The Chimera's internal illumination threw harsh shadows over Oku's form, making his general look even more sepulchral in the black depths. If the light bothered his second in command at all, he gave no sign as he floated in the center of his chamber like a haunting specter.
The creator regarded his creation, as if he were seeing it for the first time. Oku had been the first thing he could remember making, forming it from remains he'd found in the depths, fused to what few living things he could find in these remote region of the world-ocean. Oku was his oldest and truest ally; his right hand, his most trusted advisor.
But now, with everything he'd just remembered flooding back in his mind, what he saw appalled him. Because all could see were the flaws and the inadequacies in what he'd made. Oku wasn't created, he was repurposed. Just like the Durgun, just like the Moray'de, just like everything he'd tried to create or evolve-he couldn't make anything himself, only alter life that already existed.
His power was vast, but even after so long, the power of true creation eluded him. And it infuriated the Chimera.
One more lie, he thought, the bitterness almost strangling him.
One more failure.
Oku turned to look at him, its empty black eyes staring into those of his creator as if giving him a silent answer. The Chimera's fist clenched and the power flowed through him, collecting in his fist. For a moment, he toyed with destroying Oku, releasing his fury by obliterating the evidence of his failure.
One failure, at any rate, he thought, his eyes narrowing.
Could I eradicate all of them?
He felt the energies within him, surging into his fist. All he had to do was raise his hand and release his grip, and Oku would be no more. One flash of light, then the darkness would claim the waters again.
But what purpose would that serve, he wondered? I could destroy every single one of these misshapen monsters I've created in my time down here, but I'd still know the truth.
And I would still live with the shame. Forever.
He relaxed his fist, letting the energy dissipate.
No-killing everything wasn't the solution. If the act of creation was impossible for him, his course was clear: he would have to engineer the solution he sought by external means; force the evolution he wanted to see.
And to create that opportunity, he would need his trusted general, and his army by his side, one last time.
"Oku-muster the Durgun," the Chimera said at last. "It's time to pay Vatoz a visit again. In force, this time."
* ~ *
[Ihitai-] Cyan called.
Ihitai swam on, ignoring her.
[Ihitai-please,] Cyan continued. [Talk to me. We should speak-]
Not now, Ihitai responded, his thoughts blunt and flat.
I . . .I just can't right now.
The battle with Amisala had hurt him deeply, and the scars went deeper than the physical pounding he'd taken. He'd get over that, he knew, with a little peace and a little rest.
But the mental toll? That, he knew with bitter certainty, he'd have to live with.
The battle with Amisala had terrified him so much that the memory of it sent cold fear through him, but he'd found something in that battle he'd needed: answers. He knew where he came from, who his people were, and where his home was.
And now, it seemed, he was the last one. Amisala didn't count as another of his people-it was just an echo of an echo, and even that was lost, now. Any more of past was long gone: long dead on a planet on the far side of the universe, dead and dust for so long a span of time he couldn't even get his mind around it.
He had his answers, he had his victory. He had memory.
But all it won him was loneliness, and confusion.
And it wasn't enough.
He just wanted to get away, far from the battleground, far from the memories, far from all of it. The past felt like a vortex, pulling him down, and he found himself craving the promise and comfort of the present. He wanted to find Ceffyl and Ziwri again, because if they'd made it through this nightmare alive, then maybe this had been worth something after all.
It had to be, he thought. Otherwise, what had been the point of it?
He came to a stop, floating in the still waters, the fatigue in his arms and legs making them feel like lead weights.
[I'm sorry, Ihitai,] Cyan said. [For all of this.]
I'm not mad at you, Ihitai responded, his eyes drifting shut. You didn't know about Amisala, about any of this. I just . . . I don't know what to do now.
This world-ocean is so vast and . . . I don't know where I belong in any of it. I wanted more than anything to know who I was, why I was here, and at the end of it, all I am is. . .alone.
[You aren't, though,] Cyan responded. [There's something you forgot.]
Ihitai's eyes opened.
What do you mean?
[When you and Amisala resonated, you connected to all of the other Mantle-bearers in the world ocean through the Mer,] Cyan responded. [I was able to see them, to get an impression of them. Ihitai-I can't be sure-as I said, it was only an impression-but there was another signature, almost exactly like yours.]
Ihitai's eyes snapped open.
The dream, he recalled. No, the memory-there were two. The two pearl capsules. Tia'ho had bonded a Mantle to each of them, then watched over them while she set her plan in motion.
One of them had to be Ihitai's-But the other . . . had they survived, too?
Ihitai was about to ask Cyan to tell him more, something tackled him from behind and threw him onto the surface of one of the reefs. Ihitai cried out as the sharp coral lacerated his body. He tried to pull himself to his feet, dimly aware that whatever had knocked him down was swooping in to finish him.
From the tentacles erupting out of one of its arms, it looked a little like Amisala had, but the color was paler, sicker. Even stranger, it looked very much like Ihitai's Mantle, but ragged and haphazard. In the center of its chest was a gaping hole, from which poured a red-black oily substance. The main difference was its mouth, full of jagged teeth framing a bloody, gaping maw.
It opened its mouth in a silent scream, some of its teeth coming loose from its mouth and floating away as it dove towards Ihitai, its sallow yellow eyes full of madness and unknown motive.
* ~ *
The Kraken kept the Raja's attention on him, luring the hulking brute into the chambers of the coral reef. Even injured, the Kraken could navigate with ease. Where he could, he slipped through. Where he couldn't, me broke through.
The Raja could only bull through every obstacle, moving into narrower and narrower passages. Without the Kraken's maneuverability, the massive bulk that made him so difficult for the Kraken to injure was a liability in tighter spaces like this. As he scuttled deeper within, the shells he'd fused into his body caught on the walls and ceiling of the various cysts and antechambers, and his crustracean legs couldn't push him through.
And he was slowing down. Still the Kraken taunted him, swimming away before the Raja could strike him, tempting him deeper and deeper. In frustration, the Raja began ripping parts off himself, trying to free himself from the trap the Kraken led him deeper and deeper into.
The Raja roared as the Kraken rocketed away, smashing one of his claw-shields against one of the pillars of the reef. He tapped deep into the Auricontrol, using it to map out the interior of the reef, analyzing the structure of it.
Not long now, the Kraken though, swimming a few feet from the Raja's face. The Raja tried to lash at him with its whip-hand, but without enough momentum it was a limp gesture, The Kraken, ever taunting, was long gone before the attack began. The Raja's body strained, trying to force himself through the claustrophobic passage, roaring with fury.
It was now or never, the Kraken thought.
The Raja screamed, scratching at the coral with his claw to pull himself towards the Kraken. Instead of offering purchase, it tore a hole in the floor and gave way under him.
The Kraken closed his claw-shields around himself and threw his body at the final pillar with all the force he could summon, the pillar shattering into fine dust with the impact. The ceiling at once sagged as the weight of all began to sink down on the weakened foundations. The Kraken heard the Raja bellow one last time, which was drowned out by the loud cracks above him as the coral structure crumbled. A delicate formation became tons of falling debris in an instant.
The Kraken swam to safety, opening his shields in time to see the Raja's face for a split-second through the avalanche. Their eyes met just as a large, jagged shard of coral pierced his eye, the point coming out his upper jaw, freezing his face in a shocked gaze before the rest slid down behind the Raja, smashing his face through the floor and crushing his skull to a pulp.
After that, there was nothing to see. Whatever was left of the Raja's body was dead and buried, his end heralded with a glittering cloud of sand that plumed with the impact of the by the rest, and the wreckage took him was soon covered by a plume of sand.
The Kraken held his position, his senses still razor keen. He'd seen the Raja's death, but the Bajak-Laut had been a persistent threat, and if their boasting was true, their battle wouldn't end until all of them were dead.
He'd fought harder than he'd ever had to, with no Chimera to bail him out, no allies of any sort. He'd mastered his fear, he'd mastered the power of the mantle, and he'd won.
And once I'm sure, he thought, then maybe I'll let myself be satisfied about it.
When the sands settled, things clarfied. The waters above and below scrambled away from the disturbance, and the Kraken knew it would be a long time before they'd come back. The Kraken kept his eyes on the pile of rubble, looking for movement.
Under tons of shattered debris was whatever remained of a creature who fancied himself a king, the leader of a mighty army. But here he lay, alone. The only witness was the being that killed him.
The Horde, it seemed, was gone.
Or so the Kraken thought. Out of the shadows, four figures drifted towards the debris. They appeared at first to be silhouettes in the dim depths, but as they swam closer, it became easier to discern what they were.
It seemed he'd missed four of them.
The Kraken's claw-shields snapped open and he prepared for the fight to continue. Even with the fatigue of the battle with the Raja starting to seep into his muscles, he hadn't forgotten his terror at the sight of them, and the vow he'd made to kill all of the Bajak-Laut.
They crawled over the pile of coral, pawing at the debris, ignoring the Kraken. They were smaller than most of the Bajak-Laut-even the ones that hadn't grafted other creatures to their bodies looked far more formidable than these.
Runts of the litter, then, the Kraken assumed, still poised to strike.
No matter-they can die like the rest.
He made eye contact with one of them. The Kraken had noted how wide-eyed and hungry the average Bajak-Laut was, as if they were innately spurred by an unceasing hunger to pillage. No matter how little of the original remained, they all looked like that, even the Raja.
Only these four didn't. Their eyes were still wide, but there was no hunger in their eyes. If he'd had to give it a name, the Kraken might have called it despair.
"Dead," one of the Bajak-Laut said. "All dead."
One of his companions nodded, flicking a stray piece of the coral off the pile. His body slouched, disconsolate.
"The Horde is gone," another moaned. "Just us."
It was hard for the Kraken to square their words with the bellows of "YEHORDE!" and the arrogant rhetoric of the late Raja with how defeated this quartet seemed.
No, he scolded himself. It's just an act. It's a trap. Like the set-up in the cave that started this.
You can't trust them.
His fists tightened.
The world-ocean's better for them all being dead.
But the Kraken didn't fire. Instead, he watched as the four Bajak-Laut slumped against the coral and began to wail.
* ~ *
Ihitai got to his feet as the creature descended. The creature raised his arms, its ragged, leathery cloak fanning out behind it as it brought its clawed hands up, as if moving to strike. Ihitai caught one of the creature's limbs by the forearm, attempting to block it-
-and the creature's arm popped like a balloon, sending more of the dark pulpy liquid and flesh blossoming into the water. The creature screamed again, more of its teeth tumbling out of its mouth as it thrashed around. Its other arm thrashed forward, a mass of tentacles growing out of the forearm, but it didn't attack.
Ihitai had reacted on instinct, but the creature's strange reaction puzzled him.
Cyan, he thought. What is this thing? And why does it look like my Mantle and Amisala's?
[I . . .I don't know, Ihitai,] Cyan responded. Her confusion felt genuine. [Unlike Amisala, I can read it, but . . .I don't know what it actually is. ]
But it's . . . like the Mantle, Ihitai thought back. He flinched as one of the creature's tentacles grazed his cheek, expecting his skin to burn, as it had with Amisala's poison, but there was no venom in it.
It was just curious.
Wait, Ihitai thought. When I destroyed Amiasala's Auricontrol, what was left of it disintegrated, didn't it?
[It was supposed to,] Cyan responded. [Without the Auricontrol, there's nothing to stop the Mantle from consuming its host.]
But some of it could have been left. Before Ka-Eo made it into the Mantle, before it had a host-what was it?
Cyan's response was nonverbal, but Ihitai could feel it as the creature kept stroking his face with its tentacles. It didn't seem aggressive, but Ihitai could feel that it wanted something from it. It trembled as it swam before him, and Ihitai became aware of the creature's skin. Holes were opening up, as more of the fluid bled out of it.
Ihitai looked into its eyes, ashamed. He let go of them creature's arm as it continued to graze him with his tentacles.
You're the other part, aren't you? Whatever the Mantle is before it takes a host.
I thought you were just raw instinct. Keeping alive Tia'Ho's body because you didn't know she'd been dead for ages. You were just doing what you thought you were meant to be doing.
And with her gone, there's nothing else to hold you here anymore, is there?
He squeezed his eyes shut, putting his hand on its shoulder, feeling it sink a little into the withering flesh.
But you tried, he thought. You made this imperfect copy of both of us . . .just to find me again. Not to hurt me, but . . .
You just . . . you just didn't want to die alone, did you?
He opened his eyes and stared into the creatures, understanding at last. He looked into the creature's eyes, no longer afraid. The creature's eyes lost their madness and fear, and an expression of peace seemed to settle in its gaze as it bubbled away into a fine mist, letting go of the world at last.
Ihitai was silent, staring at where the creature had been. He didn't know what to think or feel about what he'd just witnessed, so he swam there for a while, and felt sad.
* ~ *
Vatoz swam for the edge of his city's fortifications, annoyed at his focus being drawn from what the Mantle had revealed to him. He'd spent many waves alone, trying to process the images for whatever advantage he could glean from them, both in terms of what they would tell him about the nature of the world ocean, the capabilities of the other Mantles, and of particular interest, the Chimera.
The vignettes he'd seen had been fascinating. Not just the secret history of the world-ocean, but the glimpse of the Chimera it revealed. Before this, his ally had been uncertain-almost godlike in power, which meant he was to be feared, but once their mutual objectives had been achieved, a potential threat.
So Vatoz was most interested in anything that might strengthen his hand in preparation for that day. He'd been stockpiling a few things here and there over the sieches, but arrogant as he was, even he knew he was in no shape for open warfare with the Chimera.
So the sight of the Durgun, thousands strong, massing outside his city walls was the stuff of Vatoz's nightmares. They stretched as far as he could see, their pale bodies glowing in the dark blue depths.
I had no idea there were so many, he thought.
His own Moray'de stood behind the walls, formidable enough, but barely a tenth of the numbers of the Chimera's forces. Vatoz grimaced, weighing the worst case scenario in his mind as he swam to the city's edge.
He worried that he may have overplayed hand. He'd been readying himself, planning and scheming, but always with the idea it wouldn't be direct confrontation.
But if that was what the Chimera was here for, it was obvious to Vatoz as he compared his army to the legions stretching off into the distance before him, that even with all he held in reserve, he was nowhere near ready. Not even close.
Vatoz hovered in the water, just behind the city walls, looking for the Durgun's commander. Oku drifted to the fore, and behind him, the Chimera, sending shimmering light over the faces of his vast army as he passed like a shining blessing.
Something about the Chimera seemed different this time. There was a confidence, an animating force within him, that Vatoz couldn't put a name to, but worried him just the same.
Oku swam to the side as the Chimera swam ahead, pausing only a few feet from Vatoz. Terrified of what this meant, but unwilling to genuflect before his fellow Mantle-bearer, Vatoz elected to try the direct approach.
"Why are you here?"
"I've been considering our alliance," the Chimera said. He didn't sound angry, but the usual tone of his voice was absent. There was no warmth, no affect of any kind, nothing that indicated to Vatoz what his purpose might be in coming here.
Vatoz shifted in the water.
The Chimera nodded. "Specifically, your plan to invade the Jade Cliffs."
Vatoz was puzzled and anxious. That change in the Chimera was equal parts irritating and inscrutable, and more than a little concerning. Not least because it made him very difficult to read, and with an army parked on his doorstep, Vatoz was anxious to handle the situation in such a fashion that everything he'd struggled for wouldn't be annihilated before his eyes.
"You want me to delay my plan?" Vatoz asked.
"On the contrary," the Chimera said. "I want you to accelerate it."
Vatoz was caught off-guard.
"But my army, we don't have anywhere near enough-"
"You don't," the Chimera replied. "Which is why I brought mine. Together we should have more than enough to level the Jade Cliffs."
Vatoz was flabbergasted.
"Nothing to say?"
"I hadn't anticipated your direct assistance like this," Vatoz said. "The plan was, I thought-"
"My plans have changed," The Chimera said, cutting him off. "And those plans involve helping you with your plans, so I'm committing my forces to the campaign."
Vatoz relaxed. Either he didn't suspect him, or it was more of a priority to deal with Magtesi and her kingdom rather than destroy what little he had. In any event, he wasn't eager to ask for clarification on that point.
Not until he had a clearer idea of what the change in the Chimera's behavior meant.
"I . . .see," Vatoz said. "I'm obviously grateful for your help, then. I'm curious-when did you see this . . .er, joint operation of ours getting underway?"
The Chimera glared at him.
"Well," he began. "There's no time like the present, is there?"