Outside the crumbled shell where Meridia once stood
Maanta’s legs beat slowly in place as he hovered in the sandy waters outside where Meridia had once stood. He had met up with the almost 200 Meridian slaves he had freed after releasing the air pocket but had decided to keep the group close to the city until the sands dissipated and they were able to see their hands before their faces once more.
After all, what was the point in being freed if only to charge blindly into the unknown to be devoured by creatures of the deep you could not see? The tail finned people of Sangfoul might also be searching for them close by. The whipping sands in the waters about him were so thick that he could not see a finger before his eyes.
Where is Archa? He questioned in his mind. She knew I was coming to Meridia. She should have arrived by my side by now.
The others about him jostled and whispered to each other. He could hear them in the storm of sand. “Be silent,” Maanta spoke to them. “We do not know who could be listening. Wait until the sands clear to speak.”
With a hush they silenced their lips.
And then amongst the silence and clicking sand winds he heard other voices, fainter voices then the hushed whispered tones he had heard from his group.
One of the voices was deep and that of a male. “Stay close,” it said. Maanta could barely make out the sound.
Maanta cupped his hand next to the ear of the Meridian beside him and whispered to her that he wanted them to stay there while he investigated. He instructed her to whisper this in the same way to the others.
Silently Maanta swam away from the freed Meridians. He moved so slowly as to not be heard with the movements of his legs and hands, and listened so intently to the waters about him, that he heard every pulse of their movements.
A female voice glided across his hearing from the distance. Once again it was barely audible. “Did you feel that?” It asked.
That voice, Maanta thought. It’s so familiar. Where have I heard it before? Anna? His heart raced. Could she be here? He quickened his pace to get close to the voice sooner. Surely it’s her, he thought. Her voice was unmistakable to his mind.
He heard the first voice a little louder this time. “Probably an eel,” it said.
Maanta longed to hear the female voice once more. He was certain it was Anna’s. Through the sands the features of a young woman slowly became visible as a silhouette before him. Surely that wasn’t the young woman who had spoken with Anna’s voice.
When he had last been with her, Anna’s curves had been slimmer than this girl’s and she had been shorter as well. He swam quicker and as he did so the sands dissipated some before his eyes.
The girl’s features shone through the aquatic sand breeze. Her curly red hair flowed in the waters behind her as her emerald eyes looked longingly into his own. Those were Anna’s eyes. He knew them instantly. She had matured and was more beautiful then ever. It was her.
“Maanta?” Anna’s beautiful voice called to him. “Could it be you?”
Maanta rushed to her now with no caution to be silent anymore. Anna was the only thing on his mind. He wrapped his pale arms around her pastel-blue waist and back. “It’s me,” he spoke in her ears. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Others were speaking to him now but he paid them no mind, focusing solely on Anna.
“I feared you dead,” Anna wept into the waters. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come to me? I’m so happy you’re alive!”
Maanta held Anna close, not wanting to let her go. He traced his fingers through her hair and along her head as she moved closer. “I have seen so many things and been so far.” He could feel her warmth joining his own as he held her close. “There is so much to tell you. When we’ve settled in some place tonight I promise I’ll share it all with you. I’m just so happy to be by your side once more.”
“Did you think of me where you were?” Anna brushed her cheek against his own.
Maanta’s thoughts went back to the mountain when he was daydreaming about Anna so much that he fell from its cliff. “Sometimes I could think of nothing but you.”
She kissed his lips and he held her cheek with his hand. It was a deep passionate kiss that they held for long moments before looking into each other’s eyes once more.
Maanta stared into Anna’s warm, pure emerald eyes, and marveled at the strength, purity and passion within them. He still held her cheek with his hand. “I love you, Anna.” The world about him seemed surreal as he said the words. He had wanted to say them so badly in Orion’s Birth before he had been swept away to the world of air.
“Oh Maanta!” Anna hugged him even tighter than she had before and kissed him deeply again. “I love you too!”
“Ahem!” The loud, grunt-like noise came from somewhere close by and finally registered in Maanta’s hearing and thoughts. “If having a reunion like this, she gets, dread I the reunion I am to recieve.” Sift’s dark muscular body hovered slightly beside Anna’s in the swirling sandy waters.
Maanta kissed Anna once more and then went to shake Sift’s hand. “It’s great to see you again too, Sift.” Maanta gave him a hug too. He petted Lola on the head where she floated close by. “I can’t wait to hear all about what has happened with Anna, you and the others since I have been away.”
“Nor can, waiting we be, to hear what done have you my friend.” Sift waved some of the Meridian warriors and Tao over to his side now to also greet Maanta. “Although, as must you have guessed, Meridia and our enslaved there have, I fear, been lost.”
Most of the Banealian and Meridian warriors were paying attention to Maanta now, a few of them shaking his hand and giving him their best regards. Tao looked distant and stared off into the blank and distant sandy fog.
Maanta’s heart raced. He couldn’t believe he had waited so long to tell them about the good news. “It is true Meridia seems to be lost.” He gave Sift a heartening grin. “But the slaves of Meridia live. I freed them from the prisons beneath Meridia before the city’s collapse.”
“Do not lie to us, boy!” Tao snapped at him with a dark look in his eyes. “They are all dead! How could they have survived?”
“Tao,” Sift gave his comrade a stare. “If Maanta says free they be, then free they be.”
“Then where are they?” Tao looked dark and lost again.
“Follow me. I’ll show you.” Maanta swam forward and began to disappear in the sandy fog before them.
“Toward Maanta we follow!” Sift shouted and waved his armored arm in the currents as he mounted Lola once more.
The group mounted their riding companions also and swiftly followed in Maanta’s wake. Anna and Sift were at the lead. The only one who didn’t come was Tao. Instead he swam down to look for the beheaded body of his son that had sunk to the ocean floor during the battle.
“Venge will pay,” Tao cursed beneath his breath. A lost and blind hurt consumed him.
The sands whipped and curled before Maanta’s eyes as he swam to where he had left the freed slaves. In truth they were only 15 or so whale lengths away. Soon their faces and bodies became visible in the now settling sandy fog. They stretched like a large circular wall in the waters before him. He wasn’t able to see how many there were through the sands until just now. It was worth the sacrifice of our city, he thought. Thank goodness they are all now free.
Maanta swam into the group and was about to tell them about his discovery of Zharista Anna and the others close by when the Banealian and Meridian warriors burst through the sandy fog.
“My people!” Anna cried as she raced to them, hugging each one of them she was near as she arrived to their side.
Other cries of jubilation could be heard over and over again in the coming moments as warrior Meridians met up with loved ones they had long believed dead.
“Candinar!” One man called out as he rushed to a freed Meridian’s side. “Brother!”
A female warrior noticed her malnourished husband in the mass of freed slaves and rushed to be with him, kissing him repeatedly.
The warriors of Baneal smiled and cried as they embraced the previously enslaved who had no family here to greet them.
It was a bittersweet reunion, because for each person who was now here reuniting and celebrating their freedom, at least 20 more had died in the massacre, the enslavement and battles. That didn’t include the numbers of enslaved people of Baneal who were dying or had perished in Sangfoul.
The reunited kissed, held and comforted one another until the light streaming through the surface of the water above began to set and fade.
Sift suddenly appeared by Anna and Maanta’s side as they spoke with the first slave Maanta had freed. They had discovered his name was Medvedev.
Medvedev spoke of how he had been forced to mine the lava by hand from the caverns beneath Meridia. His hands were crippled and black as coal. He also told the heroic tale of how Maanta had freed him after the air had burst through the tunnels. “But I fear our people’s spirit will not be repairable after losing Meridia to the sand and coral ocean floor,” he spoke.
Maanta put his arm around the man. “It is our souls, Medvedev, that make who we are, not the place where we were born.”
Medvedev had a blank stare as he spoke. “But you must remember, at least for many of us who were enslaved, our souls have been broken. Without our homeland, where will we heal them?”
Sift broke in to the conversation and spoke to both Anna and Maanta at once. “Getting dark it is, and we have left many of our people who, not warriors are, a good distance away from here. Return to them before nightfall, we should.”
“Good point,” Anna agreed. “We should be heading back to them.” She took a conk-shell that Sift had had strapped to his side and held it to her lips. “My fellow Meridians and Banealians,” the noise echoed through the spiraled shell, “it is getting dark and we must return to others of our people we have left beyond these waters!”
The now massive group stopped their talking to listen to her words. There was barely any sand left to block their sight in the waters.
“Travel closely!” Anna spoke. “For the people of Sangfoul may still lurk about us!”
Within moments they grouped together and began heading back toward Tao. Once more Sift, Anna and Maanta led the group.
At first when they came to where Tao should be they did not see him.
“This is where he was?” Anna questioned Sift.
“Yes,” Sift answered while looking about him. “And we must find him. For leave him behind, we cannot.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Anna assured him.
The waters were relatively clear now so Tao should have been easily visible but darkness was also falling and Maanta realized, as he searched too, that it was possible the darkness was shading Tao from them. It was bizarre though, if Tao was here, that he hadn’t swum to them the second they arrived. Their group now numbered close to 300, once combined, and would be easily noticed by anyone close by.
Then, beneath them on the still-stirring sandy ocean floor, Maanta noticed a body curled and cupping its hands to its face. “Tao!” Maanta shouted down to him before showing Anna and Sift where he was. “Tao!” Maanta called again.
At first Tao paid them no mind. He didn’t look up, but after Sift also called for him he swam slowly upward.
When Tao arrived to their side his eyes were sunk with darkness and depression. “They’re gone,” he spoke with disparity.
Maanta couldn’t understand why Tao seemed so dark and lost. He should be joyous that the enslaved had been freed.
“True it is,” Sift responded to Tao. “Evanshade and the others of Sangfoul appearing are to be nowhere about.”
“Not them,” Tao spoke angrily now. “The bodies of our slain are gone, swept away by the currents which churned in the falling of Meridia. My son is lost. He should not have died this way.”
Tao’s son, Maanta thought. Why was this sparking a memory? The boy, he remembered. Tao’s son was the boy who greeted me in Baneal and begged to come with us to Orion’s Birth. He must have come here with the others to fight the people of Sangfoul and free our Meridian slaves. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
“Don’t be.” Tao’s voice was crisp and harsh. “He gave his life for a just cause.” Tao was trying to justify losing his son, Maanta could tell, but the look in Tao’s eyes said something different. They spoke of hate.
And hatred can bring nothing of goodness to our world, Maanta thought. We have to help him try to move past his son’s death and find some other light in the world. Otherwise it will consume him and could bring harm to us all.
Sift put his arm around Tao. “Tonight, hold we will a memorial for him and our other lost brothers.”
Tao looked distant and did not respond.
Sift petted Lola’s smooth scales with his strong hands. “Now, leave we must for the group, which leave we did, in the waters outside Meridia.”
“Agreed,” Anna moved forward before looking back to Maanta. “Join me on my riding fish until we find you another riding companion or Archa meets up with us again.”
Maanta swiftly swam up and mounted the riding fish while hugging close to Anna’s waist.
The group traveled slowly through the currents as they made their way back to Millay and the Meridians and Banealians they had left behind. The recently freed slaves had no riding companions and so wherever they went they would have to move at this slow speed.
Maanta enjoyed it though. It had been so long since Anna had been by his side and he was enjoying each moment closely holding on to her.
“How far off is the group we’re looking for?” He asked her while holding tight to her waist. Cool currents zipped along his body as he and Anna led the group behind them. Sift rode Lola at their side.
“Not far, only a little ways.” Anna took a hand from the riding-fish and caressed his hand where it touched her side. “But I’m not in any hurry. I like having you close like this.”
“Maybe I can hold you close as we sleep tonight.” Maanta smiled and caressed her fingertips. Anna’s back was warm against his chest.
The remains of Meridia were out of visibility as the group rose and dipped across a hillside in the quickly darkening night. The coral, fish and terrain seemed to glow about them as the group swam, like ghosts.
As they swam above a swaying kelp field, illuminated by the paled light of the descending sun above the ocean, Anna slowed her and Maanta’s riding fish, turning her head in Sift’s direction. “Wasn’t this the place?” She asked him.
“Thought I that it was so.” Sift looked carefully below them, squinting his eyes. “If here they are, then a grand job have they done of hiding.”
Anna halted their riding fish. “Then why haven’t they seen us and come to our side?” As she asked this, the field of illuminated kelp swayed and parted as hands pushed at the dense kelp leaves.
Bodies shot up from the kelp basin and swam quickly toward them. One particular female body headed in Maanta and Anna’s direction.
“Anna!” Millay called up in joy. “Thank goodness you have returned. We feared the worst when a fog of sandy currents consumed the waters about us. We didn’t know what it could mean.”
“Meridia has fallen to a rising pocket of air that rose from beneath the seafloor,” Anna smiled. “But there is fantastic news. The tail fined people of Sangfoul fled as Meridia fell, and Maanta has freed the once enslaved of our people.”
“Maanta?” Millay hadn’t noticed him before, behind Anna, but as Anna spoke his name he caught her eyes. “You have come back to us, Maanta.” She hugged the boy that she did not yet know. “I assumed you dead but Anna was always convinced you were alive. If you freed the enslaved of Meridia then you must be a great boy indeed!”
The other people who had glided up from the kelp basin were now welcoming their warriors back and greeting the freed slaves. In the darkness, all movements and facial features could barely be seen.
“I am not great,” Maanta said. “I have done nothing hard or difficult that someone else could not.”
Sift had been listening to their conversation and spoke to Maanta now. “But thought of an idea, you did, and put it to action where all others did not. In truth, certainly brave this is. Be not so modest, Maanta.”
Maanta blushed but tried to hide it from the girls by sitting up straighter on the riding fish. “Thank you, Sift. I appreciate the compliment. I will never see myself as great though.”
“As you shouldn’t,” Sift patted Maanta on the back, “for seeing yourself as great, to arrogance can lead. Greatness in truth can only exist in modest souls without corruption overcoming.”
Moments of silence passed as the group thought about what Sift’s words meant. Sift dove off in the currents to greet others rejoining them.
Millay’s facial expressions turned concerned. “How did Sebastian fair in battle?” She asked. “Why is he not by your side? Does he ride with Tao?”
“He was killed in battle,” Anna reached her hand out and held Millay’s.
It was as if Millay’s heart dropped. “I knew we would lose warriors in combat. It is unavoidable. But I never thought it could be Sebastian who would fall.” She bit her bottom lip as she thought she would cry. “How is Tao?”
“He is not taking it well,” Anna spoke. “He seems to be slipping into despair.”
“I will go to his side and try to comfort him.” Millay looked worried. “It’s so good to have you back safe. I don’t know how I would have taken it if you would have fallen as well.” Millay swept off in the currents to look for Tao.
As darkness fell to its pure black night the group decided to rest in the kelp basin until morning when they could mourn their dead and decide what was to be done next.
Millay and Sift slept close to Tao and tried to comfort him before his thoughts traveled to the world of dreams.
Maanta held Anna in his arms at the edge of the kelp basin, slightly away from the others. Kelp swayed and clung to their bodies as they stared up to the moonlight shimmering across the ocean’s surface above.
Anna turned and whispered in Maanta’s ear. “We have laid down to rest now.” She kissed him softly. “You told me you would tell me tonight of the places you’ve been and the things you’ve experienced since we were last together.”
“You won’t believe me.” Maanta traced his fingertips down the bare of Anna’s back.
“I will believe whatever you tell me.” Anna laid her head on his strong, pale chest. “I trust you. No matter what you say I’ll know it is true.”
A cool hush of currents sent goosebumps up both of their bodies.
“It all began when I was ripped away from you by the gust of air in Orion’s Birth,” Maanta began. He told her about how Noah and two of his sons had rescued him after he had come to float on the crest of the ocean. He recited Noah’s story for her about God’s flooding of the world and about how he had learned to breathe air along with the other ways of the people of land.
She cringed when he told her of how he had choked up his gills from his mouth and she was shocked to discover that Noah was the man called Noa she had heard so much about as a child.
“How could he still be alive?” Anna asked.
He told her that he didn’t know but that Noah was now over 900 years old.
“Gelu must be strong in him!” She exclaimed.
From there Maanta told her of the letter he had received from Amaranth and about the symbiotic creatures which he eventually tucked in his cheeks to assist him in his breathing underwater again.
She hadn’t expected him to tell her that he was the one who had released the air pocket from beneath Meridia that had toppled her kingdom, but she surprised him by thanking him because without the loss of Meridia her people would have never been freed.
“I wanted to return to you so many times before now but I knew the only way to free our people was to release the air pocket as Amaranth had suggested.” Maanta’s fingertips traced Anna’s curly red hair. He kissed her forehead.
“It was worth the wait.” Anna smiled. “But what are we to do now?”
“I’ve been thinking about that.” Maanta still stroked her hair. “The people of Sangfoul will never rest until our people and the people of Baneal are either completely enslaved or annihilated. But before I left the world of air and land I spoke of our dilemma with Noah and his sons and I think there is a way for us all to live free and without fear of the people of Sangfoul.”
Anna raised her head and rested her arms on his chest. Her pure emerald eyes peered into his own. “What way is that?”
“If I was able to breathe air and learn to walk and live on the land above our waters then surely all our people can do the same.” Maanta put his arms behind his head and smiled back at her. “The people of Sangfoul could never again torture us because even if they were able to learn the ways of breathing air they could never walk because they have tailfins instead of legs.”
Anna thought for a moment, still looking in Maanta’s eyes through the flowing dark currents. “It would work. But we would have to convince the others that it was a good idea and they may be harder to convince of the truth of your story then I was. I would never be able to leave them behind.”
“Neither would I.” Maanta held her close in his arms as the two closed their eyes and drifted warmly off to the world of sleep.
In the morning they would tell Sift and the others of their idea.
The darkness drew Maanta downward to dream.