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?”

 

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