II – The Four Flames
It was the early hours of the morning and he had once again stayed up late, getting lost in hundreds of books that filled the bookcases along the temple walls.
Everyone else in the temple had long retired to the attic and fallen asleep, the only sounds were the crackling of candles and the calls of birds outside and though the sun would soon rise, sleep didn’t come easy for him. He had hoped to find himself tired after his reading but now his mind was filled and swarmed with visions of twisted creatures and battles raging inside his head.
‘Stories’ he told himself as he slowly climbed up the small flight of marble steps to the altar ‘Just stories Ethan.’
He had never truly had faith growing up and had never been a man of religion and although he had been reborn as Priest Atunian, he still had difficulty convincing himself that anything he read in these sacred tomes was fact. He respected and believed their messages though and found telling stories was a good way to put any point across to any person, for stories were universal.
He finally reached the last step, taking a few breathes before he walked to the base of the statue of Ledina, her jewel encrusted eyes looking down at him and he almost felt as if he was being watched.
He shuddered as he grabbed a small thing wooden stick from out the bamboo container and stuck it into one of the flames of the many candles adorned at the base of the statue and light up one by one the candles that had turned out. The flames had to be kept alive and in his ten years since his arrival, he was pretty certain that he had never once seen them all fully extinguished.
It seemed like a lifetime ago when he had abandoned his old name and life behind to join the sacred temple of the Ledina, one of the Seven, here in Irdin, a small city far, far away from what had once been his home.
Or what used to be home. Before the Decabians had started a war against Aludin, a war that still raged to this day despite the signing of peace between the two warring nations. There had been no peace when they had first attacked, by surprise,that summers night, ten years ago, during the festival of The Seven.
He had been a soldier then, his weapon a sword in his hand, not a book with words and he had fought the Decabians as they had launched their surprise invasion only to see his entire family that he had raised killed before his eyes. His wife, his children, his grandchildren, he had seen them one by one struck down by the white armoured invaders, his life taken from him in a matter of moments.
He sometimes wondered whether it would have been better if that cruel day, he would have been slain alongside them at least then, he would still be with them. He would find out later the name of the man who had condemned his village to death, a brutal warlord called Hlad. Every hour of every day, he thought of that name and how he still lived when hundreds that day had fallen under his watch.
The Decabians had been overwhelming, they had been to great a number and facing certain defeat, he had committed the ultimate sin. He had fled, abandoning his comrades in battle. If he hadn’t, he would have been dead right now, just as most of the people had in the Aludinian province once known as Omion, which had been swallowed into Decabian territory.
He had fled across the countryside, running from the enemy and then running from his very own people. That’s when he had decided, to live, he would have to take up the faith.
He still remembered when the Aludin soldiers had come for him and how his priesthood had absolved him from any past mistakes and shielded him from any form of punishment, which had made the general come to retrieve him that much more enraged, he had been certain the sword he had been holding was about to claim his deserting head, priesthood or not.
The general though had laughed on his way out, telling him to enjoy priesthood, telling him he’d be back soon enough. Well he’d still have to wait longer, for ten long years, not once had he left the sacred grounds of this temple even though there had been many times he had looked out to the land beyond the temple and thought of escaping.
But time didn’t wait for anybody and now, with white wispy hair and wrinkled hands, his time to escape and start over had long passed.
He had light the last of the candles and looked up to Ledina, wondering what his purpose had been in this life if everything he had ever loved and worked for had been taken from him and he was condemned to spend his last days here. He held the wooden stick, which had burned dangerously close to his fingers and took a deep breath before blowing out the flame.
The doors slammed open.
A gust of wind rolled into the shrine, the flames flickered and the shadows danced about the walls, twisting into wicked shapes. The priest jumped round to face the entrance.
“Who could it be at this hour?” he thought to himself.
Four cloaked figures entered the shrine, their clothes drenched as the rain howled outside and the largest of the figures turned round and with huge arms and hands, shut close the tall wooden doors, the slam echoing around the temple.
“Who goes there?” he called out to them.
He looked over the strangers, the giant stood with his back against the door, and two tall thin figures stood to the left and right of the figure standing centre, the shortest of them all and slightly hunched. That’s when he noticed the glint of steel daggers along a belt on the figure to the right, long twisting blades like serpents and a war hammer on the back of the giant. He started shaking and looked around him, foolishly hoping someone had heard the slamming of the doors. He wished he still had his trusted sword that he had had since youth but that too he had had to give up when he had taken up this new life.
“This is the shrine of Kanisha, is it not?” said the centre figure in a deep voice.
“K…Kanisha?” said Ethan.
“You must be confused travellers. This is the temple of Ledina” said Ethan trying to sound braver than he felt “Now, if you’re looking for a place for the night, you’re all welcome to take a bed downstairs but I must insist you remove those weapons, this is a sacred place.”
The figures stood as still as the statues that ran down either side of of the temple inside the hollow pillars and the longer the silence drew out, the louder his heartbeat rang in his ears. Finally the figure in the centre stepped forward awkwardly and as he did so, he spoke.
“That is not Ledina, that is Kanisha” said the figure pointing up at the altar “And this ‘sacred’ place, so old and decrepit, should not be run by likewise men such as yourself.”
Ethan trembled with rage now, he had forgotten the fear only moments ago, forgotten the weapons the strangers held.
“I won’t accept such insults. Leave now if all you’ve come here to do is belittle and mock this sacred ground and me” said Ethan though he knew they wouldn’t leave, that couldn’t possibly be the reason for why they had come here in the dead of night and stern words wouldn’t convince them otherwise.
But they held no riches, no gold, nothing of any value was to be found in this temple, that was the way it had always been, in remembrance of the Seven who had sacrificed their old lives to dedicate themselves to making the world a better place. So what could they possibly want?
“We will leave, just as soon we finish something first. I suggest you leave this place immediately and join your brothers and sisters upstairs unless you want to get hurt” said the man in the centre.
“Is that a threat?” said Ethan clenching his fist and a long silence fell between them.
“Take it however you want to take it, don’t say that we didn’t warn you” said the centre figure.
Ethan felt his body shake in rage and he pointed at them, raising his voice for the first time in years.
“Leave now” said Ethan “There is nothing for scum like you in this temple and if you would stoop so low to threaten someone in such a holy place, may the Gods have mercy on your souls at judgement time.”
The figure in the centre shrugged his shoulders. He turned round to face the biggest of the group “Onazi, you know what to do.”
“Right” said the giant in a low voice and he walked around the group and up the aisle, swinging the black war hammer, etched with deep red runes that spiralled up the hammer over his back and into both his hands, which he carried with great ease and strode up right towards Ethan, who swallowed and stumbled back, thinking of anything to say and he reached for his right hip, a creature of habit, to find no sword waiting for him.