Frightened cries rang out all through the mountain. By now everyone knew the traveler had reached the summit, as those with the ability to sense beyond the thick walls that had for so long protected their people spread the word about this man who sought their home, this man who hunted them, or so it felt. Some were aware of his unbridled determination, a willingness to suffer greatly for his cause, and naturally, being unable to understand his intentions, they were frightened. Others more keenly felt his underlying frustration, which seemed to stretch back so far into history that many became certain he must be one of the abysmal demons, an undying monster come to reap their souls. For those empaths, who could not feel what lurked outside their haven, matters were even worse, as they woke startled in the night to the confusion and fear of their own parents, siblings and neighbors, and were terrified by horrors they had never known before, very human horrors. That one elf might as well have been an entire army, come to send the mountain crashing down around them, he had sent such a frenzy through their people. Even Isabella found it difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sense of suspicion and anguish among them, so she did the only thing an empath could do when the world became too much, and concealed herself, so she could no longer feel anything outside of her, as she and Harvey made their way to their elders.
By the time they arrived, a large crowd had already gathered outside the entrance to the Mdrai’s sacred chamber. People who noticed the two of them trying to make their way to the bridge called out, “What are you going to do about him?” and “Why won’t he just leave us alone?” obviously wanting and indeed expecting answers. Harvey clung to Isabella with one hand while pulling people out of their way with his other as he pushed forward, shouting, “Let us through. Stand clear, all of you.” But no one was very interested in making them a path so they could cross the river and do whatever it was they would eventually do.
“Please, everyone, the best thing for all of us is to remain calm,” Isabella called to the crowd, though she doubted many heard her, as her voice was lost in a cacophony of cries and jeers. “The traveler is not here to harm us, or our Mdrai would have stopped him from coming. Please, go home and tell your families they are safe, reassure the younglings their Mdrai will protect them.” It was useless, so she stood on her toes and said loudly in Harvey’s ear, “We have to do something.”
As they finally reached the bridge, Harvey turned around and climbed up on one of the posts, raising both hands for silence. A wary half-hush fell over the crowd. “Issa is right,” he said, a stupid grin spreading across his face even as he said the words, shaking his head at her as she raised a skeptical brow at the admission. “For the moment, the best thing we can do is remain calm. While I know you are frightened, worried that this man intruding on our home intends to harm us, he has not shown himself to be malicious, so we should attempt to reserve judgment until we know more.”
“But I feel him!” a man of Omdra Vega’s people called out. “He is shrouded by the blackness of vengeance!” The crowd all began to press forward again, making pitiful pleas, each person adding to what the man said, as if it was all the truth and somehow the wanderer was the most heinous person to have ever wandered.
“He is not like us, that much is true,” Harvey answered loudly, holding out his hands again, waiting for the people to listen. “But whatever this man is, whatever he wants from us, we must remember that he has lived his life out in the world, a world our Mdrai have sheltered us from for so long, understanding that those among us who feel what is at the souls of others can not possibly survive out there where all souls are inevitably darker. Of course the things he feels are foreign to us, frightening to us, but our collective fear is more detrimental to our people than he can ever possibly be as one man alone. Consider that what each of you are feeling of this man is tainted by what every other one of you is feeling of him. He is not some monster. He is just a man. Now, please, those of you who have the ability to shield the young empaths, do so. Those of you who can provide us all with nurturing, for the sake of all our people, do what you are able. We need each other, so let us think of one another, let us protect one another, and allow our Mdrai time to determine what, if anything, should be done. This elf is a visitor. Think of him as such.”
“Well done,” Isabella smiled as Harvey jumped down in front of her, took her hand once more and they continued across the bridge. As he held back the thick vines that hung over the entrance to the tunnel for her to enter, there were plenty of things she wanted to say to him, but she waited until they were well inside to ask, “Why aren’t you occluding them, Harvey? They are too much even for me.”
“I understand them,” he shrugged. “I’m all right, for now. It’s your wanderer you should worry about.”
“My wanderer,” she sighed. “You know he isn’t here to intentionally harm anyone. You just told them he is a visitor, not a monster. And you said the words, ‘Issa is right,’ which I’m never going to let you forget.”
“Look around you. He is doing harm, Issa,” Harvey answered seriously, as the tunnel opened up into the chamber, where their Mdrai and the other aspirants waited. But he turned back and added in a careful whisper, so that just she would hear, “As I said he would,” before going to take his place at his grandfather’s side.
Isabella bit her lip, considering the eight men gathered in clusters in the large, spherical room made of quartz, their faces all grave as they conversed quietly amongst themselves. Never had she known their elders to be so troubled. It was strange seeing their concern without feeling it, like they belonged in one of the paintings in her father’s books, where the history of humanity stood frozen in time. Despite their discontentment, as ever the air in the chamber was vibrant, full of warmth and light, alive with the energy of Fate as it flowed up from the deep, filling the natural basin at the center of the room, as though nothing had changed. The Mdrai had hoped Fate would guide them, where the elf was concerned, but its silence had left them all shaken. Thousands of years ago, these very waters spilled from the chamber and flowed with the river out into the world. Then Fate was everywhere, but now prophecies were few and far between, less than two seers and augurs were born to the mountain in any given month, and the Mdrai secretly worried Fate was dying. By the looks of them, they might as well have been attending its funeral instead of standing there contemplating the traveler, Isabella thought. If Harvey was right, and this man had come seeking answers about a prophecy, it was hard not to wonder if they would even be capable of helping him.
Their Mardraim stepped toward the edge of the basin, giving each of them a gentle smile as he called the room to attention. “Now that we are all accounted for, we shall begin.”
Isabella hurried to her rightful place beside her father, but he did not looked pleased at all as he glanced back to find her there, his heavy brow marked with disappointed question. It only took a moment for her to figure out why he looked at her this way. The traditions of their people were not to be taken lightly, and it was against tradition for any Mdrai or aspirant to enter the chamber while using occlusion. Looking down at her feet in shame, Isabella quickly let down her guard, but as the intense wave of displeasure of their elders rushed over her, like a fire sweeps through drought-riddled plains, she realized something terrible must have happened, and she sought out the soul of the elf. After a moment, she found him making his slow way down the slope very near to the entrance to their home.
Emanuel, the aspirant for Omdra Vega, broke the silence. “Why does he travel at night?”
Isabella looked to Harvey, who pressed his lips together and shrugged.
“It is not uncommon for an elf to travel in this manner, allowing the moon and stars to guide him,” Omdra Wallace answered. “I gather, from my learning, they do not hold a great deal of trust in the rest of the world, though I’m not certain why. They tend to live out of the way of others, and when they do interact with those who aren’t like them, they avoid utilizing their abilities to manipulate the elements. It is as though they would keep what they are hidden, so they act as normal men. For the most part, they prefer keeping to themselves, and traveling at night is conducive to that.”
“Perhaps the one who lacks trust should be the least trusted?” Omdra Vega said quietly.
“Would you say the same of us, here in this mountain?” Wallace chuckled in return, his large belly bouncing, shaking his beard.
Isabella’s father shook his head, answering pointedly, “Perhaps he would feel that we are not to be trusted,especially if he felt of us what we feel of him, but elves are far from harmless, with their abilities, and this one’s frustrations are rooted deep inside him. It is time we concentrate on protecting our people, and not waste any more efforts trying to discover whether or not his intentions are good.”
At this, Harvey cleared his throat and everyone turned to him as he looked to the Mardraim for permission to speak. His grandfather nodded patiently, and he proceeded more anxiously than was usual. “We… cannot… allow him entry to our home.”
“Again, it is highly unlikely he might find his way inside,” Yang answered. “Omdra Asan is right. We should concentrate on protecting our own people, either way.”
“Please, hear me out,” Harvey said, stepping forward, so that he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Mardraim. “He will find his way to us. He is not here by chance; he is being guided. With this elf, everything will change.”
“How can you know this?” Vega asked. Though he meant no cruelty in questioning Harvey’s ability, it was difficult for Isabella to ignore Emanuel’s small laugh.
“I don’t know it.”
“Then why speak it here, Young Harvey?” Omdra Yang countered gently.
Harvey swallowed hard, let out a deep, unsteady breath, then blurted, “I feel Fate guiding him.”
This revelation caused the room to stir, as the Mdrai and aspirants all looked to one another, with doubt and concern. It was Harvey’s turn to hang his head, ashamed of himself for having said such a thing out loud, but he shouldn’t have been, Isabella thought even as the others fell into quiet debate. He had always felt so much more than anyone else, so why shouldn’t it be possible he was right? Who was to say he could not feel the hand of Fate or that Fate was not guiding the wanderer?
But the Mdrai did not have long to ponder exactly what was happening between the traveler, Fate and Harvey, as his face twisted, contorting painfully, and he looked up toward the summit in shock. The others turned their attention back to the elf, who, Isabella was surprised to discover, was presently in what seemed like a fight for his life. “Has he fallen?” she asked, sensing the man’s panic, her own heart racing as though it beat in time with his. It was… thrilling, she thought, as she looked to her father for answers.
“No, it seems he is caught in the wind, and he’s struggling to keep control,” he answered, the lines on his forehead growing heavy as he frowned.
But Isabella’s excitement at what was happening outside of their mountain did not last long. “Protect them,” Harvey shouted suddenly, falling to his knees, holding his ears. “Protect the empaths now. Please!”
While everyone else became aware of the renewed sense of terror among those empaths who had not thought to shield themselves from the stranger, all of them, much like Isabella, finding themselves caught up in the wild torment of the man’s struggle, Isabella quickly realized why Harvey was in so much pain—as much as they did not care for the one who hunted them, the empaths could not bear his fear for his life or what they would feel if he died. Harvey felt their collective fear of death. She ran to his side and knelt down, throwing her arms around him, enveloping him in her protection as quickly as she could, but he was much stronger than she realized, stronger than she ever imagined possible. Though she did everything she could to hold him close in her occlusion, she could feel him stretched far beyond her reach, beyond the mountain, beyond the wanderer, beyond the river and the ocean, as though he was running away from himself, and everything he felt, as far and fast as he could. They had known each other their entire lives, been friends since they were children, grew up together, played together, learned together at the mothers’ knees, but for the first time, Isabella realized Harvey Frank felt everyone. He felt everything as if it were all a part of himself, and right now he only wanted to escape it.
“You must block them too, Harvey,” she whispered as he fell forward on his hands, panting like a wild animal, then laid down on his side, in agony, tears streaming down his cheeks. Isabella sat on the ground next to him and pulled his head onto her lap. “Harvey, listen to me. They’re out there,” she said softly, running her fingers over the tattoos on his bald head. “It’s just us in here. Let them go. Come back to me, please, Harvey. Just concentrate on me.” She was truly afraid for him, afraid he would break and never be the same, afraid she would lose him. “Remember when we were younglings, we went and played in the river, just the two of us,” she said, trying desperately to bring him back. “You were so worried we’d get in trouble, but I insisted, so you came with me anyway. We swam against the current as fast and hard as we could, and it was exhausting and exhilarating, and we were so happy, at least until my mother came and fished us out, and neither of us ever went swimming without permission again,” she laughed quietly. “I remember, you said to me, ‘Issa, you’re laughing,’ as though it was something you had never seen me do before, even though I was always laughing. Do you remember that?”
He nodded and his breathing slowed.
“That was the day I knew you were my greatest friend, Harvey,” she whispered, and he smiled, and she could feel him returning to himself as he calmed at last.
The Mardraim rested his hand on her head, mouthing silently, “Thank you, Young Issa,” before turning to the others, leaving his grandson in Isabella’s care. “We must work quickly to shield everyone in the mountain from this traveler,” he said. “We must let the rains come.”
“The water will interfere with our ability to know if he finds his way inside,” Vega said.
Yang offered, “Perhaps we could have all of the empaths moved to the far side of the river,” but Isabella’s father insisted, “This would only frighten them more, I’m afraid. The rains are our best course of action.”
Wallace nodded his wide, bushy head in agreement. “Young Harvey and Omdra Asan will still be able to sense him. They can keep us apprised of what the elf is getting up to.”
“But Harvey—” Isabella began a bit too emphatically. Her father raised his brows sharply, and she looked down, biting the inside of her cheek, only to find Harvey was laughing at her.
“It’s all right, Issa,” he said, as he pushed himself up to sitting. “I will have an easier time concentrating just on your friend out there with the rains.”
“He is not my friend,” Isabella whispered.
“He has started his ascent,” Omdra Yang spoke, looking graver than before. “Again, he makes his way toward the entrance. Perhaps Young Harvey is right, and Fate guides him to us.”
“Then it is decided,” their Mardraim said patiently. “Let us make it rain.”
With that the Mdrai and other aspirants all exited the chamber, leaving Isabella and Harvey alone, sitting there on shining crystal floor beside the basin, the Divine Waters burbling up from the great well of Fate far beneath them, filling the bowl and quickly swirling away, back into the deep.