After Maanta had ripped away from her grasp, the inner ring of Orion’s Birth seemed a silent tomb to Anna. She wailed and screamed for him in helpless dismay, long moments after he tumbled upward in the air column toward the world above.
And though she swam quickly after him, he was gone.
As the last of the air dissipated, Anna found a lost sensation filling her soul. Surprisingly, the only comforting things she could find at all were the painful scrapes left behind by Maanta’s nails. They were proof that he had been there.
Anna might have drifted off into loneliness then, as she once had done before, if it wasn’t for something Maanta had once shared with her about the aftermath of Orion’s Birth’s air eruptions. She had no time for feeling lost. She had to act.
“After the Birth’s forbidden fluid eruptions, they rarely happen,” Maanta had reassured her, “massive currents careen down the Birth’s walls in a beautiful hail, sweeping everything in their path far from the Birth’s walls. Many times Archa has embraced those currents with me on her, riding us all the way to Meridia.”
The last place I want to go right now, Anna realized, is Meridia. The others wouldn’t know of the coming currents unless she warned them and quickly.
“Archa!” She called, hoping the riding companion would come and take her to the others, but the smooth backed creature was nowhere to be found. “Maybe she’s followed Maanta to wherever he has gone,” she spoke to herself while her fins and movements carried her quickly above Orion’s Birth’s walls in a massive upward then downward swoop. Her back stung as she moved. With Archa’s help, hopefully he’ll find his way back to us.
A colorful conch shell shimmered beneath her as she dove within the group of Meridians and Sift’s people, hurrying to warn them. Her slim, pastel blue fingers quickly brushed away the sands collecting on it. Then, with a gliding motion, she lifted the shell’s small end to her lips.
“Huddle beside Orion’s Birth’s outer wall!” Her voice careened through the shell horn, startling many of the group about her. They jerked to attention and swerved toward her in curiosity. “Go!” she shouted, as they slowly moved to listen. “Orion’s Birth has spewed air toward the ocean’s crest, taking Maanta with it, and soon rushing currents will sweep these waters, driving all in their path far away!”
With more haste the group swept against the wall, attempting to bury themselves within the sands there. A de-masked Sift bolted on Lola’s back to Anna’s side as she joined the others, huddling in the sands and grasping tightly to a sunken tree limb almost completely lodged within the sand.
Sift’s face was worn red from where the mask had ground against it, but it was good to see the man out of his face prison once more. “Beat it with a stone, Tao did, until cracked it away,” Sift spoke in his low tone, knowing her thoughts. “Maanta’s been taken? Since the mask has been removed, for him I’ve been searching. Have no worries though, young one. He will return to us. Of this I have faith.”
In the darkness about them silence settled in. It had been far too long since the bursting column of air, and soon the currents would be upon them. A rumble resonated in the pitch black waters above.
“Brace tightly,” Sift spoke beneath his breath.
Swift currents burst from above as if out of nothing, dashing down Orion’s Birth’s towering outer walls above them, swarming toward the ocean’s floor. Anna shivered in fearful anticipation. Her eyes closed tightly while her hands clasped to the sunken limb. In her hard grasp the wood felt as if it would collapse in on itself at any moment. The soggy bark molded upon her fingers.
An airy, crackly sound deafened her hearing, as she felt just the softest of spiraling currents weaving about her body. The sound hums as if there were hands held and pressed to my ears, she thought before opening her eyes to sight amore. Swift currents leapt over her to the sands before her in a rushing, curved wall. A kaleidoscope of greens and browns interwove in the sweeping waters, as kelp, sand and other things swept away in the underwater waterfall.
Plop! A small red something hopped out from the currents, swirling mid-float before her.
“Place it between your lips and eat,” Sift’s deep voice startled her. “From the upper world they are and,” he smiled hungrily, “delicious! Swirling currents must have captured it from the realm of air.”
The cherry-red thing slipped in her fingertips as Anna plucked it from the waters. And that’s exactly what it was, a cherry.
Diving waters swept before her as she bit into the fruit, releasing its juice into a sweet cocktail that rippled on her palate. Mmmm, she thought before biting at the seed and pondering what it was.
Pft! Spitting forth her soft lips, a seed leapt within the sweeping currents, rushing off into disappearance. Juices from the fruit’s body coolly massaged Anna’s throat while her tongue pressed it against the inside of her cheek. How is something like this created? she pondered, never having eaten a fruit before. Why doesn’t anything like this grow here? She chewed it some more before swallowing the succulent morsel.
Long moments of humming, rushing silence passed as the sweeping currents before them cantered against the ocean floor, leaping outward and away.
Mmmmmmmmmmm, the deep noise bumped in Anna’s ears, Mmmmmmmmmmm.
Morning sunlight sheens trickled down from above after hours of throbbing blurry waters.
The currents passed and calmed to a breezy flow.
Anna and Sift gathered a band of five to search out Maanta. They skimmed the waters above and around Orion’s Birth for leagues with no success until darkness approached the waters once more. Archa also was nowhere to be found.
“We have to return to our home to tell my people what has happened here,” Tao spoke to Anna after their final comb of the surrounding waters. “They could be in danger without us there to protect them. Surely the beings of Sangfoul will amass against us.”
“And what of Maanta?” Anna’s exhausted eyes stared through the waters at the day’s dwindling light. “How do I leave a boy who rescued me from the dark fate that befell my family? How do I leave someone who has stood by my side, befriended me and who I care for as if he were my own blood?”
For a second, her tired eyes glimmered with a sparkle of hopeful excitement, catching upon a swirling shadow in the distance. But then they calmed in sadness; the girl realized she had not seen Maanta, but simply a foolish trick of the light.
“Do I let the last member of my family slip once more from my life?” She sighed. “And does Meridia’s Zharista have such a coarse heart that she leaves her most treasured friend alone in this darkness?” During the time she had searched for Maanta, the thought that she was the last of her family had eaten away at her. She recalled how she had made a defiant stand against her father the day he died, proclaiming that her mother was Zharista and not she.
Yet here Anna was, her mother dead, and the title passed on.
Her entire family was dead, and here she was, the final living heir. “How can a Zharista feel so frail? I am helpless in finding my friend.”
“I wish I had your strength.” Tao hugged her as they floated in the waters. It reminded Anna of her father’s strong embrace. “You have the strength of faith where I have lost all hope of finding Maanta. I am the weak one here. Sometimes the truest strength comes from a person’s faith in something, through all despair.” He looked into her eyes, almost failing to say what was next to come, because of his dread of hurting her. “We have to go though or else my own family and home might fall without my people there to protect it.”
“Then leave me behind with a few others to find him and we will come once he returns.”
“We came here to find you and we won’t leave without you.” Tao’s caring eyes turned stern now. “And what would you do if Evanshade and his warriors returned here?”
Anna pulled away from him, floating back slightly so that he could see the defiant look she gave, as if to say she would stand in her position no matter what.
“Let’s compromise.” Tao pointed his muscular arm toward the place where his home was, far away in the distance. “We’ll return to my home waters, rest our bodies and minds for a few days and then you, Sift and a group of warriors can return here to search for Maanta.
“The boy will be fine until then. He is strong, resilient and intelligent. From what I know of him he can hold his own in these waters. And there’s something else I haven’t thought of until this moment, Maanta is the only Meridian who has been to our home. I have faith that he would be able to find it again on his own.”
Anna fell silent, contemplating something. “If Sift leaves Lola for Maanta to ride back to your city on, then I will go with you. Your traveling companions move so swiftly that I don’t know if he himself remembers the way, but I have confidence that if he returns, Lola will find him and bring him to us.”
Tao smiled a deep smile and motioned an arm in the waters above. “Sift!” he bellowed out an echoing boon for the man.
Sift whooshed down from a coral alcove far above upon Lola’s back. The long sleek fish shimmered radiantly as swiveling currents curled behind her.
Has Sift been watching us from above this whole time? Anna wondered.
Tao swam in the waters back to Anna. “You always fight to take a little more for your cause don’t you, young one?” He flicked his index finger in a swift motion to give his words emphasis. “I respect that.”
“What need are you having of me, Tao?” asked Sift.
“Night-time is quickly falling upon us my friend, and as we have spoken in private, we must set a course for our home – so that we may provide protection for our people in case the creatures of Sangfoul retaliate. And yet it is difficult to abandon hope of finding young Maanta near Orion’s Birth’s waters. I have spoken with Zharista Anna about these matters also, and she places one request if we are to return to our city with her by our side.”
“What request have you for us, Anna?” Sift’s expression smoothed into a friendlier look as he spoke to her.
It comforted Anna to know that in such short time she had formed a relationship with this foreign man where he felt comfortable enough to relax around her. She hoped he would grant her request. “It’s more of a question for you.” It was hard to ask Sift to part with Lola again so soon after they had reunited. He shows more compassion to Lola then I think some men ever have shown their wives, she thought. “I would feel more secure leaving our search for Maanta here if I knew he could find his way to us if he returns. Would you leave Lola here for a short while to guide him if he makes his way back to Orion’s Birth? I know she would watch for him and take good care of him.”
Anna looked at Sift with youthful eyes that make the heart want to give them whatever it is they want. Mentally she prepared herself for the “no” which would inevitably come. Why would Sift part with the riding companion whom he’d been parted from for so long?
A long moment passed.
“Yes,” the deep voice resonated from Sift’s lips. Beads bobbed upon the man’s neck in the currents as he kissed Lola’s head scales. “The words of which you speak make sense, Anna. If Maanta is close by, Lola shall find him and to our side return him.”
Anna sighed. “Thank you. Maanta feels so much like family to me now. I just can’t leave him alone. You don’t know how much this means to me. How will Lola know to stay?”
“Lola.” Sift lifted his stern dark hand from her scales. “Heard have you what we say?”
“Ooooiii...” The noise echoed from the large creature’s petite lips.
“Wait will you here for Maanta and return him to us? Come to your side, I will, if you do not come to us in ten light rising and fallings.”
“It is settled. She will stay.” Sift smiled proudly. “My Lola is a smart fish. All that is, she understands.”
Anna was impressed. “And this is why I have faith in her to return him to us.”
The aqua-crimson sunlight had dimmed above, and Tao was anxious to return home. “Then it is settled,” he spoke. “We leave for Baneal as quickly as we can get our peoples mustered. There we can revive ourselves, train the Meridians to defend their people, and plan for our revenge on the beings of Sangfoul. They have committed enough atrocities on both our races to deserve the repercussions.”
Revenge. The word didn’t sound harsh in any of the three’s ears. It sounded only just. But how would killing settle in their stomachs, or their nightmares, from the souls they took? How would these realities affect them, affect Anna?
The youthful warmth froze a bit in Anna’s eyes as revenge echoed in her thoughts. “Those beasts deserve what destruction we will bring them.” Coldly she glared upon blank waters. “We will train, and for my father’s death, they all will perish.”
An hour later the remaining Meridians huddled in a hovering group with Sift’s dark skinned people, preparing for the trip to Baneal.
“My people and Meridian friends, we do not all ride upon the swift moving fish of Baneal in this journey home.” Tao floated in the group’s center, garbed in his luminescent bone mask and armor. “For this reason we must travel slower and with more wariness. Slim yourselves out into a thin procession and hug tightly to the depth’s mountainous stone outcroppings.
“The soldiers of Sangfoul may await us in this journey’s passageways so keep an open eye for them always. Also be watchful in the waters behind you for they may try to follow us and discover our home. Remember, the souls of our lost loved ones will protect and comfort us on this journey. Take warmth in your heart because of this. Once again I tell you I find peace in that my recently passed son, Ailcalm, rides with me. That we have survived this past battle is proof that our deceased loved ones ride and battle with us, giving us strength.”
A long, soft silence passed through the mass as Tao’s words faded into the waters. They reached out to touch the hearts of his fellow people, placing their souls deep in thought.
The Meridians cast lost glances amongst themselves, considering it strange that anyone would think their dead loved ones remained with them. And Anna realized that neither race could understand the other one’s religion.
She herself hadn’t understood when she had discussed the very thing with Sift. This will drive a small rift between our two peoples, she thought, realizing that the smallest of rifts could open to a canyon someday. There has to be a way to seal this rift closed before it opens.
Then Anna’s soft voice rose like the gentle calls of a whale, and all others hushed, tuning their ears to listen closely to her words. “We have come together as two races into one. We were not two separate creatures who have now joined in a common cause. Instead think of our two groups as siblings who had never met but are tied by blood. We have found our brothers and sisters. Together we fit like the grooves of broken walls that were once joined as one, and are one again. My heart beats in the chest of each of you as your hearts beat in mine.
“And my fellow Meridians, think of this when you think of the religion of our new siblings. They feel as if the souls of their dead fight and live alongside them. Do we not feel the same? Does Gelu not say that though we can not see him, he is always with and inside us? Your deceased mothers and fathers, do you not feel them at times watching over you from the home of Gelu himself? When I think of our religion and our companion’s religion I also see two siblings who once shared the same parent. I propose to you that our two religions have adapted from one religion which is truth. We should all enrich our lives and faith with knowledge learned from each other.”
A school of crimson fish swiveled through the group as Anna’s words stopped, leaving hushed silence about the waters. She laid her hand upon one’s slick, scaly back, feeling it swivel past her. Its playful movements brought her a smile.
She caught a look in Tao’s eyes.
He was pleased that she had found a way to bring the two groups more united in spirit. “The Zharista speaks wisely!” his deep voice reverberated from beneath his ornamented bone mask. “My son, Ailcalm must be with this Gelu of which she speaks and also by my side. As I am sure her deceased parents, brothers and sisters are with her in this very journey.”
A heaviness weighed in her chest as Anna heard Tao’s words.
Then Tao thrust forward in the currents upon his riding fish while waving an arm toward the distant waters. “As one we ride to Baneal!”
Anna’s toes tingled in the currents as the group rushed single file behind their leader. The group’s movements sent odd ripples in the waters and she quickly fell in with Sift toward the back of the procession.
In the shadows beneath an outcropped stone wall the serpentine line of multicolored fish and large and small merpeople disappeared. Dust rippled as the only evidence of their stealth journey.
All was silent aside from the usual moaning of ocean creatures, but if thoughts could be heard, Anna’s thoughts might have stood out from the rest. Her eyes swelled. It was too much to bear. Does Maanta also travel with my soul and reside with Gelu?
Only Lola remained in Orion’s Birth, hunting for the lost boy.