The abbot stepped triumphantly from the cover of the trees that grew in dwarflike tufts at the base of the cliff. Several confused-looking monks milled nervously there, too. An-dras stood beside the abbot, so close that in the dim light their bodies appeared to be joined. The knight's face was a pale disk broken only by his eyes, which were bright silver slits of hatred, and he was dragging with him a weeping Isabel.
"They broke into your room," Isabel sobbed. "We could not stop them. They said they must have proof that you were within."
Andras's voice echoed with Sarpedon's demonic amplification. "I knew the whore was with her lover. I knew it! Take her." His command was like ice, and one of the squires leapt to obey him.
CC felt as if their appearance had turned her to stone. She held the chemise to her chest, trying to cover her nakedness. She wanted to run back into the sea, but her feet would not obey her. The squire quickly covered the few yards that separated them and grabbed her arm, purposely digging his fingers into her delicate flesh.
"Maybe we will have a little fun before they burn you." he sneered, his eyes ravishing CC's naked body. The foul cloud of his rotting breath made her gag.
"Touch her again and you will not leave this island alive," Dylan's voice carried across the waves with such force that CC saw the squire cringe—then he stared openmouthed at the sight of the merman.
Dylan had raised himself well out of the water, so that his powerful tail seemed to glisten and ripple as if he was on fire.
"The demon!" Abbot William's voice held an edge of hysteria. "The witch has a demon lover!"
"Kill it!" Sir Andras barked the order, and almost instantly the chilling sound of an arrow whistled from the other squire's position behind them on the beach.
As the arrow flew toward the water, CC felt a rush of power within her, and her body unfroze. The squire who held her arm was still gazing slack-jawed at the merman, and it was with surprising ease that CC rammed her knee into his groin and wrenched her arm from his grasp. Spinning around she ran for the waterline.
"Stop her, you fool!" Andras yelled.
"Quickly, Christine!" Dylan called, dodging another arrow.
She could hear the sounds of the squire as he grunted and scrambled to his feet behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see Andras sprinting across the sand, longbow held forward and eyes flashing as he took aim at Dylan. As the arrow twanged free, CC reached the water. Thrusting her arms over her head as if she was an Olympic diver, she leapt forward, calling the power of her mermaid body alive. The delicious heat of transformation sizzled down her body, and she hit the water flying. CC's sleek mermaid form skimmed just below the surface, and then with one stroke of her tail she swam up, angling herself at Dylan's body. She broke through the waves like she had been shot from a cannon.
And the arrow meant for Dylan sliced neatly through the muscle of her left shoulder blade. The pain was white hot, and she crumbled forward into her lover's arms. Dylan's agonized cry was echoed on the shore. Through a haze of pain Christine looked back to the beach.
Andras was standing unnaturally still and straight. His mouth was stretched impossibly wide by a horrible shriek of rage.
"No!" The voice no longer made any pretense of belonging to the knight. "Not her! You were not to harm her! "
Andras fell to his knees, his body writhing grotesquely like there were hundreds of worms beneath his skin. Then, with a ripping sound a liquid cloud of darkness vomited from his mouth. It shimmered and pooled in hideous wetness and seemed to crawl toward the surf. When it touched the water the darkness shifted and reformed, drawing substance from the saltwater. With a roar, Sarpedon rose, fully formed and glistening with power.
He faced the humans, swollen with anger and disdain.
"Puny creatures. You dare to harm a child of Lir! Know that your fate has been sealed."
Sarpedon swirled one massive hand into the water next to him until it boiled and seethed with activity. In horror, the humans watched as a many-tentacled monster erupted from the sea. It engulfed the shrieking body of a monk who had drifted too close to the sea, and in one motion snapped his spine and hurled his lifeless body against the cliff. Then it turned its awful attention to the knight. Preparing for battle, Sir Andras planted his feet and brandished his sword. Shouting, his squires scrambled to reach his side.
Suddenly, a wall of flesh obscured CC's view of the battle, and Sarpedon towered above them.
"The game is ended, Undine. It is time you took your rightful place as my mate." Sarpedon's voice was deceptively calm.
CC felt light-headed. Dylan still held her within his arms, and CC noted with detached curiosity that the water surrounding them was tainted scarlet. That must be my blood, the thought played slowly through her mind and she struggled against the urge to close her eyes and sink beneath the waves.
"Stay away from her, Sarpedon," Dylan spoke with iron in his voice. He shifted his grip on CC so that he placed his body protectively between Sarpedon and the mermaid.
Sarpedon's laugher was a roar. "Does the son of a human believe he can stand against the power of the gods?"
Blinking to clear the bright spots from her vision, CC forced herself to move to Dylan's side.
"He and I stand together against you, Sarpedon. And when Lir gets here tonight he will stand with us, too." CC's voice surprised her by sounding strong and clear.
Sarpedon's lip curled in a sneer. "Oh, I seem to remember there was a message sent to our father. Tragic that the little dolphin messenger met with such an untimely end, before she could relay the Earth goddess's request. But, no matter. I was gracious enough to answer for our father. So you see that I stand ready to render judgment in his stead."
A tremor of fear passed through CC. "No. You can't."
The enormous merman moved closer to them. "You have been wrong about many things, Undine. And you are wrong yet again."
A scream from the beach interrupted them. Sarpedon turned, laughing evilly as the creature he had called to the surface squeezed the life out of the squire who had grabbed CC.
"See how I punish those who would do you harm?" Sarpedon said.
"Make it stop," CC cried. Her voice was hoarse with emotion.
Sarpedon's eyes widened in surprise. "But they would have killed you. Why would you ask to spare them?"
"Because to use your power like this is wrong."
"It is justice," Sarpedon scoffed.
"It's not justice—it's vengeance. Vengeance meted out by a creature bloated with his own imagined importance. You are a disgusting toad. I loathe you, and I will never belong to you."
Sarpedon seemed to swell with rage. "Never is a very long time. Perhaps you will change your mind when you see your pathetic human friend in my grasp." The merman shouted a command in a garbled language that CC was shocked to realize she could understand.
"Kill the old one! "
Instantly the sea monster snaked out a tentacle around Isabel's neck, but the amulet of the goddess sparked and glowed, causing the creature's grip to falter. As the old woman tried to scramble out of reach, Sarpedon shouted another command, and the monster wrapped a tentacle around her ankle. Isabel lost her balance and fell hard onto the sand. The creature began to pull her toward the water.
"No!" CC screamed.
"Never, you said!" Sarpedon bellowed. "We shall see how long never is as you watch your lover and your friend die!"
Sarpedon closed his hand around a froth of wave and instantly it solidified into the foam-colored blade of a stiletto. The huge merman lunged forward and CC struggled painfully not to slide under the surface as Dylan lost his protective hold on her and surged forward to meet the giant. The two mermen met with a sound that cracked and reverberated like thunder.
"Undine!" Isabel's voice was a sob of terror. The sea creature appeared to be toying with the old woman as it slowly pulled her to the edge of the water where its beak-shaped head glistened with daggerlike teeth. The remaining squire and Sir Andras sent arrow after arrow into its pulsating body, but the creature seemed impervious to their weapons.
The sound of wailing came from the cliff, and CC glanced up. Lynelle, Bronwyn and Gwenyth were clinging to each other and crying with terror. Around them milled several of the monks. Some of them were on their knees praying, but most of them stood in impotent silence. There was no sign of Abbot William.
Dylan hissed in pain, and CC's eyes snapped back to her lover as Sarpedon's blade sliced a trail down the muscles of his chest.
"That is just a taste of what is to come, son of a human. My Undine will watch as I carve you into pieces," Sarpedon said.
Dylan circled him warily. When he spoke his voice was calm. "You may kill me, Sarpedon, but you will not win her love. She will loathe you forever."
Sarpedon's laughter was sharp. "An eternity is a long time. She will forget you."
An eternity. The words echoed within CC's mind. It was Dylan's promise to her. And there was only one way she wanted to spend eternity—next to Dylan's side.
Ignoring the pain in her shoulder, she beat against the water with powerful strokes of her tail, so that she rose up, lifting her entire torso from the waves.
I am the daughter of a goddess, she told herself, and I claim my birthright. With a voice that filled the morning air, she called to her mother.
"Gaea! Your daughter needs you! Help me, Mother!"
Then, using the sea magic that sang within her true mermaid body, CC reached out and cupped some of the bub-blelike foam that surrounded her.
"Make me a weapon," she commanded the waters. Instantly, the handle of a knife formed against her palm. Her blade wasn't the color of foam—it was the crimson of her newly shed blood.
"Dylan!" she called to her lover, and both mermen paused in their battle to turn to her. "Catch," she said and tossed him the dagger.
Dylan caught the knife deftly and sent her a tight smile of thanks. Then his attention shifted back to Sarpedon.
"That will not help you," Sarpedon snarled, and they continued circling each other, blades flashing in the morning light.
CC felt the change in the air the moment before the goddess materialized. She strode from the foliage at the base of the cliff. Her anger was terrible; the air around her crackled and sparked with it. The knight and the squire dropped their weapons and cringed before her on the beach. She spared no glance for them. Her attention was riveted on the sea monster that had dragged Isabel to within inches of its gaping maw.
The goddess stretched out her hand and in a burst of green light a leaf-colored spear appeared. Gaea plucked it from the air and hurled it straight into the monster's open mouth. The force of the spear was so great that it traveled through the creature's body and exploded out the rear of it, followed by a slick fountain of blood and entrails.
"Return to the dark depths from whence you were born!" Gaea commanded.
The monster writhed spasmodically. Losing its grip on Isabel, it sank below the surface in a muddy cloud. Isabel scrambled to her feet, but she wasn't able to walk and she stumbled, falling in a heap at Gaea's feet. The goddess knelt and passed her shining hands over the old woman's body.
"There, the pain is gone, my Isabel."
Isabel's eyes widened in recognition as she gazed upon Gaea. The old woman crossed herself reverently.
"Thank you, Holy Mother!"
Gaea touched Isabel gently. Then she stood, facing the sea. Her silver cloak billowed behind her and the white silk of her transparent gown shimmered with the goddess's might. She walked to the water's edge, and the sand surged forward, hardening under her delicate feet until she stood on a bridge of earth that jutted out into the sea.
Mere feet from the goddess, the mermen were locked together in silent combat, each straining to end the battle with a killing slash. Dylan was bleeding heavily from several gaping wounds. His body looked like it was clothed in scarlet.
The power of the word was a tangible thing, lifting the hairs on CC's neck and ringing through her blood. A wall of white light exploded between the mermen, knocking them apart. CC swam quickly to Dylan's side.
Sarpedon spun on the goddess, raising himself out of the water until he levitated over her bridge.
"This is not your battle, Land Goddess," he spat. "I preside here in my father's absence."
"Foolish child," the goddess's voice held pity. "I have tolerated your interference out of love for your father. But your hatred has gone too far."
Gaea lifted her graceful arms to the sky, crossing them at the wrist. Above her materialized a cloud of power that spun and sparked like the dust of diamonds.
"LIR! THE EARTH DEMANDS YOUR PRESENCE AS SHE RENDERS JUDGMENT UPON YOUR SON!"
As Gaea spoke the command she brought her arms down in a sweeping arch, fingers pointing at the surrounding water. Like fireworks, the cloud exploded, raining power and energy, and the echo of the goddess's words into the sea.
Sarpedon's face had paled, but when he spoke his voice was still filled with arrogance.
"My father will not answer your summons. He is not an Earth child to jump at your bidding." His laughter sounded hollow and forced. "And he is much too busy presiding over the problems of the islands. The Shark God and I have made quite certain of that."
Gaea shook her head sadly at the merman. "Lir's absence stank of your interference. I knew it, and I should have interceded. The deaths that have happened today were needless. Your hatred caused them, son of Lir, but I could have prevented them. That guilt will be my sadness to bear. But with or without the presence of your father, I will cast judgment upon you—and fulfill your punishment."
"You have no right to punish me, Earth creature!" Sarpe-don growled. "I am a sea god. In the realm of water my desires are fulfilled, and my commands obeyed. I will have Undine as my mate, and the rest of these pathetic creatures will stand aside or face my wrath!"
Before the goddess could respond, the water surrounding them began to seethe and bubble. Then a pillar of brilliant seawater geysered into the sky. The thick column swirled, morphing in color from the clarity of glass to the turquoise of shallow water, which refracted and changed in shade to the blue-black of the ocean's depths. The center of the pillar suddenly split, as if a bolt of lightning had cleft it apart, and from within that split appeared a giant of a man, carrying a massive trident made of deadly looking ebony. On his head was a crown of golden shells speckled with the iridescent white of perfect pearls. His silver hair was the color of moonlight on water and it curled in a thick cascade around his shoulders, mingling with the luxurious length of his beard. His togalike robe, the exact color of waves, was draped across his body. It left much of his powerful chest exposed, and as he stepped free of the pillar and strode to Gaea, walking as if the water was solid ground, CC couldn't help but marvel at his majesty.
Gaea spoke first, offering him one slender hand, which the giant took and bowed over, kissing it with an easy intimacy.
"Lir, the Earth welcomes you." The goddess's voice was warm and intimate.
"The sea responds in kind," the giant said. "It has been much too long since we two have met." Lir spoke with obvious affection. Then his attention shifted to the scene surrounding them and a frown creased his brow. "What have we here, Earth Mother—errant children?"
"Father, this Earth goddess interferes in matters of the sea. There is no trouble here that is not of her making," Sarpedon blurted.
"Sarpedon, your tone is offensive. Gaea does not meddle in the affairs of others. Be wary that you do not make the Earth your enemy." Lir's face tightened and though his voice remained calm, his reprimand was sharp. He glanced around the restless water and the sea god's eyes narrowed in anger as he noticed Undine's injury.
"Who dared to harm my child?"
The waves trembled at Lir's words, and CC's tongue felt thick and awkward. But Dylan's answer was swift, and he met the sea god's eyes unflinchingly.
"The arrow that wounded your daughter was meant for me. Although Sarpedon did not loose the arrow, it was his jealousy that caused the humans to try and destroy me."
"Undine." Lir turned to her. "What has happened here?"
CC took a deep breath, swallowing her fear and the pain that radiated in cruel fingers from her shoulder. When she spoke her voice sounded tinny and strange, like it belonged to someone else.
"First of all, you need to know that I'm not really Undine. My soul is human. Your daughter and I exchanged places because she hated it here and because—"
Lir's roar stopped her words. "Deceit and deception!" He whirled on Gaea. "Did you do this?"
Calmly, Gaea touched the sea god's arm. "Allow the child to finish, Lir. Her soul may not have been born as your daughter, but she is tied to you through her body and, unlike Undine, she has a deep, abiding love of the sea."
Lir narrowed his eyes, but he nodded tightly and turned his attention back to the mermaid.
"I will listen."
CC tried to smile her appreciation, but her lips could only form a brief grimace of pain. Then Dylan's hand linked with hers. She clung to him and drew strength from his touch.
"Undine's desire to exchange places with a human wasn't just because she longed for the land; a big part of it was because she wanted to escape from Sarpedon."
"She lies, Father!" Sarpedon shouted.
"Silence!" Lir commanded his son. Then he gentled his voice, and he said, "Continue, child."
"I know all too well what Undine felt. The first thing that happened to me when I found myself in her body was that I had to escape from an attempted rape—by him." CC tossed her head in Sarpedon's direction.
"More lies, Father!" Sarpedon exploded. "There was no need to force myself on her; she wanted me. Then she decided to dally with this pathetic son of a human, and I have simply tired of waiting for her to finish her little game. Now I claim what has always been mine."
"Love is not something that can be possessed and ordered," Gaea broke in, her voice filled with scorn. "And the only lies spoken here have come from your mouth, Sarpedon." Gaea raised her hand, palm up, and drew a glistening oval in the air before them. "Behold the truth, God of the Seas." The goddess pursed her shapely lips and blew a delicate breath of air onto the shining mirror. Instantly, images flashed across its surface like a movie playing in a darkened theater.
First there was an image of the plane wreck, and CC watched herself being pulled beneath the waves and exchanging souls with the beautiful mermaid. Then the scene flashed to Sarpedon's attempted rape, and CC's magical transformation into a temporarily human body. The mirror showed Dylan's rescue of her and Andras's subsequent discovery of her as he pulled her from the sea. Glimpses of scenes from CC's days at the monastery included Gaea's various calls for Lir's aid, and the death of the loyal dolphin messenger at the hands of Sarpedon. Included in the images was the discovery of the Mother's statue in the chapel and her growing friendship with the women, as well as her hard treatment at the hands of Abbot William.
Then the images shifted again, and Sarpedon's presence was clearly seen drifting, oil-like, out of the well. The mirror reflected the events that unfolded when the merman inhabited the knight's body, and it clearly displayed the havoc Sarpedon's influence caused among the humans.
CC felt her head spin as she watched the mirror's image of herself being shown the wonders of the sea by Dylan. She experienced again the magic of their love as it was born and reveled in hearing the mirror image of her lover repeat his promise of waiting an eternity for her.
Again, the scene changed to show the humans' discovery of CC and her lover, and Sarpedon's materialization from the body of Andras. The last vision exposed through the glassy surface was of Gaea calling forth Lir to preside over the punishment of his son. Then the glistening surface went blank, and Gaea blew on it again, causing it to dissipate into a puff of shining smoke, leaving a shroud of silence that hung over the water.
Lir spoke first to the goddess. "I did not hear any of your calls." He shook his head sadly. "Sarpedon should not have been able to keep them from me. I allowed myself to be distracted."
Gaea nodded in understanding. "I knew Sarpedon was involved in your absence, but I was loath to act against your child. We share the responsibility of our errors."
"Yes. And too many have paid for them in our stead." The sea god faced the beach.
Andras and his squire were still crouched in the sand, eyes glassy with shock at what they were witnessing. Bron-wyn, Lynelle and Gwenyth had joined Isabel on the beach and the four women stood together, their hands linked. Most of the monks had fled from the cliffside, but the few who remained were kneeling as if in prayer. The abbot was nowhere to be seen.
Lir glanced at Gaea and asked, "Are you willing to exchange roles, so that justice will truly be served?"
The goddess lifted her brows questioningly. "What do you propose?"
"I propose that I render judgment in your realm, as you will in mine."
Gaea hesitated only a moment. "Agreed."
Lir turned his attention to the humans on shore. First he focused his hard gaze on Andras and his man. "My judgment is thus—the knight and his squire shall return to their kingdom of land unharmed." Lir paused, and his eyes took on a sly glint, then he added, "Sir Andras, you shall learn the value of women. Henceforth you will be able to father only daughters, and your daughters will bear only female children. You would be wise to remember that the goddess of the Earth will be watching closely that you treat your daughters well." The knight's face drained of all its color, and he seemed to shrink in upon himself; then the two men scurried off the beach.
Lir spoke to the women next. "Wise women, because I am grateful for the friendship you have shown my daughter, I gift you with this monastery." Lir swept his arm in a grand gesture that encompassed the rocky walls above them, and suddenly the bland, gray color was washed away, replaced by stones that seemed to shine with the color of pearls. The four women on the beach gasped in pleasure.
"You will find I have made some changes within, too, as is befitting your new home." Lir smiled fondly at the women. Then he raised his head and his voice carried to the few monks who were still kneeling on the cliff. "You males may stay, but know that these women are no longer your servants. Live and worship peacefully with them, as equals, or flee their island and the wrath of the God of the Seas."
Then Lir's sharp gaze searched the beach until he found a quivering mound of flesh hiding behind a fallen log.
"Abbot! You cannot hide from the gods. Stand and receive your judgment."
Trembling, Abbot William raised his head and struggled to his feet. His face was streaked with tears and vomit soaked the front of his blood-colored robe.
Gaea touched Lir's arm again. Her voice was gentle. "Perhaps we should judge him together. He is, after all, our child."
The abbot's eyes widened in horror, and he shook his head from side to side in jerky, panic-filled denial.
Lir scowled. "Stop sniveling, William. Remember!" he commanded as he flicked his wrist, raining a spray of sea-water across the beach and onto the abbot.
Instantly, a change came over William's face, and he blinked several times, rubbing his eyes as if he was just awakening from a bad dream.
"I told you we should have left him with his memories," Gaea said.
Lir sighed. "He always was our most difficult child. He could not abide the seas, yet he did not belong on the land. What do you propose we do with him now?"
Gaea tapped her chin thoughtfully with one slim finger. Then her eyes widened, and her smile was glorious. "I propose he spend the next century with Cernunnos helping him guard the Gateway to the Underworld. Perhaps one hundred years with the dead will teach our son to appreciate the beauty of life, and to be more accepting of himself and of others."
"Excellent!" Lir said, and he struck his trident three times against the water. At the third strike the beach at William's feet split open and swallowed him, closing quickly on his high-pitched cry for help.
"Now it is your turn, Earth Mother," Lir said.
"I will try to be as wise and just as the Lord of the Seas," the goddess said with a magnanimous smile.
Gaea and Lir faced the mer-beings. Gaea turned first to the two lovers. When she spoke, the goddess's words were filled with the warmth of a mother.
"Undine and Dylan—your love is strong and true. Though it causes me sadness to have my favorite daughter live apart from the land, your union brings me great joy. I bless your lives and smile upon your joining. May an eternity not diminish your love."
CC felt the goddess's blessing settle over her, and her soul swelled with happiness as Dylan took her gently into his battered arms.
Then she faced Sarpedon, whose face had already darkened in a rage of disbelief, and her expression hardened. His eyes flicked nervously from Lir to Gaea, as if he expected his father to step in and prevent the goddess from continuing.
"Sarpedon, you have been an overindulged child, and your punishment is long overdue. Since you misused the well that nourished the monastery, and you thought that through violence and entrapment you could cage love, your punishment shall reflect your misdeeds. I sentence you to be trapped within a well for the next century. And your jail will not be near the seas so that you can draw power from them to cause evil among those who would use your well. You will be caged far inland, deep in the center of a castle known for its well-ordered discipline. In the land of Caer Llion, the people banished magic decades ago. There you will neither be acknowledged nor feared. My wish for you is that this punishment teaches you to appreciate your freedom enough to allow others their own."
Gaea raised her hand to call forth her judgment, but with a snakelike movement Sarpedon's arm struck out, and he used his supernatural strength to shatter the bridge of land on which the goddess stood. The sand dissolved under her feet and, with a cry of shocked surprise, Gaea fell into the water. Whipping his thick tail, Sarpedon caused the water to whirlpool and boil as it closed over the goddess's head.
Roaring in disbelief, Lir parted the seething blue liquid and grasped Gaea's hand, pulling her up into his arms.
Quickly, Sarpedon spread his hands out into the water, as if he was searching for a hidden treasure within the waves. His voice was the sound of madness.
"If I cannot have her, no one will have her!"
The crazed merman raised his mighty arm from the waves. In his fist he clutched the spear Gaea had fashioned to kill the sea monster. In a movement blurred with speed, Sarpedon hurled the spear at CC.
Dylan saw the spear coming and the world seemed to slow around him. He could not let Sarpedon kill her. She needed him; the cost did not matter.
An instant before the weapon would have penetrated CC's body, Dylan twisted, throwing himself in front of the mermaid. CC felt her lover spasm as the spear embedded itself in his back, and she watched in horror as its tip blossomed out of the merman's chest like a terrible crimson flower.
Her cry of despair joined with Lir's roar of rage. The sea god's reaction was swift. He hurled his trident at his son, striking him full in the chest. Sarpedon's eyes widened in shock an instant before his lifeless body began to liquefy and lose substance, until he no longer held the form of a merman, but became part of the waters from which he had been born.
In two enormous strides the sea god was at Dylan's side. He barked a word of command and the water hardened so that it held Gaea aloft, above its frothing wetness. Both deities knelt before the wounded merman.
Dylan focused his remaining power and sent one simple thought to Gaea.
Do not let her know. It is a cost I willingly paid.
Gaea knew that his transformation into a human had weakened him too much. Now, not even the power of the Gods could save him. The goddess closed her eyes on tears and nodded.
My daughter shall not know.
Dylan's body slumped in CC's arms. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow and rapid. Blood poured from the flesh that gaped around the spearhead. Lir grasped the handle of the spear protruding from the merman's back, as if to pull it from Dylan's body, but Gaea's restraining hand halted him.
"It will only cause him more pain." The goddess's words were rich with sorrow.
"What do you mean?" CC's voice was tinged with growing hysteria. "Of course you have to pull it out! How else are you going to save him?"
In a gesture infinitely gentle, Gaea touched the mermaid's tear-drenched cheek.
"I cannot save him, Christine."
"You have to!" CC sobbed. "You're a goddess. You have to be able to save him."
The goddess's eyes filled with tears. As she spoke they spilled down her cheeks, leaving trails of glistening diamonds in their wake.
"He has been pierced with my own spear, a weapon fashioned by my hand as a device of destruction. I cannot heal a wound caused by my own hand."
"But you didn't throw it!"
"I wrought it, and that is enough. I did not have to wield it, too," Gaea said sadly.
CC looked desperately at Lir. "Then you save him. You're a god."
The sea god exchanged a look with Gaea. When he spoke, his voice held the weight of centuries. "I cannot undo the destruction brought about by the Earth goddess. Even gods and goddesses are bound by the rules of the universe."
"Then turn back time! Do something!" CC screamed.
"Christine," Dylan's voice was a choked whisper. His body twitched as he struggled to turn his face up to hers. "They cannot help me." He coughed and blood gushed in a new torrent from his wound.
"S," CC pressed her hand to his lips. "Don't talk. Save your strength. We'll figure out something."
With an almost imperceptible movement, Dylan shook his head. "I knew the choice I was making when I moved within the path of the spear. I made it freely,"—he paused to pant for breath—"and I would make it again." The merman closed his eyes, struggling against a wave of pain.
"Dylan, no!" CC kissed him frantically. "You can't die. You can't leave me. Remember," she sobbed, "you promised me an eternity."
The merman's lips tilted briefly in a smile, and he opened his eyes. "I still await you. For an eternity, Christine."
In one last heave, the merman's chest rose and his shaking hand brushed CC's tear-soaked cheek.
"For an eternity…"
With those last words, Dylan's life fled his body, and CC was left clutching the shell of her beloved until it, like Sarpedon's body, began to fade and liquefy, returning to the water of his creation.
As if sifting sand through a colander, CC's hands tried to recapture the scattered brilliance of the colors of flame that floated briefly atop the water.
"Come, child," Gaea said, grasping CC's hands so that their frantic motion was stilled.
Gaea opened her arms to her daughter, but even the embrace of a goddess could not soothe the pain of loss within CC, and the mermaid sobbed so desperately that she felt as if her soul had dissolved around her like Dylan's body.
Then other arms joined the goddess. They were softer, more aged arms, arms that were weathered and worn and had born witness to a lifetime of hardship and sorrows.
"I know, child. I know."
CC looked up into Isabel's tear-stained face. Then she felt more arms around her. Standing chest deep in water, Lynelle, Bronwyn and Gwenyth had joined Isabel. The four women completed the circle around CC, lending her their strength and filling her with their love. CC sobbed out her pain and loss, secure in the knowledge that the women who held her would not let her go.
In the midst of despair, Gaea reached her hand out to her daughter, motioning to the path that the arrow had carved through the mermaid's flesh.
"Let me heal you of this wound, Daughter," Gaea said. But before the goddess touched the bloody furrow, she hesitated. Slowly she withdrew her hand. "I must wait. The judgment is not complete." Gaea looked at Lir. "Events have changed, and so must my judgment."
Wearily, the sea god nodded.
"This judgment will differ from those of the past, because today's events have forever changed me." Gaea's audience was hushed, even Lir seemed to be holding his breath in anticipation of the goddess's next words. "For the bravery and loyalty you have shown, my beloved daughter, my judgment is that you may choose your future path." CC's tear-ravaged face brightened, and Gaea was quick to continue. "I cannot change your lover's death, and for that I will be eternally sorry, but I can offer you two choices."
"What are they?" CC asked in a voice that shook.
"You may choose to stay here, in this world and this time, either as a mermaid and Goddess of the Seas, or as Earth's beloved daughter and a goddess in my realm. You will reign beside either parent, and your days will be filled with the duties of a deity."
"Forever?" CC asked.
"Forever," Gaea assured her.
"What is my other choice?"
"I will return you to your old world and your old time—to the site of your accident, the moment before the wreckage pulled you under the waves. You will survive the accident and continue with your human life."
"But what will happen to Undine if I choose to return to my world?" CC asked.
Lir's voice sounded ancient with grief. "My son exists no more. That is as unchanging as the death of Dylan. If Undine returns to me, she will be allowed her own choice. Whether she decides to remain in the seas with me, or joins her mother on land, she has my blessing. I shall no longer try to control the lives of my children."
"There is one more thing you should know before you make your choice," Gaea spoke into the silence that surrounded the god's words. "It is within our power"—here she glanced at Lir and he nodded slowly in agreement—"to wipe clean the slate of your memory."
"You mean you can send me back to the instant that I was being pulled under by the wreckage, and you can make me forget everything that has happened here? It'd be like I was never gone, like Undine and I had never changed places?" CC asked.
"Yes," the goddess said.
CC felt herself become very still. She closed her eyes and, against the background of her darkened lids, she replayed the days and nights she had spent on Caldei. And her eyes snapped open.
"I know what I want," she said firmly.
"Tell me daughter; complete your own judgment."
"I have loved being in this world; I thought that I had finally found a place where I could belong, a place I could call my true home. But I understand now that a sense of belonging is not physical. We can't find it by changing where we live or what we do. We have to carry it within us." CC took a deep breath. "Forgive me, Mother." Her gaze included both Gaea and Isabel. "I can't spend an eternity without him, even if it is as a goddess. And I've learned that I carry my true home within me. So I want to be sent back to my old world. And I want to remember—all of you and him." Her words ended in a whisper.
"Very well," the goddess said.
"We will miss you, Undine." Isabel spoke for the women, who nodded and wiped tears from their streaming eyes.
CC hugged each of them.
"Take care of each other and other women, too," CC said through her tears.
"Take this back with you." Isabel tried to return to her the amber amulet, but CC shook her head.
"No, keep it and remember me."
"We will never forget," Isabel promised.
Then CC turned to Lir. She touched his arm gently, in a gesture that mimicked that of the goddess.
"I would have liked to have known you."
"As I would have you, child." His voice rumbled with feeling. "You no longer have your mother's amulet. Allow me to gift you with one of my own." The sea god reached into the waves and when he pulled his hand up, a delicate golden chain glittered from one of his fingers. From the end of the chain hung an exquisite baroque pearl, gleaming all the colors of sunrise. He placed it around her neck and kissed her lightly on her forehead. "Remember me," he said sadly. "And know that if you ever desire solace, all you need do is to find the water. In any world it will welcome you with a father's embrace."
At last CC faced the goddess. With the loss of Dylan she had thought her heart unable to ache anymore, but as Gaea smoothed back her hair and wiped the tears from her face, CC felt a new wound open within her.
"No, child." Gaea cupped CC's face in her hands. "Do not let this parting cause you more grief; I could not bear it. You must know that even in your distant world, I will be watching you. You can find me in the trees and flowers and plants you so love. And whenever the moon is at its most full, look there and you will see the reflection of my face."
CC choked back a sob, wondering if she would die of sadness.
As if reading her mind the goddess spoke quickly with knowing finality. "You will survive. You are child of my spirit and your strength is great."
CC nodded, feeling fresh tears warm her cheeks.
Gaea kissed her gently on the lips. "Go with my blessing, Daughter. Always remember that you are much loved by a goddess, and that you hold within you the magic of the Divine Feminine."
Then Lir moved to stand beside Gaea and, as one, the immortals raised their arms to the sky.
"I call upon the power at my command. I am Earth, body and soul." Gaea's voice was filled with strength. In response to her call the air around the goddess began to shimmer with energy.
"I call upon the power at my command. I am sea, breath and life." Lir's voice followed Gaea's and as he spoke the water around them began to glow.
"Once we joined to create a child," Gaea intoned.
"Now we join to send a child back whence she came," Lir continued.
"Return to the world of man," Gaea said.
"Carrying blessings from the world of gods," Lir said.
"SO HAVE WE SPOKEN; SO SHALL IT BE."
The immortals intoned the final command together, and CC felt a great funnel of power settle over her, as if she had been swallowed by a current of electricity. Blinding light engulfed her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. Her body was being pulled backward with such force that she was unable to breathe. On and on the sensation went, like she was caught on a giant roller coaster that only ran in reverse. Panicking, CC wrenched open her mouth to scream, and it filled with saltwater as her head broke through the surface of the water, and she choked and sputtered, struggling to breathe and stay afloat.
She heard two quick splashes, and, in an instant, a head broke the surface not far from her, along with a lifeless body clad in a flight suit and strapped within a life jacket.
The sense of deja vu was so overwhelming that she had to struggle to concentrate past blinding dizziness.
Blinking wildly, CC watched as the colonel pointed at the fluorescent orange life raft that drifted about forty feet in front of them.
"Swim! We have to get away from the plane." He set off, sidestroking and kicking hard as he dragged the lifeless body with him.
CC's numbed thoughts told her that those were the same words the colonel had spoken to her before. And the body was Sean. Another man who had died for her. She choked again, this time on a sob instead of seawater. Her mind felt stuck in a labyrinth of pain and remembrance.
A horrendously familiar explosion burst behind her, and she spun around in the water in time to bear witness a second time to the death of the plane. It was an enormous, gaping beast, and, in its death throes, it eerily reminded her of Sarpedon's sea monster.
With a sense of increasing detachment CC realized the same thing she had understood all those days before—the sinking plane was too close to her.
And this time she didn't care. There had been so much death. Why shouldn't she just relax and give in to it? At least this time she wouldn't be filled with fear of the water. She felt cold and unbearably tired. CC closed her eyes and quit struggling as she waited for the mechanical tentacle to wrap around her ankle.
When she felt the first bump against her body she was mildly surprised. She hadn't remembered getting thrown around before the thing had dragged her under.
The bump turned into an insistent, jetlike force, and soon she was sputtering, gasping for air, and flailing her arms desperately around for balance as she was firmly propelled up and forward by two somethings that felt slick and muscular and very familiar against her swiftly moving body.
This isn't happening, she thought. It can't be real.
"I'll be! Will you look at that?" A dark-haired captain holding a flat yellow paddle pointed in her direction.
Even the colonel, who was dragging Sean's lifeless body aboard the raft, paused to stare.
The pressure against CC released, and she came to a halt as she knocked against the side of the orange raft. The pointing captain grabbed her arm and pulled her aboard. At the rough handling, newly awakened pain raked through her body, and CC shivered violently as a warm rush of blood poured from her wounded shoulder.
"It's the same shoulder," she said, looking down at the red stain that was blending with the desert brown of her sodden fatigue shirt. "Different body, but same shoulder." The words were coming out of her mouth, but CC didn't feel very connected to them, just as she didn't feel very connected to her body. Somewhere through the layers of grief and shock, the laughter of hysteria began to bubble inside her throat.
"Shit, yes, your shoulder's hurt. We know that. But what the hell were those things?" the master sergeant asked, pointing at the sleek gray shapes that were streaking away from them.
"Dolphins," CC said, erupting into uncontrollable giggles. "They're dolphins."
"Well, kiss my ass and call me Santa Claus! I've never seen nothing like that. Those damn fish just saved your life," the Master Sergeant said, slapping his thick thigh.
"Actually, they're mammals, not fish," CC said between giggles and gulps for air. "And I guess they still think I'm a princess."
Except for her unnaturally shrill giggles, the raft was quiet while the men stared at her.
"Uh, sarg," the colonel said gently. "You better let me take a look at that shoulder."
The pain of having her shoulder handled killed CC's hysteria.
"This will hurt like hell," the colonel told her. "But I
have to pack it and get the bleeding stopped or you're going to be in bad shape."
CC wanted to tell him that she didn't care, that she'd rather just die, but he had turned away and was busy searching through the first aid kit for packets of gauze.
"Looks like a fuckin' arrow sliced through her," the master sergeant said before the colonel told him to shut the hell up.
"Here, bite this." The colonel handed her a wooden tongue depressor, and she clamped her teeth down on it. "You try and think of someplace you'd rather be, and I'll try and be quick," he told her.
She nodded weakly and closed her eyes, thinking of a moonlit night when neon-colored fish were candles and the world was filled with the newness of love. She could see Dylan's face as he bent to kiss her and, for an instant, she could almost taste his wild, salty flavor.
Pain exploded, splintering her concentration as flecks of light dotted her closed lids. And then the sweetness of unconsciousness claimed her.
"Hang on, sarg! We've got yal"
The steady twap, twap, twap of the helicopter and the pain in her shoulder wrenched CC back into screaming consciousness. She opened her eyes to find a Search and Rescue Trooper working over her, murmuring encouragement while he unsnapped the lid of a syringe filled with clear liquid and jabbed it into her thigh. The medicine's sharp burn was almost unnoticeable compared to the agony that was her shoulder.
"It'll be better now. Just relax, and we'll have you in the chopper in no time."
He spoke to her soothingly as he finished strapping her into the harness. Then he gave the thumb's up sign to the air above him, and CC felt a sickening lurch as she was lifted from the raft to the hovering helicopter.
She was the first to be rescued, but the others weren't far behind. CC watched through a morphine haze as Sean's body was pulled into the helicopter, followed quickly by the master sergeant, then the lieutenant, the captains, and finally the colonel.
As they flew away from the crash site, CC locked her gaze on the glimpse of sapphire water she could still see through the helicopter's open door. With all her soul she wished she would catch a flash of fiery orange streaking under the surface, shadowing the path of the aircraft and eternally waiting for her return.
Her vision of the glistening water blurred as her eyes filled and spilled over with tears.
"You'll be all right now, sarg," said the medic who was starting an IV in her arm. "We'll get you home and get you all fixed up."
CC opened her mouth to say that it would never be all right again, but a cry from the other side of the chopper bay interrupted her.
"Oh, shit! Johnson! Get over here; I need another set of hands! This man is alive."
The medic working on CC gave her IV sack a quick adjustment before he rushed to help his colleague.
Somewhere in the back of her mind CC understood that the frantically working medics were surrounding Sean's body, but her thoughts weren't working properly, and she couldn't seem to focus her mind.
And she thought she knew why. It had nothing to do with loss of blood, or the pain, or the morphine. It was because even though her body was alive, her heart was dead. It died in another world and dissipated to nothingness within the seas.
The blue of the ocean crystallized through her tears, and then began to fade as gray unconsciousness folded over the edges of her vision, and, like a favorite blanket, lulled her into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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