We? I asked archly.
They, he corrected himself hastily. They like to take any excuse.
That was a pretty pathetic save.
Hey, give a guy a break, will you? At least I tried. He pulled me close, wrapped his arms around me so my back was to his front, and used his powerful legs to propel us through the water. Besides, I’m crazy about one particular mermaid.
Yeah, but you don’t have to go all the way to my mother’s territory to find her.
For which I am very grateful.
I laughed softly and the sound seemed to work its way right through Kona. Pressed together the way we were, I actually felt him shudder.
I’m not sure how long we swam like that, Kona holding me against him while the others cracked jokes. I know we covered a lot of distance, because the ocean changed around us. For a long time we saw only small, brightly colored fish, but eventually we ran into groups of other animals. Another forest of octopuses that repulsed me but made Kona laugh. A pod of dolphins that was nowhere near as friendly as the one we had run into that morning. And then, much to my consternation, a few hammerhead sharks that followed us for a while.
Should I be concerned? I asked, glancing uneasily behind us at the long, gray bodies.
Don’t worry about them. We’re a little too big for their tastes, said Ari. Besides, I’m pretty sure they prefer octopus.
I didn’t realize they were so picky. I mean, this is one of the species of sharks that eat their own young.
Yeah, well, they only do that if they’re hungry. Kona’s arms tightened reassuringly around me.
Oh, right. That makes me feel so much better.
You know, sarcasm really becomes you.
Good to know, since I use it so often.
Though the guys continued to tell me I had nothing to worry about, I realized that after the sharks had started following us the guys had positioned themselves behind me, so that they were between the nasty things and me. I don’t know if they did it simply to give me peace of mind or if they viewed the animals as more of a threat than they were letting on.
Either way, it made me uncomfortable that they were putting themselves in harm’s way in an effort to make me feel better. But when I said something to Kona, he told me not to worry about it. That it was just how things worked down here.
Eventually we passed another school of fish and the sharks peeled off in search of tastier game. I relaxed as soon as I saw the last of their tails, so it took me a few seconds to realize that Kona and the others hadn’t relaxed along with me.
What’s wrong? I asked them.
Don’t talk. Kona’s answer was immediate, and so low and firm that I automatically shut up.
I glanced behind me, saw that the other guys looked just as grim as he did. What’s wrong? I asked him again, this time on our own private path. I could feel their anxiety creeping into me. The sharks are gone.
The sharks were never a problem to begin with.
I don’t know. His eyes were the color of smoldering ashes as they darted from side to side. But something is.
How do you know?
I can feel it. Can’t you?
The words were barely out of his mouth before his hands tightened on me to the point of pain. And then we were shooting straight down toward the ocean’s bottom like the hounds of hell were nipping at our heels.
We were going so fast that it made me dizzy, but I didn’t protest. I didn’t do anything, really, but hang on for dear life. I was too worried about distracting Kona, which seemed like a particularly bad idea, as we were swimming at what I estimated to be close to a hundred miles an hour. As the ocean sped by, I wondered randomly how fast he could go in his seal skin. He’d told me his human form was the slow one.
He swooped to avoid a couple of small whales, both of whom seemed to be booking it out of the area almost as fast as we were, and I closed my eyes. If we were going to hit anything I didn’t want to know about it—I could only imagine what a crash at this speed could do to all of us, which meant that whatever had spooked Kona had to be pretty bad.
As we sped through the water like missiles in search of a target, frightening images ran through my head. Pictures of great white sharks and electric eels, mermaid-eating octopuses and Tiamat herself, who wasn’t looking nearly as cartoonish this time around.
I opened my eyes again, hoping that the real world would banish the images. It didn’t work. Even worse, I was so wrapped up in worrying about what was behind us that I didn’t notice the ocean floor looming in front of us until I almost smacked face-first into it.
Stop! I yelled, remembering my last tumble across the bottom. But Kona was obviously a lot better at this than I was. He pulled up at the last second, shot straight across the ocean floor to a large cave I could just make out in the distance. Caves were good, I thought. We could hide there. We could—
Kona turned away from the cave’s gaping mouth at the last second, slammed instead into the much smaller opening to its right—at full speed. We passed so close to the bottom of the ocean that I felt my new swimsuit catch on a few of the clamshells that crowded the opening.
We were still going full speed as we zipped through one room after another. I held on to Kona so tightly my fingers cramped, convinced we were going to crash at any moment. Somehow, though I really didn’t have a clue how, we managed to avoid disaster until Kona finally slowed down. If I’d counted correctly, we were five rooms away from the cave’s opening.
By the time he set me gently on the sand, I was shaking so badly Kona had to pry my trembling hands off his arms. I wasn’t normally a coward, but that roller-coaster ride from hell would have shaken up almost anyone—or so I told myself.
He pulled me into his arms, ran a soothing hand over my hair. It’s okay, Tempest. I won’t let anything happen to you.
I looked over his shoulder, realized for the first time that the other guys weren’t with us. Where—
Malu, Aaron, and Jake are up above. My brothers are outside, waiting for me.
What? No! I grabbed on to his shoulders. If something’s out there, shouldn’t you all be in here?
This isn’t the kind of something that goes away if you ignore it, Tempest.
What do you mean? Why did we even bother running then?
I needed to get you someplace safe.
Meaning what, that you’re planning on dropping me here and taking off again? When he didn’t answer, I realized that was exactly what he planned to do. I narrowed my eyes. Don’t even think about it. I want to go with you.
Absolutely not. He was already backing away and I tried to follow him.
What if you get hurt? What if whatever is up there does something to you?
Then Ari or Oliwa will come back and get you. I promise, I won’t leave you here any longer than necessary.
He was being deliberately obtuse and I wanted to smack him for it. That’s not what I meant and you know it. I laid my hand over his. Kona, I don’t want anything to happen to you.
Nothing’s going to happen to me. He pulled me into his arms, held me tightly for the length of one heartbeat, two.
You don’t know that.
No, but I’m pretty good at this whole fighting thing. Honest. He pushed me a little distance away, leaned down so that we were eye to eye. Listen to me, Tempest. You are not to leave this cave. Not unless one of the three of us comes for you. Do you understand me?