Jolie was in France when she felt the pain. Someone close to her was dying!
She was conducting a routine observation, animating servant girl in the house of the man she was studying. She had to extricate herself in a hurry -- but not in such a way as to alienate. her host.
Please, Marie -- something pressing has come up. May I leave you for a time?
The girt was startled. "You will return?" she asked in French. She enjoyed their association, because she was dull and Jolie was bright. When Jolie animated her, she carried herself with greater flair and was more alert, and her employer liked that. There was nothing untoward in this, and the employer had no designs on Mane; he merely liked to think that his relatively egalitarian household was good for her.
When I can, Jobe reassured her, communicating mind to mind because she did not want the girl to seem to be mutterin. I fear a friend is in trouble.
"Of course you must go to her!" Marie agreed.
She had spoken too loudly, and the employer looked up from his book. "What was that?" he inquired, also in French.
Jolie took over. "I beg your pardon, sir. My mind garbled, and I misspoke myself."
He smiled indulgently. "It happens to the best of us, and to me also. But if someone needs you, you may have time off, of course."
He was a good and generous man-which was why Jolie was observing him. "Thank you, sir. But the need is not pressing. I will finish here."
He nodded, and returned to his book. He was a portly married man, and Marie was young and shapely and not bright, but he treated her with perfect courtesy, much as he would a visitor. That, too, counted in his favor.
Jolie returned control to the maid, and reverted to her home immediately. This was a drop of blood on the wrist of Gaea, the Incarnation of Nature. Gaea was at the moment making an observation of her own: the pattern of weather in the mid-Pacific ocean, which might require delicate modification to weaken an untimely storm. She felt the return, and lifted her wrist. "Back so soon, Jolie?"
I "Gaea, I felt the dying of one I love. I must go to her!"
"Go!" Gaea agreed. She was another ideal employer and friend; she did not inquire into Jolie's private business, either overtly or covertly, but allowed free rein. This was die type of generosity afforded by one with such enormous power that she could, if she chose, destroy the world. Any of the seven major Incarnations could -- but their thrust was riot to harm the world, but to preserve it.
Jolie oriented on the pain she felt. In a moment she was there.
"Oh, Orlene!" she exclaimed, horrified. For there, slumped at her treasured piano, was the lovely young woman Jolie had known for fifteen years. -She was dying, and Jolie knew that it was already too late. Stunned, she could only hover, unable at first to grasp the enormity of this event. How could this have happened?
Then the body expired and the soul floated out diaphanously. It resembled a translucent film marked with a patina of shadow. The light color predominated, indicating a positive balance; this soul was destined for Heaven.
But the soul twisted as if still in pain, and a part of it clung to the dead body. Jolie understood that phenomenon; often it took am for a person to grasp the reality of death, and the soul hesitated to leave the comfort of thefamiliar body. More darkness was manifesting; there was a surprising amount of evil on this soul, though Jolie knew. it was good.
"Orlene, let go!" she cried. "You will float directly to Heaven!"
The soul writhed, drawing itself clumsily down. "Nono," it said blurrily. "I must not go!"
"Orlene, it is Jolie! Your dream-friend! I would not guide you falsely! You are good; you have nothing to fear from the Afterlife! Let go your body, and you will soon be in Heaven!" Though not as soon as one with less evil. How could the balance be so close?
"I must not!" Orlene replied, still clinging.
A skeletal figure appeared. It was Thanatos, the collector of the balanced souls of the dead. He saw Jolie and paused, surprised. "You know this client?"
"She is my friend, my cherished almost my child," Jolie said. "She has died, and I don't know why."
Thanatos glanced at the struggling soul. "She is bound for Heaven; I can see that without testing, though she could not afford very much more evil. Let me facilitate her passage." He reached out with a bonefingered hand.
The soul cringed away. "No! No!"
"Orlene, it's all right!" Jolie cried. "This is the Incarnation of Death, come to assist you on your way to Heaven. Your pain of the body is over!"
"No, I must not go! I must find my baby!"
Thanatos nodded. "Ah, the baby; I remember now. Her son died ten days ago; he was in balance, and I came for him and talked with the father. A terrible irony, but destined. Gaea's error."
Jolie was astonished. "Gaea? I know nothing of this!"
Thanatos made a gesture, and the soul froze in place. Time was still, except for the two of them. "Tins was the bride in a ghostmarriage; the ghost could not impregnate her, so she had a living companion, a man of sensitivity. She conceived by him, the child to be the legal heir of the ghost."
"That much I know," Jolie said. "She married Gawain, the ghost of a dragon slayer who was killed by an allosaur, who needed an heir. Then she found Norton, who was just right for her. I had other business, so I did not check on her once I knew she was fulfilled and happy. Evidently I should have! How could she have lost her baby, and died, when it was going so well?"
In the triumphant finale to the Incarnations of Immortality series, the Incarnation of Good dominates. As the story begins, Orlene has died, joining forces with Jolie and Vita. Together, these three women will test the limits of morality.
New York Times-bestselling author Piers Anthony has written over one hundred books. His first fantasy, A Spell for Chameleon, won the August Derleth Fantasy Award for best novel in 1977, and commenced his acclaimed Xanth series.