Tia'Ho's final message reverberated across immeasurable time and space, through every Mantle that could hear it:
[I don't know how much longer I have . . .I've done what I needed to do, but. . .there's not much of me left now. Dissolving into the Mer. But I thought, before I go . . . I better try to explain this to the two of you I was able to save. A last message--a way I can maybe explain why I did this. If I can . . .]
The words and images that had flowed into the Kraken's Auricontrol made little sense to him on their face, but on a deeper level, there was something that connected with him--Something not quite instinct, but deeper than memory compelled him to listen.
It didn't hurt that this person in his mind--Tia'Ho--looked like him. This was a surprise, as for as long as he could remember, he'd been alone--the only one of his kind in the world ocean. For that moment, he wasn't alone, he wasn't some strange aberration.
But the moment was brief. This was ancient history, he knew--Tia'Ho was gone, long before the Kraken's first memory. And that moment of connection washed away and was replaced with brutal crushing sadness.
His entire world was long gone, and he was alone. Again.
And about to die at the hands of the Raja.
So, he thought, loneliness or not, it looks like it won't be long until I'm gone, too.
The creature held him tight, crushing him in his coils. Restrained like this, the Mantle's weapons were useless. There was nothing that the Kraken could use to free himself; no way he could tear himself loose.
No, he thought, forcing clarity through his fear.
There is something . . .
He'd done it before, when he was tearing through the Bajak-Laut. But could he move something as massive as the Raja?
He felt the shift in the water as the Raja's tentacle tensed to strike. The Kraken reached out and shifted the current in the water, intensifying it and and sweeping the massive creature up in the rushing water. The Raja was thrown off balance, but didn't let the Kraken go just yet.
The Kraken used these moments to think. He'd managed to hurt the Raja here and there, but he was too armored, too massive, and too tough to kill with the weapons his Mantle could bring to bear. To do the kind of damage it would take to destroy him, he needed to hit the Raja with something much larger than anything the Mantle could produce.
And the large coral outcropping the two of them were careening toward seemed like it would work.
The Raja slammed into the reef with full force, his body digging deep into the jagged coral while his tail-whip spun the Kraken free, his body skipping like a stone on the coral as he bounced away from the point of impact.
The Kraken's body cried out for rest, but he didn't have a moment. He'd created a little space between them, but just a little bit. Soon enough, the Raja would dig himself out, and they'd fight to a stalemate again.
Beating the Raja with brute force was pointless. The Raja was brute force personified.
He had to be smarter.
He dug his clawed hands into the surface of the coral, tearing it loose and digging into one of the cysts in the network of caves. He found a narrow passage--tight, but it would lead him where he needed it to go.
He swam back for the Raja, ready at last to end their fight.
[I tried to save what I couldn't . . . as best I could. But I didn't do all I should, and I didn't do it perfect . . Some things I've failed at. .And I hope the ones that remember . . . I hope they can forgive me . . .]
The Chimera stood in the ebon depths of Ireng, worlds away from his home, feeling like he'd awoke from a dream.
He was ashamed, he was horrified, and he was angry.
Everything since that time long ago, the last time I saw her, he mused. Everything I've done, everything I thought I was . . .
All of it was a lie.
When Tia'Ho had shut him "off," she had shut off everything. Just as Ka'Eo had been forgotten, subsumed in the being the Chimera had become, that man had also been erased before he made his journey here.
But as much less than he was--a hollow echo of the being he was. For tides without number, the Chimera's life since then was now the wanderings if a pitiful amnesiac.
The enormity of it paralyzed him. He found he couldn't even enjoy the fact that he'd been right--he'd survived, after all. The tide, their world, Tia'Ho, he's outlived them all. He'd won.
But had he? Had his survival been dumb luck--just another piece of flotsam picked up when the waters rose from the old world? Or had she saved him on purpose?
Had she taken pity on him?
His doubts and his questions ate at him.
No matter how tight he tried to hold on to the idea of his victory, reality showed it to be hollow. If it had been blind chance, nothing he'd done before had mattered--he'd simply been at the right place in the right moment. If she'd saved him on purpose (and if so, why?) then his survival was a result of someone else's mercy, and again--nothing he'd done had mattered.
And what about everything after? Everything he'd done while he was here? His attempts to create life, to engineer alliances, to shape the world ocean in the image? Those now seemed to be delusions. The comical attempts of a fool to justify an existence that was false.
And in light of his reawakening, that also didn't matter.
That burned the last of his apparent victory to ash in his mind. He survived, but Tia'Ho, despite the handicap of being dead and gone for a span of time so long the world ocean couldn't even measure it, had destroyed his past, present, and future and didn't even bother killing him, choosing the crueler mercy of letting him live with the knowledge and the shame.
He stared at his hands, and though they burned with brilliant energy, the Chimera felt hollow and useless.
And I never knew, he thought, Until this moment.
Now that he knew this . . .what to do about it? He'd stood up to a god, lost, and had his world taken and recreated out from under him. How did one come back from a defeat that total?
He began to pace around the chamber, the blazing fires within him illuminating the dark, hollow chamber. Even with all his vast power, pushing his shame aside seemed to take everything he had, but eventually he managed, and after a time, he began applying logic to this.
How had she done it? How had she forced her Mantle to its ultimate evolution?
The Chimera had never intended anything on that scale. The Mantles were designed to bond with the user, and to evolve as needed to respond to threats to the shared organism. They were meant to exist in parallel, but still be separate.
He'd always imagined himself as the ultimate evolution of that symbiotic relationship. At least until he'd seen her.
But how? There were limiters in place to keep the organisms apart--the Auricontrol was designed to prevent the Mantle from going rogue and consuming the host. Whatever she'd done had disabled it--he remembered seeing it degrade as she wielded her power.
What happened if the Mantle consumed the organism?
There hadn't been time to test that, of course, and even if there had, the Chimera doubted he would have found many volunteers. Given the imminent threat of the Red Tide, he'd only been able to perfect the system as much as time allowed.
But now there was. Now the Mantles that remained were active and evolving all throughout the world-ocean. And there was time, now--time to study.
The fires of anger dimmed, replaced with something like hope. Hope of new purpose. To surpass her, to reshape her world in his image, to take her victory, take her world, and erase her as totally as she'd erased him.
Her legacy would become his, just like it always should have been.
[It's almost time. I can feel it. . .the last of me is starting to drift. I don't know if this message will survive. . .I don't know if any of me will survive. I've tried to keep . . .something hidden in the Mer to guide you, to help you . . .but I'm not that strong anymore . . .I'm almost gone . . . And. . .I can only think of one last thing to say. . .]
Ihitai kicked himself loose of Amisala's tentacles, shoving her back for a moment. He could see Cyan above them and his eyes met hers for a moment. He nodded to her, understanding at last what she was: a ripple in the Mer, an echo of Tia'ho's image, hidden in the folds of his mind. Memory playing at being real.
And Amisala? Amisala was an empty shell, swept up by Tia'Ho's final act. A lost thing that kept going because that was the only thing it could remember to do. The real, searching for memory.
Two remnants of the same being, and Ihitai caught between them.
And why, he thought, hurling another wave of magnified pressure towards Amisala, does it seem like this is still part of the plan?
But that, he mused, assumes that Tia'Ho had a plan for what would come after she created this place.
And I don't know if that's true.
Amisala flew backwards, snarled in the kelp. It thrashed to and fro, trying to free itself with its tentacles, but its wild motions only seemed to bog it down even more.
Ihitai saw his chance, and swam at Amisala while it was pinned. He drove his fist into the ruined Auricontrol with such force he could hear the strange metal groaning under the force of the blow.
Amisala howled in agony, both in the real world and through their Auricontrols. The keening cry caused Ihitai to hesitate just long enough for two of the mermedusae to swim behind him and trap him in their tentacles. This wasn't as much of a problem--unlike Amisala's venom, the Mantle had adjusted to theirs, but it slowed him down and kept him from pressing the attack.
That was all the time Amisala needed to free itself, and lunged at Ihitai, slashing at him with both its claws and its tentacles, cutting deep into his Mantle while the mermedusae held him tight, until Amisala tore him loose from their grasp and began slamming him to the coral floor of the forest again and again.
Ihitai was reeling. Between the poison and the unrelenting assault, he couldn't get away, and couldn't get free, and the fight was taking a turn against him. Amisala's poisons and tentacles made it a dangerous enough foe, but now it was angry, and even its poison was as nothing compared to its strength.
Unlike before, Amisala was didn't forget Ihitai was there once he'd drifted out of range. It may have been maddened, but it now directed madness. And its strength, if anything, was increasing.
Desperate, he kicked himself free with a pressure blast and tried to swim away as the mermedusae closed in on all sides. Amisala surged forward, single yellow eye glaring with fury.
He glanced up, looking for Cyan, but she was nowhere to be found. No one to guide him, or to aid him. If he were going to be saved, if her were going to save everyone, he'd have to do it himself.
The pressure blasts, he thought. I can localize them, I can direct them, but I wonder if I can shape them?
In a split second, his enemies would have him in their clutches. There was only a fraction of time to act, and Ihitai took it, opening his wings in a grand arc, concentrating the pressure blast into the tips of his fingers as he trailed his hands outward, imagining two great arcs on either side of his body trailing his motion, magnified by the pressure.
The two pressure arcs sliced the mermedusae in half and sent Amisala backward again, and Ihitai tried to shake off his surprise that something he'd come up with in desperation had worked and threw another punch at Amisala's head again.
The mad revenant caught his hand in its own, as its tentacles slaughtered around it. Undeterred, Ihitai swung his other fist, but Amisala slipped into the arc of his punch and uppercut him with its own free hand. It kicked him hard in the solar plexus and sent him tumbling back into another swarm of mermedusae.
Ihitai tumbled through the water, dodging their stabbing tentacles and snarling teeth as best he could as he tried to get his equilibrium. Amisala leapt at him, banging into one of the kelp stalks and stopping short of hitting Ihitai.
[Listen well. . .this is important. . .]
Ihitai smashed at the Auriconrol again, and again, Amisala screamed.
[I've done all I can to help . . .I've made the world as best I could . . .]
Ihitai grabbed Amisala and threw them out of the forest again. The mermedusae were closing in again--a huge thick cloud of them was sweeping in from above. In its pained desperation, Amisala was calling them to itself, to overwhelm it.
[And I certainly could have done better, I know . . .]
I don't want to do this! Ihitai screamed in his mind, punching the Auricontrol again. Gold flecks glittered in the waters as Amisala cried again.
Ihitai did too. His thoughts were in turmoil.
I don't want to have to hurt anyone!
[But it's yours now. This is your world to live in . . .to shape it as you will. And you will . . .]
He punched it again. More screams.
[It won't be easy. . .but you can do this. . .]
Amisala was paralyzed now, its entire body thrashing and spasming. If anyone could end this, and end this legacy of suffering, now was the moment.
Ihitai lunched forward, grabbing what remained of Amisala's Auricontrol in his hand. More gold shattered as he closed his hand around it.
[Just let your hearts and minds guide you . . .]
Subsumed in the mantle, Ihitai felt himself crying. His heart was full of shame and regret for what he'd done, and what he'd have to do. In all the moments to come, the shame and bitter sorrow of this moment would haunt him.
But, he thought,
I'm the only one who can stop it . . .
Amisala's body went limp as he began to pull the Auricontrol out of its head. The frenzied energy left it, and it went limp, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
[. . .And don't make the same mistakes we did.]
Ihitai pulled it free, the metal training ganglia and nerves as it tore loose. He watched what remained, spasming as the Mantle began devouring it. The sadness within him was so paralyzed he forgot the mermedusae massing above him, a huge cloud, lit from within like storm clouds.
But they weren't coming any closer.
It was like they were waiting. Ihitai wondered what they could be waiting for, but his attention went back to Amisala, who staggered backward, the remains of its armor slithering over the dead flesh left exposed, boiling it away. As it ate itself, the armor seemed to be liquefying, the form it had worn imploding as it walked backwards, unsteady on its feet.
It was a horrific sight, and time seemed to stretch on and on in a horrific tableau. But he didn't look away. He wanted to remember this, to remember this moment, when he'd found a place to belong, when he'd resolved to protect it, and this moment most of all.
Because this was what those kinds of decisions would cost him.
He remembered he had the Auricontrol in his hand as he watched the silent last spasms of Amisala. He sighed, and, hoping it would spare whatever was left of Tia'Ho some small amount of pain, crushed it in his hands.
The last few golden flecks slipped through his fingers as he squeezed his hand tight. As he did that, Amisala's form, collapsed and seemed to fold in on itself, the last of Tia'Ho's dead body already devoured by what remained of the Mantle.
The remaining organic mass collapsed into a small shape, wisps and trails of dark red fluid trailing through the waters. The damaged Mantle was dormant again, and Ihitai recognized the shape from his dream long ago as it drifted down, sinking into the sands, a broken thing once elegant.
Ihitai's eyes were drawn away from it for a moment by the lights above him. The cloud of mermedusae were parting, their bioluminescence quieted as they drifted off, back to the wraithlike beings they'd been before Amisala appeared.
I guess it's over, Ihitai thought. Without Amisala controlling the sea life by accident, things should. . .
He stopped. He was going to say "get back to normal," but what was "normal," anymore? The people would return, Ceffyl and Ziwiri would return, and all of this would be a distant memory.
For them. Not for me.
He stared at Amisala's remains.
Above him. The mermedusae swam away, and light streamed back into the green waters. Quiet returned to the world ocean, for the moment.
That would take longer. And for Ihitai, might never come at all.
He turned away from Amisala at last, sending the Mantle away. He was himself again, a little smarter, a lot sadder, and there was more on his shoulders.
Cyan drifted in front of him. He'd lost sight of her as the fight had gone on, and she hadn't spoken to him through their link, either. Perhaps she was still reeling from the revelations they'd picked up from Amisala.
He couldn't blame her--he was, too.
Maybe she knew that only Ihitai could end Amisala's suffering.
And he couldn't blame her for that, either. It was his responsibility, and he had to carry it alone.
She opened her mouth to say something, but Ihitai swam right through her and didn't look back. He was too busy forcing his thoughts into that place she couldn't reach.
He didn't want to talk to anyone right now.