CHAPTER 7 – INSIDE THE CATHEDRAL
Azroth kicked a rat that scurried in front of his path before it could bite at his toe. Gabe and Ariel walked behind him as they snuck along the sewers beneath Lambswell. Ariel had been furious with him when he told her about his last excursion to the cathedral and barely escaping death at Riddick’s hand again.
“After burning his pretty face like that, you know you’re a dead man to cross the canal again, right?” she’d said.
He did know.
“And where does that leave me?”
That he didn’t know.
Ariel had become more than his best friend in the past two years. She was tough. She’d survived her own run-ins with Riddick and even came out of them without a scratch on her at times. But being a street kid wasn’t just dangerous. It was lonely. Any time one of the kids from the Haggis died from wounds or illness, the loss was a profound blow to all of them, especially since none of them got a proper burial. Azroth couldn’t do that to Ariel.
“If those rats get any bigger, they might try to eat us,” Gabe said, his eyes wide.
“I just hope Gil knows his rights from his left,” Ariel said.
Azroth shifted the torch to his left hand. “I still can’t believe that kid used to live down here before he came to us.”
“There’s a reason he stinks,” Ariel replied. “If you’d spend the last year living in a place like this, you’d stink, too.”
Azroth had to agree. Gil had to be one of the cleanest of the Haggis kids, yet he still smelled atrocious most of the time.
“Gil said we should travel along this tunnel until we reach the red ladder. According to him, that will put us one street away from the cathedral,” Gabe said.
“I see it, up ahead,” Azroth said, and he swallowed hard. If Riddick’s crew were loitering in this street, he, Gabe, and Ariel would be dead for sure.
Once they arrived at the ladder, each took hold of a rung, and Azroth whispered to the fire in his torch to sleep. The flames immediately extinguished, leaving only a glowing ember at the tip.
Gabe’s voice shook in the darkness. “It’s unnerving the way you can talk to fire like that. But what eats me is how you two’ve hidden that ability for the last five years. Don’t you know how useful that would have been on some of our other jobs?”
“I was a Balli, remember?” Azroth said. “Nearly every kid in Ballitus can play with fire to some extent. That’s why if they ever attack Lambswell, the best place to hide would be down here, or in the countryside. There’s too much wood for the fire to eat in this city.”
“But I always thought your nickname ‘Fire Drake’ was just because of that red tattoo on your arm,” Gabe persisted.
Ariel’s hand found his on the ladder and squeezed it.
“Let’s hope you can keep your theory,” Azroth said grimly.
Azroth pulled himself up the ladder and found the grate leading up to the street. Peering out between the metal bars, he couldn’t see anyone nearby. Lifting the grate, Azroth slipped out, allowing Ariel to take the metal back into position as he slipped into the shadow of a building.
He held his breath, confident Riddick would have someone in the streets near the cathedral. Yet, the way appeared clear. Maybe the hard part wouldn’t be coming topside but actually getting to the cathedral. The wagon with the gem arrived only a few hours ago, but something with that many armed guards was bound to get Riddick’s attention.
Azroth motioned for the other two to join him. Together, they crept along the street until the cathedral came into view. The night sky was filled with clouds, making the darkness appear deeper than it usually would. Azroth was grateful, as it would make their passing harder to see.
Looking around the corner of a building, Azroth searched for their way in. The soldiers had parked the wagon outside the main doors. Four soldiers sat mounted on bored horses that were constantly tossing their heads and stomping the ground. Several soldiers wearing the green livery of the Tellidine king wandered about the perimeter.
Azroth leaned back against the bricks and dragged his hands down his face. This was worse than trying to sneak past Riddick. With that gem inside the cathedral and the soldiers to guard it, this would be next to impossible.
“I’m starting to wonder what you did to incur the wrath of the Vixens,” Gabe said when he’d peeked around the corner as well. “This is suicide. How are we going to get to the door?”
Azroth knew precisely what he’d done, but that wasn’t something he’d share with anyone.
“Get your lock pick ready,” he said. “We’re going to have to be fast. Riddick will know we’re here once I do this.”
“Isn’t there another way?” Ariel asked, glancing up at him. He could see his fear reflected in her eyes.
Gabe looked around the corner again. “What about sneaking around to the other side? There might be fewer guards over there.”
“There might be, but we’re closer to the door we want now. The other doors leave a person too exposed to prying eyes. The one we’re aiming for is a hidden side door that will put us next to the stairwell leading up into the spire,” Azroth explained.
The tip of a knife pressed into the back of Azroth’s neck, and he froze.
“And why are you three trying to get into the spire?” Riddick’s voice purred behind them.
Azroth craned his neck and saw Riddick, angry burns along the left side of his face. A handful of his goons clustered around them. How someone as fat as Hambrick, Riddick’s right-hand man, could sneak anywhere was beyond him.
“I thought you didn’t come here to steal? That you just wanted to look at the pretty building?” Riddick mocked softly, pressing his knife hard to Azroth’s skin.
“It’s not by choice, I assure you,” Azroth said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. The fire prickled beneath his skin, ready to be set loose.
“And why should I believe you? You burned my face with your little fire trick, nearly taking my left eye. Perhaps I should take yours as payment.”
Azroth felt the knife tip part his skin, and hot blood dripped down his collar. He winced.
“The Vixens ordered us to come, or they’d kill us,” Ariel spoke up.
Riddick narrowed his eyes as he studied Ariel. “The Vixens? Since when do you maggots of the Haggis have dealings with the Vixens? They live on this side of Lambswell.”
“Then they must have dwellings on both sides of the city. We’ve worked for them for years,” Gabe said with barely controlled anger.
Riddick’s knife point disappeared, and Azroth placed his palm over the small wound to get it to stop bleeding.
“What did they ask you to steal?” Riddick asked, interested.
“The Sapphire Star,” Ariel answered.
“Strange. That’s what they asked us to steal. Maybe they didn’t trust these slobs you live with to get the job done.”
“Or maybe they’d hoped we’d take each other out along the way,” Gabe muttered, eyeing Riddick darkly.
“We’ve got you outmatched. I wouldn’t try anything,” Riddick warned.
“What would you say to a truce for tonight?” Ariel asked.
Riddick cocked his head. A greedy look on his face. “Are you willing to pay for it, Ariel? The last time I let you go, I said it would cost you if I caught you again.”
Azroth ground his teeth but kept silent. Ariel had told him she’d struck a deal with Riddick the last time she got Azroth out of trouble, but she never gave him the details. He should have left her back at the Haggis. Then the girl he loved would have been safe.
Ariel gave Gabe a look, warning him not to intervene.
“What about part of our profits and a kiss?” Ariel asked.
Riddick licked his lips in anticipation and smiled. “I want seventy-five percent. This is my turf, and I’m sparing their lives. You owe me more than a simple kiss, Ariel.”
She bristled, giving Azroth a glance that he didn’t quite understand. Something else was going on, and he wouldn’t like it once he found out what it was.
Riddick smirked. “I’m waiting.”
“You’ll only get fifty percent,” Ariel said, her hands on her hips. “Without Fen, you won’t get in and out alive. He’s been inside that building nearly every night for the last two years. He knows every nook of where they could be hiding that gem. With guards crawling all over the place, you need us.”
Riddick turned a furious gaze on Azroth, pressing his knife into his neck again. Azroth forced himself not to respond. They needed to de-escalate this. Not make it worse.
“You’ve gotten past me for two years?”
It was Azroth’s turn to look smug. “What can I say? You’re slow.”
Riddick shoved Azroth into the bricks and pulled Ariel into his filthy arms. She didn’t resist, and Azroth’s stomach clenched. If Riddick did anything to hurt Ariel, this farce of a truce was over.
“I catch you again after tonight, Fire Drake, and you’re dead. Ariel’s infatuation with you won’t save your skin a third time. My tolerance is up.”
With that, Riddick pressed his lips to Ariel’s. Azroth expected Ariel to fight back, to resist being treated like this. However, the longer and more passionately Riddick kissed her, the more Ariel leaned into it, wrapping her arms around Riddick’s neck.
Azroth turned his attention to Gabe, who he was confident would be ready to start throwing punches like he did the first time he caught Azroth and Ariel kissing. Though Gabe appeared disgusted, he didn’t seem overly surprised. It dawned on Azroth then that this wasn’t the first time Ariel and Riddick had kissed, and the thought turned his stomach to ice, extinguishing the sparks on his hands.
When they finally let go of each other, Riddick kissed her nose. “Mmmh. How I’ve missed that. Missed you.”
Ariel’s smile back at Riddick faltered as she caught sight of Azroth’s livid expression.
Azroth realized the girl had been playing him. She’d disappear to this side of the city every so often over the past year and never gave him an explanation as to where she’d been or what she’d been doing.
Now he understood.
Once tonight was over, he was done. Riddick could have Ariel.
“If these two die tonight,” Riddick tossed his head at Gabe and Azroth. “Are you finally ready to come to my side of the city to stay?”
“We’ll discuss it after we get the gem out of here,” Ariel said, not meeting Azroth’s eye as he glared at her.
Riddick waggled his eyebrows at Azroth before motioning his goons to back off and stand guard around the perimeter.
“So how are we getting in,” Riddick asked, folding his arms over his chest like an ostentatious peacock, rubbing Azroth’s nose even further in what just happened.
“We need a distraction,” Gabe said, trying to act as though nothing did happen. That Azroth’s sham of a life hadn’t just gone up in flames. “Otherwise, we’ll never get past the guards on the grounds.”
“Leave the distraction to me,” Azroth said, feeling reckless. He’d be the one to turn in the Sapphire Star, and then he’d get himself as far away from here as possible. He’d be rich enough to purchase land and make a real name for himself. “The rest of you get to that pile of dirt. Once the guards disappear around the other side of the building, run to the recessed door around the left side. I’ll meet you there.”
“Be careful, Fen,” Gabe said, clapping him on the shoulder.
Ariel’s pleading eyes found his, trying to offer an apology.
Azroth’s heart turned to stone. He wanted no excuses and no explanations. He’d seen it all. Ariel was Riddick’s. Not his.
The northern crime lord and his goons, along with Gabe and Ariel, crept to the massive pile of dirt and waited.
Cloaking himself further with the shadows, Azroth made his way to the other side of the cathedral. Years had passed since he’d attempted to call on this much power, and he wasn’t sure he could control the fire the way he used to. Yet, with the anger simmering beneath his skin, he was confident he could provide a distraction at the very least.
The wretchedness of jealousy fueled the magic gathering to his fingertips. He’d have to be careful. Otherwise, he’d end up burning down this whole building, which was the last thing he wanted.
A small voice of reason tried to argue that maybe she’d done it to get back at him for lying to her about visiting the cathedral again the other night. Yet, the only reason he started coming to this side of the city was to figure out what she was up to. However, as the cathedral continued to be built, he worried less about what she was doing and more about what he could learn from the stone masons. Maybe he should have continued to care.
Then he wouldn’t have felt like such a fool to have been led on for so long.
Flames shot out from Azroth’s hands before he realized what was happening and jumped back in shock. The flames were more tightly tied to his emotions than he remembered. Was that part of growing up? His birth father, Nero, always claimed strong emotions, such as anger, brought about great power. Wesley, in a sense, agreed. His firm belief that love brought about greater power had been drilled into Azroth’s head so far that he wondered if Wesley had seen the future. Had he noticed how much Azroth’s emotions fueled his gift? Anger was harder to control and burned out quickly. Love burned steadily and was a more reliable source of power.
Yet, if Wesley’s power from love had been so great, why hadn’t the man fought back after his capture by Nero? Why hadn’t he tried to escape from the dungeon? These and other questions chased each other around his mind until he felt sick. Azroth’s arms hung limp at his side.
“Why did you leave us, Wesley? Why didn’t you fight and get Imogen away before our fragile world shattered?” Azroth whispered to the wind. Raising his face to the dark sky, he wanted to shout but kept his voice as a whisper. “Are you happy with what I’ve become? Reduced to a thief, forced to steal from my sanctuary.”
A breeze wafted by him, brushing against the tears Azroth fought to keep in check. Crouching down behind an empty wagon, Azroth drew in quiet breaths to calm himself but couldn’t help asking the skies, “Why did you abandon us?”
It was almost as if Wesley stood next to him as words entered his mind.
I never abandoned you. But some things are worth dying to protect, including you.
Azroth peered around, but he saw no one. The breeze brushed by his face again, and Azroth could swear he felt Wesley’s hand on his shoulder.
Keep going, Ross. The life I promised awaits.
Wesley’s words echoed into the recesses of Azroth’s mind fading into nothingness. Azroth wanted to shout for Wesley to come back, but the soldiers on their horses were making their way over to him. It was now or never.
Azroth conjured a snake thirty feet long and made of flames to slither on the ground. It flickered in and out of existence until he reached for the dragon tattoo on his arm with his mind. The sleeping power of the fire drake stirred, solidifying the snake as it made its way to the horses coming around the cathedral.
The snake coiled up in the middle of their path, and sparks flew from its mouth as it gave a crackling hiss. The horses, who’d spotted the fire snake before their masters, shied away, snorting.
“What is going on?” one of the soldiers said. “Easy, easy. There’s nothin’ to be scared of.”
Azroth urged the snake to dart forward and snap at the horse’s legs. The lead horse reared up and stomped heavily at the red snake. Azroth sent the snake after one of the other horses and grinned as he saw the chaos he was causing. The soldiers couldn’t figure out why their horses had suddenly lost their minds.
One of the soldiers climbed down to soothe the snorting beast. Azroth made the snake attack the man’s boot. The soldier leaped back in fright as the snake tried to bite him repeatedly before slithering away beneath a wagon and disappearing into nothingness.
The horses continued to toss their heads and stamp nervously as they tried to figure out where the snake had gone. Amid the confusion, Azroth darted toward the now unguarded side door, where he found Ariel, Gabe, Riddick, Hambrick, and a wiry boy named Roger. Thankfully the other crime lord hadn’t brought all of his hyenas.
Gabe had the door open, and Azroth led them inside before turning to lock the door behind them.
“You’re locking us in here?” Ariel protested.
Azroth gave her a frosty glance. “I can either do this or when the guard comes by to check it, he’ll notice that it’s unlocked and be alerted to our presence.”
Ariel glared at him reproachfully.
“Where do we go from here?” Gabe asked, missing the exchange.
Azroth pressed his lips together to keep the words he longed to throw at Ariel trapped inside. They would either keep the jewel in plain sight in the chapel or upstairs in the attic. He highly doubted they would keep them in the priest’s dormitories.
He motioned for them to stay put while he checked out the chapel. All he saw was a bored soldier wandering around the empty room. Creeping back to the others, he shook his head before guiding them up the stairwell. A crash sounded behind them, and to Azroth’s horror, Hambrick had bumped into a candelabra and knocked it over.
The bored guard from the chapel came rushing, as would any other nearby guard. Azroth swore quietly before grabbing Ariel’s hand and running to a hidden cupboard beneath the stairs. He pushed everyone inside the cramped space before climbing in himself and closing the door with a piece of fabric over the latch to muffle the sound and ensure they didn’t get locked inside.
The sounds of heavy booted feet pounded down the stairs, and voices called to one another.
“Do you see any sign of intruders?” one man asked.
“I checked the access door, and it was locked,” another voice said. “If there are intruders, they didn’t come in that way.”
Azroth smirked as he could feel Ariel’s scowl on the back of his head.
“Check the alcoves. If someone is back here, they’ll be trying to hide somewhere. Grab a torch.”
The heavy boots tromped back to where the thieves hid. Azroth held his breath but was confident the soldiers wouldn’t think to open the cupboard. They likely didn’t even know it was there.
When Azroth had come here while the major construction was underway, he’d spent a great deal of time wandering about the layout, exploring every cupboard, closet, and room. When this cupboard was finished, it had taken him several hours to figure out that the builders had created it to make it a hidden space. The masonry hid the door’s hinges, and the wood had been plastered in brick fragments to hide what it was.
Azroth thanked the fires of heaven that he’d spent so much time here.
Once the sounds of booted feet left the area, Gabe hissed to Hambrick, “How do you lot steal anything if you’re so careless? That was a rookie mistake and a big one.”
Hambrick didn’t reply, but the atmosphere in the small cupboard rippled with electricity.
Azroth pressed his ear against the door, but he couldn’t hear anything. He let out a small breath—time to go.
He cracked open the cupboard and saw no one. As they all exited the closet, Gabe turned to Riddick.
“You lot are staying here. Ariel, Fen, and I will search the upper rooms,” he whispered.
“So you can ditch us after you find the gem?” Riddick argued. “I think not. We’re coming.”
Gabe gave Riddick a hard stare. “If you come, that one,” Gabe pointed at Hambrick. “stays down here. He can keep hiding in the closet, but he is not coming.”
Gabe and Riddick glared at each other like a pair of dogs ready to fight, hackles raised.
We don’t have time for this, Azroth thought.
“Come on. We need to get moving. But the next person to make a racket like that is getting left,” Azroth whispered.
He led them back out to the stairs. Glancing at the chapel, he saw the guard pacing around, looking more alert than before. Azroth led the others up the stairs and paused at the first level. They had to ditch Riddick. There was just too great of a risk of being caught if they all stayed together. If he were honest, he’d have preferred to do this alone. He’d have had a much greater chance of getting out of here alive. At the moment, the odds were not in his favor.
A guard wandered around the open space of the first level, alert. This task seemed more impossible with every passing moment.
The guard ducked into a room to check it, and the group continued up the stairwell to the next level. As they slowly made their way up the remaining stories, Azroth’s hope grew that they might make it out of there.
Then they reached the attic.
Two guards were stationed up here, and a chest stood between them. Azroth’s heart rate sped up. They were nearly there. As Azroth took a step forward, a quiet cry of pain caused him to turn around. Gabe was slumped to one side, and blood seeped between his fingers.
Azroth’s simmering fury took over. He aimed a fireball at Riddick’s smug face, and Ariel shoved Hambrick down the stairs. Roger, the last of Riddick’s goons, went for Ariel, and Azroth shot him down before he could touch her.
The sounds of Riddick and his goons toppling down the stairs drew the attention of the two guards around the chest, who’d drawn their swords and were barreling their way. Between his rising panic at getting caught and the lack of color in Gabe’s face, the flames danced on Azroth’s fingertips. The dragon rippled on his forearm, itching to be set loose after sleeping for so long. Directing the magic at the oncoming threat, Azroth released the Fire Drake, who burst into life on the wooden attic floor.
The drake licked at the wood, but Azroth commanded it not to touch the floor. The drake curled its head around to glare at him, but it obeyed. The beast advanced on the two Tellidine soldiers, who screamed in terror before turning to run.
Looping Gabe’s arm over his shoulders, Azroth heaved the southern crime lord to his feet. They’d have to hurry to get him out of here alive. Ariel’s face was almost as pale as Gabe’s. Some of his anger at her cooled. Whatever she’d chosen to do to him, Gabe getting hurt was the last thing she’d wanted.
As the fiery drake advanced, Azroth, Ariel, and Gabe stayed close to its tail. They were so close to the chest now. Ariel ducked out from beneath her brother and picked the lock on the chest. A commotion on the stairway alerted him to more soldiers making their way up the stairs and colliding with Riddick and his goons.
“It’s empty!” cried Ariel.
Azroth stared down at the open chest. Blue satin lined the inside, but no treasure hid within. And Gabe was dying beside him. However, the material showed signs of an item resting there not long ago. That meant the jewel was here somewhere.
The drake flared its wing, and the fire within it howled. Azroth whipped his head around to find Riddick prowling forward, his knife dripping blood off its point. Fresh burns covered his face and neck, mingling with the blisters from two days prior.
“That gem is mine,” Riddick snarled. “Give it to me.”
Azroth glanced at Ariel.
“Get Gabe out of here as soon as you see an opening,” he whispered.
“What about you?” she whispered back.
“I’m done, Ariel. I’m not coming back.”
Hurt flickered across her face, but she nodded and came to Gabe’s other side.
“I’m sorry, Fen,” Ariel said. “I shouldn’t have hurt you like that.”
“Too late to take it back now,” he said. “Get ready to go.”
Leaving the fire dragon to keep the soldiers cornered, Azroth slipped out from beneath Gabe’s arm, wincing as Ariel staggered beneath the full weight of her brother, and grabbed the chest by the handles.
“You want it, come get it,” Azroth said before dashing up the stairs leading into the spire.
Riddick was on his heels, knife outstretched.
Coming around the first bend, Azroth kicked open the door to his left and slammed it into Riddick’s face when the young man launched himself forward. The sounds of a knife hammering into the wood frame echoed out in the hallway.
“I had a feeling someone would try to steal the gem tonight, but I hoped it wouldn’t be you.”