Monday, March 31, 2014

Tournament Journal Round 4--Last Round!

Well here it is! Round 4! I submitted this piece last week, and now all there is to do is wait and see who won. There were three of us left, and I think we all put out some seriously solid works for this final challenge. It's going to be soooo close!

Either way, I'm super proud that I made it to the last round, and it's been a ton of fun working with other writers and going head to head with them. It's such a unique experience!

In this round we were finally given character sheets for the three villains. So in addition to writing in my other two competitor's characters, I needed to find a way to use all the clues and stories previously to wrap up the three villains, and see if our characters would find this Shambhala they were told about.

Round 4 Prompt:

 A sharp buzzing noise.  A gunshot.

The man in white's eyes glazed over.  Blood glistened on the wall.  He toppled over like a lifeless ragdoll.

Another man appeared, likely no older than 50, hovering over the body of the late Mr. Fedora.  A demeaning word escaped his lips, possibly a curse in German.  He handed the SIG Mosquito with suppressor over to a giant man trailing behind him.

In a sweeping look, he saw that the fight at the temple was far from over.  With a short, condescending glance at his companion, uttered a single thing: "Udar."

The bearded giant gave a slow nod.  The soldiers that were once under the fedora man's command caught fire.  Some jumped from the edge of the temple to the depths below.

"I'm sorry you had to go through this," the graying man said, not paying any attention to the commotion around him.  "This man was my responsibility, and when I had released him from his duties, he comes to attack you.  You can't trust anybody nowadays.  All the more reason for us to get to the city first."

Next, he introduces himself.  "My name is Dr. Hermann Pohl.  We have much to talk about."  He mentions nothing about his companion, and when asked, he simply states, "He is my bodyguard."

In the next few hours, he makes sure that the injured are in the monks' care and invites you to come along with him on his journey to Shambhala.  A caravan waits below the temple.

Round 4 Submission--6500


Blood dripped steadily into the IV line. Lucy watched it through a haze, trying to push away the thick heaviness that weighed on her consciousness and slowed her thoughts. She had seen so much blood recently. She watched it plop down the IV, viscous and dark. Eyes following the IV line, she stopped where the tube disappeared into her thin, pale hand. Beneath her, the van rocked side-to-side as it hit a bump in the road, and Lucy grabbed at the seatbelt secured across her chest. Someone had reclined her seat all the way down and buckled her in before setting up the IV. She struggled to remember who.
                “Drink this,” a woman’s voice said.
                Lucy lolled her head to the side, and the sharp-angled face of a middle-aged woman came into focus. She held a drink carton with a straw poking out of it. Lucy swallowed against a dry throat, but knew better than to just take beverages from random women in shady buses.
                “It’s chocolate milk,” she smiled.
                Yeah, sure it is.
                “You can trust me,” she said, her bright red lips peeling back into a smile. “I hooked up your IV for you, remember? You’re getting a transfusion. You lost a lot of blood.”
                Lucy tried to remember, but after the man in the white fedora had been shot, everything was an indistinguishable blur. How long had she been out? The face of an older gentleman swam into her memory, and she recalled his apology for his subordinate’s harsh manner in dealing with the retrieval of the journal. After that, it was a boggy jumble of nonsense.
                She tried to sit up a little, and looked around the van. She knew it was white, from what she could piece back together. Inside it looked pretty normal, with bench seats in the very back, two standing seats in the middle, and another row of bench seats facing the back of the van. The woman with the chocolate milk sat in the seat next to hers. Across from them, three large men occupied the bench seat.
                She first recognized Gavin, brown eyes downcast, wide shoulders slouched forward, and hands clasped loosely between his knees. He had bandages around his knuckles, and the knees of his pants had been ripped open, exposing a few bloody scrapes. On Gavin’s right, a man so large he almost didn’t seem human stared at her openly. He had skin like a smooth mocha, although his nationality was a little vague to Lucy. He had high cheekbones and small eyes, with wide lips and a long nose. His hair, jet black, was combed neatly to the side, and he wore a tailored suit that had to be custom made to fit those bizarrely long proportions.
                The man on Gavin’s left spoke. “You appear to recover quickly.” He was the older man from before. Gray hair. Blue eyes. Standard frame, although in pretty good shape for a man his age.
                Lucy wetted her dry, cracked lips. “Who are you?”
                “Pohl,” he responded easily. “Mr. Pohl if you wish.” He had a thick German accent when he spoke.
                Lucy glanced down at the IV in her hand, and back up at the bag, which was now ¾ of the way empty. “You sent the note, then.”
                He inclined his head. “Yes, I did.”
                An image of the man in the white fedora hat slumping over in a pool of his own blood flashed through her brain. She raised herself onto her elbows, feeling decidedly edgy now. “You got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
                He held up the aged journal. “This? Yes, and a marvelous job you did of it.”His head turned to Gavin. “See how compliant this one is? She plays by the rules.”
                Gavin lifted his head, but stared straight ahead, not meeting Pohl’s gaze.
                “And all players,” Pohl continued, giving Gavin a tap on the shoulder with the journal, “must heed the rules. Don’t you agree, Ms. Finch?”
                Lucy scowled. “What’s going on here?”
                “I let your friend live,” Pohl said, leaning forward with detached innocence stamped onto his face. “And yet this useful brute refuses to give his token from the game. Can you believe it?”
                Lucy looked out the window, as if hoping to see some kind of escape from this psychotic mind game she had been trapped into. It didn’t even feel like a puzzle she could solve her way out of. This was logic she didn’t understand—the logic of a madman most likely.
                “All my hard work,” Pohl continued, shaking his head. “Now useless because of misguided notions of honor based entirely on lack of information.” He raised his brows at Gavin. “Is that not right, my friend?”
                A muscle in Gavin’s jaw ticked.
                Lucy looked between Pohl and Gavin, trying resolutely to not stare at the tall monster on Gavin’s other side. Pohl retained his emotionless smile, and Gavin looked almost green. “What do you want from us?” she finally asked.
                The German’s smile deepened, “So good of you to come right to the point. This,” he said, waving the journal, “is what I want from you. Are you familiar with Shambhala?”
                “No,” Lucy said.
                “El Dorado? Atlantis?”
                “Good movies,” Lucy nodded.
                Pohl sighed deeply and grimaced, as though physically pained by her response. “Legends, Ms. Finch. Legends. Every culture has them, and varied though they are, they all refer to just one place. Shambhala.”
                “So which is it—rivers of gold, a lost civilization, the cure to cancer…?”
                “All of it. Any.” Pohl’s eyes lit up with the first flash of real feeling Lucy had seen from him. “We have clues and theories, but one can never really know for sure. Until now.”
                Lucy stared at the journal. “Is it a map?”
                “Of sorts.” Pohl thumbed through the journal. “Coordinates, descriptions, and directions. I can get you right to the door of Shambhala.”
                Lucys snorted, rolling her eyes. “What, you’re going to kill my family if I don’t trek in there?”
                “Nothing so heinous,” the German scoffed. “There is a moral code to this world, you know. No, no, I’ve injected you and your unwilling partner here with poison.”
                Lucy rotated her head until her wide eyes locked with his. “What was that?”
                “CL523 to be exact. It is a slow-acting poison that should begin to affect you within 48 hours. There is no cure.”
                Her heart lurched. “You can’t be serious.”
                “Ask him,” he said, twitching his head in Gavin’s direction.
                Lucy looked to Gavin, and he gave her a grim look of despair. One short head nod. She closed her eyes as an almost painful wave of panic washed over her. “Why?” she whispered. “Why would you…you said you needed us, but how—”
                “Not to worry,” Pohl hastened to assure her. “Should you complete your task properly, the inhabitants of Shambhala will provide you with the cure.”
                Lucy’s jaw dropped. She stared in horror. “You-you can’t be serious. Are you insane?” She sat up straight in her chair, looking around like she might find an escape.
                “Of the three disastrously rich and ambitious individuals seeking this land, I assure you,” Pohl flashed a white-toothed, nasty grin. “I am the least insane.”
                 Lucy felt her chest heaving in and out as she struggled to breathe, struggled to comprehend how she had found herself in this nightmare.
                Pohl continued on as if nothing were amiss. “While you worked for Dierdre, nothing but unhappiness came your way.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “That is because she is quite daft in the head. Killing loved ones and sacrificing her own pawns.” He tsked. “Messy. She found a different gate altogether, you see. One that would require life sacrifice to enter. Hence the goose chase you endured to make one silly little resurrection serum. Had she done a little research, she would have found that a Chintamani stone and coordinates to a different gate were really all that were necessary.”
                Lucy dug her hands into her hair, feeling the pull of the IV against her skin. “Oh my God.”
                “I agree. It was foolish. But here you have a chance to make history. Or,” he shrugged, “you can fade away into nothing.”
                “Oh my God,” Lucy repeated. She found that her hands suddenly wouldn’t stop shaking.
                “And you,” Pohl said, turning to Gavin pointedly. “What will it be for you? Shambhala, or the great hereafter?”
                Silence permeated the van. Lucy struggled to come to grips with her reality, and only vaguely noticed Gavin reaching down to his shoe. The heel of his black boot snapped back to reveal a tiny compartment he had stowed the stone in. It glinted red in the dim overhead lights of the van.
                Pohl nodded appreciatively. “Excellent.” He slipped it into his inner jacket pocket. “And now for paradise.”

It only took them one night and half a day to reach the location. The van, apparently rigged with off-road capabilities, had detoured from the road and across a rocky, mountain valley. The way was relatively clear, though, and they finally stopped before a green mountain pass that had narrowed and become impassible by vehicle. “A little walk,” Pohl said with another one of his mirthless smiles.
                Warm, moist air hit Lucy as they emerged from the van. The mountains towering above them seemed to slope away into a green, exotic forest just ahead. Gavin came to stand near her as Pohl and his behemoth body guard readied their own equipment. “I’m sorry,” he said.
                Lucy glanced up at his face, but she couldn’t read much from him. He seemed like he had his own goals and motives. He hadn’t given up, though. That bolstered her own courage. “We’ll get through this,” she said in a whisper.
                He gave a silent nod.
                “Udar,” Pohl said, speaking to the seven foot, dark-skinned companion next to him. “Would you lead our employees to the coordinates?”
                Employees, Lucy thought with a curl of her lip. Hilarious.
                They set off through the dusty mountain pass, dodging jagged boulders and skidding down rock faces. Pohl was pretty spry for an old man, and whatever was too difficult for him, he had his Udar with him to help. The other woman had stayed behind in the van.
Beads of sweat gathered on Lucy’s brow as they traversed the precarious landscape. It seemed to be unusually warm for a spring day, but as the sun sunk behind the mountains, a cold settled in. It prickled her skin and made her injured hand ache. Gavin pushed forward stoically, seemingly lost in his own thoughts, and Lucy didn’t offer any casual conversation. They were going to die in 24 hours, or maybe even less. Everything hinged on a mythical utopia no one had actually seen, so given the circumstances, he was acting pretty normally.
Night fell, and Udar pulled out a high-powered flashlight to lead them into the dense, tropical-looking forest. When they stopped, they had reached a kind of clearing in the forest. Surrounded by a circle of triangular rocks, the dirt ground stood pale and stark against the darkness.
Pohl consulted the journal. “This seems to be it. Shall we test?” He reached into his tweed jacket and pulled out the red stone. He tossed it into the middle of the clearing.
It sunk into the ground.
“Excellent,” Lucy heard Pohl say. She couldn’t see his face, but she heard the glee in his voice. “Yes, this is exactly the place.”
Lucy leaned down, resting her hands on her knees as she caught her breath.
“Send me,” Gavin suddenly said. His low voice carried through the quiet clearing. “I will bring a cure back if one exists.”
“I applaud your valor,” said Pohl drily. “But if she stays behind, I will be more likely to shoot her.”
Lucy straightened, turning to glance at Gavin. In the darkness, she could still see the frown on his face. She felt grateful to him for trying, but she had already accepted that she would be thrown into whatever Pohl chose. Fate decided. Just try to survive it.
“That stone has opened the way for you,” Pohl explained. “After that, I cannot say. There are conditions for entering, and Udar and I likely do not fit. Not yet. If you find the native people, tell them I am willing to give them what they most desire. Freedom. But they must let me in.”
“Whatever that means,” Lucy muttered. If she even got underground to this fabled city, she would most likely die in a cave somewhere. At least the poison would make it quick.
She and Gavin walked to the edge of the circle. With one more shared, apprehensive glance, they both stepped onto the pale dirt. Lucy’s foot immediately sank into the ground, and before she had noticed it, her left foot joined the other. She stood ankle-deep in quick sand.
“Don’t be afraid,” Pohl said from behind them.
Lucy twisted around, and found Udar close to the edge. His features lit up in a ghastly way as he tilted his flashlight on his own body. In his free hand, he held all of Lucy’s knives, as well as her belt.
“I felt safe giving these back after you had stuck yourself in the lightning sand,” Pohl explained. “But do not fear. You should fall right into the underground entrance.”
Or die. You know, whichever. Lucy took her weapons, and as quickly as possible, attached them to her belt and in her pockets. She had sunk up to her knees at that point.
Gavin was handed three of his guns and clip belt, which he just as quickly attached to his person.
Then they waited. Lucy pumped her legs a little, remembering that the more she moved, the faster she would sink. It seemed to do the trick, and in the eerie chatter of the forest night, she sunk further into the liquid sand. If felt a little bit like ooblek, the cornstarch and water mixture she used to make in elementary school. As she pumped her legs, it felt solid and almost impossible to move in. But as soon as she stopped, she would slink down into the viscous substance.
As the sand reached her ribcage, she was surprised to find that her feet felt lighter. She wiggled her toes. Sure enough, they had actually exited the quicksand. Somehow, her body was now suspended in the sand, with feet dangling in thin air and body stuck. She tried to quickly calculate how long she would need to hold her breath in that sand before her head could fall into the open air. Three minutes if she was actively moving? That was too long.
She started to panic. As the sand crept up to her neck, she let her arms submerge parallel. She could bend her knees underneath now, and she wiggled them to make her sink faster. It worked, and in no time, she had to crane her neck to take in breaths. Her ears covered, and the world muted. All she heard were her own breaths, jagged, and panicked.
And then everything went dark. She had her hips free, so she wiggled and kicked as hard as she could, but she soon felt her chest would burst. She would inhale the sand at this rate. Her head swam. Thoughts jumbled together incoherently.
A hand grasped her ankle, and suddenly she felt her body yanked down with incredible force. She broke through the sand in a disorienting rush, one minute freefalling, and the next splashing into water. She broke through the surface almost immediately, and pulled air into her lungs frantically.
Blinking away black spots in her vision, Lucy realized that her surroundings were actually lit. At least partially. As she tread the water, she noticed that she really was in a cave of some sort. But the walls were glowing. She had landed in the middle of a small pool, exactly the size of the clearing above, and perfectly round. The walls surrounding it were lit with strange veins of glowing material. Almost like a mineral or rock. Straight ahead, she found a way out of the pool. It was a narrow opening in the cylindrical cave—a natural hallway of sorts. And even the ground, as she hauled herself out of the water, was lit with those spidery threads of glowing material.
When she stepped onto solid ground, she realized with a start that she wasn’t wet. She stared at the water. Odd. Behind her, with a great splash, Gavin lifted himself from the pool of water. He was also dry.
Lucy put a hand to his shoulder as he stood, smiling despite herself. “Gavin! You’re okay!”
“Yeah,” he ran a hand through his dry hair, face confused.          
“How were you able to grab hold of my foot?”
They both looked up at the ceiling. It was a good thirteen or fourteen feet from the water, and pitch black. Gavin held up a hand. “I left my hand for last. It gave me a second or two to grab you before I fell.”
“Thank you,” Lucy whispered, looking down at her sneakers. “I would have died.”
“I know.” Gavin pulled a gun from his waistband. “You’re lighter than I am.”
“Just a little,” she smirked.
Twisting his neck to look around, Gavin’s gaze settled on something near the edge of the water. He walked to the edge of the floor where the cave wall began. Cradled in a small dish sat the Crimean stone. Gavin picked it up, turning it in front of his eyes. “Looks like Pohl was right about something being down here.”
“How did that even get there?”
“The same way we’re still dry, I’d imagine,” Gavin answered. “At the very least, we’ve discovered the world’s most lucrative swimming pool.”
“Think it cured our poison?” Lucy asked hopefully.
“Likely not. We should keep going.”
Lucy tested the grip of her right hand on the handle of her knife. She was stiff and a little sore, but Cassian’s medicine had worked a miracle on her gunshot wound. She could probably throw well.
Gavin glanced down at her. “Do you want a gun?”
“No thanks, I’m good. Let’s see what Shambhala looks like.”
They started down the thin passage with Gavin leading first, and Lucy following behind. Gavin’s broad shoulders skimmed along each wall as they walked. His black shirt glowed with a blue tint like everything else around them. Soon they emerged from the hall and into a much grander space.
Before them, long, wide steps led to a raised floor. The space was like the inside of a temple, lined with thick columns that stretched to the ceiling higher than an ancient cathedral. And all of it made from the glowing blue rock that wove through the gray rock walls behind them. It was glassy like marble, but translucent and glowing faintly. As they walked up the steps, Lucy’s breath caught in her throat.
It really was an underground temple of some kind. Archways between columns led to other hallways similar to the one they had come through. Like a rectangle, the floor stretched out across the massive space, finally ending at what seemed to simply be a bare wall made of the same translucent, glowing stone. On the wall there appeared to be strange scorch marks. They reached nearly to the ceiling in height, and were shaped like some kind of fan. She used her finger in the air to trace the blackened tips of the humps: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Nine plumes on a fan? Or a burst of something?
Lucy and Gavin walked silently across the slick floor, their shoes echoing through the cavernous room.
As they neared the far wall, Lucy looked at the other arched entrances. Six in total. “Do we go through one of those?”
“I’m not sure,” Gavin replied. They stopped at the midway point. Both of them looked around for some kind of sign.
Then something moaned.
Lucy spun to her right, eyes searching the columns and archways. Again, something groaned, possibly a man’s voice. She pulled a knife from her belt and took cautious steps toward one of the columns near the empty wall. Gavin followed close behind.
As they neared, the hunched over form of something came into view. Charred, red skin, a man’s body, and somehow, protruding from his back, two large, but burnt wings. They looked to have been covered by feathers, but most of them were missing. The wings, hanging limp around his slumped form, were charred and open, showing bone and muscle. Lucy gasped, putting a hand to her mouth.
But Gavin ran forward suddenly. “Adam? Adam is that you?”
The burned creature, clearly a man, even through his disfiguring burns, turned at the sound of his name. Blue eyes, glowing from the rocks beneath him, stared forlornly at Gavin.
Gavin knelt before the man, his expression horrified. “How--?”
The man swallowed visibly, and then nodded. “It looks worse than it is.”
“But you’re alive!”
Another nod. “Not as much anymore. Didn’t think I’d find you here. I thought you’d be home to your girl by now.”
Lucy took a few tentative steps forward. If Gavin knew this man, then he likely wasn’t a threat. She took a closer look at his condition. The left half of his body had been burned worse than the right, and his wings had been damaged the most. He took shallow breaths through cracked, red lips.
Gavin looked around the room. “What happened? We have to get you out of here.”
Adam held up a hand. “No use. Once I figured it out, I realized there’s only one way out. Those arches all lead to entryways. But no exits.”
“I don’t understand,” Gavin said. “One way out. You don’t mean…?”
“Maybe I should say two,” Adam gave a weak, crooked grin. “Death, and then through that door.” He used a shaking hand to point to the scorched wall. “I didn’t make it through, obviously.”
Adam’s burned body and the scorch marks suddenly make a little more sense.
Gavin uncapped his water bottle and handed it to Adam. The winged man took several, greedy gulps, and then said, “Thank you. Are you here to find Shambhala?”
“We have to,” the other man said.
“Then that’s our only chance. Maybe one of you can—” He stopped suddenly, coughing in ragged, painful hacks that made even Lucy’s lungs hurt. When he had swallowed a little more water, he gestured to the wall. “Stand,” he rasped. “You’ll see.”
“I’ll go,” Lucy said suddenly. Looking to Gavin she said, “You should stay with him. I’ll see what this door is about.”
“You sure?” Gavin asked, clearly torn between both urgencies.
Lucy nodded. “I’ve got it.”
Adam added, “She’ll need to make a choice. But she won’t be hurt spontaneously.”
Lucy went to stand in front of the wall, between the last two pillars on either side of the room. She waited for a few seconds. Then, swirling into existence like the first wisp of a white cloud on a clear day, smoke gathered just in front of the wall. It circled and flowed as the smoke grew denser and larger, until finally the distinct shape of a woman began to solidify.
She stood before Lucy, all shining white elegance and impossible beauty. Her short, pixie cut white hair standing at random angles, and she had high and wide cheekbones just underneath luminescent green eyes. Her pointed ears stuck out from her white hair. And she wore a simply draped, white tunic that flowed and pooled around her bare feet. She blinked expectantly.
Lucy wasn’t sure if she should speak or wait.
The spoke first. “Do you know what I am?”
Lucy shook her head.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and in that instant it seemed that the entire room exploded in light.
Lucy covered her eyes, taking several steps back. When she looked again, it was to find nine, white-blue plumes stretched out across the wall. They seemed to be coming from the woman, branching out and up the walls. They danced like fire, but seemed almost solid at the same time. When the woman shifted, so did the plumes. “I am the Kumiho.”
Lucy’s brows shot up. She knew this. For once, she had heard of this mystical being from comic books and Asian legend. A Kumiho or Gumiho was a nine-tailed fox. “A Kumiho,” Lucy whispered in awe.
“This is a sacred place. A protected place. Should I find your qi worthy to enter, it will be so. Should I find your qi unbalanced, you will not live.”
Lucy swallowed hard. Whatever Adam was—clearly not all human—it had helped him survive the penance for bad qi. She was human. She would die. Lucy rubbed her forehead. Well I mean, what the heck, right? I’m going to die anyway. She gave a nod, hoping it looked confident. “I want to try.”
The woman, face lit brilliantly by the glare of her nine tails, stretched one arm up. “Choose one of my nine tails. How you choose, and which you choose—these are your tests.”
Lucy cocked one head. That was a little open-ended. No wonder Adam failed. She had a one in nine chance of choosing, but then how? Pointing? Walking? Counting? It didn’t take long for inspiration to hit her. A slow smile crept up her face. “I’ve totally got this,” she muttered.
Walking quickly back to Gavin, she held out a hand. “I need the stone.”
Gavin handed it to her quickly. “Can you do this? Do you know how?”
“Yeah, I think I have it. I guess we’ll see.” She jogged back to stand in front of the Kumiho. “I’m going to choose now.”
She inclined her head.
Lucy closed her eyes, holding the cold, smooth stone tightly in her palm. I need to hit the right tail. The right tail is my target. Come on, Lucy, you never miss. You can’t miss this. With all her strength, eyes still closed, she hurled the stone blindly.
                Immediately, she snapped her eyes open again. The stone had flown across the room and toward the second tail from the left. With a force stronger than her throw could possibly have been, the stone sailed through the fire of the tail and embedded itself into the wall with a crack.
                The Kumiho smiled serenely. “It is so.”
                She and her tails disappeared in an instant, like the smoke from a blown-out Birthday candle. Just as soon as the smoke had cleared, the Chintamani Stone began to glow bright red. The cracks it had created in the wall began to widen, splintering in jagged fissures across the stone. And then all at once, part of the wall crumbled to the ground in an earth-shaking rumble, spewing dust and debris in its wake.
                Lucy only took one surprised, half-step back, and then stopped to gape in awe. A perfectly circular opening had been created. And it led down another tunnel.
                “You did it,” Gavin said from behind her. “You really did it.”
                Lucy felt her mouth hanging open. “I…holy snap I really did. I seriously just did that.” She turned around to smile in disbelief. “Did you see that?”
                Gavin chuckled, and then grunted with effort as he helped his injured friend to his feet. “I saw. This is our only hope now.”
                Lucy was beginning to believe in the impossible. They had made it this far. There had to be a cure. Right?
                As Gavin helped Adam to limp across the rubble, Lucy skittered ahead with knife in hand to make sure the way was safe. The tunnel, still lit by the strange veins of mineral in gray rock, was domed overhead, and not terribly wide. Gavin and Adam struggled to fit both of them through it without touching any of Adam’s burned skin against the rough walls.
                They walked for what seemed like a long time. Lucy despaired at how many hours they had been underground. Two? Twenty? It felt hard to tell. Would they find a cure before the poison killed them?
                At last, the tunnel ended. Narrow steps led them into a now-familiar icy-blue constructed room. But this room was a little different than the ones before. Modest in size and circular in shape, it was carved from that glowing blue stone from domed top to glassy floor. And the etchings on the walls, on the ceiling, and the floors were so intricate and delicate, they seemed almost impossible for the human hand to create.
                When Lucy’s foot hit the ground, it lit even brighter with a pulse of blue light. After that one pulse, all was silent. All was cold. No smells, no sounds—not even noticeable air to breath. It was like all time stood still in this chamber. As if nature held its breath.
                Gavin and Adam staggered into the room, and they both collapsed on the floor. Lucy bent down in front of them. “Are you two okay?”
                Adam gave a wobbly thumbs-up. “I heal fast. I’d ask you for blood but,” he inhaled deeply through his nose. “You’ve already got someone else’s in you. I’m guessing you had a transfusion recently.”
                Lucy winced, hovering a hand just before him as if she could comfort him. “You must be in so much pain.”
                “I can’t say I’m not,” he agreed, rolling his beleaguered eyes up at her, and giving half a smile.
                Lucy straightened again, and walked in a circle around the small room. “What now?”
                “It’s like an airport,” Adam rasped. “Checkpoints everywhere. Next they’re going to frisk us.”
                Lucy whirled around, holding out a knife and putting a hand to her sputtering heart.
A man-like creature stood just in front of the opposite wall. The first thing Lucy noticed about him was his pale, white skin, like it had no pigment whatsoever. And then she realized how incredibly tall he was. At least eight feet, with long limbs, long neck, long fingers clasped calmly in front of him. He was bare from the waist up, and wore a black wrap-around article of clothing that flowed down to the top of his feet. At the top of his oblong head, thick white hair drifted down to his waist. Most disconcertingly of all his eyes were clouded over with white like he had rheumatism.
Lucy lowered her knife slightly, seeing that he stared at her calmly, and held no weapons. “Hi.”
“Lucy Finch,” he said. His words were slow, and his voice  somewhat high.
“Y-yeah. That’s right.”
“Gavin Birk,” the man nodded toward Gavin. “And Adam Aitas.”
                The two men were silent, although Lucy imagined, without having to look behind her, that they were probably just as dumbfounded as she felt.
                “You are welcome here,” the man said. “You may call me Nok.”
                Lucy nodded, finally lowering her blade. “Thank you, Nok.”
                His marbled, white eyes turned to Lucy. “Your qi has led you here. The passing of time has escaped us. But we have expected you.”
                Lucy frowned. “Are you from Shambhala? Is that what this is?”
                Nok tilted his head to the side slightly. “This is what they call us?”
                She gave a little shrug. “It’s what I was told.”
                He bowed his head. “I thank you for the knowledge.”
                Lucy shifted her feet uncomfortably. “It’s…no big deal. You said you expected us?”
                “In some form,” he mused, still speaking exaggeratedly slow. He was like a white Ent in humanoid form. “Those who sought us, sought the right qi.” He pointed a spindly hand at Gavin and Adam. “Their qi is strong. It is good. But one is the qi of air. One is the qi of fire. Yours,” he said finally looking back to Lucy. “Yours is qi of water.”
                “Water? How do you mean?”
                “Water is the source of life. The beginning and the end. We left many parts of our people in your world. Were they not all connected to water?”
                Lucy thought back. Idunn’s apples were found in an underwater cave. Sif’s hair was in the middle of the ocean. She wasn’t sure how Gavin got the stone. The only one not actually in water had been Nicolas’s journal, but that belonged to a human being. “I guess so,” she admitted.
                “The qi of fire fears water,” Nok said to Gavin. “The qi of air can never be one with it. It is your qi destined to lead the way.”
                Lucy shook her head. “That can’t be right. I fell into this. I wasn’t even supposed to be here.”
                “How then should I know your name?” Nok asked, still patient. Still calm.
                Lucy ran a hand through her hair. “This is crazy.”
                “It is already foretold. As the great white oak foretold our escape from the world above to this world below, so too has it foretold our return.”
                “You’re returning?” Lucy asked. “You’re really going to go back up there?”
                Nok shook his head slowly. “Not for now. But in the blink of an eye, some years in your time, yes. You have opened the way, Lucy Finch. How else to explain your gifts of qi so perfectly aligned with the path to the gates?”
                It made sense, but Lucy was having a hard time digesting this. She had to focus. “So you’re not coming up. Not now.”
                “There are men up there. Bad people that want your land and your people. They have poisoned Gavin and me. And Adam might be dying.”
                Nok gave a somber nod. “All in due course. Your fate, Lucy Finch, in opening the way for my people, begins here. It begins with the threat against us. There are three obstacles, as foretold, that stand as a barrier to the world above: A queen, a monster, and a madman. Do you know of whom I speak?”
                “I know the monster,” Adam said. “And I have heard tell of the others.”
                “We were sent by, I assume, the madman,” Gavin said. “Pohl.”
                Nok gestured to the tunnel they had come through. “You have opened the way. Now you must clear the path. Do you understand?”
                “You…you want me to kill these people? Because they are a threat to your people?”
                “Yes, Lucy Finch.”
                “And then?”
                “For a time,” Nok said in his soothing tones. “All will be at peace. But you will all three be called on another time. Another day. But for that moment, only peace after all is clear.”
                Lucy wanted to pace, filled with nervous buzzing energy. But she didn’t dare in front of this regal creature. “What would you have us do?”
                “I will heal your wounds. And then, as fate precludes, each of you shall clear a threat. Can you accept this fate?”
                So one psycho each. Sounds simple enough. “I’ll do it.”
                Gavin and Adam both responded the same. They would do it.
                Nok bowed his head. “I thank you for your service. You rewards in the world above will be great.”
                Lucy fidgeted nervously again. He was so unbearably polite. It hurt.
                Nok held out his hand, and a rune glowed white-blue on his palm. “I will mark you with power Lucy, Gavin, and Adam. Your qi is thus marked, and thus blessed. May it guide you to your fate.”
                The rune on his palm glowed brighter, and then suddenly Lucy felt a burning in her own hand. She tore off the bandages on her right hand to find the skin healed, and the very same rune burning into her palm. Something coursed through her. It was a current of something strong and foreign, and it rushed through her veins with every beat of her startled heart. When the flow of energy finally stopped, she felt stronger and more awake.
She looked to Gavin and Adam, and to her shock, found the winged man standing and fully healed. His downy wings stretched out as he arched his back and smiled. “I feel great,” he remarked.
“Go now,” Nok said. “We put our trust in you.”
The rune on Lucy’s hand suddenly glowed bright again, and before it blinded her completely, she was able to catch one last glimpse of Gavin and Adam, both looking as surprised as she felt. Then the light consumed her, and she shut her eyes.
When she opened them again, it was dark. The sound of the ocean rushing against the beach met her ears. And then the glimmer of a firelight in the distance. Knowing she was about to encounter one of the two other threats, because Pohl was nowhere near an ocean, she pulled out a dagger. As she tread carefully across the soft sand toward the light, she began to hear voices. One was shrill and angry.
“This isn’t working! Why isn’t this working?” The sound of a slap. “You let that elf freak die, and now what? Open it!”
With a cliff wall on her right, and the ocean to her left, Lucy crept closer to the firelight. She could see people now. One small woman and three larger men, and all standing in front of a cave. Lucy inched closer. The cliffs hid her body. She could clearly see all of them now. It was a piece of cake.
The tiny woman stamped her feet. “DO SOMETHING!”
Lucy readied her knife. Oh, I’m doing something.
From the darkness, her blade glinted through the air. The queen never even saw it coming. A knife right between the eyes. And as the ocean hissed, and the moon illuminated the blood that seeped into the sand, Lucy sighed with real relief for the first time in weeks.

“See you tomorrow, Lucy!” Carla called from her register.
                Lucy smiled, waving at her co-worker. “See you at ten!” Zipping up her jacket against the autumn chill, Lucy walked across the parking lot to where her beat up Mercury waited. The moon was full, and she glanced up at it with a smile. Turning her palm over, she stared at the rune. It always glowed when the moon was full. And it reminded her of peace she had been promised. It had been peaceful and blessed, just as she had been promised.
                At least, for now. 

Okay, so that's it! I'm waiting for the results, and I will post them here as soon as I get them!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tournament Journal Round 3

Okay, so here is round 3! (Remember, I'm just catching you up from the last 8 weeks or so!) Round 3 ended up being very interesting, and I liked the story that came out of it. This round would determine the very last 3 finalists, who would go head-to-head to finish off the story and hopefully become the winner! And in case you missed it here is the Tournament of Secrets blog.

So heretofore, I had been working for a mastermind named DLG (who you later find out is a crime lord's daughter with the nickname Daddy's Little Girl). But in this round, I was given the choice--I could continue to take DLG's commands, or switch over to a new "master." Lucy Finch decided to switch. This is what he told her:

Round 3 Prompt:

 To the agent of the Beast/Queen:

Forgive my bluntness, but you work for the wrong people. I think you know this. There are forces at play that may destroy the world. I want to save it.
I offer you this choice: to circumvent your slave driver, go to the Xuankong Temple in China. Locate the lost Roerich journal. Remain at the temple until I come.


Round 3 Submission 5000 words:

Lucy flattened her back against the brick wall, peering around the corner of a Philadelphia City building and into the dark alley. Red and blue lights flashed in the narrow space, giving just enough light for her to see her father’s body wheeled from a stretcher into the ambulance. His breathing body. She sighed, and her body seemed to concave in immense relief. After retrieving Sif’s hair, the vial of liquid her blackmailing employer had given her really had brought her father back to life.
But it didn’t end there. Of course not. Lucy pushed off the brick wall, and slowly pulled the other card from her pocket. Another assignment, and this one more detailed, more urgent. Something entirely out of her control was going on here, and she didn’t like it. Especially if her family was in the middle of this supernatural hurricane.
As she contemplated the message and instructions, she nearly ran into a tall stranger, stopping just in front of the buttons on his double-breasted, white jacket. Looking up to apologize, she found a pair of blue eyes under a white fedora considering her.
“Sorry,” she muttered, stepping to the side.
He stepped with her. “Lucy Finch?”
Lucy felt a sinking dread, and backed up a step. “Yes?”
The man slid a hand to the inside breast pocket of his jacket, and produced an envelope. He handed it to her between two fingers. “You have nothing to fear from me. Just read it.”
And then he was gone, walking briskly past her as she held the envelope with a dumbfounded expression on her face. Where were all these mysterious men coming from? Did they get a degree for this or what?
She slid her forefinger under the envelope to open it, and read the message:

Forgive my bluntness, but you work for the wrong people. I think you know this. There                                are forces at play that may destroy the world. I want to save it. I offer you this choice: to                  circumvent your slave driver, go to the Xuankong Temple in China. Locate the lost                                 Roerich journal. Remain at the temple until I come.

Lucy tilted her head back, sighing loudly in frustration. Great. So, what, she was a pawn in a power struggle now? If she chose the wrong side, she could end up hurting her family more than she already had. Realistically, she could die either way.

As a car passed her on the road, the headlights passed over the lampposts and benches, sliding shadows over the cement sidewalk. The muffler banged, and Lucy jumped. Her heart sped up suddenly, and she stopped to lean against the lamppost, breathing deeply and trying to banish the image conjured to her mind. Rebecca standing on the ship with wide, brown eyes, her pixie hair all askew.


Lucy fisted her hands at her sides. Frank had shot her. Just like that. No real explanations, and no apologies. Her little lifeless body thrown into the still ocean.

Pushing away from the lamppost, Lucy tried to make her shaking legs go onward and back to her hotel room. Those people had killed Rebecca. They had killed Lucy’s father and held her family hostage. She looked at the simple white paper from the man in the hat, and made her decision. Some might see this new player as a risk, but she saw something else entirely.


In the airport she did research. Her previous employer—Poison, as she liked to call them, based on the poison green ink they so preferred—still wouldn’t suspect she had jumped ship. So the credit card worked for now, anyway, and so did her smartphone. As she waited for a flight to Beijing, she did research on her phone. There was no such thing as a Roerich journal, and the name was quite rare. Out of the two famous Roerichs, one Nicholas Roerich seemed like a likely candidate. He had explored parts of Mongolia and China, but he was primarily an artist. It didn’t seem to match.

Still unsure about what this HHP might want from her, Lucy decided to take a visit to Xuangkong Temple. That, at least, was easy enough to locate. It was likely that Poison would figure out she had gone rogue pretty quickly. She was unable to relax the entire flight to Beijing.

She arrived in the early morning, eyes aching and mouth gritty from awkward, unsatisfying sleep on the airplane. She had a small, rolling suitcase, and her brown backpack with the necessities she expected she might need on a trip like this. She stopped in the bathroom to unpack her knives and weapons from her suitcase, stowing a knife in each boot, four flat throwing knives on a belt that hid nicely under her button-down, pink plaid shirt, and her trusty flip-out knife in the back pocket of her jeans.

When she reached the front desk for car rentals, her credit card refused to work. The Chinese employee gave her an apologetic look, and in stilted English said, “Broken, ma’am. It is broken.”

Lucy nodded, resigned. She figured as much. She had taken out as much cash from her own bank account as she could, and quickly exchanged it for yuan. A bus would be cheaper, if she could swing it.

It made her head ache trying to find someone who could help her go in the right direction, but since her phone was still working for the moment, she figured out a bus route to Hunyuan, and from there she would take a taxi. She got a cheap motel room in Hunyuan with questionable bedding and grody looking toilets, and chanced leaving her bulky suitcase with clothing and toiletries in the room, and then flagged down a taxi.
The driver wore a baseball cap over his thick, black hair, and spoke in Chinese first before she said she was American. Then he laughed, nodded several times, and said, “Oh, yes! America USA. I speak English.” The sentence was almost unintelligible, but she had to give him credit. He knew more English than she knew Chinese, at least.

The Chinese countryside was breathtaking. There were tall, snow-capped mountains on every side, and as they passed by lush green trees and tall canyon ridges, Lucy couldn’t help but think this place was the marriage of every natural beauty in America, slapped into a remote paradise she never dreamed of visiting.
The rocks got redder and lighter, and they traveled deeper into the mountains, until finally the taxi stopped before a towering cliff wall. Lucy gaped. Impossibly, there was an entire temple stuck to the side of that sky-high cliff wall. It was like someone had taken an ancient, delicate Chinese temple all red and brown and black and gold, folded up some giant duct tape on the back and just smacked it on there.

The taxi had stopped on the road that ran alongside a green field just before the steps to the temple. Still in awe, Lucy handed the driver the necessary yuan, but before he took it, he asked. “Passport?”

Lucy wasn’t sure why she needed to show her passport, but it was better not to fool around with rules in a country she didn’t understand. She produced the passport, and after the man had looked at it, he nodded. “Lucy Finch,” he said, still nodding.

“Yeah,” she said, distractedly holding out her left hand for her passport while still staring at the architectural miracle before her.

His hand caught her wrist in a crushing hold. “Sorry,” he said.

Lucy met his brown eyes with her own shocked, blue ones. He twisted his hand, and she felt her  bones creak with the motion. Crying out in agony, she tried to pull away, but he had her in a firm grasp. A needle glinted in the sunlight, and Lucy’s mind sprung into action. Poison had found her already?

She grabbed a knife from her hip, and then swiftly plunged it into the man’s exposed forearm. He gasped, releasing her arm and clutching the gushing wound. Lucy bolted from the car and onto the soft dirt path that led to the Xuankong Temple stairs. Her boots slapped against the ground as she sprinted, but she didn’t hear anyone following her.

Four figures walked lazily from the bushes on either side of the path ahead of her. They all wore black masks covering the bottom of their faces. All four were Chinese, and all four looked toned and lithe as they stood in a line to block her escape.

Lucy skidded to a halt just before them. It was possible her paranoia was misreading the situation, but this looked a lot like four ninja assassins sent to dispatch her AWOL self. She still had her throwing knife gripped in her right hand, and she aimed it at the middle man’s torso. It embedded just as she had expected it to, and she briefly hoped for his sake she had not hit anything really vital. But that was all the time she had for thinking.

As soon as she had thrown her knife, all three remaining men pulled guns on her. Three shots fired, piercing the still air, defiling the sacred silence that lay heavy over the space.

Lucy dropped to her knees, staring in horror at her right hand. Only one of the bullets had found their mark: her hand. They were sent to incapacitate her instead of killing her. Blood dripped from her limp hand onto the dirt below her. The dry earth soaked up her blood like a hungry sponge.

Breathing heavily through the lighting bolts of pain that traveled from her hand up her arm, Lucy glared at the advancing three men. “Ninjas,” she muttered. “I thought you were ninjas.” Stupid, Lucy. This isn’t a Jackie Chan movie.

One of the men pulled her roughly to her feet, taking her chin between his fingers. He said something in Chinese, and she stifled a cry of pain as they jostled her back down the path toward the taxi.

Suddenly one of her captors grunted, and Lucy swiveled her head around to see a flash of red hair before another masked man fell to the ground. A young man, certainly no older than a teenager, wrenched her from the gasp of the final attacker, and Lucy looked back to see a tall, brown-haired, muscular man in a black t-shirt konk the would-be ninja on the back of the head with his glock.

“You okay?” the boy asked.

Lucy stared at him in surprise. “I…I uh…”

“We should get her to Cassian,” the hulk said in a low voice. “She’s bleeding.”

The boy looked down at her hand, his green eyes wide. “So she is.”

Lucy cradled her injured hand, trembling with fear, adrenaline, pain, and shock. She stared at the slumped figures on the ground around her.

The teenage boy jerked his head toward the temple stairs. “We know someone who can fix your hand. You ran from the controlling mastermind, right?”

“Uh…I mean…”

“Talk and walk at the same time,” the large, brown-haired man suggested.

The teenager gave her a tentative, gentle push toward the stairs. “He’s probably right. I’m Jeff.”

“Lucy,” she answered almost automatically. Her feet stumbled forward, avoiding the bodies of her attackers.

“Welcome to superheroes anonymous,” Jeff grinned.

Lucy blinked in confusion.

Jeff cleared his throat, expression sobering. “Kidding. I’m kidding.”

“Oh,” Lucy said. Her head felt fuzzy. Reality seemed far away.

“She won’t make it up the steps,” the other man said. “I’ll bring him here.”

Jeff guided her to the side of the path, and helped Lucy sit in the grass. For the first time, Lucy realized there weren’t any other tourists around, and that everything was quiet. The young man ruffled his hair, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “How you doing, Lucy?”

“Who are you?” Lucy asked.

“Jeff.” He squinted his eyes at her. “I said that already.”

“I mean what are you doing here?”

“Oh.” The boy chuckled sheepishly. “The same reason you are, right? A man in a swanky white hat gave you another way out of this mess. Gavin and Cassian have been taking orders from him from the start, or so they tell me.”

Lucy pondered that the best she could around the screaming pain in her hand. Her head started to throb. Blood dripped steadily down her arm and onto the ground. Jeff knelt down in front of her, eyes unsure and worried. “You’re going to lose too much blood. Do you have anything to wrap your hand with?”

“In my backpack. I have some…bandaids.”

Jeff tugged his mouth to the side, glancing at her hand. “That’s cute, but I don’t think they’re going to help much.”

Footsteps pounded down the path toward them, and the tall brown-haired man who looked like he belonged in Seal Team Six returned with an older man beside him. The older man replaced Jeff, kneeling in front of her and smiling with an easy confidence. “Hi, Lucy. I’m Cassian.”

“Hi,” Lucy said. Her voice sounded strangled.

Cassian had streaks of gray at his temples, breaking up the light brown, short hair on his head. He glanced down at her hand. “I’m a doctor. Can I take a look?”

“Sure.” She held up a shaking, blood-stained hand.

Cassian took it gently, twisting it slightly to get a good look at it. “You were fortunate I think,” he murmured.
“It only glanced your hand just below your pinky here. I can stitch it up and give you something to help you heal faster.”

Lucy watched him take off his backpack and pull out a medical kit. “Thank you.”

He gave her a quick smile before uncapping a syringe. “This is what I do.”

Lucy recoiled at the syringe. Was this another trick?

“We’re on the same side,” he assured her. His warm, brown eyes were so comforting. Lucy dearly wanted to believe him.

Jeff spoke up from behind the doctor. “Seriously, we were all sent here by the white fedora guy. And I helped beat up your ninjas.”

“Also, I know what the Roerich journal is,” Cassian said as he disinfected a spot on her hand near the injury. As he numbed the wounded area with the medicine in the syringe, and prepped her hand for stitches, Cassian talked. “I knew as soon as I read the card what this HHP fellow wanted. It is not widely known that Nicholas Roerich kept a journal during his expedition to China. He was commissioned by the U.S. to find certain resilient seeds and herbs. But he found something else along the way.”

Lucy listened, keeping her eyes on Cassian’s bent head rather than on the pinching and pulling of her injured hand as he worked on it.

“Ever heard of yarrow?” Cassian asked.

“No,” Lucy said.

“It’s an herb, common here in China, and used in a variety of ways from antibacterial for cuts to an insect repellant. Nicholas found a variation of this herb that is very rare, and a closely guarded secret of Buddhist monks. It is my belief that HHP wants the journal to find this herb. It has certain practical uses HHP might find useful.”

“Let me tell this part,” Jeff said suddenly. Lucy looked up at him, and he sat down in the dirt next to Cassian. “They also use yarrow in I Ching predictions.”

Lucy frowned. “What are those?”

“They bring clarity to the present,” Cassian explained. “Rather than telling the future, they reveal what is already before us.”

“Deep,” Lucy mused.

“Right?” Jeff laughed.

“The supernatural properties of the Swan Yarrow, or Tiān’é yà luō as Nicholas labeled it, are likely connected to this ability to clarify the present.” Cassian finished the stitches, wrapped her hand in gauze, and then handed her a vial of clear liquid. “Drink this, and your wound should heal quickly.”

Lucy drank the small mouthful of herby-tasting stuff, and immediately feeling a little better, stood with Cassian. “Thank you.” She looked to Jeff and the other man. “To both of you.”

“No problem,” Jeff smiled.

The tall man nodded, “My name is Gavin.”

“Gavin,” she gave him a half smile. “Thanks, Gavin.”

“So are we all here?” Jeff asked. “Any other rogues coming to join the party?”

Cassian smirked as he packed up his supplies. “Doubtful. Lucy was the last of us. It’s a good thing, too. They would have hauled you into that car in a minute if we had not already arrived.”

Lucy chewed on the inside of her cheek, feeling her face heat. “They had guns.”

“So do I,” Gavin said.

“So now you’re on even ground,” Jeff grinned. “I have a sword, if it counts for anything.”

Lucy looked at the three men standing before her. “You’re really going to help me?”

“We’re all working for HHP now,” Jeff said. “It’s best if we stick together, don’t you think?”

It’s funny, Lucy thought, looking at the freckle-faced youth standing confidently before her with his arms folded and stance relaxed. He’s the youngest, but I get the impression that he’s taken on a leadership role.

 Cassian motioned toward the temple. “Are you up for a climb?”

“Is the journal up there?”

Cassian shrugged. “From what I can gather, it must be. The two have never been directly linked, but if HHP asked us to go here, I must assume it is.”

“Why can’t they just tell us?” Lucy muttered. “I feel like I’m on an epic scavenger hunt.”

Jeff laughed.

As they made their way up the stone steps toward the temple, droplets of sweat trickled down Lucy’s neck, and the throbbing in her hand became almost unbearable. She gritted her teeth and tried to ignore it, but it was making her nauseous. No matter how she turned her head, she thought she smelled blood.
When they finally reached the temple, Lucy leaned against the stone wall, and with shaking hands, fumbled with her backpack to find a water bottle. Her left hand still ached from being twisted, and her right one was more or less useless.

Gavin handed her a water bottle.

Lucy took it gratefully, and after a few gulps handed it back. “Thanks.”

He nodded. “It’s a steep climb.”

I must look completely useless, Lucy thought morosely.

They entered the temple, which was like going through a side door to traverse the long grouping of tiered Asian-style structures. The floor boards creaked under their feet, and the wind whistled through the open balconies to their right. It was such a vast structure; Lucy wondered where they could possibly look for this journal that no one would have looked before.

They began to search the room, sliding open doors and inspecting walls. Lucy wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking for. Cassian seemed to know more than she did—he looked, but appeared to have a direction. When they came near the middle of the temple, a statue of Buddha took up the majority of a small, square balcony. It looked like a shrine, and above buddha’s head, a golden, serpentine dragon snaked in complex patterns to frame the top of the statue.

Cassian stopped before the statue. “Naga,” he said, a slight smile lifting his lips. “I thought as much.”
Jeffery cocked his head at the statue. “I thought this was Buddha.”

“But above Buddha,” Cassian said. “That is Naga. It is an ancient Chinese dragon meant to protect.”

Lucy came to stand on Cassian’s other side. “Is this Naga guarding the journal, then?”

“Possibly. We will see.” Cassian rubbed his jaw. “Naga will require a sacrifice before coming to life.”

Lucy took a step away from Cassian.

“What kind of sacrifice?” Gavin asked from behind.

Cassian seemed to consider. “Usually a blood sacrifice.” He turned to Lucy. She reached with her left hand for the knife in her back pocket. But Cassian was staring at her blood-stained bandage. “Your blood has already been spilled. Naga may accept it.”

“It wants my dirty bandages?”

“If more is needed, we will rethink.”

“Okay,” Lucy said, a little uncertain. She clumsily began to undo the bandages.

“I’ll do it,” Jeff said. “Give me your hand, Lucy.”

Lucy held out her hand, and carefully, Jeff began to unwind the bloody gauze.

Cassian took the soiled bandages from Jeff, and handed him a roll of fresh ones for Jeff to replace on her wound. As Cassian stepped up to the statue, he explained, “Lucy already shed blood on temple grounds. It would all go to Naga anyway. Naga will be thirsty for blood, so this small amount may suffice if we are lucky.”

Jeff began to gently rewind the gauze around Lucy’s hand, and Lucy watched Cassian in fascination. The doctor held the bloody gauze in front of Naga’s head. The head lashed into life suddenly, clamping its rectangular, golden jaws around the bandage and gobbling it up as the rest of its body slithered and inflated into life.

Lucy stumbled away from it, her hand tearing away from Jeff’s.

Naga ate the rest of the bandages, slurping them up like hot ramen, and then the serpentine dragon began to unwind from its formation, hovering forward to peer at Cassian, who still stood before it. Naga spoke in a man’s higher-pitched voice. “Nǐ xiǎng gànshénme?”

Cassian bowed his head. “Wǒmen jiǎng yīngyǔ.”

“English,” Naga said. “I see.”

“We seek a journal,” Cassian said.

“There are many things worth seeking here,” Naga said.

“Among them the journal,” Cassian responded. “Where is it?”

Naga licked its lips with a golden, forked tongue. “Why should I tell?”

“It’s lying,” Gavin said suddenly. Everyone turned to stare at him, and Gavin nodded his head toward the dragon. “It said there were many things to find here, but it’s lying.”

“Aaahhhh,” Naga sighed, slinking forward and unwinding its body more so it floated over the balcony to peer into Gavin’s face. “A truth seeker.”

“You know where the journal is, but you don’t want to tell.”

“Yessss,” the dragon hissed. “True.”

“But you’re also hungry.”

The dragon sighed again, turning its head this time toward Lucy. “Yessss.”

Lucy cringed, and Jeff subtly shifted his weight in front of her.

“Play a game with us then,” Gavin suggested.

A ripple shuddered through Naga as it made an appreciative sound. “A game. Yes, a game. Let us play.” Naga slinked back into its original position above the Buddha, and then the ground rumbled, and the statue began to shift. It scraped back across the floor, and rising from the spot the statue had once rested, two basins ground to a halt. They were wide and shallow, rested on a silver altar, and one of them burned with hot coals. The other shimmered with cool, glassy water.

Naga slithered out once more, this time hovering over Lucy. “Answer my riddle,” Naga whispered, striking down suddenly to wrap around Lucy’s neck. “Before I drain her blood. Then will you find the journal.”
Jeff made a gargled noise of protest, and Cassian took a half step forward, arm outreached.

Naga wrapped further around Lucy, pinning her arms at her sides and nuzzling its flat, dragon nose against her neck. “When I finish delivering the riddle, you have until the blood drains from her body.” Jeff looked as though he would protest, but Naga continued ruthlessly on. “This is the riddle: Which is faster, hot or cold?” Then the dragon clamped onto Lucy’s neck.

Lucy whimpered, feeling the cold, golden teeth digging into her flesh. A horrible pressure pulled at the site, and she could feel her limbs go numb. Naga gulped greedily.

Cassian stared at the bowls. “We need to put our hands in one of these.”

“What kind of stupid riddle is that?” Jeff demanded. “How much time do we have?”

“Not long,” Cassian said, shooting a concerned glance toward Lucy. “Naga is draining fast. No more than a minute before she begins to have ill effects.”

Lucy clamped her teeth together, trying to ignore the pulsing pain as Naga sucked, and pulled, and sucked, and pulled. Her face went slack. Her knees started to tremble.

The three men were silent for a time, and Lucy went over the riddle in her own head. Which was faster? It was faster to heat something than freeze it. But that didn’t seem right. This was a riddle; the answer would be clever, or a pun.

Black dots sprinkled into Lucy’s vision. Naga slurped noisily, and swallow after swallow, Lucy lost more blood. Her knees buckled, and she went limp in Naga’s grasp.

Jeff cursed, pacing. “I can’t think. She’s dying, we have to do something.”

Suddenly Gavin crossed the floor in two strides, plunging his hand into the hot embers. “Hot is faster because you can catch a cold.”

Naga released her hold with a giant sucking sound.

As Lucy crumpled to the ground, her vision blurry, she heard Naga laugh a creepy, high-pitched man’s laugh. “Very good, truth seeker. Very good.”

“Lucy!” Jeff put an arm under her shoulders, lifting her torso up. “Lucy, you okay?”

“Did he get it?” She asked. “Did he find the journal?”

Gavin waved his hand around, shaking off hot embers that apparently had caused him no harm. In his hand he held an old, worn-looking journal. “Got it.”

Naga licked blood off its gleaming metallic teeth. “Thank you for the meal.” Then it solidified back into its inanimate form.

Cassian knelt before Lucy, dark brows knit together. “She’ll need a transfusion soon. Until then I have a few things to give her strength.”

Gavin knelt down as well, still holding the journal. “I am sorry Lucy. I knew it might do that, and I did it anyway. Sorry.”

Lucy shrugged, going for nonchalance. “It had to be done.” In reality, she felt like she might melt into the floorboards and lose all solid form from her trembling body. Lucy Pudding.

One pair of hands clapped slowly, lazily.

Everyone turned to see the figure of a man, face shrouded under the shadow of a white fedora. He climbed the last steps to the balcony, and then stood before them with arms folded. “Such a brave sacrifice from our little Lucy.”

“It’s only a sacrifice if you offer,” Lucy croaked.

The man chuckled. “But it was done with bravado. And you’ve all found what I wanted.”

Cassian regarded the man with a wary expression on his face. “We want answers before we hand anything else over.”

“Of course,” the man agreed with a nod. “You would.” He had a lean build, this man, but from his distance, and the shadow of his hat, Lucy had a hard time telling what age he was. “But I can’t tell you everything you want to know. Not yet.”

“Then forget it,” Jeff said.

Even without seeing his eyes, Lucy knew HHP had fixated a glare on Jeff. “Unfortunately, you have little choice.”

Pounding up the stairs from in front and behind, two dozen thuggish men in black tactical gear seemed to come from nowhere, and trained guns on all four of them.

“I really am sorry,” HHP said, tipping his hat. “I hate to do it this way, but I saw no other alternative.”
And then chaos erupted.

Jeff drew a long, slick sword, and bending low, went for the assailant’s legs. Gavin had two guns in his hands in a flash, and took out four men before Lucy could even blink. Cassian disarmed two men at once, and her new friends melted into the fray so seamlessly, it was as if the guns had never been trained on them at all.
Gathering what little strength she had left, Lucy used her left hand to pull out a throwing knife. Instead of aiming it at the soldier who had a gun trained on her head, she took a chance and launched it at HHP’s retreating back. He ducked at the last second, but it still embedded in his shoulder.

The black-clad soldier near her smacked the butt of his gun into her temple, and Lucy saw fireworks explode in her vision. Someone must have taken the guy out, because when she blinked the stars away, the soldier was gone, and several more had fallen to the ground.

She struggled to regain her footing, and grabbing another flat throwing knife, took out another enemy about to go after Cassian from behind. An arm wrapped around her throat, but she was ready for it. She stabbed the man’s hand, and then twisted so she could plant the knife in the juncture between his right arm and neck. He went down with a groan of pain.

One knife left. Lucy looked around, and her eye caught a white fedora discarded on the ground. The staggering form of HHP’s retreating back stilled the chaos around her. Somehow he had gotten the book from Gavin. Her three comrades were locked in combat, and even if they did notice it, they couldn’t get to him.

Gathering up prayers and energy, Lucy threaded through the chaos, her petite body for once an advantage. She nearly tumbled down the steps, and running heavily after HHP, she leveled her last knife.
It slammed into the book, wrenching it from HHP, and thunking the journal against a nearby post. HHP was thrown to the ground from the force, and clutched his bleeding hand as Lucy sprinted with the last reserves of her strength toward the book.

She plucked it from the post, yanked the knife from the cover of the journal, and tossed the knife expertly over HHP as he crouched on the ground. She met his piercing blue eyes. “I want answers.”

Results: I passed round 3 and became one of the final 3! Also, my story was canon again, which was pretty awesome. In the last round Lucy Finch would go against Gavin Birk and Adam Aitas. I have submitted my final piece (which I will put up soon!) and now I am waiting on the final results!