The next chapter is here for all to read. This follows the second major character in All Flames Cast, the priest Harael.
The late evening spread out over the city of Letaal, trailing shadows over the streets of the Fourth Tier. Harael stared up at the slim slice of the setting sun, just visible over the wall far overhead outside of the Tenth Tier. Below him, he could just see the last light shining upon the uppermost spires of the Cathedral, three tiers down. It felt odd to be traveling so high in the city, but then, this night was not a normal night.
Harael smiled at the thought. No, the winter solstice was far from a usual night in Letaal. Here, in the seat of Imperial power—and the seat of Pirinism—displays of faith were common; only on this most holy of nights, however, did every citizen show his fidelity.
His blue robes swishing around his legs, arms folded into the sleeves, he nodded at the hawker pushing a cart past. A lantern, flickering fitfully in the balmy winter breeze, hung from an awning over his wares. The man beamed back at Harael, clearly overjoyed by the acknowledgement from such a high-ranking priest.
Walking next to him, Teramus snorted. The hawker hurriedly ducked his head and pushed his cart further up the street.
“Was that really necessary?” Harael asked, glancing at his friend.
Swathed in an identical light blue robe, albeit somewhat longer to accommodate his friend’s unusually tall frame, Teramus just shrugged. His dark brown eyes followed the hawker, under equally dark eyebrows drawn down. The man had his issues, despite his rank. Harael knew exactly how difficult things had been for him.
“The fool was embarrassing himself,” Teramus replied. “He should accept the Faith and move on.”
Harael shook his head, wondering. Teramus was not from the Empire, not explicitly, but Pallonia was a territory and was expected to embrace the Faith. Many of the high-ranking across the sea to the south sent their middle sons to become Pirin priests; Harael never pried, not in the eight years he had known Teramus, but he had a shrewd idea that that was how his friend ended up in Letaal wearing Pirin robes.
They continued their path through the streets of the Fourth Tier, past the mansions of rich merchants and opulent inns catering to the wealthy. Gambling halls dotted the streets, butting up against buildings with the tinted red windows of brothels. Harael knew that prostitution was banned in Pallonia, but Teramus never batted an eye at the scantily clad women advertising their wares out front.
Their job wasn’t to interfere with how things were run in the Fourth Tier; certainly not that night. Each tier had its own way of doing things, and the Fourth Tier was perhaps the most strict in that sense, despite the apparent laxity of regulations. If anyone tried to “rock the boat,” as some sea merchants said, they would find that the Trade Guards would have little mercy. Those outlanders and wealthy tradesmen counted on the brothels to keep them entertained.
All lewdness aside, though, each brothel they passed had at least one open flame outside, and several had firestones hanging above their doors as well. No few of the women outside wore jewelry with firestones inset, speaking of success at their trade. The gambling halls were no different. Harael was stunned to see one advertising special chips for the wealthy made from firestones. For that night only, of course, but they must have done truly spectacular business in the last year to afford such numbers of firestones. The blessed gems were hardly to be found just lying around.
Men and women on the street nodded or bowed their respects, as well they should. Priests of the Fifth Shade did not often walk among the citizens, and even more rarely came above the Third Tier of Letaal. Their blue robes were noted and admired.
Making the city rounds was something that Harael had once thought he’d never do again, but he found himself enjoying it. While most apprentices detested the duty, he cherished the opportunity to see the Faith in full bloom, among laymen instead of in the austere halls of the priests’ quarters.
That was not to say that no other priests were out and about. He and Teramus passed a self-important fellow in a yellow robe, who jerked up at the sight of them and hastily nodded in respect. Not two blocks later, a pair of red-robed apprentice Clerics practically fell over themselves in their haste to kneel, not minding the dirt of the street on their knees.
Teramus chuckled at that. “Probably hoping we’ll carry word back, and a commendation for piety.”
Harael agreed, though he did nod his own blessing at the two young men. He could well remember his days, not too many years past, as an apprentice. It was not an easy life, being sent constantly to attend this Chaplain or that Cleric, to assist this yellow-robe or hear a speech on theology by that white-robe. Those last occasions, when priests of the Sixth Shade deigned to come among the more common men, were particularly eventful. The Flame burned brightly within such priests, and they had greater duties to the Empire than teaching bumbling young men the tenets of Pirinism.
Glancing again at Teramus, walking next to him, Harael thought back to their days as apprentices together. After entering the colony at Meriil the same year, he and Teramus had advanced in lock-step, achieving new ranks and Shades at the same ceremonies—though one of them had had a much easier time of it than the other.
Seeing the scowl on Teramus’ face as another street vendor made an overt display of faith, Harael wondered if his friend would ever quell his demons, would ever get a true handle on his disgruntlement.
They proceeded through the more salacious parts of the Fourth Tier and into the merchants’ neighborhoods. Here, there were no brothels or gambling houses to mar the pristine displays of wealth. Many merchants’ houses were ostentatious, showing off their wealth in carved and fluted columns outside of great double doors. Others displayed solidarity in common designs. Harael noted what was obviously an area of wealthy weavers, whose columns were shaped like twining threads, and featured rope bridges stretching across the street above him. Those connected ornate balconies, serving the double purpose of displaying their expertise and giving them the opportunity for easy communication. Knowing the reputation of several prominent weavers in the city, Harael had no doubt that those bridges were used for less wholesome activities than just dickering over setting prices.
In another area, two streets over, Teramus grunted at the sight of straight-lined Pallonian styling on the façades of a cluster of mansions. Each featured at least two statues on the second-floor balconies, usually of fanciful creatures or beautiful young women. The styles and fashions of the colony were popular, in Letaal.
“Does it bother you, Brother?” Harael asked, pointing at the designs. Lamps hung from the balconies, and one large manse even had firestones decorating a statue of a phoenix. Appropriate, but rather too gaudy, in Harael’s opinion.
“Bother me?” Teramus asked, musing. “It does not annoy me, if that is what you mean. It simply reminds me of home.”
Harael decided to let that rest. Friends of eight years they might be, but he knew better than to prod at some aspects of Teramus’ life. The man was more private than the inner sanctum of the Seventh Shade, as well he might be, and the black-robed priests guarded their domain most jealously.
Their rounds carried them through the Fourth Tier to its eastern edge, and they turned to descend to the Third Tier. They passed under a massive gate, resplendent in torches and lamps, and made their way down the sloping walk under the wall and into the religious section of Letaal. The Third Tier, dedicated entirely to housing and providing for the Pirin priests, was resplendent in light blue stonework and brilliant blue flames dancing on torches and lampstands along the streets.
This felt more familiar to Harael. He and Teramus walked past their own apartment, three stories of light blue stone with azure roof tiles. It felt more comfortable than the yellows found everywhere in the Fourth Tier. He knew that each color needed its representation in the city, but blue felt the best, to him. Perhaps it was because he was a Blue Robe, himself.
With the shadows deepening and the sun completely hidden by the city stretching far above, the fires everywhere did their best to illuminate the night. Each apartment and market, here in the Third Tier, positively shone with flames and firestones. This was one area of the city that would never see a lack of fire.
Teramus and he nodded to priests that bustled past—the streets here were full of them, and vendors were completely absent—clearly in a hurry to get one thing or another done before the required time. They themselves were only passing through the Third Tier, their destination two tiers down at the Cathedral.
The two of them passed through the Third Tier relatively quickly, joining the throng of other priests making their way down to the First Tier. They rubbed shoulders with men wearing robes of all hues, from bloodred-robed apprentices of the First Shade to even white-robed men, regal in their dignity. Teramus pointed out a black-robed Cleric at one point, his eyes imperious upon the crowds in the street. Priests of all ranks hurried to get out of his way. He must have been busy indeed to risk being late, this night of all nights.
Through the Second Tier they went, the crowds now joined by groups of nobles. Not all of them would be high enough in the regard of the Emperor to actually attend, of course, but there were other temples in the First Tier that could cater to them. Tonight, any person of noble blood was allowed down there.
The white-washed stones and bricks of the Second Tier were replaced quickly by the stark blacks of the First. Harael savored the opportunity to be so low in the city; once a year, and only once, was he ever allowed down in the First Tier. It was the domain of the Imperial family, the Emperor and his personal confidants and favored advisors. And the Black Robes, of course. Priests of the Seventh Shade could go where they wished, and the seven men who made up that rank took full advantage of that freedom.
Ahead, the Cathedral towered in its majesty. Made entirely of black marble, its seven spires pointed to the night sky above, each flowering in a different shade of flame: reds, orange, yellow, blue, white, and of course the invisible black flame that wreathed the central spire. The crowds converged here, priests elbowing their way in among droves of esteemed nobles. Harael and Teramus joined a queue at the western entrance and filed their way into the Great Cathedral of Pirinaan. The seat of the Pirin religion positively glowed in the night, and the interior was awash in torches and lamps blazing with white flames.
They quickly found their places among the benches and pews, in a rank of blue-robed men to the right of the main altar. The Black Robe they’d seen earlier appeared and headed directly to the altar, joining six others of his station. Regal Selonius, the First Cleric of the Pirin Faithful, stood behind the black marble altar, his eyes bright with the Faith and gazing out at the congregation. Hawk-nosed and dark-eyed, he seemed the very embodiment of a Black Robe. Even his hair was raven-dark, closely shaven. His eyes were hard, but radiant as they surveyed his domain.
As one, the white flames went out.
A hush descended upon the hundreds of people packed into the Cathedral, and they stared in unreserved awe at the coruscating firestone now held aloft by the First Cleric.
“Tonight, we come to witness the rebirth of Faith,” Selonius began, his voice echoing throughout the building, reverberating under the arched buttresses far above. It seemed too loud, but that was his way.
“The commemoration of our greatest victory is at hand. With this, the Heart of the Phoenix, we can know that Pirinaan, the Father, gave us the greatest gift ever known: the Faith.”
With those words, the brightness shattered, and the firestone went dark. Dead silence covered the crowd for several long moments. Then, stronger than ever, Selonius spoke again.
“This gift is embodied in the Heart of the Phoenix. Pirinaan, the Father, was wise to choose this way. With the Heart, we can always know that we are strong. Pray with me now, that we may be shown the way to Faith once again.”
As one, two thousand voices spoke. “Let the Flame shine forth upon us, and grant us succor. Let it give us heat. Let it give us light. Let it give us life.”
Selonius, his voice solitary yet somehow equal to the roar that came before, responded. “The Faith is the Flame. The Faith gives us life.”
A spark was born, then, between his upraised hands. The Heart of the Phoenix, a diamond the size of a man’s head, glittered in the darkness.
A sigh echoed through the Cathedral, hurriedly silenced. The crowd, in turn, spoke again. Harael joined his voice to the throng, saying, “Let the Faith and the Flame guide us to life.”
The Heart burst forth into light. Fragments of all colors sparkled between Selonius’ hands, trailing their rays across the awed faces of the congregation. Harael knew his own eyes held nothing but rapture. This was faith. This was their strength, their life. With this faith, Pirinism and Letaal would never falter.
Selonius held the Heart aloft for another moment, and then lowered it, placing it in a carved holder of onyx. The black stone reflected the shards of light emanating from its inner flame. The First Cleric lowered his head in devout prayer, and Harael followed. The rustling of robes let him know that the others were doing the same.
In a moment of silent devotion, Harael prayed that the Flame would rekindle in Teramus’ heart and show his friend the way back to true faith.
He raised his head with the rest of the congregation, and Selonius gazed out upon them. Raising his hands in welcome, he led them in the customary Chant of Resolution. “Praise be to the Flame!”
The white flames returned, then, and the Cathedral was once again lit. Harael and Teramus turned with the crowds and walked out into the night. They stopped outside, letting the people stream by them, and Harael gazed up at Letaal in its splendor. Full night had finally fallen, and the Tiers stretched up above him, each ablaze in its color. The flames that seemed simple ornamentation just hours earlier now illuminated the night.
The Night of Ten Thousand Fires had begun.
Read the next chapter: “The Night of Ten Thousand Fires”