Author's Notes: By the time you're reading this, it will probably have been sitting on my computer for a long while. Issues of time and resources are my biggest enemies.
Anyway, while plotting out how I was going to tackle the rewrite of Kindred Sprits (which I have come to thoroughly loathe), this idea struck me. I've always had fun with AUs. I don't know why, but they allow so much freedom to experiment and play around with the characters. And since my works outside of fanfiction tend to have a strong inclination toward action/adventure or horror, I thought I'd give a shot at an adventure story that didn't involve high fantasy for a change. I like to keep a nice palette of different works. Though I do try to work in some romance, as I'm a total sap on the inside.
Also, the album Holy Diver by Dio will be a nice recurring theme throughout the story. If you're one of my regulars, you know that I'm a big music fan. And while listening to Dio one day, it just struck me that a lot of the songs here would sound good in a story if properly applied. Ronnie James Dio's preoccupation with the struggle of good and evil is also one that I feel fits well with one of the focal characters of this story. If you can't guess whom, you'll hopefully know by the end of the chapter.
To Hell and Back
Chapter 1- Escape from Drowning
Seigfried combed his fingers back through his long blonde hair and sighed before raising the shot glass to his lips. His face twisted into a grimace as the gin burned its way down his throat, wondering if this was what the antiseptic in the medicine cabinet tasted like. A friend of his had once joked that cheap liquor was the flavor of pain, but that seemed less funny and more morbidly appropriate right about now.
How had he let himself sink this far? Unemployed, alone, boozed up, and out of touch. Dreams of a bright and shiny future had now turned into a reality of drowning as he wallowed in the wreck his life now was.
He had finished college, but had no job offers. His field was unusual, and there was little demand for it. Besides, he wasn't exactly tops in his class, either. Most people didn't want to have much to do with an Indiana Jones wannabe. Seigfried hadn't been on an adventure in two years. Twenty-four years old and already things looked bleak. So what did he turn to? Same thing most everyone else in archeology did eventually: alcohol. The bottle provided a little reprieve from the grinding rut that Seigfried's life had become.
He must have spent at least twenty minutes staring at the empty shot glass as the depressant worked its way through his system. He struggled in vain to remember the confident enthusiasm he had felt only a few short years ago. A few years that now felt like a lifetime. What had happened to him?
Seigfried knew that a large part of his rut was his own fault. He was still beating himself up for what was undoubtedly the greatest mistake he had ever made in his life. What he had done... His own father...
The electronic ringing of the phone abruptly pulled Seigfried from the trap of his own memories. He blinked once and came back to reality. He was still sitting there in his kitchen. The bottle of gin and shot glass still sat on the table, which was covered in trash, dirty dishes, and food stains. The waning afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows, giving everything an orange glow that seemed to aggravate the headache that was starting to creep out from inside his skull.
The phone rang a second time.
Seigfried pushed a sigh out of his lungs, his lips parting involuntarily from the rush of air, as he slowly pushed himself out of his chair. Was it really worth it? Probably just the bill collectors trying to intimidate him into paying up again. Either that, or his ex-girlfriend who had broken up with him last week calling to tell him to pick up whatever other junk he had left at her apartment.
The third ring.
Good god, that noise was starting to piss him off. Seigfried decided to answer it just to make it stop. It was about the only degree of control he had left in his life. Might as well take advantage of it.
A fourth time.
Lumbering out to the living room, Seigfried rounded the corner and snatched the phone off its cradle on the end table. He took a moment to collect his thoughts as he brought it up to his ear. "Hello?" he asked in a throaty voice after a brief pause.
"Hello," came a female voice from the other end. "Is this Seigfried Schtauffen?"
"Speaking." The way his head was starting to feel, he wanted to keep this conversation as minimalist as possible. Just let whoever this woman was deliver whatever ultimatum she had and shut up.
"Excellent," came the voice. Her smile was practically audible, and sounded like a chorus hit in his head. "Mister Schtauffen, my name is Sophitia Alexandra. I'm looking to hire a man of your credentials to assist me in an expedition."
Seigfried looked at the phone in disbelief, as if the earpiece could provide some sort of answer. "'Scuse me?" he said at last, his voice still hoarse.
"I'm sorry, did I catch you at a bad time?" Sophitia asked gently. She didn't seem to realize that he had been in a drunken haze for nearly two days straight.
Seigfried rubbed his thumb and forefinger over his eyes and groaned. "No... no, I'm just... feeling a little under the weather," he half-lied. "What were you saying about an expedition?"
Sophitia seemed to accept his lie and continued. "Actually, I'd prefer to speak to you in person. Are you busy tomorrow at three PM?"
"Uh... no," he answered. "L-let me get a pen." A pen and notepad sat by the phone to take down messages and the like. It hadn't been used in almost a year. Seigfried scratched the margin a little, trying to get the ink to start flowing again, and ended up putting several grooves and tears in the paper before the pen finally started working. "Okay, where do you want me to go?"
The next day, Seigfried drove down the street in his beat-up Saturn. He had taken the time between then and the phone call yesterday to sober and clean up. This woman was going to offer him a job. He couldn't afford to screw this up.
Glancing at himself in the rearview mirror, Seigfried marveled at how much of a difference his preparations had made. He had showered and shaved for the first time in two weeks, helping him look and feel human again. His long blonde hair had gotten its sheen back and was currently tied in a ponytail. His strong, Aryan features were a little pale due to his self-imposed solitude, but he was still in relatively good shape. He'd have to start going to the gym again, though. He had dressed in khaki slacks and a black polo shirt, since that was currently the most respectable outfit he had. Everything else in his wardrobe was either black, made of denim, sported the logo of something on it, or any combination thereof. Luckily, there had been one last chaser caplet left in the medicine cabinet. It didn't fully erase the signs of his hangover, but it made it look like he was just pulling through from a bad fever or something. Better than nothing.
At last, Seigfried pulled up to a fancy-looking Victorian house on a cobblestone road. It looked to be about a hundred years old, but still in perfect condition. There were three floors and a loft, two towers, a gable roof... it was like a miniature castle. The antique Rolls Royce in the driveway looked like it cost more than his whole apartment. He arched a brow and double-checked the address on the scrap of paper in his pocket. "You're kidding me" he said to no one. This Ms. Alexandra was apparently loaded. This only solidified Seigfried's resolution to get the job, whatever it was.
He turned off the car and slowly walked up the path. He gave his ponytail a quick tweak out of nervousness, straightened himself up and rang the doorbell. The soft sound of chimes floated out from behind the front door, and in only a few moments, it opened inward. The woman standing there holding the door was not what Seigfried had expected at all. Not that it was a bad thing. She was Asian and almost as tall as him, perhaps an inch taller. She had almond-shaped russet eyes and jet black hair in a high ponytail. Her skin was even paler than Seigfried's, and seemed to stand out in contrast to her hair.
Further accenting the contrast was her outfit. She wore a black dress under a red blazer with black heels. Seigfried had always considered himself a connoisseur of women, and mentally noted her curvy, buxom figure and the fact that her dress was high enough to reveal what was possibly the sexiest pair of legs he had ever seen. Without a doubt, she was among the ten hottest women he had ever laid eyes on. But that wasn't important right now...
He cleared his throat and locked his eyes onto hers to try and maintain a semblance of professionalism. "Afternoon, Miss..."
The woman extended her hand politely. "My name is Nanasawa Taki" she replied with only the faintest hint of a Japanese accent. "You are Mr. Schtauffen, I believe?"
Seigfried accepted her hand, briefly surprised by the strength of her grip, and nodded. "Yes. I'm not late, am I?"
"On the contrary," Taki answered in a somewhat brusque tone. "You're right on time. Follow me." With that, she turned on her heel and strode into the foyer.
Seigfried wordlessly followed, shutting the door behind him. He was led down opulent halls and up the stairs, the decor making him feel very self-conscious of his own Spartan apartment and used car. He decided to allay his insecurity by focusing on something else. Specifically, Taki. The more he watched her, the more he came to the conclusion that she was in fact the hottest woman he had ever met, or rather would be if she dropped the ice queen act. Her lovely face was a mask of stoicism and calm composure, and he couldn't help wondering what her smile would look like. He admired her hourglass figure and swaying hips with the attentiveness of a jeweler examining a diamond. He noted her catlike grace and confident stride and wondered if she studied martial arts like he had.
His thoughts were abruptly cut off when she stopped and turned to him, forcing Seigfried to snap his eyes back up to hers. "If you're done staring at my ass," she droned coldly, "Miss Alexandra is waiting for you in here." She then opened the door beside her and stepped in without another word.
Seigfried felt a little warmth rush into his cheeks. Did that woman have eyes in the back of her head, or was he really just that horny it was obvious? Pushing it to the back of his mind, he stepped into a small study. There were several bookshelves on the walls along with a few paintings, a couple of tables with various odds and ends, a pair of armchairs, and a desk in the middle. Taki was sitting in one of the armchairs looking very regal.
At the desk was Sophitia Alexandra, the woman who had called Seigfried out here today. She was a beautiful young lady with blonde hair in a braid and blue eyes. Unlike Seigfried though, her features suggested Greek heritage instead of Germanic. She was also dressed more casually, wearing a white skirt and blue sweater despite the warm spring day. She smiled softly and waved him in as she looked up from some paperwork she had been studying. "Good afternoon, Mister Schtauffen," she greeted him in a pleasant tone.
Seigfried walked in and sat in the opposite armchair. "Likewise, Miss Alexandra."
"I assume you've already met Miss Nanasawa, my personal assistant," Sophitia continued conversationally.
"Yes," Seigfried responded evenly, sparing only a glance in Taki's direction. She was giving him a very critical look, but judging by how Sophitia seemed to take it for granted, he got the feeling that this was fairly normal.
"Anyway, regarding why I called you here." Sophitia leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers together. "Are you familiar with a book called The Stage of History?" she asked.
Seigfried arched a brow but nodded. "Yes, I learned about it in college. First published in 1726 in Venice, Italy. Author believed to be the historian Gerard Funicello." He rubbed the bridge of his nose in an attempt to recall all the facts; his head still feeling fuzzy from his diminished hangover. "For the most part, it's considered nothing but a storybook full of fictional tales based loosely on children's stories and a handful of real events."
"Precisely," Sophitia commented with a smile as she looked ahead in thought. "I've made it my life's work to find out just how many of those stories are based in truth. And I believe I've found one."
Seigfried blinked twice. "Beg your pardon?" She couldn't be serious. She may as well have said she was looking for Atlantis.
"The legend of Soul Edge," Sophitia explained. "The Sword of Salvation. There was a real world equivalent to that blade in history, I'm certain of it. I intend to get all the facts. This is where you come in, Mister Schtauffen." At this, she leveled her gaze directly at Seigfried. "The expedition we'll embark on will require a full crew of different individuals, and I'll need someone with your skills."
Seigfried furrowed his brows slightly. This woman had to be a lunatic. Then again, work is work. "What specific qualifications were you looking for from me?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
With that, Sophitia grabbed a manila folder and opened it in front of her on the desk. Inside were dossiers on several individuals, each with a head shot clipped to it. She pulled out his and began to read aloud. "Seigfried Schtauffen. 153rd in his class at Schwartzwind College. Spent two semesters overseas at the branch campus in Ohstreinsburg, Germany. Fluent in German, Norwegian, Latin, Greek, and Slovak. In addition to a degree in archeology, also possesses training in wilderness survival, navigation, orienteering, and holds a pilot's license. Traveled to Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Japan, China, India, Egypt, Greece, and Peru."
There was a pause before Sophitia looked up from the dossier and smiled. "That's essentially the short version. The expedition I have planned is going to take us around the world. I need someone with your experience for some of the more inhospitable regions we'll be passing through."
Seigfried stared a moment in consideration. This was crazy... but what other choice did he have at this point? What else could he do? He couldn't deny that he needed the work. His eyes trailed from Sophitia who looked at him hopefully to Taki who had the same critical gaze then back to Sophitia. "Anything else I should know before we're ready to leave?"
Taki suppressed a sigh of relief when Schtauffen left. The man was obviously a complete wreck, even though he was good at hiding it. She turned to her employer and closest friend. "Sophitia, are you sure we should bring him along?"
Sophitia just smiled as she stood and stretched out. "He's the only one with that kind of experience and training available right now. We don't have much of a choice, do we?"
This time, Taki didn't bother to hide the sigh, though this was one of resignation. "Can't say I care much for his attitude," she mumbled.
Sophitia just laughed. "You get this way whenever guys check you out. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were-"
"Don't even think of finishing that sentence," Taki interrupted with a hint of exasperation.
"At least this one's cute," Sophitia offered. She only laughed again in response to Taki's glare. "Relax, I'm just joking."
Taki sighed again. "Sorry. I'm just a little tired."
"You helped me track down every prospective member of this expedition," Sophitia stated. "I appreciate all the work you've done for me. Why don't you take tomorrow off and relax?"
Taki gave a rare smile at that. She had grown to think of Sophitia as the sister she had never had growing up. And for family, you'd do anything. "Alright. But I still have my doubts about Schtauffen. He looks like he's about to fall apart."
Sophitia sat back down at her desk and slouched into her chair, something she would only do in the presence of her closest friend. "I know," she said simply. "He's clearly an alcoholic with a lot of personal problems. It's written all over his face."
Taki shook her head slightly. She sometimes forgot just how empathic her friend really was. Sophitia was a woman of few words more often than not, but she knew people. Taki often wished she was gifted so. Her powers of observation were well trained, of course. She could read details in someone's behavior like a book, but figuring them out on a psychological level was trickier. She was actually rather proud of herself for being able to deduce as much about Schtauffen as she had. But Sophitia seemed to be a step ahead of her once again. "How do you want to prepare him for the expedition?"
Sophitia seemed immersed in deep thought for a moment. "We're going to need to offer him a sense of belonging and companionship. No human can survive in a social vacuum." She said at last. She then smirked and added, "Which means you'll have to be nice to him."
Taki just grinned and rolled her eyes.
"Seriously, though," Sophitia continued, "I get the feeling he has a lot on his shoulders right now and no good way to get it all out. See if you and the others can find some way to get him to lighten up. After all, we don't even start our journey until February. There's plenty of time."
"Somehow," Taki mused, "I think Kilik and Maxi will be better at this than you or I." Now that she thought about it, as annoying as Schtauffen's wandering eyes were, he was still better than Maxi. That man was far too forward. Kilik seemed reasonable at least. He looked like the type who could get along with anyone.
"Perhaps." Sophitia steepled her fingers again, one of several habits she would do when thinking. "How about you introduce Seigfried to the two of them tomorrow? I'll handle the last of the interviews."
Taki masked the frown she wanted to show. This wasn't what she had in mind, but it was probably for the best. "Alright. I'll contact them this evening and try to arrange something." With that, she stood up to leave.
At the door to the study, Taki paused and looked back over her shoulder. "Refresh my memory. Who's left on the list?"
Sophitia flipped through the dossiers a moment before answering. "Let's see... We've already recruited Kilik, and through him we found Maxi, Xianghua, and now Seigfried... The last ones are Rock Masters, Isabella Valentine, and Raphael Sorel. They're all overseas."
Taki nodded once and walked out, shutting the door behind her. It was over half a year from now that they would all begin their journey together. She had to use that time to help Sophitia make arrangements for traveling as well as get to know those she would be working with. Her work was only just beginning.
Author's Notes: I decided to finish this up when I hit a block writing the next chapter of Singin' Hound Lounge (which, by the way, should be up in another couple of days). Needless to say, with all of my other projects, it's going to be slow going, though I hope to finish up Singin' Hound and Lights, Camera, Action! some time in the next couple months.
Outside of all of this, I also have to write a screenplay for a friend of mine, and combined with schoolwork, that's going to eat up a lot of time. (sigh) Nothing's ever simple is it?PS- And once again, I find myself going back to fix a chapter because the site's document manager decided to erase half of the punctuation. Who can I complain to about this?