So far everyone is loving the short stories, and I've stuck to my idea of writing one every single day this week. That's been amazing all around—I can't tell you how much I appreciate the kind words and support!
Today, I'm doing something a little different.
One of the most frequent comments I've gotten has been, "This story is great! But don't leave me hanging—you should make this a book!"
I hear ya. I really, really do! And trust me, some of these will very likely get a full book treatment some day. Especially in light of the overwhelming support I've gotten! But today's story is different than the rest, because it's already being expanded into a book!
Dan Kotler is the protagonist in my new book The Coelho Medallion. The book is still in progress, but I'm looking at a release date in May. And for the first time, this book won't be part of my science fiction or fantasy work. This one is pure suspense, thrills, intrigue, and adventure! It's a tale in the vein of Dan Brown or James Rollins or Stieg Larsson—a story of mystery and intrigue with a larger-than-life character at its heart.
The story I'm posting today is a prequel to Coelho Medallion. It's an early adventure that Dan Kotler ends up embarking on more or less by accident. But I think it has all the elements that make this sort of story a fun read. So I hope you enjoy it!
Stay tuned for more news about the release of The Coelho Medallion. And if you're enjoying these short stories, please share them with your friends and family! Building an audience for my fiction is a lot of work, and I can use all the help I can get!
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And happy reading.
The Brass Hall
by Kevin Tumlinson
Dan Kotler was used to seeing dead people. Not freshly dead—he generally saw the bodies of people who had been dead for centuries, maybe millennia. It was a sort of occupational hazard, as he traipsed around the globe peeking into old tombs and ruins. You see bodies, every now and then. Dusty, decomposed bags of bones that guarded the real reason he was in the field.
Kotler preferred artifacts.
But getting to some artifacts meant climbing over the odd body here and there, and he'd long ago become accustomed to that. He no longer cringed when he put his hand down on what used to be someone's skull. It didn't bother him anymore. Most of the time. Sometimes.
He really preferred artifacts.
"This way, Dr. Kotler," the guide said. His name was Martook. He was a boy, maybe fifteen years old at the oldest, and dressed in shorts and a pair of hand-made shoes. He was bare chested, as a lot of people in this region tended to be. And his head was shaved clean, which was unusual but not unheard of in an area that might be infested with lice. Kotler would check himself thoroughly when this was all over.
But for now, he had no thoughts of lice or any other nuisance or potential danger. And even crawling over the four or five ancient corpses didn't bother him. For now, he was only focused on what might lie on the other side of that tiny cave mouth into which his guide had just disappeared.
Kotler felt his pulse thrumming in his neck. He felt the sweet little kick of adrenaline as his excitement built. And after taking a deep breath, he plunged into the cave right behind Martook.
They crawled for several feet, and Kotler immediately discovered why this cave system hadn't yet been uncovered. There were numerous archeologists and sponsored digs in this region, but none had attempted to explore this particular site. There had been no hint from the outside that there even was a site here, for starters. It was camouflaged by the ridges and stone pathways that the locals used only for moving cattle between the dry and rainy seasons. It was above the water line, so the corpses and other objects of interest had remained dry all this time. But mostly, no one would have come here because this part of the region had a bit of tectonic instability.
Kotler had to climb over and through several piles of stony debris—clear evidence of cave-ins over the years. This was a very dangerous place. And probably a stupid mistake on his part. But if what Martook and his friends claimed to have found was really here, it would be simply amazing.
After what felt like hours (but turned out to be only 45 minutes), Martook suddenly disappeared in the crawlspace ahead of Kotler, and then Kotler himself emerged from the cramped tunnel and into a much larger cavern.
He was grateful to be able to stand, but his emotions really kicked in when he saw the expanse of the space before him.
Martook and his friends had crawled in with torches and lanterns, and had set up lighting throughout the expanse of the cavern. This illuminated the space in a flickering and warm light that caused shadow play everywhere. To Kotler, it looked almost as if the cavern walls were alive—or perhaps just teeming with life. It added to the magic and mystery of this place.
"Where is it?" Kotler asked Martook.
"This way," Martook said, and he sprinted over a small crevice that lead into some very deep and forbidding darkness. Kotler shrugged and followed suit, hopping the crack and dashing after Martook as the boy sailed through the cavern on a path he clearly knew well.
Kotler lost his footing at one point and spilled the the ground, scuffing his palms and cursing. He was mostly embarrassed. He'd been trying hard to keep up with Martook's youthful energy and natural athleticism, and taking a fall was more of a bruise to his pride than to his body. He picked himself up, shook his hands a bit, and pushed on.
Martook led him to a part of the cavern well back from where they had entered, and when Kotler reached the boy they both stood and stared.
Before him, Kotler saw a large, wooden door. And inscribed on it in Gaelic, of all things, was an inscription:
Anseo luíonn Credne, an gabha óir
"What does it mean?" Martook asked. He stared at Kotler, and the anticipation on his face was clear. He had waited a long time to know.
"Here lies Credne," Kotler read. "The goldsmith."
"Gold?" Martook asked, his face splitting into a grin that showed teeth that had never seen a dentist.
All the same, his expression was one of boyish excitement, and Kotler couldn't help feeling the same enthusiasm. He laughed lightly. "Don't get too excited. This is a pretty unusual place to find a tomb for one of the Tuatha dé Danann. It's probably a hoax."
"The who?" Martook asked.
"Irish folklore. They were the gods of the ancient Celtics." He peered closer at the door and saw numerous runes and markings. In a distracted whisper he continued, "And they lived very far from here."
"How far?" Martook asked, in that way that young boys have. He was already wrapped up in the story, and Kotler couldn't blame him.
"Oh, around four thousand kilometers. Give or take."
"So far!" Martook said in awe.
"Yes," Kotler nodded, and then turned back to the door. "So what is it doing here?"
He reached out a hand and pushed against the ancient wood of the door, not even making it budge. "Oak," he said. "Not native to this region."
"Very strong," Martook said. He pointed to some recent scarring on the bottom left corner of the door. "We tried to dig through with hatchets."
"Judging by the width of each of these beams, and assuming they're squared, I don't think you could chip you way through this door in hundred years of trying," Kotler said. "But there will be a way to open it."
"Open it!" Martook said, and he was practically dancing in his excitement. "Should I go get the others?"
Kotler considered this.
The other boys might come in handy, but they might also be a nuisance, especially if they were all excited about the prospect of finding gold on the other side of this door. He might have considered bringing in some of his colleagues from the dig, but they had been a bit snobbish toward him since he'd arrived. Freelancers with no university affiliation weren't common in this line of work, and Kotler often found himself shunned. He was often the outsider.
He wasn't so petty that he would refuse to let anyone else have access to this find. But they hadn't wanted to listen to Martook and the others when this first came up, and Kotler felt more solidarity with the boys than with the archeologists at this point.
"Let's see what we can determine first, and then we'll bring in others."
Martook nodded and stared dreamily at the door.
Kotler was also staring, though his was more of an inspection. This was maybe one of the most unusual finds of his career to date, and there was simply no reason for it to be here. His anticipation of what might be on the other side was growing, but he kept himself in check.
He felt around the edges of the door, running his hands over the rock surface at its frame, over the wood of the door itself. Other than some dust and a few splinters, he came away with nothing.
There were numerous runes on the door, but most were simply proclamations of the deeds of Credne. Kotler knew much of what he was reading already. Credne had been the son of Brigid and Tuireann, a couple of principle figures among the Tuatha dé Danann. He was known mostly as a goldsmith, though he also worked in bronze and brass. In fact, it was Credne, along with his brothers Goibniu and Luchtaine, who crafted the weapons used by the Tuatha dé Danann for the battle with the Fomorians.
Kotler had to admit, finding this tomb here, near Egypt of all places, was remarkable enough. But what if it really was filled with ancient Celtic gold? Or, even more incredible, what if it contained a stash of ancient weapons that might once have been used by gods?
Kotler had spent most of his life studying ancient cultures and languages. He'd also studied quantum physics. He'd never encountered anything he might consider "supernatural," or that he couldn't explain with science, but he'd definitely seen a few things that were in the "spooky" range. And he also knew well enough that mythology and folklore had a habit of being rooted in real world events. So though the prospect of finding tangible evidence of an actual god on the other side of this door might be a little farfetched, there was always a possibility.
As Kotler studied the runes, Martook got bored and invented a game that mostly involved stacking stones and knocking them down by pitching other stones at them. It was a little noisy, like the sound of dominos tumbling, but not entirely distracting. Kotler had worked under worse conditions.
He had brought a few of the torches and lanterns from elsewhere in the cavern, and ringed them around the door. He was careful to keep the flames of the torches away from the ancient wood, which seemed to have been impregnated with some form of pitch, likely to preserve it over time. It might be highly flammable, for all he knew. And the last thing he wanted was to burn the door, which was itself an archeological treasure.
With more light, Kotler was able to get a better look at the runes, and now he was starting to see patterns. There was something of a riddle at play, but Kotler could see that the door was clearly meant to be opened. Whoever had put it here was concerned only that whoever opened this tomb or vault or whatever it was had to be worthy of what was inside. And to prove their worthiness, they had only to be clever enough to decipher and solve the riddle of the runes.
Most of the runes were effectively gibberish. They were tales of Credne's acts, his lineage, and even his death. They were historically interesting, but they didn't provide clues. What was of more interest to Kotler were the runes that related to the door itself.
There were numerous references to the "strength and might" of the door, with the symbol for "oak" prominent. The oak symbol—a vertical line with two shorter horizontal lines extended like flags from the left-center of a post—was almost a punctuation mark for each phrase describing the door. The builder had been bragging a little. And it was likely well deserved. The door was actually quite solid.
Kotler noticed, however, that one set of runes did not boast of the door's strength. In fact, if anything it was hinting at a weakness.
Kotler leaned in closer to examine a set of runes that described the door as having once been part of a large sailing vessel, used by the Tuatha dé Danann. It claimed the ship had sailed over the sea from the Otherworld—the home of the gods, in Gaelic and Celtic culture. And it told the story of the ship's hull being pierced by ... well, Kotler couldn't quite make out the symbol that completed that story. It was obscured by a divot in the wood—a stone or something had perhaps fallen against the wood of the door at some point and dented it. But following the obscured phrase was the symbol for water and another for soft soil or mud.
"Martook!" he shouted.
"Yes, Dr. Kotler?" Martook was several feet away, and had just set up his stack of stones for another round.
"I could use a hatchet or something. Did you and the other boys happen to leave any tools here?"
Martook darted away without a word, and in a moment he sprinted up to Kotler with a small object in his hands. It was awl, about six inches in length with a triangular blade. "I am sorry, Dr. Kotler. This is all I could find."
Kotler smiled and took the awl, admiring it. "This is perfect, actually," he said. "Might take a little longer. But ..."
He turned then, and with a quick motion he stabbed the awl into the wood where the divot had prevented him from reading the translation.
It punctured the oak as if passing through paper mache.
Kotler worked the awl around that spot, widening it as he went. Flecks of grainy wood fell from the expanding gap—bits of sawdust that had been held together for centuries by some unknown bonding agent. "It was made to look like the oak," Kotler said, smiling and even laughing a little.
Martook laughed as well, his excitement mounting as the gap became bigger.
Soon Kotler had managed to dig away the faux wood, clearing it in a square that terminated at the hard edges of the oak door. Before him now was a gap big enough to reach his hands into. He picked up one of the nearby lanterns and used it to peer inside the opening he'd just made.
The hole was deep—perhaps a foot from the outer edge of the door. The light from the lantern was almost inadequate to reach the far side of it, but Kotler could still make out a large ring in the back of the space. A slight glint from the lantern light told him that the ring was made of medal. Probably bronze.
Kotler looked at Martook. "I'm going to do something very stupid. If something goes wrong, I want you to leave here as quickly as you can and go find help. Ok?"
"And only I am allowed to do stupid things, got it?" Kotler asked. "If you see anything, you don't touch it."
Again Martook nodded, though Kotler doubted his commitment.
With assurances in place, though, Kotler took a breath, reached into the hole in the door and took hold of the ring. He gave it a tug, felt something give, and then pulled harder.
Suddenly there was a rumble from all around them, and the door began to move. Kotler stepped back and watched as the immense wooden door slid upward.
It stopped at about halfway up the large gap that it filled, but the space it created was more than enough for Kotler and Martook to step cautiously through to the other side.
"Gold!" Martook shouted when Kotler raised the lantern to light their way.
"Brass, actually," Kotler said, examining one of the nearby fixtures. He felt his pulse quicken, and the adrenaline was buzzing through his veins.
Wall to wall, this place was lined with panels of brass, polished to such high reflection that the light of the small lantern was amplified to a near blinding level. Kotler marveled at the space, wondering again how it could have come to be here, so far from where the ancient Celtic cultures had lived. There were many tales of Celtic Druids wandering far and wide in the world, but Kotler had never seen any evidence of this magnitude. It seemed so far beyond the wood and stone carvings that usually served as markers for their passing. This was something spectacular.
Something they would only have done for their gods, Kotler mused.
Adorning the walls were thousands of runes and pictographs. The walls were a history of the Tuatha dé Danann, detailing their births, their lineage, their battles, and even their losses. Kotler could spend the rest of his life in this space and likely never decipher it all. He would certainly have to bring the others here, and give them the chance to carve their own names in the tablets of history.
He smiled at the thought of some of the stuffy Egyptologists from the camp having to suddenly bone up on ancient Celtic folklore.
"Dr. Kolter, there is something here!"
Martook had rushed ahead when Kotler wasn't quite paying attention, and despite his promise to not touch anything the boy was already climbing the steps of a dais at the far end of the hall. Kotler moved swiftly, and before Martook could climb any further he pulled the boy back.
One of the steps leading up to the dais sunk slightly from their weight, and the rumbling started once again, all around them this time. Kotler looked back to see the large oak door slam to the ground in a cloud of dust, sealing them in the hall. He raced toward it with Martook in tow, but it was already pressed solidly to the floor, barring any escape form the brass-encrusted walls of the hall.
"I am sorry!" Martook wailed.
Kotler shook his head. "I'm to blame, Martook, don't worry." He studied the door. "I should never have brought you in here. I should have taken you back to get the others."
"But we have found treasure!" Matook said, his boyish enthusiasm overriding his fear.
Or maybe he wasn't afraid at all, Kotler marveled. Maybe he just assumed they'd find their way out. After all ...
"We were invited in," Kotler said. "Those symbols gave us what we needed to get inside. So there must be a way out. Another test."
He looked around and started reading some of the runes and symbols near the door. There was nothing there that meant much. History, mostly. A lot of ancient boasting. But nothing that hinted at how to open the door again.
Kotler probed the door for a bit using the awl, but there were no more soft spots. That was too obvious anyway. The way out would be something new. He would have another puzzle to solve.
Maybe the answer was in who this hall was for.
It didn't seem to be a tomb. At least, it wasn't like any tomb Kotler had ever encountered. Instead it was more like a grand hall, as if at the other end there would be a temple. The dais certainly had that look and feel. Kotler moved to inspect that closer.
He was cautious as he approached. If there was one trap, there might be more. He slowly made his way forward and started inspecting the runes and symbols on the dais itself.
More history. More brag. But this was all about Credne now, and the role he and his brothers played in the battle against the Fomorians.
These had been a race of monstrous creatures in Irish mythology, possibly equivalent to demons or other supernatural creatures of evil. Or, to put in terms of Star Wars, the Tuatha dé were the Jedi, while the Fomorians were the Sith. Classic good all-powerfuls versus evil all-powerfuls.
The Tuatha dé had been locked in an eternal struggle against the Fomorians, and the battles could be downright gruesome. And Credne and his brothers had been forced to use their otherwise peaceful artisanal skills to craft weapons of war. Credne was famed for working in gold, brass, and bronze, and his weapons were considered to be enchanted with all sorts of useful abilities.
Kotler saw much of the history of Credne writ out in carvings on the dais. The dais itself was clearly the key to getting out of here.
There was nothing atop the dais itself, which seemed strange. This was a raised platform that literally served as a display for something important, but though this dais was ornate and covered in gleaming brass, it stood empty, as if waiting for something to be placed upon it.
Kotler looked at the top of the dais and noticed two indentions on the large, rectangular surface.
Something was supposed to be placed there.
He stood, and was just looking around the room when rumbling started again. He looked to Martook, who was dutifully standing by with his hands at his side. So he hadn't touched anything.
Looking beyond him to the door, Kotler hoped that maybe they'd gotten lucky and it was opening, but it hadn't moved either.
"Cave in," he whispered.
The tunnel they had crawled through had shown clear signs of instability. It was obvious that it had once been much larger, allowing people to move freely and even carry objects into the cavern just outside the large oak door. But over the centuries, tectonic shifts and cave-ins had narrowed the tunnel to just a crawlspace. It was a wonder it hadn't collapsed entirely over the years.
Kotler suspected that it finally had, thanks largely to the rumbling of the giant oak door opening and closing. It was possible that even if he did find a way out of this brass-enshrouded hall, they might still be trapped here.
He couldn't think of that now. They would just have to deal with the cave-in once they'd figured out how to escape from their current confinement. One crisis at a time.
Kotler turned his attention back to the objects in the room, looking for anything that might fit the two indentions in the dais. Nothing seem to fit perfectly, and he wondered if maybe he was on the wrong trail. He was just about to give up and go back to pondering the symbols and pictographs on the walls when he saw the stands.
At first he had dismissed the four tall, spindly objects, his Western brain interpreting them as candle stands. In fact, each of them was in the shape of a Celtic rune. And not just any runes. These were the symbols for holly, ash, birch ... and oak.
The oak stand had its two flag rods extending from its center and spaced just right. Kotler smiled.
He raced to the stand, lifted it from where it was mounted in the floor, and then carried it to the dais. He hefted it and turned it so that he could align the two protrusions with the indentions on the floor, and using the trunk of the staff as a handle he pushed downward, pressing the two rods into the deceptively soft surface of the indentions.
There was a new series of rumbles now.
"Martook, hurry! This way!"
Martook raced toward him, and Kotler put a hand on his shoulder as he stood. Kotler watched the wooden door for any sign of movement, but there was nothing. Instead, the rumbling seemed to come from outside the door, and also behind them.
Kotler turned to see the entire back wall of the hall split as two large, brass panels moved aside. The opening revealed a staircase the rose up from the hall and into a tunnel that was somehow being lit from above.
Kotler and Martook raced for the tunnel.
Before they sprinted up the stairs, however, Kotler pulled them to a full stop. The whole room was shaking, and Kotler feared that the place might collapse in on them. But he was seeing something he couldn't just pass up.
On a pedestal just on the other side of the brass doors was a stand made from what appeared to be deer antlers. In the crook of the stand was a dingy looking bronze sword. It had nicks and chips in its blade, but it was also engraved from tip to pommel with Celtic runes. Kotler didn't have time to decipher them, or to even think. He simply grabbed the sword and raced with Martook up the stairs.
The rumbling continued, and was now punctuated by sharp cracks as stone fractured all around them. This place could come crashing in on them at any moment—and there was literally nowhere for them to go but up.
Kotler took note, even as they raced and panted up the stone steps, that the tunnel was being lit by shafts of what appeared to be quartz crystal, which must have reached to the surface to allow light in. These were adorned and surrounded with polished brass panels that reflected the light to amplify it and make it possible to see where they were running.
Kotler was amazed by this, but opted to think about it later. The implications of all of this Celtic architecture in Egypt were astounding, but they meant nothing if he and Martook died before being able to tell anyone about them.
The rumbling increased, the sharp cracking sounds with it, and finally Kotler and Martook burst out of the stair-laden tunnel and into a large and cavernous space. Looking around frantically, Kotler spotted a wedge of sunlight at the far end, and he practically dragged Martook with him as he sprinted for it
They came to a large gash that rippled like a lightning bolt from the ground to the ceiling of the cavern. It was wide enough that they could squeeze through with no trouble, and soon Kotler and Martook found themselves high up on the mountain side, looking down the craggy cliff face to the valley below.
From here, Kotler could see the dig site. The excavation had been abandoned as the rumblings had started, with everyone moving clear in case of a collapse. Kotler laughed, even as he dropped heavily to the ground, huffing.
They had made it.
Martook was also out of breath, which Kotler had to admit he was glad to see. At least it meant that Kotler wasn't quite in as bad a shape as he thought.
"We have made it," Martook said, puffing. "We have survived."
"And with spoils," Kotler huffed, holding up the sword. He would examine it in detail later, but he could already tell that it was a prize worthy of its attainment. It was proof of a Celtic presence here, for starters. But it was also part of a rich history beyond where it had found its resting place.
They lay against the rocks, catching their breath, until finally Kotler stood and helped Martook to his feet. It took a couple of hours to carefully pick their way down the mountain, but they made it before dusk. And as Kotler stumbled into the dig site, he was pleased to see that some of his colleagues had plainly been worried about him. They also gawked with unfiltered interest and amazement at the artifact he had recovered.
Martook, filled with the remarkable capacity of youth to recoup from even this grueling ordeal in mere minutes, raced to meet with his friends and tell them about the "city of gold" that he and Kotler had found. Kotler didn't bother correcting Martook on any of it. If the brass hall hadn't been a city of gold literally, it had been one figuratively. And who knew what else they might uncover, once a proper excavation could get underway?
For now, Kotler had the sword, and a story. And ... well, he had to admit, he liked it. There was something to be said for surviving that sort of ordeal, and by his own wits at that.
He wondered what other adventures he might one day have.
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