New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

September 25, 2009

Breaking Free: Through Hell Or High Water

After Dr. Michaels' scathing comments, Mark had decided to stay away from everyone. He was scowling at everyone too, as if he blamed the rest of us for what had happened. I didn't completely agree with Dr. Michaels' assertion that it was Mark's fault, but there was no arguing that he'd been careless in his movements and I wasn't going to complain if he was going to hang back. I probably should have taken a moment to reassure them that I didn't blame him for anything, but under the circumstances it felt too awkward. He would just have to suck it up and get over it on his own.

While Tom and Kyra cleaned and bandaged Dr. Michaels' wounds I stood at the edge of the water staring deep into the room. In the distance I could hear the roar of water still spraying into the room, but once the trench had filled to the top the water level hadn't rose any farther. It was rather a curiosity where the water was going and at just the right rate to keep the water level constant where it was. The mathematics behind such a design was boggling to my mind and yet someone had apparently figured it all out a few thousand years before I was even born. The perspective was intimidating when considering this was only the first test those great minds had left behind for us.

Walking along beside the water I kept thinking about the amazing artifacts that were now buried in pieces. My heart ached at the thought of what was lost, like watching a perfect flower wilt and die, there was nothing I could do to bring it all back. Intact the find might well have rocked the archeological world, but in pieces at the bottom of a water-filled trench, no one would ever believe what we had seen.

"It is indeed a shame." Dr. Michaels said.

His eyes followed mine into the water next to us and he had obviously read my thoughts as clearly as if I'd said it all aloud. We hadn't started off on the best of terms and there were still a few things about him that made me uncomfortable, but overall I was changing my opinion. He could use a little humility, but then who couldn't in our little group?

"I was just wondering how many times things like this have obscured the world's view of history." I said.

"That is precisely why I always told my students if they want to truly understand history they have to get out in the world and become a part of it. What gets written down in books is lacking the parts of the story that don't fit with the generally accepted views. You might even say that the history written in our textbooks is little better than a fairytale." Dr. Michaels said.

"It doesn't frustrate you that the truth gets left behind in places like this?" I asked.

"When you've done this long enough, you come to understand a few things about the world and one of them is that most people aren't searching for truth, they just want a world where they still feel safe when they go to bed at night." Dr. Michaels said.

"And learning that repeating crossbows and terracotta soldiers were around a few hundred years before they'd otherwise thought would make it harder to sleep?" I asked.

I was skeptical and it came through in my tone. There were amazing things we had seen inside of this pyramid but there was nothing all the frightening about it, now that the arrows and flames had stopped shooting out, at least. To me it was intriguing to think about the intelligence so very obvious in the designs of this place. In some ways they might have been smarter than us, which was what seemed the most important discovery to me.

"By themselves, no. Repeating crossbows have a long history in the world and no one no for certain just when there were invented or by whom. Terracotta soldiers are new enough to the world's understanding of Chinese history that an earlier existence wouldn't significantly change anyone's opinions. Of course, the world's understanding of the significance of these things is skewed but nothing found here would change any of that." Dr. Michaels said.

"I don't understand." I said.

"The common theory on terracotta soldiers is they were created as protectors for the afterlife." Dr. Michaels said.

"Right." I said.

"Not true. In cultural context, the Chinese once believed they were created by the goddess, Nüwa. She sculpted the first man and woman from clay and Fu Xi gave her creations souls bringing them to life." Dr. Michaels said.

"Isn't this supposed to be Fu Xi's vault?" I asked.

"Correct. Nüwa was his wife or sister in the mythology, possibly both." Dr. Michaels said.

"Okay. I'm not sure I follow how this would influence the significance of the soldiers." I said.

"It's rather simple. The terracotta soldiers are not meant as protectors in an afterlife but rather as protectors from this world. The clay forms would be seen as vessels capable of allowing spirits to enter them and use them as needed to protect their sanctuaries from intruders of the mortal world. In fact, the Chinese belief in an afterlife at this early stage of development is disputed at best. Most indications reflect if they did believe in one at all it was a place of perfect peace and balance. Such a place would have no need of protectors." Dr. Michaels said.

"Why would they need protectors from this world?" I asked.

"They wouldn't but the things they left behind might." Dr. Michaels said.

Our conversation had taken us to the far end of the room. What had appeared as an archway into another chamber was actually an opening into a cave of sorts. The problem was it was a straight drop down of at least a 100 feet. Watching the water fall over the edge and rain down into a dimly lit pool far below, I finally had my answer as to where the water was going.

"How are we supposed to get down there?" Kyra asked.

She was standing at the edge, looking straight down. Her voice was quiet enough it was almost lost in the roar of the falling water. Rather than answering her undoubtedly rhetorical question, I started looking around the edge for any sign of where we were supposed to go next. The thought occurred to me that it was entirely possibly I had eliminated the way down when I'd filled the trench with water. The builders might have concluded if you weren't smart enough to avoid the obvious trap, you weren't smart enough to go any farther.

"Over here." Tom said.

I turned to find him kneeling down near Kyra at the edge. All of circled in around him to see what he was looking at and discovered he had found a stone on the floor with an etching very similar to the one we'd seen on the door entering this room. It was in fantastic condition, as if it had been carved only yesterday. Dr. Michaels knelt down next to Tom and began tracing it out.

"This is the second test." Dr. Michaels said.

I knelt down next to him and studied it for myself. The depiction was clearly of a waterfall with the symbol for water in the midst of the fall. At the top the symbol for earth was clearly visible but it was sitting on top of the water which didn't make much sense to me. The rest of depiction was void of symbols for the elements. Either this puzzle was simply about balancing water and earth or someone forgot to give clues about the other elements.

"What do you make of it?" I asked.

"Water offers a quick path. Earth offers a safe path. In balance, a quick and safe path shall be revealed." Dr. Michaels translated.

"That's not much help." Tom said.

"Look around for any stones marked with the symbols for the elements." I said.

Dr. Michaels nodded in agreement. It was a place to start and it seemed logical considering the manner in which the previous solution had been marked. Our captors stayed back and out of the way while we looked around for any sign of what we were supposed to do. I guess none of them found it the least bit concerning that a single mistake by one of my team could get us all killed. Actually that sobering thought made me glad they were just hanging back because I really don't have much faith in them not getting us killed.

I took out my flashlight and aimed into the darkness beyond the end of the water. Call it intuition, but I had a feeling what we were looking for was a little better hidden this time and I wasn't convinced it would be what we were expecting. With all that in mind, I was looking for anything that belonged or didn't belong.

The light illuminated a ceiling of stalagmites in the shadows in front of us. Some of them were so incredibly large they nearly reached the bottom and others had been broken off and recently by the looks of the debris. It probably happened when we opened the door and let out the big bang. The rippled rock and white deposits seemed to suggest this part of the vault was a natural formation which made sense if there were indeed a natural methane pocket nearby, the formation of caves in the vicinity is actually quite common. If that was the case then it was entirely possible that the solution to this particular part of the puzzle might be hidden by centuries of growth in the cave. Further, the vault engineers might well have expected the ignition of the gas occupying the larger chamber would restore the natural cave to a state nearly identical to it's condition at construction, but the evidence before me clearly indicated such an expectation had not been realized.

"V," Mark called. "Take a look at this."

He was pointing up at the ceiling in a spot I hadn't looked yet, directly above the edge of the waterfall. It wasn't a stone but rather a whole where it appeared one might have been a few hundred years ago or maybe even a few hours ago, but it was just an empty whole with straight edges fit for a rectangular block of stone.

"Okay so how do we dial home when the keypad is missing?" I asked.

"What?" Mark asked, looking as confused as if I'd started speaking Chinese and jumping rope all at a moment's notice.

"Figuratively speaking. The stone is missing but does that mean the mechanism it activated is also broken or can we find a way to activate it without the stone? I'm guessing with primitive technology like this, all we need is something to add pressure or move in just the right place." I said.

"You couldn't have just said that in the first place?" Mark said, with a look of way too much annoyance on his face.

"I believe she did." Dr. Michaels said, coming up from behind and startling Mark who had for some reason assumed we were alone.

"So what do you think Doctor?" I asked.

"The activating mechanism is undoubtedly simple enough to be brought to life in a number of ways without the typical accompaniment of a stone, however, I don't believe the stone is actually missing. It is quite likely recessed beyond our field of vision. I believe you mentioned the previous ceiling stone, fell downward eventually but was difficult to actually engage?" Dr. Michaels said.

"Yes. I had to shoot the thing more than a couple of times before anything happened." I said.

"Given this piece of evidence I surmise the reason for your difficulty was the stone had in fact slipped from it's original location and became stuck, perhaps by design in the event of such a circumstance or perhaps by accident, it would be difficult to know for certain. " Dr. Michaels said.

"And here I just thought they weren't designed to be activated by hot lead at high velocities." I said.

"Well that too." Dr. Michaels said with a nice smile as he clearly enjoyed my sense of humor for a change.

"Suggestions?" I asked.

"We could form a human pyramid at the edge of the waterfall and whomever gets to be on top, myself or Kyra, I guess, can reach on up and push the stone." Gina suggested.

I was hoping she was joking but there was an off chance she was actually serious which I found more than a little scary.

"If you can get some of the guards to stack themselves for you, I'd be quite appreciative, not to mention that would be one hell of a sight." Tom said.

"I don't think she'll be changing into a cheerleading uniform for you, Tom." Kyra said, having to add her own two cents in on the idea.

"That's alright, I'll settle for a wet shirt." Tom replied, showing no shame at all.

Gina at least had the decency to blush over the suggestion, but I wasn't beyond noticing that all the guys were conveniently not looking at my own soaked to the skin shirt. I cleared my throat and rang a little more water out of my shirt just to see if I could embarrass Tom in the slightest. Obviously such a feat was impossible because instead of pink cheeks or red ears, I got a half-cocked head pointed in my direct accompanied by a raised eyebrow and highly suggestive eyes staring noticeably lower than my throat and higher than my bellybutton.

"Dirty old man." I said shaking my head.

"Hey, watch who you called old." Tom replied.

Mark was visibly perturbed over the display, humor and our general manner of handling the situation. If we'd been afforded any privacy I would have pulled him aside and told him to lighten up, but such was not the case and so it remained unsaid. His frown grew and the distance between him and me was getting longer by the second even if we were standing toe to toe.

"You guys do realize they have guns on us and probably intend on killing us if you don't figure this puzzle out?" Mark said.

"Well I'm sure you're on the top of their list to eliminate after you managed to get several of their friends killed on the last puzzle." Tom said.

"Don't listen to him. They need us alive so they won't be killing any of us until we get them to what they want." Gina said.

"I'd think you of all people would be congratulating me on that, considering it slimmed their numbers and means we have a better chance of fighting our way out than we did before." Mark said, ignoring Gina and not Tom.

"I usually find it's better not to piss someone off before you kill them, but hey that's just how I do things." Tom replied.

"I'm sorry I'm not usually in the business of offing people. I'll try to remember there is an etiquette to it next time." Mark replied.

"Play nice boys. We really don't need to wear ourselves out on bickering before we get a real chance to do something about our situation." I said.

"Sorry V. I just want us to focus on getting through this rather than wasting time." Mark said.

"You're right. We need to figure this out or we'll never make it out of here." I said.

Mark seemed pleased by the concession while Tom rolled his eyes and behind Mark's back and pretended to blow his brains out with a lethal index finger. I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing and Tom knew it.

"Alright, any ideas that stretch into the plausible and don't involve any of Tom's deranged fantasies?" I asked.

"Think like a China man." Dr. Michaels suggested.

"Sales or warranty?" Kyra asked.

"Neither, my dear. I was speaking of the primitive civilization which was highly adaptive to its environment and recognized tools in the common items found within that environment." Dr. Michaels said.

"Like filtering gas with water." I said.

"Precisely." Dr. Michaels said. "What would they have used to reach up into a whole in the ceiling?"

"Wait, wouldn't the purpose of the stones be to push against something?" I asked.

"Yes, that is the typical way of activating their purpose." Dr. Michaels said.

"Now if I recall my basic science correctly, does heat typically cause things like concrete, rocks, bricks, etcetera to expand?" I said.

"Yes, that would be accurate in most circumstances. What are you thinking?" Dr. Michaels asked.

"Anybody have a match?" I asked.

"A simple match will not provide the necessary heat for such a drastic expansion." Dr. Michaels stated.

"Of course not, but this place is sitting on top of source for natural gas and unless I've missed my guess, there is probably some sort of a vent up there that will allow a gas ignition something like the spikes that used to line the walkway we are standing on. It would act like a burner, torch, whatever you want to call it but if it does then that stone is going to get real hot, real fast." I said.

"An interesting theory. If I had a match it would be well worth it to see if you are correct." Dr. Michaels said.

I looked around but no one was offering anything up. That was when my eyes found the torches hanging on the walls and lighting our way all through the room and the tunnels prior. They would definitely serve the purpose and there was even one conveniently located only a few steps away and the best thing about them over a match was they wouldn't be snuffed out by the wind when they were thrown. I crossed the distance quickly and removed the torch from its holder on the wall. Dr. Michaels nodded at me as if he'd been waiting for me to figure it out ever since I asked for a match, which was entirely possible knowing his personality.

It was a relatively simple manner to toss the torch into the opening and I even managed it on the first try and sure enough a flame burst out of the hole and continued to burn even after the torch had crashed back down into the water and drifted right over the edge of the fall as its once burning surface smoked from the fire's life being snuffed out by the flowing water.

Less than a minute later the marked stone dropped through the opening in the ceiling and sank into the water with a mild splash. I wasn't sure what to expect and if I'd tried to guess I would have been dead wrong. There was a noise like a rock slide coming from somewhere beneath us and then without any real warning the waterfall moved backward from its former edge at least fifty feet. Where the water had once been covering there was now a wide open space with a switchback staircase, draining off the last remnants of water.

"A fast and safe way down." Dr. Michaels said.

The staircase was slippery but manageable as long as one took their time and watched their footing. We descended in a single file line with me leading the way and our guards bringing up the rear, leaving plenty of room between us and them. I was surprised that in the end, there hadn't even been a single slip by anyone on the descent.

At the bottom there were three obvious ways to go which felt wrong to me in terms of what I understood of the philosophy of balance. One tunnel led directly away from the waterfall and then on each side of that a tunnel ran perpendicular to the waterfall. Each tunnel was marked with a symbol of an element and the symbol missing was water. Nothing about the other tunnels felt right in my gut but asked to explain the feeling all I could muster up was nonsense about intuition.

"Which way?" Tom asked.

"Earth would seem logical." Mark suggested.

"Wind seems more likely to me." Kyra said.

They were all looking at me for direction or approval but I had neither to give.

"So far we've been following water and I think we should keep doing that." I said.

"But there isn't a passage for water." Dr. Michaels said.

I turned around and looked at the waterfall. It made sense in many ways to me, but explaining that logic when it was more gut than brain was beyond me. Instead I simply walked toward the water. Leaders don't really need to explain themselves, do they?

When I stopped directly in front of the waterfall I knew I was right. As the water crashed down, if you looked just right you could see a flickering light split into a rainbow through the water, an effect very similar to the water fountain in Quondam's lobby back in Los Angeles. The coincidence was not lost on me, but I filed it away for future thoughts because it was not the time or the place.

I stepped through the waterfall and found exactly what I expected, a tunnel lit by torches leading deeper into the vault. The others followed me after a moment and each one of them wore an expression of surprise as they discovered the hidden tunnel I had somehow known was there. It was almost like a memory but more like I'd been there before in a dream, but whatever was guiding me, I decided to trust it for the time being.

I walked on and the others followed. The tunnel wound a gentle downward slope in what seemed to be a spiral with the point of the topside pyramid undoubtedly at its center. When we finally reached a turn where the tunnel's path flattened, I realized we were approaching the place where everything could change, where, if we were lucky, we could finally turn the tables and escape our captors with our lives and quite possibly, their precious crystal as a souvenir.

The light of the wall torches conveniently left the stone in darkness. Our captors were oblivious to what was about to happen with the possible exception of their leader. He was watching me very carefully and, although I could prove nothing, I was fairly certain he suspected something was about to happen. It was probably the girl's fault. She should have remained hidden until it was done, but I guess she doesn't trust me any more than I trust her.

The leader could see and hear her and so when she reappeared for me, she merely gave me a look to say that it was time. She could have uttered something aloud but for her own reasons she remained silent, only slipping her small hand into mine as if she were leading me someplace. I noticed the way he looked at her and realized whatever she was, whomever she was, she wasn't part of his plan because his eyes screamed with mistrust and suspicion.

A single glance and nod at Tom and Mark was all they needed to get on board with where we were and what time it was. The others would react as needed but in order to maximize the surprise for our captors we had decided only the three of us would know the whole plan. My nerves were on edge and I was certain everything I was thinking was being telegraphed to the leader, despite my best efforts to contain myself.

As soon as we had entered the tunnel, I recognized it. You might think one rock walled tunnel would look just like any other, but there were subtle variances in color and in particular there were formations within the rock, unique in shape and size. The familiarity was like dejá vu only I had really been there before. Impossible? I guess but I remembered it from my trip with the little girl and it was precisely as I had seen it with her. If we had not been there then the preciseness was just as impossible.

The split in the tunnel was marked by an etched stone. I didn't need Dr. Michaels to translate it in order to know it was the marker indicating the third test. He stepped up to it and traced it out though as if it was important. I moved ahead allowing him to keep the others hanging back because they were paying more attention to him than to me. All except the leader that is. He was watching me and the little girl with me and I noticed, from the corner of my eye, he was following us.

It might have been my imagination but I thought I could see light coming from the upper part of the tunnel to my right. If I were alone with only the leader following me, I might well have tried to run for it. The crystal just didn't matter enough to me to go after it, if I could get out safely without it, but with my companions along, I felt the burden of responsibility to them. Perhaps another person in my shoes might have only looked out for themselves but my conscience would not allow me that luxury. I will lose enough sleep over those who have died already and I didn't even know them.

I stared where I knew the stone to be, hidden within the safety of darkness. The tunnel split to the left and sloped steeply downward, but the stone waited for me on the bottom of the right wall of that tunnel. It would be a simple manner to run, kick the stone and keep going while the vault did its magic. My heart felt like it would explode out of my chest as the weight of the moment settled on my shoulders. The others would have little time to reach the exit, up and off to the right, once I did what I was supposed to do. If they weren't ready, they would never make it and even if they were, a million things could go wrong.

I stopped at the split. The leader was a few steps behind me still but he stopped when I did. My mysterious little girl, glanced at him. She seemed nervous, almost as nervous as I was, and if I could read it in her expressions there was little doubt he was reading it as well. For her, everything depended on my success and up to this point I think she was extremely confident of it, but here in this moment, she must be feeling the crucial crux of the day bearing down upon us. Failure here would be devastating for all of us in one way or another, even our captors.

"Tom." I said, turning around to face him and leaving my back to the tunnel, the stone, and my inevitable future.

He nodded. His eyes said it all. This was the moment we had been waiting for and there was nothing else to say. I could see the remainder of our escort in the tunnel a short distance back from him and the rest of our companions. They were looking bored, but undoubtedly watching things much more closely than they appeared to be doing. It was 101 in the thugs for hire handbook, I'm sure, look dumb and you'll be underestimated. Of course, it works the other way around too.

Tom coughed and everyone looked at him. I spun around and ran for the stone. Surprise was our only advantage and I intended to make the most of it. The fact, even my own companions were surprised, with the exception of Tom and Mark, was a bad thing in so far as what would happen next was unplanned and reactionary, but in terms of success, our chances were significantly better because the guards couldn't be sure whether we were attempting escape or the vault had simply started another one of its puzzles.

I kicked the stone. The stone moved but not without causing my foot a good amount of distress first. I hopped away from the kick wishing I'd come up with a better plan than kicking stone with my foot at a dead run. Next time, if there is a next time, I'll keep that in mind.

The rest followed almost instantly. The walls began to shake and for a moment I wondered if I'd just caused a giant earthquake. As I hopped, I turned just in time to watch the leader roll into the tunnel after me, narrowly missing being crushed by a falling gate. It was made of wood but the shear size of it was a clear indication of its weight and it definitely wasn't light. While there remained visible spacing allowing one to see into the former tunnel, there was no way anyone was getting through it without explosives or a chainsaw.

It had been my hope that I would manage to end up alone on my side of the gate, but I was far from surprised that the leader had managed to follow me in. From the commotion on the other side, I knew Tom was handling the rest of our captors. Naturally, there were risks and it was possible the guards could retake my companions, but even if they did, their only chance still remained the exit at the top of the tunnel to the right. The larger problem was definitely mine. I was far from perfect in physical condition and even if I were, I was far from a real threat to the leader. Even with a weapon I would not be certain I could take him and without one, I was absolutely certain I was outmatched.

If I had thought the situation through, I probably would have ran straight down the tunnel, hoping to evade him in the maze of tunnels awaiting us. Instead, I went with the fight instinct and kicked him in the head while he was still rolling on the ground. Whether using the same foot I'd kicked the stone with was a good idea or a bad one, I'm not sure, but I'm very sure that it hurt like hell. I ended up hopping right over him and leaning up against that gate, trying to restore my balance and figure out whether his head or the stone was harder. Well I probably shouldn't have been worrying about that right then but it did cross my mind.

Looking through the spaces between the posts in the wooden gate, I saw Tom throw two guards against the side of the tunnel wall and then grab one of their guns. If he paused, it was only for a millisecond before he opened up fire on the rest of the guards. Another gate had fallen between my companions and the guards that had been hanging back from them. It was hard to see much of them through the small spaces and darkness but it looked like they were retreating to safety, leaving Tom and the others free to run for the exit.

I had just enough time to think my friends were going to be alright before my attention was refocused to the leader of our former captors. He had rolled a good ways down the tunnel before managing to recover and get back on his feet. Now that he was walking again, he was looking about as dangerous as a rattlesnake in a rat race. I'm sure you can figure out who is looking like the rat.

As if his barred teeth weren't frightening enough, he pulled out his knife and pointed it in my general direction. I decided it was better to look anywhere other than at him and told myself I was looking around for something to use as a weapon. It sounded braver and would make for a better story to tell later, if I manage to get out of this mess. Unfortunately the only thing I could find was dirt and last time I checked, dirt isn't lethal unless you ingest large quantities of it or get buried underneath enough of it. I'm pretty sure he wasn't about to stand still long enough for me to bury him and the only meal he seemed interested in was me.

With no better ideas, I started kicking up a dust storm and then started wondering why I was continuing to kick things when my foot already felt like a baseball bat with sensitivity issues. I promised it a pedicure as soon as we got home, if it could just somehow manage to get us there. Apparently enticed by my shameless bribery, my foot redoubled its efforts and sent up a cloud dirty dust so thick it actually forced him to close his mouth, putting away at least one weapon, and even close his eyes for a moment.

It was time to take advantage of an off balance opponent and I didn't hesitate. A hop, skip, and a hard kick to the shins was just what the doctor ordered. Okay, so it wasn't the doctor's orders but my foot had gone numb enough that it felt good, especially when he sputtered and nearly fell forward immediately after contact. If his shin had been a football, that punt would have scored.

Half falling, half lunging, he thrust his knife forward toward where I used to be. Being smarter than your average rat, bear, or whatever wildlife you like, I hadn't waited around for the knife. Instead, I stepped to the side and went on my merry way right passed him. Now I probably should have just kept on going and left him behind, but getting around behind him I just couldn't resist the urge for a little payback. It was like my foot had a mind of its own, cause it reeled off a kick that was meant for the moon and landed it squarely in lower quadrant of his ass, if it happened to catch some low lying anatomy from the other side as well, I wasn't too concerned, and by the way he screamed and rammed his head into the wooden gate, I'd guess I didn't miss much. I was just relieved my foot didn't get stuck.

"That didn't hurt did it?" I said.

Why I said it at all, I'll never know but taunting the man who had taunted, tortured and held me against my will for days, possibly a week, felt not just good, but absolutely right. I wasn't really expecting a response and I knew I was playing with fire, in a manner of speaking, but part of me was feeling the need for a little revenge, justified or not, for all that I'd been through, all that my friends had been through. I wasn't capable of inflicting the same tortures on him that he had inflicted on us but if I could make him scream, even just a little, it was fair and just and right.

I was looking right at him but I never saw his next move coming. Whatever he did was fast as lightning because the next thing I knew, I was staring up at him standing over me. My back was indented into the dirt floor and I was gasping for air like a fish out of water. He had a smug look on his smug face while my ribs burned in my chest and my eyes teared up from pain, frustration, anger, and humility. It was little comfort to realize I'd gotten in a few good blows but the end had always been inevitable, he was simply stronger, faster, and better trained in violence than I.

I was ready to give up on going home, getting out of the vault, and ever having a life at all, when I found myself peering between his legs and back up at the gate. Tom stood on the other side, determination written on his face, and a smoking automatic rifle in his hand for a pen to do the writing. At first I couldn't figure out what he was waiting for but then I realized he was moving from side to side trying to get an angle to shoot from. We were off enough to the side of the tunnel and far enough down it that his ability to aim at us was severely compromised.

Hope resurfaced within me and I realized, I didn't have to beat my former captor, all I had to do was lead the proverbial horse to water and Tom would beat him dead, horse or not. Plans are for people with time and having none, I decided I was more of a spontaneous person anyway.

"Fine." I said. "Two pedicures."

The look of pure confusion on his face was worth it all as he said, "Huh?"

I kicked. He screamed. I'm pretty sure his voice was two octaves higher, maybe even three and there was no doubt I'd struck the family jewels this time because his hands weren't nursing his thighs. If that wasn't enough to get his attention, I rolled myself forward between his bowed legs and on the way up my head happened to brush against his hands or rather hit against his hands. The double blow left him winded and kneeling down on the ground as I scrambled back up the incline toward the gate.

I heard something fly by my ear and realized it was a knife only when it stabbed the gate with a reverberating thud. Glancing behind me, because I just couldn't believe any man could recover that quickly, I saw he'd decided to pull out the gun I'd handed back to him after the first test. There was a single bullet left in it, but it only takes one to kill. I mouthed the word "gun" to Tom and lucky for me he didn't try to clarify my meaning. He just pulled out a handgun and threw at me from between the posts. It wasn't exactly what I had meant, but it would do just fine.

Whether I fell or dived for it is something we'll probably be debating for years, but the gun ended up in my hand with me lying on the ground. My former captor fired first, but my sudden change in direction had led him and his aim astray. The realization that I was armed and he was no longer enjoying the upper hand settled on his face like a death shroud. I almost felt sorry for him, but not sorry enough to stop me from squeezing the trigger with a steady hand and a dead aim at the space between his eyes.

It should have been over then. He should have been lying there, covered in dirt and dust, but dead. Instead, the sidewall of the tunnel right next to him ruptured, sending dirt and rock out into the center of the tunnel. The ceiling collapsed in a rain of dust and rock and water poured into the tunnel at a rate reminiscent of the blast of water that had ended the first test the vault had put before us. When the dust had cleared, the man was gone without a trace. Whether he was dead, alive, or someplace in-between I couldn't be sure but without a body I wasn't making any assumptions.

"Tom," I said. "Get them out of here. Straight up to the right there should be an exit but you might need one of those marked stones to get it open."

"Right. Just as soon as I get this gate out of the way." Tom said, staring at the wooden barrier between us.

"There is another way out deeper in. The clock's ticking and you don't have long before your exit closes for good. So don't worry, just get everyone else out." I replied.

"We're not leaving you." Mark said.

He stepped up right next to Tom and for the first time since I'd seen the two of them together they didn't look like they wanted to kill each other, in fact, they were actually both on the same page. Unfortunately, it wasn't the page I was on and neither of them seemed willing to skip ahead to the part where they do what I tell them. I wasn't willing to wait for them to get there on their own.

"I've got my own way out and I'm not waiting around for you guys to figure out how to open this gate. You've got five minutes or less to get up to the exit on your side or you'll end up becoming artifacts in this place." I said. "My suggestion is you do like I'm going to do and move your asses."

I caught a glimpse of amusement on Kyra's face, but I didn't stick around to find out if she was going to laugh at me or the two men acting like boys. Climbing to my feet, I turned my back on them and started down the tunnel that was still filling with water. I waited until I was almost completely out of sight before looking back to see if they were still standing there or not. I smiled to myself with relief when the view was void of people. With a little luck, they would make it out and if luck wasn't enough, I had a feeling Tom wouldn't quit until they were.

The water started out at ankle depth and by the time I had walked a 100 feet it was up to my waist. I looked around hoping my mysterious little girl would appear and give me a clue as to where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do, but she had disappeared the second I had kicked the stone. I guess she hadn't wanted to stick around and watch and given the choice, I wouldn't have either.

Instead of her, I found my way out. It wasn't obvious to the casual observer, but I'm not much for casual observations these days anyway. The water was running away from a small opening a few feet off to my left and although I couldn't see what was on the other side, there was definitely light coming through and that was enough for me. I made my way through the water and ducked through the opening.

I was in a much larger cavern with a path leading up to my right and wide open space directly in front of me. Cautiously, I walked to the edge before me and peered out into the openness. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the brighter light in the cavern, caused by the torchlight reflecting off quartz deposits in the rocks. Below me was a pool of water with a single rock pillar rising out of the center with a large blue crystal on top of it that seemed to be reflecting the light into prisms of color separated by shadows and darkness in equal proportions. The effect reminded me of something I'd seen before but I couldn't remember exactly what, where or when.

"That's what you're here for." The mysterious girl said, from off to my right.

She walked toward me through a section of the crystal's reflection of rainbow and shadows. I blinked thinking my eyes had to be playing a trick on me because as she walked from the shadows into the rainbow her appearance altered from that of a little girl to an old woman, to teenager, to a thirty-something, and back to a little girl again. It was disturbing on so many levels I don't even know where to begin, but most of all what surprised me the most was that no matter what age she was, I could always tell it was her. Whatever effect the crystal was having on her it didn't seem to matter to her. She walked on through it as if nothing was happening at all.

"The light." I said, unable to find the words to adequately describe what I was seeing.

She understood the thought though, probably because unlike me, she knew where we were and what was happening. I was just her tool and she seemed to like keeping me in the dark. Maybe if I'd had a real choice in matters, it would have been different, but since I didn't, she had no reason to provide anything more than the bare necessities. In the back of my thoughts, that reality made a connection to Joseph Candle and his own way of distributing information. Did she get it from him or he from her or was there no connection at all?

"It can't harm you like this, but once you get it, make sure you shield it from the light before you reach the surface." She said.

"Reach the surface?" I asked.

"Directly introduced into sunlight it might well open doorways which once traveled through will never lead back to where you came from. Unless you would rather join me than free me, I suggest you keep it covered." She said.

"I'll keep it in mind. " I said. "Now, how do I get to it?"

"It isn't very complicated. Follow the path up and use the series of marked stones to create a path down." She said.

"What's the catch?" I asked.

I wasn't really expecting her to tell me, but I thought I might as well ask on the off chance she wanted to make my life a little easier now that it was just the two of us. Unless of course the other person who could see her was still lurking around some corner waiting for an opportunity to turn the tables one more time. Personally, I was guessing if he was still among the living, he was likely trying to get to the crystal on his own which meant following the path to it was the most likely way to reacquaint myself with him.

"The catch is getting to them, but I believe you've already figured out how to get to them without getting to them." She said, her eyes purposefully pointing out the gun I was holding in my hand.

"Oh. I guess I can handle that." I said.

"I thought so. I can't say for certain but I'm guessing the designers of this little test never really thought about people having weapons that could exert the necessary force from a distance." She said.

"You mean there is something you don't know for certain?" I said.

She rolled her eyes at me in a way that reminded me of my mother, particularly when I had said something she thought was sarcastic. I stress the word thought because in some cases, although certainly not all, I was being completely serious and she failed to realize it for a lack of agreeing with reality. Then again, I'm the one talking to little girls who aren't there, so maybe I'm the one without a firm grasp on reality.

"You need to hurry, there are others in here already and they won't wait for you to get it." She said.

I should have known she was referring to others than the people I was already aware of in the vault, but I'm not used to people being cryptic when they are supposedly telling me important information. It was obvious enough what she meant when I got a little ways up the path though. On the other side of the chamber there was a small group of men in black wet suits. The leader of the group was someone I recognized instantly and while I shouldn't have been surprised, I was.

He stopped what he was doing and looked across the chamber right back at me. There was surprise on his face, mixed with amusement, and then he waved at me with a big smile. I waved back and if there had been music playing I would have sworn the two of us were still dancing in the ballroom where we met. For an older man, Alex Kemp didn't look bad in skin tight black. Unfortunately, this was far from a social occasion and by the looks of his companions and their equipment, they weren't about to play nice.

"Fancy meeting you here." I said, my voice echoing across the chamber.

"You'll forgive us, but we came in the easy way." Alex replied.

"I can see that. Makes me wonder what the hell I've been doing for the last half of a day." I said.

"What Candle's team always does, things the hard way." He replied, with a chuckle.

"I'd ask if you know what you're doing, but since you're here, I'm guessing you've at least got a partial idea." I said.

"You know my offer's still open. To make it this far on your own you've got to be some of the best talent Joey's found in years." Alex said.

"Tempting, but I think I'll stick it out where I'm at." I said.

"Suit yourself but just know you'll be going back empty handed." He said.

"That's yet to be determined. You said it yourself, I made it this far." I said.

"I might not have mentioned this before, but I don't lose, not ever. So you've got two choices, join us or leave with nothing cause if you try to take the crystal, my people will stop you, one way or another."

"That sounds vaguely like a threat." I said.

"I'll have to work on my directness. It was a threat." Alex said.

So much for dancing, figurative or otherwise. Part of me really liked him too, but that was the part of me that likes drummers, guitar players, and men on Harleys also. He was dangerous and bad and that was a seductive combination, but it was also a deadly one and the smart part of my brain knew it all too well. Whatever there might be to like about Alex Kemp, being his competitor was not amongst those things.

"I was trying to keep things polite." I said.

"Miss West, do yourself a favor and quit before you get hurt." Alex said.

"You first." I replied.

"Allison, you need to hurry." My mysterious little girl said, who was right at that moment, looking a few years older than myself.

I nodded at her, understanding that time was going to be factor, but my attention was devoted to her for that moment. Was it in her eyes or perhaps the set of her jaw, or maybe it was just the way she was standing, nearly tapping her foot on the ground, but whatever it was there was something very familiar about her and not for the first time, I felt certain I knew her. For a split second I wondered if she was me, as ludicrous as such thoughts are, it would explain so much, but how could I possibly be both her and me, if she was real that is? The answer was with that blue crystal, lying in wait far below us and because it held something for me, it was suddenly more important than ever to me. Alex Kemp might not be used to losing, but today he was going to lose.

The path was inclined as it winded it's way toward the roof of the cavern, but I ran as if it were a straight away. Alex Kemp and his men were not on the same kind of path I was, they clearly had designs on getting to the crystal without going through any of the vault's tests, but they had still had to climb up high enough to get to a ledge from which they were clearly preparing to swing down from in order to grab the crystal off its perch. While I was less than certain about what the vault had in store for me, I was certain that cheating would be a bad thing for anyone left inside the cavern. Alex Kemp might be prepared to deal with those kind of security measures but I wasn't in any condition to avoid a deathtrap.

When I reached the top, Kemp had a line secured across the cavern and one of his men was making his way out into the center of the chamber. From there it would be a relatively simple descent to the pinnacle holding the crystal. Rather than wasting time, trying to figure out what they were doing and if there was someway I could slow them down, I looked for the marked stones that would give me my way down to it and hoped by starting the process, it might do something to put a kink in their plans. It wasn't much, but it was the best hope I had and of course there was still the matter of escaping the vault after I got the crystal, but I figured that could wait until it was necessary.

I spotted the first stone, it was marked with the symbol for water and waiting to be pushed on the other side of a narrow ledge. Climbing over to it would be taking the whole balance thing to an extreme I was less than comfortable with testing myself on. I ejected my clip and checked the number of bullets left. Fourteen, I counted and hoped it would be enough considering I didn't have a spare. I switched off the safety and took aim, but then a thought occurred to me; What if I was in the wrong place to benefit from the stones effect? I could even be in a place where the effect could be dangerous to my health.

I looked down further into the chamber to see if I could spot any of the other stones. It took me a minute but I spotted them and a pattern to their placement on the way down. The first one was precisely ninety degrees to my left from the edge I had walked up to and each one from there appeared to be a precise ninety degrees to the right from the previous. I couldn't be certain because I couldn't see the ones that must have been directly beneath me, but the pattern held for the others. It moved in a circle like a clock or the sun across the sky. There was something to that observation, but I wasn't going to figure it out in the time I had before Kemp's man got to the crystal.

"What are you waiting for?" My mysterious little girl asked, looking like the child once more.

"I'm trying to figure out how to do this without getting myself dead." I replied.

"You pick a fine time to lose your self-confidence." She said.

"Call me selfish, but I'm not quite ready to die today." I said.

"Trust yourself." She said.

"It's not me I don't trust." I said.

She smiled, knowing I was referring to her. I wanted to believe her, even believe in her, but there were so many unanswered questions and she was doing cartwheels to keep her secrets from me. Maybe she had reasons, maybe she didn't and maybe they weren't important to me and maybe they were, it all came down to faith and trust, two things I'm not all that fluent in when it comes to strangers.

"I can't make you believe." She said. "Know this though, if Alexander Kemp gets to it first, there will be a lot more at stake than either of our lives."

"That's not helping." I said.

"Look I'm sorry I can't tell you everything but even if there were time, you wouldn't believe me anyway and whether you believe in what I am and what the crystal is doesn't really matter so long as you keep it away from men like Kemp who will not use it for anything good." She said.

Below us, Kemp's man was lowering himself toward the crystal. It would only be a matter of minutes before he had it in his hand. It was time to act if I was ever going to do anything. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. If I was wrong, it would be the last one I ever took, but even before I opened my eyes and did the unthinkable, I knew I was right. I stepped as far back from the edge as I could and raised the gun, aiming it at the stone.

I pulled the trigger and the noise of the shot echoed like thunder around me. Even before the echoes of the gunshot died out I could hear the roar of water coming. I ran for the edge as if there were a hundred meters beyond it and even as I left it behind I didn't slow down to even think. The water hit me from the left side and would have spun me ninety degrees from my next target but I was expecting it, so I twisted myself into the blast and wound up facing the next stone just like I would have if I'd been in the right place to start.

As soon as I could see the stone clearly I shot at it. A pillar of rock shot out of the wall in front of me and I crashed into it on my left side, but ended up sliding down it on my back from the force of the contact and the flow of the water. There wasn't time to do anything but react. Thinking was completely on hold as I found myself being propelled downward by an ancient machine, powered with nothing more than the four basic elements. The intelligence of the designers of such a system was vastly superior to anything I could muster and if I'd had the time to process it all, I would have been in awe of the sheer ingenuity behind it all.

The next stone was dead ahead just like I expected it to be and again I shot as soon as I could see it. To my left a flame exploded from the wall and just as the rock came to an abrupt end, a thick rope of vine slapped into me. Instinctively, I grabbed hold of it but I couldn't get any kind of grip, it was slick and I slid down it like a greased pole, twirling around it as if I had a career my mother could really be ashamed about.

By the time I fired at the next stone, I was so dizzy, it was only lucky that I hit my mark. A strong gust of wind knocked into me and sent me free falling until I landed on a narrow ledge not unlike the one high above where I'd started my insane journey down toward the crystal and not insignificantly, Alex Kemp and his band of merry men. Good thing they weren't wearing tights or I'd have lost it right there. The form-fitting black wet suits were too close as it was.

From my new perch I could see Kemp looking up at me and his man on the rope was practically sitting on the crystal. It was clear enough that the mechanism designed to get me down to the crystal wasn't going to get me there before his man got the crystal. It was time for another plan only I was fresh out of paper and I forgot my pen. I settled on taking a closer look at the ledge I had landed on and was glad I did.

On the floor of the ledge, right next to me, there was a single stone marked with all four symbols. Right then I knew whatever I had been expecting to happen next wasn't going to and something unexpected was about to be revealed. I only hoped it would do something to bring me closer to the crystal and move Kemp's fingers farther away from it. I stepped on the stone and held my breath.

I almost turned blue, but then an explosion rocked the cavern. Kemp's man yelled out as his line suddenly bucked and sent him twirling away from the crystal he had nearly had his hands around. He was thrown right side up where he had been upside down and then the pillar of rock holding the crystal thrust itself upward. If he had been fixed in place the sudden rise of the crystal wouldn't have been a pretty sight but dangling on his line he merely took a hit in the butt before being shoved out of the way. He looked a little angry as the crystal continued on its ascent passed him and up to my waiting hands.

A pillar of rock shot out from the wall next to me and as the crystal came to a stop at my level, the pillar came to rest like a bridge connecting my ledge to the pillar and the crystal it held. I couldn't help looking down on Alex Kemp and giving a slight shrug before walking out and collecting my reward. His response was entirely uncalled for but not entirely unexpected; A single finger, you can figure out which one, was extended in my general direction. Personally, I figured the cavern had already given him and his team its own version.

"You know you won't make it out of here with it!" Alex shouted.

I knew no such thing and even if I suspected it to be the case I certainly wouldn't give him the satisfaction of acknowledging the possibility until it was pried from my hands. I picked the stone up off its setting and stared deep inside of it for a moment. It was beautiful and the perfect cuts on every edge were something I had thought only a laser would be capable of creating, but obviously, a long time ago, there had been another way. Remembering the girl's warning, I ripped off a piece of my soaked shirt and wrapped the crystal in it before shoving it in the front pocket of my jeans. It barely fit and it was pressing against my leg in a very uncomfortable manner but at least I'd know if I lost it, although I doubted it was finding it's way out of my pocket without a lot of assistance that I'd notice long before the pressure was gone.

Looking down I noticed why Alex had been shouting. The water level in the cavern was quickly approaching him and unless something stopped it, it would be on me in less than two minutes. It was probably a little late to start thinking about escaping but you know what they say, better late than never. It seemed logical that the designers would have planned an escape route for the person who had passed their tests to the point of acquiring the crystal, but then again, maybe you were supposed to have figured out to leave it alone before you got far enough that it mattered.

All of the sudden, those black wet suits were looking a lot more enticing as it was becoming pretty clear I was going for a swim and the water was definitely cold. Below me, Alex and his men jumped in the water and started getting there gear together to wait for me under the water where I was going to quickly find myself at their mercy, which unless they were very good actors, was entirely missing from their personalities.

I discarded bad ideas until I was left with nothing and then decided a bad idea was better than no idea. The water was coming up fast and the longer I waited for it the more of it I was going to have to swim through and the more time my adversarial friends would have to prepare for me. So it came down to jumping in and going for broke. The edge was easy to walk off of and the water was hardly far enough away to matter for a fall and so my feet did the walking until I was swimming. It was only when the water had completely engulfed me that I wondered if there was anything to be afraid of besides Kemp. If there were any eels or sharks in the vicinity they certainly weren't going to be in good moods with all the gyrating water.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to seeing in the near darkness of the underwater territory, but as soon as my vision cleared enough I saw Kemp and his men still getting their tanks reattached. If there was a way out, it was definitely my chance to find it because in a few more seconds they'd be totally focused on getting me or rather the crystal in my pocket. As I swam forward toward the only source of light and what I hoped was the way out, I looked frantically for any thing resembling a marked stone. Nothing was standing out and the pressure of the water along with the need to take a breath began making my tender ribs feel a lot more tender. The daunting realization that I was never going to make it to the surface without a breath of air settled over me, even as I fought against the inevitably, swimming ever forward and upward with hope fighting against the coldness spreading from my limbs into my heart.

When one of Kemp's men grabbed me from behind I wasn't shocked at all. I was in fact thankful for the contact and the opportunity it provided. Every reflex in my body wanted to fight, but my brain was in charge for a change and I stayed as calm as I could. I let him pull me in close and think I was finished already by the water, until he grabbed at my pocket. At that very moment I wrapped my legs around him twisted hard to my right, slipping from being in front of him to practically sitting on his back. My hands knew what to do next and they did it without hesitation, ripping the air hose from his mouth and giving myself a much needed breath of air while turning his own calmness into a frantic fight for his life.

While he was flailing in the water without a sensible purpose, I grabbed the knife, sheathed on his leg and cut the straps of the tank from his body. It would be hell to hold onto but air was more important than anything else right at that moment. Kemp and his other man showed up right as I'd finished cutting the tank free and rather than helping their own man they both went after the tank to keep it away from me. I guess the figured they would just let me drown and then take the crystal when I was no longer able to fight them. Unfortunately for them, drowning wasn't on my to-do-list.

I took one last breath from the tank and then opened the valve all the way, allowing the tank to blow its supply into the water. Using the bubbles as a distraction and a way of warding them off I push off and away from them with the tank firmly in my grasp, as the air emptied the tank became increasingly more buoyant and it helped to pull me toward the surface at a substantial speed. Once the tank was empty it was only a few seconds before it pulled me to the surface of the water and out into the warm sunshine. Kemp and his men were sure to be following but unless they were as nuts as me, I had time before they would reach the surface.


  1. My apologies for the extra long post, but I really needed this part of the story to be wrapped up by the end of September.

    Hopefully it was still enjoyable despite the length.

    Hugs to all,
    Ashley J

  2. Ash,

    another great story...Virginia sure can think fast...and it still was very enjoyable even being long was one of the funniest post so far had me the line if his shin had been a football it would have scored... that was great and the little revenge one was great also...cant wait for the next story... great job Thanks for the enjoyable and interesting reading

  3. Ashley, a brilliant chapter, the complexity of the cave system of traps is so well thought out.
    I'm really impressed, well done.
    The fact that V can think on her feet and fight was clear from the beginning.
    Not too long at all.
    Warm hugs,

  4. It didn't seem lengthy at all, in fact by the end I was hoping for more still. The story did come to something of a climax this week but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Plus after all that pain and hard work it'd be nice to see the team celebrate a little over their victory.