Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Arsonist's Locket

(originally published April 14, 2016, for one of Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges)

Gregor crouched in the darkness and wiped the soot from his hands. No fire had been as satisfying as this one. The house was built like a fortress with grates covering the windows. He blocked the doors to prevent the captain of the guard and his family from escaping. He hoped the pompous duke watched in horror from his commanding view at Bell Rock Manor. The spate of fires across the city were no coincidence. Vengeance spread in memory of Gregor’s dear sister, Sadie, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft.

As industrial innovations accelerated over a few short years, the king and his men saw fit to reform religion. When the decree came, the king unveiled new statues in the capital’s cathedral. Gone were the horned god of the hunt, the sorceress, and the rugged blacksmith. The aspects of the natural world they represented were replaced with austerity. The faces of the gods appeared stern. The new rituals were equally cold; no ecstatic songs were welcome any longer in the redesigned and stark chambers for the congregation. The gods now favored an unyielding aristocracy that wanted to keep the rest of society under tight control. The Old Ways, as they were now called, were not tolerated.

The duke’s men enforced the decree and swept the city for practitioners of witchcraft, making examples of the women and men who chanted over candles and collected seashells and feathers for their shrines. Sadie shunned the decree and continued to read tarot cards for worried wives and young women who yearned for something more than long shifts in the factories that churned out textiles at a rapid pace.

Gregor kept a pinch of her ashes in the locket she gave him on a winter solstice many years ago. He pulled the chain holding the locket from the inside of his shirt and kissed it when the fire reached the top floor of the captain’s house. “For you, dear sister.”

Bell Rock Manor loomed on the steep hill above the city of Raynport. Gas lights around the perimeter of the property replaced the torches of a newly bygone era. He removed a scrap of smudged paper from a pocket and dug out a shard of blackened bone. He reviewed his list. The members of the jury—done. The bailiff who twisted Sadie’s arms until her shoulders dislocated when they hauled her out to the stake—done. The captain of the guard was still screaming, but would be done soon enough. That just left one more.

Gregor glared at the mansion and spat on the ground, wiping his chin with the cuff of his jacket. “I’ll come for you soon enough.” He scuttled deeper into the shadows to enjoy his handiwork.

Nearby, the captain’s deputy reviewed the same list of names on a paper of his own. “I think we know who we’re looking for. Search the area; he’s probably watching. Send a squad to where he lives. I don’t care if we have to search every inch of the city. We’ll catch him.”

The deputy searched the area around the house, shaking his head. “See here, this is where it started. Underbrush piled up under the back porch and set alight. Smell that? Kerosene.”

Gregor sneered in the darkness. So what? You know how the fire started. Soon I’ll write your name on the list using my blacked spur of bone.

An idea flashed. He ducked out of his hiding place in the bushes and dashed down an alleyway. Debris shielded him from detection. When he emerged by the Rusty Cleaver, he crouched again to watch a homeless carny performer entertain a small crowd in front of the tavern. A jar of magefire sat on a crate behind him. An innocuous substance that made it appear as though things were really burning, the magefire caught Gregor’s eye.

 As the carny performer dazzled the small crowd by juggling flasks coated in magefire, Gregor swooped in and swiped the jar on the crate. He resisted the urge to douse himself in the substance and set it alight. The jar fit easily in his coat pocket. He turned the corner to the pyramid of empty barrels behind the tavern. He pulled one from the stack and rolled it to the area where deliveries were prepared. He spotted the reserved barrels for the duke. Prying off the lid, he crawled inside.

He had nothing but time.

Hours later, he was jostled awake as the barrels were loaded onto a cart. He relished each bump in the road—the cart lurched along on its journey, filling him with glee in anticipation of reaching his destination.

The kitchen staff at the manor rolled the barrels into the cellar. From his muffled perspective, he listened to them complain about the duke and his insufferable family. When silence descended, he crawled out of the barrel and looked around.

“Almost too easy.” Gregor jumped at the sound of his own voice. He clasped a hand over his mouth.

And now…to get to work.

He filled his pack with bottles of kerosene he found on the cellar’s shelves. He hoarded matches in his pocket. Before he left the cellar, he opened the tap on a barrel of mead and set the leaking alcohol alight. He whispered a prayer to the god of the forge and snuck into the passageway that allowed servants to pass unseen throughout the manor.

As the first explosion in the cellar rocked the manor in its foundation, Gregor grew reckless. He dashed into rooms and set pools of kerosene on fire without checking whether anyone was watching. With the fire alarming the manor’s residents, panic drove them in search of escape—and in search of the cause. Word of an arsonist on the loose had reached the manor faster than he’d realized.

Gregor set a lace tablecloth on fire in the second floor tea room and ran back into the passageway. Footsteps charged in his direction. The booted footsteps of armored guards. Spotting him, they hollered and gave chase. He ran back into the tea room. Frantic, he charged through the tall window onto the balcony overlooking the back of the manor. The view staggered him.

The back of the manse faced a cliff. Waves crashed on the rocks as the ocean carried in a storm. Lightning cracked the evening’s violet sky.

A table laden with porcelain shattered when the guards tore through the room to get to the balcony. His heart pounding, Gregor raced over the side and climbed down a trellis covered with wisteria in full bloom.

Amid shouting, guards circled around each side of Bell Rock Manor. Gregor ran to the cliffside. Dropping the bag of kerosene, he pulled the bottle of magefire out of his coat pocket and doused himself with it. The guards pulled back.

He clenched the shard of charred bone he’d taken from the heap of Sadie’s remains in one hand, and held the locket in the other. Kissing the locket, Gregor uttered a prayer of homage to his sister. He looked out to sea, where the asylum that once held him stood on a lonely and rocky island stood a short distance away. She had helped him escape. She sheltered him until they took her away from him.

With the flick of his hand, the magefire came to life and consumed him. The guards reared in horror, not realizing the harmless effects. The dive awaiting him, on the other hand, was another matter.

Delighting in being enveloped in magefire, Gregor screamed. Clutching the bone shard and the locket, he leapt from the cliff and into the ocean.

The guards stood over, watching the fire be quenched by the waves. No body lay smashed on the rocks.

“That’s enough of that,” said the squad captain with a shrug. “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

The storm raged above Raynport well into the night. No one saw the figure creep out of the water and into a seaside cave along the bay. No one heard him shout in triumph. He shook his fist at the shadowy asylum on the water, the locket still clutched in his hand.