Tag Archives: adventure

#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.”

 

Into the Repository 

Here’s a #BlogBattle entry for both “hazel” (this week) and “menagerie” (last week, which I missed).


From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Discoverer of the Fabled Repository of Castellano, and Vanquisher of the Treasure-Thieves of Vallarte’s Lost Vessel

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

“I’m telling you, Teag, this is the big one.” Grant squinted into the darkness and held his torch aloft. The jagged tunnel walls glowed with the dance of the flames. “Tepandorixotl—the Mayan Repository of Knowledge. Castellano’s crowning achievement, and soon to be ours. The find that will put our names in journals and reviews across Europe and the Americas.”

Teagan scoffed and brushed away the red hair matted to her sweaty face. “You mean the haul that will put us in a California mansion, if I remember correctly.”

“That was showmanship to sway Master Roquefort, a mere display of expected bravado and panache.” Grant paused and stared at the ceiling. “With the amount of money from the sales, plus an exhibition of all our collected antiquities, the mansion will be the talk of the West Coast. I’m going to make Hearst himself jealous of his little shack.”

“Should I start referring to you as Mister Gatsby?” Teagan asked with a chuckle.

“Do I know him? Do you think he’d be willing to purchase some of the future collection?”

Teagan shook her head. “He’s—Grant, you need to read more.”

“Reading?” Grant laughed. “That’s what I have you along for.”

He reached a steep slope and peered into the depths. “Speaking of, does Castellano’s log say anything about spelunking? Did he ever explain why he buried this so deep?”

“Nothing clear. He wrote at length of the frustration he felt at deciphering what little he could find about the Repository. The Mayans destroyed the Ixthacans, long before the conquistadors arrived. Castellano had experts on Mayan culture and language, but Vallarte scooped up anyone with a grasp of Ixthacan. And after their falling out–”

“What triggered that, I wonder?” Grant hammered a piton into the rock wall of the tunnel, then fastened a rope through the exposed metal loop. The clang of metal reverberated between the walls.

“The Repository, actually,” Teagan said once the echo died down. “Castellano refused to transport it to Spain, and by then Vallarte had lost his ship. He tried to organize a mutiny, but Castellano escaped with Vallarte’s notes and maps, intent on relocating everything of value contained within. Toward the end of his journal, Castellano said the Repository should remain lost in the annals of history.”

Grant tested the rope and smiled. “Time to prove him wrong.” He wrapped a length around his waist and took halting steps down the incline, torch in one hand, fingers gripping the rope with thick leather gloves. With each footfall, Grant’s knapsack jostled from a heavy weight within—an Ixthacan sun tablet Vallarte’s notes associated with the Repository.

Teagan donned her own thinner gloves, hand-made at exorbitant cost by a tailor who proclaimed women had no need or place for such gear. She pictured the dainty gloves of ivory lace he’d tried peddling her. “Fit for an extravagant gala or the finest ballroom, milady,” he’d said. “Or perhaps a proper wedding?”

She eyed Grant’s broad back, his muscular frame a silhouette in the torchlight beyond him. A proper wedding someday, perhaps. Any day now, just like Grant’s long-sought great haul of treasure that would carry them through the rest of their lives.

With each downward step, the light of Grant’s torch moved farther and farther away, as did Teagan’s expectations for the future. She sighed and followed Grant.

Several minutes later, they reached a bed of soft, moist earth at the bottom of the tunnel. A chill hung in the air, and Teagan rubbed her arms for warmth.

“What exactly are we looking for, Teag?”

“That’s part of the problem. In the excerpts I’ve got, Castellano pronounced curses upon any who opened the Repository. But he never actually described his find. His log mentions some of Vallarte’s lexicons for Ixthacan, and one entry I found describes something like storage or collection.”

“Like a repository? Great. The thing you’re looking for is the thing you’re looking for.”

“No, this was different. One of Vallarte’s translators was a Frenchman. Next to some words, he wrote French equivalents. And for this, he chose ‘menagerie.’”

His torch high and behind his head, Grant checked possible passages. “Like a traveling zoo? What do we do with that? Tepandorixotl was sealed for three centuries.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant. Ixthacan uses word pictures. A word conveys a thought that can mean more than one thing. Knowledge might mean facts, for example. Or secrets, or trophies, or even rituals. Basically anything where one might learn from the experience.”

She ran a finger across the stone wall. “And at one point Castellano talked about some kind of unnatural clay. Kind of greenish-brown in color. Nothing like anything he’d seen in the region.”

“That’s a lot to go on,” Grant said. “I see reading is working out for you really well.”

Teagan gasped at the jab. “Go ‘cross yerself, ye dirty wastrel,” she blurted, and slapped Grant’s arm.

“You’re so cute when you cuss.” He laughed and continued his search.

“Ye think this is cute? You’re a filthy cuss yerself, ye gobsmacked ball of–”

“This way,” Grant said and dashed around a corner. The torchlight faded and something skittered in the darkness near her feet.

“I—you—Grant McSwain, you arrogant—wait for me!“ She ran and caught up to his long-legged stride. The smooth stone walls of this tunnel seemed almost polished. “How do you know this is the right passage?”

He pointed at the intermittent streaks of hazel clay on the rock floor of the winding tunnel. “Can’t be too unnatural. It’s right here.”

Teagan shook her head. “But this is basic geology. We’re well beneath the appropriate sediment level to find deposits of—“

She bumped into Grant and jumped back to protect her hair from the flames of his torch. A wide chamber opened before the pair, with a massive stone ring reaching twice Grant’s height. The flickering light played across ornate figures engraved on the walls. Monstrous representations of alien creatures covered in eyes and claws reached out their hands, opened wide toothy maws, or hovered on broad wings—all of them fashioned of the same greenish-brown clay.

Several lines of clay stretched in all directions like a spider’s web from the central ring. Underneath dust and strange earth, patterns of gold sparkled in the firelight. At the center of the chamber lay an indented circle, roughly the size of the Ixthacan tablet in Grant’s pack.

“Tepandorixotl,” Grant whispered. He doffed his knapsack and drew out the golden plate. As he knelt to fit the device into its receptacle, Teagan examined the patterns of gold.

“Grant,” she said. “Can you bring the torch over? Check out the gold-work in the stone.”

“Sure, just a moment,” Grant said. “Let me get this fitted and—“

Teagan lunged toward her partner. “No, wait!”

The Ixthacan tablet clattered into place, then the walls hummed on all sides. Symbols illuminated bright red on the stone ring, and in a circle around the chamber’s ceiling. When she looked through the ring, Teagan’s vision distorted like waves of heat on a desert road.

“The tablet closes the circuit,” Teagan said, “and activates the device.”

“But what does it do?”

Pulsing in time with the thrum of power from the artifact, a line of red light appeared over the panels of clay figures on the walls.

Then a hand near Teagan flexed and stretched its fingers. One after another, unrecognizable creatures stepped from the walls, their two-dimensional images swelling and filling out.

Grant and Teagan spun, surrounded. Then his large hand clamped down on her shoulder and yanked her into the shimmering energy of the stone ring.

The world stretched into lines of light in an instant, and a thunderous roar shattered Teagan’s thoughts. Then she fell into mushy earth under a magenta sky. Her fingers sank with a squish into clay—the same greenish-brown covered the ground as far as the eye could see.

Monsters rose from the expanse, sloughing off clumps of excess earth. Wings flapped from the backs of distorted humanoids hovering overhead. Two violet moons hung low on the horizon, one a sharp crescent where the other blocked light from—did this Tepandorixotl even have a sun?

A name came to mind, and Teagan breathed it out in a gasp. “Pandora.”

She fought the madness and fear that filled her as the creatures closed in. One of the flying things swooped toward her, its three-fingered hands grasping like a bird of prey.

Grant’s fist smashed through its face, splattering clumps into the air. The devastated creature spiraled and tumbled, cutting a trough in the clay.

He slipped into a boxing stance, defending Teagan against the oncoming horde. “And this is what you have me along for.”

Teatime with Teagan

Here is this week’s BlogBattle entry, under the genre, “Action/Adventure,” starring Grant and Teagan, with the prompt of “tea.”

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Man of Action and Dauntless Conqueror of Untold Dangers

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

Teagan sat back under the warm sun and breathed in the salty Pacific air. The clear ocean view from the ristorante balcony, coupled with the gentle breeze, reminded her of days spent on the docks of Galway’s harbor. Her rattan chair creaked as she leaned back and sipped at what the owner claimed was imported Darjeeling, brewed strong to her liking. No cup of Lyons’ best Irish Breakfast, certainly—no hearty, spicy flavour punching through rich milk to tantalize the palette. But it would do.

“You should try ze soup, ya?” the woman across from Teagan said. Blonde hair pulled taut into a no-nonsense bun, blue eyes bright as the clear sky, everything about Ilse von Sturmfaust conveyed pent-up intensity—particularly the nine-mil Mauser C96 under the table pointed at Teagan’s abdomen.

“Silly of you to be caught out in ze open, Miss O’Daire.” She swallowed a spoonful from her bowl and licked her lips. “Mmm. Exquisite. You cannot get shrimps fresher zan ziss,” Ilse said. She smirked, her eyes locked with Teagan’s. “Twice now I claim ze catch of ze day. You simply must take a taste.”

Teagan glared at the sopa maravilla set before her and raised her teacup in a mock toast. “Thank you for your generosity, but I’ll pass.”

Ilse shrugged and took another spoonful. “Ahh vell, impending death can steal one’s appetite. Don’t vorry, it vill be swift vonce your partner returns.”

“Must be nice to travel the world and enjoy the finer things,” Teagan said. “Meanwhile your homeland languishes in economic ruin. Maybe your Kaiser has some misplaced priorities?”

“I haff some other friends viss grandiose vision,” Ilse said, “unt deep pockets. It may not seem so now, but Germany has a very bright future.”

Teagan tried to exude calm as she took stock of her predicament. The nearby market bustled with activity, a steady din that might cover the noise of a gunshot. Plenty of witnesses and even a lawman went about their business within view, yet they all seemed intentionally distracted by anything but the meeting at Teagan’s table.

The mission bells rang, three sonorous peals echoing across San Lorenzo, Honduras. Grant should have found the next scrap of information on Castellano’s treasure by now, Teagan reasoned. Hopefully he wouldn’t be foolish enough to bring it back here. Then again, Grant had done far more thoughtless things in their time together.

In the shade of the kitchen, one of the cooks swirled a spoon through the same pot of soup he’d been stirring for several minutes, his eyes rarely leaving Ilse and Teagan. A man at a nearby table held a collection of Emerson and must have found the most moving work of the lot, since he hadn’t turned the page since Teagan arrived. And despite posing for a couple of admiring señoritas, the gentleman with the flashy badge on his waistcoat watched Teagan out the corner of his eye.

Teagan chuckled into her cup. “You’re a blighted fool thinkin’ he’ll be daft enough to come back here,” she said, “with your paid-off tough watchin’ plain as day.” She cocked her head toward the policeman. Better to not let on that I saw the other two.

“Your associate’s reputation is vell-known. Brave but stupit, ya?” Ilse smiled, an out-of-place look that nearly shattered her stern face. “I am not vorried about his intellect. I just vant the next step on ze path to ze Repository.”

She slurped another taste of soup. “Unt I suppose it vill be nice to be rid of you both.”

The one Teagan called Policeman shooed away the ladies and set his full attention on her, at least until he saw her notice him. Then he made an abrupt turn and watched the market, presumably for any sign of Grant. Inside, Chef made a show of chopping a pair of thick carrots for the soup. While he stared at the page, Poet sipped his wine—the one part of the whole charade that Teagan found believable.

They all seemed patient and calm—confident in the trap they’d laid for Grant. Where is that fool man? Certainly his errand wouldn’t take this long…

Ilse flipped open a gold pocketwatch and furrowed her brow. “I thought your partner vas known for being swift unt skillful. Ze passage of time tells another story, ya?”

“Maybe he’s onto you,” Teagan said. “He could be halfway back to Guatemala by now.”

“Perhaps. But that vould be unfortunate for you,” Ilse said, “as you vould no longer be necessary to me.”

Teagan waved for the waiter, then set her teacup at the table’s edge. “Una más, por favor.” As the waiter departed, Teagan checked the kitchen. Chef had vanished, and in his place Grant stood chopping a carrot, that stupid grin brightening his face. He raised a finger to his mouth, signaling silence, and slipped out of view inside the ristorante.

About time he showed up. Teagan breathed a soft sigh of relief, then noticed Ilse’s reaction. “Just trying to enjoy the vista,” Teagan said, “if today’s likely to be my last.”

“Of course, of course. Ze sun shines brighter, ze sky seems clearer, ven you know you may never see them again.”

Teagan looked across the patio at the market, craning her neck as if something or someone caught her eye.

Ilse took the bait. “Gunter,” she hissed to Poet, “go down to ze street unt look for Mister McSvain.” Poet dropped his book on the table and dashed inside.

Right into Grant’s waiting fist, I’ll wager. Teagan put on an appropriately distressed face, and Ilse seemed to buy it.

The waiter appeared with a fresh cup of tea. With his back to Ilse, he winked at Teagan as he set the cup and saucer on the table. “A lot more where that came from, señorita,” he said, then returned to the kitchen.

Teagan buried her face in the cup to hide the smile spreading across her lips. They’re in place. Keep her distracted.

“Von Sturmfaust,” Teagan said. “I’m not familiar with Sturmfaust. Is that a town somewhere? I’ve only been to Stuttgart.”

Ilse stiffened and pursed her lips, then relaxed. “It doesn’t matter if I tell you, does it? Sturmfaust is not a town, it is our fortress on ze shore of Scharmutzelsee. You don’t think I vould give you my real name, ya?”

Teagan feigned surprise. “Fake names and fortresses? Mother Mary grant me grace, what sort of mess have I gotten myself into?”

Ilse laughed. “Do not vorry your pretty head. It vill all be over soon.”

Then someone shouted, “¡Policia!” Grant burst onto the balcony with the sheriff and four deputies, guns drawn. Ilse’s henchman reached for his pistol, but two of the deputies drilled him and his body thudded on the wooden planks of the floor. Ilse dropped her pistol under the table and thrust her empty hands into the air.

Grant rushed to Teagan and wrapped her in his arms. “What did you find out?”

“Not much. The name of a fortress in Germany where I think these Krauts are starting a political movement.”

“Might still be enough to give Uncle Sam reason to fund our expedition,” Grant said. “Or maybe one of your contacts in British Intelligence will be interested.”

“Here’s hoping.”

The deputies clicked handcuffs shut around Ilse’s wrists, and Teagan turned to regard their captive. The police lifted Ilse to her feet, and the sheriff retrieved her Mauser. Ilse’s face flushed as red as Teagan’s hair, and her stunned wide eyes bored into Grant’s back.

“Ilse, my dear,” Teagan said, taking on a German accent, “you didn’t finish your soup. Pretty stupit, ya?” She laid her hand on Ilse’s shoulder and grinned as the woman quivered with rage. “It’s understandable–the thought of prison can steal one’s appetite. But it’s not every day you get a fresh catch like this.”

The Hearts of Men

Here’s this week’s BlogBattle entry for the word “indigenous.”

Genre: Action / Adventure, 1498 words.

Update: This entry pulled off a win in Rachael Ritchey‘s BlogBattle making it two in a row. Thanks to those who liked it enough to vote for it.

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From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Challenger of the Dastardly, Champion of the Defenseless, and Chaser of Debaucherous Dames

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

 

Water gushed from the divot in the rim of the basin, the Stream of Tears now a flood of impending death. The river crashed onto the cracked ground, and steam hissed from searing crevices in the volcanic rock. The noise sounded like God’s own radio, its volume turned high enough for all the world to hear. The blown dam upstream had unleashed a torrent that would fill the Devil’s Bath in minutes.

Grant didn’t have minutes. The fool man stumbled across parched clay speckled with jagged obsidian toward a plume of smoke with glowing red eyes and a feminine figure. Grant mumbled various complementary phrases about Teagan, convinced the ghostly image was his assistant in some state of undress.

For centuries—perhaps millennia—the Mayans sent human sacrifices to this spot, an offering to the gods to sustain and perpetuate the seasonal cycle on which their agriculture so depended. Now it seemed legendary Mournful Bride would claim one more soul before the dry basin flooded.

And the Krauts were getting away, hot on the trail of Castellano’s great discovery—the Mayan repository of knowledge buried somewhere deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Whatever treasure the natives hid within those chambers, Castellano wrote of it with equal parts wonder and fear. It couldn’t fall into the hands of the Kaiser—or whatever more sinister political force was on the rise.

Teagan huffed, her fists balled at her hips. Everything went arseways faster than a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. She stomped toward Grant and thrust herself between the lummox and whatever he saw in the dangerous form reaching toward him.

For a brief moment, recognition flashed across Grant’s bewildered face. “Teag,” he drawled as if inebriated, “how are there two of you?”

The eyes of the Mournful Bride flashed and glared at Teagan, and the being stretched a wispy hand toward Teagan’s feet. The rock exploded, releasing a burst of steam and rubble.

Teagan staggered back, then charged into Grant, knocking him off balance and away from the spirit.

Behind her, a wall of steam rose where the pockets of searing gas under the ground evaporated the first waves of the flood. The unrelenting waters swarmed and surged, slowed but constant in their advance across the bowl of the basin. Once filled, the basin might become a placid lake, warm and inviting. But the chaotic collision of cold and hot would not reach equilibrium smoothly. Swimming posed no problem for Teagan, but the violent eruptions of scalding gas seemed detrimental to one’s health.

“Grant,” Teagan screamed over the ruckus behind her. “We have got to get out of here!” She pushed against him, to no avail. Lacking any better idea, she slapped Grant across the face as hard as she could.

Her hand burned as if seared on a hot pan, and Grant merely laughed, his gaze fixed on the Mournful Bride. “Oh my,” he said with obvious interest, “you’ve gone native. That skimpy outfit is entirely inappropriate.” He marched on like a dying man toward a desert oasis, that stupid, all-too-adorable grin on his befuddled face.

Was he picturing her dressed in the custom of the indigenous jungle tribes? Teagan recalled what she’d seen on a recent visit to one of the villages and blushed at the idea.

The Mournful Bride’s smoky tendrils reached past Teagan and spread over Grant’s shoulders.

The natives… descendants of the Mayans, perhaps? When Grant inquired about the repository, the villagers became disturbed, hostile, like hornets whose nest had been poked. Dangerous, they claimed, and would say no more. Even the interpreter grew cold and distant, unwilling to continue the line of questioning.

A wild idea sparked in Teagan’s mind. Back pressed against Grant’s chest in a futile attempt to slow his advance, Teagan faced the burning gaze of the Mournful Bride.

“Spirit,” she yelled over the sound of the crashing waters, “you clearly know the hearts of men—their insatiable greed, their lust to obtain all they desire.”

The red eyes turned toward Teagan, the ghostly visage both annoyed and bemused. Behind the Bride, two more spirits of steam formed from the ground, hideous emaciated beings with gaunt features, their hunger for life a palpable tug on Teagan’s soul.

“Listen to me,” Teagan pleaded. “Those men outside the basin, they are wicked and depraved. See what they’ve already done to the land? They will find whatever treasure or power is protected by this jungle, by you and your fellow sentinels… and they will use it to bring harm to many, all across the world.”

More spirits rose from the earth as Teagan made her plea, and they circled the doomed pair. Grant stopped pushing against Teagan, but remained enthralled by whatever the Bride showed him. Hesitation flickered in those awful lights, and the spirits behind the Bride paused to listen.

“You all could feed upon them,” Teagan said. “For centuries you consumed the sacrifices offered to you, preyed upon the faithful who came to this place seeking blessings for their people.”

She addressed all of them now, passion filling her voice in spite of fear. “It’s your turn to act on behalf of others. You have power over the fury of the earth beneath us. Turn this against those men, before they escape and steal whatever awesome and terrible secret Castellano found.”

At the mention of Castellano, the spirits moved as one, snapping into attention like soldiers awaiting review. The Mournful Bride cocked her head and stared into the jungle above the rim of the basin. Her raspy voice whispered in Teagan’s mind, clear despite the cacophony. To protect… to preserve… to prevent the Last Cycle and the Breaking of the Heavens…

Her ghostly arm stretched past Teagan and Grant toward the sheer side of the basin, and all the spirits mirrored the Bride’s motion. Like spears of mist, they hurtled through the air and vanished into the rocky floor of the basin. The ground rumbled and quaked beneath Teagan’s feet, toppling her.

Grant swept her up with one strong arm and clutched her to himself, his vision suddenly cleared. “Hold on, Teag, I’ve got you.”

A chasm opened in the middle of the Devil’s Bath, spraying gas and lava into the air, separating Grant and Teagan from the oncoming flood. The fissure ran across the ground and snaked up the cliff, tearing a deep wound in the earth. Trees snapped and fell into the gaping opening, while others burst into flame, set alight in the blazing heat.

The roiling wave poured into the wide crevice, and gouts of steam howled and whistled like the finest imported incendiaries on Guy Fawkes Day. The earth quivered with aftershocks and tremors, and the air stank of sulfur and ash.

But calm returned to the jungle, and Grant’s arms held Teagan secure.

Grant looked around, surveying the devastation. “Hell hath no fury like a woman, or so they say.”

Teagan scoffed and pulled away. “Like a woman scorned, you oaf.”

“Yeah, sure. But you’re all so sensitive, that happens before a fellow can even see the warning signs.” Grant chuckled, then gulped when he looked her way. “Case in point,” he muttered, then turned away.

The hissing voice of the Bride whispered in Teagan’s mind once more. It is done.

Thank you, Teagan thought back.

You may not be so grateful if your journey succeeds. The Vault of the Heavens holds a formidable source of knowledge, far beyond your comprehension, far too difficult to resist. And as you said, I know the hearts of men—even the one you love.

Despite the humidity and heat, Teagan shuddered as a chill coursed through her. Could Grant fight the worst of human nature? Or would he succumb to the allure of power?

I’ve come to know his heart as well, Teagan replied in thought to the Bride, unsure if the spirit could even hear. And I trust my judgment.

Unsettling laughter echoed in the deep recesses of her mind. The Bride had indeed heard.

Teagan shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair, summoning a weak sense of confidence. She knew this man better than anyone else in her life. Though he often infuriated her, she trusted him. “Grant, how about we get focused back on the goal, yeah? Figure out the path to the Repository, perhaps?”

“Good idea, especially since we don’t know how much water that fissure is going to hold.” The Stream of Tears still poured into the basin at a steady rate. Grant turned and headed toward the south side of the deep bowl, pulling a rope from his pack.

“Maybe we can stop by one of the villages on the way,” Grant said, flashing her that grin. “Have you ever considered how you’d look wearing something a little more… local?”

 

The Devil's Bath

Here’s another episode of Grant and Teagan’s misadventures for this week’s BlogBattle using the word “bathtub” as a prompt.

Genre: Action/Thriller set in the early 1930s.

Update: This won the weekly BlogBattle hosted by Rachael Ritchey. (You can click the image to see all the entries for that week.) Thank you to those who voted for my story.

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From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Fearless Adventurer and Intrepid Explorer of the Farthest Corners of the Globe 

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


Grant swatted and chopped at the thick, leafy wall before him until sunlight burst through, illuminating the shaded mysteries beneath the jungle canopy. Teagan bobbed and peered around Grant’s bulky form, but could barely make anything out other than a sharp decline.

Grant posed, hands on hips, his green-stained machete out to his side. “La bañera del Diablo,” he said with pride. “We found it, Teag. The records of Castellano’s expedition were right.”

He cast a glance over his shoulder, his strong chin and smug smirk more appealing than Teagan would like to admit. “The path to the Mayan repository of knowledge is within our grasp. Just think of what wonders await discovery… and how much money Roquefort is going to give us for a first pick of ‘em!”

She peeked between his forearm and his sweat-stained shirt. A wide basin in the jungle opened up beyond Grant’s feet. Surrounded by heavy foliage, no one would guess at its existence—at least not prior to the advent of air travel and its impact on cartography for the unexplored reaches of the earth.

“That looks like a mighty drop to a surface of jagged rocks,” Teagan said. “I thought this was supposed to be a small lake?”

Grant pointed at something Teagan couldn’t see. “There’s the Arroyo de Lágrimas,” he said, uncoiling a length of rope. “The Stream of Tears. Used to be part of a sacrificial ritual… the offerings marched themselves down the river and dove into the lake. Or so goes the story.”

“Where’d all the water go, then?”

“The Guatemalan government built a dam upstream some years back. Hardly a trickle flows this way, short of a torrential downpour in the rainy season.”

He slipped a knot around a tree trunk and tested the weight. “When Castellano found it, the river flowed freely, feeding into the basin and creating hot springs as well as the lake. There’s a reason the locals call this the Land of the Eternal Spring.”

“I remember something about that in Castellano’s notes,” Teagan said. “But it wasn’t good.” She pulled her worn journal from a satchel on her back, flipped through a few pages, then read aloud. “’The steam curled up like the spirits of the damned,’ he wrote. ‘The very ground moaned and wailed in angry protest at our approach.’ Sounds formidable.”

“All part of his plan,” Grant replied. “Vallarte’s local slaves resisted doing his bidding, and his soldiers were a superstitious lot. But he was always nipping at Castellano’s heels, trying to discover the repository. Castellano spread word of a basin flooded with vengeful demons cast out of heaven, and the imprisoned souls of the men they’d ensnared—a perfect place to hide treasure from your relentless rival, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t know,” Teagan answered. “Judging by what remains of his private thoughts, he seemed to believe it. Listen. ‘No apparition proved more terrible than La Novia Triste—the Mournful Bride. Her appearance changed based on the desires of her intended prey. Several of my men dashed into the plumes of smoke calling out to their loves back in Madrid. Each time, the locals fell into a grave hush. It was as if the very skies dimmed at her awful presence.’”

Grant scoffed. “More imaginations to dissuade those who might come after his secrets. Paranoia expresses itself in interesting ways. I’m telling you, the guy knew more than he was letting on, and he wasn’t about to give it away.”

He slid down the rope and vanished below the ridge.

Teagan watched the shifting plumes from the black rock at the bottom of the basin. Strands and wisps of steam stretched and beckoned. Curls of vapor formed crude faces of mist, and all their gray eyes seemed fixed on her.

She ran a finger across her medallion and whispered a half-hearted prayer before taking hold of the rope. Grant was already picking his way across the smoky terrain at the bottom of the basin. “Wait for me, you daft ox,” Teagan called and descended.

The sun hid behind a puffy bank of clouds, bringing a cooling shade and sweet relief from the oppressive heat. An unexpected breeze chilled the sweat on Teagan’s back as she lowered herself down the side of the basin.

She alighted on the cracked earth at the edge of the basin and jogged over to Grant. He squatted near the middle of the deep bowl, counting off something with his fingers.

“What’s the matter, Grant?”

He dismissed her with a wave and pointed. A sharp noise built into a whistle like a giant tea kettle. “And… now!” A gout of steam burst from a crack in the earth, obscuring Teagan’s view of the high cliffs. “Every twenty-three seconds, give or take,” Grant said, “that fissure emits a plume of vapor. It explains how the lake maintained its warm temperature back in Castellano’s day.”

“That’s interesting, Grant. But I don’t know how it helps us track down Castellano’s treasure.”

A distant male voice echoed between the walls of the basin. “I do not know either,” the man said. Teagan whipped her head around and spotted armed men at the north end of the basin, their guns trained on the figures far below. One at the front stood at parade rest and glowered at the small pair. “Frankly I am surprised to find ze Devil’s Bath at all. I thought it a myth when the twins proposed this journey. And then you two went and killed them.”

Teagan glared at the blurry figure warped and distorted by the plumes of steam. “More of the Kaiser’s men, I presume?”

“We work for… other interests in Berlin,” the German said. “You cost my master significant resources, an expense he can ill afford in these trying times. Your discoveries here might reduce the great debt you owe my people.”

Grant said nothing, distracted by something in the basin. Teagan stepped forward, empty hands held out with a shrug of her shoulders. “Your choice of victims is quite poor. We have nothing that will help you, no idea where to go from here.”

“A shame,” the man said. “Be that as it may, I’m afraid you’re never going to find out.”

Something boomed in the distance, and Teagan’s gaze followed the direction of the sound. One edge of the basin dipped, the rocky cliff cut by centuries of flowing water. “The Arroyo de Lágrimas,” she gasped. “They just blew the dam.”

Grant didn’t respond. He stared into the distant plumes, a look of wonder on his face. “Teag,” he muttered as he stumbled toward the fissure, “how did you bring such a fetching dress all this way?”

Teagan followed Grant’s gaze and balked. That misty shape—arms outstretched, tendrils of smoke brushing and swirling around Grant’s shoulders and waist—could it be the Mournful Bride?

On her left, rolling thunder built to a cacophony, and a rush of water burst from the divot in the basin’s edge. It poured like a waterfall into the deep bowl, crashing into the rocks and hissing as it flooded the searing fissures. Teagan’s red hair fluttered in the growing wind as the force of the waves sweeping toward her pushed air out of the way.

To her right, ignorant of multiple dangers, Grant lumbered toward the remarkably feminine column of smoke pouring from the broken earth. The shape stretched to inhuman lengths, tentacles of steam curling and wrapping around his arms, his back, his throat. The face grew clearer, its eyes two sparkling lights, its mouth a hungry grin.

“Thank you for your help, Mister McSwain,” the German called, though Grant paid no heed. “And goodbye.” He vanished into the jungle.