There were twenty of them swimming in tight formation, slicing through the water like flat silver shapes, shimmering in the emerald waters; a curtain of rippling light.
The Osupa claimed no part of the world ocean as their own, despite existing in vast numbers--schools of as many as two hundred were once a common sight in some regions. They were nomadic, swimming through every level of the ocean, pulled along by a force no one who saw them could name.
All too often, a hungry predator could pick off one or two, sometimes five at a time from the silver creatures, but the school swam on, driven onward, no matter what befell them. And to most of the creatures in the world ocean, they were no more than that--a quick and easy kill and, depending on the predator, food for days. Beyond that, they saw no value in the Osupa at all.
But others knew a different side to the nomadic species.
Sometimes they would pause in their travels and speak with whoever they came across, bringing stories of the worlds above and below, and listening to the stories of those they met. For some of the denizens of the vast ocean, their only sense of a world beyond and the others who lived within came from the stories of the Osupa.
Among their own, the Osupa followed a few simple rules--"observe everything" being the first. Right behind that was "Never leave the school." There was no punishment if one did, of course. Which might have been why it kept happening. There was always a straggler, who drifted away from the school, following some curiosity that drew its attention away. And as this school cut through the verdant depths, one of the smaller Osupa slowed, then drifted away, heading towards the darker waters beyond the golden reef.
It had seen something.
No, it wasn't just that. There was a feeling in the water--a weight, a pressure, an insistent force that radiated just beyond the field of its vision. Past the kelp forest that clung tight to the reef surface below it, or the swarms of mermedusae that floated beyond the forests, their hypnotic lights flickering as the kelp swayed to and fro.
It slipped away, leaving the school behind, its long silver legs kicking against the current. Behind the Osupa, the silvery curtain shimmered away in the opposite direction. It kept swimming, driven by curiosity, gliding through the lazy waving stalks of the kelp forest, and slipping past the throng.
It slipped through with ease. Mermedusae drifted through the waters, pushed along by the currents more than swimming against them. They were dangerous, but generally lazy and not willing to go too far to chase down their prey.
But there usually wasn't so many of them. Four or five lazing about in an eddy was the most the elders of the school had seen.
The Osupa could see at least twenty, and the number stretched on past the limit of its vision, seeming to curve as they vanished into the darker waters, hovering in the water, their bodies still, as though they'd been mesmerized in the same way they ensnared their prey.
This was very strange.
If the Osupa had to put a name to it, it might have said, given the perfect formation and the unusual behavior of the mermedusae, it was almost . . . reverential.
But that was impossible, the Osupa thought. The mermedusae couldn't speak, and didn't think, and what could they possibly--
And then, the Osupa felt the pressure, harder than before.
Whatever had brought the Mermedusa here, whatever it was that had caught the Osupa's eye lurked beyond them, on the plains of the reef beyond, lying in wait.
The Osupa swam onward, its motions slower and more considered now. The pressure wasn't an actual physical force as much as a feeling that permeated every inch of its being, a cold but nameless terror that nevertheless couldn't override its curiosity.
And so it swam on.
The plains streaked out below it, rough and streaked with sand and scarring, until the coral collapsed into a sinkhole just beyond, which was so black all light seemed to fall into it. The pressure was so excruciating here that the Osupa found its legs wouldn't carry them any further. Not that it needed to. Whatever attracted all the mermedusae, was the source of the pressure, was down in that hole.
It swam above it, circling slow and looked into the perfect darkness beneath. Strange as the behavior of the mermedusa were, and as unusual as this dark chasm, even more bizarre was the stillness.
And the Osupa knew that was impossible--the ocean was constantly in motion, and the waters never ceased.
Just then, a black shape flew out of the hole at incredible speed, so quick all the Osupa saw was a flickering black shape rising upward for a horrifying split-second.
It got a better look on the way down, however, as the thing from the pit fell on it. Silhouetted against the light, it looked like a black mass of writhing tentacles, living darkness torn loose, hungry and malevolent. The Osupa tried to swim away, but some of the tentacles grabbed his leg, and blistering agony shot through its poisoned tentacles. As the Osupa thrashed and tried to escape despite the excruciating pain, the dark creature time to get slithered another tentacle, and then another.
Soon enough, it was caught. Whatever this creature was, its grip was more painful than anything the Osupa had ever heard, or indeed imagined. Boiling fire surged through its body, and the tentacles were so strong, it threatened to crush its limbs to pulp.
As it reeled in the Osupa, who, overwhelmed by the intensity of the pain, had stopped swimming, it moved into the light, and the Osupa took a long look at the strange monster that had seized it.
At the heart of the swarm of tentacles was a form not unlike the Osupa's, but it moved so different from anything it had ever seen--lightning-quick, but also stiff and jerky. A hard black carapace covered most of its shape, but it was riddled with fiery red cracks. One side of its face was covered with a mask, also cracked, the other half of its face was uncovered, blue, featureless, and expressionless.
Dead, the Osupa thought. Pushing that thought through the pain seemed to take every bit of energy it had.
It looks . . . dead.
The creature's tentacles pulled taut, ripping the Osupa limb from limb with frightening ease. The limbs fell to the floor of the reef, the waters above the creature shimmering. Others were coming, having smelled blood in the water.
It stood there, alone, and then crouched close to the pile of limbs that had been the Osupa. Its head twitched, jerking back and forth a few times. Then it looked out, and then up. Yes, something was beginning to circle above them.
Everyone wanted a piece of the kill.
The creature's tentacles slithered over the trunk of the Osupa, crawling back into the hole with its new meal.
* ~ *
The Bajak-Laut raised its tentacle hand high above its head, intending to bring it down on the Kraken with a whip cracking motion. As it hit his body, it seemed to lose the weight and force that should have been behind it, and as the creature snapped the tentacle back, the Kraken caught a glimpse of it.
Before, when the creature had merged with the severed tentacle, it looked as though it were alive and thriving. As it swung down on its former owner with a weak, worn impact, as though it had desiccated in the minutes since they'd torn it free.
He could hear the Mantle trying to parse this information, but he found it difficult to concentrate. The main reason for this was that the Bajak-Laut who still had him pinned was trying to bite off and tear loose his shield-claws. The combination of the pressure of their jaws on the armatures and the motion of them straining and pulling filled him with unrelenting, disorienting pain. He struggled against their weight, but there was no way to push against them and throw them off, and trying to crush them with his tentacles would just give them another weapon they could use against him.
There were too many of them to fight, and he had no weapons to surprise them and turn the tide.
And the Kraken found himself gripped again with terror, like when he'd found himself alone and vulnerable, with no memory and no hope.
He strained again, willing himself to shove the thought of his mind.
No, he shouted in his thoughts. You will not give up.
You will NOT.
Strength wouldn't free him--or rather, strength alone wouldn't do it.
"Your mind can be as strong as the Mantle," he remembered the Chimera teaching him.
"If you decide to exercise it, of course."
The tentacled Bajak-Laut cracked the weapon again, but this time it broke apart mid-arc, tumbling as blackened chunks of spent flesh. The Bajak-Laut screamed in frustration, furious at the disintegration of its stolen limb. Its brethren lunged forward, tackling the creature as their brothers had done.
In that instant, the Kraken saw his chance.
The Bajak-Laut were holding him down, but "up" wasn't the only way out of this. He willed the jets in his claw-shields generated a sustained burst of water, throwing him back along the floor of the chamber. Some of the Bajak-Laut fell off, followed by more, dragged along by his rapid reversal.
Even as they were thrown off, they scampered after him, eager to recapture their prize, and the Kraken knew that at best, he'd only bought himself a few seconds.
And if he was smart, that might be enough.
He used the jets to flip up to his feet, but he was unsteady, his claw-shields propping him up as he reeled from the pain. He really needed a moment to get his bearings, but the Bajak-Laut were moving in again, and there were too many of them even for him to fight.
He tried to summon the force that had shifted the currents before, but for some reason, the power didn't come. Perhaps that was due to the pain, or his inability to focus, but whatever the reason, it wasn't coming, and he only had a few moments to come up with something else.
As his mind raced, the sensory organs on the claw-shields were able to scan the chamber, analyzing the various stress points that supported the chamber, and with that information, came up with a plan.
There were too many Bajak-Laut to fight, and the Mantle's resources were too depleted for a long fight. But the Mantle was densely armored, which had kept the creatures from being able to tear his shields loose.
If he drew in his shields, he could protect himself from virtually anything. And so defended, go on the offense.
The claw-shields folded in around him, forming a protective cocoon around him. Once he was sealed in, the jets in the claws blasted him forward, and he smashed through a clutch of Bajak-Laut, then through a coral pillar, then another, then another.
Coral rained down like broken china in the wake of the Kraken's cannonball assault. Better still, the Bajak-Laut hadn't expected this, and confused, could only try to grab him and weight him down again.
The few that tried were smashed against the chamber walls, and they were far less resilient than he was.
He propelled himself upwards, smashing through another crag of coral. As he did, the chamber rumbled, gave way, and began to collapse in on itself, raining debris down on the Bajak-Laut, who, enraged and panicked, scurried up the walls and escape the entombing fate that awaited them.
The Kraken spun to a halt on a small cliff wall, watching the chamber collapse. It was a temporary reprieve. The sensory organs could feel the vibrations in the water.
Even under all of that, they were still coming.
The Mantle cried out for rest, and it felt weak. Starved, almost. The Kraken forced it to resume its upward ascent, the slight panic that no matter how far he'd get, they were always right behind him.
He swam on and on, as far and as high as he could go, until at last, he slowed, tumbled to a undignified landing, and, with a shimmer of blue-green light, the mantle dissolved away, and the Kraken lay on the red coral, exhausted, defenseless, and fighting to stay conscious despite the deep exhaustion that seized every part of his body.
He was sprawled on his hands and knees, his dark black hair waving gently in the gentle current. He tried to rise to his feet and get moving again, but his limbs were shaking and his muscles ached, and he sank back down onto the coral.
Swimming any further was out of the question.
He looked at his hands, the sight of his pale skin and thin limbs terrifying him. He felt naked, defenseless, and so tired.
Worse, while he couldn't hear them, he knew that the creatures wouldn't give up their pursuit that easy.
He pulled himself along in the water, slow and none too graceful. He had to hide, and soon. In addition to being defenseless in this form, he stood out in the world ocean.
After all, so far as he knew, he was the only one of his kind.
* ~ *
"Have you eaten?" the Sygnath asked, its tail curling around one of the stalks of the kelp forest. Beside him, Ihitai swam, regarding the forest with curiosity.
"This may sound weird," Ihitai said. "But . . . I don't . . .know?"
His companion blinked, the fringes around his cheeks rippling with puzzlement.
"You don't know if you're hungry?"
"My memory's . . . kind of spotty," Ihitai responded. "I don't even know what 'hungry' feels like. Or if I was, what I eat."
The Sygnath blinked. "I've never heard of that."
[Actually, Ihitai, the Mantle can take in--]
(Not now. But since you're here--how can I understand him?)
[The Mantle translates every language it's encountered] Cyan responded. [Even when you're not wearing it, you're connected with it.]
(How . . . does that work?)
[The Mantles are connected,] Cyan replied. [They share information between them. It's how they know of you--when you activated it, you became part of the network]
"Neither have I, but then, I haven't heard of a lot of things," Ihitai responded. His brow furrowed as his hand brushed against something under one of the leaves. He pulled his hand back, studying the strange clear substance flecked with orange that covered his hand.
"Er. . .what's this?"
"Maruera gum," the Sygnath said, peering at his hand. "I've heard it's edible. Not by my kind of course, but you might try some."
Ihitai studied it for a bit.
(This is safe, right?)
[Maruera gum is perfectly safe] Cyan replied. [But don't eat too much.]
[No,] Cyan responded. [Just very sweet, and too much would make you sick.]
(Oh. Ok, then.)
Ihitai shrugged, and tasted some on the tip of his finger. It was very sweet, flecked with a hint of fruit, and very chew, but pleasant enough. Of all the things he was re-learning, it was nice that food was a pleasant and terror-free lesson.
He noticed the Sygnath looking at him and paused, a little embarrassed.
"Forgive me for staring," his companion explained. "I've never seen one like you. Where do you come from?"
"I don't know," Ihitai said. "I just woke up here. I'm not even sure how long ago. All I know is my name's Ihitai."
"And how do you know that?"
Ihitai chewed the gum a bit slower now, as his thoughts rushed for that hidden place he'd made in his mind. He didn't want to explain about Cyan right now, as he couldn't imagine any conversation where things didn't get more awkward.
Ihitai shrugged again. "It was all I could remember."
He sighed. As lies went, it sounded pretty feeble, even to him. Embarrassed, he tried to change the subject.
The Sygnath nodded, bobbing in the slow currents. "I am called Ceffyl," he said.
Ihitai ate some more of the gum. "Do you live here?"
"I will," Ceffyl replied. "I used to come from a family that lived close by, in some of the red caves, but they've drifted on now."
He gestured with his snout down to his chest.
"Very soon, I'll have some of my own to raise, and I want to raise them here."
[The male Syganth carry--]
(It's OK) Ihitai replied (I can guess.)
They ate in silence for a time, as Ihitai looked out at the kelp forest, his attentions pulled by something within.
"There's something . . . strange about this place," he said after a time.
Ceffyl nodded. "You feel it too?"
". . .Yes," Ihitai said, trying to put his finger on what he was feeling. He looked around, chewing his gum. "Is there something here?"
His companion shook his head. "There's nothing here," Ceffyl said. "That's what's unusual. The world-ocean is teeming with life, everywhere. Here especially. Ijo has thousands of species, even more than the other three waters. But lately . . . things have changed."
"They've died out?"
The Sygnath pondered that, looking down its snout as it tried to formulate an answer.
"Some have," Ceffyl replied at last. "But more have come. The mermedusae, for one. But the others . . . have left this place. Others avoid it altogether."
"There are stories of something beyond the forest," Ceffyl said. "Something that pulls the Mermedusae here, and lurks beyond the kelp."
"What is it?"
"No one knows," Ceffyl said. "No one's seen it and lived."
Ihitai pondered that. The memedusae were dangerous enough. Whatever was beyond that forest, judging by Ceffyl's awed and terrified reaction, was even more dangerous.
(Do you know what's out there?)
Cyan didn't respond.
(Cyan,) he tried again. (What is out there in the forest?)
[I'm . . .not sure,] Cyan responded after what felt like an eternity.
(You don't know? This "network" you said I was a part of. . .no one knows?)
[I'm sorry, Ihitai. It's as though there was a piece missing. I have no information.]
Ihitai felt a familiar frustration rush through him. While he'd barely been awake for a day, one of the hardest lessons he'd learned was that Cyan said more in the silences than she did when she was talking.
And even more troubling was when she came right out and said she didn't know.
Because if the person who knows everything doesn't know . . . either they're lying, or . . .they don't know everything.
"Why stay here?" Ihitai asked Ceffyl. "If it's so dangerous, why not move on?"
"It's my home," Ceffyl said, emphasizing the word. "This was where I grew up, it's where my past is, and my future is."
"What about you, Ihitai. What do you want?"
"Well, I'd like to know who I am," Ihitai said, rolling the last of the Maruera gum between his palms and popping it into his mouth. "And why I'm here. After that, maybe I'd have a clearer idea of what I wanted."
Ceffyl pondered that in silence as Ihitai looked down.
"And for some reason," he said, his eyes focused on the waters below. "I think it might be . . . down there."
Ceffyl's eyes widened. "Blackward?"
"You were looking towards the core of the world-ocean," Ceffyl said. "They call it Ireng. The black. The closer you get to the core of the ocean, the darker things become. Not much light down there."
"Oh," Ihitai said.
"Why do you think you should go there?"
Ihitai shrugged. "I don't know. When I woke up here . . . I just felt this very strong pull there. Like there was something down there for me."
Ceffyl's fins ruffled. "Well, that's the first time I've heard that, for certain," he commented. "I've never been there, but we hear stories of Ireng. It's a strange place. A lot happens in the darkness."
Ihitai's brow furrowed. Wonderful, he thought.
"The tide's shifting," Ceffyl said. "We should go. I have a place where I rest, if you'd like? It's not much right now, but it's shelter."
Ihitai smiled. "Yes," he said. "That'd be great."
* ~ *
The kingdom of Cocra was less a kingdom than a network of sinkholes in the Jade Cliffs, where a race of small, unremarkable reptiles hid in holes carved in the walls, the Kunkuru.
They lived blackward of the Nzeru, whose cities of luminous coral cast pale lights down into the Kunkuru's sinkholes on days when the current was just right, like a shining temptation of all the race denied themselves.
On the rare occasions they ventured out of their holes, they carried their shells on their back--scavenged from other creatures of the deep as a means of protection, a way to hide if something larger, fiercer, and hungrier caught a glimpse of them.
Vatoz had been born a Kunkuru, and remembered well the feeling of vulnerability that existed as an almost genetic level within them. How else to explain a creature that does nothing but hide--in the walls, in the shells they stole--and hope never to be eaten?
That desire to retreat and hide disgusted him. It always had. Even now, as king of his people, made so by his own hand, his seat of power was carved away from the sinkholes, because while he ruled these people, and delighted in the power and prestige that gave him, he never cared to look at his people and tried to as little as possible.
The day he'd found his Mantle, in a rage, he'd shattered the shell on his back, tearing himself free from it and bonding with the strange technology.
The memory always delighted him. In his mind, it was the perfect deliverance from an inconsequential life as a joke of a species that existed only as the victim of every other in the world-ocean.
With the Mantle, he was proud. He would never have to hide from anything again.
And freed from that shell--from that shame, he would write his legend.
He looked at his hand, clenching it. He felt the power surging through the Mantle, through him. He never sent the Mantle away--ever--and worked constantly to form a deeper connection with it, because the closer in concert they worked, the more powerful it--no, he--became.
He'd done quite well with that. The Kunkuru were brought to heel relatively easy, and when he attracted the attention of the Chimaera, he'd found an ally who recognized his strength, and they'd forged an alliance that had yielded the gift of the Moray'de.
I needed an army, he thought. The Kunkuru won't fight, and I wouldn't have them even if they could.
Pathetic cowards. Virtually useless for anything meaningful. Better for all concerned for them to cringe in their caves.
On times like these, he liked to come out and look greenward, scanning the waters above for those dim lights from Nzeru.
How he loved to snuff out those lights and send the whole kingdom blackward. Perhaps, if he were feeling generous, he might even let the Chimaera have whatever fell into Ireng to do whatever he liked.
If Vatoz felt so disposed, that is.
The will of a king was always capricious, after all.
* ~ *
The dark beast dragged the trunk of the Osupa deep into the dark hole, down a passage ringed with chunks of dead flesh from hundreds of species, rotting in the suffocating darkness.
The smell alone would have overpowered anything else in the world-ocean, but nothing else dwelled here in the dark madness and death that dwelt here in the depths, its movements as mad and contradictory as the lair it dwelled in.
Sometimes it descended with an almost divine grace into the depths. Sometimes it crawled on all fours, its tentacles waving around, sensing the contours of the cavern around it.
It paused, pulling the torn carcass close to it with its tentacles, turning it as though it were a precious gem, or a clue to some mystery, the creature's head tilting to and fro, focusing with dead eyes on its fresh kill.
There was a dim flicker of awareness within it, as if it was wondering why it had this, and why it was in this black cave.
And, more than that it even was.
There were no answers. Just missing pieces.
Its head twitched again, as it had before, muscles jerking with involuntary reflexes. The tension in its body went slack as it shook, then familiar instinct returned it to its bestial tension.
It returned to studying the chunk of meat, before tossing it aside to rot with the others, and crawling deeper into the dark cave.