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)

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.

Voices in Our Heads

I love being insane–I mean, schizophrenic–I mean, a writer.

I spent some time (9 hours or so) on a jet yesterday, with not a lot to do and a powerful need to correct a bad attitude. So I took out a list of questions I’d stolen from Writer’s Digest or some similar source, opened up a new document, and in between actual work, I conducted interviews.

First up, Zack Jackson, the no-nonsense drifter / prophet in the Old West, whose dice tell him, every morning, a little hint about what his day may hold in store.

He’s fairly polite but not afraid to speak his mind. There are some questions he doesn’t think I have a right or need to know–and certainly not any of the sort of people that would read my writing.

And there’s some stuff that he doesn’t quite know himself–why the dice give him so little to go on, whether what he sees is fate or a possible outcome he can change, and why God allows such bad things to fall upon innocent folk. (He admits the Parson in town would say, “Well, mayhaps that’s why He sent you.”)

I spent a good long time with Zack. Wrote down almost 3,000 words of interview before it was time to move on. Then I changed fantasy worlds, jumped ahead 150 years, and switched to Cass Stone.

Cass is the “hero” of my upcoming NaNoWriMo project, a book I’m planning and plotting out in a partnership with a good friend from the States. In this alternate world, magic is a real thing and has been throughout history. Those with power ruled for millennia, until the Industrial Revolution (an actual, bloody revolution across multiple modern societies). After that, mages became outcasts, beaten down or kept from rights and freedoms enjoyed by “norms.” In America, freedom was protected for everyone on paper, but not so much in reality. 

Then Hitler rose to power with a technologically superior army fueled by energies consumed from mages used and burned out like human batteries.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, America creates a Magic Enforcement Agency, dedicated to ensuring no similar mixture of technology and arcana can ever threaten the world.

Though none of them would admit it, Cass Stone is their best Enforcer–a self-proclaimed cold-hearted bad guy paid to take out even worse people. And he’s on the trail of a game-changing weapon that could spell doom for the free world if it falls into the wrong hands. 

In the last hour of the flight or so, Cass strolled into the interview and took a seat, challenging the interviewer (me) and questioning the whole purpose of the dialogue.

You can’t get this from some other hobby. I just spent four hours talking to non-existent people. I have six pages of Q&A to show for it. And paradoxically, the more I talk to those imaginary friends, the more clear they become in my mind, so that in theory, the more real the become on the page or screen for a future reader.

They say writers are sometimes a anti-social. I beg to differ.

I go out of my way to talk to people no one else possibly could.

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.”

 

August Word Count

I added up my word count for the month today…

…which is to say I put in all the zeros for the last week or so of grueling-paced, soul- crushing work as an aircrew member in the Air Force. Fourteen hours of work involving a 10-ish hour actual flight conducting a mission on a plane doesn’t lend itself to finding that creative writing headspace at the end of the day. I think I’m going to work just shy of 70 hours this week, after working all last week including the weekend. But I can’t say for certain, because my brain is doing triage and dumping useless or frustrating tasks like math.

Excuses excuses, I know. I’ve read all those writing books and articles too. “The single mom with two jobs made time to write her break-out novel. Stephen King made time every single day and never took a day off until he got hit by a car.”

Yes, I know. But I also don’t think I abdicate being a writer if I admit that right now, I don’t care.

I got just shy of 10K this month. Dismal compared to where I started out, but better than nothing.

A good chunk of the writing this month is part of a collaborative modern fanta-sci project with a friend in the States. And today I took actual lunch time, which consisted of starting a gist of a new Grant & Teagan for the weekly BlogBattle.

But my future military intelligence draft is getting reviewed to make sure I’m not accidentally inserting something deemed sensitive. (Come on guys, it’s psychic reconnaissance, it’s not real. Should I get out a tinfoil hat? Then again, if they’re worried about it, maybe I need one.)

Fantasy book 2 is somewhat stalled at the moment since I haven’t carved out time to really focus on writing. But at least the early chapters are seeing some critique in my writers’ groups.

And Scrivener on the iPad is filling up with more ideas that I’ll get to “some day.”

Two more years of this, and then I can retire. Dang… civilian life…

Who will I be able to blame for my low productivity then?

Here’s hoping your creative endeavors are more successful than mine at the moment!

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.”

Literary Karaoke