The Thief’s Wager: Church Bells and Treasure Troves

Chapter One

A brilliant blaze burned in the theatre district of Lollardum. Onlookers cheered and cried as the last Mage cathedral stood engulfed in flames. Flames licked the edges of broken glass; casting ghoulish shadows on the streets. Chris watched the spectacle from an adjacent rooftop. As the heat boils the air, he notices three men placing empty barrels over the water pumps.      

The crowd’s ovation from the collapsing roof crushed the screams of the worshippers. And the arrival of the Fire Wardens red horse-drawn carriage created a chorus of jeers. The Wardens, in yellow cotton uniforms, sprung from the carriage but they fail to find the water pumps. Their mission became a farce as people offer wrong directions; leaving the team standing helpless in the muck with flaccid hoses. One Warden, with a bushy moustache, yelled at a man sitting on the barrel concealing the pump. The man spat at the Warden, who rolled his sleeves, and punched him in return. Within minutes a fight ensued, pulling the crowd’s attention from the fire to the men boxing in the mud.

A booming voice pierced the commotion. The Mage bishop, a heavy-set man, in black robes, swore at the rowdy congregation. Waving his garnet staff, he vowed swift judgement upon those defacing the Holy House. His clothes were, unlike the rest of Lollardum, exquisite and pristine. He gained no sympathy as the crowd mocked his sobbing form at the base of the steps. They even swarmed him when he attempted to use his magic to prevent the flames from spreading. He alone was capable extinguishing the fire before it ravaged the neighborhood. But the irony wasn’t lost as he watched them rip the staff from his hands. The priceless gem, a dazzling garnet the size of his fist, disappeared within the mass.

Fires were always a source of amusement in the district. The Wardens receive bribes from gang bosses to allow their thieves to steal from the rubble. Even now, his rivals wait in an alley below to take what laid 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. It was hard to believe people once put religion above their physical safety. Although, 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 rooftop shadows. Through the rancid alley and over the crumbling wall protecting the private grounds. Withered and rotting vegetables sprouted from the garden beds. The poisoned soil was another reason why food was an import. He threw his shoulder against the forgotten entrance at the south west side. The rusty hinges creak, he pushed his body 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 faced the hellfire within. The door led to a spiral staircase cluttered with abandoned chairs. Fumbling through the dark, his feet find their footing and climb the uneven steps. Using a discarded piece of iron, he forced 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 paused to get his bearings but hoarse shouts drift over the cracking timbers. 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 kept to the mission. He counted 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.

Pews from the top-level cascade to the floor smashing everything below. The hollering grew louder; they’ll be here soon. As he counted across the quire his toe hit an immovable force. Clasping the dagger at his hip, the smoke revealed an overbearing figure before him.  Her metallic eyes stared deep into his. A cast iron statue of the Goddess the Mages worship. But the meaning behind the encounter sunk into his gut; he faced the Goddess of Death. As he robbed 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 shined. Replacing the dagger in its sheath, he maneuvered past the statue and the other four nearby.

He heaved broken pews to the side, revealing a scorched rug hiding a secret entrance to a cellar. Ever since it’s discovery last week he dreamt about the treasure underneath. His lungs ached, the smoke clung to his throat and nostrils. He forced his muscles to lift the hatch, slipped under, and descended the stairs into the darkness. How many criminals escaping prosecution did the priests hide there? 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 over him. His feet navigated the worn steps which curve further into the abyss.

Striking a match against a discarded torch he ignited the dry cloth with a whoosh. Through the darkness he fumbled past crates stacked to the ceiling. Tuck in the corner, behind forgotten chests and bundles papers was a stone altar. In the cracked mirror, he caught a glimpse of his smudged face peeping from the handkerchief. It concealed 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 was a crisp wilted lily; standing guard over a faded bundle of azure cloth. With steady fingers he pulled the corners, spying the desired golden bell. His lips curled as he admired the crafted swan on the handle; when rotated the creature appeared 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 rattled the crumbling beams. His agile hands shoved his prize in the satchel before he stumbled to the stairs. He braced himself against the vibrations rocking the foundation. He darted to the exit, 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.

The adventure continues: Chapter Two- Family Ties

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