Chapter 2: Spirit Lands
The Lady Adelin lifted herself slowly into a sitting position, taking in the strange terrain. In all directions lay endless, trackless brown-golden sand: lifeless, but warm and strangely soft. Only moments before, light had flowed around her like a river, sweeping her through an impossible tunnel through reality itself, carrying her swiftly from the World to this place. Here, it ended, and the river of light poured into the sand, and was lost. Adelin turned her head, ony to find the tunnel, too, was gone.
She stood slowly, looking around. She discovered, to her wonder, she was without pain, or the myriad discomforts of pregnancy and birth. In fact, she felt wonderful, stronger and younger than she had felt in decades. She looked down to see the same blue nightgown she had worn this morning, before she died, but it fit comfortably on a form that was slim and fit. Her clothing it seemed had changed as much as she had. It was still obviously designed as a maternity dress, though, functional rather than elegant. She moved her hands to smooth the gown, and as she did, it shimmered under her fingers, changing from course linen into fine silk. Well. That was something, wasn’t it?
Adelin looked up to finder herself standing barefoot in a strangely temperate desert, clad now in the finest dress she had ever seen, its golden-hemmed skirts swirling about her bare ankles but never touching the ground. She raised her hand to shield her eyes against the sun, only to realize she couldn’t find it. The sky was a bright, indistinct haze.
As had happened dozens of times before, in life’s stranger moments, images of somewhere else passed before her eyes, in bright and tenuous flashes. Only this time was different, as the visions, though they flickered like a candle, did not pass. Instead of seeing her future, she saw her dead body, through her daughter’s horrified gaze. She felt Laranna’s fear and loss, felt her hand slowly loosen its grip on a mother who had abandoned her. Adelin, reeling from the pain, pushed the visions away, and the feelings fled. Calm slowly returned. It was time to move on.
It was an odd thought, but so far, the former Lady of Northspire felt she knew less about death than before she experienced it. She had a body, but did it have needs? It wasn’t hungry or tired. She didn’t know anything about this featureless place, except she was leagues from anywhere she might want to be. She peered anxiously off towards the horizon, searching for signs of life. The details of the world seemed to grow more distinct as she squinted, trying to focus. The haze didn’t seem quite as featureless as it had. Far away and just to the right, it hinted at a presence in the distance, a suggestion of structure. She turned to it, and began to walk. What other choice did she have?
Before long, hints became shadows, and the shadows became structures, leagues and leagues away. Reaching them would takes hours, but she saw something new: an outline of a person against the shining sand, headed her way - quickly. Despite his almost lazy gait, he covered ground with unbelievable speed. Perhaps Adelin could do impossible things too, besides changing her clothing.
In only a few blinks, the form became a person, right in front of her - a person speaking. “Hello! You are new to the Dunes, and the Realm? My name is Aeron. How do you do?”
Aeron clearly wasn’t from Travan, though he spoke her language. His colorful and loose-fitting robes were orange and yellow, with dark sandals sneaking out beneath. They suited him, as did his friendly expression, and his deep, melodious voice. The shade of his skin was dark, supposedly common in the Free Cities and in the southern continent. Adelin summoned a smile of her own, with all the confidence she could muster, “Yes, I died only this morning. You can call me Adelin.”
Aeron nodded sympathetically. “A pleasure to meet you. I knew I caught the scent of a new arrival. I’m come to welcome you, and to warn you. All is well for now, but you’ll need a place to plant yourself here, if you want to stay. Otherwise the wind that brought you here will take you back where you came from, minus a body.”
“Odd,” Adelin replied. “I was under the impression that spirits were immortal. Shakath has been here for centuries, and St. Thomas as well.”
Aeron crooked his head quizzically, showing his teeth. “How very interesting! We have so little news of the World, and what it thinks of the Spirit Realms. Most of the time, it doesn’t notice us at all, but there are so many rumors lately, whispering of change in the air. Too bad for me, the great nations keep their secrets close. Those names, however, I know. But tell me, what have you heard of the Spirit Realms that you mention them?”
Adelin shook her head slightly, uncertain how much to share. “A pittance. I never spoke to St. Thomas directly, and he wasn’t inclined to share. He befriended a man named Jacob, who rescued my daughter. Jacob is the one who told me about Sorcerers. But how many Sorcerers there are and where? He didn’t know.”
“And your connection to Shakath?” the dark-skinned man asked curiously.
“The ‘god’ Shakath planned to destroy the town of Ironwood,” Adelin replied softly. “Jacob fought back, and killed his Sorcerer, Innoken.”
Aeron’s eyes widened. “It has begun, then? Vallaton has brought war to Torvah?”
“No,” Adelin answered, and turned her head down. “In killing Innoken, Jacob prevented the war. Travan has peace, for now.”
“That is good,” Aeron answered. He didn’t look as convinced as he might. “But you distract me from my duty. As I was saying, you need to plant yourself here, if you mean to last. Those who do live for centuries, but those who don’t will pass from the Spirit Realm in weeks.
“Of course, you don’t have to stay - that’s up to you. But if you want to, the first question is the most important. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” Adelin replied. “How could I?”
“Ah, but you do,” Aeron insisted, lifting a finger to point at her heart. “More than anyone else, anyway. What do you love? What is it that you couldn’t let go of, when you were dying, and everything was slipping away? No one makes it here without something to hold on to.”
“My daughter tried to hold me,” the lady offered quietly, “but it wasn’t enough. My life there was over, and I knew it. I foresaw my death years ago. All I held on to was myself.”
“Keep your secrets, then,” Aeron laughed easily. “You don’t owe them to anyone, though I must ask. Everyone holds on to themselves, in a manner of speaking. What’s unique is what that means to you. That’s what you have to hold on to, your sense of who and why you are. You don’t have to share it. It could make you choice harder, if you don’t.”
Adelin smiled crookedly. The more he asked, the less she wanted to answer, though he seemed friendly enough. “And what choice is that?”
“Which nation to join!” Aeron exclaimed, as if it were obvious. “Are you an artist or a crafter, a warrior or a peacemaker? Would you write, or farm, or speak in riddles? It’s better not to live your calling alone. There are many Nations, dedicated to every purpose under the sky. Vallaton is one, and maybe you know something about it. Heaven is another. I live in Mead, a land of hospitality, and its purpose is to celebrate the sharing of the soul. If you would tell me something about yourself, maybe I could help you find out which land is best for you.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Adelin shrugged, though she couldn’t help but reminisce. “I was the Countess of Northspire, a barren land of stone and snow. My husband and I made it beautiful and alive, as much as could be done.
“I took a chance on Joranthon, and on Northspire. It’s the northernmost city in Travan, and I found it young and struggling when I moved there as a silly teenager. In the early years, we barely survived. The Empress had just decided it wasn’t worth throwing any more money into propping up a snow-filled wilderness. The farms were rocky, and the silver vein that had made Northspire worth taking was spent. But I believed in my husband, and his people. Three times the larder and treasury were empty before spring, and we nearly succumbed to debt. But when the copper mines were opened, and the winterspice began to flourish, our fortune began to turn.
“Northspire is a place of dignity. There are good people there, and my husband and daughters carry on the work. One day, God willing, my son will help, the son I died giving to the world. It was a good work. And yet - it’s time for a new challenge, I think.”
“I see,” Aeron grimaced in confusion. “Contentment is fine, but something must have brought you to the Spirit Realm. If you want is a fresh start, reincarnation will give you that. It does happen, that men and women come here, when they want new identities, not their old ones. They usually leave soon.”
An image, a brief flash of the future, such as Adelin had glimpsed many times in life, rippled through her. The future could share any sensation - the foreknowledge of her death had come with a chill. This one was wonderful. It made her flush, and sent a tingle down her spine, though it passed before she could grasp more than the bare taste of it. It wasn’t near yet, this destiny, but hung, teasing, just out of reach. All that was left was the glowing possibility, unfulfilled.
The former Lady of Northspire shook her head slowly. Aeron was right about one thing: she needed help. There were only two people here that would surely would recognize her story, and only one she wanted to see. “Maybe St. Thomas will know.”
“It is a place to start,” Aeron admitted, grinning. “We’ll try the gates of Heaven, then. The Angels are secretive, but you know the name of one, which is rare for a mortal. Maybe they’ll be intrigued enough to give us an audience. Follow me: we might as well find out.”
Aeron led the former Countess toward the distant structure. Dunes and empty plains of sand gave way to trees and grasses. Those were beautiful, verdant, and mingled with brilliant flowers of every hue, like the paintings of master artists. Maybe too much like paintings, as there were no sounds at all: no breezes, no chirping insects, and no singing birds in swaying boughs.
Adelin’s friendly guide recognized her expression. “Nothing grows in the Spirit Realm. There’s no life in this world, except for the Ascended. We think that’s why she wants us, our adopted stepmother, and lets us shape her.”
“Makes sense,” Adelin noted, “though it sounds more like a stepfather to me, inviting a woman to come in and make a house a home.”
The Southerner laughed gently at her bemused response, and gestured toward a lovely copse of elms. Within were several tree-houses, molded into the shapes of castles and fantastical animals. “Never thought of it that way, but we call her the Dream-Mother, and the Realm is just what we’ve built within her.
“Looking out, we pass though Sylvania, home of the Gardeners. They’re a nation who mimic the life of Torvah as well as they can, making it more beautiful and alive when they can, even taking turns as beavers and deer. It’s not so different from what you did in Northspire. We can stop to say hello if you like.”
“Thank you,” Adelin replied, stepping barefoot among the soft grasses, blue and gold gown swishing gently around her ankles. She smiled ruefully. “But this isn’t where I belong.”
Aeron raised an eyebrow, but did not slow. “We’ll skirt Vallaton rather than pass through it. Only out of courtesy, of course: you’re next to indestructible in the Spirit Realms. Anyone determined enough to hurt your spirit, through possession, confinement, or the like, would be exiled to Hell for trying. Still, if there’s bad blood between you and Shakath, there’s no point in provoking unpleasantness your first day here.”
“No, there’s not,” Adeline agreed. “What lies ahead?”
Aeron gestured to a pale spire that had become visible to the right, intricately carved, and impossibly tall. “There’s the Ivory Tower, where some of our most notable philosophers and scientists live. Beyond is the Grand Theater, the Great Library, and quite a few Firesides for storytellers. Not far behind is Mead, a huge hall with music, drink, dancing, and every form of hospitality. The city straight ahead holds the Council of Heaven, and that’s where we’re going. At least, we’re headed to the gates of Pearl surrounding Heaven: we’ll be forbidden entrance. It’s the oldest Nation here, with the oldest members. They’re very selective.”
Adelin raised a hand to her brow reflexively, though it wasn’t necessary in the diffuse light. The Tower of Heaven, rising far above, looked like the red-gold of a setting sun reflecting from swift-moving clouds. It must be enormous, to be visible from here. “Is there anything you won’t find in the Spirit Realm? You mentioned souls often won’t stay long. Why is that? It seems lovely. Who would refuse immortality?”
“You’ll find most things from Torvah,” Aeron claimed, “We all try to make here what we couldn’t bring with us. The exceptions are worth mentioning: you won’t find many idlers, or pure self-indulgence. I suspect by what you’re wearing that you figured out how to change your dress. I tell you, almost anything you can imagine here, you can have, including things impossible for your body to sustain on Torvah. You could spend every moment sodden drunk or in pure ecstasy. Some have gone for weeks straight in the throes of sexual activity.”
Adelin blushed as Aeron met her eyes, and he continued. “I must warn you, such indulgence weakens us. Usually, the more lives one lives, the more powerful one gets, and the more one can control. You have the feel of being a young soul. I would guess that you could bend an acre of land to your will, though you won’t know unless you try.
“But you must stay true to your purpose, or your will fades. St. Thomas, who you know, is among the more influential citizens of the Spirit Realm, and active in the Council of Heaven. He’s been with the Dream-Mother for hundreds of years, long before me. He could shape and maintain a small city, all by himself. Heaven is lucky to have him. They have big plans, and need strong souls to match.
“All but the strongest souls return to the World within a couple hundred years or so. Otherwise we grow old and feeble, eventually to fall from the Dream-Mother entirely. That’s rare, though: most of us have the sense to leave when we start to fade. But don’t feel bad when you need to go. Much as we love the company, it’s the World that makes us. The Dream-Mother just gives us a place to stay, in-between lives.
“Even with your young soul, you may be able to remain as an Ascended for several decades. It’s possible. But should you give yourself to self-indulgence and debauchery, you might fall to Torvah in a month. Power here is strength of self, and a sense of purpose. If you want to live here, that’s what you’ll need.”
Adelin nodded, and they began to move again. She struggled to match Aeron’s impossible pace, as the world blurred around her. They left Sylvania behind, and she saw open colliseums, with cheering crowds, and performances and contests of every variety. There were even fire jugglers and acrobats, though she supposed that the crowd was more impressed by the spectacle than the risk, if spirits were as durable as Aeron claimed.
“We’re passing the Library now,” Aeron spoke, slowing enough that she could make out a great stone building, surrounded by inlaid columns. “Anyone is welcome to come and read, or add to the collection. No book ever leaves the Library. They disintegrate if you try. It’s incredibly hard to maintain them, even with a dozen librarians. Happily, its keepers include some truly brilliant minds.”
“What’s that?” Adelin asked, pointing to a hodge-podge of color and sound, where several nations seemed to run into a single very confused blend.
Aeron slowed again, chuckling. “That’s the closest thing we have to war, when nations can’t agree on where their boundaries should lie. The land in between is a mix of different visions. Passing strangers leave their own marks, flags and doodles, making it a hodge-podge of graffiti, unless one side is overmatched. The Dream-Mother seems to love it, judging by how long the echoes last.”
Adelin examined the mess silently for a moment, before the blurring continued. They finally stopped in the shadow of a great stone wall, with millions of inlaid gems. The gate itself was carved of shimmering pearl. A single guard stood before it, reworking with his finger a breathtakingly intricate stone sphinx on a block before the gate. Its sister waited quietly on the opposite side of the gate, but the guard ignored it. His old-fashioned brown robes and simple sandals looked comfortable, not intimidating. For some reason, a sword dangled from a belt around his waist.
“Hello, Peter,” Aeron called out to the man.
“Hello, Aeron! What brings you this way?” Peter looked like a monk. His face was friendly, but his eyes pierced right through her. “New blood? I’m sorry, but I don’t think she’s strong enough to pay the price.”
“Yes and no,” Aeron shook his head. “Her name is Adelin, and she’s fresh from Travan. She says she knows St. Thomas through a friend called Jacob. She thought he might want to talk to her.”
Peter stilled, face frozen in surprise. It was enough to bring a frown to the friendly guide’s face. “A friend of Jacob? Yes, St. Thomas will want to see her.”
In moments, a tall bearded man in an ancient western tunic coalesced before her, standing beside the gate. His skin was near as pale as Adelin’s, though there was a far western cast to his face, and his intense brown eyes bored into her soul. “Lady Northspire? What a bittersweet surprise to see you here. Francis is sorry to hear that Laranna has lost his mother, but pleased that your memories have been preserved. He tells me Jacob spoke very well of you. What is it that brings you here?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Adelin replied honestly, “but it’s important we talk.”
St. Thomas nodded, accepting the statement at face value. “I have a house nearby that we can use. Follow me. Oh, and thank you, Aeron. I hope you gathered enough news to make the day worthwhile.”
“Always a pleasure,” Aeron replied. “Do let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Lady Adelin, we’re pleased to have you with us, and I wish you joy and purpose. If you ever decide to come to Mead, ask for me by name.”
Lady Adelin curtsied skillfully. “I will. I appreciate the tour. God bless you, and please do tell if I can ever return the favor.”
With a bow, and a flourish, Aeron was gone. St. Thomas turned to Adeline with a fatherly smile. “Come, let us talk.”
St. Thomas’s cottage was nothing if not cozy. Adelin sat across from her host at a small table with sinfully comfortable padded chairs, warmed by the glow of a nearby open hearth. The light from the small chandelier was brighter than candles ought to make it, but pleasantly so, and for not being “real”, the wine was exquisite. Adelin would have added more cloth and flowers to the paneled walls, but the quiet warmth of the cottage suited her host, and put her at ease.
“So,” St. Thomas asked, after a sip from his own goblet, “what is it that brings you here?”
Adelin hesitated. Aeron’s warnings made the question seem intensely personal, and suddenly she was hesitant to share. She needed to talk to someone, though, and St. Thomas was the best choice she had. She remembered the saint from her dreams, but not whether she could trust him. Glimpses of the future were a frustrating gift: almost always, they showed her moments of powerful emotion, not guidance. Foreknowledge of her death had been the exception. She had known enough to steel herself to it rather than to struggle against it, if little else. However much pain that caused, the alternatives were worse. “A few things. First, I wanted to thank you properly for helping Jacob. That means a lot to me, and to my daughter Laranna. You helped prevent a war, and saved the lives of a lot of good people.”
St. Thomas nodded in acknowledgment. “It was the right thing to do. The consequences were unintended, but not unwelcome. Unfortunately, the peace that Jacob won is only temporary.”
The former Lady of Northspire sighed. “So I feared. Shakath is not the only Ascended to want dominion over Annaria, is he?”
St. Thomas grimaced in agreement. “He’s not the first, and far from the last. History is littered with Demons returning to Torvah, and leaving destruction in their wake. Khardum, of course, was the worst. Heaven sealed off Hell from the world after that, leading to hundreds of years of relative peace. Only now, Vallaton is poised to slice the world into pieces, and war over the scraps. Sorcerers are sprouting like daisies after a Spring rain.”
“Can’t Heaven do anything about it? It intervened against Khardum, didn’t it?” Adelin asked. “Why not act now? Lazarus claimed that Heaven is a champion of peace and justice.”
“Heaven is shaken by Vallaton’s actions,” St. Thomas responded. “Some of us would like to do more, of course, but there is division over whether our only concern is the building of a just kingdom here, or whether our writ extends to Torvah. Michael risked a great deal to intervene personally during the time of Khardum, but this time he asks us to remain aloof, and his voice is carrying the Council. Vallaton doesn’t want to destroy the World, as Khardum did. Instead, they want to rule it. They claim that the only way Ascended can protect Torvah is to own it, and guide it with their centuries of wisdom.
“In Heaven, on the other hand, we have our hands full containing the Demons and growing our own city. Michael reminds us that we don’t have the power to win a fight over Torvah, and if we did, we’d be no different than Vallaton.”
“He’s wrong about that,” Adelin whispered, then continued, more firmly. “Joranthon heard Innoken with his own ears. He claimed that conflict is the heart of life, the only means to Ascend. He said it was right for the strong to prosper and the weak to serve. That’s the philosophy of slavery and war. He would spread that wherever his banner goes.”
“Yes,” St. Thomas admitted. “I know. Shakath does not represent the entirety of Vallaton, but his ideas do have a home there. That’s why I convinced Francis to help me provide an alternative: he’s building chapels and schools dedicated to Heaven, where those who agree with us can be safe. But we cannot fight Vallaton head on. Our core mission is to establish a realm of purity and freedom here, in the Spirit Realm. The Council of Heaven has had its fill of futilely acting as guardians. We would be teachers instead.”
Adelin’s blue eyes widened, and her knuckles whitened as they grasped the wooden table. “Are there no others to act as Guardians, then? By Aeron’s description, every purpose under the sun can be found in the Spirit Realms.”
St. Thomas remained unmoved. “You can find some in Vallaton who style themselves that way.”
Adelin turned her head aside, studying a large mechanical clock that stood upon the floor. It ticked away the time, more alive than anything she had seen in the Spirit Realm so far, but not nearly alive enough.
A vision flashed again before her eyes, replacing the clock. She was with her daughter again, holding her sister close, sobbing. She was Laranna being led to bed, wanting nothing more than to curl into a ball and lose herself in grief. And then she was here again, staring into the wizened eyes of a middle-aged legend. She had never had so many visions so close together, especially ones so painful to bear. It was all too much, but the saint waited for her response, and so she answered, “I see.”
A strange smile crept its way onto St. Thomas’s face. “Adelin, why are you here?”
The former Lady of Northspire chucked bitterly. “I dreamed of my death a dozen years ago, and I have seen hints of events leading well into the future. From that time on, I thought I would accomplish something worthy after my death, that I was part of some grander fate. Now I know better.
“Why am I here? Because my daughter Laranna wouldn’t left go of me. In the end I was torn from her anyway, of course. But I can still feel her pain, still see myself dying through her eyes. If her country is torn by war, she’ll be in the thick of it. I’m here because part of me screams that I’m not done with my daughter, or Travan. But despite that, I don’t know anything I can do to help. My visions are too vague to guide me, and so maybe I’m not meant to.”
“No,” the saint replied, intense gaze holding her eyes. “I don’t think that’s true, at all. In fact, if you would be willing to humor an old man, there may be a great deal that you can do.”