Mara’Uto stood beside her father on the head of the na’karden when they sighted land. A number of ships lined the shore and more ships floated anchored just offshore. “I want you to stay by the tail,” her father ordered. “Once we reach shore, I need you to get into the water and swim away from the battle so you’ll be safe.” He looked up at her. “And this time, don’t get stuck on the ropes,” he grinned. He pulled back more on the spike in the head and the na’karden began to speed up even more.
“Don’t worry, father,” she replied, “I will be fine.” She gave him a quick hug and then made her way back to the last fin before the tail of the na’karden. She sat and watched as the soldiers put on their armor and prepared for battle.
As they neared the beach, the enemy began to launch rocks at them with their catapults. Mara’Uto made her way to the end of the rope near the tail. It was loose since they had cut the securing rope to free her arm, but she wasn’t too afraid to fall into the water. The Awa soldiers shot flaming arrows at the ships that were anchored. As they neared the beach, they picked up their shields and prepared to meet the enemy.
Several deep ditches stretched across the beach and the enemy was waiting for them behind these. Their armor was dull but their sharp swords gleamed in the sun. A black banner that looked like it had a green mountain with blood running down from the peak fluttered above them. Arrows began to fall from the sky, sticking into the na’karden in many places and striking a few of the Awa soldiers that were trying to protect themselves with their shields. Far in the distance on the outskirts of a town, another group of enemy soldiers was battling a group of men that flew a white banner. Mara’Uto wondered if these were the men her father came to help.
Mara’Uto could hear the bottom of the sea monster scraping along the ground as it moved up onto the beach. The na’karden began to run on its short stubby webbed legs but they did little to keep the great mass off the ground. The tail suddenly twisted as the bottom dug into the ground. Mara’Uto held tight to the ropes as the movement of the tail made them hang off to one side. As the land rushed toward her, Mara’Uto was afraid to jump and just hung on to the ropes since she didn’t want to be crushed underneath the tail.
Looking toward the head, she could see that the na’karden had gone straight into the enemy army and the Awa soldiers were already jumping down to the fight. Farther along the beach, more of the na’karden were being driven into the enemy as well. The na’karden soon slowed and stopped. She dropped to the ground and struggled to walk on her fins without water but fell over into the mud and rocks. She pulled herself back to the ropes and climbed back on. She covered her face so she would not have to see the battle. She could hear the sounds of the fighting and started to cry when she realized she was hearing the screams of the wounded. She wanted to get far away but decided she would have to stay there until her father came to get her.
The na’karden began to squirm as it felt its death on the beach nearing. Mara’Uto clung tight to the ropes as the tail began to move again. This time it swept violently to the side and Mara’Uto began to lose her grip on the rope. The large tail fin dug into the muddy ground as it moved, kicking up dirt and stones that stung when they struck her. She slid further along the tail and grabbed hold of the tail fin. The na’karden then swung its tail the opposite direction as hard and fast as it could. Before she knew it, she had lost her grip on the tail and was flying through the air. Everything faded to black when she struck the ground seconds later.
The instant Colonel Remen’Fu saw the enemy waiting for them on the beach, he knew it would be a tough fight. He could see the soldiers of Tanarad still fighting near the city, but the Dark Wizard appeared content that they were no longer much of a threat so the bulk of his army was now standing ready to fight the Awa. The Colonel drove the na’karden up onto the shore and into the midst of the enemy army. Many would be crushed by its size and their formations would be thrown into disarray. He watched as the na’karden ridden by his other companies also made their way onto the shore.
As soon as the two companies riding with him disembarked, Colonel Remen’Fu removed the spike from the na’karden’s head and climbed down to the battle below. The spears of his soldiers held off the enemy for a few moments, but they were badly outnumbered and soon the enemy began to press in against them. “Move away from the na’karden,” he ordered his soldiers. “Give it room to die.”
They began to maneuver to the side. The na’karden soon began to thrash about as best it could with the ropes on it. More of the enemy soldiers were crushed beneath the mammoth weight but it was not enough to even the odds. The enemy began to push them back toward the water. Unaccustomed to their landing feet, many of the Awa tripped and fell as they were pushed back into the farthest ditch from the sea. Those that survived the first ditch retreated even faster toward the second ditch.
Colonel Remen’Fu tripped over a soft body at the edge of the second ditch and fell backward with a splash. It was Mara’Uto. He reached forward and pulled her limp body to him. As more soldiers, both Awa and enemy crossed the ditch, he rolled her under him to keep her from being trampled. Even though he was near the bottom of the ditch, boots dug into his back. His head was pushed into the dirt. His fragile fins were broken and torn by the armies stepping on him as they walked across the ditch.
Mara’Uto felt like a crushing weight was on top of her. She tried to move but the weight was too heavy. She opened her eyes and realized someone was on top of her. Colonel Remen’Fu felt his daughter try moving beneath him. “I need you to help me off you,” he painfully groaned. She moved her arms, grabbed hold of his armor, and pushed up as hard as she could. As she pushed, he twisted his body and leaned back so he rested against the top of the ditch. At least one of his arms was broken and he could not move his fins.
“This one’s mine!” someone yelled. Mara’Uto heard footsteps and moments later, an enemy soldier appeared and stood over her father. The enemy soldier raised his sword and Mara’Uto screamed in horror as he ran it through her father. The soldier glanced down and gave a mischievous grin. “They brought us a helpless little girl too!” he said, bending down to grab her.
Another soldier suddenly appeared behind the first. This one was wearing a black cloak. He put his hand over the first soldier’s mouth and pulled his head back. A dagger quickly slashed across the neck as the second soldier pushed him into the ditch, his blood darkening the already reddened muddy water. The second soldier stepped into the ditch and knelt beside Mara’Uto. “How badly are you hurt?” he whispered.
“I... I don’t know,” Mara’Uto stammered, shaking in fear as she looked into the purple eyes peering from the helmet. “Please don’t k... kill me.”
“What is your name?” he asked. The soldier pulled a pack off his back and set it beside him.
“Mara’Uto,” she answered. “What are you going to do to me?”
The soldier quickly glanced around to make sure no one was near. “I am going to help you,” he replied. He pulled a black cloth from his pack. “The Dark Wizard has captured the city but the soldiers of darkness have not yet moved in. I know someone that can tend to your injuries.”
“Aren’t you a soldier of the Dark Wizard?” Mara’Uto asked, trying to resist as the soldier began wrapping the cloth around her.
The soldier paused and stared at her. “I am a woman,” was the hissed reply. “I am a spy sent by the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar. Trust me; you want me to help you.” Mara’Uto sighed and resigned to allowing the woman to continue wrapping the cloth around her. Soon she was being carried toward the city.
Near the city gates, where Mara’Uto had seen the soldiers with the white flag fighting before the Awa had joined the battle, several enemy soldiers stopped them. “Halt! Where are you taking this prisoner?” one of them asked.
The woman stopped and slowly turned her mostly hidden face toward the soldiers with a sneer. “Kuzarn. I eat my kills,” she said with her disguised voice. The soldiers backed away with frightened looks on their faces and the woman carried Mara’Uto into the city. She could hear the soldiers softly snickering at her perceived fate as they walked away.
Several streets further, they entered a small house. The woman set Mara’Uto on a table and took off her helmet and cloak, allowing her brown hair to fall freely and exposing her face. “My real name is Shime’Kar,” she said. “Stay here. The woman that lives here will be able to bandage your wounds.”
Shime’Kar stepped into the back room and after a brief conversation with someone Mara’Uto could not yet see, returned with a woman carrying a bucket of water and some bandages. “We need to work quickly,” Shime’Kar said as she pulled back the cloth around Mara’Uto. “The Dark Wizard has given the call and the soldiers of darkness will soon converge and descend on the city.” She looked at Mara’Uto. “This is Regu’Tut, one of my friends when I was growing up.”
The two women began to clean away the mud caked on Mara’Uto’s scaly skin. As they worked, she winced in pain as her left leg began to sting. She tried to sit up and see the problem but Shime’Kar held her down. “You have a nasty cut on your leg,” she explained. “This is going to hurt, but we need to clean out the dirt before we can close it.”
“Be brave,” Regu’Tut reassured, “this will only take a few seconds.” Shime’Kar held her hand over Mara’Uto’s mouth and stifled the scream. Moments later, Regu’Tut had bandaged the wound and the pain was not as intense.
Shime’Kar removed her hand from Mara’Uto’s mouth. “That was the worst of your injuries,” she said. “There are a few more small cuts that will need bandaged, but they won’t hurt as bad.” She wiped off Mara’Uto’s face with a wet rag. The cool water felt refreshing to the drying skin. “Your fins are torn and ragged. We can’t do anything for them here, but we should be able to get them fixed in Atalan.”
“Where is that?” Mara’Uto asked.
“I can make it in about four days at a fast gallop.” She paused and thought about the physical differences between the Awa and humans. “Have you ever been on land before?”
Mara’Uto shook her head. “If I stay out of water for too long, my skin will dry and crack,” she explained. “Not to mention, it is hard to walk on land with fins instead of feet.”
“Well I am still taking you to Atalan,” Shime’Kar stated. “Your skin may dry and crack, but it will be better than what would happen if I left you here or tossed you back into the sea.”
“What about everyone else that lives in this city?” Mara’Uto asked. “Are you going to take them with us too?”
“Most of the people evacuated the city when the enemy ships were first sighted,” Regu’Tut said. “The few that stayed have gone into hiding.”
Shime’Kar suddenly walked to the window and looked out. “They evacuated but the soldiers of darkness were waiting to waylay them. I passed nothing but corpses on my way here.” She paused. “Even the deathbirds were strangely absent.” She put her helmet and cloak back on. “We need to go,” she announced.
“I’ve just about finished,” Regu’Tut said, tightening another bandage.
Shime’Kar walked over to the table and pulled Mara’Uto away from the other woman. “Give me a clean cloth to carry her in,” she ordered. “We don’t have time to do anything else.” while Regu’Tut rummaged through a chest, Shime’Kar carried Mara’Uto into the back room and lay her on the floor, kneeling beside her. “Whatever happens, be quiet,” she whispered.
The door in the front room suddenly banged open and Mara’Uto heard Regu’Tut’s scream and the thud of a body hit the floor. Footsteps crossed the room and an enemy soldier dressed the same way as Shime’Kar stepped into the doorway between the rooms. “Sivonug. A path of blood and fire,” he croaked in his raspy voice. He hefted an axe in his hands.
Shime’Kar looked up at the soldier of darkness standing in the doorway. “Kuzarn. I eat my kills,” she replied with her fake voice. She bent down and made a show of running her tongue along Mara’Uto’s cheek as if tasting the anticipation of a delicious meal. Sivonug gave a look of disgust and left the doorway with a grunt. When they heard him leave the house, Shime’Kar quickly went into the front room and returned with a blanket. She wrapped it around Mara’Uto and picked her up. “I have a horse out back that we can ride to safety.”
As they went out the back door, they could hear screams as people in hiding throughout the city were discovered and killed by the soldiers of darkness. Smoke filled the air and they knew some of the homes were already burning. Shime’Kar sat Mara’Uto on the black horse and mounted behind her. She grabbed the reins and directed the horse forward. They passed between two more houses and came out onto a street.
A man was running down the street with a soldier of darkness chasing behind him. Shime’Kar held her hand toward the soldier of darkness. Crack! A bolt of lightning flashed through the air and struck the soldier of darkness. She urged the horse to go faster. “Now that they know we are here, even the Dark Wizard is going to be looking for us.”
As they raced through the city, Mara’Uto held tight to the horse’s mane while Shime’Kar blasted all the enemy soldiers that she saw. Soon they passed through a gate and out of the city. They had to cross several wide fields before they would reach the concealment of a thick forest.
A shadow passed over them and Mara’Uto looked up to see a large dragon flying above them. Shime’Kar raised her hand toward the dragon. “I hope this works,” she muttered. Frost began to cover the wings and they began to stiffen. The dragon let out a loud scream as it plummeted from the sky. When it hit the ground, the wings shattered into several pieces. As the horribly wounded dragon thrashed on the ground, they rode into the forest.