For the second time in one minute my jaw hit the bottom of the boat hull. “You want me to do what?”
He pressed a finger to his lips and his eyes darted over to the sleeping men. “The docks have ears.”
I clapped my jaw shut and shoved the vial back in his hand as I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Listen, I know we have some sort of connection, but this is taking it too far. Besides, how’s your blood going to help me get this boat moving?”
His eyes fell on the liquid in the vial as he twisted the glass in his hand. “My blood has certain. . .unique properties that when drank instills within anyone greater strength and speed.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “How come more people haven’t hired a vampire and gone after your blood?”
“The effects last for only a short time, and for some people they can be deadly.”
A little bit of color left my face. “Is there a drug test I can take to make sure I’m not one of those people?”
Luca met my eyes with his steady gaze. “Our connection ensures that I can never harm you.”
I pursed my lips, but held out my hand. “Fork it over.” He blinked at me, and I snorted. “Give it to me.”
A smile spread across his lips as he handed me the vial. I took the glass and, pinching my nose shut and taking a deep breath, downed the whole contents in one big, rust-flavored gulp. Luca took the vial back and I tried to keep down the vile vial contents.
After a moment I wrinkled my nose. “So what-” I felt like something socked me in the gut, but in a gentle way, like they’d used a brick full of pillows.
I wrapped my arms around myself and doubled over as the unusual feeling spread all over my body. My muscles tightened and a few in my hand visibly danced.
Luca dropped to one knee in front of me and grasped my shoulders. “This will pass.”
After a moment I let out a stifled gasp. That was the release mechanism, and the pain faded. A strange feeling of weightlessness replaced it. I lifted my hand and studied it as though for the first time. There was hardly any weight to it at all, almost like I was a ghost.
“Now take up the oars,” Luca instructed as he slipped back into the stern and grabbed the rudder handle in one hand.
I grabbed one of the oars and lifted it with both hands. The wood nearly flew out of my grasp and into the drink. I gawked at the wood a moment before I whipped my head to my grinning companion. “That is so cool.”
He chuckled. “I don’t need a translator to understand that word, but we should get going.”
Luca untied the boat and I grabbed the oars. He gave a push against the dock and shoved us away from the wood. I dipped the tips of the oars into the water and rowed. The boat cut through the water like a hot knife through butter.
We were soon far from the dock and in the midst of the large anchored vessels that dotted the deeper port waters. I looked about myself. “Which one are we aiming for?”
He nodded at a point in front of us. “That ship.”
I twisted around while still oaring and noted the white color I’d noticed before. The ‘color,’ however, was a thick mist that clung to the cliff walls to the left of the port mouth. The mist covered some four hundred feet of the stone wall from the water to the top of the jagged gray rocks, and appeared to stretch out three hundred feet from those same walls. The white fog drifted lazily to and fro, but never moved more than a few feet.
I furrowed my brow. “What is it?”
“A hide called the Shroud. The vessel we seek is within that fog bank.”
I snorted. “That’s kind of an obvious hide.”
Luca shook his head. “Not with that hide. The fog there is permanent, a remnant of the wars my kingdom has fought.”
I turned to him and lifted an eyebrow as I kept up my rowing. “So why don’t the port officials make sure nobody hides in there?”
He pursed his lips as he swept his eyes over the mist. “Because sea monsters are attracted to the magic that created and keeps the mist.”
“Was the mist made to protect the port?”
Luca sighed. “On the contrary, it was meant to destroy any ships that attempted to navigate through the mouth. In that time there were more rocks at the mouth, remnants of when the cliffs extended out even farther than they do now. Our enemies created a fog bank to stifle our trade and force us to surrender.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “So what happened?”
“One of my ancestors, those of the Luminare branch of my line-”
“The ones who can do magic really well, like Cassius?” I recalled.
He nodded. “Yes. They dispelled much of the fog, and what you see before us is all that remains of that long-ago contest of wills.”
“Your country has a really strange history.”
A wry smile slipped onto his lips. “A country as old as mine tends to have its share of oddities.”
I leaned to my left and looked into the deep, dark water. “So what’s going to keep us from being swallowed by a sea monster?”
I whipped my head up and blinked at him. “You’re joking.”
Nothing like the threat of imminent death by sea monster to get the blood going and the oars rowing. The vessel practically flew through the water, and after a few tense minutes I risked a look over my shoulder to see how much of the two-mile breadth we’d covered. It turned out my prodigious strength had nearly taken us to the edge of the fog.
The next moment I heard a splash and whipped my head back around. Luca had vanished, but his flailing arms soon appeared above the hull of the boat. I dropped my oars and leapt across the short ship to the stern where I grabbed one of his flailing limbs. His head was above water, but it was what was below it that made my blood run cold.
A hulking shadow swam just below the surface. Something shot out of the water and splattered me with salt water. I leaned my head back and gaped at the long, shell-covered arm that stretched above me. The limb ended in fingers that resembled crab claws, but with sharp, dagger-like points on the end.
The rest of the monster came with it, and I nearly let go of Luca as I beheld a beast with the shape of a man, but twice as large. Its hairless body was covered in turtle shell-like plates, and its head was smooth with a stretched face and flat nose only a mother could love, if the mother didn’t eat her offspring. Its mouth was shriveled like an old man without teeth, and its deep-set eyes were completely black.
The creature lifted its other arm out of the water and revealed its hold on the lower part ofLuca’s leg. It leaned its empty arm atop the side of the boat and hung Luca upside down on its side, but I kept my hold on his arm with both hands.
I gave a yank, but Luca remained trapped in its hold. “Let him go!”
The creature chuckled. It was like listening to someone beat a large drum. “I do not seek to harm him.”
I gave a tug on Luca’s arm. “Then let him go!”
“It’s alright,” Luca told me as he offered me an upside down smile. “Mizu is an old friend.”
I looked Luca up and down. “Do your friends often leave you hanging?”
Mizu gave another chuckle as he set Luca back in his seat, and I scuttled back to make room for the dripping dragon lord. “I must apologize, but I thought only to help my friend.”
I watched as Luca removed his shirt and rung it out over the side of the boat. “By dragging him into the water?”
Luca set his shirt aside and I couldn’t help but admire the rippling muscles. He glanced at me, and I whipped my face away, but not before I caught him giving me a sly smile.
Luca pulled off a few bits of tangled seaweed from his clothes. “Mizu is a kaiso, a friendly creature of the oceans.”
Mizu bowed his head to me. “It is a great honor to meet the Lady of White Fire.”
Luca paused in his cleaning and lifted an eyebrow at him. “The news in the ocean travels quickly.”
Mizu swept an arm over the mouth of the bay. “The gulls crying on the rocks told me.”
I raised my arm. “If you don’t mind my asking, but why did you decide to give Luca a bath?”
Mizu’s taut face took on an expression of concern as he turned his head to Luca. “A mere reminder that he has been forbidden from entering the ocean.”
Luca slipped back on his wrinkled shirt. “I was going to keep to the bay.”
The sea creature shook his head. “You take a great risk.”
Luca pursed his lips. “Because there’s a great risk of failure if we don’t get something back from some pirates. Can you tell us if there’s a ship at harbor in the Shroud?”
Mizu nodded. “There is, and I will help you reach it.”