The veiled skies were motionless, gravid with a darkness not even the full moon could pierce. Autumn had passed into winter, the air was frigid and heavy with the passing storm. Anyone unfortunate enough to be caught out of doors would still recall, years later, the deep and almost preternatural chill permeating this night. A chill which penetrated skin and sinew and buried itself deep inside, like a ravenous leech only fire could burn away.
Kalen however, was not just anyone. Despite his sodden robes he felt neither the rain's icy fingers nor the breath of the frosty wind as it whispered through the forest trees. For though he was barely seventeen years old, Kalen was dead. Though his breath still plumed in the freezing air, though he could hear the chanting rain and smell the damp odiferous earth, he was dead. And although his heart still beat, it was a hollow and callous rhythm within. It was the melancholy dirge of one who wished for death. Exhaustion spread its talons throughout his body, his muscles burned and he was drained not only in body but he was weary in mind and soul as well. He knelt beneath a great hooded cedar, whose boughs clung softly to the ground.
He despised taking the rest, but he knew that if he was to reach his destination of Two Rivers by dawn, he must pause for a moment or risk succumbing to fatigue. Though he would welcome death, though he would love nothing more than to lie down and allow death’s hand to guide him to the grave, he could not. Fear kept him alive. For one guilty of his crimes on this night would surely pay a lofty price before the Deities. The thoughts of what his final judgment would be made him want to keep breath in his lungs for as long as possible.
He sat back against the trunk of the cedar; the spicy fragrance of the evergreen was strong but pleasant to the senses. He was frightened and exhausted; he had run down the great Talendear, Cantheon’s highest peak, during the height of the storm’s fury. He had never seen or heard such a storm, it had been like the Gods themselves were lashing at the sky, tearing the sky asunder with blinding peals of lightening which lit Kalen’s path through the dense mountain woods. Now, with the storm moving east, Kalen had only shadows to guide him the rest of the way through the Ascadian forest, which had its own dangers and perils and beasts that stalked the night.
Kalen had only been off Talendaer a handful of times in his young life, but he could remember how to get to Two Rivers. The alter at Silver Star faced north, and Kalen had headed the opposite direction so he knew he was going south toward the small village. Even resting against the tree, Kalen had his sense of direction about him. He was a Monk of the Calanth, a forest dwelling Goddess who beloved all natural things. His sense of direction was attuned to the wilds, he knew that if he continued south he would come to the Valen river, whose soft banks he could follow until he came to the mighty Sarutan river and the town of Two Rivers itself.
His goal was to reach the small trading village by dawn. It was too much to hope that no one had seen the fire on Talendaer, he could only hope to get into town and get what he needed before news and speculation traveled very far. Kalen had not thought to get his hunting bow, nor had he thought to grab his flint and tender and other supplies for living in the wilds. Had he had the presence of mind to take those few things when the Temple had first caught fire, he would not have had to stop in Two Rivers at all, though he would admit it was nice to have a destination. He had no idea where he was going to go once he was done in town, but for now having a destination, a goal, was something of a comfort to Kalen.
He had not thought to get anything other than the ceremonial bronze staff given to him by Abbot Falor and the small purse of money belonging to his mother. His mother. The thought of his family was too much for him to bear, and for a moment he was overcome by grief and regret. Hot tears stung his eyes and his throat burned, but he quickly swallowed such thoughts. He could not give in to despair, grieving was a luxury he did not have nor did he deserve. The memories of what he had awoken to just hours ago still burned in his mind, threatening to overthrow his sanity.
Just hours ago he'd awakened standing amidst a sea of gore. The bodies of his parents lay at his feet, his hands and robes were covered in blood. Beside him laid an ancient sword used by Abbot Falar in some ceremonies, it too was covered in gore. But his hands were the worst. Not only were his hands covered in crimson, but bits of flesh clung beneath his fingernails and other parts of his hands. Sickened, he'd run throughout the vast temple‘s many corridors, looking for help but finding only death at every turn. It appeared everyone at Silver Star had been killed by his hands. No one was left alive, for a long time he was in shock, over 30 people he'd loved and considered family, dead apparently from his actions.
Anguished, he had sat paralyzed by shock and grief. The only thing that shook him from his reverie was a lightening bolt, probably sent by the Deities as they voiced their rage, struck the temple and set it ablaze. As the hungry flames licked at their repast, the skies opened with a storm of fury. Kalen knew at once the Gods were voicing their anger at such a crime. In fear Kalen had run blindly into the night, guided by only a vague sense of direction.
He guessed he had known he was going to Two Rivers, for he had headed south without really planning to. This was not surprising, for the few times Kalen had been off Talendaer his journeys had taken him into the small town and though he preferred the isolation of the Temple and the wilds, he had many fond memories of the place. It was the only place he knew to go, he had no plans otherwise. He knew one thing for certain, he could not allow himself to die, and thus he could not allow himself to come under suspicion for the massacre lest he be executed. He needed to get in and out of town before anyone suspected trouble at the temple, dressed in his soaked and filthy monks robes people may wonder why he had come to town in such dishevel.
As much as he tried to convince himself it was his final judgment before God that kept him from seeking death, he knew there was something else. Though the evidence was irrefutable, he could not fathom himself a killer. He had been the most devout worshipper at the temple, which is quite a station for such temple rooted in history; even more so for one so young. Monks studied their entire lives to obtain the status he had by his seventeenth birthday. He loved everyone at Silver Star, he had neither reason nor desire to see anyone there die or be harmed. Deep within, though he may not realize it as he sat beneath the cedar he knew that something extraordinary had to have happened. He would eventually have to find out what, and maybe then he could ask Calenth and the other Gods to forgive him. Maybe, just maybe, he could allow himself some feeble hope of absolution.
But the Empire employed many ways of finding criminals, and the Legion was impossible to escape for long. The Emperor had many tools at his disposal, and the loss of Silver Star would be felt throughout the Empire. Silver Star was one of five ancient temples that had stood since before the current Grand Empire was founded, though no one knew their origin or who built them, they were a source of faith and endurance for all citizens. No stone would be left unturned in the search for the man behind the massacre. Kalen could only hope to find some answers before the Legion found him. Even if those reasons failed to spare his life, even if he were executed as a heathen and murderer, at least knowing the truth he could face the deities with something other than fear, shame and overbearing guilt.
Kalen‘s breathing became less volatile, and he felt as rested as he imagined he could, and he noticed that the rain had died down a bit. He sat there a few more moments, staring out into the rain swept night. He was now homeless, and although he knew how to hunt and survive on his own, he had never spent a night alone. The prospect of living years, maybe even the rest of his life in the wilds and on the run from the Legion was daunting. But he could not worry about a future he may not have.
For now, he must worry on more immediate troubles. He raised and left the shelter of the cedar, thanking the tree by way of habit; Abbot Falar had always taught him to show thanks to all creations of God for any service they may render. Kalen knew he would be bound by the teachings of temple life for a long time. For a moment he stood there, in the gentle downpour left behind by the storm. He knew that once he left the Ascadian forest he would never return home, and although his home lay in smoldering ruins he felt a longing to return to the tranquil life he had just destroyed.
He knew that once he turned away from the tree and continued his trek through the forest, he’d never return. It was more than simply leaving his home forever behind, he was leaving his entire way of life, the only way of living he’d ever known, behind forever. The moment seemed suspended in time, how long he stood there he would never recall. The chorus of distant thunder rumbled in from the east, and with it came the will to move on, at least for now. With a sigh Kalen resumed his journey south, and if he permitted himself a final glance back the way he came, it was brief.