The hum of the glider’s engine was barely audible over the braying of a colicky mule tied to a post outside Saint Jöhnssbury’s Cathedral. The craft’s pilot and passenger was a tall, taunt man, attired in late-19th century stylized fashion, whose rose-tinged pince-nez complimented his chestnut-hued complexion. He leapt off the glider, avoiding the superconductive G-rail and the churchyard’s patchwork of dung heaps and mud puddles.
The traveler entered the cathedral: filtered sunshine was refracted by dust motes suspended in stagnant air; and the benches flanking the aisle were beetle-bored planks. However, in contrast with the dingy surroundings was a small room at the rear of the central nave — the cathedral gift shop — with a brightly lit storefront window, and a sign on its door that read OPEN.
The gift shop was filled with memorabilia of the old religions. The traveler smiled when he saw a bright-blue statuette of Vishnu in a bin filled with figurines of Jesus and Buddha.
“Bugger off! Bugger off!” cried an elderly man in a black frock who swatted a broom at the floor.
“If it’s a bad time I’ll leave,” the traveler said. He looked at the elderly man: his body was bent, but his eyes were bright, like beckoning stars in the abysmal void.
“Hello, good sir! Oh my… I did not mean for you to… It was one of those bloody rats! Ha!” the elderly man exclaimed.
“It’s quite all right,” the traveler replied.
“What can I help you with, sir? Ah, perhaps that Vishnu interests you?”
“No thank you,” the traveler replied. “I’m actually here to see the relic — if I may?”
“The relic? I’ve taken great pains to preserve it since becoming caretaker. It’s all but forgotten now and would have probably been discarded if not for my insistence. It’s in the back, in a closet constructed where the altar once stood.”
The traveler followed the caretaker to the rear of the gift shop. The air inside the closet was devoid of the mustiness of the moldering cathedral.
The caretaker flicked on a switch: a rectangular slab spanned the small room; it was covered by a white drop cloth, which was carefully removed by the caretaker.
“This was one of the clerestory windows — Stained glass! — Such a shame that’s become a lost art!” the caretaker exclaimed.
“I agree,” the traveler responded. “Such fine craftsmanship — for example, you can only achieve that rich ruby color by precise addition of gold flecks to lead glass.”
“Ah! No wonder you’ve come to see the relic: you’re a connoisseur,” the caretaker said.
“Actually, I’m more interested in the natural sciences,” the traveler responded. “Just look at that fascinating organism there, the one by Sir Palamedes.” He pointed at the green-glass reptile pursued by a knight on horseback.
“Oh, that’s the Questing Beast from Le Morte D’Arthur — product of Malory’s overactive imagination,” the caretaker replied.
The traveler adverted to a depiction of another knight in pursuit of a beast. “Here we have Saint George and the dragon.”
“Perhaps George encountered a crocodile while in Libya.”
“Perhaps…” the traveler said as he leaned forward and studied the mosaic. “That must be relatively recent, from the Second Mumbaikar Dynasty of Earth: Sir Sunil driving a drakon back into space with his mighty arc-scimitar!”
“Oh, that was in the early years of interstellar travel when literature was rife with fantastic aliens!”
The traveler turned to the caretaker. “My colleagues and I recently collected cell samples from ancient sword blades and other artifacts. They weren’t from any known organism. We cloned the cells and started to grow an embryo in an artificial-womb… Unfortunately we had to incinerate it — ”
“The cells were derived from an imprint-mutable organism.”
“Basically, the organism is a shape shifter. We call it the basilisk. It can assume the attributes of any animal it encounters. Also, its cells are immortal — if the basilisk dies, its cells remain infectious; its DNA can override and excise the host’s DNA.”
“Amazing! Excuse me, sir, but I do not believe I caught your name,” the caretaker said nervously.
“I am Sir Sunandan McLafferty, cryptozoologist, KCSI — ”
“ — Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of — ”
“ — Indeed. And you, sir, are not caretaker Oliver Farginstone. I met him six months ago and we enjoyed tea in front this relic. He was an ardent investigator of cryptids — including the basilisk — and quite accurate in his hypothesis regarding its unique biology. He also suspected his life was in danger… rightly so.”
The eyes of the knight and the caretaker met in a dead-on stare. The latter man’s skin turned green, irises transformed to gold slits, and teeth elongated into fangs. He lunged at the knight, who sidestepped and pivoted, delivering a snap kick to the back of the leg of the assailant, who fell to the floor.
The knight produced a stylus-shaped object from his breast pocket and pointed at the hissing creature pushing itself off the floor. There was a flash of violet light that reduced the creature’s strugglingto an imperceptible motion, like those of a spider trapped in viscid syrup. Soon its movements ceased and its body compressed to a two-dimensional sheet, which fluttered to the floor.
“I have to thank R and D — this Higgs compressor is exquisite.”
The knight picked up the basilisk, folded the flattened creature in half, and tucked it under his arm. “You’ll enjoy the laboratory once you’re decompressed. We’ve designed suitable quarters for you.”
A woman and a young boy were approaching the entrance to Saint Jöhnssbury’s Cathedral as the knight departed.
“Look, Amma, he’s got a poster of a gecko with a frock on — Brilliant!” the boy exclaimed.
The knight smiled at the boy and winked. “That’s right — you never know what you’ll find in a cathedral gift shop!”
The most recent stories of James Zahardis have appeared in Flashes in the Dark, Deimos eZine, 365 Tomorrows and Thrills, Kills ‘n’ Chaos. He holds a PhD from the University of Vermont in Chemistry (2008) where he is currently employed as a research scientist and lecturer. He is a fan of the literature of Joseph Conrad, Alexandre Dumas, H.P. Lovecraft, and Herman Melville. When he’s not in the laboratory, lecture hall, or library, James is most likely to be found bass fishing on Lake Champlain or taking an excursion to some woody patch to watch birds.