Cardonea Tower, in the darkness
Blood curdled from the sea guard’s lips and a wound upon his side as he gripped Maanta tightly in his goliath fist. Bloody tears swept above the man’s eyelids and filtered off into the darkness of the huge castle room’s waters.
“I felt Evanshade’s eyes scavenging inside my mind as Nicholea told him all about our people and our world. Evanshade’s mind caged me in mine.” The guard’s eyes convulsed. “There were four of us there, enough guards to protect our Zhar and his family, enough to kill them. My fist lifted first, moving as if controlled by something beyond me, and clenched upon Nicholea’s throat. I could feel the base of his skull poke against my hand as it cracked like a shell in my fist, and yet his eyes still moved and he still managed to gurgle out to his family ‘swim.’
“Orachus, another guard, thrust a rod of iron in the Zharista’s spine and bent her backwards with his fists, cracking her in two. Orpan and Falink, the other two guards, broke off the children’s limbs before Nicholea as he wriggled for freedom in my grasp. All the while Evanshade and his company smiled on the Zhar as if taunting him from across the room.
“My soul died as I watched my own hand forcing Nicholea to watch the death of his family. And then my left hand rose, clasping my sword, and swept through his neck, slicing it and beheading him with such force that the iron lodged through my armor and into my side. The decapitated body slumped as the head spun in the waters. I could feel Evanshade letting letting my mind free of his control, but somehow my body remained immobile to my command.
“The boy, Venge, then prodded us with a poison tipped spear, his eyes flickering as he did so. My mind slipped to darkness and the last thing I heard was Venge grinding his sharp, fanged teeth together to create a shrill noise like bone on a shale wall. They left us for dead, off possibly to pillage Cardonea Tower or Meridia itself, but I awoke.
“I formed the light of the chamber’s giant malta shell to draw someone here, to tell them this.”
“What?” Maanta asked.
“She never came to greet them and no-one mentioned her name so the foreign ones do not know.” The guard swung his hand toward a hole in the wall. “Out that window and off into another one close by, Meridea’s new Zharista, Anna, lives.”
The guard’s fist loosed Maanta and his body went limp in the waters, as if he had completed destiny and now could rest in the afterlife. As Maanta swept toward the window he looked back at the dead guard whose body had been used to mutilate his own Zhar. There in the murky, red darkness the bodies of eight others clung to the room’s corners as the limbs of the children floated past, limply in the current.
Anna’s eyes shimmered in in reflective shell of her mirror as she looked upon herself glistening from head to toe in sparkling jewels and the highest quality kelp fabric.
“I’ll go,” she spoke to herself. “If this is what Papa wants then I’ll go to the festival hall tonight, and meet the newcomers after they’ve finished with all the formalities. But I’ll keep a watchful eye on them, too.”
She clipped her hair together in the back with her yellow hair clip and went to dab on eye colorings while looking close into her reflection.
A noise sounded against her door.
“I’ll be out soon Papa,” Anna responded, thinking Nicholea had come to collect her for the festivities.
Silence. Anna slipped gem-covered rings upon her toes.
Thud! Thud! The noise came again.
“Coming Papa!” As she spun toward the stone door Anna peered out at the night waters. Light beams from far above skipped across the ocean floor. Her memories took her to when she was younger and would play tag with her father, pretending that if you swam into the light then you would be “it.” She always knew though that if she swam into the light, all she’d have to do was give her father a certain smile that she had perfected, making him agree to be “it” once more as his heart melted.
Anna opened the door, and immediately her hand gripped firmly onto its stone handle as her skin chilled and a shudder rippled through her.
Nicholea’s red bearded head, wrinkled, bloodily mutilated and bodiless, thumped against the door. Minute globules spewed from it into the currents.
Murky crimson washed through the door’s opening as Anna felt her heart stop and then beat rapidly.
Somewhere in the distance she heard someone calling for her, some noise attempting to get her attention. Her knowledge of this noise swept away as quickly as it had come.
“No!” She screeched, tearing gems from her shimmering garments in horrified anger. “Nooo!” She swept into the hall to search out the rest of her family, and if not for them then for revenge.
The person who called for her before made himself known again but was ignored. Anna’s fins whipped faster then she’d ever moved them before as her pastel blue body draped in jewels cut forward through red murk toward her mother’s quarters.
Darkness swelled in from the walls as she swept the corridors. The stench of death lingered in her nostrils as bodies of others she had once shared the tower with hovered around her.
Anna’s torso and legs pumped up and down for speed. Faster and faster the darkness swept past, a turn, a twist, more darkness. Pearls, inlayed within the shale walls, watched her like eyes glimmering through the pitch.
Something beckoned softly from the darkness for her, a beast she thought, come to bring death. It bit at her heels causing her to convulse and loose herself of its grasp.
A pearl white hand grasped her shoulder as she moved in the currents. The pale opaque ghost was somehow comforting. Why was she not afraid of it she wondered? Where had she seen it before?
“They’re dead. Your family is dead.” Its slim, pale webbed fingers loosed her arm as it spoke.
Deep within the darkness of one of Cardonea Tower’s halls Maanta first was attracted to the Zharista’s beauty. Even traumatized and delusional from the shock of her father’s death, Anna’s deep emerald eyes carried a kind of knowledge and truth which caught him in a blush. Her pale blue skin reminded him of the sky in the world above, which he had seen once upon daring to venture close towards the ocean’s surface. He could love her, Maanta realized in that moment, but what she needed now was a friend.
“Ghost,” she whispered at him, shutting herself off from realities. “I saw you the night before the strangers came, traveling with the dark skinned man, dark skin just like the leader of the strangers. You are an apparition, come to save my family, but now have found there’s only me.”
“Zharista I…” Maanta began.
“The Zharista is my mother, Ghost; I am still merely the daughter of the Zhar.”
“I am not a ghost. I am a boy, a Meridian boy who somehow woke up inside this tower which seems to be wrapped in chaos. One of your family’s guards described to me how your family was murdered. He led me to you and told me you were alive.”
“If you’re not an apparition then how did you find me amongst this labyrinth of halls?”
It hasn’t been easy, he thought to himself.
“I saw you open your door as I swam through your window to warn you about the massacre. When I called to you, you wouldn’t listen and I’ve been following you through the darkness, bellowing out your name, ever since.”
Anna pursed her lips at him and whispered, “Ghost.”
Well if she thinks I’m a ghost, he thought, then so be it. We’ve got to get out of here before the foreigners come through again and discover us.
“Maanta’s my name, not Ghost, but no matter who you think I am we need to leave this tower and find safety.”
“Why didn’t you appear in time to save my family, Ghost? We’re all dead you know, slaughtered.”
There isn’t time for this now, Maanta thought as his webbed hand clasped on her arm’s soft skin. We have to escape.
To where, he didn’t know, but the muscles in his pale limbs flexed while adrenaline to fuel the escape. At first Anna’s weight was a strain on his body, but after a few whale’s lengths she began to swim of her own accord. Her eyes stared blankly ahead, as if she were in a trance just mimicking his movements.
Maanta found the darkness and gore numbing as he rushed toward Anna’s window and the end of it all, or toward clean waters at-least. His skin pricked, while the hollow echo of nothing but their own movements resonated in his ears. It was too silent. Such a tremendous tragedy was occurring and yet the waters stood calm. And then a soft yet distant sound, something like the cooling of molten lava crept into his ears.
“Sssssssss,” A noise came from the end of the corridor behind them as they neared Anna’s room.
Maanta swirled to look back on a slim, tailfinned boy. His burning red eyes illuminated the dark. Both Maanta and Anna paused while hovering, as if trapped in ambivalence.
“More fun for me,” Venge grinned. He had been searching the tower for anyone still living.
In the time it takes for a breath to elapse his tail swooshed in the waters and covered the spans between them. Ripples rolled over on themselves behind him as he thrust a spear toward Maanta.
Maanta dodged it, feeling the cold, gray tip barely catch in his shoulder while zipping past.
He’s fast, Maanta realized, quicker than any Meridian.
Maanta turned to flee, grasping Anna’s arm and barreling toward her room, but looming above them was the fang-toothed Venge. He dove and clasped his fist upon Anna’s throat, raising it towards his sharp fangs to gnaw into her. Cracking, his lips stretched along his teeth.
Swirling and then thrusting his legs into Venge, Maanta retaliated before Anna could be bitten. Venge dove for Maanta and grabbed the back of his skull, plunging his face toward the bottom of the cragged stone hall.
And then in the back of Maanta’s sight, something dark swept in from the window, thrashing Venge’s side, somersaulting his body sideways against a flowing kelp tapestry depicting the anointing of the first Zhar. Venge let loose Maanta’s hair as he was hit.
As Maanta turned towards the scene above him a large noir skinned man floated, fists ready, glaring with dark hatred at the fang-toothed Venge.
“Sift, isn’t it?” The fanged one questioned while licking his own blood from his lips. “How did you escape?”
“He let me out.” The runes across Sift’s body illuminated as he answered.
“Who?” The red in Venge’s eyes curled.
“Someone whose soul, darkened has become, since then. That is all.” Sift slowly drifted forward. “Which one are you?”
“I am Venge, the son of the dark one. You know the one I speak of. He wants you, you and all these dirty mutts to enslave.” A white fire burned in the center of the boy’s eyes.
“You, your father and your entire race, meet you will, your ends and face Gelu one day, boy. I pray a hand in it I will have.” Sift swept swiftly toward Venge but the boy whipped his tailfin once and was gone, lost in the darkness.
“Sssssssss…” The boy hissed while swimming away.
Maanta realized that pursuing Venge wasn’t an option for Sift, to do so would be to leave him and Anna alone again and who knew what else might find them in this darkness.
“Are you harmed, young Maanta?” Sift questioned.
“My neck is a little sore, but aside from that all seems to be well. How did you find me?”
“Your dolphin scented you out and led me to you. Beyond the window is where she waits.”
Just beyond Anna’s window Maanta could barely make out Archa’s smooth, bobbing head, her eyes looking for him over her sleek nose, waiting patiently for him to join her.
It seemed to Maanta as if he had a question for every moment which had passed since he had last seen Sift. How did he get to Cardonea Tower? What had happened to him to put him in the potions room? Who was Venge? How did Sift know the boy’s father? Did the chaos in Meridia have anything to do with why Sift had come here? There were so many more questions.
Maanta looked into Sift’s heavy eyes. His posture shrank as a look of weariness overcame him.
“Who is your female companion?” Sift asked. He swam before her and glanced upon her blank stare. “She looks as if mentally in another place.”
“Angel,” Anna whispered, jutting her head forward as she did so, waving crimson curly locks too and fro. Her soft blue fingertips lifted to Sift’s cheeks, “of death.”
“At least you’re an Angel,” Maanta remarked sarcastically as Sift turned to him in wonderment. “She thinks I’m a ghost who came to save her family. She watched us as we arrived the other night and I guess you’re the angel of death. She’s delusional.”
“Clearly. Whose family is she of?”
“Zhar Nicholea’s, and they’re all dead except her, slaughtered at the hands of their own guards as the foreigners possessed their minds. She’s Zharista now, but she won’t believe it.”
“And disillusion possesses the mind, which is hers, because of this?”
“That and because she found out about it when discovering the Zhar’s decapitated head knocking upon her door.”
“Such shame it is that ones as young as you and she should such harsh death witness. And no time there is to rest, to work from her this madness. We must escape Meridia’s misfortune and meet with Amaranth within the outskirts Orion’s Birth.”
Maanta gusted to the waters before Sift and Anna now. “How do you know of Amaranth? What have you been hiding from me?”
“Not hiding have I been anything. Thought I that there would be more time before the dark ones would arrive to explain that which has been happening. Our night of arrival I sought out Amaranth and spoke with him of the coming foreigners and possible danger which they might bring. One of our own people once knew him and spoke to me to confide in him first. This is why I came, to warn your people, but we underestimated the dark ones’ speed.”
“Who are they, Sift?”
“They are the race who enslave my people, young Maanta. Evanshade, the one who led them here, seared my back with the marking of the eye himself.”
“And how did I get to Cardonea Tower?”
“There is no time. I will speak all you wish to know to you as we flee this place but Meridia is dying and the dark ones are searching for others to bring death to.”
Anna’s eyes grew large. “Death! Take me to the waters of the un-living, Angel, where I might find my family.”
Maanta could feel irritation building inside himself, lost in this madness with a beautiful girl who wouldn’t believe the truth. “He’s not an angel of death and I’m not a ghost!” He rolled his eyes over at Sift. “We’ll leave along the darkened crevices along the bottom of The West Shale Wall. I used to sneak away that way once night fell, as a youth before my mother passed. I can ride Archa and you Lola but how will we bring Anna?”
“Ghost,” Anna whispered. “You are not needed. You have failed my family and I must travel with Death now.”
Maanta smiled. “I think I’ll come along, thanks.”
Sift looked to Maanta as he spoke in a low voice, his eyes reminding the boy not to show rudeness to the Zharista, as he might regret it once she woke from her spell. “She can be braced in front of me while riding Lola. Lola has strength enough to carry both.”
The waters beyond Anna’s window seemed to breathe a frosty chill over the tower as the three passed through it, embarking forth on their journey. Archa’s smooth head and back slid beneath Maanta as he led them. She dove swiftly down the tower towards the coral flora below. Its rough, colorful foliage wove about the tower as they met it and dove amongst its labyrinth of crevices.
Lola’s delicate, shimmering scales whipped along the tower’s outer wall as she met Sift who pulled himself upon her, embracing Anna closely in front of him, and nudged the massive fish downward after Maanta.
As Sift joined him, Maanta gazed through a webbing of holes in the orange coral above his eyes’ sight. Cardonea Tower’s slim spindle of glowing silvery white rose above toward the ocean’s surface. I’ve always thought of this as the iris of a great eye watching and protecting the waters close by, Maanta thought. Now it resembles more a great worm fleeing for the births above.
Tail finned creatures swept o’er the tower’s shimmering radiance, dark silhouettes across the night-lights above. Some stabbed at silhouettes of Meridians with things unseen. Others swept in and out of the tower’s entrances, pillaging its valuables. Silhouettes of Meridians also hovered as nothing but slain faceless blotches, speckling the waters above.
“They swept in.” Sift turned to him while the party wove amongst the coral and kelp weavings toward the dark hollow crevices of The West Shale Wall. “As darkness fell, a tsunami of tail finned men swept o’er The East and West Shale Walls, pillaging the home coves and bringing death to your people. I told Amaranth of Evanshade’s arrival and so he warned fellow Meridians who trusted him, fleeing with them before the brutalities, but so many were lost.”
“AaaaaHoooo,” Maanta cupped his mouth close to Archa’s ear hole telling her to scoop within the West Shale Wall’s crevices from the vibrant coral.
Three dark walls surrounded them as they looked toward the waters and tower they fled. Barely visible stone whipped by in the darkness.
“What will we do?” Emptiness and vulnerability swelled within Maanta. He had never felt a strong attachment to Meridia or his fellow Meridians after his mother had died. But now that his world appeared to be slipping beyond his grasp, Maanta found a love for things he had been distancing himself from. He had always reveled in nature, sounds, scents and his own daydreams but overlooked the city’s workings themselves. He began missing the burnt scent of the Meridian water heaters as they fed kelp to the molten pit along the floor beneath his cove home. He thought of the market place with its hovering food and craft stands, the Meridians laughing, talking or sometimes grumbling while bumping into one another as they shopped. Who would feed the small fish who begged for scraps now that the Meridians were leaving?
Sixteen years had passed in his lifetime, barely enough to experience all he should experience here, Maanta thought.
“Things, your people will learn from us, and together both our peoples shall retake your realm,” Sift spoke. “Do not fear my friend, we will retake Meridia and come to the single finned ones’ place of living also to un-slave my brethren.”
But what of the things they’ve taken from us for all time? Maanta thought. What of Anna’s family? What of our way of life? Will the things that made us happy ever be here again? Will we even experience the same sorrows we once did?
While sweeping closer toward Meridia’s outskirts, Maanta noticed a young girl about his age pressing her slim back along the wall’s darkness. Her eyes glared out towards the city’s center with an alertness flickering in them.
“Young one!” Sift bellowed to her. “We’re leaving the city to meet others. Come with us and a rescuing you will find from these tortures which have befallen Meridia.”
Maanta recognized her then. “Illala,” he called out. “It’s Maanta from your classes at Meridian Hearth School. Come with us. They’re destroying Meridia. There’s nothing left for us here.”
“I’ll come if you’ll have me but first I must tell you something.”
“There can’t be anything that would make us leave you behind. Hurry. We must escape before being seen.”
“I was sleeping when the scale tailed creatures dove through the holes in my family’s cove home walls,” Illala said. “I woke to the wails of my mother in the other room as they tortured her. Then they choked my brother and father in the waters outside our cove, where I discovered them while escaping, blood spewing from their lips.
“Their leader came to the back room where I had been resting after he was done with my father. His dark skin shone as his deep eyes looked upon me. He could see the fear in my eyes and at the same time an attraction to me could be seen within his. Whispers then brushed through his lips.
“‘I told my men your death would come at the hand of me alone, young woman; but fear not I have no intentions of relinquishing such beauty. You must scream though and act as if I have seized the life from your soul. My name is Evanshade,’ he said. ‘Remember me.’
“I shivered, as I feared him and what he had done to my family. Yet somehow he attracted me at the same time. How could this man who was rescuing me be the same who sabotaged Meridia and ended my families’ lives? ‘Ahhhh!’ I screamed.
“I escaped once they left and have been watching him and his people with fear and wonderment ever since.”
“How could you be attracted to a man who slaughtered your family and is destroying our home?” Maanta’s stomach churned. Did he want someone with any feeling but hatred for the tail finned men with him? Could someone like her possibly turn on them someday and bring Evanshade to them? A look in Sift’s eyes told Maanta that Sift knew what he was thinking.
Anna sat like a doll, wordless and staring forward, in front of Sift on Lola’s back.
Sift spoke to Illala. “There is something in this Evanshade’s eyes, young one, which brings the emotions of trust and love. Know not I why he has spared you but make no mistaking him anything but an evil being. Also scorn yourself not for feeling longing for him, for he has entranced many with his stare before. It matters not how you feel. If you wish it, you will find a welcoming to our journeying party.”
“Thank you for your understanding. What was your name, sir?” Illala asked.
“Sift, Miss, a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’ll join you,” A high-pitched whistle leapt through Illala’s lips as a small fish a fourth of Lola’s height and length swam from coral weavings nearby. It nudged the girl’s fingertips playfully. “And Lisaly shall carry me. I must confess though part of why I’m agreeing to leave so willingly is because I see there will be safeness with your group and yet you seem to have much you could tell me of the beings of Evanshade’s race.”
“There is certainly much to share with you and all Meridians, young one, and all you wish to ask I will answer,” Sift spoke. “We must flee now though, for surely the single finned ones will find and be upon us if lingering we are in Meridia.”
A boom careened through the waters as shards of stone flicked from the Shale Wall opposite them where the intruders blasted through its storage chambers. Startled by the sudden noise, Archa swept forward toward the city’s outskirts.
“That settles it,” Maanta smiled and looked back towards his companions following swiftly in pursuit. He wove his arm as if daring them to catch up. Hopefully Sift’s right to trust her, he thought. To leave someone I’ve known behind when she needed us would lead to a dark descent of the mind, but bringing her with us could prove a decision defeating the purpose of our escape.
Archa, Lisaly and Lola hugged tightly to the wall as they swept toward Meridia’s ominous city border, their riders clinging close upon their backs. The cool waters rushing past played and swiveled upon Maanta’s webbed fingertips reminding him of days when he’d drift through the city with Archa, off venturing toward the unknown.
Here’s an adventure I never thought we would experience together Archa, he thought. How bizarre that so many of our adventures were to escape Meridia and now we embark on one to hopefully someday retake this place.
Sheens of light rippled along the pale skinned boy sweeping away from Meridia’s Eye, Cardonea Tower and The East and West Shale Walls. As he sped toward Orion’s Birth to reunite with his people, the boy didn’t turn to see his home and the destruction befalling it.
I’ll think of it the way it was before the tail finned beings came, he thought. And our people will return to reclaim this land and bring it to the way it once was.
The company swept onward and at the tail of them all a girl, Illala, looked back not upon Meridia but desiring a man whose eyes were Evanshade’s.
Two crimson eyes glared upon them from a dark area in the kelp and coral woven flora, silently following.