Excerpt from Ironwood: Broken Empires (Third and Final book, scene 1)
The first time Thomas had seen the Tree of Life, so many centuries ago, its majesty had been overwhelming. Miraka was still young then, and flush with hope. After a long life of building roads, constructing aqueducts, negotiating treaties - knitting the arteries of what would be the greatest nation in the World - the man who now called himself Thomas had come to this place to embark on an even greater project: growing Heaven a soul.
At the sound of a voice, St. Thomas glanced upward. It was a familiar sound, so rich and harmonious it made the simplest words a song. “It’s good to see you, my friend.”
Silhouetted before an archway of a marble so hard and pure that it was unique to the Heavens stood a tall, winged figure. Proud and elegant, but with kindly eyes, the oldest and most powerful being in the Council of Heaven nodded a friendly greeting. For over a thousand years, he had headed the Council of Heaven. Even he would have to return to the World eventually, but for now, he remained.
Thomas offered a small bow, carefully spreading his own wings. This was the center of Heaven, and there were forms to be respected. “It has been too long, Archangel Lazarus, though I know that you’ve been very busy. Strange how it seems the immortals are pressed for time.”
Thick eyebrows crinkled above a gentle smile. “It keeps us young, my friend. Still, for you, I should have found the time. So many changes, Thomas, that we thought would stand still forever. After centuries of quiet, it seemed it would come to war with Vallaton. The trick of possession had been thought lost with the Demons rotting in Hell, but without warning their Warlords were poised to take every nation in Torvah! If they had decided to challenge Heaven and the Law, there were far too many to banish with the Demons. Destruction of the Spirit Realms seemed not only possible but likely.
“Even when we discovered Vallaton had not broken the Law (because the bonds were consented to), it was little comfort. Could they dominate the World or even the cycle of resurrection itself? But they feared our influence among the Nations still and signed the Compact. How could I guess you would risk it all to help a boy! We nearly lost everything.”
Thomas smiled sadly at the rebuke, for it spoke a familiar sense of guilt. “Happily, we did not.”
“We did not,” Lazarus agreed, then began to pace toward the enormous tree, lifting his hand to gesture at it. “Instead, we have peace, and thanks to you and your old friend a stronghold in Annaria that even Amarandor’s Empire in Exile is willing to respect. But that is only a bare beginning to the story! Everything is changing - look.”
Thomas followed the archangel’s gesture to the tree: the lovely, ever-present symbol of Heaven’s secret hope, that one day the world of the Spirit Realms would have its own soul, that it would support its own life. He traced the vined and earthy brown pillar upward and saw that a single leaf had touched the wall. The tree had grown. His eyes widened. “Who has done this?”
“No one,” Lazarus answered, with a touch of awe. “What we have prayed for over millennia has come to pass. It’s alive. Heaven has a soul - if only a flicker of one.”
This was - no words could do justice to the event. An immortal paradise: that was the promise of Heaven. Every soul that came here eventually had to fall back to the World below, a world with pain and inequity, where memory was lost, and from which even the more powerful Ascended did not always return. The wisest philosophers claimed that once Heaven lived and became truly real, the Ascended could live there in eternal peace. If the Tree of Life began to live up to its name, that would change everything. “Are you sure?”
The archangel shook his head. “Not yet. Almost. As of now, I am only sharing the news with the Council. But there’s more.”
Thomas’s eyes widened, a gesture of the body that had survived through hundreds of years of a spiritual existence. “More?”
Lazarus clasped his hands before him, and folded his wings, regarding his fellow angel earnestly. “Are you aware of Jacqueline’s efforts to find other worlds, ‘other-dimensional spaces’, as he calls them?”
Thomas nodded slowly. Jacqueline had been at it for centuries. She was brilliant, and of course as driven as any of her brethren. Her work had been instrumental in strengthening the barriers that kept Hell at bay, but she had grown odd and desperate of late. She would return to the World soon. “I know of her work.”
The archangel grimaced. “What you may not know is that she succeeded, after a fashion. She was nearly lost in a world even less substantial and even more responsive than this one, one without light or gravity unless the traveler wills it into being: she spent only a day in this new place, but it weakened her greatly. She will be fading below as soon as she can right her affairs. But in the meantime, she’s been sharing everything she knows. It’s a frightening body of theory, my old friend. She claims the ‘other-dimensional space’ she discovered is even less mature than the Spirit Realms, and still forming. What’s more, she says that doors can only be opened from a more mature and solid world to a lesser one.”
“Amazing!” Thomas replied. “The Spirit Realms are not alone! But why is this frightening?”
Lazarus lowered his voice, his tone becoming earnest. “We thought that the Spirit Realms were unique and blessed by God to give rest to the souls of Torvah, and we have seen it grow stronger and more solid (as well as more difficult to reach) when more souls arrive. In fact, Torvah may be one world among many, and the Spirit Realms merely one of the very few worlds new enough for us to reach. But what if there are other worlds, more mature than ours? The more such exist, the more likely we will eventually see visitors from one; if so, they may be many times stronger than us. Even the Demons might pale before them. While we might not be able to discover them, it is possible they could discover us.”
“That is frightening,” Thomas admitted. “Super-demons walking into the World is about as scary a thought as I can imagine.”
“Then you should give more thought to the Demons we know,” Lazarus replied with a small sigh. “Though they suffer the same decay as we do over time, the assaults that the Hell-Border has repelled have only increased in strength, as the stronger Demons cannibalize the rest. We need more angles, Thomas, even if we dare not reduce our requirements for strength and asceticism. We need more temples. Your partner Francis must move on.”
“And so we come full circle,” Thomas noted with a wry grin. This had always been Lazarus’s way of speaking. “Francis will be hesitant to leave his protege so soon in any case. Abandoning his post and his lost love during a war is too much to ask. We need to give him more time.”
Lazarus actually sighed. “We may not have the time. There are few places where we have a presence, and we badly need each one. Khardum nearly destroyed Annaria, and might have but for Archangel Michael’s heroism. Now, he’s been feeding in Hell for centuries: imagine a Sorcerer powered by his mad strength - who could stop him? Are we confident we won’t have to? What if, this time, he brings his friends? Heaven is all that holds the Demons in check, and the other Nations are too busy bickering to even consider the question: we have been the defender of the Realms for so long. But you know as well as anyone, we’re aging and fading from having held our posts too long. We’ve started to send angels back to counter Vallaton, but in the short term, that’s drained our numbers, and we have too many demands on our power. We are the glue that binds all the realms, and we cannot afford to grow tired. We need help, my friend, all of it we can get. And Francis needs to move on.”
“Very well,” Thomas agreed reluctantly, eying the bold new leaf of the Tree of Life. “I’ll let him know. He’s not going to be happy.”
“Good,” Lazarus sighed, relieved. “I would not ask unless the need was great. In other continents than Annaria, our situation is even poorer. All of humanity counts on Heaven, Thomas, and right now Heaven is counting desperately on Magister Francis."