Tag Archives: epic fantasy

The tale of two mountains– pt. 37

Isabella Asan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His obsession with his possessor was only getting worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only through you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was obsessed. She wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37

The Tale of Two Mountains– pt. 33

Three Wills

“You might have killed her with your foolishness,” came the mardraim’s voice from behind him, as Noel flew with violent speed for the exit.

He had a brief moment to slow and turn his head, before running smack into what was definitively a solid stone wall, coming to an abrupt and painful halt, and landing in a lump, in front of the doorway. As he rolled over, groaning and cradling his right shoulder, two Edwards came to stand over him, both looking rather more unpleasant than last they met, arms crossed over their chests, brows raised in accusation. Noel shook his head as he sat up, and the two mardraim’s became one.

“Argh, oof… I apology,” he moaned, uncertain of what happened, rubbing at his arm, squinting his eyes against the searing pain in his head. He reached up to search his hairline and found a tender lump, already growing on his scalp. Luckily, there was no blood. This reminded him of Isabella. “She is hurt? She is gone!” He hurried to his feet, turning for the door. Edward stood by and watched as he ran into the solid portal between the nowhere and the real world again, this time bouncing off.

“I believe Young Isabella should remain my concern, not yours, as you continuously put her in harm’s way,” the old man answered, without a hint of malice, as Noel pushed at the doorway in confusion. “What sort of person are you, who knowingly endangers another?”

“Knowing…?” At this, it occurred to Noel that the exit of the nowhere had been blocked for a reason. He looked at Edward, then at the door, flabbergasted. “Edward, I meant only to look at book on possession. To sleep was not… not my purpose. We must go now,” he added, waving an eager hand at the door. “Something is wrong with her. She is gone,” he repeated, thinking perhaps Edward simply didn’t understand him.

“Nothing is wrong with Young Isabella. As for you, one might come to wonder that your continued failure to think through your purpose before you act may be by design, so as to leave you the ability to say whatever comes as a result of your actions was never your intention, absolving you of responsibility for the consequences.” His voice was even. The look on his face was not anger, not at all, but rather disappointment, mingled with something akin to grief, as though Noel was a particularly naughty child, in need of a stern chastising, but the hope he might one day grow up to comprehend the disgusting nature of his very being and change his ways was so small, it was hardly worth the elder’s effort to provide the necessary correction. This was a great deal worse than anger, as far as Noel was concerned, which he supposed was rather the point.

What sort of person was he? He was the sort who wanted to argue, to further justify himself. After all, Edward was the one who had refused to test the wards, and Edward had not spoken to him in the days since he touched the Moag. But the more he considered his own onslaught of perfectly decent excuses for making hasty decisions and seemingly endless mistakes, the more he felt the red of embarrassment crawl up his neck, as he realized that Eward was mostly right about him. He rarely thought things through, but then maybe it was better he didn’t think because thinking about the ten thousand year old prophecy of the Last Hope was exactly what got him into this mess in the first place. Now, where was Isabella? What had happened to her? Did he even have the right to wonder, considering the elder had asked for time, to see if the woman might heal more before they tested the wards any further, when they didn’t know what would happen to her as a result? Noel had answered that call for patience, caution, and a modicum of self-control, by shoving his hand into the darkness, as if on a dare, then feeling sorry for himself for days while he waited around for the elder to come to him. When he finally got tired of waiting, he went and fell asleep behind the wards anyway, without a single concern for what might happen to Isabella Asan as a result.

Indeed, what sort of person was he?

Noel met the old man’s eyes, clenching his jaw in a grimace, bracing for what he deserved.

What came was hardly surprising, given Edward’s penchant for passivity. “Are you badly injured?” the elder asked, motioning for Noel to follow him, as he led the way across the room. He waggled two crooked fingers at the sofa, indicating Noel should sit, then hurried to the other side of the desk, upon which, Noel was surprised to find, sat several stacks of the sketches, which had hung on the walls of Isabella’s hut the previous night.

“No, Master Frank,” he answered quietly, nursing his shoulder and his pride. He imagined he would have a couple of fairly nasty bruises, but they were the least of his concerns. What had happened to her? Why had Edward brought the drawings here? “Edward… Isabella?” he asked slowly, slouching down into his usual spot on the arm of the sofa, attempting to look penitent.

“As you suspected, the wards have done her no physical harm,” the mardraim said, then pursed his lips and almost rolled his eyes, as Noel breathed a grateful sigh. “I have warded this place and left her in Young Harvey’s care for the morning, while you and I discuss what we are to do next. I have made you another golem, in your absence. Unfortunately, his stomach was turned by his morning meal, so he is resting and asked not to be disturbed, which means you will need to use a light well when leaving here, to make certain no one sees you.”

“Of course.”

With the immediate distractions out of the way, Edward sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together in contemplation. After a long moment, he said, “Now, Noel Loveridge, you must tell me everything. Begin with Moag. Leave no detail unexamined.”

The two sat for quite some time discussing all that had occurred since the night the mardraim refused to test the wards and Noel went and touched the Moag—well, almost all of it. Noel showed Edward his notebook of sketches and the map of the tunnels he had made so far, and he pointed out exactly where the path ended in the fork that couldn’t be explored, due to Moag’s concentration there. Noel explained about his sense of being drawn to that place—both his own desire to enter the darkness and his feeling of Isabella’s longing to continue in at that point as well, though he was certain there was a part of her who would have been happy if Noel went into Moag anywhere and got himself thoroughly lost (this made Edward chuckle). The elder prodded him for information about the physical attributes of Moag, exactly how long his hand was immersed in this dry mist that made up the darkness, what it felt like, how it reacted to his touch and seemed to have a will of its own, or at least possessed some force within it that drew it gently toward him when Noel was near, and of course, he wanted to know what Noel believed happened to Isabella as a result of his failure to weigh his own intents and purposes, before acting as most wanderers do, with willful negligence and reckless abandon. The elder himself, however, told Noel as little as possible.

Edward was only willing to give Noel what information he deemed necessary, which was not enough. He told Noel what Isabella felt, physically, when Noel touched Moag, how it had been briefly but intensely painful to her, and then how she felt Noel fly to her in a panic, and that she received a prophecy in the process. But as soon as Noel inquired about this prophecy— the meaning of what he had seen recorded in those drawings— Edward clammed up tight. Although the elder was unwilling to delve into the particulars, he did manage to get out of him that Isabella saw the prophecy clearly, not in the Veils, as the seers ordinarily received the prophecies of Om, but rather the actual event, a talent unheard of among the seers of today. And the woman’s case was made more peculiar by the fact she seemed to have seen the same prophecy from many perspectives at once—in fact, thousands of perspectives. According to Edward, she had only been able to record a few hundred of these images, before Noel went into the warded room upstairs and broke the connection between them.

“Th-thousands?” Noel stammered in wonder. He had not touched Moag for more than a second or two, before the woman was screaming in his head and he flew fast as he could to her, yet somehow, in that brief moment of contact, she saw the destiny of thousands? Edward may have wanted to dance around the subject of the prophecy, but Noel had seen several of the drawings. He tried to imagine how thousands of people drowning might be connected, but of course, it made no sense to him. Everyone dies eventually, and plenty of people drowned to death every year, probably even every day, but he thought surely few of them had much to do with one another. Why would Isabella need to see these things? Why had Moag shown her these people’s deaths, and not people who died in airplane crashes, of ebola, or by shark attack for example? Or were those next? Was Moag merely a predictor of death, as Edward posited days ago? The very idea of Isabella Asan sitting witness to the deaths of every person on earth filled Noel with dread. “How is it possible she see so much?”

The elder gave an uncertain shake of his head and halfhearted shrug of his shoulders. “We have ventured well outside the realm of what you or I might understand as possible, into something else. While you were first within Moag, Young Isabella claims to have seen the entirety of existence, from beginning to end, which I admit seemed as doubtful to me as to everyone, until I sat with her as she recorded this, working as quickly as she could, not stopping to eat or sleep, as though she could not document it fast enough. I only wish she had begun this work sooner and not waited for me to arrive the next morning.” He leaned forward and rested a hand on one of the stacks of drawings between them, the look in his eyes grave as he spoke. “I cannot begin to comprehend it, however if what she drew is any indication, and she truly saw this prophecy unfolding through the eyes of each of these people, instantaneously and simultaneously, in the very moment you touched Moag, it may be that she has indeed seen everything, as she claims, and if so, that she has seen it all in this same manner, at once and from every perspective.”

Noel cringed, drawing in a shallow breath through his teeth. “Edward, I went to Isabella’s last night. I see the drawings. I know they drown,” he whispered. Maybe they were all going to drown anyway. Maybe these weren’t changes he had made, after all. No. He knew better. What else could they be?

Edward let out a low moan and leaned back in his seat, looking grim. “I feared you would do so at some point. Young one, you must not go to her anymore. You must not attempt to understand what she sees. I am certain there is no one who will be helped by you knowing these things.”

“But I must know,” Noel said, hardly able to believe Edward could think otherwise, when he was the one who was so adamant they attempt to restore Om’s way, because of the changes Noel made. “I cause this change, somehow—these deaths. Edward, what do these people drowning have to do with me coming to mountain?”

“Truly, I have no idea how or even if it relates to you, beyond your entry into Moag,” Edward answered softly, a deep and telling pain in his eyes as he continued, “I am only sorry that you know as much as you do. It is important I tell you nothing more about these things, Young Noel. It is important you do not seek this knowledge. You must trust me. You cannot ever know these prophecies. I was mistaken to share with you what little I have.”

With that, Edward got to his feet and began piling the stacks. As Noel watched the elder begin tucking the pages into one of the drawers in the cabinets behind the desk, knowing the old man was only trying to protect him from his own culpability in all of this, his heart began to pound in his chest. Noel wanted desperately to be able to let it go, to pretend as though he could absolve himself of all of it, like Edward said before, to believe none of this was his responsibility because he hadn’t known any better—and he truly hadn’t. But he couldn’t unsee those faces. He couldn’t unhear Isabella’s cries or unfeel his fear for her.

“She… saw this… as these people?”

“Indeed,” the elder nodded, not looking back, as he took his time studying each drawing before putting them away. “Now, no more questions, young one.”

It must have been horrifying for her. No wonder he had felt such pain and terror in her, Noel thought, scrubbing his hands over his face. No wonder his head had filled with her screams the moment he touched Moag. She had witnessed the deaths of thousand—and there he had been feeling sorry for himself the whole time, as though what was happening to him, this possession, these feelings that were not his own, that he couldn’t control, were the worst possible punishment.

“Edward, I must tell you more,” Noel said quietly, swallowing against the brick of guilt that sat hard in his stomach. He waited for a moment, for Edward to turn to him, but when the old man kept to his work, Noel allowed the truth of the matter to spill out of him like a wave. “That night, before I touch Moag, I felt Isabella try to make me stop. I do anyway. It was wrong, I know. I was… anger… fear.” He had no idea what the word was for annoyed. “She want to go in before, I know. Something there is important. I no know what change her mind.”

Edward looked back perplexed. “You are certain you felt this? She tried to stop you?”

“Certain.” Noel was ashamed of himself. He had been ashamed of himself for this for days, but now it was worse, imagining what Isabella had gone through because of him. He had done this against her will. He knew it, and he had done it anyway.

For a long moment, the old man sat in silent contemplation. When he finally spoke, Noel could tell by the look on his face, he was not convinced by his own words. “Perhaps some part of her knew what would happen as a result?”

“No. The Isabella inside me no know prophecy. Only when I go to her hut last night and look into window, to see the drawings, she knew the drownings. Before? No.”

Edward laid the rest of the papers aside, got up from the ground, and retook his chair, looking worried. “She did not speak of this to me.” He seemed as confused as Noel, which Noel was fairly certain was not a good sign.

“Edward, you say she only feel pain a short time, but after I touch Moag, the Isabella inside me was… all fear, until the moment I land outside her hut and find her waiting there for me. She look at me like she see me through light well. She seem fine, not same as what I feel of her in me. I feel different… desires… in her. Separate thoughts in her. How?”

Edward’s brow grew heavy over his eyes. He leaned back in his seat, pulling his pipe from a drawer, taking a pinch of tobacco, and packing it in the bowl. He did not light it, but only sat deep in thought.

“Edward?” Noel whispered after several minutes. “What does this mean?”

“I do not know, Young Noel.” The elder forced a sad smile. “There is much I do not know. As concerns the prophecy, I assume she connected to Moag through you and was given clarity in this way, through her possession of you. Long ago, when the prophecies of Om flowed freely and with abundance, not alone within our mountain, but throughout the world, some Zhe saw like this, viewing entire prophecies, full of detail, yet it was a rare trait. A seer, who saw this way, never saw the same event from the perspective of more than one subject, as she has, and their visions often remained tied to a single subject throughout their lives, as though they were bound to them in some way, through Om. This has not happened in thousands of years.”

“Bound? Like possession? Like Isabella to me?”

“I do not believe so. They were lifetimes apart, and there is very little information on the matter, it was so long ago, but you must remember Young Isabella is different still, in many ways.” He lit his pipe and drew a long breath of smoke before adding, “What she sees has come through Moag, through you. What you feel of her, these differences, perhaps it is due to some form of empathy with herself, an understanding that passes through you to her and back again, though this is not an effect of possession, as far as I know. I cannot say for certain. I wish I could.”

“What we do next?” Noel asked, hoping Edward would at least have some answers.

“Clearly, we need to know all of the changes you brought forth from Moag, but some of those changes might be truly devastating to you and would only serve to bring you guilt and shame, which will do neither you nor Young Isabella any good, considering the enormity of the task before us. You must understand this and agree not to pursue the prophecies for yourself.”

“I need know the prophecies,” Noel insisted. He had a right to know about these changes he caused—an obligation to his own people, at the very least. And he wanted to understand them, to change them still, if he could. “I see the portraits… the drownings. If I cause these things, I must know how. Master Frank, I must stop them.” Even as he said the words, he realized how true it was. He had to make this right. He doubted anyone else could.

The mardraim was silent once again. His kind eyes were heavy with concern, even as he gave a grave, smiling nod, considering Noel, as though he knew the root of Noel’s soul, and expected nothing less of him. “This is the very point, Ohamet,” he answered at last, stressing the name. “You are rash in your decisions. We do not know how you have made these changes, and only by studying them can we hope to find a way of undoing what you have done, restoring the path of Om for everyone, meanwhile doing our best to make certain any future changes you may affect will not make matters worse. You cannot be allowed to know the meaning of the prophecies, for your own protection and for the sake of everyone else in this world. Please, Noel Loveridge, trust me. It must be this way. You must vow.”

Again, Edward was calling for caution, knowing full well the only caution Noel seemed capable of exercising was the sort where he willfully served as the prime example of precisely what not to do, in the event one decides to go chasing after the designs of fate. It had been easier not to care about these changes before, when all of the things Isabella told the mardraim were fragments of truths that made no sense, when Noel had no way of knowing what her ramblings meant. Things were different now. Noel had seen the faces of the dying himself. He did not know how or why, but he would be responsible these deaths because he went into the Dreaming and then entered Moag in search of the Last Hope. His heart ached in a way he had never imagined possible. “And the wards?” he asked, unable to keep the grief from his voice, as his vision blurred with the beginnings of the tears.

“Young Isabella does not wish you to use them,” the elder said quietly, shaking his head.

Noel quickly rubbed the wet from his eyes and began, “But Edward, you said—” but the mardraim held up his hands, stopping him short.

“You misunderstand me,” the old man answered quickly. “They do not harm her physically, but spiritually they are too much for her to bear at length, however necessary they may be.”

“You agree they are necessary?”

“Of course they are necessary, which is why Young Isabella has agreed to their controlled use, at times designated by me, but you must know that they not only sever her tie to you, but also to Moag. While you are warded, she cannot remember any of the things she has foreseen. With Moag gone, her mind is much clearer, to the point we had a lengthy conversation, not once interrupted by the hysteria or loss of focus she has suffered since your arrival.”

“This is good,” Noel answered gratefully, his breath catching up in his words and falling off into a small chuckle. Finally, there was something positive to look to, something to hope for. He could help her. He might not be able to do anything else, but at least he could do something good for Isabella.

“Yes, it would seem so,” Edward answered, though he still looked quite pained as he added, “however since it is out of her control, it causes her tremendous sadness. If it were up to Young Isabella, her connection through you to Moag and the prophecies would be maintained constantly—like it is when you are touching Moag, like it has been these few days, when she could recreate what she saw with such detail that anyone who views her work will know the suffering of the damned. When you are warded, this connection is ripped from her, leaving her mind, which is already stretched to its limits when she is in connection, almost vacant. The effect is devastating to her, Young Noel. It frightens her that one moment she can remember so much, and the next you have the power to take it all away, without so much as a thought for her.”

“She desires to see these things?” Noel asked, nodding over the mardraim’s shoulder, at the drawer where he was filing away the faces of those damned. Noel supposed he could understand that it being out of her control was frustrating, as Noel himself didn’t care much for the times the woman exerted even as small force over him, but he couldn’t imagine preferring to know such horrors, much less actually living them in some way. It didn’t make any sense to him that anyone would wish for this.

“Her life has been spent seeing and knowing the path of Om, Young Noel,” the elder answered patiently. “She only wishes to be instrumental in restoring that path, if at all possible. As do we all, or have you changed your mind?” Edward eyed him suspiciously over the pipe in his hand.

“No,” Noel whispered. If the images of the drowning had done anything it was to assure Noel knew the changes he had caused in coming to the mountain could not be ignored. And he was more certain now than ever that he was likely the reason the prophecy of the Last Hope could not be read, so he had little choice but to continue in their work. “No, we must do what we can.”

In the end, it was decided that Noel would return to the library twice each day, in order to give Isabella time in this disconnection, through the wards, so that she might retain some semblance of her sanity, have time to be with her friends and family and the opportunity to take care of her own needs, in the hopes that perhaps this would serve to heal some of the chaos she felt while under Noel’s influence. She might not like or appreciate this at first, but it was for the best. This was why Edward had warded the nowhere and locked Noel inside, to give the woman time to herself, to recuperate from her work, even though it was not what she wanted. Once in the afternoons, after Noel and Harvey were finished with their meetings for the day, and then again at night, when it was time for the villagers to sleep, Noel would return to the hold and allow Isabella her respite.

In the meantime, he was to continue searching the tunnels, recording what he found there, and documenting any changes to Moag or Isabella he might notice. And when the time came that Edward thought it was appropriate, Noel would return to the place where he felt this deeper connection to Moag—this place he and Isabella were both drawn to by the darkness—and there he would do just as before, touching Moag, only for a moment, so that Isabella would hopefully see another complete prophecy and be able to record it in its fullness. For several days after this Noel was not to return to the mardraim’s keep at all, so that Isabella’s connection to Moag and the prophecy would remain stable. Again, Edward would tell them when it was time for Noel to return to the wards, to sever the connection between himself and Isabella, at which point they would resume the schedule of allowing her time to restore her energy and regain her balance each day.

“Edward…” Noel offered uneasily, in the end.

“It is the only way, Young Noel,” the old man said gently. “It is the only way we can know for certain what you have changed. Otherwise, all she can give us are fragments we could never hope to piece together. The next time you make this connection with Moag for her, I will be there with Young Isabella, to witness exactly what happens to her, to make certain there are no detrimental effects. By this you will have peace of mind for her sake. I give you my word.”

Reluctantly, Noel nodded. He understood, but it left a foul taste in his mouth, and because he was warded, he couldn’t even guess how Isabella might truly feel about the Mardraim’s grand scheme.

“Noel Loveridge, you must not attempt to know the prophecies for yourself,” the elder added in warning.

Noel could not make that promise.

Somehow, he and Isabella Asan had managed to become Master Frank’s science experiment. Noel was used to this, being a lab rat for the scholars, but these were dangerous forces they were playing with, forces none of them understood, and he couldn’t help feeling the mardraim was making suppositions that affected everyone’s lives and that it didn’t really matter to the elder what happened to his curious specimens as a result, so long as they managed to right the path of Om. Of course, Noel didn’t disagree, after all, if he was responsible for destroying the Last Hope prophecy, which he assumed he was, he would give anything to make it right again, even his own life, he thought, but he had no idea if the Last Hope prophecy was even a true prophecy, and if so, he had no clue what the thing actually meant. Deep in his gut, he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if it turned out the path of Om was not the right path for him and his people? What if this had all happened for a reason? What if every time he made a mistake, someone else drowned?

At least, he told himself, this was a way forward, but he could not give his word about the prophecies.

On the fifth day of following this new schedule, Harvey Frank leaned in over their noon meals. “I cannot explain it,” he added conspiratorially. Harvey and Noel had gone to the Frank village for lunch, as had become their custom, so Noel could practice immersion in the language of the Danguin, but today the man had so much to say, he said it all in old Elvish, and in whispers, so low no one else would hear. “Each day, I go to see her, expecting the worst, but it is… What is your word for what cannot possibly be but is?”

“In English, we call this a miracle,” Noel answered uneasily. “I no know word in old language.”

Every day it was the same. From the time Noel woke in the morning until after lunch, Harvey and he were together, in the required study. When they parted ways, Harvey went straight to Isabella’s, to check in on her, while Noel went off to the mardraim’s library, to wait behind the wards. Noel knew how deeply Isabella and Harvey cared for one another. Harvey talked so often of her these days, Noel couldn’t help feeling like he had missed out on the chance to know the woman as she really was—the woman who wasn’t driven to insanity in turns by Moag and Noel, himself. It was good to hear she continued to improve, sort of.

“Miracle,” Harvey repeated, grinning. “We have no suitable word for this, as Om provides the way, but since you arrived, I have found, time and again, we require such a word, as more is brought forth to confuse even Om.”

“She is happy?” Noel asked, trying hard not to seem overly interested. He and Harvey were both aware of the strange connection that had happened between them, the day Isabella awoke. Neither of them had spoken of it since, perhaps because even in the mountain real men didn’t speak of such things, or perhaps because neither of them could explain what had happened, so it was best to try not to remember, when there were more important things to worry about. Until the day Noel was called to Fkat, as Isabella lay comatose, he’d had a curious sense of her within him, a nagging sort of ache that existed even though the woman rested, completely helpless. But when the felimi called on him, to answer their questions about what brought him to the mountain, and Noel went behind the wards for the first time, the Isabella Asan, who possessed him, disappeared. It was not until Harvey later followed him down to the river and rested his hand on Noel’s shoulder in sympathy, and Noel reached up and touched the man’s hand in gratitude, that both of them received something like an electric shock, and in that moment they knew Isabella was awake, terribly hurt, and frightened. They both felt the urgency to go to her. No words were necessary.

“Issa is well—sad, but well,” Harvey answered quickly. “In recent days, she has been present in a way she had not been present since your arrival. This relief only lasts a few hours, at most, and then the misery returns to her, the talking senselessly, the loss of sequence and time, the absences of being. But she is healthier than before, that is certain. The color has returned to her cheeks, and she is bathing daily. I do not wish to leave her side, yet it is difficult to stay and watch as she turns again, and then it becomes impossible to stay, no matter how I wish to, because I have duties to which I must attend. There is no explanation for this change… is there?” Harvey added this last bit, with a curious pause and an uptick in his tone.

Noel looked up to find the man was staring at him, eyes wide, as though he’d been shocked again.

Guilt crawled across Noel’s flesh. Of course there was an explanation, though it wasn’t at all reasonable or rational, not that anything that had happened lately was terribly reasonable or rational. But was Harvey actually suggesting Noel should know the answer to that question? And if so, how could Noel say to him that his Issa was better during those few hours a day, sad but well, because Noel was locked up in the mardraim’s secret keep full of books and inventions, behind the wards he didn’t understand, so her possession of him and connection to Moag could be temporarily broken and she could rest and have a laugh with her old friend, so they should both take advantage of it, while it lasted, because he didn’t have any idea when it would end? He had sworn to Edward he wouldn’t tell Harvey anything of their work together, and he had been warned never to mention Isabella’s possession of him to anyone because the fahmat was forbidden, but the reality was Harvey knew—Harvey had to know Noel and Isabella shared some kind of bond because he had felt it within Noel the day she awoke and they both went hurrying to her side, to tell her Harvey was still alive.

“No,” Noel answered, stupidly. “No.” There was a better answer, surely— one that wasn’t an outright lie. He thought of one almost immediately, but he had already committed to the falsehood. “This is how she heals.” He took a cautious bite and tried not to look as foolish as he felt.

“At the same time each day? This seems to be too much a miracle,” Harvey laughed, but almost immediately his face fell back into confusion. “And only to return to her previous disturbances? There is no sense to it. It defies logic.”

Noel frowned, but Harvey seemed not to notice, as he had turned his attention to his own bowl of grains, shifting awkwardly in his seat.

Each afternoon, Noel had left his noon meal with Harvey Frank and returned to the mardraim’s hold, returned to his study of the wards because, despite what he and Edward had agreed to, he knew eventually he would have to ward himself for good, for Isabella’s benefit, if not for his own. That first day had been easy enough, but the second day Noel’s heart burned when Harvey spoke of Isabella laughing with him, for the first time since before Noel came to the mountain. He couldn’t say exactly why he reacted so viscerally to the man’s description of their time together, after all, Isabella Asan had basically ruined Noel’s life (not to mention her own) by saving it, but he could not help this feeling that she should always laugh at Harvey, with Harvey, because of Harvey, and he stood firmly in the way of that through this possession nonsense. Maybe it was that tiny piece of her that was within him. Maybe he was just becoming more obsessed with her, as the mardraim had warned would happen. Or perhaps he had legitimately grown to care for the woman’s wellbeing, in his own selfish way. No matter the cause, the wards seemed to him the only answer.

The book on possession had been no help on that front, so he’d spent hours scouring the keep for the place where Edward had made the new ward inscriptions, hoping they would narrow down which wards he needed in order to sever the possession or at least provide some clue as to how the wards worked. He expected to find the markings somewhere near the door to the nowhere, and with that sort of thinking, it was really no wonder he struggled so long to find them. It took a while to figure out that everywhere he thought to look was utterly wrong and he’d been foolish to attempt to find them in the first place because the wards Edward placed on the nowhere were not outwardly visible, either inside of the nowhere or outside of the nowhere, neither around the door that wasn’t actually a door, nor surrounding the fissure in the wall outside, which acted as some sort of gateway into that place of nonexistence. When he finally remembered what Edward told him about the construct of a wizarding nowhere itself, Noel realize the location of the wards was obvious and so splendidly elegant, he laid down on the couch and laughed himself to sleep, which gave Harvey and Isabella a bit more time together than should have happened the day before, according to the mardraim’s schedule, but as far as he was concerned the schedule could burn in hell because Edward was smart, Edward was cunning, Edward was a cheeky old bastard. Noel realized the newly placed wards had to be built into the construct of the nowhere itself, which was in fact nowhere, so he was never going to find them, because when he was in that place, the wards were part of what made the very place possible, and when he was out of that place, the place ceased to exist altogether. Which meant this particular evening, he would surely be back to searching for books.

“I have missed her more than I could have imagined missing anyone,” Harvey said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, talking to his cereal as though men did not discuss these things either—and in the mountain, Noel suspected they didn’t—they likely never thought to, as their brand of feelings for each other were quite a bit different from anyone Noel had ever met. The Danguin people were strange in their customs and even stranger in their seeming aloofness despite their interconnectivity. They were growing on Noel, especially Harvey. “I know I should be grateful. I know it should be enough,” the man added.

Noel sighed. Yes, Harvey was indeed asking Noel if he had something to do with Isabella’s improvements of late, but not because he was suspicious of Noel. If Noel understood him correctly, by the man’s careful tone and demeanor, Harvey was asking if Noel might somehow guarantee him and Isabella more of this quality time together. Noel wanted to tell him yes, but Isabella stopped him. He wanted to tell him the truth, but he knew she would not want that. So Noel settled for saying, “It is difficult to be grateful at times.”

Very difficult, especially since Noel knew Edward would come soon and tell him to return to Moag. What would Harvey say when his friend had no peace anymore, as she began manically recreating prophecies for the mardraim, while Noel avoided the wards altogether, to assure the woman’s clarity in her foresight? It hardly seemed fair, but what could he do?

That very evening, Noel was on the 26th floor of the mardraim’s library, pulling random books off the shelf, once again looking for wards or any other hint or symbol of fairy magic, when Edward came to him and told him it was time.

Time. Time to venture into the dark, carefully guarding his way, until he reached the point of no return. Time to reach out and touch the Moag and force Isabella into the prophetic clarity the old man claimed she wanted. Edward said to wait ten minutes, to allow him to return to Isabella’s hut, so he could be there when Noel performed this wretched work, to see what affect the connection actually had on the woman. Noel nodded and put the book, he had been mindlessly flipping through, back on its shelf. “You are certain?” he asked, aware of the apprehension in his voice.

“She is prepared,” the elder assured him. “She is grateful.”

Grateful, Noel thought, his mind rushing to Harvey, as he flew down to the ground floor. Would Harvey Frank be grateful for what Noel was about to do?

An immense anxiety swelled within him, the moment he left the reverie of keep and the wards and headed off into the darkness, his notebook tucked under his arm. If it had been any other time, he would have kept the book open, to study his work and make certain Moag had remained mostly stable, since the last time he was there, but he had returned to that place so often the past few days, now he simply allowed the darkness to compel him forward, the path ingrained in the movements of his muscles, his need, Isabella’s need, guiding each step.

While he was not behind the wards, Edward had told him to continue exploring the tunnels, which he did, but with little enthusiasm. The old man clearly didn’t understand the gravity with which Noel was drawn to that place where Moag took on the physical attributes of an opaque fog that hung heavy in the air. He had tried to stay away, tried to concentrate his efforts on the many other branches of darkness that wove through the depths of the mountain, but he always wound up returning to the place where something much greater—than the desire to turn for home, than the desire to hide behind the wards, much greater, even, than his desire to understand the changes he had somehow brought forth from the darkness, in the form of prophecies of gloom and doom— called to him like the longing of a lover’s ghost.

The importance grew within him with every step.

That was the part that made him so anxious, he thought—the nameless desire in him that only increased the closer he drew to that place where the darkness was utterly complete. The hairs on his arms and neck stood, as he drew near, and the desire he could not explain rose inside him like an endless wave, the desire that seemed to stretch back through the ages, unfathomable and infinite. There was something down there. Something meant for him. Perhaps another change. Hopefully not a deadly one, he thought, swallowing against the racing of his heart. Destiny beckoned him.

But that was insane, he thought, as he footsteps quickened.

Except, Isabella felt it too.

That was another thing he had learned recently. Utilizing the wards to break the connection between him and Isabella Asan was like exercising a muscle he hadn’t known existed. Each time he left the mardraim’s library and the connection between the woman and he returned, it came with a force that made his insides ache. It was not as though he could hear her voice inside his head—that only happened when she was frightened. But Noel’s sense of what she wanted from him was growing stronger. Her will, or rather her wills, only grew.

What did the real Isabella feel as Noel ventured closer to the heart of Moag? He could not say for certain. There was, of course, her usual yearning for him to hurry into the deep, but as Noel’s understanding of the woman increased, he began to sense three divergent intentions within her.

One felt like admitting defeat. He couldn’t define it in words, but he could equate this feeling to his own sense, in the beginning of this endeavor, that perhaps Hope had ceased to exist altogether or had never existed and to wait any longer, lingering in that Hope, would only do more harm than good. He had no idea what the woman was relinquishing herself to, but feeling this uselessness as it belonged to someone else was difficult. To follow that feeling into the darkness felt like the end, for her. Every time Noel felt this, he found himself wanting to turn right around and fly to her hut, like she needed him to talk sense into her, never mind the fact she clearly despised him.

Another of her reasons felt something like victory, though it was bittersweet. This, he thought, was related to the prophecies, but only because to him it seemed like coming closer to the truth. The feeling wasn’t quite the same, but in a way it resembled what he felt like during his walk in Dreamtime. It felt like knowing.

Her final reason he could not discern. It existed somewhere he could not touch. It felt as far away from him as the destiny that called him to Moag.

As the grim shade deepened around them, and he reached their destination, Noel’s pulse quickened with ideas of what might be awaiting him there—answers, Hope— and he felt the woman’s rage shoot through him with warning.

“What now?” he asked impatiently, though he knew he only ever heard her voice when she was suffering. At least she was not suffering, he thought—not yet.

He swallowed back the fearful thought of her screaming in his head, raising his fingers to the surface of Moag, its blackness so vast it seemed to shine with the echo of eternity. Ignoring the renewed urgency with which Isabella willed him to continue into the depths and his own increasing ache for whatever might be down there, he concentrated on the fury with which she met him there, as if to try and appease her.

Of course he would not go in, he thought. He couldn’t. His longing had to be some trick of Moag, like the things he had seen and heard in it before. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the Dreaming, showing him the way? What if whatever was down there would bring back all of their broken prophecies—and restore Hope?

“What if it could fix you?” he asked her.

No.

The word came, not as a sound in his brain, but as a constriction in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. Isabella was growing stronger within him every day. He couldn’t help but wonder just how long he had before he started losing all control, but the question made him angry and afraid all at once, and the intensity with which she held him, transfixed in that moment, increased until he could feel the pressure of her all around him, trying desperately to force him away from the darkness. It made no sense. She wanted to go in, yet she wanted him to stay away, and yet there was something in there, deep in the darkness that was vastly important to her?

Surely it had been longer than ten minutes, Noel thought, contorting his neck against the discomfort of Isabella’s ethereal fist, clenching him, demanding his focus. “The Mardraim is waiting. You are waiting, grateful for prophecy, remember?” he whispered, watching intently as the darkness crept toward his fingers. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to let it hurt you this time.”

Isabella loosened her grip, even as Noel wondered if he could possibly make good on such bold promises. He wanted to be able. Truly. But as he plunged his hand into the darkness, her voice ripped through him. Her agony became his own.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 32

Salvation

Stillness consumed her, a moment devoid of continuity, vacant and lingering. The air around her rung out, with the solemn whispers of night, once comforting in their near silence, now startling, as they were all she sensed.

Noel Loveridge was gone.

Issa looked up from her painting, searching the mountain in every direction.

She was alone—more alone than she had ever known possible.

Throat constricting, she looked back at the work lying on the ground before her, a swirl of muddied waters ripping at the earth, washing the world away… utterly unfamiliar.

She was reminded, in a way, of the night she spent in Moag, of the strange vision that came to her as a dream, in which she drowned herself in the waters of Om, called up from the Well of Fate by the wanderer. Yet this was not what she had been painting—this work represented something at once far greater and far worse. But she could not remember. She had seen it in its fullness, understood its completion in the very depths of her, held the context of it perfectly within her mind. It was a terrible, unfathomable event, yet it had disappeared from her head, as though a light that had shined so brightly upon it, for a hundred million years or more, had suddenly gone out, leaving her blind.

Now there was only her, in all of existence—her and stillness, waiting… Waiting, expectant.

Her eyes teared, as she looked around at the hundreds of drawings hung on the walls, faces staring down at her, grief-stricken and agonizing, reflecting the turmoil that swelled beneath her surface. They were strangers to her, yet only a moment ago these people had been kindred, their paths dear, as though she had walked in their footsteps, loved with the longing of their hearts, thought with the realization of their minds. Now they were as shadows someone else imagined.

She had drawn them all, she knew. How long must she have been working to have drawn so many, and why could she not remember them as before?

Where had Ohamet gone?

… And where were Moag and the prophecies?

She had forgotten everything.

Her breath came in shallow waves, as fear mounted and she tried to recall the last thing she knew before the wanderer vanished, blinking against a blur of disjointed thoughts, none of them relevant to the next, all fleeting, none to do with understanding. The Mardraim tacking portraits to the walls… The paint and dirt on her gown… The flash of her hand working confident layers of color onto the canvas… Yes, she remembered working, yet even in those moments of presence, as she recorded the prophecy, it seemed she’d had no recollection of what this prophecy meant. All memory of her understanding of the prophecy was gone. Not this one alone, but all of them—the whole of the universe, as fractured and disordered and confusing as it had been—dissipated into nothingness, as though they had never existed. Yet, they had consumed her every waking moment, forcing her to the brink of insanity.

Her hands shook, as she tried to get her baring inside herself. Hardly a minute ago, she had known—known with all certainty—exactly what these waters meant, exactly who these faces belonged to, the very nature of their entire existence. She had known, in a way Om had never revealed to anyone… Unless she had not actually known… If the knowledge was temporary, never hers—outside of herself.

She shut her eyes against the sick feeling in her stomach and tried to piece together the pieces of Noel in her mind. He had come to the window. She knew he was there, and he left as soon as he saw her work and realized his wanderings would cause this…

This drowning, she thought, pressing her hands into the wet paint, crumpling the canvas under her fingers, her brow drawing painfully low, because she knew that word belonged not to her own mind, but to the elf. What she felt of him was unlike anything in empathy. She had felt the pain of this realization rise in him. Until he saw her work, he had not known the prophecy at all.

He left quickly and went back to the tunnels, to the place where he goes each night in secret, to work. She recalled the feel of him, his frustration, his animosity, his determination, his fear, his attempt to understand—she did not know what. In truth, she had not cared to know, though she might have. It seemed at times she could know him as completely as she knew herself, if she wanted, but he was always there, always calling her away, the only person she felt anymore—a nuisance.

She remembered wondering if he would return soon to Moag, to bring out another prophecy for her to examine. This idea had given her immense pleasure, which was curiously cut short, as though she had fallen asleep mid-thought. Then the wanderer disappeared, snuffed out of existence, and with him everything else, like he was the very light of a hundred million years, illuminating the darkness for her to see.

“How?” Issa whispered, the flurry of emotions running through her with such swiftness she could hardly feel them all, much less name them. “Why?”

A paper rustled behind her, and she turned to find the Mardraim sitting at the table, having just laid his own work aside. “Are you unwell, young one?” her elder asked, looking worried.

Issa had no idea how long he had been there. She remembered waiting for him to arrive, though it felt like several days had passed since she counted the marks on the floor—the number of prophecies she had given him, broken. Only this one was whole—precious. Or it had been. Her mind had been such a shambles, never still. Until now.

She looked down at herself, covered in dirt and paint and muck.

“I—” she began, but shook her head, swallowing the violent panic that stirred, like sands whipping across the face of the desert.

This was not the first time she was realizing the state of herself. Brief flashes of shame, temporary glimpses of her own consciousness, flooded her mind. There was blood, attempts to heal wounds she simply reopened in anger and anxiousness and inability to still herself against the turmoil inside her. Harvey looked at her with such remorse. He wanted her to control herself but knew she could not. She disappointed him. She was like a wild beast pulling against the invisible chains ruled by Noel Loveridge.

All she had wanted was to record the prophecy from Moag, to prove herself useful again. She had been so grateful to have a purpose to serve, nothing else mattered. Where had Noel gone? She needed him.

Fury rose within.

“Something is wrong, Issa?” the Mardraim whispered uncertainly.

Acutely aware of the pressure growing in her chest and stomach and ears, Isabella closed her eyes tight, pressing her lips firmly together, to stop herself exploding, as her heart thundered at the idea she needed anything from Noel Loveridge— the elf who had ruined her, who seemed incapable of ceasing his ruin of her, at every turn. It was horrible enough that after striking her down from Om and all she had ever known and hoped for— all she had once been meant to be— he saved her life, only for her to be confounded by incomplete pieces of Moag and the incomprehensible unfolding of every matter and form of the universe. Terrible enough that he had done whatever he had done to cause her to see this now missing prophecy so clearly, mortifying in it’s own right that she had derived even a momentary joy from that clarity. But that he was somehow the very key to her new-found purpose, that he was the tie that bound her mind to Moag, Noel, the very thing she needed in order to know—to understand— and that he could take it all away, at any given moment, was too much to bear.

Does he know how he torments me? Why? What did I do to deserve this? I have been good, haven’t I? I have been good!

“I have been good,” she whispered, desperate, the words almost breaking her, less because of her circumstances, and more because as she spoke them she knew she spoke directly to Om, yet Om had nothing left for her. Her whole body trembling, she held onto her arms to try and stop it, but it was no use.

“You are concerned, young one,” the Mardraim spoke softly, gentle eyes searching her as he stood, leaning forward with his hands against the table. He looked at her strangely, as though he barely saw her. The look made her uncomfortable.

She turned away from his curious gaze, attempting to occlude herself, ashamed of her animosity and at the same time emboldened by the rawness of it, determined to cling to it because it was better than the fear that mounted inside her with every second that passed. But even as the old man hurried to her side and knelt down, she realized a loss far more tragic than her loss of understanding of Moag or even her loss of a path through Om—another absence apparent in the still ruins of her, left behind by the wanderer.

Her stomach jolted violently, as she tried again and again to conceal herself, to no avail. She could no longer perform the fahmat—a magic she had mastered when she was but a youngling. It was as though her innate talents had altogether disappeared, along with the wanderer, Moag, Om, and all the rest.

The elder, no doubt sensing this within her, answered with a mournful shrug, shaking his head as he took her by the shoulders, turning her toward him, and spoke candidly, “We are not yet certain the extent to which your abilities have been affected.”

“No,” she whispered, a coarseness to her voice. Though the night air was warm, a cold set in, deep in her bones, causing her teeth to chatter.

The mardraim began to rub her upper arms, offering, “Your empathy flourishes periodically and fades over the span of a few hours at a time, with long stretches in between. We cannot yet say what causes these fluctuations or predict their timing. You have not noticed, until now. This is the first time you have attempted occlusion since you woke.”

The look on his face was foreign to her. Issa had never seen anyone look so grave, never known anyone with a cause to look such a way. Her insides felt like they would rupture and overwhelm the world with sorrow if she tried to speak, so she nodded for him to continue.

“You were tested for foresight, that first day, but you were unable to see the Veils. However, it may be that this ability will ebb and flow, as well. I expect we will know in time. It has been better not to bother you with such things, in your… condition. This is not the time for occluding oneself, Issa,” he added painfully low. “We have great work to do.”

He looked down at the ruined painting. His face was heartrending.

“No. No,” she breathed, swaying against the pain, not wanting to be known in this wretched state, searching deep within herself for even a shred of the talents she had once possessed—talents she had possessed in such abundance that she had been destined to be Mdrai, to counsel her people, to receive and record the truth of Om’s way.

What she discovered within herself offered only more grief. Where Isabella could once feel her own fullness of being, her verve filling her vessel to overflowing, she was now no more than a hallow shell, with barely a remnant of her former self huddled within, like some sickly shade, weak and withered, attempting to hide from the light of her introspection. She shuddered against her own lack of substance.

It was a long minute before the Mardraim spoke again. “Issa, I am sorry to intrude on what you do not wish me to sense in you,” the elder offered painfully, shifting to sit cross-legged on the floor before her. “My only desire is to help you to help us understand. Please, will you explain to me what has happened to distress you, so we may attempt to make sense of this together?”

She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.

“Noel Loveridge is gone,” she whispered, attempting to hold back the tide within, but the whisper became a spillway of tears. “He is gone, and the prophecies are gone! I am empty, half-starved for air and light! What has become of me, my Mardraim? What am I to do? Ohamet has taken everything away, so I cannot think— cannot feel— without him, yet with him I have such chaos, I do not even know my own mind, except in brief interludes! No! No! I hate him for this! I cannot bring myself to be ashamed for it! I hate him, with all that I am—what little is left of me! I do not want him! I despise him, yet it is clear now, I must have him because without him I may as well cease to exist altogether!”

In anguish, she moaned, grabbing fistfuls of her gown, wrenching them into her belly against the ache of her desolation, and collapsed against the floor to weep, in a way no one else in that mountain had ever wept before. The Mardraim ran a fatherly hand over her head while she sobbed, disgusted at her own disgust—disgusted that she must be disgusted, as there was nothing else to be. The most horrible part was knowing she had felt this all along, yet her mind had been constantly besieged by Noel Loveridge and prophecies, half remembered, and a longing ache for Moag. There had been so little room for Isabella herself, she felt she was suffocating under the weight of the universe, and perhaps she had been. Now it was gone, she should have felt relieved, but the weight of that emptiness was much worse, for knowing none of it had been hers to begin with. Understanding that full prophecy had given her hope. She had been proud to exist in that state, hardly herself anymore, filthy, mindless, a disappointment to her friend, little better than an animal, because she had purpose once again.

None of it had belonged to her.

The elder did not try to convince her that what she said was untrue, though a part of her desperately wished he would—that perhaps he could make her believe something good might come of this new turn, if only she were patient a bit longer. In truth, they both knew her fragility in that moment. The elder had known it all along. Isabella had only just realized its significance. Her life was no longer her own.

“Issa, I believe it is time I tell you what I know of Possession,” the mardraim said quietly.

“Possession?” she sniffed, unable to muster the strength to meet his eyes. She wanted to disappear into the earth forever.

“The magic you inadvertently used when you saved Young Noel’s life— the magic you speak of when you accuse the wanderer of having taken a piece of your soul.” He sighed at length, and she felt him shift beside her.

“For many reasons, possession has long been a forbidden fahmat of our people,” he began, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. “The act itself is a matter of fracturing the souls, of both of the person one wishes to possess and the possessor himself, in order to exchange a minute fragment, through the Breath of Light, the very force that enables life as we know it. This is a force our people once used with flagrance and frivolity, though we have been incapable now for a hundred millenniums, for reasons I cannot explain. Somehow, in this one brief encounter with the Noel Loveridge, though it should not have been possible, you managed to harness the Breath of Light and  utilize it to bring him back to life.

“Ordinarily, the exchanging of soul fragments allows the possessor to grow and exert a certain control over his possession, which increases with time, until the victim is completely given over to the possessor’s will,” he continued. “Possession has a long and sordid history of use in cases of unrequited love, though there are far more malicious inventions for the magic involving forced servitude and other heinous acts we have no need to discuss at this time. Suffice it to say, nothing good ever came from possession, so it was forbidden, and when our people lost the ability to use the Breath of Light itself, it was believed the fahmat was lost to us forever. We would be better off, if it had remained so, as the act of possession is irreversible, and it never ends well, for either possessor or possession.”

Isabella looked up at last, intent on asking the honest question: what could she expect as an end to this madness and how long it might take to reach its culmination, as even an inevitably bad ending had to be better than her current predicament? But she found the elder was not looking back at her. Instead, he was staring off, in the direction of the the very place Issa knew Noel Loveridge had been, only moments before his disappearance. This may have been coincidence, but she felt sure the Mardraim knew where the wanderer had gone, and for a moment she considered asking if he could still feel the elf’s presence, until he turned his face toward her at last and gave a morose and teary-eyed smile.

“When you saved Young Noel’s life, you inadvertently performed the fracturing upon your souls, imparting to the wanderer a fragment of yourself, as you breathed life back into his body. As the possessor, you would need to have taken a portion of his soul in return, which you could have utilized to impart your will upon him, yet for whatever reason, either lack of ability or due to some inherent curiosity unique to Ohamet, which I admit seems most likely under the circumstances, the possession remained incomplete. His soul, which you, your father, and Young Harvey all described as having been displaced from his body, in those moments before you saved his life, returned to him, filling him until he could contain no more. He was whole and alive again, with you as a small part of him. The fragment of him that remained, which should have gone to you in the exchange, was left to wander our mountain, which he does even now.”

“After all of the harm he has done, an errant piece of him is allowed to wander freely?” she whispered in disbelief.

“I doubt this errant piece of him is large enough to do much harm on its own, but it is only allowed to wander because there is nothing anyone can do about it. As it is, you speak of sensing him on occasion, though if he is ever where you claim him to be, I have been unable to discern him, myself. You are the only one able to sense this part of him. Not even Young Harvey is strong enough in empathy to reveal his presence, it is so minute. But there is more I must tell you now, about your condition, while we have this opportunity.”

Isabella understood. Wherever the wanderer had gone, he had at least left her lucid. Who knew how long this respite would last?

“Since you did not take a portion of Young Noel into yourself,” explained the mardraim, “you remain an incomplete soul. This usually occurs at the conclusion of a possession, when the one who is possessed is inevitably lost, as it becomes impossible for the possessor to sustain both lives at once. In the end, when the possessor is forced to allow the possession to die, both of the fragments of soul exchanged in the fahmat pass into Om, leaving the possessor unwhole until his own eventual death. The possessor lives out the rest of his days in a devastating state of lack, unable to be fulfilled in any way, as he has felt his own death.

“Existence as an incomplete soul is considered the greatest repercussion to all who have been determined to possess another, as from the day of the victim’s death, the possessor lives in grief over what he has done to himself. As you never held a piece of Young Noel within you, you began this endeavor, in some ways, in this state. I do not know how the possession will affect the wanderer, given you do not actually have possession of him. He does exhibit many of the early symptoms of obsession, however I doubt you will ever be capable of exerting any control over him, without having completed the act. This might have served to save you both much of the agony that possession has proven to be in the past, yet things were made worse for you, as the two of you ventured separately into the tunnels of Moag.”

“How so?”

“I have reason to believe the possession itself was necessary for both you and Young Noel to physically survive within Moag, as you did, but the fact the possession was incomplete complicated matters for you. When you entered the tunnels, shortly after saving the elf, you were protected from Moag’s devouring force because a portion of you remained safely harbored within the elf, outside of Moag. You escaped the darkness and returned home, seemingly unharmed, despite the fact the Felimi said you would surely be lost forever. When Young Noel entered Moag the following evening, while he too was safe from Moag’s destruction because of the portion of him that wanders the mountain, unbound, somehow, through your partial possession of him, you were left vulnerable to Moag—not the portion of you that Young Noel carried with him through the darkness, but rather the part of you, who remained with the Felimi at the cloister.

“Moag began drawing you out. This attack on your body and soul continued until nothing of your spirit remained within your body and you were entirely consumed by the darkness, with the exception of the fragment of you Ohamet carried within himself. When he exited Moag, Young Noel also used the Breath of Light, breathing back into you an even smaller fraction of your own soul than you originally gave to him. The rest of you that exists within our physical world, remains within him, bound in the incomplete possession.”

“But what does this mean?” she asked, hardly able to keep the urgency out of her voice as she sat up.

“Issa, the vast majority of your being is lost forever to Moag and will never return to this earth in any vessel,” he answered softly. “To live life as an incomplete soul, having lost only a small piece of oneself to Om, is a wretched existence no one should suffer. You have lost so much more, and to Moag. Upon your death, I do not know what will happen to you. It is entirely possible you and Young Noel will both eventually be lost to Moag forever. As for now, in the remainder of this lifetime, you will feel this morbid lack within you, this emptiness, even greater than you would have suffered merely due to the possession, because much of you has been destroyed by the Eater of Souls, with no hope of return.

“You feel your connection to Young Noel, more greatly than you have ever felt another through empathy, because there is more of you within the elf than within your own body this very moment. While he too remains unwhole, and will likely suffer, to some extent, because he returned a fragment of you when he used the Breath of Light to revive you, what is missing from him is but a shard, compared to the near totality that is missing from you.

“There is such a small part of you that remains,” he continued, “that, like that errant portion of Young Noel’s soul that is left to wander, you can barely be felt through empathy. I have kept you enveloped all this while, and only through my envelopment of you do I receive even a glimmer of what is at the soul of you, and then only when you’re passions are strongest. At times there is more vitality in you, but Noel Loveridge is far stronger than you.

“Though I expect that even though you will never be able to control him, he will still suffer a certain obsession with you due to the possession, Ohamet will always have strength, power, over you, because the possession remains incomplete. He does not know that he holds all of the power, and I have no intention of telling him because I do not wish him to harm you out of his own fears. One day he will likely discover this truth. Hopefully, by then, we will have found a way of righting Om’s path, and he will leave this place, and you, alone. Needless to say, add to this your encounter with Moag, your understanding, or lack thereof, of the prophecies Young Noel drew out of the darkness, and it is no wonder you are so often ravaged by mania no one else can possibly understand.”

Issa knew what the Mardraim said was true. She had felt it all along, aware she was never meant to survive Moag. To live was the wanderer’s fate, not hers, yet he brought her back. He saved her and damned her to this agonizing existence all at once.

“I will struggle this way forever? I will never… know peace again?”

The Mardriam nodded gently, before adding, “It is true, you and Young Noel are bound to one another, and neither of you will have the peace you had before, yet it seems to me that in this moment, you are more certain of yourself than you have been in many days. I cannot tell you the number of times I have come to visit that you have hardly been present, how often I have watched as your mind twisted around itself, confounding you, so you had no idea of your own thoughts or deeds. In truth, you are more yourself in this moment than you have been since before Noel Loveridge arrived. I know you are discomforted by the nature of things, suffering your own sense of loss so greatly, often struggling for even the smallest measure of control, however it is important we acknowledge that your current state is much more stable than even a few brief minutes ago, before the wanderer… disappeared.”

He swallowed.

Isabella might have asked about this pause, inquired what the old man knew about where Noel Loveridge had gone, but the Mardraim’s brow furrowed, and he admitted almost at once, “I know where Young Noel is. I cannot tell you where, but I assure you, he will return to you, and with him will come both prophecy and Moag, once again. You have no need to worry. This is temporary. However, when he returns, you will not be able to maintain yourself, as you do now. You know your own mind,” the elder said in a pained voice, the tears returning to his eyes as he shook his head. “It is beautiful to look upon you and see you looking back at me, at last, after so many days of sensing your struggle to maintain yourself, unable to help in any way. I only wish Young Harvey were here. He grieves for you daily. He is greatly changed.”

“Harvey?” The thought of her friend caused her own tears to return, but now she must be strong. “This is my purpose,” she said casting her hands over the painting, covered in smeared handprints and gouges from her fingernails. She and Harvey had been equals, their companionship natural because they had everything in common through Om. How could he ever want to be near her like this? How could he not find the very idea of what she had become repulsive? How could she want for him to know her suffering?  “I… I….” Her brain contracted, refusing to allow the idea to even form completely, let alone escape. But the feeling was there inside her all the same, and she knew the Mardraim felt it within her.

Isabella was nothing. She was worthless without the wanderer to provide the prophecies of Moag, yet with the wanderer and prophecies, she was not at all herself. She would never be herself again.

“Issa, do not despair. You have done more than enough,” the elder said, wiping her tears away with the backs of his fingers, then lifting her chin so she would look him in the eye, as he smiled grievously, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks as well. “You have done more in these three days, with this prophecy, than the rest of us have managed since Young Noel’s arrival— the wanderer included. You have shown me what you have seen. I understand it, because of you. I do not yet know how to help Young Noel change it, if it can be changed, but I understand it only because you have given so much of yourself, to share it with me. Take heart in that.”

“But I no longer understand it! I cannot help to change it!” she wept, pressing the heels of her palms into her temples, as if to try and force the memories back. “It was here. I know it was clear to me. How can I know I had clarity of the thing, yet not know the thing itself? It is as though my mind is fractured, along with my soul!”

“But young one,” he shook his head, “when this vision was clear to you, you were not yourself. Your focus was on the prophecy alone. I could not deter you from it, even for a moment, so I allowed you to work, expecting eventually you would work yourself to exhaustion. For days you continued on, without stopping. Look at yourself! Look at how you deteriorate!” He gestured emphatically, scoffing at the sight of her, then took her hands in his, holding them tight as he spoke. “Issa, with everything that has happened, I have no doubt that you are most necessary to this world, in this way. By Om or by Moag matters not, because there is a purpose here, intent we cannot know without you. I cannot yet grasp the reasons why it has come to be so, but you are more important now than all other zhe, I assure you, because only you have seen the way of Moag, as changed by the wanderer. Only you can guide us in this. The rest of us will come to understand through you—through you and Noel Loveridge, together.”

She hissed a disgruntled curse at the idea, as the Mardraim stood and lifted her up from the ground, then led her to sit at the table. Her tears continued to fall, as the elder cleared away piles of her drawings and set the wash basin, full of clean water, in their place.

In silence, the old man washed Issa’s face and neck with a soft cloth, the cool water serving to soothe the pain of unrelenting loneliness and ease the sense of worthlessness within her. When her face was clean, he took to the task of scrubbing layers of paint and charcoal from her hands and arms, until at some point she stopped crying and a numb weariness set in.

She had no idea when she had last slept or eaten. There were vast gaps in her memories, with no explanation beyond Moag’s prophecies and Ohamet’s wanderings. What little she could remember were dwindling glimmers of half-awareness, completely meaningless because they lacked context. Meanwhile, the more the Mardraim scrubbed, the more he revealed that under the filth she was covered in newly-healed scars, injuries she caused to herself in her more disturbed states. The only positive was the fact that none of her wounds were recently made, which meant being under the influence of revelation of Moag’s prophecy at least kept her from doing herself more harm. Unfortunately, little was being done to tend to her basic needs in the meantime. She imagined tending to her was made more difficult by her scattered mind.

As to that, what would happen if and when Noel Loveridge returned? Would she be able to recall this conversation with the Mardraim, or would it be lost in a wave of Noel and Moag, as the Mardraim expected? Was there any way she could be both lucid and understand the prophecies of Moag at the same time? Was there any hope of finding a balance, or was all hope lost the moment she felt the wanderer flying up the side of their mountain?

“I am not certain what is best to do,” the Mardraim said quietly, his voice barely cutting through the silence, as he took the bowl from the table and sat on the ground before her, resting the basin in his lap. He did not look up at her, as he took her right foot in his hand and began washing the grime from it as well, his brow creased with a scowl.

Issa thought perhaps his statement had been in answer to the questions he must have felt, unvoiced within her, but the elder did not speak again until the dirt of several days muddied the paint-covered rag in his hand, and her foot was clean.

“Perhaps he is justified in his timing, and I have not taken as much care as I should,” he added quietly. Isabella decided he must be speaking to himself, and she should not interrupt, but then the elder took up her other foot and said, “We must surely live in a precarious balance, if we are to find our way through this. That is only right. Yes, I must tell Young Noel.”

“What will you tell him, my Mardraim?” Issa asked, her voice like brass, after shedding so many tears.

The old man loosed a sigh, heavy with burden. “I must tell him that I have kept you too long, stirring over this tragedy.” He waved the rag at the pictures on the walls and smiled. “I must tell him you must rest, while you can— a good, long rest, I believe.”

Setting the bowl aside, he dried her feet one at a time, with the tale of his tunic. “From now on, when Young Noel is away, as he is now, you must take advantage of the opportunity, to tend to your own existence, beyond prophecies and the will of the wanderer. You must do your best to live, as you lived before. You were happy once, Issa. With great courage, you can be happy again.”

“I do not see how. I am incomplete, alone… frightened. It seems everything is beyond my control.”

“Certainly, you know by now this is true for everyone,” he answered plainly. “Nevertheless, you must come to see these moments as gifts, as the mothers taught you to see the time taken in occlusion. Use it to determine what you want of this life that is not of prophecy, but try not to stir too much on these matters tonight. I am sorry I have not done better by you, before now. You need rest. Tomorrow, we begin anew, and neither of us can say for certain what will come when Ohamet returns. I will clear the remnants of our work away, so you may be ready. Until then, please know, you have given me more than enough to help me understand, and I do not want you to worry over this prophecy anymore. Now, allow me to clean and leave you to sleep.”

Isabella nodded, and the Mardraim went about the business of clearing the mess of drawings and paintings and books, scattered around the hut, while she sat wondering just what she was supposed to do. She had no idea how to determine what she wanted from life, when everything she had ever wanted had been hers from the beginning, handed to her by Om and stripped away by Ohamet, without any possibility of return.

As if in answer, she recalled the day she first awoke from the long sleep that came after Moag ended her life and Noel Loveridge handed it back to her, an unwanted fragment of what it used to be. That day, as her mother tended to her, the woman told Issa her life would never be the same. “It will only be what you make of it,” she had said. Issa could not help but wonder if her mother had any idea how right and wrong she truly was.

Ohamet had been absent that day as well, Issa thought, remembering the stillness she felt, as her mother spoke with her, carefully avoiding revealing her shame at her daughter’s pitiful state. At the time, Isabella had believed she was only deep within the protection of the Mdrai’ envelopment and that was why she felt no empathy for others, but Noel Loveridge was not present in her senses then either, when he should have been through the partial possession. Wherever he went, it seemed that place had the power to sever their connection of possession, at least temporarily. It was some time after she sent her mother to find the Mardraim, before the wanderer appeared in her subconscious, felt her cry for the loss of Harvey, and he came to her. That was when her delirium began. Before that, she felt nothing but emptiness, as now. More importantly, she realized, at that point she did not remember any of the things she saw of Moag.

Noel had felt her cry and come, just as he came to her the night he touched Moag and brought out the complete prophecy.  He had been so frightened for her, he flew straight there with unimaginable speed, and she had felt him coming and gone out to meet him. Though he was invisible, she could sense exactly where he landed, but she could also see the glowing remnant of herself, the piece of her soul, which Noel Loveridge kept. She was certain the wisp of light she saw with him could only be the fragment of her own soul, as it was so much like the light she saw curling out of the eldest mother’s mouth while she was at the cloister, before she died—like the light she herself was made up of, as Moag drew her out of her body, into its depths.

Perhaps, because the possession was left incomplete, there was a way she might yet save herself, a way to regain the portion of herself the wanderer kept—a way to sever their connection forever?

“My Mardraim?” she said, as the old man, having whisked away every trace of the prophecy, bid her goodnight and opened the door to go.

“Yes, young one?” he answered solemnly, stopping in the doorway. His voice was patient, but he looked troubled and tired. Had he remained with her the whole time, as she painted and drew the prophecy? It was so very strange not being able to sense what was at the soul of him, yet seeing the gravity of her situation ingrained in the deepening lines on his face.

“You say the possession remains incomplete. Perhaps there is a way it might be undone,” she quietly said.

“I am sorry, Issa. Any attempt we might make to that effect could only make matters worse, for both you and Young Noel,” he said, shaking his head. “You must rest now. We will talk again soon,” he added, then ducked out into the night, shutting the door behind him, leaving Issa feeling frustrated and hopeless and helpless, to try and find some solace in everything she had learned and the knowledge that, at least for now, she had the capacity to try and formulate some sort of plan, moving forward. The trouble was there was no solace to be had in knowing that as soon as Ohamet returned whatever plan she might make would likely cease to matter.

How was it possible she had accidentally performed part of this possession when she did not even know the Fahmat existed in the first place? Fragmenting her soul? She had never—could never—imagine such a thing was possible. Everything about it seemed so backwards and wicked to her, it was no wonder the magic had been forbidden.

What was this Breath of the Light the Mardraim spoke of, and why was this the first time she had heard it? The Mardraim said it was the very force that made life possible, a force their people once used with flagrance and frivolity, yet this was not something the Mdrai or the Felimi taught them in all their years of learning. How had the Mardraim come to know of it? Surely the Mdrai and Felimi must have learned more in these days Issa had spent in the erratic pull of Moag. She wondered if Harvey, as an aspirant, had learned anything about it as well.

The thought of him made her heart ache, so she turned her mind back to Noel.

Had she really used this strange force when she saved the elf’s life? Was it truly possible she had performed this magic, purely by accident, causing all of this?

No, she thought, resentment and anguish renewing within her. This was entirely the fault of the wanderer, and no one else. The Mardraim believed there was no point in trying to find a way to undo the partial possession because it might make matters worse, but he did not say he believed it impossible, and she had definitely seen the light of her self with Noel Loveridge, like she was calling out for help, for salvation. Issa could not simply wait for Ohamet to completely overwhelm her again— for all of this to end badly, as the old man said it would. She had to do something.

It was terribly late. Her belly was empty, her mind dull. She knew the Mardraim was right that she needed rest, but before she could sleep, she had to eat. And—she sniffed at her armpit and turned away, revolted—she was in desperate need of a proper bath. But first, while she had the presence of mind to do so, Issa took some of the fresh paper, which the elder had left, no doubt expecting that one day soon there would be another complete prophecy of Moag for Issa to record in its fullness, and she began to write:

Some prophecies are whole, others are merely pieces. If you remember either, you are not yourself. Wait for Ohamet to disappear, then find out where he goes. If there is a way to restore the piece of your soul, you must discover how, before it is too late.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 31

A Study of Wards

Noel rubbed his hand over the back of his head and brought it around across his face, to scratch at the days-old scruff on his jaw, gritting his teeth against the foul mood souring his guts. Edward Frank had to know something happened. There was no way he could not have known, yet for three days now, he’d been absent— from the lair, from his hut… Noel had not once seen him.

Turning back to the old book, lying on the desk before him, Noel waved his hand and watched his own words disappear from the page, leaving the ancient writings of his predecessors in its place.

He’d expected a barrage of questions, accusations, protestations about putting Isabella Asan in danger, once again—after all, what he had done was foolish, even selfish. But it seemed the old fellow couldn’t be bothered. As the days passed, with no word of any kind, Noel grew more certain Edward knew exactly what he’d done and was simply avoiding the topic as carefully as he avoided Noel. The appropriate question was why?

“Damned empathy,” he grumbled, resting his arms on the desk, holding the Book of Ages out before him, as he pressed his lips together against what he knew must happen next.

Though he suspected he would be forced to test the wards alone, that first day after touching Moag, Noel held out for Edward to come tell him what to do—anything at all to do, honestly, because he never felt more alone in his life, haunted on the inside by the restless spirit of Isabella Asan. Her eagerness to return to Moag gnawed at him, and yet she seemed intent on warning him away from the darkness, often and unnervingly so, despite her own desire. Fear of causing any more harm kept him waiting around for even a small word of encouragement the second day, though all hope he would receive help had dwindled. Day three was occupied by acts of pure stubbornness— at least stubbornness was comforting, something he could definitively call his own, in the middle of this chaos he could hardly understand. Now, still plagued by the echoes of Isabella’s terror, Noel knew the time had come to take matters into his own hands, but he wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t being left on his own by design, and he needed to know, for certain, how Isabella—the real, corporeal, her—faired, before he did anything else.

It was not as though Noel didn’t know where the Mardraim was all this time. There was really only one place he could be. Edward’s interests rested in prophecy, that much was obvious. Noel had put off the inevitable long enough.

“Irony of ironies,” he muttered, pushing himself up from the old man’s chair, not bothering to look around as several parchments, disturbed by his disturbance, bounced and scattered across the floor.

Tucking the book under his arm, he cobbled together his light well and reluctantly dragged himself out the magical doorway, into the darkness, loudly proclaiming for anyone— or supernatural, soul-sucking monstrosity— that might be listening, “Who would have thought I would come to dread that woman more than I could possibly fear whatever truths might be buried for me in this onerous arsecrack of Fate?”

No laughter rose up from the depths, no echo of his own words in a voice he did not know, only the silent pull of the darkness answered him, with a mournful tug, deep at the root of his soul, as if to say, “Come. See.” He moaned low against the ache of it, catching his breath.

While Noel had spent the past three-and-a-half days feeling rather sorry for himself, he also managed to be a bit productive. He used a trick he picked up from Phileas, to create an under-layer in the Book of Ages, where he began compiling information. Some would frown on his defacement of the text, but a lot had happened, and he thought it important to keep a copy of everything in one place, rather than having his efforts scattered. Besides, this way he could assure he had his own copy, in the event he had to leave in a hurry. He started by transferring his notes from his meeting with the Knowledge Keepers, about the Last Hope prophecy. He’d copied the map of the tunnel he’d charted so far and his best picture of his impression of Moag, though it was hard to do it justice. He’d also recorded everything he remembered about what happened when he first entered Moag, including how it affected Isabella and, of course, what occurred the other night, when he touched it.

It was difficult not to berate himself for that bit of stupidity, but the terrible truth of the matter was if he was not already quite insane from his obsession with Isabella Asan, he was certainly well on his way, torn between two extremes— one, an insatiable desire to return to that place where the darkness deepened beyond anything comprehensible to the human mind, and the other, the periodic wailing and shrieking of his possessor in his head, which had scarcely relented since he decided it would be a smashing idea to reach out and touch Moag (because apparently his first encounter on that front hadn’t been warning enough against such recklessness). As this possession progressed, things were bound to get worse.

Noel wasn’t certain why he felt called to return to that exact place in the tunnel, where the darkness forked, but after these days spent going over the details, he had begun to believe the urge had something to do with the encompassing darkness he understood in the Dreaming. He thought, when he first set out on this endeavor, he was looking for the seers of old, who could explain the prophecy in the Book of Ages, but now, given everything, he wondered if the answers about the Prophecy of Last Hope may actually lie within Moag itself. Of course, he had no idea how to find out, except to go in there and see what happened, but before he could do that, he had to deal with his possessor.

As far as Noel knew, Isabella didn’t have the weight of a ten-thousand-year-old prophecy about the salvation of her people looming over her, driving her to erratic behavior, so it was impossible for him to grasp her longing for the darkness, when it so clearly harmed her. The other night, just as he was preparing himself to do the idiotic, he felt her shift internally, he felt her fear rise, as she urged him to turn and run. He’d ignored it, even mocked it.

No. He defied it.

What was he supposed to do? The woman had attached herself to him like some hell-spawned succubus. He couldn’t help that he was afraid of losing his mind and his free will in the process, and he figured fighting it was a perfectly reasonable reaction to discovering one had been possessed. How was he supposed to know what would happen as a result? Edward Frank certainly wasn’t any help.

“Yeah, but what the bloody hell was I thinking, touching the damned thing? Anything might have happened.”

That was why the wards were necessary, he thought, reaching the end of the path and taking flight.

He’d not yet plucked up the courage to try any of them out. Dabbling in foreign magic, without a mentor or at least making a decent study of the thing, was a bad idea. Edward should have been there.

“But he’s not.”

In the span of a moment Noel landed a foot shy of Isabella’s stoop, in the small patch of light cast by the lantern that burned in an open window. Though the rest of the villagers slept, it appeared she was still awake. He’d half expected to find her waiting for him at the door and was grateful when she spared him that bit of humiliation. Still, in silent trepidation, he climbed the steps and crept to the window, so afraid of what he might find, when he looked inside, that he actually trembled.

The place was a mess, papers and books scattered everywhere, crudely drawn faces pinned to the walls, though it was plain to see an expert hand sketched them and only faltered in the hurry to draw so many—so very many.

Isabella sat on the floor, hands and arms, up to her elbows, covered in paint tinted blue and green and umber, fingers working frantically at the canvas laid before her, though from his vantage point, Noel could hardly tell what she painted. Edward Frank sat at the table, his back to the window, studying one of the drawings—a twisted face of a man crying out in pain.

“Drowning.” Isabella’s voice came through clearly within him, before Noel even had the chance to process what he saw, and he shuddered against it, as much over the word as the clarity with which her voice intoned inside him.

Yes. He recognized the look in the man’s eyes, so lovingly drawn they were almost real on the page. The look was fear— though unmitigated terror seemed the more appropriate descriptor. The man’s wet hair clung to his desperate brow. Water trailed like an ocean of tears down his cheeks. His mouth contorted in what might be a cry for help or, perhaps, a gasp for air. But those eyes knew death was coming.

He was drowning, just as Isabella said—all of them were. Hundreds of faces, pinned to the walls, scattered and piled, crying out in desperation, as the water overtook them.

Thousands.

Noel wasn’t certain how he knew, but he understood this was the prophecy Isabella saw when he touched Moag. She was recreating it for Edward.

Noel shuddered again.

Isabella, the flesh-and-bone woman sat on the floor, with legs sprawled like a child, glanced back at the window, as though she felt him there.

Noel ducked away. He was not certain if she could see him through his light well, but even so he knew she sensed him. It was time to leave, before she drew Edward’s attention to Noel’s presence. He had seen what he came for. Isabella Asan was fine. A bit manic in her work, but apparently unharmed by his foolhardy behavior.

Of course, he knew someone would have mentioned it, if anything terrible happened to the woman. Even if Edward was too preoccupied with the prophecies to care, with everything that had happened between them, if Isabella fell ill or suddenly keeled over dead, everyone else would be quick to assume Noel was to blame and would come bearing pitch forks and torches. Still, as he took to the air, he was grateful he found her well, or well enough. From now on, he decided, he would only take careful steps, always returning to her, to make certain he did not cause her suffering. It was the right thing to do.

Yes, it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t as though this decision was made out of kindness or compassion. No doubt, he felt awful for the woman. No one deserved to live out the rest of their life moving from one fit of madness to the next. It was bad enough Isabella struggled so greatly with the Moag prophecies, but when Edward told Noel how she harmed herself, he felt a deep responsibility for her, especially since Edward was unwilling to test the wards and Noel was certain they would help them both. But Noel’s determination to take care from now on was purely selfish. Possession led to obsession, which necessarily led to a loss of oneself, to the total control of the possessor. How would he fair under the control of a woman who was so utterly lost, herself? He had an obligation to take care of her, out of self-preservation. At least for now, she seemed content working out this latest prophecy.

This prophecy… Noel’s stomach churned. All those people…

Was he really the cause of the terrible tragedy the woman drew? Were these people destined to die because he changed the course of their fates?

It was a load of bollocks, all of it. If he did cause this, he hadn’t meant to. He didn’t even have a clue how he, an elf— Noble, yes, but not with any great force of power and certainly not with some real fortitude of principle or even slightly greater than average moral fiber about him— could be the cause… the source of such… devastation…

Either way, he had to find some way to stop this, before it got worse.

Before he made it worse.

As he hurried through the darkness, the urge to return to Moag, to find his answers, burned like fire in his belly, always there. The Isabella inside him longed to return as well, but rose in his head against the inclination, a contradiction of herself, a mighty fury.

“Not yet,” he whispered in agreement, even as he rushed through the rock wall, into the Mardraim’s hold.

It was time to make serious study of the wards.

Grabbing his pen, ink, and a spare bit of parchment from the desk, he flew up to the tower door of the room of Danguin magic. If there was one thing he learned at Bergfalk’s, it was how to properly study things, or so he believed. After all, the Nobles spent half their time there as living subjects to the Scholars’ experiments, trying to restore what magic their people lost after the Fall.

First came research.

He quickly copied down each of the Faeish scriptures that marked the door. There were twelve in all, far fewer than the hundreds that protected the room of Fkat at the Felimi cloister. Yet, he found relief from Isabella in the tiny room, so he could at least hope one or some combination of these wards would provide the woman with some relief as well. Maybe that would be enough for them.

Noel knew little about fairy wards. They were rumored to be scattered throughout the globe, though until coming to the mountain Noel had never seen any himself, beyond photographs. They were said to guard sacred places and forbidden realms, but their purposes and effects were supposedly quite vast, much more than simply to keep something safe. The floating isles of the Dark Fairies were alleged to be built of all manner of wards, for their protection, wellbeing, growth, secrecy, prosperity—the list was extensive. Likewise, it was believed the Otherworld of the Annwfn was completely hidden by wards, so well hidden even another fairy, who wasn’t Annwfn, wouldn’t be able to find it, knowing perfectly well what he was looking for and where to search.

Noel had no clue what any of the twelve scriptures meant, mainly because the various languages of the fairies were complex and intertwined, much like the roots of living things. Luckily, he expected the Mardraim’s massive library held the answers for him… except he did not know their language either.

He took his drawings and headed downstairs a level, stepped onto the landing and grabbed a random book from the first shelf he came to. Flipping it open, he was met with exactly what he expected—everything was in Danguinese. In his work with Harvey, he’d managed to learn their alphabet and much of their phonetics, but in the language of the Danguin there was meaning tacked onto every letter, consonant blend, and syllable, so that the language itself had far fewer words than English or Elvish, but those words carried a much deeper meaning than any word in English might. And it was not as though teaching Noel Danguinese was Harvey’s top priority; they concentrated on Danguin culture.

He scanned the first few pages of the book, for any of the few words he knew, but only found Panpago. As far as he could tell this book was all about boiled breakfast grains akin to oatmeal, a topic which wasn’t particularly magical.

Sighing, he returned the book to its shelf.

The magic of the Danguin was confined to the locked room. He knew the magic of Beasts was housed on a single level midway up the enormous central staircase, and all of the man-made artifacts along with many books were kept on the first twelve floors, though considering the extent of the magic of man, there could be several more floors of books dedicated to the subject. Either way, this left fifty-two floors of books to comb through, in the hopes of finding one text on Fae wards. There had to be over a million books in the library, and not knowing the language was going to be a significant problem. For now, he had to continue studying with Harvey and maybe find a gentle way to push the man into teaching him more written Danguinese. But even if he spent every waking hour he wasn’t with Harvey Frank looking through the library, he figured it would take him at least a year on each level, spending no more than five minutes per book. He certainly didn’t plan on staying in the mountain another fifty-two years. No. He had to figure out a quick way of telling which brand of magic was housed in each section, with no reference to guide him.

Think, Noel. Think.

He stood back from the shelves and looked up and down the row, taking in all the spines. On the outside, none of the books seemed the same. They were a scattered spectrum of colors, bound in various materials, the text on the spines were imprinted and inscribed with different inks. Remembering the nonsensical system the mdrai used for organizing the books of prophecy in the Hall of Records, Noel wondered if perhaps these books were organized in a similar way, not by date or topic or type of magic, but by some underlying relational meaning. If this reason was sound, then the shelf in front of him contained books with some context that wasn’t outwardly apparent, but should be evident by their contents. They were surely all on the topic of magic of the same race, but what made the book he looked at first and the books to either side of it belong on the same shelf?

He retook the book he already viewed, along with a few from either side, all different colors, different lengths, different sizes, all bound in different materials, and sat on the floor laying each in order in front of him. The book on possession was a single book, describing everything about the forbidden Danguin art, according to Edward. Based on that, it might be reasonable to assume these seven books contained one particular act of magic each, but the Mardraim also mentioned that the magic of the Danguin was not as extensive as that of other races. How many books must there be if every magical act possible had its own book, he wondered? How many would there be if each act of magic was bound in a book full of other acts within the same category? If it were Elvin, say, a book might describe everything about Light Wells and their practice, or information on light wells might be found in a book discussing how an elf is able to interact with light particles in various ways. If it were Fae, it might describe how to make iachaol or perhaps how to make all elixirs that fall in that class or instead be a reference of certain kinds of ingredients, among which one or more might be used in making iachaol.

“Am I over-thinking?”

He picked up each book, one by one, examining the cover, carefully turning them over in his hands, inspecting the spines, checking the binding to determine the nature of their making. They were all unique in every way. He opened the covers of all seven, laid out in front of him and compared. The books of man often contained pages telling about the author, publisher, date and place of production, and many other races followed suit, because the system for referencing was sound. If these books contained such information, it wasn’t easily discernible, as the writers simply started writing, at the top of each page, filling them with long paragraphs that sometimes extended for several pages before breaking off to begin anew.

But why would such information as author and date be necessary in a secret library built of wizarding magic, hidden inside a mountain no one ever visited and few very rarely left, especially a library accessible to only one man— well two, in this case? These books weren’t mass produced, at least he thought not, considering Edward told him no one but the current Mardraim knew about the library. But then again, Edward also said the Felimi sent the Mdrai out into the world, to collect the new magic of all of the races.

“These may be copies of the original works, made for the Felimi. They could have a library of their own up in the cloister,” he whispered. “But they are blind. If they do have records, they will not be books full of ink.”

He sighed so heavily the page of one of the books turned on its own. Looking down, he realized there were no page numbers. He flipped several pages in each of the books, and indeed, none of them included numbering. There were no headingss of any kind, either, no difference in text sizes or styles. In fact, the text of each book was exceedingly neat, almost uniform, however the there were minor variances in the script, and looking carefully he realized none had been written by the same hand.

Noel smiled at a memory. As if Edward actually expected him to one day be Mardraim of the Danguin people, when he showed him the book of possession he said Noel would need to copy the text at some point in his life, as part of the upkeep.

If the Danguin had been collecting magic for roughly the past eleven thousand years, how many Mardraim must there have been over that time? Five hundred? Two hundred? How long was a Mardraim ordinaily a Mardraim? How many books would each Mardraim have to copy over a lifetime? He looked around the room, searching for a pattern on the shelves. How long would it take one Mardraim to copy the works of five Mdrai, all bringing back various magic of the several races? It would not be easily done. Perhaps the Mdrai themselves wrote these books, and the Mardraim only copied them when they reached a certain state of disrepair. Perhaps some of these books were the original works, which were then transcribed in a manner the Felimi could utilize.

Noel broadened his perspective, and then he saw it. The book bindings repeated at random, and their variance was widely spread. He picked up one of the works before him, bound in a teal-colored leather, and hurried down the row a few sections, until he found another bound in the same material, then another further down. The script on the spines were identically embossed with black ink. The bind was sewn with the same color of thread and exacting stitches. He opened each in turn and found the handwriting matched.

His excitement at discovering there was a system to the book bindings, to a degree, that seemed to indicate either the original author of the work or the mark of the transcriber, was dampened by the fact that it didn’t help him with what was on the insides of the books.

Noel returned the two spare books back in their original shelves and went back to his chosen seven, once more sitting cross-legged in front of them. He turned the teal book back to its beginning and attempted to read, looking for familiar words. Now and then he found simple words or phrases he had heard before, some he understood, some he didn’t, but it was like handing a seven year old a doctoral text and expecting him to understand it. He could sound out words, mostly, but he had little idea of meaning, and it was more of the same with the other six works. It would have been much easier if any of the books made reference to the race to which the magic belonged, at least then he would know whether or not he was in the right place, but that was expecting too much for a culture that used so few words to communicate in the first place. Why would a Danguin waste time repeating the race of the magic when the race was evident based on its floor in the library?

Letting out a large puff of air, frustration at the impossibility of the task building, he scanned the first pages of each of the books once more, this time searching for words that were common between them, even if he could not understand them. Of course there were plenty of elementary words, but he was hoping to stumble across some relevant tie in the group of works, for a single word that stuck out amongst them, to give the works some context. If it existed, it wasn’t readily apparent, but then he had already lost his patience.

“There has to be an easier way.”

Annoyed, he returned the books to their rightful places and flew down to ground level with his drawings, wondering how he could study the wards without the written records, at least for the time being. He lay on the sofa, crossing his feet and resting them on the arm, and took to staring at the images of the wards, as if somehow, looking long and hard enough, he might divine their meaning. Perhaps there was some experiment he could run, to find out what each of the wards were? No, he needed to understand more about what he was dealing with first. Perhaps he could ask Harvey? But Harvey would want to know why.

“This is useless. What do I know, for certain?” he asked, laying the papers aside.

He began reciting rote knowledge of Parallels from his school days. “Magic of gods is of Energy with the Matter of Duality in the Form of Intellect. Magic of elves is of Duality in the Matter of Elements in the Form of Energy. Magic of wizards is of Elements in the Matter of Bondage in the Form of Duality. Magic of fairies is of Bondage in the Matter of Life in the Form of Elements. Magic of men is of Intellect in the Matter of Energy in the Form of Evolution.”

He knew, essentially, what fairies do is the work of life-binding. It was, therefore, reasonable to assume a ward had to be made of living matter, natural elements without any augmentation except through incorporation of further natural elements, all bound in life. By the laws governing Fae, one could not make a ward out of a synthetic material, a ward could not be made that was not bound, and the binding must occur at the elemental level. From this, one could understand the six permutations of fairy magic, which hardly mattered to the task before him, because knowing the fundamentals from his school days would draw him no closer to his goal of cracking these particular wards.

He let out a disgusted grunt and sat up, laying the wards out on the coffee table before him. He leaned forward, his ands pressed against the table, knees bouncing anxiously. What else?

Well, he knew one or more of those twelve wards made it impossible for someone who wasn’t the Mardraim to unlock the door to the room of Danguin magic. Of course, it was not likely there was a fairy ward specific to Danguin Mardraim, rather he suspected that in order for the ward that acted upon lock and key to do the necessary work of determining who could pass, the ward had to somehow be imparted with the intention in the process of the binding. The intention, in this case, was the quality or attribute of Mardraim. But how was this intention imparted?

He scratched his nose, knowing he knew exactly spit about use of Fae. Bergfalk had stressed the importance of learning Parallels, but if they ever taught anything specific about wards, Noel didn’t remember it. The trouble wasn’t the Parallels though, it was the Fae itself. The subject just couldn’t hold his interest, though he was hardly the only one.

Fae was a baser magic than that of the elves. Not that it was lesser in power, in fact, oftentimes a fairy could take more direct action than an elf, though this was in part down to the Fall. Fae was simply different. An elf could in theory make a fairy tonic, by knowing not just the ingredients and where to find or how to fabricate them and when to mix them together, but also knowing all of the properties of the ingredients and exactly how those combined to become that tonic in the fairy binding, finally arranging the elements in that way. Whereas the fairy would grow the appropriate herbs, pick them at the right time, bless them in the Faeish way, and bind them in due course, as fairies do. In the end, they would come out with the same tonic, but the elf’s work for accomplishing this task would be much more time consuming and required greater energy of the elf himself, where the energy the fairy got to do the work would be grown up from the earth, in the Fae. The binding was way down deep in the nature of things, and elves simply didn’t have that relationship with nature. Plus, it was difficult not to think of Fae as kitchen work, and who liked kitchen work, bippity-boppity, and all that nonsense?

He wondered if it would be enough to replicate a ward, the way he might replicate a tonic, if he understood it fundamentally. Or was this a bit of fairy magic he would have to learn to do the traditional way? Did he have enough fairy in him that he would have the capacity for it, if wards couldn’t be replicated? That didn’t matter now. At least one of the twelve wards worked as an intention on the lock and key. What were the other eleven for?

Well, one or more somehow either temporarily severed or at least greatly lessened the connection between him and Isabella. That was the ward he needed. It did this either directly or indirectly, as a result of its intention. Was it possible this was a protection against possession itself? That didn’t seem very likely. If so, wouldn’t it be in the book on possession upstairs? And if it was, wouldn’t Edward know exactly what it was?

A insidious seed, embedded in the lining of his stomach days ago, began to sprout roots and leaves.

No. Why would the old many lie to him about it? He would know Noel would find out eventually, wouldn’t he? Unless that didn’t matter to him . But what purpose would lying serve?

The prophecies… It would serve Om and Moag and the old Mardraim’s understanding of things.

On a sigh, Noel gathered his papers, retrieved the key from the desk drawer, and returned to the room at the top of the library. He hurried inside and opened the book on possession, still there on the small table where Edward left it. He wouldn’t be able to read this book either, he thought, frowning as he took a seat, but if there was a ward among its pages, he was determined to find it. The hour was late, but with a yawn, he leaned his elbow on the table, rested his head against his fist, and began scouring the text.

He woke sometime later, when he tried to stretch to get comfortable and sent a candle clattering to the floor. He woke so well-rested, so content with the world and everything in it that as he flew like a dart downstairs, not knowing what time it was or whether or not he was late meeting Harvey, he didn’t even care that he might be caught out, having stayed too long in the secret hold, as he wiped the crusted drool from his mouth. He had not dreamt. He had not once felt the pulled Moag drawing him to the darkness. He was halfway to the ground floor when the thought of Isabella struck him hard in the gut.

“Noel, you absolute idiot,” he whispered against the panic that rose inside him, frantically feeling for her, but unable to find her. “What have I done?” He had wanted to test the wards, but this was not how.

 

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Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31