Noel rose with the dawn, a sick feeling in his gut, like he’d spent the night drinking himself oblivious, without any of the benefits—not the drunk part, not even the oblivion, which would have been nice in comparison. Head throbbing, belly soured, and feeling as sorry for himself as he felt when he finally managed to pass out, his first thoughts— as his last thoughts— were of Isabella.
Mostly, he thought of the startled look in her eyes, as she sat hard in her chair.
The image kept him spinning in his pallet most of the night, alternately sighing and growling against his pillow, fearing there was no other explanation than the worst one possible, the one he couldn’t ignore, no matter how much he wanted, no matter how much he wished for it to be untrue, because Issa had felt it in him— and he in her. In that moment, she looked at him with such bewilderment, there was no denying it.
What Noel felt of his possessor, as he moved around the edges of the darkness the previous night, was real. He felt the woman, clearly, as three separate entities— three independent desires, distinctly at odds with one another, except in their craving for him to surrender to the abyss. On the surface, one felt like defeat, another like victory, and the third far away, a distant, troubling ache. The trouble was by his count there were only reasonably logical explanations for two of those independent Issas. This third… Well… That was what the Issa harbored inside of him had been trying to stop him from thinking about, when she grabbed him internally, seizing his chest, and tried to force him to leave the tunnel. He wasn’t concentrating on the task ahead of them, and that scared her.
He’d had plenty of time, in his sleepless hours, to think things through, so he’d managed to convince himself that the first Issa was not defeated but rather had given herself up to Moag altogether, as though her whole existence was now tied to the darkness, for Noel to enter at some point was a foregone conclusion, and that was how she would happily culminate, in the completion of something desperately important to her. She believed in what she was doing, without waver. At present, he was fairly certain this Issa was franticly recording prophecy with Edward Frank.
He understood the second far better than he would like. She wanted desperately for him to enter Moag, in that exact place in the darkness, to which he was drawn time and again, but it appeared she wanted revelation of all of the prophecies first, and she seemed to be afraid of what would happen if Noel entered too soon or for the wrong reasons, knowing eventually he would have to, because there was definitely something in there, and he definitely had no choice but to go in after it. This was the Issa inside him, the one who exercised increasing control, the one Noel was afraid of, to be honest, because each day she was growing stronger, and he was beginning to feel her conflict as his own, as if she’d begun using a part of his brain to think through their options (a rather terrifying prospect for one suffering possession and worried about losing his autonomy). Last night, when she tried to force him away from Moag, she was afraid he would make another mistake, make matters worse for them both. At least if they were going to be stuck together for the foreseeable future, they had that much in common.
The third…? The untouchable part of her Noel couldn’t quite grasp, the part that felt so distant they might have been separated by the entirety of the universe or more…? If he wasn’t much mistaken, she was the source of the screaming in his head, whenever he touched the Moag. He didn’t want to believe it. He would’ve given anything for it to be impossible, because quite frankly that prospect was even more disconcerting than the second her taking over his thoughts and him turning into some drooling clump of flesh puppet, less useful than the garden variety golem. But the only (completely illogical and otherwise unreasonable) explanation for this third piece of Isabella Asan was that a part of her was actually still alive in Moag, still conscious of her own existence on some level, and capable of feeling pain, perhaps stuck in that very place he kept returning to, crying out for help, trapped in the bleakness of that hell where eternity itself went to end, where she too would end… unless…
But that was not the goal, to change things more than he already had, he told himself more than once, as he shoved fists into his pillow, as if the pillow were at fault for the running dialog in his head. He was quickly figuring out that the trouble with realizing you had the power to alter destiny was that it was awfully tempting to think you actually had the power to alter destiny. That was not the purpose of this endeavor, though, to save her… was it? And what could he possibly do about it? And even if it could be considered one of the many tasks he was supposed to tackle along the way to the real goal of restoring Hope, the part of Issa inside of him certainly didn’t think there was the remotest chance in hell he might manage it. In fact, she seemed dead-set on doing everything in her power to make certain he wouldn’t try, and her power was growing. Besides, she reminded him, what about the Last Hope?
Recalling the surface of the blackness gravitating toward him, imagining it was Issa’s hand, in some ethereal form, reaching out to him with what few particles of herself she could muster, within the expanse of the nothingness that ripped her from this life, in favor of Noel and the Hope he’d already lost—the Hope he’d likely destroyed in coming there— he couldn’t help thinking, what of the Last Hope? They weren’t any closer to understanding what the prophecy meant, and this problem was right in front of him, inside him, consuming him.
He might have been able to convince himself he was mistaken about all of this, except the Issa inside him did not try to convince him he was wrong, and the living, breathing Isabella clearly felt it too. He recognized it in her eyes, as she sat. Somehow, through the possession, she felt that part of herself crying out through him, like a sharp chord rising, dissonant enough to make him ready to fly to her in a heartbeat, though he knew he shouldn’t, loud enough to force her off her feet, looking dumbfounded, perplexed at how they could both hold this same unlikely idea. She looked at him as though she had only just opened those mad, beautiful, startled eyes, black as Moag, and realized, foolish as he was, Noel was about to change things again. He couldn’t help himself. He just didn’t know how, yet. So, he’d left her there with Edward, even though it was clear she wanted him to stay. He’d only felt half bad about that, before he managed to fall asleep.
Anymore, he always dreamt of her, yet when dreams finally came, she was a corpse, once again lying dead in his arms, gushing sand from every orifice, a broken hourglass spilling what little was left of her time here on earth, and he could do nothing for her but wail over her loss, as she turned to dust. Then they were alone in her hut, and she was trying desperately to tell him something, as she clawed at her own flesh and grabbed fistfulls of her wild curls, both the tortured and the torturer in all her many parts, but she couldn’t speak because every time she tried, Noel took hold of her and shook her hard, though he couldn’t decide if he was trying to rattle her voice free or trying to maintain her silence, so he wouldn’t have to admit whatever it was she was trying to tell him. It was as though she held a truth inside of her that he couldn’t bear knowing, yet he could feel it there, the cusp of her final tragedy, the end of everything he’d done to bodge… well, to bodge everything, he supposed. At last, she was crying out in the darkness, and Noel was flying through Moag, panic-stricken, unable to find her, unable to catch even a thread of her to cling to, unable to save her… not this time.
He woke panting, in a puddle of sweat, and though dawn had barely broken, he left the hut, grateful to walk in as much solitude as one could expect whilst possessed, watching the false sunrise, hoping the tranquility of daily life in the mountain, unfolding around him in ever more bucolic layers, would settle his stomach and his nerves, his head and his heart… settle this longing to make things right… settle the unending feeling he was headed in all the wrong directions, and he needed only, as ever, to fly to her.
For her part, flesh-and-bone Issa had not slept. She’d spent the night a slave to her vision, slave to Moag’s way, to Noel’s changes, to the art she created for the Mardraim, so he might understand what she’d seen. Noel could feel her working, even now, the passion of her tools like sparks in his fingertips. She could not rest until her work was through. She would not rest until she’d accounted for every detail. She must not rest… until Noel returned to the wards, so she could breathe again, so she could live a few hours of freedom with Harvey. But Noel couldn’t grant her that until Edward told him to, and Edward wouldn’t until he had everything he needed from Isabella and Moag. And even then, the wards provided only passing respite. Give it a few days, and he would be told to return to the dark, to draw out another prophecy, and the cycle would begin again.
A swell of grief swept through him, and he nearly choked on the sting of it, as he turned around in a circle to get his bearings, debating heading back to Issa’s now, thinking maybe they should talk it all through, though he suspected Edward would not be half as forgiving of the interruption as he was last night. As Noel took a step in that direction, the Issa inside him became a fist, stopping him short, and his laughter at her unexpected forcefulness was stifled, as his breath caught hard in his chest.
A Danguin woman, with an overflowing reed basket balanced on each hip, eyed him suspiciously and moved several feet off the path, waiting for him to pass her by, before hurrying off for her chores. He waited until there was a reasonable distance between them before bending over, to swear an angry curse at the ground, shaking his head at his creeping insanity, wishing the sick in his guts would just leave him already, so he could have half a chance to think clearly. Maybe he could vomit Issa out, though he doubted it could be so simple. He’d have better luck getting as far away from the mountain as he could.
At this thought, her panic rose, and the fist tightened.
But that was the only answer, wasn’t it? To leave. To run. To put half the world between himself and Moag and Isabella Asan.
“All right. Let me go,” he whispered. “I’m not going anywhere.”
After a moment, her grip weakened.
As much as he wanted to stay, to find a way to restore the Prophecy of the Last Hope and all the broken prophecies, if possible, to find a way to save Isabella from Moag and from himself, the truth was they were only making matters worse, the longer they played at this game. A game— he reminded himself and whatever parts of her might be listening— for which they knew none of the rules and every move he made seemed to bring another level of certain disaster that ate at his insides and placed this woman— this obsession, his obsession— in utter peril.
He let out a piteous noise, somewhere between disgust and mania, shaking out his hand, as the buzz of her reminded him he could not save her. He could never save her. No.
“You’ll have nothing to do with running then, I suppose?” he spat, chuckling defiantly, even as he felt her wrath building once more. “You aren’t too strong yet, and I’m morally obligated to do something, aren’t I? We’re the reason she suffers,” he hissed, casting the hand she held hostage in the direction of Moag and that point in the darkness where the third portion of her was trapped, waiting for him, begging for relief—at least in his mind. “We do have to get out of here eventually,” he insisted, then growled madly at his fingers, knowing it was we and not he—that it would likely never be him, alone, again. “I have to get out, before you take any more control and make leaving impossible.”
Up the path, a man repairing the wheel of an ox cart, nudged the younger fellow at his side and nodded toward Noel, who was in fact conversing with his fingers. The young one looked worried and whispered something about the Mardraim. Noel quickly crossed his arms, shoving his hands into his armpits, ducked his head, and hurried back for the Mardraim’s hut, to continue the argument with his possessor in private.
If this obsession with Issa was only growing stronger, as it appeared to be, what good could he be to his own people, to her, to the Mardraim, or to anyone else, waiting around for the woman to wear him out, to nag him raw, until he could do nothing but follow her will? Edward might not think Noel’s touching Moag, to focus the prophecies, was causing harm, but Noel knew without a doubt what they were doing was harming the part of Isabella he felt certain remained lost in the blackness. There was no way to prove it. There was no way to make the old man see. Truth be told, Noel worried talking too much about it would lose him what bit of freedom to roam he’d been granted, and for some reason his possessor couldn’t be arsed to worry about this lost part of herself. But the longer they toyed with Moag, the less likely he would be able to do whatever it was he was meant to do, the less likely they would be able to right Om’s way, the less likely there was any hope for Hope at all, the more likely Isabella Asan would die another agonizing death, and it would truly be his fault this time because he could feel it coming, like a slow train blaring its warning.
He might have thought he was just growing neurotic, as a result of their circumstances, but that was to be the outcome no matter what, if he was to believe what he felt of her, in all three parts. It would all end in death, and Issa, all of her, seemed to be all right with that, so long as Noel assured the Mardraim knew all of the changes he’d made to fate, before he inevitably entered Moag and Issa inevitably left the world forever, which was clearly what she wanted, as she struggled against him with what little strength she’d managed to build there inside him.
He rolled his eyes at her efforts and walked faster still. She was the one who’d given him a real reason for going to Moag night after night, a reason purely outside of himself, outside of Hope, outside of prophecies of Om or Moag. She was the one who’d possessed him. He had her to think of now, like it or not. He certainly didn’t like it, but he couldn’t help it that he was obsessed with her. He had to fix this.
“It might be easier if you didn’t look at me like something out of a haunting, like something in desperate need of saving,” he whispered, rubbing his hands swiftly through his hair then over his face. “Don’t you think I know I’ve enough to be getting on with?”
He had to rescue her somehow, if indeed she was still in there. Was she always suffering that way, or was it only when he drew her out a prophecy to record? Was that the only reason she was so eager for him to go in, to end it all, so she could rest? Why couldn’t he save her anyway?
“Give me a sound reason— Ouch!” He jumped against the bolt of anger she sent coursing through him, subsequently shocking a small group of locals, who all hurried along down the road, casting strange looks back at him, as they continued toward the orchards for the day’s harvest. “Apology, please!” he gave a genial wave of embarrassment, before muttering bitterly under his breath, “You have to stop doing that, or everyone will think I’m mad, and maybe I am mad, or at least getting there, but that’s entirely beside the point and actually down to you, in case you don’t remember, so let’s not go getting ourselves locked up by the Felimi, please.”
In answer, he felt the tug of the darkness deep within, overwhelming him to the point of stopping him in his tracks, as though he was infected in his very being by the purpose that drew him to that place from Arnhem Land, the purpose that had been drawing him toward Moag, perhaps all his life. But this was not Moag. It was her. She was reminding him what the Dreaming showed him, reminding him of that feeling that once frightened him, that feeling that the darkness was not yet finished with him, reminding him that what had only a fortnight ago brought him fear was now like siren song for both of them.
In truth, he wasn’t certain what frightened him more, his sense of dread, gnawing at the pit of his stomach, that touching Moag would end badly for everyone involved, especially for Issa, or the fact he wanted, desperately, to go back there that very moment, to step into the darkness, to see for himself what was hidden in those depths, waiting for him… waiting for her.
Mightn’t he save her though, or was all hope truly lost?
No… The feeling bubbled up from within, not with pain this time, but with guilt, with exhaustion, with remorse over their shared plight, even with a hint of appreciation for his stubbornness.
“We could fight this. There has to be a way,” he whispered weakly, shaking his head and shaking out his hand once more, stretching his fingers, which she’d held clenched so tightly at his side that his knuckles ached.
He had no choice. He had to do what he could to save her. But he couldn’t do it on his own, and Edward was himself so obsessed with the prophecies of Moag, he wasn’t likely to listen to Noel or Issa either one, even if Noel could prove going after the prophecies was all wrong. He needed help. He needed someone on his side. He needed the only people on earth he knew he could trust—his blood brothers, bound in the oath they shared, to live and die for the Last Hope.
He shivered as Isabella faltered, a memory of his own washing over her, the memory of the day he left for Australia, the day he said goodbye to his friends and headed off to find Taree and meet Creation and make bags of everything. Somehow, he supposed through the possession, she knew their loyalty. Their friendship had been lifelong. Phileas, Wells, and Murphy would help them, if they could. They would do anything for Noel, and he for them. For a moment, he felt in Issa that maybe there was hope. Almost immediately she started to struggle again, but Noel had all he needed in that brief spell of weakness to strengthen his own resolve.
By the time he turned back up the cobblestone path to the Mardraim’s hut, he’d convinced himself the best thing he could do would be to make his escape from the mountain that very evening, never mind what any of the three Issas wanted. She was broken and fragile and had no idea what was actually good for her because she’d grown up in this place, under the strict rule of Om, in servitude of a fate her people believed was set in stone, or water as it were. He didn’t care if she hated him for it, which she did, but she already despised him anyway, so that hardly mattered. Edward would be disappointed, but he would busy with Issa and the prophecy for days. No one would notice Noel was gone, until the next morning, when Harvey came, and by then he’d already be home. The further away from Moag he got, the less he would feel its pull— well, maybe. Either way, it was for the best.
Isabella stormed inside him.
He tried to reassure her, as she raged and he made certain his bag was packed, ready to go, and tucked the Book of Ages into the inner pocket of his tunic, in case he needed to leave sooner, in case Edward or Harvey figured out he was running and tried to stop him. He would return with his friends, to finish what he started, once he knew how to use the wards properly. Perhaps Bergfalk and the scholars knew some other means of breaking possession. Maybe that was why Edward hadn’t shown him where the books of Elven magic were, so he couldn’t discover the answers on his own. Of course, the idea of leaving all those books behind stung a bit, but it was only for the time being. There had to be a way around this. He had to get out, to protect Issa from his desire, from Moag, and from herself.
Issa beat with anxiety against him at the prospect. She beat against him, like thunder trapped in a well, thronging all morning. She beat so hard against him, his head felt like it would split in two under the resonance of her fury.
“You are… troubled, my friend,” said Harvey quietly. They sat by the river, under the shade of a small stand of flowering trees. The man had been pensive all morning. Noel wondered if he already knew what had happened, if he’d already been to Issa’s and found her once more enthralled in prophecy, the Mardraim there overseeing her work. “Your thoughts are distant.”
“Apology,” Noel smiled, scratching his head and squinting one eye against the pain. He had to stop thinking about it, or he was going to give himself away. Out of ease, more than to serve their lesson, he switched to English. “I didn’t sleep well. You were saying?”
Harvey spoke once more in his native tongue. “The way of the Velt is Onyai. Onyai? You know this word?”
Noel ventured his best guess. “Erm… It means greatness, relative to Om, doesn’t it? Greatness in English is… atic, perhaps, in the old language?”
The man pulled a face, shaking his head. “Atic is no good for describing the way of the nurturer. Atic represents the honor of a person in duty,” he answered, switching to Elvish to better explain. “What the Velt do is not honor or duty but of utmost importance to our people, Noel Loveridge. If utmost importance is greatness in your language, then it is as you say. You see, Velhim is Oftramin to the Zhe and Ther. I believe necessity may be a better word for Onyai in the language of your people, if I understand the meaning. We depend upon it.”
Noel gave a weary chuckle and switched to Elvish as well. “Greatness is importance in English, though one is no necessary for other to Ken.” Not really feeling up to the struggle, he switched back to his own language and added, “It seems Onyai means Vital, a thing that has to be for the wellbeing of others, which is greatness and utmost importance in relevance to the soul, I suppose, just not atic, though why I don’t know.”
Vital, Isabella clung to the word within him. Vital rang through him. Vital. Moag.
Noel shifted uncomfortably and did his best to ignore her, though she was relentless. “Rest assured English is as confusing to the English, mate. I freely admit being lost most of the time.” There was nothing he could do that moment besides try and concentrate on the lesson. “What is Oftramin?” he asked in Danguinese, carefully crafting the sentence, rubbing at his temples, wishing he could silence her somehow.
“Mm. Oftramin is food of the soul. It is food, yes? For the soul eating,” Harvey answered in English, then switching to Danguinese he explained, “Velhim is nourishment, the energy that is vital, or Onyai, to our fahmat within the Oftramin.”
“Soul eating?” Noel frowned, even as Isabella buzzed furiously at being ignored. “Wait. You mean seers and empaths get their energy for their magic directly from the nurturers?”
Harvey merely nodded, like this was common knowledge.
Perhaps this revelation about the Velt should not have come as such a surprise. Edward had explained a bit about the roles of their people and the magic unique to them, but from his explanations Noel had envisioned nurturers as a cult of sorts— people who worshiped Om, day and night, for the sake of the others. As far as he knew, they all drank from the waters in the Wellspring of Fate, and for their part, he’d imagined the Velt as praying or perhaps performing some sort of rituals of this mysterious ‘Velhim’, to Om, for good juju from the water itself. The water, he thought, was what contained the energy imperative to their work, which explained how they ended up living in this godforsaken mountain. He certainly had not considered that the Velt imparted actual energy of some kind from themselves to the others. He’d felt this Oftramin many times since his arrival, and now the implications of what it really was soured his stomach a bit. To receive it did feel like nourishment in a way— indeed, something like the soul eating, if there was such a thing as a soul and a soul could in fact eat. It was satisfying.
“Weird,” Noel grumbled at the idea, which to him seemed a rather perverse sort of cannibalism, which he supposed Harvey felt because the man laughed a rare laugh at his expense. Noel scowled. “So, where do the nurturers get their Velhim? What purpose does the water serve, if not to impart the energy they need? And what happens if the Velt run out of this soul food for the others?”
“Slowly, slowly, Noel Loveridge.” Harvey held up his hands, smiling. “First, what is this word ‘weird’?”
“It means something is puzzling.” This was the nicest way of putting it, though English afforded a plethora of other more apt descriptors he would have liked to use instead.
“A strange problem to think on, difficult to understand,” he answered quickly in Elvish, waving his hand for Harvey to explain himself.
“Oh, no, Oftramin is not weird puzzling, Noel Loveridge. We are all dependent upon each other for energy in every form,” Harvey half shrugged. “As the Mothers say, there is no person, who is not dependent upon the whole of humanity, indeed all of creation, for his survival, though most choose to ignore this integral connection. We borrow from everything the very matter and energy we need in order to exist. Constantly receiving and imparting in this way we give to and take from each other nourishment, to sustain us in all of our forms, as we all work for the collective, even after the body dies and the soul moves once more into Om, to be reborn. This is not simply the way of my people, but a law of nature. It is unbreakable.”
Noel made a skeptical noise and leaned back against his tree, to continue being puzzled by this weirdness. His head throbbed. His hand actually stung. He breathed a knackered sigh and stretched his fingers nervously. He would leave, as soon as he was certain everyone was asleep.
There were a lot of unbreakable laws in the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, though unbreakable and law were possibly the wrong words to use to describe them—learning languages with Harvey, Noel was beginning to question his own grasp of English or its ability to correctly name anything, and he suspected most of the languages of men were the same, always needing more words to be parsed. “The Zhe…” he began, uncertain how to phrase his question, so he went with English again instead. “Why drink the water? The water is not Om. The energy to see comes from the Velt. What is in the water that helps the seers see?”
Harvey smiled, as though Noel had touched the surface of a secret their people had long held dear. “Not all water is ancient, in fact most of the waters on our planet are in relative infancy compared to those of the deep beyond time. The water in the wellspring came to be even as our universe was born, Ohamet. It flowed through the very thought of existence. It contains some of the oldest elements in creation, so it knows the very path of Om on a level we humans cannot know, except in Veils.”
Noel sat stunned, his mouth agape. “It knows… but Om… is not a water god.”
“Ikath? No! No! What a weird puzzling!” Harvey gave an appalled laugh.
“Mm, indeed a weird puzzling,” Noel began switching to Elvish in case his point was being missed. “I know water was no Ikath. I only thought Danguin thought… well this no matter. Path of Om, Om’s way, what is it, Harvey?”
“It is the Law of Consequence, of course!” He still seemed rather offended and amused, though Noel supposed he couldn’t blame him. “Everything stems from everything that ever happened before, and everything that will happen can only happen in the way it must because of what happened before. Om is known.”
But this was something Bergfalk had preached about for decades—hell, Frifogel had developed a whole twelve year course around the subject, rather superfluously entitled “Protocols for Consideration of the Responsible Use of the Forces of Nature and the Mitigation of Her Unintended Consequences in Practical Magic.” (Wells hadn’t been able to convince anyone else to call it PUCRUFNMHUCPM, mostly because the acronym was nearly impossible to pronounce, even for him, which was probably his point. It was quickly shortened to Protocols by the students out of convenience.) Of course, to an elf cause and effect were fairly localized events, to whatever was going on at the present, and it was a person’s responsibility to be aware of possible outcomes, to think ahead, to know the dangers one’s magic might impose upon the world. This Danguin idea seemed quite a bit larger in scope.
“It’s bloody universal cause and effect?” Noel hissed, forgetting all about Elvish, shaking his head. “You are saying Om’s way is the effect of some first cause?”
“Cause is always Om,” Harvey insisted, nodding eagerly. “Effect is always what Om intends.”
“Intends? This implies Om is a being with thought capable of intention and that somehow that thought and intention are recorded in the ancient waters in the wellspring!”
“Slowly, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey shook his head, laughing. “Implies?”
Noel growled and switched back to the old language. “Give meaning. Harvey, did Om make universe?”
“Of course not. Om is the universe. We live within Om, Noel Loveridge.”
Noel shook his head. “You say cause is always Om, effect always is what Om intends. The universe intends?”
Now Harvey smiled, understanding Noel’s confusion, or at least Noel sincerely hoped he did. “It is not an intention in the way you or I have intentions, why we think and do from moment to moment. It is before the universe, Om, came into being. It has no space, time, or other worldly form of reference for measurement. We cannot know it, beyond fear of its infiniteness. We can, however, connect to it, using Velhim, to see the Veils or to know what is at the soul of another, because this is Om’s way. It is a force of nature, set in motion before all other forces. So of course cause is always Om, and effect is always Om’s intention.”
Effect was always Om’s intention, until now, Noel thought, his brain aching a bit, as he tried to wrap it around this new information, slightly disappointed the Danguin didn’t believe in a water god after all, because that was so much simpler.
Vital. Om’s way. Moag.
His heart thudded. He ignored her.
If the path of Om was a force of nature, like gravity, electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, or even the chemical reactions between elements, all of which actually stemmed from Om, according to Harvey’s explanation, and all of which elves and every other race of humanity used daily, in everything from the magical to the mundane, whether they realized they were doing so or not, then the prescience of the Zhe had to be much like any other magic—in this case a means of manipulating that natural forces of cause and effect. Perhaps it was like tuning into some wavelength of the cosmological constant, somehow imprinted with the outcomes of everything, like existence began and ended with an initial thought of some sort, or a big bang as men would say, and everything that followed and would follow, right down to our most insignificant decisions, was nothing more than a rather far-removed effect of that initial spark of a condition— the first cause, a primordial purpose flowing through everything, within and through which all of the following causes and effects existed— past, present, and future, as one, predetermined. If he was not much mistaken, the Danguin believed that everything that happened, right down to Frifogel giving his course at Bergfalk’s a ridiculous mouthful of a name no one besides him would ever say out loud, was the effect of that single instigation that came before everything. If he was not much mistaken, Harvey was talking about the Dreaming.
Did that mean Noel broke some fundamental law of existence, when the prophecies of Om started coming undone and Issa was brought back to life spouting prophecies of Moag instead— predicting changes Noel made, however unintentionally? It would explain why his being there was such a problem to the Danguin, who lived and breathed Om’s way, even if Om wasn’t some water god trapped in the wellspring, causing all manner of nonsense for them to see within their Veils. If this was the case, Bergfalk and Frifogel would hardly be impressed with Noel’s lack of consideration for cause or his failure to mitigate consequence on such a grand scale. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to their conversations on that matter, but this knowledge of what the seers of old understood about fate and destiny, cause and effect, about consequence as a particular force, could open up a thousand avenues of experimentation for the scholars. He believed more than ever that tonight he had to return home. It was time. There was nothing else he could possibly do here, nothing he could do alone, at least. Nothing that didn’t stand to do more against the path of Om and against Hope. He couldn’t decipher the wards without help. He couldn’t stop Issa’s suffering. He couldn’t get Edward to see reason. He was messing about with forces he could barely comprehend, let alone control. And no one seemed to have any real idea what Moag was.
Vital. Issa beat within him.
The thing about forces, he thought, is that while they are fairly set in their ways, they are still manipulatable. One cannot defy gravity, but that does not mean one can’t fly, with the right method of manipulation, and the magic of each of the races provided their own unique manipulation to overcome and utilize that force. If Om was merely another force of nature, and cause and effect could be manipulated by the Danguin, in order to predict the future or discern the feelings of others or even to perform possession, as clearly it could, and somehow Noel could go against this force, to change things through Moag, as clearly he could, then obviously Om’s way was not as fixed as the Danguin believed, or Noel could not have been able to change anything, because it wouldn’t be possible. Which begged the question, what exactly did this make Moag?
Of course, this was why the Mardraim was so bothered by the fact the Felimi seemed to be hiding everything about Moag to begin with—albeit in plain sight. One had to wonder, were the duality, Om and Moag, in fact some sort of opposing set of forces, like the opposite poles of a magnet? A universal good versus evil? Order and chaos, perhaps? That would explain Moag’s ability to alter Om, and Noel was feeling fairly chaotic of late. But was that going too far? After all, Moag also resulted in prophecy. That implied order.
Edward had called Moag Om’s reflection. Electricity and magnetism went hand-in-hand like this, but neither were good or bad, unless you used them the wrong way. They were simply necessary to each other, each resulting in the other, and both could be used in the magic of all five races, so why not Om and Moag as well? Maybe Moag was necessary to Om somehow, but then why did the Felimi conceal Moag’s existence for so long? And if they weren’t concealing it, and they believed Moag wasn’t, in fact, another useful force of nature, another cause manifested of the Law of Consequences that could be manipulated by anyone with the right skill-set (or drug-induced contact through the Wangarr spirit to Creation itself, as the case may be), why was there an entrance to it right there inside the Mothers’ cloister? Were they in some way already manipulating it or at least monitoring it for some reason? What did the Felimi know about Moag, after all, and more importantly, what didn’t they want anyone else to know and why?
At Fkat, the Mothers told Noel that Moag was the end, which sounded ominous at best, but what did it actually mean? The Mardraim said Moag destroyed everything it touched, including Om, which was why Noel, Issa, and Harvey should never have been able to escape, yet they had. Were the prophecies of Moag any different from those of Om, aside from how they were seen? Was Issa seeing “The End” every time Noel touched the darkness? What was in there, waiting for them? Why was he drawn there? What was it Isabella really wanted, besides the end of her own life? Why was it important to her that he go in there, in that place? Did she only seek an end to her suffering? Should Noel give in to her, if things got too difficult? Should he throw caution to the wind and have mercy on them both, before he made things even worse?
His heart pounded. He needed help. He had to leave.
She told the Mardraim she saw everything. Had she seen what he was meant to do in Moag?
“You think of her often,” Harvey interrupted, his voice dark, the look on his face darker still.
Noel swallowed, gave an embarrassed shrug, and rubbed his hands together, realizing he was breathing a bit too quickly and that Harvey felt his panic. “I concern for her.” He wondered how much of his thoughts the man understood through Om, using Velhim. “She hurt.”
“I, too, have grave concern for her,” Harvey answered, looking pained. He leaned back against his own tree and sighed, an unusual expression of his emotional state.
As soon as they were done for the day, Harvey would go to her. He already suspected Noel had some control over her condition. What would he think when he found her once again consumed in her work with the Mardraim? “Of course,” Noel grumbled guiltily. “You want protect her. You care for her deeply. She die in Moag.” He supposed they had avoided the subject long enough. It was time the two spoke of the darkness and the connection they shared.
“No, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey said, dropping his voice to nearly a whisper. His brow drew deep over his eyes, and he looked away across the river. “Issa died twice, both times while you were in Moag.” He drew in a a deep breath and added, “I must tell you something I can share with no one else, Ohamet,” nodding his head slowly as he spoke, as though fortifying his resolve. “I must trust you to understand and to help.”
Noel straightened his back, intrigued, apprehensive, sure Harvey Frank was about to reveal what he experienced, in the brief moment he was in the darkness. As Harvey settled in, rubbing his hands nervously over his thighs, to find the words to begin, Noel worried how Issa would take whatever it was he had to say, if the living her would feel it too, through him, if it would cause her to look at him with blame in her eyes the next time he saw her, if it would do more to harm the piece of her still stuck in Moag. As far as he knew, the connection between himself and Harvey Frank, where Issa was concerned, was one that could not be explained by empathy or by possession. He feared Moag was all that was left.
“At Fkat, you spoke of being in Moag, of a vision of drowning in sand,” Harvey said after a time.
Noel nodded. He remembered that when he spoke of the sand, Harvey had looked up at him, as though it meant something.
“We were with the Mothers, before Issa died the first time. As you entered Moag, she screamed in pain, as her arm began to turn black. She fell to the ground, and I pulled her into my arms, holding onto her, not knowing what to do. She died there, in agony. I do not know how long she was gone, so much happened in those moments, but when she returned to life, she coughed up sputum and sand, as though she had breathed the air of a desert storm. As she soved me away, I wiped it from her cheek and felt the grit between my fingers, thinking there are so few places where sand exists in our mountain and no place where it blows, where it might be breathed, in such a way. It was such a small thing, and I did not understand, but before I knew it she was dying again, changed, speaking words in a language no one understood, her body deteriorating before me, so I put it out of my mind, until you told the Felimi that while you were in Moag you had the vision of drowning in sand.” His eyes were solemn as he stared at the earth between them, as if to draw on some strength from the mountain itself to speak his piece.
It was like the thistles Edward told him about, Noel thought. She brought thistles out of Moag on her robes, as though the vision she experienced while she was in the darkness had somehow manifested parts of itself in reality. “She was with me in the sand,” he said quietly. “I try to save her. She no real though, just in my head. I thought she made me see this.” Somehow Moag had created substance through Noel and Issa, out of their visions. What did this mean?
“At Fkat, when you spoke of the sand, I knew it came through you, from Moag. I wanted to ask you what else you saw, but it was not my place to speak, and you were disturbed and wished to leave. Then, at the river I… felt her through you, somehow… awake at last after many days of sleep, frightened. Concern for her outweighed the need for answers, for both of us,” Harvey smiled sadly.
They had both felt that spark and her fear. They had both run to her, Noel thought. He started to speak, but Harvey raised a hand.
“I only speak of that now, so you will know what I tell you is true, otherwise I fear it is far too strange a tale to believe. You were in Moag, and she had died once and come back to life, coughing up sand— as you would say, a weird, puzzling miracle,” the man continued, “and the Mothers had me carry her, to a room in the cloister, where they told me I should leave her, to allow Moag to complete its task. They believed you would both die, but I could not go. I felt the spark of Issa’s essence, her Velhim, leaving her—not like in death, like the first time. This was different. This time no one could save her and she would not return, I knew, just as I knew you would come to our mountain seeking prophecy.
“You have been told that before you came here, I felt you speeding toward us, felt you were guided to us by Om, against Om’s will, and that if you were allowed to enter our mountain, you would change everything. I felt this within my soul, Ohamet. I am not Zhe. I do not receive the Veils, though as an augur I am able to read them. I also felt an impossible Velhim present within you, one that could not be explained by your heritage, nor by Om alone. When you fell from our mountain and the ice and rock collapsed over you, I felt your death as part of Om’s guidance. Your soul clung to your vessel, though this should not have been possible, but more than your soul was there with you. That Velhim was present, a part of you that came from a place I cannot fathom, a place I have never felt before. It was you but something much more as well, perhaps born of the purpose within the prophecy you brought to my people.”
“The Last Hope,” Noel whispered, but Harvey shook his head and lifted a hand again, to stay him, as if he didn’t want to lose his will.
“Against all sense, against all of our laws, against Om, and against my own desire, I went to you, taking Issa with me, out of fear, not of what would happen to you, if your soul was left detached from your body and you failed to enter our mountain, as I knew must happen, but in fear of that presence that held you there, that Velhim that was not of this existence, which kept your soul from returning to Om. She felt it too, of course— many did. She felt that Velhim all along, but it did not frighten her, as it frightened me. You see, it—you— brought her… joy— awe, from the very beginning. You fell from the mountain and that Velhim held you there, as it must…” At this, he looked up and locked eyes with Noel, his voice taking on new a depth of sorrow. “…waiting for me.”
“Waiting for you?” Noel said quickly, even as he felt Isabella withdraw.
“I was meant to save you, Noel Loveridge,” Harvey admitted. “Om brought you to me, against its will, and I was meant to save you when you died, against my own will, as part of the changes you were already making to Om’s way, before you ever entered our mountain— before I dug you out of the ice and snow and carried you into our home, to Issa— before she ever smiled at the determination you possessed, to which she felt drawn… as kindred. When we brought you inside, I told her to drop her occlusion, so she could feel you there, clinging to your body, that alien Velhim holding you close, so she would understand what I had to do, why I had to save you, why I would leave her behind, forever, though I had no idea how. I told her I needed her help, but you must know, I did not expect her to do as she did. I did not know the consequences. How could I, when this was not Om’s way? I did not know that it might be possible anyone would be able to do as she did. But she did so, Ohamet, without even thinking. Without hesitation, she joined herself to you and that Velhim, and everything changed once more. I would have done so against my will. She did so out of recognition, understanding, that kindred sense of you and that Velhim. She took my part, and my part became fragmented. I did not realize it, at first, the shift was so subtle, or I would not have stayed with you while you recovered. I would have gone with her. I never would have let her enter the forbidden place. I did not understand what she had done.”
“Of course not…” Noel sighed, but he had no clue what else to say, so he only shook his head. In truth, he hardly understood what the man was telling him, but it definitely wasn’t what he’d expected.
“Later, while you were in Moag, she lay in the cloister, and for that second time I could feel her death upon her, but it was more than her death. I could feel the end of the one soul in existence I ever needed, in all of my lifetimes, the only person I ever wanted to be near, though such feelings, such desires, are beneath our people and are so foreign to us that until I realized what happened, I did not know I felt this. Such emotions are not felt, are never shared among our people. It was not as though I ever expected more than what Om intended for me. Om had promised each of us to different partners for the continuity of our paths in this life, as in many other lifetimes. Before you came, this idea never bothered me, perhaps because I knew she and I would always be together, in every lifetime. We always had been, no matter our paths, because our souls intermingled throughout existence, as if a part of one another—as if of the very intention of Om itself, as though we were born together in that ancient water, two elements of the same essence, inseparable. However, I put her in my place, and you and your changes were going to take her away from this world forever, and I knew it should have been me, not her. It was meant to be me. I had to act, to try and undo what was happening, though I felt helpless— a feeling I had never known, in all my lifetimes.
“I am ashamed to admit it, but I could not exist without her,” Harvey breathed a terrible breath and shook his head, eyes glistening now as tears welled. “When I knew she was on the edge of the end, I took her body to the entrance to Moag, in the cloister, I lay her down, I kissed her goodbye, and I entered what should have been my own ending, to be with her there. I wanted to end. I wanted never to breathe again, without her breathing the same air. And then you—” He exhaled an angry, shuddering breath, as the tears broke, a breath it seemed he’d held onto for weeks, and his words came louder, guttural. “—flew into me! You forced me back into this world, and she was gone, and I could feel her absence, in the very soul of me, like my own Velhim had been ripped in two.
“In my panic, I forced you to save her, Ohamet. It was very much against the Mdonyatra, but for some reason, I felt that if it was you who saved her, then it would not be wrong; it would simply be another change you made, so I demanded it of you and that Velhim. I had witnessed her breathe the breath of light into you, yet when it came time to save her, the Mdonyatra was there in my head, and that Velhim that does not belong in this world was there with you, holding me back, pushing you forward, forging a new way. I demanded you save her, and like her, you did not hesitate. For that much, I am eternally grateful. This is not an oath the Danguin make lightly. Eternity is eternity. You understand? All lifetimes.”
“Harvey…” Noel shook his head, blowing out a breath of his own, feeling his eyes widen. “If—”
Harvey raised both hands this time, to stop the coming protest, his voice hardening as he spoke. “I know you caused it— your changes. Yet I feel that I caused it, as though Om flipped inside of me, and suddenly I was different, guilty, ashamed, because I wanted her back,” the man said, the pain in his eyes, as the tears flowed freely, almost unbearable to witness. He paused for a moment, his jaw tense, his chin quivering, then added, “These things that you are doing—how she shifts from one moment to the next— how she sees new futures not within Om— what she is doing with my Mardraim—
“Please, whatever you do, keep her safe, Ohamet! Only you can! She is bound to you, not me. Perhaps she has always been bound to you. Or perhaps it is merely this fahmat, this possession,” he spat the word. “Either way, you must keep her safe in it, no matter what! Please,” his voice cracked, and he drew his hands together in pleading. “It is the only thing I will ever ask of you. The rest of my life is yours, forever. Whatever is mine, is yours, for eternity, through Om, through Moag, through all lifetimes, until we both cease to be. Take care of her.”
Noel swallowed hard, shaking his head, the sickness growing in his belly once more. He wanted to. He’d spent the night and most of the morning thinking only of that. “I will do my best,” he heard himself say, then quickly added, “but I no know what to do, Harvey!” This was madness. A lengthy pause hung between them, as Noel bit his lip, contemplating exactly what their options were, whether anything had changed in the past half hour, but all their options were the same.
Isabella was stillness within him. He wished she would give him some idea how he was supposed to answer the man, but she was completely silent, so small he couldn’t get even the remotest sense of her, almost like she was hidden behind the wards. At a loss, he whispered, “You know possession?”
Harvey nodded. “Only from the Felimi and Mdrai. It is how you both survived Moag. We are not allowed to speak of it. It is forbidden.”
“And you? How you survive Moag?”
Harvey smiled darkly, wiping his cheeks with his forearm, sniffing as he shook his head. “Issa swears I did not. She swears she saw me die—unfurled in Moag. But about this she must be mistaken because I am here. Painful as it is, I am here, and so is she, but she is in danger, always. I know it with every part of me, Noel Loveridge.”
Noel knew it as well. “What happened to you in Moag?”
“Nothing, as far as I know,” Harvey answered, looking exactly like a man who wished he knew, who wished he could make sense of it all and make it right. He looked exactly like Noel felt. “I stepped inside, and you and Issa and that force within you pushed me out again. That is all I know. I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, beyond stepping inside, willing the end, and being forced out, like for me to enter there was against both Om and Moag and all of the forces of the universe combined. Ohamet, I have no right to ask you for more than what you have already done, but you must help her. Only you can.”
Noel felt that too. He felt that deep in the soul of him. “I want to. I do,” he hissed uncomfortably, certain Isabella’s silence was a terrible sign. He had to tell Harvey the truth. Maybe together they could figure out what to do next. “You feel her, with empathy?”
“Not since the day she woke, while you and I were over there.” He pointed across the river. Noel had wondered why they came all this way for a lesson they could have anywhere. Harvey had brought him there, so they could speak of this. “My Omdra, my grandfather, keeps her occluded, so no one will feel her.”
Noel nodded and drew in an unsteady breath. He could feel her, yet Harvey could not. “How she sees prophecy…” he began uneasily. “Edward says to me go touch Moag. She sees and records them— my changes to Om’s way. They study them.”
“Yes, you must continue this,” Harvey nodded. “The Mdrai need to know the changes you have made, and the Mardraim would not lead you wrong.” He looked down at the earth again and added, “Issa is better having work to do. She is much… happier in the work.” Happier was not the right word in any language, but they both knew what he meant. She was transfixed by the work and at least not harming herself anymore.
But Noel shook his head, wanting Harvey to understand. They Mardraim might not realize he was leading them wrong, or maybe he knew exactly what was happening to the Issa still trapped in the darkness and was willing to make that sacrifice. Noel didn’t like thinking ill of the old man, but that was a possibility, even if he didn’t like it. “When I touch Moag, pain inside her is terrible. I am drawn to the dark, and so is she. She is still…” He swallowed hard, uncertain how much he should say, uncertain what Harvey might do as a result. The man had apparently attempted to end his own life for her once, but still he had a right to know, didn’t he? He loved her, of that there was no doubt. “She is there… part of her… in Moag. When I touch, I hear her… scream… in my head.”
Harvey’s brow sunk into a painful scowl, and his shoulders fell. It was a while before he nodded again, as though he understood, though Noel felt certain he couldn’t possibly, or he would’ve reacted differently. He expected Harvey to jump up and run to Issa’s side, as he felt like doing every time he touched Moag. A part of him hoped Harvey would go demand she and the Mardraim stop, at least until they could figure out what they were dealing with, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Sometimes she is better. What happens then? What are you doing that gives her these hours where she is like herself again?”
Why did she have to choose now to be quiet? Noel was not supposed to be telling Harvey any of these things. He’d promised Edward, given his word, yet Edward only seemed concerned with revealing Moag’s prophecies and restoring Om, and Harvey wanted to protect Issa, same as Noel. “Fairy wards,” Noel answered, the words spilling out. “Like in room Felimi hold Fkat. One or more block possession and her tie to Moag.”
Now Harvey’s eyes widened, and he spoke fast. “Which wards? How does this work? Tell me, please, so I can help her too.”
Noel shook his head, shifting anxiously. He understood how Harvey felt, but he wasn’t sure he should have said this much. “I wish I knew. Edward no explain to me. He has me go…” He paused, thinking better than to break all of his own oaths to the Mardraim in one fell swoop. He was almost ashamed of himself, for giving up his vow so easily. Almost ashamed, but even so… “I apology, Harvey. Edward ask me no tell you what we do. Mardraim say it is weird puzzling Felimi tell no one of Moag. What they say of Moag—” He sighed, shaking his head. “Not enough. Mardraim show me place he warded. I go there, so Issa can rest and be with you, after she record prophecy for Edward.”
“Where is this place?” Harvey asked, getting swiftly to his feet. “Take me there, so I can see these wards myself.” He started away a few steps, but Noel gave an uncomfortable groan, and Harvey stopped short, looking crestfallen, gritting his teeth.
“No. Even if I could, Harvey, you no able to see them there, and I no break Edward’s trust. I apology.”
The man gave a disgruntled mutter, but nodded. “My grandfather… I know he does not trust me.”
“He no believe what you say about Moag, no believe you see nothing,” Noel answered, shrugging. “You tell him what you tell me about Issa, how you know you meant save me, how she take your place? Maybe he take you there himself. I apology, but I no take you.”
“No apology is necessary, Ohamet. To break my Mardraim’s trust would be against the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, and as I said, my life is yours. I will not ask you to go against my grandfather. It is good you do as my he asks.” Harvey gave a lengthy sigh, shook his head, and added, “But there is still hope. We will work together, for Issa. Can you describe the wards to me?”
Noel could do better than that. He had every intention, after a restless night and a fitful morning, of leaving the mountain as soon as night fell and the Danguin people were sound asleep.
“For Issa,” he swore.
Instead of running, he pulled the Book of Ages from the pocket of his awkward garment, grew it to regular size, revealed the layer he’d been working on, hidden beneath the original text, and showed Harvey Frank his drawings of the twelve Faeish wards, which guarded the room of Danguin magic in the Mardraim’s keep.
Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35
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