By Cooper Anderson
I wasn’t alone in the passageway, the one that lead to The Vault, despite what my employer had told me. There weren’t any lights down there either, which wasn’t much of a problem really; I preferred to work in the dark. It gives me a chance to hone my skills as a professional. This meant, however, that I never actually got to see the stranger’s face before I killed him. Some quick work with the dagger up my sleeve and soon enough, the man that shouldn’t have been there was nothing more than a heap, cooling against the stone floor.
As he laid there, limbs twitching as the last of his neurons fired away into oblivion, I retrieved my knife from his back. I wiped the translucent spinal fluid from the blade as a slow wheeze that was the man’s last breath leaked out of him and I was alone again.
I continued through the dark to where The Vault’s main door was embedded into the stone wall. Normally I would’ve done a bit more to conceal a body while on the job, in case some nosey security guard or overzealous employee came snooping about, but there were only a handful of people in the entire world who knew this place existed. None of whom were even on this continent let alone in the city it was hidden under. I myself didn’t know about this place until my employer hired me but there had been rumours.
It makes sense from a business perspective; a place for the rich and powerful to come together and hide away all the world’s magic. All the things they used to get them where they are today: potions for turning lead into gold, time travel, the elixir of life. Anything that couldn’t be explained at a government hearing. Look at it this way, if someone just so happened to discover a spell that could cure cancer I doubt they’d keep it hidden under their mattress. Hence The Vault.
I leaned against the stone wall, letting the coolness of the rock seep into my shoulder as I examined the door. There wasn’t anything special about it. Just a simple grey metal door with steel rods that stuck into the frame when locked. Like the kind of thing you might see in a bank or in the back of a large grocery store. All you needed was a ten-digit code to get inside. Tough enough to keep out your average cat burglar but not so tough that one of The Vault’s members couldn’t get in on short notice. There’s nothing more annoying to rich people than waiting in a queue.
Of course, the real security of this place has always been that no one knew it existed. No one but its members anyway. The people that were involved with its construction— engineers, stonemasons, electricians— had all mysteriously vanished once it was finished. Which only confirmed what I already knew; that it takes a lot of money to keep something secret, but it takes a hell of a lot more money for something to stay secret.
I entered the ten digits that my employer had given me into the door’s keypad. I had studied the blueprints of this place long enough to know that if I typed in a single-digit incorrectly, The Vault would remain locked for another forty-eight hours. Not to mention the mercenaries the members kept on retainer to respond to any and all alarm trips. People who had very select memories whenever it came to the Geneva convention. So, each number was checked and rechecked before being pressed. A clank of shifting steel rods echoed through the darkness and the door swung open. Overhead lights blinked themselves into life as I made my way inside.
One of the conditions of membership to The Vault was that whatever it was you were storing there had to be out in the open for all the other members to see. A kind of mutually assured destruction policy. Making sure that it was in everyone’s best interest to keep each other’s secrets safe. Which is why everything stored in The Vault had been placed inside transparent glass cases.
It worked fine in theory. The Vault had been around for decades, long before I got into the professional thieving business, but like every empire in history, it too was coming to an end. My employer had recently bargained away The Vault’s location in exchange for a shorter jail sentence and was in dire need of the item in her case. So, she hired me.
I nearly pissed myself laughing the first time she told me magic was real. Then she showed me how much she was going to pay me for a simple snatch-a-grab, and I knew she wasn’t kidding around. My employer was right to hire someone like me, too. Any other thief would’ve looted the place for themselves. Not me though. I’m a professional through and through. Besides, it’s just inviting trouble to be messing around with something like magic. Give me good old-fashioned steel and hard work any day.
From the outside, the objects inside the cases appeared quite harmless. Most of them were either filled with old medallions, withered looking staffs, or the occasional bubbling cauldron. Nothing that looked inherently sinister. Maybe that’s what happened when something evil was separated by a layer of glass. It just became another thing to look at, like a shark at the aquarium.
Name cards with spiralled gold lettering were stuck to the front of each case. None of the cards explained what the items were or who had stored it there but instead had a phrase written on it. Usually, something innocuous or clichéd that only made sense if you were the one to put the item there in the first place.
I found what I was looking for between a collection of black and white photographs of a couple making love and a line of crystal crucibles filled with a strange purple liquid. The words ‘History Repeats Itself’ was written on the card of my employer’s case while a pewter candlestick with a half-used tallow coloured candle sat inside it. It was the half-used part that made me stop.
My employer had told me emphatically that the candle was brand new and that by no means should I light it. I didn’t know what magic this candlestick possessed or why my employer wanted it so badly, but for the amount she was paying me, I didn’t have to know.
I checked the spiralled letter note one more time. There was no doubt about it, this was the case I was looking for. My employer had just made a simple mistake. That was all. Understandable really given her circumstances. I picked up the case and stared at it.
A brass lock with a fingerprint scanner was attached to the top of the case. It would’ve only taken me an hour or so to hack it and get inside but that was time I didn’t have. For all I knew helicopters with stern-faced agents in windbreakers were already heading towards The Vault’s location and of course, there were the mercenaries to think about. Time just wasn’t on my side. So, I did what I thought was the simpler solution.
In a single wrenching throw I smashed the case against The Vault’s stone floor, shattering it to pieces. As expected, The Vault’s alarms began to wail inside my ears, but by then my feet were already pounding and soon I was within sight of the door, the candlestick firmly gripped between my fingers. The door began to swing itself closed automatically, hoping to trap whoever had tripped the alarm inside. I hurled myself into the narrowing gap of the doorway and the low clunk of rods sliding into place echoed around me before I hit the ground.
I laid on the passageway floor and panted for breath as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I knew I couldn’t wait there forever but in that moment I couldn’t help myself and I began to laugh, just a little. I forced myself up off the floor and started to go back up the passageway.
As I headed away from The Vault and towards the biggest payday of my life, I noticed something strange. Something impossible, but was there all the same. The blackened nub of the candle’s wick had somehow begun to smolder, defying every law of chemistry and physics in the process. Thin tendrils of foul-smelling smoke started to coil out of a tiny glowing ember on the end.
I waved a hand to try and clear the air, but it only seemed to make the smoke stronger, as if I were fanning it into life. I licked my fingertips, wetting them as best I could to snub out the tiny orange light but all that did was give me angry red blisters on ends of my fingers. That’s when the candle ignited.
For a moment the flame was small, no bigger than a prayer candle in church, and I could see a few feet ahead of me through the gloom of that passageway. The flame sputtered and grew like a faulty gas hob until it was a raging ball of orange-red fire at the end of my arm. I held out the candlestick as far away from my face as I could while still holding on to the base, unwilling to let go of my newly found fortune. Shadows crept and grew along the walls of the polished stone of the passageway and danced a wild macabre dance in the flickering light.
The edges of my world began to warp from the heat, as if I were caught in a desert mirage. Wax dribbled onto my wrist as the roaring flame burned away another inch or so of the candle. A thundering pop like a firework exploding too close to the ground roared in my ears and the candlestick slipped from my fingers.
Like a meteor plummeting to earth, the candlestick tumbled downwards. Despite the blinding light singeing my retinas, I reached out to try and grab it, but I missed. The flaming candlestick vanished in a whiff of smoke before it hit the floor, letting the darkness of that place swallow me once again.
Anger and frustration at the loss of my payday started to well up inside me, but I pushed them to the back of my mind. I could be angry, or I could get away. I didn’t have time for both.
Blue-green dots warped and waived in front of my eyes and I couldn’t tell where in the passageway I was anymore. I didn’t need my eyes to navigate my way out, but I did need to find my bearings. So, I stood and waited in the quiet dark of that place for my other senses to tell which way I needed to go.
In an instant, there was a scuffle of bootheel against stone from behind, and I realized then what kind of magic the candlestick possessed. Why it was so important for my employer to get it back, why it was in The Vault in the first place, and I felt my knife slide between my vertebrae.
I crumbled to the ground and felt the cool floor against my face. I moved to say something then, to try and warn myself not to go inside The Vault, to turn around and never come back, but all that came out was a wheeze that I’d already heard before. I was rocked gently forward as my knife was pulled out of me. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t feel like anything, which was so much worse than hurting. There was the gentle scrape of metal against cloth through the darkness as my former self cleaned off the blade and continued on.
Cooper Anderson was born in the backwoods of North Carolina where he fell in love with all things strange and fantastical. He is currently earning his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. You can find other examples of his work in Flash Fiction Magazine, Idle Ink, and The Coffin Bell Journal. You can follow him on twitter @cooperthewriter