THE RED CANDLE

Don’t light it.

Denetor waited in the lineup with the other acolytes. Their initiation was about to begin, and they would soon be full-fledged priests of the Seven Lights. Only acolytes were allowed into the recesses of the temple this time of year, that time just before harvest, that time when the guiding spirits were summoned and released into the land for the good will and fortune for all.

“This is the final step of your journey into manhood,” said Old Garren as he walked the line, or rather, creaked slowly forward with the help of the knotted staff he leaned heavily upon. “With the summoning of the six, you will…”

“Why doesn’t he just die already?” thought Denetor in irritation. “He’s older than my grandfather. There are far better to replace him.”

“The candles represent the best in man,” droned on Garren, “and each of you will be given the color we think will serve you best. Though there are six to be lit, the seventh shall not be lit, as the refusal to light the seventh also represents the best in man, the tolerance, sympathy, and character of the righteous…”

Denetor stared over at Pallan, who stood at the end of the line. He glared at the young man with unrestrained hate, as Pallan was the favorite of the elders, a clear indication that the old priests were feeble-minded in their age.

“He stares ahead with that ignorant look of complacency,” thought Denetor with a mental scowl. “Bah! He’s like a ram waiting to be slaughtered, but he’s too stupid to figure it out. What a fool.”

“Now, you shall each receive your gift,” wheezed Old Garren. “The young acolytes of the Makers will bestow upon you your candle, and this will complete their journey into womanhood as you complete your…”

“Womanhood?” thought Denetor. “This is a pleasant surprise. We were told nothing about this ritual before coming in here. I did not know there would be women to serve us. Interesting…”

“You will journey through the halls and follow the signs according to the color of your candle,” droned on Garren. “Once you have reached your altar, you will light your candle and perform the summoning as practiced. The seventh candle shall not be lit, and the bearer of this candle shall receive special instructions, of which, you have not yet been taught. We do not teach this to acolytes for fear of…”

Denetor could not help but grimace and scowl over at Pallan again. The young man at the end of the line was always showing him up, was always ahead of him in one thing or another, and was always, always, receiving the praise of the elders.

“You deserve nothing,” thought Denetor in silent rage. “And nothing is what you will get. I will become the head of the elders…and once I am the archelder, I will decide what is right and what is wrong, not you, Pallan, you insignificant bug…I will be the archelder one day. That is my destiny to fulfill!”

“And now enter the acolytes of the Makers,” wheezed old Garren. “They create the candles of the Seven Lights, they endanger their own lives for the creation of our people’s hope, and they…”

“Ah, enter the women,” thought Denetor with a grim smile. “Show me which one is mine. She is most certainly finer than anything Pallan will receive…”

The young women entered in a line procession and stood before them.

Denetor carefully studied the young woman before him, as each of these young acolytes of the Makers was approximately the same age as they were, around sixteen or so cycles grown.

Denetor’s acolyte was a young woman of a somewhat-plain nature in the face, with long brown hair done up in a bun in the back, that hair held up by a Maker’s wooden wreath. She held in her soft, pale hands a plain white candle, nothing particularly special.

He looked at his six other companions’ candle bearers, and each of them was of varying quality with varying colors for their candles.

Eto’s woman had light-brown hair and was short like Eto, but she was cute in the face and held a light-blue candle between her short fingers. Dannas’ woman was a tall attractive strawberry-blonde with a golden candle, Murket’s woman was a raven-haired beauty with a lavender candle, Ollos’ woman was a short, squat, and cute brunette with a spring-green candle, and Jomachus’ woman was very pretty, with sandy-blonde hair and a silver candle.

Denetor saved Pallan’s inspection for last, because Pallan’s woman was surely like Denetor’s, plain and bare of quality.

Pallan’s woman was a tall and stunningly-beautiful platinum blonde, gorgeous in every aspect, and in her soft hands, she bore a tall and imposing blood-red candle, the largest and most striking of the gifts presented to them.

Denetor inwardly bristled at this brazen insult. It was clear that the elders thought nothing of him. Worse yet, they thought he was nothing, but this insult would not go unpunished.

“Now receive your candle, young acolytes of the Seven Lights,” stated Old Garren, “and your journey shall begin.”

The plain young woman before Denetor stepped forward and proffered her candle to him.

“Receive the Candle of Mercy, oh bearer of purity,” she said in a practiced tone.

Denetor took his candle, but he was careful not to show his rage. He would deal with this situation as warranted in his own way, and he would do so quickly.

“You may now enter the Halls of Spirit,” called out Garren. “Follow the colors of your candle to your altar, light your candle, and perform the summoning. In each chamber, an offering shall be made, save for the seventh chamber, where only the unlit candle is placed. The offerings are presented on a dais next to the altar of your chamber. In your chamber, your spirit assigned to you, one of the seven spirits of the hearts of men, shall speak to you, and the land shall receive its blessing.”

Denetor took one last look at Pallan, but he was further enraged as Old Garren took the young man aside and spoke to him in private. It was clear that Pallan was receiving even more favor, and this…this could not, would not, go unpunished.

“I will teach him a final lesson,” thought Denetor in grim determination. “That is my destiny.”

He followed the other acolytes into the Halls of Spirit, all save Pallan, who was still with Garren. Denetor waited for the others to pick the hall with the corresponding colors of their candles, and they each took to their designated routes, but Denetor did not enter the white hall. No, he had other plans in mind.

He entered the hall with the blood-red stonework and walked down its narrow corridor. There were torches in sconces on each side of the hall to light the way, so he made his way to the altar chamber with little difficulty.

Within the small chamber was a large flat altar of blood-red stone, and behind it was a huge, ornate, metalwork throne of wrought black iron, the iron twisted to look like daggers, knives, swords, axes, and clubs of varying lengths. There were two lit braziers smoldering away with incense and woodchips on each side of the throne, the smoke lingering upwards towards open chutes in the stonework.

On his immediate right was a dais, and upon it was a long, curved, and wicked-looking dagger with a bejeweled golden handle.

“Humph,” snorted Denetor. “They serve him something more befitting a man, while mine is surely only fit for a child…No matter. I will see justice done.”

He gave himself a grim smile as he took the dagger from the dais, replaced it with his white candle, and waited next to the entrance of the altar room. He then pressed flat against the blood-red wall so that he could not be readily seen.

It was not long before Pallan entered the room. The smug, arrogant young man walked into the center of the small room and looked over at the dais in noticeable confusion. It was clear that the old man had told him about the dagger.

“What is…?” was all he had a chance to say.

Denetor leapt upon him with all the speed of a ravenous wolf. He plunged the curved blade into Pallan’s back, and he did not stop stabbing even after Pallan lay unmoving and lifeless upon the floor in a pool of his own blood. Denetor stabbed and stabbed due to years of pent-up rage, years spent within this pretender’s shadow.

Denetor stood and tossed the bloody dagger aside. His tunic and face and arms and legs were splattered with blood, but he didn’t care. He held the red candle in his hands, his prize that was his and his alone.

“Now, I will take what is mine,” he said angrily.

He lit the blood-red candle by means of the brazier on his left and placed the lit candle upon the altar. A deafening quiet descended upon the room like a shroud, and this spooked him, but only for a moment. He held firmly to his resolve and spoke the words of summoning, because it was his destiny to do so.

“I summon the spirit of this candle so that the hearts of men may receive its blessing!” he said loudly, his arms raised high. “Show thyself, oh Spirit! Come forth and bestow your blessing!”

The brasiers flickered and burned low as a chill descended upon the altar room. Denetor backed away toward the entrance as he was struck with a sudden unnamable fear.

A crimson light picked up around the throne of black metal as a form began to take shape, and then the brasiers went out altogether. There was only darkness now, an unnatural darkness lit by the scarlet glow around the throne.

The spirit sitting in the throne took shape and stood.

Denetor released a chill gasp as his visible breath entered the frosty air around him. His dark hair turned white upon viewing the specter before him, and he had no words or thoughts escape his ice-locked mind. Nothing escaped his lips but a shrill whine to show for his foolishness.

The spirit was a nude, emaciated, and gaunt figure of ghastly quality, headless with a stump for a neck, its skin a rotted grey and brown, and it held up its right arm as if holding a lantern with no light. In its rotted skeletal right hand was a long rusty loop of chain, that chain attached to its own rotting skull by wrought black-iron bolts inserted within each side of it. Those bolts were buried in each side of this spirit’s rotting skull, the skull’s pate missing, as if a sharp blade had taken off the top part of its bodiless head.

The foul spirit reached forth with its left hand, picked up the lit red candle, and placed it within its own skull as if the rotted braincase were a special holder meant just for that. The candle’s eerie light shown through the orbital bone sockets, and the rotted skull’s jaw creaked open to speak in a terrible dusty voice devoid of care or sympathy.

“The offering is accepted,” it said, its terrible voice booming round the small chamber. “Let the Spirit of Murder enter the hearts of men.”

The spirit twisted into a blood-rose of light and flew forward, flying straight through Denetor, leaving a roaring within its wake. It disappeared through the entrance of the small chamber and vanished altogether.

Denetor dropped to his knees and held his head in his hands. He took in several short and panicked breaths before dropping his hands to the floor to support his weight.

He stared at his hands, his hands resting within the pool of Pallan’s blood, as a plan began to form within his young mind.

Normally, there was no way to fix this, but he was not about to give up…This wasn’t his fault anyway. This was all Pallan’s fault, but he knew a way to fix it.

First, though, he would pay a visit to the plain young woman that had been his candle bearer, the one that had handed him the worthless white candle.

He stood, walked over to the discarded dagger, and picked it up with his bloody right hand. He stared longingly at it as he put forth a grim, determined smile.

Yes…He knew exactly what to do.

The Red Candle Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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