apparently it was also a mistake, as Issa’s eyes darkened, and she looked away, toward the window, her annoyance playing on the turn of her lips.

Noel grumbled. He imagined she likely felt quite a bit alone, herself, stuck in that hut, stuck in her head, just waiting on him to fish prophecies from the deep, so she could focus on one vision at a time, instead of the swarm of everything at once that usually consumed her. He was making a mess of things, he knew, but even so he continued to plod, because that was all he could think to do.

“I grew alone in that place,” he offered honestly, rubbing a hand over the back of his head at her glaring look, “and I thought I could work in the tunnel, to see how these wards affect Moag. I believed you were sleeping, so I could test them without disturbing you, or I would not have gone.” He shook his head desperately, and whispered, “You were supposed to be sleeping, Issa.”

At this, she started to rise, but as she turned back to him and opened her mouth to speak, Noel pulled out the wards once more, holding them up hopefully. “This amulet may not be good enough, for what we need it for. We may need more wards or better ones. You could help us there, if you were willing.”

In the weeks he and Harvey had been working, to understand which wards did the trick, Noel’s use of Danguinese had improved greatly, though obviously he still searched for appropriate translations, many of which simply did not exist— especially proper swears. The Danguin had a measly three, none of them formidable enough for the occasion, but all of which he wanted to use now, as Isabella stared daggers at him. He’d drawn out a handful of prophecies, for her and Edward to scrutinize, and in his in-between hours, alone behind the wards, he’d skimmed hundreds of books, on every level of the keep, hoping to find anything that might help them.

If there was ever elfin magic among the innumerable tomes hidden in that great repository, Edward must’ve secreted it all away, with some enchantment or another, no doubt sensing from the beginning that Noel would seek them out, as soon as opportunity struck. He had at last discovered the impossibly large section on the Fae, which turned out to have almost as many levels as that of the magic of Man. He’d hoped this would do him and Harvey some good, in their quest to save Issa, unfortunately, there were so many books on fairycraft, reading it all by himself could take him half a lifetime, to find even one bit of useful information on further wards against possession. He’d thought that the fairies might have some way of reversing the magic altogether, considering what the wards were able to do, but if they did, Harvey had never heard of it, which was hardly surprising, since he’d also not heard of possession itself until recently, and while the man was willing to work with Noel, against his grandfather’s wishes, in order to save Isabella, he was not willing to cross the boundaries of the keep. When all of their attempts at making an appropriate amulet with the wards over the room of Danguin magic failed, Harvey had gone off to do some research of his own and managed to come up with the ward they added today, to the wards for gates and lock and key— a ward against ghosts.

Noel had all of that to entertain him, and all Issa had were these six walls and her hours of madness, except when he was warded, yet he complained to her of his loneliness. What an idiot, he thought, adding softly, “Issa, I did not expect to find you in the forbidden place, but I am happy I did.” It was a lucky thing he had found her, though it was clear, by the way her nose scrunched, as though she’d just caught hint of some fetid stench clinging to his words, the feeling was hardly mutual. He couldn’t really blame her.

“I did not expect to find you there, either, Noel Loveridge,” she answered, at last, raising a brow.

Fair play, he supposed, grateful they’d progressed beyond shuddering nods. “May I ask what you were doing there?” he whispered hopefully.

Her chin stiffened and back straightened, as she breathed audibly, the way birds often did to indicate utter annoyance. “I do not owe you answers,” she said. “Go. Tell the Mardraim what I have done.”

“Tell the— Why would I do that?” Noel scoffed rather loudly.

Issa shook her head, looking confused and disgusted, like she’d never considered that anyone might not tell the Mardraim everything they’d done. It seemed she had no clue Noel wasn’t actually supposed to be there in that tunnel either.

“Go! And do it quietly,” she hissed, casting her hand at the door.

“Wait, Issa, I am sorry. I was not meant to be there,” he admitted quickly, holding his ground. “Edward will be angered with both of us, if he finds out we were in the forbidden place. More so at me, because he will think I have put you in danger again, with the wards, when you have done that yourself, this time. He will look at us like we are—” He searched for a decent enough word, but finding none and seeing her impatience grow, quickly settled for one he knew was wrong, but would hopefully carry his meaning all the same. “—decaying children. I do not like this look of his, but you and I could choose not to tell him. We would only need trust each other.”

Her eyes narrowed and every part of her face puckered. Trust was definitely not among the things she was presently considering giving him, nor, did it seem, was it something she thought she might need or even want from him. But Noel believed he might still win her over, when she whispered with an irritable huff, holding out her hands at him in pleading frustration, “We are not meant to be together, Noel Loveridge! The Mardraim has made that apparent to both of us! Now, if you do not intend tell me which wards sever the connection between us, you should go from here, whether or not you will lie to my Mardraim, for the sake of your pride.”

He might have laughed at her simple naivety and willingness to assume the very best of her leaders, even though they did have a word for ‘lies’, or at least at the fact she had no better argument against him than to accuse him of pride, which had nothing to do with it, but what she said caused him to stop, and instead he found himself scowling at her.

The old man was never very straightforward with Noel about his reasons for anything, and considering Isabella was sneaking around Moag in the middle of the night, he suspected she felt much the same, even if she still had a respectful reverence for her elder. Edward had warned him not to seek out the prophecies, and Noel reluctantly agreed, only on the basis his knowledge of them might somehow make matters worse for everyone, though how much worse things could possibly get was beyond him. Every time he ventured a thought in the direction of the portraits of the drowning people, he wound up pacing the floor in a cold sweat, worried instead of making anything better, trading one possession for another would actually make things far worse, but he had Issa to protect, so he tried to avoid over-thinking his and Harvey’s plot. Even if they were headed in the wrong direction, to be actively working toward anything felt better than sitting still, waiting on Edward, and the fact of the matter was Noel intended to save Isabella Asan, even if they told him half a billion more people would die as a result. Realizing this fact about himself did not dissuade him in the least, though it did sponsor a wretchedness in his bowels that was sometimes impossible to ignore. The point being, to him the prophecies that came out of Moag didn’t really matter now.

For her part, Issa had already said she would never share the prophecies with him, though she hadn’t put it quite so politely, as he recalled. While she was gallivanting off to Moag in the middle of the night, she wasn’t likely to directly disobey her beloved Mardraim, so as long as the two weren’t going to discuss prophecy together, what exactly was the harm in them being in the same room, especially while warded? And why did she need Noel to tell her about the wards anyway? Shouldn’t the Mardraim have done that?

“Has Edward told you why he is keeping us apart, or does he hide all of the important facts from you, as well?” Noel asked, hoping the blatant accusation was harsh enough to warrant a true response, rather than another demand for him to go.

Issa opened her mouth, but the implication seemed to strike a nerve. Instead of answering, she took a cautious step away from the wall, glancing at Noel sideways, as though she might go to the table, might even ask him to come sit across from her, so they could talk like normal humans, perhaps about the secrets leaders keep for the sake of leading, which followers overlook for the sake of following. She stopped at that single step, staring down at the floor a long while, concern tracing lines over her brow, before offering in a measured tone, “After the prophecies come, when you fly here…” She looked up at him, worried, and Noel swallowed the anxious feeling he was not going to like what she had to say. “…I feel an energy that is wrong between us, an energy that… goes against everything.”

This was more revelation than he expected. “What do you mean?” he asked, though he thought for certain he already knew. They were about to talk about that mysterious force.

On a sigh, the woman went to the table at last, taking her seat, as she pulled her hair up on top of her head and twisted it into an angry knot, held together by nothing but violent tendrils and sheer determination, and said seriously, “Though the Mardraim has not told me as much, I am certain this is what Harvey felt, before your arrival, when he said you were being guided to us, against Om’s will. I did not understand what he meant at the time. But when he brought your body into our home, and I felt your presence, your desperation, holding fast to this life, I did the only thing I could think to do, Noel Loveridge, even though for my people, to save a life is against Om’s way, against the Mdonyatra—”

“And Ftdonya,” he finished for her, sliding down the wall to sit, looking over the tops of his knees at her, his wrists resting there, hands open, trying to receive what it was she was telling him, while at the same time being engulfed by a minor panic.

Isabella nodded, and her fire melted away. “I am certain none of us understood what Harvey meant, until I felt it myself… just before the possession. I did what I did, moved by what I felt of you. I feel it still, when you come here. It is a strange sensation, being pushed to do something you know violates everything you believe in, yet knowing it is the right thing to do, the only thing…”

Noel couldn’t help but wonder if the feeling he’d felt, when he thought she’d gone into Moag, that feeling that he’d just witnessed a cataclysm of epic proportion, had belonged to him and his obsession or in fact to whatever that force was that was still guiding him. Harvey knew Issa had felt it too, a Velhim not of this existence that kept Noel’s soul from returning to Om after the avalanche. What was this force? Something of the Dreaming? Perhaps even of Moag itself?

Harvey said it was Noel, but somehow not Noel, and because of it, he’d had no choice but to leave the mountain to save him, even though he did not want to and he knew his own life would end as a result. Now it was Issa’s life that hung in the balance, because as soon as Issa felt this presence herself, she took Harvey’s place. Everything changed, but Noel hadn’t done anything to cause this change, himself, because he was just lying there, clinging to death, waiting, apparently, for anyone to save him. Would it have mattered who? Might it have been anyone, or did it have to be a Child of Danguin? Whatever this force was that was changing things, it couldn’t actually be Noel doing it… Could it?

He intended to ask Issa exactly what happened that night, to delve deeper into this subject, but before he could wrap his head around the words, she was talking again. “My Mardraim has not told me why we should not be together, Noel Loveridge.” She leaned forward with her elbows on the table, resting her chin in one hand, looking nervous, as she rubbed her knuckles against her lips. She closed her eyes for a moment, as though she doubted whether or not she should tell him more, but continued on, adding, “I think he fears that together you and I will make more changes, through Moag. He is attempting to keep us from creating new prophecies.”

“Ah…” It made sense why the elder would think that, at least on the surface. If they were bound to make more changes, keeping them apart was a rational thing to do, but what if it was not them who were making these changes? And what if they were supposed to make them? Edward said they were going to right Om’s way, and Noel truly wanted to, at least for Issa, but his gut returned again and again to the thought that Om’s way might not be right.

He was there for a reason. The possession was necessary for a reason. There was something he was meant to do in Moag, and he and Issa both could feel it, he was sure. Obviously, he could not ask her of actual prophecy now, though he wanted to, especially if changes were what Edward was afraid of, but Noel had no idea if the wards he was using warded anyone against changes that came as a result of his blatantly violating the elder’s wishes, which between Issa and Harvey Noel was doing on a regular basis these days, because he was tired of waiting for Edward to fill him in on whatever Edward discovered. The old man regularly disappeared for days, the only sign of him whatever meal he’d left for Noel to take. He’d told Noel nothing of how he planned to right Om, if he even had a plan. Would Issa tell Noel what she’d seen, if he asked? She had to know something, or she wouldn’t have gone to Moag.

“Is there a reason you believe this?” he asked, hoping to ask the right question, to guide her down the path of telling him more without talking about the prophecies.

She shook her head, shrugging apologetically. “It is only a feeling, Noel Loveridge. Perhaps we would change things and keep changing them forever,” she answered honestly, looking melancholic. “I can feel these changes in you, whenever you are near me, like you stand on the cusp of a most dangerous shift, and together you and I would breach that cusp.”

“Only when we are together though? This ‘wrong energy’, you feel it only after receiving a prophecy? When I come here, unwarded?”

She arched a brow and nodded. A few strands of hair managed to escape the knot she’d made and twined down her neck, over her shoulder and across her chest. Her breaths came rapidly.

Noel looked away. “Perhaps that is Moag you feel, and not to do with me?” he whispered. “I mean, do you feel this energy now?”

“I feel nothing of you now, not even Moag,” she answered, but one corner of her mouth drew in, perplexedly, then she frowned, glancing out the window, as though she hoped to find someone there to answer.

Noel looked back at the window himself, but he was at a bad angle to see anything through the shutters, sitting there on the ground, and when he looked back she was staring hard at him again, as though he’d done something wrong. “What about Moag?” he asked. “Do you feel it?”

“Only through you.”

“What do you mean, through me? You are an empath. Is it empathy?” His questions were annoying her.

“Possession is nothing like empathy, Noel Loveridge,” she sighed heavily, her jaw tensing again. “Through possession I feel parts of what you are feeling, like shadows of your experiences. I sometimes dream of your memories, but I do not feel what is at the soul of you anymore, not as I normally would.” She shook her head and closed her eyes, as though fighting back anger once more. “I do not know how to make you understand the difference, except to say that through this possession, at times it is as though I can sense the very thoughts in your mind and feel the air move around you, like your senses are somehow my own, but less sharp… except here.” She held up her hand, covered in twisted scars that carried down her forearm.

Noel winced and on instinct clenched his fist, but the part of her inside him was kept at bay by the wards. The scars were horrible, heartbreaking.

“I only feel Moag through you, especially when you are near to it, but you feel Moag intensely, with your whole being. You know exactly where it is, yet to you it is not a forbidden place, as it was to our people, but is as a living presence, near to your mind. You are frightened of it,” she whispered. “And you are right to be frightened, I believe. You are drawn to it, and you are right to be drawn to it. I do not know what it is, but in it, the future I see…” She shook her head and fell silent, biting her lip, staring off out the window again, this time as though she were waiting for someone.

Noel huffed and pushed himself up from the ground, went over to the window and opened the shutters wide, to have a look. There was no one there, so he began to pace. He’d had no idea the level of invasion into his experience possession seemed to grant her, but what disturbed him most was that she knew he was afraid of Moag, and apparently why he was afraid of it, yet she would go there anyway. Wasn’t she afraid too? Shouldn’t she be? He’d tried to convince Edward that Moag was conscious somehow, but the elder wouldn’t hear of it. Issa seemed to know it through Noel, yet he’d found her there alone, at night, when she thought she wouldn’t be caught.

“If you do not feel Moag while I am warded, how did you make your way to that place tonight? What were you doing there, Issa?”

Her eyes followed him, fierceness returning to them, as he strode back and forth, between the open window and door, looking out at the garden each time he passed, though by this point he thought surely he was just being paranoid and she was just searching the night for comfort.

“I memorized the path you take when you go,” she answered. “But what do you do when you go there, Noel Loveridge? You do not always draw forth prophecy, yet you always return to that place, taking exactly the same path, as though you know it, and it knows you, as though you want something from it, even though you are frightened. If I followed your way out of curiosity, wanting to understand what it is that takes you there, is that wrong?”

She obviously had zero grasp of what Moag had actually done to her or just how reckless it was for her to go wandering off, following his feelings through the abyss, simply because she was curious. He stopped short, pressing his palms into his eyes again. The scars on her arm were terrible. He couldn’t help but feel he’d put them there himself. He couldn’t lose her. “But Issa, why?! Think what happened to you! Why would you ever go there? You could be hurt—Lost!”

Like a fool, he’d let his emotions get the better of him and raised his voice. Isabella turned away and closed her eyes, her jaw pulsing. He thought she would rise too, and truly anyone else but a Danguin would have. What right did he have to judge what she did, after everything he’d done? He went to Moag; why shouldn’t she? He was allowed to sneak around using the wards, yet she wasn’t? He could see how backwards it was that he would be angry with her, but that didn’t stop him from being angry… and scared.

“I apologize,” he whispered quickly, stepping toward her, trying to regain control against the pain that held fast within him, but the look she gave him was truly a dangerous one. “Issa, it is only that finding you there…” He shook his head, as she closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, knowing he’d gone too far.

He was obsessed. She wasn’t.

How much should he admit? She claimed to know the things he felt, what was in his mind, but he’d been warded when he found her in the tunnels, so she had no idea how terrified he’d been, when he heard her voice, or how anguished he was, when she disappeared and he thought… He thought Moag had taken her from him. He thought… she was gone, and it was his fault, and he would never get her back, and everything was over. He thought that he’d lost… Well, he was not quite certain what he thought he’d lost, because he didn’t know her, not the way he thought he should know a person, to be feeling what it was that he felt, but still he felt it. And it felt something like losing a future he vaguely recalled as the happiest he’d ever been, in his entire life, though the idea he could know the future was as insane as her heading off into the darkness, on a whim driven by what? By him? Yes, it was all ludicrous, but it had to be that she was driven there by him and the same force that drove him there, which Harvey claimed was him, but not him, and not of this existence.

It felt like his brain was twisting around in knots. Was he responsible for the changes in coming there, or were the changes he was making somehow responsible for bringing him there? He felt like he was stuck in some paradox, and it was breaking him.

When at last Issa opened her eyes, she stared numbly out the window once more, as though wishing whatever was out there would come help her, come take Noel away and let her hurry back to Moag as fast as possible. Noel glanced over at the window, too, and when he looked back at her, Issa was brushing a tear from her cheek. And he realized, whether he could feel her or not, he was breaking her. That was the last thing he wanted.

“I worry for you, Issa,” he whispered painfully, “more than I have ever worried about anyone but myself.” It was true. He wished he could pull away the wards now, so she would know he meant it, so she would feel what he felt right then, realizing that no wards would ever be able to undo how much she had changed him— knowing that even though it was likely all a product of the possession, a symptom of losing himself to obsession with her, a part of him didn’t want it any other way. She was vital, to him, to his soul. What would happen if he and Harvey succeeded? Would he leave the mountain and never see her again? Was anything that he felt for her real?

Her jaw pulsed, and she shook out her hair, retwisting the knot of it, so ferociously that Noel cringed. After a long moment, she answered grimly, “As I said before, I do not owe you anything, Noel Loveridge, certainly not relief for your worries. Tell me about the wards. Then go. That is all I want from you.”

“I will tell you,” he answered quietly. “You have my word. But Issa, at times I believe Edward does not tell me the whole truth of things, and I know there are things he does not tell you, like the wards. If he worries we will cause changes between us, as you say, why not warn us of that? He only tells me to leave you, so I am not tempted by the prophecies, and trust me, I am no longer tempted by the prophecies. I want only to repair all of the pain I have caused you. There is something more going on though. There is something we are meant to do. If you know what that is, you have to tell me, because Edward will not.”

“He is the Mardraim. You should not question him, and you should not call him Edward, as though you are his equal. He is very wise and would never lead any of us to harm.”

“You sound like Harvey,” Noel chuckled, humorlessly, now pacing between the window and the table. “In this, none of us is wise, Isabella Asan!” He gave a glib smile, as he said her name, and for a split second she smiled too, until he added, waving a hand behind him toward the window and the darkness, hidden throughout the forbidden places that riddled that mountain, to the place they both knew they must return. “None of us understands Moag. Edward does not know any more than you or I know, and as for him not leading us to harm, I need not remind you, he is not my Mardraim. I am alone here. You are all I have, and you are alone here too, in this— alone with me. We should work together.”

“You know far more than I know,” she answered almost bitterly, but in the softest voice. “You return to Moag each day, and you are the only person I can feel anymore, so of course I followed your way, to find out what you do there, because it is the only thing I can think to do when you are warded, which is the only time I feel like I am actually in control of my own being! Tell me which wards you use, to sever the connection between us, and I will tell you exactly what I was doing in the forbidden place, then you can leave me in peace. You have my word, or is my word only as good as your own, and that is why we play this game, pretending either of us could ever trust the other?”

“Issa, I barely know the three wards I know, and Harvey speaks of you with such greatness, I have no doubt you could find the wards, in far less time than it has taken me. In truth, I fear I have told you too much already, though I would still like to earn your trust and to come to trust you as well, if possible, as it does us little good to work against each other, whether or not you feel some wrong energy between us— whether or not you hate me, for what I have done to you.”

She scowled.

“You think I have forgotten what you said?” he continued in a whisper. “It was not so long ago that you said I do not deserve to know the prophecies from Moag, yet I go to Moag and draw them out for you, and no one else, knowing you need them, knowing I will never know them myself, knowing what I will feel of you when I do.” He blanched, thinking of the part of her trapped within Moag, knowing she must have felt it too, through him, knowing he could not burden her with what he and Harvey planned as well, but wishing she could truly understand him all the same, understand what was at the soul of him, the way she spoke of empathy, understand what he and Harvey were working toward and why— for her. That is all anyone wanted, to be understood, and the Danguin had all this power, yet even they could not truly understand anything— even they were searching for answers, perhaps that very moment, in Om, and Om did not have them. “Every time I go to Moag, it is for you, Isabella. While I do not want to know the changes I made coming here, of all people, I believe I must know the prophecies from Moag at some point, if I am ever to help right Om’s way, as your Mardraim wishes.”

That was why he was doing everything he was doing. He was trying, at the very least, to right Isabella Asan’s path through the future, to give her back what he could of the life he’d inadvertently taken from her the day she saved him.

“Right Om’s way?” She gave a scoffing laugh, rolling her eyes. “What do you know of Om’s way, Noel Loveridge?” The tone of her voice was scathing.

Noel had never seen a Danguini roll their eyes before. He’d never imagined them capable of feeling anything much greater than remote contempt, let alone ire to the point of actual mocking, but Issa was different. Maybe he had affected her as much as she had affected him. Suddenly, he wanted to make her some tea and argue with her for hours, to see what else he could find hidden in the folds of her.

“I know nothing of Om’s way, Issa,” he answered, feeling his own jaw tighten, as he threw his arms out from his sides like he bore a cross built of ignorant bliss. “Or perhaps I know only one worthless thing. May I sit?” He nodded to the second chair.

She rolled her eyes again, but let go of her tightly bound arms to wave graceful, contemptuous fingers at the empty seat across from her. To spite her, Noel dragged the chair over to sit under the window, allowing the legs to scrape over the floorboards as he went. When he looked back, her lips had curled into a snarling smile and her eyes were black slivers.

“I came here,” he offered low as he sat, taking hold of the knee of his crossed leg with clasped hands, “to find the meaning of a prophecy that is more than ten thousand years old— the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves. Has Edward— your Mardraim— told you this much?”

Isabella leaned back in her seat and tapped her fingers against the table, frowning, trying to look unbothered, as she shook her head.

“I would ask why not, but Edward would not have much to tell you, because the Mdrai could not read the prophecy when they attempted it. There were no Veils to be found in those words, no Veils to help any of us understand any of this. Now, each day, they search the Hall of Records for any hint of its meaning, and they find none, even as the prophecies of Om continue to unwrite themselves, because of me. Perhaps it was never a prophecy. Perhaps it was miswritten, when recorded in my language, or perhaps it was broken by me, when I came to this… mountain,” he growled, wishing for a decent curse.

He let go of his leg and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “The only worthless thing I know about Om’s way is that the very purpose of my being here is lost. I have broken it, including prophecies of my own, of yours, even of Edward’s! But we will right it, together, Edward and I, or so he says. If only we could trust each other enough to tell each other the truth of things. But no.

“Would you like to hear it— the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves? Or read it yourself? Here, I keep it with me, in case I need to escape this place in a hurry. You can have the cursed thing, along with every ounce of me you already possess, Isabella Asan!” He spat her name, shaking his head, as he reached into his sleeve pocket for the Book of Ages, making it grow as he went, and tossed it across the room, thinking it would land with a thud on the table in front of her. He was shocked when it didn’t.

She didn’t move. She only smiled, stopping the book in mid air, then allowing it to land softly in front of her, before pushing the book away, to the edge of the table, without ever touching it.

What magic had she used, he wondered. What else did she know? Would there be time enough, before all of this was through, to learn everything about her? The Hope he’d once believed was his purpose had been stripped from him, but the loss of that purpose did not feel anywhere near as life-ending as the thought of losing Isabella and the purpose they possessed together, the purpose he felt with such intensity, the very moment he thought he’d lost her. She was vital. She was everything to him. He and Harvey had to save her.

“My entire purpose for being here is lost as well, Noel Loveridge,” Isabella hissed low, shifting in her seat, “and you would share with me your misery, as though it is a gift, showing me what you have done to ruin Om? Because of you, I no longer have the ability to see the Veils, and while you are warded, behind the magic of three Itri wards you appear to have no intention of sharing, I have no ability to remember anything I have seen of Moag, and I have seen everything of Moag, Noel Loveridge. I have seen so much, it has broken my mind, left me barely a shadow of myself and scarred by my own hands! I would not be able to provide you any help, were I to read your beloved prophecy, even if it contained a multitude of Veils and every intention that ever came from Om and Moag combined! This moment, I know nothing of Om’s way, when it is all I have known my entire life, and I know nothing of Moag’s way, when it is the only thing I have left to…”

Her voice cracked, and tears flooded her eyes, and Noel nearly cracked too, as she shook her head and tried to gather her words.

“It is all I have left to offer this world.” The dam broke, and she sobbed, but quickly recovered, wiping away the wet, as Noel took to his feet and started toward her.

“Of one thing I am certain,” she growled low, holding up a hand to stop him. “I will share it with you now, freely, not out of trust, not to help you and whatever purpose you think you serve now, but because you need to know, before you waste too much time on the impossible, and get in my way. You and the Mardraim will not be able to right Om’s way! No one can right Om’s way because the Wanderer Lives!”

Noel grunted against these words, running a hand through his hair then letting it fall to his side in desperation. Though he realized she only added this last crumb of insult because she knew it would cut particularly deep, he could tell she believed it was true. Did she remember why? Could she tell him, if he asked her outright, the meaning of that prophecy, or was it out of her reach because he was warded, as she said? He wanted to dig into her misery some more, to ease his own, but he had made her cry, and that would not do.

He assumed this prophecy, The Wanderer Lives, if it was in fact prophecy, could only be about his surviving Moag, yet still there was that force, drawing him to the dark, a force he could not ignore, a force that would stop him, even in his obsession, from going into Moag to save Isabella while warded. He couldn’t help but wonder if trapped inside that brilliant mind of hers, Issa knew exactly what was meant to happen, and one day Noel would touch Moag, and she would again see his purpose and show Edward, through her art, that righting Om’s way was in fact impossible, as she said, and Noel would have to go into Moag and Isabella Asan would have to die, because he and Edward could not fix Om, and he and Harvey could not change Moag.

Edward would have to tell him the truth, if he knew, wouldn’t he? Or did he already know? Was that the real reason he kept them apart, kept Noel at a distance, so Isabella would not tell him he was wasting time? Might he change one more thing, and Isabella see that he and Harvey will be able to at least save her? He had never wanted to believe in some sort of quintessential power out there in the universe, but that, he thought, was his only real hope of anything now.

“I am truly sorry for that, Issa,” he offered low, standing frozen to that spot, wishing he could console her, take it all back, undo everything, especially every harsh word he’d spoken and all the tears that fell. “I can imagine losing Om for you is much like my losing The Last Hope. My people have waited for the completion of her prophecy, for a hundred generations or more, and I ruined her, coming here. I lost her. And I have ruined you, but I will not lose you. I know it hurts, deeply, that you can no longer see the Veils, and through the possession, I feel your want for Moag’s prophecy, almost as intensely as I feel Moag at times. I would right that loss, first, give it all back to you now, if I could, without hope of anything for myself in return, except to know you are happy, safe, and well— to know you have a future, even if I have none. I do not want for you to hurt, Isabella. I do not want for anyone to hurt, but to feel your pain is…”

There was no word for enlightening, which was strangely the first word he reached for. He knew the word for terrifying, but it felt like betraying a weakness to admit. Luckily, something he said had stunned her, as she gasped, so he was allowed not to continue spilling the contents of his soul, as she whispered, “You feel me?” She touched shaking fingers to her breast. “You feel me, Noel?” Her dark eyes were wide with curiosity and wonder.

The question took him aback, almost as much as it seemed to have taken her aback. Had she no idea what she’d done to him? “Always, Issa.” He swallowed, shook his head, then corrected, “Not now, I mean. Not while warded. But without the wards, you are clearer to me each day, which is why I find the wards necessary. I feel your want of Moag. I feel you are drawn there, like me, but it is as though you would go in and disappear, and I cannot let that happen. I cannot.”

She looked confused again, even worried. Her mouth hung open slightly, like she would argue or question, but she could not find the words in her awe.

The truth was Noel thought about her all the time. He worried about her constantly. He dreamed with her almost every night, the part of her within him drifting through his subconscious thoughts, intertwined in his very being. When he was warded, at least he had half a chance. Unwarded, she stirred in a place far too deep for someone as selfish as him to fathom. He had no idea what to do against her, so he tried everything he could to ignore her, but he knew his obsession was increasing, by the minute, and while the wards only grew more important with each passing hour, and he was quickly approaching a tipping point where self-preservation would fly out the window and wards would no longer matter, he knew that part of him, that unfathomable part— the part that was touched to the core when he thought she’d gone into Moag and left him alone— did not want the wards at all. That part of him only wanted her, and realizing this was almost as devastating as the idea of not having her, because he knew she did not belong with him, that he’d taken her hostage, as much as she’d taken him. It was a sickening thought, but that part of him might be the part of him that wanted so badly for Harvey’s plan to work, for Harvey to take her place in the possession, for Harvey to die. He gritted his teeth, against himself, against the terrible person he feared he’d become, and still, he wanted her.

“I did not mean to cause you this suffering,” he whispered, looking away, ashamed of himself. “I…” He was going to say he should probably leave, but the look on her face tugged at him, daring him not to. He needed to run from her, and quickly. He needed to fly to her, to affix himself to her, to breathe her in. He needed to reassess his reasons for doing everything he’d done so far. He needed to talk with Edward about possession and whether or not they were too late to do anything. But he waited, with baited breath, for whatever words Issa might have for him next, as though those words would be precious, even if what she spoke was filled with vitriol, because if not they would be as a sweetness to him, and if so perhaps they could free him, somehow, if only for a second, and he could figure out what of his motivations were his own and what was him drowning in her.

When he did not continue, Isabella gave a pained sigh and folded her hands on the table in front of her, leaning forward, clearly uncertain what she should say or do. It was a long minute before she offered her thoughts, and then Noel was sure there was far more she did not say because she paused frequently, performing the sort of calculus we all perform when we feel vulnerable and in danger. “The Mardraim does not wish you to know the prophecies of Moag because the things I have seen, Noel Loveridge…”

Huffing, she stopped herself short, shook her head and closed her eyes, leaning back in her chair once more, holding her face in her hands, weariness in the shape of her shoulders, defeat in the slowness of her breaths.

When she looked back, her eyes glistened once more and red patches formed on her cheeks, as she began again, softer, even kindly, “Noel, I cannot remember, because you are warded, but I do know the changes made through Moag are most terrible— all of them. When I said you do not deserve them, I did not mean you are not worthy of them, I only meant you do not deserve the suffering of having to carry them, as I do. This is why I will not tell you what I have seen, even if I could, even if the Mardraim thought it best to tell you everything. It is to protect you from the guilt of knowing these things we all understand you had no intention of causing. There is no a person alive, who would intentionally make these horrors for anyone. And at the heart of you, possession or not, I know you are good, Noel, and I know you do not intend me to suffer either, but it is difficult, since the possession, not to…”

She took in a deep breath and shrugged against whatever it was she was thinking, but began again along a different path, “That you say you feel me is simply… strange, especially as you are the only…” She shook her head and ended there. Noel suspected, to say whatever she might have said next would have betrayed a weakness of her own, as she looked beyond him, out the window again, her face formed with beautiful desperation, as she tried not to let the tears pooled in her eyes, glistening with gold from the lantern light, to fall once more.

This was enough. To save them both the embarrassment of showing too much more concern for one another, Noel cleared his throat and went to the door, thinking he would leave, but only cracking it open and peering around outside, like perhaps he’d heard someone coming or still thought there might be someone watching them through that window, when he knew there was not.

Edward had made certain Noel had not seen any of the other works of prophecy Isabella made, but then Noel never came to her hut for the prophecies themselves— only for her, only because he felt her grief and agony, and he needed to see she was safe, still in this world, still within his reach. It was hard at night, when he was trying to sleep, not to think about the faces of the drowning in all those drawings— remembering their fear, the anguish Issa captured— trying to understand how and why, trying to quantify the deaths of so many. It was hard not to wonder what those lives, in particular, had to do with him, or even with the Last Hope, especially since at this point it seemed all hope truly was lost. He only knew the prophecies that came from Moag had been caused by his turning up there, intended or not. To imagine he might be responsible for the deaths of so many people was— he would have thought— impossible. But he knew he was the cause, so he did deserve the guilt and all of the blame, despite what she said, because he was the one who’d insisted on going back to Arnhem Land. He drank Taree’s potion and mingled with the Dreaming. Now, Issa’s drawings haunted him, as much as she did. That the other things she’d seen were just as atrocious sent an ache through his bones, like the weight of the world was steadily crushing him, and he kind of appreciated the fact Edward had kept him away from the revelations, even if he doubted the old man’s intentions were anything but of service to Om. Noel needed to restore Om’s way, for Issa, or to break the possession. They had to succeed on one front or another, and fast. Was there even the remotest possibility she was wrong about his and Edward’s chances?

He had no idea if the old man had any real plan, how they might right the balance of things, Edward was so elusive. He could only take it in faith, above reason, that they would manage the task somehow, restore their fates, return Issa’s ability to see the Veils, right The Last Hope of the Elves— all of it— and he would never have to know the full extent of the horrors he nearly caused, in coming to the mountain… all the dreadful things Isabella Asan had seen that even the faintest memories of which caused her to quickly brush the tears from her cheeks and wipe her red nose on the back of her scarred wrist. He had to save her.

“The wards,” he whispered. “They are a garden gate, a lock and key, and a banishing of ghosts.”

He had to let her go. He had to let her have her way. He had to go to Moag. He had to leave the mountain. He had to save Isabella Asan, or he would never be able to live with himself.

He started through the door, ready to take flight back to the keep, hoping to get there before she broke the wards. But before he could make it out into the night, she whispered, “Meet me at the entrance to the tunnel tomorrow night, Ohamet. Wear the wards.”

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37

The Tale of Two Mountains– pt. 36

The Wanderer

Isabella snuffed the lantern and waited at the window, watching patiently as one by one the few lights left in the village blinkered out. When the mountain fell into its evening serenity, she transported herself to the entrance to the tunnel. She gave a guilty glance around, through the trees, knowing neither the Mdrai nor the Felimi would approve of what she was doing. Even so, she gathered up an orb of light and slipped into the dark.

Following the wanderer’s way with tender steps, Issa gritted her teeth in frustration, as she hurried past the branch that led to the cavern where Noel Loveridge disappeared altogether minutes before. Over the past few weeks, she had spent hours in that cavern, searching for hidden entrances or residual traces of magic, to figure out where the wanderer went and how, on nights like these, when he severed their connection, but she was weak and lucky for what reservations of talent and energy she retained, when so many of her abilities had been lost to Moag. She exhausted every power she had, in her search of that cavern, and found no answers. She had even asked Harvey if the Mdrai ever spoke of how the elf broke their connection, but he told her their elders only ever spoke of the wanderer with regard to broken prophecies and no one spoke of possession—she should not either, he warned. She did not know who else to ask, who else she could trust.

Given her erratic behaviors, Issa understood why the Mardraim was so concerned with making certain she had time in these saner hours, but whenever the elf left her, when she was alone on the inside, aware of her weakness, she could only take solace in knowing Noel Loveridge would eventually return to her, faithfully. As the Mardraim told her, the elf could overpower her whenever he wished.

Issa was at his mercy.

She had no intention of remaining that way, if she could help it.

It was clear the wanderer was using forbidden fahmat, and the Mardraim was complicit, at least in his use of the Llendir light well. Without knowing what other works Noel might be performing, there was not much else she could do, outside of lying in wait for his return, to demand how he controlled the bonds of possession. She doubted simply asking would do her any good. Besides, she was not willing to do something so bold yet, and not only because she was sure the Mardraim would put her under guard, if he discovered she was following the elf into the tunnels.

Noel Loveridge was different than when he first made his way to their mountain. In the beginning, Issa felt such a desperation in him, unlike any she had ever known. His passion in seeking out the meaning of the prophecy he brought with him, his longing, had intrigued her. While she should have been leery of the elf, as many of the other empaths were, Issa wanted to understand what he was after, why it stirred in him so deeply this need to find his way to them, against all odds, even against Om. Now, each time he mingled with Moag and drew out a prophecy, he flew to her hut, fearing the worst for her, that same sort of desperation driving his intentions now, but to her.

Of course, the Mardraim strictly controlled their interactions, only allowing Noel to see her for a brief moment, to be certain she was still as healthy as she could be, and they were never allowed to speak, not since the night she saw the Fragments of Divinity. Each time he came, the Mardraim ushered Noel quickly away, and Issa was fairly certain she knew why.

On the night of that prophecy, she realized she had begun to understand Noel’s fears, not through empathy, not the way she used to commiserate with what was at the soul of a person, but rather, she felt an odd impression of his reasoning— something of the very thoughts of his mind. They were merely fragments of ideas, barely there, but one in particular came through strongly. When he touched the Moag, Noel felt something in the darkness, and Issa, herself, had felt it through him, an agony belonging to her and yet not truly her own. To his mind, this feeling was far away, as though stretched out through time, but it enthralled him. Neither Issa nor Noel wanted to believe it at first, but again and again the elf returned to her, after each prophecy was delivered, and this feeling was always the same. Something of Isabella’s soul lingered in Moag, and Noel could feel it there.

Honorable as it was that he would keep rushing to her, Issa could feel something else between them, whenever he was near, something that did not belong to this world, as though together they violated both Om and Moag. It was almost as though they formed a fault in the universe, waiting to erupt with more changes. She believed the Mardraim had felt this too and was afraid of what might happen, if she and Noel were together, which meant her original plan, to confront Noel and find some way to take back the piece of her soul, harbored within him, would have to change. Whatever Issa was going to do, to regain control of her life, she needed to avoid Noel Loveridge, to avoid any more disasters being brought out of Moag.

Her plan would have changed anyway. So far she had recorded five whole Moag prophecies, and though he returned to her each time, she had not seen the light of her soul with the elf, since that first night he touched Moag and she saw the prophecy of the Drowning of Multitudes. Perhaps she was mistaken about what she had seen, she thought as she continued along the path through the darkness. It wouldn’t be surprising, as she still suffered great absences of time and was often self-destructive, especially before Noel discovered his means of disconnecting them. It was hard to admit, but it was possible what she thought was the spark of that piece of herself, bound to the wanderer in possession, may only have been a delusion, brought about by her own instability. In the weeks since, she had mostly given up hope of ever seeing it again, whatever it was. But that would not keep her from returning in the night, to the forbidden place, and following Noel’s way, to try and uncover exactly what he was doing with Moag.

Tonight, she thought, she would finally make it to that place where the elf went to bring forth the prophecies, and with any luck, she would find some clue as to how Noel interacted with the source of Moag itself.

It was difficult work, moving through the tunnels. While she carried a light to see by, Issa knew she must rely only on her memory of Noel’s fears and not upon her own senses. Until he memorized the path, Noel proceeded with grave purpose, as though the way was extraordinarily narrow and himself in constant danger. He could feel Moag, looming all around him, and Issa felt it as well, in that curious place in his intellect she could access through the possession. Once he knew the way by heart, his movements were so precise they never varied, so Issa followed his precision through the dark.

As she reached the point in the path where her orb dimmed to nothing and Ohamet’s fear veered left, she took a deep breath, because every time Noel came to this place, he breathed in deep, as Moag’s presence intensified. In these times, when the blackness consumed everything, leaving only the chill of utter absence all around her, Issa found herself trusting in the intrepid wanderer she had been intrigued by since he first landed in the gorge. That part of him, she believed, she could trust.

As his steps slowed, her own steps slowed. As he squeezed his fingers tight, as if to take care she did not fall behind and join the lost parts of herself in the darkness, she squeezed her own fingers, smiling, in part because Noel Loveridge would never know she was actually there, following in his footsteps, but also in knowing much of his worry had nothing to do with his own safety and everything, curious as it was, to do with protecting her. He seemed to be afraid of what that part of her, bound to him in the possession, might do there in the tunnels. Knowing this almost made her weakness and reliance on him bearable, but Noel had nothing to fear from her. The possession was incomplete and the parts of Isabella that remained in this world were far too insubstantial, to ever overpower the elf.

Issa may not have seen the light of her own soul with Noel after all, but in his fears, she had definitely felt that piece of herself, lost in the dark. Though it made no sense, he seemed to think that part of her was still alive in there. That he wanted to somehow reach her was curious, that he felt some sense of obligation to try and rescue her defied logic, but she could see it in the wild look of him, every time he came rushing to her door and pulled away the sheath of light that concealed him, to look her in the eyes. She could feel it in the desperate racing of his heart, in the constriction of his veins, in the rapid succession of his breaths and his painful swallows. He was scared to death of losing her and looking for any way to bring her back from beyond. He did what he was supposed to do, what the Mardraim told him to do, just as Issa did, but most nights he ventured into that tunnel in trepidation, yearning to set her free, knowing he could not.

This did not make her despise Noel Loveridge any less. He was a fool, who wanted the impossible. He had always been a fool—a desperate, wild, determined fool, who changed everything… including her.

After an hour or more, Issa made it the farthest she had come so far and paused on the path to muster some courage— to borrow some of his foolishness, she supposed. Beyond this point, Noel always changed. Her orb had not shown a hint of light for quite some time, and by now she was completely blind, so she shut her eyes and tried to imagine him there, only a step ahead of her. She tried to understand, as the eagerness inside him swelled and his motives grew conflicted, where his concern for her faltered, if only slightly, and he began to feel the importance of The Wanderer Lives— his own prophecy, his purpose for coming to the mountain. Issa could feel the prophecy like a stone set on his chest, weighing him down, pulling him closer, drawing him nearer to Moag, until he was practically drowning in the waves of emptiness all around them. There was something in the dark, she thought, something besides the portion of her soul, lost there for eternity. There was something Noel Loveridge was meant to do, and it was vastly important to him.

Try as she might, Isabella could not remember the elf’s prophecy in Moag, only the words Echteri Amu Schripat, and the fact she would meet her end, when his prophecy was complete. She shook her head against the memory of Noel, lingering beyond of himself, as his soul clung to his battered body, in the entrance to their mountain. She tried not to think of the impossible need that welled up inside her, to breathe into him the Breath of Light. She could still taste his blood on her lips, sealing her soul to his, like a curse.

Of all the prophecies Issa had seen, the one thing she had never seen quite clearly belonged to Noel. She knew only that he would live and she would die and that it had been a mistake, a change, that he flew out of Moag and saved her life in return, rather than completing his purpose there. Though she supposed she had only herself to blame for that. She had called him to her, after all, as she lay in the cloister dying. Like all of her memories from after the possession, the memory of what happened in the cloister was vague, often full of holes, but she was certain she had not wanted him to save her— at least not at first. She thought she had merely wanted him to know her, to understand what he had done, what he had taken from her… what she had freely given, the night she accidentally breathed a piece of her own soul into him.

This place, where Noel felt the importance of The Wanderer Lives, made it certain he would one day complete that prophecy, though she wondered if perhaps it could no longer be completed in its original form and that was why she could not remember it. Either way, on that day, Issa would cease to exist altogether on earth, in Om, and in Moag, as was her destiny. It was frustrating to know Noel was wasting his time, looking for a way to recover what was lost of her in Moag, when he should work to complete the prophecy that was so important to him, as quickly as possible, to end all of this. It was not as though her life had any other meaning, beyond this purpose of Ohamet’s. He did not understand how important the present was to the future, how inextricable the two were. He would find saving her impossible, she knew, because her life was the very bargain made in the exchange, to bring him there. Noel needed the possession to survive Moag, to find the answers he was looking for. Issa could not say what was in the depths of Moag, waiting for him, but she understood how vital it was he complete his task. She had felt that the moment she first felt him, in his flight, and her heart raced with the thrill of his impassioned intentions.

Yet, she had called to him, as he flew through the darkness, she thought with a sigh. And he had been flying to her, ever since. Perhaps she was a fool too and simply never knew it. She suspected Harvey had known, though. At least he had stopped calling Noel Loveridge her wanderer.

The thought of her friend strengthened her resolve.

Important as Noel’s prophecy was, seeing all of the changes he made in Om’s way was imperative to the future of her own people and to Om. At present, Noel and the Mardraim had them on a schedule that would leave Issa suffering under their control for years, moving from absolute insanity, under a flood of half-visions, to clarity of only one vision at a time, to no visions at all, and back again, in this endless cycle that wounded both Issa and Noel and got him no closer to his goal— to their goal. And that was assuming she and Noel changed nothing else along the way, she thought, shaking her head at the impossibility of what lay before them.

If she could understand what Noel was doing with Moag, if she could see Moag herself, interact with it somehow, perhaps she could hasten things along, choose when she would receive the clarity of a prophecy for herself, and let Noel Loveridge get on with what he had to do, sooner rather than later. Even if she could not figure out how he was breaking the connection between them, even if she could not regain the piece of her soul he kept tied to him, even if she would never be able to control more than the flicker of his fingers, in this partial possession, perhaps she could touch Moag herself and see all of the prophecies again, record them on her own terms, while he hid himself in their disconnection.

Her hands trembled as she inched forward.

His mouth grew dry. Her mouth grew dry.

His heart sped with excitement and worry she would dive into the darkness with him. Her heart sped, trusting her sense of his path was true.

One small step at a time, she drew ever nearer to that place where Moag nearly overwhelmed him.

He turned to the right, as the corridor bent. She turned right as well, but as she rounded the corner something felt out of place.

Issa opened her eyes and gasped, temporarily blinded, her words spluttering out, as she raised a hand to shield her face. “Y-you are here? But how?”

A few meters ahead of her, hovering before a fork in the tunnel, at the very place the wanderer went to touch Moag, a slender shimmer of indigo light, stunning after such absolution of darkness, turned, as if to face her, though it had no face, no true form at all.

Why would the elf need to be invisible in the tunnel? And why could she not feel him there? He was still disconnected from her, yet she had always sensed him, when he used the light well before. At least, she thought so.

Issa glanced down at the orb in her hand, still cast in totality of darkness, the surface of it sparking only slightly, reflecting this ghostly glow. As she looked back to the thin shimmering before her, a chill crept over her shoulders, causing her to shiver. “How did you get here?” she demanded, looking back in confusion, knowing it was impossible Noel could have passed her along the way, without her noticing, even if he was invisible and blocking their connection, though that he needed to do either of these things in this place made no sense. He had never done so before. Or maybe he had done so all along, and she simply could not feel when it happened, she thought, scowling at him. Could he have used some other fahmat to make his way there? If so, why not always use it, rather than taking the same arduous route so often? “Noel Loveridge?”

The light drifted toward her, but he did not speak. She could sense nothing of him there. She could sense nothing of anything or anyone. In truth, she had never felt more alone than she did in that moment, as the wisp of illumination came to a stop, mere inches before her.

Suddenly, her heart was pounding, fear washing over her. She should have felt the heat of his body, radiating off of him. She should have heard the hiss of his breath or the shifting of his feet along the ground. Whatever this manifestation was, it could somehow light the tunnel, when actual light could not. She squeezed her fist, angrily, hoping to get a rise out of Noel… if he was there, if he somehow found frightening her amusing. But if the elf was anywhere in that tunnel, he did not respond.

“Answer me, Ohamet.” Her voice quavered. “Please?” She despised her own weakness, as she squeezed herself tight against the desire to run and the sweat moistened her armpits.

Just as she began to worry the light could be something far worse than Ohamet, perhaps something of Moag itself, it inched forward unexpectedly, and Issa stumbled backward, rounding on the path with it, as it passed— within her, through her— meandering for the exit. She would have cried out, but she stood frozen in childish fear, because for the briefest of moments, as the emanation mingled within the atoms of her, she felt him there. It was definitely not Noel Loveridge, himself, not as she knew him, not in any way physical. It was as though he hardly existed at all. Startled, she reached out a hand to snatch him back to her, and had a vivid memory of the Middle Mother snatching at the spirit of her, when she died the first time in the cloister. But the light was like smoke, with far less consistency. It could not even be called matter. Whatever this was, she did not know, but it was no earthly thing. This was something else entirely, something ethereal.

Yet, it was still Noel.

Isabella shuddered out a whisper. “Noel, what is this? I do not understand.”

The apparition stopped before rounding the corner. It moved, swirling, as though glancing back at her, waiting for her to follow.

It was only then she remembered the Mardraim telling her of the piece of Noel’s spirit, which wandered their mountain since his arrival.

“Why can’t I feel you?” she hissed.

The Mardraim said that during her delirium she sometimes spoke of the fragmented presence of the wanderer, though not even Harvey, with his profound abilities, could sense this piece of the elf, in any of the places she claimed him to be. And she did not feel him now, though he was only feet away. If this was Noel’s wandering spirit, surely, she thought, swallowing an anxious lump in her throat, it had been weeks since she had seen, for the first time, not her own soul, trapped with the corporeal elf in possession, but this minute fraction of him… trapped without form.

“I do not understand, Noel. Please, answer me… somehow… if you can.”

The aura moved in a way that could only be described as reaching out a hand to her.

Trembling, Isabella lifted her fingers, taking a careful step forward. As she drew nearer, the edge of the light stretched slightly toward her, and she shivered against a feeling of having been there before, many times. As her fingertips brushed the surface of this fragile glimmering, a warm knowing rose within her. Yet it was not practical knowledge she found there. There were no words passed between them. This was pure energy, an understanding, built of sensations that defied the mundane senses of the material world, as though they were made of the essence of the senses themselves.

Issa immediately felt running away from the scent of red. Danger and escape were as whispered breaths, beaded on her brow. Pleading exhaustion, weakness, alone, lost were residual tastes that haunted her belly like meals long since digested. He wanted her to leave with him.

“But Moag,” she said, turning back for the fork. As she broke contact, her sense of understanding the fragment was gone. Quickly, she reached back for him, even as the sliver of Noel’s soul moved toward her once more, as though trying to stop her, though what he might have done, being little more than an amorphous glow, somehow possessed of something resembling consciousness, she had no idea. The outer edge of the light entered at the surface of her, and a prickling of energy ran through her flesh, like the shifting of air through a quietly opened door or the faint brush of footfalls in the distance might stimulate some ancient warning. He was more frightened than she was, more lost and alone than she had ever felt, even after losing everything.

Issa pitied this shade.

The light of him smelled like the coming rain and, strangely, like the notes of an old song she knew well, yet never heard. She shook her head and swallowed hard against the bristling of a thrill that raced over her, like he was speeding up the side of the mountain again, in search of the entrance, and she flew with him. If the real Noel Loveridge had been there, he would have been pressed against her, bracing her to him. Issa felt her cheeks redden and stepped away, stretching out her hand as she went, to mingle at a more appropriate distance, in this place of understanding between them.

She felt the gravity of the tunnel, drawing her down, its presence all around her. The taste of Moag consuming her was like water slipping through the cracks it made in the mountain over the ages, eventually turned to canyons within her. She had to go home, where he left her, safe. She had to follow him out now, carefully, so she did not slip further away.

“No,” Issa hissed, stepping back toward Moag once more. “I do not know what you are or care what you believe I should do. I will not leave here, not until I know how Noel Loveridge brings forth the prophecies from Moag.” She turned away, hurrying to the place where the light lingered when she first encountered it, where the wanderer went to work with Moag.

Swiftly, he filtered through her, drifting in and out of her way, within her and without, and the sense that she must not go any further overwhelmed her. The shrill prickling of danger intensified. A memory of not being able to save her grew up inside, like an unspeakable horror, chilling her bones. She could hear the notes of the song now, not in her mind, not in her hearing, but far away, outside of the mountain, home, in a memory that tasted of hearth fire and caramelized sugar and laughter and relief and flight. He wanted to go home, where the music played, where they would be safe, together. He wanted her to leave with him.

In spite of him, Issa lifted her hand toward the tunnel, as she felt Noel Loveridge do many times before. Energy pulsed through her fingers and up her arm, as the light of that wandering part of him swarmed, with desperation and the calling of her name on the wind, like the helplessness felt on the cusp of waking from a nightmare. Now he knew what she felt like, to be always at his mercy, Issa thought, inching her fingers forward, biting her lip, but her own fears had been piqued. She tried again, to muster the courage to breach the gap between herself and Moag, but she could not bring herself to touch the dark.

In that pause of uncertainly, as she panted in her angst at her own cowardice and the wanderer continued to storm through her, she saw, within the branch where Moag was most concentrated, the faintest hint of a glimmering flicker and caught her breath. In disbelief, she watched, as the aura continued its furious flow through and around her hand and fingers, as the tiniest flashes of light could be glimpse on the surface of the darkness, just as she had seen, moments before, on the lightless orb she gripped so tightly in her other hand. As once more the shimmering hint of a reflection of Noel’s fractured spirit flashed upon the darkness, in that reflection she saw the surface of Moag stretching slowly toward her fingers.

Shuddering with a gasp, Issa pulled away.

But she was angry.

“Why should I not? You do it! You force me to see!” she spat, furious with herself for the fear that kept her from acting, for the shards of memories that plucked at her curiosity, and for her strangled sense of mortification, at seeing Moag move toward her and knowing Noel Loveridge, the physical man, had stood here countless times before and seen it too. He ad returned again and again to touch the beyond.

What was in there? What was Moag?

In answer, she felt her own death at the cloister, through the smell of the soup the Mothers had served.

“H-how?” she whispered, stunned, stepping away from both Moag and the wanderer’s drifting spirit. “Were you there?”

The light resettled within the space of her, all around her. She felt tears that were not her own streaming down her cheeks, as Moag slowly devoured her. She felt the panic of flames racing to hold on, to grasp, to cling to any part of her, with nothing to cling to or with. She tasted his blood on her lips again, trying to save himself, losing her, and an endless remorse. She could smell the Old Mother’s words, like violence rising in her chest, on a wave of air, from that mouldering room where the Felimi took her to die. “We will leave you now to Moag. May you find peace quickly, knowing no one will ever know what you have done.” These were her memories, memories she had mostly lost since her soul was drawn out of her body and into Moag. Yet, this fractured piece of Noel Loveridge knew these things.

“You were there!” Issa hissed. “She believed I would be lost forever in Moag, and the wanderer too, but what did she mean no one would know what I had done? What had I done, Noel? Was she talking of the possession?”

In answer, there was only an impossible lack of knowing. Instead, she felt her life slipping away again and his misery flooding her with the scent of a cold winter’s night. She felt her absence from this world. The taste of watching from a distance, as Noel breathed life back into her body. He was again like the coming rain. She lived, but she was still absent from him, far away, lost in a vessel entire too large for what little remained of her, unable to fill herself in her minuteness. The light of Noel had been forced out. He was alone, diffuse, incapable of anything but observing. She felt him come and go, as she lay sleeping, mingling within the space of her, as he did now. Slowly found her way back to the light, to the scent of the rain, to the flavors of home, to the loss of her, impossible to bear. When she woke, he left her.

The Mardraim had told her he believed the possession had not been properly done. If the magic had been complete, Issa would have had this piece of Noel Loveridge within her and would have been able to exert some control over the elf. Moag would have been unable to attack her, because she would have been protected in the binding, as Noel Loveridge was, since he held her spirit. It seemed this piece of Ohamet was never quite attached to her being, but had somehow made it through Moag with her anyway, only to lose her, as she slowly unfurled into the darkness, when the left later made his own way through Moag. It seemed her death in Moag had separated them somehow, for good. She could feel this fragment of Noel now, but only barely, and only when he lingered within her. He was utterly alone.

But where had the light of him been all these weeks? What had he been doing, since she woke? Why had she seen him with himself the night she received the Drowning of Multitudes, but not any other time? Why had he not come to her since? Could he interact with others as he did with her, causing them to feel his senses? And what was he doing there in the tunnel with Moag? There were so many questions she wanted to ask, she was uncertain where to begin.

“My Mardraim said—”

“Issa?” came the voice of Noel Loveridge, echoing through the dark.

She heard his footsteps now, drawing near, and uttered a curse, even as she felt a great relief that did not belong to her, which tasted salty, like the spark of light that reflected off the surface of the ocean and the laughter of birds. Grimacing, she stepped away, both from the fork in the tunnel, where Moag remained an enigma, and from the light of the wanderer, who she hoped had all of the answers.

As she turned to face him, the corporeal Ohamet appeared around the bend. Immediately, he uttered some nonsense she could not understand and stared at her in disbelief, his mouth hung open, like a dimwitted takin that forgot it was chewing its cud.

Why did he always have to ruin things?

After a moment, he shook his head, as though realizing his idiocy, and said in the language of her people, “Issa, do not move, please.” He held his hands up, as the Mardraim would, and spoke anxiously. “It is not safe here! Moag is everywhere. Stay very still, and I will come to you, to guide you.” The light flew for him, dancing there in the space he filled, as though fighting to become one with himself, or perhaps fighting to make him go. If the real Noel Loveridge noticed this, he gave no indication. “Come with me now, please,” he whispered, stepping gingerly toward her, holding out his hand for her to take.

Issa gritted her teeth against the irony, closed her eyes, and transported herself back to the safety of her own hut, letting the string of curses fly, even as she appeared there and fell into pacing furiously, in front of the door.

He would go first to the Mardraim, she thought, manically chewing her thumbnail. Any moment now, she would feel Noel Loveridge flying at her again, and the Mardraim would come as well, and she would never be allowed to leave her hut again. She would never find out how the wanderer caused Moag to give the prophecies. She would never find out how he broke the binds of possession. She would be locked up, a true prisoner.

Could she run? If she did, what good would it do? She wanted to record the prophecies faster, not to escape them altogether. Why hadn’t she felt Noel return to their connection? Why couldn’t she feel him, even now? She should feel him by now, with his endless fear for her, always rushing to her side. If he cared at all, he would be there.

The knock on the door, though low, caused her to stop short in her fury. She held perfectly still, unable to sense anything besides the wrath of her own heartbeat, her shame at being caught, the ridiculousness of the idea she would care whether or not he cared, and worry she would never see that spark of light again.

“Issa, please…” came Noel’s whisper, on the other side of the door.

“Go from here, Noel Loveridge. We are not to be together,” she answered bitterly.

He laughed a quiet laugh, then sighed, “Issa, let me in.”

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36

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The Tale of Two mountains– pt. 35

Oaths

Noel rose with the dawn, a sick feeling in his gut, like he’d spent the night drinking himself oblivious, without any of the benefits—not the drunk part, not even the oblivion, which would have been nice in comparison. Head throbbing, belly soured, and feeling as sorry for himself as he felt when he finally managed to pass out, his first thoughts— as his last thoughts— were of Isabella.

Mostly, he thought of the startled look in her eyes, as she sat hard in her chair.

The image kept him spinning in his pallet most of the night, alternately sighing and growling against his pillow, fearing there was no other explanation than the worst one possible, the one he couldn’t ignore, no matter how much he wanted, no matter how much he wished for it to be untrue, because Issa had felt it in him— and he in her. In that moment, she looked at him with such bewilderment, there was no denying it.

What Noel felt of his possessor, as he moved around the edges of the darkness the previous night, was real. He felt the woman, clearly, as three separate entities— three independent desires, distinctly at odds with one another, except in their craving for him to surrender to the abyss. On the surface, one felt like defeat, another like victory, and the third far away, a distant, troubling ache. The trouble was by his count there were only reasonably logical explanations for two of those independent Issas. This third… Well… That was what the Issa harbored inside of him had been trying to stop him from thinking about, when she grabbed him internally, seizing his chest, and tried to force him to leave the tunnel. He wasn’t concentrating on the task ahead of them, and that scared her.

He’d had plenty of time, in his sleepless hours, to think things through, so he’d managed to convince himself that the first Issa was not defeated but rather had given herself up to Moag altogether, as though her whole existence was now tied to the darkness, for Noel to enter at some point was a foregone conclusion, and that was how she would happily culminate, in the completion of something desperately important to her. She believed in what she was doing, without waver. At present, he was fairly certain this Issa was franticly recording prophecy with Edward Frank.

He understood the second far better than he would like. She wanted desperately for him to enter Moag, in that exact place in the darkness, to which he was drawn time and again, but it appeared she wanted revelation of all of the prophecies first, and she seemed to be afraid of what would happen if Noel entered too soon or for the wrong reasons, knowing eventually he would have to, because there was definitely something in there, and he definitely had no choice but to go in after it. This was the Issa inside him, the one who exercised increasing control, the one Noel was afraid of, to be honest, because each day she was growing stronger, and he was beginning to feel her conflict as his own, as if she’d begun using a part of his brain to think through their options (a rather terrifying prospect for one suffering possession and worried about losing his autonomy). Last night, when she tried to force him away from Moag, she was afraid he would make another mistake, make matters worse for them both. At least if they were going to be stuck together for the foreseeable future, they had that much in common.

The third…? The untouchable part of her Noel couldn’t quite grasp, the part that felt so distant they might have been separated by the entirety of the universe or more…? If he wasn’t much mistaken, she was the source of the screaming in his head, whenever he touched the Moag. He didn’t want to believe it. He would’ve given anything for it to be impossible, because quite frankly that prospect was even more disconcerting than the second her taking over his thoughts and him turning into some drooling clump of flesh puppet, less useful than the garden variety golem. But the only (completely illogical and otherwise unreasonable) explanation for this third piece of Isabella Asan was that a part of her was actually still alive in Moag, still conscious of her own existence on some level, and capable of feeling pain, perhaps stuck in that very place he kept returning to, crying out for help, trapped in the bleakness of that hell where eternity itself went to end, where she too would end… unless…

But that was not the goal, to change things more than he already had, he told himself more than once, as he shoved fists into his pillow, as if the pillow were at fault for the running dialog in his head. He was quickly figuring out that the trouble with realizing you had the power to alter destiny was that it was awfully tempting to think you actually had the power to alter destiny. That was not the purpose of this endeavor, though, to save her… was it? And what could he possibly do about it? And even if it could be considered one of the many tasks he was supposed to tackle along the way to the real goal of restoring Hope, the part of Issa inside of him certainly didn’t think there was the remotest chance in hell he might manage it. In fact, she seemed dead-set on doing everything in her power to make certain he wouldn’t try, and her power was growing. Besides, she reminded him, what about the Last Hope?

Recalling the surface of the blackness gravitating toward him, imagining it was Issa’s hand, in some ethereal form, reaching out to him with what few particles of herself she could muster, within the expanse of the nothingness that ripped her from this life, in favor of Noel and the Hope he’d already lost—the Hope he’d likely destroyed in coming there— he couldn’t help thinking, what of the Last Hope? They weren’t any closer to understanding what the prophecy meant, and this problem was right in front of him, inside him, consuming him.

He might have been able to convince himself he was mistaken about all of this, except the Issa inside him did not try to convince him he was wrong, and the living, breathing Isabella clearly felt it too. He recognized it in her eyes, as she sat. Somehow, through the possession, she felt that part of herself crying out through him, like a sharp chord rising, dissonant enough to make him ready to fly to her in a heartbeat, though he knew he shouldn’t, loud enough to force her off her feet, looking dumbfounded, perplexed at how they could both hold this same unlikely idea. She looked at him as though she had only just opened those mad, beautiful, startled eyes, black as Moag, and realized, foolish as he was, Noel was about to change things again. He couldn’t help himself. He just didn’t know how, yet. So, he’d left her there with Edward, even though it was clear she wanted him to stay. He’d only felt half bad about that, before he managed to fall asleep.

Anymore, he always dreamt of her, yet when dreams finally came, she was a corpse, once again lying dead in his arms, gushing sand from every orifice, a broken hourglass spilling what little was left of her time here on earth, and he could do nothing for her but wail over her loss, as she turned to dust. Then they were alone in her hut, and she was trying desperately to tell him something, as she clawed at her own flesh and grabbed fistfulls of her wild curls, both the tortured and the torturer in all her many parts, but she couldn’t speak because every time she tried, Noel took hold of her and shook her hard, though he couldn’t decide if he was trying to rattle her voice free or trying to maintain her silence, so he wouldn’t have to admit whatever it was she was trying to tell him. It was as though she held a truth inside of her that he couldn’t bear knowing, yet he could feel it there, the cusp of her final tragedy, the end of everything he’d done to bodge… well, to bodge everything, he supposed. At last, she was crying out in the darkness, and Noel was flying through Moag, panic-stricken, unable to find her, unable to catch even a thread of her to cling to, unable to save her… not this time.

He woke panting, in a puddle of sweat, and though dawn had barely broken, he left the hut, grateful to walk in as much solitude as one could expect whilst possessed, watching the false sunrise, hoping the tranquility of daily life in the mountain, unfolding around him in ever more bucolic layers, would settle his stomach and his nerves, his head and his heart… settle this longing to make things right… settle the unending feeling he was headed in all the wrong directions, and he needed only, as ever, to fly to her.

For her part, flesh-and-bone Issa had not slept. She’d spent the night a slave to her vision, slave to Moag’s way, to Noel’s changes, to the art she created for the Mardraim, so he might understand what she’d seen. Noel could feel her working, even now, the passion of her tools like sparks in his fingertips. She could not rest until her work was through. She would not rest until she’d accounted for every detail. She must not rest… until Noel returned to the wards, so she could breathe again, so she could live a few hours of freedom with Harvey. But Noel couldn’t grant her that until Edward told him to, and Edward wouldn’t until he had everything he needed from Isabella and Moag. And even then, the wards provided only passing respite. Give it a few days, and he would be told to return to the dark, to draw out another prophecy, and the cycle would begin again.

A swell of grief swept through him, and he nearly choked on the sting of it, as he turned around in a circle to get his bearings, debating heading back to Issa’s now, thinking maybe they should talk it all through, though he suspected Edward would not be half as forgiving of the interruption as he was last night. As Noel took a step in that direction, the Issa inside him became a fist, stopping him short, and his laughter at her unexpected forcefulness was stifled, as his breath caught hard in his chest.

A Danguin woman, with an overflowing reed basket balanced on each hip, eyed him suspiciously and moved several feet off the path, waiting for him to pass her by, before hurrying off for her chores. He waited until there was a reasonable distance between them before bending over, to swear an angry curse at the ground, shaking his head at his creeping insanity, wishing the sick in his guts would just leave him already, so he could have half a chance to think clearly. Maybe he could vomit Issa out, though he doubted it could be so simple. He’d have better luck getting as far away from the mountain as he could.

At this thought, her panic rose, and the fist tightened.

But that was the only answer, wasn’t it? To leave. To run. To put half the world between himself and Moag and Isabella Asan.

“All right. Let me go,” he whispered. “I’m not going anywhere.”

After a moment, her grip weakened.

As much as he wanted to stay, to find a way to restore the Prophecy of the Last Hope and all the broken prophecies, if possible, to find a way to save Isabella from Moag and from himself, the truth was they were only making matters worse, the longer they played at this game. A game— he reminded himself and whatever parts of her might be listening— for which they knew none of the rules and every move he made seemed to bring another level of certain disaster that ate at his insides and placed this woman— this obsession, his obsession— in utter peril.

He let out a piteous noise, somewhere between disgust and mania, shaking out his hand, as the buzz of her reminded him he could not save her. He could never save her. No.

“You’ll have nothing to do with running then, I suppose?” he spat, chuckling defiantly, even as he felt her wrath building once more. “You aren’t too strong yet, and I’m morally obligated to do something, aren’t I? We’re the reason she suffers,” he hissed, casting the hand she held hostage in the direction of Moag and that point in the darkness where the third portion of her was trapped, waiting for him, begging for relief—at least in his mind. “We do have to get out of here eventually,” he insisted, then growled madly at his fingers, knowing it was we and not he—that it would likely never be him, alone, again. “I have to get out, before you take any more control and make leaving impossible.”

Up the path, a man repairing the wheel of an ox cart, nudged the younger fellow at his side and nodded toward Noel, who was in fact conversing with his fingers. The young one looked worried and whispered something about the Mardraim. Noel quickly crossed his arms, shoving his hands into his armpits, ducked his head, and hurried back for the Mardraim’s hut, to continue the argument with his possessor in private.

If this obsession with Issa was only growing stronger, as it appeared to be, what good could he be to his own people, to her, to the Mardraim, or to anyone else, waiting around for the woman to wear him out, to nag him raw, until he could do nothing but follow her will? Edward might not think Noel’s touching Moag, to focus the prophecies, was causing harm, but Noel knew without a doubt what they were doing was harming the part of Isabella he felt certain remained lost in the blackness. There was no way to prove it. There was no way to make the old man see. Truth be told, Noel worried talking too much about it would lose him what bit of freedom to roam he’d been granted, and for some reason his possessor couldn’t be arsed to worry about this lost part of herself. But the longer they toyed with Moag, the less likely he would be able to do whatever it was he was meant to do, the less likely they would be able to right Om’s way, the less likely there was any hope for Hope at all, the more likely Isabella Asan would die another agonizing death, and it would truly be his fault this time because he could feel it coming, like a slow train blaring its warning.

He might have thought he was just growing neurotic, as a result of their circumstances, but that was to be the outcome no matter what, if he was to believe what he felt of her, in all three parts. It would all end in death, and Issa, all of her, seemed to be all right with that, so long as Noel assured the Mardraim knew all of the changes he’d made to fate, before he inevitably entered Moag and Issa inevitably left the world forever, which was clearly what she wanted, as she struggled against him with what little strength she’d managed to build there inside him.

He rolled his eyes at her efforts and walked faster still. She was the one who’d given him a real reason for going to Moag night after night, a reason purely outside of himself, outside of Hope, outside of prophecies of Om or Moag. She was the one who’d possessed him. He had her to think of now, like it or not. He certainly didn’t like it, but he couldn’t help it that he was obsessed with her. He had to fix this.

No. Hope.

“It might be easier if you didn’t look at me like something out of a haunting, like something in desperate need of saving,” he whispered, rubbing his hands swiftly through his hair then over his face. “Don’t you think I know I’ve enough to be getting on with?”

He had to rescue her somehow, if indeed she was still in there. Was she always suffering that way, or was it only when he drew her out a prophecy to record? Was that the only reason she was so eager for him to go in, to end it all, so she could rest? Why couldn’t he save her anyway?

“Give me a sound reason— Ouch!” He jumped against the bolt of anger she sent coursing through him, subsequently shocking a small group of locals, who all hurried along down the road, casting strange looks back at him, as they continued toward the orchards for the day’s harvest. “Apology, please!” he gave a genial wave of embarrassment, before muttering bitterly under his breath, “You have to stop doing that, or everyone will think I’m mad, and maybe I am mad, or at least getting there, but that’s entirely beside the point and actually down to you, in case you don’t remember, so let’s not go getting ourselves locked up by the Felimi, please.”

In answer, he felt the tug of the darkness deep within, overwhelming him to the point of stopping him in his tracks, as though he was infected in his very being by the purpose that drew him to that place from Arnhem Land, the purpose that had been drawing him toward Moag, perhaps all his life. But this was not Moag. It was her. She was reminding him what the Dreaming showed him, reminding him of that feeling that once frightened him, that feeling that the darkness was not yet finished with him, reminding him that what had only a fortnight ago brought him fear was now like siren song for both of them.

In truth, he wasn’t certain what frightened him more, his sense of dread, gnawing at the pit of his stomach, that touching Moag would end badly for everyone involved, especially for Issa, or the fact he wanted, desperately, to go back there that very moment, to step into the darkness, to see for himself what was hidden in those depths, waiting for him… waiting for her.

Mightn’t he save her though, or was all hope truly lost?

No… The feeling bubbled up from within, not with pain this time, but with guilt, with exhaustion, with remorse over their shared plight, even with a hint of appreciation for his stubbornness.

“We could fight this. There has to be a way,” he whispered weakly, shaking his head and shaking out his hand once more, stretching his fingers, which she’d held clenched so tightly at his side that his knuckles ached.

He had no choice. He had to do what he could to save her. But he couldn’t do it on his own, and Edward was himself so obsessed with the prophecies of Moag, he wasn’t likely to listen to Noel or Issa either one, even if Noel could prove going after the prophecies was all wrong. He needed help. He needed someone on his side. He needed the only people on earth he knew he could trust—his blood brothers, bound in the oath they shared, to live and die for the Last Hope.

He shivered as Isabella faltered, a memory of his own washing over her, the memory of the day he left for Australia, the day he said goodbye to his friends and headed off to find Taree and meet Creation and make bags of everything. Somehow, he supposed through the possession, she knew their loyalty. Their friendship had been lifelong. Phileas, Wells, and Murphy would help them, if they could. They would do anything for Noel, and he for them. For a moment, he felt in Issa that maybe there was hope. Almost immediately she started to struggle again, but Noel had all he needed in that brief spell of weakness to strengthen his own resolve.

By the time he turned back up the cobblestone path to the Mardraim’s hut, he’d convinced himself the best thing he could do would be to make his escape from the mountain that very evening, never mind what any of the three Issas wanted. She was broken and fragile and had no idea what was actually good for her because she’d grown up in this place, under the strict rule of Om, in servitude of a fate her people believed was set in stone, or water as it were. He didn’t care if she hated him for it, which she did, but she already despised him anyway, so that hardly mattered. Edward would be disappointed, but he would busy with Issa and the prophecy for days. No one would notice Noel was gone, until the next morning, when Harvey came, and by then he’d already be home. The further away from Moag he got, the less he would feel its pull— well, maybe. Either way, it was for the best.

Isabella stormed inside him.

He tried to reassure her, as she raged and he made certain his bag was packed, ready to go, and tucked the Book of Ages into the inner pocket of his tunic, in case he needed to leave sooner, in case Edward or Harvey figured out he was running and tried to stop him. He would return with his friends, to finish what he started, once he knew how to use the wards properly. Perhaps Bergfalk and the scholars knew some other means of breaking possession. Maybe that was why Edward hadn’t shown him where the books of Elven magic were, so he couldn’t discover the answers on his own. Of course, the idea of leaving all those books behind stung a bit, but it was only for the time being. There had to be a way around this. He had to get out, to protect Issa from his desire, from Moag, and from herself.

Issa beat with anxiety against him at the prospect. She beat against him, like thunder trapped in a well, thronging all morning. She beat so hard against him, his head felt like it would split in two under the resonance of her fury.

“You are… troubled, my friend,” said Harvey quietly. They sat by the river, under the shade of a small stand of flowering trees. The man had been pensive all morning. Noel wondered if he already knew what had happened, if he’d already been to Issa’s and found her once more enthralled in prophecy, the Mardraim there overseeing her work. “Your thoughts are distant.”

“Apology,” Noel smiled, scratching his head and squinting one eye against the pain. He had to stop thinking about it, or he was going to give himself away. Out of ease, more than to serve their lesson, he switched to English. “I didn’t sleep well. You were saying?”

Harvey spoke once more in his native tongue. “The way of the Velt is Onyai. Onyai? You know this word?”

Noel ventured his best guess. “Erm… It means greatness, relative to Om, doesn’t it? Greatness in English is… atic, perhaps, in the old language?”

The man pulled a face, shaking his head. “Atic is no good for describing the way of the nurturer. Atic represents the honor of a person in duty,” he answered, switching to Elvish to better explain. “What the Velt do is not honor or duty but of utmost importance to our people, Noel Loveridge. If utmost importance is greatness in your language, then it is as you say. You see, Velhim is Oftramin to the Zhe and Ther. I believe necessity may be a better word for Onyai in the language of your people, if I understand the meaning. We depend upon it.”

Noel gave a weary chuckle and switched to Elvish as well. “Greatness is importance in English, though one is no necessary for other to Ken.” Not really feeling up to the struggle, he switched back to his own language and added, “It seems Onyai means Vital, a thing that has to be for the wellbeing of others, which is greatness and utmost importance in relevance to the soul, I suppose, just not atic, though why I don’t know.”

Vital, Isabella clung to the word within him. Vital rang through him. Vital. Moag.

Noel shifted uncomfortably and did his best to ignore her, though she was relentless. “Rest assured English is as confusing to the English, mate. I freely admit being lost most of the time.” There was nothing he could do that moment besides try and concentrate on the lesson. “What is Oftramin?” he asked in Danguinese, carefully crafting the sentence, rubbing at his temples, wishing he could silence her somehow.

“Mm. Oftramin is food of the soul. It is food, yes? For the soul eating,” Harvey answered in English, then switching to Danguinese he explained, “Velhim is nourishment, the energy that is vital, or Onyai, to our fahmat within the Oftramin.”

“Soul eating?” Noel frowned, even as Isabella buzzed furiously at being ignored. “Wait. You mean seers and empaths get their energy for their magic directly from the nurturers?”

Harvey merely nodded, like this was common knowledge.

Perhaps this revelation about the Velt should not have come as such a surprise. Edward had explained a bit about the roles of their people and the magic unique to them, but from his explanations Noel had envisioned nurturers as a cult of sorts— people who worshiped Om, day and night, for the sake of the others. As far as he knew, they all drank from the waters in the Wellspring of Fate, and for their part, he’d imagined the Velt as praying or perhaps performing some sort of rituals of this mysterious ‘Velhim’, to Om, for good juju from the water itself. The water, he thought, was what contained the energy imperative to their work, which explained how they ended up living in this godforsaken mountain. He certainly had not considered that the Velt imparted actual energy of some kind from themselves to the others. He’d felt this Oftramin many times since his arrival, and now the implications of what it really was soured his stomach a bit. To receive it did feel like nourishment in a way— indeed, something like the soul eating, if there was such a thing as a soul and a soul could in fact eat. It was satisfying.

“Weird,” Noel grumbled at the idea, which to him seemed a rather perverse sort of cannibalism, which he supposed Harvey felt because the man laughed a rare laugh at his expense. Noel scowled. “So, where do the nurturers get their Velhim? What purpose does the water serve, if not to impart the energy they need? And what happens if the Velt run out of this soul food for the others?”

“Slowly, slowly, Noel Loveridge.” Harvey held up his hands, smiling. “First, what is this word ‘weird’?”

“It means something is puzzling.” This was the nicest way of putting it, though English afforded a plethora of other more apt descriptors he would have liked to use instead.

“Puzzling?”

“A strange problem to think on, difficult to understand,” he answered quickly in Elvish, waving his hand for Harvey to explain himself.

“Oh, no, Oftramin is not weird puzzling, Noel Loveridge. We are all dependent upon each other for energy in every form,” Harvey half shrugged. “As the Mothers say, there is no person, who is not dependent upon the whole of humanity, indeed all of creation, for his survival, though most choose to ignore this integral connection. We borrow from everything the very matter and energy we need in order to exist. Constantly receiving and imparting in this way we give to and take from each other nourishment, to sustain us in all of our forms, as we all work for the collective, even after the body dies and the soul moves once more into Om, to be reborn. This is not simply the way of my people, but a law of nature. It is unbreakable.”

Noel made a skeptical noise and leaned back against his tree, to continue being puzzled by this weirdness. His head throbbed. His hand actually stung. He breathed a knackered sigh and stretched his fingers nervously. He would leave, as soon as he was certain everyone was asleep.

Vital. Noel.

He shivered.

There were a lot of unbreakable laws in the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, though unbreakable and law were possibly the wrong words to use to describe them—learning languages with Harvey, Noel was beginning to question his own grasp of English or its ability to correctly name anything, and he suspected most of the languages of men were the same, always needing more words to be parsed. “The Zhe…” he began, uncertain how to phrase his question, so he went with English again instead. “Why drink the water? The water is not Om. The energy to see comes from the Velt. What is in the water that helps the seers see?”

Harvey smiled, as though Noel had touched the surface of a secret their people had long held dear. “Not all water is ancient, in fact most of the waters on our planet are in relative infancy compared to those of the deep beyond time. The water in the wellspring came to be even as our universe was born, Ohamet. It flowed through the very thought of existence. It contains some of the oldest elements in creation, so it knows the very path of Om on a level we humans cannot know, except in Veils.”

Noel sat stunned, his mouth agape. “It knows… but Om… is not a water god.”

“Ikath? No! No! What a weird puzzling!” Harvey gave an appalled laugh.

“Mm, indeed a weird puzzling,” Noel began switching to Elvish in case his point was being missed. “I know water was no Ikath. I only thought Danguin thought… well this no matter. Path of Om, Om’s way, what is it, Harvey?”

“It is the Law of Consequence, of course!” He still seemed rather offended and amused, though Noel supposed he couldn’t blame him. “Everything stems from everything that ever happened before, and everything that will happen can only happen in the way it must because of what happened before. Om is known.”

But this was something Bergfalk had preached about for decades—hell, Frifogel had developed a whole twelve year course around the subject, rather superfluously entitled “Protocols for Consideration of the Responsible Use of the Forces of Nature and the Mitigation of Her Unintended Consequences in Practical Magic.” (Wells hadn’t been able to convince anyone else to call it PUCRUFNMHUCPM, mostly because the acronym was nearly impossible to pronounce, even for him, which was probably his point. It was quickly shortened to Protocols by the students out of convenience.) Of course, to an elf cause and effect were fairly localized events, to whatever was going on at the present, and it was a person’s responsibility to be aware of possible outcomes, to think ahead, to know the dangers one’s magic might impose upon the world. This Danguin idea seemed quite a bit larger in scope.

“It’s bloody universal cause and effect?” Noel hissed, forgetting all about Elvish, shaking his head. “You are saying Om’s way is the effect of some first cause?”

“Cause is always Om,” Harvey insisted, nodding eagerly. “Effect is always what Om intends.”

“Intends? This implies Om is a being with thought capable of intention and that somehow that thought and intention are recorded in the ancient waters in the wellspring!”

“Slowly, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey shook his head, laughing. “Implies?”

Noel growled and switched back to the old language. “Give meaning. Harvey, did Om make universe?”

“Of course not. Om is the universe. We live within Om, Noel Loveridge.”

Noel shook his head. “You say cause is always Om, effect always is what Om intends. The universe intends?”

Now Harvey smiled, understanding Noel’s confusion, or at least Noel sincerely hoped he did. “It is not an intention in the way you or I have intentions, why we think and do from moment to moment. It is before the universe, Om, came into being. It has no space, time, or other worldly form of reference for measurement. We cannot know it, beyond fear of its infiniteness. We can, however, connect to it, using Velhim, to see the Veils or to know what is at the soul of another, because this is Om’s way. It is a force of nature, set in motion before all other forces. So of course cause is always Om, and effect is always Om’s intention.”

Effect was always Om’s intention, until now, Noel thought, his brain aching a bit, as he tried to wrap it around this new information, slightly disappointed the Danguin didn’t believe in a water god after all, because that was so much simpler.

Vital. Om’s way. Moag.

His heart thudded. He ignored her.

If the path of Om was a force of nature, like gravity, electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, or even the chemical reactions between elements, all of which actually stemmed from Om, according to Harvey’s explanation, and all of which elves and every other race of humanity used daily, in everything from the magical to the mundane, whether they realized they were doing so or not, then the prescience of the Zhe had to be much like any other magic—in this case a means of manipulating that natural forces of cause and effect. Perhaps it was like tuning into some wavelength of the cosmological constant, somehow imprinted with the outcomes of everything, like existence began and ended with an initial thought of some sort, or a big bang as men would say, and everything that followed and would follow, right down to our most insignificant decisions, was nothing more than a rather far-removed effect of that initial spark of a condition— the first cause, a primordial purpose flowing through everything, within and through which all of the following causes and effects existed— past, present, and future, as one, predetermined. If he was not much mistaken, the Danguin believed that everything that happened, right down to Frifogel giving his course at Bergfalk’s a ridiculous mouthful of a name no one besides him would ever say out loud, was the effect of that single instigation that came before everything. If he was not much mistaken, Harvey was talking about the Dreaming.

Did that mean Noel broke some fundamental law of existence, when the prophecies of Om started coming undone and Issa was brought back to life spouting prophecies of Moag instead— predicting changes Noel made, however unintentionally? It would explain why his being there was such a problem to the Danguin, who lived and breathed Om’s way, even if Om wasn’t some water god trapped in the wellspring, causing all manner of nonsense for them to see within their Veils. If this was the case, Bergfalk and Frifogel would hardly be impressed with Noel’s lack of consideration for cause or his failure to mitigate consequence on such a grand scale. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to their conversations on that matter, but this knowledge of what the seers of old understood about fate and destiny, cause and effect, about consequence as a particular force, could open up a thousand avenues of experimentation for the scholars. He believed more than ever that tonight he had to return home. It was time. There was nothing else he could possibly do here, nothing he could do alone, at least. Nothing that didn’t stand to do more against the path of Om and against Hope. He couldn’t decipher the wards without help. He couldn’t stop Issa’s suffering. He couldn’t get Edward to see reason. He was messing about with forces he could barely comprehend, let alone control. And no one seemed to have any real idea what Moag was.

Vital. Issa beat within him.

The thing about forces, he thought, is that while they are fairly set in their ways, they are still manipulatable. One cannot defy gravity, but that does not mean one can’t fly, with the right method of manipulation, and the magic of each of the races provided their own unique manipulation to overcome and utilize that force. If Om was merely another force of nature, and cause and effect could be manipulated by the Danguin, in order to predict the future or discern the feelings of others or even to perform possession, as clearly it could, and somehow Noel could go against this force, to change things through Moag, as clearly he could, then obviously Om’s way was not as fixed as the Danguin believed, or Noel could not have been able to change anything, because it wouldn’t be possible. Which begged the question, what exactly did this make Moag?

Of course, this was why the Mardraim was so bothered by the fact the Felimi seemed to be hiding everything about Moag to begin with—albeit in plain sight. One had to wonder, were the duality, Om and Moag, in fact some sort of opposing set of forces, like the opposite poles of a magnet? A universal good versus evil? Order and chaos, perhaps? That would explain Moag’s ability to alter Om, and Noel was feeling fairly chaotic of late. But was that going too far? After all, Moag also resulted in prophecy. That implied order.

Edward had called Moag Om’s reflection. Electricity and magnetism went hand-in-hand like this, but neither were good or bad, unless you used them the wrong way. They were simply necessary to each other, each resulting in the other, and both could be used in the magic of all five races, so why not Om and Moag as well? Maybe Moag was necessary to Om somehow, but then why did the Felimi conceal Moag’s existence for so long? And if they weren’t concealing it, and they believed Moag wasn’t, in fact, another useful force of nature, another cause manifested of the Law of Consequences that could be manipulated by anyone with the right skill-set (or drug-induced contact through the Wangarr spirit to Creation itself, as the case may be), why was there an entrance to it right there inside the Mothers’ cloister? Were they in some way already manipulating it or at least monitoring it for some reason? What did the Felimi know about Moag, after all, and more importantly, what didn’t they want anyone else to know and why?

At Fkat, the Mothers told Noel that Moag was the end, which sounded ominous at best, but what did it actually mean? The Mardraim said Moag destroyed everything it touched, including Om, which was why Noel, Issa, and Harvey should never have been able to escape, yet they had. Were the prophecies of Moag any different from those of Om, aside from how they were seen? Was Issa seeing “The End” every time Noel touched the darkness? What was in there, waiting for them? Why was he drawn there? What was it Isabella really wanted, besides the end of her own life? Why was it important to her that he go in there, in that place? Did she only seek an end to her suffering? Should Noel give in to her, if things got too difficult? Should he throw caution to the wind and have mercy on them both, before he made things even worse?

His heart pounded. He needed help. He had to leave.

No. Vital.

She told the Mardraim she saw everything. Had she seen what he was meant to do in Moag?

“You think of her often,” Harvey interrupted, his voice dark, the look on his face darker still.

Noel swallowed, gave an embarrassed shrug, and rubbed his hands together, realizing he was breathing a bit too quickly and that Harvey felt his panic. “I concern for her.” He wondered how much of his thoughts the man understood through Om, using Velhim. “She hurt.”

“I, too, have grave concern for her,” Harvey answered, looking pained. He leaned back against his own tree and sighed, an unusual expression of his emotional state.

As soon as they were done for the day, Harvey would go to her. He already suspected Noel had some control over her condition. What would he think when he found her once again consumed in her work with the Mardraim? “Of course,” Noel grumbled guiltily. “You want protect her. You care for her deeply. She die in Moag.” He supposed they had avoided the subject long enough. It was time the two spoke of the darkness and the connection they shared.

“No, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey said, dropping his voice to nearly a whisper. His brow drew deep over his eyes, and he looked away across the river. “Issa died twice, both times while you were in Moag.” He drew in a a deep breath and added, “I must tell you something I can share with no one else, Ohamet,” nodding his head slowly as he spoke, as though fortifying his resolve. “I must trust you to understand and to help.”

Noel straightened his back, intrigued, apprehensive, sure Harvey Frank was about to reveal what he experienced, in the brief moment he was in the darkness. As Harvey settled in, rubbing his hands nervously over his thighs, to find the words to begin, Noel worried how Issa would take whatever it was he had to say, if the living her would feel it too, through him, if it would cause her to look at him with blame in her eyes the next time he saw her, if it would do more to harm the piece of her still stuck in Moag. As far as he knew, the connection between himself and Harvey Frank, where Issa was concerned, was one that could not be explained by empathy or by possession. He feared Moag was all that was left.

“At Fkat, you spoke of being in Moag, of a vision of drowning in sand,” Harvey said after a time.

Noel nodded. He remembered that when he spoke of the sand, Harvey had looked up at him, as though it meant something.

“We were with the Mothers, before Issa died the first time. As you entered Moag, she screamed in pain, as her arm began to turn black. She fell to the ground, and I pulled her into my arms, holding onto her, not knowing what to do. She died there, in agony. I do not know how long she was gone, so much happened in those moments, but when she returned to life, she coughed up sputum and sand, as though she had breathed the air of a desert storm. As she soved me away, I wiped it from her cheek and felt the grit between my fingers, thinking there are so few places where sand exists in our mountain and no place where it blows, where it might be breathed, in such a way. It was such a small thing, and I did not understand, but before I knew it she was dying again, changed, speaking words in a language no one understood, her body deteriorating before me, so I put it out of my mind, until you told the Felimi that while you were in Moag you had the vision of drowning in sand.” His eyes were solemn as he stared at the earth between them, as if to draw on some strength from the mountain itself to speak his piece.

It was like the thistles Edward told him about, Noel thought. She brought thistles out of Moag on her robes, as though the vision she experienced while she was in the darkness had somehow manifested parts of itself in reality. “She was with me in the sand,” he said quietly. “I try to save her. She no real though, just in my head. I thought she made me see this.” Somehow Moag had created substance through Noel and Issa, out of their visions. What did this mean?

“At Fkat, when you spoke of the sand, I knew it came through you, from Moag. I wanted to ask you what else you saw, but it was not my place to speak, and you were disturbed and wished to leave. Then, at the river I… felt her through you, somehow… awake at last after many days of sleep, frightened. Concern for her outweighed the need for answers, for both of us,” Harvey smiled sadly.

They had both felt that spark and her fear. They had both run to her, Noel thought. He started to speak, but Harvey raised a hand.

“I only speak of that now, so you will know what I tell you is true, otherwise I fear it is far too strange a tale to believe. You were in Moag, and she had died once and come back to life, coughing up sand— as you would say, a weird, puzzling miracle,” the man continued, “and the Mothers had me carry her, to a room in the cloister, where they told me I should leave her, to allow Moag to complete its task. They believed you would both die, but I could not go. I felt the spark of Issa’s essence, her Velhim, leaving her—not like in death, like the first time. This was different. This time no one could save her and she would not return, I knew, just as I knew you would come to our mountain seeking prophecy.

“You have been told that before you came here, I felt you speeding toward us, felt you were guided to us by Om, against Om’s will, and that if you were allowed to enter our mountain, you would change everything. I felt this within my soul, Ohamet. I am not Zhe. I do not receive the Veils, though as an augur I am able to read them. I also felt an impossible Velhim present within you, one that could not be explained by your heritage, nor by Om alone. When you fell from our mountain and the ice and rock collapsed over you, I felt your death as part of Om’s guidance. Your soul clung to your vessel, though this should not have been possible, but more than your soul was there with you. That Velhim was present, a part of you that came from a place I cannot fathom, a place I have never felt before. It was you but something much more as well, perhaps born of the purpose within the prophecy you brought to my people.”

“The Last Hope,” Noel whispered, but Harvey shook his head and lifted a hand again, to stay him, as if he didn’t want to lose his will.

“Against all sense, against all of our laws, against Om, and against my own desire, I went to you, taking Issa with me, out of fear, not of what would happen to you, if your soul was left detached from your body and you failed to enter our mountain, as I knew must happen, but in fear of that presence that held you there, that Velhim that was not of this existence, which kept your soul from returning to Om. She felt it too, of course— many did. She felt that Velhim all along, but it did not frighten her, as it frightened me. You see, it—you— brought her… joy— awe, from the very beginning. You fell from the mountain and that Velhim held you there, as it must…” At this, he looked up and locked eyes with Noel, his voice taking on new a depth of sorrow. “…waiting for me.”

“Waiting for you?” Noel said quickly, even as he felt Isabella withdraw.

“I was meant to save you, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey admitted. “Om brought you to me, against its will, and I was meant to save you when you died, against my own will, as part of the changes you were already making to Om’s way, before you ever entered our mountain— before I dug you out of the ice and snow and carried you into our home, to Issa— before she ever smiled at the determination you possessed, to which she felt drawn… as kindred. When we brought you inside, I told her to drop her occlusion, so she could feel you there, clinging to your body, that alien Velhim holding you close, so she would understand what I had to do, why I had to save you, why I would leave her behind, forever, though I had no idea how. I told her I needed her help, but you must know, I did not expect her to do as she did. I did not know the consequences. How could I, when this was not Om’s way? I did not know that it might be possible anyone would be able to do as she did. But she did so, Ohamet, without even thinking. Without hesitation, she joined herself to you and that Velhim, and everything changed once more. I would have done so against my will. She did so out of recognition, understanding, that kindred sense of you and that Velhim. She took my part, and my part became fragmented. I did not realize it, at first, the shift was so subtle, or I would not have stayed with you while you recovered. I would have gone with her. I never would have let her enter the forbidden place. I did not understand what she had done.”

“Of course not…” Noel sighed, but he had no clue what else to say, so he only shook his head. In truth, he hardly understood what the man was telling him, but it definitely wasn’t what he’d expected.

“Later, while you were in Moag, she lay in the cloister, and for that second time I could feel her death upon her, but it was more than her death. I could feel the end of the one soul in existence I ever needed, in all of my lifetimes, the only person I ever wanted to be near, though such feelings, such desires, are beneath our people and are so foreign to us that until I realized what happened, I did not know I felt this. Such emotions are not felt, are never shared among our people. It was not as though I ever expected more than what Om intended for me. Om had promised each of us to different partners for the continuity of our paths in this life, as in many other lifetimes. Before you came, this idea never bothered me, perhaps because I knew she and I would always be together, in every lifetime. We always had been, no matter our paths, because our souls intermingled throughout existence, as if a part of one another—as if of the very intention of Om itself, as though we were born together in that ancient water, two elements of the same essence, inseparable. However, I put her in my place, and you and your changes were going to take her away from this world forever, and I knew it should have been me, not her. It was meant to be me. I had to act, to try and undo what was happening, though I felt helpless— a feeling I had never known, in all my lifetimes.

“I am ashamed to admit it, but I could not exist without her,” Harvey breathed a terrible breath and shook his head, eyes glistening now as tears welled. “When I knew she was on the edge of the end, I took her body to the entrance to Moag, in the cloister, I lay her down, I kissed her goodbye, and I entered what should have been my own ending, to be with her there. I wanted to end. I wanted never to breathe again, without her breathing the same air. And then you—” He exhaled an angry, shuddering breath, as the tears broke, a breath it seemed he’d held onto for weeks, and his words came louder, guttural. “—flew into me! You forced me back into this world, and she was gone, and I could feel her absence, in the very soul of me, like my own Velhim had been ripped in two.

“In my panic, I forced you to save her, Ohamet. It was very much against the Mdonyatra, but for some reason, I felt that if it was you who saved her, then it would not be wrong; it would simply be another change you made, so I demanded it of you and that Velhim. I had witnessed her breathe the breath of light into you, yet when it came time to save her, the Mdonyatra was there in my head, and that Velhim that does not belong in this world was there with you, holding me back, pushing you forward, forging a new way. I demanded you save her, and like her, you did not hesitate. For that much, I am eternally grateful. This is not an oath the Danguin make lightly. Eternity is eternity. You understand? All lifetimes.”

“Harvey…” Noel shook his head, blowing out a breath of his own, feeling his eyes widen. “If—”

Harvey raised both hands this time, to stop the coming protest, his voice hardening as he spoke. “I know you caused it— your changes. Yet I feel that I caused it, as though Om flipped inside of me, and suddenly I was different, guilty, ashamed, because I wanted her back,” the man said, the pain in his eyes, as the tears flowed freely, almost unbearable to witness. He paused for a moment, his jaw tense, his chin quivering, then added, “These things that you are doing—how she shifts from one moment to the next— how she sees new futures not within Om— what she is doing with my Mardraim—

“Harvey, I—”

“Please, whatever you do, keep her safe, Ohamet! Only you can! She is bound to you, not me. Perhaps she has always been bound to you. Or perhaps it is merely this fahmat, this possession,” he spat the word. “Either way, you must keep her safe in it, no matter what! Please,” his voice cracked, and he drew his hands together in pleading. “It is the only thing I will ever ask of you. The rest of my life is yours, forever. Whatever is mine, is yours, for eternity, through Om, through Moag, through all lifetimes, until we both cease to be. Take care of her.”

Noel swallowed hard, shaking his head, the sickness growing in his belly once more. He wanted to. He’d spent the night and most of the morning thinking only of that. “I will do my best,” he heard himself say, then quickly added, “but I no know what to do, Harvey!” This was madness. A lengthy pause hung between them, as Noel bit his lip, contemplating exactly what their options were, whether anything had changed in the past half hour, but all their options were the same.

Isabella was stillness within him. He wished she would give him some idea how he was supposed to answer the man, but she was completely silent, so small he couldn’t get even the remotest sense of her, almost like she was hidden behind the wards. At a loss, he whispered, “You know possession?”

Harvey nodded. “Only from the Felimi and Mdrai. It is how you both survived Moag. We are not allowed to speak of it. It is forbidden.”

“And you? How you survive Moag?”

Harvey smiled darkly, wiping his cheeks with his forearm, sniffing as he shook his head. “Issa swears I did not. She swears she saw me die—unfurled in Moag. But about this she must be mistaken because I am here. Painful as it is, I am here, and so is she, but she is in danger, always. I know it with every part of me, Noel Loveridge.”

Noel knew it as well. “What happened to you in Moag?”

“Nothing, as far as I know,” Harvey answered, looking exactly like a man who wished he knew, who wished he could make sense of it all and make it right. He looked exactly like Noel felt. “I stepped inside, and you and Issa and that force within you pushed me out again. That is all I know. I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, beyond stepping inside, willing the end, and being forced out, like for me to enter there was against both Om and Moag and all of the forces of the universe combined. Ohamet, I have no right to ask you for more than what you have already done, but you must help her. Only you can.”

Noel felt that too. He felt that deep in the soul of him. “I want to. I do,” he hissed uncomfortably, certain Isabella’s silence was a terrible sign. He had to tell Harvey the truth. Maybe together they could figure out what to do next. “You feel her, with empathy?”

“Not since the day she woke, while you and I were over there.” He pointed across the river. Noel had wondered why they came all this way for a lesson they could have anywhere. Harvey had brought him there, so they could speak of this. “My Omdra, my grandfather, keeps her occluded, so no one will feel her.”

Noel nodded and drew in an unsteady breath. He could feel her, yet Harvey could not. “How she sees prophecy…” he began uneasily. “Edward says to me go touch Moag. She sees and records them— my changes to Om’s way. They study them.”

“Yes, you must continue this,” Harvey nodded. “The Mdrai need to know the changes you have made, and the Mardraim would not lead you wrong.” He looked down at the earth again and added, “Issa is better having work to do. She is much… happier in the work.” Happier was not the right word in any language, but they both knew what he meant. She was transfixed by the work and at least not harming herself anymore.

But Noel shook his head, wanting Harvey to understand. They Mardraim might not realize he was leading them wrong, or maybe he knew exactly what was happening to the Issa still trapped in the darkness and was willing to make that sacrifice. Noel didn’t like thinking ill of the old man, but that was a possibility, even if he didn’t like it. “When I touch Moag, pain inside her is terrible. I am drawn to the dark, and so is she. She is still…” He swallowed hard, uncertain how much he should say, uncertain what Harvey might do as a result. The man had apparently attempted to end his own life for her once, but still he had a right to know, didn’t he? He loved her, of that there was no doubt. “She is there… part of her… in Moag. When I touch, I hear her… scream… in my head.”

Harvey’s brow sunk into a painful scowl, and his shoulders fell. It was a while before he nodded again, as though he understood, though Noel felt certain he couldn’t possibly, or he would’ve reacted differently. He expected Harvey to jump up and run to Issa’s side, as he felt like doing every time he touched Moag. A part of him hoped Harvey would go demand she and the Mardraim stop, at least until they could figure out what they were dealing with, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Sometimes she is better. What happens then? What are you doing that gives her these hours where she is like herself again?”

Why did she have to choose now to be quiet? Noel was not supposed to be telling Harvey any of these things. He’d promised Edward, given his word, yet Edward only seemed concerned with revealing Moag’s prophecies and restoring Om, and Harvey wanted to protect Issa, same as Noel. “Fairy wards,” Noel answered, the words spilling out. “Like in room Felimi hold Fkat. One or more block possession and her tie to Moag.”

Now Harvey’s eyes widened, and he spoke fast. “Which wards? How does this work? Tell me, please, so I can help her too.”

Noel shook his head, shifting anxiously. He understood how Harvey felt, but he wasn’t sure he should have said this much. “I wish I knew. Edward no explain to me. He has me go…” He paused, thinking better than to break all of his own oaths to the Mardraim in one fell swoop. He was almost ashamed of himself, for giving up his vow so easily. Almost ashamed, but even so… “I apology, Harvey. Edward ask me no tell you what we do. Mardraim say it is weird puzzling Felimi tell no one of Moag. What they say of Moag—” He sighed, shaking his head. “Not enough. Mardraim show me place he warded. I go there, so Issa can rest and be with you, after she record prophecy for Edward.”

“Where is this place?” Harvey asked, getting swiftly to his feet. “Take me there, so I can see these wards myself.” He started away a few steps, but Noel gave an uncomfortable groan, and Harvey stopped short, looking crestfallen, gritting his teeth.

“No. Even if I could, Harvey, you no able to see them there, and I no break Edward’s trust. I apology.”

The man gave a disgruntled mutter, but nodded. “My grandfather… I know he does not trust me.”

“He no believe what you say about Moag, no believe you see nothing,” Noel answered, shrugging. “You tell him what you tell me about Issa, how you know you meant save me, how she take your place? Maybe he take you there himself. I apology, but I no take you.”

“No apology is necessary, Ohamet. To break my Mardraim’s trust would be against the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, and as I said, my life is yours. I will not ask you to go against my grandfather. It is good you do as my he asks.” Harvey gave a lengthy sigh, shook his head, and added, “But there is still hope. We will work together, for Issa. Can you describe the wards to me?”

Noel could do better than that. He had every intention, after a restless night and a fitful morning, of leaving the mountain as soon as night fell and the Danguin people were sound asleep.

“For Issa,” he swore.

Instead of running, he pulled the Book of Ages from the pocket of his awkward garment, grew it to regular size, revealed the layer he’d been working on, hidden beneath the original text, and showed Harvey Frank his drawings of the twelve Faeish wards, which guarded the room of Danguin magic in the Mardraim’s keep.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35

The Tale of Two Mountains–Pt 34

Fragments of Divinity

The Mardraim had no idea what it was like to sit and wait, feigning patience when patience was impossible, Issa thought, tying her dark mane back with a string, at the base of her neck, to keep it out of the way while she worked. She tapped her fingers against the table, straightened the papers before her once more, then got up to look out the window. The elder had only been away a few minutes. It would surely be several more before he returned, but she was filled with anxiety. She had prepared the materials she needed to recreate what she saw. There was nothing left to do but wait for the elf to do his part. The Mardraim could not know what it felt like, though, this all-consuming need for fulfillment.

No, indeed, the Mardraim could no longer sense her without serious effort. No one could sense her any longer, as most of her soul had been lost to Moag, but now was not the time to think of such things. She had to concentrate on the matter at hand. The prophecy would come—it had to. If this worked, revealing Moag’s way, all the changes brought about by Ohamet, would be the purpose she served from this day forward—a true purpose only she could serve. And if it did not work?

She let out a great puff of air, and tried to focus on the path where the Mardraim would return, forcing her eyes to see further into the night. Noel Loveridge was once again hidden in the place where her sense of him diminished into nothing. Her mind felt smaller in these times of disconnection, but at least her thoughts were her own, not bound up in chaos, as they were throughout the day, while the elf went about his business and she suffered torrents from him and Moag in turns. Having had a handful of days to grow accustomed to herself in this state, she could feel exactly how little was left of her. It was difficult for her not to pity the lowliness of her own soul at times, but she had the beginnings of a plan to remedy that, she thought—it merely had to wait while she recorded the next prophecy… if this worked.

The Mardraim would not share much information, on how the wanderer managed to connect with Moag and draw out the prophecy, how the elf touched the very source of the unfolding event and enabled her to see the Drowning of Multitudes in its completion. He would not tell her where the elf went or what fahmat he used to break the tie of possession between them when he disappeared. The elder would not tell her much of anything, but she was hardly alone in that, as she could sense Noel Loveridge had the same frustrations where the elder was concerned. That and having seen the light of her soul with the wanderer before had set her to searching for answers of her own. After all, no one could sense her anymore, except maybe Noel.

The evening was still and cooler than the previous. She would have made it farther into the tunnels this time, she thought, regretting that she had to wait for at least a handful of days, before she could slip out into the night again. But the prophecies of Moag were more important than that, she reminded herself, and recording them was imperative, as Om would never be able to show the Zhe the future Ohamet made. Who could say how long it would take her to record what the elf brought forth this time, if he managed it? She only hoped she would not forget all of the progress she made in the meantime.

Moving from connection to disconnection and back again twice a day was a curious, disorienting, and often disheartening experience. The disconnection allowed Issa a level of freewill she could not experience under Moag’s influence, when her mind was never stable, constantly churning over half-told truths. For that she was truly grateful. And of course, in the afternoons, when the elf went into the tunnels and disappeared, Harvey would come to visit her, and while Issa could no longer sense what her friend was feeling, given her predicament, she could tell by the way he acted that the improvement in her demeanor was appreciated. This was precious respite, spending time with her friend, while her mind was her own and not being drowned out by the vague but constant influx of Moag’s prophecies and Noel Loveridge’s meanderings. But she was only allowed a few hours each afternoon, time meant for her to spend with others, pretending she was herself again, even though she was not, knowing it would eventually end, and she would return to the chaos. Though it was hardly enough time to properly enjoy, she had managed to keep herself groomed, to allow the wounds she had given herself in worse times to heal, and to maintain a certain level of consistency in her thoughts from disconnection to disconnection. She supposed she should content with that, but it was hardly enough. Each time the elf returned, she fell right back into their connection and the confusion it inspired.

The letter she wrote to herself, nights ago, had helped keep her at least slightly more focused on a task whenever Ohamet returned. Even when her mind was flooded with Moag, she knew she must try to memorize the elf’s path through the tunnels, scrutinizing his every turn. She could feel in him that the way was dangerous, that Moag constantly surrounded him, but she had no other choice than to try to figure out where he was going, no matter how futile it seemed. She needed to discover exactly where he disappeared, so she could go there herself and confront him. She could not say what would happen, if she ever made it there, but she had seen the aura of her own soul with the elf, when he came to her after touching Moag. She did not yet know how, or even if it was possible, but she intended to regain that piece of herself the wanderer kept bound to him. She would regain it at all costs, or die trying.

The fact no one else could sense her was actually one of the few benefits to their disconnection. For the past two evenings, while the elf was off in hiding again, while she was meant to be sleeping, Issa had ventured out on her own, into the desolate tunnels, carefully following Noel’s path. She had not made it very far, but she planned to go tonight as well, until the Mardraim came to inform her that it was time for the wanderer to once more engage with Moag—time for Issa to see.

She nodded silently to herself, smiling. Now her real work would begin. The prophecy would come. She would see. There would be time for discovering exactly what the elf was doing later. At last, she would serve her people again—she hoped.

As if called to her on a thread of that hope, the wanderer returned, all at once dropping his protections, as a pressure from without and within bombarded Issa, in expectant waves that took her breath away. Moag and the prophecies swelled inside her, threatening her grip on the now, as Noel ran through the darkness. Moag surrounded him, seemingly everywhere at once, but he always went the same way, to a place that was formidable, toward a force that was insurmountable, his desire increasing with the quickening of his steps.

Isabella’s own desire grew as well. This had to work. She had to see again.

She hurried back to the table and took her place, exhilaration causing her heart to palpitate. Her thoughts flew from prophecy to prophecy, unable to capture any completely, though she knew them all in her heart, as she scribbled down what fragments she could put into words. Which would it be tonight? Which would he bring to her? She could hardly stand the flurry of sensations that coursed over and through her, disjointed, never-ending. It was as though the whole experience of humanity was attempting to exist through her single perspective at once, each existence on top of the next, interwoven in such a way that the threads of them were knotted and could hardly be traced. It was painful and gut-wrenching and beautiful, this tapestry of life the wanderer wove, so painfully, gut-wrenchingly beautiful that it was hard for Issa to fight the urge to rip at her flesh to make it stop, but she clung to the chair, trusting order would come, soon enough.

He would fulfill her.

The wanderer would show her.

“He must.”

Her body convulsed, as she held onto the edges of her seat, digging her nails into the wood, squeezing as tight as she could against the urge to run, the need to explode. This time was worse than usual. This time it felt as though Moag sensed what they would do and somehow anticipated it. The frenzy would pass, she told herself. She had to wait it out. She had to be patient. Follow his steps. But it was almost impossible to breathe against the onslaught. The Mardraim had no idea what this felt like, she thought. He had no idea of the relentless agony or the endless bliss. Tears spilled down her cheeks, but she dared not wipe them away, for fear she would lose herself to the cacophony of visions.

“…Energy of everything, the all, past, present, and future…” she whispered, the words flying swift and wet from her lips. “…Blood drenched the lands… Flames coursed… Air, black with the filth of… Essence of young ones…”

“Isabella!” the Mardraim said, rushing toward her, as her body beat against the chair back. His eyes were wide—fearful. He wrapped his arms around her, trying to still her, but it was no use. The energy that ran through her was not of this world. “It will be over soon, child,” he whispered against her ear, holding her tight to him as she seized. “It will pass. Let it pass. Let the prophecy flow through you. Do not try to stop it.”

He had no idea, she thought, somewhere between that rapid succession of futures unfolding within, the wandering changes of life, violent and limitless inside her. No idea. No one knew. How could they?

At last, she felt Noel Loveridge standing at the precipice of the abyss and the darkness stretching itself toward him in longing. He hesitated.

Oh, he hesitated! No!

“Release me,” Isabella’s voice stammered, from some other place and time.

The Mardraim let her go. He must have thought she was talking to him, but she was talking to Ohamet, who held her back from the edge with all his strength.

In the distance, the wanderer reached out his hand, even as Isabella held out her own, as though they would touch, through Moag, but as the elf’s fingertips met with the impenetrable deep, agony breached Isabella’s soul and heart and mind and flesh and bone, and she thought she would cry out against it, yet as quickly as she opened her mouth, to allow the scream the freedom of her voice, relief washed over her.

In that relief, she opened her eyes and saw the horrible, perfect, mesmerizing truth, glorious, vicious, and human.

As the tension that constricted every muscle in her body fell loose, she went momentarily limp against the reality that surrounded her.

“What did you see?” the Mardraim whispered, panicked at her side, lifting her weakened body back into the chair.

She tried to speak, but her breath caught up her words. All of the other prophecies fell away, and this single truth, what would become of the world because of Noel Loveridge, affixed itself in her mind’s eye. “It was…” she panted, exhausted, though the encounter had lasted no more than a second. “They were…” A burning bile rose into her chest, but she swallowed it down. She tried to continue, to allow vision the use of her words, her breath, but before she could, she felt the elf speeding toward her once again.

“He comes,” she said, stumbling to her feet, catching herself on the edge of the table. “The wanderer comes, now, as before.”

Frantic, the Mardraim looked back at the still open door. Issa started away, struggling to put feet beneath herself, to go confront Noel, but the elder caught her arm. “You must stay here, young one. You cannot see him!”

“I must!” The Mardraim did not understand. It was not the wanderer she wished to see, but herself. Because she was not focused on the prophecy, her mind raced from dizzying thought to dizzying thought, but every other breath, she checked the prophecy remained strong and true within her. She had to go see the piece of her soul, bound to Noel Loveridge. She had to figure out how to get it back. “My Mardraim…” she whimpered, twisting her wrist against the strength of his hand, knowing he had no idea.

“No,” the elder said sternly, looking more fearful than she had ever seen anyone. “Young Isabella, you must stay here! I will go tell him you are well. He is merely frightened, as before. Please… Heed my warning, child. Do not go to him. Ever.”

Lost but obedient, Isabella nodded, but she felt her brow knit together as the wanderer landed outside, his panic racing through her, even as it raced through him. The Mardraim ran for the door, hurrying outside, his hands raised before him. “You must go, Young Noel,” she heard him implore, as she crept to the window to peek through the shutters, trying desperately to maintain her hold of the prophecy and the need to see the piece of her soul once more, amid an onslaught of half-formed waves from Moag, battering against her, threatening to drown her if she did not focus.

The Mardraim stood a few steps off the porch, his arms wide above his head in warning.

No one else was there—no, not no one. Noel Loveridge was there, in fact, stood right before the elder, though again he was invisible. She could feel him, full of trepidation, fear for her.

But she was not there—the piece of her soul. Why? What had happened to her? Why could she not see the dim glow of herself as before?

“Edward, I need know,” Noel said, his voice trembling, his use of the High Elvish awkward and forced. “Edward, Issa feel such pain!”

Isabella gasped, not because the wanderer spoke her name, as Harvey would, as the Mardraim himself might, with the affection of friendship and responsibility. No, she ran trembling hands over her neck and chest, then held her own arms tight, as if somehow this might reassure her of Noel Loveridge’s mistake, against the eerie sensation that he was right—she was in pain, or had been. Could this be true? Had he felt her? Had the elf somehow felt her pain through the darkness? Yes, she had no doubt of it! She could feel this within him, even as the Mardraim spoke, yet she was not in pain now. The pain had gone almost as soon as it started.

“She is well. You must take my word,” the elder answered, quiet but terse. He pointed up the path with two outstretched fingers, his old hand trembling. “Go, now, Ohamet. You cannot be here. You cannot see her. You must not see the prophecy.”

The prophecy, Isabella thought. Was that why the elf came? No. He was terrified for her, of that much she was certain.

“I know,” the man implored, his voice full of angst. “She hurt. She hurt, Edward! She hurt!”

How did he feel this? He was just an elf.

Issa hurried to the door. “Let him come see for himself,” she said, holding it wide.

“Issa, he must not—”

“I said let him come,” she demanded.

“The prophecy…” the Mardraim whispered, shaking his head, his kindly eyes grave with trouble.

“It is within whole me,” she answered. “I cannot forget while we are connected, and I will not give this to him, as you asked. Ohamet does not deserve to know the truth of what he has done.”

The Mardraim sighed, and let his hands fall to his sides. As the elder turned in defeat, Issa felt the wanderer hurry past him toward her, and she took an anxious step back. There was an energy between them that was unnatural, as if to come too close to him in that moment might cause the entire earth to the shatter. The closer he came, the more she sensed of him, the more they stretched some boundary of existence, like together they violated an unwritten universal law. He was on the steps and hurrying inside, before Issa could formulate a complete thought against the fluttering of her heart. Somehow he had felt her through their connection, though he was just an elf. He had truly felt her… or at least some part of her.

“What fahmat is this?” she asked, as the Mardraim entered as well, motioning for Isabella to sit at the table and shutting the door to the outside world, still shaking his head, his jaw set in disapproval. He wrung his hands, he was so concerned about the two of them being together. Why? Should they be afraid?

“Noel Loveridge is using a forbidden way of the Llendir,” the elder said. “Young Noel, your light well, if you please…”

“I am sorry. I… intrude,” Noel muttered uncertainly.

A light flashed bright before Issa’s eyes, and the elf appeared with the wave of his hand, as if he threw aside an invisible curtain. It was no wonder this magic was forbidden. If Issa had not been able to discern his presence through their connection, it would have been impossible for her to know that Noel Loveridge was present. Clearly, this light well did not work to shield one from empathy, or the Mardraim would not have been able to detect the elf, but if this fahmat and occlusion were used in conjunction, the user would be undetectable. Yet she had seen the piece of her soul with Ohamet before.

Now he was here, where was the light of her soul? What had he done with her? Did he have some other means of concealing her?

Noel ran his hands over his face, then back through his hair. He could hardly stand still, he was so nervous. He watched Issa with a pained look in his eyes, as though what he saw of her and what he felt were two different things. They were kind eyes, caring she thought, looking away in disgust with herself for seeing anything good within him. He seemed at once grateful for the state in which he found her and yet as confused as she, herself, felt that he found her this way, as it did not match the intense suffering he clung to within himself—a suffering that was definitely attributed by him to her. The soul of him searched outside of himself for reassurance, to make some sense of what he felt. He felt much like a lost empath, struggling to understand what part of him was his own and what belonged to everyone else.

Issa could feel herself there in him.

Why could she not see herself with him as before?

The prophecy was still within her.

Her mind was battered by the waves of half-formed prophecies fighting to become clear.

He felt her pain. Yet this was not her pain.

“You…” He looked between Isabella and the Mardraim, as she took a hard seat in the chair farthest from this stranger, startled.

Was it possible?

It was too much for anyone to know.

She longed to tear at her flesh.

The prophecy was fixed within her.

If it was possible, how?

Her sitting seemed to confuse him even further, and he looked around her home, at the sparse furnishings, at the canvases and papers scattered about, ready to receive her work, as though he wished to run. “I intrude.” He smiled, a grievous smile, a smile that reached deep inside of her—a smile meant for her alone.

“No, stay,” Issa said, as he started for the door. She looked quickly away, ashamed of herself. How was it possible?

Noel stopped short, anguish filling his eyes, clearly uncertain what he should do, but Isabella was just as uncertain.

It was not possible.

“We must record the prophecy, young one,” the Mardraim said quietly, after a moment, placing himself between the two, motioning Noel to the door. “He cannot be here. You have seen for yourself, she is unharmed, Ohamet. Go now, to your own work, so that we may do ours, for Om’s sake—for Hope’s sake.”

Noel took another step toward the door, and Issa stood, her chair scraping across the floor, causing him to stop again. He looked at her with such warmth, such cherished concern. No one knew such feelings in the entirety of the mountain, she thought, breathing against the rush of urgency the elf provided. What he felt of her, for her… No one, not even an empath— not even Harvey— could feel so much.

Noel nodded, and in that moment, Issa felt his hand in hers, as everything within her grew still. She looked down at her own fingers, where the energy of him mingled, warm, caught up in the heat of her, yet not, violating that unwritten law. He smiled, somber, resolute, and without another word, he left, slamming the door behind him.

Isabella had never felt anything like it, like him, like his complete… In truth, she did not possess a word to describe what this part of the wanderer’s soul was. For quite some time she stood staring down at her fingers, dumbfounded by what she felt in Ohamet, Noel Loveridge, a simple elf, not at all possessed of some impressive power… for herself. It was not merely compassion born of connection. It was not merely fear. It was something far greater, as though it did not matter if he lost himself to it. This feeling was even greater than the desperation that drove him to their mountain in the first place. It was infinite. How could anyone feel so much for another?

“Young Isabella,” the Mardraim said quietly, stirring her back to reality. He stood before her, concern in his eyes, on his breath. “The prophecy…”

She nodded, and quite as suddenly as it had arisen in her, the sensation of Noel Loveridge within her was gone, and all that mattered was the prophecy of The Fragments of Divinity.

“The fire,” she said, her words steady and true. She gritted her teeth, speaking through them. “It rained poison from the sky for days, but fear of the disaster took more lives than the disaster itself. The Cho do not understand the power they have unleashed in the world or the years of repercussions, both good and bad, that all will suffer for their failure to contain it. I will show you what they have done, my Mardraim.”

Issa took up pencil and began to draw, her hand gliding in rapid strokes across the paper before her, even as she retook her seat.

The Mardraim sat as well, to look on as Isabella Asan fulfilled her bond to Moag.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34

The Tale of Two Mountains– pt. 33

Three Wills

“You might have killed her with your foolishness,” came the mardraim’s voice from behind him, as Noel flew with violent speed for the exit.

He had a brief moment to slow and turn his head, before running smack into what was definitively a solid stone wall, coming to an abrupt and painful halt, and landing in a lump, in front of the doorway. As he rolled over, groaning and cradling his right shoulder, two Edwards came to stand over him, both looking rather more unpleasant than last they met, arms crossed over their chests, brows raised in accusation. Noel shook his head as he sat up, and the two mardraim’s became one.

“Argh, oof… I apology,” he moaned, uncertain of what happened, rubbing at his arm, squinting his eyes against the searing pain in his head. He reached up to search his hairline and found a tender lump, already growing on his scalp. Luckily, there was no blood. This reminded him of Isabella. “She is hurt? She is gone!” He hurried to his feet, turning for the door. Edward stood by and watched as he ran into the solid portal between the nowhere and the real world again, this time bouncing off.

“I believe Young Isabella should remain my concern, not yours, as you continuously put her in harm’s way,” the old man answered, without a hint of malice, as Noel pushed at the doorway in confusion. “What sort of person are you, who knowingly endangers another?”

“Knowing…?” At this, it occurred to Noel that the exit of the nowhere had been blocked for a reason. He looked at Edward, then at the door, flabbergasted. “Edward, I meant only to look at book on possession. To sleep was not… not my purpose. We must go now,” he added, waving an eager hand at the door. “Something is wrong with her. She is gone,” he repeated, thinking perhaps Edward simply didn’t understand him.

“Nothing is wrong with Young Isabella. As for you, one might come to wonder that your continued failure to think through your purpose before you act may be by design, so as to leave you the ability to say whatever comes as a result of your actions was never your intention, absolving you of responsibility for the consequences.” His voice was even. The look on his face was not anger, not at all, but rather disappointment, mingled with something akin to grief, as though Noel was a particularly naughty child, in need of a stern chastising, but the hope he might one day grow up to comprehend the disgusting nature of his very being and change his ways was so small, it was hardly worth the elder’s effort to provide the necessary correction. This was a great deal worse than anger, as far as Noel was concerned, which he supposed was rather the point.

What sort of person was he? He was the sort who wanted to argue, to further justify himself. After all, Edward was the one who had refused to test the wards, and Edward had not spoken to him in the days since he touched the Moag. But the more he considered his own onslaught of perfectly decent excuses for making hasty decisions and seemingly endless mistakes, the more he felt the red of embarrassment crawl up his neck, as he realized that Eward was mostly right about him. He rarely thought things through, but then maybe it was better he didn’t think because thinking about the ten thousand year old prophecy of the Last Hope was exactly what got him into this mess in the first place. Now, where was Isabella? What had happened to her? Did he even have the right to wonder, considering the elder had asked for time, to see if the woman might heal more before they tested the wards any further, when they didn’t know what would happen to her as a result? Noel had answered that call for patience, caution, and a modicum of self-control, by shoving his hand into the darkness, as if on a dare, then feeling sorry for himself for days while he waited around for the elder to come to him. When he finally got tired of waiting, he went and fell asleep behind the wards anyway, without a single concern for what might happen to Isabella Asan as a result.

Indeed, what sort of person was he?

Noel met the old man’s eyes, clenching his jaw in a grimace, bracing for what he deserved.

What came was hardly surprising, given Edward’s penchant for passivity. “Are you badly injured?” the elder asked, motioning for Noel to follow him, as he led the way across the room. He waggled two crooked fingers at the sofa, indicating Noel should sit, then hurried to the other side of the desk, upon which, Noel was surprised to find, sat several stacks of the sketches, which had hung on the walls of Isabella’s hut the previous night.

“No, Master Frank,” he answered quietly, nursing his shoulder and his pride. He imagined he would have a couple of fairly nasty bruises, but they were the least of his concerns. What had happened to her? Why had Edward brought the drawings here? “Edward… Isabella?” he asked slowly, slouching down into his usual spot on the arm of the sofa, attempting to look penitent.

“As you suspected, the wards have done her no physical harm,” the mardraim said, then pursed his lips and almost rolled his eyes, as Noel breathed a grateful sigh. “I have warded this place and left her in Young Harvey’s care for the morning, while you and I discuss what we are to do next. I have made you another golem, in your absence. Unfortunately, his stomach was turned by his morning meal, so he is resting and asked not to be disturbed, which means you will need to use a light well when leaving here, to make certain no one sees you.”

“Of course.”

With the immediate distractions out of the way, Edward sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together in contemplation. After a long moment, he said, “Now, Noel Loveridge, you must tell me everything. Begin with Moag. Leave no detail unexamined.”

The two sat for quite some time discussing all that had occurred since the night the mardraim refused to test the wards and Noel went and touched the Moag—well, almost all of it. Noel showed Edward his notebook of sketches and the map of the tunnels he had made so far, and he pointed out exactly where the path ended in the fork that couldn’t be explored, due to Moag’s concentration there. Noel explained about his sense of being drawn to that place—both his own desire to enter the darkness and his feeling of Isabella’s longing to continue in at that point as well, though he was certain there was a part of her who would have been happy if Noel went into Moag anywhere and got himself thoroughly lost (this made Edward chuckle). The elder prodded him for information about the physical attributes of Moag, exactly how long his hand was immersed in this dry mist that made up the darkness, what it felt like, how it reacted to his touch and seemed to have a will of its own, or at least possessed some force within it that drew it gently toward him when Noel was near, and of course, he wanted to know what Noel believed happened to Isabella as a result of his failure to weigh his own intents and purposes, before acting as most wanderers do, with willful negligence and reckless abandon. The elder himself, however, told Noel as little as possible.

Edward was only willing to give Noel what information he deemed necessary, which was not enough. He told Noel what Isabella felt, physically, when Noel touched Moag, how it had been briefly but intensely painful to her, and then how she felt Noel fly to her in a panic, and that she received a prophecy in the process. But as soon as Noel inquired about this prophecy— the meaning of what he had seen recorded in those drawings— Edward clammed up tight. Although the elder was unwilling to delve into the particulars, he did manage to get out of him that Isabella saw the prophecy clearly, not in the Veils, as the seers ordinarily received the prophecies of Om, but rather the actual event, a talent unheard of among the seers of today. And the woman’s case was made more peculiar by the fact she seemed to have seen the same prophecy from many perspectives at once—in fact, thousands of perspectives. According to Edward, she had only been able to record a few hundred of these images, before Noel went into the warded room upstairs and broke the connection between them.

“Th-thousands?” Noel stammered in wonder. He had not touched Moag for more than a second or two, before the woman was screaming in his head and he flew fast as he could to her, yet somehow, in that brief moment of contact, she saw the destiny of thousands? Edward may have wanted to dance around the subject of the prophecy, but Noel had seen several of the drawings. He tried to imagine how thousands of people drowning might be connected, but of course, it made no sense to him. Everyone dies eventually, and plenty of people drowned to death every year, probably even every day, but he thought surely few of them had much to do with one another. Why would Isabella need to see these things? Why had Moag shown her these people’s deaths, and not people who died in airplane crashes, of ebola, or by shark attack for example? Or were those next? Was Moag merely a predictor of death, as Edward posited days ago? The very idea of Isabella Asan sitting witness to the deaths of every person on earth filled Noel with dread. “How is it possible she see so much?”

The elder gave an uncertain shake of his head and halfhearted shrug of his shoulders. “We have ventured well outside the realm of what you or I might understand as possible, into something else. While you were first within Moag, Young Isabella claims to have seen the entirety of existence, from beginning to end, which I admit seemed as doubtful to me as to everyone, until I sat with her as she recorded this, working as quickly as she could, not stopping to eat or sleep, as though she could not document it fast enough. I only wish she had begun this work sooner and not waited for me to arrive the next morning.” He leaned forward and rested a hand on one of the stacks of drawings between them, the look in his eyes grave as he spoke. “I cannot begin to comprehend it, however if what she drew is any indication, and she truly saw this prophecy unfolding through the eyes of each of these people, instantaneously and simultaneously, in the very moment you touched Moag, it may be that she has indeed seen everything, as she claims, and if so, that she has seen it all in this same manner, at once and from every perspective.”

Noel cringed, drawing in a shallow breath through his teeth. “Edward, I went to Isabella’s last night. I see the drawings. I know they drown,” he whispered. Maybe they were all going to drown anyway. Maybe these weren’t changes he had made, after all. No. He knew better. What else could they be?

Edward let out a low moan and leaned back in his seat, looking grim. “I feared you would do so at some point. Young one, you must not go to her anymore. You must not attempt to understand what she sees. I am certain there is no one who will be helped by you knowing these things.”

“But I must know,” Noel said, hardly able to believe Edward could think otherwise, when he was the one who was so adamant they attempt to restore Om’s way, because of the changes Noel made. “I cause this change, somehow—these deaths. Edward, what do these people drowning have to do with me coming to mountain?”

“Truly, I have no idea how or even if it relates to you, beyond your entry into Moag,” Edward answered softly, a deep and telling pain in his eyes as he continued, “I am only sorry that you know as much as you do. It is important I tell you nothing more about these things, Young Noel. It is important you do not seek this knowledge. You must trust me. You cannot ever know these prophecies. I was mistaken to share with you what little I have.”

With that, Edward got to his feet and began piling the stacks. As Noel watched the elder begin tucking the pages into one of the drawers in the cabinets behind the desk, knowing the old man was only trying to protect him from his own culpability in all of this, his heart began to pound in his chest. Noel wanted desperately to be able to let it go, to pretend as though he could absolve himself of all of it, like Edward said before, to believe none of this was his responsibility because he hadn’t known any better—and he truly hadn’t. But he couldn’t unsee those faces. He couldn’t unhear Isabella’s cries or unfeel his fear for her.

“She… saw this… as these people?”

“Indeed,” the elder nodded, not looking back, as he took his time studying each drawing before putting them away. “Now, no more questions, young one.”

It must have been horrifying for her. No wonder he had felt such pain and terror in her, Noel thought, scrubbing his hands over his face. No wonder his head had filled with her screams the moment he touched Moag. She had witnessed the deaths of thousand—and there he had been feeling sorry for himself the whole time, as though what was happening to him, this possession, these feelings that were not his own, that he couldn’t control, were the worst possible punishment.

“Edward, I must tell you more,” Noel said quietly, swallowing against the brick of guilt that sat hard in his stomach. He waited for a moment, for Edward to turn to him, but when the old man kept to his work, Noel allowed the truth of the matter to spill out of him like a wave. “That night, before I touch Moag, I felt Isabella try to make me stop. I do anyway. It was wrong, I know. I was… anger… fear.” He had no idea what the word was for annoyed. “She want to go in before, I know. Something there is important. I no know what change her mind.”

Edward looked back perplexed. “You are certain you felt this? She tried to stop you?”

“Certain.” Noel was ashamed of himself. He had been ashamed of himself for this for days, but now it was worse, imagining what Isabella had gone through because of him. He had done this against her will. He knew it, and he had done it anyway.

For a long moment, the old man sat in silent contemplation. When he finally spoke, Noel could tell by the look on his face, he was not convinced by his own words. “Perhaps some part of her knew what would happen as a result?”

“No. The Isabella inside me no know prophecy. Only when I go to her hut last night and look into window, to see the drawings, she knew the drownings. Before? No.”

Edward laid the rest of the papers aside, got up from the ground, and retook his chair, looking worried. “She did not speak of this to me.” He seemed as confused as Noel, which Noel was fairly certain was not a good sign.

“Edward, you say she only feel pain a short time, but after I touch Moag, the Isabella inside me was… all fear, until the moment I land outside her hut and find her waiting there for me. She look at me like she see me through light well. She seem fine, not same as what I feel of her in me. I feel different… desires… in her. Separate thoughts in her. How?”

Edward’s brow grew heavy over his eyes. He leaned back in his seat, pulling his pipe from a drawer, taking a pinch of tobacco, and packing it in the bowl. He did not light it, but only sat deep in thought.

“Edward?” Noel whispered after several minutes. “What does this mean?”

“I do not know, Young Noel.” The elder forced a sad smile. “There is much I do not know. As concerns the prophecy, I assume she connected to Moag through you and was given clarity in this way, through her possession of you. Long ago, when the prophecies of Om flowed freely and with abundance, not alone within our mountain, but throughout the world, some Zhe saw like this, viewing entire prophecies, full of detail, yet it was a rare trait. A seer, who saw this way, never saw the same event from the perspective of more than one subject, as she has, and their visions often remained tied to a single subject throughout their lives, as though they were bound to them in some way, through Om. This has not happened in thousands of years.”

“Bound? Like possession? Like Isabella to me?”

“I do not believe so. They were lifetimes apart, and there is very little information on the matter, it was so long ago, but you must remember Young Isabella is different still, in many ways.” He lit his pipe and drew a long breath of smoke before adding, “What she sees has come through Moag, through you. What you feel of her, these differences, perhaps it is due to some form of empathy with herself, an understanding that passes through you to her and back again, though this is not an effect of possession, as far as I know. I cannot say for certain. I wish I could.”

“What we do next?” Noel asked, hoping Edward would at least have some answers.

“Clearly, we need to know all of the changes you brought forth from Moag, but some of those changes might be truly devastating to you and would only serve to bring you guilt and shame, which will do neither you nor Young Isabella any good, considering the enormity of the task before us. You must understand this and agree not to pursue the prophecies for yourself.”

“I need know the prophecies,” Noel insisted. He had a right to know about these changes he caused—an obligation to his own people, at the very least. And he wanted to understand them, to change them still, if he could. “I see the portraits… the drownings. If I cause these things, I must know how. Master Frank, I must stop them.” Even as he said the words, he realized how true it was. He had to make this right. He doubted anyone else could.

The mardraim was silent once again. His kind eyes were heavy with concern, even as he gave a grave, smiling nod, considering Noel, as though he knew the root of Noel’s soul, and expected nothing less of him. “This is the very point, Ohamet,” he answered at last, stressing the name. “You are rash in your decisions. We do not know how you have made these changes, and only by studying them can we hope to find a way of undoing what you have done, restoring the path of Om for everyone, meanwhile doing our best to make certain any future changes you may affect will not make matters worse. You cannot be allowed to know the meaning of the prophecies, for your own protection and for the sake of everyone else in this world. Please, Noel Loveridge, trust me. It must be this way. You must vow.”

Again, Edward was calling for caution, knowing full well the only caution Noel seemed capable of exercising was the sort where he willfully served as the prime example of precisely what not to do, in the event one decides to go chasing after the designs of fate. It had been easier not to care about these changes before, when all of the things Isabella told the mardraim were fragments of truths that made no sense, when Noel had no way of knowing what her ramblings meant. Things were different now. Noel had seen the faces of the dying himself. He did not know how or why, but he would be responsible these deaths because he went into the Dreaming and then entered Moag in search of the Last Hope. His heart ached in a way he had never imagined possible. “And the wards?” he asked, unable to keep the grief from his voice, as his vision blurred with the beginnings of the tears.

“Young Isabella does not wish you to use them,” the elder said quietly, shaking his head.

Noel quickly rubbed the wet from his eyes and began, “But Edward, you said—” but the mardraim held up his hands, stopping him short.

“You misunderstand me,” the old man answered quickly. “They do not harm her physically, but spiritually they are too much for her to bear at length, however necessary they may be.”

“You agree they are necessary?”

“Of course they are necessary, which is why Young Isabella has agreed to their controlled use, at times designated by me, but you must know that they not only sever her tie to you, but also to Moag. While you are warded, she cannot remember any of the things she has foreseen. With Moag gone, her mind is much clearer, to the point we had a lengthy conversation, not once interrupted by the hysteria or loss of focus she has suffered since your arrival.”

“This is good,” Noel answered gratefully, his breath catching up in his words and falling off into a small chuckle. Finally, there was something positive to look to, something to hope for. He could help her. He might not be able to do anything else, but at least he could do something good for Isabella.

“Yes, it would seem so,” Edward answered, though he still looked quite pained as he added, “however since it is out of her control, it causes her tremendous sadness. If it were up to Young Isabella, her connection through you to Moag and the prophecies would be maintained constantly—like it is when you are touching Moag, like it has been these few days, when she could recreate what she saw with such detail that anyone who views her work will know the suffering of the damned. When you are warded, this connection is ripped from her, leaving her mind, which is already stretched to its limits when she is in connection, almost vacant. The effect is devastating to her, Young Noel. It frightens her that one moment she can remember so much, and the next you have the power to take it all away, without so much as a thought for her.”

“She desires to see these things?” Noel asked, nodding over the mardraim’s shoulder, at the drawer where he was filing away the faces of those damned. Noel supposed he could understand that it being out of her control was frustrating, as Noel himself didn’t care much for the times the woman exerted even as small force over him, but he couldn’t imagine preferring to know such horrors, much less actually living them in some way. It didn’t make any sense to him that anyone would wish for this.

“Her life has been spent seeing and knowing the path of Om, Young Noel,” the elder answered patiently. “She only wishes to be instrumental in restoring that path, if at all possible. As do we all, or have you changed your mind?” Edward eyed him suspiciously over the pipe in his hand.

“No,” Noel whispered. If the images of the drowning had done anything it was to assure Noel knew the changes he had caused in coming to the mountain could not be ignored. And he was more certain now than ever that he was likely the reason the prophecy of the Last Hope could not be read, so he had little choice but to continue in their work. “No, we must do what we can.”

In the end, it was decided that Noel would return to the library twice each day, in order to give Isabella time in this disconnection, through the wards, so that she might retain some semblance of her sanity, have time to be with her friends and family and the opportunity to take care of her own needs, in the hopes that perhaps this would serve to heal some of the chaos she felt while under Noel’s influence. She might not like or appreciate this at first, but it was for the best. This was why Edward had warded the nowhere and locked Noel inside, to give the woman time to herself, to recuperate from her work, even though it was not what she wanted. Once in the afternoons, after Noel and Harvey were finished with their meetings for the day, and then again at night, when it was time for the villagers to sleep, Noel would return to the hold and allow Isabella her respite.

In the meantime, he was to continue searching the tunnels, recording what he found there, and documenting any changes to Moag or Isabella he might notice. And when the time came that Edward thought it was appropriate, Noel would return to the place where he felt this deeper connection to Moag—this place he and Isabella were both drawn to by the darkness—and there he would do just as before, touching Moag, only for a moment, so that Isabella would hopefully see another complete prophecy and be able to record it in its fullness. For several days after this Noel was not to return to the mardraim’s keep at all, so that Isabella’s connection to Moag and the prophecy would remain stable. Again, Edward would tell them when it was time for Noel to return to the wards, to sever the connection between himself and Isabella, at which point they would resume the schedule of allowing her time to restore her energy and regain her balance each day.

“Edward…” Noel offered uneasily, in the end.

“It is the only way, Young Noel,” the old man said gently. “It is the only way we can know for certain what you have changed. Otherwise, all she can give us are fragments we could never hope to piece together. The next time you make this connection with Moag for her, I will be there with Young Isabella, to witness exactly what happens to her, to make certain there are no detrimental effects. By this you will have peace of mind for her sake. I give you my word.”

Reluctantly, Noel nodded. He understood, but it left a foul taste in his mouth, and because he was warded, he couldn’t even guess how Isabella might truly feel about the Mardraim’s grand scheme.

“Noel Loveridge, you must not attempt to know the prophecies for yourself,” the elder added in warning.

Noel could not make that promise.

Somehow, he and Isabella Asan had managed to become Master Frank’s science experiment. Noel was used to this, being a lab rat for the scholars, but these were dangerous forces they were playing with, forces none of them understood, and he couldn’t help feeling the mardraim was making suppositions that affected everyone’s lives and that it didn’t really matter to the elder what happened to his curious specimens as a result, so long as they managed to right the path of Om. Of course, Noel didn’t disagree, after all, if he was responsible for destroying the Last Hope prophecy, which he assumed he was, he would give anything to make it right again, even his own life, he thought, but he had no idea if the Last Hope prophecy was even a true prophecy, and if so, he had no clue what the thing actually meant. Deep in his gut, he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if it turned out the path of Om was not the right path for him and his people? What if this had all happened for a reason? What if every time he made a mistake, someone else drowned?

At least, he told himself, this was a way forward, but he could not give his word about the prophecies.

On the fifth day of following this new schedule, Harvey Frank leaned in over their noon meals. “I cannot explain it,” he added conspiratorially. Harvey and Noel had gone to the Frank village for lunch, as had become their custom, so Noel could practice immersion in the language of the Danguin, but today the man had so much to say, he said it all in old Elvish, and in whispers, so low no one else would hear. “Each day, I go to see her, expecting the worst, but it is… What is your word for what cannot possibly be but is?”

“In English, we call this a miracle,” Noel answered uneasily. “I no know word in old language.”

Every day it was the same. From the time Noel woke in the morning until after lunch, Harvey and he were together, in the required study. When they parted ways, Harvey went straight to Isabella’s, to check in on her, while Noel went off to the mardraim’s library, to wait behind the wards. Noel knew how deeply Isabella and Harvey cared for one another. Harvey talked so often of her these days, Noel couldn’t help feeling like he had missed out on the chance to know the woman as she really was—the woman who wasn’t driven to insanity in turns by Moag and Noel, himself. It was good to hear she continued to improve, sort of.

“Miracle,” Harvey repeated, grinning. “We have no suitable word for this, as Om provides the way, but since you arrived, I have found, time and again, we require such a word, as more is brought forth to confuse even Om.”

“She is happy?” Noel asked, trying hard not to seem overly interested. He and Harvey were both aware of the strange connection that had happened between them, the day Isabella awoke. Neither of them had spoken of it since, perhaps because even in the mountain real men didn’t speak of such things, or perhaps because neither of them could explain what had happened, so it was best to try not to remember, when there were more important things to worry about. Until the day Noel was called to Fkat, as Isabella lay comatose, he’d had a curious sense of her within him, a nagging sort of ache that existed even though the woman rested, completely helpless. But when the felimi called on him, to answer their questions about what brought him to the mountain, and Noel went behind the wards for the first time, the Isabella Asan, who possessed him, disappeared. It was not until Harvey later followed him down to the river and rested his hand on Noel’s shoulder in sympathy, and Noel reached up and touched the man’s hand in gratitude, that both of them received something like an electric shock, and in that moment they knew Isabella was awake, terribly hurt, and frightened. They both felt the urgency to go to her. No words were necessary.

“Issa is well—sad, but well,” Harvey answered quickly. “In recent days, she has been present in a way she had not been present since your arrival. This relief only lasts a few hours, at most, and then the misery returns to her, the talking senselessly, the loss of sequence and time, the absences of being. But she is healthier than before, that is certain. The color has returned to her cheeks, and she is bathing daily. I do not wish to leave her side, yet it is difficult to stay and watch as she turns again, and then it becomes impossible to stay, no matter how I wish to, because I have duties to which I must attend. There is no explanation for this change… is there?” Harvey added this last bit, with a curious pause and an uptick in his tone.

Noel looked up to find the man was staring at him, eyes wide, as though he’d been shocked again.

Guilt crawled across Noel’s flesh. Of course there was an explanation, though it wasn’t at all reasonable or rational, not that anything that had happened lately was terribly reasonable or rational. But was Harvey actually suggesting Noel should know the answer to that question? And if so, how could Noel say to him that his Issa was better during those few hours a day, sad but well, because Noel was locked up in the mardraim’s secret keep full of books and inventions, behind the wards he didn’t understand, so her possession of him and connection to Moag could be temporarily broken and she could rest and have a laugh with her old friend, so they should both take advantage of it, while it lasted, because he didn’t have any idea when it would end? He had sworn to Edward he wouldn’t tell Harvey anything of their work together, and he had been warned never to mention Isabella’s possession of him to anyone because the fahmat was forbidden, but the reality was Harvey knew—Harvey had to know Noel and Isabella shared some kind of bond because he had felt it within Noel the day she awoke and they both went hurrying to her side, to tell her Harvey was still alive.

“No,” Noel answered, stupidly. “No.” There was a better answer, surely— one that wasn’t an outright lie. He thought of one almost immediately, but he had already committed to the falsehood. “This is how she heals.” He took a cautious bite and tried not to look as foolish as he felt.

“At the same time each day? This seems to be too much a miracle,” Harvey laughed, but almost immediately his face fell back into confusion. “And only to return to her previous disturbances? There is no sense to it. It defies logic.”

Noel frowned, but Harvey seemed not to notice, as he had turned his attention to his own bowl of grains, shifting awkwardly in his seat.

Each afternoon, Noel had left his noon meal with Harvey Frank and returned to the mardraim’s hold, returned to his study of the wards because, despite what he and Edward had agreed to, he knew eventually he would have to ward himself for good, for Isabella’s benefit, if not for his own. That first day had been easy enough, but the second day Noel’s heart burned when Harvey spoke of Isabella laughing with him, for the first time since before Noel came to the mountain. He couldn’t say exactly why he reacted so viscerally to the man’s description of their time together, after all, Isabella Asan had basically ruined Noel’s life (not to mention her own) by saving it, but he could not help this feeling that she should always laugh at Harvey, with Harvey, because of Harvey, and he stood firmly in the way of that through this possession nonsense. Maybe it was that tiny piece of her that was within him. Maybe he was just becoming more obsessed with her, as the mardraim had warned would happen. Or perhaps he had legitimately grown to care for the woman’s wellbeing, in his own selfish way. No matter the cause, the wards seemed to him the only answer.

The book on possession had been no help on that front, so he’d spent hours scouring the keep for the place where Edward had made the new ward inscriptions, hoping they would narrow down which wards he needed in order to sever the possession or at least provide some clue as to how the wards worked. He expected to find the markings somewhere near the door to the nowhere, and with that sort of thinking, it was really no wonder he struggled so long to find them. It took a while to figure out that everywhere he thought to look was utterly wrong and he’d been foolish to attempt to find them in the first place because the wards Edward placed on the nowhere were not outwardly visible, either inside of the nowhere or outside of the nowhere, neither around the door that wasn’t actually a door, nor surrounding the fissure in the wall outside, which acted as some sort of gateway into that place of nonexistence. When he finally remembered what Edward told him about the construct of a wizarding nowhere itself, Noel realize the location of the wards was obvious and so splendidly elegant, he laid down on the couch and laughed himself to sleep, which gave Harvey and Isabella a bit more time together than should have happened the day before, according to the mardraim’s schedule, but as far as he was concerned the schedule could burn in hell because Edward was smart, Edward was cunning, Edward was a cheeky old bastard. Noel realized the newly placed wards had to be built into the construct of the nowhere itself, which was in fact nowhere, so he was never going to find them, because when he was in that place, the wards were part of what made the very place possible, and when he was out of that place, the place ceased to exist altogether. Which meant this particular evening, he would surely be back to searching for books.

“I have missed her more than I could have imagined missing anyone,” Harvey said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, talking to his cereal as though men did not discuss these things either—and in the mountain, Noel suspected they didn’t—they likely never thought to, as their brand of feelings for each other were quite a bit different from anyone Noel had ever met. The Danguin people were strange in their customs and even stranger in their seeming aloofness despite their interconnectivity. They were growing on Noel, especially Harvey. “I know I should be grateful. I know it should be enough,” the man added.

Noel sighed. Yes, Harvey was indeed asking Noel if he had something to do with Isabella’s improvements of late, but not because he was suspicious of Noel. If Noel understood him correctly, by the man’s careful tone and demeanor, Harvey was asking if Noel might somehow guarantee him and Isabella more of this quality time together. Noel wanted to tell him yes, but Isabella stopped him. He wanted to tell him the truth, but he knew she would not want that. So Noel settled for saying, “It is difficult to be grateful at times.”

Very difficult, especially since Noel knew Edward would come soon and tell him to return to Moag. What would Harvey say when his friend had no peace anymore, as she began manically recreating prophecies for the mardraim, while Noel avoided the wards altogether, to assure the woman’s clarity in her foresight? It hardly seemed fair, but what could he do?

That very evening, Noel was on the 26th floor of the mardraim’s library, pulling random books off the shelf, once again looking for wards or any other hint or symbol of fairy magic, when Edward came to him and told him it was time.

Time. Time to venture into the dark, carefully guarding his way, until he reached the point of no return. Time to reach out and touch the Moag and force Isabella into the prophetic clarity the old man claimed she wanted. Edward said to wait ten minutes, to allow him to return to Isabella’s hut, so he could be there when Noel performed this wretched work, to see what affect the connection actually had on the woman. Noel nodded and put the book, he had been mindlessly flipping through, back on its shelf. “You are certain?” he asked, aware of the apprehension in his voice.

“She is prepared,” the elder assured him. “She is grateful.”

Grateful, Noel thought, his mind rushing to Harvey, as he flew down to the ground floor. Would Harvey Frank be grateful for what Noel was about to do?

An immense anxiety swelled within him, the moment he left the reverie of keep and the wards and headed off into the darkness, his notebook tucked under his arm. If it had been any other time, he would have kept the book open, to study his work and make certain Moag had remained mostly stable, since the last time he was there, but he had returned to that place so often the past few days, now he simply allowed the darkness to compel him forward, the path ingrained in the movements of his muscles, his need, Isabella’s need, guiding each step.

While he was not behind the wards, Edward had told him to continue exploring the tunnels, which he did, but with little enthusiasm. The old man clearly didn’t understand the gravity with which Noel was drawn to that place where Moag took on the physical attributes of an opaque fog that hung heavy in the air. He had tried to stay away, tried to concentrate his efforts on the many other branches of darkness that wove through the depths of the mountain, but he always wound up returning to the place where something much greater—than the desire to turn for home, than the desire to hide behind the wards, much greater, even, than his desire to understand the changes he had somehow brought forth from the darkness, in the form of prophecies of gloom and doom— called to him like the longing of a lover’s ghost.

The importance grew within him with every step.

That was the part that made him so anxious, he thought—the nameless desire in him that only increased the closer he drew to that place where the darkness was utterly complete. The hairs on his arms and neck stood, as he drew near, and the desire he could not explain rose inside him like an endless wave, the desire that seemed to stretch back through the ages, unfathomable and infinite. There was something down there. Something meant for him. Perhaps another change. Hopefully not a deadly one, he thought, swallowing against the racing of his heart. Destiny beckoned him.

But that was insane, he thought, as he footsteps quickened.

Except, Isabella felt it too.

That was another thing he had learned recently. Utilizing the wards to break the connection between him and Isabella Asan was like exercising a muscle he hadn’t known existed. Each time he left the mardraim’s library and the connection between the woman and he returned, it came with a force that made his insides ache. It was not as though he could hear her voice inside his head—that only happened when she was frightened. But Noel’s sense of what she wanted from him was growing stronger. Her will, or rather her wills, only grew.

What did the real Isabella feel as Noel ventured closer to the heart of Moag? He could not say for certain. There was, of course, her usual yearning for him to hurry into the deep, but as Noel’s understanding of the woman increased, he began to sense three divergent intentions within her.

One felt like admitting defeat. He couldn’t define it in words, but he could equate this feeling to his own sense, in the beginning of this endeavor, that perhaps Hope had ceased to exist altogether or had never existed and to wait any longer, lingering in that Hope, would only do more harm than good. He had no idea what the woman was relinquishing herself to, but feeling this uselessness as it belonged to someone else was difficult. To follow that feeling into the darkness felt like the end, for her. Every time Noel felt this, he found himself wanting to turn right around and fly to her hut, like she needed him to talk sense into her, never mind the fact she clearly despised him.

Another of her reasons felt something like victory, though it was bittersweet. This, he thought, was related to the prophecies, but only because to him it seemed like coming closer to the truth. The feeling wasn’t quite the same, but in a way it resembled what he felt like during his walk in Dreamtime. It felt like knowing.

Her final reason he could not discern. It existed somewhere he could not touch. It felt as far away from him as the destiny that called him to Moag.

As the grim shade deepened around them, and he reached their destination, Noel’s pulse quickened with ideas of what might be awaiting him there—answers, Hope— and he felt the woman’s rage shoot through him with warning.

“What now?” he asked impatiently, though he knew he only ever heard her voice when she was suffering. At least she was not suffering, he thought—not yet.

He swallowed back the fearful thought of her screaming in his head, raising his fingers to the surface of Moag, its blackness so vast it seemed to shine with the echo of eternity. Ignoring the renewed urgency with which Isabella willed him to continue into the depths and his own increasing ache for whatever might be down there, he concentrated on the fury with which she met him there, as if to try and appease her.

Of course he would not go in, he thought. He couldn’t. His longing had to be some trick of Moag, like the things he had seen and heard in it before. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the Dreaming, showing him the way? What if whatever was down there would bring back all of their broken prophecies—and restore Hope?

“What if it could fix you?” he asked her.

No.

The word came, not as a sound in his brain, but as a constriction in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. Isabella was growing stronger within him every day. He couldn’t help but wonder just how long he had before he started losing all control, but the question made him angry and afraid all at once, and the intensity with which she held him, transfixed in that moment, increased until he could feel the pressure of her all around him, trying desperately to force him away from the darkness. It made no sense. She wanted to go in, yet she wanted him to stay away, and yet there was something in there, deep in the darkness that was vastly important to her?

Surely it had been longer than ten minutes, Noel thought, contorting his neck against the discomfort of Isabella’s ethereal fist, clenching him, demanding his focus. “The Mardraim is waiting. You are waiting, grateful for prophecy, remember?” he whispered, watching intently as the darkness crept toward his fingers. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to let it hurt you this time.”

Isabella loosened her grip, even as Noel wondered if he could possibly make good on such bold promises. He wanted to be able. Truly. But as he plunged his hand into the darkness, her voice ripped through him. Her agony became his own.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 32

Salvation

Stillness consumed her, a moment devoid of continuity, vacant and lingering. The air around her rung out, with the solemn whispers of night, once comforting in their near silence, now startling, as they were all she sensed.

Noel Loveridge was gone.

Issa looked up from her painting, searching the mountain in every direction.

She was alone—more alone than she had ever known possible.

Throat constricting, she looked back at the work lying on the ground before her, a swirl of muddied waters ripping at the earth, washing the world away… utterly unfamiliar.

She was reminded, in a way, of the night she spent in Moag, of the strange vision that came to her as a dream, in which she drowned herself in the waters of Om, called up from the Well of Fate by the wanderer. Yet this was not what she had been painting—this work represented something at once far greater and far worse. But she could not remember. She had seen it in its fullness, understood its completion in the very depths of her, held the context of it perfectly within her mind. It was a terrible, unfathomable event, yet it had disappeared from her head, as though a light that had shined so brightly upon it, for a hundred million years or more, had suddenly gone out, leaving her blind.

Now there was only her, in all of existence—her and stillness, waiting… Waiting, expectant.

Her eyes teared, as she looked around at the hundreds of drawings hung on the walls, faces staring down at her, grief-stricken and agonizing, reflecting the turmoil that swelled beneath her surface. They were strangers to her, yet only a moment ago these people had been kindred, their paths dear, as though she had walked in their footsteps, loved with the longing of their hearts, thought with the realization of their minds. Now they were as shadows someone else imagined.

She had drawn them all, she knew. How long must she have been working to have drawn so many, and why could she not remember them as before?

Where had Ohamet gone?

… And where were Moag and the prophecies?

She had forgotten everything.

Her breath came in shallow waves, as fear mounted and she tried to recall the last thing she knew before the wanderer vanished, blinking against a blur of disjointed thoughts, none of them relevant to the next, all fleeting, none to do with understanding. The Mardraim tacking portraits to the walls… The paint and dirt on her gown… The flash of her hand working confident layers of color onto the canvas… Yes, she remembered working, yet even in those moments of presence, as she recorded the prophecy, it seemed she’d had no recollection of what this prophecy meant. All memory of her understanding of the prophecy was gone. Not this one alone, but all of them—the whole of the universe, as fractured and disordered and confusing as it had been—dissipated into nothingness, as though they had never existed. Yet, they had consumed her every waking moment, forcing her to the brink of insanity.

Her hands shook, as she tried to get her baring inside herself. Hardly a minute ago, she had known—known with all certainty—exactly what these waters meant, exactly who these faces belonged to, the very nature of their entire existence. She had known, in a way Om had never revealed to anyone… Unless she had not actually known… If the knowledge was temporary, never hers—outside of herself.

She shut her eyes against the sick feeling in her stomach and tried to piece together the pieces of Noel in her mind. He had come to the window. She knew he was there, and he left as soon as he saw her work and realized his wanderings would cause this…

This drowning, she thought, pressing her hands into the wet paint, crumpling the canvas under her fingers, her brow drawing painfully low, because she knew that word belonged not to her own mind, but to the elf. What she felt of him was unlike anything in empathy. She had felt the pain of this realization rise in him. Until he saw her work, he had not known the prophecy at all.

He left quickly and went back to the tunnels, to the place where he goes each night in secret, to work. She recalled the feel of him, his frustration, his animosity, his determination, his fear, his attempt to understand—she did not know what. In truth, she had not cared to know, though she might have. It seemed at times she could know him as completely as she knew herself, if she wanted, but he was always there, always calling her away, the only person she felt anymore—a nuisance.

She remembered wondering if he would return soon to Moag, to bring out another prophecy for her to examine. This idea had given her immense pleasure, which was curiously cut short, as though she had fallen asleep mid-thought. Then the wanderer disappeared, snuffed out of existence, and with him everything else, like he was the very light of a hundred million years, illuminating the darkness for her to see.

“How?” Issa whispered, the flurry of emotions running through her with such swiftness she could hardly feel them all, much less name them. “Why?”

A paper rustled behind her, and she turned to find the Mardraim sitting at the table, having just laid his own work aside. “Are you unwell, young one?” her elder asked, looking worried.

Issa had no idea how long he had been there. She remembered waiting for him to arrive, though it felt like several days had passed since she counted the marks on the floor—the number of prophecies she had given him, broken. Only this one was whole—precious. Or it had been. Her mind had been such a shambles, never still. Until now.

She looked down at herself, covered in dirt and paint and muck.

“I—” she began, but shook her head, swallowing the violent panic that stirred, like sands whipping across the face of the desert.

This was not the first time she was realizing the state of herself. Brief flashes of shame, temporary glimpses of her own consciousness, flooded her mind. There was blood, attempts to heal wounds she simply reopened in anger and anxiousness and inability to still herself against the turmoil inside her. Harvey looked at her with such remorse. He wanted her to control herself but knew she could not. She disappointed him. She was like a wild beast pulling against the invisible chains ruled by Noel Loveridge.

All she had wanted was to record the prophecy from Moag, to prove herself useful again. She had been so grateful to have a purpose to serve, nothing else mattered. Where had Noel gone? She needed him.

Fury rose within.

“Something is wrong, Issa?” the Mardraim whispered uncertainly.

Acutely aware of the pressure growing in her chest and stomach and ears, Isabella closed her eyes tight, pressing her lips firmly together, to stop herself exploding, as her heart thundered at the idea she needed anything from Noel Loveridge— the elf who had ruined her, who seemed incapable of ceasing his ruin of her, at every turn. It was horrible enough that after striking her down from Om and all she had ever known and hoped for— all she had once been meant to be— he saved her life, only for her to be confounded by incomplete pieces of Moag and the incomprehensible unfolding of every matter and form of the universe. Terrible enough that he had done whatever he had done to cause her to see this now missing prophecy so clearly, mortifying in it’s own right that she had derived even a momentary joy from that clarity. But that he was somehow the very key to her new-found purpose, that he was the tie that bound her mind to Moag, Noel, the very thing she needed in order to know—to understand— and that he could take it all away, at any given moment, was too much to bear.

Does he know how he torments me? Why? What did I do to deserve this? I have been good, haven’t I? I have been good!

“I have been good,” she whispered, desperate, the words almost breaking her, less because of her circumstances, and more because as she spoke them she knew she spoke directly to Om, yet Om had nothing left for her. Her whole body trembling, she held onto her arms to try and stop it, but it was no use.

“You are concerned, young one,” the Mardraim spoke softly, gentle eyes searching her as he stood, leaning forward with his hands against the table. He looked at her strangely, as though he barely saw her. The look made her uncomfortable.

She turned away from his curious gaze, attempting to occlude herself, ashamed of her animosity and at the same time emboldened by the rawness of it, determined to cling to it because it was better than the fear that mounted inside her with every second that passed. But even as the old man hurried to her side and knelt down, she realized a loss far more tragic than her loss of understanding of Moag or even her loss of a path through Om—another absence apparent in the still ruins of her, left behind by the wanderer.

Her stomach jolted violently, as she tried again and again to conceal herself, to no avail. She could no longer perform the fahmat—a magic she had mastered when she was but a youngling. It was as though her innate talents had altogether disappeared, along with the wanderer, Moag, Om, and all the rest.

The elder, no doubt sensing this within her, answered with a mournful shrug, shaking his head as he took her by the shoulders, turning her toward him, and spoke candidly, “We are not yet certain the extent to which your abilities have been affected.”

“No,” she whispered, a coarseness to her voice. Though the night air was warm, a cold set in, deep in her bones, causing her teeth to chatter.

The mardraim began to rub her upper arms, offering, “Your empathy flourishes periodically and fades over the span of a few hours at a time, with long stretches in between. We cannot yet say what causes these fluctuations or predict their timing. You have not noticed, until now. This is the first time you have attempted occlusion since you woke.”

The look on his face was foreign to her. Issa had never seen anyone look so grave, never known anyone with a cause to look such a way. Her insides felt like they would rupture and overwhelm the world with sorrow if she tried to speak, so she nodded for him to continue.

“You were tested for foresight, that first day, but you were unable to see the Veils. However, it may be that this ability will ebb and flow, as well. I expect we will know in time. It has been better not to bother you with such things, in your… condition. This is not the time for occluding oneself, Issa,” he added painfully low. “We have great work to do.”

He looked down at the ruined painting. His face was heartrending.

“No. No,” she breathed, swaying against the pain, not wanting to be known in this wretched state, searching deep within herself for even a shred of the talents she had once possessed—talents she had possessed in such abundance that she had been destined to be Mdrai, to counsel her people, to receive and record the truth of Om’s way.

What she discovered within herself offered only more grief. Where Isabella could once feel her own fullness of being, her verve filling her vessel to overflowing, she was now no more than a hallow shell, with barely a remnant of her former self huddled within, like some sickly shade, weak and withered, attempting to hide from the light of her introspection. She shuddered against her own lack of substance.

It was a long minute before the Mardraim spoke again. “Issa, I am sorry to intrude on what you do not wish me to sense in you,” the elder offered painfully, shifting to sit cross-legged on the floor before her. “My only desire is to help you to help us understand. Please, will you explain to me what has happened to distress you, so we may attempt to make sense of this together?”

She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.

“Noel Loveridge is gone,” she whispered, attempting to hold back the tide within, but the whisper became a spillway of tears. “He is gone, and the prophecies are gone! I am empty, half-starved for air and light! What has become of me, my Mardraim? What am I to do? Ohamet has taken everything away, so I cannot think— cannot feel— without him, yet with him I have such chaos, I do not even know my own mind, except in brief interludes! No! No! I hate him for this! I cannot bring myself to be ashamed for it! I hate him, with all that I am—what little is left of me! I do not want him! I despise him, yet it is clear now, I must have him because without him I may as well cease to exist altogether!”

In anguish, she moaned, grabbing fistfuls of her gown, wrenching them into her belly against the ache of her desolation, and collapsed against the floor to weep, in a way no one else in that mountain had ever wept before. The Mardraim ran a fatherly hand over her head while she sobbed, disgusted at her own disgust—disgusted that she must be disgusted, as there was nothing else to be. The most horrible part was knowing she had felt this all along, yet her mind had been constantly besieged by Noel Loveridge and prophecies, half remembered, and a longing ache for Moag. There had been so little room for Isabella herself, she felt she was suffocating under the weight of the universe, and perhaps she had been. Now it was gone, she should have felt relieved, but the weight of that emptiness was much worse, for knowing none of it had been hers to begin with. Understanding that full prophecy had given her hope. She had been proud to exist in that state, hardly herself anymore, filthy, mindless, a disappointment to her friend, little better than an animal, because she had purpose once again.

None of it had belonged to her.

The elder did not try to convince her that what she said was untrue, though a part of her desperately wished he would—that perhaps he could make her believe something good might come of this new turn, if only she were patient a bit longer. In truth, they both knew her fragility in that moment. The elder had known it all along. Isabella had only just realized its significance. Her life was no longer her own.

“Issa, I believe it is time I tell you what I know of Possession,” the mardraim said quietly.

“Possession?” she sniffed, unable to muster the strength to meet his eyes. She wanted to disappear into the earth forever.

“The magic you inadvertently used when you saved Young Noel’s life— the magic you speak of when you accuse the wanderer of having taken a piece of your soul.” He sighed at length, and she felt him shift beside her.

“For many reasons, possession has long been a forbidden fahmat of our people,” he began, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. “The act itself is a matter of fracturing the souls, of both of the person one wishes to possess and the possessor himself, in order to exchange a minute fragment, through the Breath of Light, the very force that enables life as we know it. This is a force our people once used with flagrance and frivolity, though we have been incapable now for a hundred millenniums, for reasons I cannot explain. Somehow, in this one brief encounter with the Noel Loveridge, though it should not have been possible, you managed to harness the Breath of Light and  utilize it to bring him back to life.

“Ordinarily, the exchanging of soul fragments allows the possessor to grow and exert a certain control over his possession, which increases with time, until the victim is completely given over to the possessor’s will,” he continued. “Possession has a long and sordid history of use in cases of unrequited love, though there are far more malicious inventions for the magic involving forced servitude and other heinous acts we have no need to discuss at this time. Suffice it to say, nothing good ever came from possession, so it was forbidden, and when our people lost the ability to use the Breath of Light itself, it was believed the fahmat was lost to us forever. We would be better off, if it had remained so, as the act of possession is irreversible, and it never ends well, for either possessor or possession.”

Isabella looked up at last, intent on asking the honest question: what could she expect as an end to this madness and how long it might take to reach its culmination, as even an inevitably bad ending had to be better than her current predicament? But she found the elder was not looking back at her. Instead, he was staring off, in the direction of the the very place Issa knew Noel Loveridge had been, only moments before his disappearance. This may have been coincidence, but she felt sure the Mardraim knew where the wanderer had gone, and for a moment she considered asking if he could still feel the elf’s presence, until he turned his face toward her at last and gave a morose and teary-eyed smile.

“When you saved Young Noel’s life, you inadvertently performed the fracturing upon your souls, imparting to the wanderer a fragment of yourself, as you breathed life back into his body. As the possessor, you would need to have taken a portion of his soul in return, which you could have utilized to impart your will upon him, yet for whatever reason, either lack of ability or due to some inherent curiosity unique to Ohamet, which I admit seems most likely under the circumstances, the possession remained incomplete. His soul, which you, your father, and Young Harvey all described as having been displaced from his body, in those moments before you saved his life, returned to him, filling him until he could contain no more. He was whole and alive again, with you as a small part of him. The fragment of him that remained, which should have gone to you in the exchange, was left to wander our mountain, which he does even now.”

“After all of the harm he has done, an errant piece of him is allowed to wander freely?” she whispered in disbelief.

“I doubt this errant piece of him is large enough to do much harm on its own, but it is only allowed to wander because there is nothing anyone can do about it. As it is, you speak of sensing him on occasion, though if he is ever where you claim him to be, I have been unable to discern him, myself. You are the only one able to sense this part of him. Not even Young Harvey is strong enough in empathy to reveal his presence, it is so minute. But there is more I must tell you now, about your condition, while we have this opportunity.”

Isabella understood. Wherever the wanderer had gone, he had at least left her lucid. Who knew how long this respite would last?

“Since you did not take a portion of Young Noel into yourself,” explained the mardraim, “you remain an incomplete soul. This usually occurs at the conclusion of a possession, when the one who is possessed is inevitably lost, as it becomes impossible for the possessor to sustain both lives at once. In the end, when the possessor is forced to allow the possession to die, both of the fragments of soul exchanged in the fahmat pass into Om, leaving the possessor unwhole until his own eventual death. The possessor lives out the rest of his days in a devastating state of lack, unable to be fulfilled in any way, as he has felt his own death.

“Existence as an incomplete soul is considered the greatest repercussion to all who have been determined to possess another, as from the day of the victim’s death, the possessor lives in grief over what he has done to himself. As you never held a piece of Young Noel within you, you began this endeavor, in some ways, in this state. I do not know how the possession will affect the wanderer, given you do not actually have possession of him. He does exhibit many of the early symptoms of obsession, however I doubt you will ever be capable of exerting any control over him, without having completed the act. This might have served to save you both much of the agony that possession has proven to be in the past, yet things were made worse for you, as the two of you ventured separately into the tunnels of Moag.”

“How so?”

“I have reason to believe the possession itself was necessary for both you and Young Noel to physically survive within Moag, as you did, but the fact the possession was incomplete complicated matters for you. When you entered the tunnels, shortly after saving the elf, you were protected from Moag’s devouring force because a portion of you remained safely harbored within the elf, outside of Moag. You escaped the darkness and returned home, seemingly unharmed, despite the fact the Felimi said you would surely be lost forever. When Young Noel entered Moag the following evening, while he too was safe from Moag’s destruction because of the portion of him that wanders the mountain, unbound, somehow, through your partial possession of him, you were left vulnerable to Moag—not the portion of you that Young Noel carried with him through the darkness, but rather the part of you, who remained with the Felimi at the cloister.

“Moag began drawing you out. This attack on your body and soul continued until nothing of your spirit remained within your body and you were entirely consumed by the darkness, with the exception of the fragment of you Ohamet carried within himself. When he exited Moag, Young Noel also used the Breath of Light, breathing back into you an even smaller fraction of your own soul than you originally gave to him. The rest of you that exists within our physical world, remains within him, bound in the incomplete possession.”

“But what does this mean?” she asked, hardly able to keep the urgency out of her voice as she sat up.

“Issa, the vast majority of your being is lost forever to Moag and will never return to this earth in any vessel,” he answered softly. “To live life as an incomplete soul, having lost only a small piece of oneself to Om, is a wretched existence no one should suffer. You have lost so much more, and to Moag. Upon your death, I do not know what will happen to you. It is entirely possible you and Young Noel will both eventually be lost to Moag forever. As for now, in the remainder of this lifetime, you will feel this morbid lack within you, this emptiness, even greater than you would have suffered merely due to the possession, because much of you has been destroyed by the Eater of Souls, with no hope of return.

“You feel your connection to Young Noel, more greatly than you have ever felt another through empathy, because there is more of you within the elf than within your own body this very moment. While he too remains unwhole, and will likely suffer, to some extent, because he returned a fragment of you when he used the Breath of Light to revive you, what is missing from him is but a shard, compared to the near totality that is missing from you.

“There is such a small part of you that remains,” he continued, “that, like that errant portion of Young Noel’s soul that is left to wander, you can barely be felt through empathy. I have kept you enveloped all this while, and only through my envelopment of you do I receive even a glimmer of what is at the soul of you, and then only when you’re passions are strongest. At times there is more vitality in you, but Noel Loveridge is far stronger than you.

“Though I expect that even though you will never be able to control him, he will still suffer a certain obsession with you due to the possession, Ohamet will always have strength, power, over you, because the possession remains incomplete. He does not know that he holds all of the power, and I have no intention of telling him because I do not wish him to harm you out of his own fears. One day he will likely discover this truth. Hopefully, by then, we will have found a way of righting Om’s path, and he will leave this place, and you, alone. Needless to say, add to this your encounter with Moag, your understanding, or lack thereof, of the prophecies Young Noel drew out of the darkness, and it is no wonder you are so often ravaged by mania no one else can possibly understand.”

Issa knew what the Mardraim said was true. She had felt it all along, aware she was never meant to survive Moag. To live was the wanderer’s fate, not hers, yet he brought her back. He saved her and damned her to this agonizing existence all at once.

“I will struggle this way forever? I will never… know peace again?”

The Mardriam nodded gently, before adding, “It is true, you and Young Noel are bound to one another, and neither of you will have the peace you had before, yet it seems to me that in this moment, you are more certain of yourself than you have been in many days. I cannot tell you the number of times I have come to visit that you have hardly been present, how often I have watched as your mind twisted around itself, confounding you, so you had no idea of your own thoughts or deeds. In truth, you are more yourself in this moment than you have been since before Noel Loveridge arrived. I know you are discomforted by the nature of things, suffering your own sense of loss so greatly, often struggling for even the smallest measure of control, however it is important we acknowledge that your current state is much more stable than even a few brief minutes ago, before the wanderer… disappeared.”

He swallowed.

Isabella might have asked about this pause, inquired what the old man knew about where Noel Loveridge had gone, but the Mardraim’s brow furrowed, and he admitted almost at once, “I know where Young Noel is. I cannot tell you where, but I assure you, he will return to you, and with him will come both prophecy and Moag, once again. You have no need to worry. This is temporary. However, when he returns, you will not be able to maintain yourself, as you do now. You know your own mind,” the elder said in a pained voice, the tears returning to his eyes as he shook his head. “It is beautiful to look upon you and see you looking back at me, at last, after so many days of sensing your struggle to maintain yourself, unable to help in any way. I only wish Young Harvey were here. He grieves for you daily. He is greatly changed.”

“Harvey?” The thought of her friend caused her own tears to return, but now she must be strong. “This is my purpose,” she said casting her hands over the painting, covered in smeared handprints and gouges from her fingernails. She and Harvey had been equals, their companionship natural because they had everything in common through Om. How could he ever want to be near her like this? How could he not find the very idea of what she had become repulsive? How could she want for him to know her suffering?  “I… I….” Her brain contracted, refusing to allow the idea to even form completely, let alone escape. But the feeling was there inside her all the same, and she knew the Mardraim felt it within her.

Isabella was nothing. She was worthless without the wanderer to provide the prophecies of Moag, yet with the wanderer and prophecies, she was not at all herself. She would never be herself again.

“Issa, do not despair. You have done more than enough,” the elder said, wiping her tears away with the backs of his fingers, then lifting her chin so she would look him in the eye, as he smiled grievously, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks as well. “You have done more in these three days, with this prophecy, than the rest of us have managed since Young Noel’s arrival— the wanderer included. You have shown me what you have seen. I understand it, because of you. I do not yet know how to help Young Noel change it, if it can be changed, but I understand it only because you have given so much of yourself, to share it with me. Take heart in that.”

“But I no longer understand it! I cannot help to change it!” she wept, pressing the heels of her palms into her temples, as if to try and force the memories back. “It was here. I know it was clear to me. How can I know I had clarity of the thing, yet not know the thing itself? It is as though my mind is fractured, along with my soul!”

“But young one,” he shook his head, “when this vision was clear to you, you were not yourself. Your focus was on the prophecy alone. I could not deter you from it, even for a moment, so I allowed you to work, expecting eventually you would work yourself to exhaustion. For days you continued on, without stopping. Look at yourself! Look at how you deteriorate!” He gestured emphatically, scoffing at the sight of her, then took her hands in his, holding them tight as he spoke. “Issa, with everything that has happened, I have no doubt that you are most necessary to this world, in this way. By Om or by Moag matters not, because there is a purpose here, intent we cannot know without you. I cannot yet grasp the reasons why it has come to be so, but you are more important now than all other zhe, I assure you, because only you have seen the way of Moag, as changed by the wanderer. Only you can guide us in this. The rest of us will come to understand through you—through you and Noel Loveridge, together.”

She hissed a disgruntled curse at the idea, as the Mardraim stood and lifted her up from the ground, then led her to sit at the table. Her tears continued to fall, as the elder cleared away piles of her drawings and set the wash basin, full of clean water, in their place.

In silence, the old man washed Issa’s face and neck with a soft cloth, the cool water serving to soothe the pain of unrelenting loneliness and ease the sense of worthlessness within her. When her face was clean, he took to the task of scrubbing layers of paint and charcoal from her hands and arms, until at some point she stopped crying and a numb weariness set in.

She had no idea when she had last slept or eaten. There were vast gaps in her memories, with no explanation beyond Moag’s prophecies and Ohamet’s wanderings. What little she could remember were dwindling glimmers of half-awareness, completely meaningless because they lacked context. Meanwhile, the more the Mardraim scrubbed, the more he revealed that under the filth she was covered in newly-healed scars, injuries she caused to herself in her more disturbed states. The only positive was the fact that none of her wounds were recently made, which meant being under the influence of revelation of Moag’s prophecy at least kept her from doing herself more harm. Unfortunately, little was being done to tend to her basic needs in the meantime. She imagined tending to her was made more difficult by her scattered mind.

As to that, what would happen if and when Noel Loveridge returned? Would she be able to recall this conversation with the Mardraim, or would it be lost in a wave of Noel and Moag, as the Mardraim expected? Was there any way she could be both lucid and understand the prophecies of Moag at the same time? Was there any hope of finding a balance, or was all hope lost the moment she felt the wanderer flying up the side of their mountain?

“I am not certain what is best to do,” the Mardraim said quietly, his voice barely cutting through the silence, as he took the bowl from the table and sat on the ground before her, resting the basin in his lap. He did not look up at her, as he took her right foot in his hand and began washing the grime from it as well, his brow creased with a scowl.

Issa thought perhaps his statement had been in answer to the questions he must have felt, unvoiced within her, but the elder did not speak again until the dirt of several days muddied the paint-covered rag in his hand, and her foot was clean.

“Perhaps he is justified in his timing, and I have not taken as much care as I should,” he added quietly. Isabella decided he must be speaking to himself, and she should not interrupt, but then the elder took up her other foot and said, “We must surely live in a precarious balance, if we are to find our way through this. That is only right. Yes, I must tell Young Noel.”

“What will you tell him, my Mardraim?” Issa asked, her voice like brass, after shedding so many tears.

The old man loosed a sigh, heavy with burden. “I must tell him that I have kept you too long, stirring over this tragedy.” He waved the rag at the pictures on the walls and smiled. “I must tell him you must rest, while you can— a good, long rest, I believe.”

Setting the bowl aside, he dried her feet one at a time, with the tale of his tunic. “From now on, when Young Noel is away, as he is now, you must take advantage of the opportunity, to tend to your own existence, beyond prophecies and the will of the wanderer. You must do your best to live, as you lived before. You were happy once, Issa. With great courage, you can be happy again.”

“I do not see how. I am incomplete, alone… frightened. It seems everything is beyond my control.”

“Certainly, you know by now this is true for everyone,” he answered plainly. “Nevertheless, you must come to see these moments as gifts, as the mothers taught you to see the time taken in occlusion. Use it to determine what you want of this life that is not of prophecy, but try not to stir too much on these matters tonight. I am sorry I have not done better by you, before now. You need rest. Tomorrow, we begin anew, and neither of us can say for certain what will come when Ohamet returns. I will clear the remnants of our work away, so you may be ready. Until then, please know, you have given me more than enough to help me understand, and I do not want you to worry over this prophecy anymore. Now, allow me to clean and leave you to sleep.”

Isabella nodded, and the Mardraim went about the business of clearing the mess of drawings and paintings and books, scattered around the hut, while she sat wondering just what she was supposed to do. She had no idea how to determine what she wanted from life, when everything she had ever wanted had been hers from the beginning, handed to her by Om and stripped away by Ohamet, without any possibility of return.

As if in answer, she recalled the day she first awoke from the long sleep that came after Moag ended her life and Noel Loveridge handed it back to her, an unwanted fragment of what it used to be. That day, as her mother tended to her, the woman told Issa her life would never be the same. “It will only be what you make of it,” she had said. Issa could not help but wonder if her mother had any idea how right and wrong she truly was.

Ohamet had been absent that day as well, Issa thought, remembering the stillness she felt, as her mother spoke with her, carefully avoiding revealing her shame at her daughter’s pitiful state. At the time, Isabella had believed she was only deep within the protection of the Mdrai’ envelopment and that was why she felt no empathy for others, but Noel Loveridge was not present in her senses then either, when he should have been through the partial possession. Wherever he went, it seemed that place had the power to sever their connection of possession, at least temporarily. It was some time after she sent her mother to find the Mardraim, before the wanderer appeared in her subconscious, felt her cry for the loss of Harvey, and he came to her. That was when her delirium began. Before that, she felt nothing but emptiness, as now. More importantly, she realized, at that point she did not remember any of the things she saw of Moag.

Noel had felt her cry and come, just as he came to her the night he touched Moag and brought out the complete prophecy.  He had been so frightened for her, he flew straight there with unimaginable speed, and she had felt him coming and gone out to meet him. Though he was invisible, she could sense exactly where he landed, but she could also see the glowing remnant of herself, the piece of her soul, which Noel Loveridge kept. She was certain the wisp of light she saw with him could only be the fragment of her own soul, as it was so much like the light she saw curling out of the eldest mother’s mouth while she was at the cloister, before she died—like the light she herself was made up of, as Moag drew her out of her body, into its depths.

Perhaps, because the possession was left incomplete, there was a way she might yet save herself, a way to regain the portion of herself the wanderer kept—a way to sever their connection forever?

“My Mardraim?” she said, as the old man, having whisked away every trace of the prophecy, bid her goodnight and opened the door to go.

“Yes, young one?” he answered solemnly, stopping in the doorway. His voice was patient, but he looked troubled and tired. Had he remained with her the whole time, as she painted and drew the prophecy? It was so very strange not being able to sense what was at the soul of him, yet seeing the gravity of her situation ingrained in the deepening lines on his face.

“You say the possession remains incomplete. Perhaps there is a way it might be undone,” she quietly said.

“I am sorry, Issa. Any attempt we might make to that effect could only make matters worse, for both you and Young Noel,” he said, shaking his head. “You must rest now. We will talk again soon,” he added, then ducked out into the night, shutting the door behind him, leaving Issa feeling frustrated and hopeless and helpless, to try and find some solace in everything she had learned and the knowledge that, at least for now, she had the capacity to try and formulate some sort of plan, moving forward. The trouble was there was no solace to be had in knowing that as soon as Ohamet returned whatever plan she might make would likely cease to matter.

How was it possible she had accidentally performed part of this possession when she did not even know the Fahmat existed in the first place? Fragmenting her soul? She had never—could never—imagine such a thing was possible. Everything about it seemed so backwards and wicked to her, it was no wonder the magic had been forbidden.

What was this Breath of the Light the Mardraim spoke of, and why was this the first time she had heard it? The Mardraim said it was the very force that made life possible, a force their people once used with flagrance and frivolity, yet this was not something the Mdrai or the Felimi taught them in all their years of learning. How had the Mardraim come to know of it? Surely the Mdrai and Felimi must have learned more in these days Issa had spent in the erratic pull of Moag. She wondered if Harvey, as an aspirant, had learned anything about it as well.

The thought of him made her heart ache, so she turned her mind back to Noel.

Had she really used this strange force when she saved the elf’s life? Was it truly possible she had performed this magic, purely by accident, causing all of this?

No, she thought, resentment and anguish renewing within her. This was entirely the fault of the wanderer, and no one else. The Mardraim believed there was no point in trying to find a way to undo the partial possession because it might make matters worse, but he did not say he believed it impossible, and she had definitely seen the light of her self with Noel Loveridge, like she was calling out for help, for salvation. Issa could not simply wait for Ohamet to completely overwhelm her again— for all of this to end badly, as the old man said it would. She had to do something.

It was terribly late. Her belly was empty, her mind dull. She knew the Mardraim was right that she needed rest, but before she could sleep, she had to eat. And—she sniffed at her armpit and turned away, revolted—she was in desperate need of a proper bath. But first, while she had the presence of mind to do so, Issa took some of the fresh paper, which the elder had left, no doubt expecting that one day soon there would be another complete prophecy of Moag for Issa to record in its fullness, and she began to write:

Some prophecies are whole, others are merely pieces. If you remember either, you are not yourself. Wait for Ohamet to disappear, then find out where he goes. If there is a way to restore the piece of your soul, you must discover how, before it is too late.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 31

A Study of Wards

Noel rubbed his hand over the back of his head and brought it around across his face, to scratch at the days-old scruff on his jaw, gritting his teeth against the foul mood souring his guts. Edward Frank had to know something happened. There was no way he could not have known, yet for three days now, he’d been absent— from the lair, from his hut… Noel had not once seen him.

Turning back to the old book, lying on the desk before him, Noel waved his hand and watched his own words disappear from the page, leaving the ancient writings of his predecessors in its place.

He’d expected a barrage of questions, accusations, protestations about putting Isabella Asan in danger, once again—after all, what he had done was foolish, even selfish. But it seemed the old fellow couldn’t be bothered. As the days passed, with no word of any kind, Noel grew more certain Edward knew exactly what he’d done and was simply avoiding the topic as carefully as he avoided Noel. The appropriate question was why?

“Damned empathy,” he grumbled, resting his arms on the desk, holding the Book of Ages out before him, as he pressed his lips together against what he knew must happen next.

Though he suspected he would be forced to test the wards alone, that first day after touching Moag, Noel held out for Edward to come tell him what to do—anything at all to do, honestly, because he never felt more alone in his life, haunted on the inside by the restless spirit of Isabella Asan. Her eagerness to return to Moag gnawed at him, and yet she seemed intent on warning him away from the darkness, often and unnervingly so, despite her own desire. Fear of causing any more harm kept him waiting around for even a small word of encouragement the second day, though all hope he would receive help had dwindled. Day three was occupied by acts of pure stubbornness— at least stubbornness was comforting, something he could definitively call his own, in the middle of this chaos he could hardly understand. Now, still plagued by the echoes of Isabella’s terror, Noel knew the time had come to take matters into his own hands, but he wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t being left on his own by design, and he needed to know, for certain, how Isabella—the real, corporeal, her—faired, before he did anything else.

It was not as though Noel didn’t know where the Mardraim was all this time. There was really only one place he could be. Edward’s interests rested in prophecy, that much was obvious. Noel had put off the inevitable long enough.

“Irony of ironies,” he muttered, pushing himself up from the old man’s chair, not bothering to look around as several parchments, disturbed by his disturbance, bounced and scattered across the floor.

Tucking the book under his arm, he cobbled together his light well and reluctantly dragged himself out the magical doorway, into the darkness, loudly proclaiming for anyone— or supernatural, soul-sucking monstrosity— that might be listening, “Who would have thought I would come to dread that woman more than I could possibly fear whatever truths might be buried for me in this onerous arsecrack of Fate?”

No laughter rose up from the depths, no echo of his own words in a voice he did not know, only the silent pull of the darkness answered him, with a mournful tug, deep at the root of his soul, as if to say, “Come. See.” He moaned low against the ache of it, catching his breath.

While Noel had spent the past three-and-a-half days feeling rather sorry for himself, he also managed to be a bit productive. He used a trick he picked up from Phileas, to create an under-layer in the Book of Ages, where he began compiling information. Some would frown on his defacement of the text, but a lot had happened, and he thought it important to keep a copy of everything in one place, rather than having his efforts scattered. Besides, this way he could assure he had his own copy, in the event he had to leave in a hurry. He started by transferring his notes from his meeting with the Knowledge Keepers, about the Last Hope prophecy. He’d copied the map of the tunnel he’d charted so far and his best picture of his impression of Moag, though it was hard to do it justice. He’d also recorded everything he remembered about what happened when he first entered Moag, including how it affected Isabella and, of course, what occurred the other night, when he touched it.

It was difficult not to berate himself for that bit of stupidity, but the terrible truth of the matter was if he was not already quite insane from his obsession with Isabella Asan, he was certainly well on his way, torn between two extremes— one, an insatiable desire to return to that place where the darkness deepened beyond anything comprehensible to the human mind, and the other, the periodic wailing and shrieking of his possessor in his head, which had scarcely relented since he decided it would be a smashing idea to reach out and touch Moag (because apparently his first encounter on that front hadn’t been warning enough against such recklessness). As this possession progressed, things were bound to get worse.

Noel wasn’t certain why he felt called to return to that exact place in the tunnel, where the darkness forked, but after these days spent going over the details, he had begun to believe the urge had something to do with the encompassing darkness he understood in the Dreaming. He thought, when he first set out on this endeavor, he was looking for the seers of old, who could explain the prophecy in the Book of Ages, but now, given everything, he wondered if the answers about the Prophecy of Last Hope may actually lie within Moag itself. Of course, he had no idea how to find out, except to go in there and see what happened, but before he could do that, he had to deal with his possessor.

As far as Noel knew, Isabella didn’t have the weight of a ten-thousand-year-old prophecy about the salvation of her people looming over her, driving her to erratic behavior, so it was impossible for him to grasp her longing for the darkness, when it so clearly harmed her. The other night, just as he was preparing himself to do the idiotic, he felt her shift internally, he felt her fear rise, as she urged him to turn and run. He’d ignored it, even mocked it.

No. He defied it.

What was he supposed to do? The woman had attached herself to him like some hell-spawned succubus. He couldn’t help that he was afraid of losing his mind and his free will in the process, and he figured fighting it was a perfectly reasonable reaction to discovering one had been possessed. How was he supposed to know what would happen as a result? Edward Frank certainly wasn’t any help.

“Yeah, but what the bloody hell was I thinking, touching the damned thing? Anything might have happened.”

That was why the wards were necessary, he thought, reaching the end of the path and taking flight.

He’d not yet plucked up the courage to try any of them out. Dabbling in foreign magic, without a mentor or at least making a decent study of the thing, was a bad idea. Edward should have been there.

“But he’s not.”

In the span of a moment Noel landed a foot shy of Isabella’s stoop, in the small patch of light cast by the lantern that burned in an open window. Though the rest of the villagers slept, it appeared she was still awake. He’d half expected to find her waiting for him at the door and was grateful when she spared him that bit of humiliation. Still, in silent trepidation, he climbed the steps and crept to the window, so afraid of what he might find, when he looked inside, that he actually trembled.

The place was a mess, papers and books scattered everywhere, crudely drawn faces pinned to the walls, though it was plain to see an expert hand sketched them and only faltered in the hurry to draw so many—so very many.

Isabella sat on the floor, hands and arms, up to her elbows, covered in paint tinted blue and green and umber, fingers working frantically at the canvas laid before her, though from his vantage point, Noel could hardly tell what she painted. Edward Frank sat at the table, his back to the window, studying one of the drawings—a twisted face of a man crying out in pain.

“Drowning.” Isabella’s voice came through clearly within him, before Noel even had the chance to process what he saw, and he shuddered against it, as much over the word as the clarity with which her voice intoned inside him.

Yes. He recognized the look in the man’s eyes, so lovingly drawn they were almost real on the page. The look was fear— though unmitigated terror seemed the more appropriate descriptor. The man’s wet hair clung to his desperate brow. Water trailed like an ocean of tears down his cheeks. His mouth contorted in what might be a cry for help or, perhaps, a gasp for air. But those eyes knew death was coming.

He was drowning, just as Isabella said—all of them were. Hundreds of faces, pinned to the walls, scattered and piled, crying out in desperation, as the water overtook them.

Thousands.

Noel wasn’t certain how he knew, but he understood this was the prophecy Isabella saw when he touched Moag. She was recreating it for Edward.

Noel shuddered again.

Isabella, the flesh-and-bone woman sat on the floor, with legs sprawled like a child, glanced back at the window, as though she felt him there.

Noel ducked away. He was not certain if she could see him through his light well, but even so he knew she sensed him. It was time to leave, before she drew Edward’s attention to Noel’s presence. He had seen what he came for. Isabella Asan was fine. A bit manic in her work, but apparently unharmed by his foolhardy behavior.

Of course, he knew someone would have mentioned it, if anything terrible happened to the woman. Even if Edward was too preoccupied with the prophecies to care, with everything that had happened between them, if Isabella fell ill or suddenly keeled over dead, everyone else would be quick to assume Noel was to blame and would come bearing pitch forks and torches. Still, as he took to the air, he was grateful he found her well, or well enough. From now on, he decided, he would only take careful steps, always returning to her, to make certain he did not cause her suffering. It was the right thing to do.

Yes, it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t as though this decision was made out of kindness or compassion. No doubt, he felt awful for the woman. No one deserved to live out the rest of their life moving from one fit of madness to the next. It was bad enough Isabella struggled so greatly with the Moag prophecies, but when Edward told Noel how she harmed herself, he felt a deep responsibility for her, especially since Edward was unwilling to test the wards and Noel was certain they would help them both. But Noel’s determination to take care from now on was purely selfish. Possession led to obsession, which necessarily led to a loss of oneself, to the total control of the possessor. How would he fair under the control of a woman who was so utterly lost, herself? He had an obligation to take care of her, out of self-preservation. At least for now, she seemed content working out this latest prophecy.

This prophecy… Noel’s stomach churned. All those people…

Was he really the cause of the terrible tragedy the woman drew? Were these people destined to die because he changed the course of their fates?

It was a load of bollocks, all of it. If he did cause this, he hadn’t meant to. He didn’t even have a clue how he, an elf— Noble, yes, but not with any great force of power and certainly not with some real fortitude of principle or even slightly greater than average moral fiber about him— could be the cause… the source of such… devastation…

Either way, he had to find some way to stop this, before it got worse.

Before he made it worse.

As he hurried through the darkness, the urge to return to Moag, to find his answers, burned like fire in his belly, always there. The Isabella inside him longed to return as well, but rose in his head against the inclination, a contradiction of herself, a mighty fury.

“Not yet,” he whispered in agreement, even as he rushed through the rock wall, into the Mardraim’s hold.

It was time to make serious study of the wards.

Grabbing his pen, ink, and a spare bit of parchment from the desk, he flew up to the tower door of the room of Danguin magic. If there was one thing he learned at Bergfalk’s, it was how to properly study things, or so he believed. After all, the Nobles spent half their time there as living subjects to the Scholars’ experiments, trying to restore what magic their people lost after the Fall.

First came research.

He quickly copied down each of the Faeish scriptures that marked the door. There were twelve in all, far fewer than the hundreds that protected the room of Fkat at the Felimi cloister. Yet, he found relief from Isabella in the tiny room, so he could at least hope one or some combination of these wards would provide the woman with some relief as well. Maybe that would be enough for them.

Noel knew little about fairy wards. They were rumored to be scattered throughout the globe, though until coming to the mountain Noel had never seen any himself, beyond photographs. They were said to guard sacred places and forbidden realms, but their purposes and effects were supposedly quite vast, much more than simply to keep something safe. The floating isles of the Dark Fairies were alleged to be built of all manner of wards, for their protection, wellbeing, growth, secrecy, prosperity—the list was extensive. Likewise, it was believed the Otherworld of the Annwfn was completely hidden by wards, so well hidden even another fairy, who wasn’t Annwfn, wouldn’t be able to find it, knowing perfectly well what he was looking for and where to search.

Noel had no clue what any of the twelve scriptures meant, mainly because the various languages of the fairies were complex and intertwined, much like the roots of living things. Luckily, he expected the Mardraim’s massive library held the answers for him… except he did not know their language either.

He took his drawings and headed downstairs a level, stepped onto the landing and grabbed a random book from the first shelf he came to. Flipping it open, he was met with exactly what he expected—everything was in Danguinese. In his work with Harvey, he’d managed to learn their alphabet and much of their phonetics, but in the language of the Danguin there was meaning tacked onto every letter, consonant blend, and syllable, so that the language itself had far fewer words than English or Elvish, but those words carried a much deeper meaning than any word in English might. And it was not as though teaching Noel Danguinese was Harvey’s top priority; they concentrated on Danguin culture.

He scanned the first few pages of the book, for any of the few words he knew, but only found Panpago. As far as he could tell this book was all about boiled breakfast grains akin to oatmeal, a topic which wasn’t particularly magical.

Sighing, he returned the book to its shelf.

The magic of the Danguin was confined to the locked room. He knew the magic of Beasts was housed on a single level midway up the enormous central staircase, and all of the man-made artifacts along with many books were kept on the first twelve floors, though considering the extent of the magic of man, there could be several more floors of books dedicated to the subject. Either way, this left fifty-two floors of books to comb through, in the hopes of finding one text on Fae wards. There had to be over a million books in the library, and not knowing the language was going to be a significant problem. For now, he had to continue studying with Harvey and maybe find a gentle way to push the man into teaching him more written Danguinese. But even if he spent every waking hour he wasn’t with Harvey Frank looking through the library, he figured it would take him at least a year on each level, spending no more than five minutes per book. He certainly didn’t plan on staying in the mountain another fifty-two years. No. He had to figure out a quick way of telling which brand of magic was housed in each section, with no reference to guide him.

Think, Noel. Think.

He stood back from the shelves and looked up and down the row, taking in all the spines. On the outside, none of the books seemed the same. They were a scattered spectrum of colors, bound in various materials, the text on the spines were imprinted and inscribed with different inks. Remembering the nonsensical system the mdrai used for organizing the books of prophecy in the Hall of Records, Noel wondered if perhaps these books were organized in a similar way, not by date or topic or type of magic, but by some underlying relational meaning. If this reason was sound, then the shelf in front of him contained books with some context that wasn’t outwardly apparent, but should be evident by their contents. They were surely all on the topic of magic of the same race, but what made the book he looked at first and the books to either side of it belong on the same shelf?

He retook the book he already viewed, along with a few from either side, all different colors, different lengths, different sizes, all bound in different materials, and sat on the floor laying each in order in front of him. The book on possession was a single book, describing everything about the forbidden Danguin art, according to Edward. Based on that, it might be reasonable to assume these seven books contained one particular act of magic each, but the Mardraim also mentioned that the magic of the Danguin was not as extensive as that of other races. How many books must there be if every magical act possible had its own book, he wondered? How many would there be if each act of magic was bound in a book full of other acts within the same category? If it were Elvin, say, a book might describe everything about Light Wells and their practice, or information on light wells might be found in a book discussing how an elf is able to interact with light particles in various ways. If it were Fae, it might describe how to make iachaol or perhaps how to make all elixirs that fall in that class or instead be a reference of certain kinds of ingredients, among which one or more might be used in making iachaol.

“Am I over-thinking?”

He picked up each book, one by one, examining the cover, carefully turning them over in his hands, inspecting the spines, checking the binding to determine the nature of their making. They were all unique in every way. He opened the covers of all seven, laid out in front of him and compared. The books of man often contained pages telling about the author, publisher, date and place of production, and many other races followed suit, because the system for referencing was sound. If these books contained such information, it wasn’t easily discernible, as the writers simply started writing, at the top of each page, filling them with long paragraphs that sometimes extended for several pages before breaking off to begin anew.

But why would such information as author and date be necessary in a secret library built of wizarding magic, hidden inside a mountain no one ever visited and few very rarely left, especially a library accessible to only one man— well two, in this case? These books weren’t mass produced, at least he thought not, considering Edward told him no one but the current Mardraim knew about the library. But then again, Edward also said the Felimi sent the Mdrai out into the world, to collect the new magic of all of the races.

“These may be copies of the original works, made for the Felimi. They could have a library of their own up in the cloister,” he whispered. “But they are blind. If they do have records, they will not be books full of ink.”

He sighed so heavily the page of one of the books turned on its own. Looking down, he realized there were no page numbers. He flipped several pages in each of the books, and indeed, none of them included numbering. There were no headingss of any kind, either, no difference in text sizes or styles. In fact, the text of each book was exceedingly neat, almost uniform, however the there were minor variances in the script, and looking carefully he realized none had been written by the same hand.

Noel smiled at a memory. As if Edward actually expected him to one day be Mardraim of the Danguin people, when he showed him the book of possession he said Noel would need to copy the text at some point in his life, as part of the upkeep.

If the Danguin had been collecting magic for roughly the past eleven thousand years, how many Mardraim must there have been over that time? Five hundred? Two hundred? How long was a Mardraim ordinaily a Mardraim? How many books would each Mardraim have to copy over a lifetime? He looked around the room, searching for a pattern on the shelves. How long would it take one Mardraim to copy the works of five Mdrai, all bringing back various magic of the several races? It would not be easily done. Perhaps the Mdrai themselves wrote these books, and the Mardraim only copied them when they reached a certain state of disrepair. Perhaps some of these books were the original works, which were then transcribed in a manner the Felimi could utilize.

Noel broadened his perspective, and then he saw it. The book bindings repeated at random, and their variance was widely spread. He picked up one of the works before him, bound in a teal-colored leather, and hurried down the row a few sections, until he found another bound in the same material, then another further down. The script on the spines were identically embossed with black ink. The bind was sewn with the same color of thread and exacting stitches. He opened each in turn and found the handwriting matched.

His excitement at discovering there was a system to the book bindings, to a degree, that seemed to indicate either the original author of the work or the mark of the transcriber, was dampened by the fact that it didn’t help him with what was on the insides of the books.

Noel returned the two spare books back in their original shelves and went back to his chosen seven, once more sitting cross-legged in front of them. He turned the teal book back to its beginning and attempted to read, looking for familiar words. Now and then he found simple words or phrases he had heard before, some he understood, some he didn’t, but it was like handing a seven year old a doctoral text and expecting him to understand it. He could sound out words, mostly, but he had little idea of meaning, and it was more of the same with the other six works. It would have been much easier if any of the books made reference to the race to which the magic belonged, at least then he would know whether or not he was in the right place, but that was expecting too much for a culture that used so few words to communicate in the first place. Why would a Danguin waste time repeating the race of the magic when the race was evident based on its floor in the library?

Letting out a large puff of air, frustration at the impossibility of the task building, he scanned the first pages of each of the books once more, this time searching for words that were common between them, even if he could not understand them. Of course there were plenty of elementary words, but he was hoping to stumble across some relevant tie in the group of works, for a single word that stuck out amongst them, to give the works some context. If it existed, it wasn’t readily apparent, but then he had already lost his patience.

“There has to be an easier way.”

Annoyed, he returned the books to their rightful places and flew down to ground level with his drawings, wondering how he could study the wards without the written records, at least for the time being. He lay on the sofa, crossing his feet and resting them on the arm, and took to staring at the images of the wards, as if somehow, looking long and hard enough, he might divine their meaning. Perhaps there was some experiment he could run, to find out what each of the wards were? No, he needed to understand more about what he was dealing with first. Perhaps he could ask Harvey? But Harvey would want to know why.

“This is useless. What do I know, for certain?” he asked, laying the papers aside.

He began reciting rote knowledge of Parallels from his school days. “Magic of gods is of Energy with the Matter of Duality in the Form of Intellect. Magic of elves is of Duality in the Matter of Elements in the Form of Energy. Magic of wizards is of Elements in the Matter of Bondage in the Form of Duality. Magic of fairies is of Bondage in the Matter of Life in the Form of Elements. Magic of men is of Intellect in the Matter of Energy in the Form of Evolution.”

He knew, essentially, what fairies do is the work of life-binding. It was, therefore, reasonable to assume a ward had to be made of living matter, natural elements without any augmentation except through incorporation of further natural elements, all bound in life. By the laws governing Fae, one could not make a ward out of a synthetic material, a ward could not be made that was not bound, and the binding must occur at the elemental level. From this, one could understand the six permutations of fairy magic, which hardly mattered to the task before him, because knowing the fundamentals from his school days would draw him no closer to his goal of cracking these particular wards.

He let out a disgusted grunt and sat up, laying the wards out on the coffee table before him. He leaned forward, his ands pressed against the table, knees bouncing anxiously. What else?

Well, he knew one or more of those twelve wards made it impossible for someone who wasn’t the Mardraim to unlock the door to the room of Danguin magic. Of course, it was not likely there was a fairy ward specific to Danguin Mardraim, rather he suspected that in order for the ward that acted upon lock and key to do the necessary work of determining who could pass, the ward had to somehow be imparted with the intention in the process of the binding. The intention, in this case, was the quality or attribute of Mardraim. But how was this intention imparted?

He scratched his nose, knowing he knew exactly spit about use of Fae. Bergfalk had stressed the importance of learning Parallels, but if they ever taught anything specific about wards, Noel didn’t remember it. The trouble wasn’t the Parallels though, it was the Fae itself. The subject just couldn’t hold his interest, though he was hardly the only one.

Fae was a baser magic than that of the elves. Not that it was lesser in power, in fact, oftentimes a fairy could take more direct action than an elf, though this was in part down to the Fall. Fae was simply different. An elf could in theory make a fairy tonic, by knowing not just the ingredients and where to find or how to fabricate them and when to mix them together, but also knowing all of the properties of the ingredients and exactly how those combined to become that tonic in the fairy binding, finally arranging the elements in that way. Whereas the fairy would grow the appropriate herbs, pick them at the right time, bless them in the Faeish way, and bind them in due course, as fairies do. In the end, they would come out with the same tonic, but the elf’s work for accomplishing this task would be much more time consuming and required greater energy of the elf himself, where the energy the fairy got to do the work would be grown up from the earth, in the Fae. The binding was way down deep in the nature of things, and elves simply didn’t have that relationship with nature. Plus, it was difficult not to think of Fae as kitchen work, and who liked kitchen work, bippity-boppity, and all that nonsense?

He wondered if it would be enough to replicate a ward, the way he might replicate a tonic, if he understood it fundamentally. Or was this a bit of fairy magic he would have to learn to do the traditional way? Did he have enough fairy in him that he would have the capacity for it, if wards couldn’t be replicated? That didn’t matter now. At least one of the twelve wards worked as an intention on the lock and key. What were the other eleven for?

Well, one or more somehow either temporarily severed or at least greatly lessened the connection between him and Isabella. That was the ward he needed. It did this either directly or indirectly, as a result of its intention. Was it possible this was a protection against possession itself? That didn’t seem very likely. If so, wouldn’t it be in the book on possession upstairs? And if it was, wouldn’t Edward know exactly what it was?

A insidious seed, embedded in the lining of his stomach days ago, began to sprout roots and leaves.

No. Why would the old many lie to him about it? He would know Noel would find out eventually, wouldn’t he? Unless that didn’t matter to him . But what purpose would lying serve?

The prophecies… It would serve Om and Moag and the old Mardraim’s understanding of things.

On a sigh, Noel gathered his papers, retrieved the key from the desk drawer, and returned to the room at the top of the library. He hurried inside and opened the book on possession, still there on the small table where Edward left it. He wouldn’t be able to read this book either, he thought, frowning as he took a seat, but if there was a ward among its pages, he was determined to find it. The hour was late, but with a yawn, he leaned his elbow on the table, rested his head against his fist, and began scouring the text.

He woke sometime later, when he tried to stretch to get comfortable and sent a candle clattering to the floor. He woke so well-rested, so content with the world and everything in it that as he flew like a dart downstairs, not knowing what time it was or whether or not he was late meeting Harvey, he didn’t even care that he might be caught out, having stayed too long in the secret hold, as he wiped the crusted drool from his mouth. He had not dreamt. He had not once felt the pulled Moag drawing him to the darkness. He was halfway to the ground floor when the thought of Isabella struck him hard in the gut.

“Noel, you absolute idiot,” he whispered against the panic that rose inside him, frantically feeling for her, but unable to find her. “What have I done?” He had wanted to test the wards, but this was not how.

 

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 30

A Drowning of Multitudes

Four and twenty marks…  Four and twenty days or more since she woke from Moag, Issa thought, skeptically scraping her teeth across her bottom lip as she watched the patch of white-gold light falling through the window, tracing its path across the scratches on the floor.  Her concept of time was still questionable.

What if the Mardraim had visited while she slept, or when she was lost in Moag, or wherever it was she went when she disappeared because she was certain that she was invisible sometimes too?

How did he do that?

Four and twenty days. Or less.

Less was definitely possible, she thought, turning to pace, rubbing angry fingers at her temples, trying to keep the ideas from stirring frantic inside her, even as they gurgled up, vomitous in her brain, half curdled puzzles, burbling from the depths of her, lingering for hours and minutes and seconds, waiting, and waiting some more, for the rest of the fragments to ferment and congeal, to emerge something solid and knowable.  Few thoughts managed to reach this precious state.  But last night…

Good. She still remembered, but how long would it be before she forgot?  And why had the Mardraim not come, as promised?

Issa hurried to the door, glancing back at the patch of light, hoping to remember what it looked like when she returned.  If she returned.

Her concept of reality was rather dubious as well.  The holes in her own presence in her head were surrounded by fractures of memories she could only recall from a great distance, as though at times she was not herself anymore, but some other being altogether, residing on the outside of the thin shroud that had been placed over her eyes, like a screen, so that all she could know was from this other’s perspective, looking down on the world, watching the Issa who no longer existed move like a blind shadow through a memory of a moment that had yet to occur, but was somehow grounded in a long distant past.  Like a grain of sand, she thought— a grain of sand that was once a behemoth mountain, like her home.

And then there was the Wanderer.

No, it was best not to think of him.  Thoughts of him left her feeling ashamed, irrevocably altered, and that never proved good for keeping her mind intact.  The her she used to be could not come to terms with the she she had become— the she who truly wished her past self would leave Noel Loveridge to his death in the icy outside world, though every her she was on every level of existence knew perfectly well leaving him to his death was impossible, not because the thing had already happened—though that too was an important observation, she noted— but because he was Ohamet.

The Wanderer lives.

Yes. Yes, he lives, but then last night, she thought scowling, scratching at her cheeks as she turned in a circle, forgetting whatever it might be she intended to do in favor of this new line of thought.  She despised him as much as she despised the part of her that wished the Mardraim had found some way to end him, as he had told the Felimi he wanted.  Ohamet lived and would have lived, that was certain, but also beside the point. Even reason could not change this perturbation within her that knew his wandering had taken everything from her and he should never have brought her back to this life, even if she remembered telling him to breathe.

Wait?

Had she told him to breathe?

She stopped to listen to the past, and yes, she could hear the voice inside her head clearly inside his head, though far away, urging him to save her.  Why had she done that?  What else had she forgotten?

The light!

She glanced back at the patch of morning, still making its slow progress across the floor, and let loose a grateful sigh as she recalled that she was waiting for the Mardraim.

Her concept of reality was a most fragile thread, swiftly unraveling like the tail of her Omdet Fillim in a vision of a dream in which she had drowned and brought herself back to life.

No, she was not supposed to be here, in this world, on this plain.  Om had nothing more for her.  But Moag… Last night…  Where was the Mardraim?

With one breath, Noel Loveridge had thrust her back into this life of darkness, where all she could do was convulse and spew senseless babble for the rest of time, uttering pieces of a future she could never fully fathom with any of her worldly senses, even though inside her the truth swelled and raged and battered against her, all there, all looking for an escape, but as fragmented and confused as Issa herself, in a thousand and one forms.  There were few things she could rely upon as real.  She did not even know if this moment was real, but she knew last night Noel Loveridge had done something different, something spectacular.

The marks were real, she thought, returning to count them once again, uncomfortably aware that the she she wanted to be had failed miserably at holding back the her she had become.  The marks were real, even if they only meant she was lucid four and twenty times since she woke knowing something—everything and nothing all at once— was missing, and backwards, and wrong, and trapped inside her head.

Unless the marks were meant to signify something other than time, but what could that be? What did she have left to mark?

Frustrated, she bounced on her toes, clawing at the flesh on her upper arms. How many times had she stood before those marks futilely contemplating why she had chosen to make them, what she intended to count, if they had even begun as intentional marks or if she had made at least some of them while in some altered state?  Because sometimes she was neither the her she wanted to be, nor the she she had become, nor the her outside of time, looking down, but instead was some other she none of them knew in the slightest, and it was all the Wanderer’s fault.

She bent down and scratched another swift mark in the floor with the sharpened nail of her thumb, for good measure.

Five and twenty.

That mark was true—real or not.  Five and twenty marks since she started making marks and wondering why she was making marks.

Issa crossed the room to the door again and ran her finger down the shallow gouge there in the frame.

One mark.

One time the Mardraim had come to visit, to take away the pieces of Moag’s prophecies, to try and order them, so he might restore Om.  One mark made by the Mardraim himself, with a promise to return first thing the next day, to collect pieces of the shattering.  His mark was more reliable as a measurement of time and reality, so long as Issa did not change it.

So long as the wanderer did not change it, she thought with a hint of bitter remorse.  No. Still best not to think of him, she reminded herself, gritting her teeth against the idea of his pain and fear last night, as he flew toward her.

He was with Harvey again today. She squeezed her fist, then flexed her fingers.  His fist closed and flexed in response.  This was comforting.  She did not know if it was real or true, but at least in Noel she felt tethered to an existence that seemed relatively consistent.

She missed Harvey.  He had stolen him too, and Issa was certain she hated him for it, despite the fact she had little understanding of hatred as an emotion, except through him.  But last night…

Last night, Noel Loveridge was in the tunnels.  She did not know why he went there, but he went often. At first, she believed he was trying to find a way home because he thought of his friends, he missed them, but then he began wandering the edges of Moag, which turned out to occupy much more of their mountain than Issa suspected anyone knew.  Ohamet could feel it, and she could feel it as well, through him, though this made little sense, not that anything made sense anymore.  The wanderer was afraid of Moag, but last night he did something that, for the briefest of moments, allowed Isabella Asan, the real her, to see again.

What she saw was whole. Complete. A perfect work.  A perfect, terrifying, beautiful, desperate work.

Then the wanderer was flying toward her in a panic, his desperation rooted deep within her.  Issa had hurried to the door to meet him, expecting to find out what he had done, to learn what he knew, but when he landed, he was invisible.  Almost.

Did the Mardraim know the elf had been there in her garden last night?  Did he know Noel Loveridge could make himself unseen and wander wherever he wanted?

Issa dug her fingernails into her palm.  She felt Noel flex his fingers in response, shaking out his hand, and smiled.

One mark.  One time the Mardraim came to help her, she thought, running her finger over the etched line in the door frame. He would help her understand what Ohamet had done.

That was right, whether real or true existed anymore.  That was right.

“Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed, as there came a knock at the door.

Isabella flung the door open, and there stood the Mardraim on the other side, as if manifested by her mania.  She laughed loudly at the sight of him, and when the elder’s eyes widened in shock, she swallowed her laughter and covered her mouth, whispering from behind her fingers, “My Mardraim,” and ducking her head in a respectful bow.  She glanced at the door frame, to make certain the Mardraim’s mark had not changed.  Still there.

“Young Isabella,” the elder smiled at her, though his eyes were sad, she thought as he inspected her and she grew painfully aware of her appearance. “Are you feeling well today?”

She straightened her dress and smoothed her hair.  She was not certain how to explain how she felt, so instead she took him by the hand leading him to her small table, where there were two chairs waiting.

She had tried to stay awake last night, after the wanderer ran away, while she waited for the Mardraim, afraid if she closed her eyes the vision that had come to her so completely would slip away through the cracks in her mind, like everything else tended to do, since Noel Loveridge brought her back to life.  She had spent most of the night pacing, but at some point, in some other state of herself, she must have sat down to rest, and fallen asleep.

She woke in a panic, well before the dawn, still sat at the table, her head stirring with useless fragments.  Afraid she had forgotten what Moag and Ohamet had shown her, she intended to whisper the worthless bits into the solitary stillness of the early morning hours, but as the thoughts pressed dangerously against the inside of her skull, seeking release, she stumbled over her chair in her hurry, and knocked her head against the ground.  She lay on the floor weeping for some time, until she realized the vision was still whole—painfully whole. Somehow it had managed to remain, in spite of Issa’s turmoil and the tender spot that grew up on her forehead.

“The seabed ripped open, and the earth shook with violent tremors,” she said quickly, as the Mardraim settled himself into a chair, eying her seriously, while she paced before him.  “The waters of the ocean receded from the shorelines. They drew back, far away, in preparation, and the people came out from their homes and places of work to watch, some frightened, some wondering what it meant. When the ocean made its return at last, it became a vast serge, rising over its shores, washing through towns and villages, ripping up everything in its path—the ground, the trees, the buildings, the people— carrying all of this destruction inland, until the waters finally settled back in their beds, leaving carnage behind.  Thousands of people drowned, swept away, crushed by the debris, lost forever. Hundreds of thousands—a drowning of multitudes.”

As she spoke the last words, she sat in her chair.

The elder stared in silence, his eyes wide as he struggled to make sense of her words.  When he finally leaned forward and spoke, his voice was a tremulous whisper, “You saw this?  Exactly this?”

Isabella understood his shock. These were not the allegorical instruments of Om.  These were not even akin to the dream-like visions she saw while she was within Moag herself.  She knew no one believed her when she told them that Moag had shown her everything, all that had ever and would ever happen in the world, especially since Issa could hardly piece together the words to recount any given event because it was far too much for anyone to know.  Whatever the wanderer did last night, Issa was able to see this event again, so clearly she could taste the salt water that filled bloated lungs.  She could see the baffled and terrified faces of the people swept up in the tides, hear their last cries for help as their bodies were bashed and tossed by the wake and everything the water tore from the earth.  This was a change Noel Loveridge had made, and to hear Issa speak with such clarity, especially considering her state during his last visit, was sure to concern the Mardraim.

She nodded.  “When Ohamet was within Moag, I saw this and all of his changes at once.  But last night, he…”

Her voice faltered.  She shook her head and looked down at her fingers.  What would the Mardraim do if she told him where Noel Loveridge went each night?

“What did he do, child?” the elder prompted.

“I do not know,” she shrugged, knowing this was true, even if it was negating a lot of what she did know.  What if the mothers discovered Noel Loveridge had been out wandering alone? What would happen to her if something happened to him?  If Ohamet’s wandering was stopped, would Issa only have the chaos left in her head?  While she knew he had been frightened last night, if she wanted clarity, more she could tell the Mardraim about the changes brought about by the elf’s wanderings, she needed Noel to do whatever he had done again.

And again, and again until she could share everything.  It would take countless lifetimes.

He had taken Om from her.  He had taken Harvey from her.  He owed her.

“Young Isabella, if I am to help you, you must tell me what you know,” the Mardraim whispered.  “I will protect you both.”

Issa tucked her hands beneath her legs, biting her lip.  She knew the Mardraim intended to try and right the way of Om.  She knew he would try and fail.  She had seen his efforts.  She knew how it would end.  She no longer had a destiny of her own, not even a destiny foretold by Moag, but if she could tell others of the changes Noel Loveridge had made, then perhaps his bringing her back to life was not such a cruelty after all.  Maybe she could serve this purpose as well as she had meant to serve Om.

“He has been wandering again,” she hissed, too ashamed to meet the Mardraim’s eye, instead looking down at the ground where five and twenty gouges in the floor caught the light of morning.  They numbered the pieces of prophecies she had given the Mardraim the day before.  She could remember quite clearly now, making each mark, hoping she would not forget—all but the last one, the one she had given today.  It was whole. It was beautiful and mortifying.

“At night, when everyone is sleeping, Ohamet wanders the tunnels near Moag.  I do not know what he did differently last night, but whatever it was, it allowed me to understand this event clearly.  I think he… touched Moag… somehow.  Not like before.”

“I see,” the elder frowned.  “What makes you believe he touched Moag?”

“He is fearful of it, because of the dreams he saw while within it, but he is drawn to it,” she answered plainly.  “Before the vision came, I felt this fear and this need within him to go there.  Then there was incredible pain, so terrible I could hardly breathe, but I saw—lived—this moment again, this change Noel Loveridge made.  When it was done, the pain stopped, but the elf flew to me, with desperate speed.  I went to meet him, but when he landed on the garden path, I could not see him.”

The Mardraim stifled a smile.  “You could not see him, yet you are certain he was there?”

“Yes.  I could not see him, but I saw myself, or something like myself.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, leaning forward expectantly.

“I saw it before, as well,” she nodded, her courage building. “Not me, as I am today, and not in a vision.  Last night, when he landed in the garden, there was a whisper of light he could not make invisible.  That light belonged to me once, and I knew it as myself, the part of me he stole when I breathed the life back into him.  But the light I saw before was different. When Noel Loveridge first entered Moag, while I was with Harvey and the mothers at the cloister, I left my body dead on the ground.  I saw a whisper of light then too, like a curl of smoke, trailing up from the old mother’s mouth, up to the ceiling. I think the old mother is dying.”

The Mardraim shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his white brow drawing heavy over kind eyes.  “Could you see this light around anyone else?”

Issa was certain he knew something about what she had seen. Perhaps he knew the old mother was going to die.  Perhaps he had seen this light as well, but she decided the vision of the drowning was more important than the light.

“No, but the middle mother saw me.  As though she had always seen me, she reached out to snatch me from the air, but she couldn’t, and that was when I realized I was no longer within my body. I was made of the smoke-touched light, like the light the old mother was breathing.”

The Mardraim sat stunned and for a long while watched her in silent contemplation.  When he spoke at last, his voice was heavy with concern.  “Have you told this to anyone else? Have you told this to Harvey?

Issa frowned, uncertain why the elder would ask such a question.  “I do not believe so, however I have been… not myself at times.”

He let out a small sigh that seemed rather nervous than it did relieved.  “You must not tell anyone else what you have seen, Issa.  I will make this right,” he said quietly.  And he reached across the table, taking her hand with both of his in promising comfort.

The old man had used the name for her only Harvey used.  The familiar word sounded strange on the elder’s lips.  She knew he meant well.  He would try to make it right again, try to restore the prophecies Ohamet erased, but in the end, he would find he had no choice but to allow the wanderer’s changes to come, to play his part in them.

“What else can you tell me about the vision you saw last night?” he asked.  “This tragedy that will kill thousands—do you know where or when it will occur?”

“It was not in one place, but many. Everywhere the ocean touches will be affected in its way,” she answered, then added, curious at the nature of his inquiry, “My Mardraim…?”

What Issa had seen was not an edict passed down to them by Om. They had no need to decipher the meaning of countless Veils in order to understand.  This disaster was shown her by Moag, and if she was not much mistaken, it appeared their elder was considering what might be done to save lives.  Did the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya apply to a future foretold by Moag?

“Their faces…” Issa whispered carefully, as uncertain of the Mardraim’s intention as she was uncertain of her own. “I see many of them clearly.  Perhaps I could paint them for you.”

“You see structures as well?  Landmarks that might be identified?” he asked, an energy in his words that Issa had never heard before.

She nodded. “I will paint them for you, as well, my Mardraim, but please do not stop Ohamet going to Moag,” she said, knowing that what she was asking would displease many.  This was the best hope she had of being useful this life.  It was the only hope she had.

“We must understand what he has done.  We must understand if we are ever to restore Om’s way,” the Mardraim answered firmly, pressing her hand between his in the same gentle, loving-kindness he had always given to their people.  His hands were warm and soft, and Issa wanted desperately to believe in him, despite knowing the truth.

It was her turn to let out a sigh, anxious and expectant.  The secret pact formed between herself and the Mardraim, caused something akin to the warmth of happiness to melt the trepidation that had overwhelmed her ever since the wanderer set foot inside Moag.  But at the same time, this pact meant she might never tell the Mardraim what she knew would eventually become of him.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 29

The Shape of Darkness

Noel blinked twice, and the darkness before him unfolded into forms vaguely familiar. A black as vast as the space between stars grew up as the walls of stone around him. A black flowing deep as the gaping underbelly of the ocean at midnight, became the smooth trail of the centuries of Mardraim, leading back to the safety of the Danguin Villages. The black that beckoned him forth with a nightmarish chill- its color otherworldly, unfathomable, indelible- was Moag.

Noel drew in an uncertain, black breath and watched as the well of darkness surrounding him breathed a familiar sigh in return. He took up his rucksack, bowels constricted, hand pulsing at his side, and managed a tentative step forward, feeling the pull of Moag, like an anchor weighing against his soul, dragging him ever downward… claiming ownership of him. It was only a matter of time before he drowned. As prophesied, he thought, taking a few more uneasy steps, swallowing against the urge—not his own—to wander off with reckless abandon, into that eternal shade, to know the blackness, as though it somehow might be known, if only one dwelt deep enough and long enough within.

No matter how often he and Isabella danced this thin line between here and the hereafter, Noel doubted he would ever get used to the effect Moag had on the woman or the effect it had on him, by nature of his increasing obsession with her. She longed for the darkness with a tender, black ache, so a tender, black ache Noel could barely control was cultivated inside him, its abysmal tendrils spreading through him as the roots of woman’s possession grew deeper within.

Edward was distracted, Noel decided, tensing his jaw against his fear of the future, shaking away the shadow he imagined coursing through his veins as he pulled from his pack the roughly-bound leather book the old man had given him the first night he set off in search. Of what, he was not certain, but he was Ohamet, after all, the one who wanders, always searching, so he suspected it was bound to happen. It was still strange to him the idea that the empathic among the Danguin could sense was at the soul of a person, but he knew they were right about him.

He turned open the book, and the buff colored pages gave off what appeared at first as a subtle glow, before fading into the general gloom of its surroundings, remaining just bright enough to see the map he had begun and his rough sketches of the thing that had plagued him since first setting foot in Namcha Barwa. He doubted anyone else would understand what they were looking at, if they happened across his work, considering the line drawings, while giving depth and detail to a degree, hardly conveyed what Moag actually looked like, let alone what it felt like, at least to Noel. He could always feel it, its presence a constant thrumming inside him.

While recounting, for Edward, his first experience with Moag, Noel made point of mentioning that there was a brief moment, as the light of Hestia’s flame dimmed and was all but extinguished by that insidious black, when he was certain he saw Moag breathing. This came as a shock to Edward, and the two of them debated whether or not it was possible Moag might be some sort of living creature, an idea the elder wasn’t too keen on, considering his devotion to Om and adherence to the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya. Edward was troubled that Moag existed at all, so he struggled to quantify it, in face of the destruction of so many of Om’s prophecies. The elder had described Moag as the reflection of Om, the shadow of Om, even rather pithily as the backside of Om, but he was adamant it could not possibly be a force equal to or greater than Om unless it was in fact Om, itself, and Om could not be seen—Om was not merely some worldly creature. Of course, Noel asked about the water, in the chamber where the Mdrai deciphered Om’s intent. As best he could tell, with their difficulty communicating between three languages, the elder believed Om’s Waters behaved as some sort of amplifier for the Way, which Om set into motion at the dawn of time.

Even though the old man did not want to believe Moag was alive, when it was time for Noel to start searching the tunnels for the exit, Edward gave him the book, an inkwell, and fountain pen to make his map, then suggested Noel allow his eyes to acclimate to the dark, rather than using a torch to see by. After all, he told him, Noel didn’t really need much light in the first place, and it would only get in the way if they really wanted to understand what Moag consisted of. Noel thought the old man had properly cracked, but as Edward explained it, “Everyone knew,” elves had naturally enhanced vision in the dark. Unfortunately, Noel assured the man, this “everyone” did not include the elves themselves, as this was news to him.

The ability wasn’t magic, per se, but rather a biological characteristic, which Noel suspected had mostly been bred out of his people, after the Fall, as elfin bloodlines thinned, which was why most elves used the electric inventions of men, out of convenience, or fire, when necessary, to light their way. It turned out Noel had this enhanced visibility, though the muscle that controlled it was weak at first, but using his sense of Moag, he was able to hone it. These past few evenings, as he worked, his eyes grew stronger, his vision sharper, the darkness clearer. He could, in fact, see Moag, and it was definitely moving, even if it wasn’t a living, breathing being (though Noel still had his suspicions about this).

The old man was using him, Noel thought as he set off down the path he had begun exploring first, doing his best to ignore Isabella Asan’s longing and the song of imminent doom, which thumped a rowing beat in his chest. He followed the edge of Moag, moving quick but cautiously, checking his map and sketches as he went, to make certain nothing much had changed from the previous night. Moag was not actually mobile, as far as he could tell, rather it continuously shifted from one evening to the next, as though it was made up of some sort of fluid that clung to the air, its slight ebb and flow lending Noel the idea that it was something like a cloud and perhaps more like Om’s water than the Mardraim would ever accept. Unlike Moag, Noel could not feel Om, or at least he had not felt it when he went to the chamber to speak with the Mdrai about the Book of Ages. Moag, on the other hand, wanted him. If he had not felt the thing so deeply, he doubted he ever would have noticed it as anything more relevant than a shadow. But Moag was easily the most frightening thing he had ever known, its visceral grip on both him and his possessor only growing stronger with each day that passed.

“We should be testing the wards,” he whispered into the darkness, as though Isabella was listening. And perhaps she was.

Noel was certain Edward knew he wasn’t actually out searching for the exit. Three nights ago, he’d had every intention of finding his escape route as quickly as possible, just as the Mardraim said, but the more he studied the darkness, the more he could see there was definitive substance to it, the more he knew the exit had to wait. It was as though the something stronger than Moag, stronger than Isabella and stronger , even, than any desire he might have to survive had woken up deep in his gut, and his gut told him he needed to go deeper into the mountain, where Moag was more concentrated. There were answers to be found there. So he wandered.

Maybe the old man hadn’t known from the beginning what Noel would do, but Edward was an empath. There was no way he couldn’t feel this intensity that Noel felt, no way he couldn’t tell Noel had not gone back to the entrance to the tunnels near the Danguin village to study some other path, which would have been the sensible thing to do, if he was really looking for the way out. He supposed he understood why Edward had done it, why he continued to lie to Noel and perhaps even to himself about what was really going on in that mountain, but that didn’t mean the elder wasn’t wrong for leaving Isabella vulnerable to Noel’s whims, anymore than he wasn’t wrong for leaving Noel vulnerable to Isabella. Noel wasn’t using his perceptions of Moag to find his way out of the mountain. The map to the exit wasn’t the purpose of any of this, they both knew it, and to act as though it was somehow about getting one over on the Felimi while plotting his eventual escape was manipulative and more than a tad insulting, if truth be told. Sure, he was not being forthright with Edward either, but the Mardraim wasn’t trying to help Noel gain his freedom or even trying to keep him out of the way while he worked to figure out how to right their destinies. He was simply using him, like he was using Isabella for the prophecies, because he knew Noel could see the shape of the darkness.

“I can’t be angry at that, can I?” Noel sighed. “Not considering all these people, totally unaware they’re surrounded by this… What are you, anyway? Are you a god? Some sort of demonic mist?” he asked the dark, knowing it was foolish to tempt the thing to an answer, but he was annoyed and frustrated and plain knackered. “What do we truly know about you?”

They knew, or at least accepted as fact, that years ago, the boy, Eri, had been lost to Moag, he thought, continuing to make his way through the darkness. One of the Felimi, the Mardraim at the time of the boy’s disappearance, and the boy’s father had all been lost as well, drawn out in an instant and through all of eternity, like they were swallowed by some black hole. Given the divine providence of the Children of Danguin and their reverence for Om, one would think every person in that mountain would know all about the mysterious black monster lurking in the tunnels of their home, waiting to devour body and soul of any who wandered too near, erasing not just their lives, but whole destinies promulgated by their deity, Om—and Om was their deity. The Danguin worshiped it. Their entire lives revolved around it. Had the Felimi had covered up the disappearances and Moag’s existence in order to protect their precious water god? Was Moag, in fact, more powerful?

The Felimi, Noel thought, his stomach tightening anxiously as he recalled the words that had come out of his mouth, not half an hour ago, forced out by ideas that didn’t at all belong to him, but rather to his possessor. It was clear Isabella had issue with the blind Mothers. What had they done to her, he wondered, and what did the youngest of the Mothers mean when she said, “Edward suspects?” Noel had been half tempted to ask the Madraim if he knew what she referred to, but at the same time, the fact Isabella’s thoughts came through to him, so clearly he could speak them out loud, against his own will, made his skin crawl. He decided it best not to say anything more about it, out of fear it would give her more control over him. They needed the wards, desperately, but while he hated to admit it to himself, Edward was right that there were more important things to worry about at the moment than Isabella’s possession of him, and they had no idea how the wards would affect her. He just hoped she would have the courtesy to keep her thoughts out of his mouth, until they could right this mess he had created.

As if in defiance, the image of the Middle Mother staring at him with blind eyes, reaching out and grasping at the air that composed him, flashed through his mind, and he was forced to stop and catch his breath, to make sense of the memory. The woman looked scared, angry, and as confused as Isabella had been, to find herself lingering there outside of her body.

“Her soul,” Noel hissed, shivering at the thought. “It was her soul, and that Mother could see her, blind or not.”

The Felimi worried others would find out what Isabella had done. They expected her to die alone, tucked away in a cold, dank room in their cloister, while Noel was taking his time being destroyed by Moag. They expected Noel would die too. Isabella had cried out to him, begging him to hurry. Harvey came and carried her away, to the very edge of Moag, laid her down at the entrance, and stepped into the darkness.

“Enough,” Noel said, shaking his head at the errant thoughts.

At least Isabella seemed to share in his distrust of the Felimi. Did Edward still want to know why they hid the truth of Moag for so long, or had he only been placating him for the sake of attaining the map? Had the old man decided it wasn’t worth the effort to question what really happened to Eri? Noel supposed the Felimi’s part in all of this didn’t really matter much now. Even if they never uncovered why the blind Mothers hid Moag’s existence years ago, the Mardraim had a responsibility to his people today to find out everything he could about the thing, to know exactly where it lingered, and to decide whether he too would bury whatever truth Noel managed to discover about the dark force, Om’s opposite, as he wandered.

That was why Edward was willing to ignore what Noel was doing, Noel thought as he came to the fork in the tunnels where he stopped working the previous night. Maybe he would look for the way out, eventually, but for now, even if Edward was too uncertain of Noel to be honest about his intentions, Noel was doing exactly what Noel needed to do, and this was where his gut had taken him.

The depth of the black that loomed in the tunnels before him made the place Noel was standing seem bright as the night under a full moon.

Which way should he go?

On that matter, his gut was silent. Both branches were far too dark for him to make out anything that might be inside. So far he had passed seven tunnels like these, marking them in his book for later exploration, but always knowing that wasn’t where he was meant to go. Now he was at a loss. Perhaps he could go either way and get to the same place? Or maybe there was supposed to be some answer right there where he stood, but that seemed unlikely.

Isabella simply wanted to dive in.

Noel desperately wished Edward would have agreed to try the wards. The woman made it difficult at times to discern his own sense from hers. At least if they used the wards, she would be protected from Moag, he thought, his mind whirring with anxiety as he looked around, hoping for some clue as to what he was to do next. Why was he here?

The fear crept in. Fear of how she had taken some modicum of control before. Fear of the feeling she was not wandering, like him, but searching for something tangible, an answer she thought Noel possessed. Maybe this was her, leading him by the proverbial nose after all, and he should turn back before she got them both killed?

No… No. One way or another, he expected he would wind up right back here, of his own accord or of hers. They both felt it, he thought. The way was right there in front of them, but neither seemed to know which path was right. So Noel stood there, staring into the black, just as he had done the night before, for the better part of an hour, knowing Moag was waiting, in both paths, but not knowing if both paths were completely blocked, or if it was simply that he had reached the limitations of his night vision and his sense of Moag.

What the hell could Isabella be searching for in there, he wondered? Was she even sane enough to know? For that matter, was Noel himself sane, following a gut feeling through this wretched darkness after everything that had happened? The fact he had to ask himself that question did nothing to quell the nerves that bubbled up inside him.

Noel closed his eyes and waited, hoping for some clarity. He took several calming breaths and relaxed his fist, which he had kept tight at his side the whole time, as though he clung to his possessor’s hand, half hoping she would save him, as she had done before, which was a ridiculous thing to count on, considering Isabella wanted nothing more than to go either way, though he got an unpleasant sense the tunnel on the left was preferable to the one on the right.

“Ah, the tunnel to the left,” he smiled, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that to take that path would be dangerous, perhaps even perilous.

What was he to do? Should he trust this inkling of his obsession, or should he go off the other way, just in case?

Without much more thought than that, he hurried for the left branch, stopping just where the outcropping of rocks disappeared into the deepening blackness. That things just kept getting darker, the further he explored was unsettling, but this was it. This was definitely where he needed to go. He couldn’t exactly make up his mind how he knew this. There was definitely something else there behind the feeling, besides Isabella Asan and separate from Moag. It was as though he was being guided again, he supposed, just as he had been guided when he first came to the summit, to search for the entrance to the mountain, except now he could feel himself being pushed forward, urged on, and the mountain wasn’t trying to break him in order to make him go the right way, which was a positive.

He could feel it now. Was it really just Isabella calling out to him in the darkness again, so he could follow her voice to their ultimate destruction? Was it the lure of Moag hoping to devour him at last?

No, he had seen this before.

This was the black he saw in the Dreaming, hoping to find answers about the Last Hope of the Elves.

Was the push he felt Om guiding him against it’s will, again?

As his pulse increased, so did his breathing, until he was practically panting with nerves, sweat wetting his hair, trickling down the narrow ridge of his spine. He forced himself to slow down inside and find his center again, knowing he would need to focus now more than ever, so he could react in an instant if the pull of Moag took hold of him or he felt Isabella was in danger.

On a dry swallow, he lifted his hand into the darkness before him, half expecting to be drawn into some mad prophecy, wondering how Isabella would react, how Moag would react, what Edward would learn from the woman in the morning, whether she would receive more prophecies, and if any of them would live through any of this to tell the tale.

He waited at least a minute, though it felt what he imagined an eternity felt like, but nothing happened.

Giving a small chuckle at the intensity of his fear, his hand still outstretched before him, Noel stepped over one of the smaller boulders scattered in front of the entrance. His eyes tried to refocus on his hand, but it was so dark, everything was a blur around him, and it seemed the very air was moving, like shadows of monsters stirring, all around him, festering in the depths of that unforgiving black.

“Curious,” Noel whispered, stepping further into the deepening darkness, hoping to see more shades of darkness manifest before him and not to be swallowed up by Moag.

His heart pounded, his ears rang, his very soul stretched out in anticipation.

Isabella longed.

Whatever she was searching for was buried deeper still in this impossible maze, he thought. Did she know which way to go, or was she simply guessing? Were they searching for the same thing?

Noel stopped, dropping his hand to his side. “Actually, that is curious,” he said out loud and waited for the echo, a voice not his own, to return to him. There was no reply.

He took another step, and when his eyes shifted at last, he realized that he had come nose to intangible nose with the greatest absence of light imaginable, the very thing that frightened him to the core of his being, so black it looked like a solid mass of emptiness before him. But this thing was so much different than the Moag he first met, he thought, lifting his fingers to its surface, stopping short of touching it.

His breath came heavy now, and he watched it hit the surface of Moag and swirl like a fog that hung thick on a spring morning. Quickly he tucked the pencil and notebook back in his pack. The absence of the book’s faint glimmer made it possible to see the very edge of Moag, creeping silent before him, moving gently toward him, as though it were caught in a tide, drawn to him by his gravity.

Silent, Noel thought, bringing his fingers closer still to the blackness, so that they were almost touching. Where the tips of his fingers nearly grazed its surface, Moag stretched slowly toward him, ever so slightly, as though to greet him.

But it had been anything but silent the first time Noel encountered it. When he first found himself lost in the darkness, he had the vision of Isabella, a prophecy he guessed, of the woman’s death, the sand pouring out of her mouth and eyes and navel. As he continued in search for the home of the seers who foretold of the Last Hope, the darkness grew so thick around him that even Hestia’s Eternal Flame could not penetrate it and was snuffed out. The deeper he went, the more horrible memories Moag pulled from his mind, replaying them for him in the miserable black, as though frightening Noel was some kind—

“—Of game,” Noel whispered into the dark, his fingers poised.

“Eri?” he added after a long moment, waiting, but there was no reply.

Was Isabella searching for Eri?

Noel swallowed the lump in his throat and realized the woman was like a squall within him, surging against the edges of him, willing him to run.

He actually laughed out loud, “Oh, you want to go the other way now? Should have said so in the first place.”

If she didn’t want to go into Moag, what did she want? What was in there that she needed to know so desperately? What was in there that Noel was wandering to find?

The beat of his heart and his quickening breaths had his mind muddled. “This is madness,” he hissed, shaking his head against Isabella, against himself, against everything. “I’m supposed to go this way!”

But he didn’t want to go through Moag anymore than Isabella did, no matter what his gut or Om told him. He swore loudly against the insanity of it all, trying to clear his mind.

Moag had changed, he thought, bouncing on the balls of his feet several times before stopping, pressing his lips together. He swore, then thrust his hand, into the black, watching in awe as it morphed around him, and his arm, past his elbow, completely disappeared.

This was a terrible mistake.

In the span of a heartbeat, Isabella was writhing in agony inside him. Though he did not hear her, he felt her scream rip through him, her cry vibrating against every cell in his being, and before he knew exactly what he was doing, he found himself running the opposite way, back toward the Mardraim’s hold, back toward the path to the Danguin villages, back to Isabella Asan.

He barely got his light well fully formed around him before he was bursting out into the open, tearing off through the trees, not even bothering to stick to the road in his hurry. He had to get to her. He had to help her. Moag was killing her, killing her again, and it was all his fault, he thought, pushing up from the ground, dodging as many branches as he could, while leaves whipped against his flesh, as he took to the air.

In mere moments he was coming down from the sky, landing so hard in Isabella’s front garden that his knees buckled in pain and he fell to the ground. What had he done? What had he done? Quick as he could, he scrambled to his feet, ignoring the sting of fresh wounds on his knees and hands, already hurrying toward the porch steps before he looked up to find her standing there in the doorway, at once wild as fire and delicate as a moon beam, her face expressionless, as she watched him with eyes, black as Moag.

Mortal gods, she was beautiful.

Dumbstruck, Noel stumbled to a halt before reaching the porch, then in his confusion he took several steps back. Her scream still coursed through him, burning his insides. He felt her terror, as his own. He felt her rage, as his own. He even felt her stare, her eyes fixed upon him, yet somehow not seeing him, even though she was looking right at him. It was almost as though he could see himself through her eyes, standing there looking like a right idiot, because although he felt these things of her, she seemed perfectly fine, absolutely well, not at all as though she was dying.

Of course, she can’t see me, Noel thought, turning around in a circle, checking his light well. Yes, that was intact. But her eyes were transfixed on him anyway, and she was still fierce with madness inside him, yet she stood so still, so silent.

Noel shuddered, and in that moment of panic, he took two long steps to the left.

Isabella’s dark eyes followed him, but otherwise, it was as though she was absent, gone deep within, to a place where no one else could feel her, just as the Mardraim had said. No one else could feel her… except for Noel.

He shuddered again, for good measure. He couldn’t understand. He couldn’t balance the things that he felt of her now, deep within himself, the fury and agony and pure hatred of him, with the way she simply stood there, motionless and devoid of any outward sign of life, save perhaps the fact that she had made a point of meeting him there at the door, like she knew he was coming. How long had she been standing there?

It was only then that the thought occurred to him, Isabella likely couldn’t see him at all, but could feel him through her possession of him, the way he felt her. She may even have brought him there herself, after all, he had been drawn to her before, felt her love of Harvey, felt her despair at the idea of his death in Moag.

Suddenly, he realized she was everywhere inside him. Anger rising in him, he shook his head, to get rid of the eerie sense of watching himself through her eyes, turned and ran down the road to Edward’s hut without stopping. Minutes later, he was trembling, stood over the water basin, scrubbing handfuls of water over his face trying to wash Isabella away, but her presence was pronounced within him, and now she did not just occupy his hand, but rather it was like she was affixed within him, all over him.

“What have I done?” he whispered, the remnant of the woman’s scream like a ringing in his ears that reverberated through every cell of him. “What the bloody hell is happening to me?”

He went and sat on his palette, letting the water drip off his hair and his nose onto the floor, pulling his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to wrap his head around everything that happened. But there was no understanding any of it.

“We must test the wards,” he hissed after several long minutes, knowing that was the only answer.

He ran his hands roughly through his hair and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Noel lay down, but stared up at the ceiling of the hut for a long while before voicing out loud the truth, “I must test the wards.”

When he finally drifted off, perhaps an hour later, he dreamt he was Isabella Asan. The evening was cool, the village silent, and she had just opened her door to step out onto her porch for some fresh air, when she looked up and found herself, a faint indigo form, like a whisper, standing there in the garden, staring back at herself with a look of marked confusion and venom on her ethereal face. She did not believe what she saw could be real, instead attributing the apparition to her troubled mind, constantly plagued with prophecies she could not piece together and the unending presence of the wanderer. But she was just preparing to shut her self in again, put out the lantern, and get some necessary rest, when the faint whisper took two large steps to the right. She screamed, startling herself awake.

Noel was startled awake as well.

It was the wee hours of the morning, and Edward Frank had not yet returned from his hold.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29

A Series by Luthien T. Kennedy