Tag Archives: the war between beasts and spirits

THE TALE of TWO MOUNTAINS- PT. 39

NOEL

Noel headed straight for the keep, raw shame filling his belly, with each second that passed and every meter he put between them, as though the further away from Issa he flew, the more rational he became, the easier it was to see what a fool he’d made of himself, yet still, he longed to be that fool, with an ache unlike anything he had ever known. He’d given up the wards so easily, as though Isabella Asan was the embodiment of his every weakness, like the poison of her flooding his veins addled his mind, perplexing him with an unconscionable devotion he could barely see past to recognize, let alone overcome. The feeling that he’d lost her caused his innards to seethe, even now as though he could feel her being ripped away from him by Moag, like she belonged to his very being, and he knew he would lose her in the end, one way or another.

He would lose her to Moag, unless they found some way to change it, but if, by some miracle, they managed that change, once Noel saved her, he knew he had no choice but to leave her there, to lose her to whatever life she had left in that mountain, where at least she might find some solace in freedom from him, if not the joy of having her old life back. He had to let her go, never mind what would happen to him. What he felt of her, in her, with her was not real. It was purely the product of the possession and the growing obsession that stormed within him.

But she had told him righting Om’s Way was impossible, and now, he had no choice except to trust her. The trouble was he couldn’t because he felt her in his soul.

He had done the right thing, though, he reasoned, searching for some shiny prospect in all the mortal doom. Issa deserved to have some control in matters, or at the very least she deserved the truth of things. But surely this was the obsession talking, he thought, as he flew through the barrier to the keep, pulling away his warden charm and landing face down on the old sofa, to growl into the cushions at his idiocy. Growling hardly sufficed.

“What were you thinking?” he shouted angrily, his words muffled by the supple leather. He couldn’t decide if he was angry that he couldn’t see his way past the possession to reason or if it was that he knew the agony he was in for, giving her up, and that was the only answer in the end, no matter what. Of course, the question was rhetorical, as he was perfectly aware it was his usual lack of any real forethought that had brought him to this particular juncture. Clearly, the old man had been right about him.

“Heh, the old man,” he groaned, letting out a miserable sigh, rolling onto his side to breathe a deep breath of guilt at the trouble he’d made. Edward would be more than a bit upset he had handed Issa the means of undermining his authority. And Harvey would likely never forgive him, undoing all of the work they’d done trying to protect the woman.

“What good were the wards if she was going to use them to go to Moag herself?” What good were they if they did nothing to ease the obsession? They gave her peace of mind against him— peace against Moag— and now the choice was hers if and when to use them. “Christ, Noel! She will be the death of you, and you of her, unless you get her out of your head and yourself under control!” But he had a point. The wards were supposed to have given him that control, and it was obvious they didn’t work nearly as well as he’d thought, when he first stepped out of the keep, which had been an awful idea! Why couldn’t he have just waited until the next day to test the amulet, when Harvey was with her, like they had agreed? Why did he always have to do the exact thing that made matters worse?

“Well, because you didn’t actually expected them to work, did you? And it caught you off guard when they blocked Maog too, and of course, you don’t think past your own nose,” he grumbled against himself. “Or maybe you are so far gone, you were hoping they wouldn’t work? That seems more like it, doesn’t it? Either way you reacted, only to realize, after the fact, what an arrant arse you are.”

An arrant arse who’d only meant to step out of the keep for a moment, just to see if the ward for banishing worked like Harvey thought it would. He’d found himself chasing after Issa’s voice in the darkness, like a siren’s song. “My Mardraim said—” she’d uttered softly. What had her Mardraim said? He should have asked her. No, he should have done as he was supposed to do!

“If you hadn’t gone, there’s no knowing what would have happened to her in there.”

If he’d been able to think, never in a million years would he have pictured Issa as he found her standing there, a wistful phantom nearly glowing in the depths of that miserable dark, the shadow of her hand outstretched toward oblivion, a moment before she disappeared and the meaning of the world and everything in it was brought to rather specific if unexpected clarity. In that brief interlude, between grateful encounter and utter devastation, he’d felt an impossible joy… Completion in her. Despite the wards… He’d felt meaning, in the connection between them—meaning he’d never had the capacity to hope for, even with Hope to look forward to all his life. She had touched his soul.

“A product of possession and faulty wards,” he whispered bitterly. He should not have been able to feel anything of her, yet he did feel her, even now, playing in him, notes of solemn warmth that would not let him go. He needed her.

He needed to find Edward. He needed to tell the elder what happened, not lie there wallowing, but he was afraid to move, for fear of doing more damage. Grunting against the state of himself, Noel rolled over, his eyes following the stairs up into the tower of magic housed above him, where he knew there had to be a solution. Maybe not wards, but there must be something among all those books, some confluence of incantation or bewitchery that would sever the tie between them for good and rid Issa of him, though he felt a tiny flame of desire that perhaps it would not quite rid him of her. He needed her warmth. The idea of losing that left him frantic.

Noel rubbed his hands over his face, silently cursing everything he should have been doing, instead of lying there, hiding from the devil’s deal he’d just made, giving away his only security and betraying everyone else in the process. For what? For her? He could never possess her the way she possessed him. But mortal gods, how he wanted to!

She’d held out a scarred hand to oblivion, and it shook him to the core. If he hadn’t gotten there in time— If she hadn’t been frightened away— What if she went back?

Panic grabbed hold of him, and he sat up, raising the amulet’s cord over his head, but he stopped himself short of getting to his feet, squeezing all of his muscles against the desire to go off at half-cock, once more for good measure. “You have to show her you trust her, or she will never trust you!” he argued, balling the amulet up in his fist, gripping it tight against a wealth of fears and the impressive battery of urges that pummeled him from every direction.

If he showed her his doubts now, it would ruin the tentative peace between them, and more than anything, Noel Loveridge wanted for that peace to hold, so he could meet Isabella the following night, at the entrance to the tunnel, just to be close to her, to feel near to that joy and completion and meaning in her again, to bask in her warmth, even if it was just some brutally inhumane, terrifically deranged magic that had to violate every law regarding human dignity on the planet and was forbidden for a very good reason.

“Which is exactly why you should not go,” he breathed, shaking his head against the betrayal going on deep in his bones. “This is madness. You’ve lost! You are lost.”

It was madness, and that settled it. He had to trust her not to break the wards and he had to trust her not to go back to Moag, until they could go together the next night, so he could watch over her. In the meantime he sat there, chewing on the end of his thumb, knee bouncing, wondering what, then, he should do, all the while knowing the clear answer was that he should try doing absolutely nothing for a change.

“Maybe doing nothing is the answer? Sit and think and wait for tomorrow. In the morning, wait for Harvey, admit what you have done, then go find Edward.”

My Mardraim said…

“Atchem…” The Mardraim cleared his throat, looking up over the top of the desk, his brow raised to an insufferable height, as he held Noel in an accusatory gaze, while a slightly startled Noel spat a hard bit of cuticle to the floor, tucking the amulet out of sight, wondering how much of all of all of that the elder had understood through empathy, how much he grasped by the little bit of English he’d gleaned over the weeks, and how much would need explaining sooner rather than later. Edward let out an exhausted sigh, pushing closed the drawer, he’d apparently been going through before Noel interrupted, and used the arm of his chair to pull himself up from his knees, as he laid a paper carefully on his desk.

Noel barely caught a glimpse, but it was one of Issa’s drawings.

“Er… Master Frank,” he smiled, quickly choking back guilt and pride and obsession, but not before he’d begun speaking without thinking. “I am sorry for my…” No words for insane outburst— who’d have guessed? “I did not know you were…” He shook his head, his thoughts finally catching up to him.

What was the old man doing there? What was he doing with that drawing? Why was he at the keep instead of out looking for Noel when he discovered Noel was not at the keep? What exactly was that look on his face? Was that fear sparking in Edward Frank’s keen eyes?

“What has happened, Edward?” Noel asked, realizing the Mardraim must have a very good reason for having been down on his hands and knees, looking through revealed prophecies of Moag, instead of tending to him.

“Many days have passed since the two of us have spoken,” Edward answered quietly, nodding his head, leaning over the back of his chair to examine the paper before him, the fear in his eyes quickly changing to misery. Whatever had happened, apparently Noel’s guilty conscience did not matter in the least.

“You found something?” Noel hissed, clinging to the couch cushions to hold himself down. He wanted to see what was in the drawing, but even Issa had warned him away from knowing the prophecies.

The elder drew in a breath, but paused, studying the paper more deeply. “We Mdrai have had little progress with searching Om for information about your Hope,” he offered at last, without looking up. “As it is, we still find a great many of those prophecies broken, even from among the ones we previously read, as though with each moment, Om slips further from our grasp, giving way to Moag.” This was not exactly an answer.

“What does this mean?” Noel scowled, though the implications were fairly clear. Edward was concerned about the fate of Fate itself. Things were still changing, and that had him looking through the Moag Prophecies Issa had already revealed, by the looks of him for something specific. He may not even have noticed Noel was missing. Or maybe he had known, Noel thought.

My Mardraim said…

Had Edward sent her to Moag?

An uncomfortable niggling had been playing at the back of Noel’s mind, but hadn’t quite had the chance to form yet, in all his angst and what with Edward popping up unexpectedly. My Mardraim said… People talk to themselves all the time, but not in that tone. Had it been an actual conversation he’d stumbled upon in the Forbidden Place? Had someone been there at Moag with Issa? In a light well, perhaps?

“It means our work to restore Om’s Way grows more difficult by the hour,” Edward said, touching the tips of his fingers to the paper, the distressed lines on his face deepening.

Noel’s stomach knotted, half against the look on the elder’s face and half at knowing Issa was telling the truth when she said they would not be able to right Om’s Way. He knew she’d only told him to offend him, but it had not been a lie.

Then he remembered Issa looking toward the window of her hut, as if she knew someone was there, as if she hoped whoever it was would come in and save her from her frustration with him. No one had been there, though. He had listened hard for another heartbeat anywhere nearby, but the two of them were alone and Issa’s heart had thumped with such intensity that his own heart raced to catch up to her, like he was afraid of being left behind, like the warmth of her was the answer to his every question, if only he could hold onto it.

Let her go, he thought, the pain welling up in him again. You have no choice.

Through all of this, the old Keeper of Knowledge only stared at the paper, as though his answers could be found in the contrast between shadow and light Issa had created in that drawing, and he was either oblivious to or unconcerned with everything he might have felt in Noel. When Edward finally spoke again, it was in a serious tone. “We have found a link, Noel Loveridge.”

“A-a-a link?” Noel stammered, gripping the cushion tighter still, glancing toward the picture on the desk, where Edward’s aged fingers rested gently, then back to the elder’s miserable face.

Edward lifted his eyes, but not his head, his circumspect stare unsettling. “We had such little progress that, along with trying to discover any mention of the prophecy you brought to us in your book, we put our best augurs to work attempting to find continuity between the Veils and the prophecies you and Young Isabella have drawn from Moag together.”

Noel swallowed hard. “Continuity? Issa sees actual events. Her drawings… This link…” he nodded toward the desk, leaning forward, his grasp on the leather so tight his knuckles burned. “You mean to say you have found something of that drawing within the Veils?”

“A person…” Edward answered easily.

Finally, Noel stood, half tempted to hurry over and look for himself, but the pain at the idea of losing Issa turned quickly to worry. “A person?”

Who, he thought, abusing his thumb again.

“There will be others, Young Noel. It is only a matter of time until we find them all,” Edward assured him, but it did not sound so much like assurance as it did warning, and the look on his face seemed uncertain, like he did not know if he could trust Noel with whatever it was he was about to divulge.

Who? Who, Noel wanted to demand, but his lips wouldn’t form the word, and when Edward did not continue of his own accord, Noel turned to him and stood mutely willing the revelation with a silent gape, but the Mardraim simply watched him cautiously for several minutes, before adding in a reluctant chord, “It is reasonable to assume some of those attached to this prophecy will be attached to other prophecies in both Om and Moag. It is probable many among their numbers are those whose prophecies have been unwritten in Om, which has been the focus of the augurs’ work.”

The elder ran his fingertips over the surface of the image, touching the paper tenderly, as though whatever Issa had depicted on that page deserved only tenderness, and he was impossibly slow in choosing his words, but his delicacy cut far deeper than it would if only he might get it over with, Noel thought. Who? Noel’s mind cried out, but still the question could not find breath because the irrational fear that it was Issa held him so fast he wasn’t certain he was actually breathing anymore.

There was no reason for him to think it was her, except he knew her death was imminent, tied to his reason for being there, and or course, like his own, her prophecies had been unwritten and by this point everything that existed within him had begun to revolve around her. Had Moag actually shown Issa her own death? How had he never thought to wonder before? How had he been so selfish to not think she might have seen what would actually happen to her, when she claimed to have seen everything else? If it was not her, then who could possibly be so important that Edward would take such care in his tenderness?

“We must find all of the connecting Veils, Young Noel,” Edward offered gently, still dancing with that delicate truth. “If we can find more of these people within Om’s way, we could perhaps make some difference for them, but you must know it is a task that will surely take us years to manage.”

“Years?” Noel blurted, his head taking a bit of a spin as he finally took a breath. He headed back to the couch, the tension continuing to build inside him. He and Issa didn’t have years. “Issa and I do not have years, Edward,” he insisted, once more clutching the leather beside him, this time less to hold himself down and more to hold himself upright. Who was in that bloody picture?

“Which is why you must help us in any way you are able, while you are able, Ohamet. Please.”

Ohamet… Noel despised the name. It was a curse— though not when she said it. The ache of her inside him caused his head to throb. He rubbed anxiously at his temples, the place in the pit of his stomach where the woman clung to the soul of him like a torrent turning around on itself, turning around on her. They would not right Om’s Way. Would he and Harvey be able to save her?

Edward took up the picture, rounding the desk and making his way to Noel’s side, as Noel shook his head, wishing he could ask the question, even as he shirked away from the drawing, knowing it was her, though it made no sense. That was how she would die. It had to be. Edward had even told him Issa had the vision of drowning Noel in the waters in the chamber with the wellspring, but that it turned out to be herself who had drowned. How had he not thought of it before? Would she actually drown because of Noel, because of Echteri Amu Schripat?

“You have my word, our people will continue working to uncover continuity between Om and Moag, no matter the outcome,” the elder said, the smoothness of his voice meaning to pacify, but having the opposite effect, as Noel’s ears began to ring and his mouth grew dry. “We will utilize the Moag prophecies, to begin to understand who all of the prophecies of Om and Moag belong to, to reorder them, not by the meaning in the Veils, but by the progression of time, by relation of individuals and events. We have already begun the work surrounding this link, and we believe it will help us discover what happened to your Last Hope, eventually.”

The disgust that rose in Noel at mention of the Last Hope was unexpected. Who was Edward Frank, to think he had right to speak of her now, Noel thought, as he tried to recall all the faces of those drowned that had hung on Issa’s walls, searching for the image of her—terror stricken, hopeless—among them, even as the old man sat down on the sofa beside him, drawing in hand. The Mardraim thought Noel needed reminding of the Last Hope? To be promised that work would continue on, no matter what happened, when all Noel could think about was Issa?

But as Fate would have it, what the elder knew was going to happen was far worse than the death Noel imagined, before the old man laid that drawing on his lap.

It was not Issa, and oddly, as horrifying a thing as the drawing portrayed—and it was horrifying— there was a curious, intoxicating relief that flowed through him, as Noel felt his eyes grow large and his guts tighten dangerously. He picked up the paper, the “Oh,” slipping from his mouth, as if crushed out of him by a wave that came from that place within him, aching with the idea of Issa’s absence. This wave rolled over the village she had drawn, carrying earth, trees, the crumpled remains of homes and businesses, battered fishing boats, all manner of flotsam, likely even some jetsam, and people— dozens of them, perhaps hundreds, in that one picture alone— clinging to whatever they might find floating, until whatever was floating was churned under the wake with them, as the waters rose up to wash over everything, ripping souls from their earthly foundations, sweeping them away on the tide, making of them little more than tragic memories. The waters tore the life out of them, Noel thought, like when Issa disappeared. His pain and relief became the roar of that wave, destroying everything in its path.

It turned out, the thousands Issa prophesied would die by drowning were not individual events, as Noel had tried to account for them and his responsibility in the matter, when he’d first seen their terrified faces hanging on the walls of her hut. The drownings were one atrocity, a single cataclysmic event, like the end of the world visiting on a thought, passing by, like the wiping out of the very purpose of existence had occurred to it on a whim, like Om slipping away from them to be replaced by Moag, like Issa falling into the void, pulling Noel joyfully, triumphantly behind her— just happy to be near her.

“She named this prophecy A Drowning of Multitudes,” Edward said.

“Oh…” Noel hissed again, the paper rattling in his hands. Realizing he was visibly shaken, he choked down the dry knot that had formed in his throat, handing the drawing back to the elder, and returned to his feet, which carried him across the room, with a purpose he could not quite know until he got there, because he rarely thought… never beyond himself… never beforehand, only of her—thank heaven it was not her!

Momentary liberation and a disconcerting grief stopped him near the door, as he realized it no longer mattered to him who.

It might happen anywhere. Those people might be anyone. The only thing for certain from the picture was that they were close enough to an ocean that it would bring vast amounts of water tearing through their lives, wiping their entire existences from the face of the planet, rushing them away on the current of Noel’s blame, as though they were of no consequence to anyone, least of all to him.

“M-maybe Phuket?” he heard himself say, like for a moment he stepped away from his obsessed spirit and went to stand where he might accept accountability for the thing, so the rest of him could think about it logically, not that Noel was ever logical, but at least he was not thinking of her—oh, yes, there she was again.

But he could have a conversation there, with Phileas, who was the epitome of logic, and Murphy and Wells, who were both much more adept than he, about how they might stop the tide, as though the sort of magic to stop such a catastrophe existed. But it didn’t… as far as he knew. He glanced above him at the stacks, where he’d spent weeks eagerly searching for wards, and felt the anger rise within him again, as if on the swell of those waters.

Why had the elder shown him this now? Why now!? Why? No… How? How could Noel’s coming to their mountain cause such unimaginable destruction, such useless waste of life? Was so much of life predetermined that his destroying the Last Hope would result in such terror, such atrocity as nature overturning herself? Thank goodness it was not Issa though!

The anger wasn’t at Edward or even Fate’s cruelty, but at himself. Noel wished he’d never set foot there. He wished he’d never gone to Arnhem Land, to learn of the Wangarr ways, to visit the Dreaming. He wished he could turn back the clock and undo everything, to never have wondered about the absence of the Last Hope, to never have stood up to his father and left home or taken a blood oath for a Hope that no longer existed, whether he destroyed her or not, to never have gone to Bergfaulk’s, to never have had any more talent than his brothers, to never have met—

An insurmountable anguish stopped that thought dead, as his heart gave a furious thud in his ears, in his eyes, in his fingers and toes, then stopped beating altogether, like thoughts like that might actually kill him, and he grew so weak from that pain of losing even the memory of her and waiting for his heart to restart, he feared his knees might buckle beneath him as his chest constricted, cinching itself up.

No.

No, he could not wish that. He could not give Issa up completely, even for so many thousands, even seeing them all in their final moments, lungs burning with salt, their lives worth nothing to him.

Who? Who was the link? He wanted to be able to ask, now out of guilt more than the idea of saving anyone in particular. But he couldn’t.

Saltwater burned his throat as his eyes flooded, and he wished he could be there in that picture, to drown with the multitudes, even as he struggled to swallow down the sick trying to force its way past the tightness in his chest, his jaw clenching against the fact he’d become something so grotesquely inhuman. Yet, he could not care about those people or even himself or anyone else he loved in the world, as much as he cared about Isabella Asan, as though his soul no longer responded to the rule of his own authority, but existed only by the grace of her lovely poison, slow and perfect and sweet, and the solemn warmth that he longed to hear playing within him like her laughter.

She had a melodic laugh. His heart began to beat again. Her laughter was sweet, yet he’d never actually heard her laugh, so he didn’t really know what it tasted or sounded like, but he felt it, and that feeling was his whole life.

How could the elder have shown him now? Just when he and Issa were preparing to work together? Why not weeks ago, when he was stronger?

“I knew it would be difficult for you to bear,” Edward said, as if in answer to the question Noel did not speak, the elder’s voice full of sympathy Noel did not want or need. It was far too little, too late. “I was reluctant to proceed with what work I might ask of you, to help us know the answers, to all of the questions that fill you now, including those about your… condition. We needed to find a connection between the future we used to see and the future as only Young Isabella sees it, through you, Noel. It would be of no use to anyone if we could not uncover some relation between Om and Moag. Our true work to restore the path of Om can now begin.”

Noel glared over his shoulder, his eyes a blur, his throat clenching as his jaw squeezed and his chest rumbled, and he practically gagged on his own ignominy, returning to the elder’s side and falling back into the worn hide.

“The obsession worsens, Edward. Even while I am warded, it worsens,” Noel whispered desperately. He had to tell the old man the truth. “If there is any way to break the possession— more wards?! Any other fahmat? Please, you must tell me now! You have to help me! You have to help Issa! Help her!” She did not deserve to see this, to feel this. The poor woman… No wonder she’d gone mad, knowing so much loss. And she’d told him little more than half an hour ago, all of the prophecies were as awful as this. Her. You have to help her. “Please, Edward…”

“Your souls are bound, Ohamet,” the man answered pitiably, resting his hand on Noel’s shoulder. “But you are not to blame for this.”

“Blame? Edward, I—”

“You are not to blame, Ohamet,” he answered forcefully, gripping Noel’s shoulder tight, to keep him from rising again, to keep him from running, which he might have done, though the second he thought about where he was going, he was sure he would find himself already at Issa’s side, hoping she would comfort him, when he had no right to hope for any comfort— not with such a crime as A Drowning of Multitudes facing him, and least of all from her.

They had to stop it. Somehow, they had to stop it. But she’d said they couldn’t right Om’s Way. If Noel had doubted whether or not Edward had been at Moag with her or outside the window of Issa’s hut before, his worries were abated. She had never told him. If she had, he wouldn’t still be talking about it like it was a possibility.

The old man laid the drawing face down on the the arm of the sofa and turned toward Noel with fatherly sternness. “There is nothing we can do for you or Young Isabella in the possession, however we can continue our work to figure out how your coming here changed things, to understand why, to know when these events will happen, perhaps to see what causes them, even to discover a way we can change them, for the better— with grave care, Noel Loveridge, for a tenuous future we hardly understand. For that, we need you and Issa to continue drawing the prophecies from Moag, and that, Ohamet, is why I am here begging you not to be afraid of what must be seen.”

It felt like Noel’s soul turned over inside him with such force his breath left him as a barely-stifled roar, and he shook his head against the ache of her poison writhing through him and the fury of being accused of merely being afraid, when he was truly, mortally frightened, for the entire world.

“I am not… strong enough, Edward!” To resist her, he thought. He was not strong enough to resist Isabella, and he knew Edward felt this within him, that very moment, at the soul of him, but was asking him to do what was right, what was impossible. “Those people!” he let out an aghast breath. “All of those people, Edward!” And still he did not care for them. Save her! Protect her!

“This multitude and many others require every ounce of your resolve, Ohamet,” Edward nodded. “You are strong. After all, look at what you have done so far.” He waved his hand over the drawing beside him.

An enraged exhale, full of spittle and phlegm and a formidable growl, escaped from Noel’s lips, as though exorcised from the depths of him, where he was tied to Issa and the longing to keep her, above all else. “I did not know what I was doing! I did not know any of this would happen! It was something else! Ask Harvey! It was some Velhim within me, something I— I cannot explain, Edward!”

“Harvey?” the elder gasped. “ What do you mean? What has Harvey told you?”

Noel loosed a despondent sigh. There was a such a great deal the old man didn’t know, because he’d been so busy with the godforsaken prophecies, though with terribly good reason, Noel supposed, but even so… “Edward, Issa says it is impossible for us to restore Om’s Way because The Wanderer Lives.”

“Harvey told you this?” Edward gaped.

Noel took a deep breath, screwing up his face against the truth of things, which were much more complicated, and answered, “No. Please, do not question. Listen,” and he closed his eyes, leaning back into the leather, resting his pounding head, and told Edward everything.

When he was finished the elder looked slightly deflated and far less hopeful, which was disheartening because he had not looked much better than pitiful before. There were a lot of details Edward might have grabbed hold of, to rant about or curse Noel over, but like any good Danguin, he didn’t, for which Noel was grateful, because it was difficult enough for him to get it all lined up properly in his head and into words, so it could be out the open at last, without getting lost in minutia.

“I knew she would become impossible to resist,” Edward whispered, “but I believed we would have more time.” He took up the drawing once more, turning it over, shaking his head at it, as though he’d decided the Drowning of Multitudes would have to wait.

“As for my Omdrella,” he continued, getting up from the sofa, headed for his desk, where he laid the Drowning down with a remorseful breath, “I wish you would have taken my warnings as truth. I needed you, Young Noel, to find out what happened to my grandson, what he is hiding. I am sorry I have been so distant. The prophecies…” He sighed again and turned back to face Noel, grimness dressing in him, as he leaned back against the desk. “I needed you to do your part, because I could not. I needed more time.”

“You still believe Harvey hides something from you?”

Edward smiled painfully and held out his hand. “May I examine your wards? I would show you the answer, rather than tell you, so maybe you will believe.”

Noel pulled the amulet, twisted up in its cords, from his sleeve pocket, went to stand with Edward, handing him the charm he and Harvey had labored so hard over. He could tell by the elder’s despondent expression the wards were worse than useless. How much worse was the question.

“You knew the wards guarding the magic of my people were enough to provide you some sense of separation from Young Isabella,” the Mardraim said, turning the carved stone around in his fingers. “No other wards were needed. I confess the total faith I have in my Omdrella’s abilities means I cannot believe Young Harvey would make an error in recreating them, even with wards that were forbidden to him. Did you ask him where he learned this ward you call a banishing?”

Noel shook his head. “He spent days searching for it. I assume he studied.”

“He did not tell you with whom he studied?”

Noel gave a half-hearted shrug. “You have all these books. I thought there must be others, somewhere.”

Edward gave a pitiful chuckle. “The Children of Danguin learn at the Mothers’ knees, Young Noel. The Felimi are the teachers of all Fahmat. We Mdrai have the Hall of Records to attend now, but even the prophecies used to be kept in our memories, passed on with our souls, from one life to the next. I told you this.”

“The Felimi teach all the Fahmat from memory?” Noel frowned, incapable of believing at first, looking around at the towers of books and inventions surrounding them, but remembering Edward did tell him that their memories had begun to fail them, that something had happened, long ago, that caused the Mothers to require the Hall of Records and to task the Mdrai with venturing out into the world to collect the magic of all the races.

“This place and these books are forbidden, Noel Loveridge.” Edward raised a brow. “You were supposed to tell no one of their existence.”

Noel blinked. “You are saying Harvey would have to learn the banishing from the Felimi themselves?”

“That is what I am saying,” Edward laughed wryly, getting to his feet and starting toward the staircase. “Come. Let us study, so you can know what the Mothers have had you wearing.”

After a good climb, Noel and Edward entered one of the floors that housed the knowledge of Fae, and as they walked past shelves and shelves of books, the elder explained a little about the method of categorization used by the Danguin Mardraim through the generations, with regards to all known Fahmat. It was not a simple system if one did not know it, but it made sense, Noel supposed. Yes, books of certain colors were transcribed, as necessary, by individual scribes over the generations, but what each new Mardraim was meant to transcribe was limited to certain classifications of magic— chemical, elemental, kinetic, electrical, intellectual, nuclear, spiritual… The list of magical classes was extensive and spread across all brands of magic, accounting for why there were so many colors of books scattered throughout all of the levels of that library. Ultimately, what mattered to them at the moment was that the magic prohibited by Ftdonya was transcribed every fifty years, divided up by Mardraim by sub-class, and was always bound in white and hidden away, as a precaution.

“This insured each Mardraim had some grasp on forbidden fahmat,” the elder said, as they turned a corner and met a dead end and a blank wall. “Perhaps this was in case the Felimi lost knowledge of something important, or it may be so the Felimi would not hold all of the power. Either way, a Madraim’s work was, until now, done in absolute secret.”

He waved his hand in front of the wall, and a series of symbols appeared, glowing orange. Quickly, the old man dragged each symbol to its appropriate order, the spell disappearing almost as quickly as it was arranged, and the wall turned into a door, which opened up before them without hesitation. The room beyond contained hundreds of books, bound in white. A small desk, much like the one in the room of Danguin magic, sat in the middle, a candle, stack of books, and necessary tools lying in wait for Edward to resume work he’d already begun.

“There are eighteen books on forbidden Itri wards, and all books about wards, of which there are many, were most recently transcribed by Esi Abara, who was Mardraim seven generations ago. Wards, as you likely know, must be bound to the physical, and you will find all of Esi’s books on fahmat involving physical manifestation have russet bindings, with the exception of these and other forbidden fahmat within that classification, which can be found on every floor.”

Eighteen books pulled themselves from the bookcases, floating toward the two men, as if carried by ghosts, and arranging themselves in stacks of nine before each of them. Edward caught his stack immediately, and gave Noel a swift nod, so Noel stuck out his hands, and all nine books landed in his arms at once.

“Shall we see what Master Abara knew?” Edward asked.

Master Abara knew a lot.

The Banishing of Ghosts was created by the Fae, in a failed attempt to guard their people against disembodied beings— spirits, a long lost race of human, never meant to have corporeal form, but who became so consumed by all of the bodily pleasures they could never experience that they tried countless ways of incorporating, through all manner of magic, including through—

“Possession,” Noel said quietly. “That would explain why Harvey thought it might work, wouldn’t it?”

“The Felimi have lost some of their memories over time, but very few about magic, Young Noel, I assure you,” Edward scowled. “Read why it failed. See how. Then decide if they told my Omdrella about its faults or not when they taught him this banishing.”

“You have read this book?” Noel asked, though he supposed he should not have been surprised.

“Do you believe I would allow someone to suffer a forbidden magic of my people without doing everything I might to help him? Even if he was an outsider?” the old man said. “Do you think I would allow one of my own to suffer, as Young Isabella has, knowing somehow she failed to perform the possession to its completion, without searching for her salvation? I have done everything I can, for both of you. If you do not believe me, you may read all of the forbidden works that were created by all of the races of humankind, in an attempt to thwart possession, as you are the future Mardraim.”

“Why and how did the banishing fail?” Noel sighed, shutting the book, handing it over to the elder, to replace it on its shelf.

Edward gave him a funny look before answering, “It kept spirits at bay for a time, but they managed to find ways to overcome the Itri Fahmat. However, it is a more pertinent fact that the banishing never worked properly for those who were already possessed. In fact, it had the opposite effect of increasing the intensity of obsession.”

Noel breathed out a great puff. “You believe Harvey knew?”

“I believe Young Harvey returns to the cloister every evening, when he should be sleeping.”

“But he is so concerned for Issa. Why would he give me a ward that would increase my obsession? And why does that amulet work to make me feel as though I am separate from her if the banishing does not work?”

“The Garden Gate and Lock and Key would need to be bound to the physical within you and are enough to provide a certain level of relief, if they are also bound to your possessor. It does not release you from the possession, but only erects a gateway within you, a gate for which whose lock you are the key. This particular lock,” he held up the amulet, “is bound against Issa and the key is bound to you. It protects you against many of the powers of my people, as the powers of my people are all invasive to the soul, by their nature. But they would not work quite so well, if she had performed the possession to its fullness.

“Noel Loveridge, I believe my people discovered a way to fully possess the bodies of others, to be able to take physical form, to exist as you see us today. This knowledge of what we once were was lost to us or hidden from us, I cannot be certain. But I believe that taking bodily form is what disrupted the flow of our memories from one incorporation to the next, costing us tremendous power that we never regained as a people, perhaps even causing the instability in Om that allowed you to make your way here. Righting Om’s Way might undo all of that. If the Mothers, the first Children of Danguin, are the ones who discovered the full power of possession, they would have a lot to lose by that truth coming out. They would have everything to lose.”

“And nothing to lose in seeing to my death, even if they had to openly defy Mdonyatra and Ftdonya, in attempting to take my life when I escaped Moag,” Noel hissed.

“They would have nothing to gain by protecting Young Isabella, but Young Harvey would,” Edward nodded. “He is an incredibly intelligent and vastly powerful empath, Ohamet, and adept at more magic than I can name. I cannot say how he found out what our people once were, if he found out, but I assume his nightly visits to the Felimi have everything to do with what happened to him in Moag.”

“He should not have survived.”

“He should not have survived,” Edward agreed.

“But he wants to save Issa,” Noel insisted. “I know they care deeply for each other. He will not let her go. He will do his best to keep her from all harm.”

“Of this I have no doubt,” the elder answered. “If increasing your obsession results in your death, and he feels he has some way to help her not suffer the consequences as your possessor, he would do anything for her, even against Mdonyatra and Ftdonya. He has been willing to do anything for her in every lifetime the two of them have ever lived.”

“And she has been willing to do anything for him,” Noel grumbled, knowing Issa had accidentally taken Harvey’s place in the prophecy of Moag that was Noel’s to complete. “If you knew all of this, why did you not take the time to tell me, from the beginning? Why did you have me working with him every day?”

“Because I do not believe he means to harm you. If he says he will take over the possession, as you say, and he can find a way, he will do it, even at the cost of his own mortal soul, to save her.”

“Did the Felimi tell him about what would happen to me? Do you believe they did?”

The elder nodded, handing Noel his useless charm. “Telling Young Harvey would serve their purpose and his. It would more quickly destroy you, and it would make you protect Young Isabella.”

Noel had to know the Mardraim knew his people far better than he could. He had to believe what Edward said was right. “What should I do?” he asked quietly. “I cannot use these wards, and I cannot trust Harvey to protect me, unless protecting me protects Issa. You believe he means to find a way to trade one possession for the other, as he said. Should I trust that? What happens if we fail?”

Edward grimaced, looking down at the floor as he pondered Noel’s chances. It was a long while before he looked up and said quietly, “I trust you to protect Young Isabella, Noel Loveridge, and I know Young Harvey could easily have made a charm of the wards we know worked, to ease your burden and hers. You must decide for yourself what to do about my Omdrella, whether you would continue to follow him or cut all ties. I can say that if there is a means for Young Harvey to take over the possession, it was not known by any Mardraim who transcribed the works of Danguin Fahmat, however if a magic exists or can be created to accomplish this, it will belong to the Spirit people, and if the Felimi are who I believe they are, they may be the only ones who would know for certain or be capable of showing my grandson the way.”

The old man’s brow drew low over his eyes, and he continued, “It may be necessary to make for you an amulet of those wards we know work to some extent, but even knowing how your condition has worsened, I must ask you for your help, and it will require a great sacrifice, as you will have to work closely with Issa without the wards. The link…”

“Who is it?” Noel asked at last, the fear it was Issa so far removed from him, after so much discovery, that he had forgotten all about it.

“It would be better if I did not tell you,” Edward smiled painfully. “It would make your task a grave deal more difficult. But you must know, it is one of your friends— one of the twelve you named.”

Noel turned and flew from the room at once, returning to the desk, where Edward left the drawing. As Noel picked it up and began to scan the faces of those pictured there, the elder appeared beside him.

“You will not find his face, Young Noel,” the old Mardraim whispered.

“But you said he is here!” Who was it? Phileas? Murph? His heart was barreling in his chest.

Edward touched his arm. “Young Isabella saw your friend’s death through his eyes, Ohamet,” he said. “She lived it.”

____________________________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16, Pt. 17, Pt. 18, Pt. 19, Pt. 20, Pt. 21, Pt. 22, Pt. 23, Pt . 24, Pt. 25, Pt. 26, Pt. 27, Pt. 28, Pt. 29, Pt. 30, Pt. 31, Pt. 32, Pt. 33, Pt.34, Pt. 35, Pt. 36, Pt. 37, Pt. 38, Pt. 39

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 32

Salvation

Stillness consumed her, a moment devoid of continuity, vacant and lingering. The air around her rung out, with the solemn whispers of night, once comforting in their near silence, now startling, as they were all she sensed.

Noel Loveridge was gone.

Issa looked up from her painting, searching the mountain in every direction.

She was alone—more alone than she had ever known possible.

Throat constricting, she looked back at the work lying on the ground before her, a swirl of muddied waters ripping at the earth, washing the world away… utterly unfamiliar.

She was reminded, in a way, of the night she spent in Moag, of the strange vision that came to her as a dream, in which she drowned herself in the waters of Om, called up from the Well of Fate by the wanderer. Yet this was not what she had been painting—this work represented something at once far greater and far worse. But she could not remember. She had seen it in its fullness, understood its completion in the very depths of her, held the context of it perfectly within her mind. It was a terrible, unfathomable event, yet it had disappeared from her head, as though a light that had shined so brightly upon it, for a hundred million years or more, had suddenly gone out, leaving her blind.

Now there was only her, in all of existence—her and stillness, waiting… Waiting, expectant.

Her eyes teared, as she looked around at the hundreds of drawings hung on the walls, faces staring down at her, grief-stricken and agonizing, reflecting the turmoil that swelled beneath her surface. They were strangers to her, yet only a moment ago these people had been kindred, their paths dear, as though she had walked in their footsteps, loved with the longing of their hearts, thought with the realization of their minds. Now they were as shadows someone else imagined.

She had drawn them all, she knew. How long must she have been working to have drawn so many, and why could she not remember them as before?

Where had Ohamet gone?

… And where were Moag and the prophecies?

She had forgotten everything.

Her breath came in shallow waves, as fear mounted and she tried to recall the last thing she knew before the wanderer vanished, blinking against a blur of disjointed thoughts, none of them relevant to the next, all fleeting, none to do with understanding. The Mardraim tacking portraits to the walls… The paint and dirt on her gown… The flash of her hand working confident layers of color onto the canvas… Yes, she remembered working, yet even in those moments of presence, as she recorded the prophecy, it seemed she’d had no recollection of what this prophecy meant. All memory of her understanding of the prophecy was gone. Not this one alone, but all of them—the whole of the universe, as fractured and disordered and confusing as it had been—dissipated into nothingness, as though they had never existed. Yet, they had consumed her every waking moment, forcing her to the brink of insanity.

Her hands shook, as she tried to get her baring inside herself. Hardly a minute ago, she had known—known with all certainty—exactly what these waters meant, exactly who these faces belonged to, the very nature of their entire existence. She had known, in a way Om had never revealed to anyone… Unless she had not actually known… If the knowledge was temporary, never hers—outside of herself.

She shut her eyes against the sick feeling in her stomach and tried to piece together the pieces of Noel in her mind. He had come to the window. She knew he was there, and he left as soon as he saw her work and realized his wanderings would cause this…

This drowning, she thought, pressing her hands into the wet paint, crumpling the canvas under her fingers, her brow drawing painfully low, because she knew that word belonged not to her own mind, but to the elf. What she felt of him was unlike anything in empathy. She had felt the pain of this realization rise in him. Until he saw her work, he had not known the prophecy at all.

He left quickly and went back to the tunnels, to the place where he goes each night in secret, to work. She recalled the feel of him, his frustration, his animosity, his determination, his fear, his attempt to understand—she did not know what. In truth, she had not cared to know, though she might have. It seemed at times she could know him as completely as she knew herself, if she wanted, but he was always there, always calling her away, the only person she felt anymore—a nuisance.

She remembered wondering if he would return soon to Moag, to bring out another prophecy for her to examine. This idea had given her immense pleasure, which was curiously cut short, as though she had fallen asleep mid-thought. Then the wanderer disappeared, snuffed out of existence, and with him everything else, like he was the very light of a hundred million years, illuminating the darkness for her to see.

“How?” Issa whispered, the flurry of emotions running through her with such swiftness she could hardly feel them all, much less name them. “Why?”

A paper rustled behind her, and she turned to find the Mardraim sitting at the table, having just laid his own work aside. “Are you unwell, young one?” her elder asked, looking worried.

Issa had no idea how long he had been there. She remembered waiting for him to arrive, though it felt like several days had passed since she counted the marks on the floor—the number of prophecies she had given him, broken. Only this one was whole—precious. Or it had been. Her mind had been such a shambles, never still. Until now.

She looked down at herself, covered in dirt and paint and muck.

“I—” she began, but shook her head, swallowing the violent panic that stirred, like sands whipping across the face of the desert.

This was not the first time she was realizing the state of herself. Brief flashes of shame, temporary glimpses of her own consciousness, flooded her mind. There was blood, attempts to heal wounds she simply reopened in anger and anxiousness and inability to still herself against the turmoil inside her. Harvey looked at her with such remorse. He wanted her to control herself but knew she could not. She disappointed him. She was like a wild beast pulling against the invisible chains ruled by Noel Loveridge.

All she had wanted was to record the prophecy from Moag, to prove herself useful again. She had been so grateful to have a purpose to serve, nothing else mattered. Where had Noel gone? She needed him.

Fury rose within.

“Something is wrong, Issa?” the Mardraim whispered uncertainly.

Acutely aware of the pressure growing in her chest and stomach and ears, Isabella closed her eyes tight, pressing her lips firmly together, to stop herself exploding, as her heart thundered at the idea she needed anything from Noel Loveridge— the elf who had ruined her, who seemed incapable of ceasing his ruin of her, at every turn. It was horrible enough that after striking her down from Om and all she had ever known and hoped for— all she had once been meant to be— he saved her life, only for her to be confounded by incomplete pieces of Moag and the incomprehensible unfolding of every matter and form of the universe. Terrible enough that he had done whatever he had done to cause her to see this now missing prophecy so clearly, mortifying in it’s own right that she had derived even a momentary joy from that clarity. But that he was somehow the very key to her new-found purpose, that he was the tie that bound her mind to Moag, Noel, the very thing she needed in order to know—to understand— and that he could take it all away, at any given moment, was too much to bear.

Does he know how he torments me? Why? What did I do to deserve this? I have been good, haven’t I? I have been good!

“I have been good,” she whispered, desperate, the words almost breaking her, less because of her circumstances, and more because as she spoke them she knew she spoke directly to Om, yet Om had nothing left for her. Her whole body trembling, she held onto her arms to try and stop it, but it was no use.

“You are concerned, young one,” the Mardraim spoke softly, gentle eyes searching her as he stood, leaning forward with his hands against the table. He looked at her strangely, as though he barely saw her. The look made her uncomfortable.

She turned away from his curious gaze, attempting to occlude herself, ashamed of her animosity and at the same time emboldened by the rawness of it, determined to cling to it because it was better than the fear that mounted inside her with every second that passed. But even as the old man hurried to her side and knelt down, she realized a loss far more tragic than her loss of understanding of Moag or even her loss of a path through Om—another absence apparent in the still ruins of her, left behind by the wanderer.

Her stomach jolted violently, as she tried again and again to conceal herself, to no avail. She could no longer perform the fahmat—a magic she had mastered when she was but a youngling. It was as though her innate talents had altogether disappeared, along with the wanderer, Moag, Om, and all the rest.

The elder, no doubt sensing this within her, answered with a mournful shrug, shaking his head as he took her by the shoulders, turning her toward him, and spoke candidly, “We are not yet certain the extent to which your abilities have been affected.”

“No,” she whispered, a coarseness to her voice. Though the night air was warm, a cold set in, deep in her bones, causing her teeth to chatter.

The mardraim began to rub her upper arms, offering, “Your empathy flourishes periodically and fades over the span of a few hours at a time, with long stretches in between. We cannot yet say what causes these fluctuations or predict their timing. You have not noticed, until now. This is the first time you have attempted occlusion since you woke.”

The look on his face was foreign to her. Issa had never seen anyone look so grave, never known anyone with a cause to look such a way. Her insides felt like they would rupture and overwhelm the world with sorrow if she tried to speak, so she nodded for him to continue.

“You were tested for foresight, that first day, but you were unable to see the Veils. However, it may be that this ability will ebb and flow, as well. I expect we will know in time. It has been better not to bother you with such things, in your… condition. This is not the time for occluding oneself, Issa,” he added painfully low. “We have great work to do.”

He looked down at the ruined painting. His face was heartrending.

“No. No,” she breathed, swaying against the pain, not wanting to be known in this wretched state, searching deep within herself for even a shred of the talents she had once possessed—talents she had possessed in such abundance that she had been destined to be Mdrai, to counsel her people, to receive and record the truth of Om’s way.

What she discovered within herself offered only more grief. Where Isabella could once feel her own fullness of being, her verve filling her vessel to overflowing, she was now no more than a hallow shell, with barely a remnant of her former self huddled within, like some sickly shade, weak and withered, attempting to hide from the light of her introspection. She shuddered against her own lack of substance.

It was a long minute before the Mardraim spoke again. “Issa, I am sorry to intrude on what you do not wish me to sense in you,” the elder offered painfully, shifting to sit cross-legged on the floor before her. “My only desire is to help you to help us understand. Please, will you explain to me what has happened to distress you, so we may attempt to make sense of this together?”

She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat.

“Noel Loveridge is gone,” she whispered, attempting to hold back the tide within, but the whisper became a spillway of tears. “He is gone, and the prophecies are gone! I am empty, half-starved for air and light! What has become of me, my Mardraim? What am I to do? Ohamet has taken everything away, so I cannot think— cannot feel— without him, yet with him I have such chaos, I do not even know my own mind, except in brief interludes! No! No! I hate him for this! I cannot bring myself to be ashamed for it! I hate him, with all that I am—what little is left of me! I do not want him! I despise him, yet it is clear now, I must have him because without him I may as well cease to exist altogether!”

In anguish, she moaned, grabbing fistfuls of her gown, wrenching them into her belly against the ache of her desolation, and collapsed against the floor to weep, in a way no one else in that mountain had ever wept before. The Mardraim ran a fatherly hand over her head while she sobbed, disgusted at her own disgust—disgusted that she must be disgusted, as there was nothing else to be. The most horrible part was knowing she had felt this all along, yet her mind had been constantly besieged by Noel Loveridge and prophecies, half remembered, and a longing ache for Moag. There had been so little room for Isabella herself, she felt she was suffocating under the weight of the universe, and perhaps she had been. Now it was gone, she should have felt relieved, but the weight of that emptiness was much worse, for knowing none of it had been hers to begin with. Understanding that full prophecy had given her hope. She had been proud to exist in that state, hardly herself anymore, filthy, mindless, a disappointment to her friend, little better than an animal, because she had purpose once again.

None of it had belonged to her.

The elder did not try to convince her that what she said was untrue, though a part of her desperately wished he would—that perhaps he could make her believe something good might come of this new turn, if only she were patient a bit longer. In truth, they both knew her fragility in that moment. The elder had known it all along. Isabella had only just realized its significance. Her life was no longer her own.

“Issa, I believe it is time I tell you what I know of Possession,” the mardraim said quietly.

“Possession?” she sniffed, unable to muster the strength to meet his eyes. She wanted to disappear into the earth forever.

“The magic you inadvertently used when you saved Young Noel’s life— the magic you speak of when you accuse the wanderer of having taken a piece of your soul.” He sighed at length, and she felt him shift beside her.

“For many reasons, possession has long been a forbidden fahmat of our people,” he began, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. “The act itself is a matter of fracturing the souls, of both of the person one wishes to possess and the possessor himself, in order to exchange a minute fragment, through the Breath of Light, the very force that enables life as we know it. This is a force our people once used with flagrance and frivolity, though we have been incapable now for a hundred millenniums, for reasons I cannot explain. Somehow, in this one brief encounter with the Noel Loveridge, though it should not have been possible, you managed to harness the Breath of Light and  utilize it to bring him back to life.

“Ordinarily, the exchanging of soul fragments allows the possessor to grow and exert a certain control over his possession, which increases with time, until the victim is completely given over to the possessor’s will,” he continued. “Possession has a long and sordid history of use in cases of unrequited love, though there are far more malicious inventions for the magic involving forced servitude and other heinous acts we have no need to discuss at this time. Suffice it to say, nothing good ever came from possession, so it was forbidden, and when our people lost the ability to use the Breath of Light itself, it was believed the fahmat was lost to us forever. We would be better off, if it had remained so, as the act of possession is irreversible, and it never ends well, for either possessor or possession.”

Isabella looked up at last, intent on asking the honest question: what could she expect as an end to this madness and how long it might take to reach its culmination, as even an inevitably bad ending had to be better than her current predicament? But she found the elder was not looking back at her. Instead, he was staring off, in the direction of the the very place Issa knew Noel Loveridge had been, only moments before his disappearance. This may have been coincidence, but she felt sure the Mardraim knew where the wanderer had gone, and for a moment she considered asking if he could still feel the elf’s presence, until he turned his face toward her at last and gave a morose and teary-eyed smile.

“When you saved Young Noel’s life, you inadvertently performed the fracturing upon your souls, imparting to the wanderer a fragment of yourself, as you breathed life back into his body. As the possessor, you would need to have taken a portion of his soul in return, which you could have utilized to impart your will upon him, yet for whatever reason, either lack of ability or due to some inherent curiosity unique to Ohamet, which I admit seems most likely under the circumstances, the possession remained incomplete. His soul, which you, your father, and Young Harvey all described as having been displaced from his body, in those moments before you saved his life, returned to him, filling him until he could contain no more. He was whole and alive again, with you as a small part of him. The fragment of him that remained, which should have gone to you in the exchange, was left to wander our mountain, which he does even now.”

“After all of the harm he has done, an errant piece of him is allowed to wander freely?” she whispered in disbelief.

“I doubt this errant piece of him is large enough to do much harm on its own, but it is only allowed to wander because there is nothing anyone can do about it. As it is, you speak of sensing him on occasion, though if he is ever where you claim him to be, I have been unable to discern him, myself. You are the only one able to sense this part of him. Not even Young Harvey is strong enough in empathy to reveal his presence, it is so minute. But there is more I must tell you now, about your condition, while we have this opportunity.”

Isabella understood. Wherever the wanderer had gone, he had at least left her lucid. Who knew how long this respite would last?

“Since you did not take a portion of Young Noel into yourself,” explained the mardraim, “you remain an incomplete soul. This usually occurs at the conclusion of a possession, when the one who is possessed is inevitably lost, as it becomes impossible for the possessor to sustain both lives at once. In the end, when the possessor is forced to allow the possession to die, both of the fragments of soul exchanged in the fahmat pass into Om, leaving the possessor unwhole until his own eventual death. The possessor lives out the rest of his days in a devastating state of lack, unable to be fulfilled in any way, as he has felt his own death.

“Existence as an incomplete soul is considered the greatest repercussion to all who have been determined to possess another, as from the day of the victim’s death, the possessor lives in grief over what he has done to himself. As you never held a piece of Young Noel within you, you began this endeavor, in some ways, in this state. I do not know how the possession will affect the wanderer, given you do not actually have possession of him. He does exhibit many of the early symptoms of obsession, however I doubt you will ever be capable of exerting any control over him, without having completed the act. This might have served to save you both much of the agony that possession has proven to be in the past, yet things were made worse for you, as the two of you ventured separately into the tunnels of Moag.”

“How so?”

“I have reason to believe the possession itself was necessary for both you and Young Noel to physically survive within Moag, as you did, but the fact the possession was incomplete complicated matters for you. When you entered the tunnels, shortly after saving the elf, you were protected from Moag’s devouring force because a portion of you remained safely harbored within the elf, outside of Moag. You escaped the darkness and returned home, seemingly unharmed, despite the fact the Felimi said you would surely be lost forever. When Young Noel entered Moag the following evening, while he too was safe from Moag’s destruction because of the portion of him that wanders the mountain, unbound, somehow, through your partial possession of him, you were left vulnerable to Moag—not the portion of you that Young Noel carried with him through the darkness, but rather the part of you, who remained with the Felimi at the cloister.

“Moag began drawing you out. This attack on your body and soul continued until nothing of your spirit remained within your body and you were entirely consumed by the darkness, with the exception of the fragment of you Ohamet carried within himself. When he exited Moag, Young Noel also used the Breath of Light, breathing back into you an even smaller fraction of your own soul than you originally gave to him. The rest of you that exists within our physical world, remains within him, bound in the incomplete possession.”

“But what does this mean?” she asked, hardly able to keep the urgency out of her voice as she sat up.

“Issa, the vast majority of your being is lost forever to Moag and will never return to this earth in any vessel,” he answered softly. “To live life as an incomplete soul, having lost only a small piece of oneself to Om, is a wretched existence no one should suffer. You have lost so much more, and to Moag. Upon your death, I do not know what will happen to you. It is entirely possible you and Young Noel will both eventually be lost to Moag forever. As for now, in the remainder of this lifetime, you will feel this morbid lack within you, this emptiness, even greater than you would have suffered merely due to the possession, because much of you has been destroyed by the Eater of Souls, with no hope of return.

“You feel your connection to Young Noel, more greatly than you have ever felt another through empathy, because there is more of you within the elf than within your own body this very moment. While he too remains unwhole, and will likely suffer, to some extent, because he returned a fragment of you when he used the Breath of Light to revive you, what is missing from him is but a shard, compared to the near totality that is missing from you.

“There is such a small part of you that remains,” he continued, “that, like that errant portion of Young Noel’s soul that is left to wander, you can barely be felt through empathy. I have kept you enveloped all this while, and only through my envelopment of you do I receive even a glimmer of what is at the soul of you, and then only when you’re passions are strongest. At times there is more vitality in you, but Noel Loveridge is far stronger than you.

“Though I expect that even though you will never be able to control him, he will still suffer a certain obsession with you due to the possession, Ohamet will always have strength, power, over you, because the possession remains incomplete. He does not know that he holds all of the power, and I have no intention of telling him because I do not wish him to harm you out of his own fears. One day he will likely discover this truth. Hopefully, by then, we will have found a way of righting Om’s path, and he will leave this place, and you, alone. Needless to say, add to this your encounter with Moag, your understanding, or lack thereof, of the prophecies Young Noel drew out of the darkness, and it is no wonder you are so often ravaged by mania no one else can possibly understand.”

Issa knew what the Mardraim said was true. She had felt it all along, aware she was never meant to survive Moag. To live was the wanderer’s fate, not hers, yet he brought her back. He saved her and damned her to this agonizing existence all at once.

“I will struggle this way forever? I will never… know peace again?”

The Mardriam nodded gently, before adding, “It is true, you and Young Noel are bound to one another, and neither of you will have the peace you had before, yet it seems to me that in this moment, you are more certain of yourself than you have been in many days. I cannot tell you the number of times I have come to visit that you have hardly been present, how often I have watched as your mind twisted around itself, confounding you, so you had no idea of your own thoughts or deeds. In truth, you are more yourself in this moment than you have been since before Noel Loveridge arrived. I know you are discomforted by the nature of things, suffering your own sense of loss so greatly, often struggling for even the smallest measure of control, however it is important we acknowledge that your current state is much more stable than even a few brief minutes ago, before the wanderer… disappeared.”

He swallowed.

Isabella might have asked about this pause, inquired what the old man knew about where Noel Loveridge had gone, but the Mardraim’s brow furrowed, and he admitted almost at once, “I know where Young Noel is. I cannot tell you where, but I assure you, he will return to you, and with him will come both prophecy and Moag, once again. You have no need to worry. This is temporary. However, when he returns, you will not be able to maintain yourself, as you do now. You know your own mind,” the elder said in a pained voice, the tears returning to his eyes as he shook his head. “It is beautiful to look upon you and see you looking back at me, at last, after so many days of sensing your struggle to maintain yourself, unable to help in any way. I only wish Young Harvey were here. He grieves for you daily. He is greatly changed.”

“Harvey?” The thought of her friend caused her own tears to return, but now she must be strong. “This is my purpose,” she said casting her hands over the painting, covered in smeared handprints and gouges from her fingernails. She and Harvey had been equals, their companionship natural because they had everything in common through Om. How could he ever want to be near her like this? How could he not find the very idea of what she had become repulsive? How could she want for him to know her suffering?  “I… I….” Her brain contracted, refusing to allow the idea to even form completely, let alone escape. But the feeling was there inside her all the same, and she knew the Mardraim felt it within her.

Isabella was nothing. She was worthless without the wanderer to provide the prophecies of Moag, yet with the wanderer and prophecies, she was not at all herself. She would never be herself again.

“Issa, do not despair. You have done more than enough,” the elder said, wiping her tears away with the backs of his fingers, then lifting her chin so she would look him in the eye, as he smiled grievously, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks as well. “You have done more in these three days, with this prophecy, than the rest of us have managed since Young Noel’s arrival— the wanderer included. You have shown me what you have seen. I understand it, because of you. I do not yet know how to help Young Noel change it, if it can be changed, but I understand it only because you have given so much of yourself, to share it with me. Take heart in that.”

“But I no longer understand it! I cannot help to change it!” she wept, pressing the heels of her palms into her temples, as if to try and force the memories back. “It was here. I know it was clear to me. How can I know I had clarity of the thing, yet not know the thing itself? It is as though my mind is fractured, along with my soul!”

“But young one,” he shook his head, “when this vision was clear to you, you were not yourself. Your focus was on the prophecy alone. I could not deter you from it, even for a moment, so I allowed you to work, expecting eventually you would work yourself to exhaustion. For days you continued on, without stopping. Look at yourself! Look at how you deteriorate!” He gestured emphatically, scoffing at the sight of her, then took her hands in his, holding them tight as he spoke. “Issa, with everything that has happened, I have no doubt that you are most necessary to this world, in this way. By Om or by Moag matters not, because there is a purpose here, intent we cannot know without you. I cannot yet grasp the reasons why it has come to be so, but you are more important now than all other zhe, I assure you, because only you have seen the way of Moag, as changed by the wanderer. Only you can guide us in this. The rest of us will come to understand through you—through you and Noel Loveridge, together.”

She hissed a disgruntled curse at the idea, as the Mardraim stood and lifted her up from the ground, then led her to sit at the table. Her tears continued to fall, as the elder cleared away piles of her drawings and set the wash basin, full of clean water, in their place.

In silence, the old man washed Issa’s face and neck with a soft cloth, the cool water serving to soothe the pain of unrelenting loneliness and ease the sense of worthlessness within her. When her face was clean, he took to the task of scrubbing layers of paint and charcoal from her hands and arms, until at some point she stopped crying and a numb weariness set in.

She had no idea when she had last slept or eaten. There were vast gaps in her memories, with no explanation beyond Moag’s prophecies and Ohamet’s wanderings. What little she could remember were dwindling glimmers of half-awareness, completely meaningless because they lacked context. Meanwhile, the more the Mardraim scrubbed, the more he revealed that under the filth she was covered in newly-healed scars, injuries she caused to herself in her more disturbed states. The only positive was the fact that none of her wounds were recently made, which meant being under the influence of revelation of Moag’s prophecy at least kept her from doing herself more harm. Unfortunately, little was being done to tend to her basic needs in the meantime. She imagined tending to her was made more difficult by her scattered mind.

As to that, what would happen if and when Noel Loveridge returned? Would she be able to recall this conversation with the Mardraim, or would it be lost in a wave of Noel and Moag, as the Mardraim expected? Was there any way she could be both lucid and understand the prophecies of Moag at the same time? Was there any hope of finding a balance, or was all hope lost the moment she felt the wanderer flying up the side of their mountain?

“I am not certain what is best to do,” the Mardraim said quietly, his voice barely cutting through the silence, as he took the bowl from the table and sat on the ground before her, resting the basin in his lap. He did not look up at her, as he took her right foot in his hand and began washing the grime from it as well, his brow creased with a scowl.

Issa thought perhaps his statement had been in answer to the questions he must have felt, unvoiced within her, but the elder did not speak again until the dirt of several days muddied the paint-covered rag in his hand, and her foot was clean.

“Perhaps he is justified in his timing, and I have not taken as much care as I should,” he added quietly. Isabella decided he must be speaking to himself, and she should not interrupt, but then the elder took up her other foot and said, “We must surely live in a precarious balance, if we are to find our way through this. That is only right. Yes, I must tell Young Noel.”

“What will you tell him, my Mardraim?” Issa asked, her voice like brass, after shedding so many tears.

The old man loosed a sigh, heavy with burden. “I must tell him that I have kept you too long, stirring over this tragedy.” He waved the rag at the pictures on the walls and smiled. “I must tell him you must rest, while you can— a good, long rest, I believe.”

Setting the bowl aside, he dried her feet one at a time, with the tale of his tunic. “From now on, when Young Noel is away, as he is now, you must take advantage of the opportunity, to tend to your own existence, beyond prophecies and the will of the wanderer. You must do your best to live, as you lived before. You were happy once, Issa. With great courage, you can be happy again.”

“I do not see how. I am incomplete, alone… frightened. It seems everything is beyond my control.”

“Certainly, you know by now this is true for everyone,” he answered plainly. “Nevertheless, you must come to see these moments as gifts, as the mothers taught you to see the time taken in occlusion. Use it to determine what you want of this life that is not of prophecy, but try not to stir too much on these matters tonight. I am sorry I have not done better by you, before now. You need rest. Tomorrow, we begin anew, and neither of us can say for certain what will come when Ohamet returns. I will clear the remnants of our work away, so you may be ready. Until then, please know, you have given me more than enough to help me understand, and I do not want you to worry over this prophecy anymore. Now, allow me to clean and leave you to sleep.”

Isabella nodded, and the Mardraim went about the business of clearing the mess of drawings and paintings and books, scattered around the hut, while she sat wondering just what she was supposed to do. She had no idea how to determine what she wanted from life, when everything she had ever wanted had been hers from the beginning, handed to her by Om and stripped away by Ohamet, without any possibility of return.

As if in answer, she recalled the day she first awoke from the long sleep that came after Moag ended her life and Noel Loveridge handed it back to her, an unwanted fragment of what it used to be. That day, as her mother tended to her, the woman told Issa her life would never be the same. “It will only be what you make of it,” she had said. Issa could not help but wonder if her mother had any idea how right and wrong she truly was.

Ohamet had been absent that day as well, Issa thought, remembering the stillness she felt, as her mother spoke with her, carefully avoiding revealing her shame at her daughter’s pitiful state. At the time, Isabella had believed she was only deep within the protection of the Mdrai’ envelopment and that was why she felt no empathy for others, but Noel Loveridge was not present in her senses then either, when he should have been through the partial possession. Wherever he went, it seemed that place had the power to sever their connection of possession, at least temporarily. It was some time after she sent her mother to find the Mardraim, before the wanderer appeared in her subconscious, felt her cry for the loss of Harvey, and he came to her. That was when her delirium began. Before that, she felt nothing but emptiness, as now. More importantly, she realized, at that point she did not remember any of the things she saw of Moag.

Noel had felt her cry and come, just as he came to her the night he touched Moag and brought out the complete prophecy.  He had been so frightened for her, he flew straight there with unimaginable speed, and she had felt him coming and gone out to meet him. Though he was invisible, she could sense exactly where he landed, but she could also see the glowing remnant of herself, the piece of her soul, which Noel Loveridge kept. She was certain the wisp of light she saw with him could only be the fragment of her own soul, as it was so much like the light she saw curling out of the eldest mother’s mouth while she was at the cloister, before she died—like the light she herself was made up of, as Moag drew her out of her body, into its depths.

Perhaps, because the possession was left incomplete, there was a way she might yet save herself, a way to regain the portion of herself the wanderer kept—a way to sever their connection forever?

“My Mardraim?” she said, as the old man, having whisked away every trace of the prophecy, bid her goodnight and opened the door to go.

“Yes, young one?” he answered solemnly, stopping in the doorway. His voice was patient, but he looked troubled and tired. Had he remained with her the whole time, as she painted and drew the prophecy? It was so very strange not being able to sense what was at the soul of him, yet seeing the gravity of her situation ingrained in the deepening lines on his face.

“You say the possession remains incomplete. Perhaps there is a way it might be undone,” she quietly said.

“I am sorry, Issa. Any attempt we might make to that effect could only make matters worse, for both you and Young Noel,” he said, shaking his head. “You must rest now. We will talk again soon,” he added, then ducked out into the night, shutting the door behind him, leaving Issa feeling frustrated and hopeless and helpless, to try and find some solace in everything she had learned and the knowledge that, at least for now, she had the capacity to try and formulate some sort of plan, moving forward. The trouble was there was no solace to be had in knowing that as soon as Ohamet returned whatever plan she might make would likely cease to matter.

How was it possible she had accidentally performed part of this possession when she did not even know the Fahmat existed in the first place? Fragmenting her soul? She had never—could never—imagine such a thing was possible. Everything about it seemed so backwards and wicked to her, it was no wonder the magic had been forbidden.

What was this Breath of the Light the Mardraim spoke of, and why was this the first time she had heard it? The Mardraim said it was the very force that made life possible, a force their people once used with flagrance and frivolity, yet this was not something the Mdrai or the Felimi taught them in all their years of learning. How had the Mardraim come to know of it? Surely the Mdrai and Felimi must have learned more in these days Issa had spent in the erratic pull of Moag. She wondered if Harvey, as an aspirant, had learned anything about it as well.

The thought of him made her heart ache, so she turned her mind back to Noel.

Had she really used this strange force when she saved the elf’s life? Was it truly possible she had performed this magic, purely by accident, causing all of this?

No, she thought, resentment and anguish renewing within her. This was entirely the fault of the wanderer, and no one else. The Mardraim believed there was no point in trying to find a way to undo the partial possession because it might make matters worse, but he did not say he believed it impossible, and she had definitely seen the light of her self with Noel Loveridge, like she was calling out for help, for salvation. Issa could not simply wait for Ohamet to completely overwhelm her again— for all of this to end badly, as the old man said it would. She had to do something.

It was terribly late. Her belly was empty, her mind dull. She knew the Mardraim was right that she needed rest, but before she could sleep, she had to eat. And—she sniffed at her armpit and turned away, revolted—she was in desperate need of a proper bath. But first, while she had the presence of mind to do so, Issa took some of the fresh paper, which the elder had left, no doubt expecting that one day soon there would be another complete prophecy of Moag for Issa to record in its fullness, and she began to write:

Some prophecies are whole, others are merely pieces. If you remember either, you are not yourself. Wait for Ohamet to disappear, then find out where he goes. If there is a way to restore the piece of your soul, you must discover how, before it is too late.

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