Alexei kneeled in the still waters off the northernmost coast of Irov, tucked into a cove out of view of the road. The water was cold enough to numb and nearly up to his chest in this position, and the black, gauzy fabrics he'd been dressed in looked almost like ink in the water. At his side, the Catabasian spoke a prayer to the Aegis - her voice echoing strangely but beautifully off the stone around them. The mouth of the cove was open to the sea, and the full moon was clear in the sky - on the wind, the distant sounds of Saravys could be heard. If it weren't for the knowledge of what was to come, this could almost have been peaceful.

The Catabasian lapsed into silence and set a hand on his shoulder as Alexei bowed his head and closed his eyes to listen to the last of the fading echoes until only the rush of water over sand and stone remained. Katarine kneeled beside him in the water and shifted her hand to rest between his shoulders, forearm braced along his spine. She murmured a reassurance to him before pushing him forward, leaving no time for second thoughts.

The shock of the frigid waters knocked the wind out of him immediately and the Catabasian's hand was firm as she held him under when he gave in to his body's instinctive gasp. The sudden pressure in his lungs burned, chest constricted as if he'd been buried under a black mile of stone.

The moonlight through the water on the stones below him was fractured, much like it appeared through the Sanctuary's stained glass windows. Some distant part of his already disoriented mind wondered if this had been its inspiration. Who had been the first of the Drowned before they became Catabasian? Had it been their design?

The ache in his chest spread steadily into the rest of his body, and it took longer than he expected for black to crawl into the edges of his vision. The inescapable, primal fear of dying clamored in his mind and he hated himself for his doubt, shirking in the face of tradition - but even in his panic, his limbs felt leaden and there was nothing he could do as he slipped into unconsciousness.

He could hear whale song in the void, the long and low tones punctuated on occasion by the clear note of a glass bell. He couldn't move to try to see in the all-encompassing darkness, but each note resonated through him and it felt as though each brought the resonant sounds closer to him.

There was a moment of silence in the void, and he could feel the presence of something that existed on a scale he could hardly fathom with him in the dark. There was another chime and then uncountable frigid hands were on him - holding him down, questing over his skin, wrapped around his throat, in his mouth - colder even than the water. They were under his skin, squeezing his heart, clutching at his bones, and where it touched it burned with the same pain of drowning and it was as beautiful as it was horrific.

There was a flash of blue in the dark, sheet lightning arcing over a body above and around him in a bioluminescent blue with a sound like countless church bells against a storm. He understood it to mean approval. He did not know how he understood, but it was plain to him as daylight. It carved its language into his bones and wrote its litanies on the inside of his skin to sanctify him, and it sang all the while.

It lasted a lifetime. It only lasted a moment.

The dark of the void fell away and the light of the moon was bright - too bright - as real, living pain arced through him again as he coughed and wheezed, chest heaving as his body fought to try to breathe. There were hands on him again but they were warm, alive - someone spoke but he couldn't hear over the rush of blood in his ears and the lingering chorus of bells in his skull. He'd been brought up onto the beach. He was alive. The Aegis had seen fit to return him. The Aegis had - he didn't know. Had it even been real or just the product of a dying mind?

He rolled onto his side and pain burned through his chest as he retched, but there was nothing left in him but blood and phlegm and he finally pushed himself up onto one elbow to spit onto the grey stones. His chest rattled painfully as he gasped like a landed fish and he slumped down onto his back, muscles too numbed by cold to keep himself upright.

In stark contrast to his anesthetized muscles, his bones ached terribly. He could feel a low course of pain deep in his marrow, feeling energized much like the air before a lightning strike. He wanted to sleep.

"Stay with me, setkhel," he could finally hear the Catabasian over him. He registered her hands on his forehead and side of his neck, warmth radiating out from them. He turned his head into her touch and he clung to her voice and warmth as a tether to consciousness, until finally he blinked his eyes open. He struggled to focus, and his breath still only came in shallow wheezes, but he was conscious. Katarine smiled down at him, expression warm and proud. "The worst is over, Alexei."