Francesca of House Torini sat with fidgety hands bouncing on her lap. She was despondent. Sleep provided no rest and pleasant company offered no amusement. She felt thin and stretched and spent. Something needed to change, and she knew what that something was. Revealing it, however; that would be the challenging part.
The door of her study opened slightly and inward poked a closely shaved head.
“Yes, your grace?”
“Please send for the Keeper.”
“As you wish your grace.”
The head disappeared as Perceval carried on his way to fetch the Keeper of the Book of Judgment. She imagined him scurrying haphazardly through the levels below, passing clumsily by monks and scholars and attendants working busily to maintain the White Tower. He was an awkward fellow, one of many she would dearly miss.
From her vantage point in the tower she could see nearly all of the city of En’Duriel, a land that had once seemed so foreign but had come to feel like home. Populating that land were thousands of people maintaining normal, happy lives. Or at least what amounted as such. Few things were normal about living with the spirits of the dead, or living on an island floating in the clouds. Yet that was the sacred task the Luvien had sworn to take on when the Ancient One had selected the very first Judge of Souls. Forever and always, they would be the protectors, companions, and teachers of the Judge.
They were an interesting people, the Luvien. Passionate and full of vigor on the one hand; deadly serious and solemn on the other. As with each new Judge of Souls, Francesca had taken on the challenge of adapting to their ways and to also be accepted by them. Not that it was her responsibility to be accepted; after all, she was the Judge of Souls. Nevertheless, she had spent the last 90 years educating herself and adjusting. Remembering back to when she had arrived one hundred years earlier, she smiled and laughed quietly at how childish she had acted and how in awe she had felt. The amount of history and tradition that seemed to dominate every aspect of life in En’Duriel was overwhelming.
Something else she would miss.
There was a quiet knock at the door as it opened. An elderly man appeared, his ears tall and pointed, his hair thin and straight and graying with advanced age. Jeduwyn Kirn, Keeper of the Book. At well over two hundred years of age, he was the oldest person on the island.
“I have arrived per your summons, your grace,” he said with a hoarse voice, bowing low in respect.
“Thank you for your haste, Jed. There is a matter I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Of course, your grace. Hopefully it will be interesting.” Jeduwyn loved to tease.
Francesca half smiled, knowing full well what was coming. “I doubt you will have any issues staying awake.”
“Excellent. Then let us begin, lest I should prove you wrong.”
In the center of the study was a small seating area with two chairs, a narrow couch, and a short table which was currently home to a game of capture the oracle. The Keeper sat on the couch with his hands folded in his lap and Francesca sat next to him. Normally she would have taken the chair opposite, but she wanted him near. Jed seemed surprised, but adjusted his position so that he could see her more clearly. His gaze is so innocent, she thought. He has no idea.
“I have always been forthright with you, so...I will just say what I need to say. Please let me finish before you respond.”
The Keeper’s right eyebrow arched. Finally she could tell that he sensed the tension in her.
“The time has come...for me to resign.”
“I beg your pardon?” he said, though she knew he had heard every word spoken.
“My time as Judge is over, Jed.”
The Keeper stared at her with mouth agape. Clearly he was shocked, otherwise he would have already countered with something dryly sarcastic.
“I understand that this may come as a shock. I've never expressed misgivings, frustrations, or any issues whatsoever because nothing I've ever felt was caused externally. I have been very happy here and have appreciated all that the Luvien En’Duriel have done to accommodate me. But that hasn't been enough this last year. I am tired, Jed, and this exhaustion cannot be relieved by sleep or holiday. I want to be with my family. I want to be with the people I left behind."
"The people you have Judged," Jed added.
Francesca nodded. "When I experienced my parents' lives through the Book, I already knew what to expect. Their daughter was taken from them. They felt shock, anger, sadness. My mother suffered for many years before finding happiness again. My father suffered longer. But eventually they both found peace, and now they rejoice in peace everlasting. I want that, Jed. I need that. It has been the greatest honor to serve as the Judge of Souls. Now it is time for another to have that honor.”
The Keeper had long ago averted his eyes. “I understand. Better than most I imagine. You are the second Judge I have served, and nearly the same words were spoken to me by your predecessor. I still wish there was something I could do. Are you absolutely certain that this is what you want?”
“Yes," she answered without hesitation. The pain she could see in Jed's eyes hurt her deeply. Throughout her years as Judge, he had treated her almost as if she had been his own daughter. For her part, she had respected and cherished his words with equal affection.
"Very well," he said as he stood up slowly, old bones creaking. “As I'm sure you are aware, I will contact the Ancient One and inform him of your decision. I will also inform Vrest and have him make preparations for us to travel to the spiral hollow.”
"Thank you so much Jed," Francesca said as she rose from her seat. She hugged him tightly, and for probably the first time that she could remember, he returned the embrace.
“You should make your goodbyes as soon as you can," he said quietly after they separated. "The Ancient One doesn’t appreciate delays.”
Jed bowed his head, and just as he was about to turn and leave the room Francesca noticed that something behind her had caught his eye.
“Now that is strange,” he said.
Francesca turned around in time to see a glint of golden light pass beyond the bottom of the window. Without exchanging words, she and Jed moved quickly to it to get a better view. Several stories below her study was a floor of the White Tower that had an extended balcony stretching nearly thirty feet from the tower itself. It was the largest of the tower, designed specifically to allow the landing of cloud chariots and other aerial vehicles. It also seemed to hold dragons just as easily, for a golden one of immense size had just landed at the very edge of the platform.
“The Ancient One is here!?” Jed shouted. “Tell me you didn’t contact him already?”
“No, I haven’t told anyone but you,” Francesca assured him.
“This is most irregular. I can’t think of any other time he’s done this."
"Surely he's come to the White Tower before," Francesca countered.
"Of course. He built it. But I can't remember the last time he decided to pay a visit, and I don't think he's ever handled the retirement of a Judge directly from here."
The golden dragon must have sensed their stares, for he looked up and met Francesca's gaze. Her stomach churned. She had made her decision, but she had no idea it would happen this quickly. And the Ancient One himself wasn't always the easiest to speak with. Conversations had been sparse, but he was either in an agreeable mood or quick to wrath with no middle ground. "Well, I suppose you were right about delays. Come, let us say hello.”
Perceval helped Jed move down the stairs as Francesca walked ahead. It didn't take long for them to reach the correct floor, but she was in her head the entire time, trying to determine the best way to greet the Ancient One, how best to present her feelings, and how not to anger him. When she came to the large glass doors that exited onto the balcony, she was shaking like a leaf and didn't even notice that the door attendants were gazing in awe at the dragon and had no idea she was behind them.
“Open the doors you fools,” Jed chastised, he and Perceval having finally caught up. The attendants swung around, embarrassed.
"Forgive us your grace," said one.
"By the stars, is that the Ancient One?" asked the other.
"Yes and she mustn't keep him waiting," Jed growled in response. Not wanting to risk angering him further, the attendants swung the doors open and Francesca and Jed walked out onto the windswept balcony with Perceval far in tow.
The White Tower itself was over three hundred feet in height, and the balcony was only fifty feet from the top. Given that the entire island of En'Duriel floated in the clouds above the Alanasti Sea, there were often layers of fog and mist limiting visibility. A thin layer was just beginning to descend upon the tower when the Ancient One had arrived, and now it was obscuring the edge of the balcony where he waited.
"As if this wasn't ominous enough," Jed muttered, and Francesca quietly agreed.
Finally within speaking range, Francesca stopped and bowed. Jed and Perceval followed suit behind, but kept their heads lowered in solemn respect. “Welcome, Ancient One," she began, her arms open wide. "We were not expecting you. Jed was only just mentioning that he was going to reach out to you.”
Though his face was draconic in shape and size, the Ancient One's expressions were easy enough to read. He clearly looked confused after hearing Francesca's welcome. “Reach out to me regarding what?” he asked, his voice filling the sky.
“My retirement. I only just informed Jed a few minutes ago. He was just leaving my study to contact you when you arrived.”
Confusion changed to agitation, noticeable in both his face and tone. “You mean to resign? Now?”
“Yes, Ancient One. I feel my time has come.”
The dragon lowered his head. “Your timing is...inconvenient.”
Now it was Francesca’s turn to be confused. "I don't understand. Is that not why you have come?"
"No, it is not. I am here because I need your help. That you happened to arrive at your decision now is an unfortunate coincidence."
Francesca's heart sank. From the way the Ancient One was speaking, she half expected him to ask her to change her mind. She had been able to resist Jed's disappointment. She doubted she could remain as resolute with a god.
"Forgive me, I had no idea," she started, speaking in the spur of the moment. "What did you need my help with? Perhaps I can wait." She made the offer out of courtesy and prayed the dragon would not agree.
The Ancient One brought his head to within a foot of hers. She could see the reflection of her entire body in his eyes, and she no longer felt frustration, but warmth.
"No, my dear. Yours is a heavy burden, and it would be cruel of me to deny your heart. But if I may ask a question."
Relief washed over her. "Of course, anything."
"When was the last time you performed the Rite of Judgment?”
"I've been issuing judgments for the past several days. I just completed four this morning."
The warmth of the Ancient One lessened, and in his eyes Francesca could see a cold and distant fire. “Did any of the spirits you judged witness or have any interactions with something that might have seemed otherworldly in nature?”
Francesca closed her eyes in reflection. The Book of Judgment allowed her to perceive the entire life of whomever was before her for judgment, as if she had lived their life herself. That ability provided her with everything she needed to accurately judge their spirits, sending them to either the Halls of Mirth or the Halls of Repentance. But she could not recall anything like what the Ancient One had described.
“They did not,” she answered. The question both intrigued and disturbed Francesca. The Ancient One was clearly agitated again. Her answer must not have been what he was hoping for.
"Is something wrong?" Francesca asked.
"Yes and no. But it is nothing for you to be concerned about. This I must resolved on my own."
“As you wish," she said, not knowing how best to respond.
The Ancient One looked away and was silent for a time. As if forgetting and suddenly remembering that he was not alone, he turned his attention back to the Judge and smiled.
"I must leave now, but before I go, I can release you. If that is still your wish.”
Jed nearly fell over in surprise. “Forgive me, Ancient One, but she is not yet - "
“- I am ready, Ancient One,” interrupted Francesca, placing a silencing hand on Jed's shoulder. Perceval also rushed forward. He, like the rest of the Luvien, had no idea that she had made this decision.
“But your grace,” Jed began. "You haven't said your goodbyes. Your people will want to thank you."
“Its alright Jed. It will be easier this way for me, and for everyone. Tell them they meant the world to me, will you?”
Jed looked on the verge of tears. “It will be done,” he said, his voice catching before he finished. Francesca took his head between her hands and kissed his forehead.
She almost laughed in embarrassment when she opened her eyes. Perceval was on his knees, crying profusely. "Please milady, don't leave us," he begged.
"I'm so sorry, Perceval. Thank you for everything that you've done for me." She leaned in close to whisper in his ear. "The ginger sweets you liked are in the top drawer of my vanity. They are yours now."
"Thank you, milady. Bless you."
Everything was moving more quickly than she had imagined when she woke that morning. And yet everything was also moving more slowly, as if the world were standing still. This was the moment she had dreamt about for nearly a year, and it had finally arrived. She had expected to feel sadness, but what she actually felt was more akin to relief. When she turned back to face the Ancient One, he was still smiling, and his warmth had returned anew.
“Thank you for your service, Lady Francesca. Your light will be missed.”
“Thank you, Ancient One.”
The Ancient One closed his eyes, and Francesca’s body became a thousand points of light. She still felt like herself, only now she could feel a radiant light shining upon her unlike anything she had ever experienced before. Her spirit sprang into the sky, spinning like a luminous cyclone. As she felt herself moving beyond the physical world, the energy of her transition burst across the sky, releasing a cascade of sparks that fell upon the entire city. Tears cascaded down Jed's cheeks as a few of the tiny sparks fell on his face, warming his skin.
Elkar had not wanted her to go. His hesitation was not necessarily out of affection, though Francesca was lovely and gracious. Doubt had nearly stayed his hand because he had hoped to make use of the Judge during his search for the stranger. With Francesca's departure, that option would be unavailable for several years.
Looking down at the Keeper of the Book, the Ancient One found a downtrodden little man. He empathized with him, as best as an immortal being could. “Do not despair. There was joy in her heart in the end."
"I know," Jeduwyn said, his voice quiet and distant.
Across the expanse of the world, a tiny ember began to glow, reaching out to the Ancient One and announcing its presence. The cycle had already restarted.
“I feel the light of the Judge again, Keeper Kirn. Her successor has been conceived. Eighteen years from now, the Judge will return home.”
“But it will not be her."
Elkar tried not to become frustrated. Mortals often focused on that which they could not control. "No. It will be someone new. Someone who will need your guidance, just as she did."
"Providing I live that long, of course."
“I trust that you will.”
Standing up on all four legs and stretching his wings, the great dragon was prepared to leave. Just before lifting off, a realization struck him, and he turned back to look at the Keeper. The spirits of Torion were drawn to the White Tower upon the death of the body. If the cycle of judgment was still in its infancy, those spirits would have to wait for the new Judge to be trained. And if that spirit had come into contact with a Serai, especially one of ill intent, it would undoubtedly have a story to tell the first person willing to hear it.
“Jeduwyn Kirn. There is something...unusual...afoot in our world. It is possible that a spirit could arrive here with information vital to my understanding of this mystery before the time of the next Judge. I would be grateful if you could alert me if such an event comes to pass.”Eyes dried, Jed frowned. "How will I know if something qualifies?""You will know," was all Elkar chose to say in response. Truthfully, he didn't know how best to answer the question. An idea was brewing, but he dared not utter it. It would probably work. Most likely. But there was much at stake. Jumping off the balcony, he spread his wings across the city and cast his shadow on the onlookers below. Adults gasped and gawked. Children pointed and waved. None of them had any idea of the ideas and fears swarming in Elkar's mind.And no one had the slightest understanding of one man's struggle to maintain his sanity under the whims of a demon.