The inner-workings of the door clattered and thundered, groaned and shrieked.
Noel clenched his fists and his teeth, trying to hold back the wave of desperation that roiled inside him as he waited.
“Go with him,” he heard the Mardraim say, as the door inched open and Noel dug his fingers into the ancient wood, pulling with all of his strength until there was a wide enough gap for him to slide through. He did not look back to see who followed, but hurried up the passage toward the dim light of the atrium, and only realized it was Harvey Frank when he heard the man’s measured steps as he paused to hiss a vicious curse at the blackness waving a temporary farewell from the archway where Moag lie in wait.
He needed space, air. He needed to think, to mourn and spit out the salt in his mouth. He did not need to talk of Moag, to tell his tale, or to worry about the man behind him, struggling to keep up. When he reached the exit, he flung the door open, causing it to strike the outer wall.
A woman, who had been waiting outside, stepped forward urgently, mouth already forming words as she moved, until her eyes met Noel. He half expected her to turn and run in fear, but she did not recoil from the monstrous Ohamet, wanderer, unwriter of destinies. She did not cringe in embarrassment at having found him so unexpectedly or glare at him in anger for the havoc he wreaked on their peaceful home, cursing the destruction left in his wake. She had not even startled at his temperamental slamming open of the door.
Noel shuddered at her passivity, as though in her silence she had reached out with two strong hands, grasping him by the shoulders, and given him a swift shake that broke the fury loose of him, so all he had left was a solemn, abiding despair and his personal reckoning– fifty-seven.
“Pardon me, Mum,” he muttered, ducking his head as he stepped aside, turning toward the path that led back to the bridge, pausing there for Harvey.
“What do these words mean, ‘Pardon me, Mum?’” the man asked as they stepped out into the light together, Noel moving slowly now, for Harvey’s sake, slightly ashamed of himself for forgetting, so soon, all of the things the Felimi had warned him about their people.
Noel did not know the translation in Elfish, neither ancient nor the broken language cobbled together over the last ten thousand years, so that it was little more than the distant bastard half-cousin of the dialect known there in the mountain. Phileas would have known. Phileas would have thought they were astonishing, these creatures who dwelt deep beneath the surface of the earth, with their foresight and empathy, and their strange ability to hold a person still on the insides. “Apology,” he answered simply, shrugging at the inadequacy of the term as he glanced back at the woman, still waiting by the entrance to the cloister, though the door remained open.
“You regret,” Harvey said, his tone matter-of-fact.
“Much,” Noel admitted, sighing against the pain that held fast in his chest, making it difficult to breathe that next breath, as though all of the air in the universe was more than ten thousand years away and to breathe it required a great, gasping hope he was unable to muster. He had never quite been able.
“Dear God,” he whispered, his mouth slipping into English again as they cut away from the path and he led them off through the trees, in a direct line for the river. He did not know what he would do when they reached it, perhaps he would jump in and let it carry him away, but he could not risk running into anyone else, since they might suffer his remorse along with him.
Over the years, Noel had come to have his doubts about their Last Hope, doubts that shamed him, as they should have done. As a Noble, his faith in the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves was part of the job. Like all nobles, he was born stronger, born with greater ability than most, so of course, it reasoned the nobles must be prepared to defend their Hope against all those who would see the elfin race finished once and for all. For a noble, faith was as necessary to the cause as the cause was necessary to the faith, so as he felt it faltering, Noel knew he had to find the truth, for the benefit of everyone, yes, but truly, at the core of it all, to find out whether or not his own life had been wasted, waiting on a Hope that had always been meant to be their Last, something out of reach, an intangible romance that was never meant to play out as anything more than a tragedy. He had come to the mountain with a broken spirit, desperate for confirmation that the girl would be born and their race would be reborn, as their elders had promised.
Or so he thought before he came to that damnable mountain.
“Did I ever truly believe?” he pleaded quietly with Harvey Frank, who answered the only way possible—by imitating Noel’s own wide eyes and coarsely upturned brow, not understanding a word he was speaking.
But Noel had already been given the answer. The daft silence that followed Master Frank’s revelation that Noel had prophecies of his own had exposed to him a terrible truth, a truth more terrible than the prospect of fifty-seven unfinished prophecies, more terrible even than the idea that perhaps in coming there, in unwriting those fifty-seven prophecies, he may have undermined their Last Hope altogether.
The truth was Noel had done his duty. He had learned everything the elder Foote and Bergfalk had to teach him. He had bonded with a band of brothers, who had sworn blood oaths to Hope, the same as him, in answer to Hope’s ten thousand year old prophecy inscribed in the Book of Ages like it were holy scripture. The nobles were the Born Legion of Hope, as Bergfalk had come to call them. And as Bergfalk said, “Her destiny was their destiny.”
Noel had never considered that he might have had prophecies of his own to complete, that his duty may have been born of them, not out of a pointed ear, a slightly greater aptitude for manipulating particles than the rest, or even out of their need of salvation, with the blood of their people so thinned over the years that they were hardly as good as the halfling spawn of nymphs and demigods and could barely call themselves elves anymore. He had never once thought that the years of lessons and exploration and testing and honing of himself in that blood oath was his own destiny.
As they reached the riverbank, Noel stumbled to his knees, leaning over the water, scrubbing cold handfuls over his face several times, to wash away his guilt. When he had half drowned himself, he looked up to find Harvey was staring off into the distance, as though he watched the stain of Noel’s sin, carried away on the current.
If only it were so easy.
“I never believed. My faith was not shaken, Harvey; I never once truly believed.” The words came, but barely above the rush of the water. “I have lived my life fraudulently and never knew it, proclaiming faith, as though somehow faith, without belief, was hope enough, when hope was something I never had. Prophecy or no prophecy, I was the lie. You understand me? I know now, I was the lie.”
Harvey nodded, and Noel swallowed, wondering if he possibly could understand, if empathy allowed for that depth of commiseration. If it did, he felt terrible for Harvey Frank.
Noel sighed and sat down in the grass, hugging his knees for a moment before continuing. “My father thought I was a fool for my faith,” he gave a hollow chuckle. “I was so angry with him, because he would not listen to me, so angry because he would not hear the falsehoods I repeated in my own fear, so often that I, myself, actually mistook my depraved need for belonging as devotion. I was furious with him, for speaking out loud the beliefs I, myself, had forced down at the very depths of my soul, because I wanted to be a part of something greater and wasn’t ready to be miserable like him, but I knew. I knew there was no hope, but I was a noble, and I could either choose that or choose my father’s way, and in my father I saw something worse than believing the lie one wanted to be true—in him, I saw there could never be hope, because he believed in nothing at all, not even himself.
“So I pretended to believe in her. In my lie, at least I had something in which to the feign belief, to satisfy my need for some moral objectification, to pacify the misery I inherited. I thought I had possibility. I turned my back on my true brothers and joined a family of orphans called nobles, and God only knows how many of them don’t believe either, cannot believe, but want desperately for it to all be true, so they can feel something, so they carry on, doing what they think is right, before we lose ourselves completely, resign ourselves and our sons to being powerless.
“Don’t you see, Harvey? This is why my people are divided and my elders are in disarray, why Phileas searched and searched, and why I disappeared, why I stopped contacting Fendhaim months ago, allowed myself to be fostered by the Yolngu and entered the Dreaming, even though at the heart of me, I was certain there was no hope to be found there either, because in truth, I understood that following their faith was just as mad as following my own. I worried it was all lies, but I was the lie, I know now, because in my nobility, in my honor, in my duty, I never once considered that I might have a single prophecy of my own to fulfill—not one, and certainly not eighty. In all of it, I never considered that those prophecies might have been my own true hope, that they were what little I had to offer this world. Twenty-three complete, and I never knew it. Fifty-seven unwritten and undone. Lost, forever, because I’m here. If she is real, her faith in me, her hope in me, is grievously misplaced, I’m afraid, for in my disloyalty, I may have done her in for good. Perhaps I can muster the courage to hope I haven’t done her too much wrong.”
At last, all that was left was the rambling of the river, winding off into the distance. Harvey placed a patient hand on Noel’s shoulder and smiled sadly, the way one smiles when a friend has lost someone important to them, and there is nothing to be done to help, no real consolation to offer, so one does his best to force up the corners of his mouth, as if somehow that was better than nothing at all. Noel, managing a grimacing smile of his own, reached up to place his hand on top of Harvey’s, glad that he was there, even if he could not understand him, but just as their hands met, a jolt of static arced between them, and Harvey pulled his hand quickly away.
Isabella had stirred in Noel’s fingertips.
She was frightened.
Noel jumped to his feet and started up the riverbank toward the bridge. He had to get to her, he had to save her, but when he looked back to Harvey, to urge him to run, if he could, the man had already fallen several meters behind. “Come on,” he yelled, continuing on more slowly, but as the distance between them still grew, Noel worried that they both might find trouble if he was caught wandering wild through the mountain, his escort chasing after him. Squeezing his fist, as though the phantom of Isabella might slip away for good if he did not hold her tightly, he hurried back to help the man along. Harvey shook his head and waved him onward, saying only, “Issa.”
Noel ran as fast as he could without magic. When he crossed the river, he did not stick to the paths scored into the mountain by centuries of use, instead cutting through the field of thistles, knowing it would be faster than taking the walkway, though how he knew, when he did not know where he was going, he could not say. The plants scratched at his legs as he ran, tearing at the tail of his ridiculous borrowed tunic, but all that mattered in that moment was reaching Isabella in time, as though her life depended on him once again. His skin stung and he could feel rivulets of blood wetting his calves, but he continued running, across the fallow field, up the hill, darting through a thick stand of trees, to the edge of a small village, where he finally stopped to catch his breath, staring at the door of the tiny hut where Isabella lived. The shutters were closed, but he could hear her crying, her strange words fast and panicked as Noel’s breath.
His hand reached out, as though she tugged him along by it, but he pulled it back to his side, rubbing the tips of his fingers together.
She was alive and awake, and though he could not understand what she was saying, he knew she was begging to be returned to the darkness.
“Why?” he whispered, stepping out of the tree line, hurrying across the path to the garden gate, pushing it open.
But he already knew why. She was begging to go back to Moag, so that it could finish her, because the pain was too much for her to bear—the pain of losing Harvey Frank.
“How?” he asked softly, his hand already on the door. “How is it possible I know this?”
But he knew that answer as well.
She was alive and awake. She was safe but in pain. Hurt, confused, betrayed, angry, alone—terribly alone.
She was still inside him.
“I do not belong here,” Isabella wept. “Please, Mardraim, you must take me back. I cannot be here now. I do not belong to this world.”
Edward Frank looked at her as though she had lost her mind, as though she was still speaking in some language he could never comprehend, as though she was just a shard of her shattered self, and there were so many pieces of her lying scattered before him, he could hardly bear to look upon the fragile mess of her, too broken to repair.
They all looked at her this way. As though she was lost.
Truly, she was.
“You are weary from all you have been through. In time—”
“Time?” she moaned. “I should not be here. The nameless one did not belong. You sent him back. I heard him wailing as he went, crying for a soul. Please, take me back.”
“I will not return you to Moag,” the Mardraim said softly, resting a hand on her forehead. “You will get better, Young Isabella. You have no choice.”
“I do not wish to get better,” she sobbed. “It hurts so badly. The world was made to hurt. I know that now. I do not belong here. I know too much, and it hurts, all of it, hurts so much, and I am so alone.”
Her Omdra drew in a painful breath, as though he would speak, but the Mardraim held out a hand to stay him. “I know you hurt, child. I know you feel alone. I must keep you deeply enveloped in order to protect the others. I know you understand this. Perhaps, as you get better—”
“I will not get better, and you cannot protect them,” she whispered. “Nothing can protect them now. Please, Mardraim, I serve no purpose here, I have no place in the world of Fate. There was too much power, so they divided it again and again, and always, the people, those poor, terrible people, filled with hatred and pain—it is too much to bear.”
“Her mind is fractured,” Omdra Wallace said in a hush. “Are we certain it does not still hold her?”
“There is no way to be certain,” the Mardraim smiled sadly. “All we can do is wait and hope.”
The door opened and the wanderer stepped quietly inside. No one else seemed to noticed he was there, so Issa was not certain if he was real or just a figment, or if, perhaps, Omdra Wallace was right, and Moag still had her in its grasp, and this wandering apparition was sent to torment her.
Perhaps Moag still had him as well.
A dozen purple thistles clung to the tattered tail of his garment.
“I wonder what she means by it all, what she saw in there,” Omdra Vega offered.
“I do not,” her father answered, looking pained at the prospect.
Noel raised his hand by his side in a half wave, a pathetic, cringing smile on his lips. Issa forced down the venom that rose in her throat, rolled on her side and squeezed her eyes shut, willing him to disappear.
The wanderer was to blame for all of it. The baby, Harvey, Issa’s Fatelessness. He had changed everything.
“Schripat. Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed against her hands, clasped prayerfully.
“What do these words mean?” the Mardraim sighed, even as Noel gasped, and everyone turned, surprised to find him there.
As much as she despised him, Isabella was at least glad she was not the only one who could see him.
“What are you doing here?” her father spoke in the language of the elves, his voice thick with anger. Never, in all of her life, had she heard her Omdra speak crossly to anyone. Anger was something Issa knew deeply now, having found within Moag a thousand passions she did not know existed before. She should weep for a million years, for all of the agony in the world, and for a million more, knowing her father had learned to suffer because of Noel.
“I come for Isabella. She is…fear… alone. I come to help her,” the man answered.
“You have no cause here,” her father spat. “Leave, this instant, and do not ever return.”
Omdra Yang stepped forward and took Issa’s father by the hand, speaking quietly, “Zo, you are weary from these days of uncertainty. The Llendir is so deeply enveloped we did not notice him here. He cannot possibly harm her more than he has already done. Perhaps he can help.”
“He understood her,” the Mardraim said, looking to Noel. “She said these words before. Is this the language your people speak today?”
“No,” Noel answered, clearly stunned he had understood. “Apology. I do not know this language, but I know the words. She said, ‘He lives. The wanderer lives.’ How do I know this? Why did she say it?”
“More questions,” the Mardraim smiled. “I expect there will always be more than we can possibly answer, young one.”
“Make him go. Please, make him go,” Isabella cried, her voice hoarse from all the tears she had shed. The others might speak in elfish, but she would not accommodate the intruder. “He has changed everything, even you, just as Harvey said he would. Now I am free, and Harvey is gone, but this was not how it was meant to be. Take me back to Moag. Put me back. I do not belong here.”
“She wants you to leave,” her Omdra said to the wanderer. “You upset her.”
Noel frowned, stepping toward her, but Yang blocked the way, giving him a cautioning look. “Apology,” Noel said again, stepping back. “Issa, do not… cry for Moag. Do not cry for Harvey.”
“Do you not understand there is no place for you here, Llendir?” her father shouted. “Get out, now!”
“Zo,” Omdra Yang whispered, placing himself between them.
“But I understand her,” Noel said. “I do not know how. I mean no harm.”
“Stay, Young Noel,” the Mardraim said softly, and Isabella’s father caught his breath, betrayed. But their elder got to his feet and went to Zo Asan, took him in his arms, like a nurturer should, and spoke in the gentlest voice, “Zo, I know this has been very difficult for you, first believing you lost your child, then believing she returned to you miraculously, only to have her stolen from you once again, wishing you could help, powerless to do anything, powerless even to ease the pain she experienced in her ordeal. Noel Loveridge saved her life. Against all of our doctrines, we allowed him to save her, as she saved him, and against all of our doctrines, we have worked to heal the damage done her by Moag—the damage done to her body, the damage we could see. I do not know how long it will take to repair her broken soul, however, against our doctrines, I will continue this course of healing, the course Young Noel set in place as soon as he escaped Moag. Do not treat him as our enemy, when he may yet have life to give her. Issa will never be the same, that is certain, but perhaps, if we give her the time and patience she needs, she will be better than before. Ohamet understands her. Let him help us understand her as well.”
By the time the Mardraim had finished speaking, Zo Asan was weeping.
“Father, it is too much to bear,” Issa cried, and he broke loose from the Mardraim’s embrace and fell to his knees on the floor beside her, taking her up in his arms, holding her head to his chest as he rocked her, like a child. “The nameless infant died,” she whispered.
“He did,” her father answered, lips pressed to the top of her head. “But you did not.”
“Harvey… H-harvey died,” Isabella said, the words falling off into heaving sobs.
Her father held her tighter still, answering, “No. Shh. No.”
“I saw him in Moag. He took my place.”
“No, Issa, Harvey lives. Ohamet brought him out of the blackness. Ohamet saved him.”
Isabella did not see how this was possible, when she saw her friend unfurled. His demise in the depths of Moag was as clear to her as the beginning and ending of the universe. He was relinquished to Moag in the blink of an eye, swift as a billion billion suns are born to give life and die, giving death. “He is gone,” she said certainly.
Then the door opened, and there Harvey stood on the stoop, looking worn and weak and beautiful.
“Harvey,” she shuddered as he hurried across the room.
He scooped her up out of her father’s arms, hugging her tightly. “Here I am. Here I am, Issa,” he said. His voice was the sweetest sound she had ever known.
Of all the thousands of passions she learned from Ohamet and her encounter with Moag, the greatest, most treacherous was what she felt in that moment.
Disbelief. Awe. Fear. Wonder. Relief.
Love, Noel thought, rubbing his fingers together as he stepped outside, shutting the door behind him.