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The Tale of Two Mountains–Pt 34

Fragments of Divinity

The Mardraim had no idea what it was like to sit and wait, feigning patience when patience was impossible, Issa thought, tying her dark mane back with a string, at the base of her neck, to keep it out of the way while she worked. She tapped her fingers against the table, straightened the papers before her, then got up to look out the window. The elder had only been away a few minutes, and it would surely be several more before he returned, but she was filled with anxiety at the prospect of what was to come. She had prepared her drawing papers, paints, and canvases. There was nothing left to do but wait, yet it seemed she had already waited a lifetime. He could not know what it felt like, this all-consuming need for fulfillment.

No, he could no longer sense her without serious effort, she reminded herself. No one could sense her anymore, as most of her soul had been lost to Moag, but none of that mattered now. The prophecy would come—it had to. If this worked, revealing Moag’s way, all the changes brought about by Ohamet, would be the purpose she served from this day forward—a purpose only she could serve. But what if it did not work?

She let out a great puff of air, and tried to focus on the path where the Mardraim would return, forcing her eyes to see further into the night. Noel Loveridge was once again hidden in the place where her sense of him diminished into nothing. Her mind felt smaller in these times of disconnection, but at least her thoughts were her own, not bound up in chaos, as they were throughout the day, while the elf went about his business and she suffered torrents from him and Moag in turns. Since she realized exactly how little of her was left in this state, it was difficult for her not to pity her own lowliness at times, but she had the beginnings of a plan to remedy that—it merely had to wait a while, as she saw to her new duties.

The Mardraim would not share with Issa much information, on how the wanderer had managed his connection with Moag before, whether she had been correct in her assumption that the elf somehow touched the very source of these prophecies. He would not tell her where the elf went or what fahmat he used to break the tie of possession between them when he disappeared. In fact, the elder would not tell her much of anything, but that had not stopped her from seeking answers of her own.

The evening was still and cooler than the previous. She would have made it farther into the tunnels this time, Issa thought, regretting that she had to wait to go out again, for at least a handful of days, but the prophecies of Moag were more important than the fates of she and the elf combined—the prophecies were imperative, as Om would never be able to show the Zhe the future Ohamet made. Who could say how long it would take her to record what Noel brought forth this time, if he managed it? She only hoped she would not forget all of the progress she had made.

Moving from connection to disconnection and back again twice a day was a curious and often painful experience, which meant the routine had taken some getting used to, but it had its benefits. The disconnection allowed Issa a level of freedom she could not have imagined before, under Moag’s influence, and for that she was truly grateful. in the afternoons, when the elf went into the tunnels and disappeared, Harvey would come to visit, and while Issa could no longer sense what her friend was feeling, since her abilities had been reduced to near nothing, she could tell by the way he acted that the improvement in her demeanor was appreciated. Although she felt rather infinitesimal during her times without Noel’s presence, it was precious respite, spending time with her friend while her mind was her own and not being drowned out by the vague but constant influx of Moag’s prophecies intermingled with Noel Loveridge’s meanderings. But she was only allowed a few hours each afternoon, and that time was meant for her to spend with others, pretending she was herself again, even though she was not. At the appointed hour, the elf returned to her, and she fell right back into their connection and the confusion it inspired. Even so, she had managed to keep herself groomed, to allow the wounds she had given herself in worse times to heal, and to maintain a certain level of consistency in her thoughts.

The letter she wrote to herself, nights ago, had helped keep her focused, in that respect, so that even when her mind was flooded with Moag, she knew she must concentrate on the elf’s path through the tunnels, memorizing his every turn. This was necessary, as she could feel in him that the way was dangerous, but she had no other choice. She needed to discover exactly where the elf was going when he disappeared, so she could go there herself. She had not gotten so far with her plan that she could say what would happen next, but she had seen the aura of her own soul with the elf, when he came to her after touching Moag. She did not yet know how, but she would regain that piece of herself, which the wanderer kept bound to him. She would regain it at all costs, which was why, for the past two evenings, while the elf was off in hiding again, in order to assure her a peaceful night’s sleep, and knowing no one else could sense her, Issa had ventured out on her own, into the night, into the desolate tunnels, carefully following Noel’s path through the darkness. She had planned to go tonight as well, until the Mardraim came to inform her that it was time for the wanderer to go once more to engage with Moag—time for Issa to see.

Isabella nodded silently to herself, smiling. Now her real work would begin. The prophecy would come. She would see. There would be time for discovering exactly what the elf was doing later. At last, she would serve a true purpose again—she hoped.

As if called to her on the hem of that hope, the wanderer returned, all at once dropping his protections, as a pressure from without and within bombarded Issa, in expectant waves that took her breath away. Moag and the prophecies swelled inside her, as Noel ran through the darkness. As usual, Moag surrounded him, seemingly everywhere at once, but he always went the same way, to a place that was formidable, toward a force that was insurmountable, his desire increasing with the quickening of his steps.

Isabella’s desire grew as well. This had to work. She had to see.

She hurried back to the table and took her place, exhilaration causing her heart to palpitate. Her thoughts flew from prophecy to prophecy, unable to capture any completely, though she knew them all in her heart. Which would it be? Which would he bring to her? She could hardly stand the flurry of sensations that coursed over and through her, disjointed, yet never-ending. It was as though the whole experience of humanity was attempting to exist through her single perspective, each on top of the next, interwoven in such a way that the threads of them were knotted and could hardly be traced. It was painful and gut-wrenching and beautiful, this tapestry of life the wanderer wove, so painfully, gut-wrenchingly beautiful that it was hard for Issa to fight the urge to rip at her flesh, but she clung to the chair, trusting order would come.

He would fulfill her.

The wanderer would show her.

“He must.”

Her body convulsed, as she held onto the edges of her seat, digging her nails into the wood, squeezing as tight as she could against the urge to run, the need to explode. It was not like this every time they connected. No, this time it felt as though Moag sensed what they would do and somehow anticipated it as much as the two of them. The frenzy would pass, she told herself. She had to wait it out. She had to be patient. But it was almost impossible to breathe against the onslaught. The Mardraim had no idea what this felt like, she thought. He had no idea of the relentless agony or the endless bliss. Tears spilled down her cheeks, but she dared not wipe them away, for fear she would lose herself to the cacophony of visions.

“…Energy of everything, the all, past, present and future…” she whispered, the words flying swift and wet from her lips. “…Blood drenched the lands… Flames coursed through… Air, black with the filth of… Essence of young ones…”

“Isabella!” the Mardraim said, rushing toward her as her body beat against the chair back. His eyes were wide in fearful shock. He wrapped his arms around her, trying to still her, but it was no use. The energy that ran through her was not of this world. “It will be over soon, child,” he whispered against her ear, holding her tight to him as she seized. “It will pass. Let it pass. Let the prophecy flow through you. Do not try to stop it.”

He had no idea, she thought, somewhere between that rapid succession of futures unfolding within, the wandering changes of life, violent and limitless inside her. No idea. No one knew.

At last, she felt Noel Loveridge standing at the precipice of the abyss and the darkness stretching itself toward him in longing. He hesitated.

Oh, he hesitated! No! “Release me,” Isabella’s voice stammered.

The Mardraim let her go. He must have thought she was talking to him, but she was talking to Ohamet, who held her back from the edge with all his strength.

In the distance, the wanderer reached out his hand, even as Isabella held out her own, as though they would touch, through Moag, but even as the elf’s fingertips met with the impenetrable deep, agony breached Isabella’s soul and heart and mind and flesh and bone, and she thought she would cry out against it, but as quickly as she opened her mouth, to allow the scream the freedom of her voice, relief washed over her.

In that relief, she opened her eyes and saw the horrible, perfect, mesmerizing truth, glorious, vicious, and human.

As the tension that constricted every muscle in her body fell loose, she went momentarily limp against the reality that surrounded her.

“What did you see?” the Mardraim whispered, panicked at her side, lifting her weakened body back into the chair.

She tried to speak, but her breath caught up her words. All of the other prophecies fell away, and this single truth, what would become of the world because of Noel Loveridge, affixed itself in her mind’s eye. “It was…” she panted, exhausted, though the encounter had lasted no more than a second. “They were…” A burning bile rose into her chest, but she swallowed it down. She tried to continue, to allow vision the use of her words, her breath, but before she could, she felt the elf speeding toward her once again.

“He comes,” she said, stumbling to her feet, catching herself on the edge of the table. “The wanderer comes, now, as before.”

Startled, the Mardraim looked back at the still open door. As Issa started away, struggling to put feet beneath herself, to go confront the man, the elder caught her arm. “You must stay here, young one. You cannot see him!”

“I must!” The Mardraim did not understand. It was not the wanderer she wished to see, but herself. Her mind raced from dizzying thought to dizzying thought, but the prophecy remained strong and true within her. She had to see the piece of her soul that was bound to Noel Loveridge. “My Mardraim…” she whimpered, twisting her wrist against the strength of his hand, knowing he had no idea.

“No,” the elder said, looking more fearful than she had ever seen anyone. “Young Isabella, you must stay here! I will go tell him you are well. He is merely frightened, as before. Please… Heed my warning, child. Do not go to him. Ever.”

Isabella nodded, but felt her brow knit together as the wanderer landed outside, his panic racing through her even as it raced through him. The mardraim ran for the door, hurrying outside, his hands raised. “You must go, Young Noel,” she heard him implore, as she crept to the window to peek through the shutters.

The Mardraim stood a few steps off the porch, his arms wide above his head in warning. No one was there—no, not no one. Noel Loveridge was there, in fact, stood right before the elder, though again he was invisible. She could feel him, full of trepidation.

But she was not there—the piece of her soul. Why? What had happened to her? Why could she not see the dim glow of herself with the wanderer as before?

“Edward, I need know,” Noel said, his voice trembling, his use of the High Elvish awkward and forced. “Edward, Issa feel such pain!”

Isabella gasped, not because this time the wanderer spoke in her own language, nor because he spoke her name, as Harvey would, as the mardraim himself might, as though with the affection of friendship and trust. No, she ran her hands over her neck and chest, then held her own arms tight, as if somehow this might reassure her of Noel Loveridge’s mistake, against the eerie sensation that he was right—she was in pain, or had been. Could this be true? Had he felt her? Had the elf somehow felt her pain through the darkness? Yes, she had no doubt of it! She could feel this within him, even as the Mardraim spoke, yet she was not in pain now. It had gone almost as soon as it started.

“She is well. You must take my word,” the elder answered, quiet but terse. He pointed up the path with two outstretched fingers, his old hand trembling. “Go, now, Ohamet. You cannot be here. You cannot see her. You must not see the prophecy.”

The prophecy, Isabella thought. Was that why the elf came? No. He was terrified, of that much she was certain.

“I know,” the man implored, his voice full of angst. “She hurt. She hurt, Edward! She hurt!”

How did he feel this? He was just an elf.

Issa hurried to the door. “Let him come see for himself,” she said, holding it wide for him.

“Issa, he must not—”

“I said let him come,” she demanded.

“The prophecy…” the Mardraim whispered, shaking his head, his kindly eyes grave with trouble.

“It is within me,” she answered. “It will wait. I cannot forget while we are connected, and I will not give this to him, as you said. Ohamet does not deserve to know the truth of what he has done.”

The Mardraim sighed, and let his hands fall to his sides. As the elder turned, Issa felt the wanderer hurry past him toward her, and she took an anxious step back from the door, as if to come too close to him in that moment might cause the entire earth to the shatter. The closer he came, the more she sensed of him, the more they stretched some boundary of existence, like together they violated some unwritten, universal law. He was on the steps and hurrying inside, before Issa could formulate a complete thought against the fluttering of her heart. Somehow he had felt her through their connection, though he was just an elf. He had truly felt her… or at least some part of her.

“What fahmat is this?” she asked, as the Mardraim entered as well, motioning for Isabella to sit at the table and shutting the door to the outside world, still shaking his head, his jaw set in disapproval. He wrung his hands, he was so concerned about the two of them being together. Why?

“Noel Loveridge is using the way of the Llendir,” the elder said. “This fahmat is called a Light Well. Young Noel, if you please…”

“I am sorry. I… intrude,” Noel muttered uncertainly.

A light flashed bright before Issa’s eyes, and the elf appeared with the wave of his hand, as if he threw aside an invisible curtain. Issa was not well trained in elfin magic herself, but Harvey, being of greater capacity than most, had been trained in everything, and the two of them often shared with each other what they learned at the mothers’ knees as young ones. Her friend had never shared this light well though. She was certain this magic was forbidden by the Ftdonya, and it was no wonder. If Issa had not been able to discern his presence through their connection, it would have been impossible to know that Noel Loveridge was present.

He was here, but where was the light of her own soul? What had he done with her?

Noel ran his hands over his face, then back through his hair. He could hardly stand still, he was so nervous. He watched Issa with a pained look in his eyes, as though what he saw of her and what he felt were two different things. They were kind eyes, caring she thought, looking away in disgust with herself for seeing anything good within him. He seemed at once grateful for the state in which he found her and yet as confused as she herself felt that he indeed found her this way, as it did not match the intense suffering he clung to within himself—a suffering that was definitely attributed to her. She had no idea the source of this feeling, but it was not her, exactly—at least it was not this fraction of her that existed within her own body. And it was not the part of her that was inside of him, either, as the soul of him searched outside of himself for reassurance, to make some sense of this divergence in ideas.

Issa could feel herself there in him.

“You…” He looked between Isabella and the Mardraim, as she took a hard seat in the chair farthest from this stranger she knew so well, wondering if what he felt was…

But surely that was impossible.

Her sitting seemed to confuse him even further, and he looked around her home, at the sparse furnishings, at the canvases and papers scattered about, ready to receive her work. “I intrude.” He smiled, a grievous smile, a smile that reached deep inside of her—a smile meant for her alone.

“No, stay,” Issa said, as he started for the door. She looked quickly away, ashamed of herself.

Noel stopped short, clearly uncertain what he should do, but Isabella was just as uncertain.

“We must record the prophecy, young one,” the Mardraim said quietly, placing himself between them, motioning Noel to the door. “He cannot be here. You have seen for yourself, she is unharmed, Ohamet. Go now, to your own work, so that we may do ours, for Om’s sake—for Hope’s sake.”

Noel took another step toward the door, and Issa stood, causing him to stop again. He looked at her with such warmth, impossible concern. No one knew such feelings in the entirety of the mountain, she thought, breathing against the rush of urgency the elf provided. What he felt of her, for her, was simply impossible. No one, not even an empath, could feel so much for another. Noel nodded, and in that moment, Issa felt his hand in hers. She looked down at her own fingers, where the energy of him mingled, somehow warm there, caught up in the heat of her, yet not. He smiled, somber, resolute, and without another word, he left, slamming the door behind him.

Isabella had never felt anything like it, like him, like his complete… In truth, she did not possess a word to describe what this part of the wanderer’s soul was. For quite some time she stood staring down at her fingers, dumbfounded by what she felt in Ohamet, Noel Loveridge, a simple elf, not at all possessed of some impressive power… for herself. It was not merely compassion. It was not merely fear. It was something far greater, as though it did not matter if he lost himself to it. This feeling was even greater than the desperation that drove him to their mountain in the first place. How could anyone feel so much for another?

“Young Isabella,” the Mardraim said quietly, startling her back to reality. He stood before her, concern in his eyes, on his breath. “The prophecy…”

And quite as suddenly as it had arisen in her, the sensation of Noel Loveridge was gone, and all that mattered was the prophecy of The Fragments of Divinity.

“The fire,” she said, her words steady and true. “It rained poison from the sky for days, but fear of the disaster took more lives than the disaster itself. The Cho do not understand the power they have unleashed in the world or the years of repercussions, both good and bad, for their failure to contain it. I will show you what they have done to divinity.  She is in the dust.”

Issa took up pencil and began to draw, her hand gliding in rapid strokes across the paper before her.

The Mardraim took his seat, to look on as Isabella Asan fulfilled her bond to Moag.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34

The Tale of Two Mountains– pt. 33

Three Wills

“You might have killed her with your foolishness,” came the mardraim’s voice from behind him, as Noel flew with violent speed for the exit.

He had a brief moment to slow and turn his head, before running smack into what was definitively a solid stone wall, coming to an abrupt and painful halt, and landing in a lump, in front of the doorway. As he rolled over, groaning and cradling his right shoulder, two Edwards came to stand over him, both looking rather more unpleasant than last they met, arms crossed over their chests, brows raised in accusation. Noel shook his head as he sat up, and the two mardraim’s became one.

“Argh, oof… I apology,” he moaned, uncertain of what happened, rubbing at his arm, squinting his eyes against the searing pain in his head. He reached up to search his hairline and found a tender lump, already growing on his scalp. Luckily, there was no blood. This reminded him of Isabella. “She is hurt? She is gone!” He hurried to his feet, turning for the door. Edward stood by and watched as he ran into the solid portal between the nowhere and the real world again, this time bouncing off.

“I believe Young Isabella should remain my concern, not yours, as you continuously put her in harm’s way,” the old man answered, without a hint of malice, as Noel pushed at the doorway in confusion. “What sort of person are you, who knowingly endangers another?”

“Knowing…?” At this, it occurred to Noel that the exit of the nowhere had been blocked for a reason. He looked at Edward, then at the door, flabbergasted. “Edward, I meant only to look at book on possession. To sleep was not… not my purpose. We must go now,” he added, waving an eager hand at the door. “Something is wrong with her. She is gone,” he repeated, thinking perhaps Edward simply didn’t understand him.

“Nothing is wrong with Young Isabella. As for you, one might come to wonder that your continued failure to think through your purpose before you act may be by design, so as to leave you the ability to say whatever comes as a result of your actions was never your intention, absolving you of responsibility for the consequences.” His voice was even. The look on his face was not anger, not at all, but rather disappointment, mingled with something akin to grief, as though Noel was a particularly naughty child, in need of a stern chastising, but the hope he might one day grow up to comprehend the disgusting nature of his very being and change his ways was so small, it was hardly worth the elder’s effort to provide the necessary correction. This was a great deal worse than anger, as far as Noel was concerned, which he supposed was rather the point.

What sort of person was he? He was the sort who wanted to argue, to further justify himself. After all, Edward was the one who had refused to test the wards, and Edward had not spoken to him in the days since he touched the Moag. But the more he considered his own onslaught of perfectly decent excuses for making hasty decisions and seemingly endless mistakes, the more he felt the red of embarrassment crawl up his neck, as he realized that Eward was mostly right about him. He rarely thought things through, but then maybe it was better he didn’t think because thinking about the ten thousand year old prophecy of the Last Hope was exactly what got him into this mess in the first place. Now, where was Isabella? What had happened to her? Did he even have the right to wonder, considering the elder had asked for time, to see if the woman might heal more before they tested the wards any further, when they didn’t know what would happen to her as a result? Noel had answered that call for patience, caution, and a modicum of self-control, by shoving his hand into the darkness, as if on a dare, then feeling sorry for himself for days while he waited around for the elder to come to him. When he finally got tired of waiting, he went and fell asleep behind the wards anyway, without a single concern for what might happen to Isabella Asan as a result.

Indeed, what sort of person was he?

Noel met the old man’s eyes, clenching his jaw in a grimace, bracing for what he deserved.

What came was hardly surprising, given Edward’s penchant for passivity. “Are you badly injured?” the elder asked, motioning for Noel to follow him, as he led the way across the room. He waggled two crooked fingers at the sofa, indicating Noel should sit, then hurried to the other side of the desk, upon which, Noel was surprised to find, sat several stacks of the sketches, which had hung on the walls of Isabella’s hut the previous night.

“No, Master Frank,” he answered quietly, nursing his shoulder and his pride. He imagined he would have a couple of fairly nasty bruises, but they were the least of his concerns. What had happened to her? Why had Edward brought the drawings here? “Edward… Isabella?” he asked slowly, slouching down into his usual spot on the arm of the sofa, attempting to look penitent.

“As you suspected, the wards have done her no physical harm,” the mardraim said, then pursed his lips and almost rolled his eyes, as Noel breathed a grateful sigh. “I have warded this place and left her in Young Harvey’s care for the morning, while you and I discuss what we are to do next. I have made you another golem, in your absence. Unfortunately, his stomach was turned by his morning meal, so he is resting and asked not to be disturbed, which means you will need to use a light well when leaving here, to make certain no one sees you.”

“Of course.”

With the immediate distractions out of the way, Edward sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together in contemplation. After a long moment, he said, “Now, Noel Loveridge, you must tell me everything. Begin with Moag. Leave no detail unexamined.”

The two sat for quite some time discussing all that had occurred since the night the mardraim refused to test the wards and Noel went and touched the Moag—well, almost all of it. Noel showed Edward his notebook of sketches and the map of the tunnels he had made so far, and he pointed out exactly where the path ended in the fork that couldn’t be explored, due to Moag’s concentration there. Noel explained about his sense of being drawn to that place—both his own desire to enter the darkness and his feeling of Isabella’s longing to continue in at that point as well, though he was certain there was a part of her who would have been happy if Noel went into Moag anywhere and got himself thoroughly lost (this made Edward chuckle). The elder prodded him for information about the physical attributes of Moag, exactly how long his hand was immersed in this dry mist that made up the darkness, what it felt like, how it reacted to his touch and seemed to have a will of its own, or at least possessed some force within it that drew it gently toward him when Noel was near, and of course, he wanted to know what Noel believed happened to Isabella as a result of his failure to weigh his own intents and purposes, before acting as most wanderers do, with willful negligence and reckless abandon. The elder himself, however, told Noel as little as possible.

Edward was only willing to give Noel what information he deemed necessary, which was not enough. He told Noel what Isabella felt, physically, when Noel touched Moag, how it had been briefly but intensely painful to her, and then how she felt Noel fly to her in a panic, and that she received a prophecy in the process. But as soon as Noel inquired about this prophecy— the meaning of what he had seen recorded in those drawings— Edward clammed up tight. Although the elder was unwilling to delve into the particulars, he did manage to get out of him that Isabella saw the prophecy clearly, not in the Veils, as the seers ordinarily received the prophecies of Om, but rather the actual event, a talent unheard of among the seers of today. And the woman’s case was made more peculiar by the fact she seemed to have seen the same prophecy from many perspectives at once—in fact, thousands of perspectives. According to Edward, she had only been able to record a few hundred of these images, before Noel went into the warded room upstairs and broke the connection between them.

“Th-thousands?” Noel stammered in wonder. He had not touched Moag for more than a second or two, before the woman was screaming in his head and he flew fast as he could to her, yet somehow, in that brief moment of contact, she saw the destiny of thousands? Edward may have wanted to dance around the subject of the prophecy, but Noel had seen several of the drawings. He tried to imagine how thousands of people drowning might be connected, but of course, it made no sense to him. Everyone dies eventually, and plenty of people drowned to death every year, probably even every day, but he thought surely few of them had much to do with one another. Why would Isabella need to see these things? Why had Moag shown her these people’s deaths, and not people who died in airplane crashes, of ebola, or by shark attack for example? Or were those next? Was Moag merely a predictor of death, as Edward posited days ago? The very idea of Isabella Asan sitting witness to the deaths of every person on earth filled Noel with dread. “How is it possible she see so much?”

The elder gave an uncertain shake of his head and halfhearted shrug of his shoulders. “We have ventured well outside the realm of what you or I might understand as possible, into something else. While you were first within Moag, Young Isabella claims to have seen the entirety of existence, from beginning to end, which I admit seemed as doubtful to me as to everyone, until I sat with her as she recorded this, working as quickly as she could, not stopping to eat or sleep, as though she could not document it fast enough. I only wish she had begun this work sooner and not waited for me to arrive the next morning.” He leaned forward and rested a hand on one of the stacks of drawings between them, the look in his eyes grave as he spoke. “I cannot begin to comprehend it, however if what she drew is any indication, and she truly saw this prophecy unfolding through the eyes of each of these people, instantaneously and simultaneously, in the very moment you touched Moag, it may be that she has indeed seen everything, as she claims, and if so, that she has seen it all in this same manner, at once and from every perspective.”

Noel cringed, drawing in a shallow breath through his teeth. “Edward, I went to Isabella’s last night. I see the drawings. I know they drown,” he whispered. Maybe they were all going to drown anyway. Maybe these weren’t changes he had made, after all. No. He knew better. What else could they be?

Edward let out a low moan and leaned back in his seat, looking grim. “I feared you would do so at some point. Young one, you must not go to her anymore. You must not attempt to understand what she sees. I am certain there is no one who will be helped by you knowing these things.”

“But I must know,” Noel said, hardly able to believe Edward could think otherwise, when he was the one who was so adamant they attempt to restore Om’s way, because of the changes Noel made. “I cause this change, somehow—these deaths. Edward, what do these people drowning have to do with me coming to mountain?”

“Truly, I have no idea how or even if it relates to you, beyond your entry into Moag,” Edward answered softly, a deep and telling pain in his eyes as he continued, “I am only sorry that you know as much as you do. It is important I tell you nothing more about these things, Young Noel. It is important you do not seek this knowledge. You must trust me. You cannot ever know these prophecies. I was mistaken to share with you what little I have.”

With that, Edward got to his feet and began piling the stacks. As Noel watched the elder begin tucking the pages into one of the drawers in the cabinets behind the desk, knowing the old man was only trying to protect him from his own culpability in all of this, his heart began to pound in his chest. Noel wanted desperately to be able to let it go, to pretend as though he could absolve himself of all of it, like Edward said before, to believe none of this was his responsibility because he hadn’t known any better—and he truly hadn’t. But he couldn’t unsee those faces. He couldn’t unhear Isabella’s cries or unfeel his fear for her.

“She… saw this… as these people?”

“Indeed,” the elder nodded, not looking back, as he took his time studying each drawing before putting them away. “Now, no more questions, young one.”

It must have been horrifying for her. No wonder he had felt such pain and terror in her, Noel thought, scrubbing his hands over his face. No wonder his head had filled with her screams the moment he touched Moag. She had witnessed the deaths of thousand—and there he had been feeling sorry for himself the whole time, as though what was happening to him, this possession, these feelings that were not his own, that he couldn’t control, were the worst possible punishment.

“Edward, I must tell you more,” Noel said quietly, swallowing against the brick of guilt that sat hard in his stomach. He waited for a moment, for Edward to turn to him, but when the old man kept to his work, Noel allowed the truth of the matter to spill out of him like a wave. “That night, before I touch Moag, I felt Isabella try to make me stop. I do anyway. It was wrong, I know. I was… anger… fear.” He had no idea what the word was for annoyed. “She want to go in before, I know. Something there is important. I no know what change her mind.”

Edward looked back perplexed. “You are certain you felt this? She tried to stop you?”

“Certain.” Noel was ashamed of himself. He had been ashamed of himself for this for days, but now it was worse, imagining what Isabella had gone through because of him. He had done this against her will. He knew it, and he had done it anyway.

For a long moment, the old man sat in silent contemplation. When he finally spoke, Noel could tell by the look on his face, he was not convinced by his own words. “Perhaps some part of her knew what would happen as a result?”

“No. The Isabella inside me no know prophecy. Only when I go to her hut last night and look into window, to see the drawings, she knew the drownings. Before? No.”

Edward laid the rest of the papers aside, got up from the ground, and retook his chair, looking worried. “She did not speak of this to me.” He seemed as confused as Noel, which Noel was fairly certain was not a good sign.

“Edward, you say she only feel pain a short time, but after I touch Moag, the Isabella inside me was… all fear, until the moment I land outside her hut and find her waiting there for me. She look at me like she see me through light well. She seem fine, not same as what I feel of her in me. I feel different… desires… in her. Separate thoughts in her. How?”

Edward’s brow grew heavy over his eyes. He leaned back in his seat, pulling his pipe from a drawer, taking a pinch of tobacco, and packing it in the bowl. He did not light it, but only sat deep in thought.

“Edward?” Noel whispered after several minutes. “What does this mean?”

“I do not know, Young Noel.” The elder forced a sad smile. “There is much I do not know. As concerns the prophecy, I assume she connected to Moag through you and was given clarity in this way, through her possession of you. Long ago, when the prophecies of Om flowed freely and with abundance, not alone within our mountain, but throughout the world, some Zhe saw like this, viewing entire prophecies, full of detail, yet it was a rare trait. A seer, who saw this way, never saw the same event from the perspective of more than one subject, as she has, and their visions often remained tied to a single subject throughout their lives, as though they were bound to them in some way, through Om. This has not happened in thousands of years.”

“Bound? Like possession? Like Isabella to me?”

“I do not believe so. They were lifetimes apart, and there is very little information on the matter, it was so long ago, but you must remember Young Isabella is different still, in many ways.” He lit his pipe and drew a long breath of smoke before adding, “What she sees has come through Moag, through you. What you feel of her, these differences, perhaps it is due to some form of empathy with herself, an understanding that passes through you to her and back again, though this is not an effect of possession, as far as I know. I cannot say for certain. I wish I could.”

“What we do next?” Noel asked, hoping Edward would at least have some answers.

“Clearly, we need to know all of the changes you brought forth from Moag, but some of those changes might be truly devastating to you and would only serve to bring you guilt and shame, which will do neither you nor Young Isabella any good, considering the enormity of the task before us. You must understand this and agree not to pursue the prophecies for yourself.”

“I need know the prophecies,” Noel insisted. He had a right to know about these changes he caused—an obligation to his own people, at the very least. And he wanted to understand them, to change them still, if he could. “I see the portraits… the drownings. If I cause these things, I must know how. Master Frank, I must stop them.” Even as he said the words, he realized how true it was. He had to make this right. He doubted anyone else could.

The mardraim was silent once again. His kind eyes were heavy with concern, even as he gave a grave, smiling nod, considering Noel, as though he knew the root of Noel’s soul, and expected nothing less of him. “This is the very point, Ohamet,” he answered at last, stressing the name. “You are rash in your decisions. We do not know how you have made these changes, and only by studying them can we hope to find a way of undoing what you have done, restoring the path of Om for everyone, meanwhile doing our best to make certain any future changes you may affect will not make matters worse. You cannot be allowed to know the meaning of the prophecies, for your own protection and for the sake of everyone else in this world. Please, Noel Loveridge, trust me. It must be this way. You must vow.”

Again, Edward was calling for caution, knowing full well the only caution Noel seemed capable of exercising was the sort where he willfully served as the prime example of precisely what not to do, in the event one decides to go chasing after the designs of fate. It had been easier not to care about these changes before, when all of the things Isabella told the mardraim were fragments of truths that made no sense, when Noel had no way of knowing what her ramblings meant. Things were different now. Noel had seen the faces of the dying himself. He did not know how or why, but he would be responsible these deaths because he went into the Dreaming and then entered Moag in search of the Last Hope. His heart ached in a way he had never imagined possible. “And the wards?” he asked, unable to keep the grief from his voice, as his vision blurred with the beginnings of the tears.

“Young Isabella does not wish you to use them,” the elder said quietly, shaking his head.

Noel quickly rubbed the wet from his eyes and began, “But Edward, you said—” but the mardraim held up his hands, stopping him short.

“You misunderstand me,” the old man answered quickly. “They do not harm her physically, but spiritually they are too much for her to bear at length, however necessary they may be.”

“You agree they are necessary?”

“Of course they are necessary, which is why Young Isabella has agreed to their controlled use, at times designated by me, but you must know that they not only sever her tie to you, but also to Moag. While you are warded, she cannot remember any of the things she has foreseen. With Moag gone, her mind is much clearer, to the point we had a lengthy conversation, not once interrupted by the hysteria or loss of focus she has suffered since your arrival.”

“This is good,” Noel answered gratefully, his breath catching up in his words and falling off into a small chuckle. Finally, there was something positive to look to, something to hope for. He could help her. He might not be able to do anything else, but at least he could do something good for Isabella.

“Yes, it would seem so,” Edward answered, though he still looked quite pained as he added, “however since it is out of her control, it causes her tremendous sadness. If it were up to Young Isabella, her connection through you to Moag and the prophecies would be maintained constantly—like it is when you are touching Moag, like it has been these few days, when she could recreate what she saw with such detail that anyone who views her work will know the suffering of the damned. When you are warded, this connection is ripped from her, leaving her mind, which is already stretched to its limits when she is in connection, almost vacant. The effect is devastating to her, Young Noel. It frightens her that one moment she can remember so much, and the next you have the power to take it all away, without so much as a thought for her.”

“She desires to see these things?” Noel asked, nodding over the mardraim’s shoulder, at the drawer where he was filing away the faces of those damned. Noel supposed he could understand that it being out of her control was frustrating, as Noel himself didn’t care much for the times the woman exerted even as small force over him, but he couldn’t imagine preferring to know such horrors, much less actually living them in some way. It didn’t make any sense to him that anyone would wish for this.

“Her life has been spent seeing and knowing the path of Om, Young Noel,” the elder answered patiently. “She only wishes to be instrumental in restoring that path, if at all possible. As do we all, or have you changed your mind?” Edward eyed him suspiciously over the pipe in his hand.

“No,” Noel whispered. If the images of the drowning had done anything it was to assure Noel knew the changes he had caused in coming to the mountain could not be ignored. And he was more certain now than ever that he was likely the reason the prophecy of the Last Hope could not be read, so he had little choice but to continue in their work. “No, we must do what we can.”

In the end, it was decided that Noel would return to the library twice each day, in order to give Isabella time in this disconnection, through the wards, so that she might retain some semblance of her sanity, have time to be with her friends and family and the opportunity to take care of her own needs, in the hopes that perhaps this would serve to heal some of the chaos she felt while under Noel’s influence. She might not like or appreciate this at first, but it was for the best. This was why Edward had warded the nowhere and locked Noel inside, to give the woman time to herself, to recuperate from her work, even though it was not what she wanted. Once in the afternoons, after Noel and Harvey were finished with their meetings for the day, and then again at night, when it was time for the villagers to sleep, Noel would return to the hold and allow Isabella her respite.

In the meantime, he was to continue searching the tunnels, recording what he found there, and documenting any changes to Moag or Isabella he might notice. And when the time came that Edward thought it was appropriate, Noel would return to the place where he felt this deeper connection to Moag—this place he and Isabella were both drawn to by the darkness—and there he would do just as before, touching Moag, only for a moment, so that Isabella would hopefully see another complete prophecy and be able to record it in its fullness. For several days after this Noel was not to return to the mardraim’s keep at all, so that Isabella’s connection to Moag and the prophecy would remain stable. Again, Edward would tell them when it was time for Noel to return to the wards, to sever the connection between himself and Isabella, at which point they would resume the schedule of allowing her time to restore her energy and regain her balance each day.

“Edward…” Noel offered uneasily, in the end.

“It is the only way, Young Noel,” the old man said gently. “It is the only way we can know for certain what you have changed. Otherwise, all she can give us are fragments we could never hope to piece together. The next time you make this connection with Moag for her, I will be there with Young Isabella, to witness exactly what happens to her, to make certain there are no detrimental effects. By this you will have peace of mind for her sake. I give you my word.”

Reluctantly, Noel nodded. He understood, but it left a foul taste in his mouth, and because he was warded, he couldn’t even guess how Isabella might truly feel about the Mardraim’s grand scheme.

“Noel Loveridge, you must not attempt to know the prophecies for yourself,” the elder added in warning.

Noel could not make that promise.

Somehow, he and Isabella Asan had managed to become Master Frank’s science experiment. Noel was used to this, being a lab rat for the scholars, but these were dangerous forces they were playing with, forces none of them understood, and he couldn’t help feeling the mardraim was making suppositions that affected everyone’s lives and that it didn’t really matter to the elder what happened to his curious specimens as a result, so long as they managed to right the path of Om. Of course, Noel didn’t disagree, after all, if he was responsible for destroying the Last Hope prophecy, which he assumed he was, he would give anything to make it right again, even his own life, he thought, but he had no idea if the Last Hope prophecy was even a true prophecy, and if so, he had no clue what the thing actually meant. Deep in his gut, he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if it turned out the path of Om was not the right path for him and his people? What if this had all happened for a reason? What if every time he made a mistake, someone else drowned?

At least, he told himself, this was a way forward, but he could not give his word about the prophecies.

On the fifth day of following this new schedule, Harvey Frank leaned in over their noon meals. “I cannot explain it,” he added conspiratorially. Harvey and Noel had gone to the Frank village for lunch, as had become their custom, so Noel could practice immersion in the language of the Danguin, but today the man had so much to say, he said it all in old Elvish, and in whispers, so low no one else would hear. “Each day, I go to see her, expecting the worst, but it is… What is your word for what cannot possibly be but is?”

“In English, we call this a miracle,” Noel answered uneasily. “I no know word in old language.”

Every day it was the same. From the time Noel woke in the morning until after lunch, Harvey and he were together, in the required study. When they parted ways, Harvey went straight to Isabella’s, to check in on her, while Noel went off to the mardraim’s library, to wait behind the wards. Noel knew how deeply Isabella and Harvey cared for one another. Harvey talked so often of her these days, Noel couldn’t help feeling like he had missed out on the chance to know the woman as she really was—the woman who wasn’t driven to insanity in turns by Moag and Noel, himself. It was good to hear she continued to improve, sort of.

“Miracle,” Harvey repeated, grinning. “We have no suitable word for this, as Om provides the way, but since you arrived, I have found, time and again, we require such a word, as more is brought forth to confuse even Om.”

“She is happy?” Noel asked, trying hard not to seem overly interested. He and Harvey were both aware of the strange connection that had happened between them, the day Isabella awoke. Neither of them had spoken of it since, perhaps because even in the mountain real men didn’t speak of such things, or perhaps because neither of them could explain what had happened, so it was best to try not to remember, when there were more important things to worry about. Until the day Noel was called to Fkat, as Isabella lay comatose, he’d had a curious sense of her within him, a nagging sort of ache that existed even though the woman rested, completely helpless. But when the felimi called on him, to answer their questions about what brought him to the mountain, and Noel went behind the wards for the first time, the Isabella Asan, who possessed him, disappeared. It was not until Harvey later followed him down to the river and rested his hand on Noel’s shoulder in sympathy, and Noel reached up and touched the man’s hand in gratitude, that both of them received something like an electric shock, and in that moment they knew Isabella was awake, terribly hurt, and frightened. They both felt the urgency to go to her. No words were necessary.

“Issa is well—sad, but well,” Harvey answered quickly. “In recent days, she has been present in a way she had not been present since your arrival. This relief only lasts a few hours, at most, and then the misery returns to her, the talking senselessly, the loss of sequence and time, the absences of being. But she is healthier than before, that is certain. The color has returned to her cheeks, and she is bathing daily. I do not wish to leave her side, yet it is difficult to stay and watch as she turns again, and then it becomes impossible to stay, no matter how I wish to, because I have duties to which I must attend. There is no explanation for this change… is there?” Harvey added this last bit, with a curious pause and an uptick in his tone.

Noel looked up to find the man was staring at him, eyes wide, as though he’d been shocked again.

Guilt crawled across Noel’s flesh. Of course there was an explanation, though it wasn’t at all reasonable or rational, not that anything that had happened lately was terribly reasonable or rational. But was Harvey actually suggesting Noel should know the answer to that question? And if so, how could Noel say to him that his Issa was better during those few hours a day, sad but well, because Noel was locked up in the mardraim’s secret keep full of books and inventions, behind the wards he didn’t understand, so her possession of him and connection to Moag could be temporarily broken and she could rest and have a laugh with her old friend, so they should both take advantage of it, while it lasted, because he didn’t have any idea when it would end? He had sworn to Edward he wouldn’t tell Harvey anything of their work together, and he had been warned never to mention Isabella’s possession of him to anyone because the fahmat was forbidden, but the reality was Harvey knew—Harvey had to know Noel and Isabella shared some kind of bond because he had felt it within Noel the day she awoke and they both went hurrying to her side, to tell her Harvey was still alive.

“No,” Noel answered, stupidly. “No.” There was a better answer, surely— one that wasn’t an outright lie. He thought of one almost immediately, but he had already committed to the falsehood. “This is how she heals.” He took a cautious bite and tried not to look as foolish as he felt.

“At the same time each day? This seems to be too much a miracle,” Harvey laughed, but almost immediately his face fell back into confusion. “And only to return to her previous disturbances? There is no sense to it. It defies logic.”

Noel frowned, but Harvey seemed not to notice, as he had turned his attention to his own bowl of grains, shifting awkwardly in his seat.

Each afternoon, Noel had left his noon meal with Harvey Frank and returned to the mardraim’s hold, returned to his study of the wards because, despite what he and Edward had agreed to, he knew eventually he would have to ward himself for good, for Isabella’s benefit, if not for his own. That first day had been easy enough, but the second day Noel’s heart burned when Harvey spoke of Isabella laughing with him, for the first time since before Noel came to the mountain. He couldn’t say exactly why he reacted so viscerally to the man’s description of their time together, after all, Isabella Asan had basically ruined Noel’s life (not to mention her own) by saving it, but he could not help this feeling that she should always laugh at Harvey, with Harvey, because of Harvey, and he stood firmly in the way of that through this possession nonsense. Maybe it was that tiny piece of her that was within him. Maybe he was just becoming more obsessed with her, as the mardraim had warned would happen. Or perhaps he had legitimately grown to care for the woman’s wellbeing, in his own selfish way. No matter the cause, the wards seemed to him the only answer.

The book on possession had been no help on that front, so he’d spent hours scouring the keep for the place where Edward had made the new ward inscriptions, hoping they would narrow down which wards he needed in order to sever the possession or at least provide some clue as to how the wards worked. He expected to find the markings somewhere near the door to the nowhere, and with that sort of thinking, it was really no wonder he struggled so long to find them. It took a while to figure out that everywhere he thought to look was utterly wrong and he’d been foolish to attempt to find them in the first place because the wards Edward placed on the nowhere were not outwardly visible, either inside of the nowhere or outside of the nowhere, neither around the door that wasn’t actually a door, nor surrounding the fissure in the wall outside, which acted as some sort of gateway into that place of nonexistence. When he finally remembered what Edward told him about the construct of a wizarding nowhere itself, Noel realize the location of the wards was obvious and so splendidly elegant, he laid down on the couch and laughed himself to sleep, which gave Harvey and Isabella a bit more time together than should have happened the day before, according to the mardraim’s schedule, but as far as he was concerned the schedule could burn in hell because Edward was smart, Edward was cunning, Edward was a cheeky old bastard. Noel realized the newly placed wards had to be built into the construct of the nowhere itself, which was in fact nowhere, so he was never going to find them, because when he was in that place, the wards were part of what made the very place possible, and when he was out of that place, the place ceased to exist altogether. Which meant this particular evening, he would surely be back to searching for books.

“I have missed her more than I could have imagined missing anyone,” Harvey said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, talking to his cereal as though men did not discuss these things either—and in the mountain, Noel suspected they didn’t—they likely never thought to, as their brand of feelings for each other were quite a bit different from anyone Noel had ever met. The Danguin people were strange in their customs and even stranger in their seeming aloofness despite their interconnectivity. They were growing on Noel, especially Harvey. “I know I should be grateful. I know it should be enough,” the man added.

Noel sighed. Yes, Harvey was indeed asking Noel if he had something to do with Isabella’s improvements of late, but not because he was suspicious of Noel. If Noel understood him correctly, by the man’s careful tone and demeanor, Harvey was asking if Noel might somehow guarantee him and Isabella more of this quality time together. Noel wanted to tell him yes, but Isabella stopped him. He wanted to tell him the truth, but he knew she would not want that. So Noel settled for saying, “It is difficult to be grateful at times.”

Very difficult, especially since Noel knew Edward would come soon and tell him to return to Moag. What would Harvey say when his friend had no peace anymore, as she began manically recreating prophecies for the mardraim, while Noel avoided the wards altogether, to assure the woman’s clarity in her foresight? It hardly seemed fair, but what could he do?

That very evening, Noel was on the 26th floor of the mardraim’s library, pulling random books off the shelf, once again looking for wards or any other hint or symbol of fairy magic, when Edward came to him and told him it was time.

Time. Time to venture into the dark, carefully guarding his way, until he reached the point of no return. Time to reach out and touch the Moag and force Isabella into the prophetic clarity the old man claimed she wanted. Edward said to wait ten minutes, to allow him to return to Isabella’s hut, so he could be there when Noel performed this wretched work, to see what affect the connection actually had on the woman. Noel nodded and put the book, he had been mindlessly flipping through, back on its shelf. “You are certain?” he asked, aware of the apprehension in his voice.

“She is prepared,” the elder assured him. “She is grateful.”

Grateful, Noel thought, his mind rushing to Harvey, as he flew down to the ground floor. Would Harvey Frank be grateful for what Noel was about to do?

An immense anxiety swelled within him, the moment he left the reverie of keep and the wards and headed off into the darkness, his notebook tucked under his arm. If it had been any other time, he would have kept the book open, to study his work and make certain Moag had remained mostly stable, since the last time he was there, but he had returned to that place so often the past few days, now he simply allowed the darkness to compel him forward, the path ingrained in the movements of his muscles, his need, Isabella’s need, guiding each step.

While he was not behind the wards, Edward had told him to continue exploring the tunnels, which he did, but with little enthusiasm. The old man clearly didn’t understand the gravity with which Noel was drawn to that place where Moag took on the physical attributes of an opaque fog that hung heavy in the air. He had tried to stay away, tried to concentrate his efforts on the many other branches of darkness that wove through the depths of the mountain, but he always wound up returning to the place where something much greater—than the desire to turn for home, than the desire to hide behind the wards, much greater, even, than his desire to understand the changes he had somehow brought forth from the darkness, in the form of prophecies of gloom and doom— called to him like the longing of a lover’s ghost.

The importance grew within him with every step.

That was the part that made him so anxious, he thought—the nameless desire in him that only increased the closer he drew to that place where the darkness was utterly complete. The hairs on his arms and neck stood, as he drew near, and the desire he could not explain rose inside him like an endless wave, the desire that seemed to stretch back through the ages, unfathomable and infinite. There was something down there. Something meant for him. Perhaps another change. Hopefully not a deadly one, he thought, swallowing against the racing of his heart. Destiny beckoned him.

But that was insane, he thought, as he footsteps quickened.

Except, Isabella felt it too.

That was another thing he had learned recently. Utilizing the wards to break the connection between him and Isabella Asan was like exercising a muscle he hadn’t known existed. Each time he left the mardraim’s library and the connection between the woman and he returned, it came with a force that made his insides ache. It was not as though he could hear her voice inside his head—that only happened when she was frightened. But Noel’s sense of what she wanted from him was growing stronger. Her will, or rather her wills, only grew.

What did the real Isabella feel as Noel ventured closer to the heart of Moag? He could not say for certain. There was, of course, her usual yearning for him to hurry into the deep, but as Noel’s understanding of the woman increased, he began to sense three divergent intentions within her.

One felt like admitting defeat. He couldn’t define it in words, but he could equate this feeling to his own sense, in the beginning of this endeavor, that perhaps Hope had ceased to exist altogether or had never existed and to wait any longer, lingering in that Hope, would only do more harm than good. He had no idea what the woman was relinquishing herself to, but feeling this uselessness as it belonged to someone else was difficult. To follow that feeling into the darkness felt like the end, for her. Every time Noel felt this, he found himself wanting to turn right around and fly to her hut, like she needed him to talk sense into her, never mind the fact she clearly despised him.

Another of her reasons felt something like victory, though it was bittersweet. This, he thought, was related to the prophecies, but only because to him it seemed like coming closer to the truth. The feeling wasn’t quite the same, but in a way it resembled what he felt like during his walk in Dreamtime. It felt like knowing.

Her final reason he could not discern. It existed somewhere he could not touch. It felt as far away from him as the destiny that called him to Moag.

As the grim shade deepened around them, and he reached their destination, Noel’s pulse quickened with ideas of what might be awaiting him there—answers, Hope— and he felt the woman’s rage shoot through him with warning.

“What now?” he asked impatiently, though he knew he only ever heard her voice when she was suffering. At least she was not suffering, he thought—not yet.

He swallowed back the fearful thought of her screaming in his head, raising his fingers to the surface of Moag, its blackness so vast it seemed to shine with the echo of eternity. Ignoring the renewed urgency with which Isabella willed him to continue into the depths and his own increasing ache for whatever might be down there, he concentrated on the fury with which she met him there, as if to try and appease her.

Of course he would not go in, he thought. He couldn’t. His longing had to be some trick of Moag, like the things he had seen and heard in it before. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the Dreaming, showing him the way? What if whatever was down there would bring back all of their broken prophecies—and restore Hope?

“What if it could fix you?” he asked her.

No.

The word came, not as a sound in his brain, but as a constriction in his chest that made it difficult to breathe. Isabella was growing stronger within him every day. He couldn’t help but wonder just how long he had before he started losing all control, but the question made him angry and afraid all at once, and the intensity with which she held him, transfixed in that moment, increased until he could feel the pressure of her all around him, trying desperately to force him away from the darkness. It made no sense. She wanted to go in, yet she wanted him to stay away, and yet there was something in there, deep in the darkness that was vastly important to her?

Surely it had been longer than ten minutes, Noel thought, contorting his neck against the discomfort of Isabella’s ethereal fist, clenching him, demanding his focus. “The Mardraim is waiting. You are waiting, grateful for prophecy, remember?” he whispered, watching intently as the darkness crept toward his fingers. “Don’t worry. I’ll try not to let it hurt you this time.”

Isabella loosened her grip, even as Noel wondered if he could possibly make good on such bold promises. He wanted to be able. Truly. But as he plunged his hand into the darkness, her voice ripped through him. Her agony became his own.

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 32

Salvation

Stillness consumed her, a moment devoid of continuity, vacant and lingering. The air around her rung out, with the solemn whispers of night, once comforting in their near silence, now startling, as they were all she sensed.

Noel Loveridge was gone.

Issa looked up from her painting, searching the mountain in every direction.

She was alone—more alone than she had ever known possible.

Throat constricting, she looked back at the work lying on the ground before her, a swirl of muddied waters ripping at the earth, washing the world away… utterly unfamiliar.

She was reminded, in a way, of the night she spent in Moag, of the strange vision that came to her as a dream, in which she drowned herself in the waters of Om, called up from the Well of Fate by the wanderer. Yet this was not what she had been painting—this work represented something at once far greater and far worse. But she could not remember. She had seen it in its fullness, understood its completion in the very depths of her, held the context of it perfectly within her mind. It was a terrible, unfathomable event, yet it had disappeared from her head, as though a light that had shined so brightly upon it, for a hundred million years or more, had suddenly gone out, leaving her blind.

Now there was only her, in all of existence—her and stillness, waiting… Waiting, expectant.

Her eyes teared, as she looked around at the hundreds of drawings hung on the walls, faces staring down at her, grief-stricken and agonizing, reflecting the turmoil that swelled beneath her surface. They were strangers to her, yet only a moment ago these people had been kindred, their paths dear, as though she had walked in their footsteps, loved with the longing of their hearts, thought with the realization of their minds. Now they were as shadows someone else imagined.

She had drawn them all, she knew. How long must she have been working to have drawn so many, and why could she not remember them as before?

Where had Ohamet gone?

… And where were Moag and the prophecies?

She had forgotten everything.

Her breath came in shallow waves, as fear mounted and she tried to recall the last thing she knew before the wanderer vanished, blinking against a blur of disjointed thoughts, none of them relevant to the next, all fleeting, none to do with understanding. The Mardraim tacking portraits to the walls… The paint and dirt on her gown… The flash of her hand working confident layers of color onto the canvas… Yes, she remembered working, yet even in those moments of presence, as she recorded the prophecy, it seemed she’d had no recollection of what this prophecy meant. All memory of her understanding of the prophecy was gone. Not this one alone, but all of them—the whole of the universe, as fractured and disordered and confusing as it had been—dissipated into nothingness, as though they had never existed. Yet, they had consumed her every waking moment, forcing her to the brink of insanity.

Her hands shook, as she tried to get her baring inside herself. Hardly a minute ago, she had known—known with all certainty—exactly what these waters meant, exactly who these faces belonged to, the very nature of their entire existence. She had known, in a way Om had never revealed to anyone… Unless she had not actually known… If the knowledge was temporary, never hers—outside of herself.

She shut her eyes against the sick feeling in her stomach and tried to piece together the pieces of Noel in her mind. He had come to the window. She knew he was there, and he left as soon as he saw her work and realized his wanderings would cause this…

This drowning, she thought, pressing her hands into the wet paint, crumpling the canvas under her fingers, her brow drawing painfully low, because she knew that word belonged not to her own mind, but to the elf. What she felt of him was unlike anything in empathy. She had felt the pain of this realization rise in him. Until he saw her work, he had not known the prophecy at all.

He left quickly and went back to the tunnels, to the place where he goes each night in secret, to work. She recalled the feel of him, his frustration, his animosity, his determination, his fear, his attempt to understand—she did not know what. In truth, she had not cared to know, though she might have. It seemed at times she could know him as completely as she knew herself, if she wanted, but he was always there, always calling her away, the only person she felt anymore—a nuisance.

She remembered wondering if he would return soon to Moag, to bring out another prophecy for her to examine. This idea had given her immense pleasure, which was curiously cut short, as though she had fallen asleep mid-thought. Then the wanderer disappeared, snuffed out of existence, and with him everything else, like he was the very light of a hundred million years, illuminating the darkness for her to see.

“How?” Issa whispered, the flurry of emotions running through her with such swiftness she could hardly feel them all, much less name them. “Why?”

A paper rustled behind her, and she turned to find the Mardraim sitting at the table, having just laid his own work aside. “Are you unwell, young one?” her elder asked, looking worried.

Issa had no idea how long he had been there. She remembered waiting for him to arrive, though it felt like several days had passed since she counted the marks on the floor—the number of prophecies she had given him, broken. Only this one was whole—precious. Or it had been. Her mind had been such a shambles, never still. Until now.

She looked down at herself, covered in dirt and paint and muck.

“I—” she began, but shook her head, swallowing the violent panic that stirred, like sands whipping across the face of the desert.

This was not the first time she was realizing the state of herself. Brief flashes of shame, temporary glimpses of her own consciousness, flooded her mind. There was blood, attempts to heal wounds she simply reopened in anger and anxiousness and inability to still herself against the turmoil inside her. Harvey looked at her with such remorse. He wanted her to control herself but knew she could not. She disappointed him. She was like a wild beast pulling against the invisible chains ruled by Noel Loveridge.

All she had wanted was to record the prophecy from Moag, to prove herself useful again. She had been so grateful to have a purpose to serve, nothing else mattered. Where had Noel gone? She needed him.

Fury rose within.

“Something is wrong, Issa?” the Mardraim whispered uncertainly.

Acutely aware of the pressure growing in her chest and stomach and ears, Isabella closed her eyes tight, pressing her lips firmly together, to stop herself exploding, as her heart thundered at the idea she needed anything from Noel Loveridge— the elf who had ruined her, who seemed incapable of ceasing his ruin of her, at every turn. It was horrible enough that after striking her down from Om and all she had ever known and hoped for— all she had once been meant to be— he saved her life, only for her to be confounded by incomplete pieces of Moag and the incomprehensible unfolding of every matter and form of the universe. Terrible enough that he had done whatever he had done to cause her to see this now missing prophecy so clearly, mortifying in it’s own right that she had derived even a momentary joy from that clarity. But that he was somehow the very key to her new-found purpose, that he was the tie that bound her mind to Moag, Noel, the very thing she needed in order to know—to understand— and that he could take it all away, at any given moment, was too much to bear.

Does he know how he torments me? Why? What did I do to deserve this? I have been good, haven’t I? I have been good!

“I have been good,” she whispered, desperate, the words almost breaking her, less because of her circumstances, and more because as she spoke them she knew she spoke directly to Om, yet Om had nothing left for her. Her whole body trembling, she held onto her arms to try and stop it, but it was no use.

“You are concerned, young one,” the Mardraim spoke softly, gentle eyes searching her as he stood, leaning forward with his hands against the table. He looked at her strangely, as though he barely saw her. The look made her uncomfortable.

She turned away from his curious gaze, attempting to occlude herself, ashamed of her animosity and at the same time emboldened by the rawness of it, determined to cling to it because it was better than the fear that mounted inside her with every second that passed. But even as the old man hurried to her side and knelt down, she realized a loss far more tragic than her loss of understanding of Moag or even her loss of a path through Om—another absence apparent in the still ruins of her, left behind by the wanderer.

Her stomach jolted violently, as she tried again and again to conceal herself, to no avail. She could no longer perform the fahmat—a magic she had mastered when she was but a youngling. It was as though her innate talents had altogether disappeared, along with the wanderer, Moag, Om, and all the rest.

The elder, no doubt sensing this within her, answered with a mournful shrug, shaking his head as he took her by the shoulders, turning her toward him, and spoke candidly, “We are not yet certain the extent to which your abilities have been affected.”

“No,” she whispered, a coarseness to her voice. Though the night air was warm, a cold set in, deep in her bones, causing her teeth to chatter.

The mardraim began to rub her upper arms, offering, “Your empathy flourishes periodically and fades over the span of a few hours at a time, with long stretches in between. We cannot yet say what causes these fluctuations or predict their timing. You have not noticed, until now. This is the first time you have attempted occlusion since you woke.”

The look on his face was foreign to her. Issa had never seen anyone look so grave, never known anyone with a cause to look such a way. Her insides felt like they would rupture and overwhelm the world with sorrow if she tried to speak, so she nodded for him to continue.

“You were tested for foresight, that first day, but you were unable to see the Veils. However, it may be that this ability will ebb and flow, as well. I expect we will know in time. It has been better not to bother you with such things, in your… condition. This is not the time for occluding oneself, Issa,” he added painfully low. “We have great work to do.”

He looked down at the ruined painting. His face was heartrending.

“No. No,” she breathed, swaying against the pain, not wanting to be known in this wretched state, searching deep within herself for even a shred of the talents she had once possessed—talents she had possessed in such abundance that she had been destined to be Mdrai, to counsel her people, to receive and record the truth of Om’s way.

What she discovered within herself offered only more grief. Where Isabella could once feel her own fullness of being, her verve filling her vessel to overflowing, she was now no more than a hallow shell, with barely a remnant of her former self huddled within, like some sickly shade, weak and withered, attempting to hide from the light of her introspection. She shuddered against her own lack of substance.

It was a long minute before the Mardraim spoke again. “Issa, I am sorry to intrude on what you do not wish me to sense in you,” the elder offered painfully, shifting to sit cross-legged on the floor before her. “My only desire is to help you to help us understand. Please, will you explain to me what has happened to distress you, so we may attempt to make sense of this together?”

She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.

“Noel Loveridge is gone,” she whispered, attempting to hold back the tide within, but the whisper became a spillway of tears. “He is gone, and the prophecies are gone! I am empty, half-starved for air and light! What has become of me, my Mardraim? What am I to do? Ohamet has taken everything away, so I cannot think— cannot feel— without him, yet with him I have such chaos, I do not even know my own mind, except in brief interludes! No! No! I hate him for this! I cannot bring myself to be ashamed for it! I hate him, with all that I am—what little is left of me! I do not want him! I despise him, yet it is clear now, I must have him because without him I may as well cease to exist altogether!”

In anguish, she moaned, grabbing fistfuls of her gown, wrenching them into her belly against the ache of her desolation, and collapsed against the floor to weep, in a way no one else in that mountain had ever wept before. The Mardraim ran a fatherly hand over her head while she sobbed, disgusted at her own disgust—disgusted that she must be disgusted, as there was nothing else to be. The most horrible part was knowing she had felt this all along, yet her mind had been constantly besieged by Noel Loveridge and prophecies, half remembered, and a longing ache for Moag. There had been so little room for Isabella herself, she felt she was suffocating under the weight of the universe, and perhaps she had been. Now it was gone, she should have felt relieved, but the weight of that emptiness was much worse, for knowing none of it had been hers to begin with. Understanding that full prophecy had given her hope. She had been proud to exist in that state, hardly herself anymore, filthy, mindless, a disappointment to her friend, little better than an animal, because she had purpose once again.

None of it had belonged to her.

The elder did not try to convince her that what she said was untrue, though a part of her desperately wished he would—that perhaps he could make her believe something good might come of this new turn, if only she were patient a bit longer. In truth, they both knew her fragility in that moment. The elder had known it all along. Isabella had only just realized its significance. Her life was no longer her own.

“Issa, I believe it is time I tell you what I know of Possession,” the mardraim said quietly.

“Possession?” she sniffed, unable to muster the strength to meet his eyes. She wanted to disappear into the earth forever.

“The magic you inadvertently used when you saved Young Noel’s life— the magic you speak of when you accuse the wanderer of having taken a piece of your soul.” He sighed at length, and she felt him shift beside her.

“For many reasons, possession has long been a forbidden fahmat of our people,” he began, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. “The act itself is a matter of fracturing the souls, of both of the person one wishes to possess and the possessor himself, in order to exchange a minute fragment, through the Breath of Light, the very force that enables life as we know it. This is a force our people once used with flagrance and frivolity, though we have been incapable now for a hundred millenniums, for reasons I cannot explain. Somehow, in this one brief encounter with the Noel Loveridge, though it should not have been possible, you managed to harness the Breath of Light and  utilize it to bring him back to life.

“Ordinarily, the exchanging of soul fragments allows the possessor to grow and exert a certain control over his possession, which increases with time, until the victim is completely given over to the possessor’s will,” he continued. “Possession has a long and sordid history of use in cases of unrequited love, though there are far more malicious inventions for the magic involving forced servitude and other heinous acts we have no need to discuss at this time. Suffice it to say, nothing good ever came from possession, so it was forbidden, and when our people lost the ability to use the Breath of Light itself, it was believed the fahmat was lost to us forever. We would be better off, if it had remained so, as the act of possession is irreversible, and it never ends well, for either possessor or possession.”

Isabella looked up at last, intent on asking the honest question: what could she expect as an end to this madness and how long it might take to reach its culmination, as even an inevitably bad ending had to be better than her current predicament? But she found the elder was not looking back at her. Instead, he was staring off, in the direction of the the very place Issa knew Noel Loveridge had been, only moments before his disappearance. This may have been coincidence, but she felt sure the Mardraim knew where the wanderer had gone, and for a moment she considered asking if he could still feel the elf’s presence, until he turned his face toward her at last and gave a morose and teary-eyed smile.

“When you saved Young Noel’s life, you inadvertently performed the fracturing upon your souls, imparting to the wanderer a fragment of yourself, as you breathed life back into his body. As the possessor, you would need to have taken a portion of his soul in return, which you could have utilized to impart your will upon him, yet for whatever reason, either lack of ability or due to some inherent curiosity unique to Ohamet, which I admit seems most likely under the circumstances, the possession remained incomplete. His soul, which you, your father, and Young Harvey all described as having been displaced from his body, in those moments before you saved his life, returned to him, filling him until he could contain no more. He was whole and alive again, with you as a small part of him. The fragment of him that remained, which should have gone to you in the exchange, was left to wander our mountain, which he does even now.”

“After all of the harm he has done, an errant piece of him is allowed to wander freely?” she whispered in disbelief.

“I doubt this errant piece of him is large enough to do much harm on its own, but it is only allowed to wander because there is nothing anyone can do about it. As it is, you speak of sensing him on occasion, though if he is ever where you claim him to be, I have been unable to discern him, myself. You are the only one able to sense this part of him. Not even Young Harvey is strong enough in empathy to reveal his presence, it is so minute. But there is more I must tell you now, about your condition, while we have this opportunity.”

Isabella understood. Wherever the wanderer had gone, he had at least left her lucid. Who knew how long this respite would last?

“Since you did not take a portion of Young Noel into yourself,” explained the mardraim, “you remain an incomplete soul. This usually occurs at the conclusion of a possession, when the one who is possessed is inevitably lost, as it becomes impossible for the possessor to sustain both lives at once. In the end, when the possessor is forced to allow the possession to die, both of the fragments of soul exchanged in the fahmat pass into Om, leaving the possessor unwhole until his own eventual death. The possessor lives out the rest of his days in a devastating state of lack, unable to be fulfilled in any way, as he has felt his own death.

“Existence as an incomplete soul is considered the greatest repercussion to all who have been determined to possess another, as from the day of the victim’s death, the possessor lives in grief over what he has done to himself. As you never held a piece of Young Noel within you, you began this endeavor, in some ways, in this state. I do not know how the possession will affect the wanderer, given you do not actually have possession of him. He does exhibit many of the early symptoms of obsession, however I doubt you will ever be capable of exerting any control over him, without having completed the act. This might have served to save you both much of the agony that possession has proven to be in the past, yet things were made worse for you, as the two of you ventured separately into the tunnels of Moag.”

“How so?”

“I have reason to believe the possession itself was necessary for both you and Young Noel to physically survive within Moag, as you did, but the fact the possession was incomplete complicated matters for you. When you entered the tunnels, shortly after saving the elf, you were protected from Moag’s devouring force because a portion of you remained safely harbored within the elf, outside of Moag. You escaped the darkness and returned home, seemingly unharmed, despite the fact the Felimi said you would surely be lost forever. When Young Noel entered Moag the following evening, while he too was safe from Moag’s destruction because of the portion of him that wanders the mountain, unbound, somehow, through your partial possession of him, you were left vulnerable to Moag—not the portion of you that Young Noel carried with him through the darkness, but rather the part of you, who remained with the Felimi at the cloister.

“Moag began drawing you out. This attack on your body and soul continued until nothing of your spirit remained within your body and you were entirely consumed by the darkness, with the exception of the fragment of you Ohamet carried within himself. When he exited Moag, Young Noel also used the Breath of Light, breathing back into you an even smaller fraction of your own soul than you originally gave to him. The rest of you that exists within our physical world, remains within him, bound in the incomplete possession.”

“But what does this mean?” she asked, hardly able to keep the urgency out of her voice as she sat up.

“Issa, the vast majority of your being is lost forever to Moag and will never return to this earth in any vessel,” he answered softly. “To live life as an incomplete soul, having lost only a small piece of oneself to Om, is a wretched existence no one should suffer. You have lost so much more, and to Moag. Upon your death, I do not know what will happen to you. It is entirely possible you and Young Noel will both eventually be lost to Moag forever. As for now, in the remainder of this lifetime, you will feel this morbid lack within you, this emptiness, even greater than you would have suffered merely due to the possession, because much of you has been destroyed by the Eater of Souls, with no hope of return.

“You feel your connection to Young Noel, more greatly than you have ever felt another through empathy, because there is more of you within the elf than within your own body this very moment. While he too remains unwhole, and will likely suffer, to some extent, because he returned a fragment of you when he used the Breath of Light to revive you, what is missing from him is but a shard, compared to the near totality that is missing from you.

“There is such a small part of you that remains,” he continued, “that, like that errant portion of Young Noel’s soul that is left to wander, you can barely be felt through empathy. I have kept you enveloped all this while, and only through my envelopment of you do I receive even a glimmer of what is at the soul of you, and then only when you’re passions are strongest. At times there is more vitality in you, but Noel Loveridge is far stronger than you.

“Though I expect that even though you will never be able to control him, he will still suffer a certain obsession with you due to the possession, Ohamet will always have strength, power, over you, because the possession remains incomplete. He does not know that he holds all of the power, and I have no intention of telling him because I do not wish him to harm you out of his own fears. One day he will likely discover this truth. Hopefully, by then, we will have found a way of righting Om’s path, and he will leave this place, and you, alone. Needless to say, add to this your encounter with Moag, your understanding, or lack thereof, of the prophecies Young Noel drew out of the darkness, and it is no wonder you are so often ravaged by mania no one else can possibly understand.”

Issa knew what the Mardraim said was true. She had felt it all along, aware she was never meant to survive Moag. To live was the wanderer’s fate, not hers, yet he brought her back. He saved her and damned her to this agonizing existence all at once.

“I will struggle this way forever? I will never… know peace again?”

The Mardriam nodded gently, before adding, “It is true, you and Young Noel are bound to one another, and neither of you will have the peace you had before, yet it seems to me that in this moment, you are more certain of yourself than you have been in many days. I cannot tell you the number of times I have come to visit that you have hardly been present, how often I have watched as your mind twisted around itself, confounding you, so you had no idea of your own thoughts or deeds. In truth, you are more yourself in this moment than you have been since before Noel Loveridge arrived. I know you are discomforted by the nature of things, suffering your own sense of loss so greatly, often struggling for even the smallest measure of control, however it is important we acknowledge that your current state is much more stable than even a few brief minutes ago, before the wanderer… disappeared.”

He swallowed.

Isabella might have asked about this pause, inquired what the old man knew about where Noel Loveridge had gone, but the Mardraim’s brow furrowed, and he admitted almost at once, “I know where Young Noel is. I cannot tell you where, but I assure you, he will return to you, and with him will come both prophecy and Moag, once again. You have no need to worry. This is temporary. However, when he returns, you will not be able to maintain yourself, as you do now. You know your own mind,” the elder said in a pained voice, the tears returning to his eyes as he shook his head. “It is beautiful to look upon you and see you looking back at me, at last, after so many days of sensing your struggle to maintain yourself, unable to help in any way. I only wish Young Harvey were here. He grieves for you daily. He is greatly changed.”

“Harvey?” The thought of her friend caused her own tears to return, but now she must be strong. “This is my purpose,” she said casting her hands over the painting, covered in smeared handprints and gouges from her fingernails. She and Harvey had been equals, their companionship natural because they had everything in common through Om. How could he ever want to be near her like this? How could he not find the very idea of what she had become repulsive? How could she want for him to know her suffering?  “I… I….” Her brain contracted, refusing to allow the idea to even form completely, let alone escape. But the feeling was there inside her all the same, and she knew the Mardraim felt it within her.

Isabella was nothing. She was worthless without the wanderer to provide the prophecies of Moag, yet with the wanderer and prophecies, she was not at all herself. She would never be herself again.

“Issa, do not despair. You have done more than enough,” the elder said, wiping her tears away with the backs of his fingers, then lifting her chin so she would look him in the eye, as he smiled grievously, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks as well. “You have done more in these three days, with this prophecy, than the rest of us have managed since Young Noel’s arrival— the wanderer included. You have shown me what you have seen. I understand it, because of you. I do not yet know how to help Young Noel change it, if it can be changed, but I understand it only because you have given so much of yourself, to share it with me. Take heart in that.”

“But I no longer understand it! I cannot help to change it!” she wept, pressing the heels of her palms into her temples, as if to try and force the memories back. “It was here. I know it was clear to me. How can I know I had clarity of the thing, yet not know the thing itself? It is as though my mind is fractured, along with my soul!”

“But young one,” he shook his head, “when this vision was clear to you, you were not yourself. Your focus was on the prophecy alone. I could not deter you from it, even for a moment, so I allowed you to work, expecting eventually you would work yourself to exhaustion. For days you continued on, without stopping. Look at yourself! Look at how you deteriorate!” He gestured emphatically, scoffing at the sight of her, then took her hands in his, holding them tight as he spoke. “Issa, with everything that has happened, I have no doubt that you are most necessary to this world, in this way. By Om or by Moag matters not, because there is a purpose here, intent we cannot know without you. I cannot yet grasp the reasons why it has come to be so, but you are more important now than all other zhe, I assure you, because only you have seen the way of Moag, as changed by the wanderer. Only you can guide us in this. The rest of us will come to understand through you—through you and Noel Loveridge, together.”

She hissed a disgruntled curse at the idea, as the Mardraim stood and lifted her up from the ground, then led her to sit at the table. Her tears continued to fall, as the elder cleared away piles of her drawings and set the wash basin, full of clean water, in their place.

In silence, the old man washed Issa’s face and neck with a soft cloth, the cool water serving to soothe the pain of unrelenting loneliness and ease the sense of worthlessness within her. When her face was clean, he took to the task of scrubbing layers of paint and charcoal from her hands and arms, until at some point she stopped crying and a numb weariness set in.

She had no idea when she had last slept or eaten. There were vast gaps in her memories, with no explanation beyond Moag’s prophecies and Ohamet’s wanderings. What little she could remember were dwindling glimmers of half-awareness, completely meaningless because they lacked context. Meanwhile, the more the Mardraim scrubbed, the more he revealed that under the filth she was covered in newly-healed scars, injuries she caused to herself in her more disturbed states. The only positive was the fact that none of her wounds were recently made, which meant being under the influence of revelation of Moag’s prophecy at least kept her from doing herself more harm. Unfortunately, little was being done to tend to her basic needs in the meantime. She imagined tending to her was made more difficult by her scattered mind.

As to that, what would happen if and when Noel Loveridge returned? Would she be able to recall this conversation with the Mardraim, or would it be lost in a wave of Noel and Moag, as the Mardraim expected? Was there any way she could be both lucid and understand the prophecies of Moag at the same time? Was there any hope of finding a balance, or was all hope lost the moment she felt the wanderer flying up the side of their mountain?

“I am not certain what is best to do,” the Mardraim said quietly, his voice barely cutting through the silence, as he took the bowl from the table and sat on the ground before her, resting the basin in his lap. He did not look up at her, as he took her right foot in his hand and began washing the grime from it as well, his brow creased with a scowl.

Issa thought perhaps his statement had been in answer to the questions he must have felt, unvoiced within her, but the elder did not speak again until the dirt of several days muddied the paint-covered rag in his hand, and her foot was clean.

“Perhaps he is justified in his timing, and I have not taken as much care as I should,” he added quietly. Isabella decided he must be speaking to himself, and she should not interrupt, but then the elder took up her other foot and said, “We must surely live in a precarious balance, if we are to find our way through this. That is only right. Yes, I must tell Young Noel.”

“What will you tell him, my Mardraim?” Issa asked, her voice like brass, after shedding so many tears.

The old man loosed a sigh, heavy with burden. “I must tell him that I have kept you too long, stirring over this tragedy.” He waved the rag at the pictures on the walls and smiled. “I must tell him you must rest, while you can— a good, long rest, I believe.”

Setting the bowl aside, he dried her feet one at a time, with the tale of his tunic. “From now on, when Young Noel is away, as he is now, you must take advantage of the opportunity, to tend to your own existence, beyond prophecies and the will of the wanderer. You must do your best to live, as you lived before. You were happy once, Issa. With great courage, you can be happy again.”

“I do not see how. I am incomplete, alone… frightened. It seems everything is beyond my control.”

“Certainly, you know by now this is true for everyone,” he answered plainly. “Nevertheless, you must come to see these moments as gifts, as the mothers taught you to see the time taken in occlusion. Use it to determine what you want of this life that is not of prophecy, but try not to stir too much on these matters tonight. I am sorry I have not done better by you, before now. You need rest. Tomorrow, we begin anew, and neither of us can say for certain what will come when Ohamet returns. I will clear the remnants of our work away, so you may be ready. Until then, please know, you have given me more than enough to help me understand, and I do not want you to worry over this prophecy anymore. Now, allow me to clean and leave you to sleep.”

Isabella nodded, and the Mardraim went about the business of clearing the mess of drawings and paintings and books, scattered around the hut, while she sat wondering just what she was supposed to do. She had no idea how to determine what she wanted from life, when everything she had ever wanted had been hers from the beginning, handed to her by Om and stripped away by Ohamet, without any possibility of return.

As if in answer, she recalled the day she first awoke from the long sleep that came after Moag ended her life and Noel Loveridge handed it back to her, an unwanted fragment of what it used to be. That day, as her mother tended to her, the woman told Issa her life would never be the same. “It will only be what you make of it,” she had said. Issa could not help but wonder if her mother had any idea how right and wrong she truly was.

Ohamet had been absent that day as well, Issa thought, remembering the stillness she felt, as her mother spoke with her, carefully avoiding revealing her shame at her daughter’s pitiful state. At the time, Isabella had believed she was only deep within the protection of the Mdrai’ envelopment and that was why she felt no empathy for others, but Noel Loveridge was not present in her senses then either, when he should have been through the partial possession. Wherever he went, it seemed that place had the power to sever their connection of possession, at least temporarily. It was some time after she sent her mother to find the Mardraim, before the wanderer appeared in her subconscious, felt her cry for the loss of Harvey, and he came to her. That was when her delirium began. Before that, she felt nothing but emptiness, as now. More importantly, she realized, at that point she did not remember any of the things she saw of Moag.

Noel had felt her cry and come, just as he came to her the night he touched Moag and brought out the complete prophecy.  He had been so frightened for her, he flew straight there with unimaginable speed, and she had felt him coming and gone out to meet him. Though he was invisible, she could sense exactly where he landed, but she could also see the glowing remnant of herself, the piece of her soul, which Noel Loveridge kept. She was certain the wisp of light she saw with him could only be the fragment of her own soul, as it was so much like the light she saw curling out of the eldest mother’s mouth while she was at the cloister, before she died—like the light she herself was made up of, as Moag drew her out of her body, into its depths.

Perhaps, because the possession was left incomplete, there was a way she might yet save herself, a way to regain the portion of herself the wanderer kept—a way to sever their connection forever?

“My Mardraim?” she said, as the old man, having whisked away every trace of the prophecy, bid her goodnight and opened the door to go.

“Yes, young one?” he answered solemnly, stopping in the doorway. His voice was patient, but he looked troubled and tired. Had he remained with her the whole time, as she painted and drew the prophecy? It was so very strange not being able to sense what was at the soul of him, yet seeing the gravity of her situation ingrained in the deepening lines on his face.

“You say the possession remains incomplete. Perhaps there is a way it might be undone,” she quietly said.

“I am sorry, Issa. Any attempt we might make to that effect could only make matters worse, for both you and Young Noel,” he said, shaking his head. “You must rest now. We will talk again soon,” he added, then ducked out into the night, shutting the door behind him, leaving Issa feeling frustrated and hopeless and helpless, to try and find some solace in everything she had learned and the knowledge that, at least for now, she had the capacity to try and formulate some sort of plan, moving forward. The trouble was there was no solace to be had in knowing that as soon as Ohamet returned whatever plan she might make would likely cease to matter.

How was it possible she had accidentally performed part of this possession when she did not even know the Fahmat existed in the first place? Fragmenting her soul? She had never—could never—imagine such a thing was possible. Everything about it seemed so backwards and wicked to her, it was no wonder the magic had been forbidden.

What was this Breath of the Light the Mardraim spoke of, and why was this the first time she had heard it? The Mardraim said it was the very force that made life possible, a force their people once used with flagrance and frivolity, yet this was not something the Mdrai or the Felimi taught them in all their years of learning. How had the Mardraim come to know of it? Surely the Mdrai and Felimi must have learned more in these days Issa had spent in the erratic pull of Moag. She wondered if Harvey, as an aspirant, had learned anything about it as well.

The thought of him made her heart ache, so she turned her mind back to Noel.

Had she really used this strange force when she saved the elf’s life? Was it truly possible she had performed this magic, purely by accident, causing all of this?

No, she thought, resentment and anguish renewing within her. This was entirely the fault of the wanderer, and no one else. The Mardraim believed there was no point in trying to find a way to undo the partial possession because it might make matters worse, but he did not say he believed it impossible, and she had definitely seen the light of her self with Noel Loveridge, like she was calling out for help, for salvation. Issa could not simply wait for Ohamet to completely overwhelm her again— for all of this to end badly, as the old man said it would. She had to do something.

It was terribly late. Her belly was empty, her mind dull. She knew the Mardraim was right that she needed rest, but before she could sleep, she had to eat. And—she sniffed at her armpit and turned away, revolted—she was in desperate need of a proper bath. But first, while she had the presence of mind to do so, Issa took some of the fresh paper, which the elder had left, no doubt expecting that one day soon there would be another complete prophecy of Moag for Issa to record in its fullness, and she began to write:

Some prophecies are whole, others are merely pieces. If you remember either, you are not yourself. Wait for Ohamet to disappear, then find out where he goes. If there is a way to restore the piece of your soul, you must discover how, before it is too late.

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Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32