Authors: Glenn van Dyke,Renee van Dyke
“Did you know El’adin?”
“I did not. I’ve seen him, but never spoken with him personally. He must have killed Tirion and assumed his form. It is my fault, Lady Ninmah. I failed to protect you.”
“It was my fault too. I saw him hesitate when I ordered him to fire the missiles. There was no way we could have known,” said Ashlyn.
Tara coughed from the smoke filtering into the room. “We need to get out of here, Lady Ninmah.”
Ashlyn gave an agreeing nod. Slipping the sword over Tara’s head and shoulder. “Hold the sword for me. I’ll be right back.” Tara coughed as she fought the smoke, wiping the sting from her eyes.
The smoke and dust was thick and choking by the time Ash reached the entrance.
The devastation she walked out upon was complete, the great city of Eridu a sea of flames. Buildings that had existed minutes before were now piles of liquefying sand and rubble. The massive stone statues of Anubis, the Anunnaki with the head of a canine that had stood guard at the entrance to the ziggurat, lay toppled, shattered. Flames, ash, and smoke were rising high into the air. Embers, carried on the wind shone like stars against the darkening sky.
Traversing the ziggurat’s fractured steps down to what had once been a grand walkway, Ash turned to look at the Alulim pyramid behind the ziggurat. As she had expected, Destiny was gone. The pyramid itself was ablaze, its capstone disintegrated. The heat so intense, that some of its blocks had become molten and were flowing down the side of the structure. Loud cracking sounds smacked the air as stone blocks fractured.
It was impossible for anyone outside to have survived. Ash turned her gaze to the skies, scanning the horizon for the small ships that had been protecting the city, but they too were gone.
Ash knew how fortunate the three of them were. Only the ziggurat’s low profile and the massive weight of its large, layered stone blocks, had saved them. Even the entrance with its winding tunnels had been facing away from the blast. They’d been lucky.
Touching the pendant, Ashlyn called upon the rain. Instantly, a heavy downpour of rain began to fall over the entire city.
When Ash felt a slight burning upon her skin, she activated her armor. The air was poisoned, radioactive. While her and Solon’s denser molecular structure and healing abilities would buy them time, that wasn’t the case for Tara.
While the rain fell, Ashlyn sifted through the rubble. She felt a surge of excitement as she spotted a leather cowhide pinned beneath a fallen wall. Lifting the heavy stone slab aside, Ash pulled out the scorched hide.
Back inside the ziggurat, “We need to get Tara out of here. When Destiny was destroyed it poisoned the air outside.”
Solon looked at Tara, concern in his eyes. “I understand the radiation, but how do we get her through the fire?”
“It’s raining outside. Most of the flames should be gone by the time we get out there.”
“Raining?” Solon was surprised by the words.
“Lady Ninmah made it rain,” said Tara with pride. “She is very powerful.”
“Here.” While they’d been talking Ashlyn had used the laser from her suit to cut two long, narrow strips in the hide. “Solon, tie the ends together, forming a harness.” Ash closed her armor and held up the hide to Tara. “It’ll have to do. We’ll wrap Tara in this. It’ll give her a bit of protection until I can get her out of the city.
“Solon, are you familiar with what a dragon is?”
He shook his head.
“Have you ever shifted form into a flying creature before?” Ashlyn asked.
“Yes, often. It is something all Anunnaki like to do. My favorite is the Naga. It’s large and can fly fast.”
“Perfect,” said Ashlyn. Taking the harness from Solon, Ash slipped it over her head. “When we go outside, I’ll shift into my dragon form. You’ll need to lift Tara onto my back and put the harness into her hands.
“Tara, you’ll need to hold it tight. I’ll need to move and climb fast to get you away from the radiation.”
“You are going to fly? With me riding you? I cannot. I am afraid of high places.” Tara started coughing.
“You must, Tara. You’ll die if you stay here.” Ashlyn looked at Tara. “We are going to take you to Ur. We’re taking you home. You’ll be with your children tonight.”
Tara smiled, gagging out the words, “Thank you, Lady Ninmah. Thank you.”
Ash touched the pendant, calling a stop to the rain. Removing it, she fastened it to the sheath around Tara’s neck. Hurried, Ash grabbed the torch. “Let’s go.”
At the last turn before the exit, “Remember Tara, don’t let go of the harness.” Ashlyn wrapped the hide around Tara. “Snug as a bug in a rug. Ready, Solon?”
Solon picked Tara up in his arms, “Ready.”
The three of them darted outside, their feet sloshing in the puddles that had formed. The moisture-laden air was thick, misty and smelled of charred wood. Only a few dwindling fires still burned.
Solon’s eyes went wide as he saw Ash shift into her dragon form. Never had he seen such a fearsome creature. The horned animal, with fangs nearly as long as his arm, let out a shrieking cry that sent a shiver racing through him.
“Hurry, Solon.” Ash lowered her shoulders and pulled her wings back, making room for Solon to place Tara atop her back. With Tara wrapped inside the leather hide, Solon placed the leather straps of the harness into her hands.
Tara twisted the straps around her fists, until it was cinched tight. Ashlyn lifted off, her large wings flapping at the air.
Solon followed, taking the Naga form. It was a sleek and beautiful blue creature with highlights of shimmering green and gold streaks.
Together they flew, the only sound being the
of their wings beating the air.
Before long, they were high above the city, looking down. Flying above the harbor, Ash spotted ships far out to sea. Their sails were down, the people aboard the vessels staring in disbelief at the devastated remains of Eridu. They had lost their friends and family. Nor did they have a home to which they could return.
Tara gave a heavy cough as she came out of hiding and discarded the hide. Ash felt Tara lean forward, her legs tightening around her as she too, glanced below. Ash smiled to herself as Tara quickly pulled back, seeing how high they were.
“Aren’t we going to look for survivors?” asked Tara as she craned her neck, looking back at Eridu.
It was a question Ashlyn wished Tara hadn’t asked. “I’m sorry, Tara. I cannot. The risk is too great. We still have many enemies that want to kill us.”
With her words, Ash again sensed the darkness. Distant voices were whispering to her, the words indistinct. Ash shook her head. The motion startled Tara, eliciting a small scream from her as she tightened her grip to keep from falling.
“Is everything all right?” asked Solon.
Ashlyn had no answer to give. “Let’s get Tara home.” Turning north, they followed the river that would take them to Ur. Ash swooped low, gliding through the air until they were skimming just feet above the river. They followed the river’s twisting turns, passing above men pushing small planked boats with long poles, hauling bags of grain. They saw reed boats and dugout canoes with people casting fishing nets. Each of them looked at Ashlyn’s dragon with fear—until they beheld the human dragon-rider. They then saw it as a sight of unfathomable wonder.
Tara was watching their shadow as it changed size against the uneven waves of sparkling water, when they passed over a group of children playfully splashing in the river. Giving them a hearty wave, which they promptly returned, Ash saw that Tara was beginning to relax and enjoy the ride.
Ashlyn played her part, giving a dragon shriek and belching out a stream of fire. The children cheered.
The sun was setting on the western horizon as Ur came into view. The village had nothing in common with the great city of Eridu. Cattle and sheep roamed the outskirts, shepherds and herders tending them. Lanterns and warm fireplaces glowed invitingly from within the small homes. The smoky smell of meals being cooked wafted on the breeze. It was a place of peace, a place unconcerned with the rants of bickering Lords.
Without need to ask Tara for directions, Ashlyn flew over the rooftops of simple homes and shops made from mud and straw—heading up river to the north of town, to where Tara’s family lived.
As they approached the bend in the river, where Tara’s home was, Tara’s excitement was uncontainable. “There!” She pointed to a small house hidden behind a large oak tree ahead of them.
Ashlyn banked left, swooping around the tree, her wings spread wide. The shadow started the chickens running around the yard, squawking, scattering them in all directions. Tara’s youngest daughter, who had been sitting atop a branch of the oak tree, jumped down and ran inside, fearfully screaming for her father. Ashlyn’s dragon form snorted as she landed, her flapping wings creating gusts of wind that started a hanging line of curing beef, swaying.
Solon landed beside her and shifted form.
Lowering her neck, Ash let Tara jump to the ground. Landing awkwardly, Tara collapsed.
Concerned, Ash quickly shifted into her natural form and knelt beside her. Tara had heavy signs of radiation poisoning. Her face, hands and arms were blistering, her eyesight failing. “Tara, you should have told me. I could have stopped earlier to heal you.”
“It is not allowed. Servants to the Lords are not allowed to complain, ever,” said Tara in reply.
Ash gently took her hand. “You are my friend, Tara—not my servant. You will never hide such a thing again, understood?”
“Yes, Lady Ninmah.”
Behind them, Tara’s family was coming out to see what the commotion was. Seeing their mother, Tara’s daughters screamed and ran toward her, joyous smiles on their faces.
Tara put her hand up, bringing them to a halt a few feet away. “Gorok, these are my friends.” Tara said to her husband. He was a large man, towering above Solon.
Solon bowed. “I’m Solon.”
Gorok took Solon by the arm in greeting.
Ash gave the three wide-eyed children a smile.
“Your mother is going to be fine. Give us a moment. Lie still, Tara.” Ash closed her eyes calling upon her power to heal. As the children watched, their mother began to glow from within, her wounds disappearing before their eyes.
“By the gods. I’ve never seen such a thing,” said Gorok.
When Ash was done, she turned to Tara’s husband and children, nodding to them that it was all right to approach. Their exuberance nearly knocked Tara over as she tried to rise. After months of their mother’s absence, the children had a hundred questions for her—not least of which, was wanting to know if she had truly ridden on a dragon, like the youngest daughter claimed.
As Tara settled the children with hugs and kisses, she made introductions. “This is my husband, Gorok. And this is Lady Ninmah and Commander Solon.”
Tara’s husband bowed. “Tonight, we entertain the gods. You have blessed us with Tara’s presence. You are welcome to stay with us for as long as you wish. We were about to eat and I have plenty for everyone,” said Gorok.
“Daddy always eats too much anyway,” said Tara’s youngest daughter, La’nel.
“It is true,” said Gorok with a loud laugh. “Though you should not have told the gods the secret to my great strength, La’nel.” Gorok pretended to be a monster, feigning that he was going to chase her.
As La’nel ran screaming, Gorok turned to his wife and gave her a tight hug that lifted her from the ground. “Come, my friends.” Taking his wife’s hand, he led them all inside.
During dinner, Tara told her husband what had happened at Eridu and how Ashlyn had saved her. When she told them of her flight atop the dragon, the kids all looked at Ashlyn and chattered that they wanted to ride a dragon too.
“All right, children. We do not ask the gods for a ride. Time for bed.” Gorok playfully threatened to slap them on their butts if they didn’t go.
As the children jumped into bed, they begged their father to tell them the story of Ja’kal.
“Again? Really?” He gave them a huff. “All right, but you will go to sleep when I am done.”
Tara went to a small wooden cabinet, one of the few pieces of furniture in the home, and removed two rolled, reed mats and laid them out for Solon and Ashlyn. “I am sorry that we do not have a room and bed for you. This is all we have.”
“You have a nice home, Tara. We are happy to be here,” said Ash. “Thank you.”
Tara gave a kind nod and then went to her daughters. After giving them a goodnight kiss, she went to the fire and threw another log in. Lying down on a mat on the other side of the room, she waited for her husband to tell the story to the girls, knowing he would soon join her.
Gorok grabbed a small wooden stool and sat down beside his daughters. In the single room they all shared, everyone was listening as Gorok began. “Let’s see. I forgot, how does the story start?”
“Daddy,” said the three girls.
“A lonnng time ago,” added La’nel, stretching the words and saying them slowly.
Playfully tweaking each of their noses Gorok said, “Oh that’s right, I remember now.” He gave them a teasing smile. “A lonnng time ago, large and terrifying monsters came to our world in ships that flew through the sky. Everyone was afraid of the monsters, and so the people hid in caves under the ground. But there was one man, Ja’kal, his name meaning, little wolf—who wasn’t afraid. He was a brave man, who wanted to fight the monsters that had invaded his world, but he was alone and had no power to do so.”