Prophet of Darkness
“They wear blood on their heads,” Issa whispered into the tiny hole in the reed. She sat cross-legged, with her nose and forehead pressed against the wall of her hut. She had spent the morning watching the transparent green worm as it gnawed its way inside the fibrous shaft. Now that its work was done, it would lay its eggs there and wait to die, to be the first meal for its newly emerging offspring. The creature was on its way to becoming something more, like everything else within Om was destined to do— except for Issa.
The idea made her breath catch in her chest as tears stung at her eyes, but she bit the inside of her cheek and tasted blood, which at least served to harden her resolve. Her own destiny, or lack thereof, did not matter right now. This little worm could be trusted to carry some of the truth into the next life, she thought, picking at one of the scabs on her fingers, causing it to ooze.
“Great cloaks of blood and nothing else, as the sun rose up setting the earth ablaze, the pages turned to ash that fell from the sky like snowflakes, she swallowed it whole,” she added, rocking back and forth as the words ruptured out of her.
She slapped her hands hard over her lips. It would not do to give the poor worm too much.
For the six days since she awoke from her dance with Moag, Issa had been locked up in her hut with little to do but try to spit out the poison of Moag whenever she recalled even the slightest part of it, telling it as secrets to the worms and the birds and the wind, if they would listen. No one else would. Her mother looked at her with fear in her eyes, though she tried to hide it. Her father rarely stayed long enough for her to fall into one of her fits of imbalance, as he called them. She had tried several times to tell Harvey of the things Moag had shown her, hoping he would understand, thinking perhaps he could help piece together the strands of her thoughts into something comprehensible, after all he had been there as well, but her persistence only seemed to make him angry. Harvey wanted her to pretend to be herself, to be his old Issa again, if only so she could get out of that hut and live and breathe, since she had been given this second chance at life by the wanderer. She knew she was too far gone now, and so was he, even if he was not yet willing to admit this about himself. The truth was there was so much there, such a cataclysm of ideas in her head, trying to be understood all at once, that her thoughts were like blinding currents, few ideas coherent enough to express, except where the wanderer was concerned.
“Ohamet,” she growled as she got from the ground and hurried to the window, knowing she would not be able to see him, but strangely drawn to look anyway.
Noel walked along the riverbank on the far side of the mountain, Harvey at his side. Isabella regarded with jealousy the warmth of the morning light aglow on his cheeks. He was content, if not happy, and if she listened carefully, Issa could almost hear the rush of the water drowning out their sentences. She could smell the damp earth on the air, intermingled with the tender bloom of wild thyme crushed under their feet. Noel walked with his hand outstretched, allowing the tall blades of grass to brush over his palm, and Issa knew each blade as though his hand were her own—as if she might rip the life up from the ground with ease. All she had to do was close her fist.
She clenched her fingers tight, and a drop of blood splattered to the floor, startling her out of her stupor.
This was her life now, no matter what Harvey wanted for her. She had no idea how long she had been standing at the window, holding her breath, gouging her fingernails into the flesh of her hand.
“Echteri amu schripat,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes again, blurring the lines of the treetops against the sky. “Schripat. Schripat.”
He had to live. He had to change everything.
A knock on the door sent her thoughts of the wanderer adrift.
She wiped her bloodied fingers over her face, rubbing away the tears as the Mardraim entered, and she forced herself to smile. “My Mardraim,” she began, bowing her head politely, trying hard to control the quaver in her voice. He had not visited since the day she woke.
“I am sorry to disturb you, Young Isabella,” the old man answered gently, pausing for a moment with his back to her as he shut the door behind him. She watched his jaw pulse as his shoulders shifted, in preparation. “You are feeling better than last I saw you?” he added as he turned again, his face serene as ever, not betraying his initial aversion to the state in which he found her.
Isabella looked down at her nightgown, stained with blood, knowing there was nothing to be done about it, and pushed back the twisted locks of her hair. When had she last washed?
“I am well, yes,” she lied. She felt frenzied, constantly racing to hide from her own panic and the torrent of ideas that were not of this world. Her memories prior to her encounter with Moag still scattered and vague, she often got lost in her head trying to bleed the wanderer from her veins, so that time had become disjointed, and she had taken to numbering the days in scratches on the floor to try and keep count. Six. Maybe more. Perhaps less. But there were six marks, and she was fairly certain she made them all herself. She was hardly well. “Are you well?” she added casually, as though the two of them had met on the path, on her way to perform some duty of the aspirant, and the courtesy was only natural.
“I am concerned for you,” Edward Frank answered too honestly. He motioned to the table as a match for Issa’s solitary chair appeared there. They made their way to their respective seats, and the mardraim continued solemnly. “I wanted to give you time to heal, before I pressed you too much about the things you experienced these past weeks. I still lack a full understanding of the things that have gone on in our mountain, since Ohamet came, however I believe you can help me, if you are willing.”
He glanced down at the bleeding skin on her fingers, then back to her eyes, searching them for something he was not yet ready to voice. For a moment, she thought he would ask about the wounds, but instead he said, “The last time we spoke, you claimed to have received prophecies directly from Moag. Do you remember telling me this?”
“I do,” she answered, laughing quietly at the idea she might have forgotten something as important as the things Moag showed her, though she did not remember exactly when she had told the Mardraim about them, and she knew she could not remember everything she saw. No one could possibly remember so much. No one was supposed to know the things she knew.
“I would like to know more about these prophecies,” the old man said, folding his hands in his lap.
A spasm of agonizing glee coursed through her, as Isabella sat up straight, her knees bouncing, causing the table to tremor. If the Mardraim would listen, he could help her understand. “Echteri amu schripat,” she said before she knew what she was saying.
“The wanderer lives,” the old man nodded. “You have told me this before. If it is a prophecy, do you understand the meaning, child? I do not know Moag, as you do, and Om offers no guidance for understanding such things.”
“Om would not—” she began, but as if the words had opened the tap inside her, all the confusion flooded back, and Issa found herself drowning again. “The beast saved three, born a shelter, he knows where it belongs, blood on their heads.” Eyes wide, she clamped her hand over her mouth and held it tight, as she rocked back and forth on the spot, squeezing every muscle in her body , to hold back the torrent. It would not do to frighten the Mardraim away. He would help her. He had to help her.
The old man shook his head, concern and confusion weighing down his white tufted brow. “These are prophecies you witnessed in the darkness? Or are they a single prophecy? Isabella, do you know?”
She nodded excitedly, then shook her head, realizing she could not answer for certain, tears spilling down her cheeks again even as she let loose her mouth and continued, “I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag, she swallowed it whole.” She balled her fists in her lap, baring her teeth, fighting to hold herself still. “Swallowed it. Swallowed it… whole.”
“The infant? You speak of the nameless child?”
Issa nodded. The nameless one had died.
“The nameless child has a prophecy from Moag?”
“But the nameless child is dead,” the Mardraim frowned. “How can he have a prophecy if he is not living?”
“The prophecy could not come to pass if he were living,” Isabella answered confidently.
“What do you mean?
“I…” But she had no idea what she meant. That was why she needed the wind and the worms and the Mardraim.
The elder leaned forward expectantly, pressing his fingers to his lips, and allowed the moment of silence to pass between them, obviously hoping Isabella would somehow manage to gather some focus and reach an epiphany she might share with him. It did not happen. “Tell me again, Issa,” he whispered. “Try to go slowly, and I will do my best to understand. Tell me of the nameless one.”
The pity in his tired eyes was difficult for her to bear, but Isabella took in a steadying breath and did her best to speak slowly, as asked. “I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag,” she hissed then flung her hand over her mouth to stopper the flow.
“I put him back?”
“And I heard him crying,” she answered from behind her fingers, staring wide-eyed at the old man, willing him to make sense of just this one thing, or if not to make sense of it, then at least to take it away from her, so she did not have to know it anymore.
“But what could it mean?” he shook his head, getting to his feet. “The child is dead. He died the very day Ohamet came through Moag. He died, as surely as the wanderer brought Young Isabella back to life.” The elder was pacing now, speaking to himself. “We took his body from the cloister. We burned him, to set him free.” The Mardraim turned suddenly. “Is that what you mean when you say that I put him back in Moag? Is it to do with the burning?”
Issa shrugged and gave a quiet laugh. The providence of the nameless one had puzzled the Mdrai and Felimi for months. The fact they burned the infant’s body, rather than allowing him to return to the earth, could only mean they were so disturbed by his unnatural disruption of their order of things, as they understood Om, that they hoped to keep him from being born again. But they could not grasp that he was never of this order of things, never had a soul to begin with, so the fire could hardly keep him from coming back.
The Mardraim quickly retook his seat, inching his chair forward, leaning in conspiratorially. “You said I put him back,” the old man offered, fear weathering his face for the first time, and for some reason Isabella could not explain, that look of fear brought her a small sliver of joy. “Issa, did the nameless child come from Moag? Is that why Om gave us no prophecy?”
“Harvey…” she answered, though she knew this was not what she meant to say. She had meant to say she had no idea where the child came from or what Moag’s prophecy of the child actually meant, only that Ohamet changed everything, because he lived… because she had saved him. Everything else was just pieces of the unfathomable deep, and she, for whatever reason, had become Moag’s voice—this trumpeting prophet of darkness, filling the mountain with truths no one could possibly comprehend, until they all drowned in the blackest of black. “Harvey.”
She had watched him die, seen Harvey become a part of the never-ending shadow, a part of everything and nothing, all at once. How he survived Moag, she did not know, but she was certain there was something important she was supposed to remember about him, something Moag had shown her that was not of Moag itself, and not prophecy, but something else entirely, something much more powerful. It burned at her insides, looking for an escape, but would not come out.
The Mardraim drew in a breath. He got to his feet again and gave a few more turns around the room, contemplating what Isabella had told him as she looked on, knowing he could not understand, any more than she could, the frustration growing inside her with every moment that passed. This was all the wanderer’s fault, and she hated him for it, even though she knew this was the way it had to be. She had never hated anyone before, just as she had never truly loved anyone before, but it was as though Ohamet had planted within her a seed of humankindness the moment he set foot on that mountain, and that humankindness had taken root deep within her, and from it sprung this awful, tremendous fury for the elf and the hell he had brought down on her home. Then Moag showed her everything, and she knew now more than ever that Noel Loveridge deserved her hatred for what he had done to her, for the change he had wrought within her, even if all of the other changes that came with him were necessary.
After a long while, the Mardraim came to stand beside her, holding out his hand for her to take. Dutifully, Isabella reached up with still oozing fingers. He took them up, turning them over, examining her carefully, as though he hoped to find some physical explanation for how backwards she had become. The old man did not ask about the deep wounds she had given herself and did not move to dress them. He likely knew it would do her no good—her mother had stopped trying days ago. “Have you received any new prophecies from Moag, since you have healed?”
She had seen all Moag had to show her while in its depths. Anything that was left to show would come from Noel Loveridge. “No, but I can feel it still at times…”
She hesitated, not knowing if she should say more. Did the Mardraim know where the elf went at night, she wondered? She sincerely doubted she would ever be allowed out of her hut again if she confided in the elder that she could still feel the wanderer even while the old man concealed her so deeply from everyone else in that mountain. And Harvey had warned her the Felimi would not accept Ohamet wandering too freely, so while she wanted more than anything for the elf to be dealt with once and for all, the last thing she needed was for him to be locked up too, where she would be forced to commiserate with him and his own prison, the two of them waiting for death. Insane or not, at least she still had some sense of reason.
“I do not know,” she lied once more, the lies coming easier with every lie she told. Strangely, there was little shame attached to them now. “Moag is there at times, waiting for me to return. It waits for Noel Loveridge and Harvey as well. It waits for you, my Mardraim.”
“I see,” the elder answered, taking a step back, though she was certain he did not see, not with any clarity. How could he?
Isabella often felt the darkness stir within her, calling her home, and she knew that the desire Noel Loveridge felt as he crossed the ocean and flew up the face of the mountain and clung in death to the shadow of this life, and the desire he felt for whatever it was he sought when he slipped away in the night and wandered the tunnels alone, was the same desire Issa felt to return to that immutable blackness where she now belonged. His wandering was a part of him, as the darkness was a part of her. It had consumed her to save him, but Noel had brought her back, when he should have left her to her end. So she suffered his wandering dangerously close to the fragile line between Om and Moag, and she knew he was desperately afraid of slipping into the darkness himself, but then he had so much left to do, so much left to change. As for Isabella herself, she suspected that one day, if she was ever allowed out of her hut again, allowed to wander freely, she would go there, to the place Noel went at night, and she would step into the shadows and feel nothing at all anymore, save perhaps an overwhelming sense of relief at finally finding the peace promised by that ultimate end, as she became one with the darkness at last. She could wander right into the folds of Moag and never know she slipped away. Noel, however, could not, for the wanderer lives.
“I want out of here,” she said suddenly, breaking the Mardraim’s train of thought as she twisted her hand free from his grip. “I want to return to my duties. I want to be myself again.” A part of her did want these things, desperately, but that part of her was overshadowed by the knowledge she had been granted and the understanding that she would never again belong in this realm. “I want to walk outside, to laugh with Harvey, to feel Om again. Please. Please, my Mardraim!”
The old man drew in a weary breath and offered her a pained smile. She expected him to give her some consoling answer reserved for those who were clearly out of their minds, but instead he whispered softly, “We are trying to find a way to restore the path of Om for all those affected by Young Noel’s arrival. I cannot promise we will succeed, Issa. I can only promise we are trying.”
“You should have killed him,” Issa stammered, shuddering even as the words escaped her lips. “He stole a piece of me, robbed me of my very existence. You will not restore Om’s way. You cannot. Schripat.” She spat on the ground, and the shudder quickly turned to convulsions, her muscles seizing up, bloody hands twisted with palsy, as an impossibly brilliant light filled her head and she felt her chair slip from beneath her and her body become a part of the ground.
“Come, young one,” the Mardraim said sometime later, lifting her up, curiously strong for one as old as he, she thought vaguely, as she began to wake to her surroundings. Her body was still and limp now, and the sky outside had begun to hint of twilight. She had lost consciousness again, she thought panting like the takin searching for water and shade, the searing pain in her head making it difficult to open her eyes. “You must rest now,” Edward Frank whispered. “I will visit again soon. Perhaps then I will have some answers for us both.” And he carried her to her bed mat and laid her down on her side, brushing the tangled mass of hair from her face as he tucked her blanket around her.
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