The Supreme Master stepped close to the platform’s edge and took a peek down. The Sun was setting, and a pale halo of light flickered now underwater, marking the artifact’s location.
“Come here, kids,” Anh said, waving towards the teenagers. “I’m going to show you something interesting. But before I do that, perhaps we should introduce ourselves. I’m Anh, and this is Rongo. What are your names?”
“I’m Solis, this is Lila, and this is Kolin,” Solis replied.
“Now that we are all acquainted, let’s get ready to take this object out of the water,” the supreme master continued.
He stepped near the rope, turned towards Rongo, and said:
“This method would have never worked. Not even a master can pull out such an object by force, even with a sturdy and expensive carbon-fiber line like this. Before doing anything else, I think it’s not a bad idea to separate the hook from it.”
Anh grabbed the rope’s end with his right hand and positioned himself into a low stance, with his feet wide apart. He closed his eyes and took a few deep, even breaths. The skin of his hands turned immediately red as if the blood circulation through them had become way more vigorous.
The supreme master lifted the rope and jerked it downwards with lightning speed. The whip-like motion got carried downwards almost instantly until it reached the other end. A short, deep rumble erupted from the water, and the hook came out. Anh pulled the rope up and let it drop into a coil on the ground in the admiring game of the others.
After a short pause, the supreme master leaned onto his right knee and bent down his torso over the edge. With a loud shout, he hit the platform with his right palm, right above the artifact’s location. The ground shook as if jolted by an earthquake. A moment later, a column of water exploded upwards, like a geyser. A shiny box colored in light blue floated on its top, about two meters above the platform’s edge.
“Catch it!” Anh shouted.
Rongo reached out, grabbed the box tightly, and set it with care on the ground.
“Is it safe to touch it?” Solis asked.
“Yes, it’s fine now,” Anh replied. “The shock that pulled it out has deactivated its power source. Now, let’s get out of here. Rongo! Take the box to the local headquarters of Two Waves. I will come and take a more thorough look at it tomorrow. We need to be careful. I have a feeling the five thugs from earlier went for backups and might be soon waiting for us on the shore.”
They began crossing the platform, leaving the coiled rope with the hook behind. Rongo was walking in front, carrying the artifact under his right arm. Soon, they reached the opposite edge, where the steps cut in stone allowed anyone easy access to the rock. Two inflatable boats danced on the waves: one belonging to Rongo, the other to Anh. There was no trace of the goons.
“Humm,” Anh said. “I kind of expected to see them back by now. The thugs were leaving when I arrived on the beach. They glimpsed my badge and hasted away from the shore. No sign of them around. Yet, I think they can’t be far. We have to be prepared for an ambush. What do you think, Rongo?”
“I’m on the same wavelength,” the young master replied. Then, turning to Kolin, he added: “If we get involved in a fight, can you hold the artifact until it ends. Is that ok for you?”
“Yes, sir!” Kolin cried, surprised by the master’s trust.
They halted at the platform’s edge, ready to climb down the stone steps and get into the boats. The Sun had just set, and the night was slowly creeping in. Sen was going to appear in the sky soon, in her full phase, before it got completely dark.
“I’ll go first,” Anh said and set foot onto the narrow path. A fraction of a second before the final step, he stopped abruptly. Immediately, two arrows flew in front of him and bounced off the platform’s side.
“They’re here, all right,” the supreme master whispered. He turned towards the other man and continued in a low voice:
“Rongo, give the artifact to the kids and come here. I’ll take the right side. You take the left. Watch out for arrows.”
Without a word, Rongo passed the artifact into Kolin’s hands. It was cold and rather heavy for its size. The boy pulled the object close to his chest and took a deep breath. A vague scent of ozone filled his nostrils. Pushed by curiosity, Lila and Solis came closer, their fingers exploring the smooth surface.
The masters rushed down the steps and disappeared into the water. The actual fight took place beyond the platform’s edge, hidden from the teenager’s view. Several loud splashes echoed, some groans followed, then everything calmed down. They never saw the bodies of the attackers. A few seconds later, water dripping from his wet shirt and pants, Anh showed up at the base of the stone stairs and motioned them to join him. The night was falling, and the cold air made the almost-naked teenagers shiver.
“Only two,” Anh said. “Sentinels armed with crossbows. The main force hasn’t arrived yet. Let’s go!”
Rongo was already waiting in his boat. Kolin stepped in and handled the artifact back to him. Anh’s boat was larger. Lila and Solis scrambled in it, opposite the supreme master.
Almost without noise, Rongo began rowing towards the coast. Anh was following him closely. Both masters cautioned the teenagers to lie down inside the boats. More gangsters armed with crossbows could be waiting near the shore. There was no need to give them more targets to shoot at.
They soon touched the soft sand of the beach. The whole area looked deserted, and an eerie silence was reigning in the air.
“It looks a bit too easy,” Rongo said.
“It certainly does,” Anh replied. “Yet, I don’t feel any human presence nearby. Let’s keep the boats close to the water until we know for sure they won’t attack us here.”
“They must be waiting somewhere along the way to Lavand. Perhaps I shouldn’t go directly to the Two Waves headquarters.”
“I bet they also guard the main road that leads to Aquatika’s building from Akonit.”
“This looks quite bad. Some big criminal syndicates must be hunting for this object. Do you have any idea who would be so interested in the artifact?”
“I’m clueless. Those thugs certainly didn’t look like people related to our government. Or, as a matter of fact, to any other government. Any official would have presented an identification badge before requesting access to the object.”
“There is a payphone near the road. Should we call the police?”
“And let the politicians get the artifact? The Blue Federation certainly is a functional democracy, but every democracy has vulnerable spots. Sooner or later, someone is going to find a way to steal the artifact from a government building and abuse its powers.”
“Would the artifact be safe if it stayed in Aquatika’s building?”
“As safe as inside the Two Waves’ headquarters.”
In the meantime, the teenagers went to the spot they had left their clothes and backpacks and got dressed. They picked up their bicycles and came back to where the masters were talking.
“I suppose that green car over there is yours,” Anh said, pointing at the near side of the road.
“That’s right. It was the fastest way to travel along the coast the twelve kilometers to this location,” the Two Waves master replied. “And the blue car behind it has to be yours.”
“Of course. My place is fifteen kilometers away, beyond Akonit.”
“This is the only road passing by the coast, mostly surrounded by forest. Few cars use it at night. They must have prepared ambushes on each side.”
“It’s the most likely scenario.”
“Who knows, perhaps our cars have already been tampered with and won’t even start.”
“Should we check them now?”
“Let’s decide first if we’re going to use them.”
Both Rongo and Anh went silent, thinking of a way out.
To his surprise, Kolin heard himself breaking in:
“I live about five kilometers away, in Akonit’s suburbs. Perhaps I could hide the artifact inside my backpack and take it to my home for the night? I doubt the thugs would recognize me.”
The masters turned their heads and stared at him for several long seconds. Then they looked at each other and smiled.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” Rongo said. “They would be watching the road and anyone who leaves this place.”
“Let’s think from the thugs’ perspective,” Anh added. “They know who we are, they know we’re here, and they know we have the artifact. Those who tried to kill us on the Iron Rock were just overzealous fellows who hoped for an easy gain and a promotion. No one expected them to succeed. The gang didn’t have enough men and weapons on such short notice to stop us here, so they moved away from the beach for the time being. Or maybe they didn’t want to start a fight here for fear of leaving too many tracks.
“These men would likely ambush us on our way out, somewhere farther along the road. It would be easy to make it look like an accident. For the same reason, it’s quite likely they didn’t tamper with the cars. I think it’s a good idea to call our headquarters. Even so, the help must be discreet, or the police will soon find out what’s going on, and they will let the government know about the artifact.”
“I’ll go to the payphone,” Rongo said and strode through the grove towards the road.
It was getting dark, but Sen was going to appear in the sky at any moment. The waiting became tense. Four or five minutes later, Rongo came back. His face, reflecting the pale light radiated by the large moon rising from the sea, said everything.
“The payphone doesn’t work,” Anh said.
“As expected, they’ve made it inoperative,” Rongo confirmed. “I think the thugs have surrounded us and are slowly closing in.”

text & artwork by Marian C. Ghilea


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