The Old Man and the Flame

                He hadn't seen the old man since.

14 years and not even a hint, scouring the whole world and yet no trace of the prophet, nor his congregation, who forever changed his life. His arm burned each morning, his shoulder still stiff from where the knife had entered, again and again. When he closed his eyes each night, he saw his face, frenzied and flecked with spit and blood, seemingly hanging disembodied in the smoke that, bilious, penetrated the wide hall. He still felt the bonds on his wrists from where he had been tied to the altar.

In his dreams, over and over, memories of that night replayed. Not with the haze of a nightmare, but the perfect recall of the present. As if the trauma was still visited upon him even now, as if he had never left that room, as if the death he escape then loomed on the horizon waiting for a lax moment. He closed his eyes, and…          

He choked on the earthy fumes in the hall. Fumes limiting both his breath and his vision. Low chanting, alternating with high-pitched wails, assailed his ear. He blinked to clear his eyes, but still saw nothing but grey-black smog, still felt nothing but burning. He strained to move his hands, but they remained tied and raw against the black-rock slab, the obsidian altar which sprouted straight from the ground. An eruption of stone.

Slowly, in the noise and the blinding smoke, a face coalesced. One he knew in kindness, now twisted by obsessive fervor, by religion, by faith unbalanced by doubt. The old man, who befriended the suddenly orphaned young man, who promised him a home. A place in 'the world I will create'.

How could he have known what he meant?

"Now is the time!" He chanted, this old man, blind now to the squirming figure on the altar. "The door will open. The world will atone."

"WE. WILL. RISE!" The faceless many roared in response.

"Now is the time." He continued his refrain. "The key lies before us, blood that spills into the lock, opening the world to the darkness that fills us all. To the Beast!"

"THE BEAST! THE BEAST! THE BEAST!"

"There is no God but death, my children! And she consumes us all." The old man howls, before joining his worshipful throng in their howls, the joyous cries of the name of Death's deific personification.

As the old man and his minions, distracted by the ecstatic thrall of all the plans come to bear, descended further into madness, the younger man worked at his bonds. Pulling and pulling, slowly, they came loose. In the obscuring smoke, none noticed, not even his once father.

Finally, the man looked down on the youth, sorrow haunting his gaze.

"I'm sorry… son, but it must be you. This must be done."

The dagger falls, the rubies on its hilt glittering with the light of distant flame. The young man wrenches free just in time. The blade piercing flesh once, twice, dragging down his arm as he rolls off the stony shelf. Bleeding, he flees past the enraptured flock, out the mouth of the cave and into the cool, cool night, disappearing in the shadows before any who might search could find him.

He hadn't seen the old man since. And thought of him as he sat on the edge of his bed, unable or unwilling to sleep. There was a knock at his door, and despite the gulf of time between his dreams and now. He smelled once again the sulfuric flames harkening that dark night. He knew who waited for him before even he opened the door. The old man, face calm and kindly once more, a knife in his hands. Ruby hilt, still dripping with blood.

Wordlessly, he extended the knife. Wordless, the young man accepted his fate.