Later That Evening
So far, so good, Nanding assured himself as he quietly paced the street that ran along the ecclesiastical complex’s west side. Just like any other Domingohanon going for an evening stroll, albeit one trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible with his dark blue shirt and gray cargo shorts.
“Ahem,” his fifteen-year-old nephew, Ton-ton, dressed in similar low-key garb a few meters, cleared his throat. It was Nanding’s signal to surreptitiously draw closer to Ton-ton, who paused by the door leading into the sacristy. It was a simple entrance—a slab of wood coated in brown paint, bereft of the carvings and fancy handles on the church’s main doors.
Having served as an acolyte since he was ten, Ton-ton knew the church grounds a lot better than the average parishioner. He virtually had unlimited access to every doorway and every rectory in the church after sneaking out with the master-key ring for a few hours so he could have it duplicated by an acquaintance of his uncle’s.
It all started with Nanding, though. When a recently dismissed policeman surnamed Duarte started asking him for some money he owed, a desperate Nanding asked his closest nephew if he could do this one favor and survey the grounds for anything of value. At first, Ton-ton remained a good acolyte, not wanting to compromise his relationship with the parish that was also shouldering a good chunk of his school fees, but when he saw how terrified his Col Nanding was at one point (he alleged that Duarte had thrust a gun in his face), he agreed. “But just this once.”
The first things they stole were a pair of faucets from the newly constructed comfort room between the church and the rectory. The combined weight of the aluminum fetched a hefty price among some traveling junk collectors, but it was still not enough to cover the debt.
Soon enough, they moved on to other things—from wallets and cheap plastic toys in the parish office’s lost-and-found drawer, to bills and coins amounting to substantial sums in donation boxes. They were lucky enough at one point to make off with the last pair of unlooted ivory hands, plucked from a centuries-old statue of St. Francis of Assisi.
These thefts eventually didn’t go unnoticed, and there were suggestions from parish employees to have all the locks replaced. But Fr. Vasquez deemed this too costly an undertaking in light of other priorities he had, and he shelved their proposal until his tenure ultimately reached its end.
“It’s open?” Nanding asked his nephew.
“Of course, Col.” As if to boast, Ton-ton turned the tarnished old doorknob and pulled slowly. Nanding estimated in his head just how much the brass of that knob would weigh, but he brushed aside the thought as the pitch-black of the church’s interior came into view.
“Good, good,” Nanding eagerly made his way in, with Ton-ton following behind and sealing the door.
Darkness swathed them, but this was quickly remedied by a cellphone flashlight Nanding pulled from his back pocket. The beam of light shifted left and right, up and down, just enough for him to get a sense of the space around them.
He spotted a processional cross and two unlit torches propped against the wall, a large red missal resting atop a mantled table, and a wooden cabinet near the door they came through.
Sorry ahead of time, Lord, Nanding silently prayed, realizing it was his first time in the sacristy, among holy objects. But this lapsed Catholic owes some money. Please understand.
“Right this way, Col,” Ton-ton, armed with a cell light of his own, called from behind him—his sharp, youthful features accentuated by the glow. They walked a few meters ahead to the church’s back end, ducked under the old staircase that Ton-ton said led to a room that was once the adoration chapel, and soon found themselves hunching beneath old granite.
Ton-ton hunkered down and redirected his light to the floor of this claustrophobia-inducing, poorly hewn section of the church’s apse to illuminate a large rectangular slab resting atop a cut in the ground.
What is that? Nanding wondered. His nephew had promised him a steal tonight that guaranteed huge returns, but the boy never told him what the mark was, keeping it a secret until they got here.
“That’s the entrance to the church’s basement,” Ton-ton unknowingly answered his uncle’s query.
Nanding shot back a confused look. “The church diay has a basement?”
“Apparently it has. Some workers came across it a few weeks ago while the minor renovation was going on. I think a section of old wall collapsed and revealed this chamber we’re in now. Michael, the sacristan on duty at the time, notified Father Vasquez immediately, who then informed Professor Greg Archival, that old teacher who’s into history and all. Archival said he’s already managed to pull out some interesting finds. Really old stuff. Much of it dating back to the Spanish period—old figurines, statues, brittle documents. And aren’t really old things worth a lot more than newly installed faucets?”
Ton-ton’s voice echoed in the tight space, amplifying the excitement in his nicotine-tainted breath. Some of that excitement was beginning to rub off on Nanding.
“And nobody else knows about this?” he asked.
“Michael told a few other sacristans; that’s how I found out. There is some gossip around town, but the interest quickly fades. With Father Vasquez having just left. Archival’s the only smart person who knows about it. I’m not sure if anyone’s told Father Cyrus, but before he left, Vasquez asked us not to blab about it too much. At least not until Archival examines it more closely, but he’s always so busy, always leaving for Manila or something.
Nanding left out a soft, jolly chortle. “Yes, I’m sure Father Vasquez wouldn’t want any looters making their way to the precious artifacts below. So how do we get down there if this slab is still in the way?”
“I left a couple of crowbars in the sacristy cabinet earlier this afternoon. Let’s get them and pry this lid off. Simple enough.” Ton-ton eased himself up from his crouch, careful not to bump his head against the rough walls that ensconced them, and crept past his uncle.
“You know, dong, it would have been a lot better if we got the crowbars first before coming here,” Nanding remarked.
“Sorry, ha? I guess I was just too excited to show the basement to you.”
A slight curl of vexation formed on Nanding’s lips. Careless kid.
Once they were back in the sacristy, Ton-ton proceeded to the cabinet and pulled out a meter-long rod for his uncle and another one for himself.
“Thank you, dong,” Nanding uttered, brandishing the tool. “Now let’s see what we can find down there.”
Ton-ton nodded as he shut the cabinet—and then he froze. “Did you hear that, Col?”
A few seconds of silence passed as uncle and nephew tried to pick up the slightest disturbance.
There was none.
“Never mind, Col. Bahala na. Let’s get back to—”
The side door they had come in through earlier burst open. The cold night air rushed in, along with a long, slithery, seemingly slimy appendage that latched onto Ton-ton’s leg and yanked him outside.
Nanding’s limbs all of a sudden felt as rigid as the coral-stone around them. My God, was that a tentacle that pulled Ton-ton out?
“Col! Help! Help!” The poor boy’s screams, coupled with the guttural, gurgling cries of some horrid creature propelled Nanding out of the sacristy. The crowbar he wielded afforded him some comfort, at least as a clubbing weapon.
“Col! Hel—!” Ton-ton’s cries ceased with a sound reminiscent of meat getting hacked.
Then, as if to welcome Nanding’s emergence out into the yard, Ton’ton’s body plopped right in front of him. His nephew was drenched in some kind of black gunk—like he had just swam in crude oil. His face rolled into view, and Nanding saw the horror etched there. His hair was a tangled mess, his eyes stared hopelessly at the heavens, while his nostrils and mouth were clogged by the same black substance. In his rush to find some sign of life from Ton-ton, Nanding noticed a gaping hole in his nephew’s abdomen, with blood and gunk mingling to concoct a sickening purple. Poor Ton-ton—so young, so full of promise, and the one he dragged into his troubles—was now gone.
An anger, a lust for vengeance flared within Nanding. Someone—or something—was going to pay for this!
He charged into the night, his crowbar ready to strike. Blinded by his fury, however, he failed to notice there was no more writhing, no semblance of a tentacle’s motion, in the yard.
A droplet of black liquid trickled onto his forehead, just above his eyebrows. He wiped it off with a finger, but just as he opened his again, a massive hulking black shape lunged at him! Nanding felt an immense pain rupture his body, as if every bone in his torso and legs shattered upon impact.
Terror filled him at the sight of several tentacles flailing madly in the air and the pair of blood-red spheres staring right back at him. His ears tingled at the mucky sound the hellish beast made with its fluid secretion. Cold black goo seeped right through his shirt and soaked his skin. As much as he wanted to squirm free, or at least pound the creature with his fists, he couldn’t; he was paralyzed under all that weight.
The beast proceeded to finish him off. One final thought crossed Nanding’s mind, addressed to the nephew who had gone before him: Hahay, dong. Maybe we should have brought those crowbars with us ahead of time.