Ihitai couldn't believe what he was seeing. After feeling alone for so long in this alien world, he'd been in the heart of more life and activity than he could have imagined, and he'd been more at peace than he ever had been. He felt like he this was a place he could possibly belong in.
And in an instant, things had changed. The mermedusae had torn through the kelp forest and erupted into the midst of the beings schooling around, their bioluminescence pulsing with insistent, malevolent, power. The placid faces they wore when drawing their prey in had peeled back, revealing burning eyes and very sharp teeth.
And the sea was full of strangled screams of terror.
They slammed into their victims like cannonballs, sending them tumbling into the reefs and the kelp as their fanged maws took hungry bites from them. Where they struck, blood plumed in the water, swallowing the living in darkening clouds.
Ihitai felt terrified and disgusted--the memory of nearly being taken by one was still fresh, after all--but there was something more, something that the terror in his mind was trying to drown out.
The certain feeling this wasn't right at all.
Cyan, he thought, opening his mind up to her without a second's consideration. This isn't normal ... is it?
[Not at all,] Cyan responded. [The mermedusae are passive hunters. They shouldn't be this aggressive.]
But they are, Ihitai insisted. I'm looking right at them!
[I don't know why it's changed. They're not even feeding--they're just attacking the first thing they run into. There's no explanation for it.]
What do I do? Ihitai wondered. How do I stop them?
There was no answer.
Of course not, Ihitai said, his expression darkening. We both know what the answer is, don't we?
The Mantle could stop them. Easily.
Unbidden, the image of the mermedusa he'd crushed with the power of the mantle flashed in front of his eyes, the sick shame of it swamping his emotions all over again.
The terror and shame of that act conspired within him, paralyzing him with indecision and fear, a shimmer of lights passed above him, heading for Ceffyl and Ziwiri.
Instinct took over and he lunged for the mermedusa without thinking, and screamed as its tentacles slithered around him, the stinging cells within burning his flesh. The pain was incredible, but he willed himself to hold tight, dodging its snapping jaws as he yanked it off its murderous course.
Ihitai screamed again, thrashing and kicking the creature again and again, ripping its tentacles loose.
I ...just ...found... a place to belong, he thought, finding his strength again and pushing his feet against the mermedusa's chest, screaming his thoughts past his agony at the creature he was in mortal struggle against.
I found friends! I found out I'm not alone!
He threw the mermedusa off and it skipped against the reef walls, tumbling away and stalking off, wounded.
I won't lose what I found, he thought. I can't.
I'll fight for it.
I'll fight to protect it.
Images danced in front of his eyes as he swam back to find his friends
He swam back to Ceffyl and Ziwiri, finding them hiding under an outcropping of coral. The mermedusae were still coming, and the water was full of blood and screams.
"Are you both ok?" Ihitai asked, huddling close with them in their small hiding place.
"I think so," Ziwiri replied. They gestured to the wounds the mermedusae had left. "But what about you?"
"I'll be all right," Ihitai said, hoping they didn't notice all the wincing in pain he was doing. "I'm more concerned about you two."
"What's happening?" Ceffyl said, the terror plain in his voice. "They don't do this--it's impossible."
"I don't know," Ihitai said. "Impossible or not, they're doing it. You two need to get somewhere safe. Swim as far as you can, try to get on the other side of the reef. They don't seem to be going too far from here."
"What about you?" Ceffyl demanded.
"I'm going to keep them from going after you. Buy you some time to get to safety."
"Well, I fought one already--"
Not now, Ihitai responded.
"And you were lucky to survive that!" Ziwiri said. "There are hundreds of them! How are you--"
"LISTEN!" Ihitai shouted. "I know, all right? You don't need to tell me-- I'm scared enough as it is. But I can do something. I can help. You have to believe me, and trust me."
"You can do something to stop this?" Ceffyl asked. "This isn't meant to be happening, shouldn't be. What can you do?"
"You said the same thing about me when we met," Ihitai said with a smile. "I can do some pretty impressive things when I set my mind to it."
"Why?" Ziwiri asked.
"Because you're my friends," Ihitai said, gesturing to Ceffyl. "And you have people who are going to need you. So you have to stay safe, and stay alive--both of you. If you see anyone else, gather what people you can, tell them to get as far away from here as they can and stay out of sight. GO!"
Ceffyl and Ziwiri both regarded him with curiosity, and worry, but did finally begin to swim away with increasing speed. Ihitai watched them go, wishing them well.
"I'll see you both again," he said, more to himself than them. "I promise."
Then he turned back to the murderous aurora before him.
Summoning the Mantle again terrified him. So many dark fears swirled in him--what he'd felt, what it had done, and what the flashes of memory he'd gleaned had revealed.
If he was going to call it again, he'd call it to fight, and to kill. The Mantle, for its part, killed by instant--it was programmed to protect.
But Ihitai didn't want to kill anyone. He just wanted to live, and he wanted the people he cared for to live as well.
And so, he decided. He was scared--scared of the prospect of a fight, worried he couldn't control the Mantle's instincts. But even more terrifying than losing himself to it was the knowledge that he could use the Mantle to save his friends, to save these people--and do nothing.
If I can do something, he thought, then it's right that I do.
It's right that I try.
He swam up, following the shimmering lights, swimming closer to where they were swarming out of. Like dangerous fireflies they began turning towards him, moving in.
Just what he wanted. Every mermedusa that was trying to kill him was one more that wasn't trying to kill the others.
As they closed in, he summoned the Mantle.
Brilliant light enveloped him, and he felt the strange drowning and dissolving sensation as the Mantle formed. Ihitai felt an expansion of his awareness--one he hadn't noticed before--as though he were plugged into something. A vast nervous system, a galaxy of thought and activity.
And within that shimmering of awareness, the voice of the Mantle spoke to him again:
Just trust me--follow me.
* ~ *
The Bajak-Laut streamed away from the Kraken's assault, now running for their lives against his relentless pursuit. Whereas before the Kraken had utilized his Mantle's powers in reactive ways, now he was deliberate, using the full measure of his ability to rip them apart. His shields would strike the coral walls, tearing them loose, and then he would alter the current to send them rifling through the water like an artillery shell, sending shrapnel through the heart of the schooling creatures.
And the pirates found the prey they had ambushed and overwhelmed, the prey that they'd hunted now turned and fought them, and fought back.
The Kraken hadn't heard any screams of "YEHORDE!" since he'd begun his assault. Even their grunts of defiance seem to have faded away, replaced by screams of agony and terrified cries as they tried to run away from their would-be feast.
They were scared, he thought.
The Kraken tore through two more of the Bajak-Laut with the claws on the edge of his gauntlets, mauling and shredding the malleable bodies of the creatures in his wake. The Mantle, gathering more data about the reaving monsters, had informed him that few of the Bajak-Laut could regenerate if their form was disrupted past a certain point.
That suited the Kraken just fine. The streaming cloud of Bajak-Laut that had faced him at first was dissolving into a rout. Those that he didn't kill outright would tumble through the waters, food for something else, if they lived that long.
As it should be, the Kraken mused, crushing another to a pulp between his claw-shields. Satisfying as it might be, I don't need to see all of you die--if some of you live short and very ugly lives torn in half and trying to scuttle off before you're someone else's meal ...I'm fine with it.
It's almost fitting.
His thorns ripped into the face of another of the Bajak-Laut, snatching and crushing its skull with his clawed fingers.
But I will break your "horde" today.
Two of the Bajak-Laut tried to flank him, their lower bodies replaced with an eel's tail while four others grabbed onto his claw-shields, grasping tight. They were trying to drag him down with the weight of their numbers again.
But the Kraken was ready now. This wasn't the frightened child who'd been caught by surprise anymore. He closed the claw-shields around himself and smashed into a reef wall, splattering and smearing the four pirates against the wall as he smashed through.
His claw-shields unfurled as he seized the eel-bodied Bajak-Laut and changed the currents to shear them in half, always turning toward the cloud of creatures, always keeping them in his sights.
Two of them moved in--larger than their horde-brothers, their arms replaced with large claws from an arachnorab or a fiddler. Behind them streamed a dozen of their smaller brothers, which the Kraken swatted aside with contemptuous ease. They hadn't even got a good hold on him before they were shaken loose, tumbling into the depths.
But, as one of the larger pirates hit him full-on with their clawed hand, sending the Kraken tumbling backwards through the water, they were a successful diversion.
The Kraken reeled with the lucky shot, which put him in line with the Bajak Laut's cohort, who smashed the Kraken in the head, sending him tumbling the other way.
The Kraken's claw shields opened, and the Bajak-Laut slipped under them, using one arm to wedge themselves under the armatures, pinning themselves in close. Over and over they punched with their claws, battering the Kraken with body blows.
For a horde of thieves and scavengers, they're more skilled than I gave them credit for, the Kraken thought, as the blows rained against him.
"We'll cut you down, monster," one of the punching Bajak-Laut grunted. "Make you pay!"
The Kraken pulled his claw-shields in closer, smashing his head into the face of the one on his left. The bladed crest dug into the creatures face, causing it to groan in pain, slackening his grip on the Kraken, who spun his claw-shield around and punched the pirate in the chest with one of the claw-shield's propulsion jets.
Before the Bajak-Laut tumbled away, the Kraken grasped his claw-arm and tore it loose, whipping it into the other pirate's face, knocking him loose. The Kraken slammed the Bajak-Laut into the wall and bashed it to death with the severed arm.
In truth, the Kraken was riding the adrenaline, as the headbutt he'd used against this creature's "brother" had shaken him up a little. As he continued pulverizing the terrified creature's face, he recalled the words of his mentor.
"This," he'd told him long ago, pointing to the golden crest at his eyebrow. "This is the most important part of the Mantle--the Auricontol. The central nervous system of the whole thing. It's designed to take a beating, but you don't want it to take any lasting damage."
"The Mantle depends on memory," the Chimera replied. "The longer you are bonded to it, the stronger the Damaging the Auricontrol corrupts its memory, and the Mantle might go rogue."
"And then what?"
The Chimera hadn't answered, and his silence was just the right pitch that the Kraken inferred it was bad.
Sometimes you don't get a choice, he thought.
Wrenching himself back to the present, he threw the arm aside, turning to face the Horde. The disorientation had cleared a little bit, but there was a persistent throb in his head, but it didn't feel like the pain from the blow.
This was more a nagging thought, as if the Mantle were detecting something elsewhere in the world-ocean. Perhaps it was to do with the mission that the Chimera had charged him with, finding the new Mantle.
But that would wait a little longer.
The Kraken still had an account to settle.
He faced the remnants of the horde, who were holding back in tight formation. The relentless dogpile attacks had relented, almost as if they were waiting for something.
"If this is surrender," the Kraken shouted over at them. "I'm not accepting it."
"The horde doesn't surrender," a voice, louder than any the Kraken had ever heard, gurgle-hissed in answer. There was an awful scraping as the Bajak-Laut parted in the water, making way for something huge, as something massive, misshapen, and monstrous stepped into the light.
While its face was Bajak-Laut (apart from the stalked eye that replaced one of its eyes--a black teardrop in an empty socket) the rest was slapped together from a dozen different creatures--one arm a pistolobster's claw; another, the tail of a stingskate. It scuttled on the reef wall on the legs and tail of an astaci. The rest of its misshapen body was hidden in partially-absorbed shells and other borrowed organisms.
For all that it was a nightmarish mélange of bits torn from the dead, it was unmistakably powerful. The deferential way the Bajak-Laut parted to let it through spoke to its obvious place in the Horde.
"You must be the one in charge," the Kraken growled.
"I am the Raja of this Horde, murderer," the creature snarled, its gurgling words thundering in the waters. "Murder my people? Interfere with the horde? Unforgivable!"
"Your horde tried to kill and eat me," the Kraken answered. "Did you ever think I might not want to be eaten?"
"Do you care about what you eat wants?" the raja answered. "Who you kill? This is our way! This is how we live!"
The Kraken's eyes narrowed. "You disgust me. The way you prey on the weak sickens me. If this is how you live ... you won't live anymore. None of you. I'm going to exterminate your horde."
"NO!" the Raja declared. "No more of my people die because of you."
The Kraken's fists clenched.
"Not your decision."
"No more of my people die," the Raja repeated, scutting closer. Its stingskate arm coiled and tensed. "You hate the Horde, creature? The Raja IS the Horde."
"Then I guess I'll kill you first, Raja."
The slow clicking of the Raja's legs on the coral became a staccato like burst of noise, churning the water around them as it lunged forward, meeting the Kraken's streaking charge as their battle began.
* ~ *
The beast barely noticed the brilliant lights as they streamed ahead of it, illuminating the curvature of its body as they passed. If it noted anything outside itself, only the twitching and jerking of its head gave any sign.
In the dimmed tattered instincts that passed for its mind, something was flickering. A light in the darkness. The clarity that it had chased in those dark tunnels for so long, touching on occasion but always losing was back, and it was ...consistent.
And fixed on that magnetic north, it drifted forward, slow but inexorable, its tentacled arms waving in the current as it passed. A mermedusa swam over its head, bathing its head in light, but its dead eye saw nothing, and the shadow thrown from the broken golden crest at its brow threw dim shadows over the other, which shone a dim yellow that seemed to be pulsing and growing brighter.
One of the mermedusa bounced off its body, but the beast didn't budge. It didn't move its body at all, it wasn't swimming through the water. Something was pulling it through the waves.
The missing piece.
The beast, having no use for names, felt the pull and went with it, grateful for some direction other than the pure instinct that caused it to trap what it didn't need to kill and kill what it no longer needed to eat.
The light was clarity.
The light was a life beyond instinct.
The strangest sensation buzzed within the beast. The tentacles stopped waving, and began reacting to the environment, probing the kelp stalks and leaves as it passed them, and then began to push them aside. Its legs began to move in an unconscious, instinctive rhythm.
More of the mermedusa sped past, throwing lightning-like slashes of illumination on the beast's jagged and cracked armor, the red cracks almost beginning to glow and pulse as it picked up speed.
As without, so within: the beast changed. The dim ragged instincts were sharpening, and with it, a clarity and awareness dawned. It rolled its head on its neck, listing around, twitching in its usual violent tic, as it tried to take in the world it had found itself within.
And as it now swam towards the edge of the forest, it grasped at something--the awareness, now much brighter, that it was more than it assumed itself to be.
It wasn't a mindless beast, but something else. A name--Amisala--drifted through its consciousness, and it grasped at it. Names were good, the beast decided, and Amisala felt like it belonged.
And so it named itself Amisala, throwing aside the last of the broken branches of the kept forest as more of the mermedusa snaked around it, their attention focused on the strange creature a short distance away from it.
As the mermedusae swarmed it, it swatted them aside, pushing them back, keeping them in this grotto. Amisala swam closer, examining its smooth black and blue armor, and appreciating the fierce power that this new creature wielded as he beat back the mermedusae.
(her mermedusa it had called them here)
Amisala's head jerked back, spasming as pain threw hairline cracks through its dawning awareness.
The inelegant thrashing around caught the other creature's attention, and its golden eyes locked with Amisala's one living eye for a moment. With some curiosity, Amisala noticed that this creature had a golden crest over its brow as well, but its was prefect and unblemished, whereas Amiasala's was cracked and broken.
Before Amisala could explore that, a sound--clear, brilliant and beautiful- ripped through its mind, causing its whole body to tremble as something began to fill its mind.
Sound. Vibration. Music. Information.
Through the corner of its eye it saw the other (like Amisala?) thrashing under the attack of the mermedusae (hers) and something else.
Was it the sound?
What was it doing?
Amisala paused, startled at the clear thought in its mind. The light it had been chasing blossomed into something else. It felt connected--not just to the creature beneath it, but to everything. The sound was linking them, but not just them. As the sound rang in its entire body, it was able to discern sounds within the sounds, and within those, information.
It drank it in deep, at such a rapid rate it almost paralyzed the creature, who drifted down to where the other struggled, battering one of the mermedusae aside as it tried to shake off whatever was happening.
Amisala knew what it was feeling. Because it was inside his (yes, his--another name, "Ihitai" drifted through) mind too. And there were other names drifting through that it didn't know--"Kraken," "Vatoz," "Magtesi," "Nkhanu," and "Chimera," but none of those names suited Amisala, so it threw them aside. Whatever they were, they were far away. Unimportant.
But here Ihitai was. Real.
Amisala wasn't alone anymore. And neither was Ihitai.
Amisala raised its hand, and the mermedusae stopped. Ihitai watched at the mermedusae attacking him swam away, forming up behind the strange creature who'd appeared before him.
It watched Ihitai, holding his head with one hand and reaching out for her with the other. He seemed to be trembling, reeling as the perfect tone echoed in his mind, filling in gaps, putting pieces of the puzzle together.
As he reached out to it, golden eyes wide with what looked like awe, or maybe disbelief, he gave her another name: