Candle in the Storm:Shadowed Path 02

By: Morgan Howell

ONE

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.

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