Tag Archives: epic fantasy

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