Tag Archives: stories about beasts

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 29

The Shape of Darkness

Noel blinked twice, and the darkness before him unfolded into forms vaguely familiar. A black as vast as the space between stars grew up as the walls of stone around him. A black flowing deep as the gaping underbelly of the ocean at midnight, became the smooth trail of the centuries of Mardraim, leading back to the safety of the Danguin Villages. The black that beckoned him forth with a nightmarish chill- its color otherworldly, unfathomable, indelible- was Moag.

Noel drew in an uncertain, black breath and watched as the well of darkness surrounding him breathed a familiar sigh in return. He took up his rucksack, bowels constricted, hand pulsing at his side, and managed a tentative step forward, feeling the pull of Moag, like an anchor weighing against his soul, dragging him ever downward… claiming ownership of him. It was only a matter of time before he drowned. As prophesied, he thought, taking a few more uneasy steps, swallowing against the urge—not his own—to wander off with reckless abandon, into that eternal shade, to know the blackness, as though it somehow might be known, if only one dwelt deep enough and long enough within.

No matter how often he and Isabella danced this thin line between here and the hereafter, Noel doubted he would ever get used to the effect Moag had on the woman or the effect it had on him, by nature of his increasing obsession with her. She longed for the darkness with a tender, black ache, so a tender, black ache Noel could barely control was cultivated inside him, its abysmal tendrils spreading through him as the roots of woman’s possession grew deeper within.

Edward was distracted, Noel decided, tensing his jaw against his fear of the future, shaking away the shadow he imagined coursing through his veins as he pulled from his pack the roughly-bound leather book the old man had given him the first night he set off in search. Of what, he was not certain, but he was Ohamet, after all, the one who wanders, always searching, so he suspected it was bound to happen. It was still strange to him the idea that the empathic among the Danguin could sense was at the soul of a person, but he knew they were right about him.

He turned open the book, and the buff colored pages gave off what appeared at first as a subtle glow, before fading into the general gloom of its surroundings, remaining just bright enough to see the map he had begun and his rough sketches of the thing that had plagued him since first setting foot in Namcha Barwa. He doubted anyone else would understand what they were looking at, if they happened across his work, considering the line drawings, while giving depth and detail to a degree, hardly conveyed what Moag actually looked like, let alone what it felt like, at least to Noel. He could always feel it, its presence a constant thrumming inside him.

While recounting, for Edward, his first experience with Moag, Noel made point of mentioning that there was a brief moment, as the light of Hestia’s flame dimmed and was all but extinguished by that insidious black, when he was certain he saw Moag breathing. This came as a shock to Edward, and the two of them debated whether or not it was possible Moag might be some sort of living creature, an idea the elder wasn’t too keen on, considering his devotion to Om and adherence to the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya. Edward was troubled that Moag existed at all, so he struggled to quantify it, in face of the destruction of so many of Om’s prophecies. The elder had described Moag as the reflection of Om, the shadow of Om, even rather pithily as the backside of Om, but he was adamant it could not possibly be a force equal to or greater than Om unless it was in fact Om, itself, and Om could not be seen—Om was not merely some worldly creature. Of course, Noel asked about the water, in the chamber where the Mdrai deciphered Om’s intent. As best he could tell, with their difficulty communicating between three languages, the elder believed Om’s Waters behaved as some sort of amplifier for the Way, which Om set into motion at the dawn of time.

Even though the old man did not want to believe Moag was alive, when it was time for Noel to start searching the tunnels for the exit, Edward gave him the book, an inkwell, and fountain pen to make his map, then suggested Noel allow his eyes to acclimate to the dark, rather than using a torch to see by. After all, he told him, Noel didn’t really need much light in the first place, and it would only get in the way if they really wanted to understand what Moag consisted of. Noel thought the old man had properly cracked, but as Edward explained it, “Everyone knew,” elves had naturally enhanced vision in the dark. Unfortunately, Noel assured the man, this “everyone” did not include the elves themselves, as this was news to him.

The ability wasn’t magic, per se, but rather a biological characteristic, which Noel suspected had mostly been bred out of his people, after the Fall, as elfin bloodlines thinned, which was why most elves used the electric inventions of men, out of convenience, or fire, when necessary, to light their way. It turned out Noel had this enhanced visibility, though the muscle that controlled it was weak at first, but using his sense of Moag, he was able to hone it. These past few evenings, as he worked, his eyes grew stronger, his vision sharper, the darkness clearer. He could, in fact, see Moag, and it was definitely moving, even if it wasn’t a living, breathing being (though Noel still had his suspicions about this).

The old man was using him, Noel thought as he set off down the path he had begun exploring first, doing his best to ignore Isabella Asan’s longing and the song of imminent doom, which thumped a rowing beat in his chest. He followed the edge of Moag, moving quick but cautiously, checking his map and sketches as he went, to make certain nothing much had changed from the previous night. Moag was not actually mobile, as far as he could tell, rather it continuously shifted from one evening to the next, as though it was made up of some sort of fluid that clung to the air, its slight ebb and flow lending Noel the idea that it was something like a cloud and perhaps more like Om’s water than the Mardraim would ever accept. Unlike Moag, Noel could not feel Om, or at least he had not felt it when he went to the chamber to speak with the Mdrai about the Book of Ages. Moag, on the other hand, wanted him. If he had not felt the thing so deeply, he doubted he ever would have noticed it as anything more relevant than a shadow. But Moag was easily the most frightening thing he had ever known, its visceral grip on both him and his possessor only growing stronger with each day that passed.

“We should be testing the wards,” he whispered into the darkness, as though Isabella was listening. And perhaps she was.

Noel was certain Edward knew he wasn’t actually out searching for the exit. Three nights ago, he’d had every intention of finding his escape route as quickly as possible, just as the Mardraim said, but the more he studied the darkness, the more he could see there was definitive substance to it, the more he knew the exit had to wait. It was as though the something stronger than Moag, stronger than Isabella and stronger , even, than any desire he might have to survive had woken up deep in his gut, and his gut told him he needed to go deeper into the mountain, where Moag was more concentrated. There were answers to be found there. So he wandered.

Maybe the old man hadn’t known from the beginning what Noel would do, but Edward was an empath. There was no way he couldn’t feel this intensity that Noel felt, no way he couldn’t tell Noel had not gone back to the entrance to the tunnels near the Danguin village to study some other path, which would have been the sensible thing to do, if he was really looking for the way out. He supposed he understood why Edward had done it, why he continued to lie to Noel and perhaps even to himself about what was really going on in that mountain, but that didn’t mean the elder wasn’t wrong for leaving Isabella vulnerable to Noel’s whims, anymore than he wasn’t wrong for leaving Noel vulnerable to Isabella. Noel wasn’t using his perceptions of Moag to find his way out of the mountain. The map to the exit wasn’t the purpose of any of this, they both knew it, and to act as though it was somehow about getting one over on the Felimi while plotting his eventual escape was manipulative and more than a tad insulting, if truth be told. Sure, he was not being forthright with Edward either, but the Mardraim wasn’t trying to help Noel gain his freedom or even trying to keep him out of the way while he worked to figure out how to right their destinies. He was simply using him, like he was using Isabella for the prophecies, because he knew Noel could see the shape of the darkness.

“I can’t be angry at that, can I?” Noel sighed. “Not considering all these people, totally unaware they’re surrounded by this… What are you, anyway? Are you a god? Some sort of demonic mist?” he asked the dark, knowing it was foolish to tempt the thing to an answer, but he was annoyed and frustrated and plain knackered. “What do we truly know about you?”

They knew, or at least accepted as fact, that years ago, the boy, Eri, had been lost to Moag, he thought, continuing to make his way through the darkness. One of the Felimi, the Mardraim at the time of the boy’s disappearance, and the boy’s father had all been lost as well, drawn out in an instant and through all of eternity, like they were swallowed by some black hole. Given the divine providence of the Children of Danguin and their reverence for Om, one would think every person in that mountain would know all about the mysterious black monster lurking in the tunnels of their home, waiting to devour body and soul of any who wandered too near, erasing not just their lives, but whole destinies promulgated by their deity, Om—and Om was their deity. The Danguin worshiped it. Their entire lives revolved around it. Had the Felimi had covered up the disappearances and Moag’s existence in order to protect their precious water god? Was Moag, in fact, more powerful?

The Felimi, Noel thought, his stomach tightening anxiously as he recalled the words that had come out of his mouth, not half an hour ago, forced out by ideas that didn’t at all belong to him, but rather to his possessor. It was clear Isabella had issue with the blind Mothers. What had they done to her, he wondered, and what did the youngest of the Mothers mean when she said, “Edward suspects?” Noel had been half tempted to ask the Madraim if he knew what she referred to, but at the same time, the fact Isabella’s thoughts came through to him, so clearly he could speak them out loud, against his own will, made his skin crawl. He decided it best not to say anything more about it, out of fear it would give her more control over him. They needed the wards, desperately, but while he hated to admit it to himself, Edward was right that there were more important things to worry about at the moment than Isabella’s possession of him, and they had no idea how the wards would affect her. He just hoped she would have the courtesy to keep her thoughts out of his mouth, until they could right this mess he had created.

As if in defiance, the image of the Middle Mother staring at him with blind eyes, reaching out and grasping at the air that composed him, flashed through his mind, and he was forced to stop and catch his breath, to make sense of the memory. The woman looked scared, angry, and as confused as Isabella had been, to find herself lingering there outside of her body.

“Her soul,” Noel hissed, shivering at the thought. “It was her soul, and that Mother could see her, blind or not.”

The Felimi worried others would find out what Isabella had done. They expected her to die alone, tucked away in a cold, dank room in their cloister, while Noel was taking his time being destroyed by Moag. They expected Noel would die too. Isabella had cried out to him, begging him to hurry. Harvey came and carried her away, to the very edge of Moag, laid her down at the entrance, and stepped into the darkness.

“Enough,” Noel said, shaking his head at the errant thoughts.

At least Isabella seemed to share in his distrust of the Felimi. Did Edward still want to know why they hid the truth of Moag for so long, or had he only been placating him for the sake of attaining the map? Had the old man decided it wasn’t worth the effort to question what really happened to Eri? Noel supposed the Felimi’s part in all of this didn’t really matter much now. Even if they never uncovered why the blind Mothers hid Moag’s existence years ago, the Mardraim had a responsibility to his people today to find out everything he could about the thing, to know exactly where it lingered, and to decide whether he too would bury whatever truth Noel managed to discover about the dark force, Om’s opposite, as he wandered.

That was why Edward was willing to ignore what Noel was doing, Noel thought as he came to the fork in the tunnels where he stopped working the previous night. Maybe he would look for the way out, eventually, but for now, even if Edward was too uncertain of Noel to be honest about his intentions, Noel was doing exactly what Noel needed to do, and this was where his gut had taken him.

The depth of the black that loomed in the tunnels before him made the place Noel was standing seem bright as the night under a full moon.

Which way should he go?

On that matter, his gut was silent. Both branches were far too dark for him to make out anything that might be inside. So far he had passed seven tunnels like these, marking them in his book for later exploration, but always knowing that wasn’t where he was meant to go. Now he was at a loss. Perhaps he could go either way and get to the same place? Or maybe there was supposed to be some answer right there where he stood, but that seemed unlikely.

Isabella simply wanted to dive in.

Noel desperately wished Edward would have agreed to try the wards. The woman made it difficult at times to discern his own sense from hers. At least if they used the wards, she would be protected from Moag, he thought, his mind whirring with anxiety as he looked around, hoping for some clue as to what he was to do next. Why was he here?

The fear crept in. Fear of how she had taken some modicum of control before. Fear of the feeling she was not wandering, like him, but searching for something tangible, an answer she thought Noel possessed. Maybe this was her, leading him by the proverbial nose after all, and he should turn back before she got them both killed?

No… No. One way or another, he expected he would wind up right back here, of his own accord or of hers. They both felt it, he thought. The way was right there in front of them, but neither seemed to know which path was right. So Noel stood there, staring into the black, just as he had done the night before, for the better part of an hour, knowing Moag was waiting, in both paths, but not knowing if both paths were completely blocked, or if it was simply that he had reached the limitations of his night vision and his sense of Moag.

What the hell could Isabella be searching for in there, he wondered? Was she even sane enough to know? For that matter, was Noel himself sane, following a gut feeling through this wretched darkness after everything that had happened? The fact he had to ask himself that question did nothing to quell the nerves that bubbled up inside him.

Noel closed his eyes and waited, hoping for some clarity. He took several calming breaths and relaxed his fist, which he had kept tight at his side the whole time, as though he clung to his possessor’s hand, half hoping she would save him, as she had done before, which was a ridiculous thing to count on, considering Isabella wanted nothing more than to go either way, though he got an unpleasant sense the tunnel on the left was preferable to the one on the right.

“Ah, the tunnel to the left,” he smiled, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that to take that path would be dangerous, perhaps even perilous.

What was he to do? Should he trust this inkling of his obsession, or should he go off the other way, just in case?

Without much more thought than that, he hurried for the left branch, stopping just where the outcropping of rocks disappeared into the deepening blackness. That things just kept getting darker, the further he explored was unsettling, but this was it. This was definitely where he needed to go. He couldn’t exactly make up his mind how he knew this. There was definitely something else there behind the feeling, besides Isabella Asan and separate from Moag. It was as though he was being guided again, he supposed, just as he had been guided when he first came to the summit, to search for the entrance to the mountain, except now he could feel himself being pushed forward, urged on, and the mountain wasn’t trying to break him in order to make him go the right way, which was a positive.

He could feel it now. Was it really just Isabella calling out to him in the darkness again, so he could follow her voice to their ultimate destruction? Was it the lure of Moag hoping to devour him at last?

No, he had seen this before.

This was the black he saw in the Dreaming, hoping to find answers about the Last Hope of the Elves.

Was the push he felt Om guiding him against it’s will, again?

As his pulse increased, so did his breathing, until he was practically panting with nerves, sweat wetting his hair, trickling down the narrow ridge of his spine. He forced himself to slow down inside and find his center again, knowing he would need to focus now more than ever, so he could react in an instant if the pull of Moag took hold of him or he felt Isabella was in danger.

On a dry swallow, he lifted his hand into the darkness before him, half expecting to be drawn into some mad prophecy, wondering how Isabella would react, how Moag would react, what Edward would learn from the woman in the morning, whether she would receive more prophecies, and if any of them would live through any of this to tell the tale.

He waited at least a minute, though it felt what he imagined an eternity felt like, but nothing happened.

Giving a small chuckle at the intensity of his fear, his hand still outstretched before him, Noel stepped over one of the smaller boulders scattered in front of the entrance. His eyes tried to refocus on his hand, but it was so dark, everything was a blur around him, and it seemed the very air was moving, like shadows of monsters stirring, all around him, festering in the depths of that unforgiving black.

“Curious,” Noel whispered, stepping further into the deepening darkness, hoping to see more shades of darkness manifest before him and not to be swallowed up by Moag.

His heart pounded, his ears rang, his very soul stretched out in anticipation.

Isabella longed.

Whatever she was searching for was buried deeper still in this impossible maze, he thought. Did she know which way to go, or was she simply guessing? Were they searching for the same thing?

Noel stopped, dropping his hand to his side. “Actually, that is curious,” he said out loud and waited for the echo, a voice not his own, to return to him. There was no reply.

He took another step, and when his eyes shifted at last, he realized that he had come nose to intangible nose with the greatest absence of light imaginable, the very thing that frightened him to the core of his being, so black it looked like a solid mass of emptiness before him. But this thing was so much different than the Moag he first met, he thought, lifting his fingers to its surface, stopping short of touching it.

His breath came heavy now, and he watched it hit the surface of Moag and swirl like a fog that hung thick on a spring morning. Quickly he tucked the pencil and notebook back in his pack. The absence of the book’s faint glimmer made it possible to see the very edge of Moag, creeping silent before him, moving gently toward him, as though it were caught in a tide, drawn to him by his gravity.

Silent, Noel thought, bringing his fingers closer still to the blackness, so that they were almost touching. Where the tips of his fingers nearly grazed its surface, Moag stretched slowly toward him, ever so slightly, as though to greet him.

But it had been anything but silent the first time Noel encountered it. When he first found himself lost in the darkness, he had the vision of Isabella, a prophecy he guessed, of the woman’s death, the sand pouring out of her mouth and eyes and navel. As he continued in search for the home of the seers who foretold of the Last Hope, the darkness grew so thick around him that even Hestia’s Eternal Flame could not penetrate it and was snuffed out. The deeper he went, the more horrible memories Moag pulled from his mind, replaying them for him in the miserable black, as though frightening Noel was some kind—

“—Of game,” Noel whispered into the dark, his fingers poised.

“Eri?” he added after a long moment, waiting, but there was no reply.

Was Isabella searching for Eri?

Noel swallowed the lump in his throat and realized the woman was like a squall within him, surging against the edges of him, willing him to run.

He actually laughed out loud, “Oh, you want to go the other way now? Should have said so in the first place.”

If she didn’t want to go into Moag, what did she want? What was in there that she needed to know so desperately? What was in there that Noel was wandering to find?

The beat of his heart and his quickening breaths had his mind muddled. “This is madness,” he hissed, shaking his head against Isabella, against himself, against everything. “I’m supposed to go this way!”

But he didn’t want to go through Moag anymore than Isabella did, no matter what his gut or Om told him. He swore loudly against the insanity of it all, trying to clear his mind.

Moag had changed, he thought, bouncing on the balls of his feet several times before stopping, pressing his lips together. He swore, then thrust his hand, into the black, watching in awe as it morphed around him, and his arm, past his elbow, completely disappeared.

This was a terrible mistake.

In the span of a heartbeat, Isabella was writhing in agony inside him. Though he did not hear her, he felt her scream rip through him, her cry vibrating against every cell in his being, and before he knew exactly what he was doing, he found himself running the opposite way, back toward the Mardraim’s hold, back toward the path to the Danguin villages, back to Isabella Asan.

He barely got his light well fully formed around him before he was bursting out into the open, tearing off through the trees, not even bothering to stick to the road in his hurry. He had to get to her. He had to help her. Moag was killing her, killing her again, and it was all his fault, he thought, pushing up from the ground, dodging as many branches as he could, while leaves whipped against his flesh, as he took to the air.

In mere moments he was coming down from the sky, landing so hard in Isabella’s front garden that his knees buckled in pain and he fell to the ground. What had he done? What had he done? Quick as he could, he scrambled to his feet, ignoring the sting of fresh wounds on his knees and hands, already hurrying toward the porch steps before he looked up to find her standing there in the doorway, at once wild as fire and delicate as a moon beam, her face expressionless, as she watched him with eyes, black as Moag.

Mortal gods, she was beautiful.

Dumbstruck, Noel stumbled to a halt before reaching the porch, then in his confusion he took several steps back. Her scream still coursed through him, burning his insides. He felt her terror, as his own. He felt her rage, as his own. He even felt her stare, her eyes fixed upon him, yet somehow not seeing him, even though she was looking right at him. It was almost as though he could see himself through her eyes, standing there looking like a right idiot, because although he felt these things of her, she seemed perfectly fine, absolutely well, not at all as though she was dying.

Of course, she can’t see me, Noel thought, turning around in a circle, checking his light well. Yes, that was intact. But her eyes were transfixed on him anyway, and she was still fierce with madness inside him, yet she stood so still, so silent.

Noel shuddered, and in that moment of panic, he took two long steps to the left.

Isabella’s dark eyes followed him, but otherwise, it was as though she was absent, gone deep within, to a place where no one else could feel her, just as the Mardraim had said. No one else could feel her… except for Noel.

He shuddered again, for good measure. He couldn’t understand. He couldn’t balance the things that he felt of her now, deep within himself, the fury and agony and pure hatred of him, with the way she simply stood there, motionless and devoid of any outward sign of life, save perhaps the fact that she had made a point of meeting him there at the door, like she knew he was coming. How long had she been standing there?

It was only then that the thought occurred to him, Isabella likely couldn’t see him at all, but could feel him through her possession of him, the way he felt her. She may even have brought him there herself, after all, he had been drawn to her before, felt her love of Harvey, felt her despair at the idea of his death in Moag.

Suddenly, he realized she was everywhere inside him. Anger rising in him, he shook his head, to get rid of the eerie sense of watching himself through her eyes, turned and ran down the road to Edward’s hut without stopping. Minutes later, he was trembling, stood over the water basin, scrubbing handfuls of water over his face trying to wash Isabella away, but her presence was pronounced within him, and now she did not just occupy his hand, but rather it was like she was affixed within him, all over him.

“What have I done?” he whispered, the remnant of the woman’s scream like a ringing in his ears that reverberated through every cell of him. “What the bloody hell is happening to me?”

He went and sat on his palette, letting the water drip off his hair and his nose onto the floor, pulling his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around himself, trying to wrap his head around everything that happened. But there was no understanding any of it.

“We must test the wards,” he hissed after several long minutes, knowing that was the only answer.

He ran his hands roughly through his hair and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Noel lay down, but stared up at the ceiling of the hut for a long while before voicing out loud the truth, “I must test the wards.”

When he finally drifted off, perhaps an hour later, he dreamt he was Isabella Asan. The evening was cool, the village silent, and she had just opened her door to step out onto her porch for some fresh air, when she looked up and found herself, a faint indigo form, like a whisper, standing there in the garden, staring back at herself with a look of marked confusion and venom on her ethereal face. She did not believe what she saw could be real, instead attributing the apparition to her troubled mind, constantly plagued with prophecies she could not piece together and the unending presence of the wanderer. But she was just preparing to shut her self in again, put out the lantern, and get some necessary rest, when the faint whisper took two large steps to the right. She screamed, startling herself awake.

Noel was startled awake as well.

It was the wee hours of the morning, and Edward Frank had not yet returned from his hold.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 28

Hey guys! I just wanted to let you know I redid this chapter because I was extremely unsatisfied with the way it turned out.  In truth, I had been very sick, since December, and was struggling to produce anything, when I posted the original version of Chapter 28 in January, just wanting to get something out there. After months of doctors visits and recovery, I am feeling better now, and more importantly, I think this chapter is so much better after the rewrite.  So enjoy!

Burdens to Bear

“I had hoped to find her condition improved, unfortunately Young Isabella is still much too weak and disturbed,” Edward sighed as Noel tossed himself down on the overstuffed sofa late that evening and pressed his palms into his eyes, rubbing out the exhaustion. The villages of the Danguin had been dark and silent for several hours. Knowing it would be hours more yet before he would get any sleep, Noel pulled a piece of speckled fruit from his sleeve pocket, picked off the lint and popped it in his mouth.

The old man sat at his desk, his shoulders slumped. Their work was beginning to take its toll on the elder. Edward’s eyes, ordinarily bright and smiling, even in the most serious of situations, had the dull look that came from lack of rest and too many hours spent pondering things beyond his control. If the look on his face was any indication, Noel was not going to like what the man had to say about that morning’s meeting with Isabella Asan.

“Disturbed?” Noel jested gruffly, then swallowed, chuckling to himself. He could think of several ways the woman’s possession of him might have been a pleasurable experience, if she weren’t, in fact, quite disturbed. As it was, her irritation had only increased these past few nights, as Noel ventured further into the dark and winding tunnels, mapping out the edges of Moag when he was supposed to be mapping the path of his eventual escape. The endeavor drained him, physically and mentally, and left him with the terrifying feeling that part of him was slowly being siphoned away, though he hoped this was just paranoia. What Isabella felt… well, that was different.

Noel had known Edward’s meeting with the woman would not go well the moment the elder said he must check on her before they could begin testing the wards. That morning, as he continued his lessons with Harvey, he sensed just how poorly their meeting went. As was usually the case during the daylight hours, enervated buzzes coursed through his fingertips as Isabella’s mind raced from one extreme to the next, pausing now and then to let Noel know she was there and she truly blamed him for all of this, but this time, there was something different about her. It was almost as though he could sense her searching for something, digging into Noel as though he held all the answers. Harvey asked him twice what was wrong with his hand as they worked, but all he could offer in his defense was that he must have slept on it funny. He doubted the man believed him. Every day it was getting more difficult to ignore the will of his possessor. This was expected. Her madness was not.

Edward stuffed a wad of tobacco into his skinny pipe carved of bone, answering seriously, “She is not fully aware of what she is doing at all times, Young Noel. I believe it unwise, even cruel, to attempt what might further her injuries or worsen her hysteria. The wards must wait until she is better.” The golden glow of flame flickered momentarily lighting up his face, as clouds of lavender tinged smoke billowed around his head like a flowing mane.

Noel tightened his jaw, inhaled deep and let the breath out slowly through his nose, sitting up to face the old Mardraim properly. What they had to do involved a certain element of risk, of course, but they both knew there was no alternative to the wards, and the fact of the matter was Isabella Asan might never get better. Moag had addled her mind, and while thankfully it appeared not to have had the same effect on Harvey or Noel, the text on possession, locked up in the highest room of the Mardraim’s conservatory, made it clear that Noel was in significant danger, and would have been even if Isabella had not utterly lost her mind. The book made no mention of any cure for possession, but they knew the wards at least alleviated some of Noel’s sense of the woman’s presence. They had to try them eventually. Besides, surely it was a greater risk for him to continue testing the boundaries of Moag without taking any precautions to protect her while she was in such a warped and fragile state.

“I no wish her harm, Edward,” Noel said, leaving off the fact he did not relish the thought of any harm coming to himself, either, though he was certain the empath could sense as much, as the old man raised a skeptical brow in answer. “She feels Moag when I come here. I feel her and know. We know wards work. They help her.”

“We know wards, in some form, work for you,” Edward puffed at his pipe, grimacing as though aware this could not possibly be enough for the Wanderer. “We have no idea what happens to Young Isabella during those times you are warded. Her condition might worsen beyond our control.”

Noel shrugged uneasily. Her condition was already worsening, and they both knew it. The past three nights he had grown increasingly aware that Isabella was desperate to return to Moag, that she would give anything if Noel would just step into the depths, if only for a moment. He had managed to restrain her so far, but he feared what might happen as the bond between them strengthened, as was bound to happen. If Isabella figured out how to take control of Noel’s body, she might force him to do anything she wished, but losing physical control of himself was hardly the worst effect of possession. From what little Edward had shared from the book locked up high in the tower, Noel was aware there were a myriad of reasons this particular Fahmat was forbidden, but the most offensive these is the obsessor’s eventual loss of all faculty as the possessor becomes responsible for her victim’s most basic of functions. If the wards didn’t work, and they found no way to sever the connection between Noel and Isabella, Noel was destined to go mental too, never mind Moag.

“We test wards. We find out,” he implored.

“I am accountable to my people, Young Noel. We will test the wards when I believe Young Isabella is ready.” Edward let out a trying sigh and opened the journal in which he had been taking notes since Noel’s arrival. “Until then, be content to bear this burden.”

Bear this burden, Noel thought, grumbling under his breath. It was not as though he was the only one with a burden to bear in this. Isabella was suffering too, and the Mardraim knew it, but as Noel looked back at the old man, prepared to argue their case once more, he noted the deep shadow of concern that marred the elder’s face. Something more was troubling him. “What happened today, Master Frank?” Noel asked quietly.

This had become a nightly ritual for the two, meeting in the Mardraim’s secret hold, while the rest of the mountain slept, discussing progress, but making little.

The Mdrai had yet to discover anything new regarding the Last Hope prophecy, but it was early days yet, and Edward warned Noel from the beginning this would be a considerable undertaking. The Hall of Records housed millions of books of prophecy, spanning thousands of years. To make matters worse, the books were not organized and cataloged for ease of use, when searching for a specific event, which was why the Mdrai had not managed to find Noel’s book when Harvey Frank first felt him during his flight to the mountain. Though most of the books had at least one name on the spine, many of them contained multiple lifetimes of the same being, allegedly reincarnated over generations, and it was often impossible to tell which version of a person’s self would experience what prophecy when.

As though rebirth wasn’t enough to confuse matters completely, the books were written primarily to improve the study of the Veils, or signs as given by Om to the seers, or Zhe, who saw them. To that end, the books were arranged by prophetic relation to one another, which made sense if one understood that the prophecies were recorded by the Danguin people, not so that they could control or even bear witness to outcomes, but alone in reference and reverence to their water god Om. In a long-forgotten past, the Danguin traded on this wisdom, but they had not done so in thousands of years, certainly not since they began keeping written records of the knowledge Om shared, as their abilities began to wane, around the time of the Fall. For their purposes, they had no need of understanding the vagaries of people’s lives, so the prophecies as written gave no indication of dates or times, places, or even the races of their subjects, unless it happened that information was clearly discernible, from among the Veils. The factual basis of the prophecies as they unfolded out in the real world was relatively moot, which meant all the Mdrai could do was pull random books from any given shelf and pray they would quickly come across something that ruled each subject in or out, with regards to their search. Under the circumstances, it could take them many months to uncover the Prophecy of the Last Hope among their records… if it existed in the first place… if it was not among the lengthening list of things Noel changed in coming to the mountain. And there had been significant changes.

To help them understand just how much of the future Noel had altered, he had given Edward the names of twelve Nobles, which proved mostly useless, except in confirming the fact that he had done more harm than good in coming there. The Mardraim would not share with him any specifics of what was found in the twelve books, but of course, the Danguin were guarded when discussing the knowledge of Om, even with each other, so giving Noel details was simply out of the question. He supposed it was enough to know that, although there had been several changes among his friends’ prophecies, he had not managed to completely erase their futures in coming there, as had been the case with Edward’s, Harvey’s, Isabella’s, and his own. Unfortunately, there was no mention of stones or of long awaited heroines among their texts, though Edward assured him this meant very little, as many prophecies were relatively mundane in nature, and often it was only when an event passed that the augurs recognized a prophecy’s true significance. It would take time, but once the Mardraim had finished with Noel’s and his own books, the old man intended to reconsider all of the unwritten prophecies in the books of Noel’s friends, in an attempt to decipher their potential meanings in relation to the Veils and the countless other prophecies the Mdrai were discovering had been unwritten as they searched the Hall of Records. Only then would they discuss whether Noel should give him more names, though Noel was concerned about giving away too much to begin with, and disconcerting as it was, Edward did not seem at all confident the answers they sought would be found, even if they somehow managed to read every book the abundant collection had to offer.

In his first week’s work with Harvey, Noel’s use of the old Elfish language had improved somewhat, however he had learned nothing about whatever it was the man might be hiding, and in truth, he was beginning to think Edward was simply paranoid. Harvey did not speak of Moag, but if their experiences in the darkness were anything alike, Noel could hardly blame him for being tight-lipped on the matter, and in truth, Noel was not certain how to even broach the subject, so he didn’t (but of course, he secretly hoped the topic would never come up, so the fact it didn’t was rather convenient). The younger Frank did not ask the many questions that Noel expected, considering everything that had happened. He did not ask about Noel’s meeting with the Mdrai, he did not ask about the prophecy in the Book of Ages, and he had not shown the remotest curiosity in what it was the Mdrai were searching for in the Hall of Records, but then Harvey was an empath, and a terribly powerful one according to Edward. Perhaps he already knew everything there was to know or thought Noel couldn’t possibly offer him any useful information, which was likely true, as Noel was relatively clueless, all things considered. However, it seemed more likely that, motivated by the strict laws of his people, Harvey understood it was not his place, even as aspirant, to infringe upon the work of his Masters by demanding answers, even of the Wanderer. As far as Noel was concerned, withholding the truth from one’s grandfather was hardly a criminal offense, and though he had found Harvey could be far too serious at times, Noel was beginning to grow fond of the fellow.

For his part, Harvey had begun teaching Noel the ways of Om and the deeply religious precepts recorded in the Mdonyatra, as well as learning English from Noel, as the Felimi instructed. Through this study Noel was learning more of the language of the Danguin, though not nearly enough to understand conversations between locals, and he had yet to learn anything of their system of writing, which meant he was no closer to discovering which books in the Mardraim’s retreat might contain forgotten Elfin magic, not that he had much spare time to search. Luckily, the books weren’t going anywhere, and neither was Noel— not without answers, which seemed only to prove more elusive as the days passed.

Now Noel listened patiently as Edward told of his visit with Isabella Asan.

When he first arrived at her hut that morning, the elder found the woman staring out the window in a catatonic state, unaware anyone was watching her as she stood lost in whatever cracked world it was Moag left tucked away inside her wounded mind. His second knock on her door brought her around, and for a time she was up and alert, pretending as though everything were normal, or as normal as things might be, under the circumstances.

“There were moments when her demeanor was… frightening,” Edward said, leaving the word to hang on the air for a moment as he began scribbling notes on the day, writing down at least twice as much as he shared. “She lapsed in and out of presence, as though deep within her there is a place she retreats to that no one else can possibly reach, even through empathy.” Here he looked up at Noel, as though he might ask a question, but he must have thought better of it, as instead he shook his head and continued, “At times, in the middle of speaking she simply stopped—her words, her movement, her very breath becoming nearly imperceptible—and she remained trapped in this stillness for anywhere from a few moments to, at longest count, nearly an hour before resuming where she left off, as though no time had passed.”

A grim smile set on Edward’s face, as he hesitated. “She had several wounds, on her face and her neck, that were not there when I last saw her,” the elder said, his voice pained. “Her mother informs me these are self-inflicted, though I could have deduced as much from her behavior during the hours I spent at her side.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably, fixing Noel with a sympathetic gaze. “She clawed at the flesh on her hand, tearing the skin away until she bled. Though this should have been painful to her, if she felt anything at all, she gave no indication. In fact, she seemed completely unaware she was harming herself, except occasionally when she noticed the blood and would wipe it away on the front of her gown, before carrying on as though this action was separate from her, as though the blood had never been there.”

Noel suppressed the sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach and came to sit on the arm of the sofa to face the old man properly. Matters were worse than he’d believed. “Which hand?” he asked, squeezing his fingers together into a fist, already certain of the answer.

Edward nodded gravely. “The hand that decayed prior to her death, while you were still deep within Moag.”

Noel swore under his breath, knowing the old man was thinking exactly what he was thinking, as he got up to pace the floor.

In previous days, he shared with Edward everything he remembered about his own experience within Moag, and from the little the woman told them when she first woke from her coma, they knew there were several parallels between Noel’s and Isabella’s encounters with Moag. Both experienced the darkness speaking directly to them, almost in mocking, though Edward was reluctant to say it seemed Moag had a personality. Both experienced visions that seemed to foretell of their deaths—Noel experiencing sand, while Isabella experienced water. In these visions, each brought about the other’s death—Noel by squeezing the life out of the woman, to keep her from struggling, so he could save her from the quicksand, and Isabella by holding Noel under the flood, in order to stop him from calling up the waters from the Wellspring of Om. Both had every intention of saving the other, but at the end of Noel’s vision Isabella became a decaying corpse, her rotting body spilling sand out of every orifice. The sight had been so startling, he shuddered to think of it, even now, because the vision had felt so real at the time.

Now he recalled his sense of dread as he grabbed Isabella’s arm, trying to save her from the shifting sands, her terrified words, “Sim ofit osh,” you are killing us, ringing in his ears. When he finally escaped Moag, he found the woman already dead, her body—that very arm—already black with rot. Even now, he remembered feeling her urgency in his own hand as he hurried to breathe the life back into her. And ever since, he felt her presence stirring there in his fingers, like some addict hallucinating a fragment of her soul crawling beneath his skin. Now she had begun tearing at her own flesh, at that very arm that had been taken by the decay, as if to try and rid herself of their connection. He could hardly blame her, he thought, clenching his fist, knowing she was there with him, knowing she was always there, however quiet she might be.

How long would they allow her to harm herself before the Mardraim would agree to act? “The wards, Edward…” Noel whispered gravely, landing with a huff on the arm of the sofa once more.

“I need more time to understand,” Edward answered plainly. “I must continue to record the prophecies Young Isabella witnessed through Moag. We must make record of all of this, if we ever hope to grasp the things that have happened and set them right.” The old man’s eyes were wild with fear and regret.

“Understand? Edward, records no save her from me,” Noel held his hand out in pleading. As far as he was concerned, they had quite enough prophecy to be getting on with, just dealing with Om. That they might be forced to contend with a separate future ordained by Moag was too much. “I hurt her. I cause this, Edward. I change her. The wards–”

“Moag changed her, Young Noel. You bear no responsibility for that. However, we must attempt to discover what will come next, as you are responsible for this shift in Om’s way.” The elder drew himself up, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk, his sympathetic smile marred by the painful truth in his eyes. He commiserated with their plight, but Isabella’s possession of Noel was the least of his concerns. “If we are to restore our prophecies, we must understand Moag.” It was clear now that Edward believed the prophecies Isabella brought with her from the depths of Moag were the best clues they had as to how they might rewrite the destinies Noel destroyed in coming there, and somehow that should make the nightmarish insanity of their ordeal more bearable—and Noel should bear it contentedly, even knowing the woman might one day walk them both straight into the depths of Moag, ending them both, or that even if she didn’t manage that, Noel could one day expect to find himself a dribbling lunatic, incapable of tending to his own basic needs.

“Edward…” Noel sighed, finding it hard to believe the Mardraim would risk both Isabella’s and Noel’s sanity to right the path of Om.

“I believe there is a great deal more she has yet to tell us. She is simply overwhelmed. I can feel her mind struggling to release itself.”

“You can feel?” Noel barked, losing his patience at last, tears unexpectedly wetting his eyes. Embarrassed and angry, he got to his feet and turned his back to the old man.

“I will tend to her daily from now on,” Edward said quietly. “Hopefully, she will improve soon, at which point we may test the wards, however you must accept it could take years to learn everything she has yet to tell us of Moag.”

“Years?” Noel balked, looking around them in exasperation, imagining himself still there waiting years from now, the arm of the sofa worn from countless nights spent guessing at the meaning of things they would never comprehend, himself an old man smoking from a pipe he had whittled in his restless hours, wondering if Edward was ever going to teach him anything useful, wondering if the Mdrai would ever find the right book among their records, wondering if he would ever escape the hold Moag still seemed to have on him and his possessor, all the while caught in this disastrous flirtation with a mad woman who was, literally, tearing herself apart, knowing it would only be a matter of time before Noel went the same way. And she was a mad woman. If the ramblings of Isabella Asan were in fact prophecies designed by Moag and not delusions, there was little chance of grasping their meaning while she was so lost that she mutilated herself.

Because of me, Noel thought, unable to stop that guilty thought. Because I lived.

“We will find the truth, Young Noel,” Edward answered gently, laying his pipe aside. “We will find your Hope in time, and you will leave here. Have faith.”

Faith.

Noel turned his attention to the roomful of trinkets and oddities, looking for a distraction among the shelves, half-listening as the Mardraim began listing the Moag-born prophecies Isabella shared that day, none of them intelligible, most not even full sentences, all the while wondering if it would not be better for him to find the route to the exit and return with Berfalk and Foote and the rest.

“…born a shelter…”

His lack of faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope is what had brought him there in the first place and may have been responsible for the undoing of everything, including the undoing of poor Isabella Asan. He could be no more help in the search for the Last Hope prophecy, and while he enjoyed learning during his time with Harvey, he hardly felt like what he was doing was useful. Even his search for the exit felt more like a task the old man had set him to in order to keep him preoccupied and out of the way, after all, couldn’t Edward have just drawn him up a map of the place? That he was just supposed to continue traipsing off into oblivion each night, when he had no idea what it did to Isabella, and somehow have faith everything would simply work out in the end was a bit hard to swallow.

“…she swallowed it whole…”

The Danguin had all of these books of prophecy, pages and pages of Veils shown to them by Om. The Seers saw the veils, but the Augurs, they understood them. They knew the language Om spoke. They had studied their water god for countless years. Of course Edward Frank was not going to understand Moag overnight.

“… pages turned to ash…”

Could faith really be the answer? Could faith that they would soon understand the revelations of Moag, as seen through the mind’s eye of a broken woman, save them from what Noel had done? He sincerely doubted it. The things Isabella said she saw in Moag were little more than white rabbits Edward was wasting time chasing. They needed a translator. They needed someone who understood Moag’s Veils, because Isabella certainly didn’t understand them, otherwise she wouldn’t feel such an intense desire to return to the deep, would she? What did she see in the darkness that would make her want to go back? What was she searching for?

“We never restore Om’s way, Edward,” Noel whispered. “I change everything. Harvey said.”

“Mm, perhaps. Young Isabella has twice mentioned a prophecy concerning the nameless child and myself,” Edward answered, ignoring Noel’s defeatism.

Was she searching for a prophecy, Noel wondered.

“She said, ‘I heard the infant crying for a soul when you put him back in Moag.’ Are you certain you saw and heard nothing of an infant while you were within Moag?”

Noel flexed his fingers. It felt… almost as though… it was something she had… forgotten? Could Noel help her remember?

“Young Noel?”

“Yes, Master Frank?” Noel answered, unable to keep his irritation from his voice.

“You saw no child while you were within Moag? You heard no crying?”

“I tell you everything I know of Moag,” Noel said, tiring of Isabella’s prophecies, tiring of Moag, picking up an ancient dwarfish battle-ax from a shelf and giving it a hearty swing. It rang out with a powerful burst of energy that reverberated through the air, knocking over several items on the shelves in front of Noel and causing him to stumble backwards. Wide-eyed, he put the ax back on its stand. Isabella pulsed in his hand, as though she had felt everything and now her heartbeat skipped out of time with his.

“She told me the child had to die in order for the prophecy to be complete,” Edward offered. “I wonder if all prophecy of Moag concerns death?”

“Bugger me, if that’s not a pleasant thought,” Noel glowered in English, figuring Edward was not actually listening to him anyway. “It’s enough the woman brought back prophecies from Hell, now we have to worry they all portend of death.” He shook his hand violently, trying to get rid of the throbbing pain she left there. “Please, dear God, let her have another for me, and let it come sooner rather than later and not end in salvation,” he added, picking up an electric toothbrush, noting the uneven wear of the bristles, wondering who it had belonged to and why on earth the Mdrai collected it as he used it to scrub his offending hand.

“Language, Young Noel.” Noel looked back to see the old man take up his pipe and give it another spark, leaning back in his chair to consider as he smoked. “I put him back in Moag… I put him back… What is the infant’s role in this? The nameless child must be important somehow.”

“Why nameless, Master Frank?” Noel asked tossing the toothbrush back on its shelf, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why no give him name?”

Edward gave an disturbed grumble, his face constricting sharply against the idea. “To be named by Om is a privilege of the Children of Danguin,” he answered, waggling his pipe as though it were an accusatory finger, as if the very thought of naming someone himself was an affront to his morality. “Om tells of every Danguin birth and death, generations in advance. The child should not have been possible. The child was always without a path.”

Noel had wondered why so many of the Danguin had common, modern names. Naming by Om, by prophecy, explained a lot. It did not explain why someone did not simply offer the nameless child a name of his own. What would they have done with him if the child had lived?

“Other books of prophecy have names,” Noel frowned. His own book bore his name, though it was written in the language of the Danguin, so Noel could not read it. “Om names others, like Danguin?”

“Not like Danguin,” answered the old man. “Om may include the name of anyone within the Veils, but for each of my people the naming comes directly from Om as prophecy itself. Each birth is prophetic. Each lifetime is known and numbered. Om orders their existence. This child… He was…”

Whatever he was or was not, the old Mardraim did not say, but rather turned back to his book and his pipe, looking somber as he contemplated.

He was no one, Noel thought, shivering at the thought of what that child’s life might have been like in a place where he was the only one who was different, the only one whom their water god had ignored from the beginning. Would his mother and father have cared for him? Would he have been cast out from the mountain to be raised by wild yaks? Or might his fate, guided by nothing more than chance and a people who believed firmly in the destinies divulged by Om, have been even worse?

As though she had been listening in and Noel’s thoughts had struck a nerve, Isabella grew anxious inside him.

“The Felimi…” Noel said uncomfortably, knowing the thought was not really his own, and worse still, knowing what he had to say would not be an easy thing for the elder to hear, that the very idea went against everything the Danguin believed, against their Mdonyatra and their Ftdonya and all of the lessons the Felimi had ever thought to teach their children up at their cloister. Noel had spent his life in the real world, where people who believed firmly in the idea of good and right, tended to do an awful lot of evil and wrong for whatever they might convince themselves were good or right reasons. And since Noel’s arrival, even the Felimi seemed to be having difficulty maintaining their tenets. None of these thoughts belonged to Noel though—not one, yet he thought them all the same. “The Felimi took him… The Felimi—”

“No,” Edward gave a bitter frown, shifting in his chair but not looking up.

“They hide truth of Moag,” Noel whispered, feeling the ilk rise in his throat at the idea he was not entirely in control of himself.

The old man shook his head, tapping the ash from his pipe into a rubbish bin. “The child died when you came from Moag, Noel Loveridge. I am sorry.”

“No. I not only one who came from Moag,” Noel said, then shook out his hand, trying to ignore Isabella’s persistence, but unable to stop himself from saying, “You want save Isabella, but Felimi stop you. You left room. Little Mother said, ‘Edward suspects.’”

The old man caught him in his sight, his tired eyes shifting rapidly, as Noel panted “Young Isabella?” Edward asked.

Noel nodded, clenching his fist as the old man studied him for quite some time. It was possession. They knew this was coming.

“Do you know what she means?”

Noel shook his head, fighting back the urge to vomit.

Never mind what Isabella Asan meant. The idea that the Felimi had something to do with the nameless child’s death was not so far-fetched as the Mardraim wished to believe. After all, Edward had propositioned Noel for help in trying to discover what the Felimi were hiding about Moag. Noel had come through the darkness and changed things, yes, but if the Danguin were named by Om generations in advance, then nothing Noel could have done in his mere thirty-four years on this earth could possibly have reached back through the history of these people to erase a naming by Om, could it? And someone had made it a point to remove the records of those Danguin who had fallen to Moag before, hadn’t they? Maybe the child hadn’t died because he came through Moag after all. Maybe the Felimi had something to do with it.

But then he recalled his time in the Dreaming. Or perhaps Isabella recalled it.

Harvey had warned that Noel would change everything. Perhaps it was possible he had changed even the past through his communion with the Wangarr spirit? Perhaps his own prophecies and those of Isabella, Harvey, and Edward had been destined to be unwritten all along? Perhaps Om and Moag had always known Noel would enter the darkness and end up destroying the infant’s life, and that was why Om found no need to give the boy a name? Noel had touched creation, after all. He had no way of knowing what may or may not be possible, where the Dreaming was concerned. If he ever got out of there—at least if he got out of there with his sanity intact—he would find Taree and ask him. Right now he had to get himself under control.

Edward Frank shifted in his seat, leaning forward expectantly. The elder eyed him for a long minute before asking in a delicate whisper, “Do you have something more you need to tell me, Noel Loveridge?”

Had the old man felt the Noel kept?

Isabella had.

“No,” Noel answered, shaking his head. “No.”

Though Edward should have pressed the issue, and if he had Noel might have before forced to tell him everything, the elder nodded and said, “The Felimi hid Moag’s existence from our people for a reason. You are right. We must still find out why.”

“How?” They had missed their opportunity to get fast answers from the blind Mothers at Fkat.

“I wish I knew, my friend,” Edward replied, shaking his head. “I can write of my time with Isabella later. It is early yet. Shall we study more of your broken prophecies, to see what we can make of them? Perhaps answers will come to us.”

Noel couldn’t help feeling the old man only wanted to see what more Isabella might reveal. “Not tonight. I go now, Master Frank,” Noel sighed, turning for the door, not knowing exactly what to do, except to wander the path around Moag, even though he was certain this harmed Isabella.

“Perhaps if we were to examine your Book of Ages more thoroughly,” Edward said as Noel reached the door, “there may be more clues about your Hope to be found in this writing.” He was trying to get Noel to stay, to keep an eye him.

“You have Om and Moag and the Mdrai and Young Isabella,” Noel answered. “You no need old book written by elves who know nothing but wishes. I go now.”

“Young Noel, you carry much guilt with you. If this is all happening, not because of you, but rather through you, because of Moag, Moag is where we must look for answers. If the prophecy in your book is not of Om, but instead of Moag—”

“You think Prophecy of Last Hope from Moag?” Noel interrupted, shocked by the idea, mostly because he had not considered it himself.

“No,” Edward answered quickly, “but the Felimi do not know I do not think this. Perhaps I can get them to speak with you again, if you will take your book—”

“You want give Felimi Book of Ages?” Noel groused.

“No. No,” the elder assured, but Noel was already responding.

“Book of Ages is story of my people.”

“Of course—”

“Felimi want know how I came here, want no one else come.”

“Yes, however—”

“They threat my life. They threat my people. They threat Isabella. No book, Master Frank,” Noel insisted, his jaw pulsing several times as he watched the old man’s eyes shifting back and forth, searching him. They had threatened Isabella. How did he know this?

The middle mother said she saw her—she had seen Isabella’s soul when it left her body, he thought, memories that did not belong to him unfolding in answer. The young one had asked how Isabella did it. And the old woman had said, “We will leave you now to Moag. May you find peace quickly, knowing no one will ever know what you’ve done.” Noel could even hear her voice in his head, very far away, yet clear as though he had been in the room himself.

“No book,” Edward answered with a nod. Then he let out a perilous sigh. “Has young Harvey told you anything at all about what happened to him while he was in Moag?”

“He no speak of Moag, Edward. I no speak of Moag. May be nothing happen to him.” Noel swallowed, knowing how unlikely this was, even as he said it. He could feel Isabella’s concern for Harvey swelling in his belly.

“Still, he guards himself. Something happened. You must give him a reason to tell you the truth, but take care, Noel Loveridge. Remember the promises you have made.” Here the old man paused, looking grave as Noel rested his hand on the door frame, the thin barrier between this shelter of nowhere created of ancient wizarding magic and the cold hardness of the mountain tunnels, where Moag waited for him to wander—waited for Isabella… waited for everyone and everything to come in its time. “We will speak of the Felimi again soon,” Edward added. “For now, you go find the pathway out of this mountain. I do not need you to sit with me while I work on our broken prophecies.”

Noel pressed his lips firmly into a grimace, then nodded, stepping out into the darkness— Edward, the light, the warmth of the fire, the smell of tobacco and books, all disappearing into the crack in the wall of stone.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 26

The Future Mardraim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey only gave a disenchanted grunt, increasing his pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moment of truth had arrived.

Noel sighed and gave an anxious swallow.

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

A shiver ran through him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old man gave a patient smile.

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

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

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

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

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

No veils.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” the Mardraim said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have my word.”

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 25

Secrets of the Mardraim

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Frank?” he said, concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ptalmet?” Noel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Noel sighed. “Why need new?”

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

“What fahmat Felimi allow, all here learn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward, the empath, understood him and trusted him.

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

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

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

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

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

“You remember other life?”

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

Noel nodded.

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

“What say?” Noel asked.

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

“Boy? You think Eri?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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