This semester, in place of my poetry class, I’m taking a class called Narrative Writing. The first half of the class focuses on the writing of short stories, which I have always had difficulty with. The second half, which we have not yet gotten to, will focus on novel writing, which I am very familiar with.
Written below is the second of the short stories I have written for class. It is called “The Angels’ Secret”. I got the idea from a dream I had several years ago. Hope you enjoy the story, and please feel free to critique it afterwards (nicely, of course).
The Angels’ Secret
Dark, boiling clouds and distant grumbles of thunder echoed over the mountain tops as Ian Halley darted up the steps of St. Olen’s Cathedral. He paused under the archway that sheltered the cathedral’s two enormous bronze doors to look back the way he had come. The wide gravel lane wound down the mountainside, dodging between towering cliff faces and disappearing around the bend. A steady drizzle had begun to fall by this point, the grey light casting shadows over Ian’s tall, muscular frame and unruly, dark brown curls.
The young man reached into his pocket, pulling out a tarnished silver pocket watch. He flipped open the cover and glanced at the slowly turning hands. A quarter after eleven. Thank goodness he had made it in time. With the enormous crowd of pilgrims not more than an hour behind him, he didn’t have long to poke around undisturbed.
Quietly, Ian slipped the watch back into his pocket and turned to the cathedral doors. A moment later he was standing inside the massive sanctuary St. Olen’s was known for. A long, red and gold aisle runner stretched from the sanctuary entrance to the elevated platform at the opposite end of the room. Long benches, scuffed and polished by decades of use, extended to the right and left of the aisle runner, their seats worn bald by fidgety votaries and pilgrims. A balcony hovered over the sanctuary entrance, a gold-plaited organ spanning the length of it.
After scrutinizing the sanctuary set-up, Ian reached into his coat and pulled out a little pocket book and lead pencil. He flipped through the pages as he wandered down the center aisle and paused when he found what he was looking for.
“Angels,” he murmured, glancing up from the book and looking around.
It wasn’t like images of angels were hard to find here. Carved stone statues of angelic figures graced cubby-holes between the stained-glass windows, and even the windows themselves bore the forms of winged, haloed seraphim. After jotting down a few notes in his booklet, Ian glanced up at the ceiling, a chaotic collage of celestial nuance. The paint had long ago faded into varying hues of cream, grey, pink, and green, but the shapes themselves were still clearly defined.
“Welcome, my son,” came a voice from behind.
Ian spun around on his heels, hurriedly tucking the notebook and pencil inside his coat again. There before him stood an older man with a ring of neatly-trimmed, grey hair and clad in an ornate robe of white, silver, and gold.
“Oh, uh, thank you,” Ian replied quickly, smiling and bowing to the older gentleman. “I was just…admiring the beauty of St. Olen’s.”
“It is quite remarkable,” the older man agreed, putting his hands behind his back and staring up at the ceiling. “Our meager budget does not do it justice. If only we had the money to repair the place properly, I know it would be grander still, though that may indeed be hard to believe. This place has been a mysterious beauty for ages, ever since St. Olen himself first caught a glimpse of the gates of heaven from this very spot.”
The aged churchman had sauntered over to a different portion of the aisle as he said these last words, pausing to look up at the ceiling once more.
Ian, too, glanced up. The older man was now standing in the very center of the room, looking up at the ceiling above him on which the image of a great, yawning portal was painted, a pair of pale golden gates swung wide, their edges obscured by rolling clouds and angels’ wings.
“You are the first of the pilgrims to arrive,” the older man continued, looking over at Ian.
“Yeah,” the young man laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I have a habit of being early.”
“That is not a bad habit to have,” the churchman nodded. “I am Bishop Guthries. And you?”
“Zach,” Ian replied. “Zach Hall.”
“Well, Zach, you still have some time before your fellow pilgrims arrive. Please, make yourself at home. The Lord always welcomes extra worship, and St. Olen’s has much in the way of beauty to offer, too. I would not go to the northern courtyard, however. It is in…rather deplorable condition at present. It would be dangerous to venture there.”
Ian bowed again as Bishop Guthries turned and meandered into a back room of the cathedral, probably to tend to last-minute preparations for the afternoon ceremony. Then, once the young man was sure the bishop was out of hearing range, he slipped off through a narrow wooden door in the back of the sanctuary.
The north courtyard. That was where he was headed. Judging by the way Bishop Guthries acted, Ian was sure that he would find something of interest there.
The Cathedral of St. Olen’s, its magnificent spires reaching toward heaven, was not the only magnificent object to be found there on the mountain. The cathedral itself had three courtyards – north, west, and east – and as many as a dozen separate gardens. The eastern courtyard, the one that Ian entered after leaving the cathedral sanctuary, was the most well-kept of the three.
Ian power walked down the cobblestone path that led to the steps of the northern courtyard, high hedge walls pressing in on his left and right. He slowed only slightly once he reached the steps, keeping a close watch on the cracks that zig-zagged down to the base of the stair case.
All of a sudden, he paused, tipping one ear slightly skyward. The faint sound of harp music floated on the wind, a strange melody when combined with the distant sound of thunder. Again the young man picked up his pace, hurrying along the garden pathways in search of the music’s source. The closer he got, the more sure he became that the sound was coming from the northern courtyard.
He came to a stop when he reached the courtyard’s arched entrance. The music had faded away, leaving nothing but silence. Confused, Ian slowly walked toward the opposite end, glancing back and forth in search of some sign of activity. This particular courtyard had more than one level. On the first level was an enormous fountain, its stone pool filled only with dead leaves and puddles of rainwater. In its center, standing upon a pedestal of carved steps, was the image of an angel. Dark streaks, evidence of a weather-worn existence, were etched down her ivory cheeks like the last remnants of falling tears.
The second part of the courtyard was elevated by about six feet, with a flight of stairs on either side. The retaining wall of the second half encircled the lower portion, complementing the rounded fountain below. A small shelter was set up against a wall at the back of this higher courtyard, its high, stained-glass, rectangular windows not more than varying shades of darkness in the low light. The mountain rose up sharply behind that last wall, looming over the courtyard like one of the cathedral’s towering spires. It was to this upper portion that Ian went next, still looking for the source of that beautiful harp music. He had almost entirely forgotten what he had originally come to do.
The young man had just barely entered the higher courtyard when a young woman appeared in the doorway of the shelter. Her long, wavy golden hair fell loosely over her shoulders. She wore a flowing dress of white and gold, elegant sandals, and a jeweled necklace. A simple golden circlet surrounded her forehead.
“Who are you?” the woman questioned as Ian stood dumbfounded at the top of the stairs. “Did Bishop Guthries send you?”
“No,” Ian replied slowly. “Am I…interrupting something?”
The woman glanced back and forth nervously, then motioned for Ian to come closer. He came to a stop in front of the woman, then glanced over her shoulder. The building was heavily shadowed, with another doorway at the opposite end, and a pair of long benches running the length of the shelter on either side. On these benches sat six other women, all wearing the same kind of clothing, with harps, tambourines, and flutes sitting in their laps.
The first woman looked Ian over carefully, from his mop of unruly, dark brown hair and blue-grey eyes to his large, booted feet. The young man shifted uncomfortably under the woman’s scrutiny, but she didn’t take long to sum him up.
“You aren’t a Relic Hunter, are you?” she questioned.
Ian gave a start of surprise.
“What gave you that idea?”
“It could have something to do with that pendant hanging off your belt,” the woman replied, putting her hands on her hips.
The young man glanced down at his belt. Usually, he kept his pendant hidden, but it seemed to have slid forward without his notice this time.
“Okay,” he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “You caught me.”
“So who are you? You never answered my question.”
“Me? Oh, the name’s Ian. Ian Halley.”
Now it was the woman’s turn to give a start of surprise. The other six women began to whisper excitedly to one another.
“You’re just the man we need!” the woman continued, grabbing Ian by the hand and pulling him into the shelter.
“Hush up,” the woman commanded, sitting him down on a bench. “There isn’t a lot of time, so I’ll give you all the details as quick as I can. My name is Alisa Wade. All of us here make up the musical group called the Angels. You may have heard of us before, I don’t know, but that isn’t important. Anyhow, we were asked by Bishop Guthries to sing for the ceremony, so we came a few days early to practice. During one of our breaks, I met one of the groundskeepers, a young man called Pip. He said he had found something really neat and wanted to show it to me. He took me into the crypt, the one that is below us here, and showed me something I had never dreamed of actually seeing. Being a Relic Hunter, I’m sure you know all about St. Olen’s Fire, so I’ll spare you the details there. Pip asked me if we thought he should tell Bishop Guthries about it, and I said I thought so. But when we told the bishop about St. Olen’s Fire, he went fairly mad and demanded that we take him to it immediately. I was rather put off about that, so I told him we would do no such thing. Pip backed me up. Bishop Guthries got some of his acolytes together and told us we weren’t allowed to leave the cathedral grounds until we told him where the relic was. They even took Pip into the crypt last night, but he didn’t come out with them when they returned.”
Ian blinked back at the frantic woman in mild shock, though no other expression crossed his face. Alisa waited only a second before she exclaimed, “Look, Halley, we know who you are. We know what you are capable of doing. You have to find St. Olen’s Fire before Bishop Guthries does or God knows what he’ll use it for!”
For another split second, all was dead silent. But that was as far as it went. All of a sudden, Ian burst out laughing. He laughed so hard, in fact, that he doubled over, his arms crossed over his torso.
The women stared back at him dumbfounded.
“Please forgive me,” Ian replied at last, standing to his feet. “This really is no laughing matter, aside from the fact that St. Olen’s Fire is the whole reason I’m here.”
“You mean you didn’t come for the pilgrimage?” Alisa queried wonderingly.
“No. Pilgrimages of this sort make me uncomfortable. I feel like I’m worshipping a person more than I am worshipping God. But that is another conversation for another time. I’ve got all the equipment I need to get the relic, if you will be so kind as to show me the way.”
“Umm…” Alisa said, extending her right foot for him to see. A metal band with a trailing chain was wrapped around her ankle. “I’m afraid we can’t help you there.”
“I see. Alright, well, just give me directions and I’ll find it.”
The woman looked even more sheepish.
“I…would have to see it to say for sure. It was so dark and everything looks the same down there.”
“Okay,” Ian sighed, stepping out the door, “back to square one I suppose.”
He reached into his coat and pulled something out of his pocket, handing it to Alisa.
“There’s no time to try a new plan, but you can still help me if you use that. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon.”
The crypt was already lit when Ian set foot on its sandy floor. Trails of footprints marched back and forth in multiple directions. His adversaries seemed to be having little luck.
Again the young man flipped through his notebook.
“Follow the sun and where he sleeps…” Ian murmured under his breath.
There were two corridors to choose from.
The young man reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocket watch. Flipping the tarnished silver piece over, Ian flipped a tiny latch. The back cover flipped out to reveal a compass face.
“If the sun rises in the east, that is where he’ll sleep, too.”
The young man turned to the corridor on the right. That was where he would go.
The crypt echoed menacingly as Ian walked along. A beehive of archways to nowhere and shadowed corridors sprang off to the left and right. In between were benches carved into the stone walls, with pairs of ghastly residents stretched stiffly across them. Lighted torches cast flickering shadows against the bleached skulls that acted as headrests for the mummified saints who reclined there. The crumbling walls cast showers of dust and stone particles toward the path every now and again, adding to the eeriness of the atmosphere. This was no crypt. This was a catacomb.
Ian paused under a torch to examine his notebook again when, all of a sudden, a blood-curdling wail split the silence, causing the young man’s hair to stand on end. Shivering, he set off in search of the sound. He had been in tombs before, but not once had there ever been a sound quite like that.
Now almost anything made him jump: the dancing shadows, the gaunt, sightless stares of the skulls that decorated the catacomb walls, the hiss of falling debris…even the sound of his own footsteps.
He had just turned a corner when the wail again echoed through the chambers. The young man paused in front of one crumbling wall. The image of an angel could be faintly seen painted there, her serene, content air a stark contrast with the dark, foreboding atmosphere.
Quickly Ian glanced in his book.
“Where she who guards my Eversweet, yes, she who guards the fire…”
The young man began to feel along the edges of the wall, but his careful scrutiny was cut short by a third wail, this time so loud that it set his ears to ringing. The sound seemed to be coming from the hall to his immediate left.
Tucking the book back into his coat, Ian slunk along the corridor. An extra portion of light flickered in the archway of a chamber at the far end. The young man breathed in deeply, his back against the wall, then he peeked around the corner.
“Give in and I will end your suffering,” came a familiar voice.
Yes, that was the old churchman, Bishop Guthries.
Ian craned his neck a little further and a wave of nausea swept over him. It was a sickening scene there in that catacomb chamber, rings of eyeless heads staring at rivers of dripping blood and black cloaked figures. A young man, certainly no older than Ian himself, had been strung from the chamber ceiling by his wrists, his clothes almost entirely stripped from his body. A set of iron weights had been tied to his ankles, and evidence of whip lashes could be seen from his shoulders to his thighs. Three men stood in a circle around the poor wretch, one holding a bloodied whip, one holding a glowing brand that had been pulled from the burning embers of a fire at the back of the chamber, and one standing in front of the victim. The one standing in front was definitely Bishop Guthries.
“We’re going to try this one more time,” the older man said. “Where is the Fire?”
The torture victim, who Ian figured to be Pip, uttered a string of low, unintelligible words.
“Where is the fire, Pip?”
The man with the brand raised it to the victim’s side. A piercing wail exploded down the corridors.
“ANGEL!” Pip wailed. “ANGEL!”
“Your ‘Angel’ won’t say anything,” the bishop huffed. “And we can’t do anything to her without inciting an investigation. So it’s up to you. Tell me, where is St. Olen’s Fire?”
Pip’s head rolled back and forth in agony as the brand holder returned from the hot coals. Now not only frustrated but furious, Bishop Guthries snatched the brand out of his comrade’s hand, hovering the glowing iron in front of Pip’s chest.
Ian clutched at the wall next to his left hand. His fingers sank into a pair of holes in the wall and he would have nearly jumped out of his skin had he not taken control of his reflexes. Quickly he pulled his hand away and glanced back. His fingers had sunk into the sockets of a skull in the wall. It was then that Ian noticed something else: the skulls here were slightly loose.
The young man glanced around the corner again. Bishop Guthries was still threatening Pip, but he hadn’t used the brand yet.
Ian dug around in his coat pocket. All he had were a pocket knife and a lock-picking kit. Nothing worth fighting with, but still greatly useful. He pulled out the pocket knife and flipped it open. The blade glittered in the dull torchlight. Carefully he worked the knife up under one skull, gently popping it out of its resting place and turning back toward the gory scene.
“You insolent fool!” Bishop Guthries fumed. “If you won’t tell me where the Fire is, I’ll make you feel its heat!”
The older man made as if to plunge the brand into Pip’s chest. Quickly, Ian chunked the skull in the bishop’s direction, clonking him in the head and causing him to stop mid-strike. He turned toward the archway like a startled viper ready to strike. He growled when he saw Ian standing in the center.
“Mr. Hall,” he snarled. “How did you get down here?”
“I’m not Zach Hall,” Ian replied coarsely, trying not to focus on Pip and the pool of crimson below him.
“My name is Ian Halley.”
“Ian Halley?” Bishop Guthries gasped. “The Relic Hunter?”
“That’s right. And I’m here for St. Olen’s Fire.”
“So you know where it is, too.”
“Where? Where is the Fire?”
Ian grinned broadly.
“You’ll have to catch me to find out.”
Instantly the three cloaked men dashed toward Ian, who hadn’t waited to see if they would follow. He was already pounding down the corridor toward the wall with the image of the peaceful angel. His palms struck the stone as he groped for some sort of hand-hold, lever, or button. The bishop and his comrades rushed towards him. His fingers found their hold and he shoved at the wall, which swung backwards like a door. In he stumbled. No time to close the door. His eyes locked on a jeweled sword sitting above a stone sarcophagus. He lunged for it, using the sarcophagus as a step up, and, pulling the blade from its sheathe, turned to face his pursuers.
In came Bishop Guthries and his two followers. They stumbled to a stop before Ian.
“Where did you get that?” the older man questioned.
With one hand, Ian pointed back behind him, not daring to take his eyes off his enemy.
“What is it?”
“Don’t be smart with me,” the older man snapped. “How did you find this place?”
“I had the key.”
“The key? What key?”
“The key to St. Olen’s Fire.”
“The Fire? Where is it?”
“That is a sword.”
“I know. This is St. Olen’s Fire. Don’t you know the story?”
“Of course I know the story. God gave St. Olen a power called The Fire which could consume anyone. St. Olen subdued every one of his enemies with it, turned every heart toward his purpose. It was power!”
Ian held his hand out toward the blade in a sort of “ta-da!” motion.
“But…St. Olen never fought,” the bishop argued.
“Well, if you don’t believe me, shall I try it?” Ian suggested, fingering a trigger-like decoration on the hand guard.
Bishop Guthries opened his mouth to speak, but could not say anything before he was interrupted.
“That won’t be necessary Halley,” came a feminine voice from behind.
The group turned to see Alisa, a group of about a dozen guards surrounding her.
“It’s a good thing these guys came with the pilgrims. Otherwise, it looks like things could have gotten messy around here.”
With that, the guards rushed into the chamber, grabbing Bishop Guthries and his comrades and ushering them out the door.
“I see you found it,” Alisa said at last, coming up beside Ian.
“St. Olen’s Fire.”
Ian looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
“You thought this was St. Olen’s Fire?”
“Yes,” Alisa replied slowly. “Is it not?”
“No,” Ian replied, putting the sword back in its sheathe and returning it to the stone rack on which it had been resting.
Without a word, the young man exited the room, grabbed a torch from its holder, and returned to the chamber. He handed the torch to Alisa, then hopped up on top of the sarcophagus, running his hand along the mantle-like formation on which the sword sat. Pausing, he pulled out his pocket knife and set to work. A moment later, he pulled out a hidden drawer, using his pocket knife to wiggle it free. He carefully lifted a small object out of it and extended his palm toward Alisa.
“A ring?” she questioned, eyeing the golden band that rested in Ian’s hand.
The ring sparkled brightly as the torchlight glanced off the diamonds and rubies set in it.
“Yes,” Ian nodded, holding the ring up and admiring its beauty. “St. Olen’s wedding ring to be exact.”
“But why is it called St. Olen’s Fire if it’s nothing more than a ring?”
“Oh, it’s a sappy story, really. St. Olen supposedly had a temper, but when he fell in love with his wife he said he began to change. He became more patient, and she taught him how to win people over through gentleness. It’s the ‘heaping coals of fire on their heads’ sort of thing, I guess.”
“How did you know all this?”
Ian pulled the notebook out of his pocket and waved it to her before returning it to its resting place.
“His journal,” the young man replied, returning the ring to its resting spot and shoving the drawer back in.
“His journal? Wait. What are you doing?” Alisa inquired as Ian grabbed the sword off its stand again.
“Taking the sword,” Ian shrugged. “The more I think about it, the more guilty I feel for taking some dead person’s wedding ring. But the sword is nice, and I’m sure it’ll fetch a nice sum at auction.”
“Really?” Alisa questioned indignantly. “I thought you were a Relic Hunter, not a tomb robber.”
“What’s the difference?” Ian shrugged, heading toward the doorway. “We both make money taking old things from dead people.”
The young woman groaned, then said, “Wait! Don’t forget this!”
Ian turned back and Alisa dropped a lock pick in his hand.
“These things definitely come in handy,” the young man grinned, grasping the metal pick. “Now, let’s see if I can unlock your friend without losing my breakfast.”