In the cold azure darkness, the creatures trained, thrusting the serrated bony blades on their arms forward again and again. Their bilious green eyes stared ahead, wild, but controlled as they continued their attacks, their numbers stretching as far as they could see in the cove, like an infinite reflection of a single image.
Standing on a cliff above them were a clutch of beings, different from the wiry creatures continuing their relentless drills. If they had any comment on the regimented, relentless activity, they kept silent until they completed the sequence.
"I take it you are satisfied, then?" One of the men said to the being next to him. The light coruscating within him threw pale arcs of light over the cove, as though the legion below were fighting in a storm.
"The Moray'de are vicious, relentless, and strong. Everything you promised, Chimaera." the other man responded, his yellow eyes narrowed on the army below him. He was attired similar to his shining companion, though where the brilliant being's strange armor was smooth and sleek, his was festooned with vicious spikes, which in contrast with his regal purple colors, made him seem less the king he was, and more a cruel warlord.
Immediately, his eyes narrowed, and he waved over to the being next to him. With no wasted motion, his hand moved from gesturing to pointing out one of the Moray'de below them. The other being, a blue mass of tentacles, pushed off the cliff, drifting down to the Moray'de, waving his bright coral staff as he descended down to the Moray'de that its master had pointed out.
Apparently the Moray'de had his arm too low in the last sequence. The Chimaera watched as the creature gestured with its tentacles, gesturing with his scythe in such a way that intimated that if the soldier didn't keep their arm at the proper height the next time, it might be cut off.
Satisfied when the Moray'de repeated the sequence with no failure, the creature gestured for the entire legion to resume drilling, as he swam back up the cliff.
"Vicious, relentless, and strong," the man repeated to the Chimarea.
"But not disciplined. Not yet."
"I assume Guud will ensure that," the Chimaera responded, nodding in his direction, as the general rejoined them on the platform.
"He'll perform as I demand, as will my great army." the man responded. Though his face was obscured, the Chimaera could feel the sly smile creeping across his face. "And in time, they may even exceed your Durgun."
The Chimaera felt the change in the current as his two Durgun guards tensed, their milked-over eyes narrowing. They were well aware of the insult the man hurled in their direction. They wouldn't be provoked to violence, of course--not unless given leave by him.
What Vatoz fails to understand is that the Moray'de are his soldiers, he mused. They will fight, and they will obey.
But to the Durgun. . .I am more than their ruler.
I am their creator.
I am their god.
"They'd have to actually fight someone, first," the Chimaera responded. "The Moray'de are impressive on the parade ground, this I grant you. Perhaps they will be impressive when you finally attack the Jade Cliffs. But that hasn't happened yet. Whereas my Durgun have proven themselves, many times over."
"In battles deep in Ireng, that barely anyone's heard about," Vatoz sneered.
"Stories of battles barely survived are hard to tell when we leave no survivors."
Vatoz fell silent.
"That was, after all, why you sought me out," the Chimaera pressed. "You recognized the power we held, the power of my army. And more than that."
Vatoz kept silent, watching his legions.
Oh, I recognize it, the thought bitter in his mind.
"Where's your protege?"
"The Kraken would perceive that as an insult, I am certain," the Chimaera responded.
"I wish I cared what your callow acolyte thought," Vatoz sneered. The Chimaera's manner grated on Vatoz, who had long coveted the day where he could match the power of his army and his Mantle against the Chimaera, and he would finally usurp the one power he recognized above his own.
But that day wasn't today. And every day Vatoz had to acknowledge a power in the world-ocean greater than his own, it made the acid that coursed within him that much more potent.
"I was merely noting his absence," Vatoz clarified.
"I sent him away, if you must know," the Chimaera responded. “We're gathering intelligence."
Vatoz harrumphed. "On what?"
"Not what, who. Another Mantle's become active."
Vatoz straightened and turned to the Chimaera.
"Don't tell me you didn't feel it awaken?"
The weapons in Vatoz's shoulders flexed in an involuntary motion.
"O-of course," Vatoz replied. "Of course I did."
"Yet you decided not to act," the Chimarea replied, pressing the point. "If they prove a threat to us," Vatoz began, trying to cover his anxiety with bluster. “We'll deal with them. For now, our eye is fixed on the Jade Cliffs."
"Of course," his ally responded. It was his turn to add a little more pressure. "Still--keeping both eyes open might yet be wise. It would be unfortunate if the newest member of our little club were to make contact with Magtesi, wouldn't it?"
"It won't happen."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because I have mastered the power of my Mantle. Moreover, I now have my own army, and a general to lead that army," Vatoz responded, gesturing to Guud. His eyes fixed on the Chimaera. “As well as our alliance."
". . .don't I?"
The Chimaera nodded. In that moment, both of them were thinking the same thing:
For the moment.
* ~ *
[You haven't said very much since you woke up] Cyan said. [Did something upset you?]
Ihitai kept swimming down, keeping his mind quiet as they hugged the reefs, following it down. He didn't answer her.
Since he'd awakened, he'd been concentrating, building a space in his mind where she couldn't hear his thoughts. Not much--not all of it--just a tiny corner in his head.
In that corner, he studied the flashes from his dream, every scrap of which he could remember he was gripping tightly, even as the visions became less clear.
[Are you angry with me?]
Cyan constantly knocking on that private corner of his mind wasn't helping, in part because holding on to what he'd learned took most of his concentration.
And also because something he'd seen in the vision made him rather suspicious of the voice in his head.
Suspicious, and a little bit afraid. He couldn't put a name to it--couldn't shape the puzzle pieces of the images in his mind just yet.
But he'd begun swimming down, hoping to find someone else to talk to. Perhaps he yearned for some way to get his bearings, to get a handle on where and who he was.
Though he knew the truth: he was running from the voice in his head that was his only source of information, and he didn't--couldn't--trust that.
He stared into the depths, following the shafts of light as they painted shimmering light on the reefs below. There was life all around him--fish, crustaceans, plankton, all dancing in the waters around him.
But nothing like him.
No one he could talk to.
[You can talk to me.]
He squeezed his eyes shut. His thoughts had bled out of his secret corner.
(I'm all right) Ihitai responded. (I'm just . . .looking for something.)
[What are you looking for?]
(Shouldn't there be people?) Ihitai asked. (I see caves carved out of the coral, big enough for a larger form, but there's nothing. There can't just be the Mermedusae. Where is everyone?)
Cyan didn't answer, and it was just as well. Out of the corner of his eye, just under an overhang, Ihitai caught a bit of movement, and swam over slow to investigate. As he slipped under the coral, he caught sight of a creature, an s-shaped black silhouette in the spare light under the reef. It was feeding on the plankon, its round lips pursing and unpursing as its fins kept it steady. Its long tail was curled around one of the outcroppings, keeping it steady in the water.
[Oh.] Cyan commented [It's a Sygnath. It's feeding here.]
Ihitai swam towards it, taking care not startle it. He passed over a hole in the reef, and at sight of the revelation of his figure, the Sygnath's head snapped around to see him, its tail letting go out of the outcropping.
Ihitai could see the panic on the creature's face and could feel the shift in the current. The Sygnath had been anchored in the midst of a strong eddy, and without slipping away from the current, he was pulled away.
Ihitai didn't pause for a second, launching himself at the Sygnath. While the creature couldn't fight the current, he could, and he tore through the eddy like a bullet, holding his arm out as he kicked his legs, getting closer to the Sygnath.
Take my hand! I'm trying to help you!
[He can't hear you] Cyan responded.
(I can't talk to him?)
[No] Cyan offered back [You have to use your voice. You're trying to talk to him like we talk to each other.]
"Take my hand!" Ihitai shouted, trying again. It had been so long since he'd spoken that his voice sounded unfamiliar to him for a moment. "I'll pull you out!"
The Sygnath looked panicked, and tried to swim away from him, but Ihitai was determined to save him, and swam all that much harder. His fingertips danced around the Sygnath's tail for a moment, then, with a lunge, he was able to grasp it.
"Hang on," he said to the panicked creature, who tried to thrash out of his grip. "I've got you. I'll get you somewhere safe. Do you understand?"
His eyes met the Sygnath's for a moment, and he felt it cease struggling. With that, Ihitai was able to pull them out of the eddy and brought them to rest a in a darker outcropping where the currents were calmer.
Ihitai let go of the Sygnath's tail and waited to see what would happen. Given how he'd behaved so far, he wouldn't have been surprised if he made a run for it, but the creature just swam there, watching him.
"You're safe now," Ihitai said, his hands out in front of him, hoping to demonstrate he wasn't a threat. He blinked a few times, something drifting through his mind that hadn't occurred to him until just now.
"You can . . . understand me, right?"
"What a strange question to ask," the Sygnath replied. "Of course I can."
* ~ *
The Kraken drifted slowly into a dark cove, drawn by a flicker of something the sensory organs in the Mantle had detected. Inside, it was still--the thick coral walls created a barrier from the powerful currents outside, and at first glance, the fine white sands and the still waters betrayed nothing out of the ordinary.
Nothing, aside from the severed arm lying half-buried in the sand.
He crouched in front of it, examining the half-buried limb. The sensory organs had picked up the scent of blood and traces of flesh in the water, and had brought him here, to the origin point.
That wasn't unusual, of course. "Violence was part of the ecosystem," as the Chimera often told him, and everything either ate or was something else's meal.
The Kraken picked up the arm, thinking more about how readily the Chimera's lessons drifted through his mind--so clear that he could hear his mentor's voice as if he was talking over his shoulder--than the situation before him.
The shimmering blue-silver of the flesh had dulled, the life gone out of it. It had belonged to an Osupa, he knew. They were everywhere--nomads that drifted through the depths, traveling in schools up and down-swim across the world ocean.
No place, and every place.
As such, they were often eaten by whatever predators happened by--they were easy to catch and, if the Durgun's reaction to them were any indication, tasty.
But they aren't wasted, the Kraken thought. Whatever the larger predator wouldn't eat or leaves behind, something else eats what's left.
The clawed extensions of his Mantle fanned out, as far as they could in the tight quarters of the cove. The sensory organs' eye-like receptors scanned the room, responding to the spike in the Kraken's adrenaline.
He looked over the walls of the cove. There were holes, all the way up the walls of the chamber. Some were natural, worn away by time and tide, but there were others, too, that looked freshly carved in the coral.
And on all of them, something else.
The Kraken let the arm fall to the sand.
Not waste, then, he thought.
Bait, for a trap.
The walls vibrated, gently at first, then shaking so much that the Kraken wondered if the chamber wouldn't break apart. Bits of coral broke loose from the walls and began to shower down on him as the creatures hiding within poured out in force.
They were squad, small things, greyish-green, except for the brilliant red that went down their center from their mouths. Their bulging eyes seemed to glow in the spare light of the chamber, bloodshot and wide-eyed with frenzy.
Their gaping mouths, white teeth with several fleshy folds below, shouted something in unison as they tore through the walls, a swarm that seemed to blot out everything in a cloud of hungry rage:
The creatures fell on the Kraken, who tried to shield himself from them, as they rained down on him like boulders, their sharp teeth biting deep into the skin of the mantle. More and more poured down on him, working in unison like a battering ram, forcing him backwards through the wall of the chamber.
The Kraken flung his wings outward as he skidded to a halt in the sands, throwing a few of them off him while still more held tight with their claws, their teeth, or both. He tried to fire his spikes, to push them off, but they were dug in too deep, and their weight forced him flat on his back.
Desperate, the Kraken tried to summon the Charybdis force and alter the currents as he'd done before and blast them away en masse, but the Mantle seemed unresponsive to his commands.
Worse still, it wasn't identifying them. The Kraken, whether by encountering them personally or through the Mantle's innate knowledge had a working knowledge of what he assumed was the entirety of the world-ocean, but neither he nor the Mantle seemed to know what they were, or what they were saying.
Had he been able to get his bearings, he would have noticed that the creatures had shoved him into a larger chamber, where the sands were dotted with what looked like larger, dark rocks, but weren't.
At the sound, the rocks came alive--they were more creatures, and they warmed on him, forcing him down, keeping him pinned.
One of them crouched before him, giving the Kraken a good look at it, and desperately, swung of his shields into his face, sending it flying away. The triumph was short-lived, as four more of the beasts grabbed the shield and held it immobile.
Out of the corner of his eyes, the Kraken could see the fallen body of the monster set on by others of his kind, falling on and devouring their fellow with as gruesome relish as he imagined they'd feed on him.
He locked eyes with one of the creatures holding him fast, and, thinking fast, extruded the tentacles from his shields. They snaked through and around a couple of them, crushing two of them pulp and allowing him to slip through their grasp, only to fall into more, which forced him down again.
Pain surged through the Mantle and him as the beasts bit and tore through the tentacles, severing them. The pain blotted out nearly everything, except the terror. As the pain shocked him, he was back in the cave he'd been found in, beset by the Durgun, certain death was only moments away.
They monsters shoved him back down, pulling him to a spread position. He saw one of the creatures holding one of the severed tentacles in one clawed hand while the other reached into the chewed-off end.
The creatures hand began to lose shape as it touched the severed limp. It came more fluid as the beast pressed it into the severed limb. Clawed fingers became tendrils, reaching out for the tentacle, taking root, then merging with the severed tentacle, forming a mangled network of tissue at the join.
The tentacle flopped around a few times, jerking around as the creature stared at it. The stiff motions eventually smoothed out into lifelike motions, as the strange creature had taken the Kraken's severed limb for his own.
It shook with a malefic delight, raising the new limb up and turning to the others of his kind and shouting "YEHORDE!"
Which its brethren answered back with such collective volume that the Kraken, still pinned under them, felt the waters tremble.
Then one of them grabbed at one of his shields, trying to yank it free, while another extended tendril-like fingers into the skin of his Mantle, trying to absorb it, as the other had done.
At that moment, as the creature tried to merge with him, a puzzling thing happened. The Kraken felt the mantle spark though with information, as if the beast's act of hijacking the Mantle had opened a channel between them on some genetic level.
A word flickered in his mind: Bajak-Laut. More detailed knowledge flooded into him--behavior, biology, and language. At once, he knew what they were, and the import of the word they chanted, louder and louder, as he struggled against them:
"FOR THE HORDE!"