This is the prologue to a much longer story that as yet remains unfinished, but it’s self-contained enough to work as its own thing. It’s set in the same world as “Deep Down,” only many years later.
Balinkot could hear the squid scream in panic as the ever-colder depths embraced them both. He had first sensed its echo in the upper reaches, still warmed by the light of the sun above. But as soon as it felt the presence of the whale bearing down, it had tucked its tentacles and streaked into the waiting darkness below.
Balinkot followed, but not without caution – though not needing to see to catch his prey, the blackness still filled him with unease. He had seen the great scars on the Elders in his pod, had heard the tales of how the echoes sounded wrong this deep, and how the tentacles could have you in their grip before you sensed the squid drawing near. Still, the fact that there were Elders left to spin such stories comforted him somewhat; if they had returned from their first hunts, so would he.
He sent out a burst of sound. The echoes returned quickly – he was closing the gap between himself and his prey. The squid thrust itself ever downward, hoping to outrun its pursuer rather than trying to evade it in one of the mad dances Balinkot had heard the Elders speak of, dances which had given them their name: chitarkei, “the Deep Dancers.” Balinkot smiled – if this chitarkei was willing to match its speed against one of the greatest of the whales, it would soon find itself in his belly. He sounded again.
The echo rammed into him like the flukes of an angry male. Balinkot groaned, disoriented. How had he reached the ocean floor so quickly? He had not been swimming fast enough to have reached such depths this soon, and the water around him did not have the biting cold he had heard the Elders describe. He cast about below him with a few tentative sounds, a weak echo answering his call. The ocean floor was still hundreds of feet beneath him. Some chitarkei trick, he thought, but one the Elders never warned me about. He concentrated, focusing himself on the memory of the squid’s echo, determined to latch onto it again. Pushing himself in a slow circle, Balinkot sent sound into the darkness, searching for his lost prey.
Again the echoes struck him like a crashing wave, but this time he was braced for it. Listening hard, he could hear the telltale squeal of chitarkei all around him. Urkeet’s pod! he swore. There must be thousands of them! But something felt wrong in these echoes. They were far too harmonious for anything a group of squid would create. They were solitary creatures, and the sound of many should have filled his head with the chaos of their squeals.
Searing pain danced down his left side as the ocean floor seemed to leap up and grab hold of him. Thousands of hooks dug deep into his flesh, holding some great slithering mass close to him in an agonizing grip. He sounded desperately, hoping the echo would show him his attacker so that he might try to pull away, but it was all around him, and flitting at the edges of it he could hear the high-pitched laughter of the squid who had led him down into this cursed darkness. He lunged away from the pain and felt his skin begin to tear.
Panic gripped him now as tightly as his captor. His tail thrashed in the darkness with strokes powerful enough to have launched him into a breach had he been near the surface, but which did nothing against the grip he found himself in. He shuddered as he felt more hooks clasp over his back and down his right side, then around him again, and again, and again.
And then they began to pull him down.
Balinkot had never thought of being eaten before. He was a child of Urkeet, greatest of the great whales, and Urkeet-sok were hunters, not hunted! He twisted, gnashing with his great teeth at the tendrils that enveloped him. He would be no easy meal.
Then he felt the sandy roughness of the ocean floor beneath him, felt himself pressed hard against it. He was still held fast, but whatever gripped him made no effort to draw him closer. Then a rumble grew, like the thunder he sometimes heard when he lazed on the surface of the water, until its sound filled his mind. He had heard it before, from the chitarkei who just minutes ago had fled from him with the same terror that filled him now. Laughter. Deep, gigantic, evil laughter. And the realization began to creep through Balinkot, chilling him colder than the icy water ever could.
He had not been brought down here to be eaten. He would be held here, helpless, until his last breath from the surface slowly escaped him. Until he drowned, alone, in the dark, surrounded only by pain.
And the laughter rumbled on.