Maanta’s heart beat heavily in the morning as he awoke, somehow Anna’s hand still resting softly in his. A clear clementine glow illuminated the water’s surface above, bathing them both in gentle warmth. I wish I could wake her so that we could share this sunrise together, he thought. But I can’t. She’s too beautiful while she sleeps and she needs her rest after the days we’ve had. I wouldn’t want to wake her from what looks to be such a peaceful slumber.
Anna’s head tilted beautifully to the side as small yellow fish scampered by.
He had been startled awake. He knew this, but at the same time it hadn’t been a panicky startle. A zesty fish scent swept across his nostrils. Where’s that scent coming from? He wondered.
“Do you preference the scent of spiced squid?” Sift whispered while floating beside and above him in the waters, careful not to wake Anna. “When closeness to the nostrils comes, awaken any beast it can. But such smallness was the piece I swept across your nose to awaken you.”
“What happened to the good old fashioned shaking?” Maanta whispered back, grinning.
“Such a spiced scent will keep your senses alert for much time, more then any simple shaking.” The large man returned the smile. “Come. There is much traveling to be had this day. With luck and early leavings of this place my realm might you find before the darkness falls.”
Maanta swam away gently from Anna, careful not to let his movements or the ripples he left behind wake her. The currents somersaulted beneath his cupped webbed hands, pressing him in Sift’s direction, toward where the riding companions were resting. He looked back once more upon Anna and smiled while swimming away, as the sight of her flooded him with a sense of tranquility.
Archa, Lola, Lisaly and the other riding fish dove and spun in the waters, as if playing a chasing game with each other, as Sift and Maanta dove down toward them from above. Archa nudged Lola’s side with her smooth dolphin head and Lola in return sped quickly forward and back, gently whisking Archa’s nose with her waving fish tail.
“AAAOOO!” Archa beamed in reply, spinning in a circle around the large fish.
“Lola!” Sift beckoned to his riding companion. She glided swiftly to his side. “You must be taking our young friend Maanta to our living waters now.” His large hands gently brushed back and forth on the fish’s vibrant scales. “Arrive him safely to our home Lovely Lola. Missing you shall I be while you are away.”
As Sift said his goodbyes to Lola, Maanta also gave a temporary farewell to Archa, kissing her smooth round head. Her long mouth nudged roughly upon his palm while she ate the salty crustaceans he had saved for her from last night’s feast. Devouring the last crispy morsel from his pale webbed fingertips, she then opened her mouth wide, bobbing it and smiling. “AO, AO!”
Sift stuffed something, bundled tight in kelp, into a pouch along Lola’s side. “Last night, as to sleep you went, spiced and saved I some leftover whale meat for you. Its spices shall keep it safeness to eat in days to come, and preserve a little tender tastiness as well.” He spun a tiny dark piece of something between his lips. “And have dried I some miniature morsels also for Lola to savor.” Another of the small dried things passed from Sift’s large dark fingers to Maanta’s pale ones.
The boy peeled it in half for smaller portions and mentally salivated while partaking of the salty treats. “Thank you. This is delicious. I’m sure Lola and I will appreciate this many times during our journey. Take care of Archa for me while I am away.”
“I will. Do the same yourself with Lola, my friend. And take care while riding. The strength which possesses, Lola does, is far greater than that of most companions.”
“What do I do when I arrive to your people? Whom should I ask for?”
“As for words which use you should, they shall come to you. And for asking for someone with whom to speak, simply say to anyone that Sift has sent for them. For you see although my people have no leader, I am an elder and one whom they look up to most. Now you must leave for the journey this shall be, before sunlight arises higher overhead.”
I wonder how well Lola will accept me as a new riding companion, Maanta pondered while petting her vibrant scales. He kissed Archa’s forehead once more, spun freely in the waters embracing his own movements, and slowly floated down upon Lola’s back. As he clenched his slim legs tight to her muscular sides, a strong feeling of respect for the strength of this fish surged through him. His webbed fists braced tightly to the holding stones Sift had placed along Lola’s front side. I wonder what riding with her will be like. How will it be different then riding with Archa?
Sift smiled sternly. “Fare thee well, young Maanta.”
“Fare thee well your self friend.” With this Maanta pressed his heels to Lola’s sides, letting her know it was time to leave. Lola’s strength became obvious as she burst forth through the depths, as if a giant muscle carried him. He had to hold his body close so as not to be whipped off in the counter-flowing currents about her.
Faster and faster she sped, blurring all existence from vision as if a smudged cloud masked all things. Lola quickened more still and the waters around him dissolved to gray before a hissing entered his hearing.
“Ssssssssssss.” The waters barely tipped upon his earlobes while zipping by. “Ssssssssssss.”
This is maddening, Maanta thought to himself in the almost silence. I don’t know how Sift can stand to travel like this. He must have been holding back while riding with us before. Lola’s back bucked and sloped upward causing the boy to grasp tighter to the riding stones. His legs almost choked at the fish’s sides now. I don’t know why I was being so careful before when nudging her forward. It seems as if she barely knows I’m here with her. She thrust down again, to the left and right, quickly pivoting in a full circle at times. Whenever she did this, Maanta would almost lose his grip and spin off into the empty abyss.
With time though, hours it seemed, Maanta adjusted and became used to her movements. The hissing and blurry world took him mentally to a place where he was quite accustomed to being, a daydream.
Within the Daydream
Two nova white eyes glared at him, as he lay bonded to the darkness by molten chains. A chill breath rippled upon his neck, and he felt his singed arms and the foreign mind clawing, dragging at his soul. His stomach went clammy with blood’s pulse. Maanta was alone, not knowing where, but alone. Somehow this was familiar. Where was he?
“Come to me,” the spoken sounds burned within his mind. “Come and be adorned.”
“Who’s there?” Maanta replied. “What do you want of me?”
“I am power. I am strength. I am darkness.” Sizzling, the nova eyes glared through him as the words were spoken from the darkness beyond them.
“What do you want of me?”
“I am lust. I am hatred. I am fire.”
A shiver swept through Maanta’s body, sliced upon his skin. What was this thing speaking to him? What was happening?
“I am denial. I am jealousy. I am fear. Do you fear me?” It spoke in low ominous tones. “Come to me! Come and be adorned.”
Maanta huddled in a corner of the darkness with the light of the reflecting nova eyes shimmering across his face, unable to speak. Waters began to sizzle about him, forming boils upon his flesh. Tears flowed from his open eyes as his eyes themselves cooked like eggs and burst into the darkness.
The boy’s chest split, splattering the nova eyes with deep red blood, fizzling upon their touch. Then the world faded to nothing but rippled aquatic daylight.
Maanta convulsed as he awakened from the daymare, floating in open waters while Lola nudged roughly at his sides. Whatever that thing had been in his dream, he had no desire to see it again. “Did you throw me in the waters as I slept, lovely Lola?” He smiled to her; thankful she had noticed him missing and had come back for him.
To his surprise the daylight seemed to be nearing its end along the waters above, playing in pink hued colors now. He would have to rest here tonight, on a plain of open stone. Dark, glowing-eyed eels dipped and swooped after smaller fish in the far waters beyond.
“Thank goodness for our leftover whale meat, eh girl? Do you think it will taste as good now as it did in the morn’s light?”
Lola spun in the waters with apparent happiness and hunger. As he took the meat from its bag, a spiced scent wafted up to make his taste moisten. Lola partook of the dried portions Sift had taken such care of preparing and the boy heated his meat cube over an open malta shell, browning it ever so slightly.
As he chewed, he reveled at the way it melted in his mouth.
…fathoms away in one of many hearth rooms of Cardonea Tower…
The room was barren of mortal life other than Illala’s own, as it had been since she had awoken that morning to find Evanshade gone. It was silent, and dark, and cold, but outside in the waters beyond she heard screams.
After what they had done together last night how could he just leave, without even a kiss goodbye?
In the corner of the room, setting upon a small ornate pearl desk he had left her salmon, hardened seaweed and cubes of something sweet to eat. She had let it sit there, nibbling on the seaweed from time to time, but too depressed to eat much in her longing for his attention.
She hovered in a lonely lost state as goose-bumps rose upon her body. Then a soft stone grinding noise began below her, attracting her attention. Diving, her fingertips searched the smooth stone floor. Vibrating in her touch a single shale brick ground up and out of the floor and following it was a single hand, grasping in the open waters before her as if for breath. Its fingertips were pulpy, bloodying waters about them. Illala’s throat gurgled in repulsion.
A metallic voice came next, as if it had come from teeth being ground against an iron plaque. “Save me!” The strong hand grasped upon her thin wrist. “They’ve imprisoned me in this darkness. Free me!”
“Who are you?” she responded. “Pull back your arm, and show your face through the hole to me.”
The massive hand released her, scraping the holes cragged sides while descending. The pained metallic voice returned. “I saw you through a hole in my cell’s wall as you arrived the other night. I am a Meridian, as you yourself appear to be.”
Illala gasped while looking through the hole upon the man’s almost featureless metal-clad face. His blue flesh stretched and melted across his head, bruised in places and deeply gashed in others. His nose looked to have been torn off somehow, his lips stuck together in places around a metal contraption clasped upon his head.
“What happened to your face?” she asked, trying not to hurt his feelings by sounding totally disgusted.
Coughing up something from his lips the man’s head shook violently. “The day they took this realm I was made with others to dig and open up the lava flows below Meridia. As the molten streams bubbled upon the sands they laughed at me, pressing my face and body into its flow. I am outwardly but a shell of the man once known as Odyssey. But inwardly I am a stronger man then they shall ever know.” As if in a nervous twitch the man’s head shook again.
How can I love a man who leads others in doing this to my people? Illala thought to herself. “Do you have any ideas for how I could free you? I know we are in Cardonea Tower, but I don’t know much about its inner workings.”
“There is…” The man spoke then swiftly hushed, a look of terror playing on his deformed face.
It was then that the world played itself in slow motion before Illala’s sight. She wished to speak or interfere in some way but lost all voice in her throat, her body turning to stone as the noise of an opening door echoed within the man’s room below. Odyssey dove from view as Evanshade glided in.
“Have you lost your wits with your appearances you poor soul?” Evanshade thrust a pointed bone club against Odyssey’s fleshy form, and the sound of weeping softly filled the room. “Your babblings resonate unintelligible sounds within the outer halls. There is no one here with you, you poor creature. Do yourself a favor and silence your lips before the guards do so themselves. Soon as you are healed, you will work with the molten streams again.”
“…no…” Odyssey mumbled and Evanshade struck the bone upon his shoulder, blood rippling out from where it was thrust and clotting in the stagnant waters. The hull of the man was overtaken by limp unconsciousness.
Illala went cold, her eyes beholding the grin stretched across the features of the man she loved.
“Don’t worry.” Evanshade spun to leave the unconscious man in cold blankness. “You won’t be alone. We’ve discovered your runaway fellow Meridians along the outskirts of Orion’s Birth. Soon they will return to slave by your side.” He spat in the waters. “Do you think they’ve missed me?” The stone door echoed in his departing.
Silence swept through Illala’s soul as she came to the full realization of what Evanshade was telling Odyssey. He’s going to capture Maanta and the others and bring them back here to torture, she thought. Images of Venge swooping from nowhere to capture her, against her and the rest of her traveling party’s wills, drowned her mind in dark thoughts. There will be no escape. There will be no hope for any of them, and then a darker thought aroused in the mind of Illala while she placed the shale stone in its floor opening. Should I murder Evanshade as he sleeps tonight? Would that make a difference?
Wrapped in seaweed sheets, she hovered in the waters as night came, not asleep, but clenching a sharp bone hair tool, plotting for when Evanshade would join her.
The waters were cool and still as Evanshade entered the room. “I missed you today,” he whispered to Illala, careful not to wake her barely crimson-lit form floating wrapped in seaweed sheets in the room’s center. “I wish I could have been here with you today. I wish a lot of things.” His strong noir hands gently moved her seaweed sheets and then wrapped them once more around them both as he moved his arms around Illala to hold her close.
“No!” Her harsh voice filled his ears while her foot throbbed against his tailfin. “No!”
“Why? What has happened to you?” he asked, worried, but there was no reply. He wrapped his arms around her again, only to be kicked once more. “If I didn’t do what is being done to your people it would just be another of my people doing the same.”
Hours, it seemed, after Evanshade had made his last attempt to hold her, Illala managed to find the world of slumber.
The man she was no longer sure she loved, Evanshade, spent his night staring and lost in thought out the bedroom window upon Meridia’s ruined city. Was what he was doing so wrong? If he had not obeyed his master would he not be dead himself? In the darkness of this night I see Meridia has lost some of its beauty since I first arrived here. They were such a joyous people before we arrived. If we had not come they would be joyous still. And yet then I would not have found Illala.
Throughout the long hours of the night, Evanshade found neither sleep nor solace. But in the wee time before aquatic dawn, in a state of sheer exhaustion, other thoughts entered Evanshade’s mind. Regret formed for the ways in which he treated Odyssey. He called Odyssey’s guards away for an early morn eat before returning dressed in flowing, disguising black garb and entering the stone prison room.
“Who are you?” Odyssey’s gritty metallic voice greeted him. “What do you want of me?” Evanshade grasped Odyssey’s shoulder where he had received the beating earlier that night.
“Shhh…” The hidden Evanshade whispered. Would the man attack him if he knew who he was? “They will hear you if you speak loudly. I am a friend. That is all you need know.”
“Are you here to rescue me?”
“Here.” Evanshade shoved a heavy bundle of kelp and whale meat into the man’s hands. “Eat this or hide it before the guards come with your mush. You deserve better food.”
“Thank you.” The starving weary man tore open his package, getting whale meat beneath his nails while devouring his morn meal.
As Evanshade thrust his tail in the waters and left the room he felt as if a stone had struck his heart. “I’m sorry…” he whispered.
Odyssey’s grotesque face looked up, covered in food. “What?”
But Evanshade had gone.