Four and twenty marks… Four and twenty days or more since she woke from Moag, Issa thought, skeptically scraping her teeth across her bottom lip as she watched the patch of white-gold light falling through the window, tracing its path across the scratches on the floor. Her concept of time was still questionable.
What if the Mardraim had visited while she slept, or when she was lost in Moag, or wherever it was she went when she disappeared because she was certain that she was invisible sometimes too?
How did he do that?
Four and twenty days. Or less.
Less was definitely possible, she thought, turning to pace, rubbing angry fingers at her temples, trying to keep the ideas from stirring frantic inside her, even as they gurgled up, vomitous in her brain, half curdled puzzles, burbling from the depths of her, lingering for hours and minutes and seconds, waiting, and waiting some more, for the rest of the fragments to ferment and congeal, to emerge something solid and knowable. Few thoughts managed to reach this precious state. But last night…
Good. She still remembered, but how long would it be before she forgot? And why had the Mardraim not come, as promised?
Issa hurried to the door, glancing back at the patch of light, hoping to remember what it looked like when she returned. If she returned.
Her concept of reality was rather dubious as well. The holes in her own presence in her head were surrounded by fractures of memories she could only recall from a great distance, as though at times she was not herself anymore, but some other being altogether, residing on the outside of the thin shroud that had been placed over her eyes, like a screen, so that all she could know was from this other’s perspective, looking down on the world, watching the Issa who no longer existed move like a blind shadow through a memory of a moment that had yet to occur, but was somehow grounded in a long distant past. Like a grain of sand, she thought— a grain of sand that was once a behemoth mountain, like her home.
And then there was the Wanderer.
No, it was best not to think of him. Thoughts of him left her feeling ashamed, irrevocably altered, and that never proved good for keeping her mind intact. The her she used to be could not come to terms with the she she had become— the she who truly wished her past self would leave Noel Loveridge to his death in the icy outside world, though every her she was on every level of existence knew perfectly well leaving him to his death was impossible, not because the thing had already happened—though that too was an important observation, she noted— but because he was Ohamet.
The Wanderer lives.
Yes. Yes, he lives, but then last night, she thought scowling, scratching at her cheeks as she turned in a circle, forgetting whatever it might be she intended to do in favor of this new line of thought. She despised him as much as she despised the part of her that wished the Mardraim had found some way to end him, as he had told the Felimi he wanted. Ohamet lived and would have lived, that was certain, but also beside the point. Even reason could not change this perturbation within her that knew his wandering had taken everything from her and he should never have brought her back to this life, even if she remembered telling him to breathe.
Had she told him to breathe?
She stopped to listen to the past, and yes, she could hear the voice inside her head clearly inside his head, though far away, urging him to save her. Why had she done that? What else had she forgotten?
She glanced back at the patch of morning, still making its slow progress across the floor, and let loose a grateful sigh as she recalled that she was waiting for the Mardraim.
Her concept of reality was a most fragile thread, swiftly unraveling like the tail of her Omdet Fillim in a vision of a dream in which she had drowned and brought herself back to life.
No, she was not supposed to be here, in this world, on this plain. Om had nothing more for her. But Moag… Last night… Where was the Mardraim?
With one breath, Noel Loveridge had thrust her back into this life of darkness, where all she could do was convulse and spew senseless babble for the rest of time, uttering pieces of a future she could never fully fathom with any of her worldly senses, even though inside her the truth swelled and raged and battered against her, all there, all looking for an escape, but as fragmented and confused as Issa herself, in a thousand and one forms. There were few things she could rely upon as real. She did not even know if this moment was real, but she knew last night Noel Loveridge had done something different, something spectacular.
The marks were real, she thought, returning to count them once again, uncomfortably aware that the she she wanted to be had failed miserably at holding back the her she had become. The marks were real, even if they only meant she was lucid four and twenty times since she woke knowing something—everything and nothing all at once— was missing, and backwards, and wrong, and trapped inside her head.
Unless the marks were meant to signify something other than time, but what could that be? What did she have left to mark?
Frustrated, she bounced on her toes, clawing at the flesh on her upper arms. How many times had she stood before those marks futilely contemplating why she had chosen to make them, what she intended to count, if they had even begun as intentional marks or if she had made at least some of them while in some altered state? Because sometimes she was neither the her she wanted to be, nor the she she had become, nor the her outside of time, looking down, but instead was some other she none of them knew in the slightest, and it was all the Wanderer’s fault.
She bent down and scratched another swift mark in the floor with the sharpened nail of her thumb, for good measure.
Five and twenty.
That mark was true—real or not. Five and twenty marks since she started making marks and wondering why she was making marks.
Issa crossed the room to the door again and ran her finger down the shallow gouge there in the frame.
One time the Mardraim had come to visit, to take away the pieces of Moag’s prophecies, to try and order them, so he might restore Om. One mark made by the Mardraim himself, with a promise to return first thing the next day, to collect pieces of the shattering. His mark was more reliable as a measurement of time and reality, so long as Issa did not change it.
So long as the wanderer did not change it, she thought with a hint of bitter remorse. No. Still best not to think of him, she reminded herself, gritting her teeth against the idea of his pain and fear last night, as he flew toward her.
He was with Harvey again today. She squeezed her fist, then flexed her fingers. His fist closed and flexed in response. This was comforting. She did not know if it was real or true, but at least in Noel she felt tethered to an existence that seemed relatively consistent.
She missed Harvey. He had stolen him too, and Issa was certain she hated him for it, despite the fact she had little understanding of hatred as an emotion, except through him. But last night…
Last night, Noel Loveridge was in the tunnels. She did not know why he went there, but he went often. At first, she believed he was trying to find a way home because he thought of his friends, he missed them, but then he began wandering the edges of Moag, which turned out to occupy much more of their mountain than Issa suspected anyone knew. Ohamet could feel it, and she could feel it as well, through him, though this made little sense, not that anything made sense anymore. The wanderer was afraid of Moag, but last night he did something that, for the briefest of moments, allowed Isabella Asan, the real her, to see again.
What she saw was whole. Complete. A perfect work. A perfect, terrifying, beautiful, desperate work.
Then the wanderer was flying toward her in a panic, his desperation rooted deep within her. Issa had hurried to the door to meet him, expecting to find out what he had done, to learn what he knew, but when he landed, he was invisible. Almost.
Did the Mardraim know the elf had been there in her garden last night? Did he know Noel Loveridge could make himself unseen and wander wherever he wanted?
Issa dug her fingernails into her palm. She felt Noel flex his fingers in response, shaking out his hand, and smiled.
One mark. One time the Mardraim came to help her, she thought, running her finger over the etched line in the door frame. He would help her understand what Ohamet had done.
That was right, whether real or true existed anymore. That was right.
“Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed, as there came a knock at the door.
Isabella flung the door open, and there stood the Mardraim on the other side, as if manifested by her mania. She laughed loudly at the sight of him, and when the elder’s eyes widened in shock, she swallowed her laughter and covered her mouth, whispering from behind her fingers, “My Mardraim,” and ducking her head in a respectful bow. She glanced at the door frame, to make certain the Mardraim’s mark had not changed. Still there.
“Young Isabella,” the elder smiled at her, though his eyes were sad, she thought as he inspected her and she grew painfully aware of her appearance. “Are you feeling well today?”
She straightened her dress and smoothed her hair. She was not certain how to explain how she felt, so instead she took him by the hand leading him to her small table, where there were two chairs waiting.
She had tried to stay awake last night, after the wanderer ran away, while she waited for the Mardraim, afraid if she closed her eyes the vision that had come to her so completely would slip away through the cracks in her mind, like everything else tended to do, since Noel Loveridge brought her back to life. She had spent most of the night pacing, but at some point, in some other state of herself, she must have sat down to rest, and fallen asleep.
She woke in a panic, well before the dawn, still sat at the table, her head stirring with useless fragments. Afraid she had forgotten what Moag and Ohamet had shown her, she intended to whisper the worthless bits into the solitary stillness of the early morning hours, but as the thoughts pressed dangerously against the inside of her skull, seeking release, she stumbled over her chair in her hurry, and knocked her head against the ground. She lay on the floor weeping for some time, until she realized the vision was still whole—painfully whole. Somehow it had managed to remain, in spite of Issa’s turmoil and the tender spot that grew up on her forehead.
“The seabed ripped open, and the earth shook with violent tremors,” she said quickly, as the Mardraim settled himself into a chair, eying her seriously, while she paced before him. “The waters of the ocean receded from the shorelines. They drew back, far away, in preparation, and the people came out from their homes and places of work to watch, some frightened, some wondering what it meant. When the ocean made its return at last, it became a vast serge, rising over its shores, washing through towns and villages, ripping up everything in its path—the ground, the trees, the buildings, the people— carrying all of this destruction inland, until the waters finally settled back in their beds, leaving carnage behind. Thousands of people drowned, swept away, crushed by the debris, lost forever. Hundreds of thousands—a drowning of multitudes.”
As she spoke the last words, she sat in her chair.
The elder stared in silence, his eyes wide as he struggled to make sense of her words. When he finally leaned forward and spoke, his voice was a tremulous whisper, “You saw this? Exactly this?”
Isabella understood his shock. These were not the allegorical instruments of Om. These were not even akin to the dream-like visions she saw while she was within Moag herself. She knew no one believed her when she told them that Moag had shown her everything, all that had ever and would ever happen in the world, especially since Issa could hardly piece together the words to recount any given event because it was far too much for anyone to know. Whatever the wanderer did last night, Issa was able to see this event again, so clearly she could taste the salt water that filled bloated lungs. She could see the baffled and terrified faces of the people swept up in the tides, hear their last cries for help as their bodies were bashed and tossed by the wake and everything the water tore from the earth. This was a change Noel Loveridge had made, and to hear Issa speak with such clarity, especially considering her state during his last visit, was sure to concern the Mardraim.
She nodded. “When Ohamet was within Moag, I saw this and all of his changes at once. But last night, he…”
Her voice faltered. She shook her head and looked down at her fingers. What would the Mardraim do if she told him where Noel Loveridge went each night?
“What did he do, child?” the elder prompted.
“I do not know,” she shrugged, knowing this was true, even if it was negating a lot of what she did know. What if the mothers discovered Noel Loveridge had been out wandering alone? What would happen to her if something happened to him? If Ohamet’s wandering was stopped, would Issa only have the chaos left in her head? While she knew he had been frightened last night, if she wanted clarity, more she could tell the Mardraim about the changes brought about by the elf’s wanderings, she needed Noel to do whatever he had done again.
And again, and again until she could share everything. It would take countless lifetimes.
He had taken Om from her. He had taken Harvey from her. He owed her.
“Young Isabella, if I am to help you, you must tell me what you know,” the Mardraim whispered. “I will protect you both.”
Issa tucked her hands beneath her legs, biting her lip. She knew the Mardraim intended to try and right the way of Om. She knew he would try and fail. She had seen his efforts. She knew how it would end. She no longer had a destiny of her own, not even a destiny foretold by Moag, but if she could tell others of the changes Noel Loveridge had made, then perhaps his bringing her back to life was not such a cruelty after all. Maybe she could serve this purpose as well as she had meant to serve Om.
“He has been wandering again,” she hissed, too ashamed to meet the Mardraim’s eye, instead looking down at the ground where five and twenty gouges in the floor caught the light of morning. They numbered the pieces of prophecies she had given the Mardraim the day before. She could remember quite clearly now, making each mark, hoping she would not forget—all but the last one, the one she had given today. It was whole. It was beautiful and mortifying.
“At night, when everyone is sleeping, Ohamet wanders the tunnels near Moag. I do not know what he did differently last night, but whatever it was, it allowed me to understand this event clearly. I think he… touched Moag… somehow. Not like before.”
“I see,” the elder frowned. “What makes you believe he touched Moag?”
“He is fearful of it, because of the dreams he saw while within it, but he is drawn to it,” she answered plainly. “Before the vision came, I felt this fear and this need within him to go there. Then there was incredible pain, so terrible I could hardly breathe, but I saw—lived—this moment again, this change Noel Loveridge made. When it was done, the pain stopped, but the elf flew to me, with desperate speed. I went to meet him, but when he landed on the garden path, I could not see him.”
The Mardraim stifled a smile. “You could not see him, yet you are certain he was there?”
“Yes. I could not see him, but I saw myself, or something like myself.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, leaning forward expectantly.
“I saw it before, as well,” she nodded, her courage building. “Not me, as I am today, and not in a vision. Last night, when he landed in the garden, there was a whisper of light he could not make invisible. That light belonged to me once, and I knew it as myself, the part of me he stole when I breathed the life back into him. But the light I saw before was different. When Noel Loveridge first entered Moag, while I was with Harvey and the mothers at the cloister, I left my body dead on the ground. I saw a whisper of light then too, like a curl of smoke, trailing up from the old mother’s mouth, up to the ceiling. I think the old mother is dying.”
The Mardraim shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his white brow drawing heavy over kind eyes. “Could you see this light around anyone else?”
Issa was certain he knew something about what she had seen. Perhaps he knew the old mother was going to die. Perhaps he had seen this light as well, but she decided the vision of the drowning was more important than the light.
“No, but the middle mother saw me. As though she had always seen me, she reached out to snatch me from the air, but she couldn’t, and that was when I realized I was no longer within my body. I was made of the smoke-touched light, like the light the old mother was breathing.”
The Mardraim sat stunned and for a long while watched her in silent contemplation. When he spoke at last, his voice was heavy with concern. “Have you told this to anyone else? Have you told this to Harvey?
Issa frowned, uncertain why the elder would ask such a question. “I do not believe so, however I have been… not myself at times.”
He let out a small sigh that seemed rather nervous than it did relieved. “You must not tell anyone else what you have seen, Issa. I will make this right,” he said quietly. And he reached across the table, taking her hand with both of his in promising comfort.
The old man had used the name for her only Harvey used. The familiar word sounded strange on the elder’s lips. She knew he meant well. He would try to make it right again, try to restore the prophecies Ohamet erased, but in the end, he would find he had no choice but to allow the wanderer’s changes to come, to play his part in them.
“What else can you tell me about the vision you saw last night?” he asked. “This tragedy that will kill thousands—do you know where or when it will occur?”
“It was not in one place, but many. Everywhere the ocean touches will be affected in its way,” she answered, then added, curious at the nature of his inquiry, “My Mardraim…?”
What Issa had seen was not an edict passed down to them by Om. They had no need to decipher the meaning of countless Veils in order to understand. This disaster was shown her by Moag, and if she was not much mistaken, it appeared their elder was considering what might be done to save lives. Did the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya apply to a future foretold by Moag?
“Their faces…” Issa whispered carefully, as uncertain of the Mardraim’s intention as she was uncertain of her own. “I see many of them clearly. Perhaps I could paint them for you.”
“You see structures as well? Landmarks that might be identified?” he asked, an energy in his words that Issa had never heard before.
She nodded. “I will paint them for you, as well, my Mardraim, but please do not stop Ohamet going to Moag,” she said, knowing that what she was asking would displease many. This was the best hope she had of being useful this life. It was the only hope she had.
“We must understand what he has done. We must understand if we are ever to restore Om’s way,” the Mardraim answered firmly, pressing her hand between his in the same gentle, loving-kindness he had always given to their people. His hands were warm and soft, and Issa wanted desperately to believe in him, despite knowing the truth.
It was her turn to let out a sigh, anxious and expectant. The secret pact formed between herself and the Mardraim, caused something akin to the warmth of happiness to melt the trepidation that had overwhelmed her ever since the wanderer set foot inside Moag. But at the same time, this pact meant she might never tell the Mardraim what she knew would eventually become of him.
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, Pt. 29, Pt. 30