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.”
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