The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 17

isaandnoel

Noel

He should have felt the bitter cold rushing over him. The damp of the mountain air should have matted his hair in knots at the top of his head. The tunnel should have filled with the roar of his body cutting through space. But there was nothing. No ancient, dank, earthen must forcing its way into his nostrils, leaving trace minerals on his tongue as he flew. No change in pressure as he sped fast as humanly possible, faster than he had ever flown before, around bends and through crevasses he could not see. His senses depriving him of all other input, the swift twisting and sharp turns of his body were the only evidence of his path through the mountain, or his proximity to the walls, he thought, though the knowledge that he must be coming dangerously close to crashing into solid stone did not slow him in the least.

An indomitable force, buried deep within him yet infinitely far away, drawing ever nearer yet never closer, urged him to fly faster still.

It defied logic, yet Noel flew so fast the whipping and churning of himself as he careened onward, caused his muscles to throb and the bile in his guts to rise dangerously, stinging his throat as he pushed himself beyond his limits. In that moment, he felt more alive than he had ever felt before, which was curious because, although he could not understand why, he was certain at the end of this journey lie desperation, anguish, and inescapable death. Undeterred, he became the maddening drone of its eminent approach, the hum of potential the split second before the bolt of lightning rips free of its tethers, meeting the ground with astounding violence.

Oh, the treacherous, obscure beauty of this flight, he thought, overcome by grief and joy abundant, all at once.

He would beat the lightning, on this high coursing through his veins, roiling his blood.

He would cut the current off at its source, relishing the absence of all else, that absence playing like a song deep within his soul.

He embraced the boundless darkness.

All that existed in the universe was flight.

That was until the dark, the flight, Noel’s thoughts and the rest of him slammed into something curiously soft, wet, and not a part of the expanse, and Noel went tumbling furiously, wrapped up with a bundle of heaviness that felt oddly human in form, grunting as it and he rolled across the ground, melding together in an outrageous groan of feral stutters. He brought them to a stop, somewhere out of the absolute darkness that had threatened to consume him and into a darkness so insufferably bright, he dared not open his eyes for fear of searing his brain.

“Fuuuuuck!” Noel cried, choking out the word, rolling himself off the mass that had softened the blow, before retching, spilling half of himself out onto the ground, the sound of his guts splattering across stone welcoming him back to his own cosmic form, followed quickly by the burning stench in his nose as he retched again, gagging over his own putrescence and the sudden, slow cruelty of reality.

The fleshy bundle moved beside him.

Noel squinted carefully into the unlit haze as someone else spoke from the shadows, but his head screamed with a high-pitched ringing that clung to his brain. Wriggling his fingers in his ears, he retched again even as the person beside him began to wail with deep, echoing cries, not the sort that follow physical pain, but deeper still, like the bleating of the lost.

“Issssssa! Iiiiisssssaaaaa, diiiiiiiiii! Di, di, diiiiii!” the man howled, crawling on top of Noel, grabbing fistfuls of his cloak, pulling him up to face him, yelling unintelligibly, though it was clear enough he was in agony, and as he shook Noel, the heat of his words landing forcibly against his skin, burning him with every syllable, it became apparent that whatever he was on about, the man blamed him. When he was through with his abuse of him, he flung Noel angrily back to the ground, hurrying away, then fell to his knees a few yards off, to weep, lifting a lifeless body up from the ground, into his arms, holding it to his chest, rocking it close as he cried.

Noel rolled up on his side and forced himself to sit, stunned, not at all certain he had not accidentally killed someone, barreling out of the abyss as he did. Beyond the man he saw a small group of people had gathered. His vision was still a blur, so he could not tell how many were there, but he counted at least six of them, of various shapes and sizes, none terribly large, none of them as distraught as the man who wept before them.

“I am sorry,” Noel said, his voice barely above a whisper, knowing his words meant nothing to these people, but hoping his intentions might be understood.

Though his brain was still boggy and the exhaustion from his flight had begun to weigh heavily at the edges of him, Noel pushed himself to his knees, hoping to get his head clear enough to see if there was any help he might offer, but at the sound of movement, the man turned back to him, shouting, “Khip! Ofanya tsir Itriet acio khip! Issa dzer otmA!”

As the man lay the body back on the ground and scrambled to his feet, Noel tried to brace himself, but set his hand down in a puddle of warm slime.  The man came toward him, hand outstretched, yelling, “Khip fI! Khip fI!” as Noel hurriedly wiped his hand on his cloak, stopping only as he bent down to look Noel in the eyes, panic, despair and guilt distorting his dark features.

It was the man who had rescued him from the avalanche.

“Look, mate, I am sorry for what happened, and I want to help, but you and I don’t have a decent record for conquering the language barrier, and you are clearly prepared to kill me. Perhaps your friend could help translate? Where is she?”

A fierceness filling his eyes, Noel’s rescuer ripped the rucksack from his shoulder, shoving him to the ground again in the process.

“What do you think you’re doing? See here, you can’t just keep rummaging through my things whenever you like!”

But the man pushed Noel’s hand away, turned his back, and tore the bag open, dumping it on the ground, muttering, “Khip, khip…Ta dzer tmAama,” as he knelt over the contents, rifling through them in search of something important.

Something he had seen work a miracle, Noel thought, anguish getting the better of him, burning in his jaws as he gritted his teeth. “It’s no good,” he said quietly, crawling over, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder as much to hold himself up as to commiserate. “I haven’t anymore Iachaol. I used it all.”

The man shrugged Noel’s hand away and kept searching.

Noel looked up at the group of people still standing over the body. There were five men of various races, two women and a young girl. None of them made any effort to help. Not one of them, not even the ancient woman or the girl, seemed at all bothered by the lack of any sign of life from the person lying on the ground in front of them, nor were they moved by the frantic search of Noel’s rescuer.

He gathered his strength and pushed himself up onto his feet, taking a few careful steps forward, testing his balance on his weakened limbs, but as he got confident in his staggered gait and looked over, to see how far he had left to go, a jolt of panic ran through him.

It was the woman—the woman who had helped to save him—the woman who had been the very stuff of his hallucinations in the belly of that mountain, tangled up inside his head in the abhorrent darkness.

Noel had heard her cry out his name in terror.

Stumbling over himself, he ran to her side and fell down over her body, expecting the worst, after all, he had flown with such tremendous speed out of the veil of blackness—flying to her, he now realized, an afterthought that made the gravity of the situation that much worse, because he was certain the force of their impact had caused her serious injury. Wishing he had not used all of the Iachaol on himself, he turned her body toward him.

His mouth fell agape, horror seizing him.

The rot of death had taken her right arm. Necrotic webs stretched across her chest, up her neck, in veiny fingers until it reached her still beautiful lips, tinged with aubergine, contorted open in a final, savage wail of silence.

His throat constricted. His stomach tightened.

There was no air.

He could feel the shadow of her dead fingers clutching his.

He could taste the sweetness of her mouth.

There was no air anywhere.

Breathe.

Gasping, tears spilled from his eyes as he bent down, pressing two quaking fingers against the artery on her neck. There was no pulse, but he had not expected one. Shaking off the remorse welling up inside him, he leaned his cheek over her face, hoping for even a whisper of air to escape those poor, tormented lips, but it was useless. By the looks of her, she had been dead long before they met, but that was impossible.  She had been very much alive the night she helped save him, and her friend acted as though her death had only just occurred. Noel could not fathom what had done this to her.

Or perhaps he understood exactly what was responsible, and he knew he had barely escaped.

Breathe. Noel.

Panting eagerly, Noel’s rescuer fell swiftly to his knees before him, empty blue vial in hand. He was speaking fast, foreign words already incomprehensible, now little more than noise drowned out by a half-dozen other voices arguing as Noel stared blankly at the corpse lying before him. He had been here before, staring into those still onyx eyes. He had tried to save the vision of her in the darkness, but she had turned to dust in his arms. The man reached over and shook him by the shoulder, holding out the vial, pleading with him, but all the Iachaol in the world would not bring this woman back to life.

Only Noel could do that.

As he tilted the woman’s head back, plugging her nose between his thumb and finger, Noel wondered how he would explain the events that had unfolded there in that mountain to the elders at Fendhaim, how he could possibly make them understand that he had been guided to that place, how he had nearly died finding his way, his encounter with the abysmal shade that had ensnared his mind with thoughts of this woman, or how he managed his escape only by speeding blindly through the darkness—to her.

To Isabella.

No one would believe he had seen into the future, or that he knew that this very moment was his chance to change it, to return Isabella to her rightful place.

But it was better not to think about that now, and just to breathe… As she wanted… So she might live again.

Noel took in a deep breath, pressed his mouth tightly over hers, and exhaled, hearing her petrified lungs crack and grind as the air moved through them. Shivering, he wiped the grit from his mouth, but before he could take a second breath, a stabbing pain caught him in the chest, sending him flailing backwards several feet across the ground, as angry voices grew louder, echoing off the cave walls. Coughing against the pain burning deep in his lungs, holding his stomach, Noel rolled up onto his knees, preparing to answer the next blow with whatever energy he could muster, but that blow never came.

The eldest man of the five now stood between Noel and the women, his arms outstretched as though to protect him. But the young girl spoke to him with vehemence, ducking her head swiftly beneath the man’s arm and hurrying over as another man, who Noel was certain was Isabella’s father, sat reluctantly on the ground next to his rescuer, taking the vial from his hand, pulling out the stopper with his teeth even as the girl took his arm, imploring him not to do whatever it was he intended. Ignoring her pleas, the man ran his finger over the rim of the vial then touched it to his tongue.

“Breathe, Noel,” Isabella besought, the ghost of her stronger than ever.

Shuddering, Noel clamored across the ground, returning to her side.

“Nyet otum ot,” his rescuer urged, nodding down at Isabella’s body, desperation on his brow. “Otum, Ohamet. Otum.”

“Otum?” Noel repeated, shaking his head. “I don’t—”

“Otum,” the man answered, then he took a large breath and exhaled, moving his hand from his own lips to rest on Isabella’s chest. “Otum, Ohamet.”

“Breathe,” Noel and Isabella said as one, Noel nodding, feeling his eyes widen, afraid of admitting to himself the impossible idea that had taken root inside him.

A flux of energy crawling over his flesh, he leaned down to attempt once more to save Isabella, but the elderly woman raised her voice in protest. How she had seen him, he did not know because she was clearly blind. Ignoring the warning, but keeping an eye on her, in case the old man did not have her under control, Noel took in a deep gasp of air. He watched as the middle-aged woman took her blind elder’s arm, as though to lead her safely out of the tunnel. Instead, the two of them disappeared in a swirling cloud of black, a magic the likes of which Noel had never seen. The young girl had been busy whispering gentle words of caution in Isabella’s father’s ear, but as soon as the others left, she looked to Noel and smiled, not the smile of a child, but a wise smile that hinted of a greater understanding of things than Noel could possibly grasp. He was still holding his breath as she disappeared as well.

Breathe.

Noel pressed his mouth to Isabella’s at last, breathing deeply into her, this time watching her chest and diaphragm expand.

“Otum!” his rescuer demanded as Noel sat back, running a trembling hand over his face and over the back of his head. “Otum!”

But there was no need.

Noel had felt Isabella leave his body, the spectral mist of her lingering over his tongue, sweet as an almond blossom. The twitch of her fingers a moment later confirmed it.

He got slowly to his feet, swearing to himself he would never speak of this to anyone, not to the elders, not to Phileas—not even to Isabella, assuming she lived.

Never, he thought, turning away to return his things to his rucksack, perplexed, knackered, not looking back, not when he heard his rescuer’s happy exclamation, not when he heard Isabella’s quiet, torturous moan.

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– PT. 16

Hidy Ho, and Happy 2016 everyone!  It has been a long time since I’ve put anything out here in the old ether, but November and December are typically very busy months for me, and I thought it best not to drive myself crazy just to produce something sub-par I would regret, when I could hold off and really put myself back into my work at the start of the new year.  I hope you enjoy this latest installment of The Tale of Two Mountains, and may this new year bring you peace, love and joy!

isaandnoel

River

“The wanderer lives,” Isabella swore through her teeth, shivering with cold, guts clenching against the emptiness Moag had left in her as she pushed herself up from the ground with her good arm, the other hanging stiff, awkwardly gripped by the rigor of death that crept slowly through her veins, as she tried to force her feet beneath her to stand. “Fly, Noel,” she groaned, using every bit of strength she had left to push herself upright, but she was far too weak, her head was full of a strange pressure, and as it swam it seemed as though her ideas were not fully formed, weighted down by the absence of some necessary volition, though she knew what she was thinking.

The door.

She lifted her hand up from the ground and tried to take a careful step but fell forward, her face meeting the floor with a violent crack.

Ears ringing, eyes burning, she lay still a long moment, swallowing the blood that gushed into her mouth. It should have frightened her that there was so much of it, but all she could think was that her own blood tasted sweeter than the wanderer’s, and the sound of her laughing sobs filled the dormant bleakness of the room, dancing with the stench of mildewed flesh, a part of her and not a part of her, barely clinging to the world.

He had felt her.

Somehow, up there in the horrible grasp of Moag’s nightmare, the wanderer had felt her crying out to him in dread. It should have been impossible for someone like him, but then the Mardraim was right, she thought, emboldened by the pulsing sting of her jaw. She wiped the blood and tears on her arm and rolled up onto her elbow to try again. It would have been impossible, she reasoned, inching her knees across the ground, using her good arm to thrust herself forward, painfully aware her crippled momentum did little but set her off in a hapless squirm. She could feel the skin on her elbow and knees tearing against the stone as she struggled, though it did not hurt as it should. Moag had done too much damage. Better to her than the wanderer.

Noel, had felt her crying out to him through the terrible void, and as though Moag, too, was perplexed by the impossibility of their conundrum, the ancient hand of time had let loose its hold on her. How? Did the how of it even matter now or would her time be better spent relishing these few sacred seconds of freedom, the millimeters of progress she made toward the door and the throbbing ache in her head, a sweet reminder that she was still real, for now? Her end was quickly catching up to her. She could feel Moag waiting.  It was not consciousness. Like Fate, it did not feel, but she could sense in it the anticipation of her undoing, as though she were water pooled on a ledge and the slightest shift in gravity would send her spilling over, and it was the space into which the pool would become a stream, where it was already a stream, where it had always been a stream.  All she could think to do was to go and meet him, this curious elf who had undone her destiny.

He had heard her cry and awoken, she smiled with the thought, hurrying now as fast as she could push herself across the ground, spluttering more blood from her nose as she went—woken from a dream it seemed he had been dreaming since long before the waters of Fate washed over the world, long before the snake that pursued her now began eating its own tail, before there was even the idea of a soul for it to one day devour, before there was day to define the night, before time, before before… He woke, and Isabella knew the truth, though she found no solace in the knowledge of her newly formed current—knew the truth of the matter deep in her soul, more deeply than she had ever known any design of Fate as an augur, as though she had known it for as long as that stranger had been dreaming.

Noel had to live—he would live.

Whether she had done it because she chose to or had done it because she was compelled by some force greater, even, than Om and Moag, Isabella had saved his life, become entangled in his purpose, as the Mardraim said, and soon she would surely die.

No.

She would cease to exist, in order that the wanderer would live.

That was all that mattered.

But not before she had the chance to look him in the eyes one last time, so he would know her, she thought, growling against her body’s desire to lay down, exhausted and broken, and let the end come. “The wanderer lives,” she hissed, clenching a swollen jaw tight, as she pushed herself forward, whimpering as the throbbing in her head increased, the warmth of her blood spreading down her lips, down her chin, down her neck. “You live—this is all that matters! Moag cannot harm you! I will take your place, so fly fast, you fool! You are safe! Fly fast to me!”

As though ignited by a spark, Noel tore through the void faster still, streaming like an electric current over the surface of her. Isabella laughed again, soothed by the thrill of his flight racing across the expanse, toward her and away from her and through her all at once. “Hurry,” she managed to say, but Moag caught up the thread of her once more, and her very thought became a spasming wail of agony, cutting through the deafening emptiness, reaching out to Noel, willing him onward as her body shook against the ground with a venerable tempo, beating like the maddening roil of a first deadly thunder, as Moag drank deep, swallowing great gulps of her.

She would die; first, she would die.

Then she would cease to be.

Two hands took her up.

Two arms embraced her, holding her tight, fighting to keep her close as she thundered, and he ran.

“You cannot do this! Think of the children!” she heard a long, faint cry somewhere far away.

His feet pounded against the floor, becoming the thunder.

Harvey.

“Think of Fate! We cannot allow the elf to do this, if there is any way of stopping him!” the Mardraim answered.

“Think of Issa!” her father added, his voice gaining pitch as Harvey flew, and still Isabella’s body quaked. “The wanderer must die! It is the only way!”

Harvey, no.

He was not protecting himself, and she could do nothing to protect him. He felt her. He felt everything. He knew there was no way they could stop the wanderer. He had known it all along.

“Harvey, no.” It was Isabella’s voice that spoke now, but where it came from or how, she did not know, for it sounded as though it were from somewhere else, hidden away in some unworldly existence.

“Young Harvey, where are you going?” the youngest mother said, calm as ever.

“Stop! You cannot go down there!” the eldest mother cried.

“I must,” Harvey answered, his voice vibrating against Isabella’s soul.

Harvey, no.

“Stop this!”

Someone screamed. The wanderer? Isabella?

She opened what were once her eyes, to watch the domed lapis ceiling of the entryway glittering past so slowly, a dozen days might have come and gone as the scream carried through the depths of her. He turned down one of the archways, which led into a natural tunnel, worn smooth by the ages old, millennial flow of the waters of Fate. Voices followed close behind, becoming burbles of insistence and impatience, echoing words lacking form.

Except for Harvey’s.

“I will not allow her to be taken,” he said.

No. Harvey. No.

After a thousand years he answered, “Moag can have me. It should be me. Not you.” And he smiled at her, laying down her body, by now very nearly turned stone, so it could beat at the edge of that darkness, so deep, so impermeably black, to end and begin at the gaping mouth of the eater of souls, that grandfather snake, all consuming, and as she quaked loose the dust of a trillion atoms, her senses lost, her self lost, save for Harvey, he pressed his lips against what was left of hers.

Then he stepped into the Moag.

Harvey—

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 15

isaandnoelMOUNTAIN

His heartbeat quickened as he listened, hoping to hear some hint of the faint cry again, and at the same time wishing not to hear anything, praying it was just his imagination. The scream had carried a great distance. By the time it reached Noel’s ears, the woman’s voice was barely perceptible above the sound of his own breath, yet in the tormenting silence of the pitch-black hell surrounding him, it had been clear enough. His name was borne upon that terrified wail, and while he had plenty of reason to suspect this was more trickery, meant to disorient him and lead him straight into another mind-trap, or worse still, that this cry was the product of his own pitiful death-throes, the seizing of his gut warned him the woman’s suffering authentic, and not another apparition.

After a long minute waiting, and a longer minute spent building up courage as he grew keenly aware of the ache of his knees against stone, Noel got up from the ground, and called out into the darkness, “Hello?”

Though he was certain it was the shifting of his eyes struggling to see anything at all against the surrounding blackness, the shadow seemed to grow deeper, swallowing up his word as silence loomed mercilessly, not even a hint of an echo reporting.

Cupping his hands around his mouth he bellow, “HEEEEELLOOOOO!” straining his voice until his throat burned, hoping the sound would carry, but it was suffocated by the abyss enveloping him. Again there was no reply, only the sullen stranglehold of that ominous void and the whisper of his own harried breath, trapped there with him, growing fainter by the moment.

“I’ve got to keep moving,” he muttered, in answer to the warning that crawled across his flesh.

Lifting his hand in front of him, Noel drew forth a spark of Hestia’s light, just enough that he might search his rucksack for something worthy of a new torch, to carry the ancient goddess’s flame. For a brief moment, the flicker of indigo held true in his palm, though the light it cast barely illuminated the crests embroidered on the cuff of his cloak, a welcome reminder of the outside world, but as he slung his bag from his shoulders, the darkness swelled.

“No, no!” he said as the flame was snuffed and the veil of endless shade consumed him once more.

Noel swore, tugging at the top of his pack as he knelt and began rifling through the contents until he felt one of his shirts and balled it up in his fist. “I’m not dead yet,” he breathed. “Not yet.”

In his youth, in their time off between quarters, he had become rather good at replicating the contents of an old decanter of scotch the elder Foote kept on a spindle-legged table in the parlor at Foote Manor, so good that he had eventually learned to recreate the libation without requiring a single drop to use as a base, a fact on which he prided himself those long winter nights at school, when there was nothing better to do than lie in a circle around the fire with his friends, staring up at the stars, trying to make them move. It had been nearly two decades since he had reason to compose a batch of the stout drink, having long-since become a patron of the Iron Paw and developed a taste for a warmer, peatier version, but he thought he could still manage.

The shirt grew wet and heavy in his hands, and the familiar smoked heather scent of countless evenings spent in drunken laughter lingered in the air, making him wish for simpler times, but this was neither the time nor place for reminiscing. He sucked some of the liquid from his shirt and coughed at the molasses and peppery heat on his tongue mixed with the grit of dirt picked up in Arnhem Land. It was perfect. He only hoped the proof was high enough Hestia’s light would not be so easily extinguished.

Holding his breath, he drew forth the spark once more. The distillate flashed wildly, as the flame rose up, well above Noel’s head, bright enough this time the quartz glimmered beneath his feet. “There you go, lads,” he laughed as he slung his rucksack up over his shoulder and stood.

But as he turned to his left and again to his right, hoping to see some hint of a direction, his chest tightened and his heart began to race in panic.

Beyond the glow of hope, clasped in his fist, there was nothing more than blackness, deep and impenetrable, even by the vast strength of the goddess’s flame, though Noel had come to expect this by now. It was what he saw in the darkness that made his bones ache and his mind real.

“Impossible,” he shuddered, the chill dancing between his shoulder blades.

The shadow of blackness, whatever it was—magic or monster—was moving, pressing in on him. He could see it swirling all around, a gaseous mass, undulating as though it was breathing.

“It’s alive,” he whispered as Hestia’s light began to dim once more.

Noel stumbled backward as the ominous deep moved toward him, swiftly closing in from all sides, the firelight fading fast.

“I… I have to get out of here,” he stammered, turning round, not certain from which direction he came, but for the first time truly ready to run away, ready to give up and let the secrets of the prophecy of the last hope remain a mystery forever.

Hestia’s flame grew smaller and smaller, squelched by the maddening shadow, as the darkness deepened evermore.

“I have to find my way back!” Noel gave a fervent hiss, feet leading him in circles, guilt of failure flooding his chest, but fear winning out over pride. “I’m done with this!” he shouted. “I’m finished! You hear me? You win! Just let me go home!”

But even as he said the words, the flame died, leaving him utterly blind once again, quivering with trepidation.

He drew in a breath, dread tensing his shoulders as he took a step forward and waited, expecting any moment to feel the clench of that treacherous black in his lungs, forcing the air out of him.

Another long minute passed, the silence pulsing rapidly in his ears between heartbeats as he stood trembling childishly.

“I-imagine what Phileas would say if he w-were here right now?” Noel spoke in a hush, dropping his shirt on the ground, hands shaking in front of him, as he felt of the darkness, shoes scraping against the floor as he inched forward, hoping he was headed either in the direction of the woman’s cries, or toward the exit, and home.

What he would not give to be home, he thought, taking another careful step. “Afraid of the dark after all these years?” he chuckled anxiously, his voice scratching at the air, mocking his dear friend. “’What’s the worst that could happen?’ he would ask, before setting off boldly, not standing here like some whimpering coward, waiting for the worst of it.”

Noel laughed at himself, to keep the imagined conversation moving forward. “Well, I could fall off a ledge into the vast nothingness, Phileas,” he answered, finding a little courage in his words.

“Aye, you’d be fairly bad off if that happened, but you’ve mostly accomplished it already, and you have to admit it would hardly come as a surprise now, would it? You can do better than that, Noel. What’s the worst thing you can think of?”

His pace quickened, as he squeezed his jaw. “Death by silence, my friend, but of course, not if I keep talking to myself, and certainly not if I’m already dead, so I suppose there is a bit hope left after all. If I’m still alive, there’s something yet to look forward to, and if I am dead, and this is my own personal perdition, as it seems it must be, the worst of it has already occurred, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There you go mate. Happy thoughts… Christ…” he sighed, at last swallowing the stone in his throat.

He ran a hand over the back of his head, damp with sweat, peering into the deep. There was nothing, nothing to be seen, no brush of air against his skin, no woman screaming his name as she suffered some torture too far away to rescue, nothing at all, he thought. “That is something, though, isn’t it?” he murmured, keeping the idea to himself, just in case. He could not be certain his thoughts were entirely his own anymore. Whatever evil possessed this place, it had been inside his head, pulling memories from his mind. It had forced him to imagine nearly drowning in that sand pit. Now there was only an austere quiet, punctuated by scraping of his feet against the ground.

“You’ll make it through, Noel,” he said, stopping short to gather his bravery. “After all, how did you end up in this place? It wasn’t by accident.”

Back in that lost cave, hidden somewhere in the sacred lands the Yolngu people, he drank the potion Taree gave him, and the Dreaming led him to Namcha Barwa, but he had not been shown the way. In fact, much like his present circumstances, he had not seen or heard anything while he was under the influence of the poisonous tonic connecting him to Wangaar time. He had simply known the answer, at the soul of him. Yet Taree had taught him that in the Dreaming, one could see all of eternity. Noel saw nothing, he heard nothing. Just like now.

“I simply knew,” he whispered, pressing his hands to his face, dragging them slowly over his cheeks to become prayerful fists clutched at his lips. “Is it possible?” he wondered, bending over, leaning against his knees to breathe. “I didn’t get here by accident. I only discovered the entrance to this place by falling, and I had to cause an avalanche and nearly die in order to get inside. The only thing I really accomplished, trying to figure it out on my own, was buggering things up, but perhaps, I’ve never been supposed to find the way myself… not by searching. I didn’t see nothing in the Dreaming; I saw this black madness. All this time, it’s been the Wangaar guiding me, and I’ve only gotten anywhere when I’ve had no choice but to let go.”

He half-laughed at the idea, shaking his head. “It’s foolish… insane,” he answered himself, pulling his rucksack securely over both shoulders.

“So here goes,” he sighed through a smirk, before hurling himself into the nothingness.

_______________________

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

Smiles of Monsters

When our children are young, the instinct to go to them when they are crying supplants all other drives. In the beginning, their need for food, a clean bottom, and a mighty vanquisher of all monsters, taken up residence in the darker recesses of their safe, little world, takes precedence over everything else, but as they get older, we parents tend to become lax in our efforts because our children don’t want to need us as often, and it is natural that they reach a point where they begin to resent when we intrude too much. They don’t want to eat what we’ve cooked, they are perfectly capable of bathing and dressing themselves, and the monsters come fewer and farther between as they grow brave, so we step back and allow them room to find themselves. A few days ago, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my oldest daughter, now seventeen, crying. Instinct kicking in, I hurried out of my bed, but it felt like I was moving in slow motion, and it took me forever to get to her. My heart was pounding so furiously I could feel it rising in my throat and up behind my ears. I learned in my own teenage years:

As our children grow up, the monsters tend to move out of the shadows and take up residence inside of them.

Lil and BirdIt was 12:38 in the morning. I came down the hall as Lilia was leaving my youngest daughter’s bedroom. “Are you okay?” I asked her, trying to get a read of her face. No tears. Perhaps she had been laughing, I thought. Or maybe it was Mar’a.

“Not really,” she answered. “It’s so strange. I was about to go to sleep, was about to put my phone down, but I checked one last thing. I just found out this Youtuber I watched committed suicide. They found him a few days ago, while he was still alive, but his brain was too damaged, and now he’s gone. I went in to tell Mar’a I love her.” She understands about monsters too.

It was strange to her, she told me, because she had never watched Cyndago’s videos before. The most recent video the group made was trending and came across her feed sometime last week, so she watched them get their hair dyed, as they had agreed to do if they raised more than $200,000 for charity. “You never can tell what is going on with a person,” she said as we sat there on her bed. “I wish he knew how much people cared. If he could only see what people are saying…”

If only.

Like when she was little, a monster needed vanquishing. I’m the mom. That’s what I do, or at least that’s what I’m supposed to do, so I tried to think of what I could say to make it better, how I could rationalize it for her, how I could take away the pain that came from the idea of her fleeting glimpse into this person’s existence, just before his end, and give her some answer to her questioning why the universe had put him in her life when it did, as though there must be some greater purpose to be found within the monster’s vicious smile. I can imagine that Daniel Kyre’s family wishes they had been around to vanquish his monsters for him as well. But my daughter was right. You can never tell what is going on with a person, unless they let you see inside, and even then, all you get is a shade of what they are truly thinking and feeling. The only thing we can do is listen. The only thing they can do is talk.

She talked about a local suicide that happened two years ago and how she felt like no one really learned the lessons Neftali’s death should have taught us about being considerate, or even remotely aware, of what someone else might be feeling. She talked about the breakup that happened more than a year ago that still breaks her heart a little every time she thinks about it. She talked about her little sister, who had broken up with her best friends around the same time, and how she felt like sometimes the only thing that kept her going then was the fact that Mar’a needed her. She talked about her deep sense of compassion for everyone, even strangers, and how she wished people would just reach out, because love is there, even though she knows it can be hard to see at times. There is Hope.

She talked, and I tried my best just to listen, so that she knew I was really there.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness month. Please, reach out for help.  800-273-8255

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 14

Clearly, my lack of regular posts means I have not quite gotten back into the swing of things with the start of the new semester.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but know I am sitting down to write every day, as often as I can. I hope you are enjoying The Tale of Two Mountains so far, and you keep coming back to read, even though I have yet to get my groove back.

There is a lot of pressure in trying to turn out a finalized, publishing-ready chapter every-other-week or so.  Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I undertook this project, even with the stress involved, because it is hard, as an author of YA Fantasy, to know exactly what to blog about, to capture the attention of the young adult audience (especially in this age of electrons, where attention spans can only be measured by the speed of neutrinos, and most people would rather listen to a podcast or watch a video than read a book), so I figured the best way to increase interest would be to show my work.  When I began writing this story a few months ago, I hoped it would help bring in readers of fantasy, which, let’s face it, are the people authors of fantasy need most.  It is working, but while I intend to continue writing Isabella and Noel’s story, I think it would make posting more regularly a bit easier (and take off some of the pressure to produce biweekly solid chapters of a lore story that is integral to The Eleventh Age, which is nearly impossible without a thousand other things going on), if I wrote more often about other things.  Posting more often would mean putting myself out there more regularly, building the fan-base, but again I am back to the original struggle of what readers want to read about when not… er… reading.

This website has recently celebrated its first anniversary, so it is time to start asking for your feedback as fans.  If you are a young adult fantasy reader and are enjoying The Tale of Two Mountains, or have already read and loved The Eleventh Age, and are waiting patiently for the second book, I’d like you to tell me what I can do better on this site.  Feel free to comment below, letting me know what else you might be interested in reading about on this blog.  Do you want to hear more about my family life (Fast Girls and Rock Stars, What I’ve Learned About Experience…)?  Are you interested in knowing more about my writing process (A Fate More Than Metaphors, Nature of Evil)?  Do you enjoy random articles about things I find interesting or curious (Love Stories, The Moral of the Story…)?  What do you think I should write about, to attract more readers like you?  Let me know, and thanks in advance for your input!  But before you run off, enjoy the latest installment of The Tale of Two Mountains.

isaandnoel
ISABELLA

“The wanderer lives,” she whispered, clutching the collar of Harvey’s shirt, still trying to catch her breath. “He lives.”

“I know,” he answered, heavy brow casting a dark shadow over his eyes as he laid Isabella down on the thin reed mat, unfolded the musty blanket there beside it and tossed it over her, tucking it around her trembling frame. He had carried her up a long hallway, following in the old mother’s wake as she flicked her wrist, lighting candles that appeared out of nowhere for Harvey’s sake. The room at the end of the hall was dark and sparse and reeked of mouldering herbs and diseased feet. “You will be all right, Issa,” Harvey whispered. “I promise, we will find a way.”

“The wanderer lives,” she pleaded with him.

Harvey looked desperate as he pressed his hand to her forehead, kneeling there beside her, whispering, “I know. I know,” before adding to the room at large, “Are you going to help her?”

“You should leave us now, Young Harvey.  We will tend our daughter,” the eldest mother answered from the corner, where she mended the little mother’s broken hand. Shivering, Isabella looked down at the deep bruises covering her own arm. Though she knew something else had been in control of her when it happened, she could not help but feel guilty for crushing the little Felo’s bones. The pain, when Moag took hold of her, had been unlike any she had ever known. It felt as though the fabric of her very soul was being stretched across the entire span of time, through all she had ever been, all she might have become, and slowly her ends began to fray and the weave of herself became nothing. Her physical body had given up the fight rather quickly, back in the dining chamber, but for some reason, like the wanderer, Fate did not take her when she died. “We do not know what will happen during this transition or how the rest of us will be affected,” the old woman was saying, “especially those with empathic traits. I understand your sorrow, but you should say your goodbyes, while enough of your friend’s senses remain to understand you, and take your leave.”

Isabella knew the old mother was right.  Harvey should not be there.

“I will stay,” Harvey answered sharply, then swallowed as he took Isabella’s blackened fingers in his, being careful not to hurt her.  He need not have taken such care.  No feeling remained in her hand, and she could no longer move her fingers.  It was as though it did not even belong to her.

“H-Harvey,” Isabella stammered.

He gave a brokenhearted smile and raised her dead fingers to his lips, kissing the backs of them, the tears in his eyes so startling to her that she forgot to tell him he had to leave. For a moment, he looked as though he might do as their mother said and say a thousand words he had never had to say before, a thousand words neither of them had ever considered, their lives having long been dictated by their mutual commitment to the Mdonyatra, but at the sound of footsteps in the hall, Harvey looked over his shoulder then hurried to his feet, as Isabella’s father rushed through the door, followed closely by the middle mother and the rest of the Mdrai.

“Issa,” her father whispered, taking Harvey’s place by her side, kneeling over her, pulling her up into his arms to hold her close, kissing her cheeks as he had not done since she was small. “Sweet, gentle Issa.” There were tears in his eyes as well.

“He lives,” she warned.  As her father blinked, his tears fell, and for a brief moment, Isabella saw herself reflected there in him. She looked frail and broken, and her body shook lightly in his arms. She expected him to have the answers, to tell her what they intended to do, but soon his eyes changed, alarmed by her words, and he laid her back on the ground. “The wanderer lives,” she said as her father glanced back at Harvey, who shook his head. He had not understood her. No one understood.

“What is happening to her?” Omdra Yang asked as the little mother, her arm dressed with bandages, came to sit on her knees, at Isabella’s other side.

Her eyes were gentle, despite all that had happened. Unbothered by the events of earlier, she took Isabella’s morbid hand, examining it once more, running her fingers over the necrotic contusions that ran from the tips of her fingers up past her elbow, death still spreading. “Moag will finish the work it began in her last night,” she answered simply.

“But she escaped,” Isabella’s father said, his voice as cold and lifeless as his daughter’s arm. “Everyone told me it was impossible, but she came back. She is here, so why is this happening?”

“Why now, not before?” Omdra Wallace clarified, sharing a concerned glance with the other Mdrai gathered there, looking down at Isabella, with dismay, even disgust, none of them bothering to conceal their sense of shame at what had become of her.

The eldest mother joined them in their circle now, resting a hand on Zo Asan’s shoulder.  “After receiving his discipline, Young Harvey retrieved your daughter for us. We have many questions, as many as you must have, but they will likely go unanswered, and we must accept this. We do not understand how she managed to survive her first encounter in the tunnels, and she did not have time to tell us much of her endeavor before she was overwhelmed by Moag once again, right there in front of us. Young Harvey was there and can confirm, the moment elf entered one of the forbidden tunnels, Young Isabella was wrenching around on the floor in agony.  As you can see, her right arm is the source, and she has already begun to deteriorate.

In the darkness, those who come in contact with Moag experience something like a dream state as they are consumed,” she continued, “but out here, our daughter is forced to endure every moment of her unfurling fully conscious of what is happening to her. For a brief time I believed she would receive some mercy and the physical end would come quickly for her, but for some reason, the wanderer awoke from his dreams, as Young Isabella did this morning, Moag released them both, at least for a time, and the child was miraculously revived. We were all very surprised she lived, none as surprised as Young Harvey, I believe.”

“She died in my arms,” Harvey said, shaking his head as the others looked back at him, where he stood behind Isabella’s father. “She was dead, but suddenly, she gasped for air, choking up sputum and sand.”

“Sand?” Omdra Yang said curiously.

“It is as I told you this morning when she managed to escape,” the elderly woman answered softly. “A part of our daughter still lingers in Moag. It is only a matter of time before she is lost to us forever. We called you here so that you would see for yourself what Moag does to those it touches. Now that you have seen how she suffers, you should go, and allow us to attend to her in what time she remains in this world.”

“How long will she be forced to endure this?” Omdra Vega asked, his voice hoarse in his throat.

“Minutes… Days… That is entirely up to the wanderer,” the youngest mother said, repressing a sigh, her blind eyes locked on Isabella’s father as she spoke, as though she peered inside of him. Isabella looked over to find her father’s jaw was clenched tight, his brow drawn so low he was barely recognizable. Without a word, the young mother began untying Isabella’s Omdet Filim, but her Omdra stopped the little Felo and took over the job himself, his motions automatic, his eyes careful not to gaze upon Isabella’s face as he removed the vestment from his aspirant. The others watched in silence as he got to his feet, gingerly folded the garment, as done in the ceremony of passing, then crossed the room, stopping short of the door, as Omdra Wallace asked the little mother why it would be up to the wanderer. Isabella pleaded in her head for her father to turn around while he hesitated to hear the little mother answer, “We believe the longer the wanderer survives Moag, the longer Isabella will remain in this state, fully aware as she is devoured by Moag.”

With that, Isabella’s father left her, carrying her robes away, not once glancing back– not in anguish, not in sympathy, not in pity or despair.  Not even in love.  Though it was strange to her that she might want all of those things now.

“Pati,” Isabella cried, choking out the word, as he turned the corner into the hall, but the cry was stifled as the torment inside of her returned, swelling with so many ideas she had never felt before, because there was no need to feel them here in their mountain, where life was simple, their duties apparent, where the Felimi had a saying for everything and the Mdrai administered to Fate and their people with unyielding faith. Until now.

“Is there nothing we can do?” Omdra Wallace asked, turning his head away as the blackness crept up Isabella’s veins and tears spilled down her cheeks, as she fought the rising current inside her, pushing her feet against the ground, her back arching as the little mother struggled to hold her still.  She had been betrayed, abandoned.  She was lost.

“There is nothing,” the elder mother answered, her pensive smile little consolation to anyone. “The rest of you should go and let the rains wash away this travesty from your minds. Our child’s struggle with Moag is a burden we mothers alone should bear.”

Harvey had remained silent as the Felimi and Mdrai discussed what would happen, no doubt faithful they would find an answer that would save Isabella, but now, as the others began to turn away from her, his reserve broke.  “Wait!  Issa made it out of the tunnels alive,” he insisted as Omdra Vega took him by the elbow to lead out of the room. “She died, yet as with the wanderer, Fate did not take her.”  He pulled his arm free and hurried back to Isabella, with Vega on his heels. “Perhaps the wanderer will make it through the tunnels as well, and she will be safe. Can you not see there is still hope?” Vega caught him just as Omdra Yang took his other arm, and the two men tugged at him as he dug his heels into the ground, calling out, “No! Issa! I will stay!  Issa!” as they dragged him away.  Finally Omdra Wallace, who was quite a bit larger than the rest, picked him up from behind and carried him out the door, hushing him in a gruff voice as they went, reminding him of his place, his duty as a Child of Danguin, and the lashes he had already received.

“Harvey,” Isabella sobbed, as their voices carried off down the hall and the Mardraim, who had remained away from the group, came forward, his hands clasped easily in front of him.

“You should go with the others, Young Edward. The child’s death will not be easy for any of us,” the eldest mother said, crouching down at Isabella’s side as the convulsions began.

The Mardraim laughed quietly, “Admittedly, I have not lived as many lives as you, nor do I remember them quite so well, but I am hardly young, and certainly I am not afraid to witness what will happen to the girl. As Mardraim, it is important I know what she experiences, especially since no previous Mardraim recorded any information about Moag for future generations. What are these words she repeats?  He lives?  Do you know their meaning?”

“She speaks nonsense,” the youngest mother answered softly, shaking her head. “Surely you can sense her mind is not whole.”

“I can.  I wonder, though, if it could be the wanderer’s language?” the man asked, bending down next to the elderly woman, using the sleeve of his robe to wipe the saliva from Isabella’s face and neck.

“This is a curious question,” the young mother said, letting go of Isabella’s shoulders, sitting back on her knees.

“These are curious circumstances, would you not agree?”

“Of course.  Unfortunately, we will never know what she is saying,” the elder mother offered.

“Or perhaps we will,” the Mardraim frowned.  “Would it not be better for the child if we do what we can to ease her pain? And it seems to me her arm would be simple enough to heal.”

“Healing her would only prolong her agony, Young Edward,” the little mother whispered, unable to conceal her impatience.  “Our daughter’s pain will be gone in due time. Moag will see to it.  You need to leave, Young Edward.”

The Mardraim sighed, brushed a tear from Isabella’s cheek with the backs of his fingers, then stood, folding his hands in front of him once more, watching the floor. Isabella thought he would go, like the others, but he only paced a few steps before speaking in a voice that was heavy with burden. “I am afraid Young Harvey is right, my Felimi.  I believe I know why the girl suffers now and how she managed to escape the tunnels this morning.”

The elderly mother’s smile broadened unpleasantly, even as the little mother’s eyes widened.  All this time, the middle mother stood in the far corner of the room, out of sight of Isabella and away from the rest of the group. She had remained silent since her arrival, but now she came forward into the dim light spilling in through the door and said, a bitter chill in her voice, “Your aspirant is mistaken. He does not understand the will of Fate. Was this matter not resolved?”

“I have information he kept from you, in an attempt to protect Young Isabella, because he believed he was to blame for taking the girl with him to help rescue the wanderer. Now I am afraid he will carry that blame with him for the rest of his life, given the circumstances. I am certain, if he had known this would happen to her as a result, he would have taken her place.”

“He told you, yet you chose not to divulge this information to us as well?” the eldest mother scowled, all pretense gone.

“I believed he was correct in accepting the blame,” the Mardraim answered. “Now I am not so certain anyone can be blamed. Are you not interested in what I have to tell you? It might save the girl’s life.”

“Save her life? After all that has happened, our Mardraim speaks of intentionally violating the Mdonyatra?” the middle mother scoffed.  She looked frightening standing there in front of the door, much of her face hidden in shadow. “Even if you had brought us the truth in the beginning, allowed us to judge what was correct and not correct in Young Harvey’s actions, as is the duty of the Felimi, the child’s end would be certain, but the longer you waited to come forward, the more lost she has become, the weaker she grows, and now, after seeing her pain, you want to save her?  Young Edward, our failures, once done, cannot be undone, only used as examples not to be repeated by others who follow along behind us. This is a lesson I myself taught you in another life, when you were just a boy. It seems you have yet to learn, as for the sake of saving this child, you wish to repeat the very mistake she made that brought her to this place.  We do not interfere in the way of Fate.  No.  We do not wish to hear your opinions as to how the girl escaped the tunnels or what might save her life, when she belongs to Moag.”

At this, the old man returned to Isabella’s side, kneeling down next to the elderly mother, bending very near Isabella’s ear and said quietly, even as the tremors inside her intensified, and she could feel death spreading inside her, “Issa, I believe Fate is guiding the wanderer to us, as Harvey said. He told me what you did to save the wanderer. I believe that somehow, when you brought him back to life, you became entangled in whatever force is driving him to us. You were not alone in feeling the desperate need to save him. Your father felt it. Harvey felt it. You acted on it and became enjoined with the elf’s purpose. Fate is guiding you both now, that is how you escaped the tunnels, but as Harvey says, it is doing so against its own will.”

“Fate has no will in the here and now, Young Edward,” the youngest mother said. “The order of things was set on a path long ago. You know this to be true.”

“Yes, until this morning, I believed that was the case. I believed the design of Fate was predetermined at the very birth of our universe. I believed the messages we receive from the Well of Fate were reflections of ripples, waves of turbulence created by the weaker forces born of Fate as destinies collided, that chance and our own choices can affect the patterns of predetermination, but rarely do so with profound effect, and that our duty, as those who bear witness to the Veils, is to record these messages from Fate, and above all, to preserve the destiny we are shown, never interfering, only observing, lest we become the authors of chaos. Until last night, I had no idea that the abysmal darkness that lurks in the belly of our home is itself Fate, or that the all-consuming end of time is just as strong as her beginning, when it comes creating these ripples in the Divine Waters we drink.  Until this morning, when Young Isabella escaped that inevitable end, I believed there could never be anything greater than Fate. But this child did escape, which means that there is some other force acting upon us even now, one that can eradicate whole destinies and give ordinary people the power to withstand the ultimate end that is inevitable to all.”

“What do you mean, ‘Eradicate whole destinies?’” the eldest mother asked, the apathy in her voice unchecked.

“Young Isabella’s book of prophecy can no longer be read,” the Mardraim answered. “The order of things was set on a path long ago, yet clearly today, it is no longer the order of things. The wanderer has changed everything, as Harvey said he would.  Now your daughter wanders through the darkness with him.”

“He lives,” Isabella whispered, stammering out the words, though she knew no one understood her. She only hoped the Mardraim might know that as she lay there, her body writhing against the ground, she understood him, even though the mothers believed her mind was addled and her fate was sealed. “The wanderer lives,” she repeated, the young mother shushing her.  “He lives.”

“What are your intentions?” the middle mother asked, hands on her hips, her anger clear in the starkness of her voice.

The Mardraim turned to her and replied, “If our duty is in fact to Fate, as stated in the Mdonyatra, then in order to restore Fate’s balance, and end the girl’s suffering, the wanderer must die.  We must kill him.”

Those words– those unthinkable words– caught up in Isabella’s head, igniting a blaze of frenzy inside her. “Kill him,” Moag had spoken in her ear in the voice of her Mardraim. This was not possible. The Mardraim was a father to all of their people. He was a good and gentle man, who lived his life by the tenets of the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya as an example to everyone. Even in the nightmare she lived up in the tunnels, Isabella had known the Mardraim would never speak those words, let alone consider acting on them, yet here he stood saying those impossible words to the Felimi. He would never kill another person, not even to put them out of their misery, not even to save another life—not even to restore Fate. She was still dreaming, she thought, her body tensing then concussing against the floor as Moag overtook her completely once more. She was still somewhere up in those tunnels, trapped in the nightmare, being ripped apart.

“Noel!” she screamed, fingers tearing at the smooth stone beneath her as she tried to hold herself down, squeezing her eyes tight, hoping to force herself awake as her body shook, beating against the hard ground. “It’s not real! It’s not real!”

The middle mother’s voice rose in fury above her cries, “Leave this mountain now, Edward Frank, and do not return! You are no longer the Mardraim. You are unfit to guide our people.”

“I will stay with Issa,” she heard the Mardraim answer.

“Wake up!” Isabella cried, a torturous fist ripping at the core of her.

“We must silence her,” the young mother said, a hint of fear in he words.

“Leave here, Edward Frank! Forget about the girl!” the middle mother demanded.

“But we must—”

“We must allow her to pass into Moag,” the eldest mother said quietly. “Do not be afraid.”

“Forget about the wanderer! Moag will end this! Now go!”

“But—”

“There is nothing any of us can do to help them!” the middle mother shrieked in rage.

Isabella clung to the sound of the woman’s voice, like a beacon of light piercing the darkness inside her. “We are dreaming,” she panted.

“Edward suspects,” the little mother whispered as the heavy door slammed shut, the echo thundering through Isabella.

“Not yet,” the elderly woman answered.

“We are dreaming, and we are going to die dreaming, Noel, tied together with frazzled threads.”

“It will not be long now,” the middle mother hissed, her own breathing heavy.  “I saw her.”

“Bound together with threads knotted with thistles, unless you wake up!”

“How did she do it?” the young wise one asked.

“I do not know, but I cannot sit by any longer, nurturing her agony,” the eldest mother said. Isabella felt her stand, a wave of air sweeping into the very soul of her, passing through every molecule of her, into Moag.  “I am sorry, Young Isabella. We will leave you now to Moag. May you find peace quickly, knowing no one will ever know what you’ve done.”

“May you find peace,” the little one whispered, pressing her hot lips against Isabella’s forehead, and Isabella felt the sting of her flesh coursing through every atom– through Moag.

Through the wanderer.

Noel shuddered in the darkness.  He was not alone.

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 13

School has finally begun, Hurray! And I am finally (sort-of) back to a reasonable work schedule, with a few bumps here and there that must still be worked smooth, but never mind the little hiccups, because I am grateful to be back to writing on a regular basis.  Yesterday, for the first time since May, I had the opportunity to get reacquainted with book two of The Eleventh Age series, and it felt SO good to put my mind back in that story, even though it was only for about thirty minutes before Lilia came in from class, with her gas station food for lunch (I’m convinced she has a stomach forged of titanium), and I sighed and put my things away… In our room, I have a cork-board for helping to keep myself organized, and there’s a plastic sleeve hanging there, with all of the pictures of characters I’ve drawn so far tucked inside.  Elli has been staring out at me all summer, just waiting for me to get back to her.  Poor girl has no idea what’s in store for her.

But enough of that for now, as we must get back to The Tale of Two Mountains, and see what terrible things will happen next to Noel and Isabella.

isaandnoel

NOEL

The darkness swelled with a menacing sigh, weighty blackness tensing around him, as Noel gathered his things from the rocks below, returning them to his pack, pausing only a moment to catch his breath, before jumping down into the sand, grabbing up his torch, scurrying, quick as a rat, up to the entrance to the next cavern. As he reached the top, he looked back into the room below, half expecting to find the floor rising up like a wave to swallow him.

“It was in your mind,” he reminded himself, whispering low, hoping not to stir up any echoes from the depths, but all was quiet now. The pristine sands lay still beneath him, undisturbed, as though he had never been there, the only sound to be heard, the racing of his own breath. “Just in your mind,” he repeated, but there was little comfort to be found in that idea, so he gritted his teeth, straightened the rucksack on his shoulders and took an anxious step through the threshold, deeper into the insidious pitch, as the light of Hestia’s flame gave an intimidating flicker.

It was the woman, he thought, rubbing his fingers against his palm at the memory of her frightened hand gripping his in panic. It had to be the woman—she had felt so real. It had all felt real, even though he could see now it made no sense. Sand pits generally did not spring to life and attempt to drown people, at least not without some magical cause, so he should have known there was no logic to it when the woman appeared there, out of nowhere, begging to be saved. What was she playing at, he wondered as he started off, keeping close to the left wall this time, to see where it led. The stuff of nightmares had been forced into his brain, taking over his conscious mind. Somehow the woman had gotten inside his head, made him see… made him experience… but why? Was she trying to frighten him away? If that was the case, she was going to have to try a bit harder, because giving in just wasn’t in his nature.  Noel had a job to do, and he planned to see it through to the bitter end.

But how had she managed it, he wondered, scowling as the flame dimmed. In all his years of training, the scholars had never mentioned this sort of psychic ability, the power to manipulate a mind completely, to make one think without the person realizing something was wrong. Of course, there were various hexes and potions for taking over control of a person, but they were all quite violent, excruciating, often requiring the breaking of the will with damning effects, leaving the subject mentally defunct, incapacitated for what little remained of their lives, but this magic… How was he supposed to defend himself against something he could not understand?

Let them bring what they will, he thought, annoyed as he swallowed against the constricting air, the darkness becoming almost palpable as he pushed himself onward. All that mattered now was the prophecy. One way or another, he would find where the seers of old were holed up, and when he did, they would explain the Prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves. “You can carry on in your peace, in your infernal darkness, after you’ve told me about the child,” he growled, switching the torch in his hands, so he would not think about the woman anymore, then calling out to the unearthly shade, “You hear me? I have to know about the prophecy. That’s all I’m here for, and then I’ll leave you be.”

Silence replied, her black grin spread wide before him.

The irony was the child was all he had left, his own last hope, he thought, squeezing his jaw as he wandered blindly, listening close to the emptiness for any sound at all, expecting any moment to find himself fighting monsters in his head once more, but whatever would come, whatever was next, it was worth it, just to finally have the truth. He had grown up, like everyone else, hearing tales of the destruction visited upon humanity at the time of the Fall. Millions upon millions of men, gods, fairies and wizards were lost, as once great cities were consumed by a wrathful earth, whole nations swallowed up by blood-red seas, drunk on human evils. When the earth finally stopped trembling and the waters grew calm once more, the stain of the Great War was all but washed away, leaving the world precious few tokens by which to remember the butchery that preceded the Fall—carnage wrought by the five races.

At the Bergfalk Institute, Noel had been taught exactly what every elf was taught from the time they could talk: the Fall was civilization’s punishment for the atrocities committed during the war. Many held it as a proud fact that, of all those millions who met their deaths when the hand of Fate wiped the world clean of human treachery, not one solitary elf was lost, though perhaps that was because millions of them had already been slain by much less supernatural hands. That Aewin and Eurial were spared in the Culling was viewed by some as proof of the divine providence of elfinkind, proof that they were Fate’s chosen people, and while others considered this idea of elfin supremacy distasteful, this did not stop the majority from believing the survival of two elves of the Father’s bloodline was undeniable proof that the prophecy foretelling the coming of the Child of Hope, their avenger and restorer, was not the destiny of one child, alone, yet to be born, but rather the collective destiny of all elfin sons born in the more than ten thousand years since their people were slaughtered by the Wizened race. The Nobles, as students of Bergfalk had come to be known, were the Born Legion of Hope. They were the warriors who would be her shield and her blade.  He had believed.

Noel was eight years old when the Seat officially recognized Melchior Bergfalk’s lifework, granting him authority to establish his foundation. Over the course of a decade, several children had been born with exceptional skills, and Bergfalk and Foote were convinced this was a sign Hope’s prophecy would finally be fulfilled. With the elders’ approval, Bergfalk built a formal school where those young elves could be trained directly by the scholars in preparation for the birth of Hope. Noel’s three older brothers were not particularly talented; he outshone them all from a very early age, though his parents were not the sort to give much praise and were far more likely to accuse their sons of attention-seeking, if any one of them happened to do something out of the ordinary. Even so, at the time they seemed proud of him when they received the notice informing them Noel’s name was on the original list of children recommended by the Seat for the inaugural class at the institute.  For the first time in his life, Noel felt he was meant for something important.

Though he was young, he remembered the day Adair Foote came to talk with his parents about allowing him to attend. That was the first time he heard his father laugh the words, “Bergfalk Foundation,” like it was something to be ashamed of, sniffing as he rubbed his hand across the pleat on his plaid trousers.  Noel felt it in his chest, a twinge of self-doubt. When his father noticed the boys were stood in the hall, listening, he sent his wife to take them for ice cream, a highly unusual treat, unmistakably meant to drive all thought of the Bergfalk Institute or any idea of his own exceptionalness out of Noel’s young little head. No one asked him what he wanted, but at the time he was not certain he was ready to leave, even if he was slightly more apt than his brothers. High Wycombe was not the greatest place in the world to grow up, though in later years Scorpion Records did redeem it some in his eyes, but even though he was always getting into trouble, Noel was certain he would miss his parents and his brothers if he left, because they were all he knew.

He should have just enjoyed his ice cream and not worried about being forced to choose, because things have a tendency of working themselves out in the end. When they returned home, the elder Foote was gone, no one mentioned the foundation or the institute again, and any hint of pride he felt, right or wrong, soon drifted away. He continued his learning at the same dodgy primary school he and his brothers attended, where his mother taught grade two to the children of men, until one day, shortly after his ninth birthday, one of the boys in his class, who had taken to pestering him for his pointed ear, discovered his mother was a teacher there as well, which prompted a new level assault. The boy had only to say, in his high, nasal voice, “Ickle Noelle goes to school wif ‘is mummy,” and blood was spilled. This might have been overlooked, had it not been Noel’s fifth fight in two years and had the headmaster not already been considering expulsion. His mother cried a little while she packed his bags that night, but otherwise no fuss was made of the matter. The next morning, he was sent alone by train. Melchior Bergfalk was waiting at the end of the line, to accompany him the rest of the way to his new home and his new brothers.

“They’re brainwashing the boy,” his father’s voice rolled out of the void, carrying through the deepening cavern on an angry current.

Instinctively, Noel stopped, just as he had stopped twenty years before, to let the words crawl under his fourteen year old skin, back where they belonged. By now, the light of his torch was barely more than a dismal blur, the darkness had grown so thick he could not see his own feet or the ground beneath him, and he reached out to hold onto the wall for guidance, but he must have wandered astray without realizing, because there was nothing but empty space beside him. “Just words in your head,” he whispered through clenched teeth, continuing on, his steps meeting the ground with a rushed canon. He had no idea where he was headed, if he was headed anywhere, or if he was stuck inside some twisted mind-trap created by that woman.  He was certain his father’s voice coming out of that darkness was her doing.  He couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened the last time, had he left her to suffocate in the dust of her own putrefied remains, but the idea left a sickening taste in his mouth, sweet and savory with decay, and his stomach tightened. “Think about something else.”

“You hear him! Your son sounds like a right idiot, spouting such nonsense! The boy’s head’s been filled with propaganda, and I’m done with him talking this way,” his father answered, voice as clear as if he walked right beside him, just at the edge of Hestia’s light. “Noble!” he grumbled the word as an ignominious slight.

Noel stopped again, turning around in a full circle, anger crawling up his shoulders as he tightened his fists, the visceral response as automatic now as it had been years ago. It’s just in your head, he reasoned, just in your head, Noel, he assured himself, peering into the depths, knowing she was there, extracting these parts of him out of vindictiveness. He could almost sense her, like a furious scratching of static all around him, with a hint of some untouched flower, lingering on a higher air. “My father is a good man, who has made his mistakes,” he said calmly, hoping this would dissuade her.

“He will not go back to that place!” his father shouted, and from somewhere in the wretched sea of black, young Noel swore a venomous curse, crying furiously, “You can’t keep me here!”

“He was bitter and angry,” old Noel told the darkness, apologizing for his father as he always did.

“You are my son, and you will do exactly as I tell you.”

Noel wanted to ignore it, but he could not help but recall the way his father’s crooked teeth gnashed at him as he spoke those words, and the unforgiving thump of his twisted finger against his sternum, every other word landing with a hollow thud.  “He wasn’t thinking.” He shook his head. Why was she doing this?

“I am not your son anymore! I’m finished being looked down at, finished being something you’re ashamed of! You’ve despised me all along, hated the way I think, hated what I’m capable of doing! I’m tired of being worthless in your eyes, so consider me dead and gone, and you won’t have to worry about me disappointing you anymore!”

There in the darkness came the drumming of feet on stairs, swift and light, then heavy and slow.

“This isn’t real,” Noel told himself, even as he felt his jaw pulsate with the swish of his old vinyl duffle, the zzrip! of the bag being torn open, the tussling fluster of his youthful breath as he shoved things inside the bag at random, fast as possible, hardly considering what he might need, he had been so angry, his head throbbing with grief at the resentment he saw on his father’s face. The old fellow need not have said a word, and his eyes would have done as much damage.

“Put that bag away, you aren’t going anywhere, boy!” His father was at the door, his mother stood behind him, taking turns at looking irritated and helpless as she shifted on her feet.

“He didn’t know what else to do,” Noel pleaded on his father’s behalf, wondering why the woman would confront him with a past that was long ago forgiven. Certainly, he and his father had parted ways since, but he understood now that on that night the old man had been ill, he was not happy with his own lot in life, he thought Noel was simply being disrespectful, pushing him about the institute at a time when he had already begun to think Bergfalk was an obsessed old lunatic and he regretted ever sending his son there in the first place. Noel should have let it go, taken time to calm down, instead of reacting, but he felt every insult his father laid on Bergfalk and Foote, every aspersion cast at the institute, the elders and the Seat was a personal attack against Noel himself and everything he believed, everything for which he had worked so hard, the very person he was born to be.

“Just leave me alone!” Young Noel said, spittle flying from the shadows.

“You want to leave, then get out, but don’t you think you will take a single thing from my house!”

“Stop this, please,” his mother cried. “Let him take some clothes.”

“No, he’s not taking any clothes! Those are my clothes! I worked for every thread of them! I put every stitch on his back!” Feet on the stairs. “That’s right, now, get out of here, boy, and don’t slam that door!”

The back door hit the jam with such violence that the porch shook, along with the mountain.

“I just wanted to breathe, to calm down, but he came after me. Why are you doing this?” Noel called out into the dark.

The door slammed again, and a hand was on his shoulder, forcing him around.  “I said don’t slam that damned door!”

“Just leave me the hell alone!” young and old Noel replied as one.

The fist that met his face was strangely muted, either weak or restrained. Noel stumbled backward off the porch, rubbing his jaw bone.

Noel stumbled backward in the darkness, wondering why he was being forced to relive such a memory. “This is not real. You are in my head!”

The door slammed, feet met the stairs, light and slow then heavy and fast and fast and faster. “Get out of my way!” young Noel shouted, as his father shoved past him and stood at the top of the stairs.

“Leave Now!”

“I am getting my godammed things! I don’t give a flying fuck what you say!”

“How dare you talk that way to me!  Get out of my house!”

“Trust me, I’m going, if you’ll just get the hell out of my way!”

“I wish you were dead, boy!”

Maybe I am dead, Noel thought, the panic reaching his feet first as he set out at a run through the endless abyss, leaving the crushed young man and the hateful words of a broken father behind. Perhaps no one had come to save him, his body had been swallowed up by the mountain and was presently pinned under tonnes of ice and snow, and this was his own personal hell where he was bound to spend eternity, reliving everything that had gone terribly wrong in his life. Or maybe the deities had mistaken him for a man of faith, and he was venturing through the stages of a sherpa’s afterlife on his way to being reborn a proper dung beetle, fated to tend the droppings of nobler asses until an arrant wildebeest puts him out of his misery.

Had he seen the man and woman who rescued him somewhere before? Wasn’t she one of Wells’ birds? Melody? Melinda? What was her name?

“No, no, no,” he muttered, coming to a stop, looking around himself at the malignant shadow of the longest night. “How could you, Noel? How could you have died before you figured out the damned prophecy?” And with a savage roar, he hurled his torch away, as hard as he could throw it, the light of Hestia’s eternal flame disappearing instantaneously, as Noel stood, both of his fists in his hair, the strangled contortion of his face becoming more painful with every second that passed, waiting for the sound of the wood to land against stone.

Waiting and waiting, but there was no sound at all.

“Fuck all,” he breathed, running hands over his face, turning around left, and again around right, before falling hard on his knees.

“I really am dead.”

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 12

isaandnoel

RIVER

The rain was like a numbness that fell through the air, Isabella thought, standing in the door of her hut, watching the dark figures of children across the causeway, chasing each other from puddle to puddle, shrieking with laughter. The day had yielded to night while she waited, expecting to be summoned by the mothers at any moment, and all the while the rains fell, washing the air of feeling, leaving it deprived of anything, save for the gleeful cries of the children. Ordinarily the evenings were still, a time for the restful meditations their people learned as infants, to be practiced until death, necessary to maintain a balance of being, especially for the empaths, but as the night deepened and no one came to collect the younglings, or to quiet their laughter, it proved the rain itself was meditation enough for most. Not for Isabella. Joy burst through the bantering splitter of droplets in revelatory waves, all concern over the elf, who presently slept off his own death in the entrance to their home, washed away. The wanderer had caused this.

No, Isabella thought, taking in a deep breath, heaving the words in a desperate sigh, “I caused this.” The life she saved had brought terror to their mountain one day and jubilation the next. Harvey was right. “He is changing everything,” she whispered, turning to go inside, but stopping short as she caught sight of her friend making his slow way up the rain-soaked path. “At last.”

There had not been a chance for the two of them to speak since she left him back in the cavern with the wanderer the previous night. Before morning’s end, the whole mountain had assembled to hear the decision of the Mdrai concerning their visitor. Smiling, patient as ever, the Mardraim told their people exactly what Isabella had expected to hear—they would not interfere in the wanderer’s endeavors, and if the elf found their home, despite the many protections afforded them by the mountain, they had to assume the act was divinely inspired, though they received no prophecy foretelling his arrival. He did not mention Harvey’s suspicions that the man sought information about an ancient foretelling of Fate or that his grandson claimed to sense Fate guiding the traveler to them, but she supposed the Mdrai had decided it best not to give their people any more reasons to fear the outsider, as he intruded on their peaceful lives, forcing them to shield themselves with perpetual rains. When the meeting was finished and the crowds parted ways, Isabella’s father led the other Mdrai back to the chamber of Fate, where he could more easily keep track of the wanderer’s movements, however the Mardraim did not go with them, instead, nodding to Harvey, leading him off in the direction of their family’s small village, before Isabella had the chance to catch his eye through the crowds.

If Harvey was going to tell their leader what happened, Isabella knew she needed to be there, to accept responsibility for saving the elf. Weaving her way through the parade of people returning to their homes and their work after the assembly, she followed along behind her friend and his grandfather until they reached the small grass-thatched hovel where the Mardaraim lived. As the elderly man opened the door and stepped inside, Harvey happened to look back and find Isabella there, coming up the path not far behind them. She lent him an insecure smile, ready to do her duty by their laws, but he only glared back at her in warning, shaking his head, and held up a hand to stay her. If she had known how long she would wait, guilt and misery gnawing at her conscience, she would not have stopped in the street, as her friend pointed in silence for her to go back up the road toward her own village. It was clear he did not want her there, and though Isabella knew she should own her part in what happened, as the people passed them by, giving them strange looks for their silent exchange, the childish, insecure urge to continue hiding in the dark won out over her sense of obligation. She felt worse for it now, having turned and headed off, leaving Harvey to speak for both of them. The decision had tormented her for hours, but not enough to change her mind.

As he came up the rode, Harvey’s careful gait was a tell-tale sign of what happened to him while she waited, avoiding her own punishment. Isabella went inside, head hanging low between her shoulders, leaving the door open for him, clenching her teeth as she lit the lantern in the window, watching her friend’s ginger steps as he crossed the muddy yard toward her hut, until he reached the door. She poured the water from the pot she’d left simmering over the fire, into the cup of leaves and seeds, already ground down to a powder. She had expected to need the potion herself, but now Harvey needed it.

“You should not have sent me away,” she said, pushing the cup into his hands, as he came inside and took the only chair at her table. His clothes were drenched, the wounds on his back seeping blood through the linen shirt that clung to his form, violent red explosions, streaked and dripping accusingly.

“I had to,” he groaned, as she moved her belongings out of the way, and went to the cupboard for a towel and blanket. “I should not have taken you with me to save the wanderer. I should never have done this to you.”

“Drink, Harvey,” she whispered scornfully, running the towel over his smooth head, wiping the wet away. He should not have gone to save the wanderer himself, but she would not say this, not when he was in such pain. “Let me see how bad it is this time.”

Harvey gulped the tonic down in two swallows, set the cup aside, and leaned forward against the table, resting his forehead on the fleshy crook of his elbow. “It is not so terrible. A few welts.”

“More than a few welts,” she answered, tugging his shirt up around his ears to assess the damage, both of them wincing in unison. On his back she counted sixteen lashes in all, twelve of them scars from their childhood, each of which she knew by heart because she had many to match. Four were fresh though, painfully swollen, two bleeding where the the fall of the whip cut too deep.

Tears filled her eyes as she went to prepare the salve that would heal him in short order, whispering, “I should have gone with you to talk with them. Those two marks should be mine to bear.” He did not argue. Perhaps he knew she spoke the truth, she thought, as she set the bowl on the table beside him, took a large glob of ointment onto her finger and began coating his wounds. She could already see Harvey’s tissue mending as she covered the cuts loosely with gauze, but when she pushed the blanket toward him and started to pull his wet shirt over his head, to hang in the door to dry, he stopped her, taking her hand, looking up at her with that same warning gaze he had that afternoon, outside his grandfather’s hut.

“What is wrong?” she asked, taking the cup and bowl from the table and placing them beside the wash basin, leaning with her palms to each side of the porcelain bowl, looking down at her reflection in the water as he sat up and pulled down his shirt.

“You spent the night in the forbidden tunnels,” Harvey answered, quietly. She squeezed her eyes shut a moment before turning her face toward him, gripping the edges of the washstand, knowing her time had come. “The mothers have asked me to bring you to them.”

Isabella swallowed, gave a solemn nod, and went to retrieve her yellow tunic while Harvey put out the lantern. “Did they tell you what the monster is they keep up there?” she asked, a trembling in her voice as she pulled on her cape, lifting the hood as she met him at the door. She had felt the ominous presence right next to her in the darkness, speaking in her ear, telling her to kill the wanderer, whispering words from her dream as though it had been the fabric of her nightmare itself. Even now she could feel the darkness against her right arm, clinging to her like a shadow, waiting for her to fall asleep. The thought of it caused her to shiver. “Harvey?”

Her friend smiled gravely, opening the door, leading the way outside, answering only, “Let us go now, to the mothers. They will tell you what you need to know.”

The two of them made their way in silence, turning up the road at the end of her garden path, heading toward the cloister where the mothers lived in seclusion, the trek made longer by the rains and the uncomfortable mien with which Harvey carried himself in their silence. Isabella was certain he knew more than he would say. She did not know when he returned from tending the wanderer that day, but he went with the Mardraim as soon as the assembly was called to a close, and the gashes on his back from the mothers’ whip had been fresh. Surely it had not taken so long to tell them what happened with the wanderer, but it was clear Harvey was unwilling to tell her what he knew, and Isabella was unwilling to press. It was not until they reached the outskirts of the gardens, where the younglings took their lessons, that he finally spoke again.

“You felt compelled to save him, just as I felt, Issa,” Harvey said quietly. “Omdra Asan felt it as well.”

“My Omdra did not act on those feelings. I know what I did was wrong, Harvey. The elf’s soul belongs to Fate, not to the physical world.”

“Yet Fate did not take him, as it should,” he answered, shrugging slightly as they started across the well-manicured grounds, taking the shortest path to the stone-hewn hermitage. “Issa, I have been warning our Mardraim that the elf cannot be allowed to reach us since I first felt him flying toward us days ago. We all felt his purpose to varying degrees, our people were frightened by this outsider and the determination within him, but though I too tried to calm them, I knew the elf’s purpose went against the will of Fate. Yet when he was dying…”  He shook his head.  “The need save him was so strong in me that reason was set aside. He would not live again, I was certain of it, and I made you go with me to help, though our Mdonyatra forbids us to interfere in the way of Fate, and I would never ask you to break your vows, not even for me.”

“I made my choice. The mothers taught us—”

Harvey swore, cutting her short, shoving his glasses up his nose impatiently. “Issa, I cannot pretend to understand what Fate is doing or why, but I do know that while I sense Fate guiding the wanderer to us, it is not Fate’s will at work here, but something else entirely. This morning, before I left him, I told the wanderer to go. I know he understood me, but I also know he will not stop until he finds his way to us. Even death could not stop him.”

“Did you tell the Mdrai this?”

“The Felimi as well,” he nodded, then laughed low, adding, “but who are we to determine the will of Fate?”

“We both know you might be the greatest empath this mountain has ever known. Who are they to insist what goes on between you and Fate is impossible, simply because they have never experienced it themselves?”

He smiled painfully, his wounds still too fresh. “They are the mothers, Issa, but my pride is not why I’m telling you this.”

“Then why?”

Instead of answering, Harvey looked up as they neared the alcove entrance to the home of the Felimi. Whatever else he might have said on the matter was left a mystery as the youngest of the mothers, only nine years of age, yet as poised and wise as those born before her, came out from the shadows, beckoning them forth. “We will talk later. Just remember what I said,” he whispered, and Isabella gave an anxious nod as they continued on their path.

“Come, Daughter,” the mother smiled, holding out both hands in greeting, as the two drew near. Her gentle, oriental beauty was strangely marred by pale blue, sightless eyes that gazed off into the distance. “Your mothers have many questions for you, Young Isabella, but it is good you tended to Young Harvey’s wounds first.” She said this as if the gashes on his back were caused by some accident.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting, my Felo,” Isabella replied, kneeling down so the little mother might run her hands over her face. This was a customary greeting, so the Felimi could recognize the changing visage of their children, as the wise ones were born blind to the world, a mark of the wisdom reborn into the world with them at each incarnation.

“I can imagine by the sternness of your brow that you are not so very sorry,” the mother chuckled quietly, in a childish voice, pressing smooth alabaster fingers over Isabella’s eyes, down her nose and across her cheeks, as usual, before taking her right hand from under her cape, turning it over in her palm, and squeezing it gently, as though she expected to find some answers secreted away there. “But we shall keep that tiny mistruth to ourselves. Come, my children.”

Harvey at her side, Isabella followed nervously as the youngest mother led the way inside the hermitage carved into the mountain, through the arched, red-stained doorway, down a long, musty hall of stone, lined by candles lit only for the benefit of their visitors. Whatever the thing was residing in the forbidden passages, the youngest mother seemed to know it had touched her, Isabella thought, rubbing at her arm, frowning at Harvey as he eyed her warily. She shook her head, scowling at him, and it was not until he looked away with a grimacing shrug that she pulled the crushed thistle from her pocket, turning it over in her fingers, careful to guard it from her friend’s view. All day her thoughts had been drawn to the flower. It seemed impossible that any of the things that happened in her nightmare could be real, yet her aspirants robe had been torn by something and the purple thistle her father found tangled in the threads was just like those that grow in the fallow fields she ran through while trying to escape the wanderer in her dream. And she could not shake the feeling that someone other than Harvey was at her side, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for her to return to dreaming. Though she was not looking forward to the punishment that would undoubtedly be made worse for her failure to come to the mothers willingly, the counsel of her Felimi could not come soon enough, she thought, tucking the thistle back inside her pocket, hurrying to keep pace with the small girl, hastening down the corridor.

At the end of the hall, they came to the atrium of archways, with walls polished so smooth the light of the single candle suspended at its center filled the room with warmth, reflecting all around them, causing the vaulted lapis ceiling to glisten like galaxies across the night sky. The chamber where judgments were sought and rendered was off to their right, but the entrance was dark, and Harvey took Isabella’s arm and led her instead to an arch on their left, as a flame sparked to life there and the little mother headed toward it, her purposeful steps filling the atrium. They soon found themselves entering a dining room, its walls ornately carved with patterns of orchids and cobra lilies, thyme and meadowsweet. The plain wooden table at the center of the room was set for a simple meal, a pot of soup steaming there, the two older mothers already seated at either end, waiting. Isabella had expected the whip.  The idea of dinner was not much better.

“Come, daughter, and take a meal with your mothers,” the eldest mother said, motioning for Isabella to greet her. The woman had recently marked her 172nd birthday, which was not terribly old for a wise one, but very old for the Children of Danguin. Of the three mothers, she had lived the most lifetimes, having been born again to the world 53 times in all, which was exactly how ancient she looked to Isabella. Her thin white hair flowed down to her waist like strands of gossamer. Her tan, weathered skin rippled with wrinkles. Her eyelids drooped down over her eyes so heavily it was rumored they had grown shut. But she was spry for one of so many years, and her mind, having witnessed century upon century of lifetimes past, was sharp as ever, and she was able to recall a great deal from her previous lives, though no mother could possibly remember all of the countless days she had lived.

“Thank you, Felo,” Isabella said, kneeling beside her to dispense with customs, while the youngest mother took her seat and began filling bowls for the others, only fumbling over those meant for Isabella and Harvey, as it was very unusual for the mothers to accept guests.

“Why do you continue to occlude us, my daughter?” said the last of the mothers, who was seated at the opposite end of the table. She was middle-aged and quite beautiful, with dark skin like Harvey, though she bore no tattoos because, like all mothers, she belonged to no clan, but rather to everyone. Her beauty was such that if she had not been born a mother, many men would have prized her to bear them children, but the Felimi had not birthed younglings of their own since they first came to the mountain. Their many lifetimes were spent in the service of their people, as teachers of the Ftdonya, the Mdonyatra, and the lessons of Fahmat, as advisers to the Mdrai on matters of Fate, and as judges, rendering verdicts on violations of their laws and delivering necessary discipline. They were the first mothers, the very first of the Children of Danguin, and all who lived within the mountain could be traced from their first incarnations there. Though everyone lived again, only the Felimi remembered the past, and for this reason, the wise ones were sacred beings.

“I am frightened, Felo,” Isabella admitted quietly, now kneeling between the middle mother and Harvey, who had taken the chair next to her, across from the youngest mother, and was already eating his soup. “I do not know what others will feel in me if I let go my occlusion,” she added as the mother ran soft fingers across her face. The woman smelled sweet like almond flowers.

The youngest mother gave a quiet laugh, saying, “We have made the rains fall to protect the empaths, as the Mdrai asked, and here in our home only those present can feel anything of you. Our children are safe. You have seen them yourself, playing as they have never played before.” At this, Harvey smiled, but Isabella got up from the ground, watching the little girl crane her neck, leaning her head low over her bowl, carefully sipping at a spoonful of hot broth.

She could not help wondering how the mother knew she watched the children playing when the rains shielded them and Isabella had remained in occlusion all day, but she did not ask, instead taking her seat as the middle mother said, “Perhaps you worry what you might feel? You have been through a great ordeal, but there is no need to be frightened here, Young Isabella. You should eat. The soup will warm you.”

The thought of food only made the sickening feeling in her stomach worse. It was best to get straight to the point,she thought, pushing her bowl away. “Harvey would not tell me what the monster is up in the forbidden tunnels,” Isabella said quietly. All three of the mothers looked up from their bowls turning sightless eyes toward her, as she held up her right arm, though she knew the only person there who could truly see it was Harvey, who looked rather concerned as she continued, “I think it still has hold of me. I don’t know what to do, my Felimi. Please, what is the evil creature that protects the entrance to our home?”

“Oh, Daughter, it is not evil, not a monster, as you say,” the eldest mother answered, shaking her head sadly. “The darkness is Moag, nothingness, the void to which all things must return in due time, just as Om is the spark from which all things become. Moag was here, feeding on Fate, long before we brought our children to live here.”

“Feeding on Fate?” Isabella asked, shuddering as she spoke. “Why would you allow such a thing to stay here, just to protect us?”

“You misunderstand. We have no choice,” the youngest mother said in a solemn voice, hardly befitting one so young.

“When we first came to live in this mountain, we misunderstood as well. We used every bit of Fahmat, attempting to banish the darkness that oppresses our home,” the middle mother began, only to have the eldest wave her hand dismissively, adding, “We could no more remove Moag from this mountain than we could remove Fate itself, my daughter.”

“The two are one,” the childlike mother nodded. “Moag does not protect us any more than Fate protects us.”

“But Fate…” Isabella said, stopping short as Harvey raised a brow, much like her father would have done, if he had been there to hear her speak to the mothers with such insolence.

The elderly mother smiled gently, shifting in her seat, searching for the words that might explain, searching for a memory from long ago. “Both Om and Moag are indifferent to us, Young Isabella,” she said after a time. “When we came here, we did the only thing we could in declaring the tunnels forbidden. We placed a few extra magical traps where we could, to help save some souls to be returned to Fate, for those who were foolish enough to venture down the wrong path paths, and our lives continued on as it always does. We did not know much, but we knew Moag is not evil.”

“It certainly seemed evil to me while I was up there. Why come to this mountain? Why not anywhere else? How could you allow us to live in a place with something so terrible?”

The three mothers turned each to the next, as though they could see each other searching for answer. It was the youngest mother, who finally broke the silence. “It is not terrible. It is simply a part of life. All things begin and all things end, my daughter. In truth, we do not remember why we came here, only why we stay.”

“In part, we remain to be close to Fate, but more importantly, we stay in order to protect our children, to protect you, from a world far worse than Moag, a world that is truly evil,” the middle mother nodded. “A world the wanderer brings to our doorstep.”

Isabella had no intention of talking about the wanderer now.  As far as she was concerned, he was the last thing they should be worried about.  “Why did you not tell us what was up there?” she asked, not even hesitating as Harvey sat up straight in his chair, clearing his throat loudly. “I have never been so afraid of anything. I ran, but I could not find my way even though I was certain of it. I had to use forbidden Fahmat to escape.”

“And this is why you are here, Daughter,” the youngest mother said, her graven voice startling, stopping Isabella before she could say anything more.

“No person, not even one of our children, has ever survived an encounter with Moag,” the middle mother spoke with a dangerous hush. “You are not supposed to be here. You are no longer supposed to be at all.”

“What do you mean, my Felo?” Isabella whispered, clutching her arm under the table. A part of her thought she knew exactly what the mother meant. A part of her had known the truth all along.

For a long while there was silence, punctuated by the sound of Harvey sipping his soup, sniffing occasionally, as if to remind Isabella he was there, as if to remind her of the things he told her as they walked through the gardens where their Felimi had taught them so much, yet so little. When the eldest mother finally spoke, Isabella knew the truth was something their mothers had intentionally hidden from their people. “In the tongue of his people, the dragon calls Moag, Cathtar, the snake who eats his own tale, but last night, he told your father that before he was trapped in this mountain, he heard it called by another name. To the fairies it is known as Enaiddifwr, the Eater of Souls. They were the first to encounter Moag, long ago, in a far-away land, long before I came into this world in any form.”

“My father spoke to the dragon?” Isabella said, turning to Harvey, who watched her carefully, a woeful look in his eyes as he nodded.

“To ask if there was anything to be done to save you,” the middle mother answered, “but of course, that was impossible.  They spoke for many hours.”

“When we first brought our children to this mountain, we found that we could not explore the darkest paths,” the eldest mother continued low. “All light was quickly extinguished. All Fahmat was exhausted. We wrongly believed the tunnels to be enchanted with some sort of magic we did not yet know, cast upon this place to contain the beast that guards the prophecies handed down by Fate as punishment for his crimes against our kind. We considered Moag our protector.  In our lack of understanding, we simply avoided the darkest paths, allowing the myriad of tunnels to serve the purpose of guarding us from the perils of the outside world. Time passed, our family grew, Fate began to dwindle. Fewer augurs were born, fewer seers as well, but it was not until my 17th life that we were forced to accept just how dangerous the dark could be.

“A youngling, an inquisitive boy named Eri, liked exploration a bit too much for his own good, as most children do, however, though the tunnels were forbidden, like you and Young Harvey, Eri tended to stray from what was right.  He was bright and showed great promise as an augur and empath, so much promise that he might have one day been Mdrai, except he could not resist the urge to see for himself what guarded the many tunnels riddling our home. One evening, shortly after his dinner, Eri concealed himself and set off to see how far he could go inside one of the tunnels where Moag flows free before he found one of the traps our children had been warned were there. Some of the children later said the boy was coerced, while others claimed the idea was his own, either way, it is certain they did not understand the dangers of wandering astray from the paths we know to be safe, the ways we have taught each of our children to walk since your feet first felt the wildness of the world beneath them. In truth, we Felimi ourselves had forgotten that the darkness was not simply a magic cast by us long ago as protection, and like everyone else, we avoided it, as the Ftdonya requires.

“At first no one noticed Eri missing, but the moment he wandered into Moag, I knew. I felt him there, just as I felt your presence last night. At the time, only one other mother was in the world with me, one you have not known before, one of those who has been lost to us these ages. She felt Moag as well, and through Moag, we sensed the boy’s terror as he suffered the unfurling of his soul.”

“Unfurling?” Isabella hissed, tucking her hands under the table so no one would see them trembling.

“It is true.  As Moag led him further and further away from his home, away from any help we might have given him, the boy was being devoured,” the mother smiled. “At once, we told the Mardraim, who gathered the Mdrai, their aspirants and the boy’s family to determine what would be done. It was decided the Mardraim and the boy’s father along with my sister Felo would go into the tunnel after Young Eri, while I went to the dragon to demand answers, hoping he would recall what the magic was, that we might stop it.  But when the beast told me the truth of what Moag was, when he told me there was nothing to be done to save the boy, I was devastated. In entering Moag, he said the boy had inadvertently set about his own demise, the ultimate end of his existence. Eri would, over the course of many hours, cease to exist altogether. By the time dragon explained what would happen to those who entered the blackness, I was too late to stop the others from the same undoing. Not one of them returned.”

“Young Isabella,” the youngest mother smiled, laying her tiny hand atop Isabella’s forearm squeezing it tight as she continued calmly, even pleasantly, “You must understand that Moag does not just kill its victims, like some evil creature of this world.”

“No one survives,” the middle mother said, her face stern, though her voice was gentle. “Those who enter Moag do not just die, their bodies interred in the darkness. Their souls cease to exist, never returning to Fate, never returning to this world.”

“Last night, we three felt when your terror when Moag began your undoing. You should not have been able to use Ikath hfilar to bring yourself home,” the eldest said, holding her hands up, as if to motion for peace from the others. The middle-aged mother leaned back in her chair, picking up her glass and taking a drink, while the youngest mother let go of Isabella’s arm, shaking her head. “We know you are frightened, my daughter. We know you must be struggling to make sense of your endeavor. As are we. Your occlusion makes it difficult for us to understand exactly what happened to you up there, and we must know what happened. Allow our empathy and nurturing to help you through this.”

Isabella swallowed, looking at each of the mothers in turn before turning to Harvey, who whispered, “You must, Issa.”

“You could sense me… my death… through the Moag,” Isabella answered the mothers, tears filling her eyes. She tried to fight them back, but before she could quite get herself under control, her head fell into her hands, and she sobbed, worry, fear, exhaustion, and a strange sort of relief washing over her, making her ears burn, as she let go her occlusion at last and cried, as a child might, while her mothers waited patiently for the discomposure to pass, Harvey looking on helplessly.

After several minutes, she wiped the wet from her eyes, sniffed back her misery and began, pleadingly, “I made sure not to go very far down the wrong path, only far enough that I knew Harvey would not see me there. I was so ashamed of having broken my oath, so furious with Harvey because he would not just leave the wanderer be and let Fate determine what to do with him. It was foolish of me not to return home immediately, to tell the Mdrai what we had done. I don’t know why I decided to sleep there in the dark. I don’t know why I did it.” She shivered, remembering the sound of her own voice ringing back at her through the blackness even before she fell asleep, knowing it was Moag pulling her further in, so that it might consume her.

“Moag had already begun its perfect work on you,” the elderly mother said. “Tell us, now, exactly as it happened, Young Isabella.”

“It spoke in echoes,” she whispered. “The Moag spoke to me.”

Dutifully, Isabella began recounting the tale of her encounter with Moag to Harvey and the Felimi, intent on telling them everything she remembered from the time she entered the tunnel until she used the magic of the gods to manage her escape, pausing only when one of them stopped her to ask questions, finding importance in obscure details, like which side she slept on and how quickly she fell asleep or whether the wanderer was clothed exactly as he had been when she and Harvey found him, or if he was wearing something different. She had not gotten very far into her nightmare, when her arm suddenly seared with a pain so intense, she knocked her chair to the ground as she jumped from her seat, crying out in agony.

The young mother and Harvey both hurried to her aid, her friend shouting as he ran around the table, “What happened, Issa? What is wrong?”

“It burns! Please, help me! It burns,” Isabella cried.

“The wanderer,” the elderly mother said, face turned toward the the ceiling, as though she could see straight through the whole of the mountain, up to where the wanderer was presently taking a wrong turn into the dark.

“No! Go back!” Isabella screamed, clawing at her forearm as Harvey pulled her to the ground, shouting at her to stop, forcing her arms apart in a panic.

“Moag is awake,” the middle mother answered Harvey’s questioning look, as the youngest took Isabella’s hand, squeezing repeatedly at each of her fingers, working her way up her wrist. “It seems it was not finished with her, as we suspected. I feel her… She is up there.”

“Her hand has taken the chill of death,” the youngest whispered.

“The wanderer,” the eldest mother repeated. “It is just like with the boy Eri, just like with Young Isabella. Now he wanders in his sleep.”

“You have to help her,” Harvey demanded, sitting on the floor behind Isabella, leaning her back against his chest, pressing a hand against her forehead, holding her tight as she moaned.

But the young mother shook her head. “I do not know that there is anything we can do for her. Perhaps we should move her to my quarters, they are the closest, and we can try to make her comfortable there, but Young Harvey, you must go now to find the Mdrai, find Zo Asan and bring him here at once.”

“I will not leaving her!” Harvey answered, hugging Isabella close, pressing his lips against her cheek, whispering, “What can I do, Issa? Tell me how to help you.” But as her back arched, bending awkwardly, Isabella’s hand clenched around the young mother’s tiny fingers, her face contorting into a noiseless scream. The sound of the wise one’s fragile bones being crushed cut through the austere silence that followed, her pale eyes widening in terror as she wrenched at Isabella’s hand, trying to free herself, but her grip was like a snare. “Do something! Moag is killing her!” Harvey shouted at the others.

The middle mother rose to her feet and came to stand over them. The woman spoke, but her words were lost to the ringing of a bell piercing the center of Isabella’s brain as the room began to dim and swell, or perhaps it was Isabella falling away into a light brighter than any she had ever seen, a light that was peaceful, soothing, where all of her pain became nothing, but it could not be so easily forgotten. She had harmed the little mother, who sat on the ground, clutching her mangled hand to her chest. Isabella looked to the Eldest mother, hoping she would know what to do, but she was still transfixed by the ceiling, her mouth agape, an indigo shadow curling like a wisp of smoke from the tip of her tongue, reaching up to the stones overhead. Confused why no one did anything, Isabella looked down at Harvey, whose arms were wrapped around her limp body, tears streaming down his cheeks as he rocked her like a child. This was a strange thing to see, she thought, turning around again, expecting to find the wanderer standing there beside her, just to her right, where he had spent the day waiting for her to sleep. Instead she found the middle mother, watching her curiously with piercing green eyes, as though she was truly seeing her daughter for the very first time.

“My Felo?” Isabella whispered in a voice that echoed but did not carry. The woman did not appear to hear her, as she raised her hand slowly, fingers outstretched as though to touch Isabella’s face, but just when she expected to feel the gentle caress of her mother’s touch, the smell of almond flower on her skin, the woman snatched at the air, her dark hand reaching right through the light, right through Isabella herself, before pulling back an empty fist.

“Am I dead?” Isabella asked, but even as she spoke the words, a horrible fear crept in through the peace that had surrounded her, and though she should have been frightened, this was a fear not at all her own.

“Lost,” a man’s voice answered, dripping with a pitch blackness she knew far too well, for it had chased her across the fields and forced her to drown the wanderer in her dream.

The next thing Isabella knew, she was gasping in Harvey’s arms, choking on stale air that tasted of death, coughing painfully, shoving him away as she flailed, forcing herself up to her feet, turning around in a full circle to find the one who spoke, before falling to her hands and knees, to catch her breath.

“Issa!” Harvey cried, hurrying to her side, pulling her up to face him as she panted. “I thought I had lost you!”

“Harvey, do not… Harvey…” was all she could manage to say between tremendous breaths. Her mouth was parched. Every cell felt as though they had been turned to the dust of the earth. She tried to swallow, running her calloused tongue over the roof of her mouth, but it was abrasive and gritty, and she began to choke once more, coughing several times, before bringing up a mass of salty, bloody sputum filled with fine sand-like particles that crunched between her teeth. “He survived,” she whispered as the middle mother held a glass of water to her lips, forcing her to drink.  “The wanderer lives.”

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 11

Whew!  Finally, I managed to finish the next installment of The Tale of Two Mountains.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post on a weekend, but it’s taken me so long to finish, I think it’s best to get it out of the way now, rather than wait any longer.  You have no idea how much tears and bloodshed* have gone into this chapter.  Please, be patient with me while I continue to write, and don’t hold it too much against me when what I think will take me two weeks, at most, takes me a month or more because it’s summer.  Writing with everyone home is the sort of torturous task I would not wish on my worst enemy, if I had one. Just know I truly want to make sure everything I post is worth reading, especially when it is Eleventh Age lore, which means stealing every silent moment to write and rewrite and read and write again, as long as it takes to get the job done.  I am sorry this has taken so long, but I hope you enjoy part 11 of The Tale of Two Mountains.

*Bloodshed may be a bit of an exaggeration.

isaandnoel

Mountain

The tunnel was silent— too silent, Noel thought, pulling on his pack as he stared into the depths, unable to see more than a few feet into the frigid darkness. He had slept through the day and into the evening, and thanks to the Iachaol, there was no sign left he had ever been wounded, let alone nearly died attempting to reach this place, but while he felt stronger now, and was prepared to face whatever he must, in order to find the answers his people needed, he could not help the apprehension currently making knots of his innards, warning him not to venture into the unfathomable black before him. He knew he was not welcome there, his rescuers had made that clear, but at the moment, humans were the least of his worries. There were very few things he would admit as irrational fears— tight spaces… bees— but the dark was not among them. This darkness, though… It was unnatural, unlike any magic he had ever seen.

“I’m beginning to believe Phileas knew about you all along and just wasn’t up for your brand of dark and dreary,” he laughed, shaking off the thought as he rested a hand on the cave wall, finding the stone smooth under his fingers, worn clean by ages of erosion. He imagined this was once the source of the ancient river that carved its winding path through the mountains, its falls now forming the glaciers that concealed this place, frozen soldiers standing watch over their keep, serving as reminders of the centuries of change the world had witnessed since the life-spring spilled freely from the mount. It is told that in the Fall, the lands rose up like waves, swallowing cities, whole peoples were swept to their deaths as the seas washed over the earth, fires raged for many moons turning night to daybreak and day to dusk, and in the end, the world was an altogether different place, with very little left for the few survivors to rebuild. If these people had managed to survive the Fall untouched, it stood to reason they possessed abilities the rest of the world had long forgotten. Perhaps that explained the uncanny gloom.

Noel knelt down and picked up the branch of Hestia’s flame he had taken from the fire, to use as a torch, and waved it inside, but despite the power of the goddess’s charm, the light made little difference. “We could put the past behind us, you and I, and be friends? What say I’ll tread lightly on you, and you do your best not to kill me again?” he laughed low, taking his first step into the unknown, stopping just inside the entrance, half-expecting some invisible force to compel him to leave, but nothing came to greet him. There was nothing there but endless, formidable silence, stretching off into an indefatigable blackness, that even Hestia’s eternal light could hardly penetrate. It cast only an eerie indigo glow around him, extending up the cavern wall nearest to him, causing stripes of sediments to glisten, but quickly falling off against the long, livid bleakness that rested so heavy in the air even Noel’s own shadow was lost in its obscurity. “A fine start,” he whispered, swallowing back the lump that tightened in his throat.

Squinting into the grim, he remained close to the wall for guidance, searching for any evidence of human use as he went along. There were no carvings on the pillars whittled out of the earth by the waters that once flowed there, no paintings on the polished stone walls to indicate this place had ever been a home to anyone, nor soot from cooking fires blackening stalactites that occasionally crept into view, encrusted with the scale of some long-dead bacteria, calcified by centuries of brutal chill. The lack of any sign of a clear trail left by the man and woman who saved him was disheartening, but he was certain they were there, somewhere in that mountain, and he would find them, even if he had to search every inch of that dark. The Dreaming had led him there. Though he did not understand just what the Wangarr was, or how it had given him a knowledge so distinct about the location of the seers of old, he could not deny that he knew he was in the right place or pretend he was not still being guided to them somehow. This idea provided a bit of comfort in the face of the appalling nothingness that lingered just at the edges of his dim, eternal light.

It was not long before a second wall of stone grew up from the darkness to his left, and after a short journey down the corridor, Noel found himself standing at the center of a vaulted room where pebbles and boulders, rolled smooth millenniums ago, lay still in a fine bed of dust. The water had pooled here once, he thought, swirling around on itself, etching the round walls with deep horizontal grooves as bits of the mountain were picked up in the currents and churned about until they became nothing more than silt. There were two tributaries from which the water once flowed, both of them well over Noel’s head, with boulders piled beneath them like stair-steps, the right one much lower than the left. Noel looked around hoping to find footprints left by his rescuers, but he quickly realized even he left no trace in the powdery remains at his feet. The sand was enchanted, he suspected, waving the flame along the ground and the walls, hoping to find even the smallest indication of which path he should take, but there was none, so he climbed up the boulders to examine the lower channel. The opening, just large enough for a grown man to climb through with a little effort, led to a smaller chamber, but he did not venture inside because the path beyond dropped steeply, before making a sharp turn into the unknown. He jumped down from the rocks and clamored up to the second, larger spillway, sticking his head and the fire inside. It opened into another wide cavern, full of consuming darkness, much like the one he had gratefully left behind. There were no signs to indicate which way to go.

“Well, Noel, if you were a lost civilization of seers, which way would you go?” he said, rubbing his hand anxiously over the back of his head.

“Would you go,” a voice not quite his own echoed behind him, causing Noel to jump.

He turned around, half-expecting to find some shadowy figure staring out at him from darkness of the lower tributary, but he was quite alone there with his quickening heartbeat. “The paths must be connected,” he chuckled nervously into the cavern, and this time he was not surprised when he heard the reply come laughing up from below, distant and haunting, repeating, “Connected.”

Noel climbed down into the cavern to investigate, following the wall a short way until he came to a crevice a bit taller than himself, but not much wider. “Hello,” he spoke into the hole.

“Hello-o-o,” he heard his voice, not far off, echoing in the round chamber behind him.

This had to be where the two paths met, he thought, inching his way inside, his pulse throbbing in his throat with warning as he squeezed himself between the rocks, holding his breath, all the while envisioning the mountain snapping closed around him. But he only had to go a short way before the break in the stones opened into a well-worn chute, that twisted around on itself, and as he came around the bend, he saw that the floor began to slope upward, toward an exit, just big enough for a man. Crawling out, he found himself overlooking the round room once again, just as he suspected.

“Well, my friend, if the whole of you is riddled with tunnels full of echoes like these, a fellow could easily find himself lost,” he said to the mountain, tossing his fire onto the ground below. But as he pulled his pack off his shoulder, intending to find a bit of ocher he had picked up in Arnhem Land, to mark the paths he already explored, the little light the flame offered against the overbearing darkness flickered, and Noel looked back in time to see a fine cloud of powdery silt curling itself around the gold and blue flashes, a moment before snuffing it out completely, leaving him blind.

“Lost,” the darkness answered.

Swearing, Noel jumped down from the ledge, running his hands over the sands for his torch, hoping to quickly rekindle the flame, but as he searched the ground, the earth trembled under his feet and the grains began to slip beneath him. An earthquake, Noel thought first, knowing these mountains were prone to them. He was sure the larger tributary was right in front of him, only a short climb away, so he hurried toward it, expecting to quickly make it to safety, but with each step his feet sunk into the flowing sands, and soon he fell forward, the shifting ground pulling him down as he struggled against it. In seconds, he sunk up to his knees, and when he attempted to fly free, the particles rushed up over his thighs, holding him down. He tried to break loose, fighting against slow moving waves of dust, racing against this curious rising current, but every step he took, the grains forced him deeper still, until he was buried up to his hips and could no longer pull his feet above the swells, and he was pushed along helplessly with the creeping torrent of ancient mica and quartz, unable to see any means of escape. He reached out his hands, flinging himself to his sides, hoping to feel some solid earth to grab hold, so he could pull his legs free, but all he felt was the tide of debris, whispering a venomous hiss against him, threatening to bury him alive as he struggled to keep his chest above the flow. If he did not escape soon, he knew it was only a matter of time before he would suffocate under the weight of the sediment, which did not sound like a pleasant way to die.

“To die again,” he reminded himself, gritting his teeth, considering his options.

“Lost,” the darkness repeated, filling the room.

This was clearly no echo. Someone was out there, Noel thought. They were watching, waiting for him to succumb to the rising silt, washing over him like water. “So you like to play with magic?” he said, smiling into the pitch black, an eager calm warming his belly. He had been waiting for a decent fight for decades, to put to use so many years spent in training. Of course, he had always expected to be able to see his foes.  If they preferred to play in the dark, perhaps the first thing he should do was shed some real light on the matter.

In a blinding flash, an electric current surged from his fingers, crackling through the air in wide branches that crawled furiously across the ceiling, giving Noel just long enough to glance around the room for his attacker. He had expected to find someone standing up in one of the tributaries, and that the light would confuse them just long enough that he could form some attack of his own, perhaps using their own ploys against them. He had not expected to see the young woman who had helped to rescue him, struggling to keep herself from drowning in the sand not very far from him.

“Sim ofit osh!” she cried, terror in her deep black eyes as she reached for him and the darkness engulfed the room once more. “Sim ofit osh!”

“Just hold still! Stop struggling!” Noel called, reaching out to her, swearing as the flow of debris grew more turbulent still, sending waves crashing against him as the woman began to cry.  He could barely hear her small gasps and intermittent coughs over the seething murmur of the particles as they rose to engulf them, but he knew she was going under fast. “Please, you have to stop struggling! You’re only making it worse!  Damn it, woman!”

Though he could think of a dozen ways to get himself out of the pit, he knew he could not risk doing anything that might cause her harm.  He had no choice now but to try to reach the woman, even if that meant going under himself. All he could hear now was the rushing of the sand as it grew ever deeper, creeping up his neck, falling past his ears as he tilted his head back to breathe.  She had gone under, and he was wasting time.

He reached out his hands, stretching as far as he could in the direction of the woman’s cries, pulling against the sand, forcing it away from her, pushing it behind him with ease.  He reached out again and felt the tips of her fingers and then her hand, grasping, clutching at his in panic. She was going to die, he thought, grabbing hold of her wrist. He could feel the bones in her wrist separating as he pulled her body toward him with all of his strength.  As the earth sunk beneath them, dragging them both downward, the woman wrapped terrified arms around Noel’s neck, still kicking and fighting the sand, her movements strangely slow, suspended there in that deathtrap, stunted by the weight of the sediment around them, forcing them further under.

Noel held the woman tight around the chest, so tight she would not be able to take a breath, though her body was already struggling to do so, and clinging to her, he braced himself, then did the only thing he could think to do in that moment, not knowing if it could possibly work or if he was wasting what precious little time he had left to come up with a better plan on something so foolish it could get them both killed. As the woman’s body had stopped convulsing against him, Noel forced his own energy outward in an explosive burst, blasting all the sand into the air, even as he flew through it and slammed headlong into the nearby wall.

Falling backwards against the ground, the woman’s lifeless body landed sprawled across him as billions of grains of sand rained down in an angry rush around them. “Up! Get up!” he yelled, lifting her body over his shoulder as he got to his feet. He had to get her to safety, he thought as he followed the wall around in blindness until he felt it turn out into the short tunnel through which he had first come to the round chamber. But as he made to lay her body down on the ground to try and get her to breathe again, spitting dirt, wiping the sands from his eyes, he blinked, and in a flash of indigo light, he saw that the terrible thing he held in his arms was not a young woman covered in dirt, in need of saving, but a rotting corpse, mummified skin stretched taut over brittle bones, strands of her long dark hair twisted in his fingers, onyx eyes staring up at him, reflecting his terror, as the sand poured from her orifices, piling up around them, before darkness fell again.

Shoving the carcass away, Noel clamored to his feet, stumbling backwards into the wall behind him, mortified, prepared to run, just trying to settle on which direction he should go given what had happened— further into the depths of this strange hell where he found himself, or away, as far away as he could go and never look back.  But as he opened his eyes once more, running dirt-parched hands over his head, his breath caught hard in his chest. “What the… Bloody…” he panted, heart racing, fear unlike anything he had ever known whining painfully in his brain, as he tried to make sense, any sense at all, of what he saw before him.

Noel was standing atop the boulders that led to the lower tributary, leaned against the wall for support. His torch was lying there on the ground, just where he had tossed it, still alight with the dim glow of Hestia’s flame. His rucksack was spilled open on the boulders beneath him, as though he had tossed it away in his dread. He was quite alone. There was no sign of the woman, alive or dead, nor any evidence of the violent sands that had sprung forth from her corrupt remains, save for the few tiny grains that fell from his hair as he shuddered at the thought of her.

He could not shake the feeling of her fingers gripping his hand in fear for her life, or the twitch of her limbs as she fought to breathe against the strength of his arms, crushing the life out of her, in order to save her.

“These are no gods,” he hissed, a bitter cold settling in his bones as he slid down the rocks to sit, holding his head in his hands. “What is this place?”

From behind him came the whispered reverberation, his voice, but not his voice— “This place.”

_______________________

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

Purpose, Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Existential Questions

It has been difficult the past few weeks for me to remain focused on my work—perhaps if you are a regular reader, you’ve noticed lately I’ve failed to meet my Tuesday deadline, and I’m lucky if I post by late Saturday night. I’ve mentioned before, my oldest daughter (of Fast Girls and Rock Stars acclaim) will be graduating high school this year. With the end of school quickly approaching, the house has been in an uproar, with proms, trips to the lake to take pictures for graduation announcements, choir concerts, spring musicals, awards assemblies, and a heavy talk or two about purpose, pursuit of happiness and other existential questions one letting go of childhood (and realizing that means she must actually embrace adulthood) inevitably finds herself facing, as the graduation date looms ever nearer.

At sixteen we tend to think we know everything, we feel like we have all the answers, and if we don’t know something, these days all we have to do is say, “Okay, Google now.” But Google can’t show you the paths that belong to you or hold your hand while you explore them. The truth is we’re all on our own, and so many lessons about life get crammed in, hard and fast, as high school (or college) ends and you embark on that journey to become something (“Anything!” you’ll find your heart crying out at times). It’s amazing and overwhelming… and as a parent, it’s frightening and exciting all at once, especially when you realize you have no control over what happens next.

We spend the glory days of our youth building up massive egos, forged in the highly structured fires of our fine educational institutions, where we are forced to achieve certain standards, to pass test after test, only to be torn down by the reality that in the end, there are no more standards or tests to use as a measure, and all of us, the athletic champions, academic juggernauts, stars of the stage, the virtuosos, the drug-addled wasters, and the loners alike, are actually nothing more than semi-educated people, suffering to figure out who we are and what we are supposed to do once the caps and gowns lay discarded in the pile of half-clean-half-dirty laundry and old school papers strewn across our bedroom floors.

It might be that what is wrong with our society is that there is little structure beyond high school and none beyond college.

Those of you just venturing out into the world should know that, for the most part, no matter what path we choose, we spend our twenties and usually part of our thirties trying to rebuild our egos after being sent out into the real world, to wander aimlessly with no structure at all, after having spent much of the first twenty years of our lives being told exactly what to do, when, how- meanwhile, struggling just to make ends meet. If we’re lucky, by the time we have children of our own, we have realized that the ego our parents, teachers, coaches and professors at university stroked in us during our formative years, with their cheering, lecturing and pushing us to excel, means startlingly little, if anything at all, in the grand scheme of things, and we’ve managed to shift our focus to more important things. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you, or anyone else, what those important things are, because your important things are unique to you.  Some never figure it out and stay on that treadmill seeking excellence and accomplishment until the day they die, either bitter or full of regret at failing to see the point of all that time wasted on possession and status. Sadly, others completely give up somewhere along the way, neither seeking the recognition nor realizing the purpose. This is life.

The only real advice I can offer anyone is to keep learning.

This may come as a surprise to those who know her, but for the record, at the moment, my fast girl does not know what she wants to be when she grows up, even though she’s yearning to grow up as quickly as possible, and I’m okay with that.

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All she can really say about her life plans is that she wants not just to see the world, but to bear witness to it, probably through photography, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be shoved into the photojournalism box and shipped off to college– not yet. She knows she wants to be present for the making of history, not to be a part of making it herself, necessarily, but to experience it, as it happens, and to tell the truth about it.

Yesterday, she told me that in five years, at Christmas time, she plans to be in Germany with her dog and her bodyguard/aid-worker/man-friend, who also happens to play piano, so I should remember not to make any plans for her being home that year. I imagined her taking a much-needed vacation from whatever atrocity she’d been documenting, while helping to rescue those affected, and Germany seemed an appropriate place to make the yuletide gay. In my mind, she had just come in from a German Christmas market and was sitting in an oversized chair, sipping a hot mug of glühwein in front of a large fire, cuddling with her boarhound (appropriately named Fang), while her intimidating, yet incredibly cultured and handsome, man-friend played “The Christmas Song” on the baby grand (I guess they don’t know how poor they are, yet), singing with the voice of Harry Connick Jr., which I realized immediately was bit out of character for her, considering “he’s old”, but it was my imagination, and guys like Ashton Irwin don’t really exist in my head, because “I’m old too.”

I don’t have any idea where Lilia will be in five years, but I know life will still be handing her lessons, because that is the nature of our existence. As a mother, I can only hope they aren’t all hard ones and that she learns them quickly and the first time. If I’m lucky, she will still be teaching me lessons, too—like the difference between post-punk and crab core and just why I’m not allowed to say certain things:  “The gap between your generation and mine is bigger than any gap between generations in the history of the world, Mom.” (I think that is a lesson all parents are taught by their kids along the way, but I didn’t tell her so.) And that it’s all right not to know what you are supposed to do, so long as you keep taking the lessons as they come.

This week, my daughter and I learned some valuable lessons together. I won’t tell the story, because the details aren’t important, but the lessons apply to everyone, so I thought I would share them here as my little commencement gift to the Class of 2015 everywhere:

  1. Even good decisions that don’t harm anyone can have negative consequences.
  2. Sometimes everyone is in the right. (In fact, probably usually, when taken in perspective.)
  3. All the trophies in the world will not make you a better person—that is entirely up to you.
  4. When everyone is in the right, an act of grace becomes the right thing to do, by default.
  5. A long, silent pause can mean so much more than the words said once the silence is broken.

Next Friday is graduation, and Grandma is flying out to spend the week with us, so I don’t know that I will be able to post, and honestly I worry that I will be too distracted to write anything worth reading, so I’m not going to torture myself with trying too hard. We’ll see what happens. Either way, I will return on the 26th to my regular Tuesday schedule with more of Noel and Isabella and The Tale of Two Mountains. As always, thanks for reading!

Author, The Eleventh Age