Tag Archives: Isabella and Noel

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 27


Prophet of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to live. He had to change everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issa nodded. The nameless one had died.

“The nameless child has a prophecy from Moag?”

Another nod.

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

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

“What do you mean?

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

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

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

“I put him back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 26

The Future Mardraim

Learning to manipulate light felt like waking up after a century of sleep.  By the end of the night, Noel was physically drained and mentally exhausted, and while he could not remember a time in his life when he had expended such an effort to manage a bit of magic, spent as he was, he felt incredible, to the point of periodically falling into giddy bouts of laughter that made the old Mardraim grin.  According to Edward, splitting a particle of light to form a well of invisibility was only the beginning of what might be done in the discipline of light-matter alone, and the elder assured Noel that the principle would prove most valuable to his people, assuming he would master of it what he could during his stay and eventually manage to escape the mountain, without being thwarted by the Felimi or consumed by Moag—though, they must not be distracted, he warned, from the more important work which required tending.

There was so much important work—Isabella’s possession of him, understanding Moag and why the Felimi hid the truth, honing his ability to sense Moag so he could make his way out of the mountain when the time came without causing Isabella any harm, uncovering what Harvey might be hiding, and of course, restoring their fates.  Given all of that, it seemed unlikely the Mardraim would have time left to teach Noel much more than what he found necessary to teach him that day, in order to help implement whatever plans the old man was formulating, to try and repair the damage Noel had done in coming there.

While up the stairs, amongst the forbidden and forgotten knowledge of the Danguin people, the vow between once and future Mardraim felt sacred and unbreakable, back down stairs, learning to capture light and bend it to his will, Noel found himself wondering why, if Edward Frank truly trusted him, had he not simply pointed out the Elfin section of the library, if only to satisfy Noel’s curiosity.  Drunk on newfound power and the potential for more, Noel could not help but return to the idea of stealing away in the night with all those books.  Bergfalk did not know how to split a light particle.  Phileas Foote had no idea light wells existed.  How many of Noel’s seemingly endless shortcomings and failings might be forgiven if he brought the lost knowledge of the elves back to Fendhaim, where it belonged?   Did his people not have a right to all the Elfin knowledge hidden in that library? Knowledge they believed lost to them forever, yet there it was, neatly categorized, and Noel with unfettered access, thanks to Edward naming him future Mardraim, even if he would not show him where the books were…

Noel was not some innocent Danguin babe, content to do as the Great Mothers and the god they called Om deemed fit.  He had grown up rough and not altogether forthright and honest, if truth be told.  He was not Mardraim material, and Edward Frank knew this, but the elder needed him.  Anyone in their right mind could see Noel would be doing his own people a terrible injustice not to find a way of getting all of that knowledge back home to them, somehow.  Surely the old man had felt this in him, and that was why he hesitated when Noel asked about the magic of the Ken.  But he had handed Noel the key to that door anyway, and right was right, after all.

Still, he hated the idea of betraying Edward’s trust.  He might not steal the books, or at least he would only steal them as a last resort, he told himself as they started home late that evening, Noel safely hidden in his very own light well, but he had to find out what other magic was there in the library, and he had to find a way to get it to Bergfalk, so the Nobles could be taught.  The how of it, he decided, was a problem he would have to deal with later, when he wasn’t knackered and high on the very idea of so much magic.  Before he worried too much about exactly how to abscond with the knowledge in all those priceless texts, what he really needed to do was concentrate on learning what he could of the language of the Danguin people, as Edward suggested, because the books were no good to anyone untranslated.

Luckily, he and Harvey Frank had been ordered by the Felimi to learn from one another what they could of their respective cultures, so for now it seemed their goals were aligned, with the minor exception of the part involving what would likely turn out to be Noel’s eventual betrayal of the only person in that mountain who appeared to be on his side.  Well, he thought, perhaps in the meantime they would manage to set fate back on the proper path, and then Edward might see it within himself to forgive what Noel must do…

Because it must be done.  Surely the old fellow would understand.

In the morning, Noel awoke to a fist rapping hard against the door to the Mardraim’s tiny hut.  Duly worn from the previous day’s endeavors, he pealed himself up from the ground, every muscle in his body stiff with ache and his head throbbing.  He had drained all his energy in their work, and now his body was paying the price.  It would be a few days before he would be doing any more magic.  He needed copious amounts or protein and several hours more sleep.

The Mardraim was already gone, but breakfast waited, as usual, on the low table.  As the caller knocked again, on his way to the door, Noel grabbed a piece of white fruit, speckled with tiny black seeds, and shoved it in his mouth.  It was not a prime rib and a stout ale, but at least it was something.  Expecting to find Emanuel waiting on the other side, he pushed the fruit up around his top teeth and grinned wide as he opened the door, only to find Harvey Frank, looking unhappy to be there and confused why anyone would show their food as a greeting.

“You awaken late in the day, as the young ones do,” the man said, shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose.  “You remain unwell?”

“Abowogy?” Noel tried to answer, then spat the fruit into his palm, embarrassed.  “Apology?” he repeated, his voice scratching at the back of his throat.  He gave a low cough to try and clear it.

Harvey raised a brow, stepping back from the door.  “Yesterday you were ill.  Today you sleep until the morning work is completed and the noon day work begins.  You remain unwell?” he asked again, this time with a hint of caution in his tone.

“What?” Noel gawped, confused and longing to return to his bedroll, before remembering the illness Edward had given his golem the previous day.  “No! No, better now!”  Yet the scratch in his voice did not subside.  He cleared it again and rubbed at his temples, feeling his pulse in his head.

Harvey scowled.  “You are required by the masters,” the man said, turning up the path.  “They desire to hear the prophecy you came seeking.  Follow me.”

In his excitement over the Mardraim’s collection, Noel had completely forgotten all about the most important thing they must do, and his whole reason for being there: the prophecy in the Book of Ages.  Shaken from his hung-over state, he called out after Harvey, “Wait! I need cleaning… and food!”  He popped the piece of fruit back in his mouth and was surprised, as he bit down, by the mellow flavor, not very sweet, like an under-ripe melon, but strangely satisfying.

Harvey had already turned up the main thoroughfare and did not wait for Noel to catch up.  “You should wake earlier in the day, Ohamet,” the man answered.  “There will be time to break fast later.  As for your foul scent, I have smelled more offensive odors.  The Takin that work the fields…  The Sulphur pits…” His voice trailed away.  Noel chuckled, less as what Harvey said, and more because it was apparent by the man’s tone he was not joking.

Perhaps humor was an emotion Danguin empaths did not understand, Noel thought, shaking his head at the awkwardness of Harvey Frank, as he hurried inside for his pack, then to the table to grab a handful of the fruit and to gulp some water, which he gargled and swished as he ran to catch up.  Apparently running was not something the Danguin understood either, because a woman tending a garden looked up from her work to frown as he passed by.  This was progress as least, Noel thought lending her a smile.  She did not return the kindness, but even outside of the Knowledge Keepers, their aspirants and the Felimi, she was the first person in the mountain to acknowledge Noel even existed.

“We go to hall of records?” he asked as he reached Harvey’s side, attempting to brush down his hair with his fingers.

Harvey only gave a disenchanted grunt, increasing his pace.

As they went along, Noel’s head giving a dull throb with every step he took, he found himself glad of the silence, so he might collect his thoughts, Hope’s prophecy weighing on him heavily, as he forced down his meager breakfast.  He had mostly resigned himself to the belief the prophecy was broken, and given everything the Mardraim told him about events surrounding his coming to the mountain, he was certain the responsibility lie completely with him, though whether he managed it through the Wangarr or Moag, or just by some turn of bad luck, he could not say.  Edward said they would attempt to restore fate, but without understanding exactly what Noel had done, he did not know how that might be possible.  Even if it was, the shame he felt for doubting the prophecy in the first place, for never considering that he and his brothers might have destinies of their own to fulfill, gnawed at his insides. People like the Footes and Bergfalk had never questioned Hope’s existence, had dedicated their whole lives to preparing for her coming, and while Noel stood beside them, took the same oaths, dedicated the same time and effort as the rest to prepare for her arrival and whatever that might bring, he knew he had done so falsely.

With the power of her stone in hand, the others believed this child was meant to vanquish their enemies once and for all and one day restore the Elfin bloodlines.  It turned out Noel had never truly believed in that and had only believed in having something to believe in, and now Hope might never come, thanks to him.  The Mardraim’s library and the idea that he would find a way to take the knowledge back to Fendhaim offered little consolation now.  All the magic in the world would not make up for the more than ten thousand years spent waiting on the Last Hope, only for some faithless dolt ruin it all, messing about with powers he could hardly understand.  With their bloodlines thinned so and their magic diminished, how much of the magic in the collection would they find themselves incapable of using, even if he did manage to find a way to take it all home with him?  His only real hope now was that he and Edward could manage to redeem themselves and their fates and somehow redeem Hope in the process.  That was the most important task—the only task, no matter what else he might find to distract him in that mountain.  It was time, he thought, to tell Edward Frank everything, so they could get down to the real work.  He tossed what remained of the bland fruit by the roadside, his mood thoroughly soured, his mind thoroughly sobered.

A few miles from Master Frank’s village, the pair came to a branch of the river Noel had yet to explore in his excursions through the mountain with Emanuel.  Harvey led the way across a narrow footbridge, to a massive outcropping of rock that grew up out of the earth, cleaving the river in two.  As they reached the other side, the man pulled back a curtain of vines and stepped into a tunnel, the walls of which were covered in a phosphorescent fungus that left the air dank and heavy to breathe.  That was easily forgiven considering the glow made it the friendliest tunnel Noel had met of late.  After a short trek through the luminous green, the tunnel ended at a round chamber with walls that gleamed and sparked with trillions of tiny quartz crystals.  The air was thick with energy, and the light that filled the room was almost too intense to bear, causing Noel’s eyes to water as he held his hand in front of his face, blinking hard to adjust to the gleam.  The five Knowledge Keepers were gathered talking near the edge of the natural basin in the center of the room, where a spring rose up from the ground, sloshing melodically in the shallow bowl before draining out again through the same two-inch hole it entered.   This was the water Edward had told him about, the water the seers drank to strengthen their ties to Om and help them see the prophetic Veils.  Noel wondered if perhaps it had some hallucinogenic properties that allowed the seers to see visions, and he decided the source must be a subterranean tidal body, rather than the river, because it was a long minute before the bowl refilled, the water lingering a moment before washing away once more.

“Thank you for retrieving our guest, Young Harvey,” Edward smiled as the two entered.  Harvey went to his grandfather’s side, leaned toward him and spoke curtly but quietly in the language Noel had come to think of as Danguinese, glancing sideways at Noel as he spoke.  Noel listened to see if he could understand anything the men said, but neither of them said Hello or Wanderer, so he supposed he would have to ask the old man later.

Finally, the elder nodded to Noel.  “It seems you are not quite yet well, Young Noel.  My aspirant worries you may still be contagious, however I am convinced your illness is no longer a concern.  You are certainly much better today than yesterday.”

Noel rubbed at his neck, and gave a small cough trying to clear his throat again before he spoke.  “Much better,” he answered, grimacing as his voice growled. He suspected Edward had done something to him to continue the ruse from the previous day, after all, it did not make much sense for the mysterious illness to pass so quickly, but the idea of magic being performed on him without his knowledge was unsettling.  With everything he had seen so far in that mountain, he had no way of knowing whether the old man had indeed made him ill, like the golem, or if this was simply a trick, meant to fool everyone, including Noel, but not to injure.  Given all the books in the hidden library, he could not imagine what sort of magic Edward had employed, what race the magic belonged to and whether it was something all the Danguin could do, or if this was forbidden fahmat only the Mardraim and the Felimi knew.  Either way, he would ask Edward to give him some warning next time.

“You are here now, so we shall proceed.”  He bowed in thanks to Harvey, and as Harvey exited through the opposite tunnel, the younger Frank glanced back at Noel with a suspicious sneer.  Edward’s gaze followed the man, his brow creased by a slight wrinkle.

“You have brought the prophecy?” Edward asked once Harvey was gone, nodding to the rucksack hiked over Noel’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Noel answered and knelt to open his pack, pulling out the Book of Ages, while Edward formally introduced the rest of the Knowledge Keepers, each nodding to Noel in turn before settling at their respective places around the spring.

Noel returned each gesture, but he was distracted by the look Harvey had given him.  It seemed like the man had more than just Noel’s health on his mind, and Noel could not help but wonder if the empath had felt something in him despite his grandfather’s attempts to keep Noel concealed.  He wanted to ask Edward if it was possible, but the Madraim waved a hand toward the empty space to his left, near the water’s edge, saying, “Join us.”

The moment of truth had arrived.

Noel sighed and gave an anxious swallow.

The Mardraim believed they could fix fate.  Edward had a plan, Noel thought as he turned the book open to the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves and stepped into the circle of Knowledge Keepers, feeling his throat tighten.

A shiver ran through him.

“May I?” Edward smiled, holding out his hand for the book.

“Er… I…”  Looking around at the men, stood by smiling as passively, Noel hesitated.

The Mardraim frowned.  “We must read the prophecy, Young Noel.”

Of course, they would need to read it, Noel thought, his guts clenched with warning, the shiver crawling over his flesh once more.  This was what he had come to the mountain for.  This was the very reason he had ventured to Arnhem Land and drank Taree’s toxic potion, to commiserate with the Dreaming.  This was why he had lingered in death for Isabella to save him, suffered through Moag and made an utter shambles of fate.  He was here to know the truth about that prophecy, for better or worse, and he realized as he stood there staring around at the others, his hands shaking, his knees growing weaker beneath him the longer he waited, he was no longer afraid of that truth, which in itself was a bit frightening, but rather, he was afraid of what might come next.

Noel had changed things.  What if he just kept changing them, making matters worse, with everything that he did?  Realizing he trembled obviously, he smiled stupidly, glancing down at the water, trying to steady himself.

The water, he thought, watching the ebb and flow…  The Knowledge Keepers drank the water to strengthen their bond with Om.  The energy in the room seemed to come from the water itself, and as he felt it stirring around him, he felt Isabella there with him too, though he resisted the urge to squeeze his fingers together, heeding Master Frank’s warning that no one must suspect what Isabella had done.

As Edward extended his hand and the water bubbled up from the wellspring below, Noel heard the eldest Felo’s grousing voice in his head, assuring him he would never be allowed to leave the mountain.  That day in Fkat, the Felimi had made it clear that the Danguin had taken refuge at Namcha Barwa to protect not just those who suffered empathy, but to protect the prophecies—prophecies like the one in the Book of Ages—to protect them from people like Noel.  The Felimi warned Noel that the knowledge Om granted them had long been sought by the rest of the world, that want of prophecies had been the source of unthinkable horrors, brutality and terror, the world over, but they had a want of prophecies too.  They drank the water… and now they wished to know exactly how Noel had come to discover their hiding place.  Noel’s instinct had been to hide the truth from them, to protect the rest of the world.  He was glad he had told them nothing, knowing what he knew now of nature of the Felimi, their secrecy, the changes they had made to the laws of their people, the expectations they put on the Mdrai to seek out new magic of the other races, their loss of foresight or their insistence that the Keepers of Knowledge drink of the waters of Om and record all seen prophecy.  He did not trust them, instinctively, at the very soul of him.  Now the old woman’s voice was in his head, and it felt, for a split second, like he was wandering through Moag once again, traveling within the darkness, remembering things he did not want to remember, except this time he was in the light—the intense, unnatural light, as intense and unnatural as the darkness of Moag had been.

The Book of Ages contained the entire written history—the only written history—of Noel’s people, but it was never meant to exist.   Their ancient forefathers, Aewin and Euriel, had known far too well the horror and brutality of humanity.  They had lived the very terrors of which the Felimi spoke that day.  Driven to the brink of extinction, the elves went into hiding, just like the Danguin had done, and in their hiding place, as the rest of the world burned around them, Aewin and Euriel made a promise that their sons and their sons sons would scatter to the four winds, carrying their history and their knowledge in story and song, passing down their oral traditions through the generations until the day Hope came, when their people would be saved, and they would no longer need to hide.  It was a descendant of Euriel who began the forbidden Book of Ages, his line keeping the text in secret for thousands of years before its existence was discovered by a descendant of Aewin—a Foote, as it turned out, searching for evidence to mark the fulfillment of the prophecy—but not the prophecy in the Book of Ages, because they did not have it yet.  All they had up until that point was generations of stories passed down from father to son.  The elves had been slaughtered at the hands of the murderous ruler of the wizened race.  Over the generations, their blood had grown so thin, their power so weak.  If the prophecy in the Book of Ages was true, Roviello Tofal would rise up out of the ice, to finish what he started more than ten ages ago.  Now there was likely no Hope left to save them, but Noel had a chance to restore their magic, even if he could not restore their fate.

“I…” he looked to Edward Frank, who watched him carefully.

Could the old man truly be trusted?  Edward claimed he himself did not trust the Felimi, because they had hidden the truth of Moag.  He claimed he did not trust his own grandson, because he could sense Harvey was not telling the truth about his experience in Moag.  Yet he claimed he trusted Noel, and of all people in this mountain, Noel knew he was perhaps the one person who was least trustworthy, after everything he had done.  He had changed so much, even Edward’s own prophecies, yet the Mardraim had given so much to Noel, so easily, taken him to his secret library, offered to teach him lost arts, shown him all those books, even told Noel he would name him Mardraim.  Why?  To discover the truths he believe Harvey and the Felimi kept from him?  To restore fate?  Was restoring fate even possible?  Would Noel change everything?

All those books, Noel thought, swallowing against a dry throat, and I will steal them all.  I will betray him. Does he expect to betray me first?

The old man gave a patient smile.

Though Noel knew better, though his inner voice shouted not to do it, though he suspected doing so might ultimately be the downfall of generations of his brothers, though the ebb and flow of the water in that basin seemed to pause as if with baited breath and the energy of the glittering room rushed around him with expectation, and though in that moment he felt Isabella’s hand firmly affixed in his, holding onto him, not afraid, not trying to stop him, but strangely present, as though she came with a purpose he could not understand, and he was somehow comfortable with that, with her there… a piece of him— Noel handed Edward Frank the Book of Ages, pointing down to the page where the lines of prophecy were inscribed.

Edward must have felt all of Noel’s internal debate through his empathy, but without batting an eye, the Mardraim scanned the lines of the prophecy several times and nodded before speaking again.  “The text is written in a dialect of the Llendir language that is unusual, likely akin to the tongue Young Noel speaks today, though his is no doubt tainted by the abundance of languages of man.  This book may improve our understanding of your people, Young Noel.  May I keep it for a time, so I might study your ways myself?”  Noel felt the panic of anticipation rise inside him as the man added, “We will keep it safe in the Hall of Records, among the books of prophecy.  No one outside of the Mdrai will have access.”

I have destroyed Hope, Noel thought, his heart pounding in his chest.  Now I must trust I have not destroyed my people.  He felt for the reassurance of his possessor, searching for some consolation, but as surely as Isabella had been there a moment before, she was gone, and he wondered if his sense of her had even been real or if it was just a figment of his imagination, wrapped up in the energy spilling forth from the water, lapping over him with delicious currents.

“I… should keep,” Noel said, his voice cracking, “with me.”

“Of course,” Edward answered, giving a gentle nod of understanding.  “As for the prophecy written here, unfortunately, it contains no Veils.  Omdra Asan, if you would begin.”

No veils.

Though he had expected as much, the air left Noel’s chest in a rush.  It was true.  The prophecy was broken.  But the Mardraim believed they could restore fate… didn’t he?

Master Asan stepped forward, taking the book from the old man, and began to read the passage out loud.  “’Ten ages past the descent of humankind comes new hope for the world.’  There is no intent written here,” he said, stopping after the first sentence, looking around at the others.  “This is not meant to be read by an augur.  Shall I proceed?”

“It may simply have been translated by one who is not Zhe,” offered Master Wallace.  “Might we duplicate the text with intent imparted?”

Asan nodded, and Wallace conjured a parchment and pen.  Noel began to pace as the two worked, their heads bent together over the book, the burly giant of a man copying the prophecy onto the loose page in their pictorial language.  When the men finished, Asan looked back to the Mardraim and shook his head.  Edward merely gave a half shrug, as though the effort had been a futile one in the first place, but necessary to rule out a simple solution.

Noel turned his back on the men to stare at the walls, caught up in their tumultuous spasm of energy that danced there almost mockingly.  No veils, he thought, angry with himself for every misstep he had taken thus far.  If only he had waited… If only he had truly believed…  How could he be trusted?

“Much of the words are not of Om,” Asan said before continuing the reading, “’Born with a heart of stone and fist of might to bear witness to all that is good and all that is evil in this ancient struggle, Hope shall be a beacon to her people.’  This word her is gendered.  Om would never speak thus.  Clearly this is an interpretation.”

“Or a fraud, meant to divert those who know no better,” Master Vega frowned, nodding his head toward Noel.  “Can an interpretation be trusted any more than a known fraud?”

“Perhaps.  The word Hope is written as a name might be,” Master Asan said.  “It would stand to reason, if the interpretation is a trusted one, one might believe this is about a girl who would be named Hope or called so by her people. It continues, ‘Old promises rendered irreparably broken, at the opening of twin gates the great war shall rage once more all around her; and Hope must find Hope within her, for this much is true: As surely as the Circle of Stones goes round, Hope is beginning and end. Let it be known by all that this is the prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves.’”

“Rage?” Master Yang spluttered out the word.  “This was certainly not written by a Child of Danguin.  Young Noel, may I read from the passages before and after?  I would like to know if there is some clue as to the meaning.”

Noel sighed, nodding his head.  What was done was done.  He had to trust.  He had to believe they would find a way of restoring fate.

Asan offered Yang the book, and he quickly scanned the pages, flipping back and forth, the slight frown on his face sinking ever lower into a scowl with every word he read.

Throughout his journey, Noel had often read the surrounding pages himself, hoping he might stumble upon some secret that would unlock the mystery of the prophecy, and he knew he was not the only one to have done so.  Phileas Foote had frequently been caught in careful study of the Book of Ages, though he was hunting for more mundane clues.  Who was the girl? Where and when would she be born?  He certainly had not been searching to discover if the prophecy were even true.  His faith was a lifelong faith that never once faltered, Noel was certain.

Noel, on the other hand… He was the bastard who changed everything.

“The surrounding pages appear to have nothing to do with the prophecy itself. The inscription interrupts a story, and it is written by a different hand.  It is almost as though the truth is intentionally hidden, buried in allegory,” the man huffed impatiently.  “We should consider that many of the words suggest multiple meanings.”

“I agree,” the Mardraim said.

Noel wiped a hand over his sweaty brow and took a seat against the wall to listen as the Keepers of Knowledge fell into debate, dissecting the words of the prophecy one by one.  He should have expected this, given what Edward had told him of languages, how the Danguin people had fewer words, but he found himself wishing they would just voice what he was certain they were all thinking.  Noel had changed everything, as Harvey Frank had warned he would. His lack of faith had been a greater enemy to Hope than any war or any wizard might ever be.  Yet no one said this out loud.  Instead, they waxed on for much of the hour, contemplating the meaning of Ten Ages, and that was only the beginning.

To Noel, the number ten seemed not too difficult to grasp, though the people of the mountain used a base twelve number system, which made sense considering the houring of a day, and their concept of mathematics did not seem to extend much beyond basic accounting and geometry, but to the Danguin, when considering Veils, it turned out a number could represent far more than an amount.  It could indicate a person, a place, even another galaxy.  More troubling than ten’s apparent fluidness was the potential meaning wrapped up in the word ages.  Was this a measure of time, as it would likely be considered by one who was not a messenger of Om?  Was it a determinate number of seconds or years or a macrocosm of continuity impossible to comprehend let alone to calculate?  Or was an age something far more abstract still?  Perhaps a cycle of epiphany or a period of evolution with no specific chronological measure, but rather some more pertinent value they could never know without access to Om’s Veils?  And then, of course, there were ten of them, if ten was a number and not something else.

The Descent of Humankind, they mused, might mean the fall of humanity, which Master Frank seemed quite keen to believe, himself being privy to certain information Noel had supplied in private, during their days of waiting for this meeting.  The others were quick to point out this may indicate the birth of, death of, or ordering of the species, another potential revolution of time, itself as indecipherable as an age, an echo of some construct of humanity they did not have the capacity to understand, or even a shade of Om itself, though what was meant by this, Noel had no idea. On that note, however, all of the words in the prophecy, save a very few, seemed to mean Om in one way or another, though Noel decided this was likely owed to the religious precepts of the mountain people.

Most disturbing to Noel were the many potential meanings wrapped up in the word hope, which had been a source of inspiration to his people for generations.  To the Danguin, hope turned out to be not at all that hopeful.  To Noel’s mind, it hinted only of joy, a world as it should be, as his people deserved after years of suffering.  But according to the Keepers of Knowledge, it might as likely mean destruction, death, judgment, and even the mercy of Moag, a concept that Noel could tell troubled the Mdrai as much as it troubled himself.

And that barely covered the more curious conversations about the words used in the first sentence of the prophecy.

“What are you doing here against the wall, Young Noel?” the Mardraim asked quietly as he knelt beside him, while the Mdrai continued their discussion.

“No veils,” Noel whispered, shaking his head, opening his hands in surrender.  “No Hope.”

“I did not expect there to be Veils.  Did you?”  Noel looked up to find the old man smiling.  “Your book was not written by one with foresight.  It was written by Llendir, like you, with far too many words spelled out over the course of many years.  It is entirely possible there were never Veils contained in the words of this prophecy, even before they were first set to the pages of your book.  But now you are missing an opportunity to learn a grave deal, Young Noel, whether or not any of your many fears are founded.”  He gave him a knowing look.  “Did you come all this way, make your way into our mountain, surviving Moag, only to forsake the very knowledge you came seeking?  There is much to learn here, Ohamet.  Much to learn.  You choose a strange time to sit still, for one who so readily wanders in search.  Keep searching.  We will find the way through this together.”

“… might be mundane, but the way it is written is telling,” Master Vega was saying. “I agree, Heart of Stone could be a Veil indication, perhaps claimed to have been seen at some point by Zhe, however once again, one would have to see the stone within the Veils to know.”

“Precisely what I was thinking,” Master Yang offered, Master Wallace’s parchment in his hand.  Master Vega now held the Book of Ages, looking down at the words, his brown deeply furrowed.  “Any stone may have hundreds of different meanings depending on composition, size, color, shape, weight, where it is in relation to other indications by the Veils.  If we used the water, looked to Om with the intention of this stone in mind, we might see—”

“We might see a million stones and never see the right one,” Master Wallace sighed, shaking his head.  “Was the heart of stone what was seen or was it the meaning itself, and if it was the meaning then what is it meant to mean? We cannot turn to Om with such vagaries.”

Indeed, what did any of it mean?  Real or not, forever broken or yet to be, the prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves had always been vague, even in Elfin folklore, where this girl, their last hope, was intended to save them all, one way or another.  Noel’s people had done their best to fix the words of the prophecy with some meaning they could understand based on the history they knew and what they needed most, vindication and restoration.  Perhaps Master Frank was right.  A single word might have carried more meaning, in this case, than all the words the world could muster in an attempt to explain the prophecy of the last hope of the elves.

Noel pulled open his bag and dug around until he found a nub of drawing charcoal and the sketchbook he had nearly filled during his travels.  Smiling, Master Frank patted him on the shoulder before returning to the group, as Noel flipped to a blank page and began to hastily scribble down notes, hoping the Knowledge Keepers’ words would not smear too much as he worked.  Well into the evening the elders postulated and supposed.  Noel ran out of charcoal twice before his notes were finished, the final time requiring him to dig through the rubble of his entire bag for anything that might provide a reasonable mark on the page.  Seeing him struggle, Master Wallace handed him his pen, which looked like it belonged in a London bank, not in the mountain.  Noel thanked him quietly, as the men continued their convention.

With every hour that ticked past and with each word of the prophecy, it became clearer to Noel that the Knowledge Keepers had no way of knowing what the prophecy might mean, but all were intrigued with the idea of discovering the truth.  If any one word written in the Book of Ages was a Veil, and any other word was not, it seemed it would render the entire prophecy unreadable, but it was impossible to tell which words might be Veils, if any, and which were explicitly not Veils, with the exception of words that would never be used by Om or the Danguin people.  It seemed most likely what was written in the Book of Ages was an interpretation, but if every word was an interpretation, and not a Veil itself, the only thing that was certain was that the author’s interpretation was not a very good one, because it left so much unexplained and, frankly, inexplicable.  Even considered as interpretation alone, every word had multiple Veils the interpretation might have been derived from and countless meanings attached to each of those, given the nature of Om and the complexity of the language of the Ken.  The one thing none of the Knowledge Keepers attempted to do was tie the meaning of the prophecy to history, as Noel’s people had always done.

The last line, ‘As surely as the Circle of Stones goes round, Hope is beginning and end,in a way, provided the most insight into the struggle of an augur interpreting an alleged prophecy with no intent imparted and no Veils readily conveyed, and quite nicely wrapped up the difficulty of the elves themselves in understanding their more than ten thousand years of anticipation and what it might mean beyond what they hoped.

The term Circle of Stones, according to the Mdrai, had been written intentionally as a name, like Hope, and while, like every other word before it, circles in the Veils would have various kinds of meaning dependent on what the seer saw, Master Asan asked if there was any possibility that this phrase could be indicative of a circle of hearts of stones, which made the others laugh, mainly because it got them absolutely no closer to comprehending the prophecy, but only convoluted the thing on another level.  This was one theory no one outside of that mountain had ever put forward.  There was only one circle of stones, as far as Noel knew—the seven stones of Peace, that once held humanity in a precarious balance, allegedly preventing the sorts of evils of humanity that eventually led to the Fall, and the only Heart of Stone ever named was the heart of Hope herself.  If Asan’s idea were true, who then might own the other six stones?  What would their parts be as the drama of this prophecy of Hope played out?  And if the stones were so powerful that they managed, as the stories went, to for so long dissuade all of humankind from its very humankindness, then how treacherous might these instruments become when held by a fist of might, as the prophecy proclaimed this Hope would be?

The words goes round would naturally imply some circular motion in a Veil, but if this were the meaning, a Child of Danguin would never have written the words this way, and as there was no pattern of movement, beyond around, to indicate direction or speed or angle of momentum, Yang claimed it difficult to decipher any intention without seeing the Circle of Stones go around themselves within the Veils, “Which,” the man chuckled, “seemed to be the very purpose of the prophecy—to send everyone, who might read it, around in circles.”  But of course, Noel knew the Circle of Stones was never meant to move, and the fact they did move, so long ago, was believed to be the very reason their enchantment over humanity was broken.  The truth was, as powerful as the Circle of Stones might have been, humanity’s self-destructive nature had proved stronger.

Hope, for the final time, was written as a name, not an idea, which meant the writer, whoever he or she might have been, believed that Hope was a person, more specifically a girl, though according to the Mardraim, they may have been terribly mistaken in that assumption, if the prophecy was ever in fact a prophecy.  Whoever this Hope might be, at the last of it, the Keepers of Knowledge all agreed, if any of the words were meant to impart the path of Om, as the author claimed, or the true weight of Hope, as horrible as that hope might turn out, the final words of the prophecy, beginning and end, could only mean one thing, in the Veils or out of them: Om and Om, time and time again.  No matter what they believed about the rest of the words written in the Book of Ages, the Knowledge Keepers claimed they had to believe this Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves, or interpretation, as the case may be, was of the greatest potential imaginable, to proclaim this Hope Om and Om.

“Could it not… mean Om and… Moag?” Noel asked, looking up from his work, considering the secrets the Felimi had kept from their people and the purpose of Moag, as he understood it.

This caused the Mardraim to breathe a heavy sigh and look around at his brothers with a grave concern marring his brow, his eyes weary.  “The beginning of all beginnings and the end of all ends,” he whispered, “if the author knew of Moag.  I am afraid the existence of Moag must necessarily change the interpretation of many prophecies we have long believed certainties.”

“If the author knew of Moag,” Master Wallace grumbled, nodding to his elder. “The questions we are left with are who or what is this A.D., who was given this prophecy, and who exactly did the giving?  It was not Om.”

“It was not Om,” Master Frank agreed.  “The only hint we have is this number, 9362 A.C.”

Noel sat up a bit straighter, clearing his throat.  “Year 9362…  we think,” he said, hoping that might help.

“It is not your place to think of prophecy,” Master Vega gave a good-natured laugh.  “This is why you have come to us, is it not, Wanderer?  These numbers could indicate a place.  They could refer to an object, a language or codex for unlocking the Veils hidden here, if there are Veils hidden here.  This A.D. may not even be a person.”

“Mm,” Noel muttered, scowling at so much none of his people had ever known to consider as he reluctantly scribbled down what Vega said.  Even the non-believers among the elves had always believed this indicated a year, now a bit more than 11,000 years ago, and if an age was a thousand years, as his people thought, Hope was well overdue.  To them, it was simple.  They had no idea what prophecy truly entailed.

“Young Noel,” Edward said, turning to Noel, looking quite concerned, “I am afraid we must admit the fact that the reason we may be unable to read this prophecy, the reason the Veils do not make themselves apparent to us now, is because you may have changed it, like so much else, in coming here.”

There was the truth of it at last, the truth like a punch to the gut, after all that debate and rhetoric.

“Or it was never a prophecy,” Yang nodded.

“Or it was never a prophecy,” the elder added in agreement.  Noel looked down at his sketchbook filled with all the notes he had just taken, and turned back to the old man, raising an indignant brow, prepared to argue.  For some reason, he found himself more hopeful than he had been in a long while, where the prophecy was concerned, but Master Frank stopped him short, saying, “However, given the fact your own life was to see the culmination of so many prophecies, it is highly improbable that this was never a prophecy, and in fact it is entirely possible that because of the way it is written, we would never have been able to see it, whether or not it is broken.”

“Whoever wrote this was not a seer,” Master Wallace added firmly.  “And this A.D., if a person, was likely not a seer either, or if they were, they never intended to tell your people exactly what they should expect of this Hope, and especially not for this writing to fall into our hands, otherwise it would be more easily discerned.  The fact it is written so near the end of this book indicates that it was inscribed rather recently.  I would guess within the past five hundred years.”

He was right about this.  More than one person wishing to denounce the prophecy in the Book of Ages as a fraud had pointed out the fact it was written very near the back of the book, for something that was supposedly so old.  In fact, they knew, based on the story surrounding it, that it had been written there sometime in the last 330 years, which meant the writer may very well still be alive today—it may even have been a Foote who wrote it, considering it was a Foote who discovered the book in the first place and brought it back to Fendhaim along with the long-lost line of Euriel’s grandsons responsible for starting the work.  The stories of the prophecy, in one form or another, had been around for an incredibly long time, passed down in the tales begun by Aewin and Euriel after the Fall.  Noel must have learned a hundred or more songs about the girl who would be their salvation during his studies at Bergfalk’s, each a little different than the last, each composer taking slightly more liberty with his fanciful description of her and all she would come to do, none of them proclaiming themselves prophecy and especially not claiming to be the actual Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves, as the book did.  Not one of them even named her Hope.

It was understandable, then, that sometimes faith faltered, Noel thought as he took the book from the Mardraim. He supposed it was what one did with the doubt that made all the difference in the world.  Noel’s doubt had brought him thousands of miles.  Broken prophecies or not, he had thousands of miles left to go toward understanding, and he was not willing to allow anything else to stand in his way—that much he had already proved to everyone, Om and Moag included.

“What do your people believe this passage means?” Vega asked, motioning for Noel to get up from the ground and take the floor.

So, Noel returned to the water’s edge and recounted for the men, as best he could, the passionate tale of the Council of Elders, the five rulers of the five races of Humanity, who lived long ago, some of whom were still believed to be alive today, trapped in this life by a cruel twist of fate and the Prophecy of the Last Hope.  Though the story was imperfect and incomplete, he told the Knowledge Keepers both what his people knew to be fact and what they believed to be embellishment, not alone about Eilian, the Father of the Evles, and his cohorts on the Council of Elders, but about the seven Stones of Peace as well—the most important falsehood being that up until the moment when the Council of Elders finally cracked and lost control, the stones had held the entirety of civilization in perfect harmony with their entrancing song.  If the Stones of Peace had truly worked, none of the things that happened, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Circle of Stones, could have happened.  The circle was broken well before Eilian, Tessandra, Ra, Zeus, and Tofal got their hands on them.  No one could say exactly why or how or when their binding was broken, and no one, least of all the council, knew how to fix them.  So humanity fell into war, and millions upon millions died—that much was undeniable.  The stones, the stories said, were cast out into the world by the destructive force of chaos, or fate, that threatened to rip the entire world apart, as humanity’s punishment for the evils it had done.

Noel did not mention it, but if the stones ever existed, Bergfalk claimed to know where at least two of them were, though he said they did not work, and no one knew how to use them.  According to him, the two-headed dragon brothers Gaul and Igaul had the stone of compassion and the stone of truth.  Perhaps Noel would tell Edward later, or he would keep it to himself, either way, Noel was only a little surprised the Mdrai knew nothing of the Peace Stones considering they had no record of the destruction that was borne of the Fall.  For Keepers of Knowledge, they seemed to know very little about the rest of the world at the time of the Fall, yet so very much at the same time, as though they were handed prophecies of the least important parts of history but could not see how any one event tied directly to another, so they might all remain… blind.  He supposed their faith in Om might explain why they did not see all the terrors that happened to the rest of the world, but he suspected, now more than ever, it was more plausible that they, like everyone else on the planet, had been cursed in the fallout, and that was why they had to drink the waters to properly see.

In the end, Master Frank thanked Noel for his help and asked the others what, if anything, they should do, concerning the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves.  The Mdrai looked to each other in turn, then to Noel, and Edward smiled.  “I apologize, Young Noel.  You must wait for me by the river.  We Mdrai must speak more in private before determining what our next course of action shall be.  Such deliberations are not meant for outsiders.  I will tell you what is decided.”

This was fair enough, Noel thought as he took the old book, its cover careworn, its pages soft with age, and returned it to his pack, along with his sketchbook of notes, before giving back the conjured pen to Master Wallace, though he considered keeping it, to see if he might track down where it had been before the man conjured it up.  His head full of ideas about the prophecy, Noel returned alone through the glowing green passage, and crossed the bridge to lean against the railing and wait for Edward to rejoin him, wondering what the Mdrai would think if they knew the old man had lost his destiny, and perhaps his mind, and named Noel the future Mardraim.  But the night sky was painted brilliant with stars, and for a moment, taken by their beauty, he forgot altogether that the sky was not real, as he felt Isabella stir in his hand.  Why did she sometimes driving him so crazy his skin would crawl, and why now did set him at ease?  Had what he felt at the water’s edge been real or imagined?  Did she know it had happened, and had she done it on purpose, or does she have no control over the part of her that was in possession of him?  Had she felt something then too?  He should have been starving and falling over exhausted.  He should have been contemplating everything he had learned from the Mdrai about the Prophecy of the Last Hope.  Instead he was looking at the sky, his head caught up in a girl, who was not even there… not really.

“We have much work to do,” Edward said behind him, causing him to jump.  “I trust you are recovered.”

“Recovered?” Noel asked as they started up the road the toward Mardraim’s village, the elder walking at an unusually determined pace.

“We have much work to do,” he repeated.  “Or shall we go home to rest?”

“Ah… Yes,” Noel nodded, knowing he would have to make another light well to get back to the library eventually, but not tonight.  Whatever the fruit was Edward left for him that morning had restored his energy, cured his aching head, and kept him strangely satiated all day, even though he had only eaten a few pieces, but he thought it best if he did get some sleep, rather than returning to the library to work that night.  “What was… fruit?”

The Mardraim chuckled, “The world provides all that we need, yet we take so much that is not needed.”

This was not an answer, but Noel decided to let it pass.  “What Mdrai say?”

Now Master Frank clasped his hands in front of him pensively, considering for a long while before answering.  “Mm…  Words contain power, Young Noel,” he said quietly.  “To speak a word is to make a covenant with Om.  No word is weak, only those who speak them, not understanding their potential, like those who pass by that fruit without picking it, not understanding what it might do for them.  The words written in your book contain power.  What power, I cannot say, however they are not weak simply because we do not yet understand them.”  He paused or a moment before continuing with a heavy voice and slowed his steps, “We will search out this Hope and these stones among our records, though I do not foresee any good outcome, given the words written in your book and the story you have told us.  If either are among our records, we shall find them.  Then we will know the truth.  That truth might not be something we truly want to know.”

“You believe I… broke prophecy of Hope?” Noel asked, finding himself clasping his hands pensively as well, trying to emulate the old man.

“That, I believe, we will never know.”  Edward smiled gently, his exhaustion apparent as he considered Noel for another long moment before looking away up the road.  Whether or not Noel needed the extra rest, it was clear Master Frank did.  Their work could wait one more night.  “No word is weak, Noel Loveridge.  If we are to restore Om’s way, we must be as strong as Om’s words.  Our trust must be as strong as Om’s way. Tomorrow, you will go with young Harvey.  Tell him nothing.”  He glanced over at Noel, a familiar worry lining his brow.  “Do I have your word, Ohamet?”

Noel recalled the look of suspicion on Harvey’s face as he left them at the chamber to do their work, then he thought of the many thousands of books in the Mardraim’s library and wondered if Edward Frank knew Noel had every intention of breaking his trust, and if this made his word weak in the elder’s eyes.  “You have my word.  I tell nothing,” Noel said, the weight of this pledge not lost on him.

If, in the end, the Mdrai did not find Hope or the stones in their records, and he was forced to choose between restoring fate and the books in the library, Noel wondered which was more important, returning the magic his people had lost over thousands of years of waiting or returning to the pathways of Om he had broken and all he had changed in coming there.  Which was stronger in him, he wondered, the faith he wished he could find within himself to believe that every person had a destiny to fulfill, the faith he wished he could find in himself that he would be able to unchange what he changed, or the wanderer it seemed he was now destined to be?

“You have my word.”


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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 25

Secrets of the Mardraim

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Frank?” he said, concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ptalmet?” Noel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Noel sighed. “Why need new?”

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

“What fahmat Felimi allow, all here learn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward, the empath, understood him and trusted him.

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

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

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

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

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

“You remember other life?”

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

Noel nodded.

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

“What say?” Noel asked.

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

“Boy? You think Eri?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 23

Llendir Ways

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

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

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

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

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

“Earthen one?”

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

“My essence?” Noel choked over the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fairies,” interrupted the golem.

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

“Gods,” his mirror nudged him.

“I know,” Noel huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless, Noel thought…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noel gave a coarse grunt.

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

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

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

“Forgotten?” the elder asked.

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

“The Fall?”

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

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

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

Hadn’t he?

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

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

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

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


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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I will be seen. Emanuel? Harvey?”

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


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 22

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.

It’s dangerous.

Evil Magic

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.”

“Is she?”

“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.


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23

The Tale of Two Mountains-Pt.21

isaandnoelRiver, Winding

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.”

“Then leave!”

“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.


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21

The Tale of Two Mountains- pt.20


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.”


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 19

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.

“Young Noel.”

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.

Om’s reflection?

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.


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 18




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.


The darkness.


The wanderer.


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!”


“Issa, I—”


“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.


“Bring him.”


Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18