The Thief’s Wager: Terror in the Basement

Chapter Seven

The dead girl’s face plagued Chris’s mind; killing any enjoyment his money may bring. Lord Sexton’s final retort hung over him like a soggy sweater. He seemed pleased with the destroyed cathedral; even more so when he believed he had done it. Arson and free reign to kill whoever stood in his way; what kind of person did Sexton think he was? Further still, what kind of person was Sexton? What was clear, was Chris was getting sick of Blue Bloods. But none of that mattered, because as the moon rose over the rooftops, he found himself outside Bayliss’s manor.

From the shadow of the chestnut tree, he eyes the vacant street. A lone patrol sauntered over the stone, whistling a dance hall tune under the lamplight. A lively song, if he recalled correctly, but it wasn’t a time to let his guard down.

The soldier still gripped his sword, and one was more than enough to deal with. Chris counted the echoing steps and waited for him to turn the corner to the next street. Once it was clear, he continued his routine from the previous night.

Once over the wall he spied the remnants of the splintered lattice littering the lawn. Forgoing the window escapades, he went straight to the back door. In and out, he told himself, they’ll be on high alert by now. His gut told him it was a terrible idea; but he had to know.

The urgency pulled his small tool kit from his inside pocket. With nimble fingers he shoved the metal rods into the keyhole and racked the pins inside. The question burned in his skull, even if he got arrested; he needed to know what was behind the rest of the basement doors.

The click of the lock, a harbinger of destruction (or the angel of revelation) granted him access to the house. Darkness greeted him, not a soul present or a candle lit. The lamplight shined through the window revealing the sickly smile of a knife resting on the table. The pots hung over the sink, mocking his hesitance.

The basement door called to him, but his feet remained in the center of the room. He expected hired hands to secure the doors. Men paid to guard a frightened aristocrat. But the room felt like last night was a memory. And the muffled scream from the basement rekindled new horrors.

He thought about leaving twice before he reached the bottom of the stairs. But his feet followed the familiar route, his mind made a note to retrieve more wine before he left. Ignoring the white room with the table with a fearful shudder, he continued to the next door.

Midway through the hall, he paused as muffled cries floated from the iron door. It was rusty like the one from the previous night, but bulbous bumps protruded from the surface. As if something large tried to escape. Another addition was the narrow glass window which was double the thickness of any of the exterior ones.

Inside he saw the long narrow room stretched the remaining length of the manor. Along the wall across from him were rows of dirty chains and clamps secured to the stone foundation. The rocks, uneven and course, were wet. But he wasn’t convinced it was rainwater.

Adjacent to him was a metal rack of assorted whips, knives, and others items he didn’t recognize. The handiwork of a crazed man took their place beside the manufactured devices. Homemade mallets with nails, and whips with glass beads tied to the fraying ends. A vice large enough for a human head leaned against the corner; jagged metal waited to impale the flesh. 

An agonized scream echoed from the furthest corner, followed by an unexpected; maniacal laugh. It forced a chill through his body but he craned his neck to find its source.

A man, in a sweaty shirt, dusty pants and riding boots came into view. Bayliss, wild eyed and panting wiped a sweaty brow before tossing a crumpled form of a man to the floor. Between him and the door was a metal table, holding a selection of Mage staffs and knives. A steady hand chose one of the staffs and tossed it to his prisoner.

“Let’s do this again, give me your best shot,” he laughed. Chris leant as close as he could, almost shoving his face against the damp glass.

“Please, no. I can’t take anymore.” The man cried, but a kick in the stomach was his only answer. Bayliss tossed the staff before the man. A groan escaped the prisoner’s lips as he obeyed. With his back to the window allowed Chris a clear view. The prisoner was bleeding from his head, his face splashed with bruises, and his legs shook from holding the man’s weight. He stood as upright as possible but was still leaning over himself. “Don’t make me do this,” he spat vibrant blood over the wet floor.

“Do it or your limbs are next. Do you favor the left or the right more?”

He held the staff like he knew how to wield it. This wasn’t the usual prisoner but a Mage. He winced as he inhaled and moved the staff in front of his body. When he swiped the garnet across the dirt flames exploded from the gem.

They waited, poised for the order before hurdling through the air to Bayliss. Chris ducked as the impact hit, flooding the hallway with a radiant orange light. It faded, seeping into the room; where he saw Bayliss unharmed in the middle of a void surrounded by sear marks.

The same unbridled laughter cut through the air. As his eyes focused, he noticed he had blocked the attack with just his hand.  His open palm, extended outwards, splashed with grey ash. 

A dull orange like shot from the violet ring on his index finger. It sprayed the ceiling, mixing light and shadow across the surface. Clenching his fist the light retreated into the ring, swirling over the gem.

With a thrust, Bayliss shot magenta flames at the Mage. He held his staff out, a familiar defensive stance Chris saw before, but he was too weak. The flames engulfed him; even the iron door couldn’t hamper the chilling scream. He chuckled, reaching for a bucket in the corner and tossing its contents over him. The Mage choked up a mix of water and blood as Bayliss dragged him to the wall.

Chris darted to the storage room, slipping inside as footsteps echoed through the hallway. The steady rhythm of business as usual made its way to the stairs. He walked like a man without a conscious; without regret. Each sound felt like a hammer to his chest.

But when the sound paused outside the cellar door all Chris heard was the thumping of his heart. He gripped his dagger, a loyal friend; ready to strike. Each attack, parry, and slice played out in his mind. His heart slammed so hard against his ribs he felt it would rupture from his body.

But the footsteps continued. Ascending the wooden steps and disappeared behind the door. His lungs deflated as he sighed; reminding himself to find a God to praise once the night was over.

He swiped a wine bottle from the rack beside him. Cutting the through the wax seal he poured the contents down his throat. He found his courage halfway through a full-bodied red wine before returning to the Mage.

After picking the lock, he slipped inside. The Mage’s bloodshot eyes peered through him. Any remnants of a plan vanished. They stared at one another, hopeless and lost in that basement of pain. The Mage frowned, his arms hanging lifeless over his head, the truth scrawled over his face.

Chris wasn’t the hero he prayed for. A reality Chris wished didn’t sting as it did. With no preamble or promises he sat next to the prisoner. No one spoke, but he studied the embroidery decorating the stained robes. They were filthy but the last time he saw him they were pristine.

“Aren’t you the Mage Bishop from the cathedral? I thought you ran off…” But the truth settled in like sweat cooling on the skin, he had been there since the fire. “Why is he doing this to you?”

“Every experiment needs a test subject.” He coughed; blood dribbled over his chin.

“Is he some kind of twisted doctor or something?”

“He’s evil and he always returns.”

“You said an experiment, what’s he testing exactly?”

“That ring he wears; he’s discovered a way to use our magic against us.”

“Is that possible?”

 “I didn’t think it was.” Approaching footsteps forced his attention to the present. “Get out while you can. Damn prick, makes sure I don’t die right away.”

“What about you?” Chris asked out of obligation. A minuscule part of him felt that maybe, the world would be better off without his kind.

“The Gods have Their plan; we walk Their path.”

The direct authoritarian footsteps outside the door forced Chris into action. He ducked behind the table as the door swung open. Peering from the table’s edge he watched the small bucket in Bayliss’s hands.

Without preamble, he emptied the contents over the Mage’s head. The curdling scream fill the room as the scent of antiseptic tickled his nose. His muscles retract as they react to the chuckle escaping his lips. He stood unfazed as the Mage writhed in his chains.  

Taking advantage of the distraction, Chris creeped from behind the table. His hand reached the handle as a metal ball with spikes bounces against the door frame. Bayliss, poised to throw another, grinned. It flew from his hands, missing Chris’s head by an inch.

He raced to the other side of the table, where the torture devices lay waiting. Bayliss ran his fingers through his hair before selecting the whip from the rack against the wall.

He made a show of testing it, taking his time to strike terror in Chris’s heart. The stiff crack vibrated the air causing the Mage to flinch.

He grabbed the baton on the table as Bayliss flicked his wrist. He jumped backwards, missing the strike but watched an empty can roll to the floor. His adversary leaped at the table, blocking each escape attempt and cracked the whip to herd him in place.

For the first time he faced him head on. No longer lurking in the shadows, Chris saw every pock mark on the side of his temple. His sepia eyes were too close to this narrow flat nose. On top of his high forehead etched with wrinkles, was a mop of chestnut hair which curled over his ears.  

His pinpoint pupils darted around the room, observing everything at once. When they lock on him goosebumps crawled over his skin. The whip flicked and wrapped around the club in his hand and yanked Chris over the table. His muscles tighten as he stretched and the table’s edge dug into his gut.

The baton, slippery in his sweaty palm, jerked. Clutching the tip with his free hand, he braced his feet and pulled. Bayliss, stuck in an unexpected tug o war, resisted. One hand lunged from the baton, clutching the worn leather. Hand over hand he yanked the jailkeeper closer to the table.

“Who are you?” he asked through gritted teeth. He grunted as his tense muscles offered as much resistance as his strength could muster. But his foot slipped and Chris jerked the whip with his last burst of strength. Bayliss staggered forward, tripped, and smashed into the table.

The iron door groan with a metallic screech as he hauled it open with pure adrenaline. It clanged behind him as he raced through the musty hallway. Light, from a lit kitchen flickered behind the gap in the wooden door.

His muscles burned, sweat beaded over his forehead and as his foot touched the wooden step he fell backwards. A hand gripped his shoulder, guiding his falling body to the compact dirt below.

Hands, fists, and elbows flung in every direction. He swatted, slapped, and kicked at anything he thought was a part of his attacker. His head swam in a dizzy of waves but the assault continued. A set of knuckles rolled off his chin. His own punch hit what felt like a shoulder.

The impact from a boney jab burned in his gut. Cartilage cracked and shuddered under his fist. A scream and the weight lifted from his chest. Wasting no time, his was on his feet, racing up the creaky steps. The door slammed against the wall and warm candlelight greeted him.

“My face!” his manic scream echoed from the doorway. His body cloaked in darkness as shadows flicker across his face. His nose, bent at an angle dribbled blood over his chin onto his white shirt.

With each curse and scream Chris retreated towards the ext. His hand grazed the latch as Bayliss furious stare met his. Grabbing the knife from the table he leaped onto the surface, racing towards him.

A click of the metal latch followed by the slam summoned the fresh evening air over his face. He didn’t look back; the frantic footsteps told the story well enough. Through the iron gate Chris sprinted to the street where the lamplight guided him through the evening fog.

Bayliss’s voice rang through the air, no doubt alerting any patrol nearby. He watched the edges of the mist, searching for the sign of the guards. His heart raced with every pound of his feet across the cobble stone.

“Over here sir!” Shouted a gruff voice from his left.

New footsteps, fueled by the urge to stomp out injustice gave chase. As they closed in, he sought an escape route. He didn’t know the alleys as well, many ended abruptly with high walls. He snaked through the neighborhood, passing darken homes and stray cats.  

A hammer like fist smashed into his back, knocking the air out of his lungs. Staggering to his left he avoided another blow. His own punched rolled off the soldiers bristled chin. He kicked, striking the gap between the two plates of steel on his torso.

He recoiled, guarding the vulnerability, but Chris went for it. Each kick landing as he timed the attack between punches. A leather clad fist slammed into his cheek and sent Chris tumbling to the ground.

The street swirled around him and a hearty chuckle rang from above. As the soldier shuffled forward, Chris gripped the slimy stone and swung his feet under the man’s legs. As he tumbled, he fled, ducking into the mist.  

Another soldier barked orders as he chased him through the fog. Chris scanned the road for an escape and found a low hanging roof ledge. Under it a boarded-up flower stand laid abandoned on the corner.

Urging his feet to move, he forced himself to get to the flimsy structure. Like a stairway, the barrels and boxes made a path to the roof. The flimsy plywood and tacks rocked under his weight. His hand gripped the gutter to the neighbouring building but his foot jerked. A red faced and sweaty soldier clamped his hand around his ankle.

“You aren’t going anywhere,” he huffed.

His muscles burned as he heaved himself over the ledge. Gripping the tile, he donkey-kicked, sending the soldier crashing through the stand on to the sidewalk below. The swearing echoed behind him as he raced over the rooftop. Following the lamplights, he reached the canal where the oil like water meandered through the kingdom.

In the distance the giant factory machines hummed, singing a mechanized lullaby as the people slept. The fog descended over the rooftops dusting the building in their damp blanket. Looming from the mist was the towering castle, its windows aglow as the lords drank, partied, and plotted. Was Bayliss apart of their master plan or was he something entirely different?

A chill crawled over his skin, urging him to keep moving. No rest for the weary, he sighed, climbing over darken balconies until he planted his feet on solid ground. Shoving his hands in his pockets he crosses the bridge, leaving the wealthy and their wrath behind.

But each movement is a reminder of the battle he barely survived. His muscles ached, and he felt the bruises form under his sweat soaked shirt. His lungs burn, and each breath reminding him he’s alive. There was a peacefulness floating over the vacant streets.

It was the time of night when even the basic near-do-wells called an end to their mischief. Only two types of people walk the streets at this hour, those who live restless with their regrets or those who…

A dog’s foamy snarl rose from the gap between two lopsided buildings. Ignoring the clatter of crashing debris, he shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and walked on. But the barking nipped at his shoes, following him from the shadow.

Scurrying rats zig zagged across his path, a swarm of them, rarely are they that organized. He kept his eyes down until he crossed another bridge, this time closer to his beloved district. But the uneasiness settling over his bones didn’t fade. His feet quicken their pace as he fights the urge to look back.

He watched the entrances to alleyways, darken stoops and blacked out windows. He struggled to keep his pace even, hoping to avoid tipping the stalker off. His heart crawled into his throat as footsteps echoed in the distance.

It was a walk of an urgent man; heavy, hard soled, and closing the gap between them. Stay calm, he reassured himself, but he gripped his dagger’s hilt, nonetheless. The pace quickened, fearless even, considering the slippery cobblestone under their feet. He swore he felt the hot breath on his neck as the man slipped by him; the edge of his cloak whipping his leg before he vanished into the fog.

There were two people who walked the streets at that hour, one lived a life haunted by regrets. The second hunted the other.

Venture a head to Chapter Eight: Spies Among Them

Revisit Chapter Six: Tarnished Silver

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