Tui and La
Going Under
Chapter information

Journey and Return



Written by

Madam Subclause


Madam Subclause

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Thin Ice

Going Under

A last gasp of air, then under.

The cold is like a hammer blow, and he is like a bell being struck. Every muscle contracts in that instant. He feels his chest tighten, forcing the breath back out of him, as if he is squeezed in a giant fist. Knives of cold bite into every part of him, paring the feeling away.

And suddenly he doesn't want to die. Every nerve in him screams that he must fight it.

Use the breath. Remember basic training. You have about three minutes. Use it.

He has to keep his heart working. Nothing else matters. The breath, what little is left, turns to heat, turns to life in the chest, spreads down the arms to the fingers. He can feel his chest open again, the weight lifting, hear a more convincing pounding in his ears. He can feel his hands again.

No time. Next step. Buckles and ties. But his arms, although no longer frozen rigid, aren't responding. He fights, against numbness, the rush of the water, and a horrifying paralysis which his mind tells him is circumstance and his gut tells him is an enraged and powerful spirit pinning him as it drags him to his death. This is not just drowning. He has no plan for this. Panic rises. The ringing, the pain in his ears, in his head...

Keep control. Take the next step. He manages to get a hand to the buckle of his breastplate, spends an eternity struggling with it, a tiny task, yet so important. Fingers fail. He can't even achieve this first step.

He has no breath left, no heat. What comes next..? His mind is seared blank. He stops struggling, feels himself being dragged helplessly downwards, looks out and sees... nothing, only darkness. He forces his fingers to action again, all the time feeling the terrible pressure of lungs desperate to breathe, of his head and chest being crushed in the vice of water pressure.

Then, finally after what feels like an age, he manages to release his spaulders and breastplate. Impeded by the water pressure, they jerk over his head, striking him hard on the chin as they do so. He is dazed; burning salt water fills his mouth and nose, and he finds himself swallowing quickly to keep from breathing it in. He struggles not to gag. This is death. His death. Something in him protests that he could have tried so hard and yet failed.

He is at the end. Surprised at the speed with which it all happened, he feels the water fill his throat. He isn't really aware of the sensations it should produce. He forgets about breathing, about pain and pressure.

It is as if he is watching from a distance. He falls into the deep, his face a picture of shock, one arm reaching up, as if someone would now take it, clawing at a stream of bubbles escaping from his lips like wasted opportunities, vainglorious plans, lies and exaggerations. Still shocked, he dies and his body is dragged down by the weight of his remaining armour, where it is consumed by a myriad of weird creatures. He watches as they pull him apart...

Something in him, some feral corner of his mind, snarls soundless protest at this vision, and he fights back again, finding raw energy in places he knows but has never called on so much as now. Frenzied, he rids himself of all encumbrance, and strikes upwards, as if the sense he has always had, that he can fail at nothing, is just within reach of his fingertips. Above his head is ice, illuminated by moonlight. He makes for what he thinks is a hole.

The water breaks over his face. Instinct takes over and he gasps as if his first breath, sucking in freezing, blessed air. Salt water too. He chokes, trying not to inhale as he goes under again, trying to clear his nose and throat of freezing, burning salt water.

He strikes hard against something. He is in a shallow indentation under the ice. Both his arms go up, and snarling once more, he turns breath to fire, smashing through the ice before it is even melted.

He gets his face clear for a few breaths, then pulls himself out. He is jubilant. It is only one step, and he is one man, but he has survived this much. Who knows what he might yet recover from this situation? As he pulls himself out, he realises he is stripped to his breeches, with no shirt. Not ideal, but it does nothing to lessen his sense of victory at beating these pathetic elements, this mere cold.

And yet more luck. Unbelievably, standing on the ice floe is a figure in a long fur parka, a young woman by the build. Her hood is up, but she turns and cries out, startled at his appearance on the ice no more than a few yards from her. He covers the ice between them in a few strides and grabs her arm, pathetically held out in front of her. As if she could protect herself from him. In his current mood, it is fortunate for her he has other priorities. He looks around, checking that they are alone, smiles darkly at her and pulls her close to him.

"My luck isn't out entirely, I see. You are going to help me."

"Yes. I am going to help you." She looks up at him, and as she does so her hood falls back. She is beautiful. His mind flees for a second as he takes in the liquid blue eyes, the full curve of the lips, the white hair like unblemished snow. He tries to gather his thoughts. The situation is unreal, but he cannot help himself, and a hand goes to that hair; touches it, so soft. She is perfect. All thought of where he is, what has happened is gone, and all he wants to do in that moment is press his lips to hers, to possess this purity. She reaches up with her unrestrained hand, places it on the side of his face.

And there is unbearable light. Her face hardens in that stark glare until he can barely look at her, but he has no liberty to look away. Her cold hand is like a vise over his left eye and her fingers sink into the flesh like talons of ice. He scrabbles uselessly at it, screaming in pain and panic.

"I am going to give you a gift," she says.

And the light is everything, boring through his bones, burning. Her beautiful face is somehow transfigured to greater, harsher beauty. He falls to his knees.

"Know who I am." Her voice commands reverence, "I am Yue, who is the Moon, whom you would have killed. I have saved you not because you deserve any second chance, but because enough have died here. I will give you a gift which will allow you see what suffering you have unleashed upon the world, in the hope that you will learn, at the very least, what awaits you in the next life. If you act on this there may be time to save your soul."

He pleads. Words he cannot remember ever saying pour out from his lips as if in sufficient quantity, they can put out the fire. But everything is dissolving in light. The words become meaningless, then, no longer words. Direction, perception, context; all flee, until he is aware only of his awareness, and everything else is gone.

He is in the water again, freezing, with no idea how he got there or how long he has been there. His head is ringing with pain and the after-images of that awful light. He strikes against something, so hard the pain cuts through the ringing. Dark shapes, rocks or ice, are in the corner of his awareness, and he is thrown on them again, and again, something new breaking each time. Just breathing and resisting the cold is no longer enough and he somehow has to find the resources to stop himself being pounded to death.

Twice more he is broken on the dark mass, drawn in and then cast out by the waves before he manages to snatch a deep breath. The next time he thrusts a burning hand at the darkness, grasping, praying that it is ice and not rock. The surface, lit with fast fading fire, yields and shifts, and he clutches desperately. Screaming, he claws at the ice, hauling himself out hand over frozen hand, like picks rather than part of himself. A little further. Just a little longer. And again. And again.

Eventually, at a point when he no longer feels the ocean's grasp pulling him back in, he gives up and lies on the ice. He can hear more now. Not much, mainly still the ringing in his ears, the pounding of his own heart, but also the sound he makes at each breath, a yelp like a wounded animal. He grits his teeth, forces himself to slow and deepen each breath, expend some of that breath in warming himself.

As breathing becomes more controlled, he is aware of the specific pains associated with it. His ribs at least are probably broken. There is no bubbling, no intake of air on an exhalation, so hopefully he has not punctured a lung.

He braces himself, then rolls onto his back. He cries out as the world turns red. As the pain subsides, as he forces eyes open again, he can see light distorted through tears. The moon is hanging there, above his head, watching him. He feels judged. Powerless. He is at her mercy now. He knows that she sees him, that she will always see him, and that he will never be free of her. He puts a trembling hand to the left side of his face, which is numb.

"Oh I'm well aware of the Moon problem."

He rolls back onto his face, so he doesn't have to look at her.

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