Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 29

The Shape of Darkness

Noel blinked twice, and the darkness before him unfolded into forms vaguely familiar. A black as vast as the space between stars grew up as the walls of stone around him. A black flowing deep as the gaping underbelly of the ocean at midnight, became the smooth trail of the centuries of Mardraim, leading back to the safety of the Danguin Villages. The black that beckoned him forth with a nightmarish chill- its color otherworldly, unfathomable, indelible- was Moag.

Noel drew in an uncertain, black breath and watched as the well of darkness surrounding him breathed a familiar sigh in return. He took up his rucksack, bowels constricted, hand pulsing at his side, and managed a tentative step forward, feeling the pull of Moag, like an anchor weighing against his soul, dragging him ever downward… claiming ownership of him. It was only a matter of time before he drowned. As prophesied, he thought, taking a few more uneasy steps, swallowing against the urge—not his own—to wander off with reckless abandon, into that eternal shade, to know the blackness, as though it somehow might be known, if only one dwelt deep enough and long enough within.

No matter how often he and Isabella danced this thin line between here and the hereafter, Noel doubted he would ever get used to the effect Moag had on the woman or the effect it had on him, by nature of his increasing obsession with her. She longed for the darkness with a tender, black ache, so a tender, black ache Noel could barely control was cultivated inside him, its abysmal tendrils spreading through him as the roots of woman’s possession grew deeper within.

Edward was distracted, Noel decided, tensing his jaw against his fear of the future, shaking away the shadow he imagined coursing through his veins as he pulled from his pack the roughly-bound leather book the old man had given him the first night he set off in search. Of what, he was not certain, but he was Ohamet, after all, the one who wanders, always searching, so he suspected it was bound to happen. It was still strange to him the idea that the empathic among the Danguin could sense was at the soul of a person, but he knew they were right about him.

He turned open the book, and the buff colored pages gave off what appeared at first as a subtle glow, before fading into the general gloom of its surroundings, remaining just bright enough to see the map he had begun and his rough sketches of the thing that had plagued him since first setting foot in Namcha Barwa. He doubted anyone else would understand what they were looking at, if they happened across his work, considering the line drawings, while giving depth and detail to a degree, hardly conveyed what Moag actually looked like, let alone what it felt like, at least to Noel. He could always feel it, its presence a constant thrumming inside him.

While recounting, for Edward, his first experience with Moag, Noel made point of mentioning that there was a brief moment, as the light of Hestia’s flame dimmed and was all but extinguished by that insidious black, when he was certain he saw Moag breathing. This came as a shock to Edward, and the two of them debated whether or not it was possible Moag might be some sort of living creature, an idea the elder wasn’t too keen on, considering his devotion to Om and adherence to the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya. Edward was troubled that Moag existed at all, so he struggled to quantify it, in face of the destruction of so many of Om’s prophecies. The elder had described Moag as the reflection of Om, the shadow of Om, even rather pithily as the backside of Om, but he was adamant it could not possibly be a force equal to or greater than Om unless it was in fact Om, itself, and Om could not be seen—Om was not merely some worldly creature. Of course, Noel asked about the water, in the chamber where the Mdrai deciphered Om’s intent. As best he could tell, with their difficulty communicating between three languages, the elder believed Om’s Waters behaved as some sort of amplifier for the Way, which Om set into motion at the dawn of time.

Even though the old man did not want to believe Moag was alive, when it was time for Noel to start searching the tunnels for the exit, Edward gave him the book, an inkwell, and fountain pen to make his map, then suggested Noel allow his eyes to acclimate to the dark, rather than using a torch to see by. After all, he told him, Noel didn’t really need much light in the first place, and it would only get in the way if they really wanted to understand what Moag consisted of. Noel thought the old man had properly cracked, but as Edward explained it, “Everyone knew,” elves had naturally enhanced vision in the dark. Unfortunately, Noel assured the man, this “everyone” did not include the elves themselves, as this was news to him.

The ability wasn’t magic, per se, but rather a biological characteristic, which Noel suspected had mostly been bred out of his people, after the Fall, as elfin bloodlines thinned, which was why most elves used the electric inventions of men, out of convenience, or fire, when necessary, to light their way. It turned out Noel had this enhanced visibility, though the muscle that controlled it was weak at first, but using his sense of Moag, he was able to hone it. These past few evenings, as he worked, his eyes grew stronger, his vision sharper, the darkness clearer. He could, in fact, see Moag, and it was definitely moving, even if it wasn’t a living, breathing being (though Noel still had his suspicions about this).

The old man was using him, Noel thought as he set off down the path he had begun exploring first, doing his best to ignore Isabella Asan’s longing and the song of imminent doom, which thumped a rowing beat in his chest. He followed the edge of Moag, moving quick but cautiously, checking his map and sketches as he went, to make certain nothing much had changed from the previous night. Moag was not actually mobile, as far as he could tell, rather it continuously shifted from one evening to the next, as though it was made up of some sort of fluid that clung to the air, its slight ebb and flow lending Noel the idea that it was something like a cloud and perhaps more like Om’s water than the Mardraim would ever accept. Unlike Moag, Noel could not feel Om, or at least he had not felt it when he went to the chamber to speak with the Mdrai about the Book of Ages. Moag, on the other hand, wanted him. If he had not felt the thing so deeply, he doubted he ever would have noticed it as anything more relevant than a shadow. But Moag was easily the most frightening thing he had ever known, its visceral grip on both him and his possessor only growing stronger with each day that passed.

“We should be testing the wards,” he whispered into the darkness, as though Isabella was listening. And perhaps she was.

Noel was certain Edward knew he wasn’t actually out searching for the exit. Three nights ago, he’d had every intention of finding his escape route as quickly as possible, just as the Mardraim said, but the more he studied the darkness, the more he could see there was definitive substance to it, the more he knew the exit had to wait. It was as though the something stronger than Moag, stronger than Isabella and stronger , even, than any desire he might have to survive had woken up deep in his gut, and his gut told him he needed to go deeper into the mountain, where Moag was more concentrated. There were answers to be found there. So he wandered.

Maybe the old man hadn’t known from the beginning what Noel would do, but Edward was an empath. There was no way he couldn’t feel this intensity that Noel felt, no way he couldn’t tell Noel had not gone back to the entrance to the tunnels near the Danguin village to study some other path, which would have been the sensible thing to do, if he was really looking for the way out. He supposed he understood why Edward had done it, why he continued to lie to Noel and perhaps even to himself about what was really going on in that mountain, but that didn’t mean the elder wasn’t wrong for leaving Isabella vulnerable to Noel’s whims, anymore than he wasn’t wrong for leaving Noel vulnerable to Isabella. Noel wasn’t using his perceptions of Moag to find his way out of the mountain. The map to the exit wasn’t the purpose of any of this, they both knew it, and to act as though it was somehow about getting one over on the Felimi while plotting his eventual escape was manipulative and more than a tad insulting, if truth be told. Sure, he was not being forthright with Edward either, but the Mardraim wasn’t trying to help Noel gain his freedom or even trying to keep him out of the way while he worked to figure out how to right their destinies. He was simply using him, like he was using Isabella for the prophecies, because he knew Noel could see the shape of the darkness.

“I can’t be angry at that, can I?” Noel sighed. “Not considering all these people, totally unaware they’re surrounded by this… What are you, anyway? Are you a god? Some sort of demonic mist?” he asked the dark, knowing it was foolish to tempt the thing to an answer, but he was annoyed and frustrated and plain knackered. “What do we truly know about you?”

They knew, or at least accepted as fact, that years ago, the boy, Eri, had been lost to Moag, he thought, continuing to make his way through the darkness. One of the Felimi, the Mardraim at the time of the boy’s disappearance, and the boy’s father had all been lost as well, drawn out in an instant and through all of eternity, like they were swallowed by some black hole. Given the divine providence of the Children of Danguin and their reverence for Om, one would think every person in that mountain would know all about the mysterious black monster lurking in the tunnels of their home, waiting to devour body and soul of any who wandered too near, erasing not just their lives, but whole destinies promulgated by their deity, Om—and Om was their deity. The Danguin worshiped it. Their entire lives revolved around it. Had the Felimi had covered up the disappearances and Moag’s existence in order to protect their precious water god? Was Moag, in fact, more powerful?

The Felimi, Noel thought, his stomach tightening anxiously as he recalled the words that had come out of his mouth, not half an hour ago, forced out by ideas that didn’t at all belong to him, but rather to his possessor. It was clear Isabella had issue with the blind Mothers. What had they done to her, he wondered, and what did the youngest of the Mothers mean when she said, “Edward suspects?” Noel had been half tempted to ask the Madraim if he knew what she referred to, but at the same time, the fact Isabella’s thoughts came through to him, so clearly he could speak them out loud, against his own will, made his skin crawl. He decided it best not to say anything more about it, out of fear it would give her more control over him. They needed the wards, desperately, but while he hated to admit it to himself, Edward was right that there were more important things to worry about at the moment than Isabella’s possession of him, and they had no idea how the wards would affect her. He just hoped she would have the courtesy to keep her thoughts out of his mouth, until they could right this mess he had created.

As if in defiance, the image of the Middle Mother staring at him with blind eyes, reaching out and grasping at the air that composed him, flashed through his mind, and he was forced to stop and catch his breath, to make sense of the memory. The woman looked scared, angry, and as confused as Isabella had been, to find herself lingering there outside of her body.

“Her soul,” Noel hissed, shivering at the thought. “It was her soul, and that Mother could see her, blind or not.”

The Felimi worried others would find out what Isabella had done. They expected her to die alone, tucked away in a cold, dank room in their cloister, while Noel was taking his time being destroyed by Moag. They expected Noel would die too. Isabella had cried out to him, begging him to hurry. Harvey came and carried her away, to the very edge of Moag, laid her down at the entrance, and stepped into the darkness.

“Enough,” Noel said, shaking his head at the errant thoughts.

At least Isabella seemed to share in his distrust of the Felimi. Did Edward still want to know why they hid the truth of Moag for so long, or had he only been placating him for the sake of attaining the map? Had the old man decided it wasn’t worth the effort to question what really happened to Eri? Noel supposed the Felimi’s part in all of this didn’t really matter much now. Even if they never uncovered why the blind Mothers hid Moag’s existence years ago, the Mardraim had a responsibility to his people today to find out everything he could about the thing, to know exactly where it lingered, and to decide whether he too would bury whatever truth Noel managed to discover about the dark force, Om’s opposite, as he wandered.

That was why Edward was willing to ignore what Noel was doing, Noel thought as he came to the fork in the tunnels where he stopped working the previous night. Maybe he would look for the way out, eventually, but for now, even if Edward was too uncertain of Noel to be honest about his intentions, Noel was doing exactly what Noel needed to do, and this was where his gut had taken him.

The depth of the black that loomed in the tunnels before him made the place Noel was standing seem bright as the night under a full moon.

Which way should he go?

On that matter, his gut was silent. Both branches were far too dark for him to make out anything that might be inside. So far he had passed seven tunnels like these, marking them in his book for later exploration, but always knowing that wasn’t where he was meant to go. Now he was at a loss. Perhaps he could go either way and get to the same place? Or maybe there was supposed to be some answer right there where he stood, but that seemed unlikely.

Isabella simply wanted to dive in.

Noel desperately wished Edward would have agreed to try the wards. The woman made it difficult at times to discern his own sense from hers. At least if they used the wards, she would be protected from Moag, he thought, his mind whirring with anxiety as he looked around, hoping for some clue as to what he was to do next. Why was he here?

The fear crept in. Fear of how she had taken some modicum of control before. Fear of the feeling she was not wandering, like him, but searching for something tangible, an answer she thought Noel possessed. Maybe this was her, leading him by the proverbial nose after all, and he should turn back before she got them both killed?

No… No. One way or another, he expected he would wind up right back here, of his own accord or of hers. They both felt it, he thought. The way was right there in front of them, but neither seemed to know which path was right. So Noel stood there, staring into the black, just as he had done the night before, for the better part of an hour, knowing Moag was waiting, in both paths, but not knowing if both paths were completely blocked, or if it was simply that he had reached the limitations of his night vision and his sense of Moag.

What the hell could Isabella be searching for in there, he wondered? Was she even sane enough to know? For that matter, was Noel himself sane, following a gut feeling through this wretched darkness after everything that had happened? The fact he had to ask himself that question did nothing to quell the nerves that bubbled up inside him.

Noel closed his eyes and waited, hoping for some clarity. He took several calming breaths and relaxed his fist, which he had kept tight at his side the whole time, as though he clung to his possessor’s hand, half hoping she would save him, as she had done before, which was a ridiculous thing to count on, considering Isabella wanted nothing more than to go either way, though he got an unpleasant sense the tunnel on the left was preferable to the one on the right.

“Ah, the tunnel to the left,” he smiled, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that to take that path would be dangerous, perhaps even perilous.

What was he to do? Should he trust this inkling of his obsession, or should he go off the other way, just in case?

Without much more thought than that, he hurried for the left branch, stopping just where the outcropping of rocks disappeared into the deepening blackness. That things just kept getting darker, the further he explored was unsettling, but this was it. This was definitely where he needed to go. He couldn’t exactly make up his mind how he knew this. There was definitely something else there behind the feeling, besides Isabella Asan and separate from Moag. It was as though he was being guided again, he supposed, just as he had been guided when he first came to the summit, to search for the entrance to the mountain, except now he could feel himself being pushed forward, urged on, and the mountain wasn’t trying to break him in order to make him go the right way, which was a positive.

He could feel it now. Was it really just Isabella calling out to him in the darkness again, so he could follow her voice to their ultimate destruction? Was it the lure of Moag hoping to devour him at last?

No, he had seen this before.

This was the black he saw in the Dreaming, hoping to find answers about the Last Hope of the Elves.

Was the push he felt Om guiding him against it’s will, again?

As his pulse increased, so did his breathing, until he was practically panting with nerves, sweat wetting his hair, trickling down the narrow ridge of his spine. He forced himself to slow down inside and find his center again, knowing he would need to focus now more than ever, so he could react in an instant if the pull of Moag took hold of him or he felt Isabella was in danger.

On a dry swallow, he lifted his hand into the darkness before him, half expecting to be drawn into some mad prophecy, wondering how Isabella would react, how Moag would react, what Edward would learn from the woman in the morning, whether she would receive more prophecies, and if any of them would live through any of this to tell the tale.

He waited at least a minute, though it felt what he imagined an eternity felt like, but nothing happened.

Giving a small chuckle at the intensity of his fear, his hand still outstretched before him, Noel stepped over one of the smaller boulders scattered in front of the entrance. His eyes tried to refocus on his hand, but it was so dark, everything was a blur around him, and it seemed the very air was moving, like shadows of monsters stirring, all around him, festering in the depths of that unforgiving black.

“Curious,” Noel whispered, stepping further into the deepening darkness, hoping to see more shades of darkness manifest before him and not to be swallowed up by Moag.

His heart pounded, his ears rang, his very soul stretched out in anticipation.

Isabella longed.

Whatever she was searching for was buried deeper still in this impossible maze, he thought. Did she know which way to go, or was she simply guessing? Were they searching for the same thing?

Noel stopped, dropping his hand to his side. “Actually, that is curious,” he said out loud and waited for the echo, a voice not his own, to return to him. There was no reply.

He took another step, and when his eyes shifted at last, he realized that he had come nose to intangible nose with the greatest absence of light imaginable, the very thing that frightened him to the core of his being, so black it looked like a solid mass of emptiness before him. But this thing was so much different than the Moag he first met, he thought, lifting his fingers to its surface, stopping short of touching it.

His breath came heavy now, and he watched it hit the surface of Moag and swirl like a fog that hung thick on a spring morning. Quickly he tucked the pencil and notebook back in his pack. The absence of the book’s faint glimmer made it possible to see the very edge of Moag, creeping silent before him, moving gently toward him, as though it were caught in a tide, drawn to him by his gravity.

Silent, Noel thought, bringing his fingers closer still to the blackness, so that they were almost touching. Where the tips of his fingers nearly grazed its surface, Moag stretched slowly toward him, ever so slightly, as though to greet him.

But it had been anything but silent the first time Noel encountered it. When he first found himself lost in the darkness, he had the vision of Isabella, a prophecy he guessed, of the woman’s death, the sand pouring out of her mouth and eyes and navel. As he continued in search for the home of the seers who foretold of the Last Hope, the darkness grew so thick around him that even Hestia’s Eternal Flame could not penetrate it and was snuffed out. The deeper he went, the more horrible memories Moag pulled from his mind, replaying them for him in the miserable black, as though frightening Noel was some kind—

“—Of game,” Noel whispered into the dark, his fingers poised.

“Eri?” he added after a long moment, waiting, but there was no reply.

Was Isabella searching for Eri?

Noel swallowed the lump in his throat and realized the woman was like a squall within him, surging against the edges of him, willing him to run.

He actually laughed out loud, “Oh, you want to go the other way now? Should have said so in the first place.”

If she didn’t want to go into Moag, what did she want? What was in there that she needed to know so desperately? What was in there that Noel was wandering to find?

The beat of his heart and his quickening breaths had his mind muddled. “This is madness,” he hissed, shaking his head against Isabella, against himself, against everything. “I’m supposed to go this way!”

But he didn’t want to go through Moag anymore than Isabella did, no matter what his gut or Om told him. He swore loudly against the insanity of it all, trying to clear his mind.

Moag had changed, he thought, bouncing on the balls of his feet several times before stopping, pressing his lips together. He swore, then thrust his hand, into the black, watching in awe as it morphed around him, and his arm, past his elbow, completely disappeared.

This was a terrible mistake.

In the span of a heartbeat, Isabella was writhing in agony inside him. Though he did not hear her, he felt her scream rip through him, her cry vibrating against every cell in his being, and before he knew exactly what he was doing, he found himself running the opposite way, back toward the Mardraim’s hold, back toward the path to the Danguin villages, back to Isabella Asan.

He barely got his light well fully formed around him before he was bursting out into the open, tearing off through the trees, not even bothering to stick to the road in his hurry. He had to get to her. He had to help her. Moag was killing her, killing her again, and it was all his fault, he thought, pushing up from the ground, dodging as many branches as he could, while leaves whipped against his flesh, as he took to the air.

In mere moments he was coming down from the sky, landing so hard in Isabella’s front garden that his knees buckled in pain and he fell to the ground. What had he done? What had he done? Quick as he could, he scrambled to his feet, ignoring the sting of fresh wounds on his knees and hands, already hurrying toward the porch steps before he looked up to find her standing there in the doorway, at once wild as fire and delicate as a moon beam, her face expressionless, as she watched him with eyes, black as Moag.

Mortal gods, she was beautiful.

Dumbstruck, Noel stumbled to a halt before reaching the porch, then in his confusion he took several steps back. Her scream still coursed through him, burning his insides. He felt her terror, as his own. He felt her rage, as his own. He even felt her stare, her eyes fixed upon him, yet somehow not seeing him, even though she was looking right at him. It was almost as though he could see himself through her eyes, standing there looking like a right idiot, because although he felt these things of her, she seemed perfectly fine, absolutely well, not at all as though she was dying.

Of course, she can’t see me, Noel thought, turning around in a circle, checking his light well. Yes, that was intact. But her eyes were transfixed on him anyway, and she was still fierce with madness inside him, yet she stood so still, so silent.

Noel shuddered, and in that moment of panic, he took two long steps to the left.

Isabella’s dark eyes followed him, but otherwise, it was as though she was absent, gone deep within, to a place where no one else could feel her, just as the Mardraim had said. No one else could feel her… except for Noel.

He shuddered again, for good measure. He couldn’t understand. He couldn’t balance the things that he felt of her now, deep within himself, the fury and agony and pure hatred of him, with the way she simply stood there, motionless and devoid of any outward sign of life, save perhaps the fact that she had made a point of meeting him there at the door, like she knew he was coming. How long had she been standing there?

It was only then that the thought occurred to him, Isabella likely couldn’t see him at all, but could feel him through her possession of him, the way he felt her. She may even have brought him there herself, after all, he had been drawn to her before, felt her love of Harvey, felt her despair at the idea of his death in Moag.

Suddenly, he realized she was everywhere inside him. Anger rising in him, he shook his head, to get rid of the eerie sense of watching himself through her eyes, turned and ran down the road to Edward’s hut without stopping. Minutes later, he was trembling, stood over the water basin, scrubbing handfuls of water over his face trying to wash Isabella away, but her presence was pronounced within him, and now she did not just occupy his hand, but rather it was like she was affixed within him, all over him.

“What have I done?” he whispered, the remnant of the woman’s scream like a ringing in his ears that reverberated through every cell of him. “What the bloody hell is happening to me?”

He went and sat on his palette, letting the water drip off his hair and his nose onto the floor, pulling his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to wrap his head around everything that happened. But there was no understanding any of it.

“We must test the wards,” he hissed after several long minutes, knowing that was the only answer.

He ran his hands roughly through his hair and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Noel lay down, but stared up at the ceiling of the hut for a long while before voicing out loud the truth, “I must test the wards.”

When he finally drifted off, perhaps an hour later, he dreamt he was Isabella Asan. The evening was cool, the village silent, and she had just opened her door to step out onto her porch for some fresh air, when she looked up and found herself, a faint indigo form, like a whisper, standing there in the garden, staring back at herself with a look of marked confusion and venom on her ethereal face. She did not believe what she saw could be real, instead attributing the apparition to her troubled mind, constantly plagued with prophecies she could not piece together and the unending presence of the wanderer. But she was just preparing to shut her self in again, put out the lantern, and get some necessary rest, when the faint whisper took two large steps to the right. She screamed, startling herself awake.

Noel was startled awake as well.

It was the wee hours of the morning, and Edward Frank had not yet returned from his hold.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 28

Hey guys! I just wanted to let you know I redid this chapter because I was extremely unsatisfied with the way it turned out.  In truth, I had been very sick, since December, and was struggling to produce anything, when I posted the original version of Chapter 28 in January, just wanting to get something out there. After months of doctors visits and recovery, I am feeling better now, and more importantly, I think this chapter is so much better after the rewrite.  So enjoy!

Burdens to Bear

“I had hoped to find her condition improved, unfortunately Young Isabella is still much too weak and disturbed,” Edward sighed as Noel tossed himself down on the overstuffed sofa late that evening and pressed his palms into his eyes, rubbing out the exhaustion. The villages of the Danguin had been dark and silent for several hours. Knowing it would be hours more yet before he would get any sleep, Noel pulled a piece of speckled fruit from his sleeve pocket, picked off the lint and popped it in his mouth.

The old man sat at his desk, his shoulders slumped. Their work was beginning to take its toll on the elder. Edward’s eyes, ordinarily bright and smiling, even in the most serious of situations, had the dull look that came from lack of rest and too many hours spent pondering things beyond his control. If the look on his face was any indication, Noel was not going to like what the man had to say about that morning’s meeting with Isabella Asan.

“Disturbed?” Noel jested gruffly, then swallowed, chuckling to himself. He could think of several ways the woman’s possession of him might have been a pleasurable experience, if she weren’t, in fact, quite disturbed. As it was, her irritation had only increased these past few nights, as Noel ventured further into the dark and winding tunnels, mapping out the edges of Moag when he was supposed to be mapping the path of his eventual escape. The endeavor drained him, physically and mentally, and left him with the terrifying feeling that part of him was slowly being siphoned away, though he hoped this was just paranoia. What Isabella felt… well, that was different.

Noel had known Edward’s meeting with the woman would not go well the moment the elder said he must check on her before they could begin testing the wards. That morning, as he continued his lessons with Harvey, he sensed just how poorly their meeting went. As was usually the case during the daylight hours, enervated buzzes coursed through his fingertips as Isabella’s mind raced from one extreme to the next, pausing now and then to let Noel know she was there and she truly blamed him for all of this, but this time, there was something different about her. It was almost as though he could sense her searching for something, digging into Noel as though he held all the answers. Harvey asked him twice what was wrong with his hand as they worked, but all he could offer in his defense was that he must have slept on it funny. He doubted the man believed him. Every day it was getting more difficult to ignore the will of his possessor. This was expected. Her madness was not.

Edward stuffed a wad of tobacco into his skinny pipe carved of bone, answering seriously, “She is not fully aware of what she is doing at all times, Young Noel. I believe it unwise, even cruel, to attempt what might further her injuries or worsen her hysteria. The wards must wait until she is better.” The golden glow of flame flickered momentarily lighting up his face, as clouds of lavender tinged smoke billowed around his head like a flowing mane.

Noel tightened his jaw, inhaled deep and let the breath out slowly through his nose, sitting up to face the old Mardraim properly. What they had to do involved a certain element of risk, of course, but they both knew there was no alternative to the wards, and the fact of the matter was Isabella Asan might never get better. Moag had addled her mind, and while thankfully it appeared not to have had the same effect on Harvey or Noel, the text on possession, locked up in the highest room of the Mardraim’s conservatory, made it clear that Noel was in significant danger, and would have been even if Isabella had not utterly lost her mind. The book made no mention of any cure for possession, but they knew the wards at least alleviated some of Noel’s sense of the woman’s presence. They had to try them eventually. Besides, surely it was a greater risk for him to continue testing the boundaries of Moag without taking any precautions to protect her while she was in such a warped and fragile state.

“I no wish her harm, Edward,” Noel said, leaving off the fact he did not relish the thought of any harm coming to himself, either, though he was certain the empath could sense as much, as the old man raised a skeptical brow in answer. “She feels Moag when I come here. I feel her and know. We know wards work. They help her.”

“We know wards, in some form, work for you,” Edward puffed at his pipe, grimacing as though aware this could not possibly be enough for the Wanderer. “We have no idea what happens to Young Isabella during those times you are warded. Her condition might worsen beyond our control.”

Noel shrugged uneasily. Her condition was already worsening, and they both knew it. The past three nights he had grown increasingly aware that Isabella was desperate to return to Moag, that she would give anything if Noel would just step into the depths, if only for a moment. He had managed to restrain her so far, but he feared what might happen as the bond between them strengthened, as was bound to happen. If Isabella figured out how to take control of Noel’s body, she might force him to do anything she wished, but losing physical control of himself was hardly the worst effect of possession. From what little Edward had shared from the book locked up high in the tower, Noel was aware there were a myriad of reasons this particular Fahmat was forbidden, but the most offensive these is the obsessor’s eventual loss of all faculty as the possessor becomes responsible for her victim’s most basic of functions. If the wards didn’t work, and they found no way to sever the connection between Noel and Isabella, Noel was destined to go mental too, never mind Moag.

“We test wards. We find out,” he implored.

“I am accountable to my people, Young Noel. We will test the wards when I believe Young Isabella is ready.” Edward let out a trying sigh and opened the journal in which he had been taking notes since Noel’s arrival. “Until then, be content to bear this burden.”

Bear this burden, Noel thought, grumbling under his breath. It was not as though he was the only one with a burden to bear in this. Isabella was suffering too, and the Mardraim knew it, but as Noel looked back at the old man, prepared to argue their case once more, he noted the deep shadow of concern that marred the elder’s face. Something more was troubling him. “What happened today, Master Frank?” Noel asked quietly.

This had become a nightly ritual for the two, meeting in the Mardraim’s secret hold, while the rest of the mountain slept, discussing progress, but making little.

The Mdrai had yet to discover anything new regarding the Last Hope prophecy, but it was early days yet, and Edward warned Noel from the beginning this would be a considerable undertaking. The Hall of Records housed millions of books of prophecy, spanning thousands of years. To make matters worse, the books were not organized and cataloged for ease of use, when searching for a specific event, which was why the Mdrai had not managed to find Noel’s book when Harvey Frank first felt him during his flight to the mountain. Though most of the books had at least one name on the spine, many of them contained multiple lifetimes of the same being, allegedly reincarnated over generations, and it was often impossible to tell which version of a person’s self would experience what prophecy when.

As though rebirth wasn’t enough to confuse matters completely, the books were written primarily to improve the study of the Veils, or signs as given by Om to the seers, or Zhe, who saw them. To that end, the books were arranged by prophetic relation to one another, which made sense if one understood that the prophecies were recorded by the Danguin people, not so that they could control or even bear witness to outcomes, but alone in reference and reverence to their water god Om. In a long-forgotten past, the Danguin traded on this wisdom, but they had not done so in thousands of years, certainly not since they began keeping written records of the knowledge Om shared, as their abilities began to wane, around the time of the Fall. For their purposes, they had no need of understanding the vagaries of people’s lives, so the prophecies as written gave no indication of dates or times, places, or even the races of their subjects, unless it happened that information was clearly discernible, from among the Veils. The factual basis of the prophecies as they unfolded out in the real world was relatively moot, which meant all the Mdrai could do was pull random books from any given shelf and pray they would quickly come across something that ruled each subject in or out, with regards to their search. Under the circumstances, it could take them many months to uncover the Prophecy of the Last Hope among their records… if it existed in the first place… if it was not among the lengthening list of things Noel changed in coming to the mountain. And there had been significant changes.

To help them understand just how much of the future Noel had altered, he had given Edward the names of twelve Nobles, which proved mostly useless, except in confirming the fact that he had done more harm than good in coming there. The Mardraim would not share with him any specifics of what was found in the twelve books, but of course, the Danguin were guarded when discussing the knowledge of Om, even with each other, so giving Noel details was simply out of the question. He supposed it was enough to know that, although there had been several changes among his friends’ prophecies, he had not managed to completely erase their futures in coming there, as had been the case with Edward’s, Harvey’s, Isabella’s, and his own. Unfortunately, there was no mention of stones or of long awaited heroines among their texts, though Edward assured him this meant very little, as many prophecies were relatively mundane in nature, and often it was only when an event passed that the augurs recognized a prophecy’s true significance. It would take time, but once the Mardraim had finished with Noel’s and his own books, the old man intended to reconsider all of the unwritten prophecies in the books of Noel’s friends, in an attempt to decipher their potential meanings in relation to the Veils and the countless other prophecies the Mdrai were discovering had been unwritten as they searched the Hall of Records. Only then would they discuss whether Noel should give him more names, though Noel was concerned about giving away too much to begin with, and disconcerting as it was, Edward did not seem at all confident the answers they sought would be found, even if they somehow managed to read every book the abundant collection had to offer.

In his first week’s work with Harvey, Noel’s use of the old Elfish language had improved somewhat, however he had learned nothing about whatever it was the man might be hiding, and in truth, he was beginning to think Edward was simply paranoid. Harvey did not speak of Moag, but if their experiences in the darkness were anything alike, Noel could hardly blame him for being tight-lipped on the matter, and in truth, Noel was not certain how to even broach the subject, so he didn’t (but of course, he secretly hoped the topic would never come up, so the fact it didn’t was rather convenient). The younger Frank did not ask the many questions that Noel expected, considering everything that had happened. He did not ask about Noel’s meeting with the Mdrai, he did not ask about the prophecy in the Book of Ages, and he had not shown the remotest curiosity in what it was the Mdrai were searching for in the Hall of Records, but then Harvey was an empath, and a terribly powerful one according to Edward. Perhaps he already knew everything there was to know or thought Noel couldn’t possibly offer him any useful information, which was likely true, as Noel was relatively clueless, all things considered. However, it seemed more likely that, motivated by the strict laws of his people, Harvey understood it was not his place, even as aspirant, to infringe upon the work of his Masters by demanding answers, even of the Wanderer. As far as Noel was concerned, withholding the truth from one’s grandfather was hardly a criminal offense, and though he had found Harvey could be far too serious at times, Noel was beginning to grow fond of the fellow.

For his part, Harvey had begun teaching Noel the ways of Om and the deeply religious precepts recorded in the Mdonyatra, as well as learning English from Noel, as the Felimi instructed. Through this study Noel was learning more of the language of the Danguin, though not nearly enough to understand conversations between locals, and he had yet to learn anything of their system of writing, which meant he was no closer to discovering which books in the Mardraim’s retreat might contain forgotten Elfin magic, not that he had much spare time to search. Luckily, the books weren’t going anywhere, and neither was Noel— not without answers, which seemed only to prove more elusive as the days passed.

Now Noel listened patiently as Edward told of his visit with Isabella Asan.

When he first arrived at her hut that morning, the elder found the woman staring out the window in a catatonic state, unaware anyone was watching her as she stood lost in whatever cracked world it was Moag left tucked away inside her wounded mind. His second knock on her door brought her around, and for a time she was up and alert, pretending as though everything were normal, or as normal as things might be, under the circumstances.

“There were moments when her demeanor was… frightening,” Edward said, leaving the word to hang on the air for a moment as he began scribbling notes on the day, writing down at least twice as much as he shared. “She lapsed in and out of presence, as though deep within her there is a place she retreats to that no one else can possibly reach, even through empathy.” Here he looked up at Noel, as though he might ask a question, but he must have thought better of it, as instead he shook his head and continued, “At times, in the middle of speaking she simply stopped—her words, her movement, her very breath becoming nearly imperceptible—and she remained trapped in this stillness for anywhere from a few moments to, at longest count, nearly an hour before resuming where she left off, as though no time had passed.”

A grim smile set on Edward’s face, as he hesitated. “She had several wounds, on her face and her neck, that were not there when I last saw her,” the elder said, his voice pained. “Her mother informs me these are self-inflicted, though I could have deduced as much from her behavior during the hours I spent at her side.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably, fixing Noel with a sympathetic gaze. “She clawed at the flesh on her hand, tearing the skin away until she bled. Though this should have been painful to her, if she felt anything at all, she gave no indication. In fact, she seemed completely unaware she was harming herself, except occasionally when she noticed the blood and would wipe it away on the front of her gown, before carrying on as though this action was separate from her, as though the blood had never been there.”

Noel suppressed the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach and came to sit on the arm of the sofa to face the old man properly. Matters were worse than he’d believed. “Which hand?” he asked, squeezing his fingers together into a fist, already certain of the answer.

Edward nodded gravely. “The hand that decayed prior to her death, while you were still deep within Moag.”

Noel swore under his breath, knowing the old man was thinking exactly what he was thinking, as he got up to pace the floor.

In previous days, he shared with Edward everything he remembered about his own experience within Moag, and from the little the woman told them when she first woke from her coma, they knew there were several parallels between Noel’s and Isabella’s encounters with Moag. Both experienced the darkness speaking directly to them, almost in mocking, though Edward was reluctant to say it seemed Moag had a personality. Both experienced visions that seemed to foretell of their deaths—Noel experiencing sand, while Isabella experienced water. In these visions, each brought about the other’s death—Noel by squeezing the life out of the woman, to keep her from struggling, so he could save her from the quicksand, and Isabella by holding Noel under the flood, in order to stop him from calling up the waters from the Wellspring of Om. Both had every intention of saving the other, but at the end of Noel’s vision Isabella became a decaying corpse, her rotting body spilling sand out of every orifice. The sight had been so startling, he shuddered to think of it, even now, because the vision had felt so real at the time.

Now he recalled his sense of dread as he grabbed Isabella’s arm, trying to save her from the shifting sands, her terrified words, “Sim ofit osh,” you are killing us, ringing in his ears. When he finally escaped Moag, he found the woman already dead, her body—that very arm—already black with rot. Even now, he remembered feeling her urgency in his own hand as he hurried to breathe the life back into her. And ever since, he felt her presence stirring there in his fingers, like some addict hallucinating a fragment of her soul crawling beneath his skin. Now she had begun tearing at her own flesh, at that very arm that had been taken by the decay, as if to try and rid herself of their connection. He could hardly blame her, he thought, clenching his fist, knowing she was there with him, knowing she was always there, however quiet she might be.

How long would they allow her to harm herself before the Mardraim would agree to act? “The wards, Edward…” Noel whispered gravely, landing with a huff on the arm of the sofa once more.

“I need more time to understand,” Edward answered plainly. “I must continue to record the prophecies Young Isabella witnessed through Moag. We must make record of all of this, if we ever hope to grasp the things that have happened and set them right.” The old man’s eyes were wild with fear and regret.

“Understand? Edward, records no save her from me,” Noel held his hand out in pleading. As far as he was concerned, they had quite enough prophecy to be getting on with, just dealing with Om. That they might be forced to contend with a separate future ordained by Moag was too much. “I hurt her. I cause this, Edward. I change her. The wards–”

“Moag changed her, Young Noel. You bear no responsibility for that. However, we must attempt to discover what will come next, as you are responsible for this shift in Om’s way.” The elder drew himself up, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk, his sympathetic smile marred by the painful truth in his eyes. He commiserated with their plight, but Isabella’s possession of Noel was the least of his concerns. “If we are to restore our prophecies, we must understand Moag.” It was clear now that Edward believed the prophecies Isabella brought with her from the depths of Moag were the best clues they had as to how they might rewrite the destinies Noel destroyed in coming there, and somehow that should make the nightmarish insanity of their ordeal more bearable—and Noel should bear it contentedly, even knowing the woman might one day walk them both straight into the depths of Moag, ending them both, or that even if she didn’t manage that, Noel could one day expect to find himself a dribbling lunatic, incapable of tending to his own basic needs.

“Edward…” Noel sighed, finding it hard to believe the Mardraim would risk both Isabella’s and Noel’s sanity to right the path of Om.

“I believe there is a great deal more she has yet to tell us. She is simply overwhelmed. I can feel her mind struggling to release itself.”

“You can feel?” Noel barked, losing his patience at last, tears unexpectedly wetting his eyes. Embarrassed and angry, he got to his feet and turned his back to the old man.

“I will tend to her daily from now on,” Edward said quietly. “Hopefully, she will improve soon, at which point we may test the wards, however you must accept it could take years to learn everything she has yet to tell us of Moag.”

“Years?” Noel balked, looking around them in exasperation, imagining himself still there waiting years from now, the arm of the sofa worn from countless nights spent guessing at the meaning of things they would never comprehend, himself an old man smoking from a pipe he had whittled in his restless hours, wondering if Edward was ever going to teach him anything useful, wondering if the Mdrai would ever find the right book among their records, wondering if he would ever escape the hold Moag still seemed to have on him and his possessor, all the while caught in this disastrous flirtation with a mad woman who was, literally, tearing herself apart, knowing it would only be a matter of time before Noel went the same way. And she was a mad woman. If the ramblings of Isabella Asan were in fact prophecies designed by Moag and not delusions, there was little chance of grasping their meaning while she was so lost that she mutilated herself.

Because of me, Noel thought, unable to stop that guilty thought. Because I lived.

“We will find the truth, Young Noel,” Edward answered gently, laying his pipe aside. “We will find your Hope in time, and you will leave here. Have faith.”

Faith.

Noel turned his attention to the roomful of trinkets and oddities, looking for a distraction among the shelves, half-listening as the Mardraim began listing the Moag-born prophecies Isabella shared that day, none of them intelligible, most not even full sentences, all the while wondering if it would not be better for him to find the route to the exit and return with Berfalk and Foote and the rest.

“…born a shelter…”

His lack of faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope is what had brought him there in the first place and may have been responsible for the undoing of everything, including the undoing of poor Isabella Asan. He could be no more help in the search for the Last Hope prophecy, and while he enjoyed learning during his time with Harvey, he hardly felt like what he was doing was useful. Even his search for the exit felt more like a task the old man had set him to in order to keep him preoccupied and out of the way, after all, couldn’t Edward have just drawn him up a map of the place? That he was just supposed to continue traipsing off into oblivion each night, when he had no idea what it did to Isabella, and somehow have faith everything would simply work out in the end was a bit hard to swallow.

“…she swallowed it whole…”

The Danguin had all of these books of prophecy, pages and pages of Veils shown to them by Om. The Seers saw the veils, but the Augurs, they understood them. They knew the language Om spoke. They had studied their water god for countless years. Of course Edward Frank was not going to understand Moag overnight.

“… pages turned to ash…”

Could faith really be the answer? Could faith that they would soon understand the revelations of Moag, as seen through the mind’s eye of a broken woman, save them from what Noel had done? He sincerely doubted it. The things Isabella said she saw in Moag were little more than white rabbits Edward was wasting time chasing. They needed a translator. They needed someone who understood Moag’s Veils, because Isabella certainly didn’t understand them, otherwise she wouldn’t feel such an intense desire to return to the deep, would she? What did she see in the darkness that would make her want to go back? What was she searching for?

“We never restore Om’s way, Edward,” Noel whispered. “I change everything. Harvey said.”

“Mm, perhaps. Young Isabella has twice mentioned a prophecy concerning the nameless child and myself,” Edward answered, ignoring Noel’s defeatism.

Was she searching for a prophecy, Noel wondered.

“She said, ‘I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag.’ Are you certain you saw and heard nothing of an infant while you were within Moag?”

Noel flexed his fingers. It felt… almost as though… it was something she had… forgotten? Could Noel help her remember?

“Young Noel?”

“Yes, Master Frank?” Noel answered, unable to keep his irritation from his voice.

“You saw no child while you were within Moag? You heard no crying?”

“I tell you everything I know of Moag,” Noel said, tiring of Isabella’s prophecies, tiring of Moag, picking up an ancient dwarfish battle-ax from a shelf and giving it a hearty swing. It rang out with a powerful burst of energy that reverberated through the air, knocking over several items on the shelves in front of Noel and causing him to stumble backwards. Wide-eyed, he put the ax back on its stand. Isabella pulsed in his hand, as though she had felt everything and now her heartbeat skipped out of time with his.

“She told me the child had to die in order for the prophecy to be complete,” Edward offered. “I wonder if all prophecy of Moag concerns death?”

“Bugger me, if that’s not a pleasant thought,” Noel glowered in English, figuring Edward was not actually listening to him anyway. “It’s enough the woman brought back prophecies from Hell, now we have to worry they all portend of death.” He shook his hand violently, trying to get rid of the throbbing pain she left there. “Please, dear God, let her have another for me, and let it come sooner rather than later and not end in salvation,” he added, picking up an electric toothbrush, noting the uneven wear of the bristles, wondering who it had belonged to and why on earth the Mdrai collected it as he used it to scrub his offending hand.

“Language, Young Noel.” Noel looked back to see the old man take up his pipe and give it another spark, leaning back in his chair to consider as he smoked. “I put him back in Moag… I put him back… What is the infant’s role in this? The nameless child must be important somehow.”

“Why nameless, Master Frank?” Noel asked tossing the toothbrush back on its shelf, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why no give him name?”

Edward gave an disturbed grumble, his face constricting sharply against the idea. “To be named by Om is a privilege of the Children of Danguin,” he answered, waggling his pipe as though it were an accusatory finger, as if the very thought of naming someone himself was an affront to his morality. “Om tells of every Danguin birth and death, generations in advance. The child should not have been possible. The child was always without a path.”

Noel had wondered why so many of the Danguin had common, modern names. Naming by Om, by prophecy, explained a lot. It did not explain why someone did not simply offer the nameless child a name of his own. What would they have done with him if the child had lived?

“Other books of prophecy have names,” Noel frowned. His own book bore his name, though it was written in the language of the Danguin, so Noel could not read it. “Om names others, like Danguin?”

“Not like Danguin,” answered the old man. “Om may include the name of anyone within the Veils, but for each of my people the naming comes directly from Om as prophecy itself. Each birth is prophetic. Each lifetime is known and numbered. Om orders their existence. This child… He was…”

Whatever he was or was not, the old Mardraim did not say, but rather turned back to his book and his pipe, looking somber as he contemplated.

He was no one, Noel thought, shivering at the thought of what that child’s life might have been like in a place where he was the only one who was different, the only one whom their water god had ignored from the beginning. Would his mother and father have cared for him? Would he have been cast out from the mountain to be raised by wild yaks? Or might his fate, guided by nothing more than chance and a people who believed firmly in the destinies divulged by Om, have been even worse?

As though she had been listening in and Noel’s thoughts had struck a nerve, Isabella grew anxious inside him.

“The Felimi…” Noel said uncomfortably, knowing the thought was not really his own, and worse still, knowing what he had to say would not be an easy thing for the elder to hear, that the very idea went against everything the Danguin believed, against their Mdonyatra and their Ftdonya and all of the lessons the Felimi had ever thought to teach their children up at their cloister. Noel had spent his life in the real world, where people who believed firmly in the idea of good and right, tended to do an awful lot of evil and wrong for whatever they might convince themselves were good or right reasons. And since Noel’s arrival, even the Felimi seemed to be having difficulty maintaining their tenets. None of these thoughts belonged to Noel though—not one, yet he thought them all the same. “The Felimi took him… The Felimi—”

“No,” Edward gave a bitter frown, shifting in his chair but not looking up.

“They hide truth of Moag,” Noel whispered, feeling the ilk rise in his throat at the idea he was not entirely in control of himself.

The old man shook his head, tapping the ash from his pipe into a rubbish bin. “The child died when you came from Moag, Noel Loveridge. I am sorry.”

“No. I not only one who came from Moag,” Noel said, then shook out his hand, trying to ignore Isabella’s persistence, but unable to stop himself from saying, “You want save Isabella, but Felimi stop you. You left room. Little Mother said, ‘Edward suspects.’”

The old man caught him in his sight, his tired eyes shifting rapidly, as Noel panted “Young Isabella?” Edward asked.

Noel nodded, clenching his fist as the old man studied him for quite some time. It was possession. They knew this was coming.

“Do you know what she means?”

Noel shook his head, fighting back the urge to vomit.

Never mind what Isabella Asan meant. The idea that the Felimi had something to do with the nameless child’s death was not so far-fetched as the Mardraim wished to believe. After all, Edward had propositioned Noel for help in trying to discover what the Felimi were hiding about Moag. Noel had come through the darkness and changed things, yes, but if the Danguin were named by Om generations in advance, then nothing Noel could have done in his mere thirty-four years on this earth could possibly have reached back through the history of these people to erase a naming by Om, could it? And someone had made it a point to remove the records of those Danguin who had fallen to Moag before, hadn’t they? Maybe the child hadn’t died because he came through Moag after all. Maybe the Felimi had something to do with it.

But then he recalled his time in the Dreaming. Or perhaps Isabella recalled it.

Harvey had warned that Noel would change everything. Perhaps it was possible he had changed even the past through his communion with the Wangarr spirit? Perhaps his own prophecies and those of Isabella, Harvey, and Edward had been destined to be unwritten all along? Perhaps Om and Moag had always known Noel would enter the darkness and end up destroying the infant’s life, and that was why Om found no need to give the boy a name? Noel had touched creation, after all. He had no way of knowing what may or may not be possible, where the Dreaming was concerned. If he ever got out of there—at least if he got out of there with his sanity intact—he would find Taree and ask him. Right now he had to get himself under control.

Edward Frank shifted in his seat, leaning forward expectantly. The elder eyed him for a long minute before asking in a delicate whisper, “Do you have something more you need to tell me, Noel Loveridge?”

Had the old man felt the Noel kept?

Isabella had.

“No,” Noel answered, shaking his head. “No.”

Though Edward should have pressed the issue, and if he had Noel might have before forced to tell him everything, the elder nodded and said, “The Felimi hid Moag’s existence from our people for a reason. You are right. We must still find out why.”

“How?” They had missed their opportunity to get fast answers from the blind Mothers at Fkat.

“I wish I knew, my friend,” Edward replied, shaking his head. “I can write of my time with Isabella later. It is early yet. Shall we study more of your broken prophecies, to see what we can make of them? Perhaps answers will come to us.”

Noel couldn’t help feeling the old man only wanted to see what more Isabella might reveal. “Not tonight. I go now, Master Frank,” Noel sighed, turning for the door, not knowing exactly what to do, except to wander the path around Moag, even though he was certain this harmed Isabella.

“Perhaps if we were to examine your Book of Ages more thoroughly,” Edward said as Noel reached the door, “there may be more clues about your Hope to be found in this writing.” He was trying to get Noel to stay, to keep an eye him.

“You have Om and Moag and the Mdrai and Young Isabella,” Noel answered. “You no need old book written by elves who know nothing but wishes. I go now.”

“Young Noel, you carry much guilt with you. If this is all happening, not because of you, but rather through you, because of Moag, Moag is where we must look for answers. If the prophecy in your book is not of Om, but instead of Moag—”

“You think Prophecy of Last Hope from Moag?” Noel interrupted, shocked by the idea, mostly because he had not considered it himself.

“No,” Edward answered quickly, “but the Felimi do not know I do not think this. Perhaps I can get them to speak with you again, if you will take your book—”

“You want give Felimi Book of Ages?” Noel groused.

“No. No,” the elder assured, but Noel was already responding.

“Book of Ages is story of my people.”

“Of course—”

“Felimi want know how I came here, want no one else come.”

“Yes, however—”

“They threat my life. They threat my people. They threat Isabella. No book, Master Frank,” Noel insisted, his jaw pulsing several times as he watched the old man’s eyes shifting back and forth, searching him. They had threatened Isabella. How did he know this?

The middle mother said she saw her—she had seen Isabella’s soul when it left her body, he thought, memories that did not belong to him unfolding in answer. The young one had asked how Isabella did it. And the old woman had said, “We will leave you now to Moag. May you find peace quickly, knowing no one will ever know what you’ve done.” Noel could even hear her voice in his head, very far away, yet clear as though he had been in the room himself.

“No book,” Edward answered with a nod. Then he let out a perilous sigh. “Has young Harvey told you anything at all about what happened to him while he was in Moag?”

“He no speak of Moag, Edward. I no speak of Moag. May be nothing happen to him.” Noel swallowed, knowing how unlikely this was, even as he said it. He could feel Isabella’s concern for Harvey swelling in his belly.

“Still, he guards himself. Something happened. You must give him a reason to tell you the truth, but take care, Noel Loveridge. Remember the promises you have made.” Here the old man paused, looking grave as Noel rested his hand on the door frame, the thin barrier between this shelter of nowhere created of ancient wizarding magic and the cold hardness of the mountain tunnels, where Moag waited for him to wander—waited for Isabella… waited for everyone and everything to come in its time. “We will speak of the Felimi again soon,” Edward added. “For now, you go find the pathway out of this mountain. I do not need you to sit with me while I work on our broken prophecies.”

Noel pressed his lips firmly into a grimace, then nodded, stepping out into the darkness— Edward, the light, the warmth of the fire, the smell of tobacco and books, all disappearing into the crack in the wall of stone.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 27

isaandnoel

Prophet of Darkness

“They wear blood on their heads,” Issa whispered into the tiny hole in the reed. She sat cross-legged, with her nose and forehead pressed against the wall of her hut. She had spent the morning watching the transparent green worm as it gnawed its way inside the fibrous shaft. Now that its work was done, it would lay its eggs there and wait to die, to be the first meal for its newly emerging offspring. The creature was on its way to becoming something more, like everything else within Om was destined to do— except for Issa.

The idea made her breath catch in her chest as tears stung at her eyes, but she bit the inside of her cheek and tasted blood, which at least served to harden her resolve. Her own destiny, or lack thereof, did not matter right now. This little worm could be trusted to carry some of the truth into the next life, she thought, picking at one of the scabs on her fingers, causing it to ooze.

“Great cloaks of blood and nothing else, as the sun rose up setting the earth ablaze, the pages turned to ash that fell from the sky like snowflakes, she swallowed it whole,” she added, rocking back and forth as the words ruptured out of her.

She slapped her hands hard over her lips. It would not do to give the poor worm too much.

For the six days since she awoke from her dance with Moag, Issa had been locked up in her hut with little to do but try to spit out the poison of Moag whenever she recalled even the slightest part of it, telling it as secrets to the worms and the birds and the wind, if they would listen. No one else would. Her mother looked at her with fear in her eyes, though she tried to hide it. Her father rarely stayed long enough for her to fall into one of her fits of imbalance, as he called them. She had tried several times to tell Harvey of the things Moag had shown her, hoping he would understand, thinking perhaps he could help piece together the strands of her thoughts into something comprehensible, after all he had been there as well, but her persistence only seemed to make him angry. Harvey wanted her to pretend to be herself, to be his old Issa again, if only so she could get out of that hut and live and breathe, since she had been given this second chance at life by the wanderer. She knew she was too far gone now, and so was he, even if he was not yet willing to admit this about himself. The truth was there was so much there, such a cataclysm of ideas in her head, trying to be understood all at once, that her thoughts were like blinding currents, few ideas coherent enough to express, except where the wanderer was concerned.

“Ohamet,” she growled as she got from the ground and hurried to the window, knowing she would not be able to see him, but strangely drawn to look anyway.

Noel walked along the riverbank on the far side of the mountain, Harvey at his side. Isabella regarded with jealousy the warmth of the morning light aglow on his cheeks. He was content, if not happy, and if she listened carefully, Issa could almost hear the rush of the water drowning out their sentences. She could smell the damp earth on the air, intermingled with the tender bloom of wild thyme crushed under their feet. Noel walked with his hand outstretched, allowing the tall blades of grass to brush over his palm, and Issa knew each blade as though his hand were her own—as if she might rip the life up from the ground with ease. All she had to do was close her fist.

She clenched her fingers tight, and a drop of blood splattered to the floor, startling her out of her stupor.

This was her life now, no matter what Harvey wanted for her. She had no idea how long she had been standing at the window, holding her breath, gouging her fingernails into the flesh of her hand.

“Echteri amu schripat,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes again, blurring the lines of the treetops against the sky. “Schripat. Schripat.”

He had to live. He had to change everything.

A knock on the door sent her thoughts of the wanderer adrift.

She wiped her bloodied fingers over her face, rubbing away the tears as the Mardraim entered, and she forced herself to smile. “My Mardraim,” she began, bowing her head politely, trying hard to control the quaver in her voice. He had not visited since the day she woke.

“I am sorry to disturb you, Young Isabella,” the old man answered gently, pausing for a moment with his back to her as he shut the door behind him. She watched his jaw pulse as his shoulders shifted, in preparation. “You are feeling better than last I saw you?” he added as he turned again, his face serene as ever, not betraying his initial aversion to the state in which he found her.

Isabella looked down at her nightgown, stained with blood, knowing there was nothing to be done about it, and pushed back the twisted locks of her hair. When had she last washed?

“I am well, yes,” she lied. She felt frenzied, constantly racing to hide from her own panic and the torrent of ideas that were not of this world. Her memories prior to her encounter with Moag still scattered and vague, she often got lost in her head trying to bleed the wanderer from her veins, so that time had become disjointed, and she had taken to numbering the days in scratches on the floor to try and keep count. Six. Maybe more. Perhaps less. But there were six marks, and she was fairly certain she made them all herself. She was hardly well. “Are you well?” she added casually, as though the two of them had met on the path, on her way to perform some duty of the aspirant, and the courtesy was only natural.

“I am concerned for you,” Edward Frank answered too honestly. He motioned to the table as a match for Issa’s solitary chair appeared there. They made their way to their respective seats, and the mardraim continued solemnly. “I wanted to give you time to heal, before I pressed you too much about the things you experienced these past weeks. I still lack a full understanding of the things that have gone on in our mountain, since Ohamet came, however I believe you can help me, if you are willing.”

He glanced down at the bleeding skin on her fingers, then back to her eyes, searching them for something he was not yet ready to voice. For a moment, she thought he would ask about the wounds, but instead he said, “The last time we spoke, you claimed to have received prophecies directly from Moag. Do you remember telling me this?”

“I do,” she answered, laughing quietly at the idea she might have forgotten something as important as the things Moag showed her, though she did not remember exactly when she had told the Mardraim about them, and she knew she could not remember everything she saw. No one could possibly remember so much. No one was supposed to know the things she knew.

“I would like to know more about these prophecies,” the old man said, folding his hands in his lap.

A spasm of agonizing glee coursed through her, as Isabella sat up straight, her knees bouncing, causing the table to tremor. If the Mardraim would listen, he could help her understand. “Echteri amu schripat,” she said before she knew what she was saying.

“The wanderer lives,” the old man nodded. “You have told me this before. If it is a prophecy, do you understand the meaning, child? I do not know Moag, as you do, and Om offers no guidance for understanding such things.”

“Om would not—” she began, but as if the words had opened the tap inside her, all the confusion flooded back, and Issa found herself drowning again. “The beast saved three, born a shelter, he knows where it belongs, blood on their heads.” Eyes wide, she clamped her hand over her mouth and held it tight, as she rocked back and forth on the spot, squeezing every muscle in her body , to hold back the torrent. It would not do to frighten the Mardraim away. He would help her. He had to help her.

The old man shook his head, concern and confusion weighing down his white tufted brow. “These are prophecies you witnessed in the darkness? Or are they a single prophecy? Isabella, do you know?”

She nodded excitedly, then shook her head, realizing she could not answer for certain, tears spilling down her cheeks again even as she let loose her mouth and continued, “I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag, she swallowed it whole.” She balled her fists in her lap, baring her teeth, fighting to hold herself still. “Swallowed it. Swallowed it… whole.”

“The infant? You speak of the nameless child?”

Issa nodded. The nameless one had died.

“The nameless child has a prophecy from Moag?”

Another nod.

“But the nameless child is dead,” the Mardraim frowned. “How can he have a prophecy if he is not living?”

“The prophecy could not come to pass if he were living,” Isabella answered confidently.

“What do you mean?

“I…” But she had no idea what she meant. That was why she needed the wind and the worms and the Mardraim.

The elder leaned forward expectantly, pressing his fingers to his lips, and allowed the moment of silence to pass between them, obviously hoping Isabella would somehow manage to gather some focus and reach an epiphany she might share with him. It did not happen. “Tell me again, Issa,” he whispered. “Try to go slowly, and I will do my best to understand. Tell me of the nameless one.”

The pity in his tired eyes was difficult for her to bear, but Isabella took in a steadying breath and did her best to speak slowly, as asked. “I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag,” she hissed then flung her hand over her mouth to stopper the flow.

“I put him back?”

“And I heard him crying,” she answered from behind her fingers, staring wide-eyed at the old man, willing him to make sense of just this one thing, or if not to make sense of it, then at least to take it away from her, so she did not have to know it anymore.

“But what could it mean?” he shook his head, getting to his feet. “The child is dead. He died the very day Ohamet came through Moag. He died, as surely as the wanderer brought Young Isabella back to life.” The elder was pacing now, speaking to himself. “We took his body from the cloister. We burned him, to set him free.” The Mardraim turned suddenly. “Is that what you mean when you say that I put him back in Moag? Is it to do with the burning?”

Issa shrugged and gave a quiet laugh. The providence of the nameless one had puzzled the Mdrai and Felimi for months. The fact they burned the infant’s body, rather than allowing him to return to the earth, could only mean they were so disturbed by his unnatural disruption of their order of things, as they understood Om, that they hoped to keep him from being born again. But they could not grasp that he was never of this order of things, never had a soul to begin with, so the fire could hardly keep him from coming back.

The Mardraim quickly retook his seat, inching his chair forward, leaning in conspiratorially. “You said I put him back,” the old man offered, fear weathering his face for the first time, and for some reason Isabella could not explain, that look of fear brought her a small sliver of joy. “Issa, did the nameless child come from Moag? Is that why Om gave us no prophecy?”

“Harvey…” she answered, though she knew this was not what she meant to say. She had meant to say she had no idea where the child came from or what Moag’s prophecy of the child actually meant, only that Ohamet changed everything, because he lived… because she had saved him. Everything else was just pieces of the unfathomable deep, and she, for whatever reason, had become Moag’s voice—this trumpeting prophet of darkness, filling the mountain with truths no one could possibly comprehend, until they all drowned in the blackest of black. “Harvey.”

She had watched him die, seen Harvey become a part of the never-ending shadow, a part of everything and nothing, all at once. How he survived Moag, she did not know, but she was certain there was something important she was supposed to remember about him, something Moag had shown her that was not of Moag itself, and not prophecy, but something else entirely, something much more powerful. It burned at her insides, looking for an escape, but would not come out.

The Mardraim drew in a breath. He got to his feet again and gave a few more turns around the room, contemplating what Isabella had told him as she looked on, knowing he could not understand, any more than she could, the frustration growing inside her with every moment that passed. This was all the wanderer’s fault, and she hated him for it, even though she knew this was the way it had to be. She had never hated anyone before, just as she had never truly loved anyone before, but it was as though Ohamet had planted within her a seed of humankindness the moment he set foot on that mountain, and that humankindness had taken root deep within her, and from it sprung this awful, tremendous fury for the elf and the hell he had brought down on her home. Then Moag showed her everything, and she knew now more than ever that Noel Loveridge deserved her hatred for what he had done to her, for the change he had wrought within her, even if all of the other changes that came with him were necessary.

After a long while, the Mardraim came to stand beside her, holding out his hand for her to take. Dutifully, Isabella reached up with still oozing fingers. He took them up, turning them over, examining her carefully, as though he hoped to find some physical explanation for how backwards she had become. The old man did not ask about the deep wounds she had given herself and did not move to dress them. He likely knew it would do her no good—her mother had stopped trying days ago. “Have you received any new prophecies from Moag, since you have healed?”

She had seen all Moag had to show her while in its depths. Anything that was left to show would come from Noel Loveridge. “No, but I can feel it still at times…”

She hesitated, not knowing if she should say more. Did the Mardraim know where the elf went at night, she wondered? She sincerely doubted she would ever be allowed out of her hut again if she confided in the elder that she could still feel the wanderer even while the old man concealed her so deeply from everyone else in that mountain. And Harvey had warned her the Felimi would not accept Ohamet wandering too freely, so while she wanted more than anything for the elf to be dealt with once and for all, the last thing she needed was for him to be locked up too, where she would be forced to commiserate with him and his own prison, the two of them waiting for death. Insane or not, at least she still had some sense of reason.

“When? How?”

“I do not know,” she lied once more, the lies coming easier with every lie she told. Strangely, there was little shame attached to them now. “Moag is there at times, waiting for me to return. It waits for Noel Loveridge and Harvey as well. It waits for you, my Mardraim.”

“I see,” the elder answered, taking a step back, though she was certain he did not see, not with any clarity. How could he?

Isabella often felt the darkness stir within her, calling her home, and she knew that the desire Noel Loveridge felt as he crossed the ocean and flew up the face of the mountain and clung in death to the shadow of this life, and the desire he felt for whatever it was he sought when he slipped away in the night and wandered the tunnels alone, was the same desire Issa felt to return to that immutable blackness where she now belonged. His wandering was a part of him, as the darkness was a part of her. It had consumed her to save him, but Noel had brought her back, when he should have left her to her end. So she suffered his wandering dangerously close to the fragile line between Om and Moag, and she knew he was desperately afraid of slipping into the darkness himself, but then he had so much left to do, so much left to change. As for Isabella herself, she suspected that one day, if she was ever allowed out of her hut again, allowed to wander freely, she would go there, to the place Noel went at night, and she would step into the shadows and feel nothing at all anymore, save perhaps an overwhelming sense of relief at finally finding the peace promised by that ultimate end, as she became one with the darkness at last. She could wander right into the folds of Moag and never know she slipped away. Noel, however, could not, for the wanderer lives.

“I want out of here,” she said suddenly, breaking the Mardraim’s train of thought as she twisted her hand free from his grip. “I want to return to my duties. I want to be myself again.” A part of her did want these things, desperately, but that part of her was overshadowed by the knowledge she had been granted and the understanding that she would never again belong in this realm. “I want to walk outside, to laugh with Harvey, to feel Om again. Please. Please, my Mardraim!”

The old man drew in a weary breath and offered her a pained smile. She expected him to give her some consoling answer reserved for those who were clearly out of their minds, but instead he whispered softly, “We are trying to find a way to restore the path of Om for all those affected by Young Noel’s arrival. I cannot promise we will succeed, Issa. I can only promise we are trying.”

“You should have killed him,” Issa stammered, shuddering even as the words escaped her lips. “He stole a piece of me, robbed me of my very existence. You will not restore Om’s way. You cannot. Schripat.” She spat on the ground, and the shudder quickly turned to convulsions, her muscles seizing up, bloody hands twisted with palsy, as an impossibly brilliant light filled her head and she felt her chair slip from beneath her and her body become a part of the ground.

“Come, young one,” the Mardraim said sometime later, lifting her up, curiously strong for one as old as he, she thought vaguely, as she began to wake to her surroundings. Her body was still and limp now, and the sky outside had begun to hint of twilight. She had lost consciousness again, she thought panting like the takin searching for water and shade, the searing pain in her head making it difficult to open her eyes. “You must rest now,” Edward Frank whispered. “I will visit again soon. Perhaps then I will have some answers for us both.” And he carried her to her bed mat and laid her down on her side, brushing the tangled mass of hair from her face as he tucked her blanket around her.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 25

Secrets of the Mardraim

Over the better part of an hour, the passages they walked moved from long and winding to short and narrow and back again, as Noel followed in the Mardraim’s every step, careful to tread precisely as instructed. Often, the way was steep and deeply polished with the centuries-old impressions of the countless Mardraim, who ascended the path before them. This made the travel somewhat easier, and at least as far as these areas were concerned, Noel was certain he would have little trouble finding his own way when the time came. But now and then, the darkness loomed deep around them, the light the old man carried dimmed, and it was difficult to see even Edward Frank just a step in front of him, let alone any outward sign of a trail. All Noel needed to firmly affix the elder’s warning in his mind was this not-so-subtle reminder from Moag, waiting at the edge of his senses, so close he was certain at times he might breathe in the very shadow of his own impending doom as he took care to do exactly as Master Frank told him, fearing any moment he would surely suffocate, his heart thronging against his breastbone. How Edward did not sense this ominous weight surrounding them was difficult to fathom, considering the old man’s penchant for empathy, but it seemed Noel’s gift was entirely unique—or perhaps not entirely.

Noel flexed his fingers at the thought of Isabella, back in her tiny hut, remembering the anguish and fury in her exhausted eyes the previous day, when he turned up uninvited. He did not need to understand her words to know she blamed him for all of her suffering. Since Edward had expressed his concern for Isabella where Moag was concerned, Noel could not help but wonder if she suffered now, as he and the Mardraim moved so close to the monster that had nearly destroyed her. Though it made little sense, he found himself mentally reaching back through the mountain to her, retracing every step, until his thoughts lingered right outside her door, listening intently for any sign of distress. This was pointless, but somehow comforting, even if it was only his imagination at work. He had not needed to go seeking her out the previous day to know she was upset, but pretending this way gave him the sense that it was him, not her, who was in control—better to be the possessor than the possessee.

But would her illness worsen because a part of her was still there with him? He only hoped Master Frank would know the way to undo the forbidden magic Isabella cast— for all of their sakes.

At long last, the tunnel reached its apparent end in a shallow den, and Edward led Noel to the back wall, to a slender fissure, barely visible in the weathered rock face until the two were right upon it. The crack extended from floor to ceiling and was no more than a few inches wide at its largest opening, but the old man handed over the light and, while Noel was sufficiently distracted by the curious orb of energy, Edward Frank stepped beyond, disappearing in a blink, as though the wall of stone was nothing more than a gentle waterfall or a thin drape.

Noel reached out a hand, expecting to find the wall was some sort of illusion, but his palm met with the solid chill of stone. He pressed against it, digging his fingers into the crevasse, but there was no hint of any movement in the rock, let alone any opening into whatever lie beyond.

“Master Frank?” he said, concerned.

“Come, Ohamet,” Edward urged, his voice muffled. “We must hurry.”

Noel hesitated, scowling half at the wall, half at his own lack of ability or understanding. “I cannot,” he answered, rubbing his hand over the back of his head in frustration, thinking perhaps it was because he was not one of the mountain people.

“You must,” the old man replied. “Do not force your way. Simply walk through.”

Noel shook his head, looking back over his shoulder at the empty path behind him. “Walk through,” he repeated, then grunted at his self-doubt. “Simple,” he muttered as he closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and reached out his free hand once more, fully expecting to feel the rock before him. But he was startled when his hand met the familiar, soft warmth of a wooden door frame, and stepping forward, Noel opened his eyes to find himself transported.

“Remarkable,” he whispered, staring around the room, a stark contrast to the dismal tunnel that engulfed him only a moment before. In fact, this place was a stark contrast to everything he had seen since he first set foot in the mountain.

The room was bathed in amber light emanating from the stone hearth, where a fire greeted him with snaps and pops, like the laughter of a childhood friend. The air tasted of mulled wine, ancient paper and a hint of peppery tobacco. A leather couch, aged with the ghostly outlines of many a thorough kip, beckoned to Noel, its cozy woolen blanket, which looked like it had been plucked from the back of some grandmother’s chair while she was off in the kitchen tending a pie, lay sighing across the back, hinting at the hope of simpler times and sweeter dreams ahead. A large oak desk, cluttered with parchments and tomes that spilled out onto the surrounding floor, stood in one corner, indicating a serious study had recently been undertaken. Master Frank headed there now, mumbling to himself, as he began shifting the papers in search of something.

Noel was immediately drawn to the enormous winding staircase that grew up out of the belly of the room. “Where we are?” he asked, as he craned his neck up in amazement. Branch after branch of walkway stretched out from this central column, accessing so many stories of the highly polished mahogany shelves that formed the walls that they seemed to converge high in the distance, never quite ending.

“The Adon use gateways, to create worlds within worlds,” Edward answered. “We are within the mountain, yet not. If you desire a precise location, the best I can say is no where.”

Noel looked back at the old man, perplexed by this explanation, but was immediately distracted by a familiar token of his youth, on one of the shelves nearby, and headed that way. “I had a spyglass just like this, when I was a lad,” he laughed, as he hurried over to see the red enameled telescope, stood on proud display, fully extended in its wooden stand.

“Language, Noel Loveridge,” the Mardraim reminded, glancing up as Noel tucked the ball of light in the sleeve pocket of his borrowed smock and lifted the device from its cradle.

“When I was boy, I had,” he answered in broken Elvish, turning the scope over in his hands.

Edward Frank shook his head. “I do not believe so, Ohamet. Look through.” He pointed up at the ceiling.

Noel brought the spyglass to his eye, and angled it up, expecting to find the ceiling in the distance, but immediately yelped, fumbling and nearly dropping the toy on the floor. “It was …!” he stammered, lifting the scope to his eye again, pulling it away once more, while Edward Frank chuckled at his absurd dance. “I see …!” But he did not have the words in the old language to explain what he saw, so he only gave a low whistle, while Edward, smiling gaily, returned to his search.

“You did not have one like this?” the old man asked, still clearly amused at Noel’s expense.

“No. No, I did not,” Noel answered, looking into the eyepiece again, turning slowly on his heels, gasping slightly every time a distant star jumped into volcanic focus, and only stopping, whispering an awestruck, “Wow,” when the surface of a planet, he was fairly certain was Saturn, came into startling view. It was nothing like the Saturn he had learned about in his childhood studies— small, black and white, and rather difficult to imagine as another world, floating out there in the vast emptiness of space, waiting to be explored in its all its two-dimensional glory. Noel may as well have stood perched on the edge of one of the giant’s rings. He could even hear the wailing melody of her body turning beneath him.

“What Fahmat?” he asked, spinning on the spot once more, in awe of every star that came into view as it was revealed to him. A fellow like Galileo might have given his right arm to see this.

“The device was created by the Cho, as you are likely aware. The improvements are the work of the Ikath,” Edward answered, finding his search of the desktop fruitless and shifting a large pile of parchments on the floor with his foot before starting in on the drawers in the cabinets behind him.

Noel might have spent all day tinkering with the telescope, but he suspected the Mardraim’s hideout was full of such treasures, and eager to explore, he rested the spyglass back in its cradle and started down the row of shelves, to see what else he might find. “So much things,” he said as he picked up an old fashioned egg beater, turning it over in his hands with care, searching for any outward hint of modification. It looked like an ordinary household tool, but he was cautious not to touch the crank, just in case.

“For many thousands of years, it has been one of the duties of the Mdrai to expand upon our understanding of the rest of the world and bring back new knowledge to the Felimi,” Edward answered. “This chamber was built by the Mardraim when our people first came to live in the mountain, to keep a permanent record of what we found.”

“The Felimi said… you come to… safety your people. What from?” Noel frowned, then raised his brow as he stopped in front of an old UP-3 rocket from the deadliest war of men to date.

Mankind had been warring almost nonstop ever since the Fall. Periodically, the gods tried to dissuade them, handing them ever more rules to follow in the hope of changing them, promising them greater and greater reward for their compliance, but everyone knew how gods were. It always went rather poorly.

Considering the telescope, Noel hated to think what enhancements might have been made to the ordinance and was curious if Master Frank had any idea what the thing was just lying there in the open for anyone to tinker with, even if it was tucked away in some secret wizarding nowhere. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the many reasons why the munition might have been kept, but the mountain people claimed to be peaceful. He supposed the rocket might be a dud, but he sincerely doubted it and gave anxious swallow as he considered what might happen to the mountain if the nowhere accidentally exploded.

“There are no records of the time before we came here, so it is impossible to be certain what we were hiding from,” the elder answered, reminding Noel of his question. “Only the Felimi have any memories of that time, however the viciousness we have witnessed through the Veils seems proof enough they are not deceiving anyone when they say we came to protect us from the rest of the world at large. There were many changes in our laws at the time. The Mdrai were instructed to collect new fahmat of the many races, and the Felimi began restricting what of this would be taught to our people. The hall of records was built to house all known prophecy.”

“Old records lost?” Noel asked. Though they went into hiding, the fact these people knew ancient languages and practiced the magic of other races meant they had some mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of the world prior to going into hiding. Meanwhile, plenty of prophecies were common knowledge beyond the mountain, even though no one had met a true seer in a terribly long time, so clearly they had not always protected what they foresaw. It seemed to Noel that keeping records of the prophecies would have made the mountain people a greater target to anyone seeking foreknowledge—to people like himself, who would do anything to know the truth. It did not make sense.

“No. The Mdonyatra was altered to include careful monitoring and recording of prophecy seen by the Zhe. We were instructed to drink of the waters of Om and record everything seen through the Veils. Before this time, a prophecy came only in Om’s time, in Om’s way, and the Felimi were the living record of all knowledge, including prophecy. The Mdonyatra still names them as such.”

“Living record?” As he watched Edward rifling through the contents of a drawer, he wondered if it was the Fall that drove the Knowledge Keepers to the shelter of the mountain. Perhaps they had seen what the world would become and tried to outrun fate.

“The Felimi once knew the path through Om of every soul born to our people, but their memories of the prophecies have faded. They are no longer born Zhe, as they once were. They no longer see the Veils. They no longer possess empathy. They are no longer capable of healing the weary spirit. They are not the only ones, who have lost abilities, I assure you. And they retain many of the abilities that have been lost to the rest of us, so they teach us what they can, life after life, and year after year we all grow weaker, including the Great Mothers or Teachers. This is what Felimi means in my language.”

This certainly sounded to Noel very much like the sort of curse Fate brought down on the rest of the world at the Fall. It might even explain why the Mardraim began this collection, yet it did not explain the need for keeping it hidden from the great mothers. He suspected the Mardraim at the time was bothered by the changes in their laws as the Felimi tried to remain in power, but he knew better than to suggest it. No sense insulting the one person who might be on his side, even if Edward Frank’s reasons were self-serving. “You leave mountain, Master Frank?” he asked instead, as he came around the far side of the staircase, running his fingers over a model of an airplane that was so realistic, it very well may have been real one shrunken down, the way Noel shrunk things to fit inside his rucksack.

“Not so often now, as long ago,” the old man answered, then added in a satisfied tone, “At last, here it is.” Noel poked his head around the stairs and saw Edward holding up an old skeleton key. “Come, Young Noel. Another climb awaits us.”

They took to the stairs, and with each step Noel grew ever more amazed by the things the mountain people had managed to collect through the years, as the two passed branch after branch of examples of mankind’s most useful creations. Occasionally, he caught glimpse of a doorway set into the shelves, which led off into larger chambers, giving the impression the collection rivaled those of some of the world’s greatest museums. But as fascinating as it was to consider the vast effort undertaken in the gathering so much of the magic of man in one place, Noel was truly stunned by the sheer volume of books that came once man’s creations were exhausted.

There must have been millions of texts climbing the walls, spilling over into vaults with row upon row of bookcases, and it dawned on Noel, as they climbed, that the Mardraim through the ages had likely collected every work of magic of all the five races. The value of that library could be matched by nothing else on earth. There were people in the world who would have murdered their own children to get their hands on only a single book. The further they climbed, the more frightened Noel became at the idea that such a place should ever exist. It was far too dangerous.

When they came to a branch that contained only a few shelves of books, Noel paused, and Edward Frank, sensing he had stopped, offered an answer to his unspoken question.

“These are the books of the Ptalmet,” the elder said.

“Ptalmet?” Noel asked.

“Your people called them Etmirith once very long ago, but today you call them beasts.”

“Some call them changelings,” he said, though Noel believed Beast was the more appropriate term. “So few books?”

“We know little about the changelings. These books tell only of their many kinds.”

Most beasts had died off ages ago, and those that were left had gone into hiding too, only surfacing to wreak havoc, destroy and thieve.

As Noel thought this, Edward gave him a strange look. “Have you never met the draka, Young Noel?”

“No one meets a dragon,” he answered earnestly. It was a well known fact that few who crossed paths with a dragon ever lived to tell the tale.

“But when the draka sings, the whole world stops to listen,” Edward smiled as Noel looked up over the center railing to see if they were any nearer to the top.

Startled by this revelation, he turned to face Edward. “You hear dragon song?” If there was one thing everyone in the world, no matter their race or their power, agreed upon, it was to steer well clear of the lands of the dragons, but Edward spoke of them with admiration. There was a time when their kind thought to burn the whole world, and they nearly did. Luckily, the rest of the world was willing to get its act together and put a stop to it before it was too late. Thanks to those who laid down their lives restoring the natural order of things, these days the dragons mostly burned each other, if there was any truth to the stories Noel had heard. Who cared if they had nice singing voices?

“It does not happen often,” the elder smiled, continuing up the steps, “but when it does, we are all the better for it. All music, in its way, conveys a deeper truth, allowing even those who have no empathic traits to understand a greater meaning than can ever be spoken between two beings. This is because the vibration of the song touches the listener. The two souls resonate as with one voice, for a time. This is much like empathy. The empath understands the music at the soul of humankind, without need of sound or sight or any of the mundane senses—certainly not words.”

“The Ken need much words.” Noel offered, aware his legs were beginning to get tired as they continued up.

“Too many words, Young Noel. The Cho invent new ones almost every day, dividing them up in the hopes of perfecting speech, when the result is always greater confusion. Mm. My people find words hinder understanding and complicate meaning. We have very few words. There is far too much that can never be spoken, to ever trust words alone. Understanding requires feeling. True understanding requires and innate desire to know, and few today desire to know anyone but themselves.”

It seemed to Noel the mountain people were all about understanding in principle, but in practice they were something quite different—oblivious, perhaps. Though they did not share the prophecies they saw, they still wanted to know the way of their god Om for all people, drinking the water they thought somehow gave them a greater connection with this source of their magic. Though they allegedly came to the mountain to protect themselves and prophecy from the rest of the world, they continued to send their leaders out into the world to learn new magic, then horded it away here in these books rather than sharing it with everyone. It was already clear to Noel that empathy did not equal compassion, but even so, their actions made little sense. What were the Felimi seeking in the prophecies, since they were not seeking to help anyone but themselves? Why, if they wanted to avoid the rest of the world and were content to live this simple life of seclusion, would the abilities of the other races matter so much to them that they would continue to send their people out to learn? “You say you no leave mountain so much now. Why?” Noel asked, wondering if this was an instruction from the Felimi too.

“There is little to be learned anymore,” the elder answered plainly. “In the past, we sought new Fahmat of Ikath, Adon, Itri and Cho. Today, we find only an abundance from the Cho. It is rare there is anything new to be learned from anyone else.”

It was not lost on Noel that Edward failed to mention the magic of the elves. “No Ken?”

“Llendir have not created new Fahmat as long as the Mardraim have kept these records,” Edward replied waving his hand at the stacks. “There was no need to seek what would never be found.” Noel was not surprised by the answer, yet he grimaced anyway at the callousness of the response. Edward must have sensed this, because he added, “I am sorry, but this is the truth. It is strange that this Fall, as you call it, was not recorded here. We have no knowledge of your Great War, no knowledge of your Fall, neither in these records nor in those of the prophecies. You describe a world in which your people were nearly extinguished.”

“All fell, Master Frank.” Some simply fell farther than others, he thought, wondering how long it would be before the old man began to question whether or not the mountain had protected them from the wrath of their water god. “Why Felimi need new Fahmat?”

“The Felimi determine what Fahmat is acceptable or forbidden to our people.”

“No,” Noel sighed. “Why need new?”

“I do not know. Most Fahmat is forbidden and never taught to those with the ability to learn the ways of the many races. There is a great deal only the Mardraim and the Felimi will ever know.”

“What fahmat Felimi allow, all here learn?”

Edward shook his head. “Mdrai are usually adept in three or four ways, however it is not unusual that my people will only be able to practice the Fahmat of one, over several lifetimes, and most who are able to use the ways of many are incapable of mastery, though it is hardly a mastery, since so much is forbidden.” Noel saw the old man’s shoulders tense. “The Felimi do not know of this place, Young Noel,” he added quietly. “If they were to discover what has been built here, I do not know what would happen.”

Noel suspected they would find out exactly how flawed the Felimi were. There was only ever one reason for leaders to horde power. They could candy-coat it with talk of protecting the people from themselves, but the reality is it was always so those at the top of the food chain could stay at the top of the food chain. “Master Frank… Much loss to Ken in Great War,” Noel said, considering the countless tomes surrounding them. “Is knowledge of Llendir Fahmat here?”

The Mardraim did not answer, but continued the climb in silence, Noel following along behind. The old man’s lack of an answer was all the confirmation he needed. The library did not simply house whatever new magic the Mdrai happened upon in their excursions beyond the mountain over the years. It was all there— a complete compendium of every work of magic of every race of humankind. Everything his people had once known was right there, ripe for the taking. He wanted to ask the elder to show him the books of the elves, to hurry to them, so at least he could count them, even if he would never be able to read them himself, but he fell silent as well, not wanting to ruin his chances of being taught when Edward Frank was ready. The old man had said he would teach him, after all. Noel had to trust him. But that did not stop the whisper of the idea in the back of his mind, of himself stealing away through the tunnels, stealthily avoiding Moag, a sack full of everything his people had lost slung over his back. He hated to think it, especially knowing Edward could likely feel the betrayal oozing off of him. He would not do it. He could not. But that he might…

Noel was actually breathing heavily when the staircase finally ended and he and the elder crossed the final walkway to stand before a rather unassuming door, plain, with the exception of the small engravings inscribed on its wooden frame. They were wards, like those protecting the judgment chamber of the Felimi, though there were fewer here. Key in hand, Edward reached out for the keyhole tucked beneath the wooden knob, but he stopped short and turned to Noel, his wise eyes holding him in a solemn gaze.

“Noel Loveridge,” the Mardraim said quietly, “you must know this door is guarded to all but the rightful Mardraim. This key will not turn in the lock for another.”

Noel nodded and the old man continued, “When we discovered the Felimi had misguided us about the existence of Moag, it was difficult for me, because I too am responsible for tending to a grave many secrets, as you have witnessed. Of all the secrets of the Mardraim, there is no greater than the knowledge kept hidden behind this door. Seeking an understanding of Moag, when no answer could be found in the hall of records and Om’s only response was silence, this room is where I turned, hoping to uncover some truth I had somehow had missed as I learned under the guidance of my predecessor. I wished only to understand Om’s reflection, but what I discovered troubles me greatly, and I fear I can share the burden of this knowledge with no one else but you.”

Noel swallowed anxiously, seeing the worried look in the old man’s eyes. After all that climb, that Edward did not just open the door, was disconcerting, but he supposed the old man must be searching for something within Noel himself, making certain this was the right thing. He had ruined it all, he thought, with ideas of taking those books back to his people. He just couldn’t help being greedy. Damn empathy. He squeezed his jaw tight.

“Before you came here to us,” the elder continued, “it was written in my book of prophecies that one day I would pass all of my knowledge to Young Zo Asan, who would follow in my stead as leader of our people. To him would pass the responsibility of guarding this place, and more importantly of possessing the knowledge of all Fahmat of all people. Now that my prophecies can no longer be read, I can only assume that, unless you and I might somehow restore the way of Om, I must wait for a new prophecy, to know who my eventual successor will be and when I am to bring him here, to try and impress on him the importance of what he will learn.”

That was it, Noel thought, shaking his head. He had climbed six million steps just to stand there and be let down.

“Though no Mardraim since the first truly knows why this room was built, it has long been clear that maintaining the information contained within is of the utmost importance to my people, which is why it is so well guarded and why periodically the information within is rewritten, a task that will need tending to at least once in your lifetime,” Edward shared, while Noel stood there perplexed that they had come all that way for speeches. “Until the day Om chooses my successor, I must trust that, like Isabella, you and I are bound together by our new path. I must trust you never to speak a word about this place or what I am about to show you, not to another solitary soul, living or dead.”

“You trust me?” Noel asked, surprised. Now he rubbed at the tips of his fingers, realizing if they were going inside, he would likely lose his sense of the companion he carried with him through the mountain and all that way, both grateful for the opportunity of some relief from her and at the same time strangely reluctant to let her go.

“I do,” Edward Frank answered, eyes grave.

“I tell no one,” Noel said, with a respectful nod, placing his hand to his chest in promise. And he meant it, perhaps more than he had ever meant any vow, even his vow to the Last Hope of the Elves.

With that promise, Edward stuck the key in the lock and gave it a simple turn. Though the lock gave way with an unceremonious click, in that moment Noel’s chest thundered, as though the it made a clamorous racket, like the heavy door to the Felimi’s chamber where they held Fkat. As Master Frank turned the knob and led the way into the tiny attic of a room, Noel realized his exhilaration was not down to finding out how to undo Isabella’s possession of him or even at the idea of learning what his own people had lost so long ago.

Edward, the empath, understood him and trusted him.

Noel knew no matter what happened, beyond any doubt, he would never tell anyone else about that room or what was inside, for no other reason than the fact he had the old man’s trust.

Like most other places in the mountain, this chamber was sparsely furnished. A small table and stool, equipped with a candlestick for study, took up the heart of the room. Several stacks of weathered books with crumbling spines and cobwebs for covers, stood sentry against the left wall, though Noel could tell from the crushed look of the webs and smudging of their coats of dust, they had been recently disturbed. There were even fewer books than those of the beasts.

“Like the Llendir, my people have not created new Fahmat in the years since this collection of greater and lesser talents of the Children of Danguin was begun here in secret, more than eleven thousand years ago,” the elder said, hands folded before him as he watched Noel looking around, slightly underwhelmed, but at the old man’s words, Noel perked up.

The people of Namcha Barwa began their collection around the same time the Father of the Elves received the prophecy of the Last Hope, many years before the Great War and the Fall. “Why secret?” he asked. “It is your Fahmat.”

“I do not know why,” the elder shook his head. “I only know that, like your people, ours have lost a great deal of our abilities in the time since the collection was begun. Admittedly, our Fahmat has always been less diverse than that of the other races, however we were once much more than the Seers and Empaths we are today. Long ago, there were those among us who could train their minds to hear the thoughts of others. Still more could see the boundaries of the soul and detect and heal the illnesses of the spirit. Even I, in another life, could travel to distant lands on a single current of thought, visiting with my brothers and sisters half the world away.” He smiled, his gaze drifting off, as though remembering.

“You remember other life?”

“Some of them. Unfortunately, I do not remember how to travel by thought, as it is among the abilities that have become lost to us over time, which is why the knowledge in this collection is so very precious to my people. Our talents have dwindled with each new lifetime, as our communion with Om has grown constrained.” He picked up one of the books that was lying on the table and cradled it against his chest. “The knowledge of why this collection was begun has long been forgotten, but I suspect it was because our past selves understood we were losing knowledge and ability. None of that matters. You understand?”

Noel nodded.

“What matters is that when you came to our home, and Young Isabella was lost, we found no information about the existence of Moag in all of our records, not even in this place. When the Felimi told us of the boy, Eri, who entered the forbidden tunnels long ago, we found no book of prophecy for him or for the Mardraim of the time, who allegedly lost his life attempting to save the boy from Om’s reflection. It was as though neither of them ever existed, not even in another life, though they each must have been born many times. I did not understand, but I believed, as my omdrella Young Harvey told us, that you would change everything, when change is the one thing all Mdrai have been taught, lifetime after lifetime, to guard our people against. When our search of the Hall of Records was exhausted, I came here, trusting the answers would surely be recorded here, hoping to find anything that might help me save Young Isabella and restore Om’s way. All I found was a small note in this book, which I believe was written by the missing Mardraim, whom someone made a great deal of effort to expunge from all record.” He opened the book and pointed to the page, where an inscription was tucked in the upper left corner, under the folded edge.

“What say?” Noel asked.

“It poses the question of whether or not the boy survives.”

“Boy? You think Eri?”

“Perhaps,” Edward answered. “This book, Noel Loveridge, describes the forbidden art of possession, the art Isabella used to save you—the art that protected you from Moag.”

Noel furrowed his brow, rubbing his fingers, though Isabella was not there.

The old man glanced down at Noel’s hand. “Is Young Isabella with you now?”

“The words on door,” Noel answered, shaking his head. “She is gone, same at Fkat. When we leave, she returns.”

The old man nodded. “I suspected as much. The twitch in your hand gives you away. You must learn to not give in to it. It is one of many symptoms of obsession, a side effect of being possessed. It is all here, in the book. How she did it… What effect it will have on you both…”

“How to stop?” Noel interjected. It was not that he was not grateful, if this was in fact how Isabella saved his life and how the two of them had managed to survive Moag, but she was a distraction he did not need at the moment. There was a lot he had to learn while here, and he worried the pull of Isabella could stand in his way. Sometimes he felt more of her than others, especially when she was experiencing intense emotion. Other times, she was little more than a niggling itch that never subsided, except in places like this one, where the inscriptions warded her off completely. It was curious that she had been strangely silent the whole way there, even while Noel was thinking of her.

“I suspect this was one reason such Fahmat was forbidden by the Felimi long ago,” the elder answered grimly. “I am sorry, but possession cannot be undone, Young Noel, only guarded against, though it is too late to protect you. You are Young Isabella’s possession now, and will remain so, I am afraid, until you one day pass into the current of Om or Moag, whichever way you will go. I am curious which of the protections has the effect of keeping her out of this place. Once she is better, we can write these inscriptions around the door to my home, so you may rest more easily. Perhaps we will write them around her own door as well, however, I must make certain this will not do her more injury. However, this is not the reason I brought you here. In time, you will learn our language from Young Harvey and will read this book. You might uncover something I missed that can help you.

“As for today,” he continued, “I must teach you the use of the light well, so you can come here each night when our people are sleeping, and I will meet you when I can. You must hone your sense of Moag, so that you may escape this mountain when the time comes. Together, I believe we will find the answers, Ohamet. I believe we will make right Om’s way. That is why I entrust the sacred knowledge of my people to you.”

With that, he pressed the key to the secret room into Noel’s hand.

“I cannot, Master Frank,” Noel hissed, more than a little dumbstruck that the old man would give him the key. The room and everything contained within was massively important to Edward’s people. Perhaps one day they would be able to use all of their lost abilities again. Maybe one day the Felimi would not be in charge and so much of their own knowledge would not be forbidden to them. Noel knew what it was like to know that loss, and he would not wish such a thing on anyone else. If someone caught him coming and going, they might take the key, and then the Felimi could order everything destroyed. Noel practically shoved the key back at the old man, saying, “I am guarded… watched. I am—”

“Do you not understand, Noel Loveridge? You are,” Edward Frank said calmly, “the future Mardraim of the Children of Danguin. My secrets are yours.” And he placed his hands at his chest, as though he were a child in prayer, and bowed his head to Noel.

 

_______________________

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

 

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 23

Llendir Ways

He had known it.  He had not dared to admit it, not even to himself, but he had known all along. Even while he was caught up in the treacherous black of Moag, he could sense the woman, believing she had put some queer curse on him, tweaked with his mind somehow.  Half the reason he was determined never to mention it to anyone was because he was afraid of having it confirmed. Well, now it was confirmed.

Noel turned away, hands held out in front of him prepared to plead with the universe, but the irony struck him like a fist in the gut.  He had already done his pleading.  Going off to Arnhem Land, drinking poisonous potions to commune with the Dreaming— pleading with the universe was precisely what had caused all of this in the first place, he thought, shaking his head at the numb burn in the tips of his fingers, a thousand sensations there in the bundles of nerves, none of which belonged to him.  How could he explain this to Phileas and the others, without coming off as a loon at best or an inept dolt at worst—not that he was ever getting out of here to explain, he reminded himself.

“How was your holiday, Noel?  Oh, fine, fine.  The food was lovely, only, I went and got myself possessed,” he muttered miserably.  The look on Phileas’s face would be priceless.  There had to be some way to get the woman out of him, once and for all.  He couldn’t live like this.  He’d go insane.  “Master Frank, this banned fahmat—”

But the Mardraim took his arm once more and ushered him quickly across the room.  “We will speak no more here, for we must hurry.  The rains will end soon, and we must be well away from here before they do,” the elder said, as he pulled a bottle of dirt from the sleeve of his robes, paying no mind to Noel’s confusion or his concerns about actually being possessed and what that might mean for the quality of his life the next hundred years or so.  Kneeling by Noel’s things, the old man tugged the stopper from the bottle and poured its contents out into a mound in the middle of Noel’s blanket.

“I sleep there,” Noel protested, but Edward Frank only smiled, “I must summon an earthen one.”

“Earthen one?”

“Yes, yes.  I need your essence, there in the dirt, please,” he nodded, pointing to the mess he made.

“My essence?” Noel choked over the word.

“Your essence,” the elder replied, then realizing there was some confusion over the meaning of the word, he spat twice at the floor and waved his hand, indicating Noel should do the same.

Shaking his head, Noel complied, landing a large glob of slobber right on the top of the pile, which hissed and bubbled up quickly into a frothy foam.  The Mardraim pulled a slender twig of birch out of thin air and began to chant a strange incantation in a low voice, as he stirred the boiling muck.   Every third turn, the substance grew a deeper shade of crimson, and he delivered a new verse, writing in the mixture symbols that looked like some ancient form of the wizened language, though Noel had never studied the tongue.  All the dirt incorporated, the substance, now a dark, rubbery brown, the old man stopped his work, and the blob of gloop began to undulate and grow of its own volition.

It grew eyeballs that squirmed to see, looking this way and that but never quite in the same direction, as their perched atop a pile of gray matter, a lung and intestines.  It grew a puss-like mass that slowly turned to sickly white flesh, formless and squirming. It grew an arm and then legs, ribs and a mass of curly brown hair.  It grew a mouth that gaped open, tongue lolling free between familiar crooked teeth as eyes found their place in holes in the flesh, spinning round on themselves as the torso was complete, arms and legs came to right, and finally the skull took shape as the growth came to its feet.

Noel stood amazed, facing himself, grinning mortified at the dumbfounded look on his naked doppleganger’s face, as Edward Frank handed the thing fresh garments.

“How did you…?” his twin said, sounding as mightily impressed as Noel himself.

There was a lot to be impressed with, exactness of the golem aside, starting with the fact it spoke in almost complete sentences and sounded as idiotic in its lack of knowledge of the ancient Elfin tongue as the real Noel did, which was both a comfort and more than a little disconcerting.  “Yes, how did you?” the real Noel whispered to the Mardraim as the creature dressed.  He had seen a golem before, but not one so very real, never one so very… Noel.

“This is a confluence, a coming together of Fahmat, like the rains here in the mountain.  The earthen one is formed, brought to existence by an ancient work of the Adon.  Mm, you call them the Wizened, I believe,” the old man answered.

“Wizards,” both Noels nodded, then eyed one another uncomfortably as they each rubbed an anxious hand through the back of his hair.

A shiver ran down the real Noel’s spine.  He turned his back on his twin and hissed, “He believes he is me?”

Edward Frank laughed quietly, “No, no, however I am glad he is convincing.  The Itri, or Fae-”

“Fairies,” interrupted the golem.

“—are responsible for the concoction that gave him your properties, thanks to your contribution.” He pointed to Noel’s mouth. “And the Ikath-”

“Gods,” his mirror nudged him.

“I know,” Noel huffed.

“-created the charm for instilling in him quick thinking.  Of course, a thinking, feeling, being without a soul can be dangerous. This one we have no need to worry over, as he is not going anywhere, and we shall return him to the dust where he belongs, as soon as we arrive back home.”  The fact the golem had no soul was at least a small comfort, Noel thought as the elder flicked his wrist and in his palm blossomed a murky blue haze.  “Breathe deep, please,” he added, holding his hand under golem-Noel’s nose.

“We go?” Noel asked as the golem breathed the toxic-looking fumes.

Edward nodded. “If you and I are to find a way of reversing the shift and restoring our paths within Om, I must take you to a place where we may work in secret.”

“I don’t feel so well,” golem-Noel said, his English as perfect as his Elvish was not, as though he’d been raised right alongside the real Noel in his High Wycombe home, though he clutched at his throat as his voice rasped, and he sniffed greatly against a suddenly runny nose.  “I think the old bugger’s struck me with a flu.” He placed a hand on his own forehead, as the real Noel wondered that the man of clay was so real he could actually take ill.  He had always thought of golems as bumbling monsters, not at all human, but then he had never seen anything as remarkable as the creature presently crawling between the covers, atop which he had so recently been brought into existence.  If he was actually human, soulless or not, would returning him to the dirt, as the Mardraim suggested, constitute murder?  If Noel took part in doing in his newfound twin, would it be considered some backwards form of suicide or would it be more like cutting a cancer from the world?

His moral musings were interrupted by the old man giving instruction to the golem, whose skin grew pastier by the moment.  “You should not go out today or receive visitors.  We will return as soon as we are able.”

“No visitors,” the golem agreed, sneezed three times in succession, then swore in a voice that sounded much like Noel’s father.

“Dear God, am I this pathetic?” Noel muttered as Edward returned to his side.  He added to the old man, “What did you… give me? Him? …It?”

“The illness is necessary, to keep others away. And now—” The Mardraim raised his hands toward Noel’s chest.

“Wait! What?” Noel breathed, taking a hurried step back.

He had not realized until that moment of panic that his arms and legs were stiff with shock and his hands were trembling, but then he had just watched the old man turn a handful of dirt and a bit of Noel’s slobber into a walking, talking, breathing, thinking, illness-catching copy of himself that they were going to kill as soon as they returned from wherever they were going.  The golem even possessed Noel’s mannerisms.  Noel certainly was not going to let Edward Frank do anything to him without some discussion of the matter.

The elder gave a pensive smile.  “I will produce a simple light well, to render you unseen, so we may leave without drawing any attention to ourselves.”

“Light well? What light well?” Noel demanded.

“A bending of the light around you. What do you call this today?” he looked to the golem, but the other Noel was busy whinging and moaning, blanket pulled up around his ears, shiny new teeth chattering.

Edward raised his hands again, but this time Noel jumped backward, holding up fists in defense, though he doubted they would provide much protection, when the fact of the matter was even the magic Noel knew— and to be fair, he knew rather a lot as elves went— was no match for the extraordinary power he had just witnessed.  By now he understood the mountain people had exceptional skills, he had been keeping notes of the things he had seen, in case he ever managed to make it out of there, but Edward Frank, with his knowledge of the magic of so many races, was easily the greatest magician he had ever met, greater than both Footes, Bergfalk and Henry Frifogel combined.

“I have no name for light well.  I no know bending light,” Noel answered, slightly bothered by the fact the Mardraim had asked the golem.

“But the light well is Llendir Fahmat.  Surely you know and this is just an error in communication, Young Noel?” Edward’s thinning white brows drew down over his eyes.  “You will see.”

“No Ken knows, Master Frank.  No Ken,” Noel answered, shaking his head.  The old man was talking about making him invisible.  If anyone knew how to do this, the Nobles would have been taught.

All this time, Bergfalk and the elder Foote thought they were preparing their people for a war that was inevitable, the Great War of the races that would continue with the birth of the Last Hope of the Elves and the opening of the gates, as prophesied.  The wizards’ fate might have been imprisonment in the ice, all these years, as their punishment for the near destruction of the elfin race, but as far as anyone knew, they had not been subjected to ten millennia of thinning bloodlines and a catastrophic loss of knowledge and ability of their kind.  The more Noel saw the work of the mountain people, the feebler the elves seemed in comparison, the more certain he grew that the impending war was one the elves were always destined to lose, that truly the child, their Hope, would be their last hopeless breath in a world where they no longer had a place, like giants and dragons, just as he had secretly feared for so long. With her birth and subsequent death in the ensuing carnage, his brothers would become the stuff fantasy, elfinkind surrendered forevermore to the realm of mythological beings.  They would be lost.

Unless, Noel thought…

But that was a ridiculous idea, especially when he had just agreed to help the Mardraim restore whatever destinies he had already broken in coming there.  The old man had said Noel was somehow responsible for the changes in their destinies, but that did not mean he would ever have any control over how they changed.  No, if the prophecy in the Book of Ages was true, and Noel had not managed to completely destroy it with his trip into the Dreaming and his subsequent jaunt through Moag, it was more important than ever that he find some means of escaping the mountain.  He had to learn what he could of the magic of all people while he was there, he had to learn how the people of the mountain blend the various abilities together in these confluences, as the elder called them, to create such spectacular works Bergfalk and Foote had never imagined, and he had to warn the Nobles and the Seat that the elves would be no match for the wizards without significantly more training.  They were undermanned and overpowered.  They had lost far too much knowledge in the Fall.

The elder’s scowl deepened, as he folded his hands together, making a steeple of his fingers.  “Not one of your people knows how to bend light, Noel Loveridge?” he said, his mouth settling into a shameful frown.

Noel gave a small shake of his head and quickly added, “The rains, Master Frank.  We go.”  He did not want to talk about it.  He wanted to get on with this, so he could fix things, turn it right and move on.

“Yes, we go, but I sense in you a great loss, Ohamet,” the old man said, somber eyes watching Noel carefully.

One could hardly lose what one never possessed, Noel thought, clenching his teeth against the painful thumping in his chest.  He would learn what he could, and return home, even if he had to make his way back out through Moag to do it.  He owed his brothers that much, he thought as he lowered his hands to his sides at last, nodding for the old Master to continue.

Edward stared at him for long minute before at last giving a heavy sigh, taking in a deep breath, and with a swift motion, plucking something from the air a few inches from Noel’s chest.  Hands shaking, either with age or in his struggle to keep hold of whatever it was captured between his fingers, he dug brittle, yellowing nails into the tiny sliver of space between his thumb and forefinger and drew out something invisible to the naked eye, pinched between his nails.  Tongue poking out from between his teeth, he dug in the nails of his other hand and began to twist back and forth, to pry the imperceptible thing apart.  Soon his whole body began to shudder with the effort, his face turning first red, then white, a bead of sweat forming on his crumpled brow.

Noel was about to ask if he could be of assistance, but as he made to speak, a wry smile spread across the old man’s cheeks, and with a sharp crack that made Noel’s ears pop, Edward’s fingers broke free, and he laughed at the look on Noel’s face, as he stood there stunned, finger jabbed deep into his right ear, frozen in mid-wriggle.  Noel watched in awe while the old man drew his hands apart, and a slender filament of golden light stretched out before him.

“What on earth…?” he stammered, reaching out his waxy finger.

“Be still, Ohamet.  Do not move,” Edward whispered, almost noiselessly, the fluctuation of his breath on the air exciting the filament, causing it to dance and shine wildly, as the old man’s eyes widened.

Noel held his breath, as much out of amazement as to keep from ruining the incredible work he was witnessing.

After a moment, the fragile strand of gossamer light settled into a gentle oscillation, and Edward carefully raised it above Noel’s head, bringing the tips of his fingers together to form a graceful ring.  A snap of static and the faint hint of newly welded metal on the air indicated the ends had fused, and the elder let go, allowing the light to swim above Noel’s head like a halo, as he stretched and flexed his fingers in preparation for the next part. He took the ring by the sides and gently inched it larger, making it three times as broad around as Noel at the shoulders.  The light danced chaotically in response, at one point coming dangerously close to Noel’s hair, before the magician touched it softly, here and there, lifting it tenderly back into place, until it was almost still.  Satisfied, he pinched the filament between his fingernails again, and with much less effort than before, he forced the light to expand once more, this time drawing it down, so that the thin ring became a shining, luminous cylinder surrounding Noel with a pristine glow of energy.  He pulled the base down so it hovered just above the ground, where it gave a small sizzle, then, with a childlike grin that caused his blue eyes to twinkle, Edward set the tube of light to spinning, and like a potter at work at his wheel, he urged the sides ever so delicately up and up, until the column of light extended all the way from the floor to slightly more than a foot above Noel’s head, where he drew the top together, and with a warm buzz and a zap, it sealed itself shut.

“That will do,” Edward smiled, breathing a pleasurable sigh at his work that caused the dome of light to shiver and ripple with energetic colors before becoming still and crystal clear.

It had almost completely disappeared, except in Noel’s periphery, where he could just make out the shroud of electric current surrounding him.  “Is safe to move?” he hissed.

“Yes,” the old man chuckled, “and you can speak normally.  You are on the interior of the light well.  It will flow naturally around you as you move.”

Noel reached his hand out to touch the veil and watched the surrounding bubble shimmer as it extended out before him, always remaining several inches away from his flesh.  “I see me?” he questioned.

Edward smiled.  “Rest assured you are completely unseen to the rest of the world.  There is a barely perceptible arc of reflective distortion, a shine that can only be seen by one directly observing the light source as you pass between it and the viewer, which is a highly unlikely event, considering our light source is outside of the mountain.  Aside from being slightly warmer on the interior, you should not be able to tell any difference to the world around you, though you will catch periodic glimpses of the light well as it moves with you. You should not worry, as this is not visible on the outside of the well.  And now, we must go, Young Noel.  It is a long walk, and you must memorize the way, as I will not be able to lead you there again.”

Edward reminded the golem that he was not to leave the hut or see anyone while they were away, then he and Noel set off, Noel’s anxious feet barely touching the earth as they started up the path toward the garden gate, where Emanuel waited.  The rain fell slightly harder the nearer they came to the young man, and it was not until the elder began to speak in a constrained voice that Noel realized he was using the rain to conceal their conversation.

Noel could not understand what the old man said to the boy, but from the look on Emanuel’s face as he glanced back at the hut with wide eyes, he imagined it likely involved something about golem-Noel’s illness along with instructions to keep watch over the hut the rest of the day, to warn away anyone who might come to visit. While he waited, Noel stretched his arms out wide and then way over head.  Neither Emanuel nor Edward glanced in Noel’s direction.  To be certain, he went to stand right next to the boy, stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes and pulled on his ears.  Still, he received no response.  Clearly the light well did its job.

The conversation finished, the elder led on in silence, Noel falling in step behind, wondering just how much knowledge his people had lost through the years.  In their silence, Noel growing ever soggier as the rains slowed to a drizzle, then to a sprinkle, and finally to a stop.  The two had traveled a long distance, well clear of the villages and fields where the mountain people toiled, when Edward finally spoke again.

“Why do the Llendir no longer understand Fahmat of light, Ohamet?”

Noel gave a coarse grunt.

He should be guarded, he knew.  The old man twice presented him with pacts, first asking for help to get information about Moag from the Felimi, now claiming his own prophecies had been rendered null like Noel’s, hoping Noel would help him restore the path of Om, but kind as Edward Frank was, Noel had no reason to believe the elder was telling the truth, or that he had not just asked for help the first time in an attempt to get Noel to be more forthcoming with information at Fkat in the face of a Felimi, who had decided to hold him captive, and that this new agreement was not more of the same good-cop/bad-cop game that was being played by the people of the mountain all along.  He was the Mardraim, after all—his loyalty was to his own people.

Though Noel had determined he had a responsibility to ask the elder about the prophecies of Phileas and Wells, just to find out how much he may have affected the prophecies of others, he knew he would not tell anyone in the mountain about how he wound up in the Dreaming, and he was reluctant to share too much about his own people, out of fear there could be repercussions for them.  Still, he was here, and if he wanted to keep things friendly, so that he could remain a guest of the Mardraim, learn what he could and have some chance of escaping eventually, instead of becoming a true prisoner at the hands of the Felimi, who he knew would never let him go, he had to be willing to give.

“Long time past, there was … terrible… fight- a Great War of all people.  All Ken died, save two, Aewin and Euriel.  All Llendir come from these two.  All known Fahmat come from these two.  Fahmat of light was…” He paused, searching for the appropriate word.

“Forgotten?” the elder asked.

“Yes… No,” Noel answered with a wonky nod, his light well shimmering with the motion.  “Not known… since the Fall.”

“The Fall?”

“Time after the Great War was much death… for all races.  All beings… even beasts, were lost like Fahmat.”  Noel did not possess enough knowledge of his people’s language to properly explain the cataclysm that followed the war or the intervention of fate and the punishment of the world, all races, each for their part in the destruction of the peace, once held in precarious balance by the stones of power.    The Book of Ages could explain far better than he ever could, but the book told far too much of Eurial’s descendants, of Fendhaim and the Seat.  “The foretelling I bring… It is of the Fall,” he added somberly.

“Mm, I see,” the old man answered, and the two fell back into their silence once more, as the path they took cut into a more deeply wooded area, Noel wondering what his people had done so wrong, to deserve the harsh punishment they suffered the past ten thousand years.

They were not the murderers.  They were not the rapists or the thieves.  The Father of the Elves had done everything within his power to uphold the peace.

Hadn’t he?

Noel swallowed against the lump of far too human truth that rose in his throat.  No one could ever know just what Eilian did or did not do in the lead up to the Fall.  All they had to go on were stories passed down through Aewin and Eurial over ten thousand plus years.  Their historians would hardly have been the first to gloss over uglier facts in order to paint their heroes in a more favorable light.

After a while, the trees parted, and Noel put thoughts of the Fall from his mind, as the horizon stretched out before them in breathtaking views from the precipice of the mountain looking out over a clear azure sky, and for a moment, he thought they had come to be outside by some magical means, while he was lost in thought.  The view was truly exquisite, except for a slender mar of black that cut a deep and inexplicable gouge into the pristine blue, which Edward led them to now.  As the old man stepped into the crevasse, Noel paused, running his hand across the cold, rough heavens, somehow projected onto the mountain wall.

“We must go,” Edward said, waiting for Noel to follow him into the tunnel.

But as he stood at the entrance, Noel took in a stuttering breath.  “Moag?” he said, the word barely escaping his lips.

“Indeed.”

“I feel it,” he whispered, glad the old man could not see the fear that welled up inside him as he stood staring into the darkness.  They were easily ten miles or more from the cloister, but Moag was definitely present here, though it felt nothing at all like the ominous void he knew waited for him, hidden at the home of the Felimi.

“Beyond this point, only two pathways are clear, to those who know the way—two paths of hundreds of paths, Noel Loveridge.” The Mardraim bowed his head, looking serious as he gestured into the deepening black. “The way we take today, a single misstep could lead you back into Moag.  I cannot feel Moag myself, but I will show you this path as made known to me by the Mardraim before me.  You must be vigilant in doing exactly as I say, following exactly as I go.  Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“I do not wish upon you the torture that has struck such fear in the depths of your soul,” the old man added, reaching through the light well, resting a gentle hand on Noel’s shoulder.

He had forgotten all about the old man’s empathy.  “Thank you,” Noel answered quietly, slightly ashamed of himself that the fear came to him so easily, when he had not suffered nearly as greatly as Isabella Asan.  Recalling the misery of her voice as she called out to him through the depths of Moag, he was struck by a terrible thought.  “Isabella?” he whispered, pressing his fingertips into his palm, as though this might protect her, though he knew it would not.

“You are beginning to understand the full weight of our predicament, I think.  Your heart grows heavy as mine, Ohamet,” Edward smiled.  “Emanuel tells me you have been searching for a means of escape, in your time with us.  Escape you must, I am afraid.  When time comes for you to leave our home, the second path beyond is the way you must go.  I will not lead you along this way, however if you follow the path clear of Moag, you will find yourself at the top of the mountain, at the cave where you first entered our home.”

“You not show me?” Noel’s voice shook.

“No.  You must learn to feel the way, by strengthening your sense of Moag,” the elder answered.

“How?”

“Today, I take you on the path to the vault of the Mardraim, where the two of us shall work, to see if we can right the wrongs done to Om’s way. You will carefully watch each step I take, paying close attention to Moag.  Though it frightens you, that you feel it means you can protect yourself.  The steps are important, as a mistake will be dire, to you and to Young Isabella.  You will come here alone from now on, each evening, even when I cannot meet you here.  This practice will hone your skill, so you will be ready when you need it.”

“I will be seen. Emanuel? Harvey?”

“I will keep you enveloped in my protection always, so no one will sense you.  As for the rest, I will teach you what you need to know,” the old man answered quietly, then reaching up he whisked away Noel’s shroud of light with the swift flourish of his wrist, turning it into a ball that glowed tangerine in the palm of his hand.  “You shall know the Llendir ways.  Follow close, Wanderer.”

_______________________

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

Eureka! Where Inspiration Comes From

My husband woke me up early Sunday morning to show me an article about, of all things, clouds.  An ordinary girl would be annoyed, being awoken in the wee hours by a man waving a blindingly bright phone in her face, insisting a bit too loudly, “Wake up!  You have to read this!”  Not me.  Believe it or not I am perfectly content squinting though the darkness, trying to make sense of the colorful blurs before my mind has completely stopped dreaming (some of my best eureka moments happen in this state, after all).  Of course, my husband usually figures out I can’t exactly see what he’s trying to show me and takes pity, reading the intended passage aloud, before I fall quickly back to sleep, happy–legitimately happy, not just because I get to go back to sleep, although that is nice too, but because the man just gets me.

This is actually a fairly common occurrence in our house, and it isn’t just a middle-of-the-night attempt by my husband to make me suffer his insomnia with him.  He often calls during the day just to tell me about some amazing fact he happened across or hurries home after work to show me a picture of some place he thinks will be a great setting for a battle because he totally supports my need to include as much reality in my fantasy as there is fiction in my fantasy.  I am grateful for all of the ideas my husband has come up with through the years, even the ideas I won’t ever use, and for the fact that my oftentimes begrudging nature as a writer never seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, which I have to admit makes him my favorite person in the entire world.  I love that he gets just as excited as I do about the prospect of inspiring wonder in people by showing them the magic that exists right here in the real world, no fiction required.

Sunday morning the wonder was fallstreak hole clouds, which apparently received some media attention after residents of Wonthaggi, Australia captured images of the rare occurrence last week.  I’m not certain my husband realized that I actually have a fairly extensive file on atmospheric conditions already, which includes what I believed was every description of cloud known to man, until Sunday when my darling Official First Reader woke me up excitedly explaining that elves could in fact make these hole punch clouds when they fly–he had even thought of the fuzzy science to back it up (which made me laugh, in a good way, as I went back to sleep).  I don’t know that I will ever write about a fallstreak hole in the way he envisioned them, however he will be happy to know that I have added it to the large list of anomalies witnessed in the Veils of Fate, and while I don’t know exactly what this veil will mean yet, I do know that it will be featured as part of a prophecy seen by Elijah.

us
Me and my muse–weren’t we adorable? I don’t know how he’s managed it, but somehow this guy has put up with my nonsense for twenty-one years this week.

The truth is eureka moments, sudden sparks of genius, don’t happen often.  Most people don’t have phone-wielding insomniac muses hanging around to be the light bulb that shines over their head on a regular basis, even in their sleep, so they have to work for inspiration.  Not that I don’t work for inspiration as well–last week’s post on research hinted at just how much effort goes into finding the small hints of insight that fit within the puzzle I’m building by cutting out random shapes from reality and cobbling them together to make a picture that isn’t completely clear, even to me because my personal journey is about learning.

For the most part, great ideas are born out of this slow building of understanding.  It is this slow building that allowed the image of a young Kazakh sayatshy girl to stick with me for months, until one day she became just a small facet of a character who makes her debut in book two of the series.  This is how Stavanger, a city in Norway I’ve only visited through the miracle of the internet, became the place where years ago someone important to my characters died, though this man will only ever be mentioned as a ghost that walks through a conversation.  Sometimes the slow building lasts for years, as in is the case with the history of fairies in New Zealand.  In book two, I incorporate some of the traditional Maori tales into my own.  And occasionally the fragile threads of a dozen other ideas come together as an actual spark of genius, to answer questions I’ve had for a very long time and been unable to find the answer just by searching, as is the case with Namcha Barwa, a mountain in Tibet also known as the Breast of Vajrayogini.

A lot of truly great stories, both real and imaginary, have inspired my work.  I hope that one day people look back on the stories I write and find inspiration as well.

Drawing 101: Lesson Two: Never Draw a Changeling… Just Never.

Before I get too far into this week’s post, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank Indie Reader for recognizing The Eleventh Age in their October 15, 2014 “Alike But Indie” column “If You Liked The Magician’s Land, You’ll Love…”  It can be difficult being an author in a time when the industry is experiencing so much change.  One doesn’t always know the right steps to take to get the work noticed, so it means even more when it comes unexpectedly, as this did.  Thank you so much, Indie Reader!  You seriously made my week!

Speaking of last week, I forgot to update the Character Tidbits page in all my excitement.  To make up for my absentmindedness, this week I’ve posted two new pages–Phileas Foote and  Ash (Aisling O’Toole), who is one of my favorite characters and happens to be the subject of this week’s Drawing Lesson, which I’m considering making a regular category, but we’ll see.  So, without further adieu…

Never Draw a Changeling… Just Never.

In The Eleventh Age Elli’s best friend is the quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and beautiful Aisling O’Toole, who happens to be a halfling–half nymph and half goddess–which makes her a metamorph or shapeshifter. As I mentioned in a previous Drawing Lesson, Ash’s character sketch has given me enormous problems, so much so that I had to quit trying and come back to her with fresh eyes more than once.  Since I finally managed to get her right, in honor of Ash’s metamorphic ways, I thought I would share her remarkable transformation.

When I’m drawing a character, I try to find people who look similar to the people I see in my head and work from there, changing them as I see fit.  For the most part this is easy enough, and usually I can get a character down within the first three sketches.  The girl I originally selected as the basis for Ash was gorgeous.  I knew she wasn’t a perfect Ash when I selected her, no one was going to be, but I liked the shape of her features, especially her eyes, which were big but still pixyish and looked very much like the real Ash’s amber eyes.  If I had known how difficult she would be, I would have chosen someone else from the start, though that probably wouldn’t have helped me much in the end.  You’ll see why.

bad ash 1For the record, this was my third attempt with the original model with the perfect eyes.  Even though the drawing is awful (by this point you can see my frustration coming out in the graphite), I am glad I didn’t throw it away like the previous two attempts because it’s nice looking back, to see just how much I’ve improved as an artist.  (There’s a lesson in here about practicing, I’m sure, but who needs practical drawing lessons? If you’ve come to me for that, you’re in big trouble, but I digress.)

With every attempt at drawing this girl, I only seemed to get worse, and my younger daughter kept coming along, looking at my work, telling me her chin was too short or her nose was misaligned or her face didn’t fall in the right point on her head. She was a very patient critic, my Bird, even though I became more convinced that I was just a terrible artist with each sketch of not-Ash I drew.  Bird is a teenager, so she might have just laughed at my struggles, rolled her eyes and gone about her business.  Instead she kept repeating in her very best voice of reason, “It’s better than I could do, Mom.  You’ll get it.  Keep trying,” which I did, until about a month ago, when I decided I just couldn’t draw a person in profile and I turned to the great and powerful internet for help.

bad ash 2After watching some how-to videos on drawing, I came back to the original model recharged, drawing her several more times, altering hair and even the shape of her eyes, which was one of the things that I liked most about model 1 in the first place, but still I couldn’t get her right. I thought that if I just kept changing things, eventually she would look like the girl I saw in my head, and I wasn’t willing to give up… that is, until I was about half way through this drawing–the last drawing of model 1 ever made.

It is far better than the other drawing, as you can see, however even before I started her ridiculous hair (which I drew several ways before quitting, though the evidence didn’t come out in the picture), I had already figured out it wasn’t really that I couldn’t draw Ash, or even that some small thing about the model needed to be altered and if I could just find whatever it was and fix it, she would be the perfect Ash.  The trouble was that the girl I was drawing repeatedly and requiring still more brief art lessons/therapy sessions with my fourteen year old for, was just not Ash, not at all, and I was too stubborn to recognize it.  I don’t know who model 1 was, but she wasn’t who I thought she was.

This weeks-long endeavor at redrawing the same girl fifty different ways is how my hidden character inspiration board on Pinterest became full of dozens of potential Ash Wannabes, all of them beautiful, but most of them not at all Ash-like.  Here are the other girls I drew in my search for the real Ash:

None of them were good enough, which is why it probably wouldn’t have done me any good to start with a different model, because I was just bound to go through this process, but at least I made some serious strides in my ability to draw a person the right way in one attempt, which is exactly how many times it took me to draw the fifth model, who turned out to be the one.

Ash.

Ash, the changeling
Ash, the changeling

I’m not certain why I had such a difficult time finding her to begin with, in fact, when I started drawing model 5, I thought she would likely end up in the Not-Ash pile as well.  But now that she is finished, with her coy eyes and her lips that hint of a thousand secrets and her wild hair that gives away just enough of who she really is at heart to satisfy that she does not take herself too seriously, I’ve decided that maybe the reason this has been such a difficult journey has something to do with the nature of Ash’s character as a shapeshifter.

Needless to say, if you are going to start drawing people, whether for your work or as a hobby, I highly recommend you steer clear of all changelings, because they have a nasty habit of changing on you when you least expect it. Beyond that, remember that just because a person might be a changeling doesn’t mean they want to be changed by you.  I suppose you could say that I have learned not to keep sketching the same person, hoping somehow she would magically turn into someone she was not for my sake.

Yup, that’s a metaphor.   Happy Drawing!

And the Moral of the Story Is…

Yesterday I published Blackeney’s character page, which honestly gave me a bit more difficulty than any other character so far, though this really didn’t surprise me, because Black’s tale is darker, so he’s harder to summarize.  The Eleventh Age is an epic fantasy, and all of my characters fit fantasy archetypes at the surface–after all what is a fantasy without its trusty tropes?  Black is no different from any of the others in that respect, however when I first started writing several years ago, my original goal was simply to produce an action-packed, young adult fantasy that had a female hero, because I thought the world could use more stories about girls, who weren’t quite as transparent as their glass slippers, but as I began building my world, in which young Elli Foote, like many a hero before her, discovers her extraordinary purpose and embarks on her harrowing journey with her band of trusty tropes at her side, I developed a few ulterior motives.  I wanted to write a story with a moral at the end.  I wanted to write a story that crossed cultural boundaries.  I wanted to write a story in which my characters spoke to real-world issues, suffering the sort of troubles ordinary people suffer, like loss, abandonment, poverty, hunger, abuse–all of these are things Black has experienced firsthand, just to name a few, which is what made writing his summary so difficult.  My trouble was in remaining true to his character without giving too much away, which I think I’ve managed.

I’ve alluded to this desire to keep my characters real before.  Not only do all of them have to have flaws and hidden agendas, weaknesses and passions, but all of them must have perfectly rational reasons for their otherwise odd behaviors.  Black, for instance, is a warrior who does not fight, and his reasons are rational and uniquely his own.  The thing is, Black knows as well a I do that what is rational is not always logical, and our rationalizations can sometimes (read: almost always) be built upon false beliefs.  We humans are actually quite adept at dealing in false beliefs, which brings me to the topic of the day:

Monkeys, Babies, and the Moral of the Story

If you are reading this, chances are 1. you are human and 2. you possess fairly well-developed theory of mind, which is, very basically, the ability to understand that you have a mind, which holds knowledge, beliefs, and intentions unique to you, and that others have minds of their own, in which they hold separate knowledge, beliefs and intentions that are different from yours and everyone else, for that matter.  This probably seems fairly straightforward, especially since you’ve possessed the beginnings of this theory of mind since you were as young as seven months old, however even though it seems obvious, this theory can only ever be a theory because there is no way for me to prove that you have a mind or for you to prove that I have one, because we are each only capable of experiencing the world from our singular perspectives, and anything else is, well, just theory.  What this theory of mind allows you to do is to make assumptions, based on your own understandings, in order to predict or explain other people’s actions, and it comes in quite handy in just about every interaction we have with one another (and anything else we perceive as having a mind, it turns out).

Scientists have been working for decades to determine if humans are the only animals that possess theory of mind, to determine if this is in fact what distinguishes us as humans, which is a rather difficult task, because animals and humans don’t speak the same language, though we can understand certain animal behaviors as similar to our own.  There is plenty of documented evidence supporting the idea that animals have emotions.  We know elephants and gorillas cry over the loss of family and friends, even across species.  We know dogs will visit the graves of deceased companions.  But while we’re perfectly aware that other animals have minds, after all our theory of mind allows us to assume this by their behaviors, whether or not those animals possess a theory of mind and are aware that we have minds as well is open for debate.

If you’ve ever played fetch with a dog, you know that animals are capable of viewing your behavior and predicting what will happen next.  We had a Belgian Malinois years ago that I loved to try and fool when playing fetch.  I could see that she would watch my eyes and the angle of my arm and take off milliseconds before the ball ever left my hand, and very rarely did I ever fool her.  The dogs we have now are not quite so intuitive–one of them just looks at the ball, dimly, like he’s still not certain what it is, while the other will go after the ball and keep running past it forever, but now I’ve gotten sidetracked. It is clear from my own experience that dogs are definitely aware of what people are looking at and capable of making predictions about their actions.  For a while,  some researchers had the idea that this sort of awareness of visual access might be evidence of full-blown theory of mind in other animals.

O’livia, the Belgian, even displayed some cross-species compassion once, a few years before she died.  Though she never had puppies of her own, she attempted to nurse an opossum that had been abandoned and wandered into our yard, weak and blind and squealing for its momma.

Livy and her possum pup
Livy and her possum pup, safe between her legs

Initially I believed that my wonderful, bright dog had chosen to display the tenderness of motherhood, and trust me when I say that Livy was anything but tender under normal circumstances.  It definitely seemed to me that she understood the baby opossum was lost and alone and hungry, and that she knew just what to do and actually wanted to help.  Then I found the first baby opossum to make it into the yard, very much dead, and the second, dead as well, and I began to wonder if perhaps this third opossum, whom she was being kind to, nursing even though she had no milk, was really lost and alone and hungry, and having found a warm, furry body, it had climbed up and attached to Livy by mistake, while dear ol’ Livy was busy murdering its siblings (much more Livy-like behavior).  I began to suspect that when the opossum attached and began to suckle, it triggered her mothering instinct, probably through a release of hormones, and that overrode her hyperactive prey drive.  I will never know if Liv actually possessed a theory of mind capable of commiseration with and showing compassion towards a baby opossum, but I do know from my experience that I am just great at anthropomorphizing all manner of animals and creating false beliefs within my own little theory of mind.  I’m officially human.  Yay!

Recently, developmental psychologists and comparative cognition researchers have managed to conduct several false-belief task tests on human babies and various primates.  This sort of testing was necessary because one of the most important steps in development of theory of mind is establishing the ability to distinguish what another person can or can’t know based on their observations.  The comparative cognition researchers were beginning to suspect that all primates had a solid theory of mind based on other tests that definitively showed primates (and other animals) have a visual awareness that extends to others, like with my dog, Liv.  For instance, a monkey is more likely to steal a piece of food it knows has not been seen by its owner, and they even retain this knowledge in the future, but without non-verbal tests for false-belief tasks, they couldn’t draw a firm corollary between visual-behavioral awareness and behavioral-mental awareness.  (You can and should read about some of these false-belief tests and their results here, I just wanted to give a basic idea moving forward.)  In each of the false-belief tests, what is being examined is whether or not the subject (baby or monkey) understands what a second subject can know based on its experience.  For instance, the baby or monkey watches the second subject place an object in a specific spot, and while the second subject isn’t paying attention, the object moves somewhere else.  Will the baby or monkey know that the second subject must believe that the object is in its original spot (i.e. does the baby or monkey have an understanding of what the second subject knows based on its world view)?  It turns out that 15 month old human babies consistently exhibit that they understand and are not surprised by true-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to where the baby last saw the second subject place the object), and they consistently exhibit that they understand and are surprised by false-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to look where the object actually is, where they could not have seen the object go).  Human babies, surprise, surprise, have a developed theory of mind.  Much to the dismay of the comparative cognition researchers, monkeys don’t care, either way.  Once visual access is lost, the monkeys no longer expect the second subject to look in either spot, whether during the true-belief test or the false-belief test, because as far as a monkey’s concerned, the subject can’t know where the object is.  This does not necessarily mean that monkeys don’t have a theory of mind, by the way, it may just mean that their theory of mind relies on continuous observation, because they are continually observant, and their theory of mind is based on being a monkey, which you have to admit makes a little more sense than their theory of mind being the same as us humans.  If their theory of mind were just like ours, they would probably be out there conducting tests on pigmy goats to determine whether or not pigmy goats too think like apes and humans, but they aren’t.

I have no vested interest in whether or not this proves that humans are massively unique, so you might be asking yourself why is this important to me?  Because other animals dance and sing during mating season, and we people find it fascinating and devote whole studies to it, and frankly, it’s that sort of stuff that I find fascinating.  Humans dance and sing all the time, just for fun, and we’ve got people who study that too.  Unless we’re depressed or otherwise inhibited, we seem to always be spit-polishing our feathers, because we are very much concerned with what others think about us–other people and other animals as well, it seems.  We lie for attention and affection.  We cheat on tests in order to give ourselves a false sense of security and to instill in others a false belief of our abilities.  We don’t just watch life, observing the real, we all play mentalists, examining other people for signs they are bored, hungry, angry, tired, lying, and a plethora of other interesting little things we believe they might feel or do at any given moment, based on that theory of mind we’re so keen at using, and we habitually make up stories to answer that profoundest of questions: why?

We read whole books about how other people go through their lives, and we invest ourselves deeply in their worlds, purely for entertainment purposes.  We even write whole books for the entertainment of others, which is stranger still than reading, because it requires that we not only consider that other people have minds, but that we have an understanding of how to manipulate and influence those minds, by creating still more minds, all worrying very humanly over the contents of still other minds, just to elicit specific thoughts and emotions, not in ourselves, but so that the moral of the story is understood by someone else in the end.  The depth of our theory of mind means that we don’t just cry when we lose our own loved-ones and friends, we cry when people we know lose loved-ones and friends, we cry when we hear about people we don’t know losing loved-ones and friends, we cry when elephants cry because they have lost loved-ones and friends, we even cry when we read about fictional creatures from other universes crying over elephants crying over losing loved-ones and friends.  Okay, I made that up.  But we do read about conferences where other people talk about studies still others have conducted to determine if other primates understand false belief, and we ask ourselves questions like, “Even if they did understand false belief, would they be capable of understanding it to the depths that we do?” which gives rise to still more questions and potential things to study, which leads me to believe that perhaps the ability to ponder and theorize and postulate and query even though we have a fully developed theory of mind that is capable of understanding not just that some other person or animal can only know what he has experienced, but that sometimes people will surprise us, and we enjoy being amazed like that, might just be what makes us human.

Happily Ever After?

Last night we watched The Pirate Movie, a 1982 adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which (Spoiler Alert!) ends with Mabel demanding and receiving her happy ending, both in her dream and when she wakes up washed up on the beach to her fantasy Frederic-without-a-K kissing her, for no apparent reason.  Cue Happily Ever After Song and Dance:

Oh, silly Mabel, also without a K.

Anyway, this got me thinking about how liberally the sappy ending is applied for entertainment purposes, even in those works that aren’t intended to be farcical, and wondering why the general public prefers stories that leave a saccharine numbness on the brain to those that tell the truth in all her glorious despair, forcing us to accept life as difficult as it is, and acknowledge that all heroes die, most lovers grow bored and tired and some turn into miserable drunks, the money runs out far too quickly after a windfall leaving only destitution, the guy who survives the shark attack inevitably gets hit by a bus on his way home from the hospital…  You get the picture.

I’m hardly the first person to question why we prefer our candy-coatings and rosy spectacles, and Google turns up an expert for just about every explanation, so I’ll spare you my musings where that’s concerned, except to say that the geek in me did find fascinating the idea that commiseration with fictional characters may cause a similar release of neurochemicals in the audience, as if when watching a film or reading a book, we are actually experiencing the lives of our favorite protagonists and antagonists as people we know and have legitimate feelings for.  Oh, and I would be remiss not to mention it is a well-known, scientifically proven fact that giddy pirate song and dance numbers assure the survival of the species, ranking right up there with water, food and shelter as necessary to our very existence, but I’m no expert, so don’t quote me.  (Okay, so it’s not a fact, but some of those experts should definitely do a study.)

While I, too, enjoy prancing pirates on occasion, I won’t deny that I’m truly a cynic at heart, one who enjoys harsher tales that force us to examine ourselves.  When I watch stories like The Pirate Movie, I can’t help but see the catastrophe beyond the Happily Ever After, which to me is really just another happy beginning right before the next tragedy strikes and must be overcome.  Silly Mabel, also without a K, will surely discover, soon after the credits roll, that her darling Frederic-without-a-K sees she is one who falls in love far too quickly, that she is a girl who will give him whatever he wants in the interest of continuing in this thing she believes is love, however she will not see it for what it is until Frederic has thoroughly taken advantage of her, leaving her broken and used up, probably singing on a beach somewhere, desperate for her next romance, because that is the way life works.  I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels this way, I mean, look how Frozen ended.  And even my sixteen year old daughter (who only a few hours before watching the movie read to me an open letter from another teenager to adults who read articles about teenagers, basically requesting that they stop treating teens like some strange beings to be stereotyped and categorized, quantified and explained away) couldn’t help pointing out that Mabel and Frederic’s relationship was “just like every relationship” at her high school, and we all know that the vast majority of those end in tears and bloodshed, usually not too long after the young lovers have professed their eternally dripping, syrupy-sweet, twoo wub to one another and refused for an hour and a half to be the first to hang up the phone.

As an author and a cynic, I’ve set out to tell hard truths in my writing.  Though the story is set in present day and wrapped up in the real world, which will become more apparent in future works, The Eleventh Age is largely mythopoeic, and as such there is always the temptation (and plenty of opportunity) to take the easy way out, to fall back to some deus ex machina, or miracle event, to save my favorite characters from their fate, or resort to unrealistic devices to explain away inconsistencies, simply because the world is magical, like Mabel simply deciding that it was her dream, so she could have her happy ending, and Viola!  Happy Ending.  But in The Eleventh Age, Fate itself is a living, breathing character within the tale, a character very much at odds with our heroine at times, and let me tell you, Fate will not stand for too much divine intervention from the lowly writer, not even if it involves dancing pirates.  Meanwhile I’m fairly certain the cynic in me would baby-vomit if I cheated and rescued someone I’ve known must die from the very beginning or had someone unreasonably fall in love just to play to a chemical reaction my audience expects to receive.  I get great pleasure from forcing myself to think logically from so many perspectives at once, keeping in mind what all the major players and most of the minor players are doing and all of the whys and hows going on in the background, while Elli walks on the surface of the story and we see in the reading only what she sees, and the things that unfold are only seen as she unfolds them–oftentimes mistakenly and clumsily, because the fact of the matter is she is just a teenage girl.  To me, writing is an extraordinary puzzle of human interactions, every character should be deep, and if they aren’t deep from the beginning, then it should only be because their depth has yet to be uncovered.  Of course, I’m not going to pretend that I have some superior moral incite that justifies my work, I don’t, or that I am the most exceptional author, I’m not, but I do like for stories to be realistic, even my fantasies.  And I love a large dose of bitter to cut through the sweet.

Needless to say, this means happily ever after might always be just happy enough for the time being, where Elli Foote’s concerned, but the poor girl can’t help it that her author’s jaded and a little cruel at heart.