Reflexively, Akela pushed herself away from the rock as though it had scalded her. Pirates, here at Koapuo? Sacrilege.
Her fingers twisted themselves in a prayer to ward off evil, and her mouth set in a grim line. Whatever they were here for, they weren’t going to get it.
Her heart thudded inside her chest as she kicked, sending herself back to where she’d found the rope. Swiftly, her fingers traced what she could find of it, eyes straining in the dim to help her understand its purpose. It encircled the “beak” of the cave mouth, tied off with clever knots that she didn’t recognize.
Her lungs gave a faint twinge — a reminder that she was on a time limit. More decisively, she used the rope to pull herself down toward the open mouth of the cave.
The overhang was about as long as she was tall, made entirely of black stone that gleamed in the dim glow from inside. The cave itself was twice that deep, with a pile of lumpy bags and water-tight metal boxes neatly stacked against the back wall.
The glow came from the roughspun sack at the top of the largest stack of boxes, tied tightly at the mouth. Whatever was inside of it glowed so brightly that not even the heavy cloth of the bag could entirely dim it. She started to swim toward it, then paused as a sudden current caused something to flutter just out of the corner of her eye.
At first, her mind refused to acknowledge what she was seeing.
The fluttering thing was the tentacle of a dead octopus, resting gently on the lower jaw of the cave mouth. The rest of the octopus lay without any visible injury or wound, nestled among the gruesome corpses of several other fish in varying states of decay.
She had been so intent on the glowing thing that she had almost missed them and her stomach curdled at the thought of what they signified.
Of course pirates would leave a trap behind to guard their treasure.
Akela realized that her hands were repeatedly tracing the prayer pattern to ward off evil, and forced her fingers to still. These poor animals did not deserve and end like this. Their deaths benefited no one. Any sea creature drawn in by the bait would fall prey to the trap themselves, attracting even more hapless fish.
The octopus tentacle gave another gentle wave, and Akela realized with horror that the animal was still alive.
Why was it just lying there? A healthy octopus would have bolted the second she swam close. Why hadn’t it eaten any of the other fish, and why wasn’t it trying to swim away?
A thought occurred to her, dreadful as ice tripping down her spine.
She opened her mouth and let the water run across her tongue, praying she was wrong.
She tasted nothing out of the ordinary at first, but then there it was. A hint of sweetness, like a ribbon of pineapple syrup. She spat out an involuntary string of bubbles in her haste to get the water out of her mouth.
Panic clawing at the back of her throat, she kicked away and arrowed to the surface.
Her mind spun frantically in the few seconds it took for her to rise. Sweetwater was a horror story told around bonfires by scarred divers. An invisible danger added to children’s games of tag. Some said it didn’t even exist. Others said it had been an experiment gone wrong at the Mage Academy. Akela wasn’t too sure about that one. She’d heard everything from tsunamis to biting insects blamed on the Academy.
What she did know — what everyone knew, from old fishermen to chanting youngsters — was that anything that swam into Sweetwater just … stopped.
Stopped caring, stopped breathing, stopped living.
And the only way you could tell if it existed was to taste the water. “Sweet on the tongue, your life’s all done!” could be heard chanted by children on every island of Oa.
She didn’t actually know anyone who had encountered it firsthand. It was a lot like the stories of bloodthirsty sharks. Sure, plenty of divers “knew someone” who had been attacked, but no one on Koapua had firsthand experience of a shark attack.
But those fish, and that sweetness — what else could do such a thing?
Finally, she broke the surface of the water and drew in a great gasp of crisp air. The moment her ears cleared, she heard the soft pattern of Dancer’s worried creeling. It had taken on a sharper, more insistent note since the last time she had been to the surface.
“Dancer? What’s wrong?”
Still perched on a nearby outcropping of island, the dark shadow that was her friend stretched out one massive wing, pointing.
Akela’s gaze followed the line of feathers, then her stomach sank.
In the far distance, she could see signs of a boat, ablaze with light against the full-dark of the sky. It was too far away to see flags or sails, but it was on the wrong side of the island wreckage to be from Koapua.
“God’s tits, please tell me those aren’t pirates.” Dancer’s keen eyes could pick out details she couldn’t, even in the dark.
Dancer’s worry manifested in a hoarse cawing sound.
Akela tread water, mind swirling uselessly. There was absolutely no chance the Sweetwater was in that cave mouth by accident. She swore again. “Sky forbid they let us come back during the daylight to finish this.”
She was wasting time. They should leave. Fly away before the pirates got here. Tell someone. Her dad, or the elders, or Dancer’s flock — this wasn’t their problem. This was something bigger than a pair of teenagers could handle, especially since Dancer couldn’t swim. Being this far away from the island was dangerous for her.
Akela hesitated. By the time they managed to convince anyone to come here, it would be too late. The pirates were already here. She and Dancer weren’t full adults yet, but they weren’t children, either.
She needed to simplify the problem. One choice. Run to safety, or stop the pirates from getting whatever was in that cave. Everything else hinged on that decision, and when she thought of it that way, there wasn’t even an option.
Akela shook her head. “We can’t let them have it, whatever it is.”
Without waiting for a response, she took a deep breath and dove back to the cave.