Author's Notes: A neglected story that I do want to continue. I just wish I could play the game more often. Between work and all...
But anyway, yeah, I'm still going with this. Just be patient with me.
On a side note, I glanced back at some of the reviews for Kindred Spirits, and I don't know why people seemed to like it so much. It's awful! It's one of those things you look back on and wonder, "What was I thinking?" Not that I don't still support the concept. Seigfried/Taki for some reason gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. But my execution was so bad.
Anyway, I'm hoping this story won't disappoint. I originally was thinking of "The Da Vinci Code" when I sat down to start on this, but after reading some of James Rollins' novels, I now see what that book should have been. If you're looking for a good adventure novel the next time you're in a bookstore, I highly advise you to check out "Map of Bones." That book rules! It's like Indiana Jones meets James Bond meets Marvel Comics!
To Hell and Back
Chapter 4 - The Map Unfolds
That night, Seigfried and several other members of the expedition took Ivy up on her offer to join them in her library for a drink. They spent most of the time getting to know her. On the one hand, she was a gracious host. On the other, the more she talked about her hobbies outside of her work, the more he started to see that she wasn't the type of girl you brought home to mother. Apparently, she had even dabbled in witchcraft in her teenage years. She definitely had a spookier side.
Seigfried let his eyes wander the room. The library on its own was bigger than his apartment, and he wondered how someone could read all of the books on their own. Sophitia and Kilik were perusing some of the old manuscripts that made up the Valentine's prized collection. All of these books were kept in glass display cases that no one was allowed to open. Rock was sitting opposite Seigfried in the semi-circle of armchairs around the fireplace, jotting something down in a PDA. Whatever it was, he looked pretty focused. Maxi was sitting beside Ivy and flirting with her relentlessly. Amazingly, she seemed responsive, always matching one of his cocky but humorous remarks with one of her own.
Ivy had her legs folded toward Maxi, showing them off a little bit, and Seigfried took a moment to admire the view discreetly. She must have seen him though, because when Maxi turned to refill his glass with brandy, she turned her head a little to Seigfried and winked at him. He got the distinct feeling as he covered up his faint blush by drinking that having him stare at her and Maxi hitting on her was nothing new to Ivy, and she even seemed to be getting some amusement out of it. Again, the type of girl you don't take home to mother.
He saw movement from the corner of his eye and turned to see Taki silently stride in. "Evening," he greeted her pleasantly. "Didn't know you were gonna join us. Cognac?" he offered, gesturing toward the tray on the end table beside him, which still had the decanter and a spare glass.
Taki merely glanced at his glass and then looked at him. He really didn't like where this was going and felt himself getting angry over the condescension he knew he was about to receive. "I thought you went to Alcoholics Anonymous," she said coldly.
He raised a brow at her and frowned. "Yeah. I quit after two meetings." He knew his tone was just challenging her to say something, but it came out before he could stop it.
Of course, it hurt worse than he could have imagined when she said nothing. She merely rolled her eyes and quietly scoffed. That hurt worse than any words she could have possibly said. At least then he would know she thought enough of him to actually bother speaking to him. But no, she didn't even want to waste her breath on him to even so much as ask why he quit.
He knew he was going to regret this, but he couldn't hold it back anymore. She had been treating him like slime for six months, and he'd had enough. "You know what, lady... fuck you."
Taki's eyes widened and snapped back to him. Ivy and Maxi stopped their conversation and turned to him. The only sound anymore was the popping of the logs in the fire. "What did you say to me?" Taki asked in shock.
"Fuck... you," Seigfried repeated as he stood up. "Do you know why I quit AA? It wasn't because I couldn't hack it, but because it's a fucking cult!" His voice had risen to the quickly where he was now shouting. He was so furious that he was surprised his sentences were coming out so coherent. "Alcoholism is not a disease, and you don't cure it by apologizing! It's a damn behavior, and you just stop drinking so fucking much! Today is the first time I've touched alcohol in three months, three god damn months! I'm here because I wanted to enjoy a small drink with good company. But with you around, that idea has gone to hell!" He shotgunned the last of his cognac down and practically slammed the glass back down on the tray. "Now if you'll excuse me, there's several more German stereotypes I have to live up to for you to talk down to me about." With that, he stormed past Taki and out of the library. He vaguely heard Maxi calling after him, but he was out in the hall and didn't care what direction he was going by the time the voices became too weak to differentiate.
Right now, he just wanted to be alone. Why did he let that woman affect him? She was such a bitch, her opinion should mean dick to him. So why was he trying to fight back the sting of those tears in his eyes?
Taki just stared in mute shock. Schtauffen had never lashed out at anyone like that. She hadn't even said anything and he just blew up. There was no way he only had one drink if he was acting like that.
"What on earth did you do to him?" Ivy asked in disbelief.
Taki's shock was moved from Schtauffen to their hostess. "I didn't do anything," she replied evenly. "He must have had too much to drink."
"Taki..." Maxi piped up. "That was his first glass. The servants didn't bring the stuff in until a minute ago."
Taki felt an uncomfortable pang in her chest. Had she really been that rude to him? She had a hard time imagining that he was so thin-skinned. The man was obviously deeply troubled, but why was he getting emotional over it? And until now she didn't think he had enough spine to lash out like that.
"I'm very disappointed in you." Sophitia's voice was like a knife in Taki's ears. She turned to face her employer and sister in all but blood in confusion. "You haven't listened to me at all, have you?" She had the tone of a mother scolding a child, and her brow was knit in stark disapproval.
Taki's mind was reeling. Everyone was taking Schtauffen's side, and she couldn't understand for the life of her why. He snapped at her, damn it! "What?"
"He's right, you know," Kilik added as he walked up from behind Sophitia. "Maxi and I went with him to that first AA meeting for support after Xianghua and I persuaded him to go. We were wrong to try and talk him into it. They tell you to admit to your own helplessness, apologize to a higher power, beg for deliverance from your disease, then repeat the process all over again. That's the 12-step plan in a nutshell."
Maxi stood up now in Schtauffen's defense. "He quit because he figured Kilik and I would be better support for getting sober than a bunch of fanatics. And I can't blame him. Those people gave me the creeps."
All of this information was hitting Taki like a fist. She never knew that was what went on in those meetings. All her life she'd heard the rhetoric that alcoholism was a disease. And that's when Schtauffen's words started to sink in. 'It's a damn behavior, and you just stop drinking so fucking much!' Had she really been wrong about this the whole time? About him?
"He's not weak, Taki," Sophitia stated firmly.
At that point, Taki wasn't really sure what to think. She had thought she had it all figured out. And now... Schtauffen... That man was so confusing.
Xianghua was on her way to the library to join the others when she saw Seigfried storming down the hallway, his face bright red. "Seigfried? What's wrong?"
"I don't wanna fuckin' talk about it!" he snapped and stomped past her. She was a little hurt by his outburst, but she was also worried about him. What could have gotten him so upset? He stopped a few steps away and heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry... Kinda having a bad night."
"What happened?" It was probably the last question he wanted to answer, but she had to try anyway.
For a while he said nothing. He just looked at her over his shoulder. Xianghua had gone to hang out with him and Kilik several times before. She'd grown fond of him, always thinking of him as her big brother on the trip. But she'd also learned that there were a lot of things hurting him that he never wanted to talk about. Like something was eating him alive. But even in his worst moods, she'd never seen him so angry. "I just want to get some rest now. We'll talk later." With that, he skulked off down the hall and vanished around the corner.
Confused, she headed toward the library, hoping that someone could put the story together for her. She rounded the last corner from the directions the servants told her to take when she saw Taki pass from a set of double doors, her composure looking a little shaken. "Taki? Taki, what happened to Seigfried?"
Much to her annoyance, Taki didn't answer the question. She just asked another. "Where did he go?"
Sighing Xianghua crossed her arms. "To his room, I guess. He seemed pretty upset and wouldn't talk to me. What exactly...?" She trailed off from asking as Taki turned and walked in the opposite direction that Seigfried had gone. Though Xianghua admired the woman's cool, tough girl attitude, she was very difficult to talk to.
Not wanting to give up, Xianghua walked into the library to see everyone gathered around the fire. "Can someone please tell me just what happened here?"
"Sexual tension, it seems," Ivy answered.
Kilik was a little skeptical at first of Ivy's theory, even the next morning as he got dressed and ready to go down to breakfast. He recalled her words last night.
"Seigfried is a very handsome young man. If he were a little older, I'd have jumped him by now. Taki sees it, too. But I think she considered him too spineless until tonight. It's pretty obvious she's never had someone stand up to her like that."
Sophitia seemed to agree with her, though she wasn't too vocal about it. Ivy was a very interesting woman. She was more open about herself and her sexuality than any other woman he'd known. Naturally, Maxi was very appreciative of that, but that wasn't important. It still boggled Kilik's mind to think there was sexual tension between Seigfried and Taki. True, Seigfried had made no attempt to cover up that he found Taki to be extremely physically attractive, but despite his best attempts at civility, the two of them got along about as well bunnies and pit bulls. They seemed engaged in a perpetual one-upmanship with each other.
Still... last night was very strange. It was the first time Seigfried had stood up for himself like that. And that look of shock and confusion on Taki's face was the first time Kilik had ever seen that stoic mask of hers crack.
The images continued to flit across his mind as he made his way to the dining hall. When he got there, Ivy was already at her seat at the head with Sophitia next to her, chatting about the plans for that day. Rock was at the adjacent corner, eating slowly and evenly. The man had a true athlete's breakfast set before him, and made Kilik feel a little self-conscious thinking about how good the bacon smelled. Taki was of course next to Sophitia, and Xianghua was beside Rock. She spotted Kilik and waved him over with one of her cheerful smiles. He returned the gesture and walked over to sit beside her. That girl could see the bright side to midnight in a coal chute. "Morning," he said pleasantly.
"Good morning to you," she beamed back. She then sobered a little and whispered, "Have you seen Seigfried since last night?"
Before Kilik had a chance to answer, the young German stepped into the room. His hair was still wet from a shower, and his clothes looked as if they'd been placed on rather haphazardly. In fact, he wasn't even bothering to dress up as he had done yesterday. Right now he was in his combat boots, jeans, and Savatage T-shirt. He also looked a little somber, as if he had just gotten back from a concert and was still hungover. Without a word, he just sat beside Kilik and started shoveling food at random onto his plate.
Kilik looked at Xianghua who returned the concerned expression before they both turned to Seigfried. "You okay?" she asked softly.
"Didn't sleep so good," he muttered as he brushed a loose lock of damp blonde hair behind his ear.
Last night must have hit him harder than Kilik first thought. He just ate mechanically as if still half-asleep, never making eye contact with anyone. It wasn't that he was trying not to; he just didn't seem to care. A quick look around the table and Kilik saw that most everyone else was glancing at Seigfried, but obviously didn't want to bug him about it. Except Taki. She was staring right at him with her face schooled to an emotionless mask.
Well, no sense making a scene and pressing the issue. Taking after Rock, Kilik decided to eat a healthier meal than he was originally planning. He had already indulged himself last night, and in hindsight he was feeling a little disappointed in himself for thinking he could make another exception to his eating habits. He'd been studying martial arts since he was eight years old, and took his health very seriously. He never ate anything very fattening without promising himself that he'd put in an extra hour at the gym or in practice that same day.
Maxi joined the table a few minutes later. He noticed the somber attitude surrounding Seigfried. Kilik was dreading his friend saying something stupid and bringing up the events last night. When Maxi nudged Seigfried in the side and whispered to him, "Hey... dude..." he was about to interrupt when Maxi finished his sentence. "You're a lucky bastard. Ivy told us she thinks you're hot. You're money, dude, totally money!"
There was a split second of tension before Seigfried's face split into a huge smile and he started laughing. "Vegas, baby, Vegas! Pound it." He and Maxi hit each other's fists and resumed laughing. Kilik couldn't help laughing himself. He should have known. He didn't give Maxi enough credit sometimes.
"You boys are so cute with your little routines," Xianghua giggled.
"This is no routine," Maxi said dismissively, no longer bothering to whisper. "A routine would be if Seig, Kilik, Rock, and yours truly all got up and started making poses." With that, he pushed back his chair back and started flexing. Another chorus of laughs erupted from the table. This time, even Sophitia was giggling. Rock had a rumbling chuckle like distant thunder, and Ivy had a very musical laugh.
Taki was the only one who wasn't laughing, but then Kilik didn't think he'd ever seen her laugh. As things calmed down and they continued the meal discussing their plans, he noticed Xianghua had moved a little closer so that their legs were touching. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and smiled softly.
Around eleven o'clock, Seigfried stepped out of the limousine and adjusted his cap as the wind started to blow harder around them. The chilly winter air was bitter and the skies grey, but the cold didn't bother him that much. The group was in for a small hike. According to Ivy, the Valentine's owned the land for sometime, but they hadn't done much with it for generations. The last use anyone got out of it was her great great grandfather using it for a foxhunt one summer. The area they were investigating in particular was a rocky, forested area. Everyone was bundled up for the trip, but kept a few reference materials close at hand.
The winter forest was both beautiful and foreboding at the same time. The bare, snow-covered trees glimmered in the muted sunlight, but at the same time seemed to be trying to form a barrier from prying eyes. "What are we here to find, exactly?" Seigfried asked.
"I'm following up a story from my grandfather's journals," Ivy responded. "Miss Alexandra already knows all the details. You see... this land was once inhabited by Pagan refugees. And we have reason to believe that my ancestors were part of a Gnostic cult that gave them protection from religious persecution."
Sophitia drew the hood of her parka up further against the cold and picked up where Ivy left off. "There's supposed to be a ring of standing stone around here somewhere. There are reports that the Sword of Salvation once crossed through the British Isles."
"'And along the east, they discovered a tribe of heathens in a ceremony of flames. So did the dread pirates' crew set to land and slaughter them to slake their thirst for blood,'" Ivy said softly. "Chapter 16 of the 'The Stage of History.' My family owns one of the few copies written in the Old Italian. And based on the writings of that chapter, we think that they were speaking of my family's lands."
"Why here?" Kilik asked. "Why not in... Scotland for example?"
"Too far north," Ivy answered.
They continued walking through the snow for what felt like the entire day, but was only an hour. Rock was continually checking a GPS in his palm pilot, which Seigfried guessed was what he had been working on last night. Ivy's bodyguard was a man of few words, it seemed. Though there was a very bright spark of intelligence behind his eyes. Definitely someone you'd want by your side, because if he was behind you, your ass better be scared. "We're almost there. The clearing should be ahead thirty yards." His tone of voice was very authoritative. Perhaps a part of him had never left the military.
Moments later, the group emerged in a large clearing in the woods with a set of tall standing stones arranged in a semi-circle. In the middle of the circle was a stone altar. "It's like a henge..." Kilik muttered.
There was a morbid silence surrounding the area. The wind seemed to have stilled, and no birds were chirping. The grey stones stood like snowy, weatherworn tombstones to a forgotten people. Everyone seemed to be treading reverently, and for Seigfried it evoked memories of his first visit to Ohstreinsberg Castle. A feeling of timelessness pervaded the area, as if centuries and days all passed in the same breath. "I knew I was right," Ivy stated with a soft pride.
The group drew closer to inspect the remains. Maxi's fingers traced over one of the stones and his eyes narrowed. "There's writing on this. It's faded, but it looks like ancient Gaelic. I can't really tell if it's Irish, Scotch, or Welsh, though..."
"Probably Irish," Ivy offered as she went to join him. "Many of my family's ancestors were Irish themselves."
Seigfried encircled the semi-circle, taking in as many details as he could. "It seems all of them have some writing on them, though it's worn pretty badly. We should- oof!" He was cut off in mid-sentence as he tripped and nearly fell on a stone buried in the snow. He muttered off a few curses before he noticed something peculiar about the shape of the snow. It seemed to be raised in a four-foot wide ring with a depression in the middle. He looked behind himself and noticed a similar shape on the opposite side of the standing stones. The two rings seemed to form a gateway of sorts.
"You all right?" Xianghua called out as she strode up to him.
"I'm fine, but take a look at this." He kneeled in the snow and began dusting off the ring with his gloved hands. In a moment, he had uncovered a short wall of stones that formed the ring. There was a piece missing from the top and the stone Seigfried had tripped over fit into place reasonably well. "Well that explains that. Ivy did you say something about a ceremony of flames?"
Ivy looked up from her inspection of the writings with Maxi and walked closer to Seigfried and Xianghua. "Yes. Why?"
"I think I found a pair of bonfire rings... I think the fire ceremony spoken of in 'The Stage of History' was Samhain."
"Technically," Rock added, "it's pronounced 'SOW-ine.'" He then paused as Seigfried gave him a rather flat look. "Though Samhain is an acceptable Anglicized version used by many Neopagans."
"Miss Valentine!" Taki called out. Everyone looked up to see her and Sophitia inspecting the altar in the center of the clearing. "There's a seam in the stones. I think it can be moved."
Seigfried stood and brushed his coat off. He jogged over to the altar to take a closer look, and sure enough he saw a seam in the stones that would make the top of the altar a lid. "Do you think we should try to open it?"
"We're here to investigate any possible clue," Sophitia stated. "If there's even a possibility of this being one, we need to try."
Ivy nodded to Rock who left the group. They spent the next two hours investigating the site and trying to clear out snow as they waited for Rock to return with any equipment they'd need. When he finally did return, it didn't make the going a hell of a lot easier. Even with the combined strength of the team, the stone slab still didn't want to move and the ground around it needed to be cleared to work more efficiently in.
The group decided to work in shifts with Ivy overseeing the process. Rock was rather insistent on it, as a matter of fact. Having a bodyguard must be nice, Seigfried caught himself thinking. He, Sophitia and Rock took the first shift and about 45 minutes trying to get the damn thing to move. They had some progress, but it was going to be a while before they got it off.
As the rest of the team moved in take over their shift, Seigfried took his coat off, feeling very stuffy and sweaty in it all of a sudden. He wiped sweat from his brow and caught Ivy looking at him from the corner of her eye and smiling. "Hey, uh..." He figured it couldn't hurt to ask. "You really think I'm hot?"
Ivy let a very seductive chuckle slip out of her throat. "Very. As I'm sure most women do."
Seigfried laughed and blushed slightly when the loud grinding of stone on stone caught his ears. "I think... we've got it," Taki grunted as she used a prybar to try and widen a gap between the lid and a hollow space in the altar.
Seigfried quickly slipped his coat back and went to help. "Hang on!" He grabbed up a prybar of his own and tried to force the short side out a little. "Don't wanna... damage it. Try to turn it..." In his efforts, he bumped into Taki and felt a very strong desire to look up at her. He pushed the urge back down however and continued his work. A part of him said he should apologize for the way he blew up at her last night, but the other was saying he shouldn't have to apologize for standing up for himself. Either way, it was kind of bad timing to be thinking about this.
Working together, they all managed to push the lid off slightly and turned it around. As they all stopped to catch their breath and work out their aching muscles, Ivy peered inside. She blanched and her eyes widened. She quickly reached into her pockets and dug out a handful of pentangle amulets. "Everyone put these on! Now!" She tossed them out at the crew who were surprised by her sudden behavior, though Rock seemed to accept and placed his on without hesitation. The rest of the group was soon to follow and got up to see what the big deal was.
"Good god..." Seigfried breathed. Lying within the empty altar was a human skeleton. Wrapped in its arms was a rectangular box sealed in wax.
Taki wasn't aware that the Lady Valentine was a Pagan herself. She thought the woman was agnostic. But it seems that once again she was wrong. And once again, Miss Alexandra had already known. The Lady was most insistent that everyone wear their pentangles for the time being. She brought them just in case something drastic happened, and in her eyes this met the requirements. She had called in her servants to bring transportation for the skeleton and the box it carried. Multiple photos were taken before the servants arrived, and soon enough the team found themselves back at the mansion.
They were all waiting in the library for news. All except Xianghua and Rock of course. Rock went wherever Miss Valentine went, and Xianghua was the group's expert on anthropology. It was early on in the expedition, so this discovery was very big news. What remained to be seen was what it meant, though.
Taki looked up to see Schtauffen standing by the window, staring out over the grounds of the estate. She had overheard his conversation (such as it was) with the Lady Valentine at the henge. For some reason, it caused an uncomfortable stirring in her stomach to think of it. She wanted to tell herself that she was disappointed to see the woman's bad taste in men, but that would be a lie. He was indeed very handsome. The sun was starting to come out from behind the clouds and caused his hair to shimmer like gold. The way he was dressed, he seemed more like a rock star than an archeologist.
She shook her head to clear it. Never once had she imagined she'd be having thoughts like that about Seig- about Schtauffen. She went over to take a seat beside Sophitia and sighed lightly.
"You still owe him an apology," Sophitia said gently. Taki knew exactly who and what she was talking about. She merely nodded and leaned back in her chair. She steepled her fingers in a gesture that mimicked Sophitia and closed her eyes to think. After a moment, she opened one eye a little to see that Schtauffen still hadn't moved. Not once in the whole day had he made eye contact with her. She knew that he was always stealing glances at her, knew he found her attractive, or as Maxi so eloquently put it "extremely fuckable." And as much as she hated men leering at her, the sudden feeling of Schtauffen freezing her out was bothering her more than she'd ever admit out loud.
Her train of thought was interrupted when Xianghua stepped back into the library. "Well, I've got some good news and some bad news," she said wearily.
"May as well give us the bad news first," Maxi chimed in as he walked over from the opposite side of the library.
"The bad news is that one of the items in the box we found has Ivy spooked. She believes it's cursed and wants to put it in a reliquary ASAP to protect the estate." Taki could tell that the girl was trying hard to say with a straight face, as she found the superstitious practices of the Lady Valentine to be nonsense. Not that she could be blamed. Their hostess was a bit of an eccentric after all.
Kilik raked a hand back through his shaggy hair and sighed in what sounded like exasperation. "And the good news?"
"We have a new lead on the Sword of Salvation."
Author's Notes: And the plot thickens! I wanted to amp up the tension between Seigfried and Taki some more. Setting things up for the next couple chapters. Since the two of them are the focal characters of the plot, I'm naturally going to spend more time on them, though I hope to get some better characterization for Kilik and Xianghua in the next chapter.
I have a rough outline of where I want to take this, though it is all subject to change as it goes along. Either way, I do know where I want to take this. The getting there is the fun part.
Support Seigfried/Taki! I refuse to believe I'm the only one who thinks they'd make a good couple.