The reef wasn't exactly the softest place to lie down on. It was rough, a little crunchy, and poked him between his shoulder blades as he relaxed his back.
But he'd hit a point where it didn't matter that much. After the fighting, after the running, after all he'd learned and all he still didn't know about, every part of him cried out for rest.
Cyan was quiet in his mind-he was terribly grateful for that; as it had seemed all they'd done since he'd awakened was talk at one another-and in that quiet space in his mind, exhaustion soaked into his body and rest beckoned him with a compulsion as irresistible as the Mermedusa had been.
Not for long, he thought. Just for a bit. Just a bit. A few moments, and--
Ihitai was out in no time, his sleep deep, but troubled.
Images flooded his mind-dreams, maybe. But they were different, somehow. Clearer. The images before his eyes, within his mind, were something more solid.
They felt like memories.
* ~ *
He was rocketing through the ocean, faster than could have ever swam on his own. But it wasn't the world he'd awoke in before-no, the waters were different-clear blue-green, and they sparkled and shimmered with the light from above. Around him, schools of fish were plentiful, wheeling and swimming through the open waters.
It was beautiful. There was a feeling that suffused him, like an instinct, which told him this place was safe. That he was safe here.
This was paradise. It was peaceful. It was-
Something within him stirred at the word. It felt right and didn't at the same time.
Definitely not the world he'd awakened in. He hesitated to call it the "real world," because he had no means of judging that. What was the real world to someone who had no memory? How could he be sure of anything?
He'd spent most of his time relying on Cyan, coupled that with what he could see and experience. That was the sum total of his experience, and it wasn't that much.
This was different. Cyan didn't seem to be here.
And neither was he.
He tried to lift his hands in front of his face, but he couldn't. If he was there, his body wasn't.
Just like Cyan. But how?
Before he could ponder it further, something happened. The water before him darkened, reddened, and became turbid. Paradise wilted under a thick red cloud that seemed to suck in all the light, and the fish.
While he couldn't feel it himself, a feeling went through Ihitai.
He watched a larger fish, broad and silvery-blue, swim into the cloud with a lazy curiosity. It turned into a black silhouette, and then disappeared into the red haze.
Ihitai felt the revulsion curdle into icy fear.
The fear froze over into abject terror when the fish swam back out again.
It was different. The sleek silver-blue skin was gone, shredded and burnt black. Its eyes were milked over, and its mouth hung open, its teeth jagged and gangly. Through the rent-open places on its sides, more of the ghastly red liquid drifted in its wake, spreading the crimson toxin far and wide.
And there were more now-coming in all directions out of the cloud, red streaks slicing through the blue-green waters, choking off everything-the light, the life, even the calm feeling of safety Ihitai felt died within him, replaced with two words:
The red waters took him as well. If he were able, he would have screamed.
* ~ *
"There's always a bigger fish."
The words-the first lesson--echoed in the Kraken's mind as he sensed them all around. His brief scrap with the volksfish, meant to relieve his boredom and that of his Mantle, had attracted attention.
Blood in the water always did.
His first lesson, the Kraken remembered, spreading his clawed wings. They were coming from every direction, skittering on the walls of the reef, their chitinous, spider-like legs digging gashes in the coral walls. The hard black orbs on talks regarded him with a cold intensity.
Rachnorabs, the Kraken recognized. They'd smelled the flesh of the volksfish, and while they usually would have scavenged the bits he'd left in the waters around him, he knew their nature.
Scavenged meat would suffice, but better still to happen on a fight, let one tire themselves out killing, then feast on the weakened victor.
As if in answer to his change in posture, they extended their forearms out to him. At the end of their limbs were claws-long pincers, barbed with poison. While the rachnorabs looked thin and not at all strong, they were powerful, and could rip anything apart.
And there were more at the lip of the reef tunnel, pouring in.
The thought of another fight kindled the familiar fire in the Kraken, and he entertained the notion of making short work of the entire swarm. It was an idea with a certain cachet.
But then, it always was. Given his own head, he'd fight all the time if allowed. It was all he knew, and he was good at it.
His body tensed. His Mantle read the situation. With a thought, he could pulp the first two rachnorabs, shred the five past them with his strikers, and blast the rest back out of the tunnel.
The thought delighted him.
But the lesson-or rather, the voice of the man who'd imparted that lesson to him-kept nagging at him.
He had a task to perform.
And the cost of failure would hurt him, just as sure as the rachnorabs' venom.
The Kraken extended one clawed hand outward, as if reaching out to touch the nearest rachnorab. He could feel through the water the way the creature's whole form seemed to tense. It had been prepared for the prey to flee, or to fight back, but not this.
With a thought, the Kraken began to push with a fraction of his willpower, gradually increasing his focus as he concentrated on the water around him.
The still water in the tunnel began to rush outward, a gentle eddy. Gradually, it intensified, becoming a rushing force. The rachnorab vibrated, trying to hold tight to the coral, but it eventually began to shake and was ripped from its perch, thrown by the rushing water back into its fellows. They crashed into one another, blasted backwards, smashing into even more of their brothers, until they were thrown clear out of the tunnel, into open water beyond.
The Kraken swam through the now cleared tunnel, following the trail of debris in the tunnel as they bounced on the walls and against him. When he crossed the threshold of the tunnel he could see the knot of rachnorabs, being torn at by the jagged saw-like noses of some piscerrators that had happened along, who whipped the discarded rachnorabs apart with thrashing lunges.
"Always a bigger fish," he remembered his partner saying. "Everything is eaten by something else. It's the nature of the world-ocean-everything preys on something else. And there's only one way to survive in a world like that."
"How?" The Kraken remembered himself asking.
"By being the thing that eats all the other fish."
* ~ *
The dream (if it was indeed that) shifted. Back to those brilliant blue-green waters. The shafts of light threw shimmering aurorae on a city below, carved deep into the coral. It was an ancient and elegant place-the building were like smooth jewels set in a crown and the mother of pearl-lined streets shimmered with rainbow light when the lights hit them.
Ihitai drifted through the images, there but not there. He wanted to touch it, to hold himself there within it. It was so much more welcoming than being swallowed up by the Red Tide had been.
And not just because of the horror that lay within the Red Tide-the awful thing that twisted the world and spread like a virus through this peaceful place. No, something else dawned within him. Something good.
This was home. He could feel it. That rooted sense of place, when you knew with every fiber of your being that you were in the place you belonged. It pulled at him, as if it had its own peculiar gravity.
His intuition was confirmed when he saw people swimming through the waters, moving to and from the jeweled buildings. They were like him-they had his dark skin, and most of them had his light-blue hair, and they wore clothing like his.
Yes, these were his people!
But what are they called? Who am I?
He felt himself being pulled, and tried to fight it, to swim against the current and hold himself here, but he had no arms or legs to swim with. There was nothing to hold him.
And this place . . . isn't really here.
The sad understanding made him stop fighting it, and he drifted with the current. He let it pull him to one building in particular-a convex violet jewel, set like a cameo in the reef wall. He passed through the smooth outer wall, and soon enough he was in a vast chamber within.
In the center of the room was a circular table, cut into seven wedges. In each of them was set a strange thing-not quite a creature, not quite metal, but with elements of both. They seemed to be breathing as they lay there, and where their bodies expanded and contracted, they seemed to glow with an inner luminescence.
Looming over them was a man, like Ihitai, but older, hairless, and gaunt. The man's face was drawn, his eyes dark and sullen, and something about him seemed . . . lifeless.
He watched over the things on the table, his eyes cold and analytical, studying the things on the table with a cold but careful eye.
"Is this all of them?" A voice called out.
Ihitai was startled. All the sound he'd taken in in this dream-memory had been quiet, muffled. This came through loud and clear, as though he were in the room.
The gaunt man raised his eyes slowly, looking at the far wall. He regarded whatever he could see with an even more cold indifference than the things on the table.
Ihitai's focus turned. The speaker from the other side of the room came into view. She was like the man, but shorter, and more solidly muscled. He eyes were just as hard as his, but seemed more alive somehow. There was a light in them that flickered and burned in a way that wasn't at all in the other man's. Around her face, a cloud of dark blue-black hair shimmered.
"Seven is all I've been able to create," the thin man said with a sigh. He returned to the objects on the table "The rest failed to thrive. I lack the resources to build any more of them."
"What do you need?"
"What I need is in the iron reefs," the man responded. "The Red Tide took that place last tide. And I need special organic matter that only grows on the Sargasso in the violent plain, and that fell to the Tide eddies ago."
"Then this is-"
"All we have," the man said. "All we will have."
"There's nothing else?"
The man's face went sour. He shook his head.
"The Tide is at the gates of our city," he said, his voice flat and without affect. "Vaiata's bacterium didn't stop it, and your warriors can't patrol the frontier too much longer. Eventually something will get past them, it will get in, and the Tide will spread. Within our city, it will spread quickly.
"I give us . . . a night, perhaps two, before it claims all of us."
"I won't accept that, Ka-Eo," the woman said. "Our people survived in this ocean for innumerable tides. This can't be the end. There has to be something-"
"There is nothing, Tiaho," Ka-Eo said. "If there was, we would have found it by now. We have to face the reality of our circumstances: The Tide will take us, and we will be . . . changed. Nothing can prevent that change now.
"We can only hope to survive it."
"By changing ourselves before it changes us?"
"Not changing," Ka-Eo countered. "Evolving. These creatures-these Mantles-will protect us from the Tide. They'll protect us from everything, and that's just the start."
"What else is there?" Tiaho regarded them with some curiosity. She wasn't entirely sold on this, but that was the least of her worries at the moment. Something about Ka-Eo's manner, his grim resignation and determination about these things, bothered her.
"As they protect us, they will change us. Gear us to survive the world after the Red Tide," Ka-Eo responded, his voice tight with resolve. "In its wake, they can make a new world. A different world. With them at the apex, made perfect and immortal."
"And all we have to do is abandon everything?"
"I can't accept that," Tiaho responded. "We can't just give up."
"Our world is over," Ka-Eo replied. "I've seen the world that's coming, and the only way we get there is to become something better. To force ourselves forward to the ultimate extent of our evolution."
"Seven people? And that's at the most. Not much of a start."
"All that can be saved," Ka-Eo sighed. "It's a little light. But in time, that faint light will shine bright, in a new world. One without the Tide. Through our lives, we will birth a superior lifeform. And, eventually, the ultimate form of life."
"Ka-Eo, we came to you for a way to counter the Red Tide," Tiaho said, keeping her voice calm while clenching one of her hands into a fist. Something about the rising of his tone made her nervous.
It sounded less like the analysis of a scientist and more like the rantings of a fanatic.
"We depended on you to find a way for us to survive. As we are."
"This is how we will survive," he responded. He sighed, shrugging off the plea in her eyes. "But to survive, we have to leave what we are behind.
"I'm sorry it's not the answer you wanted."
"--Are gone already," he responded. His hand drifted to one of the creatures on the table. "Everything we were will be taken by the Red Tide. Everything we are will die; all because life has decreed something else must supplant us."
"Ka-Eo," Tiaho warned. "Don't touch that. You've been working too hard. Now, please--let's talk about this--"
"I won't watch our people die! I choose the only way forward," he declared, but not to her. "I reach for that we will-we have to-become."
Ka-Eo snatched it in his grasp, crushing it in his hand. It exploded in a pulpy violet cloud. Fine tendrils snaked out from between his fingers, slithering up, around, and over his arm, almost instantaneously.
He strangled out one last thing:
"I choose to survive."
To Tiaho's terrified gaze, the moment seemed to stretch into slow time, and her gaze met his for the last time, and she felt a twinge of horror as she saw his eyes flicker to life.
Then the thing swallowed everything in its tendrils. White light came from around the shape that had been Ka-Eo, and then filled everything, blotting out everything with a blankness even more terrifying than the Red Tide had been.
* ~ *
He really should have moved on, but the Kraken found himself hovering over the tunnel he'd cleared out, lost in his memories:
He'd awoken in Safir, surrounded by cold, crushing blue, alone and amnesiac. In the quiet private moments where he let the fear in, the Kraken could still feel the crushing cold terror of that instant-the all-obliterating fear he'd felt.
He awoke with no memory, not even a sense he was swimming. He fought for air, the notion that he could breathe water failing to register. When he gripped for a handhold, he found he moved clumsy in the water, a thrashing ball of arms and legs, falling through the azure depths.
And so he fell, tumbling end over end into a tunnel in a nearby reef. He remembered grasping for something to stop his fall, but he'd pulled too hard and it broke off in his hand.
He spun into a heap at the bottom of the tunnel, flopping in an undignified heap in the fine white sand, frantically trying to wipe he grit away and see where he was.
He clenched his fist. The experience-even the very memory of it-was humiliating. That feeling of utter helplessness and terror kindled fiery anger within him. In time, under the tutelage of his mentor, he would learn to harness his anger, to force his Mantle to evolve to make him strong, to protect him.
And he had been an eager student, motivated by one goal: to get away from that pathetic child thrashing in the water, overwhelmed, confused, and totally alone, screaming out for help that would never come. How he'd screamed and punched the sands below in impotent rage
"It's not fair!" he remembered screaming.
His eyes narrowed, focusing on the memory, wiser now.
What did fairness have to do with anything?
He'd soon learned that he wasn't alone in that pit. He remembered them well, slithering out of the darkness like the nightmares they resembled-red eyes, pale skin, and most horrible of all, their sucker-like mouths, and the rings of teeth he saw in them.
There was a hateful irony it. He'd tumbled into this ocean with no memory, not even a clue of who he was or where he was, or who he'd been. And yet, his present was clear as anything-he was going to die in this place, consumed by these monsters.
Even before they'd moved into sight, he'd considered just lying there, and waiting for something to take him. With the creatures reaching out their clawed fins to him, ready to take him, it seemed to make the decision for him. He remembered how easy it had been to just let go of it all, and wait for the end.
And how, for one second, he'd let himself go. He'd surrendered.
And in a flash of light, everything changed.
A shape moved between the monsters, and they seemed to fall apart, cut to ribbons by some lethal current in the water. In almost no time, the monsters were dead, and the thing that had killed them stood before him, like a giant made of lighting and shadow.
It loomed over him, terrified. And he'd stayed there, on his knees before him, still afraid, still ready to give up. To die.
"I've been looking for you," it said, holding its hand out to him.
The Kraken, so moved by the first act of kindness he could remember, reached for the being's hand before he'd even consciously thought of it.
He preferred that memory. The choice of surrendering to the abyss of fate burned within him like a shameful secret. The choice to take the hand of that powerful being, to make that first little commitment to affect his own destiny, was what he wrapped his shame in.
It was as much his armor as the Mantle was.
"Who . . . are you?"
"You may call me the Chimera," the being of light said, closing his hand around his and pulling him to his feet.
"Why were you looking for me?"
"You're special," the Chimera responded, making no effort to hide the disappointment in his voice. "You don't realize yet, but you are. There's no place in the world ocean for the weak. You are . . . ill-equipped to survive here."
"But you will be. I will teach you."
* ~ *
Ka-Eo had been both right and wrong. Once the Tide got into the city, it had spread quickly. Partly due to the sea-borne creatures that the Tide had already changes that moved freely through their world-for so many tides, they'd never needed to protect their city from the smaller ones, and so they passed through every defense.
And all it really needed to spread was to introduce a drop.
What the smaller fish had started, the panic accelerated. And the Tide spread more and more, consuming their city swiftly. The few that were unaffected-less every time they retreated-fell back further and further. The scraps of her armies were cut loose now-guiding the few they'd saved whatever safety could be found.
Her last command to them.
And where was Ka-Eo? Tiaho thought.
She hadn't seen him since the change-since he took the Mantle, and disappeared out of the city in a flash of light. Had he survived the Tide, as he claimed he would?
She wondered. He'd seemed so convinced that his way was the only way, and that whatever they were going to become would require them to leave behind what they were. After several eddies of seeing what the Tide had done as it ripped through the cities and the shambling nightmares it perverted her friends and family into, she could easily recognize that she faced the end of all she'd known. It was dying in front of her.
And with effort, she found the prospect less terrifying that she imagined. For herself, anyway. She could have happily let the Tide take her, and joined in whatever this great ending was.
As ever, all she wanted was to do her duty to her people, to the end.
But, she thought. My duty isn't complete-not just yet.
And that had brought her here, to a place very few people in the city knew existed. The water here was pure, kept separate from the greater oceans by a process so mighty and ancient that it almost seemed like magic. Whatever was left in one of these chambers had the best chance of waiting out the Tide, if that were even possible.
Whatever little I can save, she thought, casting her eyes to the sleek pearlescent capsules on the floor of the chamber.
She'd pulled them here from the birthing creche in the city as the Tide had consumed the outer rings of the city, ignoring her fatigue and the silent fear within her to get them to safety, never looking back.
They were the only two she had the time to save. By now, the Tide had consumed every creche in the city, and whatever was birthed from those, well, this was their world now.
And she'd had one more trip back into the city to make.
To swim back, and to see everything that she'd known in the process of this horrible becoming clawed at her sanity, and her resolve faltered. To keep herself focused, she thought of Ka-Eo and his determination to survive, even if he had to throw away everything.
It helped to focus her mind, because his lab was her destination.
How would he survive in this world, after the Tide completes its spread, she wondered? Could he exist in this world of nightmares, alone? Who would he become? Would he even note the passing of the world that birthed him? After a hundred tides, would he even remember? The Mantle would keep him alive, according to him, but Tiaho wondered where "survival" became "living?"
Because to her, they were part of the same thing, but not the whole thing.
She swam into his dark and abandoned lab. He hadn't been back since he'd changed, and nothing affected by the Tide had gotten in yet. Tiaho, had she believed in providence or the Cetaci who were said to watch over them, would have given a silent prayer of thanks, if she had the time.
But the Tide had shut her heart to even the possibility of divine benevolence, and in its place, there was only a cold determination within her to save what she could, and to find a better answer to Ka-Eo's challenge.
She gathered three of the dormant Mantles from the table, swimming back the way she came as she held them tight against her chest. She could feel the change the Tide was making in the waters-that coppery, metallic feel on her tongue-that she knew was the early warning that it was coming, implacable and unstoppable.
The end of everything, and not far away, now.
Even without the use of her arms, she made the distance in a matter of moments, feeling the cleansing shock of the chamber's waters purifying her as she passed through the membrane that separated it.
She cleared her him, squeezing the Mantles in her hands. They gave slightly in her grasp, and she could feel them, a low-level buzzing in her mind, reaching out to hers. But she refused to connect to them, pressing one each into the two capsules, watching as they sank through the iridescent outer skin, to bond with the life within, and, she hoped keep them safe.
That left only one. The other half of the question.
She lifted it up, staring at its black and red mottled skin.
Or my answer, she thought.
It buzzed in her head, pleasant, welcoming. Tiaho took a deep breath and closed her eyes, opening her mind to the Mantle, listening to it. Gradually, the buzz resolved into words, speaking directly in her mind.
Follow me, it said. Trust me.
At the edges of her mind, light began to fill in, like a door opening in her mind. On brilliant tendrils of light, the Mantle made contact with her, filling her with the same brilliance she'd witnessed Ka-Eo vanish into, never to be seen again. The light bubbled and sparked around her, and she felt her entire conscience dissolving under the force of the brilliant light opening in her mind.
And then she could see again.
* ~ *
He sat up with a start.
(You were dreaming?)
Ihitai didn't answer Cyan. He was too busy trying to confirm he was actually here and real again. His eyes flew over everything-his hands, his legs, patting himself all over.
I'm real, he thought, repeating it a few times in his mind to steady himself. I'm here.
Yes, this was real. The water was the pale shimmering green, and the coral was just as uncomfortable as it had been before.
But it had been so real, and he'd wanted to stay there so much, it was hard to find himself back in this strange world he didn't understand, with things that wanted to kill him.
Dwelling in memory, even memories that terrifying, didn't seem as bad by comparison.
(Are you OK?) Cyan reached for him, her "touch" cool and soothing on his skin.
I'm . . . I think I've remembered something, Ihitai offered. I thought it was a dream, but maybe it was a memory. Memories.
But . . .not exactly mine.
He looked at the shimmering apparition beside him. He wanted to tell her-about the place he'd seen, the Red Tide, and the beings in the jeweled city, but as he looked at her just now, he felt something stopping him, like a pull in his mind, and he worked to cover his thoughts and what he'd seen with whatever he could in his mind to hide them from her.
Because they weren't his memories. And he wasn't sure they were hers, either. No, Cyan's thoughts, when they rang in his mind were cool quicksilver, swimming around his own, impossible to hold.
That left him with a thought. He and the Mantle were linked-Cyan had told him that much. And the link was even stronger when he slept.
Am I the man dreaming of being a monster, he wondered, or is the monster dreaming of being a man?