“Young Isabella is still much too weak and disturbed. I had hoped to find her condition improved,” Edward sighed as Noel tossed himself down on the overstuffed sofa late that evening and pressed his palms into his eyes, rubbing out the exhaustion. Knowing it would be hours yet before he would get any sleep, Noel pulled a piece of speckled fruit from his sleeve pocket, picked off the lint and popped it in his mouth.
The old man sat at his desk, his shoulders slumped. Their work was beginning to take its toll on the elder. Edward’s eyes, ordinarily bright and smiling, even in the most serious of situations, had the dull look that came from lack of rest and too many hours spent pondering things beyond his control. If the look on his face was any indication, Noel was not going to like what his friend had to say about his meeting with Isabella Asan.
“Disturbed?” Noel jested gruffly, then swallowed, chuckling to himself. He could think of several ways the woman’s possession of him might have been a pleasurable experience, if she weren’t, in fact, quite disturbed. As it was, her irritation had only increased these past few nights, as Noel ventured further into the dark and winding tunnels, mapping out the edges of Moag, learning the path of his eventual escape. The endeavor drained him, physically and mentally, and left him with the imminent feeling that part of him was slowly being siphoned away, though he had convinced himself this was just paranoia. He could only imagine what Isabella experienced during these times, and he often wondered if, through their connection, she knew what he was doing and might one day tell someone, though he doubted anyone would believe her, considering her state.
Noel hoped the wards would help the both of them, but he had known Edward’s meeting with the woman would not go well the second the elder said he must check on her before they could proceed with testing the wards as planned. Noel sensed just how poorly the meeting between the two had gone that day, the enervated buzzes coursing through his fingertips as Isabella’s mind raced from one extreme to the next. Harvey had asked him twice what was wrong with his hand. All he could offer in his defense was that he must have slept on it funny. He doubted the man believed him.
Edward stuffed a wad of tobacco into his tiny pipe carved of bone. “She is not fully aware of what she is doing at all times, Young Noel. I believe it unwise, even cruel, to attempt what might further her injuries or worsen her hysteria. The wards must wait until she is better.” The golden glow of flame flickered momentarily, lighting up his face as clouds of slate-colored smoke billowed around his head.
Noel tightened his jaw, inhaled deep and let the breath out slowly through his nose, sitting up to face the old Mardraim. What they had to do involved a certain element of risk, of course, but they both knew there was no other alternative to the wards, and surely it was a greater risk for him to continue testing the limits of Moag with Isabella unguarded. Edward had spent hours scouring the pages of the book on possession for any hint of a chance at relief, to no avail. It did not even mention the wards as a potential remedy for the possessed, which understandably made the elder leery of their use. Noel knew he should be patient, for Isabella’s sake, but the wards were the only possible solution they had to any of the multitude of problems they faced.
“I no wish her harm, Edward,” Noel said, leaving off the fact he did not relish the thought of any harm coming to him either, though he was certain the empath could sense as much, as the old man raised a skeptical brow. “She feels Moag when I come here. I feel her. We know wards work.”
“We know wards, in some form, work for you,” Edward puffed at his pipe, grimacing as though aware this would not be enough for the Wanderer. “We have no idea what happens to the girl during those times you are warded. Her condition might worsen.”
Noel shrugged uneasily. “We test them. We find out.”
“I am accountable to my people, Young Noel. We will test the wards when I believe she is ready and no sooner.” He let out a trying sigh and opened the book in which he had recorded in detail everything that happened so far. “Until then, you must bear this burden.”
Bear this burden, Noel thought, grumbling under his breath. He was not the only one who was bearing the burden, but as he looked back at the old man, prepared to argue his case for Isabella, he noted the deep concern that shadowed the man’s eyes and realized he was being a bit of a prat. Edward was tired, and whether Noel liked it or not, the old man bore plenty of burden of his own, and his future depended upon him. “What happened today?”
This had become an almost nightly ritual for the two, meeting in the Mardraim’s secret hold, discussing progress but making little.
The Mdrai had yet to discover anything new regarding the Last Hope prophecy, but it was early days yet, and Edward warned Noel from the beginning this would be a considerable undertaking. The Hall of Records housed hundreds of thousands of books of prophecy, spanning the years. The trouble was the books were not organized and cataloged for ease of use, when searching for a specific event. Though most of the books had a name on the spine, if the identity of the individual was easily deciphered by the augurs, many books contained multiple lifetimes of the same being, allegedly reincarnated over generations, and it was often impossible to tell which incarnation would experience what prophecy, when.
As though rebirth weren’t enough to confuse matters completely, the books were written primarily to improve the study of the Veils, as given by Om to the seers, or Zhe. To that end, they were arranged by prophetic relation to one another, which made sense if one understood that the prophecies were recorded by the Danguin people not so that they could control or even bear witness to the outcomes, but alone in reverence to Om. In a long-forgotten past, the Danguin traded in prophetic wisdom, but they had not done so in thousands of years, certainly not since they began keeping written records of their knowledge, with the waning of their abilities. For their purposes, they had no need of understanding the vagaries of particular events or people’s lives, so the prophecies as written gave no indication of dates or times, places, or even races of their subjects, unless it happened that information was seen within the Veils. The factual basis of the prophecies as they unfolded out in the real world was relatively moot, so details were buried deep within the contents of the books, in their relevant prognostications, which meant all the Mdrai could do was pull random tomes from the shelves and pray they would quickly come across something that ruled each subject in or out, with regards to their search. Under the circumstances, it could take them many months to uncover the Prophecy of the Last Hope among their records… if it existed in the first place… if it was not among the lengthening list of things Noel changed in coming to the mountain, Hope’s prophecies unwritten.
The names of the twelve nobles Noel gave to Edward proved mostly useless, except in confirming the fact that Noel had done more harm than good in coming there. The Mardraim would not share with Noel any specifics of what he found among their prophecies. The Danguin were guarded when discussing the knowledge of Om, even with each other, and after all, Noel had not come to the mountain to find out what his friends would do with their lives. While he had hoped their books might help in the search for information about the Last Hope prophecy, it was enough to know that, although there had been several changes among the prophecies in the books of those twelve nobles, Noel had not managed to completely destroy all their foretold future. Unfortunately, there was no mention of stones or of long-awaited heroines among their texts, though Edward assured him this meant very little, as many prophecies were relatively mundane in nature, and often it was only when an event passed that the augurs recognized a prophecy’s true significance.
It would take time, but once he had finished with Noel’s and his own books, Edward intended to reconsider all the unwritten prophecies in the books of Noel’s friends, in an attempt to decipher their potential meanings, as he and the Mdrai had done with the Prophecy of the Last Hope. Only when he was through would they discuss whether Noel should give him more names of elves, though Noel was concerned about giving away too much, and, disconcerting as it was, Edward did not seem at all confident the answers would be found in the Hall of Records, even if they somehow managed to read every book available.
In his first week with Harvey, Noel’s use of the old language had improved somewhat, however he had learned nothing about whatever it was the man might be hiding, and in truth, he was beginning to think Edward was being a bit paranoid about his grandson in the first place, because so much had happened that was out of the ordinary since Noel’s arrival. Harvey was as reluctant to talk of Moag as Noel, but if their experiences were anything alike, Noel could hardly blame him for being tight-lipped on the subject. The younger Frank did not ask the many questions that Noel expected. He did not ask about Noel’s meeting with the Mdrai, he did not ask of the prophecy in the Book of Ages, and he had not shown the remotest curiosity in what it was the Mdrai were searching for in the Hall of Records, but then, Noel thought, Harvey was an empath and, according to his grandfather, a terribly powerful one. Perhaps he already knew all the answers or did not think Noel could offer him any useful information on the subject, which was probably true. It seemed more likely that, motivated by the strict laws of his people, Harvey understood it was not his place, even as aspirant, to infringe upon the work of his Masters. As far as Noel was concerned, withholding the truth from one’s grandfather was hardly a criminal offense, and though Harvey could be far too serious at times, Noel was beginning to grow fond of the fellow.
Harvey had begun teaching Noel the ways of Om and the deeply religious precepts recorded in the Mdonyatra, as well as learning English from Noel and teaching him the language of the Danguin, as the Felimi instructed him to do in Fkat. Through this study, Noel was learning quite a bit, but not nearly enough to understand conversations between locals, and he had yet to learn anything at all of the Danguin system of writing, which meant he was no closer to discovering which books in the Mardraim’s retreat might contain forgotten Elfin magic, not that he had much spare time to search. Luckily, the books weren’t going anywhere, and neither was Noel… especially not without answers, which seemed only to prove more elusive with each day that passed.
Noel listened as Edward told him about his time with Isabella Asan, though Edward warned at the beginning of his tale that he had learned everything he needed to know about her condition when he first arrived at her hut that morning and found her staring out the window in a catatonic state, unaware anyone was watching her, as she stood lost in whatever cracked world it was Moag left tucked inside her fragile mind. His second knock on her door brought her around, and for a time she was up and alert, pretending as though everything were normal, or acting as normally as she could under the circumstances. But there was nothing normal about her, according to the old man.
“There were moments when her demeanor was… frightening,” Edward said, leaving the word to hang on the air for a moment as scribbled notes on the day. “She lapsed in and out of presence, as though deep within her there is a place she retreats to that no one else can possibly reach, even through empathy.” Here he looked up at Noel, as though he might ask a question of him, but instead he continued, “At times, in the middle of speaking she simply stopped—her words, her movement, her very breath becoming nearly imperceptible—and she remained in this state for anywhere from a few moments to, at longest count, nearly an hour before resuming where she left off, as though no time had passed for her, either here or elsewhere.”
A grim smile set on Edward’s face, a smile the likes of which Noel had never seen before. “She had several wounds, on her face and her neck, that were not there when I last saw her,” the elder said, his voice pained. “Her mother informs me these are self-inflicted, though I could have deduced as much from her behavior during the hours I spent at her side. She clawed at the flesh on her hand, tearing the skin away until she bled. This should have been painful to her, but if she felt anything at all, she gave no indication. In fact, she seemed completely unaware she was harming herself, though now and then she noticed the blood and would wipe it away on the front of her gown, before carrying on as though this action was separate from her in some way, as though the blood was not even there, not even hers.”
Noel suppressed the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach and came to sit on the arm of the sofa, to face the old man properly. “Which hand?” he asked, squeezing his fingers together into a fist in anticipation.
Edward nodded, a grave look in his eyes. “The hand that decayed while you were still deep within Moag.”
Noel knew the old man was thinking exactly what he was thinking.
The past few evenings, he shared with Edward everything he remembered about his own experience within Moag, the facts of which the old man diligently recorded in the book he was now filling with notes from his visit with Isabella. From the little the woman had shared when she first woke from her coma, they knew there were several parallels between Noel’s and Isabella’s encounters with Moag. Both experienced the darkness speaking directly to them, as though in mocking. Both were nearly drowned—Noel in sand, Isabella in water. Both had brought about the other’s death in these visions—Noel by squeezing the life out of Issa, to keep her from struggling so he could save her from the quicksand, and Isabella by holding Noel under the flood, in order to stop him from calling the waters up from the Wellspring of Om. Both had every intention of saving the other, though Isabella realized she had somehow become Noel in the process and actually drowned herself instead of him and ended up saving her own life, while Noel discovered Isabella was a decaying corpse, her rotting body spilling sand out of every orifice, at which point he panicked, tossing her withered form aside, before waking up from the vision only to discover none of it had been real, though everything about it had felt as real as that very moment.
Noel recalled now his sense of dread as he grabbed Isabella’s arm in that vision, trying to save her from the shifting sands, her terrified words, “Sim ofit osh,” you are killing us, ringing in his ears. At the time, he believed those words were a plea for help, but if Edward was right, all of this, including those words, was some sort of prophecy born directly of Moag, foretelling the events that would unfold once Noel found his way through the darkness to the home of the Knowledge Keepers. In his vision, he had grabbed hold of Isabella’s arm. When he finally escaped Moag, he found the woman dead, her body—that very arm—already black with rot. Ever since, Noel felt her presence stirring in his own hand, like some addict hallucinating a fragment of her soul like an insect crawling within his skin. Now she had begun tearing at her own flesh, as if to try and rid herself of their connection.
How long could they allow her to harm herself before they would act? “The wards, Edward…” Noel whispered, a broken, morose plea cracking through his voice.
“I need more time to understand,” Edward answered quickly. “I must continue to record the prophecies she witnessed through Moag. We must make a record of all of this, if we ever hope to understand.”
“Understand? Records no save her. We not know this is prophecy,” Noel held his hands out in pleading. As far as he was concerned, they had quite enough prophecy to be getting on with, just dealing with Om. That they had to face a future ordained by Moag as well was impossible for him to fathom. “I hurt her. I cause this, Edward.”
“We must attempt to discover what will come.” The elder’s sympathetic smile was marred with a painful truth, as though he understood Noel’s plight, but the prophecies Isabella brought with her from the depths of Moag were the best clues they had, and somehow that should make the nightmarish insanity of their ordeal bearable. “I believe there is more she has yet to tell us. She is simply overwhelmed. I can feel her mind struggling to release more.”
“You can feel? Edward,” Noel sighed, losing his patience already.
But the elder raised his hands, nodding. “I will tend to her daily from now on, however you must accept it could take years to learn everything she has to tell us.”
“Years?” Noel balked, imagining himself still sitting there years from now, the arm of the sofa warn down from waiting, himself an old man smoking from a pipe he had whittled in his patient hours, wondering if Edward was ever going to teach him anything useful, wondering if the Mdrai would ever find the right book among their records, wondering if he would ever escape the hold Moag still seemed to have on him, all the while caught in this disastrous flirtation with a woman who was, literally, tearing herself apart.
If the curious ramblings of Isabella Asan were prophecies designed by Moag and not the delusions of a mad woman, there was little chance of grasping their meaning and even less chance of doing anything about them by sitting still, trying to understand. And she was a mad woman. She was mutilating herself, for Christ’s sake. Because of me, Noel thought, unable to stop himself from thinking that net guilty idea: Because I lived.
“We will find the truth, Young Noel,” Edward answered gently, laying his pipe aside. “We will find your Hope. Have faith.”
Faith, Noel thought, getting up to pace the roomful of trinkets and oddities, looking for distraction among the shelves, half-listening as the Mardraim began listing the prophecies of Moag Isabella shared that day, none of them intelligible.
“…born a shelter…”
His lack of faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope is what had brought him there in the first place and may have been responsible for the undoing of everything, including the destruction of Isabella Asan.
“…she swallowed it whole…”
Now he was supposed to have faith in himself and Edward Frank, faith in their ability to somehow, magically restore their destinies through patience and understanding? It sounded like some parable out of scripture—some transcendental path to enlightenment he simply couldn’t walk down.
“… pages turned to ash…”
Could faith really be the answer? Could faith in the revelations of Moag as seen through the mind’s eye of a broken woman save them? He sincerely doubted it. The things Isabella said were little more than white rabbits, and Edward was wasting his time chasing them.
“We never restore Om’s way,” Noel whispered. “I change everything. Harvey said.”
“Mm, perhaps. Young Isabella has twice mentioned a prophecy concerning the nameless child and myself, though I did not realize it was prophecy at first,” Edward said, ignoring Noel’s defeatism. “She said, ‘I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag.’ I do not understand what this means. I did not put the child in Moag. Are you certain you saw nothing of a child while you were in the darkness?”
“I have told you everything,” Noel answered, tiring of Isabella’s prophecies, picking up an ancient dwarfish battle-ax from a shelf and giving it a hearty swing. It rang out with a powerful burst of energy that reverberated through the air, knocking over several items on the shelves in front of him and causing Noel to stumble backwards. His eyes grew wide, and he gingerly put the ax back on its stand, hurrying to set everything right again.
“She said the child had to die in order for the prophecy to be complete,” Edward muttered, distractedly. “I wonder if all prophecy of Moag concerns death.”
“Bugger me, that’s a pleasant thought,” Noel glowered in English, figuring Edward was really not listening anyway. “It’s enough she brought back prophecies from Hell, now we have to worry they all portend of death. Please, dear God, let her have another for me, and let it come sooner rather than later,” he added, turning an electric toothbrush over in his hand, noting the wear of the bristles, wondering who it had belonged to and why the Mdrai had bothered to collect it.
“Language, Young Noel.” The old man took up his pipe again, and gave it another spark, leaning back in his chair to consider as he smoked. “I put him back in Moag… I put him back… What is the infant’s role in this? The nameless child must be important somehow.”
“Why nameless, Master Frank?” Noel asked as he rested the toothbrush in its proper place and came to sit on the arm of the sofa once more, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly. “Why you no give him name? He could be Arles or Elijah.”
Edward gave an affronted grumble. “To be named by Om is a privilege of the Children of Danguin,” he answered, waggling his pipe as though it were an accusatory finger, as if the very thought of naming someone himself was an affront to his morality. “Om tells of our births, generations in advance. The child should not have been possible. The child was always without a path.”
Noel had wondered why so many of the Danguin had such common, modern names, but he assumed their parents had wandered the Hall of Records looking for ones that sounded prodigious enough. Naming by Om, by prophecy, explained a lot. It did not explain why someone did not simply offer the nameless child a name of his own. What would they have done with him if the child had lived? Called him You There for the rest of his life?
“Other books of prophecy have names,” Noel frowned. “Om names others, like Danguin?”
“Not like Danguin,” answered the old man. “Om may include the name of anyone within the Veils, but for each of my people the naming comes directly from Om as a prophecy itself. Each birth is prophetic. Each lifetime is known. Om names them, ordering their lives. This child… He was…”
Whatever he was or was not, the old Mardraim did not say, but rather turned back to his book and his pipe, looking somber as he contemplated.
He was no one, Noel thought, shivering at the idea of what that poor child’s life might have been like in a place where he was the only one who was different, the only one whom their water god had ignored from the beginning. Would his mother and father have cared for him? Would he have been cast out from the mountain to be raised by wild yaks? Or might his ironic fate, guided by nothing more than chance and a people who believed firmly in the destinies divulged by Om, have been even worse?
“The Felimi…” Noel said uncomfortably, knowing what he was going to say would not be an easy thing for the elder to hear, knowing the very idea went against everything the Danguin believed, against their Mdonyatra and their Ftdonya and all of the lessons the Felimi had ever thought to teach their children up at their cloister. But Noel had spent his life in the real world, where people who believed firmly in the idea of good and right tended to do an awful lot of evil and wrong for whatever they might convince themselves were good or right reasons. And since Noel’s arrival even the Felimi seemed to be having difficulty maintaining their tenets. “The Felimi took him… Then he died… The Felimi—”
“No,” Edward gave a bitter frown, shifting in his chair but not looking up.
“They hide truth of Moag,” Noel whispered.
The old man shook his head, tapping the ash from his pipe into the rubbish bin that always remained empty. “The child died when you came from Moag, Noel Loveridge.”
“They tell you this. The old woman attack me. You stop her.”
“Young Noel,” Edward sighed, though in the long pause that followed, as the old man caught him in his sights, his tired eyes shifting rapidly, Noel could see that the idea that the Felimi had something to do with the child’s death was not so far-fetched as the Mardraim wished to believe.
After all, Edward had propositioned Noel for help in trying to discover what the Felimi were hiding about Moag. Noel had come through the darkness and changed things, yes, but if the Danguin were named by Om generations in advance, then nothing Noel could have done in his thirty-four years on this earth could possibly have reached back through the history of these people to erase a naming by Om, could it? And someone had made it a point to remove the records of those Danguin who had fallen to Moag before, hadn’t they? Noel could see Edward’s gears turning, and for a few brief moments, he felt the guilt he had carried around with him for days beginning to ease.
Maybe the child hadn’t died because he came through Moag. Maybe…
But with a painful spasm of his fingers, he recalled his time in the Dreaming, or perhaps Isabella Asan recalled it for him, he wasn’t quite certain, as he winced and shook out his hand. Harvey warned that Noel would change everything. Perhaps he had changed even the past through his communion with the Wangarr spirit. Perhaps his own prophecies and those of Isabella, Harvey and Edward had been unwritten years before, and no one knew it because no one had reason to read their books until Noel came. Perhaps Om and Moag had always known Noel would enter the darkness and end up destroying the infant’s life, and that was why Om found no need to give the boy a name. Noel had touched Creation, after all. He had no way of knowing what may or may not be possible, where the Dreaming was concerned.
If he ever got out of there, he would find Taree and ask him.
Edward Frank shifted in his seat, leaning forward expectantly. “Young Isabella?”
“Yes,” Noel hissed, anxiously rubbing a thumb into his palm to try and ease the cramp that has seized him, causing his fingers to curl up on themselves.
The elder eyed him for a long minute before adding in a serious whisper, “Do you have something more you need to tell me, Noel Loveridge?”
The old man had felt it, the secret Noel kept, the only thing he would not tell about how he came to find the mountain. The elder had sensed the Dreaming.
“No,” Noel answered, shaking his head, getting to his feet again. “No.”
Though Edward should have pressed the issue, and if he had, Noel might have crumbled and told him everything, the elder nodded and said, “The Felimi hid Moag’s existence from our people for a reason. You are right. We must still find out why.”
“How?” Noel asked. They had missed their opportunity to get fast answers from the blind Mothers at Fkat.
“I wish I knew, my friend,” Edward replied, shaking his head as he gave a grim chuckle. “I wish I knew. I can write of my time with Isabella later. Shall we study more of your broken prophecies, to see what we can make of them? Perhaps the answer will come to us.”
“Not tonight. I go now, Master Frank,” Noel said, turning for the door, not knowing exactly how he felt about the old man’s intuition or how he might be useful, except to wander the paths around Moag, learning the way of his eventual escape, even though he was certain this harmed Isabella.
“Perhaps if you will allow me to examine your Book of Ages more thoroughly,” Edward said as Noel reached the door, “there may be more clues about your Hope to be found in this writing, which could help us uncover her book, if it exists.”
“You have Om and Moag and the Mdrai and Young Isabella,” Noel answered. “You no need old book written by elves who know nothing but dreams.”
“Young Noel, you carry such guilt with you. If this is all happening, not because of you, but rather through you, because of Moag, Moag is where we must look for answers. If the prophecy in your book is not of Om, but instead of Moag—”
“You think Prophecy of Last Hope of the Elves from Moag?” Noel interrupted, shocked by the idea, mostly because he had not considered it himself and it was a good one.
“No,” Edward answered quickly, “but the Felimi do not know this. Perhaps I can get them to speak with you again, if you will take your book—”
“You want give Felimi Book of Ages?” Noel scoffed.
“No. No,” the elder assured, but Noel was already responding.
“Book of Ages is story of my people.”
“Felimi want know how I came here, want no one else come.”
“They threat my life. They threat my people. No book, Master Frank,” Noel insisted, his jaw pulsing several times as he watched the old man’s eyes shifting back and forth again, searching him.
“No book,” Edward answered with a nod. Then he let out a perilous sigh. “Has young Harvey told you anything at all about what happened to him while he was in Moag?”
“He no speak of Moag, Edward. I no speak of Moag. May be nothing happen to him.” Noel swallowed, knowing how unlikely this was, even as he said it.
“Still, he guards himself. Something happened. You must give him a reason to tell you the truth. Use his friendship with Young Isabella to your advantage, if you can, but take care, Noel Loveridge. Remember the promises you have made.” Here the old man paused, looking grave as Noel rested his hand on the door frame, the thin barrier between this shelter of nowhere created of ancient wizarding magic and the cold hardness of the mountain tunnels, where Moag waited for him to wander. “We will speak of the Felimi again soon,” he added. “For now, you go. I do not need you to sit with me while I work on our broken prophecies.”
Noel pressed his lips firmly into a grimace, then nodded, stepping out into the darkness— Edward, the light, the warmth of the fire, the smell of tobacco and books, all disappearing into the crack in the wall of stone.
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