He took a breath.
Panic shot through him as water flooded his lungs, making them swollen and heavy in his chest. He flailed his arms in the water as he struggled, gasping for air he felt like he needed. His body thrashed, fingers clawing through the green sea around him, grasping nothing.
Time dilated. Seconds became hours in his mind. He fought, kept reaching for the air above, but he couldn't seem to move, not in any way that would help him, at least. Above him, he could see the light refracting down through the water, it seemed too far away to reach for.
Im too deep.
His movements slowed. The razor edge of the fear started to recede, and he felt himself surrendering, little by little, to his fate. This was it, he knew. He was going to drown.
And the awful part was he didn't even know who he was or where he was. All he'd been able to piece together was he'd woken up in an emerald green ocean and killed himself right away just by opening his mouth.
He closed his eyes, feeling himself sinking. The panic left him like a fist opening up. Nothing to be done but to let go.
He waited for the end. He didn't know how it would comeâ€”did you get cold? Did everything go black? What happens when you drown?
He sank some more, and resigned, his body relaxed completely. His chest, wracked with gasps and heaves a little while ago as he'd frantically tried to expel the water from his lungs had slowed to an even rhythm, in and out.
Almost like he was breathing.
He waited for the end, which seemed to be taking its time.
Not dead, he opened his eyes.
Light shimmered above him, the heat from its light warm against his skin in contrast with the cool currents. He could feel the slight grit against his skin as he moved through the water. Above him, clouds of particles drifted lazily in arcs, the shadows of his earlier panic.
He kicked his legs, floating in place. Yes, he was breathing, no doubt. He could feel the water in his chest, warm and full. It drifted in and out like a tide all its own.
So I'm not dead.
And I guess I can breathe underwater.
He let himself absorb that.
And that's all I know.
His expression hardened. He searched his memory for something, anything else, that he could cling on to. But there was nothing else. Not a flash, not an image, not a clue. It was as if his life had begun moments ago, when he sprung into existence in a strange green ocean.
That couldn't be right.
He looked over himself. The water made everything pale, but even through that he could tell his skin was dark, his hands looked young and supple. His arms and legs were toned and muscular, and the fact that he could keep up treading water like this and not feel his muscles straining against him.
It was a bit difficult to maintain position in the water, so he started waving his arms slowly in sync with his legs, fighting the current a little bit. In lei of anything else to do, he tried to add this to what he already knew.
I'm young, and given how I'm not feeling a strain at all, I've obviously done this before. In fact, it feels pretty natural. Given I seem to be breathing okay, I'm obviously in my element.
He looked out at the ocean beyond. Despite the grit and the slightly salty coppery taste of the water he was picking up on his tongue, he found he could see pretty far.
Above him, the shimmering green curtain of the waters above, like a brilliant aurora. It was impossible for him to know just how far down he was, but while he was close enough to still be a little warm where the light hit him, it felt somehow he was quite far from the surface.
In fact, it didn't even feel like there was a surface.
Is that possible?
Wait. How can I tell?
He shook his head for a moment and turned in the water, looking down.
Below him, the ocean went down further than he could see. The spare light from above seemed to be crushed by the sheer weight of the water. He strained to see as far as he could, but all he could process was an impression. The green waters he floated in turned bluer, then seemed to be crushed by a darkness so total that it felt like someone had erased part of reality and left it a horrible blank.
And there it was again. He could feel something in him, a sense just as real as the changing temperatures and the granules against his skin. The pressure at the heart of that darkness seemed to react to his awareness, and he felt it reach out for him.
He lunged back up in the water as a reflex. He only realized he was shivering when he steadied himself. He looked down into the blackness for a few moments, making up his mind.
He glanced back up. Light and warmth beckoned. The promise of the surface, maybe. While he didn't seem to need to worry about running out of air, he might find someone or something that could explain some of thisâ€”the chances were certainly better than if he . . .
He didn't glance back down. He didn't need toâ€”the memory of the icy terror was fresh enough that he felt a ghostly echo of it through him like a chilly slice.
He started swimming up, pulling himself higher. The movements felt natural to him, and he cut a swift figure through the water. Soon enough he was picking up speed as he made his way through the water.
That was a little reassuring. Whatever the gaps in his memory, at least, his body hadn't forgotten. His muscle memory and instinct were intact, which gave him some small comfort and helped to pack the far of the cold dark below him away in the back of his mind.
Moments passed, and in the far distance there came to be a shape in the distance. Then two. The larger of them looked like a reef, a green-golden mass that shimmered like a treasure hoard in the light.
The smaller, a little further on the other side of the reef's edge, was a grey smudge against the light above, floating there, unperturbed. He couldn't tell if the shape was like him or not-it was still too far away, but there was something about how it seemed to be so calm, that he wanted to
A voice in his head-not his-broke through his thoughts. He shook if off, trying to swim closer, his eyes narrowing as he tried to make out just what the shape in the distance was. He shoved the voice into the same part of his mind as he'd put the darkness below. One more mystery that could wait.
He slowed down. The first one he'd shrugged off as just a random stray thought, but the second came through a little clearer. He drifted in the current for a bit as he tried to sort his mind out.
So not only don't I remember anything, but I'm also hearing voices now?
He kept swimming slower, keeping his mind quiet, trying to see if he could hear it again. He let himself drift towards the reef for a few moments.
Silence. In and out of his head.
He resumed his course towards the floating shape above.
(you musn't go! It's dangerous)
He came to a full stop.
The voice was louder this time, and more distinctly not his.
Just when I go toward the other shape.
He grimaced. The way he'd phrased the question sounded as though he were hoping the other voice would actually answer him.
Bad enough to try and deal with the problems of being in a strange ocean with no memory, but also being crazy enough to hear voices in his head. That felt like at least two things more than he could comfortably handle.
He started swimming again, pushing towards the shape.
The voice called in in his head. He didn't recognize the word, even though it seemed a little familiar on some deeper level than his conscious mind could work out.
(It's your name! Ihitai is your name! You must listen to m-—)
He flinched. The voice was louder now, clearer. Shouting in his mind.
The word-Ihitai-pulled on his mind again. Something like an instinct but less than a memory took root in his mind. He considered stopping and listening, but he was done wavering.
He wanted to get somewhere.
The shape was coming into focus. It was generally the shape as he was, curvier, softer, somehow. And light was streaming through it a little, somehow, which seemed unusual.
And was it glowing?
There seemed to be some strange light pulsing within it. Slow, dreamy, far away and close at the same time. Was he still swimming? It didn't seem to matter anymore. His limbs suddenly felt heavy, and he slowed and finally stopped.
The glowing shape moved towards him, and, as its lights pulsed, he could get a clearer sense of it.
It regarded him with a blank expression. This, coupled with the near-transparency of its body and the lights within, gave it a strange ghostly quality, almost as if it were looking through him instead of at him.
Something drifted past his arms and legs. He saw them out of the corner of his eyes, dimly aware of them. They were like the shape before him, but long and slender, less fully formed limbs and more like tentacles.
They also pulsed with lights. He smiled a bit. For a moment, the nightmare of drowning he'd awoke into and the confusion and the voices and all the damn questions in his head felt like they didn't matter.
He didn't need to go anywhere.
He could drift.
So he did.
Then the tentacles slid around his forearms and his legs, pulling taut. He didn't resist at first, until the shocks of pain surging through them finally tore through the hypnotic miasma and he cried out in reflex.
The shape pulled him closer, the blank face it wore melted and was replaced with something else. Blank eyes became a hard, brilliant blue, and the placid lips spread over its face, its mouth opening.
He felt fear-white-hot terror this time-rip through him. He'd been wrong. He was still in danger, still in the nightmare, it had just changed shape on him.
And it had teeth.
Though it hadn't done him much good, he screamed as the shocks of pain that surged through him burned his skin, then seemed to travel up his nerves like electric shocks. He tried to move his arms and legs, to pull away from the . . . thing . . . that held him fast.
The strength that was fueling his desperate resistance was flagging, and fast. Through the pain, he could feel his arms and legs growing heavy. Soon he'd have nothing left, no means to pull away.
And whatever this was with the leering maw of teeth that seemed to be drifting towards him would finally have him.
Unless . . .
He couldn't really think what he might do. He'd been lucky enough to be able to survive in this hostile ocean, so he'd missed dying by drowning. He doubted he had one more miracle left in him to survive this monster, who well and truly had him.
He searched his mind for any trace of the voice he'd heard that warned him off going this way-—whether to plead for help or apologize, his pain-addled brain didn't really know. He'd stopped screaming by this point, except in his mind, where he put out a desperate call for help.
The voice had known. It knew his name. It knew this creature was dangerous, and if it knew that, it might know a way to get loose, something.
But his head was quiet. There was no other voice that his own, screaming in silent agony.
Except . . .
He bit his lip, hard, focusing on that pain, and squeezing through the white-hot fire of the monster's stinging tentacles, using the pain he was causing himself to find a place in his mind-a small one-where he might just
(I hear you, Ihitai. I'm here.)
He was so happy to hear the voice in his head again that he nearly lost it to the pain bleeding into his thoughts. Fortunately, knowing he was being heard, he was able to send one thought like a laser through the din.
(Yes. Just listen to my voice)
Desperate, he could do nothing else. He found, as he focused on the voice, there was some sort of light in his mind, a little bit past the pain, like something just out of his reach.
Yes, there it is. Brilliant, blue, cool.
It seemed to get brighter the more he thought about it, and it seemed to push the pain back, so he reached for it with all the will he could summon. The pain washed away, bathed in this cleansing blue light, and the voice returned to his mind, clear as ever.
(Just trust me-—Follow me.)
The light burst in his mind, so bright he swore he saw it light up the green ocean. He felt his body slip from the constructing tentacles, the pain deadening almost instantly, replaced with another feeling, like a crawling heat all over him, traveling up the tips of his toes.
Something was happening. He was changing.
He felt himself become heavier, a little taller (how did he know this?) He felt claws at the end of his fingers, and his skin . . . wasn't there anymore. Something else, something hard and heavy, had taken its place.
Whatever had happened, it took the pain away and he pushed his body (was it his body, anymore?) back from the beast that had grabbed him, shaking off his confusion and opening his eyes.
He could see, but more than before. The monster that had grabbed him stood out from the silt and the murk of the ocean, as if in clear light. More than that, when he looked at it, all sorts of information about it was flooding into his consciousness, as if on a sub-channel to his thoughts. Suddenly, he knew what it was.
(A mermedusa. Uses light to hypnotize its prey and pulls it in, stinging it until it paralyzes and it can eat it at its leisure.)
It was the voice in his head. It came through loud and clear now-—nothing muted or interfered with it.
Good thing, too—he had plenty of questions
"What did you do to me?" He demanded.
(You called. I'm here.)
"That's not what I asked," he continued, gliding backwards. He looked at his hands, clad in black gauntlets and as he'd felt before, sporting fearsome looking claws. "I didn't have claws a minute ago! What's going on."
(First of all, don't talk out loud—it wastes energy. You can think to me, and I'll hear you just fine.)
This was ridiculous.
Think to you?
(Figure it out: I'm a voice in your head. We're both in here. Use your inside voice.)
Fine. Look, what is this? I don't know who I am, or what's—
(I can answer all that for you later, but first we should deal with the mermedusa.)
The mermedusa lunched for him, tentacles whipping through the water to seize him again, but he slipped through them as if they were floating in place, slipping past them. Out of the corner of his eyes (were they his eyes?) he saw something trailing after him in the water.
Are those wings? Do I have wings, now?
(It's a long story. For now, focus on the mermedusa. They don't let go of their prey once they've got a hold of it. If we don't deal with it now, it'll chase us to the ends of the ocean.)
Wonderful, he thought back, slipping backward, his wings trailing behind him. He felt himself picking up speed as he pulled away from the mermedusa, though how he was doing it he didn't know, because his legs (or whoever's legs those were; this was all very confusing)
How do I deal with this thing? I don't have a weapon. He looked around. I don't even have a stick, or a rock, or—
(You ARE a weapon. Here—hold your hand up towards it.)
He raised his hand slowly, feeling his arm rising despite himself. Apparently, the voice had a certain amount of control over him like this, which was a little terrifying.
(Now, think about pressure. Heavy as you can.)
Pressure? This was absurd. You want me to think heavy thoughts at it?
How is that supposed to do anything—
The mermedusa pulled its tentacles in, and was undulating through the water towards him, picking up speed.
Working on instinct, his mind flashed on the dark waters below them, and how he could feel the darkness as a physical force, a cold, crushing weight that seemed to constrict around his heart.
Around him, the flow of the water seemed to change, the current slowed, growing heavier. It seemed to seep through to the medmedusa, freezing it in place. It strained against the force, flapping its body and pushing hard to grasp at him.
He opened his eyes, seeing what he was doing. He felt a shock, seeing the monster held in place, feeling the invisible tether of force that extended from his hand.
My hand, he thought. I got used to this change fast, didn't I? Amazing how fast you can, once it's the only way.
(You have to kill it.)
Can't I just get away from it?
(No. They don't let up once they tag you-—it's their nature. This is the only way, I'm afraid.)
He looked down his arm. From his point of view, the mermedusa was framed in his hand. And he could feel the bubble of overpressure around the mermedusa, like he was squeezing it in his grasp.
Wouldn't take much, he thought, a shiver going through him. Just close my hand.
Come on, he willed himself. It's the mermedusa or me. Just close your hand.
He hesitated. He didn't remember anything, but a feeling surged through him-—deeper than memory, but impossible to define. All of this, since he'd awoke in this strange ocean was new, and all he had. Every memory was precious.
Did he really want killer to be one of those memories?
(Ihitai, you have to.)
I don't know. Is it right? Why does one of us have to live and one of us have to die?
(It's not one of us, Ihitai. We're two. Linked. So you have to do this for both of us.)
I don't understand—
(It's not about understanding. You have to. We have to survive)
But don't even know who I am! This isn't fair!
(I'm sorry. I understand how you feel, and you're right—this isn't fair. None of it.)
He felt his fingers tightening, his hand clenching to a fist. He was on fire with fear and confusion, desperately trying to keep his hand from closing.
Silence. He felt the flesh of his hand (no, this couldn't be his hand. He wouldn't do willingly do this)
The mermedusa disappeared behind his fist.
The bubble of overpressure closed on the mermedusa, and with a flat ripple, pulverized the creature, leaving only a black inky stain in the water to mark its passing. It hung there for a time, slowly dissolving in the water.
He lowered his arm, his thoughts quiet, cold and dark. For its part, the voice in his mind considered saying something, wanting to apologize for using him as a weapon, for taking advantage of his fear and confusion, for making him kill so casually, and most of all for what they'd both begun here by activating the change.
But however sincere its feelings, no words seemed adequate.
So the waters stilled around them in silence.