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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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 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.
“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.”
Now things are getting good, you guys! We are about halfway through the story of Isabella and Noel, in The Tale of Two Mountains, and are to the point where we are learning secrets– terrible, dark, demented secrets– that will appear NOWHERE ELSE in The Eleventh Age Series. If you don’t read it here, on the site, you’re not going to ever find a hint of certain truths in the books.
I’m so excited to have the chance to weave lore into my original series with tales on the website. It makes writing take that much longer, after all, I’m working on two books at once, but also such great fun, for me as an author, and for you as well. I think having the story bleed in other directions will add a certain intrigue I can’t impart writing in the perspective of the Eleventh Age tales. I mean it: This is so much fun! And I have every intention of continuing to branch off from the series with other lore tales online once Isabella and Noel are through. But anyway, I hope you enjoy this next chapter of The Tale of Two Mountains, as I lead you down dark paths you were never going to get to explore, otherwise. Whatever you do, don’t wander.
The next day, Noel woke to the smell of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, filling his head with thoughts of dark winter mornings of his childhood home, which at least had been made better by his mother’s devotion in the kitchen. It was almost a pleasant memory, until the thought of his father caused the illness, which plagued him much of the previous day, to return.
Noel opened his eyes to find Edward Frank silently cooking breakfast. He rarely saw the man during the day, being left alone most mornings, to sleep long as he liked. His breakfast was always waiting for him at the low table, never growing cold, no matter how late the hour, and Emanuel could be found dutifully standing guard at the door. That the old man was here today came as a dubious surprise.
“She is greatly changed, Young Isabella,” the elder said, without turning from the steaming pan he tended. He had felt Noel wake.
This was an understatement, Noel thought, rubbing his hands over his face, more to fight back the panic that began gnawing at his guts than to rid himself of the fog of sleep. Isabella’s presence was enough to be getting on with, as far as he was concerned, but as soon as she came out of her coma, Noel was keenly aware of just how greatly she had changed as a result of her experience with Moag. All her old levies were broken, and she was drowning in a sea of disillusionment. Even now he felt the pain of her regret burning in the tips of his fingers, and shook them out, squeezing and flexing them, though he knew it would not help.
Noel left the woman’s hut the previous afternoon, thinking she would surely recover from her misery, with Harvey Frank there at her side. For his part, he sought refuge in the privacy of the old man’s hovel, to be alone while he had the chance, before someone came to find where he had gone to nurse his own disenchantment. He had prophecies of his own, and he had destroyed them. He had so little faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope that he had never once considered he might have his own destiny to fulfill, a destiny that had been written down by someone like Master Edward Frank long ago. Surely others of his friends and brothers had prophecies that tied them to Hope as well. How much had he affected them? Had he, in coming there, put them all in harm’s way after more than ten thousand years of waiting for Hope?
As he sat stewing yesterday, worrying over how much he had interfered with Fate’s path, Noel knew had no choice but to ask the Mardraim to look at the prophecies of the rest of the Nobles, no matter the outcome. He was not certain how much he wanted to know about the future or who he should ask about, but hundreds of Nobles had been born in the last thirty years, and more were being born daily. The Knowledge Keepers might have books for all of them, but Noel hardly knew the names of everyone, so It seemed only right to make certain his own friends, at least, were not affected. While he waited for the Mardraim to return home, he made a mental list of those he would ask about. It had grown to over fifty names by the time he finally set aside the chain of thistles he plucked from the tail of his garment, which he had strung together on one of the loose threads, pulled from its fabric. Noel fell also wondering if he should cut it down a bit.
Edward Frank did not wake him when he arrived.
“You were, erm… long with her?” Noel’s voice was harsh against his throat.
“Until she grew weary and slept. Young Harvey and I spoke for some time, before he returned to the Felimi, as required,” the old man answered, as though he had heard Noel’s thoughts and felt the need to explain his absence. His grimace of concern at mention of the Felimi was not lost on Noel.
Edward put out the fire under the pan he was stirring and removed the contents to two plates. Holding one out in Noel’s direction, he bowed his head graciously in offering, then knelt down at the table, setting everything in its appropriate place, arranging the small kettle of ginger tea just so, situating their empty cups so that the handles stuck out at the exacting angles required by their ritual for nourishment of the body, mind and soul, which involved silent chanting that put Noel in mind of the monks that lived in the surrounding area. “Join me, Young Noel,” he said quietly, closing his eyes, as though he would begin his mediation, but then he said added in a low voice, “You and I must now speak freely.”
Noel blew out a puff of air in answer to the stiffness of his back as he sat up, hurrying to pull himself loose from his sleeping bag. He brushed his hands through the top of his hair as he got from the ground, jogging the three steps across the room, not wanting to waste the invitation, since so much of his time there had been spent avoiding the obvious discussions out of deference to the rest of the Mdrai and the Felimi.
Mist diffused the morning light, painting the world through the open doorway a subtle gray. As Noel passed, he saw Emanuel stood outside, the moisture that collected in his hair, dripping undeterred down his nose as he waited, still as a statue, by the garden post. Given the insistence of the Felimi at Fkat, Noel had expected Harvey Frank to be there, if anyone. He was thinking about this when he reached table and saw the chain of thistles he made, resting there near the teapot, a curious addition to the traditional setting.
Noel’s stomach tightened. “We speak freely?” he asked as he sat cross-legged on the pillow across from the old man, indicating the boy outside with a kick of his thumb.
The previous day’s Fkat was meant to get to the bottom of things, but Noel learned nothing new there of Moag, as Edward Frank requested, and he left before answering many of the questions the Mdrai and Felimi must still have about his journey to find their home. He certainly was not going to stick around to give them answers if he was not going to receive any answers in return. He was no great hand at diplomacy, that was certain, but he knew better than to lay all his cards on the table before everyone had placed their bets. Given his hasty exit, he expected he would be politely invited back to Fkat soon, but he hoped that by that time, he would be over the sick feeling he had ruined everything. That he was still under guard was not very reassuring. “Harvey?” he added, looking down at the chain of thistles sat between them, knowing the answer in his fingertips.
“With Isabella,” the elder answered patiently. “He will take this day to make certain his friend is recovering, before proceeding with his duties.”
“Time is needed to know for certain. Tomorrow, you and Harvey must begin learning from each other, about our different languages and cultures.” The Mardraim shifted slightly, turning his head as though uncomfortable, though his voice remained even as he continued, “I must ask you to not speak with him as to the nature of our discussion today.”
Noel raised his brow. This was a strange request, considering Harvey was the Mardraim’s own grandson.
“Young Harvey withholds from me the truth of his experience in Moag, though I do not know if it is because he wishes not to speak or if this was his instruction from the Felimi,” he answered Noel’s questioning look. “He claims to remember nothing of his brief time there. Despite his occlusion of my empathy, I can see falsehood in his eyes.”
Noel picked up the wooden spoon and cut into his breakfast, more to think than because he could stomach a meal, given his anxious state, but as he took that reluctant first bite, he was surprised to find the dessert Edward Frank made was much like bread pudding and tasted almost exactly as he remembered his mother serving for breakfast every Boxing Day, when he was a boy. “I… tell him… falsehood?” he asked, uncertain of his words.
The Mardraim smiled and shook his head. “Young Harvey will know if you lie. Tell him I insisted you not to speak of our conversations. Tell him I doubt him.”
Noel leaned back slightly, the feeling this sort of intrigue was not normal in the mountain giving him pause. After a moment, he reached for the teapot and poured a bit into each of their cups, filling the air with the scent of fresh ginger. He wondered if it would not be better to leave family quarrels to the family. “Why?” he asked, returning the pot to its place on the table.
The old man took his time straightening the porcelain dish before answering. “I have no need to be false with him when he knows I doubt him. Tomorrow you will bring your book, and I will take you to the chamber where Om’s waters flow. He will learn what he truly wishes to know along with the rest of us. That, of course, is why you are truly here among us, Noel Loveridge. We will see the prophecy you have brought from afar, and that, I believe, will give us some clarity. We would not ordinarily discuss the nature of prophecies with outsiders, however as you are bringing this prophecy to us, we have decided we must tell you its meaning.”
Noel coughed, swallowing hard against his third bite as it caught in his throat. He might not be able to get answers about his friends, but at least everyone would know for certain if he had broken the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves. Tomorrow there would be no doubt left of the extent of damage he wrought in coming to the mountain. He took a drink of his tea, guilt causing his jaws to tighten. At least it would be out in the open, and he would not have to fear it in any longer. As his stomach churned, he laid his spoon on his plate, quite finished with eating, and wiped his mouth.
The elder smiled gently and said, “For many days, you and I remained silent on the facts of what has occurred here in my home. Despite my obligation to protect my people, I have waited patiently, as we searched for answers to many questions you would be unable to speak to. Now, you and I must be aligned, Young Noel, in seeking the truth.”
Noel had watched as the old man’s smile slipped from his face with every word, the pained look in his eyes disconcerting. Before Noel could ask the obvious questions, why now, why not ten days ago, Master Frank answered, “We two are both travelers on a common course through Om, I fear. The Mdrai have struggled with questions not alone about what is Moag, but why there is no record of its existence in our extensive histories? How did Young Isabella survive? If Om guided you to us, as Young Harvey claimed, did it also guide her? If the two of you were somehow connected, by her saving your life, and this is how you both survived Moag, how then did Young Harvey survive? Why was the nameless child born the very day you set foot on our mountain? Why did the Felimi remove him from the birthing house and how did he lose his life? Why was he born without prophecy? How did you receive the guidance of Om? Is Moag only present within our mountain, or does it reside in other areas of the world where Om flows free? Have there ever been prophesied interactions with Moag? If so many changes resulted from your interactions with Moag, were there not also changes to the path of Om that came as a result of our people entering Moag in the past? On that point, where are the books of prophecy of Young Eri and the Mardraim, whom we know entered Moag years ago? Why is there no record of that incident? You understand now, with so many questions, why it took days for us to assemble in Fkat, and why I asked that you attempt to gain knowledge from the Felimi that they do not freely give to me— knowledge I believe only they possess.”
It was certainly an extensive list of questions, most of which he had missed, as Edward Frank spoke so quickly and Noel struggled to understand. “You… seek… much questions.”
“There are no certainties any longer, no simple answers to which we might cling for comfort,” the old man answered grimly. “Yesterday, I told you that you have changed a great deal in coming to us. I told you of three books of prophecy that could no longer be read, those of Young Isabella, Young Harvey and yourself. At first, I believed only the prophecies of those entering Moag were unwritten, however because of the nature of nameless child’s birth and the lack of a clear pathway through Om for him, I was curious to discover if anyone else had been affected, or if there was perhaps some event outside of your arrival that set about these changes, and we were simply unaware.”
“Nameless child?” Noel frowned.
“A boy, born the day you landed in the gorge, who died the day you escaped Moag,” the Mardraim answered. “All those born in the mountain are prophesied, Young Noel. Our number is less than four and twenty thousand souls, all known to us, as our souls live countless lifetimes learning what we need in the service of Om. This child, whoever he was, had no prophecy. We knew this well before you came. Clearly, he was seeded in his mother’s womb in the traditional manner, however that he was born and died as your path to us unfolded was highly curious to me.
“More curious still is the fact the Felimi took him from the birthing house when he was born. He was there, in the cloister, before Isabella or you or Harvey ever set foot in Moag. Isabella claims to have heard him crying as he was destroyed by Moag. She was adamant about this. As he was without soul when he was born, without path through Om, and utterly unknowable to us you understand, and as he died upon your exit from Moag, we felt it best to delivered a last sacred rite to his body as soon as possible. Two days after you arrived, he was burned. He never entered Moag, to my knowledge. He never had a soul for Moag to take.”
Noel’s eyes widened, and he shook his head, trying to understand it all. A great deal had happened of which he was completely unaware, it seemed, and he expected his ignorance was by design. He was a stranger to them, and their lives had been sent into chaos because of him. He had no idea what the child’s birth or death could possibly have to do with him though. “You… seek changes,” he said, wondering what the old man had discovered.
Edward Frank nodded. “The evening before Fkat, I went to the hall of records to look, however I had no idea where to begin. I did not wish to view the prophecies of the Mdrai, because this is a grave intrusion on my people, so not having any other measurable choice, though it is against the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya, I read my own book of prophecy. Noel Loveridge, I will be severely punished if anyone discovers I have done this, but I entrust this knowledge to you, and you alone, that you may hold me accountable to the pact with you, which I seek today. My prophecies, which once indicated I would be Omdra to my family and Mardraim to my people, are no longer readable, just as yours. Though I have not touched Moag, like you, I am no longer living within the current of Om.”
Noel took in a shaky breath and let it out. “All gone?” he asked weakly.
The old man lent him a weary smile, on a sigh. “Before I ask you to tell me of your experience, so that we may come to understand how this has happened to us and perhaps find some way back, if possible, to the way our lives were meant to be, I must tell you a truth that pains me. Then you may decide if you will help me.”
Noel swallowed, wondering what else the old seer could reveal that might make some difference now. Noel had touched the Dreaming. If Edward Frank’s own prophecies had been affected, Noel rightly owed him whatever answers he might be able to give. That the elder had even a small hope there might be some means of reversing their fate, or fatelessness as it were, only cemented in his mind the idea that he had to do whatever he could to help.
Edward paused at length to gather his thoughts, lowered his head in shame and whispered, “Before you made it beyond Moag and found your way to us, the Felimi demanded my exile from the mountain. They alone have the power to render justice, and if it were not for the terrible circumstances surrounding our situation, I would have been forced to leave, I know, because I committed a most grievous act that goes against all of our teachings, against the very sanctity of human life, against you. I do not justify what I did, however you must understand, Young Isabella suffered unspeakable pain and torment as a result of your entry to Moag. Physically her body withered and rotted before our eyes. Her mind turned in violent ways, and between periods of screaming in agony that was impossible to bear, she spoke words no one understood, words like Echteri amu schripat.”
“The wanderer lives,” Noel hissed.
Edward reached for his small, plainly decorated cup, hand trembling, and as he took a sip, Noel could tell by the look on his face that whatever the old man had done was terrible, perhaps even unforgivable, at least in his own eyes. “She suffered such anguish, Young Noel, and I believed that she had come to be in this state, as a result of saving your life,” he continued, setting his cup back on the table precisely as it was before, though hit clattered a bit before he let it go. “She was with the Felimi, in their care, for the worst of it. As soon as we knew she turned, we Mdrai went to the cloister to see what we might do to help her. Though it is a violation of the Mdonyatra to act against Om, to save a life, I believed we might save her and as consequence save Om itself, which was in danger, we thought, because of you. I intended to find a way to kill you while you were still inside Moag, and I told the Felimi as much.
“Taking the life of another is the worst sort of crime, second only to saving one. If the Felimi allowed it, I would have entered Moag myself, to find you, to destroy you, so that you would release Young Isabella from whatever bond held the two of you together. Given what we were told of Moag, I likely would have been lost forever, but I was gladly willing to give myself as sacrifice. My hope was only to save Young Isabella and to restore Om. If the events that followed had not occurred as they did, I would have been sent into exile for this idea, but as it happened, the Mdrai were waiting for me at the entrance to Moag, all of us set on the same thought to murder you and save Isabella.
“The Felimi followed me there, and we argued, all of us acting against the peace we have lived for thousands of years. Young Harvey brought Isabella’s body to the entrance of Moag, laid her there and stepped inside. Seconds later, you brought him out again, surprising us all. Then it was realized that Young Isabella was dead, and if you had not attempted to save her life, I likely would have killed you then and there, in front of everyone, and taken my leave of this mountain, believing I had made the appropriate choice, despite our doctrines.”
Noel actually laughed as the man gazed at him so seriously, clearly devastated by his irrational behavior that day. Of course, Noel had been angry enough to kill before, even threatened it a time or two, and no one ever threw him out of the mountain for it, so he could not help but laugh. Under the circumstances, he could hardly blame anyone for thinking about killing him. “You stop the Felo… killing me,” he smiled, shaking his head. “You saved me. The Felo… broke Mdonyatra.”
Noel’s laughter seemed to take the old man aback. “The Felo violated the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya in striking you,” Edward answered, frowning heavily, “however I violated the Ftdonya in stopping her attack.”
Noel shook his head, rolling his eyes at the idea. These rules the Knowledge Keepers followed all seemed backwards to human nature, as far as he was concerned. He was trying to think of how to explain this when the old man said, “The Felimi alone have the power to render justice without Fkat.” He opened his hands in a confused shrug. “I am but the Mardraim, though it remains to be seen if I am meant to continue on this path.”
“I am not… killed. No… violate… me.”
Sighing at Noel’s lack of understanding their ways, Edward Frank picked up the chain of thistles from the table, and for some reason Noel shuddered slightly as the elder turned them over in his hand, driving all of the humor from the air. “Until yesterday, only the Felimi and Young Harvey had witnessed Young Isabella tell of her experience in Moag. She is not right in her mind, even now, Noel Loveridge. I do not know if she will ever be right in her mind, which makes it difficult to discern truths from the fractures of thoughts she suffers. Harvey was with her when she spoke with the Felimi, so he could confirm for us some of what she told us when we met with her in her home yesterday.”
Noel nodded understanding, and the old man said, “She was very upset after you left. She kept saying, ‘The thistles. He brought the thistles.’ It was strange to me that she would say this, as I did not see the thistles that tattered your garments, when you arrived a short while after us. I believed it was just her madness speaking, however Omdra Vega had seen the state of your qaft, and Young Harvey asked her to tell us of what she saw of you in Moag.”
“She saw me?” He had not expected this, but he supposed it only made sense, considering he had also seen her.
The elder nodded. “She believed she was sleeping, experiencing a night fury. You chased her through a field of thistles as she ran toward our chambers, seeking advice on how to undo what she had done. Her Omdet Filim, the saffron vesture worn by Mdreli, became entangled in the brush and overgrowth and frayed out behind her as she ran, twisting around you, as you ran together. Frightened, she woke from the fury and used the magic of the Ikath—the woke or gods, I believe you call them today—to escape Moag.”
“Transvection,” Noel offered. “Gods move… erm… to… no time?”
“Yes, yes, she moved directly from the tunnel of Moag to her home, as gods do, through space, not time. Her Omdra was there when she arrived. He believed—we all believed—all hope was lost for her, because of the tale told us by the Felimi, about the nature of Moag.”
“The story of Young Eri, a boy many years ago, who entered Moag and was lost to us forever. The Mardraim at the time, as well as one of the Felimi, who has never been reborn since, entered Moag to try to save him, and were also lost,” the elder explained.
Noel suspected there was much more to this story, but Edward continued telling about Isabella’s experience. “Though Young Isabella had not run through the field,” he continued, “when she used the magic of Ikath to return home, her Omdra discovered the frayed ends of her Omdet Filim were tangled with thistles, like these.” He held up the chain. “Thistles that, by some means we cannot explain, came with her from the depths of Moag.”
“How?” Noel asked, and the shock must have been apparent on his face, because now it was Edward Frank’s turn to laugh, as he said, “That is not the most surprising thing, Young Noel. Yesterday, you ran through the very field she ran through in her fury. You ran to get to her. You knew where to find her, did you not? Young Isabella believes she saw prophecy, or something akin to Om’s path, while she was in Moag. The prophecy of thistles, she called it. She may be right.”
“You believe?” Noel scowled, hardly understanding how something like this might be possible when he did not understand prophecy to begin with.
The elder shrugged with one hand, then shook his head, frowning. “I cannot say what this was. And this is not the only curious revelation. Young Isabella told the Felimi that in her vision, when she reached our chamber to ask for help, I told her to kill you. Hours later, I said to the Felimi, in front of her, that in order to save Isabella and Om, we must kill you. If this is… Mmm, what is the word? If this is chance alone, it is the strangest chance I have ever known.”
Noel breathed in long through his nose, as he pushed himself up from the ground to pace the small room, wondering if his own experience in Moag had been prophetic. He had believed someone was playing around in his head, bringing up old ghosts of his youth, tormenting him with the hateful words of his father. He did not see how this could be prophecy, when all of it had already happened in the past, but then there was his strange hallucination of Isabella Asan drowning in quicksand. Though it made no sense that she should appear there in that cavern so unexpectedly, he tried to rescue her and was forced to squeeze the life out of her to get her to safety, but when he knelt to breathe the life back into her, she was not some newly dead beauty who had just suffocated on the rising sand, but rather a mummified corpse, oozing from every orifice with the very sand that threatened to fill the cavern and kill Noel too.
He grumbled at the memory, perfectly aware that soon thereafter he found himself actually breathing the life back into Isabella, parts of her rotting away, as though she had been dead for weeks, not minutes. Could it possibly be that he saw some strange prophecy from Moag as well?
“This was not all she saw in Moag, Young Noel,” Edward said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. Noel stopped circling the room and looked back at him, still scowling as he tapped his finger against his bottom lip. “In her fury, as the Mdrai left her, you came into the chamber, where we tend to Om, and began making a terrible noise, like so many… horns blowing. As you did, the chamber began to fill with water. Young Isabella begged you to stop or you would both drown, but you continued raging as the waters rose around you. She grew frightened, and when there was no other choice left, she drowned you in the waters of Om.”
Noel gave a nervous groan and turned to pace again. “So much alike,” he whispered, balling his fists at his side.
“Killing you stopped the flood,” the elder continued. “The water receded, leaving you both lying on the ground beside the wellspring. Young Isabella wept with remorse over your body, for this terrible act she committed against Om, but when she opened her eyes to look at you, she saw that lying there beside her, gripped by death, was not you, but rather, her. In her own dead eyes, where should have been her own miserable, startled reflection, she saw she had somehow become you. She pounded with your fists on her own chest, trying to wake herself, then bent over to breathe life into her own chest.”
Noel stood staring dumbfounded at the old man, hand clutched at his side, fingertips vibrating with an agonizing numbness he could not ignore. He swallowed, shaking his head, not wanting to believe it, yet knowing that if this was prophecy, if they were truly going to consider the possibility that it was prophecy that Isabella saw inside Moag, then it was confirmation of a truth that had gnawed at him for days, with every curious stir of her in his hand. Isabella was in him. Somehow, she was truly there with him, in the tunnel where Moag waited for them. As he hurried to breathe the life back into her decaying corpse that day, she was there with him, trying to save herself. She had foreseen it, and he had somehow lived it, felt her passing through him with his breath, though a part of her remained trapped within him. Isabella had saved her own life, as prophesied.
He shook his head wildly, gritting his teeth against the impossibility of it all, his mind grinding wickedly, in search of any other explanation, but there was none. She was there with him that very moment, a mocking buzz trapped in his fingertips, a furious burn pushing the hair back from his eyes. She was the quavering palm that pressed against the ache building in his forehead.
“What the—” He squeezed his eyes tight. “How the devil’s this possible?” he hissed, turning around in a circle, as though somehow the answer would appear, and if not the answer, then at least some escape. “No, it’s bloody madness. I won’t believe it. I don’t care what anyone saw in that damnable blackness. It is not possible!”
“I cannot understand you when you speak your strange tongue, Noel Loveridge,” Master Frank said patiently. “I do understand—”
“No,” Noel gave a harsh laugh. “You no understand.”
“Young Noel, I must warn you,” the elder whispered, also getting to his feet. He rounded the table and came to stand at Noel’s side, taking his arm firmly by the bicep, as though he thought Noel would run any moment, and he might have, if he had anywhere to go. When Noel finally met his eyes, Edward continued, so low that the words barely escaped his lips, “No one can know that she is still with you, Noel Loveridge.” Noel shook his head, started to argue, but Edward Frank squeezed his arm much harder than a man his age should be able. “You must not follow that part of her that brought you to her home yesterday. The Fahmat she performed when she saved your life was banned in this mountain thousands of years ago. No one, aside from the Felimi, has any knowledge of how to perform this aberration. It is evil magic, against all law, against nature, allowing one’s soul to enter the physical vessel of another.”
“Possession?” Noel breathed silently. “That’s what this is?”
Though Noel spoke English again, the Mardraim nodded, smiling painfully, and Noel felt a wave of calm wash over him, a wave of forceful, unnatural peace, as the elder let loose his arm. “Now you know the terrible truth. Will you help me understand what has happened here, how we might reverse our course and restore our paths?”
Noel swallowed against the tightness in his throat. Frightened, he ran both of his shaking hands through his hair, gripping it momentarily as he pressed his lips together. He gave a single, slow nod.
The inner-workings of the door clattered and thundered, groaned and shrieked.
Noel clenched his fists and his teeth, trying to hold back the wave of desperation that roiled inside him as he waited.
“Go with him,” he heard the Mardraim say, as the door inched open and Noel dug his fingers into the ancient wood, pulling with all of his strength until there was a wide enough gap for him to slide through. He did not look back to see who followed, but hurried up the passage toward the dim light of the atrium, and only realized it was Harvey Frank when he heard the man’s measured steps as he paused to hiss a vicious curse at the blackness waving a temporary farewell from the archway where Moag lie in wait.
He needed space, air. He needed to think, to mourn and spit out the salt in his mouth. He did not need to talk of Moag, to tell his tale, or to worry about the man behind him, struggling to keep up. When he reached the exit, he flung the door open, causing it to strike the outer wall.
A woman, who had been waiting outside, stepped forward urgently, mouth already forming words as she moved, until her eyes met Noel. He half expected her to turn and run in fear, but she did not recoil from the monstrous Ohamet, wanderer, unwriter of destinies. She did not cringe in embarrassment at having found him so unexpectedly or glare at him in anger for the havoc he wreaked on their peaceful home, cursing the destruction left in his wake. She had not even startled at his temperamental slamming open of the door.
Noel shuddered at her passivity, as though in her silence she had reached out with two strong hands, grasping him by the shoulders, and given him a swift shake that broke the fury loose of him, so all he had left was a solemn, abiding despair and his personal reckoning– fifty-seven.
“Pardon me, Mum,” he muttered, ducking his head as he stepped aside, turning toward the path that led back to the bridge, pausing there for Harvey.
“What do these words mean, ‘Pardon me, Mum?’” the man asked as they stepped out into the light together, Noel moving slowly now, for Harvey’s sake, slightly ashamed of himself for forgetting, so soon, all of the things the Felimi had warned him about their people.
Noel did not know the translation in Elfish, neither ancient nor the broken language cobbled together over the last ten thousand years, so that it was little more than the distant bastard half-cousin of the dialect known there in the mountain. Phileas would have known. Phileas would have thought they were astonishing, these creatures who dwelt deep beneath the surface of the earth, with their foresight and empathy, and their strange ability to hold a person still on the insides. “Apology,” he answered simply, shrugging at the inadequacy of the term as he glanced back at the woman, still waiting by the entrance to the cloister, though the door remained open.
“You regret,” Harvey said, his tone matter-of-fact.
“Much,” Noel admitted, sighing against the pain that held fast in his chest, making it difficult to breathe that next breath, as though all of the air in the universe was more than ten thousand years away and to breathe it required a great, gasping hope he was unable to muster. He had never quite been able.
“Dear God,” he whispered, his mouth slipping into English again as they cut away from the path and he led them off through the trees, in a direct line for the river. He did not know what he would do when they reached it, perhaps he would jump in and let it carry him away, but he could not risk running into anyone else, since they might suffer his remorse along with him.
Over the years, Noel had come to have his doubts about their Last Hope, doubts that shamed him, as they should have done. As a Noble, his faith in the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves was part of the job. Like all nobles, he was born stronger, born with greater ability than most, so of course, it reasoned the nobles must be prepared to defend their Hope against all those who would see the elfin race finished once and for all. For a noble, faith was as necessary to the cause as the cause was necessary to the faith, so as he felt it faltering, Noel knew he had to find the truth, for the benefit of everyone, yes, but truly, at the core of it all, to find out whether or not his own life had been wasted, waiting on a Hope that had always been meant to be their Last, something out of reach, an intangible romance that was never meant to play out as anything more than a tragedy. He had come to the mountain with a broken spirit, desperate for confirmation that the girl would be born and their race would be reborn, as their elders had promised.
Or so he thought before he came to that damnable mountain.
“Did I ever truly believe?” he pleaded quietly with Harvey Frank, who answered the only way possible—by imitating Noel’s own wide eyes and coarsely upturned brow, not understanding a word he was speaking.
But Noel had already been given the answer. The daft silence that followed Master Frank’s revelation that Noel had prophecies of his own had exposed to him a terrible truth, a truth more terrible than the prospect of fifty-seven unfinished prophecies, more terrible even than the idea that perhaps in coming there, in unwriting those fifty-seven prophecies, he may have undermined their Last Hope altogether.
The truth was Noel had done his duty. He had learned everything the elder Foote and Bergfalk had to teach him. He had bonded with a band of brothers, who had sworn blood oaths to Hope, the same as him, in answer to Hope’s ten thousand year old prophecy inscribed in the Book of Ages like it were holy scripture. The nobles were the Born Legion of Hope, as Bergfalk had come to call them. And as Bergfalk said, “Her destiny was their destiny.”
Noel had never considered that he might have had prophecies of his own to complete, that his duty may have been born of them, not out of a pointed ear, a slightly greater aptitude for manipulating particles than the rest, or even out of their need of salvation, with the blood of their people so thinned over the years that they were hardly as good as the halfling spawn of nymphs and demigods and could barely call themselves elves anymore. He had never once thought that the years of lessons and exploration and testing and honing of himself in that blood oath was his own destiny.
As they reached the riverbank, Noel stumbled to his knees, leaning over the water, scrubbing cold handfuls over his face several times, to wash away his guilt. When he had half drowned himself, he looked up to find Harvey was staring off into the distance, as though he watched the stain of Noel’s sin, carried away on the current.
If only it were so easy.
“I never believed. My faith was not shaken, Harvey; I never once truly believed.” The words came, but barely above the rush of the water. “I have lived my life fraudulently and never knew it, proclaiming faith, as though somehow faith, without belief, was hope enough, when hope was something I never had. Prophecy or no prophecy, I was the lie. You understand me? I know now, I was the lie.”
Harvey nodded, and Noel swallowed, wondering if he possibly could understand, if empathy allowed for that depth of commiseration. If it did, he felt terrible for Harvey Frank.
Noel sighed and sat down in the grass, hugging his knees for a moment before continuing. “My father thought I was a fool for my faith,” he gave a hollow chuckle. “I was so angry with him, because he would not listen to me, so angry because he would not hear the falsehoods I repeated in my own fear, so often that I, myself, actually mistook my depraved need for belonging as devotion. I was furious with him, for speaking out loud the beliefs I, myself, had forced down at the very depths of my soul, because I wanted to be a part of something greater and wasn’t ready to be miserable like him, but I knew. I knew there was no hope, but I was a noble, and I could either choose that or choose my father’s way, and in my father I saw something worse than believing the lie one wanted to be true—in him, I saw there could never be hope, because he believed in nothing at all, not even himself.
“So I pretended to believe in her. In my lie, at least I had something in which to the feign belief, to satisfy my need for some moral objectification, to pacify the misery I inherited. I thought I had possibility. I turned my back on my true brothers and joined a family of orphans called nobles, and God only knows how many of them don’t believe either, cannot believe, but want desperately for it to all be true, so they can feel something, so they carry on, doing what they think is right, before we lose ourselves completely, resign ourselves and our sons to being powerless.
“Don’t you see, Harvey? This is why my people are divided and my elders are in disarray, why Phileas searched and searched, and why I disappeared, why I stopped contacting Fendhaim months ago, allowed myself to be fostered by the Yolngu and entered the Dreaming, even though at the heart of me, I was certain there was no hope to be found there either, because in truth, I understood that following their faith was just as mad as following my own. I worried it was all lies, but I was the lie, I know now, because in my nobility, in my honor, in my duty, I never once considered that I might have a single prophecy of my own to fulfill—not one, and certainly not eighty. In all of it, I never considered that those prophecies might have been my own true hope, that they were what little I had to offer this world. Twenty-three complete, and I never knew it. Fifty-seven unwritten and undone. Lost, forever, because I’m here. If she is real, her faith in me, her hope in me, is grievously misplaced, I’m afraid, for in my disloyalty, I may have done her in for good. Perhaps I can muster the courage to hope I haven’t done her too much wrong.”
At last, all that was left was the rambling of the river, winding off into the distance. Harvey placed a patient hand on Noel’s shoulder and smiled sadly, the way one smiles when a friend has lost someone important to them, and there is nothing to be done to help, no real consolation to offer, so one does his best to force up the corners of his mouth, as if somehow that was better than nothing at all. Noel, managing a grimacing smile of his own, reached up to place his hand on top of Harvey’s, glad that he was there, even if he could not understand him, but just as their hands met, a jolt of static arced between them, and Harvey pulled his hand quickly away.
Isabella had stirred in Noel’s fingertips.
She was frightened.
Noel jumped to his feet and started up the riverbank toward the bridge. He had to get to her, he had to save her, but when he looked back to Harvey, to urge him to run, if he could, the man had already fallen several meters behind. “Come on,” he yelled, continuing on more slowly, but as the distance between them still grew, Noel worried that they both might find trouble if he was caught wandering wild through the mountain, his escort chasing after him. Squeezing his fist, as though the phantom of Isabella might slip away for good if he did not hold her tightly, he hurried back to help the man along. Harvey shook his head and waved him onward, saying only, “Issa.”
Noel ran as fast as he could without magic. When he crossed the river, he did not stick to the paths scored into the mountain by centuries of use, instead cutting through the field of thistles, knowing it would be faster than taking the walkway, though how he knew, when he did not know where he was going, he could not say. The plants scratched at his legs as he ran, tearing at the tail of his ridiculous borrowed tunic, but all that mattered in that moment was reaching Isabella in time, as though her life depended on him once again. His skin stung and he could feel rivulets of blood wetting his calves, but he continued running, across the fallow field, up the hill, darting through a thick stand of trees, to the edge of a small village, where he finally stopped to catch his breath, staring at the door of the tiny hut where Isabella lived. The shutters were closed, but he could hear her crying, her strange words fast and panicked as Noel’s breath.
His hand reached out, as though she tugged him along by it, but he pulled it back to his side, rubbing the tips of his fingers together.
She was alive and awake, and though he could not understand what she was saying, he knew she was begging to be returned to the darkness.
“Why?” he whispered, stepping out of the tree line, hurrying across the path to the garden gate, pushing it open.
But he already knew why. She was begging to go back to Moag, so that it could finish her, because the pain was too much for her to bear—the pain of losing Harvey Frank.
“How?” he asked softly, his hand already on the door. “How is it possible I know this?”
But he knew that answer as well.
She was alive and awake. She was safe but in pain. Hurt, confused, betrayed, angry, alone—terribly alone.
She was still inside him.
“I do not belong here,” Isabella wept. “Please, Mardraim, you must take me back. I cannot be here now. I do not belong to this world.”
Edward Frank looked at her as though she had lost her mind, as though she was still speaking in some language he could never comprehend, as though she was just a shard of her shattered self, and there were so many pieces of her lying scattered before him, he could hardly bear to look upon the fragile mess of her, too broken to repair.
They all looked at her this way. As though she was lost.
Truly, she was.
“You are weary from all you have been through. In time—”
“Time?” she moaned. “I should not be here. The nameless one did not belong. You sent him back. I heard him wailing as he went, crying for a soul. Please, take me back.”
“I will not return you to Moag,” the Mardraim said softly, resting a hand on her forehead. “You will get better, Young Isabella. You have no choice.”
“I do not wish to get better,” she sobbed. “It hurts so badly. The world was made to hurt. I know that now. I do not belong here. I know too much, and it hurts, all of it, hurts so much, and I am so alone.”
Her Omdra drew in a painful breath, as though he would speak, but the Mardraim held out a hand to stay him. “I know you hurt, child. I know you feel alone. I must keep you deeply enveloped in order to protect the others. I know you understand this. Perhaps, as you get better—”
“I will not get better, and you cannot protect them,” she whispered. “Nothing can protect them now. Please, Mardraim, I serve no purpose here, I have no place in the world of Fate. There was too much power, so they divided it again and again, and always, the people, those poor, terrible people, filled with hatred and pain—it is too much to bear.”
“Her mind is fractured,” Omdra Wallace said in a hush. “Are we certain it does not still hold her?”
“There is no way to be certain,” the Mardraim smiled sadly. “All we can do is wait and hope.”
The door opened and the wanderer stepped quietly inside. No one else seemed to noticed he was there, so Issa was not certain if he was real or just a figment, or if, perhaps, Omdra Wallace was right, and Moag still had her in its grasp, and this wandering apparition was sent to torment her.
Perhaps Moag still had him as well.
A dozen purple thistles clung to the tattered tail of his garment.
“I wonder what she means by it all, what she saw in there,” Omdra Vega offered.
“I do not,” her father answered, looking pained at the prospect.
Noel raised his hand by his side in a half wave, a pathetic, cringing smile on his lips. Issa forced down the venom that rose in her throat, rolled on her side and squeezed her eyes shut, willing him to disappear.
The wanderer was to blame for all of it. The baby, Harvey, Issa’s Fatelessness. He had changed everything.
“Schripat. Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed against her hands, clasped prayerfully.
“What do these words mean?” the Mardraim sighed, even as Noel gasped, and everyone turned, surprised to find him there.
As much as she despised him, Isabella was at least glad she was not the only one who could see him.
“What are you doing here?” her father spoke in the language of the elves, his voice thick with anger. Never, in all of her life, had she heard her Omdra speak crossly to anyone. Anger was something Issa knew deeply now, having found within Moag a thousand passions she did not know existed before. She should weep for a million years, for all of the agony in the world, and for a million more, knowing her father had learned to suffer because of Noel.
“I come for Isabella. She is…fear… alone. I come to help her,” the man answered.
“You have no cause here,” her father spat. “Leave, this instant, and do not ever return.”
Omdra Yang stepped forward and took Issa’s father by the hand, speaking quietly, “Zo, you are weary from these days of uncertainty. The Llendir is so deeply enveloped we did not notice him here. He cannot possibly harm her more than he has already done. Perhaps he can help.”
“He understood her,” the Mardraim said, looking to Noel. “She said these words before. Is this the language your people speak today?”
“No,” Noel answered, clearly stunned he had understood. “Apology. I do not know this language, but I know the words. She said, ‘He lives. The wanderer lives.’ How do I know this? Why did she say it?”
“More questions,” the Mardraim smiled. “I expect there will always be more than we can possibly answer, young one.”
“Make him go. Please, make him go,” Isabella cried, her voice hoarse from all the tears she had shed. The others might speak in elfish, but she would not accommodate the intruder. “He has changed everything, even you, just as Harvey said he would. Now I am free, and Harvey is gone, but this was not how it was meant to be. Take me back to Moag. Put me back. I do not belong here.”
“She wants you to leave,” her Omdra said to the wanderer. “You upset her.”
Noel frowned, stepping toward her, but Yang blocked the way, giving him a cautioning look. “Apology,” Noel said again, stepping back. “Issa, do not… cry for Moag. Do not cry for Harvey.”
“Do you not understand there is no place for you here, Llendir?” her father shouted. “Get out, now!”
“Zo,” Omdra Yang whispered, placing himself between them.
“But I understand her,” Noel said. “I do not know how. I mean no harm.”
“Stay, Young Noel,” the Mardraim said softly, and Isabella’s father caught his breath, betrayed. But their elder got to his feet and went to Zo Asan, took him in his arms, like a nurturer should, and spoke in the gentlest voice, “Zo, I know this has been very difficult for you, first believing you lost your child, then believing she returned to you miraculously, only to have her stolen from you once again, wishing you could help, powerless to do anything, powerless even to ease the pain she experienced in her ordeal. Noel Loveridge saved her life. Against all of our doctrines, we allowed him to save her, as she saved him, and against all of our doctrines, we have worked to heal the damage done her by Moag—the damage done to her body, the damage we could see. I do not know how long it will take to repair her broken soul, however, against our doctrines, I will continue this course of healing, the course Young Noel set in place as soon as he escaped Moag. Do not treat him as our enemy, when he may yet have life to give her. Issa will never be the same, that is certain, but perhaps, if we give her the time and patience she needs, she will be better than before. Ohamet understands her. Let him help us understand her as well.”
By the time the Mardraim had finished speaking, Zo Asan was weeping.
“Father, it is too much to bear,” Issa cried, and he broke loose from the Mardraim’s embrace and fell to his knees on the floor beside her, taking her up in his arms, holding her head to his chest as he rocked her, like a child. “The nameless infant died,” she whispered.
“He did,” her father answered, lips pressed to the top of her head. “But you did not.”
“Harvey… H-harvey died,” Isabella said, the words falling off into heaving sobs.
Her father held her tighter still, answering, “No. Shh. No.”
“I saw him in Moag. He took my place.”
“No, Issa, Harvey lives. Ohamet brought him out of the blackness. Ohamet saved him.”
Isabella did not see how this was possible, when she saw her friend unfurled. His demise in the depths of Moag was as clear to her as the beginning and ending of the universe. He was relinquished to Moag in the blink of an eye, swift as a billion billion suns are born to give life and die, giving death. “He is gone,” she said certainly.
Then the door opened, and there Harvey stood on the stoop, looking worn and weak and beautiful.
“Harvey,” she shuddered as he hurried across the room.
He scooped her up out of her father’s arms, hugging her tightly. “Here I am. Here I am, Issa,” he said. His voice was the sweetest sound she had ever known.
Of all the thousands of passions she learned from Ohamet and her encounter with Moag, the greatest, most treacherous was what she felt in that moment.
Disbelief. Awe. Fear. Wonder. Relief.
Love, Noel thought, rubbing his fingers together as he stepped outside, shutting the door behind him.
The flame of the solitary candle lighting the atrium flickered, deep shadows filling the archways breathing sighs of foreboding. “This way,” Master Frank said, heading for a passage to the right, leading them past the entrance to Moag.
As he crossed the room, Noel eyed the pitch darkness, suppressing a small shiver against the idea that the treacherous mist, he found hidden in those depths, watched him as well, with a certain eagerness. Moag was not quite finished with him, he knew. He had known for nine days.
Master Frank and Emanuel disappeared into the shadows of the corridor. Noel hurried in behind them, Moag tugging at Noel’s bones, a siphon drawing him down.
It was strange to think the people of the mountain had lived so long in the company of such a monster, without the slightest knowledge of its existence, and stranger still that the old man looked to Noel to help uncover answers as to why, when he was an outsider. The Mardraim had little time to prepare him for what would come next on their way to the cloister, but while he apologized for not giving Noel more warning, he assured him his ignorance of all the facts was necessary. The Mdrai had spent the past nine days uncovering what they could, in the hopes of understanding Moag and the apparent secrecy of the Felimi. According to him, the only reason anyone besides the Felimi knew about Moag was because Noel had turned up unexpectedly, wreaking his havoc, forcing a sliver of the truth out into the open. In their last few minutes together before reaching the retreat of the blind matriarchs, rather than tell Noel what questions to ask or give him any sort of guidance on how to handle the Felimi, the old man told him about his grandson.
Almost two weeks prior, Harvey Frank, an adept empath, felt Noel speeding toward their mountain, come to ask the seers of old the meaning of a prophecy. Harvey had warned his elders that Noel must not be allowed to make it inside the mountain, but his advice was not heeded. The man believed Noel was being guided there by Om, against Om’s will, and that if Noel made it to their home, he would change the very path set out for the world at the beginning of time. Noel had almost died in his quest to reach them, and despite knowing the outcome, despite all of the warnings he had given his elders, Harvey left the safety of the mountain, taking Isabella with him, breaking all of their laws in the process, in order to save Noel’s life. It was understandable that such an event could not be taken lightly. The Mdrai had needed these nine days to see how much Noel had changed.
Not everything. But enough.
The passage the master led them down ended at a great, knobless door carved of gnarled wood, its frame and rounded lintel built of smooth, circular stones, so highly polished they looked wet, reflecting the little light that bled in from the room behind them. The capstone was engraved with a pictorial script that put Noel in mind of an ancient fairy ward, much like those inscribed above the three gates to Mag a Bon. This was not some ordinary charm for barring entry by outsiders. These powerful spells had sealed the Mag a Bon gates for more than two millennia. It was the sort of magic as necessary for keeping the inside in, as it was for keeping the outside out, if there was any truth to the stories told of that hellish place. As Edward Frank rapped twice at the door, sending a deep echo into the chamber behind them, Noel could not help but wonder if the Felimi hoped such totems would protect them against Moag, or if there was something else he should worry about, beyond the door.
An enormous set of tumblers clunked and rattled to life, reverberating in Noel’s chest and teeth, making the silence that followed ring out deafeningly, filling his head with pressure. He wriggled his fingers in his ears to clear them, as they waited. After a moment, the door creaked open, no more than an inch, and the elder dug his feet into the floor, pushing his shoulder hard against the mammoth wood, forcing it the rest of the way.
Emanuel quickly filed in on the old man’s heels, but Noel hesitated at the threshold.
The room was a perfect dome hewn from the rock. More inscriptions, like those over the entry, covered the polished stone walls, each line interlaced in the spaces of the next, forming a magnificent web of binding all around them, even under foot. The smell of burnt sage and old blood stung his nostrils. The slight metallic tinge to the air pricked the tip of Noel’s tongue, causing the hairs on his arms to stand. The room was thick with magic.
Seated upon a wooden dais level with Noel’s shoulders, the three Felimi waited for their court to convene. The elderly woman sat nearest the steps, looking old as the mountain itself but not at all frail. He might have been biased, considering their previous interaction, but she reminded Noel of the worst sort of witch, with her twisted bones and wildly knotted hair twined madly around itself, drawn up into one extraordinarily large knot that looked to weigh at least two stone, pressing her head forward and down, creating the prominent dowager’s hump on her back. Next to her sat the child, delicate as one of the porcelain dolls Noel’s mother collected when he was a boy. Though the girl sat upright, with all the poise of her station, her leather-clad feet did not quite reach the ground, and her toes swung in rhythm, keeping time with a melody all her own. Last was the young woman, Noel’s age, or perhaps a few years older, a long lost Nubian princess, her only flaw, her marked blindness, which somehow made her all the more attractive. Two seats at the far end of the platform remained empty. Noel expected the Mardraim to take one of these, but the man had already made his way to the gallery on the far side of the room, where the rest of the Mdrai sat in the front row. Emanuel was just taking up a space on the bench behind them, next to Harvey Frank. Noel had not seen him since the day the two of them went tumbling out of the darkness together.
The door began to slowly swing shut of its own volition, and Noel stepped out of its path, into the room After a long minute the door rumbled closed, old tumblers turning over once more, locking them inside, leaving a heavy silence draped over the elemental remnants of magic that furnished the place. There was no knob on the interior of the door either.
No escape, Noel thought, looking to the Madraim.
“My Felo, as agreed, I have brought my guest, Noel Loveridge, to Fkat, that he might answer your questions regarding his arrival at our home,” Master Frank began, motioning for Noel to take the chair at the center of the room.
Noel hurried to his place, looking up to the platform as the young girl nodded answer, speaking perfect Old Elfish, “We are grateful to you, Young Edward, for allowing the Llendir to abide in your home, under your care, in preparation for Fkat. We anticipate this gathering will prove of value to all present.”
“Your guest is advised that Felimi and Mdrai are in agreement he will not be bound to the Ftdonya or Mdonyatra for the duration of Fkat, as he has not had the benefit of their teachings prior to his arrival,” said the young woman, with an impassive grace. She was the hard one, Noel thought, but she was anxious. As she spoke, he watched her fingers, turned up in the skirt of her shapeless beige dress. “For the remainder of his time with us, the Llendir will take every opportunity to learn our ways, so he might not again act in violation of our principles, out of ignorance alone.”
“He is duly advised,” Master Frank nodded graciously. “Thank you, my Felo. The Mdrai shall see to his education.”
“You understand these terms?” The woman’s blind eyes searched a point just over Noel’s head, even as she spread her fingers out across her knees.
“I do,” Noel offered, before thinking his words through. He did not understand completely, and was going to question the meaning of the strange words the woman used, but he was caught off guard when she moved her hands. The action was deliberate, as though she knew he was watching. “This is… erm… sense? No, I mean…” He shifted in his seat, rubbing a hand over the back of his head. Quiet laughter broke from the gallery, and Noel turned to find Emanuel was the source.
The young man covered his mouth looking ashamed as the old woman grunted disapprovingly. “We understand your guest struggles with the language of the Llendir,” she offered, her voice as baggy and wrinkled as her aged flesh, though there seemed a hint of amusement hidden deep down in the weathered folds. “While Noel Loveridge becomes accustomed to our laws, one of our children must learn the language his people speak today. Young Harvey is best suited.”
Master Frank and the rest of the Mdrai looked to each other in graven silence, before turning to face Noel’s rescuer, the man who had warned them Noel must not be allowed in the mountain.
The man’s dark skin had the ashen undertone of lengthy illness, and there were deep purple rings around his dull eyes. He sat as though he carried a serious burden, his back rigid, head downcast. He was slow to look up to meet Master Frank’s eyes, answering only, “I will do as my Omdra asks of me.”
Master Frank reached out and ran his hand over Harvey’s bald head before pressing it against his cheek with tenderness. When he turned back to the court, Noel saw the worry in the elder’s eyes. “Young Harvey has spent nine days in your care, my Felo. There has been no opportunity to speak with him of his experience in Moag, no time to assess the state of him for ourselves. It is clear he is unwell. Young Emanuel has spent much time with Young Noel, since he has been my guest. Would not it be better if they continued in this way together, until my Omdrella is well enough for the task?”
The young girl clasped her hands together on her lap, looking thoughtful before answering, “Young Emanuel is incapable of empathy, where young Harvey is unsurpassed.”
“All the more reason to distance him from Young Noel, until he recovers.”
“Then you agree the Llendir continues to present a danger to our children?” the little one asked, her feet swinging a bit higher as she said the words.
Master Frank’s jaw tensed. “No. No, I only desire that my Omdrela not be asked—”
“Your Omdrela will not be asked,” the old woman gargled over him. “Young Harvey is well enough to return to his duties, or he would not be here. He and Noel Loveridge have much in common, a great deal to discuss.”
“His talents will prove useful to all of us during this time of learning, revealing far more about the rest of the world, and your guest’s purpose here, than we can possibly learn in Fkat,” the girl rejoined.
The middle aged woman, finality in her tone, added, “It is decided. Young Harvey is to work with Noel Loveridge.”
Master Frank swallowed, turning his gaze to Noel, lips drawn sternly together as he retreated to his seat. “Yes, my Felo,” he answered quietly, as the Mdrai murmured low amongst themselves. The old man raised his hands, bringing them back to order.
The old Felo cleared her throat, sagging and rolling side to side as she clutched the delicately carved arms of her chair. It squeaked as she inched her heavy bottom toward the back of the seat. When she was finally comfortable, she said, “Noel Loveridge, we convened Fkat in order that we might understand the events surrounding your visit to our mountain. Many ages ago we brought our children to live in this place, in order to protect them. I assume you know who we are?”
Noel nodded, sitting up straight. “Yes, I have come to ask—”
“You have come to beg the meaning of a prophecy your ancestors recorded long ago in their ancient texts,” the young woman scowled.
“This is true,” her elder groused thickly. “You have traveled a great distance to ask us of a prophecy, however our children are not alone seers. Possessed of empathy, many among us are deeply affected by the souls of others. For an empath, there is little separation between one person and the next, or indeed between one and all. It can take many years for the empath to learn to discern the differences between individuals, but first it requires they learn to control themselves, which entails a great and continuous act of will for the young one, to guard himself against the constant presence of those around him. We have raised our children up to avoid many of the extravagances of the senses you take for granted in your daily life, extravagances which you find ordinary, even fulfilling, from pleasure to pain. You must understand that the uncontrolled extremes you live moment by moment have done great harm to our people. This mountain has long been a sanctuary to the empathy, even before we brought the remainder of our family to live in this place. In coming here, you have willfully disrupted its sanctity.
“It was empathy that saved your life on the mountain,” she continued. “Empathy that brought our children to you, in violation of the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, empathy that nearly destroyed Young Isabella and Young Harvey in their quest to save you, their sense of you, their understanding the depths of you, which carried them into Moag, putting their lives in senseless peril for your benefit. You may have an idea of what we are, but you are incapable of knowing, as the empath knows, incapable of grasping even what is at the core of your own self, to the extent one possessed of empathy understands you. Even now, you prove impossibly absorbed in your own worth, as you sit before us kindling your offense, when I merely intend to make plain to you why it is imperative we do everything within our power to protect our children from you and your kind.”
Startled by how easily she had sensed his umbrage, Noel swallowed the mild flare of indignation that had risen inside him. “I… meant no… harm to your children,” he answered cautiously.
“You do not deny you have endangered the lives of our young ones?” the child offered somberly.
He glanced to Master Frank, who nodded for him to answer plainly. “My own… elders have… taught me that I… should not deny what I do not understand. I would like to understand.”
The old woman grunted, chewing on her tongue.
“Isabella?” Noel inquired, thinking now was probably as good a time as any. “Where is she?”
“Young Isabella has yet to wake,” the Mardraim answered. “Her health improves daily.”
Relief washed over Noel, his hand absentmindedly tugging at the remnants of hers, as though she was an old friend and they had both just received excellent news.
She was gone.
Truly gone, for the first time in nine days. He stared around at the hundreds of incantations covering the walls, took in a slow breath, allowing the potent energy that protected that place to roll over his tongue, and looked back at the knobless door, locked tight, as much to keep the inside in as to keep the outside out, he thought. Nine days he had spent trying to shake her. A lonely cold set in, like his hand was naked for the first time, bare without her.
“Young Isabella’s life is forever changed because of you,” the middle aged woman said, a hint of callousness in her tone. Her own hands were twisting in her dress tail again. This time she did not move them as Noel eyed her carefully and a strange sense came over him, that the woman had felt his anticipation, surprise… even longing… But not in her head. She had actually felt Noel seeking Isabella in her own hand. If he was not much mistaken, the woman, an empathy herself, had noticed Isabella’s absence first.
“I am… apology. I am… glad…. she improves,” Noel offered.
“You led her to Moag,” the child answered darkly.
Noel shook his head. “I did not lead her. We… were never… together… in the dark.” He could not help but flinch. This was a lie. Isabella had been with him all along. He half expected the woman to call him out on his dishonesty, but the child spoke again.
“The wildness of your soul led her to Moag and cost her life,” she practically whispered as the room at large stirred. “Though she lives and breathes now, her life is still lost to her. You must understand you cannot control what the empath feels. You must try to see differently now, Ohamet. To your mind, you did not control Young Harvey or Young Isabella. To your mind, you are separate from them in every way. To them, at the soul of them, you are them. This is empathy. She was always with you. You were always together.”
Noel shuddered visibly, but quickly recovered. “Mohamed?” he asked, glancing over at the gallery. “Harvey called me this.” The man did not look up at mention of his name.
“Oh-ha-met,” the girl corrected. “It means, ‘One who wanders in search.’ This search is at the soul of you, Noel Loveridge. To our children, you do not control what you feel. Nothing does. You are untamed as the winds. They knew your struggle to reach us as their own struggle. They knew your fear of death as their own fear, your will to live as their own will. These are but a handful of the terrible passions from which we have done our best to guard our children, so our home would be one of peace, so they could be at peace. We tried to protect them from the outside world, from you, but like a drop of water seeks the ocean, becoming the ocean itself, so the one possessed of empathy becomes all others through this deeper knowledge of every other being, no matter how well trained they are. Whatever way the ocean goes, so goes each drop. You unknowingly brought to our home the wrath of six billion tides. Worse still, you brought our children your wandering, and so they wandered with you. We could not protect them. We cannot protect them. Not completely.”
Noel stared up at the girl, wondering that one so young could possess such depth and intellect, wondering that he could be so careless. As the stain of guilt set in, the young woman asked, “How many others know you are here?”
“My own… old ones… like you… sent me to find you, to ask about the foretelling… the prophecy,” he answered. “They do not know this mountain. I do not… speak… with them for… many moons.”
“The knowledge Om bestows on our people is knowledge long sought by every race, from god to beast, and has been the source of horrors the world over throughout the ages,” she answered him. “The brutality, the terrors, humanity has visited upon itself, in the name of foretelling, as you call it, is unacceptable to us as messengers of Om. You are not the first, in our countless years living in this mountain, to come searching for answers to prophecies, Ohamet. You are, however, the first to find your way here, despite all our efforts to remain hidden. We must know how you discovered us.”
Noel thought of Taree back in Arnhem Land, his people struggling to hold onto their own traditions in the face of the same brutal humanity. “How I discovered you?” It had taken months for Noel to build that trust, months for him to be accepted as Yolngu. Taree’s people were his own people now.
“We cannot allow anyone else to find their way here,” the child implored. “You have hurt so many. The rains we used to wash the air of your energy, in order to protect our children, flooded crops, washing many of them into the river. Someone must envelop you at all times, in order to contain you, but our people are already effected and are experiencing thoughts and ideas that, left unchecked, will undermine the peace we have so long established. An infant empathy, newly born the day you landed at the base of our mountain, died because of your presence here, and there will be more if the peace is not restored. We must do what is necessary to ensure no one else will ever find us. You understand. I know you do. Tell us how you found us. You must.”
As old as their culture was, the Yolngu knew nothing of these ancient seers and empaths or their mountain home; they had only guided Noel to the Dreaming, because they believed the Dreaming contained all of the answers, from the beginning to the end. But what could the Felimi possibly do to stop the Dreaming from showing anyone else where they were hidden? Nothing. Their only recourse was to silence those who had helped Noel in his journey there.
He imagined the destruction of the sacred spaces where Taree and his family communed with the Wangarr spirit. He imaged Taree and his family dead, all because of Noel. Were the people of the mountain not human as well? Peaceful and emotionless as they claimed to be, the elderly woman had struck Noel with a powerful curse shortly after he escaped Moag, and he was certain she would have killed him, if Master Frank had not intervened.
And they used Moag, horrible as it was, like a guardian at their gate.
They were so ashamed of the fact, their own children had been left completely in the dark about its presence.
Noel did not know if the control the Felimi exerted over their people was necessary to protect the empaths, or if the blind leaders of this cult, for lack of better terms, were just afraid of losing their power. But one thing was clear—he could not put Taree and his family at risk.
“You have my word, I will never… tell anyone,” Noel answered quietly, hoping he could steer the conversation far away from the natives of Arnhem Land.
“No, you will not,” the old woman practically snarled in response.
A prickling spread across the back of his neck and up into his jaws.
He had spent the better part of nine days searching for a way out of the mountain that did not involve heading back the way he came, through the belly of Moag. Now he realized, as he sat there looking up at the three women, he had been afraid of the wrong thing. After months of hoping to find this place, hoping to ask these people about the prophecy in the Book of Ages, hoping that they might understand what had happened to their Last Hope, he had made it there, mostly in one piece, only to discover the Felimi and Mdrai had no choice but to do what was necessary to protect their people. If he was the only one who knew where these people and the location to the entrance to their refuge were hidden, there was no cance he was ever getting out of there. He would never see Phileas, the rest of his friends, or the old Iron Bones again. He was never going home.
“You would not want someone else to come here,” the little girl smiled as though she knew the trepidation he felt, comprehended and even relished the moment the truth of things had dawned on him. “Someone else might not be able to save Isabella, as you did. We must be certain. You understand.”
“No one… outside of this mountain… knows I am here,” he answered carefully. From this point forward, Noel knew he had to guard every inch of the truth. He could not tell anyone in that mountain about Phileas Foote’s extensive search of the Australian Continent or how Noel himself had seen a pattern in the Shaman riddle of looking ever North. He could not tell them of going to Taree and his months spent learning the ways of the Yolngu people. He could not tell them of drinking the toxic potion that led him into the Dreaming. His freedom was the price he would pay for everyone else’s safety.
But he could hardly lie to a room full of empaths.
“I did not discover you,” he said, choking over the words. “I… dreamt… of the mountain. I am sorry, I do not know… right words. I felt… I felt the mountain, here.” He knocked his fist against his breastbone. This was the truth, at the heart of it all. In the Dreaming, Noel had simply understood where he was going. “I knew the mountain, inside.”
At this, the room stirred. The Mardraim and Mdrai began a barely whispered conversation, speaking words Noel did not understand. The girl looked as though she would rise from her chair as she called over the discord, “Tell us of this dream. Tell us what you saw, Ohamet.”
“I saw… nothing. I heard nothing. Yet I knew Namcha Barwa. I knew the seers of old were… buried… deep within this mountain.”
He had clearly struck a nerve, as the Mdrai continued their discussion, no longer attempting to keep themselves hushed, but the elderly woman lifted her hand for silence and waited for the talk of the Mdrai to die down before she spoke. “Have you had other dreams like this?”
“No,” he said, hoping she would not press for a more detailed account, but the child was already prepared with the next question.
“This dream occurred to you one night while you were sleeping?”
“No,” he answered, but it was clear they would not be satisfied until they understood, as the girl leaned over the arm of her chair to speak closely with the young woman and the Mdrai erupted once more. “I dreamt of Moag,” Noel added loudly.
Silence answered him as every eye, blind and seeing, turned to face him.
“I dreamt of the dark. I do not know why, only that I knew.”
“What makes you believe you dreamt of Moag?” the old woman asked, her voice thick with disdain.
“I searched many moons, for your people, but… I could not find you,” Noel began slowly, choosing his words carefully. “When I stopped, when I let the dream come, I knew here.” He touched his chest again. “On the mountain… I had to fall, to see… the… door… the gate… to Moag. I had to let… myself go to it, let… something else… the dream… carry me… in the dark.”
“Young Harvey felt this in Ohamet as he flew to us,” the Mardraim insisted. “He felt Om guiding him to us against its will. It is as my Omdrela said.”
“Om guiding him?” the young woman scoffed. “Your guest claims to have been guided by a dream of Moag!”
“If Ohamet is Zhe—”
The elderly woman lifted her hands again and raised her voice over him. “The Llendir is no Zhe. He used some source of magic to locate our home.”
“You suggest such a magic exists, after all this time?” the old man countered.
“The ever-changing world is full of all manner of magic, Young Edward,” the child answered impatiently. “What was not possible yesterday may easily become possible tomorrow. Fahmat is always growing.”
“Might Om also grow? Might Om make things, we once believed impossible, possible?” he reasoned.
“The way is fixed, Young Edward.”
“Then this too must be the way, or Noel Loverdige would not be here!” Edward Frank motioned to him. “Unless my Felo believes there exists a magic, out there in the ever-changing world, which allows the Llendir to control Om and survive Moag, to deny death and unwrite Om’s way, then this is Om’s way!”
“Young Edward!” the old woman reproached.
“Forgive me, my felo,” he answered, the words suggesting submission, but his voice implying something else entirely.
This was what the old man had been alluding to when he told Noel of Harvey’s premonition. Harvey believed everything would change. Harvey believed Noel was guided there by Om. Noel knew he was guided there, by the Dreaming. Could they be one and the same?
“Unwrite Om’s way?” Noel asked, looking to Master Frank.
The old man reached inside the folds of his tunic but paused, glancing up to the Felimi before proceeding. The eldest Felo nodded, waving her hand with casual indifference. Edward Frank crossed the room, drawing an old book, bound in purple linen, from the wide sleeve of his garment as he made his way to Noel. “This is your book of prophecy, Young Noel,” the man said, holding it out to him as he reached his side.
“My book?” Noel breathed, instinctively reaching for it, then hesitating, drawing back his hand. “I… I never…” It had never occurred to him that any part of his own life had been designed by Fate.
Master Frank smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling for just a moment, but he too hesitated, and as he sighed, his smile fell away and he drew the book back to his own breast. “You must know. Your book contains fifty-seven incomplete prophecies, Ohamet. There are twenty-three more you have completed over the course of your life thus far. As I have told you in our talks, we have books for every person who has lived for many thousands of years. Some books contain more prophecies than others. As yours went, your life was highly influenced by Om. But your journey here was never written.”
A dead chill crept over his flesh. “Was influenced?”
Edward Frank set the book on the arm of Noel’s chair, resting his fingers on the words embossed on the cover, written in the same sort of script that filled the walls and floor, guarding that place. “The fifty-seven prophecies you had yet to complete will never come to pass,” he answered calmly. “You are now most certainly one who wanders in search.”
The old man gave Noel a moment, to let those words sink in, before he continued, “When a seer has a vision, we Mdrai record the veils, so we might see Om’s way and track when a prophecy is changed or completed. Changes do happen. The way is imperfect. However deviations are ordinarily vagaries, of little importance to the way as a whole. The fifty-seven prophecies you had left to complete, before entering Moag, can no longer be read. They are broken. You are not alone in this, I am afraid. Young Isabella and Young Harvey both have books of prophecy that are now impossible to read as well. We have no way of knowing what you were meant to do, prior to your encounter with Moag, only that where you stand now is quite outside the way Om set out for you in the beginning.” He nodded to the book and folded his hands at his waist, smiling that same gentle smile he always wore, the one that caused a peaceful hush to come like a quiet snowfall deep in Noel’s insides.
“Moag…” Noel whispered, the master’s ease dulling the panic that rose within him, but not quite washing it away. Fifty-seven prophecies? How was it possible? “Moag did this?” How was it possible that anyone could have so much they were meant to do in one lifetime? And if Noel would no longer do those things… His chest tightened, and he clutched at his heart, suddenly aware of its painful racing.
The room was deadly silent for a long while, as Noel struggled to come to terms with just what this revelation meant. He fought back the sting of tears, threatening his eyes, and picked up the book from the arm of the chair, more to give himself something to distract everyone else than to attempt to understand it, tenderly turning it open to the first page, his hands trembling, causing the weathered paper to quiver under his fingers as he ran them over the text. What have I done? he thought, turning page after page. “Christ, what will I never do?” he whispered, forgetting his Elvish as he thought of his friends, the other nobles, everything they had worked so hard for. “The Last Hope…” he breathed. Had it all been for naught?
He found himself chuckling in answer to the curious mix of terrified uncertainty and overwhelming finality he felt warming his bones. Closing the book, he took a moment to compose himself, laid it aside, allowing the ill feeling of regret to seep through every cell of him. This ending was fitting for him, even if it was not Om’s way. “What is Moag?” he asked plainly, knowing the answer would not come easily. If the answer were simple, there would be no need for the Felimi to hide it.
The old woman shifted, causing her chair to groan beneath her once more, her lips pressing together in a tight line, the weight of her brow, as it drew low and she breathed in through her nose, causing her drooping eyelids to sag deeper still over her cheekbones. “Moag is the end,” she practically growled.
“The end?” Noel scoffed, matching her scowl. “I saw it, felt it… breathing in there. It is not some… not some…” He was trying to find the elfish words for ‘mythical, all-knowing force,’ but the words would not come, and it was just as well, he thought, considering he had been inside the Dreaming, and he would have scoffed as readily at the idea of the Wangarr a year ago, having yet to experience it himself. Clearly, mythical, all-knowing forces existed. Who was he to say such forces could not manifest as living, breathing shadows of the end of time tucked neatly inside some mountain just waiting to erase the destinies of any old wanderer, who happened upon one of its tunnels in search? The more appropriate question was how had Isabella, Harvey and Noel managed to escape it with their lives, if not with their destinies, intact? It occurred to him this is what they all wanted to know. He swore.
The little girl made a face that was unbecoming and out of character. “In the thousands of years we have lived in this mountain, only three people have survived Moag,” she said, legs swinging again as she spoke. “We have heard from Young Isabella and Young Harvey their accounts of what occurred during their time in Moag. To understand, we must hear your account as well.”
“I have not heard their accounts,” he answered stubbornly. “What did Harvey see in there?”
“This does not concern you,” the young woman said, raising a brow.
“You say I am one of three. It concerns me,” he snarled. “What happened to Isabella? Why was she hurt when I was not?”
“I believe the connection between the two of you was forged when she saved your life,” the Mardraim said. “You died outside the mountain, and she breathed new life into you, just as you did for her after you escaped Moag. She was the first to enter, shortly after saving you, and I believe that connection between you spared her, however when you later entered, Moag attacked her, instead of you. I do not know why.”
“No, it attacked me,” Noel offered, disgusted at the whole affair, disgusted with the Mardraim for allowing this Fkat, this charade of a trial, to continue, disgusted at himself for spending nine days waiting around in the hope of winning people over, when he may very well have destroyed the only reason he came to the mountain in the first place. Fifty-seven prophecies. “Moag tried to… to drown me, in a… a vision of… earth? No. Sand.”
At this, Harvey Frank looked up, and judging by the look on the man’s face, Noel had finally said something important enough to warrant a response. Given everything he had learned there that day, Noel did not think waiting a few days longer to give the Felimi and Mdrai everything they wished to know would make much difference. It had been nine days, and he was not going anywhere. Besides, he and Harvey were going to be spending a lot of time together anyway. “I would like to leave now,” he said, rising from his seat.
“Fkat is not finished, Noel Loveridge,” the old woman answered harshly.
“No, but I am.” He went to the door, to wait for it to open. “I have wandering to do.”
Finally, the next installment of Noel and Issa’s tale is ready! Sorry it has taken me so long, but going right to publishing, before the story is complete, is dangerous. There is no taking back what you’ve already read, so now that we are officially in the thick of things, the crafting requires delicacy.
Isabella’s jaw clenched, and she closed her eyes, searching the air for the melody of the silver hooded thrush, as she had been taught by the mothers when she was so small she could not yet sing the song of serenity. Fate would send a bird for her. It had to, she thought, trying to still her mind in its absence, to slow her breathing and let the calm come, but the urge to scream out was overwhelming, her chest tightening, the gravity of the world intensifying all around her.
“I am the Waters of Fate,” she hissed the opening of first mantra, pressure building inside her head, the nerves in her body raw, stinging, as though an icy wind blew over them. “… born of peace embodied.” Her voice quavered with weakness.
Fate gave no reply.
She shuddered, catching her breath. “All are the waters of Fate…”
But tears burned against her flesh, tracing the hollow curves of her cheeks. Fate had forsaken her. Harvey was dead. All she had been taught, all she had spent her life pursuing—oneness with Fate, the grace of her own divine purpose as Fate’s steward— was a lie.
“How can you feel so much betrayal without breaking?” she wept bitterly at the world, the knowledge of what it felt to be truly alive—a fragile, terribly human, lonely truth, filling her breast with the blood of a thousand passions—creeping like venom through her veins.
As she lay weeping, the love song of the tiny bird, somewhere in the distance, pierced through her quiet gasps, Fate calling her back to the fold, but too late. The Om she had known, the Fate to which she had once been devout, was a shadow now, darker than the deepest depths of Moag, a shadow full of broken promises, devoid of hope, bereft of meaning.
She wiped the tears away and squeezed her fingers tight, seeking out the wild spirit that had first caught her up days before, infecting her with his desperation, his very being the antithesis to the patient words that had stilled her for so long, ensnaring her in the sacramental trance of her people for countless lifetimes. “Noel,” she whispered, hatred of the freedom the wanderer had forced upon her seething inside her. “How can you feel so much?”
Noel’s hand clutched compulsively at his side, and he quickly shook it out, rubbing his fingers together, keeping time with the slow grinding of feet on the gravel road behind him, trying not to think of her.
He and his companion— or guard, depending how one chose to view the present occupation of the young man following him— had reached a stand of trees where the bright green, fertile drupe weighed heavily on the branches, promising a fat supply of almonds in just a few weeks’ time. A mile over, the air was crisp as early spring, the tempting scent of the snowy blossoms welcoming a plethora of crawling things, filling the sky with a tireless drone of industry. Here there was no nectar left to mask the earthen odor of the plantations. It was hot and humid as mid-summer, and all Noel could hear above the stolid silence was the call of a lonesome bird not far away, and the rhythmic schrpp, schrpp, schrpping of young Emanuel’s leather sandals against the grit of their path. Noel chuckled to himself, wondering that the simple act of a teenager was the only normal thing he had discovered in his nine days inside the mountain, and that somehow the young man’s persistence in quietly expressing his annoyance at his duties was comforting.
These people might have looked primitive, living in their mud-and-stick hovels with unadorned simplicity, but they were clearly highly adept sorcerers of some sort, though exactly what sort and the extent of their capabilities remained to be seen. If— when— Noel found his way back to the Iron Bones to recount this wild tale, Phileas Foote would surely kick himself for missing the opportunity to witness all of this, to explore an untouched world, to learn how the people of this mountain manage such incredible feats. Foote definitely would have been the better man for the job, he thought, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck, rubbing it off on the side of the long tunic he’d been given to wear, so as not to draw attention to himself in his wandering. As for Noel, he was no explorer or great study, so he was not certain where to begin, or if he should have begun in the first place.
It was not easy for him, being at the mercy of his hosts. The only way out of the mountain, as far as he knew, was back through the pitch black hell he had already fought to escape, and he did not plan on going back that way anytime soon, so for the time being, he was stuck. He did not figure it would do to displease the natives, nosing around, asking loads of questions, or by refusing to wear their native dress. He had steered clear of the inhabited areas, as Edward Frank, the Ma-ah-dri-eem (or head Knowledge Keeper, as Noel liked to think of him) had requested, giving the old man the time he said he needed to sort out some more pressing matters, before he could concentrate all of his attention on Noel, but it had been days, and Noel doubted his taking care not to interrupt the puritanical lives of these people was necessary. When he was around, no one seemed to notice his presence, nor did they pay any mind to Emanuel as the two of them went about the business of exploring the place, while Noel surreptitiously searched for another, less treacherous exit. It was as though people looked right past him, and that was hardly the most curious thing about the inhabitants of Namcha Barwa, he thought, sticking his hands in the pockets of his tunic and casually waving it forward and back to foster a breeze, wondering how he was going to convince Emanuel to let him trek off through the orchard toward the false horizon, in search of another tunnel out.
Noel frowned, looking up the road to find Master Frank, smiling genially as always, as he made his way down the path toward him, pale hands folded gently at the waist of his own knee-length shirt, white as the gossamer hair that framed his tender face. Noel glanced back at Emanuel. The teen’s brow was deeply furrowed, the glimmer of oil on his copper flesh lending him the look of an artist’s sculpture, shining in the magical morning sunlight. As they met in the road, the boy gave a small bow, and the old man nodded pleasantly.
Clearly, the elder had known just where to find them. The concept of empathy, while fascinating, was almost as unsettling as being trapped like a wild animal in a zoo, and not only because it allowed for unexpected moments like these, when it was exceedingly obvious there was no such thing as a moment of privacy to air out one’s… thoughts. “We…er… admire your trees, Master Frank,” Noel answered awkwardly, waving his arm at the vast groves surrounding them. He had expected the language barrier to be a considerable problem, especially given his first interactions with the man and woman, who saved him from the avalanche, but it turned out there was little need to worry. The old man happened to speak the ancient tongue of Noel’s people, though the elder had a distinct advantage, as he was rather fluent, while Noel hardly thought the classes were necessary when he took them nearly twenty years ago at Bergfalk’s. (Phileas was definitely the better man for this sort of adventure.) “It is amazing what you do here, keeping much of your trees, erm…. asleep while the others… awake? … Fruit? Er… My people cannot do this outside magic.” He pointed to the sky, indicating the weather, then ran his hand over the back of his head in annoyance. (If there was an elfish word for the dormancy of vegetation, undoubtedly Foote knew it.)
“This is not impossible beyond the mountain, however it would be inadvisable for the elfin kin to attempt such an undertaking,” Frank answered earnestly. “This would require a great deal more energy for you than it does in the confines of our home and would have consequences you would be unable to control. If I understand you correctly, in your world there is little cooperation between the races. This magic requires the efforts of three, however I will explain the process this evening, if you like, when there is more time to speak freely.”
“Time… Er… It is… early in the day to see you,” Noel answered. He had been a guest in the elder’s hut since he arrived, but he usually only saw Edward Frank around sunset, when he returned for the evening from his more pressing matters—if one could call it a sunset, as it was all just a very realistic illusion, as far as he could tell. The two of them had parted company that morning, a little more than an hour before, when Noel and Emanuel had set out on their daily excursion, and he had not expected to see the old man again until late in the day, when they would have a quiet dinner together and sit for hours, talking circles around the matters that mattered to Noel, before it was time to sleep.
“Yes,” Master Frank said, the restful smile he always wore remaining unchanged as he motioned up the path in the direction from which he came. On a sigh, Noel fell in step beside him. “We two have spoken at length in the days since your arrival, and I see no need to believe you intend us any harm, however that sentiment is not shared by the Felimi, those who serve justice for my people. The Mdrai also have their doubts that must be put to rest. We shall go to the cloister, so that we might hear you speak of why you have gone to such great lengths to find your way to us.”
“At last, the inquest,” Noel muttered in English, looking back to make certain Emanuel was still with them, as he was no longer scuffling his feet, since his elder had joined them. Aside from Master Frank, Emanuel was the only person Noel had interacted with in his days inside the mount, though the boy never spoke a word to anyone in their time together and rarely offered Noel a smile. Even so, while all he knew about him was that the lad liked to hear his feet walking, the fact he was there eased Noel’s mind.
From the moment he first arrived, when Edward Frank led him to the tiny hut at the center of one of five quiet villages, sat down on the ground across from him at the low wooden table, the sole piece of furniture in the place, and offered him a cup of ginger tea, produced from thin air, Noel had known that eventually he would be forced to answer the myriad of questions the old man carefully avoided during their long hours of conversing. This waiting should have bothered Noel, if only because it was suspicious that immediate answers were not demanded of him, because that was the way the world worked when one turned up uninvited and unannounced, but there was a curious calmness that set in whenever Master Frank was around, and as a result, there was no talk about where the man who had rescued him was taken by the blind women, after they left the tunnel. There was no talk about the woman, Isabella, and whether or not she had survived after Noel resuscitated her. There was no talk of the darkness or what he had witnessed there.
Noel’s stomach churned anxiously.
“I do not understand your words, however it is clear you are concerned,” the old man said, gentle smile still in place, laying his hand on Noel’s shoulder. “While it is unfortunate the formality is necessary, I am certain you will ease their minds, and they, yours.”
Noel was not certain, especially of the old man’s tranquility.
After several minutes, they came out of the orchards, and as the path continued on in a subtle incline out of the natural valley where the food sources grew, the air cooled, and across a fallow field of violet thistles, sprung up wildly in defiance of the serenity of the place, Noel saw they were headed toward the river crossing, which he had not ventured near in nine days. There had been plenty of mountain to explore on this side, where the people carried on their lives, as though blissfully unaware that across the river, where the land was thickly overgrown with twisting trees, hidden in a sanctuary of sorts, surrounded by gardens, was a place no light could touch.
“You are frightened as you have not been since the day you came to us, Young Noel,” Master Frank said quietly, even before Noel shivered.
He squeezed his fingers together, numb warning pulsing within them. “No,” he lied, though he knew, if his voice had not shaken as he spoke, the old man’s empathy still could not be fooled by mere words.
“Like you, we are only learning of the darkness,” Edward Frank answered plainly. “Like you, we have reason to fear it.”
Like me, Noel thought, as the scraping of feet against the ground started up again, and he looked back at Emanuel, only to realize that the feet that were dragging were his own. The first two nights, Noel had barely slept. Every shadow echoed with mocking. Even now he felt the darkness linger, as though he carried the depths of it along with him, with every step.
“The Felimi call it Moag. It is…” The old man paused, searching for the right words, and Noel looked over to see that his smile had faded. “The reflection of Om,” he finished, nodding in agreement with himself.
In his long talks with Edward Frank, Noel had come to understand that the people living within the belly of Namcha Barwa worshiped the water, revering it as something of a creator-god named Om. According to their beliefs, the water that flowed there was the primordial force, the source of all, vibrating within the energy of everything, living and dead, animate and inanimate, through which all of the universe did manifest, and Noel supposed they were right to a certain extent, as water did play an important part in the creation of life, though their underground river was no Wangaar Dreamtime. They certainly weren’t the first tribal people to decide water must be a god of some kind, so he was not going to tell the old man that all the true gods died out more than ten thousand years ago, when Fate reared its ugly head and struck them down for their part in the Fall, or that all the world is left with is a bunch of demigods and memories of a time when actual gods did not need to trick people into worship in order to collect the energy of their praise. But while he doubted that this vibration within the water was the actual source of everything, he had also learned that these people believed the vibration was the source of their foresight and empathy, as well as another magic natural to some among them, called the Velhim, who had abilities he could not quite comprehend, except to say that they were able to tune the vibration of Om within others, which he imagined was what Edward Frank was doing to him at present, to keep him from running the other direction instead of continuing on the path to the bridge. As Noel was there seeking information about an ancient prophecy, and he could not deny the impact the old man had on him, with little to no effort, it was his duty to play along.
But the idea of Om having a reflection did not make sense.
He would have asked the old man to explain, but he did not want to talk about the darkness, let alone to return so close to the place where, reflection of the water or not, he knew, without a doubt, the darkness existed, where it tapped into his experiences, calling up the ghosts of his past and made him live illusions that were so real to him he could still feel them chilling his bones even now. He shook out his hand. God or no god, something was there in the darkness. It was not just the absence of light, the shadow of shadows one could expect buried under millions of tonnes of stone. He had seen it himself, living and breathing. He wondered if the old man had seen it too, but all he could do was swallow his pride and allow the silence to fill the space between himself and the bridge, as it drew nearer, with every step.
“Young Noel, though you are reluctant, I must explain before we arrive at the cloister. Long ago the Felimi determined the best course of action was to keep the truth of Moag from our people, including we Mdrai,” the elder said quietly, speaking slowly so to give Noel time to understand. “For thousands of years, we have believed the labyrinth of tunnels that lead to the outside world were set with traps by our predecessors, to protect us from people like you, who come seeking foreknowledge, and dutifully we have avoided them. However, the events surrounding your arrival have brought the truth to light. Moag is not what we were led to believe. Moag is the opposite of creation. Within Moag, all are lost, unfolded into nonexistence. It is the dissolution of existence itself, and within it not even Om survives.” At these words, the elder paused, looking as grave as Noel felt as he continued along beside him in silence.
“Until you came here, we had no reason to question why Om would make a home in this mountain, as it has bestowed gifts of foresight and empathy on our people for countless generations,” the old man continued. “It is my obligation to question why Moag is here within this mountain. It is my duty as Mardraim to guide my people to rightness. It is my duty to question our ignorance of Moag. No one had ever survived Moag, Young Noel. You understand? This is what has troubled the Mdrai so greatly since your arrival. The secrecy of the Felimi about Moag has troubled me, perhaps even more so than learning the truth of Moag itself.”
Noel looked back at Emanuel, who seemed as curious that the leader would speak so candidly in front of Noel as Noel was that the leader would speak so candidly in front of the boy, but he was also surprised to find the boy was not frightened, as he should have been.
“No one has survived, until now,” Master Frank said, quietly imploring him. “You are one of three. We do not know why or how, except that you are the first outsider to find his way to us. We, like you, need answers.”
“I do not want answers,” Noel said quickly, shaking his head. He did not want anything to do with the darkness. He did not want to ponder the idea that he had barely escaped absolute destruction. He did not want to talk about the possibility that his escape from absolute destruction had been allowed, even designed, however accidentally. He had only come there to understand the more than ten thousand years his people had spent waiting for the fulfillment of the Prophecy of the Last Hope, not to learn about Om and Moag, or to consider that in drinking Taree’s poison and entering the Dreaming back in Arnhem Land, he had simultaneously fractured the delicate balance of the universe and the delicate balance of power among the people hidden inside the mountain, but the truth of the matter was that is exactly what had happened, and he knew it, deep down at the soul of him, as surely as he had known that mountain was where he would find the truth about the prophecy. Phileas Foote would not have wreaked this sort of havoc. He was definitely the better man for this job, Noel thought, his fingertips stinging, harassed by the constant presence, not his own, burning hot, as the blood pounded through them, and he squeezed them into a fist, continuing on toward the bridge, clamping his jaw in annoyance, knowing Isabella had been inside the darkness as well, remembering the decay that had taken her arm and the sweetness of her lips, even as he tried to shake the memory of her away.
A few steps more and they reached the river crossing, where Noel stopped to look down at his fingers, red and irritated. The others said nothing, but continued on to the other side without him, not looking back, as though they knew he would follow them eventually.
He had no choice.
The Mardraim and Noel’s guard had already reached the twisting tree-line by the time Noel caught up to them. The cloister, carved into the mountain wall, was not too far away now, down the winding path that cut through the trees. “What do you want me to find out?” he asked as he reached Edward Frank’s side.
The old man smiled.
Shadows and light played across the ground at Noel’s feet as he wound his way through the grove, the sweet, heady scent of the abundant almond blooms causing his chest to ache as he stared down at his fingers, squeezing them tight then letting them go. She lingered there, a warmth in the palm of his hand, undisturbed, at ease now, though she was not always, and he wondered how long she would remain this time, still not knowing where they had taken her, if she had survived, or if he was commingling with the shade of her ghost, or some remnant of the darkness the two shared. Her cry still haunted him at night, and he often found himself wandering restlessly in this strange place, trying not to recall what he felt when he breathed the life back into her, as though this might mean it had not happened, all the while holding her hand. The woman was just one peculiarity he found in the mountain after all, he thought, stopping to look up through the burgeoning branches at the clear blue, anomalous sky, buried deep within the heart of the earth, holding up the wind and sleet, the fierce cold of the glaciers, the millions of tonnes of stone and that impenetrable darkness, as though they were all nothing more than a thought.
Rosy light spilled in from nowhere, filling her head, causing it to throb. Wincing, Isabella raised her arm to block it out, grateful to find she had an arm, though it took her a moment to recall why.
Fingers prickling with numbness, she opened her eyes, half expecting to find the stranger there beside her, lying on the floor, locked in a room in the cloister, but she was alone in her hut— very much alive.
Frowning, she stretched her arm, bending and flexing it. The rot of Moag’s touch was healed. She would not have known she was ever injured except for the strange sensation in her fingertips and a dull pain that radiated up past her elbow as she rotated her wrist. Her legs trembled with weakness as she shifted them under her blanket. She tensed her muscles, twisting against the deep ache in her back and hips. She must have been lying there for several days, she thought, her heart pounding with a heavy cadence against her breast.
The last thing she remembered, she was crawling across the ground toward the door, fighting Moag for one final glimpse of the man for whom the tides of Fate had turned.
She could not feel him. Noel.
The scent of hot panpago drifted in through the window, and she took in a deep breath, forcing a smile against the malaise growing in her belly as her mother came inside, toting a steaming kettle. “You are awake,” the woman stated, smiling as well, though she looked away quickly, turning her back as she set the pot on the table. “I was just coming to feed you before I saw to my chores. We did not expect you to wake for several days more. You are not quite whole yet.”
No. She was almost empty, the void inside her aching with longing.
“The sweet smell woke me.” Her voice croaked out of her. She swallowed against a dry knot in her throat, her feet fidgeting against the blanket, wishing to run.
“I should have made it sooner,” her mother chuckled, as she removed two plain wooden bowls and spoons from the cupboard, setting them on the table, careful not to meet Isabella’s eyes. “When you were small, your father chided me each time I made panpago for you. He believed the almond nectar it would ruin your temperament.”
“Perhaps he was right,” Isabella offered, looking to the empty hook where her Omdet Filim normally hung, as her mother busied herself ladling out the honeyed porridge, pretending this was normal. Though she could see the woman’s tension in her movements, in the way bowed her head as she made precise folds in the linen napkins, in the unsettled rising of her chest as she set them neatly on a reed tray borrowed from the birthing house, she could not feel her mother at all. In fact, she could sense nothing beyond the emptiness, her own shame, and the itching in her bones to hurry to the Mdrai for answers to the questions that mounted as she lay there trying to squeeze the numbness from her fingers, her body moving restlessly against her bedroll, as though it no longer belonged to her. She should be dead. How had she survived? Did her mother know what happened to her, or was she only there as a nurturer? Had their people been told the truth of what lurked in the forbidden tunnels, feeding on Fate, waiting to devour them? Had the Mardraim killed the wanderer after all?
No. Noel lives. Though she could not feel him, of that much she was certain. It was clear her empathy was being carefully controlled by the Mdrai.
“Do you wish to sit?” her mother asked, placing the bowls and a carafe of water on the tray before taking it up, her knuckles growing pale from holding on tight to the handles as she crossed the room.
Isabella clenched her stomach, gritting her teeth against the soreness, rolled onto her side and pushed herself upright. But as she opened her eyes and tried to steady herself, a wave of exhaustion swept over her and a shadow threatened the room. “No! No, please!” she cried out, falling backwards against her pillow, pulling her blanket up over her face.
“Hush now, Issa. You are simply too weak,” her mother hissed, pulling the blanket away. She sat on her knees beside her. The gloom surrounded her head, obscuring her eyes and nose, so that all Isabella could see of her mother’s face was her lips as she spoke in a gentle tone. “It is all right, my child. You must regain your strength now. It will likely be many days before you begin to feel yourself again.”
As she spoke, the tenderness that came naturally to her soothed Isabella some and the pulsing in her head began to clear. Still dim, but growing brighter, her mother’s face swam above her, blurry around the edges, like a distant memory, but Isabella was certain she could see the telling hint of untruth in her eyes, along with her mother’s own measure of shame. She knew. The Mdrai had told her enough she was frightened. “Moag,” Isabella shuddered, taking her soft hand to her chest, pressing it hard against her heart as it raced. “The eater of souls will come for me again!”
“No, now it is all right,” her mother repeated gently, shaking her head. “I will fetch the Mardraim for you. He wished to be informed when you woke.”
“Aftime, please, do not leave me alone. Please!”
“I do not want to die alone in the dark!”
Even as she uttered the words, she knew how backwards they sounded. The very idea that she should fear death or solitude or even the darkness of Moag was clothed in proud vanity altogether foreign to their people. These were dangerous words that ran counter to all of the teachings of the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya, insulting every patient hour spent at the mothers’ knees, denying the sacredness of the twelve mantras.
She shuddered at her own desperation.
“You are very ill, my child, but I promise you will not die today,” her mother answered her firmly, stroking Isabella’s forehead, the smile on her tender lips betrayed by the look of concern that filled her eyes. “I will stay with you until I am needed at the birthing house. The Mardraim will surely come to check on you this evening. He has come every evening since your father brought you to me for your care.” The shade that still surrounded her mother’s face deepened slightly as she sighed through her nose, pursing her lips before adding, “You are much improved from that day. It is important you take what time you need, Issa.”
By now it was clear Moag had not come for her there in her tiny hut, to finish the job it started. Isabella was not writhing on the ground in agony, screaming against the torture she had taken upon herself. Her face flushed at the foolishness of her own desperation. Had she survived Moag only to become a pathetic shadow herself, a grown woman afraid of the dark, whose own mother could no longer understand her? The tears spilled down her cheeks as she closed her eyes.
The first time in her life she felt such recklessness, it came as a raw yearning that raced wildly up the face of the mountain, landing hard upon the summit. She had admired the wanderer’s spirit then, but now she thought surely the moment she felt it in him, his wildness had infected her. In anguish for his plight, she breathed the life back into his body. Uncertain how to hide what she had done, the taste of his lifeblood still on her lips, she sought the isolation of the forbidden tunnels. She told bold lies to her father about where she had spent the night, justifying her insolence to herself even as she did so. Desperation had her crawling toward the door at the mothers’ cloister, not to survive, not even to attempt to stop the wanderer from coming, but to make certain this man, Noel, whom she protected with her own breath, knew exactly who had given her life, who had sacrificed herself to Moag for his sake, for the sake of the knowledge he so desperately sought.
Clinging to this world to the very end, she fought to carve out her own purpose in those last moments, even as Fate washed away her former destiny, with the sweeping tides of change.
Before the day the wanderer landed in the depths of the gorge, she never would have imagined feelings like this were possible.
“How long have I been here?”
“Nine mornings,” her mother answered quietly, wiping her tears away with one of the plain linens she had so carefully folded. “Though I know I should not be, I am glad you are here with me. Eat before your panpago gets cold. You will regain your strength, my daughter. You must.” Holding her by the hand and shoulder, she helped Isabella to sit, propping her pillow up against a stool behind her, before placing one of the bowls in her lap. With Isabella settled, she picked up her own bowl and closed her eyes, silently mouthing the first mantra before taking a bite.
For a long while, Isabella watched her eating.
As was customary while taking a meal, neither spoke. This, they were taught, allowed the sanctity of the mountain song to play between them, in harmony with their meditations. Isabella had felt the warmth of the mountain’s vibrations answering her mantras every morning in her childhood and in countless lifetimes past, but there was no solace to be found in such traditions for her today. In the distance, the river laughed past moss-laden stone, stirring up eddies, babbling over low falls, the same as it had always done, yet it languished within the emptiness inside her, unable to occupy the space where it had once run with unyielding current. A goldcrest called down with a chirruping whistle from the highest branches of a nearby larch, unaware of Isabella’s suffering, unconcerned that so much had changed, unsuspecting that even its own song was altered, now echoing within the hollow space within her as a cry of warning. The rains had stopped, and a gentle breeze carried the snow-touched floral whispers in from the almond grove, perfuming the air, sweet as ever, yet the powerful fragrance could not breach the solemnity of her soul. She should have been meditating on her gratitude for her meal, for the compassion of her mother, or at least for this renewed chance at life, however it came about that she found herself there, living, when she was certain she had been lost forever, but her mind turned again and again to Noel as she rubbed the tips of her fingers against her thumb. The wanderer’s desperation was born of purpose so fixedly imperative to him that it somehow shifted the very continuity of Fate. He had changed the very course of her existence, drawing her out so that she would become the thin thread by which his purpose was fulfilled, and in the unraveling of the life-force within her, Isabella’s own purpose had been cut loose.
All that remained was a frayed remnant of herself, adrift on the river of Fate, unbound, stripped naked of the fabric of her design.
To be doomed to live a thousand lifetimes spent unfurling in the treacherous blackness of Moag would have been a happier prospect.
Unable to stomach her panpago, she leaned her head back and stared up at the thatched roof, until her mother finished eating and took her bowl, returning it to the tray. Her mother must have misunderstood her silent gaze as a desire to talk. In answer, the woman whispered only, “As I told your father, I do not wish to know anymore than I already know.”
Isabella nodded. She could not blame her. It was likely difficult to remain there with her, nurturing her back to health from a sickness that grew rampant within the very root of her being. To do so knowingly, in violation of their tenets, was more than should be asked of anyone, yet she took the task upon herself, even in her shame at her daughter’s fate, because a nurturer must nurture, even to those who had been saved and condemned, all at once, forced to live a life outside of the loving flow Fate’s merciful grace… Forced to wander.
The woman poured her a glass of water and helped her to drink, allowing the silence to linger between them. She dampened a cloth to wash Isabella’s face, then took up a brush and tenderly worked the tangles from her hair. When she was finished, she carried their bowls away, scraping them into the basket for the garden, rinsing them in the wash basin, drying them and putting them away in the cupboard, her simple, orderly life still affixed there in a world where no desolate blackness festered inside of her, screaming to be let out, to feed.
What had she become?
When she was finished, the woman quietly sat down at Isabella’s side once again and whispered as she took her hand, “You will remain here until you are well enough to be up and about. The Mardraim believes you will always require concealment, to protect you as much as to protect everyone else. For now, you must concentrate on growing strong enough to carefully guard your empathy, my sweet Isabella. Your life will never be what it was before.” She paused at length before adding, “It will be only what you make of it.”
Her heart felt like it bulged in her chest as she thought of Harvey. He felt far too much already to ever be forced to know the burden of her emptiness. She had to protect him. Wondering what this would mean for their friendship, she covered her eyes, but in her darkness, a violence swelled within her, becoming a wave that came crashing over her, bearing upon its crest a small fragment of a memory—a memory far crueler than understanding that for her Fate no longer had a plan.
Harvey had come for her.
Locked up in that room in the mothers’ cloister, she clawed her way across the floor to the door, wishing for death with each inch closer she came, hoping an end to her terror would come soon, but not before Noel saw her, not until the elf looked her in the eye and knew what he had done to her, because she deserved at least that much. Harvey came through the door. She saw only the tail of his robes, and she remembered thinking he must have felt her struggling, that he had come to help her secure a brief moment of dignity in the face of her sacrifice, before she was gone forever. He picked up her dying body from the ground and ran with her, up the corridor, to the atrium where the Mdrai and Felimi argued, down a path that led straight to the bowels of Moag, where he lay her down at the precipice between the life she had been destined to live, that was no more, and the nothingness she would inevitably become. Even in her death, she felt the wanderer there, speeding toward her, tugging at the thread of her guiding his way.
Then Harvey pressed his lips against hers.
Her body tightened, her chest seizing so she could not take a breath.
She could not stop him.
He pressed his lips against hers, and in a blink the tail of his robes flourished, then disappeared, into the blackness of Moag.
A savage force rose within her.
At last, unable to hold off any longer, she gasped a heaving breath, the air that filled her lungs spreading like poison through her, blistering her insides.
She was alive, more alive than she had ever been before, this visceral sting coursing through her evidence of the emaciated existence she had unknowingly suffered for countless lifetimes before Moag ripped apart her fragile spirit, protected from the truth of the world by ages of practice of their tenets, leaving her alone, a vessel in need of filling, compelled to feel everything, even the gentlest of whispers, as an assault on what little remained of her. She was alive, while Harvey was nothing more than a memory.
A smile that knew too much.
An impatient push at the bridge of his glasses.
The voice that said her name so many times a day, the sound of it had become intricately woven with the fibers of her soul, making her better than she had ever known.
She had survived Moag only because Harvey had taken her place, pressing his lips against hers, a precious, excruciating goodbye.
When at last she let go that baneful air, the wail that loosed her lips was so deep that her body shook against the ground, just as it had done under the treachery of Moag. The gasping sobs that wrenched at her weakened form tore at what was left of her embattled spirit, each shudder the spasm of a second death. But this time there was no end to the pain to look forward to, no hope of release from her despair, no desperate opportunity for gratification to be seized in those final moments, only life left absent of meaning, absent her greatest friend.
Harvey had taken her place in that peaceful realm of nightmares where nothingness at least promised rest.
“Find the Mardraim,” Isabella quavered through gritted teeth. “Bring him to me.”
“You wanted me to stay,” her mother whispered, eyes wide, hands trembling.
He should have felt the bitter cold rushing over him. The damp of the mountain air should have matted his hair in knots at the top of his head. The tunnel should have filled with the roar of his body cutting through space. But there was nothing. No ancient, dank, earthen must forcing its way into his nostrils, leaving trace minerals on his tongue as he flew. No change in pressure as he sped fast as humanly possible, faster than he had ever flown before, around bends and through crevasses he could not see. His senses depriving him of all other input, the swift twisting and sharp turns of his body were the only evidence of his path through the mountain, or his proximity to the walls, he thought, though the knowledge that he must be coming dangerously close to crashing into solid stone did not slow him in the least.
An indomitable force, buried deep within him yet infinitely far away, drawing ever nearer yet never closer, urged him to fly faster still.
It defied logic, yet Noel flew so fast the whipping and churning of himself as he careened onward, caused his muscles to throb and the bile in his guts to rise dangerously, stinging his throat as he pushed himself beyond his limits. In that moment, he felt more alive than he had ever felt before, which was curious because, although he could not understand why, he was certain at the end of this journey lie desperation, anguish, and inescapable death. Undeterred, he became the maddening drone of its eminent approach, the hum of potential the split second before the bolt of lightning rips free of its tethers, meeting the ground with astounding violence.
Oh, the treacherous, obscure beauty of this flight, he thought, overcome by grief and joy abundant, all at once.
He would beat the lightning, on this high coursing through his veins, roiling his blood.
He would cut the current off at its source, relishing the absence of all else, that absence playing like a song deep within his soul.
He embraced the boundless darkness.
All that existed in the universe was flight.
That was until the dark, the flight, Noel’s thoughts and the rest of him slammed into something curiously soft, wet, and not a part of the expanse, and Noel went tumbling furiously, wrapped up with a bundle of heaviness that felt oddly human in form, grunting as it and he rolled across the ground, melding together in an outrageous groan of feral stutters. He brought them to a stop, somewhere out of the absolute darkness that had threatened to consume him and into a darkness so insufferably bright, he dared not open his eyes for fear of searing his brain.
“Fuuuuuck!” Noel cried, choking out the word, rolling himself off the mass that had softened the blow, before retching, spilling half of himself out onto the ground, the sound of his guts splattering across stone welcoming him back to his own cosmic form, followed quickly by the burning stench in his nose as he retched again, gagging over his own putrescence and the sudden, slow cruelty of reality.
The fleshy bundle moved beside him.
Noel squinted carefully into the unlit haze as someone else spoke from the shadows, but his head screamed with a high-pitched ringing that clung to his brain. Wriggling his fingers in his ears, he retched again even as the person beside him began to wail with deep, echoing cries, not the sort that follow physical pain, but deeper still, like the bleating of the lost.
“Issssssa! Iiiiisssssaaaaa, diiiiiiiiii! Di, di, diiiiii!” the man howled, crawling on top of Noel, grabbing fistfuls of his cloak, pulling him up to face him, yelling unintelligibly, though it was clear enough he was in agony, and as he shook Noel, the heat of his words landing forcibly against his skin, burning him with every syllable, it became apparent that whatever he was on about, the man blamed him. When he was through with his abuse of him, he flung Noel angrily back to the ground, hurrying away, then fell to his knees a few yards off, to weep, lifting a lifeless body up from the ground, into his arms, holding it to his chest, rocking it close as he cried.
Noel rolled up on his side and forced himself to sit, stunned, not at all certain he had not accidentally killed someone, barreling out of the abyss as he did. Beyond the man he saw a small group of people had gathered. His vision was still a blur, so he could not tell how many were there, but he counted at least six of them, of various shapes and sizes, none terribly large, none of them as distraught as the man who wept before them.
“I am sorry,” Noel said, his voice barely above a whisper, knowing his words meant nothing to these people, but hoping his intentions might be understood.
Though his brain was still boggy and the exhaustion from his flight had begun to weigh heavily at the edges of him, Noel pushed himself to his knees, hoping to get his head clear enough to see if there was any help he might offer, but at the sound of movement, the man turned back to him, shouting, “Khip! Ofanya tsir Itriet acio khip! Issa dzer otmA!”
As the man lay the body back on the ground and scrambled to his feet, Noel tried to brace himself, but set his hand down in a puddle of warm slime. The man came toward him, hand outstretched, yelling, “Khip fI! Khip fI!” as Noel hurriedly wiped his hand on his cloak, stopping only as he bent down to look Noel in the eyes, panic, despair and guilt distorting his dark features.
It was the man who had rescued him from the avalanche.
“Look, mate, I am sorry for what happened, and I want to help, but you and I don’t have a decent record for conquering the language barrier, and you are clearly prepared to kill me. Perhaps your friend could help translate? Where is she?”
A fierceness filling his eyes, Noel’s rescuer ripped the rucksack from his shoulder, shoving him to the ground again in the process.
“What do you think you’re doing? See here, you can’t just keep rummaging through my things whenever you like!”
But the man pushed Noel’s hand away, turned his back, and tore the bag open, dumping it on the ground, muttering, “Khip, khip…Ta dzer tmAama,” as he knelt over the contents, rifling through them in search of something important.
Something he had seen work a miracle, Noel thought, anguish getting the better of him, burning in his jaws as he gritted his teeth. “It’s no good,” he said quietly, crawling over, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder as much to hold himself up as to commiserate. “I haven’t anymore Iachaol. I used it all.”
The man shrugged Noel’s hand away and kept searching.
Noel looked up at the group of people still standing over the body. There were five men of various races, two women and a young girl. None of them made any effort to help. Not one of them, not even the ancient woman or the girl, seemed at all bothered by the lack of any sign of life from the person lying on the ground in front of them, nor were they moved by the frantic search of Noel’s rescuer.
He gathered his strength and pushed himself up onto his feet, taking a few careful steps forward, testing his balance on his weakened limbs, but as he got confident in his staggered gait and looked over, to see how far he had left to go, a jolt of panic ran through him.
It was the woman—the woman who had helped to save him—the woman who had been the very stuff of his hallucinations in the belly of that mountain, tangled up inside his head in the abhorrent darkness.
Noel had heard her cry out his name in terror.
Stumbling over himself, he ran to her side and fell down over her body, expecting the worst, after all, he had flown with such tremendous speed out of the veil of blackness—flying to her, he now realized, an afterthought that made the gravity of the situation that much worse, because he was certain the force of their impact had caused her serious injury. Wishing he had not used all of the Iachaol on himself, he turned her body toward him.
His mouth fell agape, horror seizing him.
The rot of death had taken her right arm. Necrotic webs stretched across her chest, up her neck, in veiny fingers until it reached her still beautiful lips, tinged with aubergine, contorted open in a final, savage wail of silence.
His throat constricted. His stomach tightened.
There was no air.
He could feel the shadow of her dead fingers clutching his.
He could taste the sweetness of her mouth.
There was no air anywhere.
Gasping, tears spilled from his eyes as he bent down, pressing two quaking fingers against the artery on her neck. There was no pulse, but he had not expected one. Shaking off the remorse welling up inside him, he leaned his cheek over her face, hoping for even a whisper of air to escape those poor, tormented lips, but it was useless. By the looks of her, she had been dead long before they met, but that was impossible. She had been very much alive the night she helped save him, and her friend acted as though her death had only just occurred. Noel could not fathom what had done this to her.
Or perhaps he understood exactly what was responsible, and he knew he had barely escaped.
Panting eagerly, Noel’s rescuer fell swiftly to his knees before him, empty blue vial in hand. He was speaking fast, foreign words already incomprehensible, now little more than noise drowned out by a half-dozen other voices arguing as Noel stared blankly at the corpse lying before him. He had been here before, staring into those still onyx eyes. He had tried to save the vision of her in the darkness, but she had turned to dust in his arms. The man reached over and shook him by the shoulder, holding out the vial, pleading with him, but all the Iachaol in the world would not bring this woman back to life.
Only Noel could do that.
As he tilted the woman’s head back, plugging her nose between his thumb and finger, Noel wondered how he would explain the events that had unfolded there in that mountain to the elders at Fendhaim, how he could possibly make them understand that he had been guided to that place, how he had nearly died finding his way, his encounter with the abysmal shade that had ensnared his mind with thoughts of this woman, or how he managed his escape only by speeding blindly through the darkness—to her.
No one would believe he had seen into the future, or that he knew that this very moment was his chance to change it, to return Isabella to her rightful place.
But it was better not to think about that now, and just to breathe… As she wanted… So she might live again.
Noel took in a deep breath, pressed his mouth tightly over hers, and exhaled, hearing her petrified lungs crack and grind as the air moved through them. Shivering, he wiped the grit from his mouth, but before he could take a second breath, a stabbing pain caught him in the chest, sending him flailing backwards several feet across the ground, as angry voices grew louder, echoing off the cave walls. Coughing against the pain burning deep in his lungs, holding his stomach, Noel rolled up onto his knees, preparing to answer the next blow with whatever energy he could muster, but that blow never came.
The eldest man of the five now stood between Noel and the women, his arms outstretched as though to protect him. But the young girl spoke to him with vehemence, ducking her head swiftly beneath the man’s arm and hurrying over as another man, who Noel was certain was Isabella’s father, sat reluctantly on the ground next to his rescuer, taking the vial from his hand, pulling out the stopper with his teeth even as the girl took his arm, imploring him not to do whatever it was he intended. Ignoring her pleas, the man ran his finger over the rim of the vial then touched it to his tongue.
“Breathe, Noel,” Isabella besought, the ghost of her stronger than ever.
Shuddering, Noel clamored across the ground, returning to her side.
“Nyet otum ot,” his rescuer urged, nodding down at Isabella’s body, desperation on his brow. “Otum, Ohamet. Otum.”
“Otum?” Noel repeated, shaking his head. “I don’t—”
“Otum,” the man answered, then he took a large breath and exhaled, moving his hand from his own lips to rest on Isabella’s chest. “Otum, Ohamet.”
“Breathe,” Noel and Isabella said as one, Noel nodding, feeling his eyes widen, afraid of admitting to himself the impossible idea that had taken root inside him.
A flux of energy crawling over his flesh, he leaned down to attempt once more to save Isabella, but the elderly woman raised her voice in protest. How she had seen him, he did not know because she was clearly blind. Ignoring the warning, but keeping an eye on her, in case the old man did not have her under control, Noel took in a deep gasp of air. He watched as the middle-aged woman took her blind elder’s arm, as though to lead her safely out of the tunnel. Instead, the two of them disappeared in a swirling cloud of black, a magic the likes of which Noel had never seen. The young girl had been busy whispering gentle words of caution in Isabella’s father’s ear, but as soon as the others left, she looked to Noel and smiled, not the smile of a child, but a wise smile that hinted of a greater understanding of things than Noel could possibly grasp. He was still holding his breath as she disappeared as well.
Noel pressed his mouth to Isabella’s at last, breathing deeply into her, this time watching her chest and diaphragm expand.
“Otum!” his rescuer demanded as Noel sat back, running a trembling hand over his face and over the back of his head. “Otum!”
But there was no need.
Noel had felt Isabella leave his body, the spectral mist of her lingering over his tongue, sweet as an almond blossom. The twitch of her fingers a moment later confirmed it.
He got slowly to his feet, swearing to himself he would never speak of this to anyone, not to the elders, not to Phileas—not even to Isabella, assuming she lived.
Never, he thought, turning away to return his things to his rucksack, perplexed, knackered, not looking back, not when he heard his rescuer’s happy exclamation, not when he heard Isabella’s quiet, torturous moan.
Hidy Ho, and Happy 2016 everyone! It has been a long time since I’ve put anything out here in the old ether, but November and December are typically very busy months for me, and I thought it best not to drive myself crazy just to produce something sub-par I would regret, when I could hold off and really put myself back into my work at the start of the new year. I hope you enjoy this latest installment of The Tale of Two Mountains, and may this new year bring you peace, love and joy!
“The wanderer lives,” Isabella swore through her teeth, shivering with cold, guts clenching against the emptiness Moag had left in her as she pushed herself up from the ground with her good arm, the other hanging stiff, awkwardly gripped by the rigor of death that crept slowly through her veins, as she tried to force her feet beneath her to stand. “Fly, Noel,” she groaned, using every bit of strength she had left to push herself upright, but she was far too weak, her head was full of a strange pressure, and as it swam it seemed as though her ideas were not fully formed, weighted down by the absence of some necessary volition, though she knew what she was thinking.
She lifted her hand up from the ground and tried to take a careful step but fell forward, her face meeting the floor with a violent crack.
Ears ringing, eyes burning, she lay still a long moment, swallowing the blood that gushed into her mouth. It should have frightened her that there was so much of it, but all she could think was that her own blood tasted sweeter than the wanderer’s, and the sound of her laughing sobs filled the dormant bleakness of the room, dancing with the stench of mildewed flesh, a part of her and not a part of her, barely clinging to the world.
He had felt her.
Somehow, up there in the horrible grasp of Moag’s nightmare, the wanderer had felt her crying out to him in dread. It should have been impossible for someone like him, but then the Mardraim was right, she thought, emboldened by the pulsing sting of her jaw. She wiped the blood and tears on her arm and rolled up onto her elbow to try again. It would have been impossible, she reasoned, inching her knees across the ground, using her good arm to thrust herself forward, painfully aware her crippled momentum did little but set her off in a hapless squirm. She could feel the skin on her elbow and knees tearing against the stone as she struggled, though it did not hurt as it should. Moag had done too much damage. Better to her than the wanderer.
Noel, had felt her crying out to him through the terrible void, and as though Moag, too, was perplexed by the impossibility of their conundrum, the ancient hand of time had let loose its hold on her. How? Did the how of it even matter now or would her time be better spent relishing these few sacred seconds of freedom, the millimeters of progress she made toward the door and the throbbing ache in her head, a sweet reminder that she was still real, for now? Her end was quickly catching up to her. She could feel Moag waiting. It was not consciousness. Like Fate, it did not feel, but she could sense in it the anticipation of her undoing, as though she were water pooled on a ledge and the slightest shift in gravity would send her spilling over, and it was the space into which the pool would become a stream, where it was already a stream, where it had always been a stream. All she could think to do was to go and meet him, this curious elf who had undone her destiny.
He had heard her cry and awoken, she smiled with the thought, hurrying now as fast as she could push herself across the ground, spluttering more blood from her nose as she went—woken from a dream it seemed he had been dreaming since long before the waters of Fate washed over the world, long before the snake that pursued her now began eating its own tail, before there was even the idea of a soul for it to one day devour, before there was day to define the night, before time, before before… He woke, and Isabella knew the truth, though she found no solace in the knowledge of her newly formed current—knew the truth of the matter deep in her soul, more deeply than she had ever known any design of Fate as an augur, as though she had known it for as long as that stranger had been dreaming.
Noel had to live—he would live.
Whether she had done it because she chose to or had done it because she was compelled by some force greater, even, than Om and Moag, Isabella had saved his life, become entangled in his purpose, as the Mardraim said, and soon she would surely die.
She would cease to exist, in order that the wanderer would live.
That was all that mattered.
But not before she had the chance to look him in the eyes one last time, so he would know her, she thought, growling against her body’s desire to lay down, exhausted and broken, and let the end come. “The wanderer lives,” she hissed, clenching a swollen jaw tight, as she pushed herself forward, whimpering as the throbbing in her head increased, the warmth of her blood spreading down her lips, down her chin, down her neck. “You live—this is all that matters! Moag cannot harm you! I will take your place, so fly fast, you fool! You are safe! Fly fast to me!”
As though ignited by a spark, Noel tore through the void faster still, streaming like an electric current over the surface of her. Isabella laughed again, soothed by the thrill of his flight racing across the expanse, toward her and away from her and through her all at once. “Hurry,” she managed to say, but Moag caught up the thread of her once more, and her very thought became a spasming wail of agony, cutting through the deafening emptiness, reaching out to Noel, willing him onward as her body shook against the ground with a venerable tempo, beating like the maddening roil of a first deadly thunder, as Moag drank deep, swallowing great gulps of her.
She would die; first, she would die.
Then she would cease to be.
Two hands took her up.
Two arms embraced her, holding her tight, fighting to keep her close as she thundered, and he ran.
“You cannot do this! Think of the children!” she heard a long, faint cry somewhere far away.
His feet pounded against the floor, becoming the thunder.
“Think of Fate! We cannot allow the elf to do this, if there is any way of stopping him!” the Mardraim answered.
“Think of Issa!” her father added, his voice gaining pitch as Harvey flew, and still Isabella’s body quaked. “The wanderer must die! It is the only way!”
He was not protecting himself, and she could do nothing to protect him. He felt her. He felt everything. He knew there was no way they could stop the wanderer. He had known it all along.
“Harvey, no.” It was Isabella’s voice that spoke now, but where it came from or how, she did not know, for it sounded as though it were from somewhere else, hidden away in some unworldly existence.
“Young Harvey, where are you going?” the youngest mother said, calm as ever.
“Stop! You cannot go down there!” the eldest mother cried.
“I must,” Harvey answered, his voice vibrating against Isabella’s soul.
Someone screamed. The wanderer? Isabella?
She opened what were once her eyes, to watch the domed lapis ceiling of the entryway glittering past so slowly, a dozen days might have come and gone as the scream carried through the depths of her. He turned down one of the archways, which led into a natural tunnel, worn smooth by the ages old, millennial flow of the waters of Fate. Voices followed close behind, becoming burbles of insistence and impatience, echoing words lacking form.
Except for Harvey’s.
“I will not allow her to be taken,” he said.
No. Harvey. No.
After a thousand years he answered, “Moag can have me. It should be me. Not you.” And he smiled at her, laying down her body, by now very nearly turned stone, so it could beat at the edge of that darkness, so deep, so impermeably black, to end and begin at the gaping mouth of the eater of souls, that grandfather snake, all consuming, and as she quaked loose the dust of a trillion atoms, her senses lost, her self lost, save for Harvey, he pressed his lips against what was left of hers.
Then he stepped into the Moag.
His heartbeat quickened as he listened, hoping to hear some hint of the faint cry again, and at the same time wishing not to hear anything, praying it was just his imagination. The scream had carried a great distance. By the time it reached Noel’s ears, the woman’s voice was barely perceptible above the sound of his own breath, yet in the tormenting silence of the pitch-black hell surrounding him, it had been clear enough. His name was borne upon that terrified wail, and while he had plenty of reason to suspect this was more trickery, meant to disorient him and lead him straight into another mind-trap, or worse still, that this cry was the product of his own pitiful death-throes, the seizing of his gut warned him the woman’s suffering authentic, and not another apparition.
After a long minute waiting, and a longer minute spent building up courage as he grew keenly aware of the ache of his knees against stone, Noel got up from the ground, and called out into the darkness, “Hello?”
Though he was certain it was the shifting of his eyes struggling to see anything at all against the surrounding blackness, the shadow seemed to grow deeper, swallowing up his word as silence loomed mercilessly, not even a hint of an echo reporting.
Cupping his hands around his mouth he bellow, “HEEEEELLOOOOO!” straining his voice until his throat burned, hoping the sound would carry, but it was suffocated by the abyss enveloping him. Again there was no reply, only the sullen stranglehold of that ominous void and the whisper of his own harried breath, trapped there with him, growing fainter by the moment.
“I’ve got to keep moving,” he muttered, in answer to the warning that crawled across his flesh.
Lifting his hand in front of him, Noel drew forth a spark of Hestia’s light, just enough that he might search his rucksack for something worthy of a new torch, to carry the ancient goddess’s flame. For a brief moment, the flicker of indigo held true in his palm, though the light it cast barely illuminated the crests embroidered on the cuff of his cloak, a welcome reminder of the outside world, but as he slung his bag from his shoulders, the darkness swelled.
“No, no!” he said as the flame was snuffed and the veil of endless shade consumed him once more.
Noel swore, tugging at the top of his pack as he knelt and began rifling through the contents until he felt one of his shirts and balled it up in his fist. “I’m not dead yet,” he breathed. “Not yet.”
In his youth, in their time off between quarters, he had become rather good at replicating the contents of an old decanter of scotch the elder Foote kept on a spindle-legged table in the parlor at Foote Manor, so good that he had eventually learned to recreate the libation without requiring a single drop to use as a base, a fact on which he prided himself those long winter nights at school, when there was nothing better to do than lie in a circle around the fire with his friends, staring up at the stars, trying to make them move. It had been nearly two decades since he had reason to compose a batch of the stout drink, having long-since become a patron of the Iron Paw and developed a taste for a warmer, peatier version, but he thought he could still manage.
The shirt grew wet and heavy in his hands, and the familiar smoked heather scent of countless evenings spent in drunken laughter lingered in the air, making him wish for simpler times, but this was neither the time nor place for reminiscing. He sucked some of the liquid from his shirt and coughed at the molasses and peppery heat on his tongue mixed with the grit of dirt picked up in Arnhem Land. It was perfect. He only hoped the proof was high enough Hestia’s light would not be so easily extinguished.
Holding his breath, he drew forth the spark once more. The distillate flashed wildly, as the flame rose up, well above Noel’s head, bright enough this time the quartz glimmered beneath his feet. “There you go, lads,” he laughed as he slung his rucksack up over his shoulder and stood.
But as he turned to his left and again to his right, hoping to see some hint of a direction, his chest tightened and his heart began to race in panic.
Beyond the glow of hope, clasped in his fist, there was nothing more than blackness, deep and impenetrable, even by the vast strength of the goddess’s flame, though Noel had come to expect this by now. It was what he saw in the darkness that made his bones ache and his mind real.
“Impossible,” he shuddered, the chill dancing between his shoulder blades.
The shadow of blackness, whatever it was—magic or monster—was moving, pressing in on him. He could see it swirling all around, a gaseous mass, undulating as though it was breathing.
“It’s alive,” he whispered as Hestia’s light began to dim once more.
Noel stumbled backward as the ominous deep moved toward him, swiftly closing in from all sides, the firelight fading fast.
“I… I have to get out of here,” he stammered, turning round, not certain from which direction he came, but for the first time truly ready to run away, ready to give up and let the secrets of the prophecy of the last hope remain a mystery forever.
Hestia’s flame grew smaller and smaller, squelched by the maddening shadow, as the darkness deepened evermore.
“I have to find my way back!” Noel gave a fervent hiss, feet leading him in circles, guilt of failure flooding his chest, but fear winning out over pride. “I’m done with this!” he shouted. “I’m finished! You hear me? You win! Just let me go home!”
But even as he said the words, the flame died, leaving him utterly blind once again, quivering with trepidation.
He drew in a breath, dread tensing his shoulders as he took a step forward and waited, expecting any moment to feel the clench of that treacherous black in his lungs, forcing the air out of him.
Another long minute passed, the silence pulsing rapidly in his ears between heartbeats as he stood trembling childishly.
“I-imagine what Phileas would say if he w-were here right now?” Noel spoke in a hush, dropping his shirt on the ground, hands shaking in front of him, as he felt of the darkness, shoes scraping against the floor as he inched forward, hoping he was headed either in the direction of the woman’s cries, or toward the exit, and home.
What he would not give to be home, he thought, taking another careful step. “Afraid of the dark after all these years?” he chuckled anxiously, his voice scratching at the air, mocking his dear friend. “’What’s the worst that could happen?’ he would ask, before setting off boldly, not standing here like some whimpering coward, waiting for the worst of it.”
Noel laughed at himself, to keep the imagined conversation moving forward. “Well, I could fall off a ledge into the vast nothingness, Phileas,” he answered, finding a little courage in his words.
“Aye, you’d be fairly bad off if that happened, but you’ve mostly accomplished it already, and you have to admit it would hardly come as a surprise now, would it? You can do better than that, Noel. What’s the worst thing you can think of?”
His pace quickened, as he squeezed his jaw. “Death by silence, my friend, but of course, not if I keep talking to myself, and certainly not if I’m already dead, so I suppose there is a bit hope left after all. If I’m still alive, there’s something yet to look forward to, and if I am dead, and this is my own personal perdition, as it seems it must be, the worst of it has already occurred, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There you go mate. Happy thoughts… Christ…” he sighed, at last swallowing the stone in his throat.
He ran a hand over the back of his head, damp with sweat, peering into the deep. There was nothing, nothing to be seen, no brush of air against his skin, no woman screaming his name as she suffered some torture too far away to rescue, nothing at all, he thought. “That is something, though, isn’t it?” he murmured, keeping the idea to himself, just in case. He could not be certain his thoughts were entirely his own anymore. Whatever evil possessed this place, it had been inside his head, pulling memories from his mind. It had forced him to imagine nearly drowning in that sand pit. Now there was only an austere quiet, punctuated by scraping of his feet against the ground.
“You’ll make it through, Noel,” he said, stopping short to gather his bravery. “After all, how did you end up in this place? It wasn’t by accident.”
Back in that lost cave, hidden somewhere in the sacred lands the Yolngu people, he drank the potion Taree gave him, and the Dreaming led him to Namcha Barwa, but he had not been shown the way. In fact, much like his present circumstances, he had not seen or heard anything while he was under the influence of the poisonous tonic connecting him to Wangaar time. He had simply known the answer, at the soul of him. Yet Taree had taught him that in the Dreaming, one could see all of eternity. Noel saw nothing, he heard nothing. Just like now.
“I simply knew,” he whispered, pressing his hands to his face, dragging them slowly over his cheeks to become prayerful fists clutched at his lips. “Is it possible?” he wondered, bending over, leaning against his knees to breathe. “I didn’t get here by accident. I only discovered the entrance to this place by falling, and I had to cause an avalanche and nearly die in order to get inside. The only thing I really accomplished, trying to figure it out on my own, was buggering things up, but perhaps, I’ve never been supposed to find the way myself… not by searching. I didn’t see nothing in the Dreaming; I saw this black madness. All this time, it’s been the Wangaar guiding me, and I’ve only gotten anywhere when I’ve had no choice but to let go.”
He half-laughed at the idea, shaking his head. “It’s foolish… insane,” he answered himself, pulling his rucksack securely over both shoulders.
“So here goes,” he sighed through a smirk, before hurling himself into the nothingness.