Chapter 21 - Through the Mouth

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The trio made it to the beach, where a few small covered watercraft fitted with lanterns on both prow and stern tilted limply in the sand as the water lapped up against them. With some effort they launched one.

Smoke in the distance billowed into the air, mixing with the gathering clouds above them.

"Afunakwa," said Michael. "Your people. The village is burning."

"Our people will fight, Light Bringer. We have long prepared for this day, though we may not be as strong as we should, and the enemy is without their captain. Your battle is on the other side," she answered.

"You should join them."

"I am coming with you."

"Your grandfather was very clear—"

"I will not travel with you to the other side. I will remain here to care for my sister's body while you both travel."

Michael grunted. The universe had given Afunakwa her part to play, though he could not guess at what it was. There would be no denying it. The three of them got into the boat.

The coming storm began to pick up the waves, and they sloshed against the sides of the craft as Michael rowed it out to the dark center of the Mouth.

Afunakwa seemed to be looking directly at Jaylina. "You're afraid," she said.

"Terrified," Jaylina confessed.

"You will pass beyond the paths of the fallen," said Afunakwa. "You may see the Isle of the Dead, where the Shadow Queen reigns, but do not set foot on it. Protect your silver thread. Look to your soul and watch over each other." She held Jaylina's hands in her own. "I will keep your body safe here."

Jaylina smiled but found it hard to muster any warmth. Then Afunakwa reached out and caressed Jaylina's cheek. Her white, pupilless eyes were staring directly into Jaylina's. Jaylina realized Afunakwa was speaking to her without words. She could intuit precisely what Afunakwa said and Afunakwa knew it.

Love him, sister, Afunakwa's face told her. Love him and never let him go. His soul is a fire that cannot long burn without the fuel of his lost love. Perhaps he will find her, perhaps he will not. Only you can sustain him until he sees her again. And then he will need you more than ever.

"We've arrived," said Michael, tossing the boat's anchor over the side. Around them the waters roiled. Rain pattered inside their boat. The boat heaved with the wind, and pulled the line tight, but it held.

Shadows darted this way and that under the waves. One of them bumped against the side of the watercraft, causing it to rock back and forth.

"Sharks," said Afunakwa, sensing Jaylina's tense unasked question. "The lost souls of the strong and the wicked come here in that form."

"We have to go," said Michael. His voice rang with urgency.

Jaylina panted with fear. She felt cold, wet, and scared. She realized she was completely unprepared and as frightened as any child, though of what she did not know.

Will this be what it's like to die?

Thunder roared overhead.

"Michael, I'm not ready," she cried.

"I cannot do it without you," he said.

"The ghost tide is upon us. You must go now before the storm worsens!" shouted Afunakwa.

Michael laid Jaylina as comfortably as possible in bottom of the little boat, covered her with his coat to keep her dry, and stroked her hair. He held Jaylina's hands in his own. He looked directly into her eyes. Violet-blue lightning reflected in them.

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