The group of men descended angrily to the base of the mast; fists raised, while shouting and swearing so badly Clifton almost covered his own ears. He finally got where the expression ‘swears like a sailor’ came from. Jeez!
Henry rushed to the front of the crowd beneath the crow’s nest. His stern face pulled forward in anger, and he lifted his head. “Alfred Mansfield!”
The mob fell silent.
“Alfred Mansfield, show yourself!”
Nothing stirred in the crow’s nest.
“Traitor! Coward!” Edward said. “You will return what you have stolen at once and face a sure death by walking the plank.”
A hoarse voice drifted down from the crow’s nest. “I will do no such thing.”
“What is he thinking?” Clifton whispered to Dane. “He’s on a ship in the middle of the English Channel, surrounded. He’s got no chance.”
Dane shook his head. “He’s got the Arrow of Light, lad. You still don’t understand? The power is in his hands, if he’s not too much of a fool to figure it out.”
A cold chill crossed Clifton’s skin. Soft voices chimed from the channel, their song familiar in the way a scent can trigger a memory. Unexplainably, he felt a strong pull toward the water and fought the urge to jump in.
A dark image darted below the surface. Then another one. Were they dolphins? They might have been if they were sailing in Florida, but this was the English Channel. Maybe they were porpoises. They’d been known to swim in these cold waters. The images propelled underwater, pacing beneath him. Leaning closer, he pressed his chest against the bough, his feet still touching the deck.
Jasper crossed the deck to the base of the crow’s nest, his head wound tightly inside an ornate cloth. A new black robe, decorated with symbols in gold and silver threads, skimmed the deck. In his hand, he held a sword, the hilt shaped into a figure Clifton couldn’t make out from the distance. The men whispered, a wave of terror sweeping through the air.
“What is that on the hilt?” Clifton asked.
“It’s an eight-headed serpent,” Richard said. “That’s the sword of Kusanagi.”
“The sword of who?”
Richard turned, wide-eyed. “You do not know the lure?”
Clifton shook his head.
“Quiet!” Dane snapped. “Listen closely.”
Richard leaned in under Clifton’s nose, a childish grin on his face. “Kusanagi is the Japanese god of storms who slay an eight-headed dragon with that sword, the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven.”
“Pipe down,” Dane said, through gritted teeth.
“The sword was used to direct the wind as an assault upon Kusanagi’s enemies.”
“And Jasper has it?”
Richard nodded, his eyebrows arched and raised, as if preparing to jump off his face. “Jasper is a man of much mystery. You can never be surprised by anything he does.”
Jasper chanted in the same language he used to evade a Crestback Dragon when they were back in Èze. His arms slowly lifted, raising the sword above his head. His palms pressed together with the blade between them, the eight-headed dragon pointed skyward. Kusanagi’s sword illuminated, sending blinding light through the air.
“Oh, no,” Dane said.
“What?” Clifton asked. “What’s happening?”
“I can’t be certain,” Dane said, taking slow strides backward. “But I think I’ve heard this one before.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’d best find something nailed down. And hold on tight.” Dane disappeared through the crowd.
Dark clouds rolled in from thin air. Thunder clapped and lightening flashed. The sailors dissipated to man their positions, heaving sails, tightening ropes, and shouting commands. Jasper chanted louder, his voice growing in harmony with the howling winds and threatening storm. Then his eyes glazed over in a milky-white film. He had fallen into a trance; the conjurer of the storm.
Clifton dodged the wind, searching for something to brace against. The rocking ship knocked him off-balance as he strained to keep his footing. Large waves crashed against the hull and spilled over the sides drenching the deck. In desperation, Clifton grabbed hold of a heavy rope anchored to the sidewall and held on for his life. Pandemonium swelled, the rushing sailors hollering, fighting with the slick deck to stay grounded. Rain poured down in heavy streams and the ship quaked, rocking in sharp angles; the crow’s nest bent like a palm tree in a hurricane.
Jasper was trying to shake Alfred out.
The idea was brilliant, really. Tethered against the rope, Clifton braced hard, squinting against the stinging rain, shoving toward the base of the mast. He had almost made it when the boat dropped so deep Clifton panicked, thinking it would capsize.
Through the darkness, a light glowed, not from the Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven, but from something else. The diamond tip of the Arrow of Light poked through the center of the coiled pile of thick rope Clifton held to stay onboard. It swayed, a snake dancing for a charmer, the shaft brilliant against the black clouds and rain.
Clifton pulled harder and lunged toward the arrow when he was close enough. A massive wave struck the hull. Lightning cracked the mast, snapping off the crow’s nest, sending it toppling to the deck with a hard crash. Grabbing the arrow with one hand, Clifton’s other hand cramped around the slick, knotted fibers of the rope.
The ship shifted and his grip slipped off the rope, knocking him to the deck, his head smacking against the wood. He saw stars. The ship corrected, rolling too far in the opposite direction, shuffling Clifton like an air hockey puck to the opposite edge. He rolled over the wooden handrail and plunged on his back toward the sea. Lighting flashed. And before he hit the water, he watched Alfred Mansfield tumbling over the handrail, heading straight for him.
Clifton slammed the channel’s surface, the water so cold it snatched his breath away. His muscles became rigid as he plunged deeper, the arrow clenched in his fist. He twisted to face what he hoped was up. But the sea and clouds soaked up the light like a black hole. He forced his legs to kick, his arms to tread, as he swam for the top before his burning lungs gave way. In a final burst, he broke through the channel’s skin, gulping hungry breaths. He blinked through the rain, his eyes darting. Where was Alfred?
Two large hands pressed on his shoulders from behind, shoving Clifton underwater before he could take in a full breath. He squirmed away and kicked off to the side. Clifton shot back up to the surface. Alfred waded a few feet away.
“Give me that back,” Alfred yelled, lurching at the arrow and grabbing Clifton by the wrist. He was much stronger than Clifton, whose wrist ached from twisting and bending.
With his free hand, Clifton swung at Alfred’s head, punching him over and over again. Alfred released his grip with a yelp. Clifton kicked off the man’s gut and swam far away.
Clifton looked up to the ship. Many of the sailors leaned over the railing watching. Dane shouted, pointing into the distance. Although the storm was dying down, Clifton could not understand him. What was he pointing at?
Clifton scanned the sea. Two scaly islands rolled in and out of the channel, seemingly disconnected. They went under. Something slimy brushed his leg. Clifton kicked, hoping it was one of the creatures he had seen swimming earlier and not a sea serpent. What if it was? What in the world was he supposed to do? He could never out swim one, let alone get away from Alfred first. Clifton focused on the figures singing so beautifully to him, convincing himself they were the scaly humps he had seen.
Alfred didn’t seem to notice or care what those humps were either way. He was too busy screaming over the storm. “You’ll pay for that.” He dove into the waves.
Clifton swam hard for the ship when Alfred yanked his leg and pulled him under. Clifton sucked in as much air as he could. Underwater, he opened his eyes. The salt burned briefly and the murky water clouded everything outside of an arm’s length.
Alfred clamped Clifton’s leg, pulling him closer, wrestling for possession of the arrow. Something massive swam past them with a shriek. The look on Alfred’s face spread terror through Clifton’s blood. He used the fraction of a second to fight the man off, but Alfred quickly recovered, his hand like a vice grip pinching Clifton’s flesh.
Clifton didn’t know how much longer he could hold on. The water was too cold and his muscles were failing. Then he remembered something Dane said about the arrow. He could almost hear his voice:
“Attaches itself to its chosen possessor…passes on protection and wisdom.”
Of course. He held the Arrow of Light. An insurance policy guaranteeing long life, protection, and wisdom. If he only knew how it worked. He clenched his fist tighter around the shaft, wondering how to unlock its power. Alfred wrapped his hands around Clifton’s neck, pressing on his windpipe. Clifton concentrated on the arrow, begging it to help him. His throat burned, his mind muddled as Alfred pressed harder.
“Please, help me,” Clifton thought, pleading with the arrow to come to life. Clifton’s eyes rolled back. The shaft did not glow. Even in the current, the copper-colored feathers that belonged to Simurgh, the great bird of Wisdom, looked still as wood. He was going to die here.
The water around them began to shudder as great waves rippled and swirled. There was a rush of water. The sea serpent. If he could just twist around, he might be able to use Alfred as a buffer. Maybe even bait. With much effort, Clifton kicked his legs to maneuver them around. Humps in the water grew closer, just off Alfred’s right shoulder, and with a jerk, Alfred’s hands were ripped away as his body was dragged off. All that was left of the man was his scream in a trail of lingering bubbles.
The shock waves continued and Clifton tumbled, as he had many times in the surf on Melbourne Beach back home. The long tail of the sea serpent appeared in front of him swishing like a humongous eel in the water. It turned around immediately, as if folding in half. It was coming back for Clifton. Its many heads faced him staring with mouths gaping, mouths that had just devoured Alfred. He didn’t count the number of heads as he tumbled, but he would have bet there were eight.
With all the faith he could find, he begged the arrow to help him. He challenged its power, trying to believe its purpose for choosing Clifton was for something far greater than this creature’s dinner.
Within reach of the monster’s jagged teeth, Clifton screamed, releasing his last air reserves. If he was going to die here, he’d rather drown than be eaten. The serpent’s eight jaws hinged open; the suctioning water pulled Clifton in. The mouths were like vast caverns of black oil. This was it. The end. Then, something grabbed him from behind. Whatever it was, it pulled him out of the vortex at an unbelievable speed.
The monster closed its jaws and faded into blackness. Clifton sped backward, desperate for air. Moving farther away from the monster, the ship, his friends, and consciousness, deep down into the black sea.
Clifton was seconds away from passing out when a slender hand secured a gelatinous device to his face. It shrank to fit, suctioning to his forehead, cheeks, and chin. He could see through it, the material resembling a jellyfish, and without choice he sucked in a deep breath.
And he could breathe.
The jellyfish-mask was some sort of organic breathing device. Thank God. With that problem solved, he now wondered who or what was pulling him and where they were taking him.
It wasn’t a sea serpent. The slender hand which covered his face could never be attached to something so hideous. He remembered the figures he had seen earlier, swimming below the ship’s deck before all the chaos with the storm and Alfred. It had to be one of those creatures which rescued him from those eight hungry mouths; he somehow felt comforted. Maybe they were friendly after all.
Resonating through the black waters, a melody sang clearly as a tinkling of crystal glasses. Clifton thought of his mother tucking him into bed at night when he was little. And of his baby brother, Pierce, when he caught a fit of giggles. And of his father during their trips alone fishing, when they talked for hours until the sun set.
Slowly, light filtered through from somewhere beneath him. Clifton tried to turn his body to look below but couldn’t. His captor’s grip held too strong.
“Be still, Clifton Chase,” a strange voice sang in his head.
As they swam, the light intensified and Clifton glimpsed a seaweed forest. Tall mountains surrounded them as they passed through a canyon covered in beautifully colored corals and swaying sea plants in bloom. The landscape was enchanting, and without the water, Clifton thought the view would be the same here as his pass through the forests and mountains of Èze.
The tops of large structures appeared, jutting up like stalagmites through the dense seaweed forest. Clifton was taken lower, through the seaweed beds, and he couldn’t see for a moment, as when descending in an airplane through clouds.
When the forest cleared, Clifton gasped. He darted over an ancient city. Massive coral pillars lined the open streets where schools of fish swam freely, and seahorses pulled chariots. Square buildings, resembling ancient Roman architecture, bordered the open design of the cityscape.
Closer still, he could make out the details of a paved shell road intersecting the city’s center leading to the steps of a palace. Clifton couldn’t believe what he saw. And even more impressive than the underwater city were its inhabitants. Swimming in the water and riding on the seahorse-drawn chariots, and most assuredly the species of the creature pulling Clifton from behind, were unmistakably mermaids.
They lowered Clifton to the seafloor and released. He realized he could be in for another adventure, but at least for now he was safe from that sea serpent. A crowd of merpeople gathered, no longer singing and Clifton tightened his grasp on the Arrow of Light. Standing on either side of him were his kidnappers. Or maybe they were his saviors.
He’d have to wait and see.
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