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!

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