Tag Archives: prophecy of the drowning of multitudes

THE TALE of TWO MOUNTAINS- PT. 39

NOEL

Noel headed straight for the keep, raw shame filling his belly, with each second that passed and every meter he put between them, as though the further away from Issa he flew, the more rational he became, the easier it was to see what a fool he’d made of himself, yet still, he longed to be that fool, with an ache unlike anything he had ever known. He’d given up the wards so easily, as though Isabella Asan was the embodiment of his every weakness, like the poison of her flooding his veins addled his mind, perplexing him with an unconscionable devotion he could barely see past to recognize, let alone overcome. The feeling that he’d lost her caused his innards to seethe, even now as though he could feel her being ripped away from him by Moag, like she belonged to his very being, and he knew he would lose her in the end, one way or another.

He would lose her to Moag, unless they found some way to change it, but if, by some miracle, they managed that change, once Noel saved her, he knew he had no choice but to leave her there, to lose her to whatever life she had left in that mountain, where at least she might find some solace in freedom from him, if not the joy of having her old life back. He had to let her go, never mind what would happen to him. What he felt of her, in her, with her was not real. It was purely the product of the possession and the growing obsession that stormed within him.

But she had told him righting Om’s Way was impossible, and now, he had no choice except to trust her. The trouble was he couldn’t because he felt her in his soul.

He had done the right thing, though, he reasoned, searching for some shiny prospect in all the mortal doom. Issa deserved to have some control in matters, or at the very least she deserved the truth of things. But surely this was the obsession talking, he thought, as he flew through the barrier to the keep, pulling away his warden charm and landing face down on the old sofa, to growl into the cushions at his idiocy. Growling hardly sufficed.

“What were you thinking?” he shouted angrily, his words muffled by the supple leather. He couldn’t decide if he was angry that he couldn’t see his way past the possession to reason or if it was that he knew the agony he was in for, giving her up, and that was the only answer in the end, no matter what. Of course, the question was rhetorical, as he was perfectly aware it was his usual lack of any real forethought that had brought him to this particular juncture. Clearly, the old man had been right about him.

“Heh, the old man,” he groaned, letting out a miserable sigh, rolling onto his side to breathe a deep breath of guilt at the trouble he’d made. Edward would be more than a bit upset he had handed Issa the means of undermining his authority. And Harvey would likely never forgive him, undoing all of the work they’d done trying to protect the woman.

“What good were the wards if she was going to use them to go to Moag herself?” What good were they if they did nothing to ease the obsession? They gave her peace of mind against him— peace against Moag— and now the choice was hers if and when to use them. “Christ, Noel! She will be the death of you, and you of her, unless you get her out of your head and yourself under control!” But he had a point. The wards were supposed to have given him that control, and it was obvious they didn’t work nearly as well as he’d thought, when he first stepped out of the keep, which had been an awful idea! Why couldn’t he have just waited until the next day to test the amulet, when Harvey was with her, like they had agreed? Why did he always have to do the exact thing that made matters worse?

“Well, because you didn’t actually expected them to work, did you? And it caught you off guard when they blocked Maog too, and of course, you don’t think past your own nose,” he grumbled against himself. “Or maybe you are so far gone, you were hoping they wouldn’t work? That seems more like it, doesn’t it? Either way you reacted, only to realize, after the fact, what an arrant arse you are.”

An arrant arse who’d only meant to step out of the keep for a moment, just to see if the ward for banishing worked like Harvey thought it would. He’d found himself chasing after Issa’s voice in the darkness, like a siren’s song. “My Mardraim said—” she’d uttered softly. What had her Mardraim said? He should have asked her. No, he should have done as he was supposed to do!

“If you hadn’t gone, there’s no knowing what would have happened to her in there.”

If he’d been able to think, never in a million years would he have pictured Issa as he found her standing there, a wistful phantom nearly glowing in the depths of that miserable dark, the shadow of her hand outstretched toward oblivion, a moment before she disappeared and the meaning of the world and everything in it was brought to rather specific if unexpected clarity. In that brief interlude, between grateful encounter and utter devastation, he’d felt an impossible joy… Completion in her. Despite the wards… He’d felt meaning, in the connection between them—meaning he’d never had the capacity to hope for, even with Hope to look forward to all his life. She had touched his soul.

“A product of possession and faulty wards,” he whispered bitterly. He should not have been able to feel anything of her, yet he did feel her, even now, playing in him, notes of solemn warmth that would not let him go. He needed her.

He needed to find Edward. He needed to tell the elder what happened, not lie there wallowing, but he was afraid to move, for fear of doing more damage. Grunting against the state of himself, Noel rolled over, his eyes following the stairs up into the tower of magic housed above him, where he knew there had to be a solution. Maybe not wards, but there must be something among all those books, some confluence of incantation or bewitchery that would sever the tie between them for good and rid Issa of him, though he felt a tiny flame of desire that perhaps it would not quite rid him of her. He needed her warmth. The idea of losing that left him frantic.

Noel rubbed his hands over his face, silently cursing everything he should have been doing, instead of lying there, hiding from the devil’s deal he’d just made, giving away his only security and betraying everyone else in the process. For what? For her? He could never possess her the way she possessed him. But mortal gods, how he wanted to!

She’d held out a scarred hand to oblivion, and it shook him to the core. If he hadn’t gotten there in time— If she hadn’t been frightened away— What if she went back?

Panic grabbed hold of him, and he sat up, raising the amulet’s cord over his head, but he stopped himself short of getting to his feet, squeezing all of his muscles against the desire to go off at half-cock, once more for good measure. “You have to show her you trust her, or she will never trust you!” he argued, balling the amulet up in his fist, gripping it tight against a wealth of fears and the impressive battery of urges that pummeled him from every direction.

If he showed her his doubts now, it would ruin the tentative peace between them, and more than anything, Noel Loveridge wanted for that peace to hold, so he could meet Isabella the following night, at the entrance to the tunnel, just to be close to her, to feel near to that joy and completion and meaning in her again, to bask in her warmth, even if it was just some brutally inhumane, terrifically deranged magic that had to violate every law regarding human dignity on the planet and was forbidden for a very good reason.

“Which is exactly why you should not go,” he breathed, shaking his head against the betrayal going on deep in his bones. “This is madness. You’ve lost! You are lost.”

It was madness, and that settled it. He had to trust her not to break the wards and he had to trust her not to go back to Moag, until they could go together the next night, so he could watch over her. In the meantime he sat there, chewing on the end of his thumb, knee bouncing, wondering what, then, he should do, all the while knowing the clear answer was that he should try doing absolutely nothing for a change.

“Maybe doing nothing is the answer? Sit and think and wait for tomorrow. In the morning, wait for Harvey, admit what you have done, then go find Edward.”

My Mardraim said…

“Atchem…” The Mardraim cleared his throat, looking up over the top of the desk, his brow raised to an insufferable height, as he held Noel in an accusatory gaze, while a slightly startled Noel spat a hard bit of cuticle to the floor, tucking the amulet out of sight, wondering how much of all of all of that the elder had understood through empathy, how much he grasped by the little bit of English he’d gleaned over the weeks, and how much would need explaining sooner rather than later. Edward let out an exhausted sigh, pushing closed the drawer, he’d apparently been going through before Noel interrupted, and used the arm of his chair to pull himself up from his knees, as he laid a paper carefully on his desk.

Noel barely caught a glimpse, but it was one of Issa’s drawings.

“Er… Master Frank,” he smiled, quickly choking back guilt and pride and obsession, but not before he’d begun speaking without thinking. “I am sorry for my…” No words for insane outburst— who’d have guessed? “I did not know you were…” He shook his head, his thoughts finally catching up to him.

What was the old man doing there? What was he doing with that drawing? Why was he at the keep instead of out looking for Noel when he discovered Noel was not at the keep? What exactly was that look on his face? Was that fear sparking in Edward Frank’s keen eyes?

“What has happened, Edward?” Noel asked, realizing the Mardraim must have a very good reason for having been down on his hands and knees, looking through revealed prophecies of Moag, instead of tending to him.

“Many days have passed since the two of us have spoken,” Edward answered quietly, nodding his head, leaning over the back of his chair to examine the paper before him, the fear in his eyes quickly changing to misery. Whatever had happened, apparently Noel’s guilty conscience did not matter in the least.

“You found something?” Noel hissed, clinging to the couch cushions to hold himself down. He wanted to see what was in the drawing, but even Issa had warned him away from knowing the prophecies.

The elder drew in a breath, but paused, studying the paper more deeply. “We Mdrai have had little progress with searching Om for information about your Hope,” he offered at last, without looking up. “As it is, we still find a great many of those prophecies broken, even from among the ones we previously read, as though with each moment, Om slips further from our grasp, giving way to Moag.” This was not exactly an answer.

“What does this mean?” Noel scowled, though the implications were fairly clear. Edward was concerned about the fate of Fate itself. Things were still changing, and that had him looking through the Moag Prophecies Issa had already revealed, by the looks of him for something specific. He may not even have noticed Noel was missing. Or maybe he had known, Noel thought.

My Mardraim said…

Had Edward sent her to Moag?

An uncomfortable niggling had been playing at the back of Noel’s mind, but hadn’t quite had the chance to form yet, in all his angst and what with Edward popping up unexpectedly. My Mardraim said… People talk to themselves all the time, but not in that tone. Had it been an actual conversation he’d stumbled upon in the Forbidden Place? Had someone been there at Moag with Issa? In a light well, perhaps?

“It means our work to restore Om’s Way grows more difficult by the hour,” Edward said, touching the tips of his fingers to the paper, the distressed lines on his face deepening.

Noel’s stomach knotted, half against the look on the elder’s face and half at knowing Issa was telling the truth when she said they would not be able to right Om’s Way. He knew she’d only told him to offend him, but it had not been a lie.

Then he remembered Issa looking toward the window of her hut, as if she knew someone was there, as if she hoped whoever it was would come in and save her from her frustration with him. No one had been there, though. He had listened hard for another heartbeat anywhere nearby, but the two of them were alone and Issa’s heart had thumped with such intensity that his own heart raced to catch up to her, like he was afraid of being left behind, like the warmth of her was the answer to his every question, if only he could hold onto it.

Let her go, he thought, the pain welling up in him again. You have no choice.

Through all of this, the old Keeper of Knowledge only stared at the paper, as though his answers could be found in the contrast between shadow and light Issa had created in that drawing, and he was either oblivious to or unconcerned with everything he might have felt in Noel. When Edward finally spoke again, it was in a serious tone. “We have found a link, Noel Loveridge.”

“A-a-a link?” Noel stammered, gripping the cushion tighter still, glancing toward the picture on the desk, where Edward’s aged fingers rested gently, then back to the elder’s miserable face.

Edward lifted his eyes, but not his head, his circumspect stare unsettling. “We had such little progress that, along with trying to discover any mention of the prophecy you brought to us in your book, we put our best augurs to work attempting to find continuity between the Veils and the prophecies you and Young Isabella have drawn from Moag together.”

Noel swallowed hard. “Continuity? Issa sees actual events. Her drawings… This link…” he nodded toward the desk, leaning forward, his grasp on the leather so tight his knuckles burned. “You mean to say you have found something of that drawing within the Veils?”

“A person…” Edward answered easily.

Finally, Noel stood, half tempted to hurry over and look for himself, but the pain at the idea of losing Issa turned quickly to worry. “A person?”

Who, he thought, abusing his thumb again.

“There will be others, Young Noel. It is only a matter of time until we find them all,” Edward assured him, but it did not sound so much like assurance as it did warning, and the look on his face seemed uncertain, like he did not know if he could trust Noel with whatever it was he was about to divulge.

Who? Who, Noel wanted to demand, but his lips wouldn’t form the word, and when Edward did not continue of his own accord, Noel turned to him and stood mutely willing the revelation with a silent gape, but the Mardraim simply watched him cautiously for several minutes, before adding in a reluctant chord, “It is reasonable to assume some of those attached to this prophecy will be attached to other prophecies in both Om and Moag. It is probable many among their numbers are those whose prophecies have been unwritten in Om, which has been the focus of the augurs’ work.”

The elder ran his fingertips over the surface of the image, touching the paper tenderly, as though whatever Issa had depicted on that page deserved only tenderness, and he was impossibly slow in choosing his words, but his delicacy cut far deeper than it would if only he might get it over with, Noel thought. Who? Noel’s mind cried out, but still the question could not find breath because the irrational fear that it was Issa held him so fast he wasn’t certain he was actually breathing anymore.

There was no reason for him to think it was her, except he knew her death was imminent, tied to his reason for being there, and or course, like his own, her prophecies had been unwritten and by this point everything that existed within him had begun to revolve around her. Had Moag actually shown Issa her own death? How had he never thought to wonder before? How had he been so selfish to not think she might have seen what would actually happen to her, when she claimed to have seen everything else? If it was not her, then who could possibly be so important that Edward would take such care in his tenderness?

“We must find all of the connecting Veils, Young Noel,” Edward offered gently, still dancing with that delicate truth. “If we can find more of these people within Om’s way, we could perhaps make some difference for them, but you must know it is a task that will surely take us years to manage.”

“Years?” Noel blurted, his head taking a bit of a spin as he finally took a breath. He headed back to the couch, the tension continuing to build inside him. He and Issa didn’t have years. “Issa and I do not have years, Edward,” he insisted, once more clutching the leather beside him, this time less to hold himself down and more to hold himself upright. Who was in that bloody picture?

“Which is why you must help us in any way you are able, while you are able, Ohamet. Please.”

Ohamet… Noel despised the name. It was a curse— though not when she said it. The ache of her inside him caused his head to throb. He rubbed anxiously at his temples, the place in the pit of his stomach where the woman clung to the soul of him like a torrent turning around on itself, turning around on her. They would not right Om’s Way. Would he and Harvey be able to save her?

Edward took up the picture, rounding the desk and making his way to Noel’s side, as Noel shook his head, wishing he could ask the question, even as he shirked away from the drawing, knowing it was her, though it made no sense. That was how she would die. It had to be. Edward had even told him Issa had the vision of drowning Noel in the waters in the chamber with the wellspring, but that it turned out to be herself who had drowned. How had he not thought of it before? Would she actually drown because of Noel, because of Echteri Amu Schripat?

“You have my word, our people will continue working to uncover continuity between Om and Moag, no matter the outcome,” the elder said, the smoothness of his voice meaning to pacify, but having the opposite effect, as Noel’s ears began to ring and his mouth grew dry. “We will utilize the Moag prophecies, to begin to understand who all of the prophecies of Om and Moag belong to, to reorder them, not by the meaning in the Veils, but by the progression of time, by relation of individuals and events. We have already begun the work surrounding this link, and we believe it will help us discover what happened to your Last Hope, eventually.”

The disgust that rose in Noel at mention of the Last Hope was unexpected. Who was Edward Frank, to think he had right to speak of her now, Noel thought, as he tried to recall all the faces of those drowned that had hung on Issa’s walls, searching for the image of her—terror stricken, hopeless—among them, even as the old man sat down on the sofa beside him, drawing in hand. The Mardraim thought Noel needed reminding of the Last Hope? To be promised that work would continue on, no matter what happened, when all Noel could think about was Issa?

But as Fate would have it, what the elder knew was going to happen was far worse than the death Noel imagined, before the old man laid that drawing on his lap.

It was not Issa, and oddly, as horrifying a thing as the drawing portrayed—and it was horrifying— there was a curious, intoxicating relief that flowed through him, as Noel felt his eyes grow large and his guts tighten dangerously. He picked up the paper, the “Oh,” slipping from his mouth, as if crushed out of him by a wave that came from that place within him, aching with the idea of Issa’s absence. This wave rolled over the village she had drawn, carrying earth, trees, the crumpled remains of homes and businesses, battered fishing boats, all manner of flotsam, likely even some jetsam, and people— dozens of them, perhaps hundreds, in that one picture alone— clinging to whatever they might find floating, until whatever was floating was churned under the wake with them, as the waters rose up to wash over everything, ripping souls from their earthly foundations, sweeping them away on the tide, making of them little more than tragic memories. The waters tore the life out of them, Noel thought, like when Issa disappeared. His pain and relief became the roar of that wave, destroying everything in its path.

It turned out, the thousands Issa prophesied would die by drowning were not individual events, as Noel had tried to account for them and his responsibility in the matter, when he’d first seen their terrified faces hanging on the walls of her hut. The drownings were one atrocity, a single cataclysmic event, like the end of the world visiting on a thought, passing by, like the wiping out of the very purpose of existence had occurred to it on a whim, like Om slipping away from them to be replaced by Moag, like Issa falling into the void, pulling Noel joyfully, triumphantly behind her— just happy to be near her.

“She named this prophecy A Drowning of Multitudes,” Edward said.

“Oh…” Noel hissed again, the paper rattling in his hands. Realizing he was visibly shaken, he choked down the dry knot that had formed in his throat, handing the drawing back to the elder, and returned to his feet, which carried him across the room, with a purpose he could not quite know until he got there, because he rarely thought… never beyond himself… never beforehand, only of her—thank heaven it was not her!

Momentary liberation and a disconcerting grief stopped him near the door, as he realized it no longer mattered to him who.

It might happen anywhere. Those people might be anyone. The only thing for certain from the picture was that they were close enough to an ocean that it would bring vast amounts of water tearing through their lives, wiping their entire existences from the face of the planet, rushing them away on the current of Noel’s blame, as though they were of no consequence to anyone, least of all to him.

“M-maybe Phuket?” he heard himself say, like for a moment he stepped away from his obsessed spirit and went to stand where he might accept accountability for the thing, so the rest of him could think about it logically, not that Noel was ever logical, but at least he was not thinking of her—oh, yes, there she was again.

But he could have a conversation there, with Phileas, who was the epitome of logic, and Murphy and Wells, who were both much more adept than he, about how they might stop the tide, as though the sort of magic to stop such a catastrophe existed. But it didn’t… as far as he knew. He glanced above him at the stacks, where he’d spent weeks eagerly searching for wards, and felt the anger rise within him again, as if on the swell of those waters.

Why had the elder shown him this now? Why now!? Why? No… How? How could Noel’s coming to their mountain cause such unimaginable destruction, such useless waste of life? Was so much of life predetermined that his destroying the Last Hope would result in such terror, such atrocity as nature overturning herself? Thank goodness it was not Issa though!

The anger wasn’t at Edward or even Fate’s cruelty, but at himself. Noel wished he’d never set foot there. He wished he’d never gone to Arnhem Land, to learn of the Wangarr ways, to visit the Dreaming. He wished he could turn back the clock and undo everything, to never have wondered about the absence of the Last Hope, to never have stood up to his father and left home or taken a blood oath for a Hope that no longer existed, whether he destroyed her or not, to never have gone to Bergfaulk’s, to never have had any more talent than his brothers, to never have met—

An insurmountable anguish stopped that thought dead, as his heart gave a furious thud in his ears, in his eyes, in his fingers and toes, then stopped beating altogether, like thoughts like that might actually kill him, and he grew so weak from that pain of losing even the memory of her and waiting for his heart to restart, he feared his knees might buckle beneath him as his chest constricted, cinching itself up.

No.

No, he could not wish that. He could not give Issa up completely, even for so many thousands, even seeing them all in their final moments, lungs burning with salt, their lives worth nothing to him.

Who? Who was the link? He wanted to be able to ask, now out of guilt more than the idea of saving anyone in particular. But he couldn’t.

Saltwater burned his throat as his eyes flooded, and he wished he could be there in that picture, to drown with the multitudes, even as he struggled to swallow down the sick trying to force its way past the tightness in his chest, his jaw clenching against the fact he’d become something so grotesquely inhuman. Yet, he could not care about those people or even himself or anyone else he loved in the world, as much as he cared about Isabella Asan, as though his soul no longer responded to the rule of his own authority, but existed only by the grace of her lovely poison, slow and perfect and sweet, and the solemn warmth that he longed to hear playing within him like her laughter.

She had a melodic laugh. His heart began to beat again. Her laughter was sweet, yet he’d never actually heard her laugh, so he didn’t really know what it tasted or sounded like, but he felt it, and that feeling was his whole life.

How could the elder have shown him now? Just when he and Issa were preparing to work together? Why not weeks ago, when he was stronger?

“I knew it would be difficult for you to bear,” Edward said, as if in answer to the question Noel did not speak, the elder’s voice full of sympathy Noel did not want or need. It was far too little, too late. “I was reluctant to proceed with what work I might ask of you, to help us know the answers, to all of the questions that fill you now, including those about your… condition. We needed to find a connection between the future we used to see and the future as only Young Isabella sees it, through you, Noel. It would be of no use to anyone if we could not uncover some relation between Om and Moag. Our true work to restore the path of Om can now begin.”

Noel glared over his shoulder, his eyes a blur, his throat clenching as his jaw squeezed and his chest rumbled, and he practically gagged on his own ignominy, returning to the elder’s side and falling back into the worn hide.

“The obsession worsens, Edward. Even while I am warded, it worsens,” Noel whispered desperately. He had to tell the old man the truth. “If there is any way to break the possession— more wards?! Any other fahmat? Please, you must tell me now! You have to help me! You have to help Issa! Help her!” She did not deserve to see this, to feel this. The poor woman… No wonder she’d gone mad, knowing so much loss. And she’d told him little more than half an hour ago, all of the prophecies were as awful as this. Her. You have to help her. “Please, Edward…”

“Your souls are bound, Ohamet,” the man answered pitiably, resting his hand on Noel’s shoulder. “But you are not to blame for this.”

“Blame? Edward, I—”

“You are not to blame, Ohamet,” he answered forcefully, gripping Noel’s shoulder tight, to keep him from rising again, to keep him from running, which he might have done, though the second he thought about where he was going, he was sure he would find himself already at Issa’s side, hoping she would comfort him, when he had no right to hope for any comfort— not with such a crime as A Drowning of Multitudes facing him, and least of all from her.

They had to stop it. Somehow, they had to stop it. But she’d said they couldn’t right Om’s Way. If Noel had doubted whether or not Edward had been at Moag with her or outside the window of Issa’s hut before, his worries were abated. She had never told him. If she had, he wouldn’t still be talking about it like it was a possibility.

The old man laid the drawing face down on the the arm of the sofa and turned toward Noel with fatherly sternness. “There is nothing we can do for you or Young Isabella in the possession, however we can continue our work to figure out how your coming here changed things, to understand why, to know when these events will happen, perhaps to see what causes them, even to discover a way we can change them, for the better— with grave care, Noel Loveridge, for a tenuous future we hardly understand. For that, we need you and Issa to continue drawing the prophecies from Moag, and that, Ohamet, is why I am here begging you not to be afraid of what must be seen.”

It felt like Noel’s soul turned over inside him with such force his breath left him as a barely-stifled roar, and he shook his head against the ache of her poison writhing through him and the fury of being accused of merely being afraid, when he was truly, mortally frightened, for the entire world.

“I am not… strong enough, Edward!” To resist her, he thought. He was not strong enough to resist Isabella, and he knew Edward felt this within him, that very moment, at the soul of him, but was asking him to do what was right, what was impossible. “Those people!” he let out an aghast breath. “All of those people, Edward!” And still he did not care for them. Save her! Protect her!

“This multitude and many others require every ounce of your resolve, Ohamet,” Edward nodded. “You are strong. After all, look at what you have done so far.” He waved his hand over the drawing beside him.

An enraged exhale, full of spittle and phlegm and a formidable growl, escaped from Noel’s lips, as though exorcised from the depths of him, where he was tied to Issa and the longing to keep her, above all else. “I did not know what I was doing! I did not know any of this would happen! It was something else! Ask Harvey! It was some Velhim within me, something I— I cannot explain, Edward!”

“Harvey?” the elder gasped. “ What do you mean? What has Harvey told you?”

Noel loosed a despondent sigh. There was a such a great deal the old man didn’t know, because he’d been so busy with the godforsaken prophecies, though with terribly good reason, Noel supposed, but even so… “Edward, Issa says it is impossible for us to restore Om’s Way because The Wanderer Lives.”

“Harvey told you this?” Edward gaped.

Noel took a deep breath, screwing up his face against the truth of things, which were much more complicated, and answered, “No. Please, do not question. Listen,” and he closed his eyes, leaning back into the leather, resting his pounding head, and told Edward everything.

When he was finished the elder looked slightly deflated and far less hopeful, which was disheartening because he had not looked much better than pitiful before. There were a lot of details Edward might have grabbed hold of, to rant about or curse Noel over, but like any good Danguin, he didn’t, for which Noel was grateful, because it was difficult enough for him to get it all lined up properly in his head and into words, so it could be out the open at last, without getting lost in minutia.

“I knew she would become impossible to resist,” Edward whispered, “but I believed we would have more time.” He took up the drawing once more, turning it over, shaking his head at it, as though he’d decided the Drowning of Multitudes would have to wait.

“As for my Omdrella,” he continued, getting up from the sofa, headed for his desk, where he laid the Drowning down with a remorseful breath, “I wish you would have taken my warnings as truth. I needed you, Young Noel, to find out what happened to my grandson, what he is hiding. I am sorry I have been so distant. The prophecies…” He sighed again and turned back to face Noel, grimness dressing in him, as he leaned back against the desk. “I needed you to do your part, because I could not. I needed more time.”

“You still believe Harvey hides something from you?”

Edward smiled painfully and held out his hand. “May I examine your wards? I would show you the answer, rather than tell you, so maybe you will believe.”

Noel pulled the amulet, twisted up in its cords, from his sleeve pocket, went to stand with Edward, handing him the charm he and Harvey had labored so hard over. He could tell by the elder’s despondent expression the wards were worse than useless. How much worse was the question.

“You knew the wards guarding the magic of my people were enough to provide you some sense of separation from Young Isabella,” the Mardraim said, turning the carved stone around in his fingers. “No other wards were needed. I confess the total faith I have in my Omdrella’s abilities means I cannot believe Young Harvey would make an error in recreating them, even with wards that were forbidden to him. Did you ask him where he learned this ward you call a banishing?”

Noel shook his head. “He spent days searching for it. I assume he studied.”

“He did not tell you with whom he studied?”

Noel gave a half-hearted shrug. “You have all these books. I thought there must be others, somewhere.”

Edward gave a pitiful chuckle. “The Children of Danguin learn at the Mothers’ knees, Young Noel. The Felimi are the teachers of all Fahmat. We Mdrai have the Hall of Records to attend now, but even the prophecies used to be kept in our memories, passed on with our souls, from one life to the next. I told you this.”

“The Felimi teach all the Fahmat from memory?” Noel frowned, incapable of believing at first, looking around at the towers of books and inventions surrounding them, but remembering Edward did tell him that their memories had begun to fail them, that something had happened, long ago, that caused the Mothers to require the Hall of Records and to task the Mdrai with venturing out into the world to collect the magic of all the races.

“This place and these books are forbidden, Noel Loveridge.” Edward raised a brow. “You were supposed to tell no one of their existence.”

Noel blinked. “You are saying Harvey would have to learn the banishing from the Felimi themselves?”

“That is what I am saying,” Edward laughed wryly, getting to his feet and starting toward the staircase. “Come. Let us study, so you can know what the Mothers have had you wearing.”

After a good climb, Noel and Edward entered one of the floors that housed the knowledge of Fae, and as they walked past shelves and shelves of books, the elder explained a little about the method of categorization used by the Danguin Mardraim through the generations, with regards to all known Fahmat. It was not a simple system if one did not know it, but it made sense, Noel supposed. Yes, books of certain colors were transcribed, as necessary, by individual scribes over the generations, but what each new Mardraim was meant to transcribe was limited to certain classifications of magic— chemical, elemental, kinetic, electrical, intellectual, nuclear, spiritual… The list of magical classes was extensive and spread across all brands of magic, accounting for why there were so many colors of books scattered throughout all of the levels of that library. Ultimately, what mattered to them at the moment was that the magic prohibited by Ftdonya was transcribed every fifty years, divided up by Mardraim by sub-class, and was always bound in white and hidden away, as a precaution.

“This insured each Mardraim had some grasp on forbidden fahmat,” the elder said, as they turned a corner and met a dead end and a blank wall. “Perhaps this was in case the Felimi lost knowledge of something important, or it may be so the Felimi would not hold all of the power. Either way, a Madraim’s work was, until now, done in absolute secret.”

He waved his hand in front of the wall, and a series of symbols appeared, glowing orange. Quickly, the old man dragged each symbol to its appropriate order, the spell disappearing almost as quickly as it was arranged, and the wall turned into a door, which opened up before them without hesitation. The room beyond contained hundreds of books, bound in white. A small desk, much like the one in the room of Danguin magic, sat in the middle, a candle, stack of books, and necessary tools lying in wait for Edward to resume work he’d already begun.

“There are eighteen books on forbidden Itri wards, and all books about wards, of which there are many, were most recently transcribed by Esi Abara, who was Mardraim seven generations ago. Wards, as you likely know, must be bound to the physical, and you will find all of Esi’s books on fahmat involving physical manifestation have russet bindings, with the exception of these and other forbidden fahmat within that classification, which can be found on every floor.”

Eighteen books pulled themselves from the bookcases, floating toward the two men, as if carried by ghosts, and arranging themselves in stacks of nine before each of them. Edward caught his stack immediately, and gave Noel a swift nod, so Noel stuck out his hands, and all nine books landed in his arms at once.

“Shall we see what Master Abara knew?” Edward asked.

Master Abara knew a lot.

The Banishing of Ghosts was created by the Fae, in a failed attempt to guard their people against disembodied beings— spirits, a long lost race of human, never meant to have corporeal form, but who became so consumed by all of the bodily pleasures they could never experience that they tried countless ways of incorporating, through all manner of magic, including through—

“Possession,” Noel said quietly. “That would explain why Harvey thought it might work, wouldn’t it?”

“The Felimi have lost some of their memories over time, but very few about magic, Young Noel, I assure you,” Edward scowled. “Read why it failed. See how. Then decide if they told my Omdrella about its faults or not when they taught him this banishing.”

“You have read this book?” Noel asked, though he supposed he should not have been surprised.

“Do you believe I would allow someone to suffer a forbidden magic of my people without doing everything I might to help him? Even if he was an outsider?” the old man said. “Do you think I would allow one of my own to suffer, as Young Isabella has, knowing somehow she failed to perform the possession to its completion, without searching for her salvation? I have done everything I can, for both of you. If you do not believe me, you may read all of the forbidden works that were created by all of the races of humankind, in an attempt to thwart possession, as you are the future Mardraim.”

“Why and how did the banishing fail?” Noel sighed, shutting the book, handing it over to the elder, to replace it on its shelf.

Edward gave him a funny look before answering, “It kept spirits at bay for a time, but they managed to find ways to overcome the Itri Fahmat. However, it is a more pertinent fact that the banishing never worked properly for those who were already possessed. In fact, it had the opposite effect of increasing the intensity of obsession.”

Noel breathed out a great puff. “You believe Harvey knew?”

“I believe Young Harvey returns to the cloister every evening, when he should be sleeping.”

“But he is so concerned for Issa. Why would he give me a ward that would increase my obsession? And why does that amulet work to make me feel as though I am separate from her if the banishing does not work?”

“The Garden Gate and Lock and Key would need to be bound to the physical within you and are enough to provide a certain level of relief, if they are also bound to your possessor. It does not release you from the possession, but only erects a gateway within you, a gate for which whose lock you are the key. This particular lock,” he held up the amulet, “is bound against Issa and the key is bound to you. It protects you against many of the powers of my people, as the powers of my people are all invasive to the soul, by their nature. But they would not work quite so well, if she had performed the possession to its fullness.

“Noel Loveridge, I believe my people discovered a way to fully possess the bodies of others, to be able to take physical form, to exist as you see us today. This knowledge of what we once were was lost to us or hidden from us, I cannot be certain. But I believe that taking bodily form is what disrupted the flow of our memories from one incorporation to the next, costing us tremendous power that we never regained as a people, perhaps even causing the instability in Om that allowed you to make your way here. Righting Om’s Way might undo all of that. If the Mothers, the first Children of Danguin, are the ones who discovered the full power of possession, they would have a lot to lose by that truth coming out. They would have everything to lose.”

“And nothing to lose in seeing to my death, even if they had to openly defy Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, in attempting to take my life when I escaped Moag,” Noel hissed.

“They would have nothing to gain by protecting Young Isabella, but Young Harvey would,” Edward nodded. “He is an incredibly intelligent and vastly powerful empath, Ohamet, and adept at more magic than I can name. I cannot say how he found out what our people once were, if he found out, but I assume his nightly visits to the Felimi have everything to do with what happened to him in Moag.”

“He should not have survived.”

“He should not have survived,” Edward agreed.

“But he wants to save Issa,” Noel insisted. “I know they care deeply for each other. He will not let her go. He will do his best to keep her from all harm.”

“Of this I have no doubt,” the elder answered. “If increasing your obsession results in your death, and he feels he has some way to help her not suffer the consequences as your possessor, he would do anything for her, even against Mdonyatra and Ftdonya. He has been willing to do anything for her in every lifetime the two of them have ever lived.”

“And she has been willing to do anything for him,” Noel grumbled, knowing Issa had accidentally taken Harvey’s place in the prophecy of Moag that was Noel’s to complete. “If you knew all of this, why did you not take the time to tell me, from the beginning? Why did you have me working with him every day?”

“Because I do not believe he means to harm you. If he says he will take over the possession, as you say, and he can find a way, he will do it, even at the cost of his own mortal soul, to save her.”

“Did the Felimi tell him about what would happen to me? Do you believe they did?”

The elder nodded, handing Noel his useless charm. “Telling Young Harvey would serve their purpose and his. It would more quickly destroy you, and it would make you protect Young Isabella.”

Noel had to know the Mardraim knew his people far better than he could. He had to believe what Edward said was right. “What should I do?” he asked quietly. “I cannot use these wards, and I cannot trust Harvey to protect me, unless protecting me protects Issa. You believe he means to find a way to trade one possession for the other, as he said. Should I trust that? What happens if we fail?”

Edward grimaced, looking down at the floor as he pondered Noel’s chances. It was a long while before he looked up and said quietly, “I trust you to protect Young Isabella, Noel Loveridge, and I know Young Harvey could easily have made a charm of the wards we know worked, to ease your burden and hers. You must decide for yourself what to do about my Omdrella, whether you would continue to follow him or cut all ties. I can say that if there is a means for Young Harvey to take over the possession, it was not known by any Mardraim who transcribed the works of Danguin Fahmat, however if a magic exists or can be created to accomplish this, it will belong to the Spirit people, and if the Felimi are who I believe they are, they may be the only ones who would know for certain or be capable of showing my grandson the way.”

The old man’s brow drew low over his eyes, and he continued, “It may be necessary to make for you an amulet of those wards we know work to some extent, but even knowing how your condition has worsened, I must ask you for your help, and it will require a great sacrifice, as you will have to work closely with Issa without the wards. The link…”

“Who is it?” Noel asked at last, the fear it was Issa so far removed from him, after so much discovery, that he had forgotten all about it.

“It would be better if I did not tell you,” Edward smiled painfully. “It would make your task a grave deal more difficult. But you must know, it is one of your friends— one of the twelve you named.”

Noel turned and flew from the room at once, returning to the desk, where Edward left the drawing. As Noel picked it up and began to scan the faces of those pictured there, the elder appeared beside him.

“You will not find his face, Young Noel,” the old Mardraim whispered.

“But you said he is here!” Who was it? Phileas? Murph? His heart was barreling in his chest.

Edward touched his arm. “Young Isabella saw your friend’s death through his eyes, Ohamet,” he said. “She lived it.”

____________________________________________

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, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37, Pt. 38, Pt. 39

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