The tale of two mountains– pt. 37

Isabella Asan

Noel leaned his forehead against the door, squeezing his palms into his temples, to stop himself reaching for the handle. They weren’t supposed to be together? Surely, it was a bit late for realizing that? Of course, barging in on her wasn’t the answer to their troubles either. But what was she thinking, going into the tunnels?

Gripping the frame of the entry, against his ragged breaths and the rush of adrenaline still coursing through him, Noel closed his eyes, trying to settle the sick in his stomach, but like some horrible accident, his mind replayed the moment she disappeared in the dark and the desperate wail of a noise that escaped him, as his heart seized and he bolted forward to stop her— too late.

In that split second, he’d believed she’d finally done it— surrendered herself to that abysmal black. He’d felt that desire to return to Moag, in her all along, but while he was doing everything he could to avoid that happening, he’d never actually worried about her physically going in. In his mind, she’d always been a fragile thing, safely tucked away in her hut, and his fears, to that point, had primarily revolved around what would happen to him, as a result of the possession, when the inevitable occurred, and the piece of Isabella Asan inside of him took control and forced him to enter Moag. His concerns for her life and her safety were all secondary to that, and he’d felt sure, until that moment, the wards were the solution, to give him time to figure out something better. A fat lot of good they did him if she was going to go traipsing off into the darkness herself!

In that moment, when she disappeared, as he stared around himself in horror, thinking she’d stepped backward into Moag, Noel knew that everything was over. Not just him or Issa, or the Last Hope or fate, in all its apparent forms. She vanished, and it felt like the bottom fell out of the bloody universe and the whole damnable thing collapsed inside of him. He wanted to run in after her, but he couldn’t. Every part of him wanted to tear into the endless black, searching her out, to pull her back into this world, where he could protect her, but he couldn’t move even an inch. Something else was stopping him.

Of course after a moment of waiting for the rest of the world to crumble in around him and disappear through the hole Issa had left inside him, he remembered Edward telling him the woman could transvect, and then he realized she hadn’t actually moved from the spot she’d been standing, and he found himself, once more, flying in a mad rush to her hut, hoping to find her there— though this time it was the sound of his own mortified cry that fueled his flight.

What the hell had she been doing there? How had she even gotten to that place on her own? Why would she go anywhere near Moag, after everything that happened to her? And how was he supposed to protect her, if she was bound and determined to get herself killed… again!? Everything he and Harvey had been working on these past few weeks had been about taking care of her. She was important. Whether he liked it or not, she was a part of him, integrally bound. Isabella Asan was the very heart and soul of that gut-wrenching, universe-shattering, sickening finality that rent at his insides, in a way that made no sense. She was…

“Vital,” he whispered a laugh, remembering how she clung to the word, trying to make him understand.

Even warded, the threads of this woman— this perfect stranger— were so thoroughly woven into the fibers of him, he doubted he could ever escape her, even if he were to cover himself with all the wards in the world, even if they could find a way to end the possession.

If it was true, what Harvey told him about what he felt of Noel’s purpose, prior to the possession, there was no escaping whatever was going happen to Noel in all of this, because everything he was doing was part of something greater than any of them could comprehend. This… force… or whatever it was that Harvey felt with Noel the day Isabella saved his life, had a tremendous and inexplicable power, but it was tenuous. Delicate. Its purpose was set, but it didn’t seem to mind how Noel managed to complete that purpose, and Noel had to protect it, long enough to figure out how to get Issa unwoven from it. Her involvement had been purely accidental, a thing of chance no one could have anticipated. Apparently, that force had to protect Noel too, because he knew the only thing that could possibly have stopped him from going into Moag after Issa, in that moment, had to be something not of this existence, because as far as he was concerned, when she disappeared this existence was finished.

His obsession with his possessor was only getting worse.

Noel and Harvey had agreed. They were going to figure out how to get the piece of Issa out of Moag. They were going to figure out how the possession worked and find a way of undoing it completely, so Harvey could possess Noel instead, as Harvey was convinced was the original plan of this mysterious force, and then they could play this thing out, to the bitter end, the way Fate, or the Dreaming, or whatever was guiding them, intended. Noel had made a pact to protect Issa, no matter what— the first promise he’d made in that mountain that he had every intention of keeping. He’d thought he failed her. He’d thought he’d lost her. Why the hell had she gone there?

Shaking his head against the cool grain of the wood, Noel twisted around on his feet, leaning his back against the barrier between them, rubbing a hand over his face, as he stared out into the night. He’d felt her desire to give in, all along, like she knew what had to be done and would force it, he thought, slumping over, pressing his palms into exhausted eyes. If he’d gone in after her, like he wanted, they’d both be dead right now. He was sure she would return to Moag, given the chance, because he couldn’t help going there himself. What were they supposed to be doing? What did she know?

“Damn,” he whispered, pushing himself away from the door, clutching the amulet, hung around his neck. Had Issa seen their future through Moag? Edward had warned him to stay away from her, to not talk of the prophecies, but did it matter now what the old man thought, if Noel was running out of time? She’d gone to the tunnels for a reason, and it wasn’t just to end it all. He had to know what she was thinking.

The amulet… Noel rubbed his thumb over the intricate engravings in the polished stones, he’d only finished carving that afternoon. These wards seemed to be working well enough. If he pulled them free now, just so he could get some sense of the woman’s state, she would be swept up in her usual insanity, and Edward and every other empath in that mountain would know Noel was there with her. Some of them were bound to turn up, demanding to hear why he was skulking about, outside her hut, in the dead of night. That would end poorly for both of them.

He saw little choice but to try and get her talking, so blowing out a great puff of nerves, he turned back for the door and gave his politest knock. “Issa, I…” The trouble was what could he possibly say to her? “I… understand you do not wish to speak with me… but I cannot leave here until we do.” That was weak.

The floor creaked beneath the woman’s feet, and he heard the distinct hiss of an exasperated breath. He smiled, imagining the hard look in her soulful eyes, full of fire, furious with him for catching her out. He suspected she would be angrily willing him away right about now, and the part of her inside of him would’ve no doubt been working to force his feet to leave the porch, to head back to the keep and give herself some space.

These wards did what he needed them to do, but would he ever be allowed to use them again, once Edward found out Issa was in the tunnels? Noel wasn’t sure how she had gotten there without the elder noticing, but the old man would have to know what happened eventually, and surely that would end the use of wards for the foreseeable future, unless someone could persuade Issa not to go back. But what if she was supposed to return and simply couldn’t help herself? Noel couldn’t help himself. Could she feel Moag too? The way he felt it?

“Issa,” he knocked again, “open the door, and I will share with you everything I know,” he hissed, knowing there was not much he could share, not much he knew for certain anyway— nothing at all she might find very helpful… Except for the wards. He swallowed an anxious laugh, the thought of giving up the only advantage he had over the possession not at all appealing, but he needed to know what she knew. “Let me in, and I will show you how I block the possession,” he added plainly, no longer bothering to check his voice, as he knocked again, this time louder.

Those were the magic words. The latch clicked free, but the door moved barely an inch, exposing only a sliver of the shadows beyond. Leaning forward, he listened to the silence, as the wood planks hung still on their hinges. “Does this mean I may enter?” he asked, cautiously.

It was too quiet. She might have fled again. She’d transvected before, without hesitation or warning, and that took some serious energy. He knew several right and proper demigods, who could barely muster the forces necessary to transport themselves three meters, across an empty pub, dead sober on a Sunday morning, if their lives depended upon it. She had traveled a fair distance, with solid rock and Moag all around her. Isabella Asan was powerful, amazingly so. But power and madness tended to be a precarious mix.

At last a warm glow grew up in the crack of the door, and the dim lantern light filtered through the slats in the shutters, casting stripes of gold on the garden path. Noel breathed a small sigh of relief, as the Isabella muttered a soft, “Come in, and be quiet, unless you intend to be discovered.” Nudging the door open, he stepped inside and pulled away his light well.

Issa stood across the room, beside the washstand, the table and chairs arranged like a castle parapet and her sentry standing guard between them. Her back was against the wall, arms braced tightly over her chest, dark hair a wild mess of waves that half hid her hardened face. Her eyes fixed upon his, flashing with anger that barely disguised her fear.

With a guilty shake of his head, Noel pushed the door to, moved several feet to the right, and leaned back against the wall as well, letting his hands fall easily at his sides, stooping his head slightly, hoping to set her at ease. “You want to know how I break the possession, yes?” he asked, imagining it best to offer his concessions first.

She gave a firm nod, even as her chest heaved, with a terrible breath, and she loosed a slight shiver, but she recovered quickly, her jaw tensing, as she tightened her grip on herself.

Christ, Noel thought, letting out a heavy breath of his own, tugging the amulet on its leather cord, from the neck of his caftan, holding it up for her. He took a tentative step forward, but her eyes widened, and she bristled, somehow shrinking further into herself, even as she stood taller. Noel retreated, falling back against the wall and offering softly, “They are wards of the Itri. Three of them work— or seem to— to give us some relief from the possession. You know Itri Fahmat, do you not? Harvey said you are proficient.”

Issa’s brow furrowed at mention of Harvey’s name, but she nodded again, her eyes shifting back and forth, from the amulet to Noel’s face. She was calculating. That was a good sign.

“I do not know their magic, myself, or I know only this much, because I had to learn, to help us,” he shrugged, casually tucking the amulet away. “Some time ago, Edward— the Mardraim— made a warded place for me to go, to give you peace from Moag.” Wincing through a smile, he bobbed his head side to side and corrected himself. “To give you peace from me. But I wanted a way to move freely through the mountain.”

Isabella grimaced, and Noel paused, leaving her plenty of space to answer. He would have happily accepted a berating, if it meant she would relax. When she said nothing, he plodded on. “I was in the warded place tonight, but grew—” Why was there no Danguin word for expressing boredom? He pulled his foot up against the wall behind him and settled onto it, searching for the right word. If there were words for restless or impatient or frustrated or eager, he did not know any of those either, so he continued with a frown, “…alone.”

This was true enough— truer than he’d expected, actually, but apparently it was also a mistake, as Issa’s eyes darkened, and she looked away, toward the window, her annoyance playing on the turn of her lips.

Noel grumbled. He imagined she likely felt quite a bit alone, herself, stuck in that hut, stuck in her head, just waiting on him to fish prophecies from the deep, so she could focus on one vision at a time, instead of the swarm of everything at once that usually consumed her. He was making a mess of things, he knew, but even so he continued to plod, because that was all he could think to do.

“I grew alone in that place,” he offered honestly, rubbing a hand over the back of his head at her glaring look, “and I thought I could work in the tunnel, to see how these wards affect Moag. I believed you were sleeping, so I could test them without disturbing you, or I would not have gone.” He shook his head desperately, and whispered, “You were supposed to be sleeping, Issa.”

At this, she started to rise, but as she turned back to him and opened her mouth to speak, Noel pulled out the wards once more, holding them up hopefully. “This amulet may not be good enough, for what we need it for. We may need more wards or better ones. You could help us there, if you were willing.”

In the weeks he and Harvey had been working, to understand which wards did the trick, Noel’s use of Danguinese had improved greatly, though obviously he still searched for appropriate translations, many of which simply did not exist— especially proper swears. The Danguin had a measly three, none of them formidable enough for the occasion, but all of which he wanted to use now, as Isabella stared daggers at him. He’d drawn out a handful of prophecies, for her and Edward to scrutinize, and in his in-between hours, alone behind the wards, he’d skimmed hundreds of books, on every level of the keep, hoping to find anything that might help them.

If there was ever elfin magic among the innumerable tomes hidden in that great repository, Edward must’ve secreted it all away, with some enchantment or another, no doubt sensing from the beginning that Noel would seek them out, as soon as opportunity struck. He had at last discovered the impossibly large section on the Fae, which turned out to have almost as many levels as that of the magic of Man. He’d hoped this would do him and Harvey some good, in their quest to save Issa, unfortunately, there were so many books on fairycraft, reading it all by himself could take him half a lifetime, to find even one bit of useful information on further wards against possession. He’d thought that the fairies might have some way of reversing the magic altogether, considering what the wards were able to do, but if they did, Harvey had never heard of it, which was hardly surprising, since he’d also not heard of possession itself until recently, and while the man was willing to work with Noel, against his grandfather’s wishes, in order to save Isabella, he was not willing to cross the boundaries of the keep. When all of their attempts at making an appropriate amulet with the wards over the room of Danguin magic failed, Harvey had gone off to do some research of his own and managed to come up with the ward they added today, to the wards for gates and lock and key— a ward against ghosts.

Noel had all of that to entertain him, and all Issa had were these six walls and her hours of madness, except when he was warded, yet he complained to her of his loneliness. What an idiot, he thought, adding softly, “Issa, I did not expect to find you in the forbidden place, but I am happy I did.” It was a lucky thing he had found her, though it was clear, by the way her nose scrunched, as though she’d just caught hint of some fetid stench clinging to his words, the feeling was hardly mutual. He couldn’t really blame her.

“I did not expect to find you there, either, Noel Loveridge,” she answered, at last, raising a brow.

Fair play, he supposed, grateful they’d progressed beyond shuddering nods. “May I ask what you were doing there?” he whispered hopefully.

Her chin stiffened and back straightened, as she breathed audibly, the way birds often did to indicate utter annoyance. “I do not owe you answers,” she said. “Go. Tell the Mardraim what I have done.”

“Tell the— Why would I do that?” Noel scoffed rather loudly.

Issa shook her head, looking confused and disgusted, like she’d never considered that anyone might not tell the Mardraim everything they’d done. It seemed she had no clue Noel wasn’t actually supposed to be there in that tunnel either.

“Go! And do it quietly,” she hissed, casting her hand at the door.

“Wait, Issa, I am sorry. I was not meant to be there,” he admitted quickly, holding his ground. “Edward will be angered with both of us, if he finds out we were in the forbidden place. More so at me, because he will think I have put you in danger again, with the wards, when you have done that yourself, this time. He will look at us like we are—” He searched for a decent enough word, but finding none and seeing her impatience grow, quickly settled for one he knew was wrong, but would hopefully carry his meaning all the same. “—decaying children. I do not like this look of his, but you and I could choose not to tell him. We would only need trust each other.”

Her eyes narrowed and every part of her face puckered. Trust was definitely not among the things she was presently considering giving him, nor, did it seem, was it something she thought she might need or even want from him. But Noel believed he might still win her over, when she whispered with an irritable huff, holding out her hands at him in pleading frustration, “We are not meant to be together, Noel Loveridge! The Mardraim has made that apparent to both of us! Now, if you do not intend tell me which wards sever the connection between us, you should go from here, whether or not you will lie to my Mardraim, for the sake of your pride.”

He might have laughed at her simple naivety and willingness to assume the very best of her leaders, even though they did have a word for ‘lies’, or at least at the fact she had no better argument against him than to accuse him of pride, which had nothing to do with it, but what she said caused him to stop, and instead he found himself scowling at her.

The old man was never very straightforward with Noel about his reasons for anything, and considering Isabella was sneaking around Moag in the middle of the night, he suspected she felt much the same, even if she still had a respectful reverence for her elder. Edward had warned him not to seek out the prophecies, and Noel reluctantly agreed, only on the basis his knowledge of them might somehow make matters worse for everyone, though how much worse things could possibly get was beyond him. Every time he ventured a thought in the direction of the portraits of the drowning people, he wound up pacing the floor in a cold sweat, worried instead of making anything better, trading one possession for another would actually make things far worse, but he had Issa to protect, so he tried to avoid over-thinking his and Harvey’s plot. Even if they were headed in the wrong direction, to be actively working toward anything felt better than sitting still, waiting on Edward, and the fact of the matter was Noel intended to save Isabella Asan, even if they told him half a billion more people would die as a result. Realizing this fact about himself did not dissuade him in the least, though it did sponsor a wretchedness in his bowels that was sometimes impossible to ignore. The point being, to him the prophecies that came out of Moag didn’t really matter now.

For her part, Issa had already said she would never share the prophecies with him, though she hadn’t put it quite so politely, as he recalled. While she was gallivanting off to Moag in the middle of the night, she wasn’t likely to directly disobey her beloved Mardraim, so as long as the two weren’t going to discuss prophecy together, what exactly was the harm in them being in the same room, especially while warded? And why did she need Noel to tell her about the wards anyway? Shouldn’t the Mardraim have done that?

“Has Edward told you why he is keeping us apart, or does he hide all of the important facts from you, as well?” Noel asked, hoping the blatant accusation was harsh enough to warrant a true response, rather than another demand for him to go.

Issa opened her mouth, but the implication seemed to strike a nerve. Instead of answering, she took a cautious step away from the wall, glancing at Noel sideways, as though she might go to the table, might even ask him to come sit across from her, so they could talk like normal humans, perhaps about the secrets leaders keep for the sake of leading, which followers overlook for the sake of following. She stopped at that single step, staring down at the floor a long while, concern tracing lines over her brow, before offering in a measured tone, “After the prophecies come, when you fly here…” She looked up at him, worried, and Noel swallowed the anxious feeling he was not going to like what she had to say. “…I feel an energy that is wrong between us, an energy that… goes against everything.”

This was more revelation than he expected. “What do you mean?” he asked, though he thought for certain he already knew. They were about to talk about that mysterious force.

On a sigh, the woman went to the table at last, taking her seat, as she pulled her hair up on top of her head and twisted it into an angry knot, held together by nothing but violent tendrils and sheer determination, and said seriously, “Though the Mardraim has not told me as much, I am certain this is what Harvey felt, before your arrival, when he said you were being guided to us, against Om’s will. I did not understand what he meant at the time. But when he brought your body into our home, and I felt your presence, your desperation, holding fast to this life, I did the only thing I could think to do, Noel Loveridge, even though for my people, to save a life is against Om’s way, against the Mdonyatra—”

“And Ftdonya,” he finished for her, sliding down the wall to sit, looking over the tops of his knees at her, his wrists resting there, hands open, trying to receive what it was she was telling him, while at the same time being engulfed by a minor panic.

Isabella nodded, and her fire melted away. “I am certain none of us understood what Harvey meant, until I felt it myself… just before the possession. I did what I did, moved by what I felt of you. I feel it still, when you come here. It is a strange sensation, being pushed to do something you know violates everything you believe in, yet knowing it is the right thing to do, the only thing…”

Noel couldn’t help but wonder if the feeling he’d felt, when he thought she’d gone into Moag, that feeling that he’d just witnessed a cataclysm of epic proportion, had belonged to him and his obsession or in fact to whatever that force was that was still guiding him. Harvey knew Issa had felt it too, a Velhim not of this existence that kept Noel’s soul from returning to Om after the avalanche. What was this force? Something of the Dreaming? Perhaps even of Moag itself?

Harvey said it was Noel, but somehow not Noel, and because of it, he’d had no choice but to leave the mountain to save him, even though he did not want to and he knew his own life would end as a result. Now it was Issa’s life that hung in the balance, because as soon as Issa felt this presence herself, she took Harvey’s place. Everything changed, but Noel hadn’t done anything to cause this change, himself, because he was just lying there, clinging to death, waiting, apparently, for anyone to save him. Would it have mattered who? Might it have been anyone, or did it have to be a Child of Danguin? Whatever this force was that was changing things, it couldn’t actually be Noel doing it… Could it?

He intended to ask Issa exactly what happened that night, to delve deeper into this subject, but before he could wrap his head around the words, she was talking again. “My Mardraim has not told me why we should not be together, Noel Loveridge.” She leaned forward with her elbows on the table, resting her chin in one hand, looking nervous, as she rubbed her knuckles against her lips. She closed her eyes for a moment, as though she doubted whether or not she should tell him more, but continued on, adding, “I think he fears that together you and I will make more changes, through Moag. He is attempting to keep us from creating new prophecies.”

“Ah…” It made sense why the elder would think that, at least on the surface. If they were bound to make more changes, keeping them apart was a rational thing to do, but what if it was not them who were making these changes? And what if they were supposed to make them? Edward said they were going to right Om’s way, and Noel truly wanted to, at least for Issa, but his gut returned again and again to the thought that Om’s way might not be right.

He was there for a reason. The possession was necessary for a reason. There was something he was meant to do in Moag, and he and Issa both could feel it, he was sure. Obviously, he could not ask her of actual prophecy now, though he wanted to, especially if changes were what Edward was afraid of, but Noel had no idea if the wards he was using warded anyone against changes that came as a result of his blatantly violating the elder’s wishes, which between Issa and Harvey Noel was doing on a regular basis these days, because he was tired of waiting for Edward to fill him in on whatever Edward discovered. The old man regularly disappeared for days, the only sign of him whatever meal he’d left for Noel to take. He’d told Noel nothing of how he planned to right Om, if he even had a plan. Would Issa tell Noel what she’d seen, if he asked? She had to know something, or she wouldn’t have gone to Moag.

“Is there a reason you believe this?” he asked, hoping to ask the right question, to guide her down the path of telling him more without talking about the prophecies.

She shook her head, shrugging apologetically. “It is only a feeling, Noel Loveridge. Perhaps we would change things and keep changing them forever,” she answered honestly, looking melancholic. “I can feel these changes in you, whenever you are near me, like you stand on the cusp of a most dangerous shift, and together you and I would breach that cusp.”

“Only when we are together though? This ‘wrong energy’, you feel it only after receiving a prophecy? When I come here, unwarded?”

She arched a brow and nodded. A few strands of hair managed to escape the knot she’d made and twined down her neck, over her shoulder and across her chest. Her breaths came rapidly.

Noel looked away. “Perhaps that is Moag you feel, and not to do with me?” he whispered. “I mean, do you feel this energy now?”

“I feel nothing of you now, not even Moag,” she answered, but one corner of her mouth drew in, perplexedly, then she frowned, glancing out the window, as though she hoped to find someone there to answer.

Noel looked back at the window himself, but he was at a bad angle to see anything through the shutters, sitting there on the ground, and when he looked back she was staring hard at him again, as though he’d done something wrong. “What about Moag?” he asked. “Do you feel it?”

“Only through you.”

“What do you mean, through me? You are an empath. Is it empathy?” His questions were annoying her.

“Possession is nothing like empathy, Noel Loveridge,” she sighed heavily, her jaw tensing again. “Through possession I feel parts of what you are feeling, like shadows of your experiences. I sometimes dream of your memories, but I do not feel what is at the soul of you anymore, not as I normally would.” She shook her head and closed her eyes, as though fighting back anger once more. “I do not know how to make you understand the difference, except to say that through this possession, at times it is as though I can sense the very thoughts in your mind and feel the air move around you, like your senses are somehow my own, but less sharp… except here.” She held up her hand, covered in twisted scars that carried down her forearm.

Noel winced and on instinct clenched his fist, but the part of her inside him was kept at bay by the wards. The scars were horrible, heartbreaking.

“I only feel Moag through you, especially when you are near to it, but you feel Moag intensely, with your whole being. You know exactly where it is, yet to you it is not a forbidden place, as it was to our people, but is as a living presence, near to your mind. You are frightened of it,” she whispered. “And you are right to be frightened, I believe. You are drawn to it, and you are right to be drawn to it. I do not know what it is, but in it, the future I see…” She shook her head and fell silent, biting her lip, staring off out the window again, this time as though she were waiting for someone.

Noel huffed and pushed himself up from the ground, went over to the window and opened the shutters wide, to have a look. There was no one there, so he began to pace. He’d had no idea the level of invasion into his experience possession seemed to grant her, but what disturbed him most was that she knew he was afraid of Moag, and apparently why he was afraid of it, yet she would go there anyway. Wasn’t she afraid too? Shouldn’t she be? He’d tried to convince Edward that Moag was conscious somehow, but the elder wouldn’t hear of it. Issa seemed to know it through Noel, yet he’d found her there alone, at night, when she thought she wouldn’t be caught.

“If you do not feel Moag while I am warded, how did you make your way to that place tonight? What were you doing there, Issa?”

Her eyes followed him, fierceness returning to them, as he strode back and forth, between the open window and door, looking out at the garden each time he passed, though by this point he thought surely he was just being paranoid and she was just searching the night for comfort.

“I memorized the path you take when you go,” she answered. “But what do you do when you go there, Noel Loveridge? You do not always draw forth prophecy, yet you always return to that place, taking exactly the same path, as though you know it, and it knows you, as though you want something from it, even though you are frightened. If I followed your way out of curiosity, wanting to understand what it is that takes you there, is that wrong?”

She obviously had zero grasp of what Moag had actually done to her or just how reckless it was for her to go wandering off, following his feelings through the abyss, simply because she was curious. He stopped short, pressing his palms into his eyes again. The scars on her arm were terrible. He couldn’t help but feel he’d put them there himself. He couldn’t lose her. “But Issa, why?! Think what happened to you! Why would you ever go there? You could be hurt—Lost!”

Like a fool, he’d let his emotions get the better of him and raised his voice. Isabella turned away and closed her eyes, her jaw pulsing. He thought she would rise too, and truly anyone else but a Danguin would have. What right did he have to judge what she did, after everything he’d done? He went to Moag; why shouldn’t she? He was allowed to sneak around using the wards, yet she wasn’t? He could see how backwards it was that he would be angry with her, but that didn’t stop him from being angry… and scared.

“I apologize,” he whispered quickly, stepping toward her, trying to regain control against the pain that held fast within him, but the look she gave him was truly a dangerous one. “Issa, it is only that finding you there…” He shook his head, as she closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, knowing he’d gone too far.

He was obsessed. She wasn’t.

How much should he admit? She claimed to know the things he felt, what was in his mind, but he’d been warded when he found her in the tunnels, so she had no idea how terrified he’d been, when he heard her voice, or how anguished he was, when she disappeared and he thought… He thought Moag had taken her from him. He thought… she was gone, and it was his fault, and he would never get her back, and everything was over. He thought that he’d lost… Well, he was not quite certain what he thought he’d lost, because he didn’t know her, not the way he thought he should know a person, to be feeling what it was that he felt, but still he felt it. And it felt something like losing a future he vaguely recalled as the happiest he’d ever been, in his entire life, though the idea he could know the future was as insane as her heading off into the darkness, on a whim driven by what? By him? Yes, it was all ludicrous, but it had to be that she was driven there by him and the same force that drove him there, which Harvey claimed was him, but not him, and not of this existence.

It felt like his brain was twisting around in knots. Was he responsible for the changes in coming there, or were the changes he was making somehow responsible for bringing him there? He felt like he was stuck in some paradox, and it was breaking him.

When at last Issa opened her eyes, she stared numbly out the window once more, as though wishing whatever was out there would come help her, come take Noel away and let her hurry back to Moag as fast as possible. Noel glanced over at the window, too, and when he looked back at her, Issa was brushing a tear from her cheek. And he realized, whether he could feel her or not, he was breaking her. That was the last thing he wanted.

“I worry for you, Issa,” he whispered painfully, “more than I have ever worried about anyone but myself.” It was true. He wished he could pull away the wards now, so she would know he meant it, so she would feel what he felt right then, realizing that no wards would ever be able to undo how much she had changed him— knowing that even though it was likely all a product of the possession, a symptom of losing himself to obsession with her, a part of him didn’t want it any other way. She was vital, to him, to his soul. What would happen if he and Harvey succeeded? Would he leave the mountain and never see her again? Was anything that he felt for her real?

Her jaw pulsed, and she shook out her hair, retwisting the knot of it, so ferociously that Noel cringed. After a long moment, she answered grimly, “As I said before, I do not owe you anything, Noel Loveridge, certainly not relief for your worries. Tell me about the wards. Then go. That is all I want from you.”

“I will tell you,” he answered quietly. “You have my word. But Issa, at times I believe Edward does not tell me the whole truth of things, and I know there are things he does not tell you, like the wards. If he worries we will cause changes between us, as you say, why not warn us of that? He only tells me to leave you, so I am not tempted by the prophecies, and trust me, I am no longer tempted by the prophecies. I want only to repair all of the pain I have caused you. There is something more going on though. There is something we are meant to do. If you know what that is, you have to tell me, because Edward will not.”

“He is the Mardraim. You should not question him, and you should not call him Edward, as though you are his equal. He is very wise and would never lead any of us to harm.”

“You sound like Harvey,” Noel chuckled, humorlessly, now pacing between the window and the table. “In this, none of us is wise, Isabella Asan!” He gave a glib smile, as he said her name, and for a split second she smiled too, until he added, waving a hand behind him toward the window and the darkness, hidden throughout the forbidden places that riddled that mountain, to the place they both knew they must return. “None of us understands Moag. Edward does not know any more than you or I know, and as for him not leading us to harm, I need not remind you, he is not my Mardraim. I am alone here. You are all I have, and you are alone here too, in this— alone with me. We should work together.”

“You know far more than I know,” she answered almost bitterly, but in the softest voice. “You return to Moag each day, and you are the only person I can feel anymore, so of course I followed your way, to find out what you do there, because it is the only thing I can think to do when you are warded, which is the only time I feel like I am actually in control of my own being! Tell me which wards you use, to sever the connection between us, and I will tell you exactly what I was doing in the forbidden place, then you can leave me in peace. You have my word, or is my word only as good as your own, and that is why we play this game, pretending either of us could ever trust the other?”

“Issa, I barely know the three wards I know, and Harvey speaks of you with such greatness, I have no doubt you could find the wards, in far less time than it has taken me. In truth, I fear I have told you too much already, though I would still like to earn your trust and to come to trust you as well, if possible, as it does us little good to work against each other, whether or not you feel some wrong energy between us— whether or not you hate me, for what I have done to you.”

She scowled.

“You think I have forgotten what you said?” he continued in a whisper. “It was not so long ago that you said I do not deserve to know the prophecies from Moag, yet I go to Moag and draw them out for you, and no one else, knowing you need them, knowing I will never know them myself, knowing what I will feel of you when I do.” He blanched, thinking of the part of her trapped within Moag, knowing she must have felt it too, through him, knowing he could not burden her with what he and Harvey planned as well, but wishing she could truly understand him all the same, understand what was at the soul of him, the way she spoke of empathy, understand what he and Harvey were working toward and why— for her. That is all anyone wanted, to be understood, and the Danguin had all this power, yet even they could not truly understand anything— even they were searching for answers, perhaps that very moment, in Om, and Om did not have them. “Every time I go to Moag, it is for you, Isabella. While I do not want to know the changes I made coming here, of all people, I believe I must know the prophecies from Moag at some point, if I am ever to help right Om’s way, as your Mardraim wishes.”

That was why he was doing everything he was doing. He was trying, at the very least, to right Isabella Asan’s path through the future, to give her back what he could of the life he’d inadvertently taken from her the day she saved him.

“Right Om’s way?” She gave a scoffing laugh, rolling her eyes. “What do you know of Om’s way, Noel Loveridge?” The tone of her voice was scathing.

Noel had never seen a Danguini roll their eyes before. He’d never imagined them capable of feeling anything much greater than remote contempt, let alone ire to the point of actual mocking, but Issa was different. Maybe he had affected her as much as she had affected him. Suddenly, he wanted to make her some tea and argue with her for hours, to see what else he could find hidden in the folds of her.

“I know nothing of Om’s way, Issa,” he answered, feeling his own jaw tighten, as he threw his arms out from his sides like he bore a cross built of ignorant bliss. “Or perhaps I know only one worthless thing. May I sit?” He nodded to the second chair.

She rolled her eyes again, but let go of her tightly bound arms to wave graceful, contemptuous fingers at the empty seat across from her. To spite her, Noel dragged the chair over to sit under the window, allowing the legs to scrape over the floorboards as he went. When he looked back, her lips had curled into a snarling smile and her eyes were black slivers.

“I came here,” he offered low as he sat, taking hold of the knee of his crossed leg with clasped hands, “to find the meaning of a prophecy that is more than ten thousand years old— the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves. Has Edward— your Mardraim— told you this much?”

Isabella leaned back in her seat and tapped her fingers against the table, frowning, trying to look unbothered, as she shook her head.

“I would ask why not, but Edward would not have much to tell you, because the Mdrai could not read the prophecy when they attempted it. There were no Veils to be found in those words, no Veils to help any of us understand any of this. Now, each day, they search the Hall of Records for any hint of its meaning, and they find none, even as the prophecies of Om continue to unwrite themselves, because of me. Perhaps it was never a prophecy. Perhaps it was miswritten, when recorded in my language, or perhaps it was broken by me, when I came to this… mountain,” he growled, wishing for a decent curse.

He let go of his leg and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “The only worthless thing I know about Om’s way is that the very purpose of my being here is lost. I have broken it, including prophecies of my own, of yours, even of Edward’s! But we will right it, together, Edward and I, or so he says. If only we could trust each other enough to tell each other the truth of things. But no.

“Would you like to hear it— the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves? Or read it yourself? Here, I keep it with me, in case I need to escape this place in a hurry. You can have the cursed thing, along with every ounce of me you already possess, Isabella Asan!” He spat her name, shaking his head, as he reached into his sleeve pocket for the Book of Ages, making it grow as he went, and tossed it across the room, thinking it would land with a thud on the table in front of her. He was shocked when it didn’t.

She didn’t move. She only smiled, stopping the book in mid air, then allowing it to land softly in front of her, before pushing the book away, to the edge of the table, without ever touching it.

What magic had she used, he wondered. What else did she know? Would there be time enough, before all of this was through, to learn everything about her? The Hope he’d once believed was his purpose had been stripped from him, but the loss of that purpose did not feel anywhere near as life-ending as the thought of losing Isabella and the purpose they possessed together, the purpose he felt with such intensity, the very moment he thought he’d lost her. She was vital. She was everything to him. He and Harvey had to save her.

“My entire purpose for being here is lost as well, Noel Loveridge,” Isabella hissed low, shifting in her seat, “and you would share with me your misery, as though it is a gift, showing me what you have done to ruin Om? Because of you, I no longer have the ability to see the Veils, and while you are warded, behind the magic of three Itri wards you appear to have no intention of sharing, I have no ability to remember anything I have seen of Moag, and I have seen everything of Moag, Noel Loveridge. I have seen so much, it has broken my mind, left me barely a shadow of myself and scarred by my own hands! I would not be able to provide you any help, were I to read your beloved prophecy, even if it contained a multitude of Veils and every intention that ever came from Om and Moag combined! This moment, I know nothing of Om’s way, when it is all I have known my entire life, and I know nothing of Moag’s way, when it is the only thing I have left to…”

Her voice cracked, and tears flooded her eyes, and Noel nearly cracked too, as she shook her head and tried to gather her words.

“It is all I have left to offer this world.” The dam broke, and she sobbed, but quickly recovered, wiping away the wet, as Noel took to his feet and started toward her.

“Of one thing I am certain,” she growled low, holding up a hand to stop him. “I will share it with you now, freely, not out of trust, not to help you and whatever purpose you think you serve now, but because you need to know, before you waste too much time on the impossible, and get in my way. You and the Mardraim will not be able to right Om’s way! No one can right Om’s way because the Wanderer Lives!”

Noel grunted against these words, running a hand through his hair then letting it fall to his side in desperation. Though he realized she only added this last crumb of insult because she knew it would cut particularly deep, he could tell she believed it was true. Did she remember why? Could she tell him, if he asked her outright, the meaning of that prophecy, or was it out of her reach because he was warded, as she said? He wanted to dig into her misery some more, to ease his own, but he had made her cry, and that would not do.

He assumed this prophecy, The Wanderer Lives, if it was in fact prophecy, could only be about his surviving Moag, yet still there was that force, drawing him to the dark, a force he could not ignore, a force that would stop him, even in his obsession, from going into Moag to save Isabella while warded. He couldn’t help but wonder if trapped inside that brilliant mind of hers, Issa knew exactly what was meant to happen, and one day Noel would touch Moag, and she would again see his purpose and show Edward, through her art, that righting Om’s way was in fact impossible, as she said, and Noel would have to go into Moag and Isabella Asan would have to die, because he and Edward could not fix Om, and he and Harvey could not change Moag.

Edward would have to tell him the truth, if he knew, wouldn’t he? Or did he already know? Was that the real reason he kept them apart, kept Noel at a distance, so Isabella would not tell him he was wasting time? Might he change one more thing, and Isabella see that he and Harvey will be able to at least save her? He had never wanted to believe in some sort of quintessential power out there in the universe, but that, he thought, was his only real hope of anything now.

“I am truly sorry for that, Issa,” he offered low, standing frozen to that spot, wishing he could console her, take it all back, undo everything, especially every harsh word he’d spoken and all the tears that fell. “I can imagine losing Om for you is much like my losing The Last Hope. My people have waited for the completion of her prophecy, for a hundred generations or more, and I ruined her, coming here. I lost her. And I have ruined you, but I will not lose you. I know it hurts, deeply, that you can no longer see the Veils, and through the possession, I feel your want for Moag’s prophecy, almost as intensely as I feel Moag at times. I would right that loss, first, give it all back to you now, if I could, without hope of anything for myself in return, except to know you are happy, safe, and well— to know you have a future, even if I have none. I do not want for you to hurt, Isabella. I do not want for anyone to hurt, but to feel your pain is…”

There was no word for enlightening, which was strangely the first word he reached for. He knew the word for terrifying, but it felt like betraying a weakness to admit. Luckily, something he said had stunned her, as she gasped, so he was allowed not to continue spilling the contents of his soul, as she whispered, “You feel me?” She touched shaking fingers to her breast. “You feel me, Noel?” Her dark eyes were wide with curiosity and wonder.

The question took him aback, almost as much as it seemed to have taken her aback. Had she no idea what she’d done to him? “Always, Issa.” He swallowed, shook his head, then corrected, “Not now, I mean. Not while warded. But without the wards, you are clearer to me each day, which is why I find the wards necessary. I feel your want of Moag. I feel you are drawn there, like me, but it is as though you would go in and disappear, and I cannot let that happen. I cannot.”

She looked confused again, even worried. Her mouth hung open slightly, like she would argue or question, but she could not find the words in her awe.

The truth was Noel thought about her all the time. He worried about her constantly. He dreamed with her almost every night, the part of her within him drifting through his subconscious thoughts, intertwined in his very being. When he was warded, at least he had half a chance. Unwarded, she stirred in a place far too deep for someone as selfish as him to fathom. He had no idea what to do against her, so he tried everything he could to ignore her, but he knew his obsession was increasing, by the minute, and while the wards only grew more important with each passing hour, and he was quickly approaching a tipping point where self-preservation would fly out the window and wards would no longer matter, he knew that part of him, that unfathomable part— the part that was touched to the core when he thought she’d gone into Moag and left him alone— did not want the wards at all. That part of him only wanted her, and realizing this was almost as devastating as the idea of not having her, because he knew she did not belong with him, that he’d taken her hostage, as much as she’d taken him. It was a sickening thought, but that part of him might be the part of him that wanted so badly for Harvey’s plan to work, for Harvey to take her place in the possession, for Harvey to die. He gritted his teeth, against himself, against the terrible person he feared he’d become, and still, he wanted her.

“I did not mean to cause you this suffering,” he whispered, looking away, ashamed of himself. “I…” He was going to say he should probably leave, but the look on her face tugged at him, daring him not to. He needed to run from her, and quickly. He needed to fly to her, to affix himself to her, to breathe her in. He needed to reassess his reasons for doing everything he’d done so far. He needed to talk with Edward about possession and whether or not they were too late to do anything. But he waited, with baited breath, for whatever words Issa might have for him next, as though those words would be precious, even if what she spoke was filled with vitriol, because if not they would be as a sweetness to him, and if so perhaps they could free him, somehow, if only for a second, and he could figure out what of his motivations were his own and what was him drowning in her.

When he did not continue, Isabella gave a pained sigh and folded her hands on the table in front of her, leaning forward, clearly uncertain what she should say or do. It was a long minute before she offered her thoughts, and then Noel was sure there was far more she did not say because she paused frequently, performing the sort of calculus we all perform when we feel vulnerable and in danger. “The Mardraim does not wish you to know the prophecies of Moag because the things I have seen, Noel Loveridge…”

Huffing, she stopped herself short, shook her head and closed her eyes, leaning back in her chair once more, holding her face in her hands, weariness in the shape of her shoulders, defeat in the slowness of her breaths.

When she looked back, her eyes glistened once more and red patches formed on her cheeks, as she began again, softer, even kindly, “Noel, I cannot remember, because you are warded, but I do know the changes made through Moag are most terrible— all of them. When I said you do not deserve them, I did not mean you are not worthy of them, I only meant you do not deserve the suffering of having to carry them, as I do. This is why I will not tell you what I have seen, even if I could, even if the Mardraim thought it best to tell you everything. It is to protect you from the guilt of knowing these things we all understand you had no intention of causing. There is no a person alive, who would intentionally make these horrors for anyone. And at the heart of you, possession or not, I know you are good, Noel, and I know you do not intend me to suffer either, but it is difficult, since the possession, not to…”

She took in a deep breath and shrugged against whatever it was she was thinking, but began again along a different path, “That you say you feel me is simply… strange, especially as you are the only…” She shook her head and ended there. Noel suspected, to say whatever she might have said next would have betrayed a weakness of her own, as she looked beyond him, out the window again, her face formed with beautiful desperation, as she tried not to let the tears pooled in her eyes, glistening with gold from the lantern light, to fall once more.

This was enough. To save them both the embarrassment of showing too much more concern for one another, Noel cleared his throat and went to the door, thinking he would leave, but only cracking it open and peering around outside, like perhaps he’d heard someone coming or still thought there might be someone watching them through that window, when he knew there was not.

Edward had made certain Noel had not seen any of the other works of prophecy Isabella made, but then Noel never came to her hut for the prophecies themselves— only for her, only because he felt her grief and agony, and he needed to see she was safe, still in this world, still within his reach. It was hard at night, when he was trying to sleep, not to think about the faces of the drowning in all those drawings— remembering their fear, the anguish Issa captured— trying to understand how and why, trying to quantify the deaths of so many. It was hard not to wonder what those lives, in particular, had to do with him, or even with the Last Hope, especially since at this point it seemed all hope truly was lost. He only knew the prophecies that came from Moag had been caused by his turning up there, intended or not. To imagine he might be responsible for the deaths of so many people was— he would have thought— impossible. But he knew he was the cause, so he did deserve the guilt and all of the blame, despite what she said, because he was the one who’d insisted on going back to Arnhem Land. He drank Taree’s potion and mingled with the Dreaming. Now, Issa’s drawings haunted him, as much as she did. That the other things she’d seen were just as atrocious sent an ache through his bones, like the weight of the world was steadily crushing him, and he kind of appreciated the fact Edward had kept him away from the revelations, even if he doubted the old man’s intentions were anything but of service to Om. Noel needed to restore Om’s way, for Issa, or to break the possession. They had to succeed on one front or another, and fast. Was there even the remotest possibility she was wrong about his and Edward’s chances?

He had no idea if the old man had any real plan, how they might right the balance of things, Edward was so elusive. He could only take it in faith, above reason, that they would manage the task somehow, restore their fates, return Issa’s ability to see the Veils, right The Last Hope of the Elves— all of it— and he would never have to know the full extent of the horrors he nearly caused, in coming to the mountain… all the dreadful things Isabella Asan had seen that even the faintest memories of which caused her to quickly brush the tears from her cheeks and wipe her red nose on the back of her scarred wrist. He had to save her.

“The wards,” he whispered. “They are a garden gate, a lock and key, and a banishing of ghosts.”

He had to let her go. He had to let her have her way. He had to go to Moag. He had to leave the mountain. He had to save Isabella Asan, or he would never be able to live with himself.

He started through the door, ready to take flight back to the keep, hoping to get there before she broke the wards. But before he could make it out into the night, she whispered, “Meet me at the entrance to the tunnel tomorrow night, Ohamet. Wear the wards.”

____________________________________________

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, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37

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