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Sea of Change

 

Tao awoke to the rocking of the small boat, his head hurt and his eyes stung from the gentle spray of seawater across his face. Lifting his head slightly, he looked over the side and studied the sunlight reflecting off the swell of the waves, his memory slowly   returning.  With a start he realized he was bound hand and foot, and then he heard the voices.

 

“Bring him over here!  Quickly!”

 

Turning to see where the gruff voice originated, Tao recognized the leader of the group who attacked them earlier.  He was an older man, his long gray beard braided with beads.  The Eiron knew this shoreline tribe to be peaceful men, until today.  Three tribesmen were following the elder’s orders as they dragged an unconscious Dar through the water just offshore a small sandbar. 

 

From the small boat, Tao could barely make out the statue erected at the center of the sandbar.  The stone appeared worn down from age and the elements… it was hard to tell its features, but it looked feminine in nature.   His eyes traced back to where the foursome were busy clamping metal cuffs onto Dar’s wrists, suspending his arms above his head.  Several large stone posts jutted out of the water in a semi-circular form, the opening facing the ocean.  It was one of these stone pillars that they were shackling his friend to.

 

“Get the other one!” ordered the leader, smiling smugly at their victorious catch.

 

While two of the men waded through the sea towards the boat, Tao took advantage of the time and surveyed his surroundings.  Water everywhere.  No wait, off on the horizon… land.  The boat tipped as the men leaned onto the side reaching for their prisoner.  Panicking, Tao blurted, “Why are you doing this?”

 

“Shut him up,” the larger of the two suggested.

 

“Wait… I’ll be quiet,” Tao promised as soon as he saw the other man raising his arm.  Instead of striking him, the hulking hand grabbed his shirt and over the side he plunged.  Tao splashed and kicked as his head went below the water and he fought to resurface.  They hauled his body easily through the swells and each time he surfaced, Tao gasped for a breath of air.  Once they reached the others, he found himself standing waist-deep in the ocean.  Just then, one of the men cut the bonds around his wrists.  Tao braved another attempt to speak, but this time to the leader.  “If I may say something…” he paused, waiting for permission.

 

The leader eyed him suspiciously.  “What could you possibly have to say that I would be interested in hearing?”

 

“I know your people… the Wenolas are a peaceful tribe.  Why would you attack us?”  Tao tried to rub his aching wrists, but the men holding him now forced his arms upward cuffing them to the stone next to the Beastmaster. 

 

The Wenola leader recognized the significance of the jade ring on Tao’s finger, but that didn’t matter now.  He shifted through the water to stand beside the talkative captive while one of the guards submerged below the surface, securing Tao’s ankles with cuffs that were chained around a large boulder.  “Times have changed the way we live.  We learned the craft of metal to protect ourselves from the evil King Zad spreads throughout the land.  But something darker threatens us now.  We need a sacrifice, a sacrifice to the creatures of the sea to protect us from the lord of darkness.”

 

“Balci--?” Tao started to question, but an elbow struck his face, his lower jaw feeling as though it flew off his face.  Stunned, Tao tried to gather his wits while wiggling his jawbone carefully.  He glanced over to his friend wondering how Dar fared.  Blood dripped from a gash near his forehead, trickling down his face into the sea.  A plea to tend to his wound would be useless since their captors’ ultimate goal was to kill them.

 

“Done,” the guard who surfaced informed his leader.

 

The leader nodded to his men and they started back for the boat, but he remained and turned to Tao.  “You’re right young scholar… we are a peaceful tribe, but more so than peaceful, we are desperate.  A sacrifice is the only way.”  He started for the boat.

 

“Wait,” Tao cried out as the leader was being lifted into the small boat, “this is Dar, son of King Eldar.  You don’t understand… he’s the only one who can stop Balcifer!”  Tao’s pleas were futile.  “Listen to me!  Wait!  Come back!”

 

The small boat soon blended with the swells of the ocean as it headed back towards the mainland.  All hope seemed to disappear as the vessel vanished from view.  Tao struggle to set his hands free, but the metal cuffs were unyielding.  “Dar?” he asked. 

 

No response... no doubt the wound to his head was a powerful blow.  Most likely, the Beastmaster would be out for a while.  Tao had to face this dilemma alone.

 

Time had passed and the morning sun was now sinking towards the horizon.  Tao’s only comfort from the cold water was the sun basking on his face and arms.  However, the tide was moving in and the water was already nearing his shoulders.  He figured out the reason for shackling his feet… couldn’t float.  The two of them would drown in the incoming tide.  Tao spent the day studying his surroundings and thinking of an escape.  Nothing came to mind.  He even tried to make sense of the statue, which he could see more clearly.  It was definitely a woman, but very worn.  Unlike the statue, the stones he and Dar were chained to were newly carved, as if they were recently erected.  Perhaps they were its first victims.

 

Suddenly, a shriek from high above gave Tao the first sign of hope.  The eagle glided downward until it landed atop the stone pillar imprisoning Dar.  Tao beamed from ear to ear.  “Sharak!  Am I glad to see you.”  Tao’s smile faded just as swiftly as it appeared.  How could an eagle possibly set them free?

 

Dar groaned as his eyes opened, he flinched from the throbbing pain.  A voice inside his head kept calling to him.  Sharak?  Cold and wet, he realized his hands were bound and then he remembered.  Without warning, he thrust forward to break free from the chains.  “Tao!” he yelled with concern.

 

Startled, Sharak flew off and landed on the statue on the sandbar.  Just as rattled by Dar’s explosive awakening, Tao whispered, “Here.”

 

Dar whipped his head to the familiar voice and relaxed once he saw his friend was alive; unfortunately, the fast motion caused his head to spin.  He quickly settled down in a slump when he realized the trouble they were in and they wouldn’t be alive for long.

 

Tao smiled, thankful his friend was conscious, although concerned by his condition.  “Dar?”

 

“Where are we?”

 

Having had time to dwell on their dilemma all day, Tao’s tone was somewhat cynical.  “We’re fish bait in the middle of nowhere.”

 

The Beastmaster scanned the area… sure enough the vast sea encircled them, with the exception of the sandbar that was slowly vanishing, sinking beneath the approaching tide.  Dar spotted Sharak and communicated with him.  He looked to Tao next.  “Are you hurt?”

 

“No, but you’ve lost a lot of blood.  I’m surprised there’s not a shark or two around.”  Tao glanced around making sure an unwanted predator hadn’t made an appearance.  Satisfied, he looked back at the sandbar and asked, “What did Sharak have to say?”

 

“Arina found a raft and is on the way, but Sharak says we’re too far from shore for her to rescue us in time.”  Dar tested the strength of the cuffs around his wrists once more.  They didn’t budge.

 

Miserable from the cold water and the inevitable doom, Tao flashed Sharak a spiteful look.  “That’s it?  He flew all the way out here to tell us what we already know?”  The majestic bird took off in flight, making sure the Namib warrior rowed in the right direction, useless though it may be.

 

“Tao,” Dar spoke reassuringly to take his friend’s mind off the grave danger they faced, “how long have we been here?”

 

Tao snapped out of his self-pity rage, pleased he finally had someone to converse with.  “All day.  The tide’s coming in fast.  We’ll either drown or be eaten.”  Tao noticed the water level now reached his neck, his shoulders completely submersed.  “If a shark does approach, can you talk to it?”

 

Dar smiled… not at their predicament, but at Tao’s gullibility.  “I can try.”  The Beastmaster knew if the fish were hungry enough, they wouldn’t bother listening to him.

 

“Maybe you can ask a dolphin to send for help… maybe get Iara.  She would never let you die, not out here, this is her domain.”

 

“We haven’t seen or heard from Iara in a long time.  I’m afraid with the chaos that’s spreading throughout the land she may not even be alive.”

 

“More likely she’s cowering in her cave below.”

 

Dar smiled again, but the throbbing in his head stopped that gesture midway.  The small swells of the waves were lapping his upper chest.  He tried to move his legs but they were anchored to the boulder below.  His feet felt numb from the cold. 

 

“Did you see that?” Tao asked, panic in his voice.

 

“There’s nothing there,” Dar assured him when he didn’t see anything in the water swimming around them.

 

Tao wasn’t so sure and now the water was chin level.  Facing death, he started losing control.  “It can’t end like this!”  

 

“Tao… let’s think about this.”

 

“What do you think I’ve been doing all day long?” he snapped back at his friend.  “There’s no way out!  We’re anchored to these posts… when the tide’s at its fullest, we’ll be underwater.”

 

Dar swallowed back the thought of having to witness Tao’s drowning before his own.  “There has to be a way, Tao.”

 

Seawater splashed into Tao’s mouth before he could speak, “Ah!”  He spit out the salty liquid even though the wetness moistened his parched mouth.  “Dar, it doesn’t look good.”

 

Dar saw something silvery swimming beneath the water below.  He tried to communicate with it, but it didn’t answer. 

                                                                                           

The large sea creature shimmering in the sea also caught Tao’s eye.  “Dar… tell me that’s not a shark!”  Tao needed to tilt his head back in order to speak, so he couldn’t see where the creature swam.  He felt something brush against his legs.  Soon the water would cover his face completely.  “Dar, I—”

 

“Tao!” Dar screamed as his friend’s face disappeared below the surface.  “Tao!  Noooo!  Tao!”  Dar fought the cuffs but to no avail.  What happened next happened so quickly Dar couldn’t fathom it all.  Suddenly, the sea creature emerged from below.  Human in form, he had gills on one side of his face and chest.  Wearing a toga of silvery fabric, he stood by his side raising a small sword like no other Dar had seen.  Suddenly, Dar’s feet were free as another male sea creature surfaced holding another short sword. 

 

Next, with his feet released, Tao’s body popped out of the water, a female sea creature breathing air into his mouth.  With the magnificent sword, the first male sea creature whacked each wrist shackle setting the captives free.  The female raised her head from Tao, who wheezed for air.  Dar smiled, recognizing the female.

 

Recovering, Tao now fought off what he thought was a shark until he realized he hadn’t been bitten.  He looked the creature in the eyes.  “Atlantia?”

 

The queen of the sea smiled pleasantly as she answered, “My turn to rescue you.”

 

The seamen assisted Dar and Tao to the sandbar while Atlantia explained.  “Friends of mine and yours, Beastmaster, told me you were in danger.”  She smiled knowingly at Dar who easily returned the gesture.  A worried look replaced her smile.  “I didn’t realize the Wenola were this desperate.  I must pay them a visit so this never happens again.”

 

Tao realized the statue resembled the queen of Atlantis, probably some neglected shrine made by the Wenola tribe long ago.  They weren’t superstitious so no doubt they would listen to her and she in turn could help them during these troubled times.

 

Dar rubbed his hands briskly over his midriff, trying to warm up his cold skin.  “Thank you, Atlantia.”   He walked over to where Tao stood shivering and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, pulling his friend closer.  He had almost lost him and he couldn’t bear the thought.

 

“I’m afraid I can’t help you get to the mainland,” Atlantia apologized.  “You would die of hypothermia before we reached the shore.”

 

A vision of Arina rowing as fast as her muscular arms could move the oars was teleported from Sharak flying above her to the Beastmaster.  She would be there before the sun set.  He smiled, giving Tao a tighter hug.  “Help’s on the way.”

 

With those words, Atlantia nodded and communicated with Dar in her strange way -- without words.  He smiled and started snickering softly, finally understanding her meaning.

 

Once the trio vanished into the sea, Tao asked, “What did she say to you this time?”

 

“The same thing she said last time,” Dar answered, this time not scoffing at the queen’s words, “…that I’ll make an honorable king someday.”