Taking a deep breath, more out of habit than of necessity. I’m still unfamiliar with the feeling of the lack of air in my lungs. I have to place a hand on my chest to ensure my heart is still beating. It’s like suffocation with air, and the strangest sensation.
Letting out a breath, I look into the darkness of the cave. My toes dig into the sand as I watch the pulsating infection leech away in front of me, eating the life around it. When one of its tentacles reaches for my foot, it hisses before retreating. I smile to myself, doing a little triumphant dance. I look further into the cave, my expression becoming serious.
This must have been growing for thousands of years, tens of thousands. And I was unaware.
Another failure. Yet another thing to add to a never-ending list.
My hand tightens again on the Trident, and I step forward into the cave. The only thing illuminating my path is the glowing green light that pulsates every so often through the darkness. I would summon light, but I don’t want to alert whatever monster lurks in this cave.
Who am I kidding? It can probably smell me. I shudder at the thought before continuing forward.
Each step into the cave is accompanied by a labored breath from my collapsed lungs, providing none of the soothing filling and emptying of my chest. You don’t realize how comforting the motion of breathing is until it’s gone. The mantra begins in my head, a talisman to cling to the deeper I travel into this cave.
The only thing I can control is myself.
The only thing I can control is myself.
“The only thing I can control is myself,” I whisper out loud.
The sound reverberates around me, my own voice mocking me as I step again. The vibrations of the tectonic plates beneath my feet shudder up my legs, closer to them than I have ever been. My tie to the earth is even more dangerous now.
If I lose control here, this close to the earth’s core, the results will be catastrophic. It could end the world.
“The only thing I can control is myself,” I whisper once more. My words continue, bouncing around me and pinging off the cave walls. The words come quicker, rolling over each other. Sound travels faster and more efficiently through water, and here in the depths, an echo can last a lifetime.
“Only yourself, Ruler of the Deep?” A voice comes from the dark, like oil across my mind, and it makes me shudder.
“Who are you?” I demand, holding my Trident at the ready, preparing for attack.
The continued echo of my mantra and second question negates the threat in my tone. It takes me a moment to realize there is no echo from the being who inhabits this cave. My grip on the Trident tightens until my knuckles turn white.
“You’ve been gone for so long, Savior of Sailors.” I don’t respond, focusing on the dimming echoes and waiting to hear the being’s voice bounce back.
“Who are you?” I ask, more sounds to add to the cacophony. My own voice bangs against my mind, battering at my mental defense. The echo doesn’t fade either. It only becomes more chaotic.
“So long. Your absence gave me time to grow,” it whispers, the green veins in the black ink pulsating quicker. The voice sounds from another place in the cave. Behind me? I turn on my heel and thrust my Trident forward. Nothing there.
Am I dreaming?
Out of habit, my eyes drop to my toes, counting them. When I first left, it became impossible to tell reality from dream. I took up counting my toes for extra digits.
Ten. Not a dream.
“Grow?” I whisper, my eyes searching for the source of the voice.
“The tentacles of my very essence, reach millions of miles through the Trench and beyond, sucking the life from any who touch them.”
“You lure them,” I say, keeping my voice low to prevent the echoing. My eyes search the cave for the voice, but still come up empty. The virus is still pulsating quickly, providing low light for me to see. But there’s nothing to see but the cave, and the infection eating its way through the walls.
“I lure them? You are the one who brought me here. You’re the one who gave me this new life,” it whispers, tickling my ears with its voice.
My mouth opens in shock. “What?”
My words bounce back at me, hitting me brutally and vibrating my skull. A sharp pain shoots through my head. I close my eyes at the sensation, which turns out to be a mistake, and one that cost me dearly. The black tendrils slide across the floor of the cave, wrapping around my ankles and yanking me forward. I hit my head on the ground, and my entire body tingles from the pain. Sitting up, I see the ink slowly wrapping around my legs, gliding over the armor unimpeded. I tear at it, dropping my Trident to the floor of the cave on instinct, using both hands to yank at the infection.
My efforts only seem to make it spread quicker. I feel the pressure around my legs as the infection squeezes. As I grab at the inky blackness, it sticks to my hands, starting at the palms, and crawling its way over my skin. It isn’t like the Trident. It is leeching power from me, my bond to the sea and its inhabitants becoming muted the more of my body it consumes.
I push myself up, using my entire body to lunge for it. I try to get a handle on it, but it’s just out of my reach. My hands are now covered in black goop, making me slip. I groan, pushing myself up one more time and crawling toward the Trident. I have to try. I strain with my not inconsiderable might, my fingers brush the shaft, but I can’t get a grip on it.
So many times, I cursed the object, hating that I was bonded to it, the anchor around my ankle.
But when I need it, it is out of reach.
A black figure slowly approaches, emerging from the dark cave. It is the vaguest outline of a person composed of black inky ribbons. The overlapping ribbons drifted apart, revealing nothing but seawater between them. The veins are different from the infection. Dark purple instead of green outlines the body, giving it form.
Who are you? I want to ask, but I can’t. The inky sludge has made its way to my chest now, trying to crush me. The armor feels like it is cracking. The infection is much stronger than I thought. I continue to push and fight as it climbs up my shoulders to my neck, my breathing becoming harsh as it squeezes. I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out, and the infection takes the opportunity to slip down my throat. I feel a sharp pain in my stomach as it begins to eat me from the inside.
So many regrets, so many things I wish I did differently.
My entire body goes numb from shock, and my vision becomes spotty as the black figure looms over me. I try to reach my hand up towards him, but I can’t control my limbs. The figure lowers its hand towards my face, and everything goes dark.