Tag Archives: The Eleventh Age

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 30

A Drowning of Multitudes

Four and twenty marks…  Four and twenty days or more since she woke from Moag, Issa thought, skeptically scraping her teeth across her bottom lip as she watched the patch of white-gold light falling through the window, tracing its path across the scratches on the floor.  Her concept of time was still questionable.

What if the Mardraim had visited while she slept, or when she was lost in Moag, or wherever it was she went when she disappeared because she was certain that she was invisible sometimes too?

How did he do that?

Four and twenty days. Or less.

Less was definitely possible, she thought, turning to pace, rubbing angry fingers at her temples, trying to keep the ideas from stirring frantic inside her, even as they gurgled up, vomitous in her brain, half curdled puzzles, burbling from the depths of her, lingering for hours and minutes and seconds, waiting, and waiting some more, for the rest of the fragments to ferment and congeal, to emerge something solid and knowable.  Few thoughts managed to reach this precious state.  But last night…

Good. She still remembered, but how long would it be before she forgot?  And why had the Mardraim not come, as promised?

Issa hurried to the door, glancing back at the patch of light, hoping to remember what it looked like when she returned.  If she returned.

Her concept of reality was rather dubious as well.  The holes in her own presence in her head were surrounded by fractures of memories she could only recall from a great distance, as though at times she was not herself anymore, but some other being altogether, residing on the outside of the thin shroud that had been placed over her eyes, like a screen, so that all she could know was from this other’s perspective, looking down on the world, watching the Issa who no longer existed move like a blind shadow through a memory of a moment that had yet to occur, but was somehow grounded in a long distant past.  Like a grain of sand, she thought— a grain of sand that was once a behemoth mountain, like her home.

And then there was the Wanderer.

No, it was best not to think of him.  Thoughts of him left her feeling ashamed, irrevocably altered, and that never proved good for keeping her mind intact.  The her she used to be could not come to terms with the she she had become— the she who truly wished her past self would leave Noel Loveridge to his death in the icy outside world, though every her she was on every level of existence knew perfectly well leaving him to his death was impossible, not because the thing had already happened—though that too was an important observation, she noted— but because he was Ohamet.

The Wanderer lives.

Yes. Yes, he lives, but then last night, she thought scowling, scratching at her cheeks as she turned in a circle, forgetting whatever it might be she intended to do in favor of this new line of thought.  She despised him as much as she despised the part of her that wished the Mardraim had found some way to end him, as he had told the Felimi he wanted.  Ohamet lived and would have lived, that was certain, but also beside the point. Even reason could not change this perturbation within her that knew his wandering had taken everything from her and he should never have brought her back to this life, even if she remembered telling him to breathe.

Wait?

Had she told him to breathe?

She stopped to listen to the past, and yes, she could hear the voice inside her head clearly inside his head, though far away, urging him to save her.  Why had she done that?  What else had she forgotten?

The light!

She glanced back at the patch of morning, still making its slow progress across the floor, and let loose a grateful sigh as she recalled that she was waiting for the Mardraim.

Her concept of reality was a most fragile thread, swiftly unraveling like the tail of her Omdet Fillim in a vision of a dream in which she had drowned and brought herself back to life.

No, she was not supposed to be here, in this world, on this plain.  Om had nothing more for her.  But Moag… Last night…  Where was the Mardraim?

With one breath, Noel Loveridge had thrust her back into this life of darkness, where all she could do was convulse and spew senseless babble for the rest of time, uttering pieces of a future she could never fully fathom with any of her worldly senses, even though inside her the truth swelled and raged and battered against her, all there, all looking for an escape, but as fragmented and confused as Issa herself, in a thousand and one forms.  There were few things she could rely upon as real.  She did not even know if this moment was real, but she knew last night Noel Loveridge had done something different, something spectacular.

The marks were real, she thought, returning to count them once again, uncomfortably aware that the she she wanted to be had failed miserably at holding back the her she had become.  The marks were real, even if they only meant she was lucid four and twenty times since she woke knowing something—everything and nothing all at once— was missing, and backwards, and wrong, and trapped inside her head.

Unless the marks were meant to signify something other than time, but what could that be? What did she have left to mark?

Frustrated, she bounced on her toes, clawing at the flesh on her upper arms. How many times had she stood before those marks futilely contemplating why she had chosen to make them, what she intended to count, if they had even begun as intentional marks or if she had made at least some of them while in some altered state?  Because sometimes she was neither the her she wanted to be, nor the she she had become, nor the her outside of time, looking down, but instead was some other she none of them knew in the slightest, and it was all the Wanderer’s fault.

She bent down and scratched another swift mark in the floor with the sharpened nail of her thumb, for good measure.

Five and twenty.

That mark was true—real or not.  Five and twenty marks since she started making marks and wondering why she was making marks.

Issa crossed the room to the door again and ran her finger down the shallow gouge there in the frame.

One mark.

One time the Mardraim had come to visit, to take away the pieces of Moag’s prophecies, to try and order them, so he might restore Om.  One mark made by the Mardraim himself, with a promise to return first thing the next day, to collect pieces of the shattering.  His mark was more reliable as a measurement of time and reality, so long as Issa did not change it.

So long as the wanderer did not change it, she thought with a hint of bitter remorse.  No. Still best not to think of him, she reminded herself, gritting her teeth against the idea of his pain and fear last night, as he flew toward her.

He was with Harvey again today. She squeezed her fist, then flexed her fingers.  His fist closed and flexed in response.  This was comforting.  She did not know if it was real or true, but at least in Noel she felt tethered to an existence that seemed relatively consistent.

She missed Harvey.  He had stolen him too, and Issa was certain she hated him for it, despite the fact she had little understanding of hatred as an emotion, except through him.  But last night…

Last night, Noel Loveridge was in the tunnels.  She did not know why he went there, but he went often. At first, she believed he was trying to find a way home because he thought of his friends, he missed them, but then he began wandering the edges of Moag, which turned out to occupy much more of their mountain than Issa suspected anyone knew.  Ohamet could feel it, and she could feel it as well, through him, though this made little sense, not that anything made sense anymore.  The wanderer was afraid of Moag, but last night he did something that, for the briefest of moments, allowed Isabella Asan, the real her, to see again.

What she saw was whole. Complete. A perfect work.  A perfect, terrifying, beautiful, desperate work.

Then the wanderer was flying toward her in a panic, his desperation rooted deep within her.  Issa had hurried to the door to meet him, expecting to find out what he had done, to learn what he knew, but when he landed, he was invisible.  Almost.

Did the Mardraim know the elf had been there in her garden last night?  Did he know Noel Loveridge could make himself unseen and wander wherever he wanted?

Issa dug her fingernails into her palm.  She felt Noel flex his fingers in response, shaking out his hand, and smiled.

One mark.  One time the Mardraim came to help her, she thought, running her finger over the etched line in the door frame. He would help her understand what Ohamet had done.

That was right, whether real or true existed anymore.  That was right.

“Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed, as there came a knock at the door.

Isabella flung the door open, and there stood the Mardraim on the other side, as if manifested by her mania.  She laughed loudly at the sight of him, and when the elder’s eyes widened in shock, she swallowed her laughter and covered her mouth, whispering from behind her fingers, “My Mardraim,” and ducking her head in a respectful bow.  She glanced at the door frame, to make certain the Mardraim’s mark had not changed.  Still there.

“Young Isabella,” the elder smiled at her, though his eyes were sad, she thought as he inspected her and she grew painfully aware of her appearance. “Are you feeling well today?”

She straightened her dress and smoothed her hair.  She was not certain how to explain how she felt, so instead she took him by the hand leading him to her small table, where there were two chairs waiting.

She had tried to stay awake last night, after the wanderer ran away, while she waited for the Mardraim, afraid if she closed her eyes the vision that had come to her so completely would slip away through the cracks in her mind, like everything else tended to do, since Noel Loveridge brought her back to life.  She had spent most of the night pacing, but at some point, in some other state of herself, she must have sat down to rest, and fallen asleep.

She woke in a panic, well before the dawn, still sat at the table, her head stirring with useless fragments.  Afraid she had forgotten what Moag and Ohamet had shown her, she intended to whisper the worthless bits into the solitary stillness of the early morning hours, but as the thoughts pressed dangerously against the inside of her skull, seeking release, she stumbled over her chair in her hurry, and knocked her head against the ground.  She lay on the floor weeping for some time, until she realized the vision was still whole—painfully whole. Somehow it had managed to remain, in spite of Issa’s turmoil and the tender spot that grew up on her forehead.

“The seabed ripped open, and the earth shook with violent tremors,” she said quickly, as the Mardraim settled himself into a chair, eying her seriously, while she paced before him.  “The waters of the ocean receded from the shorelines. They drew back, far away, in preparation, and the people came out from their homes and places of work to watch, some frightened, some wondering what it meant. When the ocean made its return at last, it became a vast serge, rising over its shores, washing through towns and villages, ripping up everything in its path—the ground, the trees, the buildings, the people— carrying all of this destruction inland, until the waters finally settled back in their beds, leaving carnage behind.  Thousands of people drowned, swept away, crushed by the debris, lost forever. Hundreds of thousands—a drowning of multitudes.”

As she spoke the last words, she sat in her chair.

The elder stared in silence, his eyes wide as he struggled to make sense of her words.  When he finally leaned forward and spoke, his voice was a tremulous whisper, “You saw this?  Exactly this?”

Isabella understood his shock. These were not the allegorical instruments of Om.  These were not even akin to the dream-like visions she saw while she was within Moag herself.  She knew no one believed her when she told them that Moag had shown her everything, all that had ever and would ever happen in the world, especially since Issa could hardly piece together the words to recount any given event because it was far too much for anyone to know.  Whatever the wanderer did last night, Issa was able to see this event again, so clearly she could taste the salt water that filled bloated lungs.  She could see the baffled and terrified faces of the people swept up in the tides, hear their last cries for help as their bodies were bashed and tossed by the wake and everything the water tore from the earth.  This was a change Noel Loveridge had made, and to hear Issa speak with such clarity, especially considering her state during his last visit, was sure to concern the Mardraim.

She nodded.  “When Ohamet was within Moag, I saw this and all of his changes at once.  But last night, he…”

Her voice faltered.  She shook her head and looked down at her fingers.  What would the Mardraim do if she told him where Noel Loveridge went each night?

“What did he do, child?” the elder prompted.

“I do not know,” she shrugged, knowing this was true, even if it was negating a lot of what she did know.  What if the mothers discovered Noel Loveridge had been out wandering alone? What would happen to her if something happened to him?  If Ohamet’s wandering was stopped, would Issa only have the chaos left in her head?  While she knew he had been frightened last night, if she wanted clarity, more she could tell the Mardraim about the changes brought about by the elf’s wanderings, she needed Noel to do whatever he had done again.

And again, and again until she could share everything.  It would take countless lifetimes.

He had taken Om from her.  He had taken Harvey from her.  He owed her.

“Young Isabella, if I am to help you, you must tell me what you know,” the Mardraim whispered.  “I will protect you both.”

Issa tucked her hands beneath her legs, biting her lip.  She knew the Mardraim intended to try and right the way of Om.  She knew he would try and fail.  She had seen his efforts.  She knew how it would end.  She no longer had a destiny of her own, not even a destiny foretold by Moag, but if she could tell others of the changes Noel Loveridge had made, then perhaps his bringing her back to life was not such a cruelty after all.  Maybe she could serve this purpose as well as she had meant to serve Om.

“He has been wandering again,” she hissed, too ashamed to meet the Mardraim’s eye, instead looking down at the ground where five and twenty gouges in the floor caught the light of morning.  They numbered the pieces of prophecies she had given the Mardraim the day before.  She could remember quite clearly now, making each mark, hoping she would not forget—all but the last one, the one she had given today.  It was whole. It was beautiful and mortifying.

“At night, when everyone is sleeping, Ohamet wanders the tunnels near Moag.  I do not know what he did differently last night, but whatever it was, it allowed me to understand this event clearly.  I think he… touched Moag… somehow.  Not like before.”

“I see,” the elder frowned.  “What makes you believe he touched Moag?”

“He is fearful of it, because of the dreams he saw while within it, but he is drawn to it,” she answered plainly.  “Before the vision came, I felt this fear and this need within him to go there.  Then there was incredible pain, so terrible I could hardly breathe, but I saw—lived—this moment again, this change Noel Loveridge made.  When it was done, the pain stopped, but the elf flew to me, with desperate speed.  I went to meet him, but when he landed on the garden path, I could not see him.”

The Mardraim stifled a smile.  “You could not see him, yet you are certain he was there?”

“Yes.  I could not see him, but I saw myself, or something like myself.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, leaning forward expectantly.

“I saw it before, as well,” she nodded, her courage building. “Not me, as I am today, and not in a vision.  Last night, when he landed in the garden, there was a whisper of light he could not make invisible.  That light belonged to me once, and I knew it as myself, the part of me he stole when I breathed the life back into him.  But the light I saw before was different. When Noel Loveridge first entered Moag, while I was with Harvey and the mothers at the cloister, I left my body dead on the ground.  I saw a whisper of light then too, like a curl of smoke, trailing up from the old mother’s mouth, up to the ceiling. I think the old mother is dying.”

The Mardraim shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his white brow drawing heavy over kind eyes.  “Could you see this light around anyone else?”

Issa was certain he knew something about what she had seen. Perhaps he knew the old mother was going to die.  Perhaps he had seen this light as well, but she decided the vision of the drowning was more important than the light.

“No, but the middle mother saw me.  As though she had always seen me, she reached out to snatch me from the air, but she couldn’t, and that was when I realized I was no longer within my body. I was made of the smoke-touched light, like the light the old mother was breathing.”

The Mardraim sat stunned and for a long while watched her in silent contemplation.  When he spoke at last, his voice was heavy with concern.  “Have you told this to anyone else? Have you told this to Harvey?

Issa frowned, uncertain why the elder would ask such a question.  “I do not believe so, however I have been… not myself at times.”

He let out a small sigh that seemed rather nervous than it did relieved.  “You must not tell anyone else what you have seen, Issa.  I will make this right,” he said quietly.  And he reached across the table, taking her hand with both of his in promising comfort.

The old man had used the name for her only Harvey used.  The familiar word sounded strange on the elder’s lips.  She knew he meant well.  He would try to make it right again, try to restore the prophecies Ohamet erased, but in the end, he would find he had no choice but to allow the wanderer’s changes to come, to play his part in them.

“What else can you tell me about the vision you saw last night?” he asked.  “This tragedy that will kill thousands—do you know where or when it will occur?”

“It was not in one place, but many. Everywhere the ocean touches will be affected in its way,” she answered, then added, curious at the nature of his inquiry, “My Mardraim…?”

What Issa had seen was not an edict passed down to them by Om. They had no need to decipher the meaning of countless Veils in order to understand.  This disaster was shown her by Moag, and if she was not much mistaken, it appeared their elder was considering what might be done to save lives.  Did the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya apply to a future foretold by Moag?

“Their faces…” Issa whispered carefully, as uncertain of the Mardraim’s intention as she was uncertain of her own. “I see many of them clearly.  Perhaps I could paint them for you.”

“You see structures as well?  Landmarks that might be identified?” he asked, an energy in his words that Issa had never heard before.

She nodded. “I will paint them for you, as well, my Mardraim, but please do not stop Ohamet going to Moag,” she said, knowing that what she was asking would displease many.  This was the best hope she had of being useful this life.  It was the only hope she had.

“We must understand what he has done.  We must understand if we are ever to restore Om’s way,” the Mardraim answered firmly, pressing her hand between his in the same gentle, loving-kindness he had always given to their people.  His hands were warm and soft, and Issa wanted desperately to believe in him, despite knowing the truth.

It was her turn to let out a sigh, anxious and expectant.  The secret pact formed between herself and the Mardraim, caused something akin to the warmth of happiness to melt the trepidation that had overwhelmed her ever since the wanderer set foot inside Moag.  But at the same time, this pact meant she might never tell the Mardraim what she knew would eventually become of him.

____________________________________________

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

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.

____________________________________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 26

The Future Mardraim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey only gave a disenchanted grunt, increasing his pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moment of truth had arrived.

Noel sighed and gave an anxious swallow.

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

A shiver ran through him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old man gave a patient smile.

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

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

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

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

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

No veils.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” the Mardraim said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have my word.”

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 25

Secrets of the Mardraim

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Frank?” he said, concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ptalmet?” Noel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Noel sighed. “Why need new?”

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

“What fahmat Felimi allow, all here learn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward, the empath, understood him and trusted him.

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

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

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

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

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

“You remember other life?”

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

Noel nodded.

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

“What say?” Noel asked.

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

“Boy? You think Eri?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

_______________________

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

 

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 23

Llendir Ways

He had known it.  He had not dared to admit it, not even to himself, but he had known all along. Even while he was caught up in the treacherous black of Moag, he could sense the woman, believing she had put some queer curse on him, tweaked with his mind somehow.  Half the reason he was determined never to mention it to anyone was because he was afraid of having it confirmed. Well, now it was confirmed.

Noel turned away, hands held out in front of him prepared to plead with the universe, but the irony struck him like a fist in the gut.  He had already done his pleading.  Going off to Arnhem Land, drinking poisonous potions to commune with the Dreaming— pleading with the universe was precisely what had caused all of this in the first place, he thought, shaking his head at the numb burn in the tips of his fingers, a thousand sensations there in the bundles of nerves, none of which belonged to him.  How could he explain this to Phileas and the others, without coming off as a loon at best or an inept dolt at worst—not that he was ever getting out of here to explain, he reminded himself.

“How was your holiday, Noel?  Oh, fine, fine.  The food was lovely, only, I went and got myself possessed,” he muttered miserably.  The look on Phileas’s face would be priceless.  There had to be some way to get the woman out of him, once and for all.  He couldn’t live like this.  He’d go insane.  “Master Frank, this banned fahmat—”

But the Mardraim took his arm once more and ushered him quickly across the room.  “We will speak no more here, for we must hurry.  The rains will end soon, and we must be well away from here before they do,” the elder said, as he pulled a bottle of dirt from the sleeve of his robes, paying no mind to Noel’s confusion or his concerns about actually being possessed and what that might mean for the quality of his life the next hundred years or so.  Kneeling by Noel’s things, the old man tugged the stopper from the bottle and poured its contents out into a mound in the middle of Noel’s blanket.

“I sleep there,” Noel protested, but Edward Frank only smiled, “I must summon an earthen one.”

“Earthen one?”

“Yes, yes.  I need your essence, there in the dirt, please,” he nodded, pointing to the mess he made.

“My essence?” Noel choked over the word.

“Your essence,” the elder replied, then realizing there was some confusion over the meaning of the word, he spat twice at the floor and waved his hand, indicating Noel should do the same.

Shaking his head, Noel complied, landing a large glob of slobber right on the top of the pile, which hissed and bubbled up quickly into a frothy foam.  The Mardraim pulled a slender twig of birch out of thin air and began to chant a strange incantation in a low voice, as he stirred the boiling muck.   Every third turn, the substance grew a deeper shade of crimson, and he delivered a new verse, writing in the mixture symbols that looked like some ancient form of the wizened language, though Noel had never studied the tongue.  All the dirt incorporated, the substance, now a dark, rubbery brown, the old man stopped his work, and the blob of gloop began to undulate and grow of its own volition.

It grew eyeballs that squirmed to see, looking this way and that but never quite in the same direction, as their perched atop a pile of gray matter, a lung and intestines.  It grew a puss-like mass that slowly turned to sickly white flesh, formless and squirming. It grew an arm and then legs, ribs and a mass of curly brown hair.  It grew a mouth that gaped open, tongue lolling free between familiar crooked teeth as eyes found their place in holes in the flesh, spinning round on themselves as the torso was complete, arms and legs came to right, and finally the skull took shape as the growth came to its feet.

Noel stood amazed, facing himself, grinning mortified at the dumbfounded look on his naked doppleganger’s face, as Edward Frank handed the thing fresh garments.

“How did you…?” his twin said, sounding as mightily impressed as Noel himself.

There was a lot to be impressed with, exactness of the golem aside, starting with the fact it spoke in almost complete sentences and sounded as idiotic in its lack of knowledge of the ancient Elfin tongue as the real Noel did, which was both a comfort and more than a little disconcerting.  “Yes, how did you?” the real Noel whispered to the Mardraim as the creature dressed.  He had seen a golem before, but not one so very real, never one so very… Noel.

“This is a confluence, a coming together of Fahmat, like the rains here in the mountain.  The earthen one is formed, brought to existence by an ancient work of the Adon.  Mm, you call them the Wizened, I believe,” the old man answered.

“Wizards,” both Noels nodded, then eyed one another uncomfortably as they each rubbed an anxious hand through the back of his hair.

A shiver ran down the real Noel’s spine.  He turned his back on his twin and hissed, “He believes he is me?”

Edward Frank laughed quietly, “No, no, however I am glad he is convincing.  The Itri, or Fae-”

“Fairies,” interrupted the golem.

“—are responsible for the concoction that gave him your properties, thanks to your contribution.” He pointed to Noel’s mouth. “And the Ikath-”

“Gods,” his mirror nudged him.

“I know,” Noel huffed.

“-created the charm for instilling in him quick thinking.  Of course, a thinking, feeling, being without a soul can be dangerous. This one we have no need to worry over, as he is not going anywhere, and we shall return him to the dust where he belongs, as soon as we arrive back home.”  The fact the golem had no soul was at least a small comfort, Noel thought as the elder flicked his wrist and in his palm blossomed a murky blue haze.  “Breathe deep, please,” he added, holding his hand under golem-Noel’s nose.

“We go?” Noel asked as the golem breathed the toxic-looking fumes.

Edward nodded. “If you and I are to find a way of reversing the shift and restoring our paths within Om, I must take you to a place where we may work in secret.”

“I don’t feel so well,” golem-Noel said, his English as perfect as his Elvish was not, as though he’d been raised right alongside the real Noel in his High Wycombe home, though he clutched at his throat as his voice rasped, and he sniffed greatly against a suddenly runny nose.  “I think the old bugger’s struck me with a flu.” He placed a hand on his own forehead, as the real Noel wondered that the man of clay was so real he could actually take ill.  He had always thought of golems as bumbling monsters, not at all human, but then he had never seen anything as remarkable as the creature presently crawling between the covers, atop which he had so recently been brought into existence.  If he was actually human, soulless or not, would returning him to the dirt, as the Mardraim suggested, constitute murder?  If Noel took part in doing in his newfound twin, would it be considered some backwards form of suicide or would it be more like cutting a cancer from the world?

His moral musings were interrupted by the old man giving instruction to the golem, whose skin grew pastier by the moment.  “You should not go out today or receive visitors.  We will return as soon as we are able.”

“No visitors,” the golem agreed, sneezed three times in succession, then swore in a voice that sounded much like Noel’s father.

“Dear God, am I this pathetic?” Noel muttered as Edward returned to his side.  He added to the old man, “What did you… give me? Him? …It?”

“The illness is necessary, to keep others away. And now—” The Mardraim raised his hands toward Noel’s chest.

“Wait! What?” Noel breathed, taking a hurried step back.

He had not realized until that moment of panic that his arms and legs were stiff with shock and his hands were trembling, but then he had just watched the old man turn a handful of dirt and a bit of Noel’s slobber into a walking, talking, breathing, thinking, illness-catching copy of himself that they were going to kill as soon as they returned from wherever they were going.  The golem even possessed Noel’s mannerisms.  Noel certainly was not going to let Edward Frank do anything to him without some discussion of the matter.

The elder gave a pensive smile.  “I will produce a simple light well, to render you unseen, so we may leave without drawing any attention to ourselves.”

“Light well? What light well?” Noel demanded.

“A bending of the light around you. What do you call this today?” he looked to the golem, but the other Noel was busy whinging and moaning, blanket pulled up around his ears, shiny new teeth chattering.

Edward raised his hands again, but this time Noel jumped backward, holding up fists in defense, though he doubted they would provide much protection, when the fact of the matter was even the magic Noel knew— and to be fair, he knew rather a lot as elves went— was no match for the extraordinary power he had just witnessed.  By now he understood the mountain people had exceptional skills, he had been keeping notes of the things he had seen, in case he ever managed to make it out of there, but Edward Frank, with his knowledge of the magic of so many races, was easily the greatest magician he had ever met, greater than both Footes, Bergfalk and Henry Frifogel combined.

“I have no name for light well.  I no know bending light,” Noel answered, slightly bothered by the fact the Mardraim had asked the golem.

“But the light well is Llendir Fahmat.  Surely you know and this is just an error in communication, Young Noel?” Edward’s thinning white brows drew down over his eyes.  “You will see.”

“No Ken knows, Master Frank.  No Ken,” Noel answered, shaking his head.  The old man was talking about making him invisible.  If anyone knew how to do this, the Nobles would have been taught.

All this time, Bergfalk and the elder Foote thought they were preparing their people for a war that was inevitable, the Great War of the races that would continue with the birth of the Last Hope of the Elves and the opening of the gates, as prophesied.  The wizards’ fate might have been imprisonment in the ice, all these years, as their punishment for the near destruction of the elfin race, but as far as anyone knew, they had not been subjected to ten millennia of thinning bloodlines and a catastrophic loss of knowledge and ability of their kind.  The more Noel saw the work of the mountain people, the feebler the elves seemed in comparison, the more certain he grew that the impending war was one the elves were always destined to lose, that truly the child, their Hope, would be their last hopeless breath in a world where they no longer had a place, like giants and dragons, just as he had secretly feared for so long. With her birth and subsequent death in the ensuing carnage, his brothers would become the stuff fantasy, elfinkind surrendered forevermore to the realm of mythological beings.  They would be lost.

Unless, Noel thought…

But that was a ridiculous idea, especially when he had just agreed to help the Mardraim restore whatever destinies he had already broken in coming there.  The old man had said Noel was somehow responsible for the changes in their destinies, but that did not mean he would ever have any control over how they changed.  No, if the prophecy in the Book of Ages was true, and Noel had not managed to completely destroy it with his trip into the Dreaming and his subsequent jaunt through Moag, it was more important than ever that he find some means of escaping the mountain.  He had to learn what he could of the magic of all people while he was there, he had to learn how the people of the mountain blend the various abilities together in these confluences, as the elder called them, to create such spectacular works Bergfalk and Foote had never imagined, and he had to warn the Nobles and the Seat that the elves would be no match for the wizards without significantly more training.  They were undermanned and overpowered.  They had lost far too much knowledge in the Fall.

The elder’s scowl deepened, as he folded his hands together, making a steeple of his fingers.  “Not one of your people knows how to bend light, Noel Loveridge?” he said, his mouth settling into a shameful frown.

Noel gave a small shake of his head and quickly added, “The rains, Master Frank.  We go.”  He did not want to talk about it.  He wanted to get on with this, so he could fix things, turn it right and move on.

“Yes, we go, but I sense in you a great loss, Ohamet,” the old man said, somber eyes watching Noel carefully.

One could hardly lose what one never possessed, Noel thought, clenching his teeth against the painful thumping in his chest.  He would learn what he could, and return home, even if he had to make his way back out through Moag to do it.  He owed his brothers that much, he thought as he lowered his hands to his sides at last, nodding for the old Master to continue.

Edward stared at him for long minute before at last giving a heavy sigh, taking in a deep breath, and with a swift motion, plucking something from the air a few inches from Noel’s chest.  Hands shaking, either with age or in his struggle to keep hold of whatever it was captured between his fingers, he dug brittle, yellowing nails into the tiny sliver of space between his thumb and forefinger and drew out something invisible to the naked eye, pinched between his nails.  Tongue poking out from between his teeth, he dug in the nails of his other hand and began to twist back and forth, to pry the imperceptible thing apart.  Soon his whole body began to shudder with the effort, his face turning first red, then white, a bead of sweat forming on his crumpled brow.

Noel was about to ask if he could be of assistance, but as he made to speak, a wry smile spread across the old man’s cheeks, and with a sharp crack that made Noel’s ears pop, Edward’s fingers broke free, and he laughed at the look on Noel’s face, as he stood there stunned, finger jabbed deep into his right ear, frozen in mid-wriggle.  Noel watched in awe while the old man drew his hands apart, and a slender filament of golden light stretched out before him.

“What on earth…?” he stammered, reaching out his waxy finger.

“Be still, Ohamet.  Do not move,” Edward whispered, almost noiselessly, the fluctuation of his breath on the air exciting the filament, causing it to dance and shine wildly, as the old man’s eyes widened.

Noel held his breath, as much out of amazement as to keep from ruining the incredible work he was witnessing.

After a moment, the fragile strand of gossamer light settled into a gentle oscillation, and Edward carefully raised it above Noel’s head, bringing the tips of his fingers together to form a graceful ring.  A snap of static and the faint hint of newly welded metal on the air indicated the ends had fused, and the elder let go, allowing the light to swim above Noel’s head like a halo, as he stretched and flexed his fingers in preparation for the next part. He took the ring by the sides and gently inched it larger, making it three times as broad around as Noel at the shoulders.  The light danced chaotically in response, at one point coming dangerously close to Noel’s hair, before the magician touched it softly, here and there, lifting it tenderly back into place, until it was almost still.  Satisfied, he pinched the filament between his fingernails again, and with much less effort than before, he forced the light to expand once more, this time drawing it down, so that the thin ring became a shining, luminous cylinder surrounding Noel with a pristine glow of energy.  He pulled the base down so it hovered just above the ground, where it gave a small sizzle, then, with a childlike grin that caused his blue eyes to twinkle, Edward set the tube of light to spinning, and like a potter at work at his wheel, he urged the sides ever so delicately up and up, until the column of light extended all the way from the floor to slightly more than a foot above Noel’s head, where he drew the top together, and with a warm buzz and a zap, it sealed itself shut.

“That will do,” Edward smiled, breathing a pleasurable sigh at his work that caused the dome of light to shiver and ripple with energetic colors before becoming still and crystal clear.

It had almost completely disappeared, except in Noel’s periphery, where he could just make out the shroud of electric current surrounding him.  “Is safe to move?” he hissed.

“Yes,” the old man chuckled, “and you can speak normally.  You are on the interior of the light well.  It will flow naturally around you as you move.”

Noel reached his hand out to touch the veil and watched the surrounding bubble shimmer as it extended out before him, always remaining several inches away from his flesh.  “I see me?” he questioned.

Edward smiled.  “Rest assured you are completely unseen to the rest of the world.  There is a barely perceptible arc of reflective distortion, a shine that can only be seen by one directly observing the light source as you pass between it and the viewer, which is a highly unlikely event, considering our light source is outside of the mountain.  Aside from being slightly warmer on the interior, you should not be able to tell any difference to the world around you, though you will catch periodic glimpses of the light well as it moves with you. You should not worry, as this is not visible on the outside of the well.  And now, we must go, Young Noel.  It is a long walk, and you must memorize the way, as I will not be able to lead you there again.”

Edward reminded the golem that he was not to leave the hut or see anyone while they were away, then he and Noel set off, Noel’s anxious feet barely touching the earth as they started up the path toward the garden gate, where Emanuel waited.  The rain fell slightly harder the nearer they came to the young man, and it was not until the elder began to speak in a constrained voice that Noel realized he was using the rain to conceal their conversation.

Noel could not understand what the old man said to the boy, but from the look on Emanuel’s face as he glanced back at the hut with wide eyes, he imagined it likely involved something about golem-Noel’s illness along with instructions to keep watch over the hut the rest of the day, to warn away anyone who might come to visit. While he waited, Noel stretched his arms out wide and then way over head.  Neither Emanuel nor Edward glanced in Noel’s direction.  To be certain, he went to stand right next to the boy, stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes and pulled on his ears.  Still, he received no response.  Clearly the light well did its job.

The conversation finished, the elder led on in silence, Noel falling in step behind, wondering just how much knowledge his people had lost through the years.  In their silence, Noel growing ever soggier as the rains slowed to a drizzle, then to a sprinkle, and finally to a stop.  The two had traveled a long distance, well clear of the villages and fields where the mountain people toiled, when Edward finally spoke again.

“Why do the Llendir no longer understand Fahmat of light, Ohamet?”

Noel gave a coarse grunt.

He should be guarded, he knew.  The old man twice presented him with pacts, first asking for help to get information about Moag from the Felimi, now claiming his own prophecies had been rendered null like Noel’s, hoping Noel would help him restore the path of Om, but kind as Edward Frank was, Noel had no reason to believe the elder was telling the truth, or that he had not just asked for help the first time in an attempt to get Noel to be more forthcoming with information at Fkat in the face of a Felimi, who had decided to hold him captive, and that this new agreement was not more of the same good-cop/bad-cop game that was being played by the people of the mountain all along.  He was the Mardraim, after all—his loyalty was to his own people.

Though Noel had determined he had a responsibility to ask the elder about the prophecies of Phileas and Wells, just to find out how much he may have affected the prophecies of others, he knew he would not tell anyone in the mountain about how he wound up in the Dreaming, and he was reluctant to share too much about his own people, out of fear there could be repercussions for them.  Still, he was here, and if he wanted to keep things friendly, so that he could remain a guest of the Mardraim, learn what he could and have some chance of escaping eventually, instead of becoming a true prisoner at the hands of the Felimi, who he knew would never let him go, he had to be willing to give.

“Long time past, there was … terrible… fight- a Great War of all people.  All Ken died, save two, Aewin and Euriel.  All Llendir come from these two.  All known Fahmat come from these two.  Fahmat of light was…” He paused, searching for the appropriate word.

“Forgotten?” the elder asked.

“Yes… No,” Noel answered with a wonky nod, his light well shimmering with the motion.  “Not known… since the Fall.”

“The Fall?”

“Time after the Great War was much death… for all races.  All beings… even beasts, were lost like Fahmat.”  Noel did not possess enough knowledge of his people’s language to properly explain the cataclysm that followed the war or the intervention of fate and the punishment of the world, all races, each for their part in the destruction of the peace, once held in precarious balance by the stones of power.    The Book of Ages could explain far better than he ever could, but the book told far too much of Eurial’s descendants, of Fendhaim and the Seat.  “The foretelling I bring… It is of the Fall,” he added somberly.

“Mm, I see,” the old man answered, and the two fell back into their silence once more, as the path they took cut into a more deeply wooded area, Noel wondering what his people had done so wrong, to deserve the harsh punishment they suffered the past ten thousand years.

They were not the murderers.  They were not the rapists or the thieves.  The Father of the Elves had done everything within his power to uphold the peace.

Hadn’t he?

Noel swallowed against the lump of far too human truth that rose in his throat.  No one could ever know just what Eilian did or did not do in the lead up to the Fall.  All they had to go on were stories passed down through Aewin and Eurial over ten thousand plus years.  Their historians would hardly have been the first to gloss over uglier facts in order to paint their heroes in a more favorable light.

After a while, the trees parted, and Noel put thoughts of the Fall from his mind, as the horizon stretched out before them in breathtaking views from the precipice of the mountain looking out over a clear azure sky, and for a moment, he thought they had come to be outside by some magical means, while he was lost in thought.  The view was truly exquisite, except for a slender mar of black that cut a deep and inexplicable gouge into the pristine blue, which Edward led them to now.  As the old man stepped into the crevasse, Noel paused, running his hand across the cold, rough heavens, somehow projected onto the mountain wall.

“We must go,” Edward said, waiting for Noel to follow him into the tunnel.

But as he stood at the entrance, Noel took in a stuttering breath.  “Moag?” he said, the word barely escaping his lips.

“Indeed.”

“I feel it,” he whispered, glad the old man could not see the fear that welled up inside him as he stood staring into the darkness.  They were easily ten miles or more from the cloister, but Moag was definitely present here, though it felt nothing at all like the ominous void he knew waited for him, hidden at the home of the Felimi.

“Beyond this point, only two pathways are clear, to those who know the way—two paths of hundreds of paths, Noel Loveridge.” The Mardraim bowed his head, looking serious as he gestured into the deepening black. “The way we take today, a single misstep could lead you back into Moag.  I cannot feel Moag myself, but I will show you this path as made known to me by the Mardraim before me.  You must be vigilant in doing exactly as I say, following exactly as I go.  Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“I do not wish upon you the torture that has struck such fear in the depths of your soul,” the old man added, reaching through the light well, resting a gentle hand on Noel’s shoulder.

He had forgotten all about the old man’s empathy.  “Thank you,” Noel answered quietly, slightly ashamed of himself that the fear came to him so easily, when he had not suffered nearly as greatly as Isabella Asan.  Recalling the misery of her voice as she called out to him through the depths of Moag, he was struck by a terrible thought.  “Isabella?” he whispered, pressing his fingertips into his palm, as though this might protect her, though he knew it would not.

“You are beginning to understand the full weight of our predicament, I think.  Your heart grows heavy as mine, Ohamet,” Edward smiled.  “Emanuel tells me you have been searching for a means of escape, in your time with us.  Escape you must, I am afraid.  When time comes for you to leave our home, the second path beyond is the way you must go.  I will not lead you along this way, however if you follow the path clear of Moag, you will find yourself at the top of the mountain, at the cave where you first entered our home.”

“You not show me?” Noel’s voice shook.

“No.  You must learn to feel the way, by strengthening your sense of Moag,” the elder answered.

“How?”

“Today, I take you on the path to the vault of the Mardraim, where the two of us shall work, to see if we can right the wrongs done to Om’s way. You will carefully watch each step I take, paying close attention to Moag.  Though it frightens you, that you feel it means you can protect yourself.  The steps are important, as a mistake will be dire, to you and to Young Isabella.  You will come here alone from now on, each evening, even when I cannot meet you here.  This practice will hone your skill, so you will be ready when you need it.”

“I will be seen. Emanuel? Harvey?”

“I will keep you enveloped in my protection always, so no one will sense you.  As for the rest, I will teach you what you need to know,” the old man answered quietly, then reaching up he whisked away Noel’s shroud of light with the swift flourish of his wrist, turning it into a ball that glowed tangerine in the palm of his hand.  “You shall know the Llendir ways.  Follow close, Wanderer.”

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains– Pt. 22

Now things are getting good, you guys!  We are about halfway through the story of Isabella and Noel, in The Tale of Two Mountains, and are to the point where we are learning secrets– terrible, dark, demented secrets– that will appear NOWHERE ELSE in The Eleventh Age Series.  If you don’t read it here, on the site, you’re not going to ever find a hint of certain truths in the books.

I’m so excited to have the chance to weave lore into my original series with tales on the website.  It makes writing take that much longer, after all, I’m working on two books at once, but also such great fun, for me as an author, and for you as well.  I think having the story bleed in other directions will add a certain intrigue I can’t impart writing in the perspective of the Eleventh Age tales.  I mean it: This is so much fun!  And I have every intention of continuing to branch off from the series with other lore tales online once Isabella and Noel are through.  But anyway, I hope you enjoy this next chapter of The Tale of Two Mountains, as I lead you down dark paths you were never going to get to explore, otherwise.   Whatever you do, don’t wander.

It’s dangerous.

Evil Magic

The next day, Noel woke to the smell of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, filling his head with thoughts of dark winter mornings of his childhood home, which at least had been made better by his mother’s devotion in the kitchen.  It was almost a pleasant memory, until the thought of his father caused the illness, which plagued him much of the previous day, to return.

Noel opened his eyes to find Edward Frank silently cooking breakfast.  He rarely saw the man during the day, being left alone most mornings, to sleep long as he liked.  His breakfast was always waiting for him at the low table, never growing cold, no matter how late the hour, and Emanuel could be found dutifully standing guard at the door.  That the old man was here today came as a dubious surprise.

“She is greatly changed, Young Isabella,” the elder said, without turning from the steaming pan he tended.  He had felt Noel wake.

This was an understatement, Noel thought, rubbing his hands over his face, more to fight back the panic that began gnawing at his guts than to rid himself of the fog of sleep.  Isabella’s presence was enough to be getting on with, as far as he was concerned, but as soon as she came out of her coma, Noel was keenly aware of just how greatly she had changed as a result of her experience with Moag.  All her old levies were broken, and she was drowning in a sea of disillusionment.  Even now he felt the pain of her regret burning in the tips of his fingers, and shook them out, squeezing and flexing them, though he knew it would not help.

Noel left the woman’s hut the previous afternoon, thinking she would surely recover from her misery, with Harvey Frank there at her side.  For his part, he sought refuge in the privacy of the old man’s hovel, to be alone while he had the chance, before someone came to find where he had gone to nurse his own disenchantment.  He had prophecies of his own, and he had destroyed them.  He had so little faith in the Prophecy of the Last Hope that he had never once considered he might have his own destiny to fulfill, a destiny that had been written down by someone like Master Edward Frank long ago.  Surely others of his friends and brothers had prophecies that tied them to Hope as well.  How much had he affected them?  Had he, in coming there, put them all in harm’s way after more than ten thousand years of waiting for Hope?

As he sat stewing yesterday, worrying over how much he had interfered with Fate’s path, Noel knew had no choice but to ask the Mardraim to look at the prophecies of the rest of the Nobles, no matter the outcome.  He was not certain how much he wanted to know about the future or who he should ask about, but hundreds of Nobles had been born in the last thirty years, and more were being born daily.  The Knowledge Keepers might have books for all of them, but Noel hardly knew the names of everyone, so It seemed only right to make certain his own friends, at least, were not affected.  While he waited for the Mardraim to return home, he made a mental list of those he would ask about. It had grown to over fifty names by the time he finally set aside the chain of thistles he plucked from the tail of his garment, which he had strung together on one of the loose threads, pulled from its fabric.  Noel fell also wondering if he should cut it down a bit.

Edward Frank did not wake him when he arrived.

“You were, erm… long with her?”  Noel’s voice was harsh against his throat.

“Until she grew weary and slept.  Young Harvey and I spoke for some time, before he returned to the Felimi, as required,” the old man answered, as though he had heard Noel’s thoughts and felt the need to explain his absence.  His grimace of concern at mention of the Felimi was not lost on Noel.

Edward put out the fire under the pan he was stirring and removed the contents to two plates.  Holding one out in Noel’s direction, he bowed his head graciously in offering, then knelt down at the table, setting everything in its appropriate place, arranging the small kettle of ginger tea just so, situating their empty cups so that the handles stuck out at the exacting angles required by their ritual for nourishment of the body, mind and soul, which involved silent chanting that put Noel in mind of the monks that lived in the surrounding area. “Join me, Young Noel,” he said quietly, closing his eyes, as though he would begin his mediation, but then he said added in a low voice, “You and I must now speak freely.”

Noel blew out a puff of air in answer to the stiffness of his back as he sat up, hurrying to pull himself loose from his sleeping bag.  He brushed his hands through the top of his hair as he got from the ground, jogging the three steps across the room, not wanting to waste the invitation, since so much of his time there had been spent avoiding the obvious discussions out of deference to the rest of the Mdrai and the Felimi.

Mist diffused the morning light, painting the world through the open doorway a subtle gray.  As Noel passed, he saw Emanuel stood outside, the moisture that collected in his hair, dripping undeterred down his nose as he waited, still as a statue, by the garden post.  Given the insistence of the Felimi at Fkat, Noel had expected Harvey Frank to be there, if anyone.  He was thinking about this when he reached table and saw the chain of thistles he made, resting there near the teapot, a curious addition to the traditional setting.

Noel’s stomach tightened.  “We speak freely?” he asked as he sat cross-legged on the pillow across from the old man, indicating the boy outside with a kick of his thumb.

The previous day’s Fkat was meant to get to the bottom of things, but Noel learned nothing new there of Moag, as Edward Frank requested, and he left before answering many of the questions the Mdrai and Felimi must still have about his journey to find their home.  He certainly was not going to stick around to give them answers if he was not going to receive any answers in return.  He was no great hand at diplomacy, that was certain, but he knew better than to lay all his cards on the table before everyone had placed their bets.  Given his hasty exit, he expected he would be politely invited back to Fkat soon, but he hoped that by that time, he would be over the sick feeling he had ruined everything.  That he was still under guard was not very reassuring.  “Harvey?” he added, looking down at the chain of thistles sat between them, knowing the answer in his fingertips.

“With Isabella,” the elder answered patiently.  “He will take this day to make certain his friend is recovering, before proceeding with his duties.”

“Is she?”

“Time is needed to know for certain.  Tomorrow, you and Harvey must begin learning from each other, about our different languages and cultures.”  The Mardraim shifted slightly, turning his head as though uncomfortable, though his voice remained even as he continued, “I must ask you to not speak with him as to the nature of our discussion today.”

Noel raised his brow.  This was a strange request, considering Harvey was the Mardraim’s own grandson.

“Young Harvey withholds from me the truth of his experience in Moag, though I do not know if it is because he wishes not to speak or if this was his instruction from the Felimi,” he answered Noel’s questioning look.  “He claims to remember nothing of his brief time there.  Despite his occlusion of my empathy, I can see falsehood in his eyes.”

Noel picked up the wooden spoon and cut into his breakfast, more to think than because he could stomach a meal, given his anxious state, but as he took that reluctant first bite, he was surprised to find the dessert Edward Frank made was much like bread pudding and tasted almost exactly as he remembered his mother serving for breakfast every Boxing Day, when he was a boy.  “I… tell him… falsehood?” he asked, uncertain of his words.

The Mardraim smiled and shook his head.  “Young Harvey will know if you lie.  Tell him I insisted you not to speak of our conversations.  Tell him I doubt him.”

Noel leaned back slightly, the feeling this sort of intrigue was not normal in the mountain giving him pause.  After a moment, he reached for the teapot and poured a bit into each of their cups, filling the air with the scent of fresh ginger.  He wondered if it would not be better to leave family quarrels to the family.  “Why?” he asked, returning the pot to its place on the table.

The old man took his time straightening the porcelain dish before answering.  “I have no need to be false with him when he knows I doubt him. Tomorrow you will bring your book, and I will take you to the chamber where Om’s waters flow. He will learn what he truly wishes to know along with the rest of us.  That, of course, is why you are truly here among us, Noel Loveridge.  We will see the prophecy you have brought from afar, and that, I believe, will give us some clarity.  We would not ordinarily discuss the nature of prophecies with outsiders, however as you are bringing this prophecy to us, we have decided we must tell you its meaning.”

Noel coughed, swallowing hard against his third bite as it caught in his throat.  He might not be able to get answers about his friends, but at least everyone would know for certain if he had broken the Prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves.  Tomorrow there would be no doubt left of the extent of damage he wrought in coming to the mountain.  He took a drink of his tea, guilt causing his jaws to tighten.  At least it would be out in the open, and he would not have to fear it in any longer.  As his stomach churned, he laid his spoon on his plate, quite finished with eating, and wiped his mouth.

The elder smiled gently and said, “For many days, you and I remained silent on the facts of what has occurred here in my home.  Despite my obligation to protect my people, I have waited patiently, as we searched for answers to many questions you would be unable to speak to.  Now, you and I must be aligned, Young Noel, in seeking the truth.”

Noel had watched as the old man’s smile slipped from his face with every word, the pained look in his eyes disconcerting.  Before Noel could ask the obvious questions, why now, why not ten days ago, Master Frank answered, “We two are both travelers on a common course through Om, I fear.   The Mdrai have struggled with questions not alone about what is Moag, but why there is no record of its existence in our extensive histories?  How did Young Isabella survive?  If Om guided you to us, as Young Harvey claimed, did it also guide her?  If the two of you were somehow connected, by her saving your life, and this is how you both survived Moag, how then did Young Harvey survive?  Why was the nameless child born the very day you set foot on our mountain?  Why did the Felimi remove him from the birthing house and how did he lose his life?  Why was he born without prophecy?  How did you receive the guidance of Om?  Is Moag only present within our mountain, or does it reside in other areas of the world where Om flows free?  Have there ever been prophesied interactions with Moag?  If so many changes resulted from your interactions with Moag, were there not also changes to the path of Om that came as a result of our people entering Moag in the past?  On that point, where are the books of prophecy of Young Eri and the Mardraim, whom we know entered Moag years ago? Why is there no record of that incident?  You understand now, with so many questions, why it took days for us to assemble in Fkat, and why I asked that you attempt to gain knowledge from the Felimi that they do not freely give to me— knowledge I believe only they possess.”

It was certainly an extensive list of questions, most of which he had missed, as Edward Frank spoke so quickly and Noel struggled to understand.  “You… seek… much questions.”

“There are no certainties any longer, no simple answers to which we might cling for comfort,” the old man answered grimly. “Yesterday, I told you that you have changed a great deal in coming to us.  I told you of three books of prophecy that could no longer be read, those of Young Isabella, Young Harvey and yourself.  At first, I believed only the prophecies of those entering Moag were unwritten, however because of the nature of nameless child’s birth and the lack of a clear pathway through Om for him, I was curious to discover if anyone else had been affected, or if there was perhaps some event outside of your arrival that set about these changes, and we were simply unaware.”

“Nameless child?” Noel frowned.

“A boy, born the day you landed in the gorge, who died the day you escaped Moag,” the Mardraim answered.  “All those born in the mountain are prophesied, Young Noel.  Our number is less than four and twenty thousand souls, all known to us, as our souls live countless lifetimes learning what we need in the service of Om.  This child, whoever he was, had no prophecy.  We knew this well before you came.  Clearly, he was seeded in his mother’s womb in the traditional manner, however that he was born and died as your path to us unfolded was highly curious to me.

“More curious still is the fact the Felimi took him from the birthing house when he was born. He was there, in the cloister, before Isabella or you or Harvey ever set foot in Moag.  Isabella claims to have heard him crying as he was destroyed by Moag.  She was adamant about this.  As he was without soul when he was born, without path through Om, and utterly unknowable to us you understand, and as he died upon your exit from Moag, we felt it best to delivered a last sacred rite to his body as soon as possible.  Two days after you arrived, he was burned.  He never entered Moag, to my knowledge.  He never had a soul for Moag to take.”

Noel’s eyes widened, and he shook his head, trying to understand it all.  A great deal had happened of which he was completely unaware, it seemed, and he expected his ignorance was by design.  He was a stranger to them, and their lives had been sent into chaos because of him.  He had no idea what the child’s birth or death could possibly have to do with him though.  “You… seek changes,” he said, wondering what the old man had discovered.

Edward Frank nodded.  “The evening before Fkat, I went to the hall of records to look, however I had no idea where to begin.  I did not wish to view the prophecies of the Mdrai, because this is a grave intrusion on my people, so not having any other measurable choice, though it is against the Mdonyatra and the Ftdonya, I read my own book of prophecy.  Noel Loveridge, I will be severely punished if anyone discovers I have done this, but I entrust this knowledge to you, and you alone, that you may hold me accountable to the pact with you, which I seek today.  My prophecies, which once indicated I would be Omdra to my family and Mardraim to my people, are no longer readable, just as yours. Though I have not touched Moag, like you, I am no longer living within the current of Om.”

Noel took in a shaky breath and let it out.  “All gone?” he asked weakly.

The old man lent him a weary smile, on a sigh.  “Before I ask you to tell me of your experience, so that we may come to understand how this has happened to us and perhaps find some way back, if possible, to the way our lives were meant to be, I must tell you a truth that pains me. Then you may decide if you will help me.”

Noel swallowed, wondering what else the old seer could reveal that might make some difference now.  Noel had touched the Dreaming.  If Edward Frank’s own prophecies had been affected, Noel rightly owed him whatever answers he might be able to give.  That the elder had even a small hope there might be some means of reversing their fate, or fatelessness as it were, only cemented in his mind the idea that he had to do whatever he could to help.

Edward paused at length to gather his thoughts, lowered his head in shame and whispered, “Before you made it beyond Moag and found your way to us, the Felimi demanded my exile from the mountain.  They alone have the power to render justice, and if it were not for the terrible circumstances surrounding our situation, I would have been forced to leave, I know, because I committed a most grievous act that goes against all of our teachings, against the very sanctity of human life, against you.  I do not justify what I did, however you must understand, Young Isabella suffered unspeakable pain and torment as a result of your entry to Moag.  Physically her body withered and rotted before our eyes.  Her mind turned in violent ways, and between periods of screaming in agony that was impossible to bear, she spoke words no one understood, words like Echteri amu schripat.”

“The wanderer lives,” Noel hissed.

Edward reached for his small, plainly decorated cup, hand trembling, and as he took a sip, Noel could tell by the look on his face that whatever the old man had done was terrible, perhaps even unforgivable, at least in his own eyes.  “She suffered such anguish, Young Noel, and I believed that she had come to be in this state, as a result of saving your life,” he continued, setting his cup back on the table precisely as it was before, though hit clattered a bit before he let it go.  “She was with the Felimi, in their care, for the worst of it.  As soon as we knew she turned, we Mdrai went to the cloister to see what we might do to help her.  Though it is a violation of the Mdonyatra to act against Om, to save a life, I believed we might save her and as consequence save Om itself, which was in danger, we thought, because of you.  I intended to find a way to kill you while you were still inside Moag, and I told the Felimi as much.

“Taking the life of another is the worst sort of crime, second only to saving one.  If the Felimi allowed it, I would have entered Moag myself, to find you, to destroy you, so that you would release Young Isabella from whatever bond held the two of you together.  Given what we were told of Moag, I likely would have been lost forever, but I was gladly willing to give myself as sacrifice.  My hope was only to save Young Isabella and to restore Om.  If the events that followed had not occurred as they did, I would have been sent into exile for this idea, but as it happened, the Mdrai were waiting for me at the entrance to Moag, all of us set on the same thought to murder you and save Isabella.

“The Felimi followed me there, and we argued, all of us acting against the peace we have lived for thousands of years.  Young Harvey brought Isabella’s body to the entrance of Moag, laid her there and stepped inside.  Seconds later, you brought him out again, surprising us all.  Then it was realized that Young Isabella was dead, and if you had not attempted to save her life, I likely would have killed you then and there, in front of everyone, and taken my leave of this mountain, believing I had made the appropriate choice, despite our doctrines.”

Noel actually laughed as the man gazed at him so seriously, clearly devastated by his irrational behavior that day.  Of course, Noel had been angry enough to kill before, even threatened it a time or two, and no one ever threw him out of the mountain for it, so he could not help but laugh.  Under the circumstances, he could hardly blame anyone for thinking about killing him.  “You stop the Felo… killing me,” he smiled, shaking his head.  “You saved me.  The Felo… broke Mdonyatra.”

Noel’s laughter seemed to take the old man aback.  “The Felo violated the Mdonyatra and Ftdonya in striking you,” Edward answered, frowning heavily, “however I violated the Ftdonya in stopping her attack.”

Noel shook his head, rolling his eyes at the idea. These rules the Knowledge Keepers followed all seemed backwards to human nature, as far as he was concerned.  He was trying to think of how to explain this when the old man said, “The Felimi alone have the power to render justice without Fkat.” He opened his hands in a confused shrug.  “I am but the Mardraim, though it remains to be seen if I am meant to continue on this path.”

 “I am not… killed.  No… violate… me.”

Sighing at Noel’s lack of understanding their ways, Edward Frank picked up the chain of thistles from the table, and for some reason Noel shuddered slightly as the elder turned them over in his hand, driving all of the humor from the air.  “Until yesterday, only the Felimi and Young Harvey had witnessed Young Isabella tell of her experience in Moag.  She is not right in her mind, even now, Noel Loveridge.  I do not know if she will ever be right in her mind, which makes it difficult to discern truths from the fractures of thoughts she suffers.  Harvey was with her when she spoke with the Felimi, so he could confirm for us some of what she told us when we met with her in her home yesterday.”

Noel nodded understanding, and the old man said, “She was very upset after you left.  She kept saying, ‘The thistles.  He brought the thistles.’  It was strange to me that she would say this, as I did not see the thistles that tattered your garments, when you arrived a short while after us.  I believed it was just her madness speaking, however Omdra Vega had seen the state of your qaft, and Young Harvey asked her to tell us of what she saw of you in Moag.”

“She saw me?” He had not expected this, but he supposed it only made sense, considering he had also seen her.

The elder nodded.  “She believed she was sleeping, experiencing a night fury.  You chased her through a field of thistles as she ran toward our chambers, seeking advice on how to undo what she had done.  Her Omdet Filim, the saffron vesture worn by Mdreli, became entangled in the brush and overgrowth and frayed out behind her as she ran, twisting around you, as you ran together.  Frightened, she woke from the fury and used the magic of the Ikath—the woke or gods, I believe you call them today—to escape Moag.”

“Transvection,” Noel offered.  “Gods move… erm… to… no time?”

“Yes, yes, she moved directly from the tunnel of Moag to her home, as gods do, through space, not time.  Her Omdra was there when she arrived.  He believed—we all believed—all hope was lost for her, because of the tale told us by the Felimi, about the nature of Moag.”

“Tale?”

“The story of Young Eri, a boy many years ago, who entered Moag and was lost to us forever.  The Mardraim at the time, as well as one of the Felimi, who has never been reborn since, entered Moag to try to save him, and were also lost,” the elder explained.

Noel suspected there was much more to this story, but Edward continued telling about Isabella’s experience.  “Though Young Isabella had not run through the field,” he continued, “when she used the magic of Ikath to return home, her Omdra discovered the frayed ends of her Omdet Filim were tangled with thistles, like these.”  He held up the chain. “Thistles that, by some means we cannot explain, came with her from the depths of Moag.”

“How?” Noel asked, and the shock must have been apparent on his face, because now it was Edward Frank’s turn to laugh, as he said, “That is not the most surprising thing, Young Noel.  Yesterday, you ran through the very field she ran through in her fury.  You ran to get to her.  You knew where to find her, did you not?  Young Isabella believes she saw prophecy, or something akin to Om’s path, while she was in Moag.  The prophecy of thistles, she called it.  She may be right.”

“You believe?” Noel scowled, hardly understanding how something like this might be possible when he did not understand prophecy to begin with.

The elder shrugged with one hand, then shook his head, frowning.  “I cannot say what this was.  And this is not the only curious revelation.  Young Isabella told the Felimi that in her vision, when she reached our chamber to ask for help, I told her to kill you.  Hours later, I said to the Felimi, in front of her, that in order to save Isabella and Om, we must kill you.  If this is… Mmm, what is the word?  If this is chance alone, it is the strangest chance I have ever known.”

Noel breathed in long through his nose, as he pushed himself up from the ground to pace the small room, wondering if his own experience in Moag had been prophetic.  He had believed someone was playing around in his head, bringing up old ghosts of his youth, tormenting him with the hateful words of his father.  He did not see how this could be prophecy, when all of it had already happened in the past, but then there was his strange hallucination of Isabella Asan drowning in quicksand. Though it made no sense that she should appear there in that cavern so unexpectedly, he tried to rescue her and was forced to squeeze the life out of her to get her to safety, but when he knelt to breathe the life back into her, she was not some newly dead beauty who had just suffocated on the rising sand, but rather a mummified corpse, oozing from every orifice with the very sand that threatened to fill the cavern and kill Noel too.

He grumbled at the memory, perfectly aware that soon thereafter he found himself actually breathing the life back into Isabella, parts of her rotting away, as though she had been dead for weeks, not minutes.  Could it possibly be that he saw some strange prophecy from Moag as well?

“This was not all she saw in Moag, Young Noel,” Edward said quietly, interrupting his thoughts.  Noel stopped circling the room and looked back at him, still scowling as he tapped his finger against his bottom lip.  “In her fury, as the Mdrai left her, you came into the chamber, where we tend to Om, and began making a terrible noise, like so many… horns blowing.  As you did, the chamber began to fill with water.  Young Isabella begged you to stop or you would both drown, but you continued raging as the waters rose around you.  She grew frightened, and when there was no other choice left, she drowned you in the waters of Om.”

Noel gave a nervous groan and turned to pace again.  “So much alike,” he whispered, balling his fists at his side.

“Killing you stopped the flood,” the elder continued.  “The water receded, leaving you both lying on the ground beside the wellspring.  Young Isabella wept with remorse over your body, for this terrible act she committed against Om, but when she opened her eyes to look at you, she saw that lying there beside her, gripped by death, was not you, but rather, her.  In her own dead eyes, where should have been her own miserable, startled reflection, she saw she had somehow become you.  She pounded with your fists on her own chest, trying to wake herself, then bent over to breathe life into her own chest.”

Noel stood staring dumbfounded at the old man, hand clutched at his side, fingertips vibrating with an agonizing numbness he could not ignore.  He swallowed, shaking his head, not wanting to believe it, yet knowing that if this was prophecy, if they were truly going to consider the possibility that it was prophecy that Isabella saw inside Moag, then it was confirmation of a truth that had gnawed at him for days, with every curious stir of her in his hand.  Isabella was in him.  Somehow, she was truly there with him, in the tunnel where Moag waited for them.  As he hurried to breathe the life back into her decaying corpse that day, she was there with him, trying to save herself.  She had foreseen it, and he had somehow lived it, felt her passing through him with his breath, though a part of her remained trapped within him.  Isabella had saved her own life, as prophesied.

He shook his head wildly, gritting his teeth against the impossibility of it all, his mind grinding wickedly, in search of any other explanation, but there was none.  She was there with him that very moment, a mocking buzz trapped in his fingertips, a furious burn pushing the hair back from his eyes.  She was the quavering palm that pressed against the ache building in his forehead.

“What the—”  He squeezed his eyes tight.  “How the devil’s this possible?” he hissed, turning around in a circle, as though somehow the answer would appear, and if not the answer, then at least some escape.  “No, it’s bloody madness.  I won’t believe it.  I don’t care what anyone saw in that damnable blackness.  It is not possible!”

“I cannot understand you when you speak your strange tongue, Noel Loveridge,” Master Frank said patiently.  “I do understand—”

“No,” Noel gave a harsh laugh.  “You no understand.”

“Young Noel, I must warn you,” the elder whispered, also getting to his feet.  He rounded the table and came to stand at Noel’s side, taking his arm firmly by the bicep, as though he thought Noel would run any moment, and he might have, if he had anywhere to go.  When Noel finally met his eyes, Edward continued, so low that the words barely escaped his lips, “No one can know that she is still with you, Noel Loveridge.”  Noel shook his head, started to argue, but Edward Frank squeezed his arm much harder than a man his age should be able.  “You must not follow that part of her that brought you to her home yesterday.  The Fahmat she performed when she saved your life was banned in this mountain thousands of years ago.  No one, aside from the Felimi, has any knowledge of how to perform this aberration. It is evil magic, against all law, against nature, allowing one’s soul to enter the physical vessel of another.”

“Possession?” Noel breathed silently.  “That’s what this is?”

Though Noel spoke English again, the Mardraim nodded, smiling painfully, and Noel felt a wave of calm wash over him, a wave of forceful, unnatural peace, as the elder let loose his arm.  “Now you know the terrible truth.  Will you help me understand what has happened here, how we might reverse our course and restore our paths?”

 Noel swallowed against the tightness in his throat.  Frightened, he ran both of his shaking hands through his hair, gripping it momentarily as he pressed his lips together.  He gave a single, slow nod.

_______________________

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

The Tale of Two Mountains-Pt.21

isaandnoelRiver, Winding

The inner-workings of the door clattered and thundered, groaned and shrieked.

Noel clenched his fists and his teeth, trying to hold back the wave of desperation that roiled inside him as he waited.

“Go with him,” he heard the Mardraim say, as the door inched open and Noel dug his fingers into the ancient wood, pulling with all of his strength until there was a wide enough gap for him to slide through.  He did not look back to see who followed, but hurried up the passage toward the dim light of the atrium, and only realized it was Harvey Frank when he heard the man’s measured steps as he paused to hiss a vicious curse at the blackness waving a temporary farewell from the archway where Moag lie in wait.

He needed space, air.  He needed to think, to mourn and spit out the salt in his mouth.  He did not need to talk of Moag, to tell his tale, or to worry about the man behind him, struggling to keep up.  When he reached the exit, he flung the door open, causing it to strike the outer wall.

A woman, who had been waiting outside, stepped forward urgently, mouth already forming words as she moved, until her eyes met Noel.  He half expected her to turn and run in fear, but she did not recoil from the monstrous Ohamet, wanderer, unwriter of destinies.  She did not cringe in embarrassment at having found him so unexpectedly or glare at him in anger for the havoc he wreaked on their peaceful home, cursing the destruction left in his wake.  She had not even startled at his temperamental slamming open of the door.

Noel shuddered at her passivity, as though in her silence she had reached out with two strong hands, grasping him by the shoulders, and given him a swift shake that broke the fury loose of him, so all he had left was a solemn, abiding despair and his personal reckoning– fifty-seven.

“Pardon me, Mum,” he muttered, ducking his head as he stepped aside, turning toward the path that led back to the bridge, pausing there for Harvey.

“What do these words mean, ‘Pardon me, Mum?’” the man asked as they stepped out into the light together, Noel moving slowly now, for Harvey’s sake, slightly ashamed of himself for forgetting, so soon, all of the things the Felimi had warned him about their people.

Noel did not know the translation in Elfish, neither ancient nor the broken language cobbled together over the last ten thousand years, so that it was little more than the distant bastard half-cousin of the dialect known there in the mountain.  Phileas would have known.  Phileas would have thought they were astonishing, these creatures who dwelt deep beneath the surface of the earth, with their foresight and empathy, and their strange ability to hold a person still on the insides.  “Apology,” he answered simply, shrugging at the inadequacy of the term as he glanced back at the woman, still waiting by the entrance to the cloister, though the door remained open.

“You regret,” Harvey said, his tone matter-of-fact.

“Much,” Noel admitted, sighing against the pain that held fast in his chest, making it difficult to breathe that next breath, as though all of the air in the universe was more than ten thousand years away and to breathe it required a great, gasping hope he was unable to muster.  He had never quite been able.

“Dear God,” he whispered, his mouth slipping into English again as they cut away from the path and he led them off through the trees, in a direct line for the river.  He did not know what he would do when they reached it, perhaps he would jump in and let it carry him away, but he could not risk running into anyone else, since they might suffer his remorse along with him.

Over the years, Noel had come to have his doubts about their Last Hope, doubts that shamed him, as they should have done.  As a Noble, his faith in the prophecy of The Last Hope of the Elves was part of the job.  Like all nobles, he was born stronger, born with greater ability than most, so of course, it reasoned the nobles must be prepared to defend their Hope against all those who would see the elfin race finished once and for all.  For a noble, faith was as necessary to the cause as the cause was necessary to the faith, so as he felt it faltering, Noel knew he had to find the truth, for the benefit of everyone, yes, but truly, at the core of it all, to find out whether or not his own life had been wasted, waiting on a Hope that had always been meant to be their Last, something out of reach, an intangible romance that was never meant to play out as anything more than a tragedy.  He had come to the mountain with a broken spirit, desperate for confirmation that the girl would be born and their race would be reborn, as their elders had promised.

Or so he thought before he came to that damnable mountain.

“Did I ever truly believe?” he pleaded quietly with Harvey Frank, who answered the only way possible—by imitating Noel’s own wide eyes and coarsely upturned brow, not understanding a word he was speaking.

But Noel had already been given the answer. The daft silence that followed Master Frank’s revelation that Noel had prophecies of his own had exposed to him a terrible truth, a truth more terrible than the prospect of fifty-seven unfinished prophecies, more terrible even than the idea that perhaps in coming there, in unwriting those fifty-seven prophecies, he may have undermined their Last Hope altogether.

The truth was Noel had done his duty.  He had learned everything the elder Foote and Bergfalk had to teach him.  He had bonded with a band of brothers, who had sworn blood oaths to Hope, the same as him, in answer to Hope’s ten thousand year old prophecy inscribed in the Book of Ages like it were holy scripture.  The nobles were the Born Legion of Hope, as Bergfalk had come to call them.  And as Bergfalk said, “Her destiny was their destiny.”

Noel had never considered that he might have had prophecies of his own to complete, that his duty may have been born of them, not out of a pointed ear, a slightly greater aptitude for manipulating particles than the rest, or even out of their need of salvation, with the blood of their people so thinned over the years that they were hardly as good as the halfling spawn of nymphs and demigods and could barely call themselves elves anymore.  He had never once thought that the years of lessons and exploration and testing and honing of himself in that blood oath was his own destiny.

As they reached the riverbank, Noel stumbled to his knees, leaning over the water, scrubbing cold handfuls over his face several times, to wash away his guilt.  When he had half drowned himself, he looked up to find Harvey was staring off into the distance, as though he watched the stain of Noel’s sin, carried away on the current.

If only it were so easy.

“I never believed. My faith was not shaken, Harvey; I never once truly believed.”  The words came, but barely above the rush of the water.  “I have lived my life fraudulently and never knew it, proclaiming faith, as though somehow faith, without belief, was hope enough, when hope was something I never had.  Prophecy or no prophecy, I was the lie.  You understand me?  I know now, I was the lie.”

Harvey nodded, and Noel swallowed, wondering if he possibly could understand, if empathy allowed for that depth of commiseration.  If it did, he felt terrible for Harvey Frank.

Noel sighed and sat down in the grass, hugging his knees for a moment before continuing.  “My father thought I was a fool for my faith,” he gave a hollow chuckle.  “I was so angry with him, because he would not listen to me, so angry because he would not hear the falsehoods I repeated in my own fear, so often that I, myself, actually mistook my depraved need for belonging as devotion.  I was furious with him, for speaking out loud the beliefs I, myself, had forced down at the very depths of my soul, because I wanted to be a part of something greater and wasn’t ready to be miserable like him, but I knew.  I knew there was no hope, but I was a noble, and I could either choose that or choose my father’s way, and in my father I saw something worse than believing the lie one wanted to be true—in him, I saw there could never be hope, because he believed in nothing at all, not even himself.

“So I pretended to believe in her.  In my lie, at least I had something in which to the feign belief, to satisfy my need for some moral objectification, to pacify the misery I inherited.  I thought I had possibility.  I turned my back on my true brothers and joined a family of orphans called nobles, and God only knows how many of them don’t believe either, cannot believe, but want desperately for it to all be true, so they can feel something, so they carry on, doing what they think is right, before we lose ourselves completely, resign ourselves and our sons to being powerless.

“Don’t you see, Harvey?  This is why my people are divided and my elders are in disarray, why Phileas searched and searched, and why I disappeared, why I stopped contacting Fendhaim months ago, allowed myself to be fostered by the Yolngu and entered the Dreaming, even though at the heart of me, I was certain there was no hope to be found there either, because in truth, I understood that following their faith was just as mad as following my own.  I worried it was all lies, but I was the lie, I know now, because in my nobility, in my honor, in my duty, I never once considered that I might have a single prophecy of my own to fulfill—not one, and certainly not eighty.  In all of it, I never considered that those prophecies might have been my own true hope, that they were what little I had to offer this world.  Twenty-three complete, and I never knew it.  Fifty-seven unwritten and undone.  Lost, forever, because I’m here.  If she is real, her faith in me, her hope in me, is grievously misplaced, I’m afraid, for in my disloyalty, I may have done her in for good.  Perhaps I can muster the courage to hope I haven’t done her too much wrong.”

At last, all that was left was the rambling of the river, winding off into the distance.  Harvey placed a patient hand on Noel’s shoulder and smiled sadly, the way one smiles when a friend has lost someone important to them, and there is nothing to be done to help, no real consolation to offer, so one does his best to force up the corners of his mouth, as if somehow that was better than nothing at all.   Noel, managing a grimacing smile of his own, reached up to place his hand on top of Harvey’s, glad that he was there, even if he could not understand him, but just as their hands met, a jolt of static arced between them, and Harvey pulled his hand quickly away.

Isabella had stirred in Noel’s fingertips.

She was frightened.

Noel jumped to his feet and started up the riverbank toward the bridge.  He had to get to her, he had to save her, but when he looked back to Harvey, to urge him to run, if he could, the man had already fallen several meters behind. “Come on,” he yelled, continuing on more slowly, but as the distance between them still grew, Noel worried that they both might find trouble if he was caught wandering wild through the mountain, his escort chasing after him.  Squeezing his fist, as though the phantom of Isabella might slip away for good if he did not hold her tightly, he hurried back to help the man along.  Harvey shook his head and waved him onward, saying only, “Issa.”

Noel ran as fast as he could without magic.  When he crossed the river, he did not stick to the paths scored into the mountain by centuries of use, instead cutting through the field of thistles, knowing it would be faster than taking the walkway, though how he knew, when he did not know where he was going, he could not say.  The plants scratched at his legs as he ran, tearing at the tail of his ridiculous borrowed tunic, but all that mattered in that moment was reaching Isabella in time, as though her life depended on him once again.  His skin stung and he could feel rivulets of blood wetting his calves, but he continued running, across the fallow field, up the hill, darting through a thick stand of trees, to the edge of a small village, where he finally stopped to catch his breath, staring at the door of the tiny hut where Isabella lived.  The shutters were closed, but he could hear her crying, her strange words fast and panicked as Noel’s breath.

His hand reached out, as though she tugged him along by it, but he pulled it back to his side, rubbing the tips of his fingers together.

She was alive and awake, and though he could not understand what she was saying, he knew she was begging to be returned to the darkness.

“Why?” he whispered, stepping out of the tree line, hurrying across the path to the garden gate, pushing it open.

But he already knew why.  She was begging to go back to Moag, so that it could finish her, because the pain was too much for her to bear—the pain of losing Harvey Frank.

“How?” he asked softly, his hand already on the door.  “How is it possible I know this?”

But he knew that answer as well.

She was alive and awake.  She was safe but in pain.  Hurt, confused, betrayed, angry, alone—terribly alone.

She was still inside him.

“I do not belong here,” Isabella wept.  “Please, Mardraim, you must take me back.  I cannot be here now.  I do not belong to this world.”

Edward Frank looked at her as though she had lost her mind, as though she was still speaking in some language he could never comprehend, as though she was just a shard of her shattered self, and there were so many pieces of her lying scattered before him, he could hardly bear to look upon the fragile mess of her, too broken to  repair.

They all looked at her this way.  As though she was lost.

Truly, she was.

“You are weary from all you have been through.  In time—”

“Time?” she moaned.  “I should not be here.  The nameless one did not belong.  You sent him back.  I heard him wailing as he went, crying for a soul.  Please, take me back.”

“I will not return you to Moag,” the Mardraim said softly, resting a hand on her forehead.  “You will get better, Young Isabella.  You have no choice.”

“I do not wish to get better,” she sobbed.  “It hurts so badly.  The world was made to hurt.  I know that now.  I do not belong here.  I know too much, and it hurts, all of it, hurts so much, and I am so alone.”

Her Omdra drew in a painful breath, as though he would speak, but the Mardraim held out a hand to stay him.  “I know you hurt, child.  I know you feel alone.  I must keep you deeply enveloped in order to protect the others.  I know you understand this.  Perhaps, as you get better—”

“I will not get better, and you cannot protect them,” she whispered.  “Nothing can protect them now.  Please, Mardraim, I serve no purpose here, I have no place in the world of Fate.  There was too much power, so they divided it again and again, and always, the people, those poor, terrible people, filled with hatred and pain—it is too much to bear.”

“Her mind is fractured,” Omdra Wallace said in a hush.  “Are we certain it does not still hold her?”

“There is no way to be certain,” the Mardraim smiled sadly.  “All we can do is wait and hope.”

The door opened and the wanderer stepped quietly inside.  No one else seemed to noticed he was there, so Issa was not certain if he was real or just a figment, or if, perhaps, Omdra Wallace was right, and Moag still had her in its grasp, and this wandering apparition was sent to torment her.

Perhaps Moag still had him as well.

A dozen purple thistles clung to the tattered tail of his garment.

“I wonder what she means by it all, what she saw in there,” Omdra Vega offered.

“I do not,” her father answered, looking pained at the prospect.

Noel raised his hand by his side in a half wave, a pathetic, cringing smile on his lips.  Issa forced down the venom that rose in her throat, rolled on her side and squeezed her eyes shut, willing him to disappear.

The wanderer was to blame for all of it.  The baby, Harvey, Issa’s Fatelessness.  He had changed everything.

“Schripat.  Echteri amu schripat,” she hissed against her hands, clasped prayerfully.

“What do these words mean?” the Mardraim sighed, even as Noel gasped, and everyone turned, surprised to find him there.

As much as she despised him, Isabella was at least glad she was not the only one who could see him.

“What are you doing here?” her father spoke in the language of the elves, his voice thick with anger.  Never, in all of her life, had she heard her Omdra speak crossly to anyone.  Anger was something Issa knew deeply now, having found within Moag a thousand passions she did not know existed before.  She should weep for a million years, for all of the agony in the world, and for a million more, knowing her father had learned to suffer because of Noel.

“I come for Isabella.  She is…fear… alone.  I come to help her,” the man answered.

“You have no cause here,” her father spat.  “Leave, this instant, and do not ever return.”

Omdra Yang stepped forward and took Issa’s father by the hand, speaking quietly, “Zo, you are weary from these days of uncertainty.  The Llendir is so deeply enveloped we did not notice him here.  He cannot possibly harm her more than he has already done.  Perhaps he can help.”

“He understood her,” the Mardraim said, looking to Noel.  “She said these words before.  Is this the language your people speak today?”

“No,” Noel answered, clearly stunned he had understood.  “Apology.  I do not know this language, but I know the words.  She said, ‘He lives.  The wanderer lives.’  How do I know this?  Why did she say it?”

“More questions,” the Mardraim smiled.  “I expect there will always be more than we can possibly answer, young one.”

“Make him go.  Please, make him go,” Isabella cried, her voice hoarse from all the tears she had shed.  The others might speak in elfish, but she would not accommodate the intruder.  “He has changed everything, even you, just as Harvey said he would.  Now I am free, and Harvey is gone, but this was not how it was meant to be.  Take me back to Moag.  Put me back.  I do not belong here.”

“She wants you to leave,” her Omdra said to the wanderer.  “You upset her.”

Noel frowned, stepping toward her, but Yang blocked the way, giving him a cautioning look.  “Apology,” Noel said again, stepping back.  “Issa, do not… cry for Moag.  Do not cry for Harvey.”

“Do you not understand there is no place for you here, Llendir?” her father shouted.  “Get out, now!”

“Zo,” Omdra Yang whispered, placing himself between them.

“But I understand her,” Noel said.  “I do not know how.  I mean no harm.”

“Then leave!”

“Stay, Young Noel,” the Mardraim said softly, and Isabella’s father caught his breath, betrayed.  But their elder got to his feet and went to Zo Asan, took him in his arms, like a nurturer should, and spoke in the gentlest voice, “Zo, I know this has been very difficult for you, first believing you lost your child, then believing she returned to you miraculously, only to have her stolen from you once again, wishing you could help, powerless to do anything, powerless even to ease the pain she experienced in her ordeal.  Noel Loveridge saved her life.  Against all of our doctrines, we allowed him to save her, as she saved him, and against all of our doctrines, we have worked to heal the damage done her by Moag—the damage done to her body, the damage we could see.  I do not know how long it will take to repair her broken soul, however, against our doctrines, I will continue this course of healing, the course Young Noel set in place as soon as he escaped Moag.  Do not treat him as our enemy, when he may yet have life to give her.  Issa will never be the same, that is certain, but perhaps, if we give her the time and patience she needs, she will be better than before.  Ohamet understands her.  Let him help us understand her as well.”

By the time the Mardraim had finished speaking, Zo Asan was weeping.

“Father, it is too much to bear,” Issa cried, and he broke loose from the Mardraim’s embrace and fell to his knees on the floor beside her, taking her up in his arms, holding her head to his chest as he rocked her, like a child.  “The nameless infant died,” she whispered.

“He did,” her father answered, lips pressed to the top of her head.  “But you did not.”

“Harvey…  H-harvey died,” Isabella said, the words falling off into heaving sobs.

Her father held her tighter still, answering, “No.  Shh.  No.”

“I saw him in Moag.  He took my place.”

“No, Issa, Harvey lives.  Ohamet brought him out of the blackness.  Ohamet saved him.”

Isabella did not see how this was possible, when she saw her friend unfurled.  His demise in the depths of Moag was as clear to her as the beginning and ending of the universe.  He was relinquished to Moag in the blink of an eye, swift as a billion billion suns are born to give life and die, giving death.  “He is gone,” she said certainly.

Then the door opened, and there Harvey stood on the stoop, looking worn and weak and beautiful.

“Harvey,” she shuddered as he hurried across the room.

He scooped her up out of her father’s arms, hugging her tightly.  “Here I am.  Here I am, Issa,” he said.  His voice was the sweetest sound she had ever known.

Of all the thousands of passions she learned from Ohamet and her encounter with Moag, the greatest, most treacherous was what she felt in that moment.

Disbelief.  Awe.  Fear.  Wonder.  Relief.

Love, Noel thought, rubbing his fingers together as he stepped outside, shutting the door behind him.

_______________________

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