Okay, this is the last chapter I'll post before the book is released in October. Many have pre-ordered a signed copy directly and are surprised that I'm the one who answers the phone. Trust me, LDS artists aren't that famous. We do our own legwork, and it's fun to talk to fans. The free item offered along with a pre-order of Tennis Shoes 12: Drums of Desolation as a book or audio book is still available until the end of August. Those free items include a DVD of Passage to Zarahemla, the book of Passage to Zarahemla, or the book of Escape from Zarahemla (which are now part of the Tennis Shoes universe and pre-cursors to Drums of Desolation.) I 'spose I could also offer a free music CD of Whispered Visions (songs from the movie Passage to Zarahemla) to those who would prefer this. There is an additional $3.00 in shipping for a free item. You can also get the audio book for Escape From Zarahemla for $10.00.
You can call me directly at 801-870-2070 or pre-order the book or audio book from Amazon. If I don't answer my phone right away, send a text and I'll call back ASAP. By the way, all other Tennis Shoes books and audios and gift sets (1-5 and 6-10) are on sale as well.
I hope this chapter keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
Hamira lunged forward, away from the stone where she’d been sitting. She was grabbing the back of her thigh, just above the knee joint, as she spun around to look for the thing that had attacked her.
I heard the telltale sound before I saw what was causing it. Oddly, the sound reminded me of the peaceful, musical hum of a tropical rainstick. This illusion was accentuated by the cavern’s echo. Then all sounds were drowned out by the echo of Hamira’s shriek.
I peered into the shadows between the stones where Hamira had been sitting. Something slithered into a tight crevice that my torchlight couldn’t illuminate. But I caught a glimpse of the black rattle, vibrating like a child’s toy. The snake was gone, although the rattling sound persisted.
“It bit me!” Hamira screeched. “It burns!” She spun around again, as if she might move those boulders with a superhuman surge of adrenaline and strangle that scrawny reptile. She staggered, and I caught her in my arms.
“Calm!” I said. “Be calm!”
I helped her lie softly upon the ground and turned her onto her side so I could see the wound. There were two punctures, about an inch apart, blood red and swelling before my eyes. Fury raged inside me. I felt angry at nature. Wasn’t a rattlesnake supposed to warn you with its rattle before it struck? This creature had offered no warning. It just sank its fangs into her flesh and slithered off. I wanted to follow through on Hamira’s impulse and gouge the blunt end of my torch—or even the flaming end!—into the narrow space where it had disappeared in hopes of exacting revenge, but I couldn’t leave Hamira’s side.
“Cut it!” she commanded. “Bleed it. Drain out the poison.”
I used my dagger. My hands were shaking as I tried to cut two small X’s into the back of her thigh, one for each puncture. You’d think living in ancient times for so long I’d have heard some kind of official instructions for how to deal with a snake bite. I’d learned no such procedures. The general consensus among the Nephites was that anyone bitten by a serpent was dead. It was God’s will. Somewhere in the distant memory of my youth, I’d heard that one should suck the poison and spit. As Hamira clenched her jaw to stop wailing in pain, I set my lips against the places where I’d cut the X’s and sucked her wounds like a vampire. I tasted blood and immediately spat it away. I sucked and spit again, and then again.
Finally, I did what I should’ve been doing all along. I prayed for help. I prayed as I worked, sucking and spitting. I paused and looked again at the wound. Hamira was writhing in anguish. She bit the collar of her mantle for all she was worth, trying to squelch her sobs. The wound was turning purple. If I received any inspiration at all, it was to stop what I was doing. These actions weren’t helping one little bit.
Another consequence came from all my sucking and spitting. My mouth was tingling. I felt like an imbecile. Over the last several days I’d been punched, thrown, beaten, and bruised over virtually every inch of my body. There was a cut on my lip and several cuts inside my mouth that had turned into canker sores. I was feeling nauseous. It occurred to me that in my effort to save Hamira, I’d envenomated myself!.
“What should I do?” I asked aloud. I couldn’t say if it was a prayer or if I was asking Hamira for advice. Tears were streaming down her face. If she’d understood the question, she wasn’t willing to stop biting her mantle long enough to answer.
I heard voices. Hamira’s screams hadn’t gone unnoticed. Our presence had been revealed, undoubtedly to the forces of Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath. The echo of scrambling footsteps and shouts was drawing closer. What was happening? I didn’t understand. We’d been following the directions provided by the Liahona. Why was this happening to us?
And then I heard the laughter. Surprise, surprise. It was the sword of Akish.
Poor Joshua. Poor, naive, silly, ignorant Joshua. I tried to warn you, and what did you do? Nothing! You ignored me. You ignored everything I tried to tell you. Now my advice is spent. I have nothing more to offer. This is the price you must pay. The cost of misguided faith. All I can now advise is that you sit and wait for your enemies. Any other action is futile and will not change your fate. And it certainly won’t change the fate of your sweetheart.
“Shut up!” I said aloud. “Heavenly Father, make it shut up!”
Despite my prayer, I swore I could still hear the sword’s laughter. Hamira’s wound looked worse. The flesh around the twin punctures was darkening, the swelling increased. I wasted no more time.
“We have to keep moving,” I told Hamira. “I’ll carry you.”
She shook her head, as if nobly refusing my offer. It was insanity. I ignored the gesture. Hamira had dropped her torch as soon as she was bitten. The flame would have to be abandoned. I set down my own torch momentarily and heaved Hamira over both shoulders, careful not to skewer her with the sword of Akish. She was trembling, eyes pinched shut, jaw still clamped. Honestly, she felt as light as a feather; I had no trouble bending down to raise my torch again. I did have some difficulty seeing the top of the Liahona. I maneuvered her body out of way. The pointers still indicated a clear direction. I drew a deep breath, shaking off my own nausea and lightheadedness, and tromped toward a passage beyond the dusty shafts of sunlight, at the far end of the room.
The voices may not have been as close as I thought. Or they may have entered the chamber with shafts of light seconds after Hamira and I departed. The sores burned inside my mouth; I wasn’t thinking as straight as I should’ve been. I ignored this and fought my way through the passages. Instead of fading into the background, the voices seemed closer than ever. Was I carrying Hamira in a circle? No, that couldn’t happen. I was following the Liahona! I was on the correct path.
I staggered once and had to lean against the wall to catch my breath.
“Joshua,” said Hamira. “What’s wrong?”
She could tell I wasn’t operating at full capacity. Still, I denied it.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just needed to catch my wind.”
“I’m s-so cold,” she half-whispered. “Water. I need t-to drink.”
I untied the water skin from her belt and set it against her lips. I caught another glimpse of her bitten leg. Holy mackerel! It had swollen to almost twice its normal size. Panic engulfed me. What should I do? What would my father do? He’d use the Priesthood. He’d anoint her and bless her. I didn’t have the Priesthood. I’d never been worthy to receive the Priesthood. I could only pray. So pray I did, with all my might. The sword interrupted.
Leave her, it said. With her you have zero chance. Without her your chances remain slim. But with her you’re a dead man for certain.
“You’re a liar,” I said under my breath. I repeated the word like it was a chant. “You lie and you lie. You lie and you lie again. A moment ago it was futile. I had no chance at all.”
You’ll have to pardon me. I was gloating. I was angry that you felt I had nothing to offer. The truth is . . . I do. I have far more to offer than that cold metallic sphere on your hip. Your God has abandoned Hamira, Captain Josh—just as I told you He would. Yet He still wants you to rescue that obscene sack of Gold Plates. That’s the irony. He cares more about those plates than He cares about you. And I think you already know that He cares nothing for Hamira. I tried to tell you.
“I told you to shut up! Why aren’t you shutting up?”
Ask yourself that question? Maybe I don’t have to shut up. Maybe I never had to. Consider your own state of mind. You’re desperate, Captain Josh. You’d do anything to save Hamira. Anything to save yourself. And . . . curiously . . . anything to save that sack of metal. Why, I think you’d finally accept a bit of advice from me.
“Not on your life. Heavenly Father, please! Please shut it up!”
The cavern opened up again into a larger room. The voices still seemed to be moving toward us. I’d thought the Liahona was leading me down original pathways—tunnels that my pursuers wouldn’t normally choose. Yet the army of Nimrah, Elam, and Hathrom was drawing relentlessly closer. It was time to admit to myself: Hamira was becoming heavier and heavier. Was my adrenaline wearing thin? She was starting to feel like a sack of granite. Movies I’d seen as a kid . . . they always showed the hero carrying the wounded heroine mile after endless mile on their shoulders, across mountains and deserts and finally to safety. They were fairy tales. The human body had its limits. Besides, the rescuer wasn’t normally fighting snake venom that had penetrated cuts inside his mouth.
I laid Hamira down. I had to rest my shoulders. She was shaking like a leaf. I raised the torch to see her face. She was having difficulty holding up her lids, squaring her pupils. Her eyes rolled up and back, side to side, and her breathing was becoming ragged. The second I laid her on the ground, she vomited up all of the water I’d given her as well as the food inside her stomach.
“Dear God,” I prayed. “Help us! Help me to know what to do!”
I was sure the warriors of Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath would appear behind us at any second. I briefly stepped away from Hamira and strode twenty paces toward a passage at the far end of the room. It didn’t seem to me that this was the main tunnel. The primary passage went toward the left, climbing higher. I studied the pointers on the Liahona. My eyes weren’t cooperating. It was difficult to focus. Somehow I verified that the Liahona approved of the idea of taking this more obscure passage. With God’s support, maybe this route would finally throw off our pursuers.
I walked back to Hamira. I won’t say “staggered” because my wits were still about me. Nevertheless, I almost tripped several times as my focus continued to give me fits. She was barely conscious when I reached her, just conscious enough to beg for more water, despite having just vomited a third of our supply. I helped her to drain the remaining liquid from her pouch. When she asked for more, I untied my own water skin and set it to her lips.
“It’s time to get moving again,” I told her.
“Yes,” she agreed.
I looked at the Liahona.
What in—? What was happening?! The pointers weren’t together. The Liahona was suddenly on the fritz.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. The question was directed toward heaven. “What did I do wrong?”
I abandoned Hamira again and stepped back toward the tunnel that the Liahona confirmed that I should take just a moment ago. I fought again to focus my eyes and read the tiny pointers. I shook my head violently, as if jogging my head to force my eyes to focus. It seemed to work. Again I perceived the pointers, but the message baffled me to the core.
It was working again. The Liahona was functioning properly. I wasn’t wrong about the direction. So what was the dilemma a moment ago? I walked back toward Hamira. Just to be sure, I glanced at the Liahona one more time. I shuddered, horrified, as I confirmed that the pointers were again indicating separate directions. Once more the Liahona was kaput. Non-functioning. Just the act the walking back toward Hamira had thrown the compass out of whack.
You have to face the truth, Joshua. You must go on without her. You have to let her go!
“NO!” I cried. I didn’t care if my voice was loud enough to alert my enemies. “I left my sister. I let Becky die. I won’t let Hamira die.”
Noble sentiments. Even admirable. But you didn’t leave your sister, Joshua. She was already dead. Don’t you remember? God didn’t give a lick about your sister. And He cares even less about Hamira. Hamira: the daughter of Asherah. The offspring of my maker. Did you really think your God would ever support you in saving her life?
“Yes!” I said bitterly, grinding my teeth. “She’s good. She’s not one of them.”
The apple never falls far from the tree. But you’re good, Joshua. Yes, your wonderful God might yet support you. Try allocating your devotion strictly to the plates of Mahonri Moriancumr. Then watch and learn. Your God will always favor these bloodless, inanimate sheets of gold over human life. You see that now, am I right? Do you finally believe me?
“I can’t leave her. I won’t leave her!”
They’ll enter this chamber in the next thirty seconds. So you’d better decide hastily. If you try to carry her, you’re a dead man. If you leave her, only Hamira will die. You will live to fight another day. That I can promise. Yes, me, another hunk of inanimate, breathless metal. I can promise that you will live to wield me against your enemies another day. Just leave!
“I’ll never touch you again.”
Fine! But leave her! You must go! Look once more at your oracle. Do you doubt what it’s telling you?
“God, please,” I prayed. “Shut it up. Shut it up! Talk to me!”
He is talking to you. He speaks through the oracle on your hip. And you have only seconds to accept His instructions. Haven’t I made myself clear? I agree with its instructions!
Was this sarcasm? Was the sword being sincere? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t make sense of anything. “I can’t do this.”
Yes, you can! Rise up. Stand tall!
I stood up straight.
Walk toward the tunnel.
I studied Hamira’s sweet face, drenched in perspiration, eyes sealed shut, breathing shallowly. She was dying. A snakebite! After all that we’d been through together. Would it really end here? Would I really lose the only girl I’d ever kissed—ever loved—because of something as senseless and horrid as a snakebite? “God why? WHY?!”
Move! Move! Save His precious plates!
And then I heard Nimrah’s voice. “Over there! Kill them!”
His men were entering the chamber. Swords rasped from scabbards. Arrows were being loaded into bows. I turned and bolted. My vision remained blurry, but not with snake venom. Just tears. Tears of anguish and failure. An arrow whipped over my head as I ran toward the tunnel indicated by the Liahona. My thoughts were jumbled; my legs were powered purely by the instinct of survival. All the while, as my feet were moving, I fought the urge to return. I wanted to remain with her. I wanted to die by her side. Yet I was running. I was doing what the Liahona seemed to want—what God seemed to want. I was saving the book of the brother of Jared. And I was saving my own skin.
Except for the arrow that whistled overhead, no other arrow came close. The last thing I heard—or thought I heard—before I fled down the tunnel was, “It’s my sister!”
The words gave me a pebble’s worth of hope. Nimrah wouldn’t slay his sister.
What was I saying? Hamira was already dead. Any mercy that Nimrah might show would be rendered null and void by the venom of the rattlesnake. I was sick inside. I was delirious. I wanted to blame it on the poison, but I was no longer having trouble focusing my eyes. The tingling in my mouth never became the kind of gut-wrenching agony that afflicted Hamira. Whatever venom I’d received, the effects were not worsening. If I felt any nausea or delirium, I decided it had nothing to do with the rattlesnake. It was because of what I’d done. Because, for the second time in my life, I’d abandoned someone that I loved.
I’d told myself that I was a different person than I was on the day I’d left my sister on that windy hill near the city of Salem in an ancient year I couldn’t have named. I’d told myself that I was a better soul. My father said I was better. The Prophet Mormon said I was better. It wasn’t true. I was still a weak, warped, cowering vessel. I was still a servant of selfishness. I was never a servant of God, and I felt ashamed for ever believing that I could become one.
Shame is not necessary. I hope you finally understand. He is cruel. Your God is unspeakably cruel and single-minded. I am generous and kind. I never would have demanded such a heartless sacrifice. I would have saved you both, if only you had asked me. You didn’t kill Hamira. And you didn’t kill your sister. He killed them. You know it’s true. He killed them.
I paused. Footsteps continued to reverberate through the tunnel. Would-be assassins were still on my trail. I paused as something registered in my brain. It was a keen desire to defend history. Not to allow it to be rewritten.
The sword thought I’d forgotten. I think it literally thought that I no longer remembered the details of that dark, rainy night in the land of Israel so long ago. The fiery blue lightning bolts that delivered death.
“You’re right,” I said. “I didn’t kill my sister. But neither did He. You killed Becky.”
Each of those jagged lightning bolts that had blasted into the chests of a dozen horsemen, blowing them out of their saddles and driving their animals into the trees, had been discharged from the silver sword. Yes, I’d been holding the sword that day, but I didn’t call down the lightning. Becky had been a victim of one of those bolts. The sword had controlled the destiny of each white, fiery blast. It had been the sword all along.
Now who’s rewriting history? She asked you to drop me. Don’t you remember? You refused to let me go. You controlled the destiny of each of those lightning bolts. You were the author of destruction that night. Just as you are the author of today’s tragedy—and all because you refused to listen. All because—
I dropped my torch. I reached back and yanked the sword of Akish from behind my shoulder. With all my might I threw it, two-handed, into the throat of the tunnel. It spun once, clashed with the stones of the ceiling, emitted a few sparks, and then ricocheted into the left wall. I swore that I saw one of the rubies embedded in its hilt fly away before the sword finally came to rest, nearly thirty feet away, spinning once or twice on the tunnel floor, and then rotating slowly to a halt.
I was trembling. The nausea in my stomach had become unbearable. Whether the poison of the rattlesnake or the surge of emotion that had finally—once and for all—divorced me from the silver sword, I wasn’t sure. The contents of my stomach lurched into my throat. I leaned against the side of the cave and vomited. I remained there several moments, throwing up until only dry heaves remained. I wiped my mouth, leaned down, and clenched my fist around the handle of the torch. I shined it one final time back toward the sword of Akish. I saw the crimson reflection of its surface.
There were no more voices in my head. Why had I brought it? It actually took a moment to remember that I had brought it to bargain for the Gold Plates of Mormon. I’d brought it in hopes of making an exchange with Akish. What was I thinking? What kind of insanity had possessed me? Did I really believe that sword would bring about an honorable exchange? Nothing about that sword was honorable. Nothing about Akish was honorable. So what had I been expecting? Why did I put myself through—?
A man stepped into the torchlight. He’d wandered almost aimlessly into view, as if in no particular hurry, as if he wasn’t trying to catch up with me or anyone else. I knew right away that it wasn’t Nimrah. Nor was it Elam or Hathrom.
The figure wore a battle mask. This mask had narrow eye slits. He wore a black mantle with black arm band and rings of black tattoos around his legs, his arms, and even his fingers. There were spikes atop his helmet. I perceived that these spikes ran behind the helmet and down his back, like spikes on the back of a reptile.
He paused about thirty feet away, at the foot of the sword. He seemed to study it by the light of his own torch. Then he crouched, slowly, collectedly, and raised the faceplate of his helmet. It was the face of Akish.
The sorcerer wasn’t looking at me. He was still staring at the sword. He carried another sword in his free hand. Calmly, he slipped this second sword back into a sheath at his hip. Before he took the silver sword into his grip, he raised his eyes and looked at me. He grinned. Or at least the corners of his mouth turned up. It was neither a grin nor a smile—just an adjustment of his face muscles. Those eyes remained fixed on mine as he curled his fingers around the silver sword’s hilt. He straightened again into a full stand.
“Captain Josh,” he said, drawing out the “sh” sound in my name.
Other warriors started arriving behind Akish. They wore black armor like their leader. I didn’t recognize them. Was this an entirely different company of soldiers than the one led by Nimrah and the sons of Mizerath? Had Hamira’s cries alerted more than one army?
“You brought it back to me,” said Akish, taking several steps closer.
His skin was no less pale than it had ever been, his eyes no less beady. He still wore a short red beard, but the creases in his face had deepened substantially. Akish had aged. He seemed to have aged more than his years, although only a week had passed since I’d last laid eyes on him. Was it a week? Maybe a day or two longer. Nevertheless he’d aged a decade. Maybe two.
He stopped ten feet short of where I leaned against the cavern wall for support. He handed his torch back to one of his men; then he stroked the blade of the silver sword. I realized there were tears in his eyes. “You brought it back to me,” he repeated. “My glorious sword. Oh, my glorious sword! How I’ve missed you!”
He wasn’t speaking to me now. He was talking to his wretched blade. His fingers stopped stroking the silver momentarily as he noticed the space in the hilt where a jewel was missing.
“A ruby is missing. Have you been abused? Has Joshua abused you?” He wrenched his gaze back toward me. “It says you have abused it. It says you have treated it despicably. Is that true?”
I let go of the wall and stood upright. I was a fool, but I decided to test him and see if somewhere in Akish’s black heart there was some shred of honor.
“I have kept my bargain,” I said. “Now keep yours. Give me back the plates of Mormon.”
Akish didn’t really have visible eyebrows, but whatever eyebrows he had were drawn together in a pretense of confusion. “Plates of Mormon? Oh, oh, oh, oh. You mean the gold plates that I took from you atop the Hill Ramah. I’m afraid they’re not here.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”
Akish drew a little closer. “But they’re close. Yes, Joshua, they’re not very far away at all. They’re secure at my encampment on the beaches of Ablom. You’re almost there. A few steps farther and you’ll begin to hear the surf crashing against the cliffs. Come. I’ll let you lead the way.”
I glared down the tunnel and promptly felt something hit the back of my head.
I never went entirely unconscious. I remember being dragged over stones and boulders, inflicting many additional bruises to my legs. I remember smelling fishy, salty air, and hearing the screeches of seabirds. I’m not sure if it was attributable to the snake venom, but I also saw hallucinations. It seemed to me that Akish’s henchmen all had hairy, misshapen faces, like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. These faces smeared, dissolved, and then reformed. Despite the bruises being inflicted on my knees, I’d have sworn that I was flying.
I remember when I saw the orb of the sun through thick, gray clouds and heard the roar of the surf. There were rugged, mossy cliff walls around us and a rock formation with a gaping hole, like Delicate Arch near Moab, but the eyelet was considerably smaller. It was also upside down. Or more accurately, it leaned sideways. It hung from the mossy ceiling like a large tree root and then curved back, connecting into the face of the rocky cliff. Seaweed hung limply from the stone in several places.
I remember Akish’s vibrating words as he commanded, “Make a noose!”
I was lying on the ground, but the soldiers weren’t taking any chances. Two hairy gorillas pinned my arms and torso in case I resisted. I realized the plates of Mahroni Moriancumr were gone. So was the Liahona. I’d lost it all. Just as I’d sourly prophesied, I’d lost everything important that the Lord had ever entrusted to me. But how? I was merely following the course indicated by the Liahona. Was it because I’d spoken to the sword? It didn’t seem just. I’d prayed that it would shut up. It hadn’t shut up. Not the second time. Was all of this because I’d paused to heave the sword down the tunnel? It didn’t make sense. I’d been faithful. I’d been obedient. Dear God—I’d abandoned Hamira! I’d left her because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. None of this should’ve been happening!
A moment later there was a stir among the men of Akish. Fresh warriors had arrived. I heard the names of the new arrivals.
“Where’s my son?” inquired Akish. “Where is Nimrah?”
“Behind us,” said Elam. “He’ll be along soon.”
“You left him alone?” asked Akish sharply.
“No,” said Elam. “He’s with Jugal and Kentor.”
“He found his sister in the cavern,” added Hathrom. “She was sick.”
“Which sister?” Akish demanded.
“The youngest one,” said Hathrom. “Hamira.”
Akish seemed disappointed by this news. I think he’d have rather heard the name of one of his older daughters. Finally, he said, “What about King Omer? Where are Asherah, Teshebel, and Uguleth?”
Elam shook his head. “No sign of them. But Nimrah believes he and his followers are inside the cavern.”
“Omer and his warriors might already be ahead of us,” said Hathrom.
“No one is ahead of us,” Akish insisted. “When I cut the throats of Esrom and Coriantumr, the rest of King Omer’s fighters fled into the cavern to find their king. No other Jaredites have come back to Ablom since that moment.”
Hathrom and Elam nodded. They weren’t about to argue with their father.
“You said Hamira was sick?” said Akish.
“Snakebite,” said Elam. “There are poisonous serpents at the place where sunlight penetrates the ceiling. Nimrah felt certain of her fate. He said that she will die.”
“Then why did he remain behind?” asked Akish peevishly.
“I assure you, Lord King, he’s not far behind us,” said Elam. “They are carrying her body. They should arrive at any moment.”
“Then we shall wait for them,” said Akish.
One of the soldiers of Akish, a thin man who retained his apish features, even as my hallucinations were fading away, started to protest. “But your majesty, the tide. It’s coming in swiftly.”
“We will wait for my son!” Akish snarled. He straightened himself and seemed to address all of the warriors present, an army that only numbered about two hundred. “We will wait for my son and heir! If anything happens to me, Nimrah shall be your king. Not these two rebellious and simpering sons who returned to the true fold only two days ago. The offspring of my concubine, Mizerath, shall never rule among the Jaredites! It is only by an act of the most benevolent mercy that I spare their lives even now!”
Elam and Hathrom looked cowed and ashamed. Even their own warriors, wearing red breastplates and red tattoos gazed upon the sons of Mizerath with disdain, as if the loyalty of those who’d marched with Elam and Hathrom had always been with Akish, as if the only real traitors were these two brothers. I knew this wasn’t true, but in treacherous times like these, every man was looking after his own skin.
The skinny soldier who’d mentioned the incoming tide looked nervously toward the narrow canyon with high cliffs that meandered for a quarter mile or so out toward the open ocean. Every crashing wave seeped farther up the canyon, closer to the mouth of the cave. Closer to us.
King Omer had once told us that the cavern at the edge of the Great Eastern Sea was only revealed for short periods of time, when the tide was at its lowest ebb. He’d lost a beloved nephew and some other relatives because the water had rushed back with unpredictable swiftness, inundating the cave’s entrance. It had drowned his loved ones before they could reach higher ground.
“King Akish,” said the jittery soldier, “if we don’t depart soon, we will have to flee back inside the cavern.”
“Are you blind? Do you not see the weapon I am wielding?” Akish held aloft the silver sword. “With this blade I can conquer any enemy. I can destroy any force that stands against me. I can stay the tide of the Great Sea. Only those who lack courage and loyalty are vulnerable to the elements or to our adversaries. Are you a coward, Gothan?”
The nervous warrior shook his head. “I am eternally loyal to you, mighty King.”
“You’re still a coward!” snapped Akish. “If you’re so afraid, go back into the cavern and find my son!”
Gothan looked visibly relieved. With no hesitation, he crossed behind me and reentered the cave to search for Nimrah.
“Now,” Akish began again, “what shall we do until the Prince arrives?” His eyes seared into mine. “Where is the rope?”
Several men brought forward a ragged rope with a hangmen’s noose tied at one end. The men’s faces still occasionally transformed from humans to monkeys, but the noose was no hallucination. The murderous intention of Akish and his warriors was unmistakable.
“Toss it through,” he ordered, pointing at the eyelet in the rock formation above us.
He might have tossed the noose through this hole himself, but it seemed that his long lost sword was now a permanent part of his appendage. He wasn’t going to put it down.
After the rope was pulled tautly through the hole, Akish grinned at me again with yellow, broken teeth. “Well?” he said to his men impatiently. “Put it around his neck.”
“Do you want us to tie his hands?” asked a soldier with black tattoos striped across his face.
“No,” said Akish thoughtfully. “No need to rush. Let’s allow the Captain to savor his death. Just make the knot tight. Gravity will do the rest.”
Gravity. I wouldn’t have thought that such a word was even in the Jaredite vocabulary. It didn’t matter. Akish the time traveler knew it. His men looped the noose around my neck and yanked the knot until it bit into my Adam’s apple. I gasped for breath and tried to grab at the rope, but the warriors continued to pin my arms.
Akish pointed at a sea-worn log that the tide had brought in. It had several branches slick with moss and sea water. “Tie it off there. Hoist him high. Do it quickly! Now!”
Those Jaredites who’d forced me to the ground released me simultaneously. The rope tautened. I was yanked into the air by the neck. My fingers groped at the noose, but it was no use. There was no loosening the knot. The world started spinning: the turquoise-colored sea; the jagged, dark-stoned cliffs; the warriors of Akish; the gray-clouded sky.
I fought to draw air into my lungs. I managed to breathe a little, but I was dangling and jerking like a fish at the end of a line. The knot was tight—so tight that the weight of my body couldn’t draw it any tighter. I managed to dig my fingers between the rope and my throat. Still, the tension didn’t slacken. I reached around to the knot behind my head, but this didn’t help either. I was strangling, ever so slowly. Akish was right. No need to tie my hands. Gravity was doing the work. Gravity would end my life, here on the shores of the Great Eastern Sea.
I could hear gurgling in my own larynx as I fought to breathe. The men of Akish were taunting and applauding.
I heard the voice of the soulless sorcerer: “Farewell, Joshua Plimpton! Farewell, O Captain of the Nephites!” But was it Akish’s voice? Or was it the voice of the sword? I couldn’t make the distinction. Maybe the voices had always been one and the same.
The pressure inside my head was unbearable. I fought to close my eyes fearing my eyeballs would pop out of my skull. The hallucinations returned with a vengeance. The laughter became the snarls and cackles of hell. I was weakening. I still didn’t understand. Why God? How was it that I had lost? How was it that Heavenly Father would let me die? Where had I failed? How perfect did a man have to be to receive the protecting hand of the Almighty? Clearly, more righteous than me.
I was mildly aware that the laughter had ceased and that some sort of ruckus was occurring beneath me, but I hardly felt the need to be concerned about that. It was strenuous to even close my eyes. The pressure of the noose seemed to force them open. As I pinched them shut, the light of day transformed into a redness, like lava. Soon, all I could hear was the wheezing of my futile efforts to draw breath, reverberating inside my head as all other sounds faded.
The red changed to black.