Kieron looked around the old monastery’s library one more time before arming his incendiary bomb. He’d found the documents he needed, and while it was a shame to destroy so many priceless books – many of them antiques brought to Villar all the way from Earth – it was the only way to hide the importance of his theft.
The timer started ticking down, and he triggered the remote that would summon his ship’s autopilot. Somewhere in the handful of books he’d collected, there was a clue – a clue to the whereabouts of one of the most famous undiscovered treasure hoards of all time. When Earth had been invaded by the Rattanai, the Holy See had moved its archives and its most priceless relics off the planet. In the chaos of that apocalyptic hour, the few entrusted with the secret destination of the treasure had perished. Three thousand years of Vatican archives and stored wealth had vanished, and even the successor pontiffs of the great old church had not been able to recover it.
Kieron didn’t relish the damage he was about to do to the Villarian Monastery, but perhaps if he succeeded he could make an anonymous donation to restore the library and salve his conscience. If he found the lost archives, after all, it would make him one of the richest people in the Reach overnight. Cryptic, hand-written marginalia in the old books tucked under his arm – notes made by a cardinal who’d overseen the archives’ evacuation – could shed light on the hiding-place of the legendary treasure. Deciphering these notes was hardly a sure thing, but Kieron was, as always, optimistic.
Just as he was approaching the library door, footsteps outside brought him to a halt. Pressed to the wall and trying not to think about the incendiary bomb slowly ticking toward ignition not far away, or about the towering stacks of synthetic parchment and antique paper which would quickly spread the flames, he waited for the patrolling monk beyond to walk past the door before gently inching it open and tiptoeing out.
At that moment, there was a flash and a blast of heat behind Kieron. Knocked sprawling on the ornate tiles, with bits and pieces of flaming books raining down on his back, he scrambled back to his feet immediately, shielding his prize with his body. The courtyard wasn’t far away, and his ship could pick him up there. He knew from the pain and sensation of extreme cold that he’d been burned, perhaps badly, but these wounds could wait until he was in orbit.
Shoving past two monks rushing toward the blaze, Kieron burst out into the courtyard in time to see his little ship appear over the crest of the distant hills, the thunderous rumble of its gravitic drive causing almost as much alarm from the monks as the explosive fire in the library. Remote in hand, he instructed it to fly low and let out the cable-winch by the lower hatch. There wasn’t time for it to land.
As the ship swung low to drop the cable into the courtyard, however, a mirage shimmer appeared in the air above Kieron’s head. Too late, he tried to command the ship to climb away, even as the trailing cable was shredded by the chaotic spatial shear of a protective screening field he hadn’t known the monastery possessed.
The ship’s drive reversed in time, but its momentum carried it into the shear zone all the same. Kieron watched as his ship, the last thing his debtholders had not taken from him as collateral, struck the field and tore itself apart, exploding in a spectacular fireball just above his head.
“This is indeed a fine way to repay our hospitality.”
Kieron whirled to see Abbott Barros, flanked by two monks holding antique rifles, advancing toward him. There was no point trying to bluff his way out now – he was still clutching an armload of priceless antique books.
“I’ll admit you had me fooled, Kieron Nazaretian. Is that truly your name?” With a dismissive gesture, the abbott sent his armed subordinates forward to separate Kieron from the books which meant everything to him. One of them kept a weapon trained on Kieran, while the other snatched the books and passed them to the venerable priest. Barros patiently examined each, ignoring the chaos within the building as the other monks tried in vain to extinguish the blaze and save his monastery’s library.
“I didn’t have a choice.” Kieran knew even as he said it that it was a lie. He’d had plenty of choices; all of the choices he’d made had led him to where he was now. Even before he’d started searching for the lost treasure of the Holy See, he’d made a lot of wrong ones.
The abbot finished examining the documents, a frown on his weathered face. “Child, you are not the first to come here chasing what was lost in the War... But I suppose you have ensured that you will be the last.” With this, Barros finally glanced over his shoulder at the pillar of smoke rising behind him. The inferno that had been the library would surely dissuade the next would-be treasure-hunter.
“I am sorry.” Kieran realized that this was no lie – he actually was. The destruction had been nothing more than prudent business planning, but business was no excuse to the monks whose priceless books, works hundreds or even a thousand years old, now burned a smudgy stain into the Villar sky.
“Perhaps you are.” The abbot clutched the books to his body, the last remnant of his once-grand library. “Take him inside. Let us see what he really knows of what the Holy See once lost.”
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(Banner art by Mateusz Dąbrowski, though the piece no longer appears in his ArtStation gallery. This piece was written to a pair of image prompts, and the banner art is one of them.)