Ihitai had never seen anything like it. For as far as he could see, the seas were alive--silver, orange, gold, and more shimmered in the water above and below him.
It was incredible. Not just the spectacle of it, but the variety of life that surrounded him. It hadn't been that long since he'd awakened, finding himself in what had looked like an empty ocean, vast and isolated, the only companion a voice in his head he wasn't even sure was real, at first.
The first life he'd met had tried to kill and devour him. It had been a long while until he'd met anyone else. And he'd started to wonder if he weren't one of the last being alive in some very lonely waters.
Later, he'd met another and made a friend, and felt a little less alone.
Now, here he was, and surrounded by teeming life, he knew he was wrong.
More than that, he felt a sense of connection to this place. While he noticed the puzzled looks from the beings that passed them by, he felt, deep within himself, that however strange he was, he belonged here, in some way he couldn't yet define.
"All of this was just on the other side of the kelp forest?" a disbelieving Ihitai asked Ceffyl, who floated beside him.
"No one goes to the other side anymore," Ceffyl responded. "Not since the mermedusae infested it. They've learned to give it a wide berth."
"Why are there so many there?"
"No one's sure," Ceffyl said, looking outward. "They drift together sometimes, but . . . the way these behave are different. The Osupa say they're in a perfect circle around a hole in the Golden Plain. As if they're waiting for something."
"Why?" Ihitai asked, as much to Ceffyl as to Cyan. "What could they be waiting for?"
[I don't know] Cyan said. [Everything about the Golden Plain is. . .]
Missing, Ihitai finished. Doesn't that bother you?
[I don't know]
Neither do I, Ihitai said. And I've been relying on you. And I'm worried about what we don't know.
And why we don't.
"Ceffyl!" a voice called from above them. A brilliant orange and white creature, thin-limbed and slight, swam up next to them. Its dark eyes glanced over to Ihitai, then back to their friend, then back to Ihitai again.
"Who are you?"
"Ihitai," he answered. "I'm . . . well, sort of new here. At least I think I am."
The being regarded Ihitai with intense scrutiny.
"My name is Ziwiri. I'm a Ocella. Never seen anything like you," they said. "Your face, your body--it's so . . . sharp. You don't have any fins, and yet you can swim so well.
"What are you?"
"I . . well, I wish I knew," Ihitai answered with a half-smile. "I don't really remember. I've been kind of drifting for a while."
"I came across him last tide," Ceffyl said. "Out on the cliffs on the other side of the kelp forest."
"You were there?!" Ziwiri exclaimed. "It's so dangerous there. How did you survive?"
[Ihitai, I don't think it would be a good idea to say anything about the Mantle,] Cyan offered. [I don't think they'd understand.]
Don't worry, Ihitai responded. I don't understand it myself.
So he decided to change the subject.
"Ceffyl, when said "tide," what did you mean?"
Ceffyl's fins ruffled, and his expression was perplexed for a moment.
"It's time," he said, as though it were self-evident. "Eddies turn to waves, waves to tides, tides to cnoids, cnoids to haipas, haipas to sieches."
Ihitai nodded as though any of that made sense.
[It's their time scale,] Cyan chimed in.
"We learned it from the Osupa," Ziwiri offered. "They go everywhere. It's how we know anything about what goes on in the world ocean. That's what I wanted to tell you, Ceffyl--you missed them. They were here last tide."
"Where did these come from?"
"Safir," Ziwiri replied. "They'd schooled around the Jade Cliffs, spoke to the Nzeru. They're preparing for war, they said."
"War?" Ihitai interjected.
"The Nzeru are always being threatened by another race, the Cocra," Ceffyl said. "War's been in the making for some time."
Ihitai's brow furrowed. "Aren't you worried about this war? That it might come here?"
Ziwiri and Ceffyl looked amused.
"Safir is blackward of us, Ihitai," Ceffyl said. "Far away."
Ihitai nodded. "Nothing like that here, is there?"
"Nothing quite that bad," Ziwiri said. "Down there, they hide a lot. They carve kingdoms in the coral, and fight to protect what's theirs. Sometimes, no matter where you are, you have to be careful--there's always a bigger fish in the world ocean, but most of time, you just swim on, things happen elsewhere, and you let them."
"And that . . .works?"
"Mostly," Ceffyl said. "But in case you're worried, my friend, there's no need. This is Ijo--everyone's too busy just saying alive here. It's open water, and free.
"We're safe here."
"That's good to hear," Ihitai said. "Safe is still . . . pretty new to me."
"You'll come to like it, I bet," Ziwiri said, offering their new friend a leaf of kelp as they chewed one of their own.
Ihitai took a bite of the leaf, smiling at Ziwiri as he chewed it in silent thanks. As he swallowed, he found himself relaxing. It had taken some time, but he'd found safety, he'd found friends, and he'd found a very pleasant place to live in without the terrors both internal and external that had colored his first few moments.
The only problem right now, he thought, glancing at the half chewed leaf in his hand, is that I really don't like the taste of kelp. . .
* ~ *
"Power isn't enough."
The voice of the Chimaera rang in the Kraken's memory as he slept, lost in dream and memory. When the tension left him, just as the Mantle had when it lost the last of its strength, so too had consciousness left him.
And he slept.
"I don't understand," the Kraken remembered saying. "You're so powerful, why would you be afraid of anything?"
The Chimaera stared at his charge, his golden eyes narrowing. They stood on a rocky cliff, overlooking Ireng, the black waters where the Kraken's savior called home.
It had taken a long time for the Kraken's eyes to get accustomed to the light there, or rather the lack of it. To see anything at all for the first few tides, he stuck close to the Chimaera, whose internal light kept the dark at bay a little in this dark place.
Even the colors of the three coral spires that passed through seemed to lose all trace of pigment in this cold darkness, and what little life passed through the bleak waters seemed to have the color of life bleached from it as well. Ireng was cold, oppressive, and dark.
And then, one day, he could see. The colors were subtle, pale, and it took some effort to see, but he saw. The Kraken remembered being so excited by the fact that this strange alien place actually seemed to have color after all, that he rushed to tell his benefactor.
The Chimaera, for his part, used it as another moment to explain the nature of the world ocean as he saw it.
"Power isn't everything," he explained. "I've beheld a power that dwarfed even mine once. I stood before it, and it hardly noticed my presence at all.
"I've seen creatures in these waters--vast things, so powerful they would barely notice my passing. The Leviathans, the Sea Witch, the living forests--so many more.
"And I have seen them killed by creatures much smaller than themselves."
The Kraken blinked. "How?"
"They knew where to strike," The Chimaera explained. "There's no need to meet strength with strength, if you're smart enough to learn what it is you face, and where it's weakest."
"But you said the strongest survive," the Kraken replied. "That the strong dominate the weak. It was the ultimate law of the world ocean, you told me."
"And that's true," his mentor responded. "But power without wisdom isn't strength. It burns very brightly, and burns out even faster."
"I don't understand," the Kraken admitted.
"You will," the Chimaera said. "I will teach you. But understand--it will only do you as much good as you the value you give it. They're two halves of a great power. Match what you learn with the power of your Mantle, bring those two halves together . . . and nothing would be beyond you."
"Is that right?"
The Chimaera nodded.
"And what do I do with that?" The Kraken said. "Assuming I get as strong as you?"
"Whatever you want," the Chimaera replied.
In the dark waters, the Kraken was almost certain he saw a flicker of sadness pass over his mentor's form, as if there was more said besides those three words that he couldn't hear.
What the Kraken could hear was the scratching, and the shifting of rocks outside his protective hole in the reefs. The fog of sleep lifted with a start, and he soon crept to the entrance of the cyst, keeping in the shadows as he looked out into the open waters.
The Bajak-Laut prowled over the reefs outside, scratching and tearing at the coral walls. He could see four of them, but knew that more weren't far behind. Just as he'd feared they'd followed his trail and were scrabbling around the place where the Mantle had finally given out, only a short distance from where he was now.
The fear crept up in him again, and he thought about running, but there was no passage through the coral, and no other escape except through them.
He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to steady his nerves. The dream--the memory--echoing in his thoughts.
Knowledge was a power as strong as the Mantle, he thought. That's what the Chimaera was trying to tell me, then.
He turned his focus inward. The Mantle was there, and it was ready. He could summon it, fight his way through, and escape again, run as far as possible.
And where would that get me? Eventually I'll run out of time, or ocean.
He kept his focus inward. The same stream of information that had absorbed all that information about the Bajak-Laut was trying to reach out to him again, and he concentrated, reaching out a hand with his thoughts to make contact.
There was something else in all this. The Bajak-Laut had him dead to rights, and his trail should be just as detectable in the waters as the Mantle's. So why weren't they dragging him out of the cyst and ripping him apart right now?
He finally made the connection.
They tagged the Mantle's trace, but not mine, he thought.
The implications were staggering--he'd assumed whenever he summoned the Mantle that he was putting it on, like a suit of armor.
That wouldn't cause such a difference in things, though.
He shook it off, promising that he'd come back to this question if he survived.
For now, he had a decision to make.
Run, or fight?
I was meant to find the new Mantle wielder, the Kraken reminded himself. This has all been a distraction to that. I should fight my way through and get away. Let them chase me, maybe lead them to something that might stop them on the way greenward.
But the Bajak-Laut were relentless and rapacious, and following him, they could do a lot of damage, and with their ability to pirate the forms of those they pillaged, it would be like spreading a sickness through the world-ocean.
A sickness that he'd have to pass through again to return to the Chimaera when he was finished.
And there was one more thing. The Bajak-Laut had hurt him, terrorized him, and nearly killed him. Their gaping mouths and staring eyes were burned into his mind, ready to leap out and give the terrors within him a face.
To the Kraken, this was intolerable. It was that feeling of terror he'd felt when he was found, when the Durgun were about to close in and claim him.
He hadn't fought then.
He would now.
The Mantle whispered its usual mantra of "follow me, trust me" in his mind as it was summoned, and the Kraken felt himself dissolving into the Mantle's form, the power suffusing every molecule of his body. The exhaustion was gone, and he was back at full strength.
His shields smashed away the wall of the cyst, and the Bajak-Laut that had been scurrying around snapped their head around to see their quarry, who had appeared from nowhere.
One of them screamed a quick "YEHORDE!" before the Kraken ripped him apart with a fusillade of thorns, reaching out for two others with his powers and smashing them against the reefs, leaving grisly green-black smears on the jagged coral.
That left one, and he tumbled through the water, trying to run. The Mantle told the Kraken this was the nature of the Bajak-Laut--bold in large numbers, but craven and quick to run when on their own. But the Kraken wasn't listening. His burning golden eyes met the pitiful creature, as the tentacle arms of his shields snaked around the arms of the Bajak-Laut.
He saw a familiar terror in those eyes, even pulling the cowering creature in close with his tentacles. It was the same fear he'd felt before, reflecting back at him.
And it disgusted him.
The tentacles pulled the Bajak-Laut's arms and legs off, sending the limbless trunk tumbling to the shelf of coral, with the Kraken swimming overhead. The Bajak-Laut was gasping and screaming in pain and terror, aggravated by the Kraken slamming the point of his shields into the coral beside the dismembered creature.
"How many of you are there?"
The Bajak-Laut twitched, gibbering.
The Kraken pounded near it.
"Listen to me," he said. "I know we can understand each other. How many of you?"
"A-a-all of us," the Bajak-Laut said. "The entire H-ho-horde."
"All of you?" The Kraken said. "Just to get me? Where are you from?"
"We have . . . no home," the Bajak-Laut said. "We travel in this ocean, one horde. We find what we want, we take it. Make ourselves better. We . . . take you."
"No," the Kraken growled, crushing the Bajak-Laut's skull under one of his claws. "You won't be.
"Because I'm going to kill every last one of you."
* ~ *
At last, it understood.
The black beast slopped out of the dark cavern it hid in for the last time, it's clawed hands scratching the coral as the tentacles at its knuckles slithered and probed in the waters beyond it. Its head twitched, its entire body spasming, with pained thrashing.
It dug its fingers into the coral, willing the disruption away, defying the pain and confusion that wracked it. The awareness it had--whatever it could be said to be--had grabbed on to some flicker of comprehension about itself. Not who it was, nor what it was, but some flicker of purpose pulled it out of the cave, and after some effort, into the water, the creature's arms trailed by its waving red tentacles.
It swam before the circle of mermedusae, and the creatures closest to the beast drifted back and forth in the waters, as if mirroring the movements of the shape before them.
The beast's head tilted, puzzled. There was something between itself and the mermedusae, some wavelength they were both operating on.
More spasms, and the beast's body was wracked with pain, so much so it began to drift in the water. Its clawed hands balled up into tight fists, desperate to fight through the agony and hang on to this flickering awareness.
The memedusa didn't match that, but, as the pain cleared and the spasms stopped, the beat noticed the connection was stronger now. It willed one of them to swim forward, to move face to face with it.
It did so, stopping inches from the beast's face.
Its single yellow eye studied the mermedusa. The closer the proximity, the stronger the connection. The beast circled the mermedusa, curious.
The beast willed it to join the rest, and it did, even faster than it had come forward.
The beast swam closer to the circle of the mermedusa. The connection was getting stronger. It throbbed within the beast, so strong it seemed to dull the spasms.
The beast raised its arm. Before it had even finished the motion, hundreds of the mermedusae were matching the movement.
It had no comprehension why the mermedusae were here, or why there would be a connection between itself and these creatures. All it knew in this moment was that these creatures, for whatever reason, would obey it.
Pleased, it shared its new discovery, its dimly grasped purpose, with its thralls.
At that transmission, one after the other, the features on the mermedusae changed. Their eyes opened, and their mouths split into fanged grins. The perfect circle began to peel off, row upon row, as the mermedusae began to swim at top speed, faster than they ever had before, away from the beast, through the kelp forest, to the open waters beyond.
And the beast, moving slower, but no less imbued with its dark purpose, followed.