Chapter One: Sermon in the Alley
The fire licked the edges of broken glass; casting ghoulish shadows over the dirty street. To the joy of the onlookers the last Mage cathedral stood engulfed in flames. Their ovation from the collapsing beams crushes the dismay of the worshippers. As the heat boils the air, Chris who watches from the adjacent rooftop, notices men placing barrels over the water pumps. When the Fire Wardens arrive, pulling their horse-drawn carriage, they meet the jeering crowd. Dressed in yellow cotton uniforms, the Wardens spring from the carriage but fail to find the desired pumps. Their mission becomes a farce as their fed wrong directions, resulting in men standing helpless in the mud holding their flaccid hoses. One Warden discovers the deceit and punches the bystander sitting on the barrel concealing the pump. A fight ensues, pulling the crowd’s attention from the fire to the men boxing in the mud.
The Mage bishop, a heavy-set man, yells at the rowdy congregation; his voice piercing the commotion. Waving his Garnet staff, he vows swift judgement upon those defacing the Holy House. His clothes were, unlike the rest of Lollardum, exquisite and pristine. He garners no sympathy from the mocking crowd as he sobs at the base of his burning church. He attempts to use magic to prevent the flames from spreading, but the mob swarms him. The irony isn’t lost on Chris as he watches them beat the one man capable of extinguishing the fire before it ravages the neighbourhood. They rip the staff from his hands; a dazzling garnet the size of his fist, disappeared within the crowd.
Fires are always a source of amusement in the district. Gang leaders bribe the Wardens to set fires so thieves can steal from the rubble. Even now, Chris’s rivals wait in an alley below for a chance to grab what lays behind the tumbling timbers. His lips curled as the cathedral burned; amazed no one had set fire to it before. It was one of the oldest and tallest in the district; some say older than the castle itself. The shadows across the gargoyles ghastly expressions demanded a sense of awe. If he was a believer, then this nightmarish sight might manifest as an omen of a horrible judgement to come. But he sold his soul to another, more powerful religion. The flames hissed like a demon as the Wardens pumped water onto the building. His knees cracked as he stood; brushing the dirt from his pants. Time to get to work, he thought to himself rolling his stiff shoulders, gotta show these pups how it’s done.
He considered breaking the front door like his rivals but concluded it was too brazen for his taste. Instead, he navigated through the shadows of the rooftops. Through the rancid alley and over the crumbling wall protecting the private grounds. Rotting vegetables sprouted from the garden beds; a reminder of the poisoned soil plaguing the kingdom. He throws his shoulder against the forgotten entrance at the south west side. The rusty hinges creak, he pushes against it. The latches give way sending a rush of heat and smoke racing into the cool evening air. Donning the handkerchief over his nose and mouth he faces the hellfire within. The door leads to a spiral staircase cluttered with abandoned chairs. Fumbling through the dark, his feet find their footing and climb the uneven steps. He grabs a discarded piece of iron and forces the door at the top of the stairs open; entering the cathedral’s porch. At daylight, it’s a plain room, decorated with marble to match the rest of the building’s architecture. On either side lies a locked door.
Back when they observed the Mage Holy days, pilgrims would travel to this cathedral to pay homage. The procession would enter one staircase, pray before the altar, and exit down the second. Those pilgrimages ceased years ago, but why shouldn’t he benefit from the architect’s efficient floor plan? He pauses to get his bearings and hears cracking timbers and muffled shouts of the looters. The religious types kept their riches by the altar; it wasn’t a trade secret. But unlike the looters, he had a plan; he always did. Despite his lack of religiosity, he frequented the church daily for the last two weeks. He memorized the layout, the number of pews, counted the steps to the altar, and, of course, every exit and entrance.
Despite the sweltering air burning his lungs, he counts his way across the transept to the crossing. The two sprawling hallways intersected under the vivid dome ceiling. The rows of stained-glass windows would bathe the room in the afternoon sunshine. Tonight, flames and crumbling debris assaulted the two-story building. The decorated sculptures bathed in glowing fire. Vibrant murals twisted into sinister warnings as the fire corrupted their angelic faces. Heavy cracks echo across the dome, the beams supporting the top-level snaps; sending pews cascading to the floor below.
The hollering grows louder, muffled by the thick smoke. As he counts across the quire his toe hits an immovable force. He clasps the dagger at his hip, the smoke reveals an overbearing figure before him; her metallic eyes stare into his. She’s nothing more than the cast iron statue of the Goddess the Mages worship. But the meaning behind the encounter isn’t lost; he faces the Goddess of Death as he steals from her burning Home. The omen might deter a religious man but, nowadays, gold was more valuable than prayer and he worshipped all things that shine. Replacing the dagger in its sheath, he maneuvers past the statue and the other four located in the centre of the cathedral.
He heaves broken pews to the side, revealing a scorched rug hiding a secret entrance to a cellar. Ever since it’s discovery last week he’s dreamt about the treasure underneath. His lungs ache, the smoke clings to his throat and nostrils. But he forced his muscles to lift the hatch, slipping under and descending the stairs into the darkness. How many criminals escaping prosecution did the priests hide here? Or was this used to store rare valuables? Under the ancient marble floor, he was free from the flames but the chaos above knocked loose dirt from the supports. His feet navigated the worn steps which curve further into the abyss.
A whoosh cuts the air as he ignites a discarded torch. Through the darkness he fumbles past crates and barrels stacked to the ceiling. Tuck in the corner, behind forgotten chests and bundles papers is a stone altar. In the cracked mirror, he caught a glimpse of his smudged face peeping from the handkerchief. It conceals his perfect grin. His natural charm, and a few flattering words got him far; all things considered. But appearances age, which was why he honed his intellect to survive. He wondered if, in another life, he would be a legitimate businessman or a scholar. But he shook those thoughts from his head; resolving to play treasure hunter at the present.
Abandoned in a dusty vase is a crisp wilted lily; standing guard over a faded bundle of blue cloth. With steady fingers he pulls away the corners, spying the desired golden bell. His lips curl as he admires the crafted swan on the handle; when rotated the creature appears to fly. He couldn’t read the engraved symbols, but he felt they held significant importance. Why his client wanted it he didn’t know. But a happy client meant a paying client; and a paying client, in turn, made him happy. A crash above rattles the crumbling beams. His agile hands wrap his prize and shoves it in the satchel before he stumbles to the stairs, bracing himself against the vibration rocking the foundation. He darts up the steps, regretfully leaving priceless treasures behind.
The cathedral shuddered as a crack slithered across the painted dome. As he climbed over a pew, something clutched his ankle, sending him crashing to floor. Through the smoke he saw blacken fingers with a death grip around his leg. He kicked the fingers against the debris until they crack open, releasing him as the final beams snap. Sprinting through the smoke he reached the porch. Pushed through the splinters of the broken door; and tumbled down the stairs. With blurry vision he dragged himself through the exit and into the mud. Ashen muck coats his clothes as he pulled his heavy limbs over the flat garden stones. Behind him the fire crackled and popped echoing his unfavorable demise. His blacken fingers touch the damp stone wall and he hoisted himself over. Falling over the uneven edge he landed on a trash pile, spilling himself and the contents over the alley.
Clutching his head, he staggered to the street where most of the crowd had dissipated. Leaving only the enthusiasts behind. Crimson swirls with the thick mud at their feet. Like an artist’s palette; a mess splattered over a porcelain plate. He recalled the Mage Bishop; trying to shake the guilt worming in his chest. But what could he do, the truth was the pack always turned against an outsider. He was a kid when he first witnessed their unhinged violence. United by intensity, they resembled a pack of dogs. Their bloodlust shook him to the core; leaving him trembling behind a crate. They carried the Mage to an alley and left him in the decaying trash. He never forgot the wheezing sound his lungs made. He wanted to know his name but at the same time, he was afraid; even then he had learned no one stays around.
The building which marked the landscape was an empty shell of its former glory. Ashen timbers and broken shards of rainbow glass was all that remained. Tomorrow will be strange, he thought to himself. He walked past the building often, even admiring its robust silhouette against the night sky. It was hard to think of an evening without the iconic structure cutting the skyline. The flames hissed as the firehoses hit their mark. Golden fingers clawed at the shadows as the fire fought against the science of man. Shouts from the Wardens summoned each other to the offensive; dosing emerging hot spots as fast as they form. A crash sounded behind him, forcing his attention to the abandoned alley.
“Did you see that?” A woman screamed beside him, yanking on her husband’s shirt sleeve. “A creature, I swear there were two glowing eyes staring at me.”
“Marie, get away with ya, there’s nothing there.”
Chris pulled the leather strap closer to his chest before walking in the opposite direction. Marie pleaded to the bystanders, eliciting both sympathy and annoyance from those willing to listen. Her shrill reiteration clung like fishhooks, it grasped his imagination and dug deep. His feet wanted to run, but he forced a quick but moderate pace. He forced his eyes forward, fear bubbled in his racing heart. Not prone to hysterics, he would usually dismiss such ramblings. He didn’t want to believe, but he swore he saw it. What she saw. The dark shadow with glowing ember eyes. In a blink it was gone. But he wasn’t sure. And he didn’t want to meet the owner of the footsteps following him.
A routine heist cascades into chaos as the Cathedral burns to the ground. But when a paying client demands the best, Chris O’Connell accepts the challenge. However, this might be one client he wished he never met. A new dark fantasy that reminds us that curiosity is sometimes a curse.
For more check out Chapter Two: Family Ties