When Brother Francis’s fingers touched the shield, he felt a shock ripple through to the center of his being. The monk, whose speed and balance had once rivaled the best of the continent of Annaria, momentarily feared that he would stumble to the ground. He hid it well, though, nodding gratefully to Jacob, then stepping away from the fire into the dimming twilight. He needed quiet: he needed to be alone.
That was when he heard the voice. “Hello, Alamar.”
The monk resisted the urge to look around; he knew he would see no one but the party huddled around the fire in the distance. “I know that name.”
Laughter, kind laugher, echoed in his skull. “Of course you do. What you do not know is that it was yours, in another lifetime.”
“You are St. Thomas,” the monk replied. “Was it you who sent me after your Shield?”
“Yes,” the voice replied. “You were close enough to me once that I could still touch your mind, if only a little. Now you have found my Shield, though, and we can speak freely. My friend, I badly need your help. Recently there was a change in the relationship between your World and the Spirit World, and it is poised to do immeasurable harm.”
It had been many years since Francis had felt this confused. “How would I do that? Why would I do that?”
The voice replied patiently, “You were a member of Heaven, when your name was Alamar. You were pledged to the same causes as I, including the service of Heaven and of other good souls. Strong souls like yours do not change much, and neither have your goals. I can help you with them.”
This was something like Lazarus taught, but not quite. Brother Francis suddenly felt himself bursting with questions. “What are you, exactly? I thought Heaven was the name of the council of Angels who served God.”
“In a way. I am one of the Ascended, a human whose will and sense of purpose was powerful enough to maintain his identity after death. As you know, Lazarus explained that most souls are reincarnated after death, but some worthy few are strong enough to pass intact into the Spirit World.
He also taught about the souls native to that realm: Angels and Demons. But they are the same. In truth, all known beings in the Spirit World came from yours. Some of the folk of Heaven call themselves Angels, and we call those banished to Hell Demons, but they are all Ascended human souls.
Lazarus was strong enough to maintain some of his memories from the Spirit World when he was reborn into yours, but unfortunately, he made up many stories to fill the gaps. The God he spoke of is an idea, a story explaining his own purpose. Whether there exists a Creator who made both Worlds, or whether God is best understood as a metaphor for the Purpose that infuses the Worlds, we do not know.”
Brother Francis’s heart skipped a beat. “No God? But my purpose, all my life, has been to serve God! In all I have read, that was also true for you.”
The voice of St. Thomas paused for a brief moment before answering. “It was. In a way, I would say it still is. But instead of a being, I serve the purposes I attributed to that being. I pursue peace and joy, for myself and others. I nurture other souls, and help them find the strength and freedom I have. I oppose people and ideas that deter those goals. Heaven is a faction within the Spirit World founded on freedom, charity, and mutual support, and we take them very seriously. We also create and enforce pacts to promote those purposes. Like the one that banished the Demons to Hell.”
“That’s a lot to digest,” Brother Francis stated, heart pounding. “It’s a hollow and abstract replacement for the being to whom I have given all my heart and soul.”
The voice was sympathetic. “I know, and so it was for me, more than once. But one of the things Heaven does for its members is to store the memories they cannot take with them if they return to the World. I have access to yours, and they may help.”
The monk smiled, “So I get them back when I die.”
“Of course,” the voice answered. “They belong to you.”
“Could I have them in this life?” Francis asked.
“Some of them, if you agree to serve Heaven again. There are too many for you to hold in this life, and I will not risk overwhelming your mind.”
“I see. So what do you want from me?” the monk asked.
“A strong soul can influence the world around it, bend it to its own rules. You think that the tug of the earth on your body is a natural law of the World? It is better to understand it as a relationship between your body and the ground on which you stand: an arrangement either can petition to alter. All that exists is constructed of such relationships, and a strong Purpose can persuade them to change.
You yourself have more skill with a sword than many would deem natural. You were also able to use your own strength to disrupt Shakath’s link to Serren, allowing you to face him without Shakath’s interference.
However, that is nothing compared to what you could do if you were bonded to an Ascended. Most of the power of your soul is bound in defining your body, and in controlling it. The Spirit World asks much less of us than your World does, leaving most of our power free to use as we see fit. If you trust me, and if you are willing to share the experience of your body, my influence would be at your disposal. What you could do would be called magic.
I offer you the chance to become a Sorcerer: a being capable of remaking reality around you. You could have great physical strength, or make yourself ageless and nearly invulnerable. Almost any alteration of your body or your close possessions would theoretically be in your power, as long as the purposes of our souls were compatible.”
“You frighten me,” Francis whispered. “No being should have such power. And how should I trust you? What would be the cost?”
“I am, as I have said, in the service of Heaven. To share my power, you would also have to give our own vow to serve Heaven, and to follow its laws. One such law, the Compact, is that you will also be forbidden from killing or using my power to directly oppose any other Sorcerers. Other Sorcerers, and Innoken is one, are bound by similar rules, though few of them serve Heaven. You will find that there are many factions in the Spirit World and outside of Hell, some more noble than others.”
“You’ll give me magic and immortality, but,” the monk repeated, “I’ll have to serve you.”
“Yes, I suppose so, though you will retain freedom of will. That is another rule, by the way: Ascended who dominate the souls of others are banished to Hell. Lesser forms of mental influence are permitted, but not by those who serve Heaven. If, once you accept my help, you wish to part ways with Heaven or myself, you can, though it is not done lightly. But Heaven and I desperately need your help.
I will say it plainly: the faction of Ascended known as the Warlords of Vallaton have long desired to set themselves up as Gods among men, and establish kingdoms throughout The World. Yet they have always lacked the means, until now.
Perhaps forty years ago, they discovered the ability for an Ascended to retain a strong connection to another Ascended when reborn: they can be born as Sorcerers. However, they managed to hide what they were doing from the rest of the Spirit World until very recently. When they are ready, and they are almost ready, they will unleash war. The Sorcerers that serve Vallaton will rip apart existing kingdoms, and establish new ones. Their benefactors, such as Shakath, will be worshiped as Gods. We believe this will increase their power in both Worlds, and make them very difficult to confront, directly or indirectly.
We are lucky that very few souls even in the Spirit World are capable of creating a first class Sorcerer, only one or two in a country the size of Margon. Beings of lesser power share most human limitations and vulnerabilities. But those few will be nearly unassailable, capable of forming diamond-hard skin or performing near-instant healing.”
“If what you say is true, that will tear the world apart,” Brother Francis noted, horrified. “And Heaven is not going to stop them?”
“No. That’s not how Heaven behaves, and truthfully, we lack the power. You will be, if you agree, the first Sorcerer of Heaven. It is only luck that I left enough of my soul in my Shield to connect with you, and there is only one of me. Without more such artifacts, it will be many years until we can replicate what Vallaton has done. We cannot stop them from breaking the world. Your job, if you accept it, will be to offer the shelter and wisdom of Heaven to those you can, and help pick up the pieces.”
“What about people like Jacob,” Francis asked, “who fight for freedom against Sorcerers like Innoken?”
St. Thomas replied sadly, “There is little we can do, according to the rules of the Compact that we helped create. Be glad of it, or Vallaton would overwhelm you.
I can offer some limited protection to the bearer of my Shield, if he does not confront Innoken directly. I cannot oppose Innoken or Shakath with my own power. However, if you agree to serve me, you and your followers will also be protected by the Compact.”
Brother Francis nodded slowly. “I will need time to think.”
“Of course. However, I can already sense a part of you accepting my friendship. You no longer need the Shield to call for me. When you have made up your mind, I will know.”
It was a gray morning. Jacob had retired early the night before, exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. He had fought, killed, saved a life, and completed a quest, all in one day. This morning, he ate in silence, trying to recover some semblance of peace. The others seemed to understand, or at least they gave him room. He did not find his own thought comforting, and found himself watching the others.
Ceann wandered around the camp awkwardly, afraid to approach anyone. As stubborn as he was, he seemed to realized that yesterday’s outburst had been ill-informed, and put him on the wrong side of every being in the camp, including Athena. Jacob almost felt badly for the man.
Meanwhile, Athena was reacting much as Jacob had, and for similar reasons. Laranna, Daniel, and Brother Francis tried to make up for the wounded camaraderie of the group, but the day felt still and awkward. At least Laranna added new variety to the cooking skills of the group. Despite her grumbling at a lack of ingredients, her “pan cake” was a welcome addition to their breakfast repertoire.
The Ironwood warrior’s survey was interrupted by a cloud of dust from the northwest that slowly resolved into a host of at least a dozen warriors from Sarronen, with Halvar and Serren at their head. Jacob raised himself to his feet, and lifted a hand.
“Hail Jacob,” Halvar called out in greeting. “I did not think to see you again so soon.”
“Greetings, Halvar! What brings you out this way?” Jacob replied gamely, approaching to shake the man’s hand.
The prince dismounted to accommodate him, and his warriors followed his example. He gestured east as he answered, “We have had reports of bandits nearby, and couple of our men are missing. So we’re just passing through and checking out the area. You haven’t seen any, have you?”
“Actually, we have,” Jacob replied thoughtlessly, causing Halvar to raise his eyebrows in astonishment, “Athena caught some tracks when we were gathering firewood, and we wandered into their camp. There were five, big and mean. You’ll find the bandit camp a mile south of the road, by a stream.”
“You never cease to amaze me, Jacob,” Halvar replied in an amused but friendly tone, looking over Jacob’s shoulder to his horse and comrades behind. Then he suddenly stiffened. “You have found the Shield of St. Thomas, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, the bandits had it,” Jacob replied blithely. “It was an incredibly lucky break for us. It’ll be nice to finally go home, once we’ve dropped off Laranna.”
Halvar shook his head ruefully. “I am afraid not. I’m sorry, Jacob.” He paused and called out in a voice meant to carry, “Kill them. Serren - take Jacob. Archers, you have the monk! Swordsman, stay together and use your numbers. Be careful, these are dangerous men!”
In seconds, utter pandemonium had broken out. Brother Francis rushed out into the crowd of warriors, unarmed. Daniel retreated with Laranna to behind the camp, drawing his bow. Halvar went sword to sword with Athena, while Ceann battled an unknown warrior. In that time, Serren nearly killed Jacob twice.
As before, Jacob was overwhelmed. He moved with a speed and precision he did not know he had, and it was woefully inadequate. Only seconds had gone by, and he was convinced that if he had not been fighting for his life, he would already have fallen, despite Serren’s utter lack of effort. He felt naked without his shield, and gave ground rapidly, backing up against where his horse was tethered. He was taking hits too: already his shoulder, thigh, and left arm were bruised and bleeding. Serren was laughing out loud.
In a moment of desperation, Jacob snatched the Shield of St Thomas from his horse. Unable to lash the shield to his arm, he held on to its handle with a grip hardened by years of exercise on the practice yard. “I could really use your help, St. Thomas,” he muttered, barely deflecting a lightning strike from his laughing opponent.
Immediately, Jacob felt a shudder deep within, and to his surprise, Serren’s attacks started to slow. Within moments, Jacob was able to match Serren’s speed, feinting and counter-striking as against a normal opponent. Against all expectations, Jacob’s prayer had been answered, and Jacob discovered what Brother Francis had before: without a supernatural advantage, Serren’s skills were no more than ordinary. Jacob’s feint worked, his back-swing caught the man off guard, and he began to land blows upon his opponent. Serren snarled angrily at the lack of his advantage, redoubling his fury.
It was to no avail: Jacob’s signature style had begun to bear fruit. First the Ironwood swordsman tapped the barbarian’s wrist, then his leg, then his side, then disarmed him with a vicious cut to the forearm that left Serren’s grip nerveless. The zealot danced backwards, trying to escape, but Jacob’s elbow to the nose sent him sprawling to the dirt, face bloodied.
Jacob hesitated only a moment before placing his sword upon the assassin’s neck. “I find you guilty of the deaths of Timothy, Father Gerrold, and of the theft of priceless Ironwood property. Do you have any last words?” he asked coldly.
Serren smiled bitterly. “Yes. Once you kill me, I will Ascend, and live forever among the greatest Warlords of all time. You are no match for Innoken, and Shakath’s fire will burn Ironwood to the ground!” Then he spit towards Jacob’s face, trying to roll and grab his sword with his other hand. Jacob ended the clansman’s life, sending blood spurting in all directions, make a scene easily as gruesome as any death the day before.
Jacob allowed only enough time for a frown before lifting his eyes to the rest of the field. He stared dumbfounded, for the fights moved at a crawl. Serren had not slowed when he fought Francis: Jacob had sped up. Looking around at the battle, he realize he had all the time in the world.
Halvar was pushing Athena back, but at a snail’s pace. The combats of the last two days had clearly taken their toll, for she moved awkwardly, her swings wooden. Halvar, oddly, seemed reluctant to finish her off. Daniel had feathered two Sarronen warriors, one of whom still stood, grimacing. The swordsmen did not approach, fearing to gather his attention. Ceann was being slowly pushed back by two neatly bearded men. He was fending them off so far, but only just. Brother Francis, on the other hand, was unreal. He darted among the clansmen, disarming them with snake-like speed, even to Jacob’s eyes. He was wading right into the fight and pushing people, one by one, into the dirt, with one hand. Half a dozen arrows hung loose from his robes, but somehow none had even penetrated his skin. The man was invincible.
Jacob shook his head. The world had gone mad. Again. Finally taking action, he rushed up to face a startled Halvar, and kicked the man in the gut, sending him staggering to the ground, then slid his sword to the prince’s neck. “Yield!” Jacob demanded. “Call them off!”
“Retreat!” Halvar called out heavily, dropping his sword. “Return to Innoken.”
Those Sarronens who still lived ran to follow their prince’s orders, rushing to their mounts, and galloping off. Halvar alone waited where he sat.
“Why?” Jacob asked the prince, his tone laden with hurt and anger.
The dark-haired Sarronen prince licked his lips. Imminent death made even brave warriors nervous. “Shakath demanded it. I had no choice.”
Jacob replied angrily, “No! You serve Akhor. Shakath has no power over you.”
“If only that were true,” Halvar replied, his voice subdued. “You don’t know what he’s capable of, the power he has! Even with what you’ve seen already, you can’t possibly understand. What Shakath wants, he takes. He took me.”
“Did you know? Do you have no honor?” Jacob asked, voice rising with a hysterical anger that he fought with all his might to contain.
The prince seemed to understand what he was asking. “I did not know any of Shakath’s plans until yesterday. I had no idea about the friends you lost, or about any threat to Ironwood. My hospitality was genuine. I didn’t know.”
“Oh? And where you also innocent of what happened to Laranna?” Jacob continued angrily.
“No, that I did know about,” answered the prince heavily. “But no one was to get hurt. We were only out to embarrass the Kulls at the Summit, and keep Travan’s eyes east of us.”
“Is what Serren said true? Are you going to kill my people and burn my town?” Jacob had never been so angry, or so in pain.
Halvar only looked at his boots, in silence, his expression one of deep shame.
So the prince hadn’t known, and wouldn’t have agreed: Jacob had read that much right. He sighed. “Tell me why I should let you live.”
“You shouldn’t,” was the reply.
“Have you killed or hurt anyone from Ironwood or Travan?” Jacob asked.
Halvar met Jacob’s eyes. “No,” he offered quietly.
“And if I left you go, and your father sends you to do this terrible thing, will you let someone live? Will you see that not all of Ironwood dies?”
“I will do so, or join you people in death. You have my word,” Halvar replied.
“Then go.” Jacob finished.
Halvar stared off long into the distance, before struggling to his feet. “I have always been honored to serve with my sword. Honored by my vows to my father, my clan, and my God. I have no honor anymore. I’m sorry, Jacob.” Halvar turned westward and walked, head bent, towards his horse.
“You always have a choice, Halvar.” Jacob called out.
“Oh?” Halvar replied. “Do you set your own destiny or walk the path set for you? When did you last tell your own father, ‘This fate is not for me?’”
Jacob did not answer, but only stood watching Halvar ride off to join the rest of those who would soon destroy his home.
Jacob sat before the dying fire, left over from breakfast. The tents and tools of the camp were packed and loaded onto the horses, but he was not yet ready to ride. There was too much to discuss, with everyone, once he summoned the energy. The others took places around fire, joining him in silence, waiting for someone to speak.
Athena, growing impatient, finally blurted out, “What in the name of the First Demon just happened back there?”
Jacob smiled faintly to himself, staring out into the blood-stained grass where the body of Serren still lay. Trust Athena to be the one to ask, when all sense in the world had fled. She had earned an answer, or at least an attempt. “To start with, we just got confirmation that Innoken and his Fire God, Shakath, are in control of Sarronen. Innoken’s man Serren did steal the Shield of St. Thomas, and he murdered Timothy and Father Gerrold. More importantly, they plan to destroy Ironwood entirely.
I saw again Serren using the Fire God’s power to move with a speed no human should have. But St. Thomas or his Shield protected me. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it, but in that fight, it let me match Serren’s speed. Maybe that’s why Shakath was afraid of it; maybe it can even do more. Maybe it already did: Brother Francis, you had the Shield last night, and you were far more deadly than I. So whatever evil power Innoken wields, God’s power is countering it.”
Ceann, who had been looking down into his sweaty hands, met the eyes of his Baron’s son. “Then can we go back, and save Ironwood? Will the Shield protect it?”
Jacob shrugged. “I just don’t know, though I suspect crossing through Sarronen territory may be dangerous at this point. Brother Francis?”
As all eyes turned to him, the monk sighed. When he responded, his rich musical voice was laden with sorrow. “First, don’t feel you need to call me Brother Francis anymore. Just Francis will do, as I will be asking my monastery to remove my vows as soon as possible. St. Thomas contacted me through the Shield, and we made a deal. I offered my service to him, and Heaven. In return, he gave me the ability to deflect arrows, as well as many other powers. You may call me a Sorcerer, as Innoken is also a Sorcerer.
But what you want to know is this: will Heaven protect Ironwood or help you defeat Innoken? The answer is no. I suspect Innoken feared that Heaven would claim Ironwood for its own, testing the bounds of the Compact among the residents of the Spirit World. If someone like myself had reached the Shield before it was stolen, and if Heaven had used me to claim the area, then perhaps Shakath would have feared to invade. Or perhaps there would have been a war in the Spirit World to match this one, one to shake the walls of Hell.
Heaven will not risk it. Innoken will not challenge me, or my domain. Nor can I challenge him. But I cannot claim Ironwood or protect it. Instead, I have been commanded to build a temple to Heaven in Travan, a refuge for a few against the coming storm. I’m sorry.”
Ceann rounded on him. “What in God’s name are you talking about, and where does that leave us? Would you have us believe in children’s tales?”
Athena’s tone was biting. “No. A child would have the brains to believe in God when he saw Him act. But what now? Give up and run away?”
Jacob held up his hand. “I suggest we continue to Talyk. My brother should be there now, or soon, along with the others from Ironwood. Travan may be willing to hear him in a way they will not hear me. After that, we can head to Northspire, return Laranna to her home, and then attend the Summit. With my brother’s help, we may still affect the negotiations there. I don’t know why Shakath wants Ironwood destroyed. We may still find a way to prevent his conquest from being worth the price. Maybe the Shield was all he ever needed from Ironwood, and he can be persuaded from the rest. If not, maybe we can find a way to strike at Innoken directly.”
The former monk seemed troubled. “Jacob, St Thomas tells me I can make my skin, or the clothes I wear, virtually impenetrable. You can count on Innoken being able to do the same. Heaven won’t help you as it did against Serren, either. Jacob, you cannot win against him. The leaders of the Spirit World are carving up Annaria as they like, and we are just their tools.”
“Well,” Jacob replied, troubled, “can we go back to Ironwood perhaps, and warn them?”
The older man shook his head reluctantly. “Innoken is using a raven to watch us. No matter which way we take to get to Ironwood, he can meet us there first, with as many people as it will take to stop us.”
“I thought Innoken couldn’t attack another Sorcerer,” Jacob pointed out.
“Not directly,” Francis admitted, “but he wouldn’t have to. Most likely, Innoken would leave me alone, and kill you as I watched. Unless you pledged yourself to me, but then you couldn’t help Ironwood, either.”
Laranna raised her own voice. “Couldn’t we send a message, then? Could you train your own raven?”
“In a few years, maybe,” Francis answered wryly. “You cannot alter a living being without their trust, unless you have immense power, and it would be immoral to try. It takes time to build those relationships, too. Not to mention, as strong as St. Thomas is, it may take me years to match Innoken in power.”
Jacob sighed hopelessly. “I should just accept Ironwood is dead, and move on? Give up good people to death, and throw away everything of my current life?”
“Perhaps”, Brother Francis replied, “That’s what I’m being asked to do, and not for the first time. But let us go to this Summit, and see if we can help, after all. It may be that even if we cannot save Ironwood, we can bargain for the lives of its people. But I am sorry: you will not likely see them again.”