Ceffyl's place was a large cyst in the reef--close to the kelp forest, but far enough away from the strange sensation to had so disturbed Ihitai that he'd actually began to relax when they swam there.
That feeling, like the feeling he'd felt when he'd zeroed on in the black depths, still worried him, a cold tension he couldn't quite shake off.
They swam up into the room and Ceffyl swam to the other side of the chamber, each finding a place to rest.
"It's home," the Sygnath said. "When my children come, they should be happy here, for as long as they stay."
"How long will that be?" Ihitai asked.
"That depends," Ceffyl said, looking thoughtful. "For me and my children, I know my time will be soon. In general? It's hard to tell time in the world ocean. The waters never stop flowing, so from one moment to the other, there's little change. It's all in what we do now . . .that's what matters.
"Makes sense," Ihitai replied, his voice illustrating that it absolutely didn't. Except for his immediate experience he didn't really have a sense of time, and Cyan hadn't offered any explanation either, so he had no idea how long ago now was compared to the visions he'd experienced the last time he slept.
Or even if the place he'd seen in the vision was the same world he was in now.
The dream from before was foremost in his thoughts as he burrowed into that safe space in his mind, away from Cyan.
Her apprehension--no, her fear--of that "missing piece" she'd mentioned made him wonder.
What didn't she know? What was missing? And how did this connect to the images he'd seen when last he slept.
Ceffyl didn't know much, and Cyan wouldn't--or couldn't---tell him what he needed to know, and he didn't know himself. Summoning the Mantle was too frightening a prospect, so that was out, too.
That left one option, one way to get answers: go to sleep, and hope that images like he's seen the last time he'd slept would reveal themselves.
It was a long shot, but it was the last one left.
So he lay on the coral floor--still aggravating and rough, but would suffice. He willed himself to relax, taking it step by step, relaxing everything and letting himself drift into dreams.
* ~ *
The dreams came again, close to where they began:
A large fish, changed by the Red Tide, drifted through the reddish rusted waters, spewing its ichor into the wasted ocean, its dead eyes focused on nothing as it swam forward, stopping for nothing.
Nothing, that is, apart from the being standing in its path.
Ka-Eo raised his hand, willing the creature to stop. In times past, as he was before the Mantle, before he'd embraced the changes it had made within him, the creature would have run him down.
But that had been long ago. Time had passed since the Tide took the ocean, and Ka-Eo took the Mantle. It had been so long that Ka-Eo barely remembered the way he had been before. The man he'd been had vanished into the Mantle, and what he'd become in that time . . . was something else.
Something more powerful.
That power reached out to the creature before him, seizing it. Ka-Eo held it, not at the level of brute force, but deeper, at the cellular level. Ka-Eo was looking at the creature at that level, the chemical, energetic, and biological galaxy that made up the creature swirling before him.
And, now that he held it in his hand, he began to remake it, changing its structure and nature from the base chemicals upward.
The giant fish began to change, sloughing off the changes made by the Red Tide. Ka-Eo was trying to change it back, but it had been so long since he'd seen one of the fish unsullied by the Red Tide that his memory was too dim, and what he'd made of it was a dim echo of what the creature looked like.
Ka-Eo sighed. Time had given him the power he needed, but it had been too long to put things back the way they were.
What did I expect?
I can barely remember my own name, or what I looked like then, he thought. How could I possibly be expected to remember the other creatures in the waters?
He looked at what he'd made--a misshapen thing, lumpen and asymmetrical, thrashing against the force that held it in place, but more than that, it seemed to be in pain. Ka-Eo had made a mess of it, even more than the Tide had done, and now it was a new, failed thing, living in agony.
He looked away for a moment, ashamed.
At first, the Mantle was just a way to survive the Tide. But as he disappeared into it, and explored its remarkable powers, he'd hoped that if he worked hard enough, mastered the power, he might be able to change the world back.
How long since he'd made that vow?
So long ago it was as dim a memory as the rest of the relics of what he used to be.
He gestured again and annihilated the creature in a burst of energy, scattering the bits in every direction, and watching his failure settle to the ocean floor. Then, depressed, he swam away with his head low.
A word crossed his mind, something he'd heard long ago. It meant "A thing that was hoped for, but was impossible."
And that felt truer, more real, than the name he'd abandoned long ago.
* ~ *
The Chimera returned to Ireng, flanked by his honor guard. The black waters that enveloped his realm were so suffocating that even his own internal illumination seem strangled in the darkness, sending shimmering slashes of light only a short distance away. Beyond that, there was only more darkness, and what lived in the darkness.
His Durgun broke away from him, swimming to either side of the opening to the coral cave of his home. He drifted by them, ignoring the way they flinched in almost religious awe as he passed.
Godhood had long ago lost its thrill for him.
He swam up to his second in command, Oku, the Durgun's general. The large creature didn't move anything apart from its skeletal fins, flexing like fingers in the dark water to keep its body stationary in the dark waters.
Oku looked at the Chimera, and he at him. No words were exchanged. Oku couldn't speak--the Chimera hadn't granted his general the ability to speak.
The Chimera swam on, deeper into the reef, to his private chambers. His thoughts were troubled. Dealing with Vatoz had been aggravating enough, but there was more on his mind. The Kraken was out of contact, which should have been impossible, as he almost never sent his Mantle away. The connection was almost always open.
And yet, it was silent now.
Not destroyed, but . . . quiet.
In the absence of that, there was something else. Another presence, connected like the Mantles, but . . . different. The connection was there, but on the other end of it, there was nothing.
Was it the new Mantle? The Chimera wondered. No, when that had manifested, the feeling in his mind was like the others. This was another Mantle, but the consciousness that usually drove them, that could be perceived in the common consciousness that united them all wasn't there.
A vital piece was missing.
He reached out again, trying to make contact with the Kraken. Perhaps, if his connection was back on line he could triangulate their position in the world ocean, and send his acolyte to investigate this strange thing.
But there was no answer. Wherever the Kraken was, he couldn't hear him.
* ~ *
The Kraken lay in his hiding place, curled up in a tight ball, his muscles burning with the strain of holding himself so tight. He wanted more than anything to summon the Mantle again, to have the power to resist the Bajak-Laut, but the Mantle wouldn't respond.
It was exhausted. It needed to rest. And so did he.
What a pity that drifting off to sleep, even for a little bit, felt even more impossible than summoning the Mantle again. Every sense he had felt heightened, every nerve aware and probing, waiting for the scratching of their claws against the coral walls that he was certain was only a hair's breath away.
But it never came. So he waited for the next moment, and the next.
The blue waters around him weren't anywhere near as dark as the oppressive midnight of Ireng, but they felt heavier, somehow. A cold blue fist that was trying to crush him to a pulp.
As the terror stretched the time he found himself hoping that he'd exhaust himself and pass out, that the decision to rest would be taken away from him, as the conscious effort he was making wasn't up to it.
His thoughts drifted back to the Chimera, who would no doubt be sneering at him for being ambushed, trapped, and then overpowered. For depending on the Mantle so much that he had to run away.
And now he was alone, powerless, and hunted. Just like back in the cave when he'd met the Chimera.
"Did I teach you nothing?" he imagined him saying. "You have the power to change the world ocean, to control it, and you can't even control yourself."
He bit his lip, cringing from the imagined rebuke.
Everything since that day that he considered important, he'd learned at the side of the Chimera. How to optimize the Mantle's power. How to force it to evolve and grow even stronger. In his eyes, the Chimera was powerful, and wise.
Everything he aspired to be.
Did he know about the Bajak-Laut? The Kraken wondered. If he did, why didn't he warn me? Why didn't the Mantle tell me? It's like it was learning about them for the first time.
And if he didn't know about them, what else doesn't he know about?
He squeezed his eyes tighter, trying to push the terror away with sufficient force to buy him a few moments' sleep.
But the power didn't come at his command.
* ~ *
Knowledge was power.
Knowledge was everything.
That had been the first lesson Tiaho had learned when she became one of the city guards, and Tiaho had made it the core of her being, training her mind, and her memory as relentlessly as she had trained her body. Not only in the martial skills necessary to be a good warrior, but in as many of the sciences as she could learn and understand.
As she rose through the ranks, she'd learned two things--the first was that the disciplines often flowed into the other. The discipline that made her an effective warrior also made her an effective student, and when the time came where she was made captain, that made her an effective leader.
But that was long ago. The Tide had taken this world, and polluted it all. She hadn't set foot outside of the chamber she'd fled to since she'd taken up the Mantle.
The reasons were twofold. The immediate one involved protecting the two pods. They were safe, so long as the chamber's walls held and the pure water was kept free of the Tide, which wasn't far away.
She could feel it--in fact, now that the Mantle had bonded with her to the extent it had, she felt it more. With the enhanced senses the Mantle afforded her, the Tide irritated her consciousness as she traced its peculiar chemistry, floating in the water.
Long ago, she'd isolated the particles that made up the Tide--the infinitesimal particles that caused such a massive change. She focused on one of them, a mote of crimson in the brown water.
Held by her consciousness, it dissolved away. Then the Tidal particles around it dissolved, and the water became blue again.
The seal of the chamber was holding against the tide. It had for a long time.
Then she began pushing the tide away, fueled by the power of the Mantle.
It was simple enough, once she'd plumbed the depths of the Mantle's knowledge. When she'd first bonded with it, she'd gotten an inkling of the totality of its power, but the glimpse of what was beyond--the massive pool of knowledge that connected her consciousness to what she'd called the Mer--was the true power she sought.
So she'd sat there, letting time pass, as she made contact with the Mer, learning from it, letting it expand her consciousness as she pressed deeper into its limitless wisdom.
And ever since, she pushed the Tide back, a little bit at a time. The purified water was teeming with potential life, but she maintained her focus. Life might return in time, but for now, she had to build it from the ground up.
And that would take time.
The strain was unbelievable, and dangerous. Submerging her mind within the Mer was a shattering experience. Hit with the vastness of its knowledge, an individual mind could barely comprehend the different perspective--at once granular and universal--to say nothing of the expanding awareness.
Every time she reached in deeper, a little more of her frayed away, dissolving into the larger consciousness of the Mer. So she held tighter to herself, forging her resolve into a brilliant light that pushed against the murky darkness, and made a little more of the Red Tide blue again.
Little by little, for as long as she could last.
* ~ *
The dark beast's head twitched again, spasming and jerking as it slithered around its dark warren, as if it were trying to remember where it had put something. Chunks of flesh floated in the water. As before, the creature had picked up some of the dead flesh, as if to eat it, then seemed to remember that it didn't have to eat, then dropped it, went to another part of the cave, and repeated the process.
The beast had never felt hungry, but felt as though it should be hungry. So often, it seemed as if it did the things it did less because it was driven to do them, and more like a poor imitation of something it had seen another creature do. Midway through, it would stop, as if wondering (or remembering) that it didn't.
The beast's tentacles probed the walls of the cave, feeling along the walls. There was a dim awareness within itself, which perhaps it had been something else, once, but that had left, taking vital parts with it, and leaving whatever was left running through what few fragments of instinct remained, the vague memory of loss a dark void at the center of it.
Its clawed hand touched its own face, feeling the soft flesh of the unmasked side of its face. Why did it have a face? What was the purpose of this eye that didn't see, or the mouth that didn't eat, or speak?
The beast's claws traced down its chest, feeling the damaged, dented metal at its thorax.
What was this? Why was this?
Before it could ask any questions of itself, pain shot through it, causing it to flail in the tight cavern and whip its tentacles in a frenzied dance of agony, hitting the walls so hard the coral wall cracked.
Its head jerked back and forth again, blotting out the pain with confusion. In those spasms, for a moment, it felt something.
An image, vague, blurry, but real.
The best had no way of knowing what it was, but knew that it was important. That it wasn't prey to be killed and eaten (no, that was wrong--it didn't eat. It didn't need food) but something to be found, and if--
It was gone again.
The beast returned to slithering around its dark warren, picking through the bits of flesh littered around its lair, as if it were trying to remember something. . .