Metaworld Chronicles

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Wutosama

Interlude - The Great Shoal Forward

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Lieutenant Shiyang Chen ordered the corvette to drift closer to Jifen Village. 

In the South China Sea, on Chicken-shit Reef's Turd Island, his map marked a fishing hamlet rife with stubborn, fish-headed Mermen refusing to leave even though the Navy repeatedly gave them warning to move further down the Xima-Anshan archipelago.

The reason for clearing out undesirables was simple. From the lip of the Yellow Sea, it was only seven hundred kilometres, or two day's passage between Shanghai, Jeju and that cursed Dai Nippon island chain of Okinawa, allowing no complications in the delicate balance. With his motherland as the most significant rising economic and military power in the region, both the American-backed Koreans and the Demi-human loving Japanese had grown enormously nervous. 

Chen's was a fact-finding patrol; one sent to investigate the loss of a supertanker— the Liaoming. With Tonglv and its canal operating at capacity, an endless volume of goods rolled into and out of Shanghai. As much as the nationalists loved to shout, the flow of Crystals between the three nations flourished in this period of unusual tranquillity. Any disruption to that flow was unacceptable. 

Presently, a question lingered on everyone's lips. With the recovery of Shenyang hailed as a success, why was there no adverse reaction from Pyongyang? In the past, the Cult of Juche was never one to back down from a slight. Every so often, whenever it felt even the pettiest disrespect from its neighbours, the Lich Lords of Pyongyang would threaten to unleash a flood of Undeath across the borders unless a ransom was paid. 

Since the Beast Tide, the Undead threat had bound the three nations in a careful treaty. Now, with China's success, the Koreans grew wary of Great Mao's map-striding fingers walking through Liaoning once more. Of course, a land invasion via Jilin's tundra was impossible, as was any hope of crossing the Yalu via Dadong. Its inaccessibility left the East China Sea as the only viable trade and military route, one that interconnected the Sea of Japan to the north and the Philippine Sea to the south. 

In Chen's studied opinion, the East China Sea had grown far too crowded. 

Cargo carriers, military warships, fishing boats, patrol vessels, privateers and black market traders had all piled into the two-thousand-kilometre long trade routes between Asia's largest population centres. Kilotons of fish, squid, prawn and Wildland Demi-humans of the South Sea, harvested by state-lead frigates crewed by red-eyed Mages trawled the waters for its seemingly limitless resources, battling the weather, the wildlife and the indigenous populace. 

"Lieutenant Chen. It's all gone. Exactly as the Coast Guard had reported. Some form of 'planar activity' wiped them out; there were no survivors."  

"Wiped out?" Chen furrowed his brows. "None of them have returned? Is the island still unoccupied? Usually, not even periodic Purges can discourage them." 

"Not a thing, sir. There's a magic circle on the island, but that was from an authorised experiment carried out by the CCP Tower last year." 

"I see." Chen rubbed his chin. "How's our Scry looking?" 

"No sign of the Liaoming anywhere." The Ensign saluted. "The waters around here are too clean. There aren't even low-tier Mermen." 

"That makes no sense…" Lieutenant Chen couldn't help but feel that there was no possible way that a container carrier half-a-kilometre long with a breadth of seventy-meters could just disappear without a trace. COSCO ships, like all carriers, had embedded Shielding Stations, meaning nothing short of a Kraken could come near the vessel without writhing in debilitating agony. The Liaoming's route naturally detoured around Chicken-shit Island, and so he had thought to interrogate the inhabitants. If these Mermen had absconded, then did that mean the inhabitants of the island were responsible? 

Chen shook his head. 
That prospect was laughable. 

His suspicion was because Mermen who lived near Human coastal cities, the friendlier ones, had over the half-century developed a resistance to the resonance thrumming from the ships' passage. The wretched fiends would have to— or else their Cores, assuming they had one, would eventually collapse from the stress fractures from the tens of thousands of carriers that passed each year. The official intel was that these Mermen, resistant to resonance and highly adept at farming or gathering Wildland fauna, fed the tri-nations' Grey Markets, and so had been left alone. The more accurate tale, Chen had suspected, was that the administration used them as an early warning system against undetectable Mermen activity in the deep. 

"Tell the men to return to the vessel," Lieutenant Chen gave the order. "We continue the patrol. Divert 20 per cent output to our Scrying Engines. Lin and Liang will have to cycle their shifts. I want one Diviner awake and searching the seabed at all times."  

The seaman then looked toward the open water. 
No Mermen anywhere? Chen felt disquieted.
Sometimes, there was nothing more foreboding than unexpected good news. 


In the East China Sea, four hundred kilometres north-north-east of Shanghai, a "Great Shoal" was on the move, marauding across the murky depth.  

Terra— the Prime Material Plane— was over seventy per cent inundated by the boundless seas, its precious waters of life held hostage by gravity and atmosphere, ebbing and flowing endlessly, its currents and streams unknowable by the mere mind of men. 

If on land there existed places where the Prime Material grew thin, and the Elementals that inhabited their irrespective planes emerged to forage or begin new lives— then the ocean's three-dimensional, depthless space was a sieve of planar-instability, bringing every flotsam and jetsam from Krakens to Charybois to alluring Sirens through dimensional tears larger than human cities. 

Thankfully, these creatures of the deep, so used to the cold dark of the Elemental Plane of Water, rarely sought the warm and lighted space of the sunlight zone. 

Unfortunately, what these marauding masses of ageless predation also brought was a game of hunger in which monsters were pushed from stratum to stratum, rising bottom-up to plague Terra's oldest migrants— what Humanity called the Mermen. 

To say that the Mermen were a single species would be a great misunderstanding. The ocean, with its hugely variable living conditions, had led to the rapid evolution of creatures far more complex than the happy homogeneity offered by the arithmetic surety of living on land. What their numerous habitats also meant was that like the ocean itself, the arrangements and politics of the sea were always in flux. 

On his coral dais, affixed to the cargo carrier's bridge, Lei-bup slumped against the side of his throne. Below, with the anchor-chains around their bullish necks, two tamed Ningen, their limbs lazily swimming through the water, pulled the Human ship toward its destination with powerful swishes of their vast, fleshy fins. 

Beside him, the Great Shoal of the Elder One, the multitude faithful of Yog, Saviour of the Deep, travelled as a constant stream toward the underwater city of Blightreef. 

Ever since leading his people from Turd Island, they had absorbed tribe after tribe, clan after clan, spreading the gospel of the Pale Priestess. In his heart, he knew that the power of the Elder One was unfathomable and that its will was as unpredictable as the sea. He was merely its instrument, a Mermaid's Purse sown by the Pale Priestess to do the All-Watching One's bidding. 

Even now, his near-death made him shudder. The last instance Lei-bup had successfully called forth the Pale Priestess' Shoggoth, it had fully descended onto the island and devoured every last living thing that existed. 

That night, Lei-bup had thought himself on the verge of rapture.

Yet, when the screaming had stopped, and only the silent susurration of the sea sounded on Turd Island, Lei-bup and a dozen of the faithful remained. 

Was it luck? A little voice at the back of Lei-bup's mind demanded. 
No. Lei-bup felt an unholy assurance surge up his spine and envelope his Core. 
His survival was intentional. He had been chosen. The great Shoggoth, O digit of the Old Ones, poking through the abyssal gates to anoint the faithful, had chosen Lei-bup as its prophet. 

"Iä! Great Elder One! O key to the Gates where the Spheres Conjoin!" Lei-bup recalled howling at the starless havens. "PRAISE!" 
"PRAISE!" 
"PRAISE!" 
"PRAISE!" echoed the voices of the surviving faithful, each rancorously covered in layers of abandoned ectoplasm. 

Joining the survivors, cries of jubilation and awe echoed from the sea. All around Turd Island, drawn by the tribe's unexpected ascension, hundreds of thousands of the sea's denizens had witnessed their communion with a God of the depth, saw the improbable survival of Lei-bup and his priests, and shuddered at the unfathomable power of the Shoggoth. 

After that, Lei-bup knew he had crossed the threshold of the void's baptism. 

Where he had been the leader of the Jifen Folk and de facto master of the archipelago, he now metamorphosed into the heart of an immigrating shoal. A Great Shoal! The very thought straightened his spine— for though he was the wise Elder of the Jifen, there had been no Great Shoals seen since what the Human's called the Beast Tide.  

When finally, he had time to settle down and think, Lei-bup marvelled at the Elder One's design. What the Priestess likely had fathomed was that life in the sea was ten times more arduous than Lei-bup's life on land. Those Mermen who had been drawn by the food dispensed by the Jifen folk, whose females entered into the island chain's hierarchy, and who had come to spy on the Jifen's resolve, were all made to witness her gospel of power. 

Lei-bup was old for a Merman and knew that in the open sea, a few rules were Mythril. 

One was that there was safety found in numbers. On the land, a pack of Skull Jackals could down an Oliphant, and in the ocean, a frenzy of Gill-Tooth Marauders could strip a Megamouth to the bone within the hour. Alone, the individual Merman was ephemeral, an insignificant existence—together, they were combined and eminent. To seek safety in numbers was an instinct built into the minds of the Mermen, no matter one's fins, gills, tentacles or proboscis. Where the water grew deep, selfishness was self-destruction— safety rested with the masses. 

And this Lei-bup knew well because he had read Mao's Manifesto, delivered to his island by the missionaries from the mainland in rusty containers filled with the little red books. As the great exodus from Jifen took place, Lei-bup could not help but see a strange parallel between him taking his people from the tyranny of the Human bureaucrats and Mao's revolution to build the promised country. 

It was just like how, when Mao had to fight the Imperialists, he took the Great Red Army of NoMs and Mages on that suicidal Exodus from Jiangxi to Yunnan to Shaanxi. The destruction of his home by the Shoggoth was a sign— a dear and intimate omen from a priestess to a prophet. Why else, Lei-bup reasoned, was the only surviving food left from the Shoggoth's all-consuming purge those tins of mysterious meat called SPAM? That was what the Pale Priestess had first gifted to Lei-bup. That was how Lei-bup knew she was watching. And just like how Mao was forced from his home to rule over the central continent upon his return, so Lei-bup must take his people away from Jifen to the sea shelf beyond. 

As for the Shoggoth, that was another precept of the ocean that the Mermen inherently understood. Some beings and their prowess were insurmountable— even if said being never ventured to the surface. Past the daylight zone, past the twilight, there lurked unfathomable creatures the size of islands, bigger than the largest Human tankers. Leviathans, these were called, beings whose stature dwarfed the oldest Krakens.

That was why they believed in the Shoggoth. And though some kin would become fodder for the Elder Gods; the Mermen steadfastly believed they had found a proverbial shelter-beast; themselves serving as its Remora labourers. To survive, the Mermen were pragmatic. When the Hammerhead Raiders from the deep Clans attacked, nothing remained, be it females or eggs or food. At least with the Shoggoth, the Faithful would survive.

All of this, Lei-bup understood, both as a Merman and as an indifferent disciple of Mao. When the representatives from each of the tribes approached Lei-bup to seek out his wisdom, this was what Lei-bup had to deliver: 

"Only in the Pale Priestess and her Elder Gods lies the truth. A truth that is beyond our mortal ken but yet paves the way to salvation. No— do not question. We who are touched by her grace know that we must humble ourselves in front of she who brings forth the Great Shoal." 

"The Great Shoal!" The crowd had cried out, drunk on the elixir of belief. 

"Before we embark upon our great Exodus, lend me your ear-holes," Lei-bup raised his voice, finding that strangely, his words travelled through both air and water with equal ease. "If you wish to join us— you must give up yourself. One fish— no matter how smart or limber or powerful, is always defeated. You are doomed to die, alone, a failure of a fish who did not fertilise ten-thousand spawns. But with the Elder Gods, with the Path of the Pale Priestess! You can escape from the one fish's frail and mortal body! Give me your submission! Give her your Faith! Call them! Iä! Great Elder One! O key to the Gates where the Spheres Conjoin! Iä! Yog-Sothoth! Only then can the one fish escape from his or her vice! Escape from predation! Only in the Great Shoal can the proletariat fish find their way to the Promised Land! Only as a part of the Great Shoal can one fish be all powerful and all knowing! IMMORTAL and COMPLETE!" 

In the silence, Lei-bup knew that he had them. 
The Great Shoal was already forming, and soon, they would be on their way. 

"Weee—Weeee—Weeee— Lei-bup began to cry, mimicking the Shoggoth.

"Weee—Weeee— 
"Weee—Weeee—Weeee—
"Weee—Weeee—Weeee— Weee—Weeee—" 

The multitude had sung. 
And the rest was history. 

Along their way, no tribe or clan who had seen their Great Shoal, its girth stretching from horizon to horizon, could resist their evangelisation. Over a distance of thousands of kilometres under the sea, meeting a thousand tribes in their tiny territories, they absorbed them all by faith or by teeth. 

Then, in the path of the Great Journey Forward, the passing Shoal became blocked by a Human cargo carrier bearing its own Shielding Station. 

For Lei-bup and the folk living near Jifen who regularly traded with the Humans, the agony from the passing ships had grown to encompass a part of their being. Those of them too weak to survive the disruption of their Cores had long ago died as spawnlings. As for the rest, the Leviathan-sized ship's passing became a keen blade that sliced into his people, sending hundreds plummeting below while others held their heads in induced madness. Eggs burst, pregnant Mer-women miscarried. Some of the deep-living Shell-folk even tore off their limbs; such was the pain they endured. 

Lei-bup knew he had to do something. He was their father now and the shoal, his fingerlings. 

"Warriors! With me!" He counted on the fact that the more of them gathered, the more the resonating power of the ship's onboard Shielding Core would be split, for without a direct connection to a ley-line, its output was severely limited. "Weee—Weeee—!" 

"Weee—Weeee—" 
"Weee—Weeee—Weeee—"
"Weee—Weeee—Weeee—" 

A thousand warriors answered Lei-bup's call. Following the folk from Jifen, they surged upwards toward the carrier. They had believed— and so the High Priest's words rang true, for with enough of them gathered, the resonance tearing apart their Cores wasn't nearly so painful. 

On their barbed Seahorses, the Wave Striders of the Blue-fin Tribe burst through the surface to scale the container ship's walls. From afar, forty Eagletail Razor Rays, each mounted by a dozen Flying Carvers with toothy blades of bleached coral, sailed through the spraying brine. The Ningen, risking their white-fins, halted the carrier in its wake.

Lei-bup knew that once they boarded the ship, there wouldn't be much of a fight, for the Humans rarely had Mage Flights to spare for cargo vessels. His first order was to bring down what he recognised as the ship's Divination Tower. Then, he redirected the slower but heavily armoured Claw-folk to the bridge, where the human crew awaited for salvation that would not arrive. There, his faithful had peeled back the metal and made tasty work of the screeching bipeds packed-in like sardines. 

It took only an hour for the ship to be captured.

Lei-bup was in the middle of considering scuttling the ship when one of his men from Jifen excitedly ran up the bloody stairs. 

"High Priest!" the man was dribbling slime and snot from every orifice. "We found it!" 

 "You found what?" 

"The sign!" 

The sign? His opaque eye-lids formed a squint. 

Lei-bup did not know this sign. He had to see for himself. 

Together with his guards, which now consisted of an overlarge Bluefin Strider Captain, a burly Crustacean Razorclaw and two of his priests from Jifen, he entered the cargo bay. His folk, who had long worked with humans, had an excellent understanding of Human-made contraptions. 

"This is—!" 

Lei-bup was speechless.
Here was the cargo hold, and within it were thousands of containers. One of the Crab-folk had peeled back the tin to reveal cases and cases of the tiny golden boxes of nourishing meat. With trembling fingers, he lifted one of the tins. 

There, on the printed label, was a tiny visage of the Pale Priestess. 

"An official sponsor of the IIUC," the label read, followed by a tiny speech bubble from her mouth that said, "SPAM— Miracle in a can."  

"How…" Lei-bup's hands trembled. "How many are there?" 

"A hundred containers or more like this, filled with other foodstuffs in cans…" His aide swallowed the air like a fish on land. "High Priest, you should see this as well." 

Together with the others, Lei-bup followed the fish until they reached the crew's quarters. Inside the cosy hiding hole, there were bunks, and plastered across the shared wall was an image anyone in the Great Shoal would recognise. 

It was the Pale Priestess, wearing a skin-tight suit of white and blue, looking like she was ready to dive into the ocean. Her benevolent face was smiling broadly at them with that secret smile of hers as if she knew everything that would happen from now until their eventual ascension. The poster was huge, almost life-size, so vivid that it seemed like the Pale Priestess might leap forth and bless them herself. 

"Sinomach Heavy Industries" read the logo. "Miss Gwen Song, International Inter-University Competition's Most Valuable Participant. The Devourer of Shenyang will wear NOTHING ELSE." 

"Join Us!" read the words in Chinese, which only Lei-bup understood. It was followed by a prophesy written in blood-red calligraphy. "A hundred battles— A hundred victories!" 

"A… a fellow c-cultist?" Lei-bup stuttered, suddenly regretting killing all the Humans. It was amazing— incredible— beyond belief that there was MORE of them, even among the Humans. Naturally, unlike the other Mermen, he understood the poster to be an advert, but why else would such an image be in a prominent position? At this time? In this place? 

"She brought this gift to us," his adjutant began to wail, completing his hypothesis. "Gu-wen, S-song— Weee—Weeee—" 

"Weee—Weeee—" 
"Weee—Weeee—" the others answered. 

"… this ship, it is a gift by the Pale Priestess," Lei-bup announced to his men, finding the only acceptable answer to the serendipity as a feeling of unfettered acceptance suffused him. The clarity he now felt could only be described as divine. "It is ours now. The ship will be our mobile home. Its Core will deter our enemies and open the way for us." 

"How so?" The crustacean grumbled. His kind was most vulnerable to the resonance. 

"We will find a way to utilise the Crystal Core of this Drift Hulk," Lei-bup promised his warriors. "With her gift, we can build ourselves the promised land." 

"What shall we do now?" 

"We keep travelling," Lei-bup gave the order. "But tonight, we feast in her image— and call out the name of Gwen Song." 

Since that eventful encounter, months had passed, and now they arrived at their destination. 

Lei-bup shifted in his seat, clearing the recollection from his mind. 

Blightreef. 

Even as a child, Lei-bup had heard of its infamy. 

Blightreef was the lawless, chaotic city at the end of the first Eastern Sea's continental shelf. It was a Merman port ruled by gangs of Tigermaw Shark-folk, patrolled by Hammerhead Raiders, and lorded over by the machinations of the Kraken Biplipodoofu. 

It was also a place where Humans from the black markets traded with the denizens of the deep, pouring crystals into the greedy Kraken's coffers even as it chopped up the city's citizens for parts. 

All this was the tale that Lei-bup had heard from Humans— stories now verified by Karasin, the Bluefin Captain, whose kin's flesh was considered a delicacy among the Man-folk of Nippon. Even Jinka, the warrior supreme from the Claw Clan validated that indeed, Blightreef was the wealthiest city between the first and second sea shelf, and also a living Wet Market. 

Here was the place that Lei-bup saw as their promised land— as one whose wisdom spanned both the above water and below water realm, Lei-bup's perspective was uniquely positioned— another blessing the Pale Priestess must have foreseen. He knew more than the others that Blightreef was near-equal-distant to the Human nations of Japan, China and Korea and so saw scant naval activity. Yet, at the same time, its existence was condoned by something called the "Grey Faction". 

Ever since the Great Shoal had left Jifen Island, Lei-bup had been wondering if their mass would grow powerful enough to subdue a city of a million Mermen ruled by a four-century-old Kraken. 

Before they had found the "Liaoming" bearing the sign of the Pale Priestess, the answer was no. 

Now— now Lei-bup was confident they could take the tyrant by the tentacles and yank him from his octopus pot.  

If he could combine the advantage of the Human-made Resonating Crystal with their united calling for the descent of the Shoggoth— the Kraken could only submit or be consumed. 

Of course, he would first give the slavers a chance to convert. 
He had plenty of food— obscene volumes, in fact, and the folk that lived on Blightreef were well-starved by its cruel master. It was almost too easy— for how else would they consign their children to be butchered? How else could the Kraken's thugs bully the proletariat of the sea? 

The city's masses were a million strong— ten million more if Lei-bup counted the young, but how many predator-thugs did the Kraken command, all-in-all? A thousand? Ten-thousand? Even the Imperialist Mages had more men when Mao bore down on Nanking and Shanghai! 

Conversely, Lei-bup's Great Shoal was a mass of a hundred-thousand fish, all chomping at the hook to be unleashed! They were well-fed, not only on the flesh of their enemies but the food they had unsealed from the tanker! 

"Lord High Priest."A Mermaid drifted closer, her lengthy hair fanning out in vibrant red waves. "We should arrive soon. Shall I inform the Striders and the Claw Clan?" 

"Not yet, we await parley—" Lei-bup stood, peeling his slimy body from the coral throne. "What word from Biplipodoofu? We have his city surrounded." 

"The Messenger did not return." The pretty Mermaid, whose hair was dark and her skin like the moonlight, had been specially selected to serve as his aide. The first of many future Temple Priestesses. She was fertile and well-shaped, Lei-bup could see, and she was too pretty to be a helper. 

Were his followers afraid that Lei-bup would leave no heir? The High Priest chuckled to himself. 

There was nothing to fear. Lei-bup had twice survived the descent of the Shoggoth— why would he worry over something as mundane as the little-death that resulted from violence? How could such insignificance compare to the Great Shoal? Did Mao's death stop the Communists? Not even close. Even if he were to perish, the Shoal would go on. They had all sworn by the name of the Pale Priestess, whose human name was Gwen Song. They had all given up their Cores to become the Great Shoal itself, that all-consuming collective which is immortal and everlasting. Strike him down, Lei-bup laughed, and the Shoal would become more powerful than Biplipodoofu could imagine! Martyrdom? He welcomed it! 

"Then we wait for them to act," Lei-bup gave the commands. "Tell Blo-bup and Fu-bup that the Floating Hulk will move on my command. I will be along shortly to conduct the rites." 

"YES! High PRIEST!" The Mermaid's eyes, along with that of the guards behind him, were crystal-bright. 

"Soon, we shall bear witness—" Lei-bup gazed over at the teeming city below. The central spire of Blightreef, fashioned like a giant spiralling shell, rose up and up and up until it reached the surface, where a series of looted Human ships formed a flotilla of hulks. 

"Weee—"
"Weee—Weeee—"
"Weee—Weeee— Weeee—"
"WEEE—WEEE— WEEE— WEEE—"
The chants began, first from the hulk, then spreading throughout the Great Shoal until the water itself appeared to vibrate, growing thick with such a tangible resonance of mana and belief that it seemed as though the shimmering mass was not a multitude, but a single, living being. 


  

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Chapter Ref ::  Great Leap Forward


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Strictly Cali An islander's Meta-journey Strategic Magic The Strange Life of an Elf From Sydney The Rise of a Magi - Empires of Old
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"An Islander's Meta-Journey" from young gun @Bartimeus
"The Mysteries of Fudan, and Other Rumors From the Metaworld" by @valderag
"Strategic Magic" by @kjoatmon
"The Strange Life of a Quarter-Elf From Sydney" by @Izetta_Fleur
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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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