Tag Archives: adventure

In Defense of Railroading

The players sit, holding their lucky dice. The lights are dim, and eerie music plays from a YouTube video to set the mood. The Dungeon Master looks over his screen and describes the setting…

DM: You see a well-worn path that winds between the trees, leading deeper into the gloomy forest.

Player 1: Well, forget that noise. I’d rather stay on the road and finish my journey into town.

DM: An overwhelming mist has descended, obscuring everything from view… everything except the path.

Player 2: Uh… I really wanted to get to town to purchase some new weapons and talk to the Mage’s Guild about new spells. Can we maybe set up camp and wait out this weather?

DM: You could… but now arcs of electricity tear through the clouds of mist, and the hairs on your skin rise. Anyone close to the mist is likely to take damage. But the path remains clear.

Early on in my development as a DM, I learned about “railroading” the players toward your intended destination. If a Dungeon Master / Storyteller forces players toward a particular path in obvious, heavy-handed ways, the game feels like the characters are passengers on a tour bus, being shown the sights but unable to direct the vehicle’s course. When a game about choices feels like you have none, you’re probably being railroaded.

That’s a bit of an excessive example, but this sort of thing can be pretty common if the DM has prepared an adventure and expects or demands that the players go along.

Railroading always ruins the fun… except for when it doesn’t.

The beauty of a tabletop RPG over video games is that anything’s possible. Any genre, any style, any action, any decision is available as an option to the player.

While that can lead to sensible decisions, increased immersion, and even awesome RP-ing, in certain groups it can also go awry. When problem players are willing to affect the entire group in order to get their personal jollies, the abundance of options creates opportunity for their hijinks. And when several players are new to the game, infinite choices can lead to no choice being made in a timely manner.

For example, upon entering a new setting and receiving a map of a mining village, some parties will see opportunities to go off on their own instead of staying with the group.

The same scattered attention can happen when players are provided a few different choices outside of civilization. When they come upon a wrecked wagon with signs of goblin prints but no indications of an attack, one person will suggest following that trail while another might try to chase down the other wagons in the caravan. And yet another is convinced there’s something in the ransacked wagon worth investigating or discovering.

Players can debate at length about what to do, where to go, who to talk to, how to accomplish a task… and every new bit of information starts the whole process over again.

This is where a little railroading may be better than none. I typically see three ways the game gets derailed: individual player actions, lack of personal motivation, and lack of flexibility on the DM’s part.

Moments in the Spotlight

It’s great for each player to have their time to shine, their moment when their character’s set of skills or connections can make the difference between victory or defeat. “Moment” is the key word, however.

When an individual turns the session into their private quest, it may make sense for the character’s story and motivations, but it also makes for a slow game. The other players are left “watching the show” as the DM has to interact in character(s) with this party member who has gone off on their own.

If multiple players do this at the same time, it turns into a nightmare of interwoven conversations and distractions. And while they all sort out their personal interests, players focused on the primary party goal are left staring at the walls or fiddling with their dice.

DM: You follow the leads for the missing caravan driver and arrive in the village of Choraulis after nightfall. The so-called guardsmen posted at the gate — miners, really — give you a close eye but let you pass. There’s a good bit of laughter, music, and noise at the finely-decorated inn to your left. The miners also have a raucous dive of a cantina set up near their shanties.

PC 1: I want to search around the inn, just to get a feel for the place, see what sort of people are in there.

PC 2: That orchard over there… is that, like, a nature shrine? I want to go over there and check it out.

PC 3: Is there something like a Mage’s Guild here? I’d like to find out what kind of magic spells and items they have.

PC 2: So am I at the Shrine?

DM: Yes, it’s a shrine of Nature, and the two ladies who run it are surprised and excited at the idea of a Dragonborn Druid – (chipper voice) “What an oddity! How pleasant to make your acquaintance!”

PC 1: If those guards are still there, I’d like to see how approachable they are, if they seem friendly, that sort of thing. Perception, I assume?

DM: No, that’d be Insight. Give me a roll. Ok, you spot one with a small insignia, and it seems like the other guys defer to him. He looks friendly and inviting, although a little on edge.

PC 4: Would I have contacts among the merchants in this town?

DM: Yeah, certainly. Um… this store over here – the gem cutter? They work with your guild on the regular.

PC 1: (to the guard) My good man, I am seeking a traveler who may  have come this way with a merchant caravan. Have any wagons reached the village in the last day or two?

DM: (Gruff voice) Why, yes, three came in a couple days ago, from Delfindor.

PC 2: While in this shrine, can I commune with nature and see if there really is some corruption or negative influence affecting the area?

DM: Yes, a Nature check, please. (Chipper voice) It’s been hard these last six months since everything started turning strange. Wild growth in the mountains–like a whole summer passed in a tenday’s time. And then there’s the undead–

PC 5: Guys. Can we go find the dude we came here for? Maybe someone in the noisy inn knows something.

PC 3: I’d also like to find an alchemist or maybe an herbalist?

PC 1: We’re looking for a man who came in with those wagons. Any chance you’ve seen him or know where they’re staying?

Solution:  A place like a city or friendly settlement might feel like a lot of available options. For groups where this becomes a problem, consider if there’s an in-game reason to restrict those options until the primary story or quest is sorted out.  A town under siege because of some rogue “heroes” or a teeming horde of undead isn’t going to have shops open for business, nor are the town leaders going to take time to chat about the latest rumors of interest to the party.

As a positive spin, find a way to interact with the players in the downtime between sessions. While it may seem awkward to go back over “here’s what I wanted to do in town during the middle part of our group game session,” it’s infinitely better than destroying the ‘group’ part of game play.

I’ve had tons of fun working over instant messages or in later conversations sorting out with players what their character would do. These sidebar conversations, handled outside of game time, have created new plot hooks to weave into the main game, developed the characters’ motivations, advanced their stories, and provided opportunities for players to role-play who might not be as comfortable with it at the table in front of peers.

“My character does/doesn’t care about that.”

Some players are happy to let you know they’re not about whatever’s on the menu. On the one hand, if they’re really trying to role-play their character’s ideals and interests, this is good feedback. A party of chaotic neutral characters might not be interested in saving the princess from the evil demon for the Greater Good of the Kingdom and all that is Just and Right.

Conversely, a snippet of setting or information might look like a really interesting side quest to one of the players, if that’s a lead their character would pursue.

“There’s a shelf full of old tomes and parchments detailing magic rituals? Uh, guys, I know the orc warlock is going to sacrifice the villagers to open a portal to the Abyss, but… can we just hang out here for like a day while I thumb through all of this?”

“Look, near the wrecked wagon–a cry for help in the language of druids. And judging by the tracks, it was left by one of the goblins. Why does one of those creatures know Druidic? How strange. I’d like to find this goblin…”

Likewise, these reactions are great feedback for what to include when you do want to hook that player… and what to avoid if distractions are a problem.

Solution: First, be sure to take these things into account when devising how your PCs get quests. Not everyone is a do-gooder out to save the world… similarly not all characters need a bag of gold jangled before their eyes to gain their assistance.

Place the individualized hooks where a distraction won’t matter. Sure, it might make sense that all the books full of magic are in the library the players find early on as they explore the castle…

But why not have large empty spaces among the books where it’s clear that a significant number of tomes have been carried off? Perhaps even a note from the big bad evil guy’s magic-user sidekick, explaining, “I borrowed these and brought them downstairs to my study. I think these are the key to opening a rift between our world and the realm of our masters…”

Now the distraction points the interested player and the party toward the confrontation you’ve already planned.

Perhaps the sight of a crude message in Druidic would be better placed at the opening of a goblin lair, to create questions and unique twists where the players already are instead of offering a detour from where you’re hoping they’ll go.

All Aboard? or All a-bored?

The DM has a huge role to play in keeping things moving smoothly, and illusion of choice is a great tool in the toolbox.

It’s awesome to create that “sandbox” feel of a living world where something could be happening anywhere the players go. However, in creating such a setting, a DM can get overly focused on the geography and current state of the parts the players will see.

I prepared an encounter with a band of orcs… but they decided to take the road south instead of east to where the orcs actually are…

The players wanted to get information about what the zealots are planning, but the leaders of that sect aren’t located in this part of town…

In a recent session, I made the mistake of focusing heavily on the map I’d created of a settlement. As one of the players sought out contacts and information, he ended up getting sent back-and-forth across town because that’s where those people and places are. (After all, it’s on the map.)

It’s great to know what exists where in the setting, but a rigid approach can lead to the DM getting frustrated because the players turned down the wrong tunnel or traveled to “the wrong spot” when literally anywhere can be the right spot.

Solution: The hated part about railroading is when it looks like there is no other option or choice but forward in an undesirable direction. “The tunnel is a one-way path, and oh you want to go back up and out? Well you can’t because the tunnel collapsed behind you.”

Having options such as branching tunnels or different locations of interest in the region gives the players a sense of agency. “I want to turn left instead of heading deeper into the Underdark” is a choice.

But as the DM, you control the outcome of the choice. Whether they turn left, turn right, or go straight, they can still find their way to the encounter you have planned or receive the clues that they need to advance the story. Whether they go east to the forest or west to the mountains, they can still encounter the band of bad guys who happen to have items of value or plot hooks to move things along.

This isn’t so much “railroading” as it is teleporting a destination to the end of whatever tracks the players are on. (Okay, yeah, that’s railroading, but it can serve a purpose of keeping the game moving.)

One method I used in the past was to have short episodes or level-appropriate encounter settings prepared in advance — an orc camp, a bandit fort, a small drake’s underground lair. If it became obvious that the players weren’t heading the direction I’d assumed, or going after whatever “main” storyline I had prepped, these plug-and-play encounters could easily drop into the session without any significant disconnect or lengthy explanation.

I think of games like Skyrim. The beauty of it is that after the initial tutorial quest, you reach a road you can follow to the next main quest… or you can turn left and wander into the wilds. All throughout the world, you find sites and encounters, people up to no good or monsters in search of prey. It seems like a living world where other creatures are doing their thing whenever you’re not there. But each of these settings has its own segment of story or plot that triggers once you enter.

Fourth Edition had a book called Dungeon Delve which basically served this purpose – several pre-made sites and dungeons that could easily slide into an ongoing campaign when the DM doesn’t have a ton of time to prep something or when the PCs decide to go an unexpected direction.

Next Stop: Fun

For experienced gamers, it’s probably clear that the “collaborative” part of collaborative storytelling means the PCs should be somewhat willing to go along with the adventure provided. Most groups have no problems seeing some of the possible options and choosing which to pursue. For those, railroading is unnecessary and probably detrimental.

But if players seem confused about where to go or what to do, maybe a few tracks concealed beneath the mechanics of the game would help guide the players along toward the fun everyone seeks.

My Galway Girl

Ed Sheeran’s new YouTube video caught my eye in the trending videos the other morning:

The video is a fun romp through the nightlife of the town, from clubs to bars with a dance troupe and a tattoo parlor in between. Sheeran’s music always feels rich and full of inviting complexity to me–easy enough that you bop along to the beat like the usual radio pop, but with enough quality and skill baked in that you can really enjoy some subtle touches. Likewise, the catchy chorus is contrasted with his usual quick-witted wordplay and cadence. It’s a good example of everything I like about his albums.

Despite my love of Ed Sheeran’s music, that’s not what really drew me to check out the video.

About a year ago, I started a series of loosely connected short stories for the wonderful Rachael Ritchey’s weekly BlogBattle. I’d tried my hand at some varied pieces based on the prompts, but someone else had done an ongoing story with a couple interesting characters and their madcap antics. I thought that would be an interesting challenge.

Some combination of the League of Explorer content in Hearthstone and my kids’ enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movie series led me down a path toward a bumbling tough guy with the chiseled jaw and gleaming smile who gets all the credit, and his “hapless” assistant, the fiery redhead from Ireland who actually gets the job done and saves his bacon.

He’s the brash and dapper charmer who, heedless of danger, punches his way through a burial chamber full of Nazis to snag the mysterious  artifact and save the damsel in distress. She’s the “weak” sidekick checking meticulous research in her pouch, marking traps with flags, and disabling the Nazis’ death machine–all the while casting sidelong and suspicious glares at the obvious double-agent on his arm.

Enter Grant McSwain, Doer of Daring Deeds, and his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.

For a dash of realism, I did some wiki-browsing and found articles on supposedly authentic Irish phrases. Those searches led to a travel site for “places to visit in Galway, Ireland,” which seemed like the perfect hometown for this world-wandering adventurer. I loved what I read–it’s always fun trying (as much as one can over the Internet) to dive into the characteristics and unique qualities of a particular town or region.

To see it in living color–even if somewhat staged–is that much better. And while the song and video are entirely modern, Sheeran still conveys that ancient “don’t you wish you were here?” allure of the Emerald Isle.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s fun and worth a view. And if you haven’t read the adventures of Grant McSwain, you can check the BlogBattle category of posts, or you can find them compiled on Wattpad here.

Thorn – a fanfic #BlogBattle entry

This week’s BlogBattle genre is fan-fiction, with the word thorn as the prompt.

Normally, I avoid writing fanfic, and I rarely read any. But I can understand the love people have for various characters, and I’ve seen a few really touching examples where someone captures the essence of a show, movie, or book. That said, I found myself surprisingly excited to give it a go for the contest, and it was cool to try. 

Since the first time I ever heard of fan-fiction was related to the TV show Supernatural, I decided to go with the Winchesters as my fanfic victims. And thanks to Rachael posting the rest of January’s words and genres, this is going to be a three-part story.

“That map’s no good this far out, Sammy,” Dean said, his hands firm on the steering wheel of his Baby. The black Impala tore down the backwoods road, engine pounding out a warning to the creatures ahead: the Winchester boys are coming.

“I know where we are,” Sam replied, his lips pursed in frustration. “Just trying to figure out where this Vale might be.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “No doubt it’s in a calm little clearing,” he mocked, “a circle of trees and thick grass with flowers and fairies and soft music playing in the background. Come on, Sammy. Crowley sent us here, so you know we’re steppin’ into a trap.”

Earlier that week, over shots in a bar, the Prince of Hell had tipped them off to the presence of something unnatural in the woods near Boulder, Colorado. “Couple of your dad’s old friends up that way,” he said with a slight smirk. “Good chaps. The lady’s from my side of the pond. Had a couple run-ins with ’em in the distant past–came away impressed.”

Sure enough, once Sam knew where to look, the news stories and search hits shone like a beacon. Hikers attacked, abandoned campsites, talk of evil woods and trees walking about like men. A bloody body turned up a month ago, and two others last week.

Sam folded up the map and tossed it in the back, then pulled out an old leatherbound notebook.”Dad’s journals say these folk stand guard over a site of power, something tied to capital-N Nature. Listen to this. He wrote that ‘they’ve been Hunters since before most folk knew what Hunting was.’ Everything he wrote sounds so… in awe of this couple. Wonder what they did to earn that kind of reverence.”

Dean curled his lip in a dismissive sneer. “Yeah? We’re about to find out.” He tapped the brakes and slowed as they approached a mailbox with McSwain stenciled on the side. “Here’s their cabin.”

He cut the ignition and exited the car, then checked the revolver in his belt and surveyed the treeline with narrowed eyes. Sam slipped his father’s journal into his jacket pocket as he stepped out of the car. “Sure this is the place, Dean?”

The shack looked run-down, barely holding together. A rusty car sat in the garage, unused for years based on the dust and grime. An old woman rocked on the porch, with the black metal of a rifle leaning on her shoulder. She sang in a soft tone that carried through the yard.

The Thorn lies in jail in the Dwimmerdim Dale
,

But ‘neath the moon pale, the Thorn will prevail,

And draw out the blood of the bad and the good.

So come all ye fae, ye hearty and hale
,

Lest Thorn grow to choke all the life in the vale

At the sight of the boys, she leveled the gun their way. “You can keep on that side of the fence, Sasquatch,” she told Sam, “at least until I know what you’re about.”

Dean flashed a fake badge. “Teagan McSwain? Wildlife Protection Agency. This is Agent Irwin, and I’m Agent Grylls. We came on account of some stories in the news–”

The woman raised the gun to her shoulder and took aim. “Go back the way you came,” she said, her voice rough. “Nothing for your kind to handle here.”

Sam reached out with open hands, reassuring. “Ma’am, look, truth is our dad said he knew you and your husband, Grant. He was a Hunter, and–well, it kind of runs in the family. His name’s John, John Winchester?”

The gun quivered in her arms, and then she sprang to her feet with a smile. “Oh my swait Jaysis,” she said, an Irish lilt creeping into her voice. “Come in! How’s little Jonny-boy?”

As they passed through the gate, Sam and Dean traded confused looks, and Dean mouthed the name in silence. “Uh, sorry to say he passed a few years ago.”

“Well, damn. Coulda used him.” Her eyes grew hard, and her jaw clenched. “My husband’s missing in the woods, gone several days now. Went to find the source of the tales you mentioned, but never came back.”

Dean glowered at the woods, and Sam knelt down beside the aged woman. “Where did he go, ma’am?”

“He meant to find the source of this corruption, headed toward the vale up the road. It’s an ancient ritual site of the Chickasaw tribe, a natural shrine of sorts.”

Dean balled his fists at his waist. “We’ll do what we can, ma’am. Can you point us the way?”

Within moments, the Impala rumbled along the narrow trail, its engine making easy work of the rough climb.

“She’s pretty far gone,” Dean said. “For all we know, her husband’s long dead. I wouldn’t get my hopes up for this one, Sammy.”

“Seems like a nice enough lady. And dad’s notes–”

Dean scoffed and flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Dad wrote down a lot of things that don’t make a whole lot of sense until it’s too late.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What’ve we got to deal with natural aberrations?”

“Other than a box of hollowpoints and some shotgun shells,” Dean said, “not a hell of a lot. Should be an ax in the trunk if some trees get feisty.”

The Impala lurched to an abrupt stop. Dean’s forehead bounced off the wheel and Sam’s neck whipped his head forward before snapping back into the seat.

“The hell did you hit, Dean?”

“Nothing!”

Dean floored the accelerator. The engine whined, but the car merely shuddered, immobile. Thick, twisted vines stretched and spread across the Impala’s hood. Sam peered out the window at the front tire, then the back. “More vines, wrapping up the tires like a spider web of plants.”

A figure shaped like a man covered in wood strode from the treeline. Its eyes glowed vibrant green, and the same energy shone from the wide grin splitting its face.

Sam glared at Dean. “You just had to talk about cutting down trees…”

“Uh, Sammy? I think we found Thorn.”

Diffraction Free to Read on WattPad

It’s the Winter Solstice, the shortest period of daylight during the year. For various reasons, my mind ties that dichotomy of darkness and light to Lyllithe, the protagonist of my fantasy novel, Diffraction. 


I completed the revisions and final copy on the Solstice last year, then published it on CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. It’s been available for purchase for the last year, and I have deep appreciation for those who bought a paperback or e-book copy. That option is still out there (and the e-book is reduced to the minimum price I can choose based on the royalty plan).

I’ve also made the book free on Kindle from December 22nd through Christmas Day, so if you know someone who might like a free fantasy novel, point them that way.

However, the real point of this post is to call attention to the full book available to read on WattPad. Though I appreciate every purchase, what I need more than a buck from an e-book sale is a body of readers–and maybe some love on social media. Reblogging this post or sharing the WattPad link among your circle of friends might put Diffraction in the hands of interested readers.

Winter isn’t coming… It’s here. What better way to start it than curling up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and an invasion of bloodthirsty zealots?

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.

#BlogBattle entry – Settling Accounts

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Explorer, Collector, and Uncooperative Witness

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway


“Don’t worry, Teagan,” Grant said, his hand on her shoulder. “Let me do the talking and we’ll get through this just fine.”

A hammer slammed against the sound block at the central seat overseeing the hearing, and all commotion in the chambers of Congress ceased. An old Senator with white handlebar mustaches squinted through a monocle at the pair. A few other elder statesmen sat on either side, and a stenographer sat at a typewriter, ready to record details.

“This hearing will now come to order,” the Senator said. “For the purpose of settling discrepancies in the accounts of Mister Grant Rowan McSwain and Mistress Teagan Ca—cow me—hell, whatever it is O’Daire—”

Caoimhe,” Teagan said. “Say ‘key’ with a little ‘va’ at the end, and—“

She noted the stern, narrow-eyed look from the Senator and snapped her mouth closed.

“Teagan key-va O’Daire,” the Senator continued, “concerning the disposition and whereabouts of properties of the United States of America, namely, fifteen bars of Fort Knox bullion each weighing two pounds, and of less import to this committee, the Crucifix of Castellano. I’ll remind you both, you are under oath and the conversations here will be recorded and classified until further review. So, Mister McSwain, what happened to our gold?”

“That’s my report in your hand, Senator Dixon,” Grant said. “Everything’s in there.”

“There’s a whole lot in there, Mister McSwain.” Dixon shuffled the papers and eyed their contents. “Not a lot that makes sense though. You say here that you were contracted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations?”

“Indeed. I have a signed letter from Agent Shane Dawkins that states—“

“The Bureau claims they don’t have an Agent Dawkins in their employ.”

Teagan tensed as the hearing started off exactly as she feared. “We’re being set up, Grant,” she whispered.

Grant stood his ground. “Well, Senator, they’re lying to you.”

“That information came from a source with access to the Director himself,” Senator Dixon replied. “You expect me to take your word over Director Hoover?”

“Sources with access to the Director also claim J. Edgar Hoover isn’t a loon,” Grant said. “Doesn’t change the fact I have a photograph of him in a hula skirt and a coconut bra—one that is currently in the care of an associate, with orders to release it to the press in the event of my untimely demise or incarceration.”

The other senators gasped. Dixon simply leaned forward. “Are you actually blackmailing a Senate committee under oath?”

“I’m telling you the whole truth about what will happen, under oath. Nothing more.”

Dixon sat back and thumbed through a couple pages. “So that’s how we’re going to play this? Fine. Let’s talk about the destruction of the H.M.S. Perceval.”

“Not my fault,” Grant stated. “Like I wrote there, it seems the Leviathan no longer responds to the Ixthacan summoning ritual with the same… cooperative temperament.”

“They’re notoriously fickle,” Teagan added.

“A shame to lose that trick, really,” Grant continued. “You should have seen the mer-men’s faces… I mean, up until it ate them.”

Dixon glared at her, then back at Grant. “Leviathans.”

“Well I don’t know what the proper genus and species would be, but that’s the term we used. Actually, maybe they belong in their own family.”

“And you performed the ritual because of these… We’ll just call them pirates if that’s alright.”

“Pirates with gills and skin of scales,” Grant said. “I suppose ‘pirates’ works, since that’s the life they chose. But ‘mer-men’ is more accurate.”

“Or Atlanteans,” Teagan chimed in.

“Aw, hell. Atlantis!” Dixon scoffed and turned to his peers, one brow raised. “Are we really supposed to continue this farce? Can I just declare these witnesses hostile, slap ‘em in irons, and toss ‘em on a boat bound to Alcatraz?”

“I believe we’ve established that Mister McSwain and I have bad luck with boats,” Teagan chimed in. Then she saw Grant’s perturbed look and said no more.

A senator in the farthest seat shook his head. The man seemed a couple decades younger than the others, with slicked back dark hair showing debonair streaks of gray at the temples. His fine mustache and goatee added to his roguish charm.

“Hoover was clear about the importance of this, Dixon. He buys into this stuff, asks specifically about these sorts of things—just like the reports coming in concerning the Kaiser’s expeditions in Africa and across Europe.”

“Might I remind you, Senator Thornton,” Dixon snapped, “these two petty cultural thieves are not cleared for classified information?”

Thornton examined Grant for a moment then chuckled. “I suspect they know more than we do, Senator.”

“We’ve encountered Germans several times,” Grant said, “a strange group that claims to work for the Kaiser, but seems too well-equipped and well-funded for that. They’ve been on our tails, looking for Ixthacan artifacts, objects of power, anything with an associated myth or legend.”

Dixon shook his head. “This reads like a penny pulp. I am not bringing a report full of gibberish like sea monsters, mer-men, and—”
he scanned the page. “Oh, yes, vampires—to Director Hoover, let alone the President.”

“Hoover buys into all of this anyway,” Grant said. “And to answer your earlier question, that’s where Castellano’s Crucifix is. With a vampire. Teagan blew a hole in his chest with one of the deck guns, then I impaled him with that golden cross. He got real feisty after that, but we trapped him on the ship as it was going down.”

“I don’t understand. What were you doing on a pirate vessel off the coast of Egypt in the first place?”

“They rescued us after our vessel sank. Or I should say they enslaved us, and I think talked about using us for chum so they could lure the sharks they were hunting.”

Dixon cast Thornton a sidelong glance, and the slick younger politician merely shrugged.

Grant chuckled and turned to Teagan. “Should I tell him about the connection we found between the Ixthacans and other ancient civilizations?”

Teagan laughed. “No, Grant, I think this is a good time to—“

“Aliens!” Grant spread his arms wide, reaching up toward the heavens beyond the high ceiling. “Extra-terrestrial life forms that I think made contact with humanity in various advanced civilizations around the world.”

Propped on his desk with his elbows, Senator Dixon flopped his heavy jowls into his hands. Senator Thornton, bemused and nonchalant throughout the proceedings, now fixed his gaze on Grant with a keenness that unnerved Teagan.

Grant pressed on, unaware or unconcerned. “The Ixthacans, Egypt, the tribes of Europe, China… Maybe others. We found portals connected to those four regions at a minimum.”

Dixon closed his eyes and took a long, silent moment before opening them again. “Aliens.”

“Yeah,” Grant said with a vigorous nod. “And they’re not nice. They see flesh as weakness and impurity, something they purged from their world.” He raised a finger with sudden recollection. “Also you’ll want to know they’re made of living mud.”

“So you were searching for portals to the world of the mud-men,” Dixon said, “and your vessel was attacked by vampires, so you sank it and got rescued—“

“Enslaved.”

“—Enslaved by mer-men, which caused you to summon the Leviathan, who broke free of your control and wreaked havoc and mayhem across the Mediterranean before disappearing into the Atlantic.”

“I did cause minor mayhem, I admit,” Grant replied. “But I was not aware of any havoc being wreaked.”

“We’re done here,” Dixon declared, and slammed the gavel on the sound block. “I move that first, we chalk this up as a total, disastrous loss, and second, that we make it clear to all Departments that Mister McSwain is not a reliable asset for the interests of the United States—particularly because he is absolutely beside himself with wild imaginations and baseless claims all unsupported by evidence.”

“I second the motion,” one of the other Senators said. “So long as those exact words are recorded for future reference, so that no one’s precious time may be wasted in such manner in the future.”

The vote passed unanimously and Grant and Teagan found themselves escorted from the chambers in haste.

Once outside the Capitol building, Grant took a deep breath and smiled as he surveyed the majesty of Washington D.C.

Swait Jaysis, Grant,” Teagan said with a long sigh. “That was a pretty little mess you made in there.”

“It’s perfect, Teag.”

“We’ll never work for the Americans again, and you think that’s a good thing?”

“We’ll never work for the American government again,” Grant said. “There are folk in the States who will be curious about our findings. But Uncle Sam won’t ever take another look our way.”

Teagan glanced back and spotted Senator Thornton watching. “I’m not so sure…”

Fighting Fire with Fire

Here’s the #BlogBattle entry for this week’s word, “deterge” (to cleanse something). 1,499 words… sorry, I usually go over and have to cut it down.

No surprise, it’s more adventures of Grant & Teagan, coming right off the heels of last week’s entry. (Thanks for those who voted for last week’s entry as the winner!)

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Daring Doer of Good Deeds, Feisty Fighter of Fiends, and Cavalier Combat Champion

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway

 

Slumped against the stump of a fallen tree, Grant’s blurry vision wavered as he watched Teagan rummaging through the foliage.

“I need more torchlight, Grant,” she barked.

He grunted and raised the torch higher, surprised by the exhaustion in his muscles but not by Teagan’s temper. She’d been like this for hours. Ever since it all went fuzzy.

The first rays of dawn peeked through the leafy branches far above, casting radiant beams into the darkness below. They seared Grant’s eyes, and his thoughts filled with an urge to flee. The trees were no refuge from that blazing fury in the sky. Perhaps a cave… and if he couldn’t find one, he would claw his way into the ground to escape that burning eye.

“Finally,” Teagan gasped, and Grant refocused his thoughts. She looked vibrant, her soft skin so bright even in the dim light, her hair a tangled mess swaying back and forth with each motion, her hands moving swiftly, the veins in her wrists throbbing and pulsing an intoxicating and sensual rhythm…

She dropped a few dark berries into a canteen cup, then drew a flask and small glass bottle from her pack. The flask Grant had seen before, but the bottle’s clear contents stirred in him an unexpected loathing.

“Stupid,” Teagan muttered to herself. “Why did I let Father MacCleary head back to town? I could really use some more holy wa–”

Teagan’s eyes flicked toward Grant, and she swallowed the rest of her comment. Silent, she poured the bottle into the canteen cup and mashed the berries, then shook it gently in one hand.

“What’s in the bottle, Teag?” Grant asked, caught off guard by the growl in his voice. “What are you making? What were those?”

“Belladonna berries,” Teagan said.

“Belladonna…” Grant mumbled. Memories came with difficulty. “Isn’t that poisonous?” He shivered, the slight bout of strange sickness developing into a debilitating chill.

“They’re only deadly if you use too much. That’s what the water and scotch are for—to dilute it. A good cup of Irish firewater to deterge the wound and warm your bones.”

She paused. “We’re fighting fire with fire here, one kind of death with another death. You might see some bizarre things. Belladonna has interesting effects.”

Grant noted how Teagan’s eyes stayed fixed on him while she poured her precious stash into the cup. The sharp odor of scotch filled Grant’s nostrils. Then she drew closer, hesitant like a forest creature, skittish and ready to bolt. What’s she afraid of?

Something rustled in the distance and Teagan’s head whipped toward the sound. “Tarvinthian’s still out there,” she said, and Grant felt a swell of loyalty he couldn’t explain.

“I don’t have time to wait,” Teagan said, watching Grant’s reactions. “I’m going to give you most of this to drink, but I need to wash out your wound.”

What wound? When did I get wounded? Grant squeezed his eyes shut, as if he could force the cloud of confusion out of his mind. He noticed the scrapes on his knuckles and the spattered blood on his tan shirt. There was a fight.

Eyes trained on him, Teagan crouched beside Grant and dabbed a cloth in the solution she’d prepared. The swish of water and scotch in the metal cup sounded like waves battering the side of a battleship. The thump-thump of Teagan’s heartbeat rushed through Grant’s ears like a lover’s whisper.

She extended the damp cloth toward his neck, and his hand flew to the wound. Teagan jumped back, nearly spilling her cup, but Grant focused on the breaks in his stubbly skin. Two punctures, not too deep. He pulled his hand away and inspected his fingers. Not a lot of blood loss? A neck wound should bleed profusely.

Teagan inched toward him once more. “You alright, Grant? Ready for the medicine? It’s going to sting…”

Her voice faded as Grant’s gaze lingered on her slender neck. She didn’t have any injury like his. Just an artery he could almost see through her skin, pumping precious, sweet life.

Then his world erupted in fire and anguish like the end of days. Searing pain coursed through his neck, clearing the fog in his mind and filling it with screaming.

Teagan dribbled the concoction across the wounds in his neck, and his chest burned as if the liquid carried acid straight to his heart. When he opened his mouth wide to howl at the torment, Teagan poured the rest down his throat.

The world shifted. The scattered rays of light became beams of glory from above, burning through shadows beneath the trees. The forest swayed and groaned like a living throng, each trunk a twisted face meant to instill horror in the hearts of the timid.

And Teagan—wings of blazing light sprang from her back, and a sword of gleaming metal shaped very much like Grant’s machete appeared in her hand. The crucifix dangling around her neck flared with some internal power and stunned Grant, forcing him to avert his eyes from the symbol.

Teagan hovered above him like a valkyrie descending from the heavens. Her trousers and thick linen blouse became a radiant breastplate and a set of layered metal like a skirt. Astounding and imposing, Teagan took a defensive stance over Grant as if to ward away unseen foes with her blade of light.

Then Grant beheld the Devil himself, a disfigured man with skin made of shifting shadows. The world seemed to darken and recoil from him as he approached. Eyes ablaze, with horns jutting from his forehead and chin, Tarvinthian glided through the air held aloft on leathery wings, his fingertips extended into curved obsidian claws. Long fangs protruded from his smirking yet ruined face, and even in that wounded state, Grant gawked at the wonder and commanding presence of this being.

My Lord… You’ve come for me.

The great one looked upon Grant with a mixture of surprise and pride. He said something to Teagan, but the words slipped through Grant’s addled mind. His chest felt like a furnace stoked to a white-hot blaze, and his head pounded with pressure like an overripe melon ready to split open.

Clouds danced across the sky like dust-devils on the prairies back home. The entire world seemed in motion, swirling and undulating, exploding like the colors in a kaleidoscope at the Fair. Grant groaned and fought a wave of nausea. “It’s the medicine working on you, fighting off the neurotoxins infecting you with vampirism,” Angel-Teagan said in her lilting Irish accent. “Let it finish its work before they take hold.”

Then she stabbed at the great devil before her, and bolts of light sprayed from her sword in all directions, illuminating the forest and burning Grant’s narrowed eyes.

Also the tree branches are all made of snakes. And the snakes are all made of mud like the creatures of Pandora. Grant shook his head and tried to focus, but Angel-Teagan and the devilish vampire lord sparred overhead, spinning between the tree-snakes. I really need to collect some of these berries for another day.

Angel-Teagan ducked under Tarvinthian’s sweeping strikes, keeping him at bay with careful swordplay. But he had her on the defensive, and already she bled liquid light from several scratches and minor wounds.

My Lord is toying with her, like a cat batting a mouse around for amusement.

The trunks of the trees shimmered and lined up like a military formation, though Grant’s vision of them wavered like looking through a rippling stream. The ranks of the forest seemed like a cage, trapping the devil and angel within their bounds. And the angel was losing.

Grant strained against the ground, his palms pushing against the earth. The grass screamed obscenities at him and the stump mocked his effort, but Grant managed to rise to one knee. His heart pumped molten lava through his arteries, the belladonna poison and holy water finishing its work. Grant winced but embraced the pain.

Tarvinthian’s devilish form vanished, leaving a scarred man in a torn tuxedo. Still his presence reverberated through Grant, demanding the allegiance such a transcendent being deserved.

Teagan’s radiance faded and her wings disappeared. Tattered linen replaced gleaming metal, and blood leaked from too many scrapes on her arms and legs. She panted and stumbled, the machete wobbling in her hand as she feebly warded off Tarvinthian’s approach.

Yes, the Vampire Lord’s voice echoed in Grant’s mind. Newborn, rise and do my bidding. Slay this woman who dares wound your Master. Then you shall take your place as my favored thrall.

“Sorry, Tarv,” Grant said through gritted teeth. “But I’m already enthralled by another, and I’m not about to let you have her. What say we add to those scars?”

He brandished a knife and lunged.

On the Hunt

Here’s this week’s #BlogBattle entry for “Hindered,” a continuation from last week’s episode in which Teagan killed Birgitte, the vampire Brood Mother who enslaved Grant to fulfill a task for the enigmatic Viscount Tarvinthian: opening an ancient prison of sunlight holding something at bay.

Genre: Adventure/Action (1,498 words)

Update: Thanks to those who voted and made this the winning story for the week!

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From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Cartographer of Uncharted Domains, Champion Pugilist, and Collector of Priceless AntiquitiesAccompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway

Teagan dashed between gravestones and family reliquaries, constantly checking over her shoulder in her mad flight—even though it led to several painful collisions. The wind whipped through her red hair, and the humid mist filled her lungs, making each stride a strain. Her sides burned and her legs screamed, but she gritted her teeth and pressed on.

If I pause for a breath, they’ll be on me in an instant. And I don’t think I can resist a second time.

The memory of the smooth ivory face and piercing eyes washed over her and she almost stumbled. Just a glance from one of Tarvinthian’s progeny and she’d nearly succumbed. Teagan could no longer hold anger or jealousy toward Grant about his year-long escapade while enthralled by Birgitte, the Brood Mother. Younger vampires took hours or even days to turn a mortal to their will. But for these ancients, the allure of their mere presence seemed sufficient to draw Teagan under their thrall.

She felt the tingle throughout her body, the urge to give in, to turn and offer herself—arms extended, head raised to the cloudy night sky, neck exposed to cold air—

The breeze chilled her skin and she blinked, then realized she’d stopped and assumed the position she imagined. “No,” she howled into the night, fists clenched. “You twisted monsters, find a weaker mind!”

Three humanoid forms came into view, bounding across the earth and sky like a pack of predators on the hunt. Teagan turned and ran.

A battered chapel lay ahead, the dim light within a welcome sign of refuge. Hopefully Grant had done his part. Hopefully Birgitte’s ‘daughters’ aren’t pursuing him either. I don’t want him to be the weak-willed man they find.

She scrambled up the cracked wooden steps and tugged on the heavy doors. Grass rustled behind her, the vampire’s footfall soft even from dozens of feet in the air. Teagan froze and shut her eyes, focusing on the silent approach of a curious sensation. Her will began to buckle under the enormous weight and incessant pull toward this supernatural being. Had she tried to run, her feet would betray her, leaden and obstinate as if her boots had been nailed to the floorboards. If she looked on that face again—that glorious, radiant face—she would succumb and be his.

Her heartbeat thudded in her chest and she knew he must hear it, must sense the rich blood flowing through her veins, the life force that could feed his insatiable hunger, the captive will that wanted to do nothing else…

The wood behind her creaked under his weight. Teagan snatched the sawed-off shotgun from the holster on her leg and fired it blind over her shoulder. Flaming bits of dried, minced and powdered garlic sprayed from the barrel, and the thing shrieked.

The spell broken, Teagan turned, raised the gun toward the ravaged, peppered face, and pulled the trigger. Lust and hunger forgotten, the creature’s eyes blazed with fury and hatred for an instant before the golden cloud of garlic blurred Teagan’s view. Then it fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at tattered flesh.

Teagan traded the shotgun to her left hand and slipped a silver crucifix from her belt into her empty palm. At the foot of the cross, the silver extended into a point like a railroad spike. “The Lord rebuke you, fiend,” Teagan said, and jammed the holy ornament into the vampire’s back.

It howled and thrashed across the ground, fleeing her wrath. But two others alighted on the grass near the chapel, their stern gazes devoid of mercy.

Teagan ducked inside, hoping ancient sacred ground might slow their pursuit. A priest stood before the altar, chanting warding prayers in Latin with a rich, sonorous tone. As the last syllable left his mouth, the atmosphere changed. The misty gloom and dread Teagan felt vanished in the soft glow of candles and an inner warmth of hope.

The priest turned to Teagan and smiled. “It seems to have worked. I’m honestly surprised. I don’t believe anyone has sung that canticle in many years.”

“Father MacCleary,” Teagan gushed, “it’s been too long. So good of you to come.”

“So good to see you again, Miss O’Daire,” he said, “even if you no longer wear the nun’s habit.”

Teagan pursed her lips, but sensed no judgment intended. “Not a very good sheep, I’m afraid. Never been willing to stay in the pen.”

MacCleary nodded. “I know, lass. But praise be that the Good Shepherd is ever willing to travel far and wide to find the one who goes astray.”

Something raked the wooden walls, and a window shattered as a chunk of gravestone flew through the stained glass. A pale face with glowing eyes peered inside before skittering into the darkness.

“The Good Shepherd’s not the only one chasing me tonight, Father,” Teagan said. “But they don’t seem willing or able to breach your spiritual defenses. So yes, praise be.” She looked over the less mystical preparations Grant had made during the day, and smiled. He had done well.

“Alas for Mister McSwain,” Father MacCleary said, “caught out in all that danger.”

Distant shotgun blasts rang out in the night, and Teagan laughed. “Don’t waste your worry on him. If I know Grant, he’s loving every moment of this.”

“Well, he can have it all,” MacCleary said with a forced laugh. “I still don’t want to believe this is happening. On a chill night such as this, I would much prefer a cup of tea and reading the Good Book by candlelight in the comfort of my parish.”

“You’ll be back to your disciplines before you know it, Father. Your help tonight may well save not just our lives but the souls of many potential victims.”

Another window shattered, and stone crashed into a dusty wooden pew. Father MacCleary and Teagan both spun toward the sound. Then Teagan sighed with relief. “All they can do is hurt the look of the place.”

More shotgun blasts echoed in the night, closer than the first. More unearthly shrieks, too, and a hearty laugh. Grant must be alright. Teagan stared blankly through the broken window into the night, her hands absently turning her holy medallion between her fingers.

Then an oppressive and palpable darkness swept through the chapel. The walls shook and groaned like a tremor passed through the earth. Thunder boomed and the thick wooden doors flew apart in splinters.

Tarvinthian himself stood at the doorframe, decked in a fine burgundy tuxedo as if attending a lavish ball. His beady eyes stared down his hawkish nose at Teagan and Father MacCleary. Then he brushed the tails of his coats back and cracked his fingers like a maestro about to perform.

The vampire lord stepped into the sanctuary, his motion slow and labored, though his face showed no sign of strain. Bands of light flickered, wrapping around like invisible cords resisting his pale skin and dark suit. He took another step and the bands flashed brighter, stretching his clothing across his torso and limbs. The intermittent flashes became constant as Tarvinthian forced his way forward.

The wards snapped, and the doorframe and surrounding wall crumbled with a thunderclap. Tarvinthian raised an eyebrow. “Impressive, priest. I haven’t dealt with such a hindrance in over a century.”

Father MacCleary stammered and shrank back toward the altar, his white-knuckled fingers wrapped around a rosary.

“Pray all you like,” Tarvinthian said, “but you needn’t fear. I am not here for you, man of a so-called God. Nor for the one killing my children outside—though I will end him.”

His gaze fell upon Teagan, and his cracked, deathly lips parted like rotted cloth. “I am here for you, the one who dared to slay Birgitte–a very goddess. My goddess.”

Teagan fought the fear rising in her and stood firm in the front of the sanctuary. Her hands twitched, demanding in panic that she draw her shotgun or at least another crucifix—anything to defend herself as Tarvinthian steadily advanced.

Then he stepped on the loose floorboard where Grant had placed the trigger. Beneath the sanctuary, a latch released the line once held taut, which led behind the altar and up the inside of the bell tower’s base. Released from its bond, the rope hissed through metal loops toward a massive wooden spike soaked in holy water, mounted on a spring-loaded beam attached to the ceiling.

The spike swung through the center aisle in a blur and impaled Tarvinthian where he stood. His flesh smoldered where the wood touched it, and he bellowed in agony.

Teagan drew her shotgun, then advanced on her prey. “That’s right. I slew your goddess. And I’m not done yet.”

She leveled the gun at his face and fired.

One Year Later

Here’s my #BlogBattle entry for this week. I need to tweak some formatting (italics and such) but I wanted to get it posted before the deadline.

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Hero, Hearty Fighter, and Formidable Foe…

Accompanied as always by his gorgeous assistant, Birgitte Bakkersson, the Stunner of Stockholm.

 “I think I figured it out, Bridge,” Grant said as he walked, hunched down, through the dusty catacomb.

The bright-eyed blonde smiled. “You’ve sorted out the way into the sealed Chamber of the Sun?” The Nordic lilt in her voice and the soft laugh when she asked tickled Grant’s fancy.

“No, not that. Look, we know now that there’s a whole other world,” Grant said. “We’ll call it Pandora.”

“Oh,” Birgitte said. “This again.”

“And it bears the mark of at least four ancient Earth cultures—”

“We are in the middle of a job,” Birgitte said, and the dim tunnel seemed to grow chilly and dark with her mood. “Lost in a grimy maze of bones, hoping we can even get inside the sanctum—once we find it. If we find it. Yet you’re still caught up with this mystery of yours. Perhaps you’re not best equipped to make sense of all these details, Mister McSwain.”

“I’m not,” Grant said with a sigh. “She was always better at this stuff.”

“You cannot prove your tale,” Birgitte continued, “and no one would believe it.”

“She believed it.”

“I hate to be cold, Mister McSwain, but our livelihood and our very lives depend on your expertise. Teagan O’Daire is dead and buried. You helped lower the casket—do you not remember?”

Grant paused as memories flooded his mind, forcing in against his will. The devastation in the Repository of Castellano after he set off a dynamite charge… the long, silent flight to Ireland… a blurry ceremony seen through tears in a cemetery in Galway under a sky that had no right to be so blue…

It feels like forever ago, yet sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

He noted Birgitte’s expression and took a deep breath. She needed him at his best, here in the moment, not caught up in a different life however long ago.

“I’m not reliving the past,” Grant said, taking Birgitte’s cool hand. “I’ve moved on from all of that. I’m just saying, these artifacts and sources of mythical power have a common root. And Roquefort would bury us in pound notes if we brought that back to London.”

Birgitte furrowed her pretty brow. Covered in webs and grime, gleaming skin hidden under a layer of dust, she still looked more ravishing than any woman Grant’s eyes ever beheld. Even her? Yes, more than her.

“Master Roquefort isn’t financing this expedition,” Birgitte said. “Are you ill, Mister McSwain? Do you not remember your meeting with the Viscount?”

“Right. What was I thinking?” Grant shook his head and pushed aside all thoughts of Pandora’s magenta skies and double moons. An image of a handsome man’s thin, pale face formed in Grant’s mind.

Anatoly Tarvinthian, the Viscount of Belarus, held to traditions of nobility while amassing a fortune in modern business. The vast wealth of his estate dwarfed his personal holdings in arms manufacturing, which was still sufficient to fund significant investments in America. Railroad barons gave way to natural resources and automotive industry over decades, but Tarvinthian’s money flowed freely into all of these.

Even more so, Tarvinthian showed talent in the world of fine arts trading, giving him ties to prominent museums and access to historic sites around the world. His private collection in his secluded castle summer home was rumored to fill several stories, with more floor space and estimated value than the Smithsonian and the Louvre combined.

That’s only what he dares reveal to his privileged few guests. He’s got secrets buried beneath secrets, and a treasure hoard that spans millennia of human history. What could he possibly need from a hired hand like me?

“Look at this marking,” Birgitte said, brushing a long, gloved finger in a strangely sensual way across a rune carved into the catacomb wall. “It’s part of the crest of Vlad Tepes. We’re on the right path.”

Then the shadows shifted up ahead, and a touch of natural light brightened the stone. Birgitte stepped back in surprise, and Grant cocked his head. “Do you think ‘the Chamber of the Sun’ could somehow be a literal meaning? Not just some honorific for a local lord?”

“I’d very much like to find out,” Birgitte cooed, and suddenly Grant very much wanted to find out as well.

Hunkered down, he shuffled toward the bend. The light grew intense, and Grant’s eyes narrowed and watered in protest. But he spotted a cracked stone wall, with a hole in the center where a pickaxe had broken through. The tool itself lay among ashes and dust piled on the floor. Grant grabbed the pickaxe and swung, doubling the size of the hole. Getting in would be easy enough. But where is sunlight coming from this far below ground?

Birgitte watched with wonder from the bend. “You’ve done it, Mister McSwain. The Chamber of the Sun and all its secrets will be laid bare. The heir of Vlad Tepes will be made known to the world, and your name will be on the lips of multitudes.”

Grant swung again and again, swelling with pride—partly at the thought of renown, but mostly due to the breathy tone in Birgitte’s voice. If it made her happy, that mattered more than any other reward.

With a great lunge, he burst through the crumbling stone and stumbled into the sunlit chamber, then gasped.

Four Ixthacan sun-plates sat in fixtures at head level, and above each, an Eye of Ra had been chiseled into the stone. Hieroglyphs and characters glimmered around the room, some form of gold that seemed illuminated from within.

But Grant ignored all that at the sight of the portals. Suspended in the air a hand-length from each sun-plate, a shimmering circle of light offered a view to other places. Stars glimmered in one like a patch of night sky, and fading amber clouds shone through two opposing portals. In the portal opposite the night, pure sunlight shown through, filling the chamber while focusing its warm beam on the sarcophagus at the center of the room.

Grant ambled about, dumbfounded at yet another conflux of cultures and inexplicable technology. “Birgitte, come in here,” he called. “This is what I’ve been talking about.”

“Not yet,” she said from the gloom in the tunnel. “Not for another minute or two, I believe.”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Grant examined the room. Old forms of Chinese characters mixed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, all of them etched in that glowing gilt. His bare skin tingled when he touched one.

The sunlight shifted, diminishing slightly, and Grant eyed the brightest portal. Through squinting eyes, he saw the burning orb slip behind the dark sphere of the moon. “That’s right… there’s a solar eclipse today.”

Within moments, only the glimmering corona shone through the once-bright portal. Dim light came through the other two portals, their openings revealing dawn or dusk, though Grant couldn’t say which. “On most days,” Grant realized, “full sunlight always shines on the center.”

Birgitte sauntered in, her smile wide and hungry. “But not today. Well done, Mister McSwain. Now quickly, remove the Ixthacan relics to close the portals so we can see what lies within the sarcophagus.” She pointed toward the plate behind the eclipse. “Start with this one.”

It made sense—the gold alone was worth a fortune. Grant stepped forward to obey.

Then Birgitte spun and hissed, her fingers curled like claws. A cloaked woman burst into the room. A silver crucifix jangled around her neck and glinted in the light of the eclipse, and Grant caught the pungent odor of fresh garlic cloves.

She doffed her hood to reveal a wild mop of red hair, and lunged at Birgitte with a thick wooden stake raised in her right hand.

“Teagan?!”

Birgitte twisted, but the stake found its mark, plunging into her chest. She threw Teagan across the room, but the woman landed in a crouch with feline grace.

Birgitte cackled and examined the thick stake in her bosom. “Fool girl, you deem this little sliver of wood sufficient to kill a Brood Queen?”

“No,” Teagan said, drawing a revolver. “I think it makes a good target.” She leveled the gun and fired as Birgitte’s eyes settled on the red-paper wrapped cylinder shoved into the hollowed-out stake.

The dynamite erupted and Birgitte vanished in a cloud of fire and a spray of undead chunks.

Grant stood gaping at the scene. “You—you’re dead. How did you–”

“She lied, Grant,” Teagan said, placing a careful hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been chasing you for almost a year trying to free you from her grasp. Come on, you lumbering ox. Tarvinthian and the rest of the brood are coming, and Dad here is about to wake up. And none of them will be happy to find Mom in pieces.”

One Year Later

Here’s my #BlogBattle entry for this week. I need to tweak some formatting (italics and such) but I wanted to get it posted before the deadline.

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Hero, Hearty Fighter, and Formidable Foe…

Accompanied as always by his gorgeous assistant, Birgitte Bakkersson, the Stunner of Stockholm.

 “I think I figured it out, Bridge,” Grant said as he walked, hunched down, through the dusty catacomb.

The bright-eyed blonde smiled. “You’ve sorted out the way into the sealed Chamber of the Sun?” The Nordic lilt in her voice and the soft laugh when she asked tickled Grant’s fancy.

“No, not that. Look, we know now that there’s a whole other world,” Grant said. “We’ll call it Pandora.”

“Oh,” Birgitte said. “This again.”

“And it bears the mark of at least four ancient Earth cultures—”

“We are in the middle of a job,” Birgitte said, and the dim tunnel seemed to grow chilly and dark with her mood. “Lost in a grimy maze of bones, hoping we can even get inside the sanctum—once we find it. If we find it. Yet you’re still caught up with this mystery of yours. Perhaps you’re not best equipped to make sense of all these details, Mister McSwain.”

“I’m not,” Grant said with a sigh. “She was always better at this stuff.”

“You cannot prove your tale,” Birgitte continued, “and no one would believe it.”

“She believed it.”

“I hate to be cold, Mister McSwain, but our livelihood and our very lives depend on your expertise. Teagan O’Daire is dead and buried. You helped lower the casket—do you not remember?”

Grant paused as memories flooded his mind, forcing in against his will. The devastation in the Repository of Castellano after he set off a dynamite charge… the long, silent flight to Ireland… a blurry ceremony seen through tears in a cemetery in Galway under a sky that had no right to be so blue…

It feels like forever ago, yet sometimes it feels like just yesterday.

He noted Birgitte’s expression and took a deep breath. She needed him at his best, here in the moment, not caught up in a different life however long ago.

“I’m not reliving the past,” Grant said, taking Birgitte’s cool hand. “I’ve moved on from all of that. I’m just saying, these artifacts and sources of mythical power have a common root. And Roquefort would bury us in pound notes if we brought that back to London.”

Birgitte furrowed her pretty brow. Covered in webs and grime, gleaming skin hidden under a layer of dust, she still looked more ravishing than any woman Grant’s eyes ever beheld. Even her? Yes, more than her.

“Master Roquefort isn’t financing this expedition,” Birgitte said. “Are you ill, Mister McSwain? Do you not remember your meeting with the Viscount?”

“Right. What was I thinking?” Grant shook his head and pushed aside all thoughts of Pandora’s magenta skies and double moons. An image of a handsome man’s thin, pale face formed in Grant’s mind.

Anatoly Tarvinthian, the Viscount of Belarus, held to traditions of nobility while amassing a fortune in modern business. The vast wealth of his estate dwarfed his personal holdings in arms manufacturing, which was still sufficient to fund significant investments in America. Railroad barons gave way to natural resources and automotive industry over decades, but Tarvinthian’s money flowed freely into all of these.

Even more so, Tarvinthian showed talent in the world of fine arts trading, giving him ties to prominent museums and access to historic sites around the world. His private collection in his secluded castle summer home was rumored to fill several stories, with more floor space and estimated value than the Smithsonian and the Louvre combined.

That’s only what he dares reveal to his privileged few guests. He’s got secrets buried beneath secrets, and a treasure hoard that spans millennia of human history. What could he possibly need from a hired hand like me?

“Look at this marking,” Birgitte said, brushing a long, gloved finger in a strangely sensual way across a rune carved into the catacomb wall. “It’s part of the crest of Vlad Tepes. We’re on the right path.”

Then the shadows shifted up ahead, and a touch of natural light brightened the stone. Birgitte stepped back in surprise, and Grant cocked his head. “Do you think ‘the Chamber of the Sun’ could somehow be a literal meaning? Not just some honorific for a local lord?”

“I’d very much like to find out,” Birgitte cooed, and suddenly Grant very much wanted to find out as well.

Hunkered down, he shuffled toward the bend. The light grew intense, and Grant’s eyes narrowed and watered in protest. But he spotted a cracked stone wall, with a hole in the center where a pickaxe had broken through. The tool itself lay among ashes and dust piled on the floor. Grant grabbed the pickaxe and swung, doubling the size of the hole. Getting in would be easy enough. But where is sunlight coming from this far below ground?

Birgitte watched with wonder from the bend. “You’ve done it, Mister McSwain. The Chamber of the Sun and all its secrets will be laid bare. The heir of Vlad Tepes will be made known to the world, and your name will be on the lips of multitudes.”

Grant swung again and again, swelling with pride—partly at the thought of renown, but mostly due to the breathy tone in Birgitte’s voice. If it made her happy, that mattered more than any other reward.

With a great lunge, he burst through the crumbling stone and stumbled into the sunlit chamber, then gasped.

Four Ixthacan sun-plates sat in fixtures at head level, and above each, an Eye of Ra had been chiseled into the stone. Hieroglyphs and characters glimmered around the room, some form of gold that seemed illuminated from within.

But Grant ignored all that at the sight of the portals. Suspended in the air a hand-length from each sun-plate, a shimmering circle of light offered a view to other places. Stars glimmered in one like a patch of night sky, and fading amber clouds shone through two opposing portals. In the portal opposite the night, pure sunlight shown through, filling the chamber while focusing its warm beam on the sarcophagus at the center of the room.

Grant ambled about, dumbfounded at yet another conflux of cultures and inexplicable technology. “Birgitte, come in here,” he called. “This is what I’ve been talking about.”

“Not yet,” she said from the gloom in the tunnel. “Not for another minute or two, I believe.”

Her words fell on deaf ears as Grant examined the room. Old forms of Chinese characters mixed with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, all of them etched in that glowing gilt. His bare skin tingled when he touched one.

The sunlight shifted, diminishing slightly, and Grant eyed the brightest portal. Through squinting eyes, he saw the burning orb slip behind the dark sphere of the moon. “That’s right… there’s a solar eclipse today.”

Within moments, only the glimmering corona shone through the once-bright portal. Dim light came through the other two portals, their openings revealing dawn or dusk, though Grant couldn’t say which. “On most days,” Grant realized, “full sunlight always shines on the center.”

Birgitte sauntered in, her smile wide and hungry. “But not today. Well done, Mister McSwain. Now quickly, remove the Ixthacan relics to close the portals so we can see what lies within the sarcophagus.” She pointed toward the plate behind the eclipse. “Start with this one.”

It made sense—the gold alone was worth a fortune. Grant stepped forward to obey.

Then Birgitte spun and hissed, her fingers curled like claws. A cloaked woman burst into the room. A silver crucifix jangled around her neck and glinted in the light of the eclipse, and Grant caught the pungent odor of fresh garlic cloves.

She doffed her hood to reveal a wild mop of red hair, and lunged at Birgitte with a thick wooden stake raised in her right hand.

“Teagan?!”

Birgitte twisted, but the stake found its mark, plunging into her chest. She threw Teagan across the room, but the woman landed in a crouch with feline grace.

Birgitte cackled and examined the thick stake in her bosom. “Fool girl, you deem this little sliver of wood sufficient to kill a Brood Queen?”

“No,” Teagan said, drawing a revolver. “I think it makes a good target.” She leveled the gun and fired as Birgitte’s eyes settled on the red-paper wrapped cylinder shoved into the hollowed-out stake.

The dynamite erupted and Birgitte vanished in a cloud of fire and a spray of undead chunks.

Grant stood gaping at the scene. “You—you’re dead. How did you–”

“She lied, Grant,” Teagan said, placing a careful hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been chasing you for almost a year trying to free you from her grasp. Come on, you lumbering ox. Tarvinthian and the rest of brood are coming, and Dad here is about to wake up. And none of them will be happy to find Mom in pieces.”

The Hall of Meating

This week’s #BlogBattle entry, incorporating “sacrilege” with last week’s “derelict” since I skipped that one.

 

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Explorer of Exotic Vistas, Defeater of Deadly Villains, and Charmer of Care-Free Vixens,

 

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway… and Tepandorixotl

 

Even on an alien world, under the light of two moons in a sky of magenta, Grant remained true to his nature—an anchor Teagan desperately needed as she sought a solution to this chaos. Surrounded by featureless humanoid shapes of hazel-colored mud, Grant threw himself against the overwhelming odds without hesitation. His thick fist splattered the face of one creature, and his boot kicked through another’s leg.

 

The soft earth rose to a low hill nearby, and Teagan spotted a mud-spattered structure like a ziggurat or pyramid. She ducked beneath an arm of living clay and swept her attacker’s legs with a low kick. The creature bellowed and flailed in the air before it splatted into the mud.

 

“Some kind of shelter, Grant,” Teagan shouted, pointing at the building—the only one in sight. The barren horizon rose and fell in slight ripples and small hills, but Teagan saw no flora, no fauna, no signs of intelligence.

 

A voice boomed in her head, one single echoing word: A-round.

 

She clutched her ears in vain and struggled with each step, her boots creating pockets of suction in the moist earth. Beside her, Grant tore through the mud, his boots cutting deep troughs, and his fists carving a path through the alien foes.

 

A-round you, the voice repeated, pausing between each syllable but picking up speed. In-tel-li-gence. We are all around you, flesh-one.

 

To Teagan’s right, Grant caught a lunging mud-man and flipped it overhead, using its momentum to smash it into the ground. With Grant bringing up the rear, shoving the creatures back, Teagan reached the bottom of the hill and started the ascent toward the exposed structure. As she climbed, her foot sank through the hazel clay and hit the stone of the covered building.

 

You do not belong here, the voice hissed.

 

“Are you hearing this, Grant?”

 

Grant dodged a swing from one of the misshapen beings, and huffed in exhaustion. “What are you talking about?” Unable to wait for the answer, he intercepted another mud-man and grappled with the creature.

 

You hear me, the voice whispered.  I sense it.

Teagan scrambled out of the muck and up the steps. Two metal doors leaned against the wall, broken from their hinges. Though weathered and discolored, Ixthacan runes and art covered their surfaces.

 

The voice, now eloquent, continued its tirade in Teagan’s mind. Long has it been since our kind was forced to form crude, linear concepts and structured expressions suitable for the lesser minds of flesh.

 

“I think it’s reading my mind, Grant.”

 

Correct, the voice answered. Regrettably. An image filled Teagan’s mind–her form made up of rotten steaks.

 

Grant stood at the edge of the stairs, shaking clumps of mud off his hands and clothes. The creatures stopped their advance where the stone pyramid rose out of the mud. “I don’t know why they stopped,” Grant said, “but this dirt is shifting and moving, rising up the sides.”

 

Sacrilege. Meat-husks do not belong here. The way back is closed to your kind.

 

Teagan ignored the gibberish and looked at the peak of the pyramid. “I don’t get it. This is Egyptian architecture, quite similar to the great structures in Geza. But those are Ixthacan runes on the entryway…”

 

“The one we should maybe go through? Those clay things are still oozing this way.” Grant pulled Teagan along and moved past the metal doors into the darkness. As they crossed the threshold, a set of stones in the walls emitted a soft blue glow.

 

Your meeting place has been reclaimed, the voice continued. The foothold of flesh on this side is shattered. Your kind is banished, forbidden from these halls.

 

Teagan gritted her teeth and pushed the voice out of her mind. More characters and runes covered certain stones on the walls. Shelves held golden relics and ancient sculptures.

 

“Those aren’t Ixthacan,” Grant said, pointing at a set of characters.

 

“Holy Mother of God,” Teagan blurted, “are those ancient forms of Chinese characters? And look—that bladed spear matches the style of early Chinese weapons-craft. And that earthen statue of an imperial soldier—the Qin dynasty, perhaps? Judging by the armor?”

 

“But these are clearly Egyptian hieroglyphs,” Grant replied. “Look at the gold cat statue.”

 

“Where the hell are we, Grant?”

 

You are intruding upon sacred ground, the voice answered unbidden. Spreading your disease beyond the bounds of your prison. A low wave of hazel muck spread like a glacier, oozing through the entrance behind them.

 

Grant dashed to the spreading clay and kicked huge divots in it, trying to push it back. “I don’t care where we are so much as how do we get out of here!”

 

“What do you want?” Teagan shouted, and ignored the confused look from Grant.

 

An end to the disease you bear. Hatred flowed through Teagan’s mind, and the voice seethed in reply. The flaw in your forms that developed into soft, weak meat. The ‘devilution’ that forced us to purify our genepool, to prevent the epidemic.

 

“I’ve heard such talk before,” Teagan said. The so-called science of the hard-line Germans came to mind. “Surely we can reach some kind of accord.”

 

You waste words. You waste raw materials. You waste life. You do not belong here. You will die.

 

“So very evolved of you,” Teagan shot back. “Sorry to disappoint by suggesting we talk instead of killing each other.”

 

Grant stomped a mud-man’s torso as it rose from the spreading clay, then kicked the head off another. He glanced back at her and asked, “Who are you talking to, Teag?” Then another mud-man leapt on him, and Grant smashed it into the wall with his broad back.

 

You cannot kill us, foolish progenitor, no matter how hard your worker drone tries.

 

“You should tell him so, get him riled up. Maybe he’ll do a better job of it.”

 

He cannot hear us. We deign to speak on your level. We are incapable of descending to his.

 

Strange thoughts resounded in Teagan’s mind, and foreign memories rushed through her vision. A world at war under twin violet moons… armies of living earth driving out the deviants whose bodies solidified into muscle and bone… slaughter and fear, desperation and despair, followed by capture and exile.

 

Minions of the Great Rebel, the voice boomed, and Teagan collapsed to one knee. Begone! Sinful flesh was banished from this plane, dispersed and scattered onto derelict, lifeless planets floating in the empty expanse of the void. How dare you—the exiled and forsaken—now try to return?

 

“My God, Grant,” Teagan gasped as the memories coalesced in her mind. “They cleansed a full third of their population. Anybody with the DNA that might permit this evolution into flesh some generation down the line—they killed or exiled them all.”

 

Grant grunted in response, thrashing and dodging among a crowd of mud-men.

 

The others, the voice cooed in Teagan’s mind, the ones you fear, who sought entrance to this world? These Germans—they are not wrong, fleshling. They wish to cleanse, to purify. Where they err is that they do not see themselves as part of the problem.

 

The telepathic connection formed an image of a portal back to Castellano’s repository in South America. Perhaps we did not fulfill our task so many ages ago. We shall correct this.

 

“Grant, they’ve changed plans. They’re going to invade.”

 

Between stomping mud-men, Grant surveyed the room. “So many treasures of antiquity,” he muttered. “So many connected historical mysteries we could solve.”

 

He doffed his pack and swung it like a weapon, splattering two more mud-men across a glowing wall. Then he rummaged within it while kicking mud-men back. “Does that connection you’ve got work both ways? Can you tell how to get us home?”

 

Teagan smiled and the voice in her head recoiled in sudden fear. A line of light sliced through the air in front of the Qin soldier, and expanded into a shimmering circle filled with an image of the repository’s dark cavern.

 

Grant’s hands grabbed her and pulled her in. She braced for the disorienting shift, the blades of light and cacophony of this alien transport. But instead, they stepped across worlds with minimal resistance, like rising from beneath the surface of a lake.

 

Strands of clay came through as well, stretching across the floor and dragging more of the hazel mud from the other world.

 

Something hissed beside Teagan. Grant held a bundle of dynamite, the braided wick already lit.  “You said they had a plan. There’s nothing I’m better at than messing up plans. Usually my own. Let me do what I do best.”

 

He tossed the bundle through. “Cut the portal, Teag… and hit the deck.”