Twisting clouds of dark gray rolled swift and tumultuous across the sky, threatening rain. The wind caught in the bristling grass, whipping it around, binding Isabella’s legs. She fell to her knees, scraping her palms against the ground. The sting in her hands and knees caused her to wince, but there was no time to stop, not even to check if she was bleeding. She could hear his footsteps behind her. Hurrying to her feet, running as fast as she could, she chanced a look behind her, though she knew better. The frayed ends of her long aspirant’s robe snagged on amethyst colored thistles, leaving tattered strands of yellow flowing in her wake, ribbons adorned by purple jewels, and there was the wanderer, his face battered and bruised, moving casually despite his many injuries, keeping up with her even though she ran, so close behind her now she could see her reflection in his gray eyes. He had been chasing after her all night, but the Mdrai waited for her. They would tell her how to save herself. They had to.
The walls of the chamber danced mad with astounding light, the air moving with such eagerness, the room where the Mdrai deciphered Fate’s Veils was almost too hot to stand. Her father stood before her, disappointment in his gaze. Never had she felt anger in him before. “What have you done, Issa?” he said, his voice cruel, his eyes unforgiving.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she cried, falling at his feet beside the basin, where the waters swirled up from the deep, filling the bowl, then rushed away once again, into the unfathomable deep. She clung to her father’s calves like a child, her cheek pressed to his knees. “Help me! Please, help me, Pati! I have lost myself! The wanderer has stolen my breath!”
“There is nothing I can do for you,” Harvey answered, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as she looked up at him, still holding tight to his legs, to keep him from leaving. “Why did you do this, Issa?”
“I had to save him!” she wept. Her body no longer felt like her own. It was as though every part of her was frayed and unraveling, as though she had been caught up among the thistles as well.
“To save him, yes, but not like this.” He pointed to the wanderer, who stood behind her, staring at her with eyes that knew her far too well. The strings from her tunic were draped over his shoulders and arms, an unwoven mantle connecting them. “What would the mothers say?”
“Harvey,” she pleaded in desperation. “I do not know what to do!”
“You must kill him, Young Issa,” the Mardraim whispered. It was his legs she clung to now, as he stared down at her, his gentle smile at odds with his words. “That is the only way you may save yourself.”
“Kill him?” she hissed, stunned, shaking her head, pushing herself away from her elder and nearly landing in the basin where the waters of Fate began to writhe with frenetic force, rushing in and out, the air hotter still as the light of the room became almost blinding.
Taking the life of another was a most heinous act, one she would never commit, but she feared her elder was right, that the wanderer’s death was the only way she could possibly survive. She had saved his life, stood in the way of Fate, breathing into him her own breath, but in her haste, she had breathed into him a small part of her soul. It escaped her even now, her every breath strengthening the wanderer, leaving her weak. If she did not do something soon, she would surely die. But as she looked back at him, begging for another way, the Mardraim only bowed his head in answer, leading the others from the chamber, the rest of the Mdrai and aspirants eying Isabella with disgust. She had defied the Mdonyatra already, clearly she would be forced to defy it again.
Isabella looked up at the wanderer from where she sat at the edge of the basin, uncertain just what to do. Though he must have heard what her Mardraim told her, the man remained silent and still, tethered to her by frazzled strings, knotted with thorny purple flowers. The only sound to be heard was the rushing of the Divine Water, as the two of them watched each other. After several minutes passed, Isabella let down her guard, so she might feel the energy of the wanderer’s soul again. Though he was still broken and should have been unable to stand, let alone to have followed her there, he was incredibly strong. Though he had been through so much, he was just as she had felt him the previous day, determined, willful, passionate… lost.
Isabella shuddered, looking up into his gentle gray eyes, like mirrors, she thought, almost managing a sad smile for his sake, but the smile turned to a strangled gasp as she saw something reflected there she could not explain. Instead of showing her sitting there on the chamber floor, wondering over all the reasons such a bold spirit must remain in this world, knowing these were the very reasons she had saved him in the first place, the elf’s eyes still reflected the past. “How is this possible?” she whispered. In his eyes, she was not there in the chamber, but still out in that field, running away from him, the threads of her tattered clothes waving behind her. “What sort of magic is this you do? Why do you mock me?” she demanded, but the wanderer did not answer. “Why did you come here? Why could you not leave us in peace?”
The man opened his mouth, and echoing from deep within his belly came a chorus of horns, filling the room, reverberating through the chamber, causing the crystal walls to crack and crumble, dusting the floor in shimmering white. Isabella held her ears as the Waters of Fate boiled up from the deep, flooding the basin, spilling out across the floor, as if beckoned forth by the elf’s trumpeting. “Stop! Stop, please, or you will drown us both!” she cried, but the man only continued his horrible, resounding music, growing louder and louder as the waters swelled, whirling with turbulent upsurges.
Isabella got to her feet and hurried toward the wanderer, finding it difficult to move as what was left of her garments was drenched in Fate, and growing heavier each moment. All she could think to do was get the wanderer out of the chamber. Grabbing him by the wrist, she struggled to pull him across the room, but before they could reach the archway a wave crashed into their backs, slamming them against a wall, knocking all of the air from Isabella’s chest. The man was swallowed by the water as it flooded the room, already risen up past Isabella’s knees. She took him by the back of his cloak and helped him to his feet, but as he turned back to her, she could hardly believe her eyes. The swelling and bruising on his face was completely gone, his wounds entirely healed, and though he still called out with a heralding voice, for a long moment Isabella stood stunned as the water continued to rise, up to her hips. Her reflection in his eyes had changed. Instead of seeing herself through the field running among the tall grass, she saw the wanderer walking toward himself.
“You must stop! You are killing us!” Isabella shouted, taking him by the shoulders, but he only sang out, causing the very air around them to quake so that it beat nauseatingly against Isabella’s flesh. She shook and shook him as he blared on and the water flooded up to her waist, tossing them about as it churned, swirling with light as tiny crystals, fallen from the walls and ceiling, danced upon the surface. “Look what you have done! You have destroyed our home! You have destroyed Fate! You have stolen my soul, and I want it back!” Rage swelled inside her like the waters that would soon drown them both if the man did not stop.
Wailing, “You must stop! You will stop this!” she snatched a fistful of the man’s hair, shoving him under the wake, holding him down with what little strength she had left. At first, he did not fight, but soon the wanderer thrashed and kicked, as the waters rose up Isabella’s neck, splashing up over her lips as he grabbed at her hands, trying to free himself, all the while calling out a symphony, which bubbled up through the water as it crept up to Isabella’s eyes, and she was forced to shut them tight. She managed to catch one last hopeful breath, as the waters covered her completely, but in that last breath, the room stopped shaking, the blaring of the horns ceased, the flood began to subside, and the wanderer was terribly still.
As the waters receded back down the hole in the basin, back into the deep from which they sprang, Isabella breathed woeful sobs, grief tearing at her heart. She and the wanderer lay on the ground together, her clinging to the man’s cloak, sobbing against his chest at the evil she had done, whispering, “Why? Why did you have to come? I am sorry. I am so sorry.”
But when at last she opened her eyes, determined to face what she had done, to face the life she had given and taken away, it was not the wanderer who lay dead beneath her. It was not his body sprawled out in the basin were the divine waters ebbed an flowed once more, as they had always done. Isabella herself lay there, her deep black eyes gazing empty at the ceiling through soaked canary strands of her tattered robe. Reflected in her own dead eyes was the face of wanderer.
“No! No!” she screamed, pushing the torn garment from her face, pounding fists against her own chest. “Wake up, Issa! Wake up!” And without thinking, she took a giant breath, tilting back the head of her own corpse, breathing into herself, filling her dead lungs with air.
The sound of her own gasp echoed up from the depths of the tunnel startling her awake. Clutching at her chest, wiping tears from her eyes, Isabella whispered through panicked breaths, “Only a bad dream, a terrible dream,” as she sat up, pulling her blankets tight around herself, shivering against the cold and the irrational trepidation that always followed after nightmares. This one was entirely too real.
“A bad dream,” the tunnel answered, whispering laughter.
Isabella watched the darkness for any sign of movement. Though she couldn’t see or feel it, she knew something was there staring back at her. She hurried up from the ground, not bothering to roll up her bed mat as she grabbed up her things. Last night, the idea of what danger might be lurking in the tunnels had been an easier thing to face than the prospect of being questioned by her father about where she had been and what she had done, or worse yet, being forced to face Harvey again. She had not ventured very far along that branch before she stopped, conjured her bedding, and cried herself to sleep, believing she was safe. Now she thought better as she started up the tunnel, her own footsteps silent as always, yet each step she took echoing back at her menacingly from somewhere in the darkness. That terrible nightmare, she thought, doubling her pace.
“No! No! Wake up, Issa!” her own voice called from the depths.
Isabella ran, but it was taking too long to reach the tunnel that led home. Terror setting in, she realized she must have gone the wrong way, but as she turned around, the sound of footfalls echoed all around her, thundering, as though a hundred people were rushing toward her as a wave, until the thundering suddenly stopped.
“Kill him,” the Mardraim whispered in her ear, so close she could feel his breath.
Forcing her eyes closed, she stood still, not knowing which way to go or what horror lurked there beside her, but knowing it might bring her death at any moment. Whatever this demon was, it had witnessed her dreams, or perhaps it had been the cause, she thought, swearing silently against the pounding in her chest, as she considered her options. She had no idea what direction to take, so moving from that spot was out of the question. She considered ending her occlusion, so at least her father and Harvey would know where she was, and they could come to save her, but there was no way she could explain why she was in that tunnel without owning the truth. However, there was another way out, she thought, cringing at the idea.
When born, each Danguin child is brought to the Mdrai to be tested for his natural abilities in Om, the ways of Fate, but it is the Mothers, who teach them Fahmat, the ways of magic. Though their people had lived in the mountain a long time, their own curious abilities driving them to seek shelter from the rest of the world, they were all descended from wizards and fairies, gods, elves and men. Through the years their families had naturally mixed, and many of them were able to perform the ways of several races. Isabella herself was advanced in the magic of the gods and proficient in the magic of elves and men. The Mothers took great care to help every child learn all they could of Fahmat, each to his own ability, but their first lessons, their greatest lessons, were ones of humility and abiding by the laws of their home. They lived simple lives, and the use of Fahmat in daily life was considered a vanity. While one might be capable of performing certain acts, he should not to do so unless absolutely necessary, and of course certain things were strictly forbidden, for instance, Isabella causing herself and her belongings to disappear from that tunnel and reappear inside her own hut.
She opened her eyes and leapt backward, dropping her blankets and bed mat on the ground. Her father stood before her, his hands on his hips, heavy brow raised, lips pressed thin. “Omdra! You frightened me!” she breathed, shaking her head, stepping over her things, to throw her arms around his neck. Though he had startled her, she had never been more grateful to see him, even if he looked at her so harshly. When he did not hug her back, she stepped away. She was still occluding everyone in the mountain, but she could feel his judgment boring into her. “I was just…” she began, but what could she tell him? That she had brought the wanderer back from death? That she had spent the night in one of the tunnels? That she had been forced to break their laws because some monster was there with her, something that had known the very stuff of her nightmares? “I was just putting away my things,” she said, lowering her eyes. This was true enough.
“Is Young Harvey well?” her father asked.
This was not the question she was expecting, she thought, looking up again to see his jaw tighten. “I don’t… Yes,” she whispered.
“I am glad that you were there for him when he needed you,” he said, turning to take a seat at the tiny table where she took her meals in solitude and recited her morning meditations. She did not know how to answer him, so while her father’s back was turned, Isabella knelt on the ground, laid out her bed mat and blankets and began rolling them quickly up on themselves. She knew how it looked, her utilizing the charms of the Ikath to sneak home in the early morning hours, carrying her bedding and still wearing the same clothes she wore the previous day. “Are you aware of what happened in the night? Do you know what has happened to the traveler?” her father said.
“No,” she answered, not daring to look at him as she went to put her bed mat and blankets away in the small cupboard. She pulled out her bathing gown and fresh clothes, then hung the yellow tunic, her Omdet Filim, on the hook where it belonged. When she was left with no other task to busy herself, she turned back to her Omdra, barely meeting his eyes. “Is he dead?” she asked quietly. She had not lied to her father since she was a child, learning never to lie again by the three lashings she received in answer from the Mothers, the scars from which she still bore. This lesson had been one of respect for her elders, of respect for herself, and the fear of a whip made of takin hide fixed that lesson permanently in her mind. When she was chosen as her father’s aspirant, the rules of childhood were put away. By the Mdonyatra, she was bound to the truth. Though the vow was already broken, though her father had just witnessed her breaking yet another of their laws, though she had cried herself to sleep last night, thinking the doctrines of her people were wrong when they failed to step in to help those who were suffering, the shame she felt over the things she had done had her searching for any way to right her wrongs. She did not dare tell him the whole truth, but she thought she could mislead him without further breaking her oath. In truth, she did not know what happened last night to the traveler after she left him. For all she knew, he might have died again from whatever it was he drank from that vial.
Her father shook his head, sighing, leaning his elbows against the table, rubbing at weary eyes. “For a time, I believed he would certainly be lost. A terrible catastrophe befell him, not long after we called the rains, and when it was over, his body fell still, as though death had taken him, yet he remained, refusing to pass on to the next life.” He looked up at his daughter, smiling sadly. “It was truly amazing, Issa,” he said, his voice hardly above a whisper. “I have never felt anything like this, in all my life. It was beautiful, so beautiful that I was driven to tears. Even now I might weep for the grace of it, but forgive me,” he laughed, pressing his fingers together. “I suppose it is difficult for me, being the only one to have felt it. Unless Harvey…”
Isabella left the answer to his unfinished question to Harvey Frank. She would not lie, but she would not tell the truth. Instead she asked, “What happened? Why do you seem so distraught, my omdra?” wondering how much he had felt and if he suspected the elf had been saved by one of their people.
“You will think it impossible, Issa. The mountain shook the wanderer from its back, and he fell a very great distance before coming to a rest. He was barely alive when he landed, and for some time I thought he would die there, but then he started to climbed back up the mountain, himself unaware he was doing so,” he answered, his dark eyes wide with awe. “His death came just before he reached the entrance to our home, or so it seemed, yet even in his death, he made his way inside. Issa, I swear to you, when he reached the cavern, he was dead, his body lay still for some time, and though his soul should have passed on to the next life, it remained there, outside of him.” Tears fell down her father’s cheeks. “I thought he would remain that way forever, that his spirit would linger there in the entrance to our home for an eternity, suffering, incapable of finishing the task that brought him here, but as I wept for him, the most incredible thing happened. He came back to life. I do not know how. I do not know what magic this man possesses. Perhaps he is more than just an elf. Perhaps he is a demon as so many of our people say,” he chuckled sadly. “Perhaps Fate brought him back. Or maybe everyone in the rest of the world is capable of this, and we are at a loss to understand such things, here within our mountain. The wanderer is alive, there in the cavern even now, recovering from his injuries. His body heals quickly, and it is terribly painful for him, almost too painful to bear at times, but I have continued to sense his being for the Mdrai. It is miraculous, Issa.” Her father laughed, as though he did not quite believe his own words but could not deny what he had witnessed, and only wished someone else had felt it, so that he would not be alone.
He did not suspect what Isabella and Harvey had done. Isabella closed her eyes, fingers on her lips, wishing she could tell her father that she understood, that she had felt the wanderer and wept for him as well, and this was why she saved him. Then she wished Harvey were there and hoped no one else would speak with him before they could decide how to answer for what they had done. It had been a mistake to leave him there with the wanderer without discussing what they would say, and frightened or not, she knew Harvey never would have left her there.
“What shall we do with him, my Omdra?” she asked, knowing the Mdrai had likely spent all of the night making plans.
“It has been decided,” he answered quietly, looking grave. “Young Harvey said he believes the wanderer is being guided here by Fate. If that is so, we must welcome him as our guest. But we shall abide by the Mdonyatra and not intervene in any way in his endeavor. If Fate guides him, he will find his way safely to us. If not, then there is no cause for concern.”
All hope that her father might understand why she had broken her vow was lost at mention of their doctrines. “But Omdra, Harvey said the wanderer cannot be allowed here. And what about the younglings? He is from the outside, our people are frightened and he endangers us all.”
“We must trust Fate, my sweet Issa. The rains will continue until they are no longer needed. That will protect our people,” he said, getting once more to his feet. “As soon as you and Young Harvey are ready, we shall have a gathering to make the announcement.”
“Pati,” Isabella sighed as he came toward her.
He laid a gentle hand upon her cheek and lowered his lips to the crown of her head. “Do not worry, my daughter,” he smiled. “I must go now and speak with Young Harvey.”
“No, I should be the one to tell him,” she answered, practically pushing her father away as she turned to gather her bathing gown and clothes. Had Harvey even returned, or was he still up there at the wanderer’s side? How would they explain themselves? What if the wanderer arrive there and revealed the truth of how Isabella and Harvey had saved him? How could the Wanderer possibly make it through the labyrinth of tunnels? She shuddered, remembering the breath of evil against her ear, speaking words from her dream in the Mardraim’s voice. Maybe he would not make it, she thought, as she started toward the door.
“Issa,” her father called after her.
She stopped short and glanced back, expecting him to reprimand her for her impudence, a habit of hers the Mothers had yet to break, but when she saw the look on his face, stern, even fierce, she knew something was terribly wrong. She had been so careful, she thought as he crossed the room, his footsteps falling hard against the ground as he made his way to the wall where her aspirant’s garb still hung. He reached out a hand, lifting the hem, holding it out to her, and Isabella gasped. “Your Omdet Filim is ruined. You must be more careful,” he said as he plucked the purple head of a thistle from a tangle of yellow strings.
A chill colder than the air at the summit of that great mount rushed through her, as her father held the thorny flower out to her. “I must have… I don’t…” her voice quavered.
“You are not a child anymore,” her Omdra chided, clicking his tongue as the Mothers would. “Have this mended before the gathering, and no more running through the fields so carelessly. This is but a garment, but you are an aspirant. I expect better of you.”
“Yes, Omdra,” she answered, shivering as he placed the thistle in her palm and stepped around her to leave. How was this possible, she thought, her heart hammering in her chest once more as she stood galvanized by fear. Was she still somewhere up in that tunnel, living a nightmare? She squeezed her fist around the flower, crushing it, its spines piercing the flesh of her palm. It certainly felt real enough, she thought, managing to take a step forward. She had to tell her father. She had no choice, she thought, opening her mouth as he pulled the door toward him to leave, but no words came–only a solitary note of panic, as if played by a frightened horn somewhere in the distance, passed through her lips.
“Are you all right, Issa?” her father said, stopping just outside the door.
She nodded, forcing a smile, whispering, “I will take this to be mended,” as she took her tattered robe down from its hook, fighting back the urge to confess to everything. Whatever was up in that tunnel was far worse than deadly. She had to find Harvey.