When the fire started, no one was prepared.
M’Khand was a quiet, woodland village. The villagers were content, a people of repetitive motions and dreams. They were, by nature, peaceful. Anael preferred the village to be as such, the tranquil wonders leaving his soul warm and swelling. M’Khand was home, an idyllic paradise separated from the rest of the empire.
“Ana!” The youth paused, turned with his load. The basket weighed heavily in his grip, the woven hemp worn and frayed underneath his palms. The group of children made their way to him, eyes large and shining. The girl leading the group paused, propped her hands on her hips and said, “Anael, where’s your sister? I haven’t been able to find her all day!”
Anael smiled. He adjusted his grip on the basket, his voice light as he said, “Bae should be around. The merchant’s in town today.”
“Is she feeling alright?” The girl asked. Anael frowned, knelt and set his load on the stone pathway. Brushing his hair out of his face, he said, “Yeah, she’s feeling better. The illness keeps her bedridden most days.”
The children shared a grin before running off. Anael watched them depart, blinking owlishly as they vanished. He returned to his errand, carrying the harvest-laden basket to the town square. He was setting it down when it happened; a long, deep cry of a horn followed by a tolling bell.
Crimson rolled across the sky like fallen stars, each leaving a trail of black and gray. Anael stared, eyes wide as one veered off course and came, howling, towards M’Kkand. The trees caught fire, leaving the once-green cover of the village a rolling, crackling sea of red. Then his sister’s face flashed through his mind, her restless sleep and terror-filled nights made all too clear.
“Bae,” Anael turned on his heels and ran, raced down the stairs leading into the surrounding village. Around him, the world began to burn. Like a ghost, the firestorm rolled over the once-peaceful town with a fury Anael had never seen before. Like a demon of rage and wrath, the fire surged and ate. “Bae!”
People were running, fleeing from their burning homes. Buildings burst, the wood encased in a twisting kaleidoscope of color. Screams rent the peace, and the people panicked. Anael raced through the streets, shouldered his way through throngs of scared bodies, with a name on his lips.
As he reached the heart of the town, where the temple rose high, he found only a charred husk-of-a-building. Once-white walls were blackened by fire, the doors in pieces on the ground and stained glass shattered. Standing before the building was a young girl, white dress whirling around her pale, thin body.
“Baelfire!” Anael shoved his way past a priest, knocked another down when he tried to grab him. One hand caught his forearm, hauling him backward as Bae slowly turned around. Anael’s eyes widened as he took in the black marks crawling across her body, watching as the damning marks spread. He screamed, thrashed in the priest’s grip. “Run, Bae! Get out of here! Run!”
Her eyes widened. From where he stood, he saw the tears welling up in her eyes. She took one step towards him and the priests. Anael lurched forward, straining against the cold hands holding him as he screamed, “Run!”
She fled. As her white-clad body vanished into the fire engulfing the church, Anael felt a flare of pain slash through him. He arched, body hitting the ground as red stained the back of his shirt. Above him, the priest shouted orders. Then he was grabbed by the hair, his head yanked back as the older man said, “She’s damned, Anael. Marked by Baguul. She will be found and she will be purified.”
Anael laughed. “You will never find her.”
When the blade tore through him, Anael smiled. As he slumped across the burning earth, he watched the temple burn with bright eyes. As night fell, the moon burned a deep, bloody crimson that seemingly reflected the still-burning town. The priests vanished, starlight robes glimmering in the forest as Anael struggled to breath.
The fire came, burning all laid before it. When morning came, M’Khand was nothing but ash and ruin. Already forgotten, a smoldering ruin in a forest ancient and cold. Anael felt a hand brush his hair off his face, felt light fingertips curl the ends of his hair behind his ear. His breathing slow, he felt lips on his forehead and then a heard a whisper.
“Find me, brother,” The pain faded, warmth eating at the chill that had begun to curl close around his tired, battered body. A forehead pressed against his, and, as his mind slipped into the darkness, he swore he heard his Bae whispered, “Find me, Ana, find me when the moon rises and night does not fall. Find me, for I will be waiting.”