Terris Sek wakes to the terror of darkness.
He flails in the blackness and his hands find the mattress of fronds he had scattered on the sandy floor the previous evening. The soft sound of Andra’s gentle snoring reaches his ears, calming his panic only slightly. The dank wetness of the cave carries a musty smell to his nostrils and makes his panicked sweat stick to his skin.
But he sees nothing. The flame has gone out.
At first he prays that it might be a dream as his then terror grows. Because if it is not a dream, there is no one left to pray to.
He rises to his knees and crawls forward, his hands scraping against rough sand and bits of sharp rock that that litter the cave floor. He finds the low rock shelf and the cleft in the cave wall. He reaches deep into the cleft, hoping that he might find nothing. If the lamp has been stolen away, then perhaps the flame still burns.
But then his fingers brush the base of the lamp, and his last hope shatters. He lays there for a long time running his fingertips along the familiar figures carved into the base of the lamp, angels and demons and creatures that have not names in the tongues of men.
The lamp remains. But the flame is gone.
“Our god is a burning fire,” his father had told him once on a night that seemed forever ago, as they stared into the lamp. “His flame came down to our forefathers to light their way when the world was new. He gives warmth to our homes, and light to our eyes. But he is a vengeful god as well. The flame that warms can also burn.”
Terris Sek had heard it all before. He wanted to go and chase the fireflies with the other children, but his father was the priest of the flame, so instead he sat rehearsing old catechisms.
“All flames are born from the True Flame,” his father went on, “But they are none of them the True Flame. Our god lives in the True Flame, the first flame. And we must keep watch over it. The God of the flame has placed himself in our care, as we must place ourselves in his. He lives in the flame. He is the flame. And if the flame should die…”
“But what if the wind should blow it out?”
He watched as his father reached into his robes and pulled out the silver medallion that always hung around his neck. He watched him run his fingers over the scratches in its flat surface, his eyes empty and distant. “No wind can extinguish the flame of our God,” his father had said. “No stray gust of rain can drown it. It can only die through neglect or by the willing hand of man.”
All night he thinks of these words. All night he tries to understand how the flame could have gone out. And then an inkling comes nudging at the edge of his mind. He pushes it away at first, but it hovers on the periphery of his thoughts, insistent, growing too strong to be ignored. By the time he sees the predawn glow rising in the valley below it is all he can think of.
When the sun rises and it’s shafts of light stream in through the open cave mouth he watches Andra stir from her slumber stretching and yawning, her face scrunching up as she remembers where they are.
She looks up and sees him staring. “Terris, are you alright?”
“Did you sleep well?” he asks, an innocent question, but there is a tone of accusation that he can’t quite hide.
“I suppose I did. I must be getting used to sleeping on the ground.”
He says nothing.
“Terris Sek, what’s wrong?”
He stands, slowly, his legs unsteady from his long night seated on the hard ground. He steps aside from the nook where the lamp stood and gestures toward it, wordless.
Her eyes widen, and she raises a hand to her mouth. He studies her expression carefully. He has lain beside this woman more nights than he can count. He knows her as he knows himself. If there is deception in her eyes he cannot see it. And yet….
“The flame…” The words are too heavy on his tongue to say more.
Her hands are trembling now. “But…how?”
“I do not know,” he says. And again, lower, speaking as if to no one but himself, “I do not know.”
But he suspects.
The light of the rising sun is spilling through the cave mouth now, painting a stripe of brilliant light across the sand and rock between them.
“Someone…someone must have-”
“There is no one here but you and I.”
“Someone could have crept in while we slept.” Her voice sounds desperate. “It is the only way.”
“Ours are the only tracks in the sand.”
“You can’t think…”
But he does. “The flame has gone out. And if the flame has been extinguished…then the god of the flame is dead.” It is strange to him to speak these words aloud, though he has been thinking them all night long.
“You can’t…. How could I do such a thing, Terris Sek? After all these years, why would I betray everything we’ve ever stood for?”
But after all these years he knows exactly why.
The silver-eyed people had come from the black woods at the foot of the low mountain. When their first messengers met the Sek people they brought gifts, thick furs with strange patterns, colored stones that glittered in the light, and spices such as the Sek had never tasted before.
But while they plied their trade and made the Sek their friends they were carefully marking the Sek’s fortifications, quietly watching for weak points in the walls of their mountain stronghold.
And then, one night when the moon was new, a whole legion of the silver-eyed people scaled the heights of the old mountain and caught the Sek sleeping, unaware. Before anyone knew what was happening they were among the tribe like shadows with shining eyes, their knives making a butchers work of any living thing they’d found.
Terris Sek had wakened in the night to the sound of a cry, and by the half-light of the moon streaming through the window he saw one of the silver-eyed men standing over the crib where his firstborn lay with blood dripping from his flint knife.
What had happened next was only a blur of flashing memory, a keening howl of rage that seemed to be coming from his own mouth, his hands at the raider’s neck and the feeling of the man’s throat collapsing under his grip. And Andra, always Andra, clutching the bloody body of their sweet sweet boy to her chest and wailing.
“All the times you asked why our god could not spare him,” Terris Sek says. “All those nights when you screamed at me that it was no good to worship a god who would not save the life of your boy. All those nights of running, hiding in holes like animals to keep the sacred flame safe.”
He realizes now how long this must have been in her heart, how many days she must have thought of this.
She’s crying now, her shoulders shaking with the sobs. “No, Terris, no,” she says over and over again. “I would not do such a thing.”
And he wants to believe her. But he knows he can’t. “Who killed our god? Who extinguished his flame?” he asks. “Who if not you? Who else had opportunity? Who else had cause?”
“Perhaps a draft, or a drop of water from a crack in the earth,” she’s begging now, desperate. She sees the resolve in his eyes.
“No,” he says. And again, “No.”
And the knife is in his hand. The same knife, the jagged spike of flint that had taken the life of their son. And he whispers, “No,” as he brings it down hard.
And she’s screaming and begging.
And she’s holding up bloody arms to fend off his attack.
And she’s on her knees, her blood staining the sand at the floor of the cave.
And the knife slips from his hand and buries its tip in sand.
He’s shaking now, crying harder than he ever has. He sinks to the floor and looks into her dead, horrified eyes. He reaches out and takes her bloody hand, the fingers already cooling, stiffening.
And now, when it is too late, a whisper of doubt begins to creep in at the corners of his mind. What if she told the truth?
But no, there was no way. The true flame could not be extinguished by so common a thing. As long as the sacred oil was supplied, it would never go out. Never. That’s what his father had said.
Something terrible begins to gnaw at the edges his soul. A single terrible thought creeps into his mind.
He pushes the thought away, horrified, but it cannot be forgotten. He lays there on the cold sand until his shoulder is numb, and the blood on his hands begins to dry to a brown crust, while the sun burns its way across the dome of the sky.
When he finally moves he reaches for the knife once again. He holds it in his hand, turning it over and over, a long spike of jagged flint, handle with soft leather. Then he brings the sacred pendant out from beneath his tunic, a flat disk, dull and silver in the light, like the dull silver eyes of the water people. He has looked at it long and often in the past, running his hands along the nicks and scratches that run across its shiny surface. But it is only now that he understands what they are.
He remembers his father, draping the silver medallion over his head, passing the priesthood on to him. “This is the gift given by the god of flame,” he had intoned, his voice strangely flat. And then, with a tremor of emotion entering his words, he added softly, “May you never need to use it.”
He takes the lamp from the crack in the cave wall, his heart pounding hard in his chest. With trembling hands he lifts the protective cover, exposing the dead wick. Then he takes the medallion in one hand and the flint in the other and strikes a shower of sparks. Most of them fall to the cave floor and die, but a few land on the wick, glow, then slowly rise into flame.
He stares into the flame looking for some difference of hue or quality from the flickering light he had known all his life, and finds nothing.
He hears himself recite the words as his father had taught him. “This is the flame of our god, his light and his fire. It burns now as it always has, and always will.” And the words are ashes on his tongue.
Albert Berg – Albert was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and The Prairie Home Apocalypse.