The sailor slammed the hatch shut, stealing the last rays of natural sunlight away from the men below.
Grayden had been told multiple times that witnessing the closing of the hatch before going underway was a kind of privilege, and that he should be thankful for the opportunity. Some of the more superstitious of the sailors aboard the Chastity had even claimed it to be a token of good luck- that the men who were the last to see daylight were the most likely to survive in the event that the submarine went down for good.
It seemed more like the sealing of an iron casket to him. Watching the chamber change from being lit by sunlight to being plunged into near-darkness, illuminated only by the dim electrical lamps on the wall, inspired in him a feeling more akin to dread than any kind of good omen.
Maybe all submariners felt this way the first time they went under. Maybe Grayden's stomach tying itself into knots was just something that had come and gone for everyone else on board.
The junior lieutenant nodded solemnly as the hatch valve was spun, over and over and over again, sealing them in. Once it was clear they weren't about to start taking on water, the officer turned to Grayden.
"Sailor. Tell the conn we're buttoned up and ready to dive."
He spared no time in keying the intercom, not desiring to raise the ire of his superior. He was one of the five or so newbies on the boat. Best to make a good first impression with the boss.
"Conn, we are sealed tight and prepared to d-dive."
Apparently he wasn't as adept at hiding his nervousness as he had hoped to be. Neither the officer nor the sailor on the intercom seemed to care about his stutter, at least.
At first, that was all the response he got. In a few short moments, however, the intercom crackled to life again- not just to him, but to the submarine at large.
"Crew, all hatches are shut. We will begin to dive in five minutes. Assume your stations with all due haste."
That meant him. The officer gave him a nod- his assent for Grayden to leave and make his way to where he was really meant to be.
The passageways were cramped enough when he was the only one using them. Now, with seemingly everyone on the boat trying to get somewhere or other, the press of moving bodies was in some places nearly impossible to pass through. The submariners all had a certain brusqueness about them, and the way they got around the vessel was no exception to that; they pushed and shoved against each other in the tight corridors between the bulkheads, intent on getting where they had to go and caring little about what it took to get there. Grayden had yet to learn the tricks to navigating the Chastity 's passages. He was more at the mercy of the flow of bodies than making his way through them.
He was sweating and bruised by the time he reached the conn- a musclebound, hurried petty officer had shoved him aside and into a water pipe on the way to his destination. He was here, though, regardless of how battered and out of breath he might be. That was what mattered.
No one in the conn gave him a second glance, busy as they were preparing for their imminent dive under the waves. As Grayden headed towards his station he could make out much of the sub's higher-ranking officers clustered together in the center of the room, conversing quietly as their juniors and subordinates gave them a sufficient berth.
He knew many only by their rank and role. The communications officer, a surprisingly pot bellied man dressed in an immaculate and medal-decorated blue uniform, was conversing with another ghoulish looking officer Grayden recognized as the chief of their arcane reactor corps. His own CO was there as well, the silver spyglass insignia on his chest designating him as the submarine's chief underwater surveillance officer. He was the sonar boss, essentially, though Grayden would never dare refer to the man with so little decorum. Not with him being as green as he was.
More intimidating than all the rest, though, was the silent man among the lesser officers. He cut an imposing figure; wearing his gold-trimmed epaulettes on the shoulders of a dark greatcoat, the man's peaked naval cap left little mystery as to what rank he held. Grayden hadn't spoken with the Captain yet, and truth be told, he didn't want to. Just being in the same room as so much brass made him sweat.
Eager to prevent any undue attention from the officers, he hurried over to his own console and took a seat. A stunningly complex array of displays, controls, and readouts sat before him, with too many blinking lights and status messages to count. Over a year of training had ostensibly prepared him for this- one of the most integral parts of the Chastity 's operation and mission. The knowledge of how to operate every part of the sonar system had been hammered into him in that time. Now that he was actually sitting in front of the real thing, though, he couldn't help but gulp.
This was it. No more training evaluations. No more searching for mock sonar returns with an instructor standing over his shoulder. People were depending on him- all 93 men and women that constituted the Chastity 's crew complement.
The gravity of it made his head spin. Suddenly the sonar terminal's main display was all too bright and too complicated. Why did he get himself into this? This was a horrible mistake. This was-
A weight came to rest on his shoulder- a hand, he realized. Grayden turned to spy who had touched him, but when he saw, he could only blink in alarm.
The Captain was intimidating enough to look at from behind. With the officer staring straight down at him, Grayden felt ready to faint. Why was… had he done something wrong? In his rush to snap a salute to his superior, he hit his hand against the underside of the sonar console.
"Woah, woah. Don't go breaking your bones for the sake of decorum now, son," the captain spoke. His voice, for all its grizzled gruffness, belied a surprising note of sympathy. Grayden found himself caught off guard.
"S…sorry, s-sir. Err, I m-mean, yes sir, Captain, sir. Sir."
The Captain chuckled a little, clapping his hand on his subordinate's shoulder again.
"You can relax, seaman. Take a breath. You've done nothing wrong."
He did as ordered, quieting himself and trying to wipe away the sweat beading his forehead. By the Chief God, it was too damn hot in here. How the Captain could stand wearing that greatcoat was a mystery.
"I understand you're one of our new crewmembers. What's your name?"
"Not your family name, son. I can read much," he said, pointing at the surname patch sewn onto the breast of Grayden's uniform. "I mean your name."
He found himself unsure of what to make of his captain's request, but for whatever reason his collar felt a little less choking. At least he wasn't being reamed out.
"I see. Well, Grayden, it's good to have a fresh face in the conn. The last lad to sit in that chair knew his stuff inside and out, and I expect nothing less from you, now."
"Right, sir. Of c-course, sir."
"Good. Just remember your training, focus on your job, and listen to your officers. Do that, and this boat will come back up topside in as many pieces as it went under in. That's about all we can ask for at the end of the day, eh?"
The Captain chuckled again. Grayden was unsure whether to laugh along with him or not; he compromised by giving a short, awkward 'haha' that only made him look more like a fool.
The Captain strode back to the gaggle of his officers to finish preparing for the dive. As much as he felt like he had made an ass of himself in his first interaction with the captain, Grayden found himself breathing a little easier. The sonar console didn't look quite so intimidating now. It was just like the ones he'd used in training. He could do this.
The vessel-wide intercom crackled to life again. This time it wasn't a tired and overworked radio operator speaking, but the same man who Grayden had just spoken to. The Captain's voice made everyone stand a little straighter, sit a little more upright.
"Men and women, this is the Captain."
The chatter and activity on the deck of the conn quickly died down as almost all the eyes in the room settled on their leader. Grayden was no exception, staring at the captain as he spoke into a handset.
"As many of you know, we are about to undertake the same mission we've completed countless times before. Our aim is one of surveillance and patrol; I expect no violence to befall us on our course. Make no mistake, however…"
His voice grew quieter. Lower. Grayden couldn't help but lean in a little.
"...we must remain vigilant. There are things out there, down in the depths that the light does not reach. Things that would see us rent and broken if given the slightest opportunity."
He knew what the captain was talking about, of course. The whole crew did. There wasn't a soul aboard that didn't know about mamono- the horrible, unholy abominations that preyed on men.
Grayden had heard all the stories. Just last year, the merchant marine vessel Ezkan Fitsarald had gone down in the north sea with all hands. The prevailing theory was that the monsters had taken them- dragged the vessel down to the seafloor and swallowed up every last member of the crew. Not one survivor, or even a corpse, had been found. Only bits and pieces of twisted metal from the ship's hull.
That was a commercial vessel, though. At least the Chastity could put up a fight if the situation called for it.
"I have no intention of seeing that come to pass, and I'm sure you all share my convictions. To that end, what I ask of you is this: do your duty. Do your duty and do it well, and we'll make it back to port in time for the holiday. How does that sound?"
A cheer went up around the room, but even Grayden could tell it wasn't as spirited as it could have been. Perhaps the Captain's mention of what might lie in store for them had disturbed more than just the greenhorns.
"That's what I like to hear. Now, prepare to dive."
The intercom was taken over by the officer overseeing the vessel's ballast and propulsion. Grayden waited with bated breath as he began to count down to the moment they would begin their descent.
"Commencing dive in ten. Nine. Eight. Seven…"
Already, he could feel the propeller at the stern of the submarine kick in life. The substantial movement impulse it provided contrasted with its lack of sound. Virtually every part of the vessel was built to be silent, after all- dampening systems of both technological and magical make were stuffed into the boat to make it as quiet as feasibly possible.
Before long, though, they weren't just moving forward. The sudden feeling of downward motion unnerved Grayden. As much as he had expected it, the knowledge that he was now heading deeper into the sea instead of staying on its surface was unnerving.
It wasn't like he could do anything to stop it, though. He instead decided to focus on what he could do- namely his job. Grayden turned his eyes to the main sonar screen. They didn't have anything to worry about this close to Order shores, but the rhythmic pulsing of the sonar on the screen was soothing.
He settled into the uncomfortable, barely-padded metal chair bolted to the deck, trying to keep his mind off the ever-increasing distance between himself and the surface.
They had reached their normal operating depth quickly enough. Only after half an hour did the captain order them to cease their dive, levelling out the diving planes and pumping air into the ballast tanks to achieve the desired buoyancy. For the past few hours, the Chastity had been prowling the seas at a depth of about 400 meters beneath the calm seas above.
On the face of it, little about Grayden's situation had changed. He breathed the same recycled air, and sat in the same just-a-little-too-hot conn as the rest of the bridge crew milled about behind him. Even when just moving in a straight line at a consistent depth, there were constant updates and checks to be performed.
He couldn't deny that the atmosphere had changed since the dive, though. Everything was quieter. More tense. The feeling wasn't quite what he would call oppressive, but everyone seemed to understand the same thing- that they had left the safety of operating on the surface, and that what they were doing now was something altogether more dangerous.
A maintenance crewman had flagged down the boat's officer. Having been staring at the dull blue sonar screen for hours now, Grayden couldn't help but listen in on whatever bit of conversation reached his ears. Most of it neither concerned nor interested him, but it was something besides watching the sonar screen pulse over and over.
"Go ahead, seaman."
"The engine room reports slightly decreased performance from the turbines than what was expected. It's believed there may be some excess grease in the system that port maintenance didn't catch and clean out."
"Hmph. Go figure. Is it going to be an issue?"
"They don't believe so, sir. They just wanted to bring it to your attention."
The Captain didn't spare much time to consider this development, which reassured Grayden a bit.
"Tell them to keep an eye on it, and make sure the next maintenance shift is aware of the issue when they take over. Dismissed."
The crewman snapped a salute and a quick 'sir' before hurrying back out of the conn. Grayden was once again left with nothing but the sonar screen to…
…wait. Had he just seen a blip?
He blinked, and it was gone. After another pulse went out, though, he spotted it for sure- a small, grainy dot on the display that signalled there was a sonar return at about 1 o'clock from their current bearing.
His heart skipped a beat. It was small, but there wasn't supposed to be anything there. He would've been informed if they would make contact with another vessel along the route.
As Grayden watched another pulse go out, though, fear only struck him more acutely. More sonar returns popped up with every update of the display. Two, then five, then a veritable swarm of small somethings appeared on his screen- a swarm that they were heading right into. He had to say something, he knew, but his mouth refused to work as he watched the signals multiply.
"They're just sonar ghosts."
The close proximity of the voice drew Grayden's attention. He spun around to find his CO, the underwater surveillance officer, standing at his back with his eyes on the increasingly crowded display.
"Something about the depth and temperature of this sector of the sea screws with the acoustics. Feeds the system false returns. Those."
The officer's finger pointed at the pulsing circular display, to the myriad of signals they were now moving through.
"It's happened every time we've taken this course, for as long as I've taken it. There's nothing actually there. They'll disappear a kilometer or so out."
Grayden watched the sonar blips dance and flicker with every passing second. There were no collision alarms that went off when the submarine ran into one of the supposed objects. True to his superior's word, it seemed they were indeed nothing but ghosts.
"I…I see, sir."
"You know why I didn't tell you beforehand?"
The sonar chief was looking right at him, now- looking into his eyes. Grayden got the feeling he shouldn't look away, no matter how much he wanted to.
"I wanted to see how long it would take you to notice. See if you were paying attention."
So…this was an impromptu kind of test, then.
"You saw it, at least. That was good. But next time you see something on that screen, you speak up and say something. Understood?"
He swallowed, and did what he could to keep the stutter out of his voice.
His CO nodded and shuffled off to some other part of the conn, leaving him alone to stare at the sonar screen. He wasn't sure if he had 'passed' that test, but at least he didn't get chewed out.
The submarine continued sailing through the cloud of false returns, soundlessly continuing along its path into the deep.
He dreamed of strange things.
Truthfully, he wasn't even sure it was dreaming so much as that strange fugue-type state one experienced when teetering on the edge of unconsciousness. Regardless of what it precisely was, though, his brain had conjured up feverish images of the deep ocean, and of him falling down to the depths without the Chastity's steel hull to protect him.
Grayden sank deeper and deeper into the dark water, falling as though he had iron weights around his ankles until the sun's light was nothing but a memory. There, in the total blackness of the ocean, fear gripped him.
It didn't last long. The light was returning. Now, though, it came from below instead of above; he was falling towards a blurry mass of bright, warm lights lining the ocean floor. Arranged in lines, circles, and other patterns, they looked for all the world like the lights and lamps of a city viewed from above. Streets, concourses, plazas- the closer he fell towards the lights, the more that came into focus. Grayden wanted to fall deeper, to get a better look at the strange and enchanting forest of lights, but he was no longer headed downwards. His sinking had been arrested.
Something moved into view from beyond his vision. Something vast- vast almost beyond words. It was large enough to obscure the entirety of the lights below him, plunging him back into darkness. He could just barely make out swirling shapes in the darkness.
But what approached him wasn't some horrible deep-sea monster set on devouring him. She was no monster at all, in fact. She was…
Something jostled Grayden awake from his dream-stupor. His eyes shot open to the sight of another crewmember's hand on his shoulder, shaking him intensely.
"Hey. You good, man?"
His fellow sailor looked even more tired than Grayden had been. The bags under his eyes spoke of far too much time spent awake.
"You were shaking and groaning and shit. You okay?" He asked again.
"Uh, y-yeah," Grayden replied, trying to wipe his own tiredness from his eyes. "Must have been having a dream or something. Sorry if I woke you up."
"It's all good. Just try to keep it down a little if you can."
The sailor climbed back up into one of the top bunks, determined as all of them were to get as much sleep as possible. A glance at his watch told Grayden he was all fresh out of sleep, though. He was supposed to go back on watch in less than half an hour.
Damn. It felt like he'd barely even closed his eyes.
Well, it wasn't like asking his CO if he could sleep in was an option. Grayden groggily extricated himself from the warm bunk and started looking for his uniform pants.
Grayden wasn't privy to the oceanic charts pertaining to the Chastity 's planned course- that was under the purview of the navigation officers and helm- but given how long they had been heading away from the mainland without him feeling any significant changes in the boat's heading, it seemed their mission was taking them quite a ways from home. He knew submarines were perfectly capable of long expeditions, of course, but the thought of being so far from backup had him watching the sonar screen like a hawk.
Not that there was anything to see. After they had passed through those 'ghost returns' last shift, he had seen nothing of note on the display. His CO had told him that wasn't abnormal- that the last sonar operator had sometimes gone whole missions without detecting so much as a particularly large fish.
The boredom, it seemed, was getting to more than just him. He'd spotted a number of the sailors in the conn bouncing their legs on the steel decking, heads in their cupped palms as they fought to stave off the lack of sleep and stimulation. More than one round of coffee had gone around to keep them focused and alert.
Something pulsed on the sonar screen. Again, Grayden almost didn't think he saw anything- it was just at the edge of sonar range, and when another pulse went out, it was gone. When a full minute ticked by without the blip returning, he was prepared to dismiss it as a trick played by his tired eyes.
But then he saw it again. It couldn't have been anything large based on the size of the return, but the little dot still hung there on the periphery of the display long enough to alarm him.
"Lieutenant Commander," Grayden called, drawing the eyes of several other sailors with his breaking of the silence. His CO came over to his station.
"What is it?"
"Intermittent contact at, approximately…well, at maximum range. Bearing… about oh-two-seven, s-sir."
The officer leaned over his shoulder, eyes focused on the now blank sonar screen. Grayden could only pray the contact would pop up again and not make him look like an idiot for calling his CO over for no reason, but as another minute came and went, he was forced to wonder if it really had been anything at all.
Just as the officer above him opened his mouth, however, the blip returned. It had moved a few degrees in terms of its bearing to the submarine, but retained its distance at the very edge of sonar range.
The officer saw it, but remained silent. Grayden waited a while longer for him to react.
"It's probably nothing, but keep your eye on it. Mark the time and bearing if it shows up again," he said eventually, gesturing towards the little logbook on the display next to him. The surveillance officer then went over to the captain and spoke something in his ear. After a few seconds, the senior of the two gave a curt nod.
'Probably nothing' wasn't particularly reassuring. Grayden nevertheless returned his focus to the pulsing display, wondering if the contact might eventually just go away on its own.
The contact didn't go away.
Every minute or two, he'd catch a glimpse of the elusive mystery object before it disappeared back beyond sonar range. It was a bit unsettling, but Grayden managed to convince himself it wasn't anything worth losing sleep over. There was no way it could be a monster, after all- it was much too small to pose any kind of threat to the boat. Dutifully, though, he'd kept an eye on it and noted the blip's movements.
It persisted until it came time for the Chastity 's first scheduled surfacing of the mission. The submarine came up from the depths for a few hours every couple days, both to vent the engines and to communicate with naval command. Grayden had lost contact with the mystery blip as they had begun to rise back to the surface.
There wasn't much in the way of indication that they were back up here, though. It wasn't like the submarine had windows to peer out of when he got bored.
So, all he had in the way of entertainment was watching the now-empty sonar display and listening in on whatever conversations he could hear in the conn.
"Captain," a sailor operating the radio communications console called, Grayden's ears instantly perking up. "We've established communication with New Lescatie."
"Excellent. Inform them all systems are in order, and that we're making good time."
The sailor did just that, relaying in quick and abbreviated terminology their status- or rather, he was in the process of doing so when he was abruptly cut off by whoever was on the radio with him. Grayden couldn't hear the other end of the radio line, but given the sailor's perplexed and somewhat alarmed expression, he gathered something was abnormal.
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir," the sailor responded, and suddenly he was holding the radio headset and mic out to their Captain across the conn. "It's Admiral Roslaine. He… he wants to speak with you personally."
Now it was the Captain's turn to look surprised. He took the radio and headset with a projected air of calm, but Grayden could tell there was an edge of trepidation to his movements.
"Admiral, sir," he said, before listening to whatever the admiral had to say.
How he wished he could hear the other end of the conversation; as it was, all he could do was sit and pretend to be enamoured with the sonar console while he listened in.
"That is…not part of standard operating procedure, sir. Respectfully."
More silence in the conn. Everyone was as quiet as Grayden was, appearing focused on their work, but he had a sneaking suspicion most were trying to listen in like he was.
"Well, yes, we have the fuel and supplies for such a-"
The Captain had apparently been interrupted. Now, it seemed, his heavy greatcoat was getting uncomfortable; he wiped the sweat from his brow with his free hand before speaking into the mic again. His voice was quieter this time. Perhaps he had realized his crew might have been listening in, and didn't wish for them to hear any disagreement between their superiors. Grayden was close enough to still make out most of what the man said, however.
"Sir, altering our course in such a way would put my crew, and the Chastity, at undue risk. I respectfully ask that-"
Once again, his hushed whispering was cut off. When the Captain resumed speaking, his tone was one of resigned deference.
"You are, sir."
With that, the Captain removed the headset and handed the radio equipment back to the sailor sitting at the console. The look on his face was not one of contentment.
"Navigation," he spoke after a moment of composing himself, "Change of plans."
"Our… illustrious admiralty has ordered us to deviate from our set course. We are instead commanded to patrol the Nerian Trench."
"...the Trench? But the area around there is considered-"
"I am aware, lieutenant," he said, though there was little in the way of admonishment in his interruption. He sounded tired, if anything- a preposition supported by him removing his cap and wiping his eyes for a moment. "But the admiralty doesn't take 'No' for an answer."
The navigation officer's eyes went to the collection of screens in front of him, scanning the multitude of maps and trying to figure out how to best alter their planned course.
Grayden didn't know what the 'Nerian Trench' was, but the officer hadn't sounded too excited with their new destination. He wished the Captain hadn't cut the man off. Judging by the next order he gave to the communications chief, though, Grayden felt he knew what they were heading into- and he didn't like it.
"Contact the torpedo room. Tell them to load the tubes."
The conn was quieter, now. More focused. Grayden found he no longer had to struggle to stay alert; his nerves kept his eyes open and glued to the sonar display. The mysterious contact he'd seen earlier had not returned even after the Chastity slipped back under the waves, but his eyes remained watchful for that same blip hovering at the edge of acoustic range nonetheless.
"Adjust heading. Two degrees starboard."
"Two degrees starboard, aye."
He'd heard enough of the helmsman's near-constant course corrections as they had descended into the ocean trench. Now, he just tuned it out. What he was really interested in was what the Captain had to say, but precious little had left his mouth since their change in mission. The man simply handled whatever matters came up and asked the navigator to keep him updated on the trench's underwater geography. He did what he could to appear composed- as was his duty- but it was clear that his the admiral's new orders had him uneasy.
"Captain, topographic maps say we're approaching a sudden drop in the sea bed. Goes down well beyond our maximum operating depth."
'Maximum operating depth'. A prettier term than crush depth, at least. That was what was bound to happen if they went much deeper than that- the Chastity would be crushed, imploded by the titanic pressure of so much water bearing down on them. It was a fate Grayden liked not thinking about.
"Take us no lower than necessary. Just guide us through and out of this place," the Captain responded. Grayden felt much the same way- the faster they climbed back out of the trench and resumed a normal patrol route, the better.
Something flashed on his sonar display. Something bigger than the last tiny blip from hours ago. It stuck around this time, too, remaining at a respectable distance off their port side.
"Lieutenant Commander. Sonar contact."
His CO hurried over once again, eyeing the dot appearing on the display with every pulse.
"Damn. Bigger than the one from earlier," the officer said, echoing his own thoughts.
Whatever the contact was, though, it chose that moment to move away. The sonar return zipped away from them before disappearing entirely.
He didn't entirely know what to make of that, but the first explanation to come to mind was perhaps the most optimistic one.
"It…could have been a shark or something," Grayden proposed, but he could hear in his own voice his lack of conviction in that idea.
"Never known a shark to stick around that long. Captain?"
The man in question turned to face Grayden's CO, who quickly updated him on what he'd seen.
"We may have company."
"No, sir. Not yet. It might have been some kind of scout."
The Captain's lip curled. It was starting to seem like his apprehension about coming to this trench wasn't misplaced.
"Radio the engine room. Tell them to throw what they can spare behind the propellers. If anything tries to stop us, we lob a torpedo its way and make for the door."
With the ordered communications made, there was nothing to do except power through the oceanic trench as quickly as possible and pray nothing else popped up on the-
"S-sir! Fresh contacts- multiple, this time," Grayden reported just as his CO started walking away.
'Multiple' was an understatement. The little blips rose up from below the sonar plane, seeming to double in number every few seconds as they surrounded the submarine.
"Shit," the officer above him whispered. That was…not good for Grayden's morale.
The sonar returns didn't move any closer to the boat, but kept pace with it- no easy feat, given how much the power must've been going to the prop.
"Captain, sir," his CO got out, "They're everywhere- we need to leave, yesterday!"
The Captain must have picked up on how alarmed his subordinate was and realized the gravity of the situation. At once, he was giving orders, the conn whipping itself up into a frenzy of activity around him as every part of the boat was kicked into overdrive.
Grayden couldn't focus on the background noise anymore. All the talk of torpedo tubes, engine power, ballast and buoyancy- it made it to his ears, but not his brain. He was too focused on what he was seeing. Absent of windows or portholes, all he could do was guess what the sonar contacts were.
They were close. Not just on the sonar. The closest few couldn't have been more than fifty feet from him right now, with only water and the Chastity 's skin of steel and aluminum separating them. His mind swam with all the horrible possibilities- were they man-eating sharks or fish? Or maybe they were something darker altogether, with some kind of malign intelligence devoted to ending the intruders in their domain.
He was hyperventilating in his seat. Looking at the sonar screen made his head spin, but every glance at the rest of the conn made it spin faster. The number of contacts was only growing. They must have been closing in on a hundred blips of varying sizes.
Something was happening to his sonar display, though. The downward-facing part of the diagram seemed to be getting shallower. That didn't make sense, though- they were supposed to have a lot of ocean between them and the bottom of the trench. So then why did it…why…
His stomach leapt into his throat when Grayden realized what he was seeing. He felt like he was going to be sick. It only became clearer with every passing second. Clearer, and closer.
"S-sir," he squeaked out to his CO, who had been yelling at another sailor. The man whipped back around, irritated at being interrupted.
"What? What is…it…"
The officer realized it faster than Grayden had, at least. What he had originally thought to be the ocean floor was actually yet another sonar contact. This one was a little bigger, though.
It dwarfed the submarine. The Chastity was over three hundred and fifty feet from aft to stern, and whatever was coming up from below them was double that at the least. The sonar system couldn't even properly display something of that size- it glitched and fuzzed out at multiple points, giving the impression of long, distorted tendrils reaching up towards the boat.
"Oh, Chief God," his CO whispered, all his stern leadership and naval composure having fled him. Grayden didn't blame him in the least. He couldn't bear to look at the sonar display anymore.
"C-Captain, sir," the officer eventually sputtered out, "There's… there's…something's coming…"
The captain opened his mouth to demand an explanation, but the sudden groaning of the hull cut him off. Cut everyone off. It ceased all conversation in the conn as every member of the crew stopped and listened. In that moment, all of them seemed to share the same sentiment.
This was it, Grayden realized. This was the end.
Something smashed into the hull with enough force to throw him from his seat. He was sent down to the steel decking along with a decent chunk of the crew in the conn, struggling to regain his footing as more impacts rocked the boat. They weren't moving anymore, it seemed- the only motion he felt was that of whatever was hitting the sub.
The Captain was yelling orders, but the situation was hopeless. Grayden couldn't hear a word of what he was saying over the noises echoing up and down the submarine. It sounded for all the world like the Chastity was screaming- like the steel of her hull was no longer being battered, but actually peeled open.
Grayden somehow managed to slump his way back into his sonar seat. The display was broken and malfunctioning. He didn't care.
Just his luck. Broken apart and killed on his very first submarine assignment. Somehow, even with all the chaos around him and the impending doom of the Chastity, he could find a little bleak humor in that. Grayden actually chuckled a little.
There was no warning to the bulkhead giving way. One moment the room was a frenzy of activity, and the next, a titanic gash had been torn through the hull and into the wall of the conn. There was hardly time for anyone to even scream; the water came crashing in immediately, less like a liquid and more like a wall.
The force of it must have made him hit his head on something. For a moment, Grayden's world was too blurry and distorted for him to understand what was happening. He could only feel the icy water on his skin as it rushed past him.
As his head cleared a little, though, he realized he had been the one moving. Somehow he had been thrown out of the conn, out of the entire sub, and was now floating in the open ocean. Drowning though he was, Grayden still had the presence of mind to try to get his bearings in the dark water. After a few frantic seconds searching for his stricken submarine, he found it.
The Chastity was in two pieces. It had broken apart just aft of amidships, the metal plates of the hull torn and twisted until they resembled the petals of a flower. Figures were visible there- from the grey uniforms he could tell they were his fellow crew members thrashing and struggling in the water. There were other things there as well. Things that were grabbing and carrying off the crew. Things with the tails of fish, but humanoid upper bodies.
That wasn't what drew the bulk of his attention. No, that honor was reserved for the creature that had been responsible for the submarine's destruction; even now, more of its colossal tentacles wrapped tighter around the submarine.
It was a kraken. He had never seen such a thing outside of ancient mariners' naval maps, but the name was struck into his mind all the same. The thing was nightmarish in its size- its pale and blue tentacles easily coiled around the Chastity, while the main, alabaster-white part of its cephalopod body hung below the submarine like some kind of oversized growth. There, along the bulbous side of its 'head', a blank and unfocused eye sat. That eye alone must have been as big as he was.
The abomination didn't miss the fact that it was being stared at. Grayden watched as its eye rolled over- from empty white sclera to a cold, cold blue iris.
He knew he should be afraid, but the freezing cold of the water had bled much of the emotion from him. Even as one of the white tentacles uncurled from the submarine and parted the water to stretch itself towards him, Grayden felt only the faintest echo of fear.
It didn't matter anyway. Whether it was the lack of oxygen, the pressure of the water around him, or just his overworked heart giving out, his consciousness was fading. Everything was growing dark. Better to drift away before these things started gnawing on him.
That was just what he did. By the time the enormous, sucker-covered tentacle tenderly wrapped itself Grayden, he was no longer there to realize it.
Consciousness was slow in returning.
His eyes cracked open. The room wasn't lit particularly brightly, but he must've spent too long with his eyes closed; he had to squint until his surroundings came into focus.
The room was small, but clean. A lack of much in the way of furnishings prevented him from accurately surmising where he was. There was a little nightstand next to the bed he was laid on, with a glass of water on top of it. A closed door was on the opposite end of the room as well. That was about it.
The bed was certainly soft enough, though. After so long sleeping on the stiff, torn-up cots the Order provided its sailors, this was a veritable delight.
Wait. Sailors- he was a sailor. Yeah, and he'd been assigned to a submarine. The Chastity had left port, and then…
Oh, Chief God, it was all flooding back now. He could still hear that horrible, shrill sound- the hull peeling back as the boat was torn apart. The image of the poor, disemboweled submarine's two halves sinking silently into the depths was seared into his mind's eye. Grayden didn't even want to think about the creature he'd seen floating in the water beneath the boat, and yet he could just barely remember the thing's tentacle stretching out to grab him.
And yet, he was very clearly alive. That was at odds with how he remembered the situation ending. Had…had he been rescued? Was this some kind of naval hospital? There was no conceivable way, in his mind, that any of the crew could have made it out of that alive. The submarine had been too deep, the water too cold. That wasn't even touching on the things that had surrounded and sunk the Chastity.
He wasn't getting any answers by lying here, though. Grayden rose to a sitting position on the bed, his muscles aching in protest. His head was foggy, too, though that might've just been from waking up. A wave of dizziness and even a hint of nausea washed over him as he rose to his bare feet. He wasn't wearing his uniform- his body was clothed in an off-white shirt and pants that made him wonder if he really was in a hospital.
He reached the door after a short, stumbling walk across the room. Grayden briefly wondered if getting up and walking around was the best course of action for a hospital patient, but his curiosity won out over his caution. With an unsteady hand, he slowly opened the door.
His brain did not understand what it saw. Even after he blinked and rubbed his eyes, Grayden's mouth hung open.
It was…water. A vertical wall of water, suspended in place (presumably through magic) just on the other side of the door. Even as he reached out and dragged his hand through it, the liquid stayed on its side of the threshold. Beyond it, he could make out a walkway exposed to the open ocean. As he watched, a shoal of bright-colored fish meandered into and out of his field of view.
This had to be some nonsensical kind of dream. A hallucination. Perhaps it was the last feverish dream of a dying, oxygen-starved mind as he drowned out there where the submarine had met its own end. He didn't know what it was, but Grayden knew it wasn't real.
"Oh! You're up!"
A surprised feminine voice drew him from his thinking. Floating in the water on the other side of the threshold was a woman- a beautiful, happy-looking lady in an overly sexualized version of a nurse's outfit.
As his eyes drifted lower, though, Grayden stopped leering.
"You really shouldn't be out of bed, though. Your head will heal faster if you stay still and get some sle-"
He slammed the door closed on the wall of water and the thing floating a few feet away from it. She…her lower body was…
The hyperventilating returned with a vengeance. As much as he had to think this was a dream, what he was feeling was all too real- the cold stone floor on his feet, the sounding of softly sloshing water on the other side of the door, and his heart hammering like a machine gun in his chest felt nothing like a dream.
She was the same kind of monster he'd seen snatching his fellow sailors away from the wreck of the Chastity immediately after it had broken open. Doubtless she'd do to him the same thing her kind did to them.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I know you're scared, but I just want to make su-"
"S-stay back! Get away from me!"
He put his weight against the door, holding it closed even as the handle turned. Before he knew what was happening, though, the door was opening away from him. Grayden couldn't react fast enough to avoid falling through the door and into the water.
"The doors here open both ways, silly," the voice came, punctuated by a giggle he was too distracted to really hear. Grayden struggled and thrashed in the water as he fought to get out of the water and back into the dry confines of the room. He eventually did so, falling forward painfully onto his elbows.
"Oh, no- you're just hurting yourself even more! Just relax, please," the fish-woman pleaded from the door. Her voice seemed to carry itself as effortlessly through water as it did air.
He whipped around to watch her, and spotted something that only made him feel more lightheaded. As she swam through the threshold and into the air of the room, her fish-tail lower body seemed to change before Grayden's very eyes into a pair of long, slender legs. One moment she was half-fish, and the next she was passably human. Or would've been if it wasn't for the little fins next to her ears, at least.
"Y-you…you're…" He stuttered, still lying on his back.
"I know you're probably as scared as you are confused," the woman said. She kept her voice low and soft in what he recognized as a tone meant to soothe. "But I'm not going to hurt you. Nobody here is going to hurt you."
"Bull! You…you sank the sub! Tore her open and killed the rest of the crew, along with that octopus abomination!"
At the accusation of her killing the crew, the nurse was obviously taken aback.
"We didn't kill anyone. None of the crew are dead. Your friends are all in good health and very, very happy, I assure you."
He heard the words, but their meaning was slower to come to him. At the speed his mind was racing, that wasn't much of a surprise.
"And," the mermaid-woman said, now looking a little offended, "Lady Selispine is anything but an abomination. She's also closer related to a squid than an octopus."
"'Lady'? That thing ripped open our ship and tried to kill me!"
"She was the one who saved you. You just saw the Lady in her, ahem… her other form."
Every turn the conversation took seemed to lead him to more mysteries. Grayden was only getting more confused, and the fact this woman claimed she didn't mean him any harm wasn't much consolation. She was a monster- lying surely came easy to her.
"The hell do you mean, 'other form'? Are you telling me that thing has a body that isn't as big as a missile cruiser?"
"Of course she does! Oh, Lady Selispine is the most beautiful woman you'll ever lay eyes on- the most beautiful in the whole city! You'll see once you meet her," she insisted.
His eyes bugged out despite his attempts at remaining calm.
"Meet her?! What? Why would I ever want to do that?"
The mermaid cut herself off, tired of Grayden's unceasing interrogations.
"I'm sorry. I know you're still very confused, but you really should get some rest. We'll explain everything once your head is fully healed."
"My head feels fine," he said. That wasn't true- he still felt a little groggy- but he needed answers more than rest right now. "You said the rest of the crew is alive? Where are they?"
"They're…all over, really. Living throughout the city with their wives. But I really do think you should-"
"Ah…Grayden, right? That's what they said your name was. Grayden, I have to insist that you get some sleep. I promise I'll answer-"
He was having none of it. Regardless of whether she tried to deceive him with her good looks and kind facade, Grayden remembered who he was speaking to. This thing, or at least its friends, had attacked him.
"Take me to them," he demanded, eager to see if her claims were true. "Take me to the crew. I want to see if they really are okay."
That she was growing uncomfortable was clear. It seemed she had expected to simply check up on him and leave, not be accosted.
"I- that's not really a realistic option right now! There will be plenty of time to go talk to them later, after we know you're okay," she said.
Grayden finally hauled himself back up to his feet. The monster-woman backed up instinctively, taking a step back on her transformed legs. No- her fake legs, he mentally corrected himself. She wasn't human. She was a half-fish thing that would probably try to kill him the moment she sensed an opportunity to do so.
"I said, take me to them," he repeated, putting a little more force behind his words. He wasn't sure if it was wise to try and intimidate this thing, but like hell was he going to just climb back into bed and go to sleep when ordered.
It seemed to work. The mermaid visibly shrank back further, edging closer to the door.
"P-please, calm down! I'm just a servant! I didn't sink your ship- I just want to help you…"
Grayden opened his mouth to harangue her some more, but the sound of parting water reached his ears. From behind the doorway the fish-woman stood in front of, he spotted something flit through the water. The mermaid seemed to notice it as well. Her head looked back through the door, and after a second, a relieved expression crossed her face.
"Pressy? Is everything alright?"
The voice that came from the water beyond the door was considerably deeper than the mermaid's. Whoever had spoken sounded a bit less alarmed than her as well. When more words came, they sounded a little closer to the door. They seemed to travel through the water even easier than the mermaid's.
"I noticed the little fish over here seemed upset at something, and you're late for our noontime tea…"
The mermaid- who her surmised was the 'Pressy' that the voice had mentioned- had calmed down noticeably. In contrast, Grayden's heartbeat kicked into overdrive.
"Everything's fine, my Lady. Our patient is just a little out of sorts," she said.
Oh, Chief God- that thing was here? It was back?!
A rapid, all-encompassing kind of panic overtook him. The thought of having to even just lay eyes on that thing, let alone be in the same room as it, was utterly terrifying. He couldn't handle it. He simply could not.
Reality, however, didn't seem to care what he could or could not bear. Something curled around the edge of the doorway and against the wall. Something pale white, with little hints of blue. It was followed by another entering the other side of the doorway.
"Oh, he's awake?"
It brought itself into full view, hanging in the doorframe just before where the water transitioned to air. Grayden's mind was unable to count all the tentacles- in truth there weren't that many, but he was so panicked it appeared to him as though they were as large and terrifying as the ones that had broken apart the Chastity .
His tunnel-visioned mind and eyes stole any logic or reasoning from him. He didn't notice that the kraken's head was no longer that of a squid, but of a woman. He didn't notice the dark and lustrous blue hair floating motionless in the still water, or the soft, inviting lips speaking words that he couldn't hear over the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. He didn't even notice her expression change from surprised to concerned as she observed the state of distress Grayden was in.
All he saw was the eyes- the same deep blue irises that he'd stared into when he was drowning in the open ocean.
At least then, he had the excuse of oxygen deprivation to blame for his passing out. This time it was fainting, plain and simple. The last thing he saw was the floor rushing towards him instead of those eyes and tentacles. He could count that as a mercy, he supposed.
"Oh dear. Oh, you poor, poor little thing…"
Lady Selispine had reacted faster than Presilla had ever seen; the nurse's ornery charge had been falling towards the floor when a trio of long tentacles shot out from the door to arrest his fall, saving him from another possible head injury. The Lady now held him in the water just beyond the door. The spells they'd casted on him earlier ensured that he would have no trouble breathing in the ocean, though doubtless he was in for a shock when he woke up in the water and found himself not drowning.
"Oh, I feel so horrible, Pressy! I never wanted to traumatize the boy so," the kraken exclaimed, holding the former sailor close to her chest like a plush toy.
"He was probably just confused and hurting, my Lady. I don't think you did anything of the sort. If we give him some space to decompress once he wakes, he should be fine."
Selispine hardly seemed to hear her. She had wrapped Grayden up in nearly all of her tentacles, and was slowly running the fingers of one of her human hands through his hair.
She always worried so much- about everything and everyone, really, but she fretted the most whenever she brought down one of the surface dwellers' ships. That worry only intensified when she cracked open those silly, phallus-shaped ships that swam beneath the waves. Selispine made it a point to minimize the sailors' discomfort as much as possible; their safety was always of the utmost importance.
What happened to Grayden was a mistake in that arena. The swarms of mersharks, mermaids, and other mamono around the sunken ship were meant to hurry to the sailors and cast the necessary enchantments to prevent them from drowning. Poor Grayden had slipped through their fingers; by the time the kraken had bestowed upon him the gift of water breathing, he had already passed out from a lack of oxygen. They were able to save him, but he had been the closest call they'd ever had. Selispine had taken that pretty hard. And personally, it seemed.
"He looks peaceful right now, at the least," she said as her tentacles wrapped a little tighter. "But I wish to make sure he remains that way. I was the one to do this to him; it is only right I make it up to him."
Presilla raised an eyebrow. She had thought her Lady's unwarranted sense of guilt might lead to something like this.
"What do you mean, my Lady?"
"I…I believe it only fitting to take him to my own chambers. Perhaps some fine food and gentle words will have this little one feeling better," she cooed, running a finger along his cheek. Presilla knew her Lady couldn't help but be motherly to those in her care, but this was more intimate than she had ever seen the kraken act with one of those they brought under the waves.
"My lady, if it's guilt that's leading you to this decision, I really don't believe-"
"Oh, allow me a guest for just a while, Pressy. I only want to keep him long enough to ensure he's alright. I owe him that much."
Presilla sighed into her palm. There would be no convincing her. The mermaid could see that quite clearly.
"...very well, Lady Selispine. Should I have the cooks make something for him to eat?"
"Please," the kraken replied, still not looking at Presilla as she held Grayden close to her chest.
It seemed to Presilla that her Lady was growing attached. She had broken open hundreds of ships and delivered thousands of men to the oceanic mamono in their little city and always doted on those who were injured in the process, but this was something different. She certainly had never wrapped anyone up in her tentacles like she was doing to Grayden now.
"There, there," she whispered in his ear, "I'll take perfect care of you, little dear…"
Losing consciousness was becoming something of a theme for him, it seemed. At least the dull ache in his head was mostly absent this time.
As he slowly returned to the waking world once again, two things struck him. The first was a gentle pressure around his stomach, wrapping around him in a comfortable embrace. The second was becoming increasingly clear as his senses returned; he could hear a sporadic, quiet humming not far from his ear.
It was actual humming, he soon realized. A woman's humming. Grayden didn't know if it was an attempt to recreate a song or just tuneless noise, but even without words, the sound was calming.
He couldn't stay half-asleep like this forever, though. Something was wrong when he was last awake. He remembered that, though the specifics escaped him. Grayden reluctantly raised his eyes and cracked his eyes open.
The voice was tender, spoken almost directly into his ear. He was sitting on something soft. Surrounded by softness, really. Before he could further process the voice, he looked down.
He was seated on a woman's lap, with her arms wrapped around his chest and pressing him into her bosom. That was its own can of worms, but presently what concerned Grayden was that he recognized the pale white and purple of her skin. Where had he seen that before?
For the second time that day, the memories started falling back into place- first what had transpired in that strange medical room, and then the events that had put him there to begin with. There was that strange fish woman, and then another voice, and then…
He recognized that skin, alright. Grayden's mind once again replayed the image of the Chastity breaking apart, along with the thing that had been responsible for it. The thing whose lap he was currently sitting on.
"Nonono! Don't panic," the kraken-woman urged, squeezing him a little tighter to her chest. It hardly helped; Grayden's breathing was once again rapid and anxious, his heart probably beating hard enough for the woman to feel. He frantically tried to extricate himself from her embrace, but the arms wrapped around him were apparently stronger than they looked.
"Please, little dear, just calm down. I won't hurt you!"
Again, Grayden could do no such thing. It was going to kill him- do to him the same thing it did to the submarine. Break him open. Rupture him. Devour him. He did what he could to squirm his way out and away from her, but the woman's grip rendered that impossible. It certainly didn't stop him from trying.
Just as the adrenaline was really starting to take hold, though, something cut through the hazy panic and terror. The voice that spoke to him was no longer gentle and soothing. It had taken on a tone much more stern.
"Stop it. Relax."
In a way her words reminded him of a mother scolding an overly excited child. They had the same effect on him as they would on a child, at least- Grayden's straining muscles and flailing limbs quickly stilled. Something in her voice robbed him of the will to keep struggling.
His mind was similarly relaxed. Only now that he wasn't so terrified did he realize he was no longer in the same room as before. It appeared to be some kind of extravagant dining hall; a pair of candle-adorned chandeliers hung high from the vaulted ceiling, while even more light was let in from the large stained glass windows on each side of the room. Past them, Grayden could make out the swaying water of the ocean and the aquatic life in it. The woman- and by extension, him- was seated at the head of a long dining table.
It was certainly more upscale than the medical room he'd been in earlier. Confusion was steadily replacing his worry. As the kraken lady spoke again, he found he wasn't quite so afraid any more.
"There we are. Just breathe, dear. In and out."
It wasn't like he could do much else on account of him being restrained in her lap. Grayden deliberately focused on slowing the breaths that had been making his throat raw just a moment ago.
She had legs, he now realized. He wasn't sitting on the mass of writhing tentacles that had previously made up her lower half; now a pair of long legs had taken their place, covered only partly by the scandalously short lower half of her dress.
"Like that. What a good boy you are," she spoke into his ear. Even in this bizarre and frightening situation, something about being called a 'good boy' was undeniably satisfying; he still wanted to get away from the kraken-woman holding him, but a smaller part of Grayden wanted her to praise him again. He quickly dismissed it as an errant thought brought up from his brain trying to figure out what was going on.
"P-please don't hurt me," he whispered.
"I would never do anything of the sort. I promise."
She emphasized her sincerity with a quick squeeze of her arms, before her restraint-hug eased up a bit.
"I am so, so sorry, Grayden. I know the past few days must have been very frightening to you. That was never what I wanted. I only wish for you to be happy, and feel safe."
Her words reassured him a little, but only that much. There was no telling if she was being truthful or not. She certainly sounded earnest, but trickery wasn't something he could put past an actual monster. Something in particular grabbed his attention, though.
"How…how do you know my name?"
The woman seemed quite happy at Grayden addressing her with a tone not filled with outright terror. One of her hands actually stopped hugging him, instead finding its way to his head. Soon, he felt her fingers parting his hair and massaging his scalp. It felt surprisingly pleasant- enough so for him to not consider taking the opportunity to jump out of her lap.
"Your captain told it to me, actually," she responded. Grayden's eyes widened in surprise.
"He's okay? The captain's alive?"
"He's just fine, little dear. One of the sea bishops snatched him up. It was adorable watching her try to get that great big coat off of him," she said, chuckling happily to herself. "All of the crew is fine. That bump on the head you took was the only real injury. I'm very sorry about that, honey."
The hand on his head went to lightly massage the area where he'd hit the submarine bulkhead. When she spoke again, it was quiet- almost like she was musing to herself more than talking to him.
"Though I have to say, a surprising number of them ended up turning into alps. That seems to be a strangely common occurrence on your navy ships…"
Grayden swallowed. He was increasingly convinced he wasn't really in danger, but he was still confused as to just what kind of situation he had found himself in.
"So, i-if you didn't want to hurt any of us…why did you sink the boat?"
A pregnant pause came over the kraken. No- 'Lady Selispine', he remembered. Bit by bit, the events of the last time he was awake were coming back to him now that he wasn't quite so panicky. That's what the nurse had called the woman whose lap he was sitting on. Selispine. Judging by the extravagance of his surroundings, Grayden guessed she was some kind of noble.
"We- mamono, I mean- we would never hurt humans, but there are…other things that we enjoy doing to them," she said, her speech halting and noticeably less self-assured as it had been.
Lady Selispine was saved from further interrogation by a new arrival, however. In one of the side doorways stood another transformed mermaid woman- a different one from that "Pressy" who had been treating him, judging from the orange coloration of the fins swept behind her ears. Or were those her ears? Grayden couldn't even pretend to understand how mermaid physiology worked. Regardless, she carried a cloche serving tray in one hand.
"My Lady? You asked for refreshments?"
"Yes. It's been quite a while since our guest ate. Hasn't it, Grayden?"
He suddenly became cognizant of how the situation must have looked to the servant- a grown man sitting on the lap of a woman. Well, half-monster, half-woman. She was noticeably taller than him, but the sight must have been a strange one.
And yet, as the mermaid drew closer and placed the covered tray on the table, Grayden couldn't find the will to get up and find his own seat. That hand was still on his head, tracing little circles on his scalp and combing his hair at the same time.
But it wasn't like he was being swayed by something so simple as a headpat. Definitely not.
"Thank you, sweetie," Lady Selispine said to the servant as the tray's silver cover was lifted. A steaming and savory-smelling assortment of appetizers were laid out before him; at least four different types of fish, a collection of strange but tasty-looking underwater vegetables, and what appeared to be a few foods from the surface were all stuffed next to each other on the tray. Lady Selispine was right. He hadn't realized just how hungry he was.
The servant withdrew after giving a short bow, once again leaving Grayden alone with his…kidnapper? Savior? He wasn't sure what to call her, but he was sure he wanted to devour just about every last morsel of food on the tray in front of him. That fact didn't go unnoticed.
"You really must be famished, little dear. Is that right?"
He nodded his head, uncaring of how desperate he might look. In response, Selispine removed her hand from his head and instead plucked up a bit of food from the plate. The thin strip of finely seared fish meat was quickly raised in front of his face, but it took Grayden a moment to recognize what she was doing.
"Open wide," the kraken said in his ear, the sing-song note in her voice again reminding him of a mother speaking to her child. His embarrassment was nothing compared to his hunger, though, and obediently he allowed Selispine to hand-feed him the bit of fish.
It was as delicious as one would expect the food of a noble's kitchen to be. Just about the only taste Grayden could identify was that of lemon; the notes of herb and spices were unnameable to him, as was exactly just what kind of fish he was eating. He didn't care. He just wanted Selispine to pick up and feed him another piece.
"Is it to your liking?"
He turned just enough to see his kraken-seat staring down at him expectantly. Her question was asked in earnest. She seemed quite concerned about whether he actually enjoyed his first taste of the dish.
"It's…it's very good," he said tentatively, only stopping himself from asking for more at the last second.
"I'm glad! It's halibut, spiced with a few ingredients from the surface. I thought you might appreciate something familiar, given the circumstances," she said happily. Another bit of fish was brought to his mouth before he scarfed it down as hungrily as the first.
Lady Selispine ate a few of the morsels herself, but the whole time she continued hand-feeding the sailor positioned square in her lap. Grayden's worries grew fainter with every bite. He was so preoccupied with the food that he initially didn't notice the kraken move her hand- the one that had continued hugging him had moved lower, and now rested on the top of his thigh. By the time he realized that, most of the food on the plate was already gone. He cleared his throat in the hope she would notice the location of the errant appendage. She didn't.
"Grayden," she said after licking her fingers clean of the sauce that had been drizzled over one of the vegetables, "Are you feeling any less frightened? Still nervous?"
Just how to respond to that question wasn't something he was so sure of. While he was confident the prospect of being straight-up killed and eaten was off the table, there were still too many questions he wasn't comfortable enough to ask. Why had she taken him here? How could he leave? Would he even be allowed to do so? Could she please take her hand off his thigh already?
"I'm, ahhh…I'm… I don't really know…"
His answer apparently wasn't what Selispine had been looking for. She pursed her lips and exhaled.
"Hmm. Allow me to ask a second question, then. Would you like to know where you are?"
He didn't need to think long about that. Grayden nodded eagerly, hoping to gain a little more information about his situation and, possibly, how to escape it.
"I thought you might. Up, then, little dear."
Her meaning was unclear at first. It was only when the hand on his thigh moved to lightly slap his bottom that Grayden jumped up from her lap, standing upright on the floor of the dining room. Lady Selispine followed him up, looking unconcerned with that bit of sexual harassment.
Maybe they just had a more loose view of personal space and touching here. That was what he told himself, even if he swore he could see the corner of his kraken host's mouth turn upwards at his alarmed reaction to the spank.
"Come," she insisted, and before Grayden could resist, her hand had wrapped around his own. The skin-on-skin contact felt strange; she had a filmy slipperiness to her skin that reminded him of what it felt like to handle a fish right after it was caught. This was a little different, though. Less watery and more…slick.
Lady Selispine didn't give him long to pontificate on the feeling of her skin, though. Before he knew it, Grayden was being dragged by the hand down past the rows of dining tables and out of the room.
"L-Lady Selispine? I thought you were going to tell me where we were," he said as they entered an adjoining corridor. A few servants and other guests populated the halls, all of them parting to make way for the kraken and the man she had in tow. Grayden thought for a moment he spied a friendly face- one of his fellow sailors, with some kind of sea-snake woman clutching his arm- but he was tugged past without being able to confirm if that was the case.
"I'm not going to tell you, little dear- I'm going to show you. Oh, I know just the place to go. You're going to absolutely love the view!"
The view? He would ask what she meant, but that would probably just lead to more questions on his end. Something else was becoming an issue, too- as fearful as he had been of the woman currently dragging him through the hallways and rooms of her abode, Grayden was finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the strut of her slender legs and the little skirt struggling to hide them.
And, as much as he had tried to deny it to himself, he'd felt something weird stir in him when she had spanked him. And when she called him 'good boy'. And when she tousled his hair.
"Ah, here we are. Ready?"
He looked up. They were at the exit, apparently- ahead of them was the same kind of wall of water he'd seen when he had woken up in the infirmary. This one was nearly twice as big, though, scaled up as it was to fit the larger doorframe. Grayden looked at the magically restrained liquid with no small amount of trepidation.
"...ready for what?"
"To leave, of course!"
Lady Selispine said it as if he was the weird one. His gaze flitted between her face and the wall of water in front of them.
"But I can't breathe underwater," he stated. As if saying that was even necessary. She…she did realize his human limitations. Right? She must.
"Sure you can!"
Grayden hardly had the chance to even process her words, to say nothing of offering his own. He was moving now, tugged to the other side of the doorway. When his mouth opened to yelp out his surprise, it was near-instantaneously filled with water.
Oh, Chief God, she had done it- she had killed him! Not even intentionally, but because she was too foolish to realize humans couldn't breathe water. What kind of luck was that- saved from his own submarine being broken apart, only to drown a day later?
He thrashed and kicked in an attempt to let Selispine know of his drowning, but it was pointless. She had wrapped him up in a hug much the same as she had done in the dining room, and was barrelling through the ocean at breakneck speeds. The source of her underwater alacrity soon became clear.
Her legs were gone. They had disappeared, and in their place was the now-familiar sight of a mass of writhing white and blue tentacles propelling the two of them through the water. They were just the same (albeit smaller) as the ones that had gripped the Chastity , and now they were just inches away.
The sight of the tentacles, along with his impending death by drowning, had Grayden's hyperventilation return yet again. He took in air as fast as he ever did when panic gripped him, oxygen streaming into his lungs and carbon dioxide streaming out.
He…he was hyperventilating. He was also underwater.
The horrible, lung-searing sensation of being unable to breathe- the same thing he'd felt a day or so ago- was conspicuously absent. Water entered his mouth, but his respiratory system still retrieved its needed oxygen. He wasn't drowning.
Grayden heard Selispine's giggling from above him. Even with the roar of the water rushing past them, he could tell she was amused.
"I apologize. That was rather mean of me," she said as her tentacles continued their swimming to propel them through the water. "We cast an enchantment on humans when we rescue them. It allows you to breathe and speak underwater as we do."
"You could have told me that," Grayden snapped, the words forming despite the water all around them. This really was something else.
"I'm sorry, dear," she said, before squeezing him a little tighter.
Now that drowning was no longer in the equation, he had an opportunity to look at his surroundings. They had left the confines of what he presumed to be the Lady's estate, that much was clear, but her tentacles were propelling them too fast for Grayden to get a long look at the environment around him. Strange buildings intermingled with underwater plants as the two of them swam down what must have been some kind of road or thoroughfare.
He didn't have time to contemplate why underwater dwellers might even need a road. As they whipped down another corner, Grayden thought he spied another man wearing the slate-grey uniform of the Order's navy, but before he could even open his mouth to call out to him Selispine had taken yet another turn.
This one wasn't down another 'street', though. In the blink of an eye his view had gone from the illuminated sights of an underwater city to the thick fronds of a kelp forest. The tall plants quickly swallowed up the light from the city, but even in the dark Selispine evidently knew where she was going- she wove through the seaweeds with a practiced expertise he struggled to even comprehend.
"Lady Selispine?" He said, mindful of how she was still carrying him along for the ride. It was, in a way, more embarrassing than when he was in her lap. At least nobody could see him right now.
"Umm…where are we going, exactly?"
She didn't answer. The kelp gradually began thinning as they exited the underwater forest. It was replaced with a barren oceanic cliff of sand and rock. Lady Selispine swam upwards a little more slowly now; Grayden would've said she was winded if it wasn't for the little tune she was casually humming to herself again.
"Here we are," she said with an air of finality as they reached the top of the cliff. Grayden had to tear his eyes from the sight of her undulating tentacles in order to see what she wanted him to see- those things still unnerved him. When he did, though, his jaw hung slack.
Laid out in the ocean trench before him was the city that Lady Selispine had just taken him away from. Grayden could see the massive silhouette of her palace crowning the area, with an array of concourses and buildings winding their way downwards. The illuminated constructions instantly struck him with a feeling of déjà vu. He'd seen this very image before, in his dream onboard the Chastity. The layout and architecture of the city before him made that half-remembered dream become clearer now.
"Does it look familiar, little dear?"
Grayden spun around in the kraken's grasp, turning to look at her face. Her smile was warm, her eyes kind.
"Y-yeah," he said, gazing back at the forest of lights. The aquatic life between them and the city hardly seemed perturbed by the presence of mamono or their constructions. As he watched, the rotund form of some kind of whale leisurely floated a few hundred feet away.
"We sometimes pry into the dreams of sailors before we take them. It's meant to…prepare you, I suppose. To give you a little idea of what fate has in store for you."
Grayden failed to see how having that dream had 'prepared' him for anything. It had seemed more frightening than informative. Then again, he didn't get to finish the whole thing before being woken up.
Lady Selispine gently spun him around so that he was facing her instead of the lights of the city. Her eyes seemed to have their own illumination, anyway; their vivid blue appeared to be lit by some kind of magical or biological process he didn't understand but appreciated nonetheless.
"Do you know how many ships I've sunk?"
Her tone was somber, in contrast to the more upbeat or outright motherly demeanor she usually carried herself with. Grayden could only shake his head.
"I have brought exactly three hundred and nine vessels down to the seabed over the course of about a hundred years. Eleven of them have been those underwater deathtraps you call submarines. There must have been thousands of little humans that I delivered to the mermaids, and each one has lived a happy, content life ever since. Each one, I saved with no more than the odd scratch or bruise."
"But you," she said, blue hair swaying to the side as it was caught by an ocean current, "You…frightened me. When I saw you there, floating lifeless and still outside of your ship, I feared…I thought…"
Lady Selispine didn't- or perhaps couldn't- finish her sentence. A pained expression came over her face.
"I felt something I hope to never feel again. And then again, when you saw me afterwards in the infirmary, you were so afraid. It only broke my heart all over again. You don't deserve that. You deserve calmness now, Grayden. Tenderness. You should be able to enjoy yourself."
For so many words being spoken, he still wasn't sure of her exact point. Then again, perhaps this was simply some kind of emotional stream-of-consciousness she was allowing him to hear.
"And then it struck me," she said. Her voice had changed once again; it had a quiet, dangerous edge to it that made the hair on Grayden's neck stand up in the water. "Why should I deny myself such things, as well? I love all the little mermaids that I have delivered men to over the years, but only now have I started asking why I have always refused to take for myself what I have freely given them."
…what did she mean, exactly, by 'delivering' men? He still wasn't entirely clear on that, and the way Lady Selispine spoke of it was making him nervous.
"My palace gets so lonely sometimes," the kraken purred, bringing their heads closer. "The servants are kind, but I need something more. Something personal."
Wait. Surely she didn't mean…?
"Does that sound nice? Would you like to be my little consort, instead of my little dear?"
Grayden knew he could breathe underwater now, but his breath still caught in his throat. This was simply too much, too fast- not even a week ago he had thought mamono were man-eating abominations, and now one was…
"Are you asking me to…be your h-husband?"
He was quickly becoming aware of just how complete her grip on him was. It wasn't tight enough to hurt, but he wasn't going anywhere if Lady Selispine didn't want him to.
"Consort. Husband. Lover. Mate. You may call yourself whatever you please, so long as you recognize who you belong to."
For as beautiful as she was, Grayden wasn't so sure about jumping headfirst into marriage with a 'woman' he had known for just a day, in a place he'd never been before.
"I…I'm not so sure," he said, hoping to let her down gently. The kraken's lips curled down in a disappointed frown.
"Hmm. A shame."
Phew. Good. At least she didn't take things personally.
"I had hoped you would be more amenable to the idea, but it seems like you require a degree of convincing."
Selispine didn't give me time to voice any objections- only enough time to open his mouth, which was all that she was looking for. The feeling of her lips pressed against his, and then her tongue slipping past them to find his own, made Grayden jump in surprise and alarm. Or would have, if she wasn't still holding him in place. Once again, he found himself trying and failing to escape the kraken noblewoman's clutches- this time not for fear of being devoured, but for fear of being sexually assaulted.
If anything, the struggling only encouraged her. Lady Selisline seemed to grow more ferocious in her forced kiss with every strain of his muscles against her arms. She didn't even let him turn his head away, reaching up to keep him where she wanted him while her tongue slid and prodded against his.
"Ahhhh," she breathed after finally withdrawing from her oral molestation, "That alone was exquisite. I could kiss you for days…"
"Please, stop! I don't want this," Grayden begged. Some part of him wasn't quite so sure about that, though. Her lips were so soft, and even with all the water around them he could still taste her saliva in his mouth.
"Not yet, perhaps. That can be changed."
Her kissing resumed, but her hands were busier now. Grayden didn't initially know just what she was doing, but as her fingers slipped under the fabric of his shirt her intentions became clear. His resistance did nothing to stop her. The garment he'd found himself wearing when he first woke up in the infirmary was soon floating in the water next to him.
It was when Lady Selispine went to draw down his pants, though, that he saw an opening. With her hands too busy to hold him down, Grayden quickly swatted her grasping fingers away and gave the kraken a hard shove away from him. In the second or two that followed, he swam- faster than he ever had in his life. His speed would've done his navy instructors proud if they had been there to see it.
But he had no chance of escaping a kraken. He heard a roaring rush of water behind him, and before he knew it he was once again wrapped up in his assailant's embrace.
"Now, now," she spoke, using the same authoritative tone as she had in her dining hall to calm him down. "Look at me, Grayden."
His head had to be tilted up with a finger to obey her command. When he met her gaze, the kraken had a displeased look on her face.
"You can't get away, little dear, and this will be so much more enjoyable for the both of us if you cease this trite resistance."
She pulled him even closer, planting a quick and sloppy kiss on his cheek before continuing.
"You're mine. There is no corner of this ocean I can't follow you. No fathom I cannot reach. And I think you know, in your heart, that such a thing excites you."
As chauvinistic and forceful as her declaration of ownership was, Grayden couldn't deny to himself she was, on some level, right. He'd never had someone want or need him so dearly; her attention, as aggressive as it might be, was making him feel…warm, inside.
Slowly, his straining and struggling died down. He told himself that was just because he had realized doing so was pointless. In reality, he knew damn well why he was no longer trying to escape.
"There we go. Good boy," Selispine cooed.
Those two words alone still had an effect on him- made his shoulders slump and muscles relax. They made him nuzzle his head closer to the kraken until it rested against her chest. God, how he wanted her to say that again.
"Oh? Do you like it when I call you that?"
He couldn't even pretend to be resistant anymore. Grayden nodded into her breasts.
"Then perhaps you should remove your clothes for me. That's what a good boy would do," Selispine said, her voice having once again lost its harsh edge and returned to the vaguely sultry purring he found so enticing. Grayden shifted and squirmed a little in her arms, but didn't immediately comply. He was…willing to keep going, but something was making him uncomfortable.
They might be a ways away from the city, but they were still out in the middle of the open ocean. Seeing all the fish and the occasional mermaid swimming in the distance made him anxious about fully undressing.
"Can…can we go somewhere more private?"
Selispine tilted her head at him, then giggled.
"A little prudish, hmm? How quaint. But if privacy is what my little dear wants…"
Grayden hadn't actually seen Lady Selispine perform magic yet; when the first few pitch-black flows of dark energy began diffusing from her skin, he didn't initially know what was going on. As the magic coalesced around them in the form of an inky blackness, the truth of what she was doing dawned on him. Now that he thought about it, 'inky' was the right word- Lady Selispine was a squid-woman, after all, and the darkness around him really looked for all the world like black ink being sprayed into the water.
Within a minute, the sight of the underwater city, the distant fish and mamono, and even the sea floor just a few feet below them were are all shrouded from view. The ink-magic allowed Grayden to see only himself and the kraken in front of him, faintly illuminated as they were by the soft glow of her bioluminescent eyes and head…fin…thingies.
He supposed so. It wasn't quite what he had in mind, but the curtain of magical ink hid him from prying eyes just fine. Now he didn't have any excuses to stop them from continuing, though.
"Your trousers, then," she demanded, nodding to the clothing in question. "Off with them."
As much as he wanted to take things slower, to talk things out, there was nothing he could come up with to worm his way out of this. At least no one else could see him. Dutifully Grayden hooked his thumbs around the hem of his pants and began to pull downwards.
"Ah, ah, ah," Lady Selispine tutted, wagging a finger before pointing it at his barely exposed briefs. "The underwear too. I want to see you in your…hmm. I believe I've heard other humans call it one's 'birthday suit'," she finished, laughing at the euphemism. Grayden didn't find it quite so amusing, but then again, he also didn't have much of a choice.
With his fingers now curled around both remaining articles of clothing, he unceremoniously pulled the fabric downwards. Lady Selispine's lecherous gazing at his nether region allowed her to see his unmentionables for only a split second; the moment his clothing was gone Grayden covered himself with his hands. She didn't seem to appreciate that.
"There's no need for such modesty here, Grayden."
She didn't intend to let him keep said modesty, apparently. Selispine took his wrists in her hands and pulled them away, her eyes glued to his groin the whole time.
For all his attempts to get away or delay what was happening, Grayden's arousal with his situation was…evident.
"Now why would you ever wish to hide such a thing from me? You and your body are simply…perfect," she whispered, sounding as encouraging as she was erotic. "And it seems you're alreasy as excited as I had hoped. I think that deserves a reward, hmm?"
Even before he felt the fingers curling around his erect length, he knew what kind of 'reward' was coming. Her initial touch was light in the extreme, feeling at first more like a strong ocean current than her digits grazing against his member. Selispine was behind him now, her bare breasts resting to either side of his head as her fingers danced and teased. She'd apparently removed her dress when he wasn't looking. At least she was as naked as he was.
A single finger now pressed into the underside of his cock, slowly dragging its way down until reaching the base. When it did, said digit began its trip back up again. It was infuriating- the simultaneous providing, and lack of, stimulation was driving him mad.
"Oh, how I love watching you twitch. I would do nothing more than tease you for hours, if I didn't want you to enjoy yourself right now. Perhaps another time, little dear…"
He finally got what he wanted. Selispine wrapped her hand around the head of his cock, creating a tight pocket of pressure that Grayden couldn't help but buck his hips forward to thrust into. His kraken partner allowed him to do so, only moving her fingers an inch or so back and forth as he did most of the work.
Gradually her motions increased in speed. The feeling of her warm, slick skin on his was as intoxicating as it was alien; every rub of her chest against his back was a novel sensation he only wanted more of. It felt even better with her hand running up and down his cock, as if her very skin was lubricating him. He could already feel his orgasm approaching, aided by her perfect, leisurely back-and-forth stroking.
But Lady Selispine apparently wasn't as willing to finish the job as he had hoped. Her stroking slowed to a glacial pace, then stopped altogether. Grayden made a distressed, unhappy groan despite his attempt at remaining stoic.
"Calm yourself, little dear," the kraken spoke into his eat, "We've only begun. It would be unseemly to reach our climax so soon. Besides…"
Her hand withdrew, but in its absence, something else rose upwards in the water next to his waist. Grayden's eyes widened at the sight.
"You seemed quite frightened of my tentacles earlier. Do you really think they are so hideous?"
The white appendage floated in the water just a few inches away from his skin, the pale blue suckers on its underside catching his attention. As much as he was enjoying Selispine's treatment so far, Grayden still was in no rush to become acquainted with her more squid-like limbs. He couldn't help but try to push himself a little further from the thing.
"They're nothing to be afraid of, Grayden. Here. Let me show you," she said, before lowering the tentacle down to his bare stomach. Despite his attempts to put some distance between him and it, said tentacle was soon pressed into the skin of his abdomen.
It wasn't like he had feared. There was no pain. No discomfort. The suckers on the tentacle didn't rip or cut his skin open; they merely, well, sucked. The slight, varied pressure was surprisingly pleasant; it was like a light, slightly ticklish massage down the width of his stomach.
Selispine soon lifted the tentacle back up, the suckers just barely lifting his skin until the suction seal was broken. Grayden was a little alarmed when he saw what those suckers hsd left- there were little, circular red marks where they had attached to his skin. It wasn't blood, but he wasn't initally sure just what they were.
Selispine giggled at the imprints on his skin, evidently satisfied with herself.
"They're like hickeys," she said after giving him a quick kiss on the side of the head. "Just harmless little spots. They'll go away after a while. But before then…"
The tentacle returned to his skin, now suctioned against his chest. To Grayden's dismay, more soon joined it- two, then three, then the majority of her flexible appendages were writhing and pressing against his skin. They did the same thing the first did and left an array of red marks up and down his naked body. Selispine giggled at the sight of more and more of the 'hickeys' appearing on her lover.
By the time her tentacles finally stopped pressing into him and instead merely slid up and down his skin, Grayden had to admit he no longer had much reason to be afraid of the things. His skin also looked like pepperoni on cheese pizza, but that was beside the point.
"I apologize, little dear. That may have been slightly excessive," Lady Selispine admitted as she looked at the red-marked mess she had left. "Let me make it up to you."
The tentacles were once again moving. Whereas before they had scattered all over his body, though, now they converged on one point in particular. When the first one reached his erection, Grayden couldn't stop himself from flinching away from its touch.
When they began their ministrations, however, he soon found that the last thing he wanted was for them to stop. They all gripped, squeezed, stroked, and slid in different directions as if they were in a competition to see which could touch him in the most pleasurable manner. The slimy feeling of Selispine's hand went double for her tentacles; it was like a whole bottle of lubricant had been poured into the writhing mass of flesh, ensuring everything remained as slick and slippery as possible.
"Are you enjoying yourself?"
She spoke the words casually into his ear, pretending she wasn't enveloping Grayden's penis in a roiling pile of her own tentacles. He couldn't respond with language of his own. He only moaned back, Selispine smiling as the sound reached her ears.
"D'awww. You can't even talk, Grayden?"
He couldn't. Once again, however, the kraken seemed intent on denying him just before he reached the tipping point; the tentacles suddenly eased up on their movements, only teasing where they had previously been pleasing. Once again, he groaned in frustration.
"Do you want me to keep going?"
He nodded frantically, desperate for the pleasurable pressure to find its way to his cock again.
"...hmm. I'm not sure- you seemed so disgusted with my tentacles before. Why don't you tell me how much you absolutely adore them now?"
If he had been of a rational mind, he might have thought the demand a strange one. He was not of a rational mind right now, however. Righr now, nothing in the world mattered but having those precious, slimy tentacles return to massaging his length. The words that found their way from him were spoken rapidly, with a hoarse tone and no restraint or inhibition.
"I l-love them- they're the best thing in the world! I never want them to let go of me! Just please, please, keep going!"
His begging evidently wasn't sufficient. The tentacles only squeezing a little harder. Not enough to satisfy; only enough to have him needing more.
"...I don't know. You don't sound very convincing," Lady Selispine taunted, her voice playful in its cruelty.
"Please! I want…I want to fuck them! I want them to squeeze and suck and touch me until the day I die! Please," he nearly screamed.
Mercifully, the tentacles resumed their rubbing and squeezing. Selispine gave a low chuckle and a kiss on the top of the head.
"Much more descriptive. Good boy."
Even now, experiencing more pleasure than he ever had in his life, those two words were an ecstacy all their own. The knowledge that he had done well enough to be praised by the beautiful creature holding and pleasing him was rewarding in a way that went beyond sexual pleasure.
…not to say that Selispine was denying him anything in that fashion, of course. She seemed to know as well as he did that Grayden was approaching the precipice, the edge of his stamina. She knew that, and made no sign of letting up; the only thing she did was raise of her free tentacles up to his head before plopping it down on his face. The suckers did the same thing they had on the rest of his body, tickling and leaving their little marks on his nose, cheek, and forehead.
The giggle he heard from behind him indicated that Selispine apparently found her little tentacle kiss funny. Grayden was beyond caring. Beyond even noticing.
The orgasm that rolled into him nearly threatened to send him down to the depths of unconsciousness for a third time. All the tentacles' sucking, squeezing, and rubbing made him shoot out what felt like everything he had into the squirming knot of tentacles encompassing every inch of his cock. Said tentacles only sucked harder when the first few ropes of his ejaculation were released.
"Haaaaah…oh, you really are a good boy, giving me so much. You beautiful, marvelous, lovely thing…"
Again, the words reached out to his heart as much as his ears. The praise was as pleasurable as the sex. He could have died in this very moment, and died happy.
But death, of course, did not come. Selispine's tentacles slowly withdrew from his cock, leaving not a trace of what felt like the gallons of semen he'd given them. Perhaps Selispine might have been able to absorb it through her tentacles. Perhaps not. He was too spent to ponder it much.
"That was…a very nice first round," the kraken breathed, her many tendrils stretching out in a surprisingly catlike display for a squid-woman. "Ready for another, little consort?"
"Nuhhh," Grayden moaned. The cumulative exertion, confusion, and general activity of the past few days was catching up to him. He felt sleep approaching yet again, no matter how he wanted to spend more time in the waking world with his new wife. "Need sleep."
"Sleep?" She laughed, fondling his now flacid length in an effort to engage him again. "All you've done is sleep for the past two days, Grayden!"
"Need good sleep now," he mumbled.
"Wha-? But this is our first time! You can't just shoot off one load and take a nap!"
Her attempts to arouse failed; she wasn't getting another round out of him.
"...when I wake up," he said.
Selispine gave an indignant look that his shutting eyes didn't see. Reluctantly she embraced him once again, holding his head to her chest.
"...hmph. The gall. What an unruly thing you are," she chastised, but even in his half-sleeping state he could tell she wasn't truly upset with him. That made him smile.
His kraken lover squeezed him a little, showing she was listening.
"I love you."
"...I love you too, little dear."
With that, Grayden finally fell into a more blissful kind of unconsciousness than the last few. He might not have understood everything about what was going on, or where he was, or what would happen next, but he knew one thing. He knew he had someone whose hand he could hold.
Or tentacle, anyway.