Pieces of the Puzzle

Holy Crossover, Batman! It was bound to happen sooner or later, so sooner it is. Our not-so-dynamic duo, Royston and Talan are interrupted by an unexpected and unwelcome guest. To catch up read this, this, and this.

        Royston stared morosely into his nearly-empty pint of beer, counting the rings of foam. His arm burned like the dickens and he kept rubbing it as though it would make the stinging sensation go away.
         “They sent us to the wrong place,” Talan said for the third time, disgusted.
         “Bloody wankers,” Royston agreed, wincing as fresh pain shot up his forearm.
         “Two more,” Talan gestured to the bartender.
         Roy nodded gratefully at the American.
         Once they realized there was no way around the pit in the floor, Royston called his handler. Felix Crowley then informed them that the parchment detailing their task had been mistranslated. Royston’s company mobile was now, for all he knew, still plummeting towards the core of the earth after he flung it into the hole–Crowley’s voice still screaming out of it. They walked back through the doors, which opened at a flash of Royston’s tattoo and, following Talan’s brilliant suggestion, went straight to the nearest pub.
         Royston took a gulp of the new, frothy beer the bartender brought after clinking it dissolutely with Talan’s. The American really wasn’t so bad. The accent, of course, was ridiculous and he had no concept of proper manners, but he did know how to shut up and drink a beer. It was a talent, Royston realized after weeks with Shafer, that not every man possessed.
         “Now what?” Talan asked finally, eyeing the telly in the corner as though he cared about the football match.
         “Well my mobile’s in the pit of the bloody silver pyramid where we were supposed to go and Crowley hasn’t tracked me down yet, so for now, we wait. I’m sure someone’ll turn up to claim me,” Royston said glumly.
         “How can they find you?” Talan turned away from the match, his blonde eyebrows shooting towards his hairline.
         Royston rolled up his sleeve—on the non-tattooed arm—and pointed to the tiny lump just above the crook of his elbow.
         “Tracking device. They can find me anytime, anywhere,” he grinned and swallowed another mouthful of beer.
         “Jesus,” Talan said, impressed. “Did they do that when they decided you were…y’know, him?”
         “No, mate. I’ve had this since I was nineteen, since they first offered me a post. They take their employees seriously, they do.”
         “They should, considering how much it costs to replace one of you,” a new voice interrupted their murmured conversation and both men froze.
         A blonde, Slavic-featured young woman slid herself into the stool next to Royston. She wore a black suit and her shapely legs were covered in black hose. Even Royston could tell it was expensive. A wiff of her perfume floated past him as she caught the bartender’s attention and ordered an extra-dirty martini.
         “Excuse me, miss,” Royston began.
         “It’s Elsa. Elsa Obrecht.”
         Royston blanched. Talan regarded Elsa with undisguised admiration.
         “I see you’ve heard of me,” her red lips curved in a smile and she took a sip of her martini, eyes focused on Royston.
         “I don’t b’lieve I’ve had the pleasure,” the American shouldered Royston to the side as he eagerly reached across him to shake Elsa’s hand.
         “Talan Davies, yes, I know who you are, too,” Elsa delicately took his hand in the briefest possible handshake.
         Talan looked pleased rather than otherwise and Royston dug his elbow into the beefy man’s side before he knocked Royston off his stool.
         “What’re you doing here?” he asked, scooting away from Elsa.
         “I know the Council has been making one mistake after the other and that you’re the fourth al’Uttarak they’ve declared in fifty years. The Firm is…displeased,” Elsa fished an olive out of her martini and rolled it between two scarlet-tipped fingers.
         “Bloody hell,” Royston said faintly.
         Talan jogged his elbow, demanding an explanation. Royston shoved the man back, waving at him to be silent. Had he thought the man wasn’t so bad after all? Wrong. He was an interfering prat.
         “There’s a certain…asset they are rather desperate to get their hands on. They think he can help unravel some of the tangles the Council has put in our plans. He may even be able to confirm whether or not you are the real al’Uttarak, or just another mis-read prophecy,” she smirked.
         “And this bloke, the Firm wants us to find him?” Royston asked, grasping for any crumb that might save him.
         “Oh, we know where he is,” she examined the olive before popping it into her mouth. “But a previous mission to…persuade him to partner with us did not go as planned.”
         “Who is he? The bloody President of the United States?” Royston ignored Talan’s grunt of disapproval.
         “He’s a vampire–” Elsa began.
         “Oh sod off. You come in here, interrupt me and my mate having a well-deserved pint and then say you want us to convince a bleeding mythological creature to partner with the Firm?” Royston laughed. “This is complete bollocks.”
         “You don’t believe in vampires?” Elsa raised one perfectly groomed brow.
         Royston’s laugh faded.
         “You’re not…you’re bloody serious? This is….oh sod it,” Royston put his head down on the sticky bar.
         “This particular vampire, Fritz, has the unique ability to read emotions, and, we believe, auras,” Elsa continued.
         “What does that mean, exactly?” Talan asked, his voice unsteady. “What’s an aura?”
         “Auras are like halos of light and color around people—not everyone can see them, and very few people can interpret them. We believe Fritz can. And, if he can, he can tell if Mr. Humphreys here is the real al’Uttarak or not.”
         Royston lifted his head and drained the rest of his beer, staring at the back of the bar as though facing a firing squad. He could feel Talan and Elsa’s eyes on him as he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand; Talan’s mouth hung open slightly. Royston closed his eyes for a moment and then turned to Elsa, resignedly.
         “Well, looks like we bloody better find this vampire then. What do we need to do?”
         Elsa tossed back her martini and smiled.

A Cog in the Machine

Chuck Wendig’s instructions this week: Choose one of these last lines submitted (from last week’s challenge) and use it as the first line. Once I chose, I knew I had to revisit our friend from my last Chuck Challenge, read about him here.

          “That plan didn’t fly, superhero, and now we’re short a bazooka.”
          “Yes, thank you very much for that enlightening conclusion,” Royston said through his teeth. “And for chrissakes stop calling me superhero.” Wanker.
          The tall American shrugged and surveyed the portal in front of them. The blast from the bazooka did little more than mar the otherwise flawless sheen of the strange doors. They looked like metal, but Royston never saw metal that black and shining before. His companion pulled out a cigarette and lit it, holding it in the corner of his mouth as he surveyed the damage. Royston glanced at him then back at the spent bazooka lying on the ground. It was worth a shot, he thought.
          “Well, now what?”
          “Will you bloody shut up? I’m trying to think,” Royston said.
          “Can’t think and talk at the same time? I thought the Brits were supposed to be in possession of superior intelligence.”
          It was amazing to Royson that Talan could be such a colossal pain in the arse. It wasn’t just that he was a Yank, or that he was built like Captain America, or that he was arrogant to the bone. It was mainly that he was an incurable prick. Royston took a deep breath, massaging the spot on his wrist where his tattoo still burned.
          “Bloody Council,” he muttered, staring at the doors as though they would reveal their answer.
          “What was that?” Talan asked.
          He looked completely calm, standing there, smoking, while the entire world could go to bits at any moment. Royston wished he’d used the bazooka on Talan instead. He didn’t really think it would open the portal, but it was worth a try.
          “I said, ‘Bloody Council.’ As in bugger the Council and the Councilman and the damned prophecy,” Royston’s voice echoed off the metal walls around them and he winced.
          “Bad week at work?” Talan asked, grinding his cigarette into the floor with his combat boots.
          Royston rolled his eyes. Talan looked like he stepped out of a particularly bad American spy film with his black pants covered in pockets, black boots, and black t-shirt that was strategically several sizes too small. Royston wore what he always wore. He rubbed at his forearm again. The blasted tattoo felt like a nettle sting. Should it still be hurting?
          “What do you think, G.I. Joe? Have you ever been told you’re the second runner up as the bleeding al’Uttarak, the One meant to save the bloody world from disaster? Well?” He shoved up his sleeve and stuck his arm out to Talan. “Have you had some crazy prick with a set of needles tattoo a bloody Sanskrit novella into your arm in the middle of the night after you just watched a bloody wall fall on the first al’Uttarak’s head?”
          Talan looked at him with one blonde brow raised. “What tattoo?”
          “What do you mean what—” Royston looked down at his own arm.
          Just that morning, the words of the prophecy still stood out on his arm in thick, black ink. The skin around the letters was still red and tender and it itched like mad. But now…
          “Well, I’ll be damned,” Talan was looking at the portal now.
          Running across the shining black surface in glowing white letters was the prophecy. Royston looked at his bare arm—bare except for the slight red marks from his itching and then back up at the portal. He gaped at it for a moment before reaching out a trembling hand to touch the word he recognized—the one for al’Uttarak. There was a high-pitched whine of metal against metal that made both men cringe and the doors began to slide open.
          “I don’t bloody believe it,” Royston said faintly.
          Talan let out a low whistle, “Guess this means you’re the real deal then, Roy.”
          “I am not the sodding al’Uttarak. This is some trick of the bleeding Council’s. If Shafer would have been here the same blasted thing would have happened.”
          Talan grunted but did not respond, he pulled his gun from his belt and moved slowly towards the opening.
          “Right, then, now it’s open,” Royston cleared his throat. “So you go in there and—”
          “No way, superhero, you’re coming with me,” Talan reached back and grabbed the collar of Royston’s coat, dragging him through. As Royston crossed the threshold there was a searing pain in his arm and the doors clamped shut again with a screech. He looked at his forearm again. The tattoo was back.
          Talan met his eyes and shrugged, “You’re the brains of this operation.”
          “Well we’re completely buggered then,” Royston said. His heart was hammering, his eyes widening in an effort to soak in any trace of light in the dark room. There was a click and a light flicked on, startling him.
          The flashlight illuminated Talan’s grin. “‘Fraid so.”
          Royston followed the small puddle of bright white as Talan led them down what he could now see was some sort of passageway. The walls were of the same smooth metal-like material as the doors. There were no markings or carvings of any kind.
          “You know, I pictured this being a lot more like Indiana Jones,” Talan said. “Old stone chambers and carvings and booby traps—” he stopped abruptly.
          Royston nearly staggered into him and peered over the big American’s shoulder.
          “Bloody effective, I’d say,” Royston looked down into the gaping hole at their feet.
          Since the floors were shining black, it was hard to see where the abyss began—or where it ended. Royston edged to the side so that he stood next to Talan. It looked like the hole stretched for several yards—too far to jump. Talan was scanning the ceiling and walls—all completely smooth, all devoid of purchase.
          “Oh sod it all,” Royston muttered. “Go to the portal and open it, then all will be revealed,” he mimicked the Chairman’s voice. “Just bloody brilliant.”
          “Don’t know what you’re so upset about, Roy. Our government’s been lying to us for years.”

Holy Goat

Friday Fictioneers with Rochelle, our fearless leader, is here again with a photo by Randy Mazie. No goats were harmed in the making of this post.

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     “There,” Benjamin stabbed dramatically at the computer screen.
     “I can’t see anything—your finger is in the way,” Zeke muttered.
      Ben scowled, pulling away; Zeke studied the photo.
     “All I see are a bunch of goats and some guy on a wall,” Zeke said.
     “Look at the carving on the headstone,” Ben jabbed the screen again.
     “Stop. Doing. That,” Zeke pulled his laptop away.
      Zeke squinted at the washed-out tombstone in the forefront. Nose inches away from the screen, he gasped.
     “It’s the last marker for the Prophecy, Ezekiel. We found it,” Ben said, voice hushed.
      Zeke dropped the laptop.

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Another Brick in the Wall

I know, I know, I’ve had way too many posts with song titles lately, but I’m also not even a little bit sorry. This week the deviant and demented Chuck Wendig decided to torture us with TV tropes. Our random trope-selector chose the tropes we had to use in our story.* I’m not sure I entirely followed directions, but I like to think these challenges are more like guidelines than actual rules.
         *contains swearing (but it’s British, so I consider that not to count.)

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        Royston Humphreys stared down in shock at the mangled body at his feet.
         The building wall had completely crushed Shafer in a welter of falling bricks and mortar that filled the air like snow. Royston waited for the bent fingers to twitch, for the crumpled, bleeding figure to rise. Nothing happened. He swore loudly and crouched down to shove some of the bricks away from the body.
         “Un-bloody-believable,” he said, staring down at the crushed skull, blood oozing through the dark hair. “How the bloody hell does someone let a bloody wall fall on them while they’re standing in an alleyway? Oh, right,” he addressed the dead man. “Someone got them self sloshed at the pub and couldn’t wait until they got home to use the loo. No,” he stood and glared down at the body. “Someone just had to bleeding piss in the alley.”
         The dead man made no answer. Royston’s shoulders slumped and he scraped a hand through his disheveled brown hair.
         “Christ. You were supposed to be the one–the bleeding prophecies had it all laid out,” he glanced around the alley suddenly. “Can’t say I like leaving you like this, but I think I’d better skive off before someone shows up and I’m completely buggered.”
         He strode down the alleyway in the opposite direction. Someone would have noticed a wall falling even at 3 a.m.; he couldn’t afford to deal with the authorities. He turned up the collar of his coat as it began to drizzle, his mind racing as he tried to process. It was a bloody mess and no mistake. The Council said al’Uttarak was the final piece—the One destined to save them from the destruction of the world. What that meant, exactly, he wasn’t certain. It was above his clearance. When the Council found Shafer, he fit every part of the prophecy: the physical type, the place of birth–Jerusalem–even his tattoo. They named him al’Uttarak.
         Of course, Shafer seemed like a prat to Royston, but that, again, was above his clearance. And now Shafer more dead than the language of the blasted prophecy. How could Royston know Shafer would piss on a condemned building? He was a bloody handler, not a babysitter. He was only chosen since he looked enough like Shafer to act as a smokescreen. Some of the Council members still couldn’t tell them apart.
         “Oh, sod it,” Royston muttered, pulling out his mobile and ducking under an awning. “Hello? It’s Humphreys. Put him on the phone? ‘fraid I can’t. Well, he’s rather…dead.”
         Royston held the mobile away from his ear as his handler, Felix Crowley, roared. When Crowley’s voice lowered to a safer decibel, he tried to explain.
         “A bleeding building fell on him. I know he’s supposed to be immortal—or indestructible. His head was completely buggered. I know a stiff when I see one. Sir,” Royston tried to moderate his voice. “Well, the blooming prophecy is wrong then, innit?”
         He ground his teeth as Crowley uttered a stream of invective laden demands. The rain worsened and lightning lit the roiling sky; Royston sighed.
         “Yeah, I’ll be there in ten,” he said.
         He stepped into the pouring rain, hunching his shoulders against it. By the time he reached the imposing brownstone, he was soaked and his dark hair was plastered against his face. Royston placed his palm against the door and was granted access after a moment, stepping through the huge wooden panel as if it didn’t exist. The plush Persian rugs drank in the trail of water he left as he trudged down the long hallway. The walls were lined with pictures of the Councils past and occasionally busts of the Chairmen. Some were women, but they always called them “Chairman.”
         Royston grinned bitterly, “Probably above my bleeding clearance, too.”
         When he entered the room at the end of the hall, the large oval table was full. The Chairman would have called the entire Council for this. He sat at the head of the table, his bulk as imposing as ever. Royston wondered if the Chairman slept in his immaculate three piece suit–if he even slept at all. The faces turned towards him; some easily recognized by any British citizen, others known worldwide, and some that might never have existed. Royston stood stiffly, water running down his face.
         “Report,” the Chairman’s voice always made Royston’s skin prickle. It was right unsettling a man that large had such a soft voice.
         “Shafer’s dead.”
         The pale faces stared in silence; Felix’s was the only one with any colour and he was slowly turning the shade of a tomato. “A bleed—a wall fell on him and splattered his brains all over an alleyway.”
         “There must be some mistake; the prophecy was clear,” the woman who spoke kept her voice steady, but Royson saw her hands tremble.
         “A partial sanskrit tablet thousands of years old surprises you when it’s wrong…again?” Royston couldn’t stop himself. He was tired; Shafer had been a git all night and Royston wasn’t entirely sorry the prick was dead. The table erupted at his outburst until the Chairman hefted his massive frame out of his chair. Silence fell over the room.
         “Royston, you were an orphan, yes?” he asked, gently.
         “Yeah, what about it?” Roystan wanted a drink and his bed.
         “You never knew your parents, or where you were born?” the Chairman asked.
         “No sir, that’s why they call it being an orphan,” Royston said. I’m dead, he thought.
         “You never knew, but someone did,” the Chairman smiled slightly.
         Royston’s stomach clenched, he chewed his lip, willing himself to stay silent. The Chairman continued to smile at him. He turned back to the Council.
         “Did you know, ladies and gentlemen of the Council, that our man here was born in Israel? In a city called Jerusalem. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” The silence rang. “Pull up your sleeve, Mr. Humphreys.”
         “Oh bugger,” Royston said faintly, sinking into the chair in front of him that once belonged to Shafer.

*My TV Trope was the “Death by Origin” with an ode to “By Wall that is Holey” at the insistence of my friend August Howl.

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