The Kraken watched the Bajak-Laut with curiosity as they wailed and swam around the mound of rubble. His weapons were poised at the ready, prepared to destroy them and fulfil his promise to exterminate the whole loathsome race of thieves and murderers.
But he was no longer quite so eager. Perhaps it was the unexpected sight of creatures like this mourning their dead or the way they seemed to accept the fate in store for them. For their part, they ignored him, continuing their mourning. If they understood his intent, it didn't seem to bother them.
After a time, they ceased wailing and gathered at the foot of the rubble before the Kraken, huddling together, one of the Bajak-Laut even putting his arm around his comrade.
The waters passed between them in silence, until the Kraken couldn't deny his curiosity anymore.
"What was that?" He demanded.
One of the Bajak-Laut looked up, his sad orange eyes meeting the Kraken's.
"We mourn," the pitiful creature said, patting the shoulder of his comrade. "Our people are gone. Our way of life, gone. We were the least. And now we are the last."
"You're not going to fight?"
The Bajak-Laut shook his head. "What would be the point? We swam with the Horde, but we weren't part of it. Too weak to fight-useless in a raid. We were tolerated, because we were the same kind as them. We lived by their charity, fed on whatever scraps they tossed to us. Do you understand?"
"Not really," the Kraken admitted, his eyes narrowing.
"You saw what they did, and did nothing."
"What could we do?" the Bajak-Laut countered. "You are strong, you can fight. We could do nothing. We had . . . we had no hope of changing our lot."
"Did you even try?"
"Punishment for crimes against the Horde is . . . was . . . to be expelled from the Horde," the Bajak-Laut explained. "Shunned from your own kind. Left to die at the hands of the enemies of the Horde.
"So we lived with the shame of our weakness, with our cowardice. But we lived."
"Perhaps we did not deserve to," the Bajak-Laut said, his eyes distant and sad. "But we feared living in a way we didn't know. The Horde was dangerous, but for us, the Horde was safe."
"You chose to do that." the Kraken interjected. "You traded your dignity for protection."
"And we were always reminded of it. Always told our lives depended on the Horde's good graces," another Bajak-Laut piped up. "Those like us, paria-untouchable--lived at the sufferance of the Raja. We were mocked, made fun of, you know?"
"We can offer no excuse," the other Paria said, resting his hand on his comrades shoulder. "We should have done better, we should have been stronger, but we were not. We should have done something, but did nothing.
"It's too late for anything else. Now, we must pay for that cowardice. So, do what you must. Claim your right of vengeance. Dispatch us as you did the rest of the Horde.
"We deserve no less."
The Kraken took a deep breath. Unbidden, his own memories of awakening in helplessness long ago surfaced in his mind. He wanted to force them back down-it was easier to think of the Bajak-Laut as murderous vermin to be destroyed. If they could be like he was-helpless, a victim of fate, powerless in the wrong moment-then maybe they weren't so different.
But the Kraken had become more, he'd taken control of his fate. He hadn't been settled for tagging along and feeding off someone else's power.
But you were given a chance, and could make that choice.
Should I give them the same chance?
"And if you could have fought them?"
The Paria looked confused. The leader lifted his head.
"If you could have fought them," the Kraken repeated. "Fought the Horde. Made your own way. What would you have done? Taken over the Horde yourselves? Claimed a greater share of the spoils, what?"
The Paria stared ahead, lost for words.
"No one ever asked us this thing, before."
"We'd no skill for raiding or reaving," the Paria said. "We only wanted to be free, to live. But we are what we are, even if we are bad at it. And we accept our punishment. You vowed to kill the Bajak-Laut. Every one. That must include us."
"I did," the Kraken said. "And I have. The Horde is gone. The Bajak-Laut are extinct."
The Paria nodded, understanding the weight of his words. They huddled together, waiting for sentence to be passed, looking away.
The Kraken concentrated, altering the composition of his thorns.
They won't feel much pain this way, he thought.
He fired four shots. Each struck the Paira just under their jaws, burrowing into the flesh. The Kraken watched as their bodies jerked back in the water, then floated for a time.
He squinted, as if waiting for something.
His patience was soon rewarded. The lead Paria began to thrash his arms, righting himself in the water, his orange eyes agog with confusion. He turned to face the Kraken, mouth agape.
"I . . .what . . .?"
"The Bajak-Laut are dead and gone," the Kraken said. "But the Paria can live. If you're willing to change."
The lead Paria was still trying to adjust to the shock of not being dead, and so was having trouble grasping the import of what the Kraken had said.
"If you mean what you say about wanting to be free, about not returning to the ways of the Horde, then you just got a chance to prove it," the Kraken said. "But know this: that thorn I shot each of you with? It's a tracker. If you start pillaging again, I'll know, and I'll find you, and this time you will die."
The Paria's companion turned his head. "Then you are the new Raja-"
The Kraken shook his head. "I told you-the Horde is gone. I'm not your Raja. You're not going to trade one tyrant for another, and especially not me. You want to change? You want to be better. Then find the strength to do it yourself. I'm just giving you the chance.
"Provided you complete a task for me."
"We will serve you, Ra-er, we mean to say: what is this task?"
The Kraken shut down his weapons, folding his claw shields around himself.
"You know the Osupa?"
The Paria nodded.
"Good. Because you just became my Osupa," the Kraken said. "I want you to scour the entire world-ocean. I want you to search for people who look like me. When you find one, find me and tell me where they are. And that's all you do, understand? When I find who I'm looking for, you go free."
"Yes, yes, we will do this," The lead Paria said. He started to grovel before the Kraken, but the strange being shook his head and gestured for him to rise.
"Then go," the Kraken said.
The lead Paria and two others swam away, each heading in a different direction. One of them stayed behind, the other Paria who had spoken up. His anxiety was obvious as he moved closer to him.
"You're not leaving?"
The Paria shook his head. "I will go. Before I do, I wanted to . . . suggest a place to search. In gratitude, you know?"
"All right," the Kraken said. "Where?"
"Go to the end of Safir, greenward of here, at the border of Lazuro," the Paria said. "In the fire coral, where the Dirac dwell."
"You've seen one like me there?"
The Paria shook his head. "The Dirac are an old race. Wise in the ways of the world-ocean. If anyone would know the one you seek, it would be them, you know?"
"It's on the way," the Kraken said. "I'll check it out. Thank you."
"We will keep our word to you," the Paria said over his shoulder. "You will see."
The Kraken nodded, watching the last one swim away.
He hadn't planned to show the Paria mercy. It wasn't what the Chimera had taught him. He always said that the weakest part of the race was always the one that fell first before cruel nature.
And the world-ocean was far more cruel than kind.
But, the Kraken thought, everyone deserves a fair chance, don't they? I got one. Who am I to say that they don't deserve one too?
He swam away, leaving the final monument of the Bajak-Laut alone, soon to be forgotten in the dark indigo depths.
* ~ *
By the time Ihitai made the long swim back to Ceffyl's dwelling, the accumulated stress and trauma of the tide's events had settled on him and threatened to crush him under its weight. Every stroke through the water was accompanied by a persistent tremble deep in his muscles born of fatigue and stress. Too many revelations, too much fighting too much horror-it all felt like a weight on his chest and as he slipped into the coral chamber, he wondered if he'd collapse the moment he found them.
Even Cyan had gone quiet now. Ihitai wasn't sure her nature meant she could even get tired, but he found some small comfort in the fact that they had both been shaken by what they'd found, and maybe that shared experience was enough to build some trust around.
He'd resolved to try, at least.
That desperate hope pulled him along, through the exhaustion and the sadness and the thoughts that wouldn't leave him at peace, the possibility that he'd see his friends again kept him going even through every muscle in his body burned with exhaustion.
And then he saw them.
Ceffyl and Ziwiri were there, swimming before him, unhurt, their eyes wide with surprise and disbelief.
Ihitai was grateful. The determination to fight Amisala began with his wish to keep his friends safe, and to see that faith and hope rewarded, though it couldn't make up for all he'd been through, gave him something he needed:
The knowledge that he'd been right to do what he did.
And having a present worth living in made the dark past a little easier to live with.
Ihitai gave them a ragged, exhausted smile, swimming over to them.
"Are you all right?"
"Well, we look a good deal better than you do," Ziwiri said with a smile. "Come in, friend. Lie down. Do you need anything?"
"All I need is a place to lie down," Ihitai managed as he floated over to a bare spot in the chamber and lay down. The coral was scratchy and more than a little uncomfortable, but he was so tired he hardly cared.
"I'm just glad to see you both made it out."
"We did what you told us," Ceffyl said. "We ran for it. If you don't mind me asking . . . what happened, Ihitai?"
Ihitai blinked, staring at the ceiling of the chamber. It struck him at that moment that he didn't know what to do. How could he explain what he'd seen, what he'd learned, to them?
And was it dangerous, for them to know? How many people knew the true nature of the world-ocean; the secrets that created and maintained this place? What were they doing, armed with that knowledge?
He caught himself.
Stop talking yourself out of it, he thought. They're your friends. They're why you came this far. You found your past and lost it, but they're here, right now, and your belief in them carried you through this nightmare.
And besides-- they deserve to know.
So he told them the truth.
* ~ *
The conical tower was carved into the Jade Cliffs, one of many such outposts on the far edge of the of the Nzeru kingdom. Below these outposts lay the tiny kingdom of the Cocra, and below that, Ireng, the unknown darkness at the heart of the world ocean.
For innumerable sieches, the Makara, the army of the Nzeru kingdom patrolled the frontier, keeping watch for threats beyond. They were few and far between, but there was always a chance something might slither out of the black depths of Ireng with death and destruction on its mind, and so the watch was kept.
The Makara swam in and around the coral caves, their coral armor lit with bioluminescent organisms that threw beams of pale light on the terrain before them. Their black eyes seemed to absorb the things the light revealed as they swam through dark sapphire depths.
One of the Makara came to rest on the upper wall of the outpost, resting for a moment before he resumed his rounds. He watched two other Makara soldiers swimming below the walls of the outpost. It was a quiet tide, with no sign of danger. Soon enough, his watch would end and he could return home.
Thoughts of home compelled him to turn back, looking back in the general direction of the kingdom. It had been an entire haipa since he'd seen the gleaming cities of home and he let his mind drift, reconstructing their glittering spires in his mind, so eager to return home that in his mind, he was already there.
Had he glanced down the wall again, he might have seen the Moray'de pounce on one of the Makara, driving its serrated sword through the silver warrior's throat, choking off any chance the soldier could have uttered a cry for help in a lurid plume of black blood.
His partner was circling the outpost in the opposite direction, drifting along the current on his rounds. He took no notice of the Durgun shadowing until the creature gouged both its clawed arms into him, and, once hooked in, pressed his fleshy disc of a mouth, the rows of teeth sinking into the Makara's back as the Durgun's serrated tongue tore into his flesh.
The warrior managed to get a single cry before the Durgun killed him, but it was enough. More Makara began to pour out of the top of the outpost, armed and armored with coral weapons, their searchlights combing the surface of the coral as the ground beneath them rumbled.
The Moray'de poured out from various caves and cysts in the coral, galloping up the slopes of the coral reef to the outpost. Behind them was a dark and jagged cloud, a cloud that, when the Makara's lights played over it, revealed the faces and bodies of the Durgun, their pale eyes alive with hunger.
The Makara met the attacks head-on, blunting the Moray'de's charge somewhat, but leaving them easy prey for the Durgun to fall upon and devour. The battlefield soon clouded over with inky blood carried by the currents that made the growing darkness so thick it seemed to smother the Makara's lights.
When it became clear that the Moray'de were just there to slow down the Makara for the Durgun, the warriors fell back to the walls of the outpost, using coral spears and weapons to hold back the charge of the two armies laying siege to it and provide some cover to their retreating warriors.
The Makara atop the wall watched with terror, keeping his coral lance at the ready. He heard the orders from within-"hold them at the wall." There were tunnels within the outpost that led back to the city, and they were sending everyone through that they could spare to get the message to the Queen that they were under attack, and what's more, that this was no random attack-it was an organized force.
One of the Durgun dove at the warrior, who caught it just under its disc-shaped mouth, putting his shoulders into it to drive it all the way through the twisted creature. One of his comrades jammed his weapon into the shoulder of a Moray'de, forcing it to tumble down the wall.
Thoughts of home were long gone in the Makara's mind now. Only the command to hold mattered, because if they failed, not only would they never see home again, home would join them in death.
Losing any ground to these creatures wasn't an option.
The numbers that the enemy force seemed lost thanks to the Makara at the battlements didn't seem to slow them down any, and the soldiers of the jade cliffs felt a surge of confidence.
"Keep them off the walls!" the warrior shouted to his comrade as he re-armed himself. "If they stay focused on taking the walls, we can bottle them up and-"
He never finished his sentence, as a sharp bony missile pierced the Makara's chest. The missile would have been enough to kill on its own, but the warrior lived just long enough to feel something flow into him from the missile, some kind of fluid. Before the dying warrior could utter another thought, agony flared within him as he burned up from the inside.
His companion moved to spot where the missile came from, only to be struck in the abdomen by a bony barb attached to a long tail. The creature the tail belonged to dragged the warrior up to face him, trailing blood through the water as he ascended.
The warrior came face to face with Vatoz, who held the warrior at eye level, giving him a good look at the face of his executioner before he fired another missile from the launchers in his arm point-blank into the warrior's face. Vatoz kicked him back down, watching the fallen warrior explode as he tumbled back down toward the outpost.
Vatoz descended toward the outpost, the two launchers on his shoulders expanding as he loaded them with his liquid missiles. The bony torpedoes surged downwards, striking the parapet of the outpost and shattering the walls with their explosive force.
The waters were choked with dust and blood as the Cocra's ruler closed in, the purple bladders next to his launchers swelling and expanding. The Makara were massing at the next level, swimming around the rubble he'd made of their line of defense.
I'm tempted to send in the Moray'de, Vatoz thought. But I'm a little dissatisfied with their performance on the field today-I want my forces able to pull their own weight as surely as my ally's does.
In the meantime, he mused, this is a perfect time to indulge myself.
He swam towards the Makara, and when he closed in, threw his arms wide, firing all of the spiked missiles in a single volley at the defenders. The missiles tore through the men, exploding some and immolating others as Vatoz came to rest on the rubble of the outpost, flanked by the Mory'de and the Durgun, who were pouring over what was left of the outpost's walls.
He took a look around. The volley had done its job-this had to be most of their main force, or reinforcements from within the structure would have moved into the breach by now. But his forces encountered no meaningful resistance as they pressed deeper into the outpost's chambers.
Had we done it? Vatoz wondered. Could it really be as easy as this?
He swam upwards, letting his forces swarm the structure. He had to fall back-as effective as his Mantle's liquid missiles were, they were no good for prolonged combat and he'd need time to generate more.
And I won't risk myself, he thought.
He floated in the waters, watching his soldiers consolidating their hold on the ruins of the outpost.
It was easy, declaring war on someone who's not expecting it. After so long plotting and imagining this day. It felt good to humble the Nzeru with swift and decisive action.
It was a good beginning, Vatoz thought, watching with amusement as one of the Moray'de executed a soldier it had dragged out of the ruins.
* ~ *
Ziwiri suggested they take it easy the next few tides after Ihitai returned, and stick close to Ceffyl's home. None of them would admit it to themselves, but they were all afraid to go back to the kelp forest, and who could blame them? The nightmare of the mermedusa attack and the strange creature that led them was still too fresh, and none of them would go back on their own.
So, on the third tide, all three of them went to the kelp forest, all of them trying to pretend they weren't scared of what they might find. So they stuck close together, none of them swimming out of sight of the others.
There were still signs of the battle-fallen kelp, shattered coral, remains of the fallen picked clean that each of them tried not to look at. But as well, they saw the schools returning and the Osupa spiraling through the waters, and despite the memory, the sight of life returning to this place eased their fears somewhat.
Ihitai sat on a coral ridge, chewing some maruera gum, watching as Ceffyl and Ziwiri spoke to some of the others swimming through the kelp forest. They'd taken the news about the world-ocean well, by which they took it as one more story.
"It's all a bit beyond me," Ceffyl had said after he'd finished the tale. "Ihitai, there's a big ocean out there-I know there is-but it's so big, and to me, those places exist more as stories."
When Ihitai pointed out that all three of them had lived through one of those stories, Ceffyl responded that the stories were far easier to taken when he was just hearing about them.
I don't blame him, Ihitai thought. Wherever we all come from, home is wherever you are now, I suppose.
[Is this home, then?] Cyan answered back.
Ihitai stared out at the waters and the dance of life happening before his eyes.
I would like it to be, he responded. After I find the other.
[What about "not living in the past?"]
They're here now, and so am I, he replied. And what we were doesn't matter. Who we are now does.
I'm prepared to live in the here and now, he thought. But . . . if possible, maybe not alone, you know?
It's something to hope for.
"You all right?"
Ihitai looked a bit embarrassed as Ziwiri swam up next to him.
"Yeah," Ihitai said, a shy smile creeping across his face. "It's so good to see it getting back to normal."
"We didn't tell them anything," Ziwiri offered. "No one else was here, so there's no one to question it. It happened, then it didn't. And they'll forget it all soon enough."
"Nothing wrong with things getting back to normal."
"But isn't it based on a lie?" Ziwiri said.
Ihitai shook his head. "No," he said. "I don't think it is. This place was built to hold new life. It succeeded. The person who made it is long gone, so . . . I guess the responsibility for what we do with it is with us."
"But you're like they are," Ziwiri said. "So isn't it yours?"
Ihitai shook his head. "I've got no more right than anyone else. I have no ambition to be a god. In fact, that's the scariest thing I could imagine."
"But they're your people. Your family."
Ihitai looked away. "They're gone," he said. "If I'm going to have a family . . . I have to make one for myself out of who I choose."
Ziwiri looked down.
"Are we not enough for you? Is that why you're leaving?"
Ihitai looked stunned.
"Of course not," he said. "Ziwiri, I'm not leaving forever-"
"Easy for you to say now. The world-ocean's vast, and this corner of it isn't much."
"I don't think so," Ihitai said. "For me, this place is everything."
"But it's so small."
"It's the perfect size for me," Ihitai said. "All it had to be was big enough to show me I'm not alone."
Ziwiri thought about that for a moment, its fins rippling in the water as they sat in silence. They stared straight ahead where Ceffyl was still milling around. It wouldn't be long before his children would be born, and everyone kept stopping him and asking about them.
"But if this place is enough, why leave at all?"
"Because there's another one like me out there," Ihitai said. "And we're the last two, anywhere. I want to see them, to tell them. They deserve to know who we were."
"And then what?"
"That depends on them," Ihitai said. "As for me, I'm coming back here, to stay with you and Ceffyl. If you want me to, of course."
"Ceffyl does," Ziwiri responded. "And . . . yes, so do I."
Ihitai looked at his friend and smiled, and after a time, so did Ziwiri.
"But you'd better come back with stories."
Ihitai smiled. "I have a feeling I'll come back with a lot of them."
Ceffyl found them later, eyeing them with curiosity as they sat and laughed together.
"Sorry I was so long," the Sygnath said. "Are you two all right?"
Ihitai looked at Ziwiri.
"You told him you didn't understand him wanting to leave, then?" Ceffyl asked Ziwiri, who confirmed it.
"I tried to explain, as best I'm able," Ihitai said. "But there's no need to worry about it right now-I mean; I'm not leaving next tide or anything like that."
Ihitai nodded to Ceffyl. "I'd planned to stick around until your children are born."
"You don't have to do that," Ceffyl said. "It's such a small thing-"
"Not to me," Ihitai said, eager to not re-run the conversation with Ziwiri. "That "small thing" was why I did everything I did. And it's what I'm coming back to."
"Back to your friends?" Ceffyl asked.
"Back to my family."