Salty water closed over the back of Akela’s head and she fought back a gasp, saving as much air as she could.
Falling in the ocean while wearing her nicest festival outfit ranked up there with some of the dumber things she’d ever done in her life, and she was glad her sister wasn’t here to see it.
Her finery was ruined no matter what she did at this point, but the flower chain was so very close. Caught in a gentle current, it drifted out of reach like a feather on the breeze. It would be the work of a few seconds to catch it. She secured her lungful of air and thrust forward, swiping at the twined blossoms.
The current pulled it just out of reach, the delicate orchid petals giving the faintest of teasing brushes against her fingertips.
Grimacing, she changed direction and dove after it.
The seascape she swam through bore little resemblance to the quiet desolation of the world above. There, short fingers of island rock thrust upward at the sky, sad reminders of what had once been the island’s tallest mountains.
Below the water, great slabs of black stone stabbed down into the depths, only their smallest tips reaching far enough to break the surface. Sea life had begun to reclaim the area, but only slowly. The outer edges of Koapua’s girth teemed with fish and turtles and sharks and plant life bringing new beauty to the dead island.
Here in what had been the center of the island, creatures were slower to populate. Akela found herself alone, swimming in the world between a purpled sky and pitch-black depths, chasing a string of flowers fading into the darkness with every passing second.
She swiped again at the orchids, and again a current of water stole the garland from her grasp. The flowers spun out of sight around a stone spire wider than Akela was tall.
Now that was just spiteful. Akela gave one last push, lungs burning. She rounded the corner with a blind grasp for the flowers, as if they were a fish she could startle into her net. With a grunt of satisfaction, Akela felt her fingers close around the tightly-woven band. She saw the big yellow petals flutter in the gentle current, then paused, realizing the significance of that.
She saw them.
There was light nearby, and it wasn’t coming from the surface.
Lungs aching, she spared a brief glance to her surroundings.
There! Just a bit further down. Some kind of sea cave yawned, like an open gryphon’s beak with an overbite.
She made a mental note of its location and thrust upward, gulping lungfuls of fresh air the moment she broke the surface.
Worried creeling met her ears, followed by the low whoosh of Dancer pumping her wings to send a gust of wind and waves in Akela’s direction. Without a gryphon’s night vision, Akela couldn’t see what her friend was saying, but she could guess.
“I know, I know,” she muttered, knowing full well Dancer could hear her. Pitching her voice to a mocking tone, she said, “Only Akela could take a bad idea and make it even worse.”
The creeling stopped, followed by a low ak-ak-ak chatter.
“I’m fine, stop being such a wet hen!”
At that, Dancer huffed, but stopped her nagging.
“I saw something down there, I want to go in for another look.”
“It’ll only take a minute!”
Akela looped the flowers over her own head, fingers twining the broken seam into a new knot. She couldn’t see what she was doing, but her hands knew their work. In less than a moment, she had the garland whole again.
Akela paused, treading water, to twine her hands together in a graceful prayer for a swimmer’s safe return. Investigating sea caves during the day could be dangerous business. Doing it at night was … well, yet another bad idea in the flower chain of bad ideas she was decorating tonight with.
The soft click of Dancer’s beak tapping open and shut, an audible question mark.
Akela laughed. “If I knew what it was, I wouldn’t need to go back and check it out. Don’t worry. I won’t let you miss the party.”
If Dancer replied, Akela didn’t wait for it. She dove with a proper lungful of air this time, legs and arms pumping powerfully through the water. As her cave loomed into view, she saw that the odd shape of it would keep the light from being visible from the surface. The upper jaw of the cave overhung at such a drastic angle that she wouldn’t have seen it if she hadn’t already been diving down far enough to chase her flowers.
She swam directly to the tip of the beak, then carefully tested the rocky surface for sharp edges with her hands before securing her grasp. “Impatient seamen can’t count to ten” was a favorite saying on Koapua.
Her fingers brushed against something scratchy and familiar and not-at-all rocky.
Not so waterlogged that it had gone soft with seaweed or succombed to salt.
This was new rope.
She frowned, the first trickle of real unease settling in her belly. Fishermen from Koapua didn’t come here. Shortly after the eruption, some of the islanders had tried to come back and look for anything that could be salvaged. The few that returned did so with jagged gashes cut into the hulls of their boats, fallen prey to invisible spikes of stone just beneath the surface. The priests had declared the entire island off-limits. Said Koapuo did not welcome them back, and had given them warning that he would kill any who tried.
Even Koapua punished villagers who tried to praise her dead brother. She shook and rumbled and tore down any statue to him. She rained miserably on any festival thrown in his honor and had rocks cut the nets of any fisherman who prayed to him for good fortune.
No, this rope couldn’t have come from Koapua. Akela found it difficult to believe it could have come from any of the other islands of Oa, either. They had no reason to visit the desolate center of a dead island when they had their own gods and goddesses to praise.
That left only one real option.