School has finally begun, Hurray! And I am finally (sort-of) back to a reasonable work schedule, with a few bumps here and there that must still be worked smooth, but never mind the little hiccups, because I am grateful to be back to writing on a regular basis. Yesterday, for the first time since May, I had the opportunity to get reacquainted with book two of The Eleventh Age series, and it felt SO good to put my mind back in that story, even though it was only for about thirty minutes before Lilia came in from class, with her gas station food for lunch (I’m convinced she has a stomach forged of titanium), and I sighed and put my things away… In our room, I have a cork-board for helping to keep myself organized, and there’s a plastic sleeve hanging there, with all of the pictures of characters I’ve drawn so far tucked inside. Elli has been staring out at me all summer, just waiting for me to get back to her. Poor girl has no idea what’s in store for her.
But enough of that for now, as we must get back to The Tale of Two Mountains, and see what terrible things will happen next to Noel and Isabella.
The darkness swelled with a menacing sigh, weighty blackness tensing around him, as Noel gathered his things from the rocks below, returning them to his pack, pausing only a moment to catch his breath, before jumping down into the sand, grabbing up his torch, scurrying, quick as a rat, up to the entrance to the next cavern. As he reached the top, he looked back into the room below, half expecting to find the floor rising up like a wave to swallow him.
“It was in your mind,” he reminded himself, whispering low, hoping not to stir up any echoes from the depths, but all was quiet now. The pristine sands lay still beneath him, undisturbed, as though he had never been there, the only sound to be heard, the racing of his own breath. “Just in your mind,” he repeated, but there was little comfort to be found in that idea, so he gritted his teeth, straightened the rucksack on his shoulders and took an anxious step through the threshold, deeper into the insidious pitch, as the light of Hestia’s flame gave an intimidating flicker.
It was the woman, he thought, rubbing his fingers against his palm at the memory of her frightened hand gripping his in panic. It had to be the woman—she had felt so real. It had all felt real, even though he could see now it made no sense. Sand pits generally did not spring to life and attempt to drown people, at least not without some magical cause, so he should have known there was no logic to it when the woman appeared there, out of nowhere, begging to be saved. What was she playing at, he wondered as he started off, keeping close to the left wall this time, to see where it led. The stuff of nightmares had been forced into his brain, taking over his conscious mind. Somehow the woman had gotten inside his head, made him see… made him experience… but why? Was she trying to frighten him away? If that was the case, she was going to have to try a bit harder, because giving in just wasn’t in his nature. Noel had a job to do, and he planned to see it through to the bitter end.
But how had she managed it, he wondered, scowling as the flame dimmed. In all his years of training, the scholars had never mentioned this sort of psychic ability, the power to manipulate a mind completely, to make one think without the person realizing something was wrong. Of course, there were various hexes and potions for taking over control of a person, but they were all quite violent, excruciating, often requiring the breaking of the will with damning effects, leaving the subject mentally defunct, incapacitated for what little remained of their lives, but this magic… How was he supposed to defend himself against something he could not understand?
Let them bring what they will, he thought, annoyed as he swallowed against the constricting air, the darkness becoming almost palpable as he pushed himself onward. All that mattered now was the prophecy. One way or another, he would find where the seers of old were holed up, and when he did, they would explain the Prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves. “You can carry on in your peace, in your infernal darkness, after you’ve told me about the child,” he growled, switching the torch in his hands, so he would not think about the woman anymore, then calling out to the unearthly shade, “You hear me? I have to know about the prophecy. That’s all I’m here for, and then I’ll leave you be.”
Silence replied, her black grin spread wide before him.
The irony was the child was all he had left, his own last hope, he thought, squeezing his jaw as he wandered blindly, listening close to the emptiness for any sound at all, expecting any moment to find himself fighting monsters in his head once more, but whatever would come, whatever was next, it was worth it, just to finally have the truth. He had grown up, like everyone else, hearing tales of the destruction visited upon humanity at the time of the Fall. Millions upon millions of men, gods, fairies and wizards were lost, as once great cities were consumed by a wrathful earth, whole nations swallowed up by blood-red seas, drunk on human evils. When the earth finally stopped trembling and the waters grew calm once more, the stain of the Great War was all but washed away, leaving the world precious few tokens by which to remember the butchery that preceded the Fall—carnage wrought by the five races.
At the Bergfalk Institute, Noel had been taught exactly what every elf was taught from the time they could talk: the Fall was civilization’s punishment for the atrocities committed during the war. Many held it as a proud fact that, of all those millions who met their deaths when the hand of Fate wiped the world clean of human treachery, not one solitary elf was lost, though perhaps that was because millions of them had already been slain by much less supernatural hands. That Aewin and Eurial were spared in the Culling was viewed by some as proof of the divine providence of elfinkind, proof that they were Fate’s chosen people, and while others considered this idea of elfin supremacy distasteful, this did not stop the majority from believing the survival of two elves of the Father’s bloodline was undeniable proof that the prophecy foretelling the coming of the Child of Hope, their avenger and restorer, was not the destiny of one child, alone, yet to be born, but rather the collective destiny of all elfin sons born in the more than ten thousand years since their people were slaughtered by the Wizened race. The Nobles, as students of Bergfalk had come to be known, were the Born Legion of Hope. They were the warriors who would be her shield and her blade. He had believed.
Noel was eight years old when the Seat officially recognized Melchior Bergfalk’s lifework, granting him authority to establish his foundation. Over the course of a decade, several children had been born with exceptional skills, and Bergfalk and Foote were convinced this was a sign Hope’s prophecy would finally be fulfilled. With the elders’ approval, Bergfalk built a formal school where those young elves could be trained directly by the scholars in preparation for the birth of Hope. Noel’s three older brothers were not particularly talented; he outshone them all from a very early age, though his parents were not the sort to give much praise and were far more likely to accuse their sons of attention-seeking, if any one of them happened to do something out of the ordinary. Even so, at the time they seemed proud of him when they received the notice informing them Noel’s name was on the original list of children recommended by the Seat for the inaugural class at the institute. For the first time in his life, Noel felt he was meant for something important.
Though he was young, he remembered the day Adair Foote came to talk with his parents about allowing him to attend. That was the first time he heard his father laugh the words, “Bergfalk Foundation,” like it was something to be ashamed of, sniffing as he rubbed his hand across the pleat on his plaid trousers. Noel felt it in his chest, a twinge of self-doubt. When his father noticed the boys were stood in the hall, listening, he sent his wife to take them for ice cream, a highly unusual treat, unmistakably meant to drive all thought of the Bergfalk Institute or any idea of his own exceptionalness out of Noel’s young little head. No one asked him what he wanted, but at the time he was not certain he was ready to leave, even if he was slightly more apt than his brothers. High Wycombe was not the greatest place in the world to grow up, though in later years Scorpion Records did redeem it some in his eyes, but even though he was always getting into trouble, Noel was certain he would miss his parents and his brothers if he left, because they were all he knew.
He should have just enjoyed his ice cream and not worried about being forced to choose, because things have a tendency of working themselves out in the end. When they returned home, the elder Foote was gone, no one mentioned the foundation or the institute again, and any hint of pride he felt, right or wrong, soon drifted away. He continued his learning at the same dodgy primary school he and his brothers attended, where his mother taught grade two to the children of men, until one day, shortly after his ninth birthday, one of the boys in his class, who had taken to pestering him for his pointed ear, discovered his mother was a teacher there as well, which prompted a new level assault. The boy had only to say, in his high, nasal voice, “Ickle Noelle goes to school wif ‘is mummy,” and blood was spilled. This might have been overlooked, had it not been Noel’s fifth fight in two years and had the headmaster not already been considering expulsion. His mother cried a little while she packed his bags that night, but otherwise no fuss was made of the matter. The next morning, he was sent alone by train. Melchior Bergfalk was waiting at the end of the line, to accompany him the rest of the way to his new home and his new brothers.
“They’re brainwashing the boy,” his father’s voice rolled out of the void, carrying through the deepening cavern on an angry current.
Instinctively, Noel stopped, just as he had stopped twenty years before, to let the words crawl under his fourteen year old skin, back where they belonged. By now, the light of his torch was barely more than a dismal blur, the darkness had grown so thick he could not see his own feet or the ground beneath him, and he reached out to hold onto the wall for guidance, but he must have wandered astray without realizing, because there was nothing but empty space beside him. “Just words in your head,” he whispered through clenched teeth, continuing on, his steps meeting the ground with a rushed canon. He had no idea where he was headed, if he was headed anywhere, or if he was stuck inside some twisted mind-trap created by that woman. He was certain his father’s voice coming out of that darkness was her doing. He couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened the last time, had he left her to suffocate in the dust of her own putrefied remains, but the idea left a sickening taste in his mouth, sweet and savory with decay, and his stomach tightened. “Think about something else.”
“You hear him! Your son sounds like a right idiot, spouting such nonsense! The boy’s head’s been filled with propaganda, and I’m done with him talking this way,” his father answered, voice as clear as if he walked right beside him, just at the edge of Hestia’s light. “Noble!” he grumbled the word as an ignominious slight.
Noel stopped again, turning around in a full circle, anger crawling up his shoulders as he tightened his fists, the visceral response as automatic now as it had been years ago. It’s just in your head, he reasoned, just in your head, Noel, he assured himself, peering into the depths, knowing she was there, extracting these parts of him out of vindictiveness. He could almost sense her, like a furious scratching of static all around him, with a hint of some untouched flower, lingering on a higher air. “My father is a good man, who has made his mistakes,” he said calmly, hoping this would dissuade her.
“He will not go back to that place!” his father shouted, and from somewhere in the wretched sea of black, young Noel swore a venomous curse, crying furiously, “You can’t keep me here!”
“He was bitter and angry,” old Noel told the darkness, apologizing for his father as he always did.
“You are my son, and you will do exactly as I tell you.”
Noel wanted to ignore it, but he could not help but recall the way his father’s crooked teeth gnashed at him as he spoke those words, and the unforgiving thump of his twisted finger against his sternum, every other word landing with a hollow thud. “He wasn’t thinking.” He shook his head. Why was she doing this?
“I am not your son anymore! I’m finished being looked down at, finished being something you’re ashamed of! You’ve despised me all along, hated the way I think, hated what I’m capable of doing! I’m tired of being worthless in your eyes, so consider me dead and gone, and you won’t have to worry about me disappointing you anymore!”
There in the darkness came the drumming of feet on stairs, swift and light, then heavy and slow.
“This isn’t real,” Noel told himself, even as he felt his jaw pulsate with the swish of his old vinyl duffle, the zzrip! of the bag being torn open, the tussling fluster of his youthful breath as he shoved things inside the bag at random, fast as possible, hardly considering what he might need, he had been so angry, his head throbbing with grief at the resentment he saw on his father’s face. The old fellow need not have said a word, and his eyes would have done as much damage.
“Put that bag away, you aren’t going anywhere, boy!” His father was at the door, his mother stood behind him, taking turns at looking irritated and helpless as she shifted on her feet.
“He didn’t know what else to do,” Noel pleaded on his father’s behalf, wondering why the woman would confront him with a past that was long ago forgiven. Certainly, he and his father had parted ways since, but he understood now that on that night the old man had been ill, he was not happy with his own lot in life, he thought Noel was simply being disrespectful, pushing him about the institute at a time when he had already begun to think Bergfalk was an obsessed old lunatic and he regretted ever sending his son there in the first place. Noel should have let it go, taken time to calm down, instead of reacting, but he felt every insult his father laid on Bergfalk and Foote, every aspersion cast at the institute, the elders and the Seat was a personal attack against Noel himself and everything he believed, everything for which he had worked so hard, the very person he was born to be.
“Just leave me alone!” Young Noel said, spittle flying from the shadows.
“You want to leave, then get out, but don’t you think you will take a single thing from my house!”
“Stop this, please,” his mother cried. “Let him take some clothes.”
“No, he’s not taking any clothes! Those are my clothes! I worked for every thread of them! I put every stitch on his back!” Feet on the stairs. “That’s right, now, get out of here, boy, and don’t slam that door!”
The back door hit the jam with such violence that the porch shook, along with the mountain.
“I just wanted to breathe, to calm down, but he came after me. Why are you doing this?” Noel called out into the dark.
The door slammed again, and a hand was on his shoulder, forcing him around. “I said don’t slam that damned door!”
“Just leave me the hell alone!” young and old Noel replied as one.
The fist that met his face was strangely muted, either weak or restrained. Noel stumbled backward off the porch, rubbing his jaw bone.
Noel stumbled backward in the darkness, wondering why he was being forced to relive such a memory. “This is not real. You are in my head!”
The door slammed, feet met the stairs, light and slow then heavy and fast and fast and faster. “Get out of my way!” young Noel shouted, as his father shoved past him and stood at the top of the stairs.
“I am getting my godammed things! I don’t give a flying fuck what you say!”
“How dare you talk that way to me! Get out of my house!”
“Trust me, I’m going, if you’ll just get the hell out of my way!”
“I wish you were dead, boy!”
Maybe I am dead, Noel thought, the panic reaching his feet first as he set out at a run through the endless abyss, leaving the crushed young man and the hateful words of a broken father behind. Perhaps no one had come to save him, his body had been swallowed up by the mountain and was presently pinned under tonnes of ice and snow, and this was his own personal hell where he was bound to spend eternity, reliving everything that had gone terribly wrong in his life. Or maybe the deities had mistaken him for a man of faith, and he was venturing through the stages of a sherpa’s afterlife on his way to being reborn a proper dung beetle, fated to tend the droppings of nobler asses until an arrant wildebeest puts him out of his misery.
Had he seen the man and woman who rescued him somewhere before? Wasn’t she one of Wells’ birds? Melody? Melinda? What was her name?
“No, no, no,” he muttered, coming to a stop, looking around himself at the malignant shadow of the longest night. “How could you, Noel? How could you have died before you figured out the damned prophecy?” And with a savage roar, he hurled his torch away, as hard as he could throw it, the light of Hestia’s eternal flame disappearing instantaneously, as Noel stood, both of his fists in his hair, the strangled contortion of his face becoming more painful with every second that passed, waiting for the sound of the wood to land against stone.
Waiting and waiting, but there was no sound at all.
“Fuck all,” he breathed, running hands over his face, turning around left, and again around right, before falling hard on his knees.
“I really am dead.”