A strangling, tense sensation struck Maanta’s body as he struggled to consciousness, finding that seaweed braced him to the walls of a spherical stone room.
Where am I? He found himself wondering, still groggy and half unconscious.
The last I remember before this, Zhar Nicholea was swimming with his family and strange men with fins for legs. Then Sift clasped onto my arm, dragging and pummeling me through a crowd.
“Ouch!” He murmured. A swollen bump on his head made him writhe with pain.
And then there was that white mass hurling towards me.
Maanta tugged with his wrists and ankles at his seaweed bonds until they wrested loose from the walls. His eyes began focusing upon illuminated bottles resting in and on the room's various nooks and shelving. A netting of pink and opal gems swayed gently along the room’s upper stones. He was in a potions room, one reminding him much of Amaranth’s own. He probably was being looked after for whatever had happened to him. But where was the healer? And then he realized the room’s walls were the silvery white shade of the pillaring Cardonia Tower. Their hue glistened like that of reflecting pearl. Something must have happened out there with Sift and he had been taken here to heal.
Swiveling in the waters and cupping them in his finger-webs, Maanta swam toward the room’s red door. With a push it swung outwards, causing foul waters in the outer halls to rivet past his lips and froth about in the back of his throat. He gagged at the taste. A deep red hue massaged the waters, clotting in the stone floor’s crevices.
Maanta’s stomach turned as a gurgling sound belched from somewhere beyond his sight. He moved off in the direction of the noise, with swift scoops of his fingertips.
And then Cardonea Tower’s master healer was beneath him.
Blood rippled outwards in all directions from his slit throat, throbbing in the water, his two ghastly eyes glossed with red.
Maanta’s stomach churned. A foul taste rose in his throat.
Something was terribly wrong in this tower, whether it had anything to do with the visitors Nicholea greeted outside the East and West Shale Walls, Sift or something unknown to Maanta. He shivered as he swept through the halls, hugging the ceiling and alert with his eyes wide open, racing to warn Nicholea.
The walls narrowed and widened as Maanta’s fins pressed him forward, instincts of urgency searing through his tendons and mind as gutted, speared and headless bodies of fellow Meridians wallowed and spasmed beneath him in the malta-stone lit halls. Their eyes rolled over with white as they quivered in death below him. Diving down a jutting, downward pathway, darkness swelled in, swallowing Maanta’s sight.
A woman’s howl of anguish came from somewhere far off, muffled by the tower walls. It called to him for help.
Maanta felt with his fingertips against the wall from where the noise had come; the chilled, rough stone scratching his flesh.
No doorway or opening emerged as the howls died off abruptly. Then down the hallway through the rippling waters a light swiveled up catching his eyes, fading away and dissipating back into darkness. A burnt scent wafting up through the waters from where the light flickered moments earlier rushed shivers across the boy’s spine, like a dull knife point dragging across the back of the skull.
Waters washed along Maanta’s eyes as he pushed farther through the darkness. The burnt, charred smell grew heavier, choking his throat. He wanted to stop, to find a hollow place in the pitch-black and curl up, outlasting whatever curse had befallen Cardonia Tower. But there would be no rest. The stench of bloody death had submerged itself in the liquid amongst these halls.
It’s as if this bloody, burnt stench is itself searching out Cardonia Tower’s life to wrench away from it, Maanta thought. Possibly the dark one from the tales mother used to tell has possessed these waters with his vacant soul. Gelu help me know what to do.
It was in the darkness, a darkness which seemed like a deep chasm of dank eternity, that the words came to mind. Maanta’s mother had taught him them; how to speak to Gelu in a time of need.
“Gelu, who art in the world above,” Maanta whispered softly as if to someone close by and yet at the same moment somehow far away. “Hallowed be thy name. By kingdom come thy will be done in the ocean as it is in thy loving heart. Give the ocean’s people this day thy daily fish and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. My love to you Lord. Amen.”
Maybe it was just that the prayer brought him fond memories of his mother’s smiles and caring ways of life. Or maybe Gelu himself answered.
But all that mattered was that warmth flowed over him now. And it gave him the strength to press on through the tower in hopes of helping others who might be in need.
And so he swept, quickly swirling with his fins, down the weaving hall of darkness until it opened to a wide room where the burning stench smelled strongest. Maanta couldn’t see the room through the darkness, but as he swam he had hugged the walls, watching them expand upon reaching the vast, open space.
Here the waters were warm, almost boiling warm, and a glowing, crimson orb lit the room faintly from the floor deep below him. Maanta dove quickly toward the shimmering light, touching the orb upon reaching it, he recoiled in burning pain. The thing, the size of Maanta’s own head, bubbled with molten rock much like the Malta stones he used to simmer fish over in his cove home, but with an intensity and heat far greater than he’d seen such a thing have before.
As the crimson sphere boiled below him, spitting out rank, gaseous fumes, Maanta noticed an age weathered plaque melting in on itself on the molten mass’s side.
“BE WARNED,” it read, “Molten Flare only for use in dire situations. Gases may be poisonous, but light and stench should attract attention and rescue efforts. Apply a stone mask to your face upon Molten Stone cracking.”
Well this stench certainly isn’t ignorable, Maanta thought. I wonder who sent the signal.
A thought came over him.What if this is a trap to draw forth any survivors of the massacre? Will this poison kill me or is someone here, waiting in the darkness for the right moment to run me through with their trident?
A beastly fist, the size of the boy’s body if it was rolled into a ball, clenched around Maanta’s waist and slammed him against a massive, hard surface hovering in the waters feet away.
Two massive, red eyes, encompassed by what appeared to be a giant’s head, slowly pressed in to vision before him, lit by the luminous malta light.
“Silence boy,” it lowly whispered. “You’re the one they saved outside the tower today aren’t you?”
Maanta nodded his head, assuming something like that had happened. His back ached from the collision with whatever the giant’s hand was pressing him against.
The giant’s eyes blinked slowly in the waters, and a look of sadness came over its features.
“Evanshade, and the other beings with a fin where their legs should be, swam to the tower’s meeting hall with Nicholea.” His voice deepened while telling his story. It was scratchy as if the tale pained him. “Nicholea had instructed me and the other guards to watch over the family as they spoke in case anything went wrong, and a feast of sea spiced crab was served. The Zhar and the royal family sat in their seaweed hammocks as they told tales of Meridea’s past to the foreigners.
“It was intriguing to watch the foreigners’ faces as they listened to the tales of our ancestry. While Nicholea told of Noa, the tale of how our people once lived in the world above the waters and about how and why we were punished and forced to live beneath the water’s beating waves, Evanshade’s eyes flickered with light and a convulsion of the mind could be seen in his features.”
The gargantuan sea guard’s Adam’s apple gulped deeply in his throat. His eyelids shut as bloody bubbles gurgled through his lips.
“And then we slaughtered them.”
Dusk, earlier that day…
Sift’s fin muscles ached, burned as he swam along The East Shale Wall’s darkened crevices further and further away from Evanshade and closer to his destination. Had he been recognized by Evanshade? He swept on for leagues in the depths, darting glances behind him, expecting to find he had been followed, and expecting to find at any moment the pangs of death upon him. A burning, tingling pulse swept through his ankle and wrist fins causing them to go numb and cease beating in exhaustion. His body careened into a rugged stone outcropping before him, sweeping him in a tumbling swirl beneath the stone ledge.
Sift cursed himself, knowing he had become so out of shape relying on Lola to take him everywhere. Where was she? He had sent her away as he and Maanta had neared the crowds surrounding Cardonia Tower, but why hadn’t she sensed something was wrong with him? Surely she’d come searching for him, wanting to be by his side.
As he caressed his leg fins with his massive black hands, Sift mentally willed them to beat again. In the aquatic, light blue daylight something shimmered in a small cove room above him in The East Shale Wall. Sift saw this and his thoughts warmed. This was where he had been swimming toward vigorously.
There was only a small distance farther to go, and then there would be someone he could share his thoughts with, no matter how dreadful he knew his thoughts to be. As the pulse of his fins moved him briskly in the waters toward the small Meridian wall home, something bumped hard into his back.
He swirled in the waters in nervous anticipation. A large, slim, colorful fish stared back.
“Lola!” His low voice bounded out into the waters as he wrapped his large arms around her scaly body.
The fish nudged him lovingly with her head, a look like a smile shining in her glimmering, emerald eyes. Sift then clasped his hands upon the gripping stones along Lola’s back, caressing her scales as he sat, and the two swept together through the waters toward the shale cove home close by.
As they came upon the opening Lola swirled slightly below it, as she was too large to enter. With the beating of his fins Sift raised upwards, hovering into the home of a sapphire blue skinned, gangly, old man who scampered to and fro from kelp parchment to kelp parchment covering the cove’s walls. The man’s slim fingers swept along lines written upon them. A light blue glow lit gently in his eyes.
“They’ve arrived Amaranth,” Sift spoke quickly to the man.
“I thought we had more time,” the gangly man replied. “I’ve found nothing written amongst our scholars’ kelp scrolls or the scripts of before our time telling of another race with serpentine fins where legs should be. You said there would be more time before their coming.”
“Tail fins they have must allow them to move quicker than us. Arrived have they as three, without fish or whales to pull them along. If these beings can move with swiftness as such then perhaps many others could be upon us before night falls.” Sift himself cringed as the words crept along his lips. These had been the same beings who held him in captive enslavement years before. He knew the wrath their tortures reaped on the body and then on the mind for years afterwards, as in his own mind.
“In speaking to you last night told you I did of the young boy in my tribe who spied on their race for us, telling us of their plans to slaughter and enslave Meridia.”
“Yes,” Amaranth replied, seeing there was more in the man’s eyes he had to tell.
“What was spoken not from my lips to your ears was of the enslavement all of my people have endured in times before this. Our tribe is a tribe of escapees from their enslavement camps.
“This mark,” Sift swirled around indicating the eye branding singed upon his back, “is the evil ones’ marking of ownership they have of us. They keep my race in nets when using them not, to mine resources from the molten rock along the ocean crust. As elderly grow old and feeble, often the evil ones’ skewer flesh of theirs with tridents and press them up against the lava crevices, laughing as the flesh of our elders boils and simmers into the life-swallowing molten walls.
“Such peaceful a civilization as Meridia, no army or history of war having had, is doomed. Little time is there left. As many Meridians as possible must be warned and brought to our tribe’s waters where learn they can the ways of battle to retake their waters.”
“To convince my people to leave their home waters, where many have never ventured beyond, will be difficult.” Amaranth’s eyes glowed a dark blue now. “Much of Meridia knows and trusts me though, and so there is hope of convincing many Meridians to follow.
“There is just one thing. A person of noir skin such as yourself has never ventured into our depths and many would be wary to follow you. They could fear you and instead place their trust in the serpent-finned beings. Possibly for now I should gather up my fellow Meridians and lead them to meet you further off in the waters depths.”
“Very well, but my people all noir skinned are, and yours are blue except for the young Maanta from what I’ve seen. Deal we must with this in time. Where do we meet?”
“Do you know of any place close to these waters?”
“Believe I Maanta called it Orion’s Birth, a place along the outskirts of Meridia where oxygen bubbles boil beneath the ocean floor, rising through a stone temple toward the crest of the waters above. I’ve seen it from a distance and easily could I find it again.”
“Our people,” Amaranth cringed, “are scared of that place. It is sacred because it is said that is where we descended through the waters when Gelu shunned us from the land and air above. We are connected to Gelu there more than anywhere else. But people fear the ‘forbidden fluid’ air, which bubbles up from the earth there. They believe that because it is what our ancestors breathed in the world above, it will suffocate us.
“I will meet you there before darkness falls tomorrow with as many Meridians as will follow me but only outside the stone chapel’s walls. They will not enter where the forbidden fluid swells and ripples towards the ocean surface.”
“Agreed. And then I will lead you to my lands where best can we plan how to help Meridia. Hurt was Maanta while we were fleeing the crowds surrounding the serpent finned peoples’ arrival, and taken to Cardonea Tower for healing. Surely danger, he is in there. Try will I to find him and bring him to reunite with us.”
“Take great care of him, Sift. He has a unique heart and at times is like a grandson to me.”
“I will. Until meet we again, my friend.”
“Something tells me that this day, when we remember it, will seem like leagues of time away. A grievous darkness is cloaking itself upon us.”