“You might have killed her with your foolishness,” came the mardraim’s voice from behind him, as Noel flew with violent speed for the exit.
He had a brief moment to slow and turn his head, before running smack into what was definitively a solid stone wall, coming to an abrupt and painful halt, and landing in a lump, in front of the doorway. As he rolled over, groaning and cradling his right shoulder, two Edwards came to stand over him, both looking rather more unpleasant than last they met, arms crossed over their chests, brows raised in accusation. Noel shook his head as he sat up, and the two mardraim’s became one.
“Argh, oof… I apology,” he moaned, uncertain of what happened, rubbing at his arm, squinting his eyes against the searing pain in his head. He reached up to search his hairline and found a tender lump, already growing on his scalp. Luckily, there was no blood. This reminded him of Isabella. “She is hurt? She is gone!” He hurried to his feet, turning for the door. Edward stood by and watched as he ran into the solid portal between the nowhere and the real world again, this time bouncing off.
“I believe Young Isabella should remain my concern, not yours, as you continuously put her in harm’s way,” the old man answered, without a hint of malice, as Noel pushed at the doorway in confusion. “What sort of person are you, who knowingly endangers another?”
“Knowing…?” At this, it occurred to Noel that the exit of the nowhere had been blocked for a reason. He looked at Edward, then at the door, flabbergasted. “Edward, I meant only to look at book on possession. To sleep was not… not my purpose. We must go now,” he added, waving an eager hand at the door. “Something is wrong with her. She is gone,” he repeated, thinking perhaps Edward simply didn’t understand him.
“Nothing is wrong with Young Isabella. As for you, one might come to wonder that your continued failure to think through your purpose before you act may be by design, so as to leave you the ability to say whatever comes as a result of your actions was never your intention, absolving you of responsibility for the consequences.” His voice was even. The look on his face was not anger, not at all, but rather disappointment, mingled with something akin to grief, as though Noel was a particularly naughty child, in need of a stern chastising, but the hope he might one day grow up to comprehend the disgusting nature of his very being and change his ways was so small, it was hardly worth the elder’s effort to provide the necessary correction. This was a great deal worse than anger, as far as Noel was concerned, which he supposed was rather the point.
What sort of person was he? He was the sort who wanted to argue, to further justify himself. After all, Edward was the one who had refused to test the wards, and Edward had not spoken to him in the days since he touched the Moag. But the more he considered his own onslaught of perfectly decent excuses for making hasty decisions and seemingly endless mistakes, the more he felt the red of embarrassment crawl up his neck, as he realized that Eward was mostly right about him. He rarely thought things through, but then maybe it was better he didn’t think because thinking about the ten thousand year old prophecy of the Last Hope was exactly what got him into this mess in the first place. Now, where was Isabella? What had happened to her? Did he even have the right to wonder, considering the elder had asked for time, to see if the woman might heal more before they tested the wards any further, when they didn’t know what would happen to her as a result? Noel had answered that call for patience, caution, and a modicum of self-control, by shoving his hand into the darkness, as if on a dare, then feeling sorry for himself for days while he waited around for the elder to come to him. When he finally got tired of waiting, he went and fell asleep behind the wards anyway, without a single concern for what might happen to Isabella Asan as a result.
Indeed, what sort of person was he?
Noel met the old man’s eyes, clenching his jaw in a grimace, bracing for what he deserved.
What came was hardly surprising, given Edward’s penchant for passivity. “Are you badly injured?” the elder asked, motioning for Noel to follow him, as he led the way across the room. He waggled two crooked fingers at the sofa, indicating Noel should sit, then hurried to the other side of the desk, upon which, Noel was surprised to find, sat several stacks of the sketches, which had hung on the walls of Isabella’s hut the previous night.
“No, Master Frank,” he answered quietly, nursing his shoulder and his pride. He imagined he would have a couple of fairly nasty bruises, but they were the least of his concerns. What had happened to her? Why had Edward brought the drawings here? “Edward… Isabella?” he asked slowly, slouching down into his usual spot on the arm of the sofa, attempting to look penitent.
“As you suspected, the wards have done her no physical harm,” the mardraim said, then pursed his lips and almost rolled his eyes, as Noel breathed a grateful sigh. “I have warded this place and left her in Young Harvey’s care for the morning, while you and I discuss what we are to do next. I have made you another golem, in your absence. Unfortunately, his stomach was turned by his morning meal, so he is resting and asked not to be disturbed, which means you will need to use a light well when leaving here, to make certain no one sees you.”
With the immediate distractions out of the way, Edward sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together in contemplation. After a long moment, he said, “Now, Noel Loveridge, you must tell me everything. Begin with Moag. Leave no detail unexamined.”
The two sat for quite some time discussing all that had occurred since the night the mardraim refused to test the wards and Noel went and touched the Moag—well, almost all of it. Noel showed Edward his notebook of sketches and the map of the tunnels he had made so far, and he pointed out exactly where the path ended in the fork that couldn’t be explored, due to Moag’s concentration there. Noel explained about his sense of being drawn to that place—both his own desire to enter the darkness and his feeling of Isabella’s longing to continue in at that point as well, though he was certain there was a part of her who would have been happy if Noel went into Moag anywhere and got himself thoroughly lost (this made Edward chuckle). The elder prodded him for information about the physical attributes of Moag, exactly how long his hand was immersed in this dry mist that made up the darkness, what it felt like, how it reacted to his touch and seemed to have a will of its own, or at least possessed some force within it that drew it gently toward him when Noel was near, and of course, he wanted to know what Noel believed happened to Isabella as a result of his failure to weigh his own intents and purposes, before acting as most wanderers do, with willful negligence and reckless abandon. The elder himself, however, told Noel as little as possible.
Edward was only willing to give Noel what information he deemed necessary, which was not enough. He told Noel what Isabella felt, physically, when Noel touched Moag, how it had been briefly but intensely painful to her, and then how she felt Noel fly to her in a panic, and that she received a prophecy in the process. But as soon as Noel inquired about this prophecy— the meaning of what he had seen recorded in those drawings— Edward clammed up tight. Although the elder was unwilling to delve into the particulars, he did manage to get out of him that Isabella saw the prophecy clearly, not in the Veils, as the seers ordinarily received the prophecies of Om, but rather the actual event, a talent unheard of among the seers of today. And the woman’s case was made more peculiar by the fact she seemed to have seen the same prophecy from many perspectives at once—in fact, thousands of perspectives. According to Edward, she had only been able to record a few hundred of these images, before Noel went into the warded room upstairs and broke the connection between them.
“Th-thousands?” Noel stammered in wonder. He had not touched Moag for more than a second or two, before the woman was screaming in his head and he flew fast as he could to her, yet somehow, in that brief moment of contact, she saw the destiny of thousands? Edward may have wanted to dance around the subject of the prophecy, but Noel had seen several of the drawings. He tried to imagine how thousands of people drowning might be connected, but of course, it made no sense to him. Everyone dies eventually, and plenty of people drowned to death every year, probably even every day, but he thought surely few of them had much to do with one another. Why would Isabella need to see these things? Why had Moag shown her these people’s deaths, and not people who died in airplane crashes, of ebola, or by shark attack for example? Or were those next? Was Moag merely a predictor of death, as Edward posited days ago? The very idea of Isabella Asan sitting witness to the deaths of every person on earth filled Noel with dread. “How is it possible she see so much?”
The elder gave an uncertain shake of his head and halfhearted shrug of his shoulders. “We have ventured well outside the realm of what you or I might understand as possible, into something else. While you were first within Moag, Young Isabella claims to have seen the entirety of existence, from beginning to end, which I admit seemed as doubtful to me as to everyone, until I sat with her as she recorded this, working as quickly as she could, not stopping to eat or sleep, as though she could not document it fast enough. I only wish she had begun this work sooner and not waited for me to arrive the next morning.” He leaned forward and rested a hand on one of the stacks of drawings between them, the look in his eyes grave as he spoke. “I cannot begin to comprehend it, however if what she drew is any indication, and she truly saw this prophecy unfolding through the eyes of each of these people, instantaneously and simultaneously, in the very moment you touched Moag, it may be that she has indeed seen everything, as she claims, and if so, that she has seen it all in this same manner, at once and from every perspective.”
Noel cringed, drawing in a shallow breath through his teeth. “Edward, I went to Isabella’s last night. I see the drawings. I know they drown,” he whispered. Maybe they were all going to drown anyway. Maybe these weren’t changes he had made, after all. No. He knew better. What else could they be?
Edward let out a low moan and leaned back in his seat, looking grim. “I feared you would do so at some point. Young one, you must not go to her anymore. You must not attempt to understand what she sees. I am certain there is no one who will be helped by you knowing these things.”
“But I must know,” Noel said, hardly able to believe Edward could think otherwise, when he was the one who was so adamant they attempt to restore Om’s way, because of the changes Noel made. “I cause this change, somehow—these deaths. Edward, what do these people drowning have to do with me coming to mountain?”
“Truly, I have no idea how or even if it relates to you, beyond your entry into Moag,” Edward answered softly, a deep and telling pain in his eyes as he continued, “I am only sorry that you know as much as you do. It is important I tell you nothing more about these things, Young Noel. It is important you do not seek this knowledge. You must trust me. You cannot ever know these prophecies. I was mistaken to share with you what little I have.”
With that, Edward got to his feet and began piling the stacks. As Noel watched the elder begin tucking the pages into one of the drawers in the cabinets behind the desk, knowing the old man was only trying to protect him from his own culpability in all of this, his heart began to pound in his chest. Noel wanted desperately to be able to let it go, to pretend as though he could absolve himself of all of it, like Edward said before, to believe none of this was his responsibility because he hadn’t known any better—and he truly hadn’t. But he couldn’t unsee those faces. He couldn’t unhear Isabella’s cries or unfeel his fear for her.
“She… saw this… as these people?”
“Indeed,” the elder nodded, not looking back, as he took his time studying each drawing before putting them away. “Now, no more questions, young one.”
It must have been horrifying for her. No wonder he had felt such pain and terror in her, Noel thought, scrubbing his hands over his face. No wonder his head had filled with her screams the moment he touched Moag. She had witnessed the deaths of thousand—and there he had been feeling sorry for himself the whole time, as though what was happening to him, this possession, these feelings that were not his own, that he couldn’t control, were the worst possible punishment.
“Edward, I must tell you more,” Noel said quietly, swallowing against the brick of guilt that sat hard in his stomach. He waited for a moment, for Edward to turn to him, but when the old man kept to his work, Noel allowed the truth of the matter to spill out of him like a wave. “That night, before I touch Moag, I felt Isabella try to make me stop. I do anyway. It was wrong, I know. I was… anger… fear.” He had no idea what the word was for annoyed. “She want to go in before, I know. Something there is important. I no know what change her mind.”
Edward looked back perplexed. “You are certain you felt this? She tried to stop you?”
“Certain.” Noel was ashamed of himself. He had been ashamed of himself for this for days, but now it was worse, imagining what Isabella had gone through because of him. He had done this against her will. He knew it, and he had done it anyway.
For a long moment, the old man sat in silent contemplation. When he finally spoke, Noel could tell by the look on his face, he was not convinced by his own words. “Perhaps some part of her knew what would happen as a result?”
“No. The Isabella inside me no know prophecy. Only when I go to her hut last night and look into window, to see the drawings, she knew the drownings. Before? No.”
Edward laid the rest of the papers aside, got up from the ground, and retook his chair, looking worried. “She did not speak of this to me.” He seemed as confused as Noel, which Noel was fairly certain was not a good sign.
“Edward, you say she only feel pain a short time, but after I touch Moag, the Isabella inside me was… all fear, until the moment I land outside her hut and find her waiting there for me. She look at me like she see me through light well. She seem fine, not same as what I feel of her in me. I feel different… desires… in her. Separate thoughts in her. How?”
Edward’s brow grew heavy over his eyes. He leaned back in his seat, pulling his pipe from a drawer, taking a pinch of tobacco, and packing it in the bowl. He did not light it, but only sat deep in thought.
“Edward?” Noel whispered after several minutes. “What does this mean?”
“I do not know, Young Noel.” The elder forced a sad smile. “There is much I do not know. As concerns the prophecy, I assume she connected to Moag through you and was given clarity in this way, through her possession of you. Long ago, when the prophecies of Om flowed freely and with abundance, not alone within our mountain, but throughout the world, some Zhe saw like this, viewing entire prophecies, full of detail, yet it was a rare trait. A seer, who saw this way, never saw the same event from the perspective of more than one subject, as she has, and their visions often remained tied to a single subject throughout their lives, as though they were bound to them in some way, through Om. This has not happened in thousands of years.”
“Bound? Like possession? Like Isabella to me?”
“I do not believe so. They were lifetimes apart, and there is very little information on the matter, it was so long ago, but you must remember Young Isabella is different still, in many ways.” He lit his pipe and drew a long breath of smoke before adding, “What she sees has come through Moag, through you. What you feel of her, these differences, perhaps it is due to some form of empathy with herself, an understanding that passes through you to her and back again, though this is not an effect of possession, as far as I know. I cannot say for certain. I wish I could.”
“What we do next?” Noel asked, hoping Edward would at least have some answers.
“Clearly, we need to know all of the changes you brought forth from Moag, but some of those changes might be truly devastating to you and would only serve to bring you guilt and shame, which will do neither you nor Young Isabella any good, considering the enormity of the task before us. You must understand this and agree not to pursue the prophecies for yourself.”
“I need know the prophecies,” Noel insisted. He had a right to know about these changes he caused—an obligation to his own people, at the very least. And he wanted to understand them, to change them still, if he could. “I see the portraits… the drownings. If I cause these things, I must know how. Master Frank, I must stop them.” Even as he said the words, he realized how true it was. He had to make this right. He doubted anyone else could.
The mardraim was silent once again. His kind eyes were heavy with concern, even as he gave a grave, smiling nod, considering Noel, as though he knew the root of Noel’s soul, and expected nothing less of him. “This is the very point, Ohamet,” he answered at last, stressing the name. “You are rash in your decisions. We do not know how you have made these changes, and only by studying them can we hope to find a way of undoing what you have done, restoring the path of Om for everyone, meanwhile doing our best to make certain any future changes you may affect will not make matters worse. You cannot be allowed to know the meaning of the prophecies, for your own protection and for the sake of everyone else in this world. Please, Noel Loveridge, trust me. It must be this way. You must vow.”
Again, Edward was calling for caution, knowing full well the only caution Noel seemed capable of exercising was the sort where he willfully served as the prime example of precisely what not to do, in the event one decides to go chasing after the designs of fate. It had been easier not to care about these changes before, when all of the things Isabella told the mardraim were fragments of truths that made no sense, when Noel had no way of knowing what her ramblings meant. Things were different now. Noel had seen the faces of the dying himself. He did not know how or why, but he would be responsible these deaths because he went into the Dreaming and then entered Moag in search of the Last Hope. His heart ached in a way he had never imagined possible. “And the wards?” he asked, unable to keep the grief from his voice, as his vision blurred with the beginnings of the tears.
“Young Isabella does not wish you to use them,” the elder said quietly, shaking his head.
Noel quickly rubbed the wet from his eyes and began, “But Edward, you said—” but the mardraim held up his hands, stopping him short.
“You misunderstand me,” the old man answered quickly. “They do not harm her physically, but spiritually they are too much for her to bear at length, however necessary they may be.”
“You agree they are necessary?”
“Of course they are necessary, which is why Young Isabella has agreed to their controlled use, at times designated by me, but you must know that they not only sever her tie to you, but also to Moag. While you are warded, she cannot remember any of the things she has foreseen. With Moag gone, her mind is much clearer, to the point we had a lengthy conversation, not once interrupted by the hysteria or loss of focus she has suffered since your arrival.”
“This is good,” Noel answered gratefully, his breath catching up in his words and falling off into a small chuckle. Finally, there was something positive to look to, something to hope for. He could help her. He might not be able to do anything else, but at least he could do something good for Isabella.
“Yes, it would seem so,” Edward answered, though he still looked quite pained as he added, “however since it is out of her control, it causes her tremendous sadness. If it were up to Young Isabella, her connection through you to Moag and the prophecies would be maintained constantly—like it is when you are touching Moag, like it has been these few days, when she could recreate what she saw with such detail that anyone who views her work will know the suffering of the damned. When you are warded, this connection is ripped from her, leaving her mind, which is already stretched to its limits when she is in connection, almost vacant. The effect is devastating to her, Young Noel. It frightens her that one moment she can remember so much, and the next you have the power to take it all away, without so much as a thought for her.”
“She desires to see these things?” Noel asked, nodding over the mardraim’s shoulder, at the drawer where he was filing away the faces of those damned. Noel supposed he could understand that it being out of her control was frustrating, as Noel himself didn’t care much for the times the woman exerted even as small force over him, but he couldn’t imagine preferring to know such horrors, much less actually living them in some way. It didn’t make any sense to him that anyone would wish for this.
“Her life has been spent seeing and knowing the path of Om, Young Noel,” the elder answered patiently. “She only wishes to be instrumental in restoring that path, if at all possible. As do we all, or have you changed your mind?” Edward eyed him suspiciously over the pipe in his hand.
“No,” Noel whispered. If the images of the drowning had done anything it was to assure Noel knew the changes he had caused in coming to the mountain could not be ignored. And he was more certain now than ever that he was likely the reason the prophecy of the Last Hope could not be read, so he had little choice but to continue in their work. “No, we must do what we can.”
In the end, it was decided that Noel would return to the library twice each day, in order to give Isabella time in this disconnection, through the wards, so that she might retain some semblance of her sanity, have time to be with her friends and family and the opportunity to take care of her own needs, in the hopes that perhaps this would serve to heal some of the chaos she felt while under Noel’s influence. She might not like or appreciate this at first, but it was for the best. This was why Edward had warded the nowhere and locked Noel inside, to give the woman time to herself, to recuperate from her work, even though it was not what she wanted. Once in the afternoons, after Noel and Harvey were finished with their meetings for the day, and then again at night, when it was time for the villagers to sleep, Noel would return to the hold and allow Isabella her respite.
In the meantime, he was to continue searching the tunnels, recording what he found there, and documenting any changes to Moag or Isabella he might notice. And when the time came that Edward thought it was appropriate, Noel would return to the place where he felt this deeper connection to Moag—this place he and Isabella were both drawn to by the darkness—and there he would do just as before, touching Moag, only for a moment, so that Isabella would hopefully see another complete prophecy and be able to record it in its fullness. For several days after this Noel was not to return to the mardraim’s keep at all, so that Isabella’s connection to Moag and the prophecy would remain stable. Again, Edward would tell them when it was time for Noel to return to the wards, to sever the connection between himself and Isabella, at which point they would resume the schedule of allowing her time to restore her energy and regain her balance each day.
“Edward…” Noel offered uneasily, in the end.
“It is the only way, Young Noel,” the old man said gently. “It is the only way we can know for certain what you have changed. Otherwise, all she can give us are fragments we could never hope to piece together. The next time you make this connection with Moag for her, I will be there with Young Isabella, to witness exactly what happens to her, to make certain there are no detrimental effects. By this you will have peace of mind for her sake. I give you my word.”
Reluctantly, Noel nodded. He understood, but it left a foul taste in his mouth, and because he was warded, he couldn’t even guess how Isabella might truly feel about the Mardraim’s grand scheme.
“Noel Loveridge, you must not attempt to know the prophecies for yourself,” the elder added in warning.
Noel could not make that promise.
Somehow, he and Isabella Asan had managed to become Master Frank’s science experiment. Noel was used to this, being a lab rat for the scholars, but these were dangerous forces they were playing with, forces none of them understood, and he couldn’t help feeling the mardraim was making suppositions that affected everyone’s lives and that it didn’t really matter to the elder what happened to his curious specimens as a result, so long as they managed to right the path of Om. Of course, Noel didn’t disagree, after all, if he was responsible for destroying the Last Hope prophecy, which he assumed he was, he would give anything to make it right again, even his own life, he thought, but he had no idea if the Last Hope prophecy was even a true prophecy, and if so, he had no clue what the thing actually meant. Deep in his gut, he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if it turned out the path of Om was not the right path for him and his people? What if this had all happened for a reason? What if every time he made a mistake, someone else drowned?
At least, he told himself, this was a way forward, but he could not give his word about the prophecies.
On the fifth day of following this new schedule, Harvey Frank leaned in over their noon meals. “I cannot explain it,” he added conspiratorially. Harvey and Noel had gone to the Frank village for lunch, as had become their custom, so Noel could practice immersion in the language of the Danguin, but today the man had so much to say, he said it all in old Elvish, and in whispers, so low no one else would hear. “Each day, I go to see her, expecting the worst, but it is… What is your word for what cannot possibly be but is?”
“In English, we call this a miracle,” Noel answered uneasily. “I no know word in old language.”
Every day it was the same. From the time Noel woke in the morning until after lunch, Harvey and he were together, in the required study. When they parted ways, Harvey went straight to Isabella’s, to check in on her, while Noel went off to the mardraim’s library, to wait behind the wards. Noel knew how deeply Isabella and Harvey cared for one another. Harvey talked so often of her these days, Noel couldn’t help feeling like he had missed out on the chance to know the woman as she really was—the woman who wasn’t driven to insanity in turns by Moag and Noel, himself. It was good to hear she continued to improve, sort of.
“Miracle,” Harvey repeated, grinning. “We have no suitable word for this, as Om provides the way, but since you arrived, I have found, time and again, we require such a word, as more is brought forth to confuse even Om.”
“She is happy?” Noel asked, trying hard not to seem overly interested. He and Harvey were both aware of the strange connection that had happened between them, the day Isabella awoke. Neither of them had spoken of it since, perhaps because even in the mountain real men didn’t speak of such things, or perhaps because neither of them could explain what had happened, so it was best to try not to remember, when there were more important things to worry about. Until the day Noel was called to Fkat, as Isabella lay comatose, he’d had a curious sense of her within him, a nagging sort of ache that existed even though the woman rested, completely helpless. But when the felimi called on him, to answer their questions about what brought him to the mountain, and Noel went behind the wards for the first time, the Isabella Asan, who possessed him, disappeared. It was not until Harvey later followed him down to the river and rested his hand on Noel’s shoulder in sympathy, and Noel reached up and touched the man’s hand in gratitude, that both of them received something like an electric shock, and in that moment they knew Isabella was awake, terribly hurt, and frightened. They both felt the urgency to go to her. No words were necessary.
“Issa is well—sad, but well,” Harvey answered quickly. “In recent days, she has been present in a way she had not been present since your arrival. This relief only lasts a few hours, at most, and then the misery returns to her, the talking senselessly, the loss of sequence and time, the absences of being. But she is healthier than before, that is certain. The color has returned to her cheeks, and she is bathing daily. I do not wish to leave her side, yet it is difficult to stay and watch as she turns again, and then it becomes impossible to stay, no matter how I wish to, because I have duties to which I must attend. There is no explanation for this change… is there?” Harvey added this last bit, with a curious pause and an uptick in his tone.
Noel looked up to find the man was staring at him, eyes wide, as though he’d been shocked again.
Guilt crawled across Noel’s flesh. Of course there was an explanation, though it wasn’t at all reasonable or rational, not that anything that had happened lately was terribly reasonable or rational. But was Harvey actually suggesting Noel should know the answer to that question? And if so, how could Noel say to him that his Issa was better during those few hours a day, sad but well, because Noel was locked up in the mardraim’s secret keep full of books and inventions, behind the wards he didn’t understand, so her possession of him and connection to Moag could be temporarily broken and she could rest and have a laugh with her old friend, so they should both take advantage of it, while it lasted, because he didn’t have any idea when it would end? He had sworn to Edward he wouldn’t tell Harvey anything of their work together, and he had been warned never to mention Isabella’s possession of him to anyone because the fahmat was forbidden, but the reality was Harvey knew—Harvey had to know Noel and Isabella shared some kind of bond because he had felt it within Noel the day she awoke and they both went hurrying to her side, to tell her Harvey was still alive.
“No,” Noel answered, stupidly. “No.” There was a better answer, surely— one that wasn’t an outright lie. He thought of one almost immediately, but he had already committed to the falsehood. “This is how she heals.” He took a cautious bite and tried not to look as foolish as he felt.
“At the same time each day? This seems to be too much a miracle,” Harvey laughed, but almost immediately his face fell back into confusion. “And only to return to her previous disturbances? There is no sense to it. It defies logic.”
Noel frowned, but Harvey seemed not to notice, as he had turned his attention to his own bowl of grains, shifting awkwardly in his seat.
Each afternoon, Noel had left his noon meal with Harvey Frank and returned to the mardraim’s hold, returned to his study of the wards because, despite what he and Edward had agreed to, he knew eventually he would have to ward himself for good, for Isabella’s benefit, if not for his own. That first day had been easy enough, but the second day Noel’s heart burned when Harvey spoke of Isabella laughing with him, for the first time since before Noel came to the mountain. He couldn’t say exactly why he reacted so viscerally to the man’s description of their time together, after all, Isabella Asan had basically ruined Noel’s life (not to mention her own) by saving it, but he could not help this feeling that she should always laugh at Harvey, with Harvey, because of Harvey, and he stood firmly in the way of that through this possession nonsense. Maybe it was that tiny piece of her that was within him. Maybe he was just becoming more obsessed with her, as the mardraim had warned would happen. Or perhaps he had legitimately grown to care for the woman’s wellbeing, in his own selfish way. No matter the cause, the wards seemed to him the only answer.
The book on possession had been no help on that front, so he’d spent hours scouring the keep for the place where Edward had made the new ward inscriptions, hoping they would narrow down which wards he needed in order to sever the possession or at least provide some clue as to how the wards worked. He expected to find the markings somewhere near the door to the nowhere, and with that sort of thinking, it was really no wonder he struggled so long to find them. It took a while to figure out that everywhere he thought to look was utterly wrong and he’d been foolish to attempt to find them in the first place because the wards Edward placed on the nowhere were not outwardly visible, either inside of the nowhere or outside of the nowhere, neither around the door that wasn’t actually a door, nor surrounding the fissure in the wall outside, which acted as some sort of gateway into that place of nonexistence. When he finally remembered what Edward told him about the construct of a wizarding nowhere itself, Noel realize the location of the wards was obvious and so splendidly elegant, he laid down on the couch and laughed himself to sleep, which gave Harvey and Isabella a bit more time together than should have happened the day before, according to the mardraim’s schedule, but as far as he was concerned the schedule could burn in hell because Edward was smart, Edward was cunning, Edward was a cheeky old bastard. Noel realized the newly placed wards had to be built into the construct of the nowhere itself, which was in fact nowhere, so he was never going to find them, because when he was in that place, the wards were part of what made the very place possible, and when he was out of that place, the place ceased to exist altogether. Which meant this particular evening, he would surely be back to searching for books.
“I have missed her more than I could have imagined missing anyone,” Harvey said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, talking to his cereal as though men did not discuss these things either—and in the mountain, Noel suspected they didn’t—they likely never thought to, as their brand of feelings for each other were quite a bit different from anyone Noel had ever met. The Danguin people were strange in their customs and even stranger in their seeming aloofness despite their interconnectivity. They were growing on Noel, especially Harvey. “I know I should be grateful. I know it should be enough,” the man added.
Noel sighed. Yes, Harvey was indeed asking Noel if he had something to do with Isabella’s improvements of late, but not because he was suspicious of Noel. If Noel understood him correctly, by the man’s careful tone and demeanor, Harvey was asking if Noel might somehow guarantee him and Isabella more of this quality time together. Noel wanted to tell him yes, but Isabella stopped him. He wanted to tell him the truth, but he knew she would not want that. So Noel settled for saying, “It is difficult to be grateful at times.”
Very difficult, especially since Noel knew Edward would come soon and tell him to return to Moag. What would Harvey say when his friend had no peace anymore, as she began manically recreating prophecies for the mardraim, while Noel avoided the wards altogether, to assure the woman’s clarity in her foresight? It hardly seemed fair, but what could he do?
That very evening, Noel was on the 26th floor of the mardraim’s library, pulling random books off the shelf, once again looking for wards or any other hint or symbol of fairy magic, when Edward came to him and told him it was time.
Time. Time to venture into the dark, carefully guarding his way, until he reached the point of no return. Time to reach out and touch the Moag and force Isabella into the prophetic clarity the old man claimed she wanted. Edward said to wait ten minutes, to allow him to return to Isabella’s hut, so he could be there when Noel performed this wretched work, to see what affect the connection actually had on the woman. Noel nodded and put the book, he had been mindlessly flipping through, back on its shelf. “You are certain?” he asked, aware of the apprehension in his voice.
“She is prepared,” the elder assured him. “She is grateful.”
Grateful, Noel thought, his mind rushing to Harvey, as he flew down to the ground floor. Would Harvey Frank be grateful for what Noel was about to do?
An immense anxiety swelled within him, the moment he left the reverie of keep and the wards and headed off into the darkness, his notebook tucked under his arm. If it had been any other time, he would have kept the book open, to study his work and make certain Moag had remained mostly stable, since the last time he was there, but he had returned to that place so often the past few days, now he simply allowed the darkness to compel him forward, the path ingrained in the movements of his muscles, his need, Isabella’s need, guiding each step.
While he was not behind the wards, Edward had told him to continue exploring the tunnels, which he did, but with little enthusiasm. The old man clearly didn’t understand the gravity with which Noel was drawn to that place where Moag took on the physical attributes of an opaque fog that hung heavy in the air. He had tried to stay away, tried to concentrate his efforts on the many other branches of darkness that wove through the depths of the mountain, but he always wound up returning to the place where something much greater—than the desire to turn for home, than the desire to hide behind the wards, much greater, even, than his desire to understand the changes he had somehow brought forth from the darkness, in the form of prophecies of gloom and doom— called to him like the longing of a lover’s ghost.
The importance grew within him with every step.
That was the part that made him so anxious, he thought—the nameless desire in him that only increased the closer he drew to that place where the darkness was utterly complete. The hairs on his arms and neck stood, as he drew near, and the desire he could not explain rose inside him like an endless wave, the desire that seemed to stretch back through the ages, unfathomable and infinite. There was something down there. Something meant for him. Perhaps another change. Hopefully not a deadly one, he thought, swallowing against the racing of his heart. Destiny beckoned him.
But that was insane, he thought, as he footsteps quickened.
Except, Isabella felt it too.
That was another thing he had learned recently. Utilizing the wards to break the connection between him and Isabella Asan was like exercising a muscle he hadn’t known existed. Each time he left the mardraim’s library and the connection between the woman and he returned, it came with a force that made his insides ache. It was not as though he could hear her voice inside his head—that only happened when she was frightened. But Noel’s sense of what she wanted from him was growing stronger. Her will, or rather her wills, only grew.
What did the real Isabella feel as Noel ventured closer to the heart of Moag? He could not say for certain. There was, of course, her usual yearning for him to hurry into the deep, but as Noel’s understanding of the woman increased, he began to sense three divergent intentions within her.
One felt like admitting defeat. He couldn’t define it in words, but he could equate this feeling to his own sense, in the beginning of this endeavor, that perhaps Hope had ceased to exist altogether or had never existed and to wait any longer, lingering in that Hope, would only do more harm than good. He had no idea what the woman was relinquishing herself to, but feeling this uselessness as it belonged to someone else was difficult. To follow that feeling into the darkness felt like the end, for her. Every time Noel felt this, he found himself wanting to turn right around and fly to her hut, like she needed him to talk sense into her, never mind the fact she clearly despised him.
Another of her reasons felt something like victory, though it was bittersweet. This, he thought, was related to the prophecies, but only because to him it seemed like coming closer to the truth. The feeling wasn’t quite the same, but in a way it resembled what he felt like during his walk in Dreamtime. It felt like knowing.
Her final reason he could not discern. It existed somewhere he could not touch. It felt as far away from him as the destiny that called him to Moag.
As the grim shade deepened around them, and he reached their destination, Noel’s pulse quickened with ideas of what might be awaiting him there—answers, Hope— and he felt the woman’s rage shoot through him with warning.
“What now?” he asked impatiently, though he knew he only ever heard her voice when she was suffering. At least she was not suffering, he thought—not yet.
He swallowed back the fearful thought of her screaming in his head, raising his fingers to the surface of Moag, its blackness so vast it seemed to shine with the echo of eternity. Ignoring the renewed urgency with which Isabella willed him to continue into the depths and his own increasing ache for whatever might be down there, he concentrated on the fury with which she met him there, as if to try and appease her.
Of course he would not go in, he thought. He couldn’t. His longing had to be some trick of Moag, like the things he had seen and heard in it before. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the Dreaming, showing him the way? What if whatever was down there would bring back all of their broken prophecies—and restore Hope?
“What if it could fix you?” he asked her.
The word came, not as a sound in his brain, but as a constriction in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. Isabella was growing stronger within him every day. He couldn’t help but wonder just how long he had before he started losing all control, but the question made him angry and afraid all at once, and the intensity with which she held him, transfixed in that moment, increased until he could feel the pressure of her all around him, trying desperately to force him away from the darkness. It made no sense. She wanted to go in, yet she wanted him to stay away, and yet there was something in there, deep in the darkness that was vastly important to her?
Surely it had been longer than ten minutes, Noel thought, contorting his neck against the discomfort of Isabella’s ethereal fist, clenching him, demanding his focus. “The Mardraim is waiting. You are waiting, grateful for prophecy, remember?” he whispered, watching intently as the darkness crept toward his fingers. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to let it hurt you this time.”
Isabella loosened her grip, even as Noel wondered if he could possibly make good on such bold promises. He wanted to be able. Truly. But as he plunged his hand into the darkness, her voice ripped through him. Her agony became his own.
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, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33
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