Tag Archives: stories about spirits

The Tale of Two Mountains–Pt 34

Fragments of Divinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would fulfill her.

The wanderer would show her.

“He must.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Issa, he must not—”

“I said let him come,” she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issa could feel herself there in him.

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

But surely that was impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– pt. 33

Three Wills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, what sort of person was he?

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She… saw this… as these people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You agree they are necessary?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noel could not make that promise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance grew within him with every step.

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

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

Except, Isabella felt it too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 31

A Study of Wards

Noel rubbed his hand over the back of his head and brought it around across his face, to scratch at the days-old scruff on his jaw, gritting his teeth against the foul mood souring his guts. Edward Frank had to know something happened. There was no way he could not have known, yet for three days now, he’d been absent— from the lair, from his hut… Noel had not once seen him.

Turning back to the old book, lying on the desk before him, Noel waved his hand and watched his own words disappear from the page, leaving the ancient writings of his predecessors in its place.

He’d expected a barrage of questions, accusations, protestations about putting Isabella Asan in danger, once again—after all, what he had done was foolish, even selfish. But it seemed the old fellow couldn’t be bothered. As the days passed, with no word of any kind, Noel grew more certain Edward knew exactly what he’d done and was simply avoiding the topic as carefully as he avoided Noel. The appropriate question was why?

“Damned empathy,” he grumbled, resting his arms on the desk, holding the Book of Ages out before him, as he pressed his lips together against what he knew must happen next.

Though he suspected he would be forced to test the wards alone, that first day after touching Moag, Noel held out for Edward to come tell him what to do—anything at all to do, honestly, because he never felt more alone in his life, haunted on the inside by the restless spirit of Isabella Asan. Her eagerness to return to Moag gnawed at him, and yet she seemed intent on warning him away from the darkness, often and unnervingly so, despite her own desire. Fear of causing any more harm kept him waiting around for even a small word of encouragement the second day, though all hope he would receive help had dwindled. Day three was occupied by acts of pure stubbornness— at least stubbornness was comforting, something he could definitively call his own, in the middle of this chaos he could hardly understand. Now, still plagued by the echoes of Isabella’s terror, Noel knew the time had come to take matters into his own hands, but he wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t being left on his own by design, and he needed to know, for certain, how Isabella—the real, corporeal, her—faired, before he did anything else.

It was not as though Noel didn’t know where the Mardraim was all this time. There was really only one place he could be. Edward’s interests rested in prophecy, that much was obvious. Noel had put off the inevitable long enough.

“Irony of ironies,” he muttered, pushing himself up from the old man’s chair, not bothering to look around as several parchments, disturbed by his disturbance, bounced and scattered across the floor.

Tucking the book under his arm, he cobbled together his light well and reluctantly dragged himself out the magical doorway, into the darkness, loudly proclaiming for anyone— or supernatural, soul-sucking monstrosity— that might be listening, “Who would have thought I would come to dread that woman more than I could possibly fear whatever truths might be buried for me in this onerous arsecrack of Fate?”

No laughter rose up from the depths, no echo of his own words in a voice he did not know, only the silent pull of the darkness answered him, with a mournful tug, deep at the root of his soul, as if to say, “Come. See.” He moaned low against the ache of it, catching his breath.

While Noel had spent the past three-and-a-half days feeling rather sorry for himself, he also managed to be a bit productive. He used a trick he picked up from Phileas, to create an under-layer in the Book of Ages, where he began compiling information. Some would frown on his defacement of the text, but a lot had happened, and he thought it important to keep a copy of everything in one place, rather than having his efforts scattered. Besides, this way he could assure he had his own copy, in the event he had to leave in a hurry. He started by transferring his notes from his meeting with the Knowledge Keepers, about the Last Hope prophecy. He’d copied the map of the tunnel he’d charted so far and his best picture of his impression of Moag, though it was hard to do it justice. He’d also recorded everything he remembered about what happened when he first entered Moag, including how it affected Isabella and, of course, what occurred the other night, when he touched it.

It was difficult not to berate himself for that bit of stupidity, but the terrible truth of the matter was if he was not already quite insane from his obsession with Isabella Asan, he was certainly well on his way, torn between two extremes— one, an insatiable desire to return to that place where the darkness deepened beyond anything comprehensible to the human mind, and the other, the periodic wailing and shrieking of his possessor in his head, which had scarcely relented since he decided it would be a smashing idea to reach out and touch Moag (because apparently his first encounter on that front hadn’t been warning enough against such recklessness). As this possession progressed, things were bound to get worse.

Noel wasn’t certain why he felt called to return to that exact place in the tunnel, where the darkness forked, but after these days spent going over the details, he had begun to believe the urge had something to do with the encompassing darkness he understood in the Dreaming. He thought, when he first set out on this endeavor, he was looking for the seers of old, who could explain the prophecy in the Book of Ages, but now, given everything, he wondered if the answers about the Prophecy of Last Hope may actually lie within Moag itself. Of course, he had no idea how to find out, except to go in there and see what happened, but before he could do that, he had to deal with his possessor.

As far as Noel knew, Isabella didn’t have the weight of a ten-thousand-year-old prophecy about the salvation of her people looming over her, driving her to erratic behavior, so it was impossible for him to grasp her longing for the darkness, when it so clearly harmed her. The other night, just as he was preparing himself to do the idiotic, he felt her shift internally, he felt her fear rise, as she urged him to turn and run. He’d ignored it, even mocked it.

No. He defied it.

What was he supposed to do? The woman had attached herself to him like some hell-spawned succubus. He couldn’t help that he was afraid of losing his mind and his free will in the process, and he figured fighting it was a perfectly reasonable reaction to discovering one had been possessed. How was he supposed to know what would happen as a result? Edward Frank certainly wasn’t any help.

“Yeah, but what the bloody hell was I thinking, touching the damned thing? Anything might have happened.”

That was why the wards were necessary, he thought, reaching the end of the path and taking flight.

He’d not yet plucked up the courage to try any of them out. Dabbling in foreign magic, without a mentor or at least making a decent study of the thing, was a bad idea. Edward should have been there.

“But he’s not.”

In the span of a moment Noel landed a foot shy of Isabella’s stoop, in the small patch of light cast by the lantern that burned in an open window. Though the rest of the villagers slept, it appeared she was still awake. He’d half expected to find her waiting for him at the door and was grateful when she spared him that bit of humiliation. Still, in silent trepidation, he climbed the steps and crept to the window, so afraid of what he might find, when he looked inside, that he actually trembled.

The place was a mess, papers and books scattered everywhere, crudely drawn faces pinned to the walls, though it was plain to see an expert hand sketched them and only faltered in the hurry to draw so many—so very many.

Isabella sat on the floor, hands and arms, up to her elbows, covered in paint tinted blue and green and umber, fingers working frantically at the canvas laid before her, though from his vantage point, Noel could hardly tell what she painted. Edward Frank sat at the table, his back to the window, studying one of the drawings—a twisted face of a man crying out in pain.

“Drowning.” Isabella’s voice came through clearly within him, before Noel even had the chance to process what he saw, and he shuddered against it, as much over the word as the clarity with which her voice intoned inside him.

Yes. He recognized the look in the man’s eyes, so lovingly drawn they were almost real on the page. The look was fear— though unmitigated terror seemed the more appropriate descriptor. The man’s wet hair clung to his desperate brow. Water trailed like an ocean of tears down his cheeks. His mouth contorted in what might be a cry for help or, perhaps, a gasp for air. But those eyes knew death was coming.

He was drowning, just as Isabella said—all of them were. Hundreds of faces, pinned to the walls, scattered and piled, crying out in desperation, as the water overtook them.

Thousands.

Noel wasn’t certain how he knew, but he understood this was the prophecy Isabella saw when he touched Moag. She was recreating it for Edward.

Noel shuddered again.

Isabella, the flesh-and-bone woman sat on the floor, with legs sprawled like a child, glanced back at the window, as though she felt him there.

Noel ducked away. He was not certain if she could see him through his light well, but even so he knew she sensed him. It was time to leave, before she drew Edward’s attention to Noel’s presence. He had seen what he came for. Isabella Asan was fine. A bit manic in her work, but apparently unharmed by his foolhardy behavior.

Of course, he knew someone would have mentioned it, if anything terrible happened to the woman. Even if Edward was too preoccupied with the prophecies to care, with everything that had happened between them, if Isabella fell ill or suddenly keeled over dead, everyone else would be quick to assume Noel was to blame and would come bearing pitch forks and torches. Still, as he took to the air, he was grateful he found her well, or well enough. From now on, he decided, he would only take careful steps, always returning to her, to make certain he did not cause her suffering. It was the right thing to do.

Yes, it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t as though this decision was made out of kindness or compassion. No doubt, he felt awful for the woman. No one deserved to live out the rest of their life moving from one fit of madness to the next. It was bad enough Isabella struggled so greatly with the Moag prophecies, but when Edward told Noel how she harmed herself, he felt a deep responsibility for her, especially since Edward was unwilling to test the wards and Noel was certain they would help them both. But Noel’s determination to take care from now on was purely selfish. Possession led to obsession, which necessarily led to a loss of oneself, to the total control of the possessor. How would he fair under the control of a woman who was so utterly lost, herself? He had an obligation to take care of her, out of self-preservation. At least for now, she seemed content working out this latest prophecy.

This prophecy… Noel’s stomach churned. All those people…

Was he really the cause of the terrible tragedy the woman drew? Were these people destined to die because he changed the course of their fates?

It was a load of bollocks, all of it. If he did cause this, he hadn’t meant to. He didn’t even have a clue how he, an elf— Noble, yes, but not with any great force of power and certainly not with some real fortitude of principle or even slightly greater than average moral fiber about him— could be the cause… the source of such… devastation…

Either way, he had to find some way to stop this, before it got worse.

Before he made it worse.

As he hurried through the darkness, the urge to return to Moag, to find his answers, burned like fire in his belly, always there. The Isabella inside him longed to return as well, but rose in his head against the inclination, a contradiction of herself, a mighty fury.

“Not yet,” he whispered in agreement, even as he rushed through the rock wall, into the Mardraim’s hold.

It was time to make serious study of the wards.

Grabbing his pen, ink, and a spare bit of parchment from the desk, he flew up to the tower door of the room of Danguin magic. If there was one thing he learned at Bergfalk’s, it was how to properly study things, or so he believed. After all, the Nobles spent half their time there as living subjects to the Scholars’ experiments, trying to restore what magic their people lost after the Fall.

First came research.

He quickly copied down each of the Faeish scriptures that marked the door. There were twelve in all, far fewer than the hundreds that protected the room of Fkat at the Felimi cloister. Yet, he found relief from Isabella in the tiny room, so he could at least hope one or some combination of these wards would provide the woman with some relief as well. Maybe that would be enough for them.

Noel knew little about fairy wards. They were rumored to be scattered throughout the globe, though until coming to the mountain Noel had never seen any himself, beyond photographs. They were said to guard sacred places and forbidden realms, but their purposes and effects were supposedly quite vast, much more than simply to keep something safe. The floating isles of the Dark Fairies were alleged to be built of all manner of wards, for their protection, wellbeing, growth, secrecy, prosperity—the list was extensive. Likewise, it was believed the Otherworld of the Annwfn was completely hidden by wards, so well hidden even another fairy, who wasn’t Annwfn, wouldn’t be able to find it, knowing perfectly well what he was looking for and where to search.

Noel had no clue what any of the twelve scriptures meant, mainly because the various languages of the fairies were complex and intertwined, much like the roots of living things. Luckily, he expected the Mardraim’s massive library held the answers for him… except he did not know their language either.

He took his drawings and headed downstairs a level, stepped onto the landing and grabbed a random book from the first shelf he came to. Flipping it open, he was met with exactly what he expected—everything was in Danguinese. In his work with Harvey, he’d managed to learn their alphabet and much of their phonetics, but in the language of the Danguin there was meaning tacked onto every letter, consonant blend, and syllable, so that the language itself had far fewer words than English or Elvish, but those words carried a much deeper meaning than any word in English might. And it was not as though teaching Noel Danguinese was Harvey’s top priority; they concentrated on Danguin culture.

He scanned the first few pages of the book, for any of the few words he knew, but only found Panpago. As far as he could tell this book was all about boiled breakfast grains akin to oatmeal, a topic which wasn’t particularly magical.

Sighing, he returned the book to its shelf.

The magic of the Danguin was confined to the locked room. He knew the magic of Beasts was housed on a single level midway up the enormous central staircase, and all of the man-made artifacts along with many books were kept on the first twelve floors, though considering the extent of the magic of man, there could be several more floors of books dedicated to the subject. Either way, this left fifty-two floors of books to comb through, in the hopes of finding one text on Fae wards. There had to be over a million books in the library, and not knowing the language was going to be a significant problem. For now, he had to continue studying with Harvey and maybe find a gentle way to push the man into teaching him more written Danguinese. But even if he spent every waking hour he wasn’t with Harvey Frank looking through the library, he figured it would take him at least a year on each level, spending no more than five minutes per book. He certainly didn’t plan on staying in the mountain another fifty-two years. No. He had to figure out a quick way of telling which brand of magic was housed in each section, with no reference to guide him.

Think, Noel. Think.

He stood back from the shelves and looked up and down the row, taking in all the spines. On the outside, none of the books seemed the same. They were a scattered spectrum of colors, bound in various materials, the text on the spines were imprinted and inscribed with different inks. Remembering the nonsensical system the mdrai used for organizing the books of prophecy in the Hall of Records, Noel wondered if perhaps these books were organized in a similar way, not by date or topic or type of magic, but by some underlying relational meaning. If this reason was sound, then the shelf in front of him contained books with some context that wasn’t outwardly apparent, but should be evident by their contents. They were surely all on the topic of magic of the same race, but what made the book he looked at first and the books to either side of it belong on the same shelf?

He retook the book he already viewed, along with a few from either side, all different colors, different lengths, different sizes, all bound in different materials, and sat on the floor laying each in order in front of him. The book on possession was a single book, describing everything about the forbidden Danguin art, according to Edward. Based on that, it might be reasonable to assume these seven books contained one particular act of magic each, but the Mardraim also mentioned that the magic of the Danguin was not as extensive as that of other races. How many books must there be if every magical act possible had its own book, he wondered? How many would there be if each act of magic was bound in a book full of other acts within the same category? If it were Elvin, say, a book might describe everything about Light Wells and their practice, or information on light wells might be found in a book discussing how an elf is able to interact with light particles in various ways. If it were Fae, it might describe how to make iachaol or perhaps how to make all elixirs that fall in that class or instead be a reference of certain kinds of ingredients, among which one or more might be used in making iachaol.

“Am I over-thinking?”

He picked up each book, one by one, examining the cover, carefully turning them over in his hands, inspecting the spines, checking the binding to determine the nature of their making. They were all unique in every way. He opened the covers of all seven, laid out in front of him and compared. The books of man often contained pages telling about the author, publisher, date and place of production, and many other races followed suit, because the system for referencing was sound. If these books contained such information, it wasn’t easily discernible, as the writers simply started writing, at the top of each page, filling them with long paragraphs that sometimes extended for several pages before breaking off to begin anew.

But why would such information as author and date be necessary in a secret library built of wizarding magic, hidden inside a mountain no one ever visited and few very rarely left, especially a library accessible to only one man— well two, in this case? These books weren’t mass produced, at least he thought not, considering Edward told him no one but the current Mardraim knew about the library. But then again, Edward also said the Felimi sent the Mdrai out into the world, to collect the new magic of all of the races.

“These may be copies of the original works, made for the Felimi. They could have a library of their own up in the cloister,” he whispered. “But they are blind. If they do have records, they will not be books full of ink.”

He sighed so heavily the page of one of the books turned on its own. Looking down, he realized there were no page numbers. He flipped several pages in each of the books, and indeed, none of them included numbering. There were no headingss of any kind, either, no difference in text sizes or styles. In fact, the text of each book was exceedingly neat, almost uniform, however the there were minor variances in the script, and looking carefully he realized none had been written by the same hand.

Noel smiled at a memory. As if Edward actually expected him to one day be Mardraim of the Danguin people, when he showed him the book of possession he said Noel would need to copy the text at some point in his life, as part of the upkeep.

If the Danguin had been collecting magic for roughly the past eleven thousand years, how many Mardraim must there have been over that time? Five hundred? Two hundred? How long was a Mardraim ordinaily a Mardraim? How many books would each Mardraim have to copy over a lifetime? He looked around the room, searching for a pattern on the shelves. How long would it take one Mardraim to copy the works of five Mdrai, all bringing back various magic of the several races? It would not be easily done. Perhaps the Mdrai themselves wrote these books, and the Mardraim only copied them when they reached a certain state of disrepair. Perhaps some of these books were the original works, which were then transcribed in a manner the Felimi could utilize.

Noel broadened his perspective, and then he saw it. The book bindings repeated at random, and their variance was widely spread. He picked up one of the works before him, bound in a teal-colored leather, and hurried down the row a few sections, until he found another bound in the same material, then another further down. The script on the spines were identically embossed with black ink. The bind was sewn with the same color of thread and exacting stitches. He opened each in turn and found the handwriting matched.

His excitement at discovering there was a system to the book bindings, to a degree, that seemed to indicate either the original author of the work or the mark of the transcriber, was dampened by the fact that it didn’t help him with what was on the insides of the books.

Noel returned the two spare books back in their original shelves and went back to his chosen seven, once more sitting cross-legged in front of them. He turned the teal book back to its beginning and attempted to read, looking for familiar words. Now and then he found simple words or phrases he had heard before, some he understood, some he didn’t, but it was like handing a seven year old a doctoral text and expecting him to understand it. He could sound out words, mostly, but he had little idea of meaning, and it was more of the same with the other six works. It would have been much easier if any of the books made reference to the race to which the magic belonged, at least then he would know whether or not he was in the right place, but that was expecting too much for a culture that used so few words to communicate in the first place. Why would a Danguin waste time repeating the race of the magic when the race was evident based on its floor in the library?

Letting out a large puff of air, frustration at the impossibility of the task building, he scanned the first pages of each of the books once more, this time searching for words that were common between them, even if he could not understand them. Of course there were plenty of elementary words, but he was hoping to stumble across some relevant tie in the group of works, for a single word that stuck out amongst them, to give the works some context. If it existed, it wasn’t readily apparent, but then he had already lost his patience.

“There has to be an easier way.”

Annoyed, he returned the books to their rightful places and flew down to ground level with his drawings, wondering how he could study the wards without the written records, at least for the time being. He lay on the sofa, crossing his feet and resting them on the arm, and took to staring at the images of the wards, as if somehow, looking long and hard enough, he might divine their meaning. Perhaps there was some experiment he could run, to find out what each of the wards were? No, he needed to understand more about what he was dealing with first. Perhaps he could ask Harvey? But Harvey would want to know why.

“This is useless. What do I know, for certain?” he asked, laying the papers aside.

He began reciting rote knowledge of Parallels from his school days. “Magic of gods is of Energy with the Matter of Duality in the Form of Intellect. Magic of elves is of Duality in the Matter of Elements in the Form of Energy. Magic of wizards is of Elements in the Matter of Bondage in the Form of Duality. Magic of fairies is of Bondage in the Matter of Life in the Form of Elements. Magic of men is of Intellect in the Matter of Energy in the Form of Evolution.”

He knew, essentially, what fairies do is the work of life-binding. It was, therefore, reasonable to assume a ward had to be made of living matter, natural elements without any augmentation except through incorporation of further natural elements, all bound in life. By the laws governing Fae, one could not make a ward out of a synthetic material, a ward could not be made that was not bound, and the binding must occur at the elemental level. From this, one could understand the six permutations of fairy magic, which hardly mattered to the task before him, because knowing the fundamentals from his school days would draw him no closer to his goal of cracking these particular wards.

He let out a disgusted grunt and sat up, laying the wards out on the coffee table before him. He leaned forward, his ands pressed against the table, knees bouncing anxiously. What else?

Well, he knew one or more of those twelve wards made it impossible for someone who wasn’t the Mardraim to unlock the door to the room of Danguin magic. Of course, it was not likely there was a fairy ward specific to Danguin Mardraim, rather he suspected that in order for the ward that acted upon lock and key to do the necessary work of determining who could pass, the ward had to somehow be imparted with the intention in the process of the binding. The intention, in this case, was the quality or attribute of Mardraim. But how was this intention imparted?

He scratched his nose, knowing he knew exactly spit about use of Fae. Bergfalk had stressed the importance of learning Parallels, but if they ever taught anything specific about wards, Noel didn’t remember it. The trouble wasn’t the Parallels though, it was the Fae itself. The subject just couldn’t hold his interest, though he was hardly the only one.

Fae was a baser magic than that of the elves. Not that it was lesser in power, in fact, oftentimes a fairy could take more direct action than an elf, though this was in part down to the Fall. Fae was simply different. An elf could in theory make a fairy tonic, by knowing not just the ingredients and where to find or how to fabricate them and when to mix them together, but also knowing all of the properties of the ingredients and exactly how those combined to become that tonic in the fairy binding, finally arranging the elements in that way. Whereas the fairy would grow the appropriate herbs, pick them at the right time, bless them in the Faeish way, and bind them in due course, as fairies do. In the end, they would come out with the same tonic, but the elf’s work for accomplishing this task would be much more time consuming and required greater energy of the elf himself, where the energy the fairy got to do the work would be grown up from the earth, in the Fae. The binding was way down deep in the nature of things, and elves simply didn’t have that relationship with nature. Plus, it was difficult not to think of Fae as kitchen work, and who liked kitchen work, bippity-boppity, and all that nonsense?

He wondered if it would be enough to replicate a ward, the way he might replicate a tonic, if he understood it fundamentally. Or was this a bit of fairy magic he would have to learn to do the traditional way? Did he have enough fairy in him that he would have the capacity for it, if wards couldn’t be replicated? That didn’t matter now. At least one of the twelve wards worked as an intention on the lock and key. What were the other eleven for?

Well, one or more somehow either temporarily severed or at least greatly lessened the connection between him and Isabella. That was the ward he needed. It did this either directly or indirectly, as a result of its intention. Was it possible this was a protection against possession itself? That didn’t seem very likely. If so, wouldn’t it be in the book on possession upstairs? And if it was, wouldn’t Edward know exactly what it was?

A insidious seed, embedded in the lining of his stomach days ago, began to sprout roots and leaves.

No. Why would the old many lie to him about it? He would know Noel would find out eventually, wouldn’t he? Unless that didn’t matter to him . But what purpose would lying serve?

The prophecies… It would serve Om and Moag and the old Mardraim’s understanding of things.

On a sigh, Noel gathered his papers, retrieved the key from the desk drawer, and returned to the room at the top of the library. He hurried inside and opened the book on possession, still there on the small table where Edward left it. He wouldn’t be able to read this book either, he thought, frowning as he took a seat, but if there was a ward among its pages, he was determined to find it. The hour was late, but with a yawn, he leaned his elbow on the table, rested his head against his fist, and began scouring the text.

He woke sometime later, when he tried to stretch to get comfortable and sent a candle clattering to the floor. He woke so well-rested, so content with the world and everything in it that as he flew like a dart downstairs, not knowing what time it was or whether or not he was late meeting Harvey, he didn’t even care that he might be caught out, having stayed too long in the secret hold, as he wiped the crusted drool from his mouth. He had not dreamt. He had not once felt the pulled Moag drawing him to the darkness. He was halfway to the ground floor when the thought of Isabella struck him hard in the gut.

“Noel, you absolute idiot,” he whispered against the panic that rose inside him, frantically feeling for her, but unable to find her. “What have I done?” He had wanted to test the wards, but this was not how.

 

____________________________________________

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

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. 27

isaandnoel

Prophet of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had to live. He had to change everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issa nodded. The nameless one had died.

“The nameless child has a prophecy from Moag?”

Another nod.

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

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

“What do you mean?

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

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

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

“I put him back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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