Read chapter one of Candle in the Storm
and on either side lies the abyss.
Summer’s heat had settled on Bremven, and the air was stultifying. When the sun rose high in the clear sky, the guards at the city’s gate retreated into the shade beneath its archway. From there, they checked all who entered. One unlucky soldier stood in the sun to warn his comrades if a Sarf approached. Sweltering in his armor, he gazed down the length of the bridge, looking for any man with a tattooed face. Sarfs were deadly, and after the destruction of Karm’s temple, the guards had cause to be wary of the goddess’s servants. Only six days earlier, a Sarf had slain an entire squad when they tried to bar his entry. Thus, despite the heat, fear kept the soldier alert.
A diverse throng crossed the bridge leading to the empire’s capital. There were merchants driving wagons, farmers with their oxcarts, the rich on horseback, and the poor afoot. Nowhere was a blue face that signaled trouble. Then one horseman stood out in the crowd. He rode a magnificent black steed. His robe was a similar shade, marking him as a priest of the Devourer. All his kind were officially welcome.
While the priest posed no threat, the soldier couldn’t take his gaze from him. The dark rider looked young, barely into his twenties, and he had the sandy hair and gray eyes of someone from Averen. The deep tan of his clean-shaven face set off those pale eyes, and even from a distance they drew the soldier’s attention. The guard had the disturbing impression that those gray orbs didn’t belong in a young face. The priest seemed aware of the man’s scrutiny, for he formed his lips into a cold smile and made the sign of the circle with a casual twist of his wrist. The soldier respectfully bowed his head, relieved for a reason to look away. The black-robed man entered the city and disappeared into its crowded streets.
As he rode through his birthplace, the More Holy Daijen noted many changes. The respect the guard had shown him was but the first. When he had fled Bremven eighty years ago, followers of the Devourer were in disrepute. Now everyone bows, he thought. It marks how we’ve risen in the world. Through ruthlessness and cunning, Daijen had risen similarly within the cult. He was the More Holy One, second only to the Most Holy Gorm in gifts and powers. Reflecting upon his rise, Daijen was tempted to visit the squalid alley where he had grown up. He thought how amazed his former neighbors would be to see him young and strong while age had withered them. Daijen quickly dismissed the idea. There’d be no point. Everyone I knew is likely dead.
Daijen’s eyes lifted from the ancient street and the stone buildings that flanked it until they gazed on the Temple Mount. Karm’s temple crowned its heights with stonework cunningly blended with the mountain’s natural form. Daijen smiled when he thought how the centuries-old edifice stood empty. The Most Holy Gorm, undoubtedly informed by sorcery, had told him of the massacre there. All who resided within the sanctuary had been slain—the Seers who divined the goddess’s will; those training to be Bearers, the holy persons who spread Karm’s word; and the young men who trained to be Sarfs, the deadly servants and protectors of Bearers. The temple’s destruction hadn’t eradicated the worship of the goddess, but it had been a fatal blow. Bearers and Sarfs still roamed the countryside, but they were like worker bees whose hive had been destroyed. They had nowhere to return, and when they perished, they would not be replaced.
Daijen directed his horse toward Karm’s temple, eager to visit the site of his cult’s triumph. As the road neared his destination, Daijen paused to view the city and appreciate how the Devourer’s temple dominated it. Lord Bahl—the cult’s patron—had spared no expense, and the massive black stone temple with its seven pointed spires was an impressive sight. Yet Daijen imagined the day when that structure would be dwarfed by another one that stabbed the sky from atop the mount he was ascending. He envisioned a forest of black spires supplanting Karm’s ruined sanctuary and long lines of prisoners being led up the road for sacrifice. It was a stirring vision and one that Daijen was dedicated to realize.
The recent triumph, however glorious, was not the reason for the More Holy One’s visit. A far more serious matter had caused him to ride far and fast. Soon after the massacre, an enemy had thwarted the Devourer within Karm’s temple. The nature of the deed and its perpetrator were a mystery. The only certain thing was that Daijen must discover and destroy that enemy. The assignment was a perilous one. Ever suspicious, Daijen assumed that was why the Most Holy One had chosen him for the task. The Devourer was a harsh god that punished failure, and Daijen feared his true age would swiftly overtake him if he was unsuccessful. It was a fate he’d do anything to avoid.
Daijen entered Karm’s temple, a place he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. He was mildly surprised that he remembered it after so many decades and was pleased to find its outer courtyard stained with blood. It was evident that many had been slain there and their bodies dragged deeper into the temple. Daijen followed a reddish brown trail across the courtyard, through a building with a huge shattered basin, across a second courtyard, and into a huge building with irregularly spaced stone columns carved to resemble trees. He passed through that building and arrived at the remains of a pyre in a central garden.
Blackened bones were piled waist-high, and gray ash tainted the surrounding landscape. The multitude of violent deaths had weakened the boundary between the living world and the Dark Path allowing Daijen to strongly feel the Devourer’s presence. The trees were gone from the ruined garden, and the remaining plantings were succumbing to a malign influence. Nettles, toadstools, and thorny vines were everywhere, choking generations of careful nurture. The garden was becoming harsh and hurtful. It reminded Daijen of Karvakken Pass, another place where the barrier that restrained his master had been worn thin by slaughter.
This site is conducive to sorcery, thought Daijen. Here I can learn what has disturbed my master. Daijen knew he could do nothing without taking the necessary precautions, and he’d need help with that. Contacting the Devourer was always perilous; doing so without a sacrifice was suicidal. A slave will do. I’ll have those at the Black Temple get me one.
Since he could do nothing more at present, Daijen headed back. He was walking through the dim interior of the colonnaded building when he heard a tapping sound. Daijen stopped and listened, but the noise ceased. He waited for it to return, and soon his patience was rewarded. When the tapping resumed, Daijen traced the sounds to their source—a ragged old man. He was standing on a rickety ladder to chip tiles from a huge mosaic depicting Karm standing on a mountaintop. Much of the lower portion of the artwork had been marred. Although the tiles that formed the white robe of the goddess were untouched, as were the more drably shaded tiles, most of the other colors had been removed. When Daijen entered the room, the man was at work chipping a blue tile from the sky. His only tools were a battered knife and a rock.
“You’re a cheeky thief,” Daijen said in a loud voice.
Startled, the man nearly lost his balance. He dropped his rock and climbed down the ladder to point his knife at the Daijen with trembling hands. “Stay back, or I’ll cut you! These are mine.”
Daijen flashed an easy smile. “Do you think I care what you do here? I’ve no love for Karm.”
The man eyed Daijen’s robe. “I guess not,” he said. “Then what brings you?”
“Curiosity,” replied Daijen. “Why so nervous? You must have a parade of gawkers.”
“You’re wrong there. It’s lonely work. Everyone’s afraid of this place.”
“And you’re not?”
“It makes me uneasy,” admitted the old man, “and I have dreams, bad ones.”
“But you still come.”
“The tiles fetch a few coppers, and there’s not much work for the likes of me.” Daijen’s amiable manner reassured the old man. He picked up his rock and ascended the ladder to resume his pounding.
Daijen watched awhile before asking in a friendly tone, “Has anyone else come here?”
“Only a Bearer, and that was many days ago.”
“What did he say about your enterprise?”
“She,” corrected the man. “The Bearer was just a girl.”
“A girl? That’s unusual. I trust her Sarf was a man.”
“Don’t know. She was alone.”
“No Sarf? Lucky for you, old man.”
“I wouldn’t have been scared of her, even if she had one.”
Daijen smiled. “I see I’m in the presence of a brave man.” He sauntered over to the ladder and suddenly kicked it. The ladder toppled and the man fell with it, striking the floor with a heavy thud. Daijen leaned over the man, who lay moaning in pain, and grinned. “Still feeling brave?”
The old man hadn’t lost his knife, and he stabbed at Daijen. When the blade touched the priest’s flesh, a brilliant blue-white flash illuminated the room. Daijen’s assailant fell back, stunned into unconsciousness by the priest’s spell against iron weapons. His knife, which glowed eerily, fell from his nerveless hand. Daijen’s grin broadened as he hoisted his victim upon his shoulders and carried him to the pyre. He laid the old man on the ashy ground, took a bronze dagger from the folds of his black robe, and slit the man’s throat. Blood flowed, forming a puddle. Daijen tore some fabric from the dead man’s tattered robe, dipped it in the blood, and used it as a crude brush to paint a large circle on the dirt. He took special care to insure that there were no gaps in the design. Only when he was completely satisfied that the circle was unbroken did he step into it. He sat down in a cross-legged position, closed his eyes, and began to trance.
It was impossible to summon the Devourer without feeling fear. Daijen had no illusions that his master cared for him. The Devourer thrived on slaughter, and the priest knew that his death would satisfy it as well as any other’s. Still, the Devourer needed earthly servants, and it rewarded them with unnatural powers. The knowledge that he was needed and the protection afforded by the bloody circle gave Daijen the nerve to continue.
Within Daijen’s mind formed a nightmare image of a black sun. It radiated cold instead of warmth and needed life to fuel its frigid fire. The black void was also a conscious being, and when it became aware of Daijen, it turned its thoughts toward him. Malice and insatiable hunger invaded the priest’s consciousness as he asked what disturbed his master.
The Devourer answered in an inarticulate way with vague dream-like images that formed in Daijen’s mind. Daijen saw Karm’s temple at night. It was hazy and dim, as if viewed from above through a fog. In its center was the faint form of a lone man. He sat on a rock near the edge of a pool. Daijen couldn’t discern his face or clothing, for the Devourer distinguished individuals in ways it was unable to communicate. However, Daijen could perceive the man’s emotions. He was steeling himself to slay a multitude. Daijen felt his master’s eager anticipation of the imminent bloodshed.
Then a woman entered the temple. Unlike the man, her feelings were hidden from Daijen, but he sensed the enemy guided her. The Devourer sent horrific visions to shatter her sanity. Somehow, she resisted them. She found the man and caused him to abandon his plans. Daijen experienced a surge of frustration and rage as his master communicated the depths of its enmity. It was all directed toward the woman. At any cost, she must be identified, found, and destroyed.
The priest emerged from his trance to find the blood around him boiling. His hands trembled and his head throbbed. He slumped down as he tried to collect his thoughts. His vision had presented a disjointed and nebulous puzzle, but one that was urgent to solve. He dared not disappoint his master.
Daijen began to piece together what he had learned. Clearly, the woman was one of Karm’s servants, for she was guided by the enemy. Knowing this, Daijen regretted that he hadn’t obtained a description of the Bearer from the old man before killing him. Perhaps she’s not the one I seek, but it’s likely. The man could have been her Sarf. Daijen saw logic in this, for Sarfs were lethal and only a Bearer possessed the authority to stop one. It all made sense, and Daijen was encouraged by how far his deductions had taken him. If they were correct, he’d soon find his quarry. As the More Holy One, Daijen commanded all the resources of the Black Temple. A female Bearer would be conspicuous, and Bremven was full of the Devourer’s spies.