CHAPTER SIX: Secrets & Monsters (part 3)

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In the western district of Labrys Town, Briar's Boutique had long held a reputation as an esteemed seller of quality antiques

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In the western district of Labrys Town, Briar's Boutique had long held a reputation as an esteemed seller of quality antiques. It was a reputation of which Briar was proud, and his pride never allowed his standards to slip. He was courteous and patient with his clients, but he was shrewd, with a keen understanding of business. The wealthier antique collectors of the western district were easy with their money when something old caught their fancy; and Briar's prices were always reassuringly high.

He was an elderly gentleman approaching his mid-seventies who appreciated the value of a good night's sleep. But in the cold early hours of Silver Moon, he was surprised to have his rest disturbed by the ringing of the bell which sat upon the counter in the boutique below his living quarters. He remembered full well that he had locked the shop door before retiring for the night.

Wrapping a floral design gown over his nightshirt, sliding his feet into velvet slippers, Briar took an antique pistol from his bedside cabinet, before creeping down the stairs as the bell rang for a second time.

The glow lamps had been switched on in the boutique, and a gentleman stood before the counter. He was pale of skin, almost an albino, but his dark eyes scoured the antiques tastefully displayed around the shop. Briar watched from the shadows of the doorway behind the counter. The gentleman did not look or act like a burglar, and he wore the black cassock of a priest. Although seeing this garb gave Briar a sense of relief, he found it a little strange that his visitor's hair was white and long, and not the customary short style worn by the priests of the Timewatcher.

'Do I have to ring this bell for a third time,' the priest said in calm, even tones, 'or will you finally stop hiding in the shadows?'

Holding the pistol behind his back, Briar stepped through the door and into the boutique. He smiled from behind the counter.

'Forgive me, Father, but I'm surprised to find one of the cloth here at this time of night. Perhaps you could explain?'

The priest narrowed his eyes. 'It is almost time for the Sermons of Silver Moon. I was on my way to my church when I noticed that your lights were on and your door was open.' He smiled wryly. 'Does that give you cause enough to shoot me?'

Briar paused for a moment, and then a chuckle escaped his lips. 'Please excuse me, Father,' he said. 'Old age must be catching up with me. I could have sworn I closed up properly for the night. I'm rather afraid I mistook you for a burglar.' He placed the antique pistol on the countertop. 'An empty threat, I assure you,' he explained. 'Even if the pistol was loaded, its power stone no longer holds a charge.'

'Ah,' said the priest.

'I must thank you for your concern, sir, and bid you a good night. Enjoy your sermons, and may the Timewatcher go with you.'

The priest's smile became decidedly thin. It did not reach his dark eyes. 'Before I go, perhaps you would indulge me. I am led to believe that you are selling an item that is of particular interest to me.'

'Oh?'

'Yes. It is a small jar, plain, made of terracotta.'
Briar thought for a moment, and then made a small noise of surprise. 'Yes, I believe know the piece you mean, but—'

'I do not see it on display.'

'No. It is stored in my backroom. I haven't had that jar on display for many years now. How did you come to hear of it, Father?

'Well now ...' The priest paused and seemed amused. 'It is a long and interesting story. Would you like to hear it?'

Briar kept his professional smile in place. 'Most certainly, Father, but perhaps at a more sociable hour? If you would like to come back—'

'Please –' the priest held up a hand – 'I get so little time to indulge my fancies in my work. May I beg to see the jar now? You won't regret it - my story is fascinating.'

Briar was tired and wanted nothing more than to go back to bed, but the pride of his professionalism kicked in; he did not want his reputation tarnished by the news that he had turned away a priest of the Timewatcher after benefiting from his neighbourly deed.

'Of course,' he said with a well-practised smile. 'One moment, please.'

Briar left the boutique and entered his storeroom. The small terracotta jar sat at the back of a top shelf, long discarded and forgotten. With a grumble, Briar climbed a short stepladder and pulled it down. It was a small piece, about the size of the jars used to contain preserves. He blew away cobwebs and wiped clear a thick layer of dust to make it presentable. The terracotta was veined with many cracks upon its otherwise smooth and plain surface. It had no lid, and inside was a shallow layer of grey ash.

'I have to say, I'd completely forgotten I owned this piece,' he said as he took the jar into the boutique and placed it upon the counter. 'It gained so little interest from my customers that I stored it away years ago. I'm rather surprised to hear you enquire after it, Father.'

The priest stared at the jar for a long moment. 'May I ask how you came by it?'

'Let me see,' said Briar. 'Ah, yes. It is a strange tale. A wealthy merchant family, here in the western district, fell upon hard times after the war. But they claimed they were rescued from their monetary plight because of a visit from a ghost.'

Dark eyes fixed upon Briar with keen interest. 'A ghost?'

'Yes, of all things. It informed the family that beneath the crypt of a relative there was a hidden chamber full of riches. A dubious story, I'm sure you'll agree. Personally, I suspect that they had concocted a convenient – although implausible – explanation for an illegal windfall. But the chamber was real enough, and someone had filled it with many relics and antiques. All of which I purchased from the family and sold on many years ago.'

'All except this jar,' said the priest.

'Quite correct, sir.' Briar sighed. 'I have always assumed it is the urn which holds the ashes of the dead relative. There is not much interest in such things among collectors, but it is of interest to you?'

'Yes.' The priest stepped forwards and picked up the jar. He studied the cracks on its surface, and then peered long and hard at the ashes inside.

'If I might ask, Father – how did you hear of it? You said you had a fascinating story to tell?'

The priest wasn't responding, and Briar frowned.

'I'm afraid I haven't thought of a price,' he began. 'Perhaps you would care to make an offer?'

'It doesn't matter,' the priest said. He looked up with a strange expression on his pale face. 'The magic is fading. The spell is all but dead.'

'Excuse me, sir?'

'It makes no difference, I suppose. The other signals are strong.'

The priest seemed to be talking to himself. Briar gave a nervous chuckle. 'My apologies, Father, but you're not making much sense.'

'This is not yours to sell,' the priest said, holding the terracotta jar aloft. 'It is not some trinket to decorate the shelves of your pathetic little shop.'

'I'm ... I'm sorry?'

'You humans really need to learn your place.' The priest sneered at the boutique owner. 'I'm sick of the stench of you.'

He waved his hand. The light from every lamp in the room died. A snap filled the air as the shop door locked.

Nothing before in his long life had given Briar cause to scream as he did then.

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