The Sacred Fire
Neither sleep nor rest. Not even the horse had been granted a reprieve. Fueled by demonic power, steed and rider pressed onward to Ulstheim without stopping. When the walls of the capital could at last be seen between the trees, Bergen pushed the horse harder and faster. Despite not feeling the exhaustion that should have caused him to collapse several times over, he was eager to reach journey’s end.
The sun was descending behind the city as dusk settled over the land. Soon the gates would be closed, and although the guards would still allow people to come and go, those movements would be watched far more closely.
“I suggest we wait until morning. Too many noses will be pointed in my direction if I enter the city at night.”
Agreed. You may rest.
Fortunately the land surrounding Ulstheim was heavily wooded. Beech, maple, and ash trees encircled the capital, and in some places there was no gap between the tree line and city wall. Without giving the security and seclusion of his campsite any thought, Bergen simply tied his horse to the nearest tree and collapsed onto the ground. Ulstheim patrols passed close to his camp on multiple occasions throughout the night, but the Ordruir obscured their senses and they paid Bergen no notice. It was early morning when he finally reopened his eyes, the chatter of a nest of birds rousing him.
Good morning, mortal. Rest well?
Dark memories flooded back. Bergen rubbed his face vigorously, half hoping to smear his nose, eyes, and mouth clean off.
If only your visit with your wife had been as eventful as your dreams last night. I would have enjoyed that greatly.
"Stay out of my dreams!" Bergen shouted in disgust, but he regretted the outburst almost immediately. Unbearable pain erupted behind his eyes, doubling him over like a wilting flower.
You do not command me, human. Do not forget who is master and who is slave.
Slowly the pain abated. Exhausted all over again, Bergen dusted off his clothes and grumbled under his breath. There was a small creek near his camp, and he shuffled over to it haphazardly. Bending down to cup some water into his hand, he saw his reflection on the water’s surface and was taken aback. It was the first time he had seen how sunken his eyes had become and how disheveled he appeared. His skin, normally dark walnut in complexion, was straying into ashen white. The sight, combined with fatigue and despair, induced an intense wave of nausea. Sitting a ways back from the creek, he rubbed his stomach and temple and tried to collect himself.
You are wasting time.
“I’ll be no use to you feeling like shit. Give me a moment for pity’s sake.”
Have you already forgotten what happens when you defy me?
“No, I have not,” Bergen answered pitifully. As he stood from the creek bed, he caught a whiff of his own scent and remembered back to the hollow reflection he had seen. “I need new clothes.”
Why? I doubt you look much worse than any farmer seeking entrance into the city.
“That may be true, but we aren’t here to visit the local pig auction. We’re here to enter the university library. They don’t let mud dripping farmers into one of the most regarded buildings in the kingdom.”
The demon did not immediately respond. Very well. I will remedy the situation.
“I will also need money.”
I am not here to grant your wishes, worm.
“I don’t mean to offend, but I’ve dealt with city types before; all of them expect compensation for even the smallest of favors. The gatekeepers will need a coin or two so that they conveniently forget letting me into the city. An alley boy will need a coin to hold my horse. I’m sure the scholars will need a handful just to give me access to the books you want and the time to read them. Unless you can bewitch them all with your...magic...I’ll need a fair amount of money.”
The economics of greed. How I despise mortals.
It wasn’t until he reached his horse that Bergen noticed that his appearance had changed. He hadn’t even felt it happen. New clothes covered his body; trousers and vest of dark linen, and a lace collared shirt that was crisp white and smelled of lavender.
There is also a satchel hanging next to your horse filled with enough silver to drown a child. I take it that should suffice?
“Yes, that should be fine,” Bergen said absently, still taking in his new clothes.
Good. Leave now. My patience grows thin.
The ride into the city proceeded exactly as Bergen had predicted. The gatekeeper took a silver coin in exchange for silence, waving Bergen into the city without recording any of the details regarding the purpose of his visit. Within the city walls, Ulstheim was a tangle of streets and people, all rushing to and from, scarcely stopping to talk or look around. Fortunately there were numerous signposts and city guards to seek directions from, and after a half hour trot, he was outside the University of Ulstheim's Library. Flipping a coin to an alley boy, Bergen left his horse and walked up the marble steps of the library.
Only engage in conversation where it is necessary to accomplish our goal. I will not suffer delays.
A wide and ornate counter sat just beyond the doors of the library. Behind it sat several clerks in blue cloaks and standing behind them was an elderly man with a black cloak, wide gut, and round glasses tucked deep beneath a black, red feathered hat. When Bergen approached one of the clerks, the man unsubtly stepped closer to overhear the exchange.
"Welcome to the University Library,” said the clerk in a monotone voice. “How may I help you."
"I request permission to read through some of your books and will also require an attendant, one that has knowledge of history, preferably."
"Are you a student?" the clerk asked, not looking up from his notes.
"I am not, but I hardly - "
“ - If you are not a student then I'm afraid you will need to come back during our public hours. They are listed on the sign over there. Have a good day."
A fire burned inside of Bergen. He was normally a patient man, but the demon’s rage was bleeding over.
"I have travelled a great distance to be here. There must be some arrangement we can make."
"I'm sorry but those are the rules by which we operate. If you would kindly step aside."
"What is the issue here?" burst in the spectacled man, the light from the entrance reflecting off the lenses and back at Bergen.
"Your exceptional clerk won't allow me to access this prestigious library. I was just going to offer a generous donation to the university when he rudely dismissed me."
"As well he should have. Bribery of any sort is not tolerated."
"Bribery? I spoke only of a donation. A very generous donation." With that, Bergen put a heaping handful of silver coins into the man's hand. The amount could have purchased him a well furnished mansion if he wished.
"Well, now," the man stammered, looking into his hand and quickly counting the amount. "We can certainly make exceptions for our more esteemed donors. Let me see to your attendant."
The bespeckled man left the counter and disappeared into the library. A few minutes passed, and he returned with a shorter man by his side.
“This is Tur, a monk from the order of Harmonious Light who also happens to be a student here with us. He’s volunteered to help you with your visit today.”
“I’m an initiate, actually. And yes, I would be happy to help you, Mr…”
“Stohl. Bergen Stohl.”
“A pleasure to meet you Mr. Stohl. Please, this way.”
Nodding to the now rich man, Bergen followed Tur around the counter and into the library. It was grand in scale, with ceilings several stories high and floor after floor of bookshelves, scroll cases, tapestries, and more. Hundreds of desks filled the space as well, with even more students taking notes and holding quiet study groups.
Tur led Bergen to a far corner of the library and through a set of narrow doors. Beyond was a small room with a desk, two chairs, and a well-used collection of reading candles.
"Here we are Mr. Stohl. You’ll find candles there and we should have a starter somewhere in the desk. I would ask that you be careful, though, given the contents of the building."
“Now, what sort of books were you interested in?”
The history of Torion. And religious texts. I need to know more about your gods.
“Ancient history and religious texts.”
"Writing a book?” Tur asked, innocently curious.
“No,” Bergen answered with a fake laugh. “I’ve always been fascinated by these things, and I’m not getting any younger. Figured now was as good a time as any to take a step back and learn about my passions.”
Tur lit up with excitement. “I understand entirely. We have plenty of texts on ancient history, but all of the religious texts are kept in the Cathedral of Harmonious Light. If you want, I can take you there once you are done here."
"That would be most appreciated.”
As Tur closed the door behind him, all of the candles in the room lit of their own accord.
I thought I asked for a minimum of conversation? Sit and wait.
"My apologies. It's important to ingratiate yourself with the help. It makes it easier to get what you want."
All I want is clarity. The knowledge we gain will help bring my memories into focus.
Intrigued by the demon’s choice of words, Bergen tried to make sense of them without asking directly. His assumption was that since the Ordruir was the combination of two separate entities, he was having difficulty interpreting the memories and knowledge of each. He wondered if his guess was close to the truth, but then grew bored and annoyed.
Minutes melted by. For a brief moment, he wondered what his wife was doing. Was she bringing in water from the well? Was she frying ham over the kitchen fire for lunch? And then he stopped himself, realizing that such thoughts were an unnecessary torture. In order to maintain the slightest semblance of sanity, he was going to have to compartmentalize that part of his life, store it away in the deepest recesses of his mind. The decision was easier made than done, but he had no choice.
A gust of wind from the door punctuated Tur’s return. He was carrying half a dozen books and a few scrolls, trying his best not to drop anything. Bergen helped him place each on the desk, and then Tur set about introducing them and providing a quick summary. When Tur finally left, Bergen rubbed his forehead and wondered where to start.
Fear not. The only thing I want you to study is this bundle of scrolls. As the Ordruir spoke, a tight bundle of parchment lifted into the air and landed in Bergen's hands. The scrolls were tightly rolled, and there were nearly a dozen in total. According to Tur, these were an official copy of the scrolls the Ancient One had provided to the people of Torion at the beginning of the First Cycle.
Read them aloud. I want to let the words echo across my mind.
"As you wish," Bergen muttered as he retrieved the first page. "Herein lies an account of the beginning of the world of Torion. This account is provided to the children of Torion by the Ancient One, son of the Blesséd Mother Harmony and Gracious Father Discord. “
“When the Holy Parents arrived at Torion, it was a barren rock devoid of life. But they brought with them the seeds of life, and planted them with great care. With them also was their young son, who they instructed to shape the barren world and give it character. To that end, the son forged the Titans to aid him and instructed them to shape the mountains and the seas. As the Titans set about their work, the son carved the land and filled it with green. When his task was complete, and the Holy Parents surveyed all and were satisfied, the Titans were sent into slumber and the son, the Ancient One, was given guardianship over the world.”
“Torion thusly made, the Holy Parents beckoned to the planted seeds and they began to sprout, filling the world with beasts and birds and fish and insects. A final call led to the greatest of all harvests, the awakening of the races of the world. Humans, Luvien, Dwarves, and Waren came first, followed by the Trolls, Goblins, and Kalgura. Though unique in appearance and other traits, each race hails from the same point of origin. This shared lineage has allowed other hybrid races to appear in the world.”
The Ordruir began to laugh unexpectedly, and Bergen paused, unsure if he should keep reading. It is as I assumed. It was already known to me that humans are not of this world, so of course they had to be brought here. But not only did they bring them; they reshaped them into other races to suit their tastes. Creative.
“What do you mean ‘humans are not of this world?’ What world are they from if not Torion?”
The truth is very complex and I have no desire to share it with you. Continue reading.
Frustrated that his first genuine question was rejected, Bergen shifted in his chair and reluctantly continued. “When the races of the world advanced to the point of gathering in great cities and kingdoms, the Holy Parents and their son recognized the need for a process to ensure that the spirits of the living were properly tended to upon death; that mortal spirits were correctly ushered into the next stage of existence. At first the son offered to conduct this process himself. He soon realized, however, that the role required a person with an innate understanding of mortal life. Despite his knowledge as a god, his insight would be no match for a mortal champion elected to serve in this capacity. Such a champion, he devised, would need to be elevated beyond other mortals and named the Judge of Souls. The Holy Parents were hesitant to allow this, for mortals are not designed to possess the same quality of knowledge and power as a god, and they would eventually be consumed and destroyed by it. But the son had an answer for this concern; each Judge would serve only as long as he or she decided, passing on the mantle of Judgehood whenever their cycle was deemed complete. Their only fear addressed, the Holy Parents allowed the son to bring his plan to fruition.”
“Much had to be done to see this process implemented. First, the city of En’Duriel was constructed and the White Tower erected. The tower would serve as a beacon to the dead, drawing their spirits to it upon separation from the body. Next was created the Book of Judgment, the holy device that allows the Judge to experience the life of the one being judged, thus ensuring the Judge’s assessment of spirit are true. Lastly, the champion was selected and the first Judge of Souls came to sit within the White Tower of En’Duriel.”
This is beyond anything I could have imagined.
There was genuine disbelief in the tone of the Ordruir, and Bergen was surprised and confused by it. “What exactly? The Judge of Souls? I knew that part already; did you not see it in my mind?”
I did, but it was so beyond what I knew to be true that I was convinced your knowledge was false. Yet it isn’t false. Its true. True!? Extraordinary. I am absolutely astounded and delighted by the magnitude of their sins.
Again Bergen was confused. He wasn’t sure how much the Ordruir was going to tell him, or if anything he said was worth believing, but he couldn’t help but dig further. “Sins? Whose sins?”
Your gods, Harmony and Discord. They have usurped the very fabric of the universe. Manipulated the Grand Design to fit their own vision of how things should be. Since the dawn of its creation, The Realm of the Living has had a process for the implantation and reincarnation of spirits. Each new mortal body is a vessel waiting for a spirit to inhabit it. Once a body’s time is over, the spirit that lived inside it joins with the living universe and there it remains unless it chooses to inhabit a new body and live again.
A ringing filled Bergen’s ears. The demon was buzzing with a dangerous concoction of excitement and outrage, and it was having unexpected effects on Bergen’s body.
Your Holy Parents chose to corrupt the process entirely, installing a Judge of Souls where it was not necessary. Surely they know this. They have to know this. But if that’s true, then there must be a reason. The Judge of Souls must serve a purpose that no one knows, perhaps not even their own son.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Perhaps not to you, but for me it answers many questions while simultaneously raising dozens more.
“Do you want me to keep reading?”
No. This is exactly what I needed. Leave this place, this city. I must meditate on what I have learned and decide how best to wield it.
“Alright,” said Bergen with a huff. He had been at the library for less than hour and was already leaving. Considering he already knew some of what had been read, it made the trip even more of a waist of time. He blew out the candles one by one, stacked the books, and left the room.
Tur was nowhere in sight. That wasn’t a disappointment to Bergen; he would have likely been embarrassed and inarticulate trying to explain why he was leaving so soon. Hoping for a stealthy exit, he quickly made his way through the towering shelves of books and rows of desks. The library was an impressive structure, in terms of size and design. Sunlight streamed in from long vertical windows in the walls. Every inch of wood was carved and curved and everything not wood was either marble or light stone. Had he been there of his own accord, Bergen might have actually enjoyed looking through a book or two. As it was, he had little desire to remain.
The foyer and front counter were in sight when the light coming into the library changed from amber to turquoise. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at the windows, but most were decoratively frosted and could not be seen through. As mumbling started to spread, a cacophony of tones and bells spread throughout the city. Bergen heard a student near by say that the Cathedral was ringing, and by the looks on everyone’s faces, this was not a normal occurrence.
“The sacred fire is lit!” shouted a chorus voices from the foyer. Students suddenly sprang up from their seats and dashed towards the entrance. A study group near Bergen jumped over chairs and plowed past him, knocking him into another group that was also trying to get by. As he spun around, he caught Tur’s eye and cursed under his breath. All hope for a unnoticed exit was dashed.
“You have to come outside now, quickly!” Tur shouted to him as he approached.
Make him explain.
“Why? What the hell is going on?”
“The sacred fire is burning over the city!”
“Yes, I heard, but what is that?”
“Seriously?” Tur asked back with an incredulous eyebrow raise. “Where are you from that you haven’t heard of the sacred fire?”
Honestly offended by the question, Bergen shrugged. “A small village out East but...”
“Come on, there’s no time. I’ll explain outside.”
Tur latched his hand onto Bergen’s arm and dragged him outside. For a moment, he thought that the Ordruir was going to spring into action. But it had said nothing after asking to know what was happening. The lack of interaction made Bergen surprisingly uneasy.
The large square in front of the library was bursting at the seams with people, all looking to the sky. Following their gaze, Bergen beheld the sacred fire. Blue and burning like the end of a giant torch, it hovered in the sky over city, blotting out the sun. As promised, Tur tugged on Bergen’s sleeve and motioned for him to lean closer.
“The sacred fire is the way the Ancient One communicates with the world. Anytime he has something to say, the fires appear over every city on Torion.”
“I suppose my village was never worth the bother,” Bergen said, in earnest. “They never even spoke about it in school or church.”
For his part, Tur looked completely dumbfounded. “Fascinating. I’ll have to make a pilgrimage out there one day.”
Tension was thick in the air as everyone waited. With still no words from the Ordruir, Bergen’s anxiety was reaching uncomfortable levels. What do you want me to do? he asked internally, desperate for any type of response.
Nothing. Wait and listen. I would hear what he has to say.
What if it's about you? He knows about the crater and that something fell out of the sky.
All the more reason to remain patient.
A sudden explosion of thunder shook everyone to the core, rattling teeth and buildings alike. The sacred fire doubled in size and from it bellowed a voice that could be heard for miles in all directions.
“Children of Torion, I am the Ancient One, and I come to you now with sad tidings. A few days ago, I accepted the resignation of Francesca Torini. She confessed to me that her time as Judge of Souls had reached its end, and that she was ready to pass the mantle onto the next. Let us all rejoice in the glory of Francesca’s service and honor her now with a moment of quiet contemplation.”
All was still. No one spoke. No one coughed. There were no birds or dog barks or animal noises of any kind. It was as if all the world were holding its breath. When the voice did not return after nearly ten minutes, the people began to whisper quietly to one another. It didn’t take long for the whispers to become a sea of voices, all chatting and gossiping about what they had seen and heard.
All the while, Bergen’s eyes never left the blue flame, and neither did Tur’s.
“I don’t understand,” whispered Tur. “I would have expected it to disappear by now.”
“Maybe he has more to say,” Bergen guessed, and soon that guess was justified.
“Children, heed my next words carefully,” exclaimed the voice of the Ancient One. His tone was no longer solemn, but stern and foreboding. “This message is not intended for all of you. In fact, I speak only to one. Truthfully, they may not be listening. And yet my heart tells me that they are watching this flame, somewhere in world. And so I say unto you now, unwelcome guest; I will find you. I will find you and I will uncover exactly what you intend to do. It is pointless to keep hiding. Nothing can remain hidden from me for long.”
A quiet murmur overtook the crowd, each person wearing a face of concern or confusion. Bergen was petrified with fear.
“To the children of Torion, if you have seen or experienced the presence of something otherworldly, something that may have demanded your obedience or forced you to perform actions on its behalf, call to me now. Tell me what has happened.”
Trembling and afraid, a thousand thoughts ran rampant in Bergen’s head. The Ancient One was speaking to him, but he had no idea how to answer.
“I hear you children. You send word of slavers and tyrants and vile people, but as terrible as they are, this is not what I speak of. This being is greater in stature and substance than any mortal of this world. It will bewitch you, ensnare you. Or it will pass by without giving you a second thought. Ultimately you will know if you come face to face with what I seek. It will be unmistakeable.”
Courage unlooked for rose from the depths. Bergen opened his mouth to shout, but no sound escaped. He tried again and the result was the same. Gasping, he started to choke. It didn’t matter how desperately he wanted to scream. The Ordruir held him silent.
I am disappointed in you. Have we not coexisted on positive terms thus far? I gave you clothes and money and spared your family and this is how you would repay that kindness? Shamefull.
I thought you wanted to meet the Ancient One, Bergen retorted. Fighting harder, he managed to force out a grunt.
I do, but under my terms. Not his, and most certainly not yours.
“Call to me, children,” the Ancient One said again, as if it could sense the struggle going on inside Bergen. “I know someone has seen what I speak of. Call to me and I will appear.”
Say not a word, Bergen. I swear that if you force my hand, I will hurt you more than you could possibly fathom.
Eyes bulging, fists clenched, Bergen waged war against the demon. With every ounce of his strength he pushed back, struggling to call out to the Ancient One. Power rippled through him after he was able to mutter an “I”. But the power faded as quickly as it had arrived and silence took him once more.
Noticing the strange motions Bergen was making for the first time, Tur put a steadying hand on Bergen’s shoulder. “Are you alright?” he whispered.
Be still and silent! If you do not stop, I will kill everyone in this square.”
Bergen looked at the people around him. Men, women, children. All of them would die if the Ordruir made good on his threat.
Is that what you want? For me to kill every single person in this city? Would you sacrifice their lives just to free yourself? What sort of man would that make you?
Sweating profusely, he stumbled before Tur caught him.
“Bergen, you don’t look well. We should get you out of this crowd.”
“No,” Bergen was able to growl. Encouraged that he was able to force an answer, he renewed his fight and nearly fainted as he tried to force out more.
I see there will be no end to this. Very well. If you want the Ancient One to come here, let him come.
No control. Bergen had no control over what the Ordruir was doing. It moved Bergen’s left hand onto the monk’s chest, and Tur’s eyes became soulless pits of blackness. Turning his back to the blue flame, the monk faced the library and lifted his hands into the air. Without uttering a sound, orbs of fire appeared in both palms. Liquid fire fell from the orbs, falling onto the ground and other people, who screamed and ran in terror. Eyes still dark, Tur cast the orbs like a catapult vaulting a stone, both aimed directly at the library. Had the fire been natural, each orb would have extinguished shortly after impacting the marble. But this fire spread across the smooth stone like burning oil, igniting everything it touched. In seconds, the whole of the front of the library and all those standing there were ablaze.
“Here, Ancient One!” someone shouted.
“Help us Ancient One!” another cried. “A demon is upon us!”
The sacred fire burst apart, a golden dragon appearing where it had been moments before. Everyone who hadn’t already fled the square began screaming and running wildly, including Bergen. Still unable to speak, he was swept away in the crowd, leaving Tur to stand alone. The monk’s eyes were no longer black. The Ordruir had left him. As he turned away from the fire to start running, the Ancient One descended on him from above, lifting the poor man off the ground before he could even realize what was happening.
Raucous laughter echoed in Bergen’s head as the wailing crowd dragged him out of the square. The Ordruir was pleased with its work.
Realizing that the man in his hand was devoid of the power he sought, the golden dragon roared in fury over the city of Ulstheim. Already overcome with absolute madness, the citizens of the capital trampled over each other, abandoned their children, all in desperate attempts to get away from something they didn’t even understand. And the Ordruir’s fire was spreading. The library was lost, and soon the main hall of the university and every nearby home and shop would be incinerated. Emergency volunteers rushed with buckets of water from wells to put out the flames, but nothing they did had any impact. As they struggled, the Ancient One passed over the city again and again, roaring and shouting for the enemy to reveal itself.
Pushed into an alley, Bergen collapsed onto a thick puddle of filth. Still not allowed to speak, all he could do was weep into this hands. The Ordruir hadn’t stopped laughing.
Why are you doing this? Bergen howled into his soul Why?!
You forced my hand, Bergen. What’s the matter? Are you not having fun?
The Ancient One flew just overhead, his roar piercing the sky. Bergen wondered if he should try again to speak aloud, but concluded it would only make matters worse. Looking around, he found a sharp scrap of flint on the ground and picked it up. The thought of piercing it into his own throat became suddenly appealing.
Not just yet my friend. The Ordruir took control of his arm and threw the flint out of reach.
If not now then when? When will you let me go?
The Ordruir instantly became quiet. Not until our work together is complete. And there is so much left to do.
Bergen looked around, eyes sore and swollen. He had never known the feeling of wanting to die until that moment.
Come, let us away. I still have questions that need answering, and to do that, I think we will need to visit some old friends of yours.
You don’t honestly think they will be letting anyone out of the city after what you’ve done, do you?
Shadows crept over Bergen’s vision. He stood, but not because he chose to. The demon commanded his body once more.
Dear, dear Bergen. I’m sure we will find a way.
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