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.”

I Am Not Omran

In the aftermath of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie became a unifying rallying cry for those who wanted to say something against the attack. “I am Charlie,” it meant. In other words, I am with them, and an attack on them is an attack not only on freedom in general, but on me personally.

While I mourn the 12 people slain that day, there have reportedly been 250,000 killed in Syria over the last five years of civil war. Quick math in my head works that out to about 135 people killed on average daily every day for the last five years straight. 

I don’t recall seeing many hashtags. And I don’t want to. 

In the midst of the most ridiculous (read: horrifying and frustrating) Presidential election in my experience and to my historical knowledge,  we’re treated to horror stories of how ISIS might send attackers to pose as refugees, and how “swarms” of people in need are flooding into countries that permit them entry. Fear is the message, personal safety is paramount, and people in need are rationalized away as a risk or at best a sad reality we can’t do much about.

Well, a picture of this Syrian boy named Omran has been making the social media rounds… and in an emotionally gripping video, CNN reported on his situation. 

I watch this and it strikes me that “Je ne suis pas Omran.” I am not him. I don’t know his world, his life, his circumstances, or his pain. I can’t relate. I can’t claim “This is me too.”

I’m living in comfort, abundance, and security. It may not always feel that way, when the budget is tight or the news is frightening. But it’s a good bet no one who can see this post is experiencing a crisis or situation anything like his (and the millions of people displaced and affected by this ongoing humanitarian disaster).

When I look at Omran, what I see is a striking similarity to my five year old son. He’s the “baby” of the family, the darling, the youngest of four children. He entertains us all with hilarious antics and endearing, heartfelt expressions of innocence and love. He is free to do so because #JeNeSuisPasOmran. 

No, I am not Omran. And that means I likely have the power to help. 

Yes, I understand the fears people have about national security. And in my brain–fueled as it is by seasons of 24 and the like–I can see how easy it might be to slip a threat into the country posing as a refugee. 

But maybe just maybe a lot of refugees are actually people in deep, desperate need. And a lot of organizations are helping them where they are, or in neighboring countries. So fear about our safety in the US is no reason to ignore the plight of others. 

Please consider what you can do. Here are some organizations I found that appear to be helping. 

Hand in Hand for Syria

Helping Agencies

Save the Children

The Same Love

We played this song for our worship set at church a few weeks back. I liked it well enough when I first heard it–sounded kind of like U2 (and the chord progression blends right into With or Without You).

But the words emphasize the universal aspects of the Christian faith, the stuff that reinforces what’s common to all of us. It speaks to the widespread nature of God’s love, the human condition common to us all, and the far-reaching call, with a central focus on the cross of Christ.

As I back off a bunch of political debates and frustrating arguments with fellow believers and non-Christians alike, I’m reminded of what’s important to me.

In this place at the foot of the cross, the same Love calls out to all of us, wherever we are.

The same love that calls to the poor and says, “I will be your treasure” is the one that calls to the rich, points to the poor, and says, “Treasure what I treasure.”

The same love that calls to the weak and says, “I will be your strength” calls out to the strong, points to the weak, and says, “Be my hands to lift their burden; be my arms to defend them.”

The same love that calls to the outcast and marginalized and says, “You are welcome here forever and always” is the love that says to the popular and the in-crowd, “Treat them how you’d like to be treated. Go out into the furthest reaches and love them as I have loved you.”

The same love that died for all lives and declared that all lives matter must point our attention to injustice and oppression in the world wherever it is found, calling out that those particular lives in danger matter right now.

The same love that paid the price for all sin and paved a way for all sinners is the one calling us to drop our pretenses and hypocritical standards, fling wide the gates, and let whosoever will come.

Because most often, out there among them is where you will find Him.

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.”

Don’t Drink the Water

As I watch (and I admit, occasionally engage in) the meltdowns on Facebook and other social media, here’s a non-partisan thought on politics:

It’s not weakness to admit the shortcomings of the candidate or party you support. It’s not treachery to admit where the other candidate or party does well. Rather than making you a traitor to your own, it reveals you’re a person of consideration and character, refusing to be swept along by a stream of half-true headlines or news bites that tell you exactly what you might want to hear.
More than the evils of either (IMHO abysmal) main party candidate, I fear the drones on both sides who refuse to see anything that disagrees with what they want to believe.

Those who dismiss everything their candidate does wrong as if it isn’t on record and readily available for public review.

Those who turn on and savage public figures who they counted as allies for years prior to some perceived slight or difference of opinion.

Those who rely on the most suspect and sketchy source as fact when it is not supported by even one mainstream media outlet (and I include Fox in that).

This year I feel left with two horrible choices and perhaps a couple slightly better options that have no realistic chance of winning.

I want to blame the parties, the system, those in power.

But in my dealings with friends on both the right and the left, it’s all too clear that we’ve got the election the American people asked for.

I don’t unfriend people on Facebook. I may not agree with everyone but I like the variety of viewpoints (which I thought was one of the strong points of social media).

In light of willful, repeated ignorance in the face of several corrections or challenges, I’ve had to consider it several times now. Even people who concede one day that their extreme points take it too far–these same people will repeat the exact same words the next day as if it’s some obvious, unassailable truth.

In Rio, some sources report the water is tainted with sewage. Athletes are reportedly being advised: “Particpate, but keep your mouth closed to avoid contamination.”

I feel like that is good advice for social media over the next few months, as well as for the voting booth in November.

100 more days. (Followed by four years of further baseless and myopic vitriol on both sides.)

Good luck, America, and good night.

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.

Whispers in the Wind

It’s time to write now,

Right now, this moment, create!

A world of options

_
To think that somehow

The prose, the poems that we make

Can last beyond us

_

A word legacy

Waves of rolling syllables

Flowing in our wake

_
“What’s the point,” I ask,

Afraid I know the answer:

Maybe there is none.

_
The question becomes:

If we’re mere whispers in wind

Will we not still speak?

The Chase

I see, from afar,

Fleeting glimpse of her fleeing

Playing hard to get 
This game that we play

Chase sensations and passions

Always reach for more

And she knows that I

I can’t just let her go, no

She knows I’ll chase her

This dance that we do

Cat and mouse meets the tango

She’s at it again

My inspiration

Curls a finger and beckons

Sighing, I follow

– 

I wrote this at a lovely Creative Writing workshop I attended this past weekend. The facilitator sang a series of haiku he had written years ago, accompanied on his acoustic guitar with something like a Spanish sound. I pictured a carousing and carefree pursuit during a fiesta through dusty, packed-earth streets in a Mexican town. He invited us to write our own haiku to show the variety of meanings and thoughts that could still fit the same rhythm and song.

I debated whether to go in the first place. My dance with my writing muse has been far from a cat-and-mouse, let alone something so intimate as a tango. More like “go sleep on the couch while I make an appointment with the divorce lawyer to draft the necessary paperwork.”

About a month’s worth of word count entries read ‘0’ and the status of my current projects remains unchanged. Scheduling a writers’ group has been problematic, and the pace of work only seems likely to increase. 

But the Muse crooks that painted nail at me and flashes that smile, and like it or not, here I go again. 

I’ve been listening to Brandon Sanderson’s recorded lectures on YouTube during down-time, and Stephen King’s On Writing audiobook in my car. Though the base library version is scratched up a bit–“theme is what unifies a novel into a plea- plea- plea- plea- pleasing whole”–there’s still so much down-to-earth insight that I can’t help but enjoy it.

He talks a lot about writer’s block while at the same time talking about–in his own life–putting his nose to the grindstone and pumping out several pages a day, every day, seven days a week, all year ’round, Christmas and the 4th of July included. 

He and his muse must get along a lot better than mine. (Actually he also talks about that, and his muse sounds like quite a jerk.)

The end result of the weekend is my little group of three or four writers can connect with a larger community in the initial forming stages on island. And I wrote a snippet of dialogue for Fantasy Series Book 3 (when book 2 is barely started). And there’s that poem.

But the word count didn’t show zero that day, so I’ll take it.

Fair is Fair

A familiar image popped up on my Facebook feed, shared by a reasonable conservative friend, sourced from a page of patriots dedicated to opposing “Jihad.”

So I wasn’t surprised to find a misleading story:

Post whatever you like on a political issue. You're practically guaranteed no one will look it up.
Post whatever you like on a political issue. You’re practically guaranteed no one will look it up.

I knew I’d seen this image before, and had even responded to the panicked fear-mongering, the dire sense of impending doom, the overwrought feeling of “what has our country come to?”

Yet here it was again.

Out of a foolhardy need to correct people on the Internet, I clicked “Show all comments” on the thread. The reactions were explosive. A few, in bold, are presented below, along with my thoughts on their points:

Anyone who didn’t walk out is a traitor to the oath they swore when they were elected.

Actually, they’re upholding the importance of pluralism and diversity, and ensuring that our government isn’t misunderstood to be promoting or respecting a particular religion over all others. By supporting this, they’re doing exactly what they swore to do. And to be fair, selection of pray-ers is probably pretty transparent and unrelated to almost everyone in either body of Congress.

How can they say separation of church and state about schools and government offices when they’re forcing the Islamic ideology on the House of Representatives?

Because the prayer fits that gray area where no religion is being forced or pushed upon any individual, no one is being forced to participate in a religious act, and no implication of government respect or disrespect is shown for a particular religion in relation to all others.

If Obama wants them to have an Islamic prayer, then he has to let them have Christian prayers too. He never will, but he should. Fair is fair. 

If fair is fair, then we probably owe Islamic clerics far more opportunities to conduct the prayers, not less. 

The timing seems highly suspect, coming right off the heels of the tragedy in Orlando. It’s pretty obvious what Obama’s trying to say here.

Well, the video is actually from late 2014–note the presence of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, which, by the way, is a Legislative body controlled by Republicans at that point, and not part of President Obama’s Executive branch.  So the President had nothing to do with it now, nor did he back then. But for whatever reason this page decided to post it like it happened yesterday. You’re right, the timing is suspect… but not in the way you think.

This post highlights a level of ignorance many Americans may have about what happens every time our representatives meet. I didn’t know all this until looking into a similar post a few months back, so I assume maybe others also don’t know.

The House of Representatives has a chaplain who conducts an invocation or prayer at the start of every session, and this practice has taken place since 1789. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of prayers offered are Christian in nature.

The first Islamic invocation was conducted in 1991, and several have occurred since then, once every couple years or on some occasions twice in one year.

Other religions have also been represented, but sparsely. Jewish prayers account for 2.7% of all invocations in the last fifteen years. Hindus have occasionally offered prayers (once every six years or so since 2000, near as I can tell).  Islam and Hinduism are tied at about 0.5% of the invocations in that 15 year period.

That data came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who pointed out that 97% of prayers in Congress in the last 15 years  are Christian in nature. And yet no form of atheism, secularism or humanism has been given a chance to conduct anything resembling an invocation. “Of course not,” one might say, “they’re not a religion.” But there are values which most atheists or humanists espouse, and there are options that would permit inclusion and participation of a group that is currently excluded, without putting down religious beliefs or pushing a non-faith ideology on anyone–in the same way that Christian prayers can be offered without violating the separation of church and state. (But when someone tried to nominate a secular person to perform the invocation, that request was denied.)

Back to the original point.

The problem is, a page with an agenda can depict this subject in a frightening or conspiratorial light. President Obama is blamed for this as though he directly scheduled this cleric to pray and as if he has banned any other forms of prayer–neither of which are true.

Simply put, a little bit of research goes a long way to defusing tensions, enlightening minds, broadening perspectives, and understanding differences. Taking the time to dig a little deeper and discover the truth keeps us from going off the deep end or responding in fear toward someone we don’t agree with. It helps unite us in a time when our culture and country is starkly divided.

Instead of seeing the worst, we can seek and discover the best about others. Instead of presuming or pre-judging, we can come to know others as they are, just like we’d hope to be treated if the roles were reversed.

That seems pretty fair.

Literary Karaoke

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