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Nicholas de Beaufort's heart beat as if it would lurch out of his chest. Fire and smoke! He tugged violently at the ropes binding his wrists. They cut deeply into his flesh but he didn't feel the pain as much as desperation to escape. He stood on a pyre of burning wood, bound with other Templar knights—all men of a loving Cathar God who promoted only compassion. Catholic priests, an army from Pope Innocent III and the French King Phillipe III's soldiers taunted and cursed them. These were the men of the Albigensian crusade who had wiped out a million Cathars and the Templars in southern France. With a mighty roar, the flames from the outer edges of the stack of piled wood raced inward.
The chain mail Nicholas wore over his tunic absorbed the coming heat. Still, it wouldn't save him. Nostrils flaring, Nicholas tried to steady his fear. Pray for their souls. He had to pray! The other Templars, his brothers, prayed out loud for their rabid enemy. He had to be just as selfless and forgiving.
Smoke writhed between them. Nicholas choked and coughed. His eyes teared up from the constant smoke now cloying his lungs. Dear God! His mind wrenched from rage to terror. Pope Innocent III had ordered the Templars destroyed. His own leader, Jacques de Molay, was tied next to him.
"Courage!" de Molay shouted. "Courage! Pray for our enemy."
Blinking through his tears, his eyes smarting from the heat and smoke, Nicholas watched as the fire quickly ate its way toward them.
Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a small village in southeastern France, was attacked by the king's and Pope's soldiers. The surprise had worked. No Templar had known that they were suddenly the enemy of the King of France and the Pope of the Catholic church. For a year after their capture, they had been in prison. All had been dragged from their cells and tied at the stakes to be burned to death.
As Nicholas heard his friends, men with whom he'd fought, prayed, he envied their special courage. The heat rose and the wind fed the flames. His chain mail became so hot he could feel it scorching his skin.
He was going die!
Nicholas had long ago given up the resistance to death, for a Templar's life—and death—were built around the understanding that Heaven was waiting for them. Their reputation during the Crusades against the Infidels was that they would fight to the last man. Templars did not run. They fought and they died to bring Jerusalem back into the hands of Christians.
His eyes squeezed closed. The smoke choked him even more, and the fire licked at his booted feet. Despite everything, Nicholas tried to free himself, never mind that there were six hundred men on foot and on horseback surrounding the enormous funeral pyre that held the thirteen Templars.
Nicholas had just returned from the Crusades, injured badly enough that Grand Master de Molay had called him back to their headquarters in France. His days of fighting were done, Nicholas had been told. Now, he would work with the Grand Master on financial matters. The flames licked closer, and his feet began to burn. The pain soared up his legs. Nicholas groaned, clenched his teeth, and his head reared back against the rough-hewn log he was tied to.
The jeers and cries of their enemies crescen-doed as the flames shot skyward. Nicholas felt the pain eating up his legs. His clothes caught fire. Oh, God! Have mercy upon their souls…. He held on to that last thought as the smoke entered his lungs. He remembered the Templars, their high-minded focus, their reason for being: to protect travelers who wanted to make the long, arduous journey to Jerusalem to pray. His mind became unfocused. The smoke smothered his breath, stealing his oxygen. Just as a wall of flames exploded toward them, Nicholas lost consciousness.
Jerking awake, Nicholas breathed erratically. It took precious minutes to realize it was dawn at the Village of the Clouds. Sitting up on his pallet, naked except for a light blanket purling around his hips and lower body, he trembled outwardly. The nightmare. Always the same nightmare: burning at the stake in the village square with his Templar brothers.
Nicholas thrust himself to his feet. He stood naked in the thatched-roofed hut in the dawn light. Through the open window, the sun was a pink-and-gold ribbon on the horizon. Rubbing his sweaty face, Nicholas turned on his heel and strode out to the front of his hut where there was a table and chairs.
He grabbed a pottery water pitcher and filled a cup with shaking hands. The smell of smoke remained with him. He could hear the cries of his brother Templars. And the jeering and joy of their enemies—the king's and the Pope's soldiers—haunted him. Lifting the cup to his lips, Nicholas gulped down the tepid water. The cooling draft convinced him he was alive and no longer tangled in that horrible nightmare.
Trickles of water dripped down from the corners of his mouth and onto his bare chest. They felt life-giving—an affirmation that he wasn't trapped in that incarnation or that body. Pulling the mug away from his lips, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He absorbed the simple lifestyle of the Taqe, the People of the Light, yet some moments, it took effort to control his escaped emotions.
As he had died in 1308, tied to that pole, his spirit had broken the silver cord between itself and the body of the French-born Templar he'd inhabited for twenty-eight years. The next thing Nicholas knew, he stood before a small wooden bridge across a trickling stream. Through fog, he heard someone walking across the bridge. It had been Alaria, the leader of the Village of the Clouds, who had met him. He was still stricken with grief and anger over the trauma of his death.
"Be at ease, my son," Alaria had said. She had reached out with her aged hand and placed it on his shoulder. "You are safe. You need not fear anymore."
Nicholas stared emptily at the beautiful dawn spreading its light across the many tilled fields at the slopes of the Andean mountain chain. In reality, they were in the fourth dimension, the Village set in Peru with the Andean mountains as their home. No one knew they existed. Few could see into the fourth dimension. The Village of the Clouds was the protected fortress and main headquarters for the Taqe, the People of the Light. Those who came from the heart, who tried their best to practice compassion, came here to rest and be schooled between lives.
Nicholas rubbed his chin. He took great care to have his beard trimmed and neat-looking, just as it had been when he had been a Templar. He had been given the chance to dissolve that personality when he'd walked across that bridge into the safety of the Village of the Clouds, but Nicholas had not. He was proud of that lifetime, of what he'd accomplished. His faith in a creator, no matter by what name, was deep. In his twenty-eight years of life back then, Nicholas had helped many. He'd been a Cathar Christian monk who had lived a life according to the Church of Love—from the heart. He'd worked hard all that life to remain in his heart and do the right thing for the right reasons.
He'd had many lifetimes as a warrior. Nicholas knew that killing was wrong, that war was wrong. He never wanted to give up his personality as a Templar knight and Cathar monk. No one here made him do otherwise. Those who lived here in the world of spirit could practice and believe as they wanted. Nicholas had a voracious desire to understand his tie with his loving God of boundless compassion. Grimacing, he padded back into the other room. His clothes lay neatly folded on a wooden shelf. He pulled a white long-sleeved shirt over his head. The brown cotton pants reached to his knees. He had found going barefoot was best.
In another hour, he would meet with other men and women from the village and go out to toil in the fields. This produced their food for a village of nearly one thousand people. He was proud of his ability to work all day in the hot sun. His body was strong and his desire to do the work to feed others gave him a sense of humility and accomplishment.
Nicholas just wished he could get rid of that one nightmare. Oh, he knew he had a choice. Alaria had counseled him that in order to work through the horror of being burned alive and betrayed, he'd have to go back into a human body. That he refused to do. Alaria had given him a sad look of understanding and said nothing more. The centuries had fled and Nicholas had watched with fascination as countries and continents won and lost everything. But he didn't want to go back there, back into another incarnation. It was just too much for him to deal with.
After brushing his teeth, he picked up a pair of sharp scissors. As he looked at his sun-darkened face in the mirror, he noted a handsome man with a short black beard. The beard emphasized his large green eyes and thick black eyebrows. He saw the sword scar he carried on his right cheek. He'd gotten that in a fight to the death with a Saracen lord who had sworn to kill him. They'd fought—he with his long sword and dagger, and the Saracen with his curved scimitar. Nicholas combed his straight hair that pooled around his broad shoulders. Even in the dawn light, it gleamed with health and blue highlights. There was a sense of satisfaction even now as Nicholas remembered his dagger sinking through the armor the Saracen wore. The man had died an honorable, clean death. And Nicholas had prayed for the warrior's soul.
Finishing his toilette, Nicholas felt more emotionally stable. Alaria had told him that in the event of a traumatic and tragic death, a soul frequently would take five hundred to a thousand years of Earth time before it was ready to continue the incarnation cycle. Such trauma was horrifying and souls worked on such an experience to discharge the terror.
Nicholas snorted and looked around his quiet hut. He would never go back to Earth in an incarnation. Here there was a modicum of peace, of escape from the terrible deaths of humans. Yes, there was always the cursed nightmare, but he was willing to put up with it. Alaria had said it was his spirit trying to discharge the energy of that trauma, and it would, over time.
He looked up to find Alaria in a peach-colored robe, standing in the doorway. He'd not heard her approach. "Mother," he said, smiling with welcome. He never saw her this early.
She tucked her hands into the long sleeves of her robe. Her silver hair fell in two long braids across her proud shoulders. "Something urgent has come to our attention. Can you meet Adaire and me at our hut?"
Frowning, Nicholas said, "Why, of course." He watched her nod and disappear. What was up? Had the Dark Lord, Victor Carancho Guerra, done something new? He was fighting the Taqe for all seven spheres of the Emerald Key Necklace. Whoever got it would hold sway over the energy on Earth. Either the heavy energy of the Tupay or the light energy of the Taqe could rule.
Taking another drink of water, Nicholas could have willed himself to the hut that lay at the entrance of the village, but he didn't.