It is the first thing hatchlings are taught the moment their fans unfurl and they can swim without their parents to buoy them along. It is the first rule, the first law. It is the beginning of every boogey-monster bedtime story told when they settle against the cliffs to sleep.
Never go near the light-beds.
The two tails on their floating-reefs dip hands of woven metals into the sea. They are merciless and indiscriminate. They will pluck from the light-beds any fish or fin-kin who get tangled in their fingers and drag them up into the steady-blue – to a place above the waves where you cannot breathe.
Stay in the deep, where the steady-blue’s bright-pearl cannot cast her touch. Stay in the deep, where the metal hands cannot reach. Stay in the deep and don’t go near the light-beds.
The light-beds are a thing of beauty. They are entrancing to the eye, hypnotic to any creature foolish enough to swim too close. Legend says the lights that mesmerize are the souls of the lost – those taken by the two-tails – calling to fin-kin. But their allure can be explained through science; naturally occurring shine-stones in the reef catch the rays of the bright-pearl and reflect through the waves to create millions of dancing colour-arcs.
Fin-kin stay far away from the shallows where the light-beds lay. These are the hunting grounds of the two-tails. The two-tails and their floating-reefs come from the parts of the world where the sea floor rises above the waves. They seem capable of swimming, though not nearly as gracefully as the fin-kin can. They splash and struggled through the water, disrupting the flow of the sea. The two-tails never swim farther out than the sand-beds where the water is uncomfortably warm. The sand-beds lay beyond the light-beds.
Stay away from the light-beds. Stay in the deep.
He hesitates, looking back, and laments it immediately as he gets left behind. His nest-brothers are fast swimmers, their slight forms sliding through the currents easily. Castiel is fast too, but his wariness to swim beyond the colony borders where only silence awaits lends pause to his movements. Even his nest-brothers are not speaking in the quiet. They are purposefully suppressing the usually unconscious chirping clicks of their echolocation. They don’t want to risk someone hearing them.
(We should turn back!) He calls to them, flicking his tail nervously as he struggles to catch up. To turn back now, without them, would be cowardice and he does not want to be left alone along the border-reefs.
Neither Gabriel, Lucifer nor Balthazar respond. Balthazar does slow though, the fans along his tail flaring to reduce his speed. A brief noise of scorn flashes through their minds and Lucifer glares over his shoulder, clearly irate that Castiel is slowing them down. Gabriel’s laughter drowns out any complaint he might make. They are too far from the colony to be heard now.
Lucifer leads the way, following the slope of the sea floor. The higher they climb, the warmer the water gets. It makes Castiel’s gills flutter wildly and he clenches his long fingers into a fist, squishing the webbing between them. Balthazar takes his hand and tugs him along, slanting one of his ridiculous smirks at him in a show of confidence.
The steady-blue’s bright-pearl cuts through the murk of the deep. Her shine pains their eyes and they stop by an outcropping of rock where they can adjust. The glow that marks the edges of their fans and dances in designs along their tails dims in the light and Castiel briefly panics, wondering if it will return when they dive back into the dark.
Gabriel digs the pointed tip of his tail into the sand, his colours blending seamlessly with the granules. He lifts his face to the waves far above their heads, and Castiel can see his pupils contract with the change of the light. It is the first time he realizes that his nest-brother’s eyes are the same shiny colour as the many round disks often found in the wreckage of the two-tail’s moving reefs. He quickly looks to Lucifer and Balthazar, curious.
Balthazar is watching him, his head tilted to the side. The black has receded enough for Castiel to see a sliver of colour like the steady-blue. Lucifer’s eyes are similar, but the blue is darker like the steady-blue when the bright-pearl is leaving. He wonders if his eyes have a different colour too.
(Like mother-sea.) Balthazar offers, and all his nest-brothers look to him. His shoulders raise and fall in a shrug and the fan spanning the length of his spine ripples with the movement.
Castiel did not realize he had been speaking his thoughts, but is thankful anyway.
Lucifer rolls his eyes and pushes off from the rock he had curled around. The command to follow is unvoiced. His body arcs above them and Gabriel corkscrews his tail, raising a cloud of sand as he bursts after him. Balthazar grins at Castiel again, baring the fine points of his teeth before dragging him away from the rock face.
The closer they come to the surface, the slower they swim. It is a several leagues before they reach the jagged edges of the light-beds. Gabriel is the first to arrive. He is smaller than his nest-brothers, even though he is second oldest in their group. He slides past Lucifer with a quick burst of speed and draws up quickly to hide behind the crimson coral that marks the edges of the light-beds.
Castiel notices that Lucifer’s tail is almost the same colour as the coral. It is tracked with lighter shades, going nearly as yellow as Balthazar’s tail in some places. He realizes that Balthazar and Gabriel’s tails closely match the colours of their hair, though patterned with varying hues. When he and Balthazar join them, he takes a moment to examine his own tail and is startled at seeing in full light his own colouring.
This is his first time out of the deep. Here in the light of the bright-pearl, Castiel can see their colours are vibrant. In the depths of the colony, colours are dull. The only light in the colony comes from their own glow and the very tiny creatures living on the cliff walls.
His tail is mostly black, highlighted with swirling patterns of blue. Castiel belatedly realizes they are the same designs his glow takes when in the dark. He traces them delicately with the tip of his finger, marveling at the details he can see.
Amusement that isn’t his own comes across his mind and Balthazar tugs his hand to get his attention. They settle alongside their nest-brothers, curled against the crimson reef. Gabriel takes his other hand and grabs for Lucifer’s. It is how they decided to ensure that none of them will swim off unknowingly. Castiel’s heart beats hard inside his chest, nervous and curious and wondrous and too many emotions for him to stop and figure out.
As one, they slide forward and peer over the edge.
The waters are choked with fish of breeds that never swim into the deep, covered in colours startling and marvelous. Colour-arcs fill the spaces where fish do not. Castiel wonders if the colour-arcs would feel different on his scales or the flesh of his chest and arms, if he would be able to taste them. The shine-stones sparkle along the sea-floor. Except they do not shine in the shadows of the floating-reefs.
Castiel can count three from where they hide. He can see their woven metal hands dragging through the water, stirring up the sand in their wake. Even in the warmth from the bright-pearl, he feels cold from the sight of them. He is thankful they are too far to hear the fish screaming when the metal hands are pulled above water.
(Anna wants a shine-stone.) Gabriel reminds them and Castiel reflexively tightens his hold on his nest-brother’s hands. He is scared of allowing any of them to cross over the crimson reef, even though he knows they’ve come for a gift for their nest-sister.
(Don’t be such a hatchling, Castiel. You’re a warrior now. Act like it.) Lucifer chides as Castiel’s fear filters to all of them.
He is immediately contrite. His worry over coming so close to the surface is making him lose his grip on the kin-connection. He hasn’t been a warrior long, his hair only having been cut short in the warrior style once. To allow his emotions to reach his nest-brothers is the error of a child and Castiel is too old for such mistakes. He closes off that part of his mind, determined to keep his feelings to himself.
Lucifer pulls himself over the edge with his free hand. They keep their hold on eachother as they inch farther down the other side. Balthazar keeps them anchored, never letting go of the coral. Castiel closes his eyes and doesn’t watch as they dangle Lucifer closer to the light-beds. Lucifer is the longest of them and he can easily reach the bottom with his tail. Castiel can hear the scratch of Lucifer’s tail point digging into the sand, trying to loosen a stone.
That’s when Castiel hears the song. Balthazar jerks and almost lets go of the coral. Gabriel and Lucifer have gone still, but their surprise flashes through Castiel’s mind. The song doesn’t play in their heads like fin-kin usually sing. It rides the currents, rising and falling mournfully like the call of the whales.
The wordless notes are meant to convey loneliness and desire for companionship. All it does is inspire panic and settle a heavy weight of dread in Castiel’s stomach. A tone running beneath it all screams at them to swim as far and as fast as they can and never look back because the song sounds wrong.
Lucifer streaks past, dragging Gabriel with him. Castiel’s tail beats painfully against the coral as he surges after them to follow. The only one to hesitate is Balthazar. He feels the drag on his arm and looks back. Balthazar isn’t actively swimming and is being pulled along by his nest-brothers. He’s staring toward the light-beds, but anything he might be feeling is hidden from Castiel.
None of them stop swimming until they can no longer hear the song. Their gills ripple wildly along their necks and Castiel’s muscles burn. He’s never swam so hard or so fast in his lifetime. They stop to catch their breath near the rock face from earlier. Balthazar’s face is turned toward the surface, his expression curious.
(Who do you think it was?) He asks.
Lucifer looks at him sharply. (Forget it.)
Castiel tries not to show his nest-brother’s that he is trembling, but all his fans flare at the thought of the song. (We should never have come here.)
Gabriel slaps Castiel on the shoulder and grins, his hair haloing his head in a cloud of soft brown. It had been his idea to come to the light-beds in the first place to get a present for Anna. (Don’t worry about it! At least tell me you got a stone, Luci?) He glances at Lucifer, who frowns at the nickname but holds out his hand and a shine-stone is nestled in the center of his palm.
(Good! Now we can head back.) Gabriel nudges Castiel again, prodding him away from the rocks.
Again, Balthazar is reluctant to leave. Lucifer places himself at the rear of their group, glaring hard at his nest-brother whenever Balthazar looks back. Castiel only does once.
When they dive back into the dark of the deep, he is more than relieved when the only light comes from their own natural glow. The voices and the proper songs of the fin-kin are a balm to the unsettled emotions of their trip and Castiel sinks happily into their comfort as they return to the colony.
(Where is Balthazar?) He demands. Michael is angry, but he is worried.
Castiel doesn’t have an answer. He looks about wildly, towards the ledge on the cliff wall where Balthazar had settled earlier to sleep. It is empty. He should see the dim outline of Balthazar’s sleep-glow, but there is nothing. Other fin-kin are waking, leaning over their shelves or swimming out into the open trench of the colony to get a better look. He can see Gabriel gently twisting down into the space behind Michael. Anna joins him.
Lucifer rises up from below. He touches Michael’s shoulder. (What’s wrong?)
(Balthazar didn’t show up for his sentry duty.) Michael snaps, not taking his eyes off Castiel. (You two are close. Where is he?)
Castiel shakes his head. (I don’t know. He went to sleep and that was the last I saw of him. I swear it.) He pushes his honesty through the kin-connection.
Lucifer frowns and spares a brief look to Gabriel. They both raise their voices in song. Michael joins immediately and Castiel’s mind quakes as gradually the colony wakes and they all sing. Only one question, one word, rings through the trench. It is (Balthazar!)
Castiel searches with his nest-brothers and sisters. He never misses the looks Gabriel and Lucifer keep sharing. It confuses him until he notices that Anna is carrying her shine-stone. He remembers Balthazar’s near obsession with the wrong-song from the light-beds. His insides feel cold, his chest tight and something feels lodged in his throat.
He fetches his sword from his sleep-shelf. No one pays him much attention. Many other warriors are already carrying their weapons. Some are whispering under the call for Balthazar that his disappearance is at the hands of another colony. Castiel thinks they are wrong, and he carefully guards those thoughts.
No one knows that they went to the light-beds. Not even Michael has questioned Anna’s shine-stone. There are so many places shine-stones can be found that are not forbidden. But Anna wanted one from the light-beds. (Knowing where it comes from is all the fun in having one.) Is how Anna explained her desires.
Castiel swims to the lip of the trench, continuing to call for his nest-brother. He does not like lying to the colony. But it would not be only him in trouble if their trip to the light-beds was discovered. Castiel does not want to be the one to get Lucifer and Gabriel in trouble. They cannot come with him this time. Lucifer and Gabriel are members of the colony council. Michael would notice them missing sooner than he would ever notice Castiel’s disappearance.
No one looks at Castiel twice when he slips out into the open ocean. He can see other fin-kin searching the rocks too. His presence here is understandable. He waits until he is sure no one is watching him before he forces his glow to dim. It will be harder for him to find his way without the glow or his echoes. Castiel cannot take the chance that someone will notice. He swims as quickly as he dares.
The light-beds were several dozen leagues away. The trip there and back had taken them all morning. Alone and in the dark, it would take Castiel most of the night. He swims a few leagues before allowing his lights to return. He concentrates on being even brighter, lighting the rocky sea floor. He refrains from using his echoes still.
Castiel is exhausted when he reaches the light-beds. He is certain Michael will have noticed his absence by now. He wonders if Lucifer or Gabriel will explain. He settles against the crimson coral to catch his breath, looking out onto the light-beds for any sign of his nest-brother. The wrong-song rings desolately through the empty sea.
The bright-pearl is gone from steady-blue. In her place is her sister, the pale-pearl. Her light is weak, the water is dim and free of colour-arcs. He is thankful that the two-tails floating-reefs are gone. But he does not see Balthazar. The light-beds are wide and span many leagues. Castiel realizes he will have to leave the safety of the crimson coral to search its entirety. He might even have to swim to the other side. No fin-kin has ever been to the other side. Beyond the light-beds is where the two-tails and their floating-reefs go when night falls.
Steeling himself, Castiel grips his sword tight and throws himself from the coral. His fans flare as his heart beats painfully in his chest. He sinks to the floor of the light-beds and his glow reflects from the shine-stones. He swims close to the ground, skimming over the rocks and sand. He calls for Balthazar with his mind and he risks a song. The notes of his song do not echo back to him. The size of the light-beds is daunting.
He spends hours searching. The pale-pearl dips out of sight in steady-blue, growing lighter as bright-pearl returns. Schools of fish are returning to the grounds, drawn by the colour-arcs. Castiel pays them no attention. The fish don’t understand his song and their minds are too simple to comprehend his questions.
The only response he gets from the sea is the wrong-song. It repeats itself over and over. It frightens him and he raises his voice above it.
Balthazar never answers.
Castiel is tired. His muscles ache and his sword is heavy in his hand. His throat is sore and raw from his singing. He feels like he has swam from one end of the light-beds to the other, but he knows there is still much for him to check. He still hasn’t ventured towards the other side. It is from that direction that the wrong-song comes.
The first of the two-tails’ floating-reefs arrives. Castiel gives it a wide berth, watching from a distance when the woven metal hand crashes into the sea. It is not long after its appearance that he realizes his folly. If Balthazar came to the light-beds because of the wrong-song, he would not avoid it like Castiel is. Balthazar would have gone straight for it.
He curses himself for his idiocy and turns, swimming hard for the other side. His spreads wide the fans on the sides of his head, straining to catch the song so he can find its origin. It sends shivers down his spine. Another floating-reef coasts over the waves a long distance to his right, trailing its own hands. He continues to call for Balthazar.
Relief floods through Castiel at the first tentative touch to his mind. He’s never been away from any fin-kin for so long before.
(Where are you?) He asks, coming to an abrupt halt and looking around.
(I… The song, Cassie. I should have forgotten it like Lucifer told me to.)
(I know, Balthazar. We can talk about that later. Where are you?)
(Oh, I don’t know. A cave? It… I followed the song. Then there was a cave-in or something? I… Don’t laugh at me, Cassie, but I hit my head.)
Castiel doesn’t laugh. He tunes into the wrong-song again and raises a cloud of sand when he kicks off after it. It’s louder and the water practically vibrates with it. (I’m coming to find you.)
(Who’s with you?)
(Here? No one. But the whole colony is looking for you. Michael is… worried.)
(What time is it?)
(Bright-pearl is rising.)
Castiel has come to the edge of the other side. A steep wall of rock rises from the sea-floor, rolling up to the waves. He doesn’t waste time wondering how the floating-reefs get over it. It’s just speculation where they come from. He ignores all of it and follows the song. It’s almost deafening by now, and his side fans fold together and flatten against the sides of his head. He doesn’t need to strain to hear it anymore.
When he finds the source, Castiel doesn’t know what it is he has found. He stops and touches the outcropping from the rock wall. It doesn’t feel the same as the other rocks and Castiel jerks his hand away. A part of the rock is flat and smooth, recessed a little more than the rest. The song is loudest directly above the flat-rock. He touches the flat part gingerly, and it feels like the metal of his sword.
He taps at the metal-rock, curious.
(Cassie, that you?)
(You heard that?) He taps again. This time there are responding taps.
(Congratulations. You’re quite the little hunter.)
(Finding this was the easy part, Balthazar. I have no idea how to get you out.)
Castiel feels along the edges of the metal-rock. He digs the point of his sword into the small crevice. It scrapes against it loudly, violently. Balthazar curses at the sound and Castiel winces. He tried to press the point in at several places. None of them have any give. He moves to the sea floor and digs at the sand. It clouds the water around him and he ignores it, working the edge of his sword under the flat-rock.
It requires a bit of squirming against the sand to fit his shoulder under the hilt of the sword. Castiel presses his tail hard against the sea floor, the powerful muscles coiling and pushing. He grits his teeth against the scraping noise and shoves hard. The blade bows slightly and Castiel spares a moment of worry that it might break. Then the flat-rock shifts with another painful grating sound. It only moves a little, barely more than the width of a finger.
Balthazar’s exuberance fills his mind. (Whatever you’re doing keep doing it, Cassie!)
His fingers scrabbled under the opening, gripping the flat-rock. It rises another few hand spans with their combined efforts. Castiel abandons his sword after that to grab at the flat-rock with both hands. It is heavy and the edges dig into his fingers painfully.
(Can you fit?) Castiel asks, struggling to raise the flat-rock higher.
(I can try… Don’t let it drop on me.) The end of Balthazar’s tail twitches through the opening. He tries to keep helping Castiel hold it up while he wiggles his way out.
Castiel cries out in surprise when Balthazar is no longer helping to hold the flat-rock up. It jerks him down a hand-span and his muscles scream, his fingers ache, and he knows he can’t hold it up for much longer. He knows he’s begging Balthazar to move quickly, but his nest-brother is still worming his waist underneath. Balthazar’s tail kicks up a cloud of sand as it beats against the sea-floor.
With one final push, Balthazar slides out of harm’s way. At his jubilant cry, Castiel lets go of the flat-rock. It slams down violently, slicing through the water. Castiel sags against it, relief flooding his limbs. Balthazar wraps him in a hug, grinning widely and crushing him against his chest.
Their moment is short lived.
Castiel is reaching for his sword when the shadow falls across them. Simultaneously, they look up and Balthazar grips Castiel’s free hand painfully hard. They shrink back against the flat-rock as one of the two-tails’ floating-reefs drifts overhead. Castiel is holding his breath while Balthazar is taking sharp little gasps, bordering on hyperventilating.
(We need to move.) Balthazar hisses, tugging at Castiel’s hand. (We need to move now!)
(Not yet.) Castiel is not curious about the two-tails. He does not want to get any closer than he has to. Too many stories and legends have built them up as monsters in his mind. He’s never seen one in person and he has no desire to.
His training as a warrior of the colony is telling him not to make a target of himself by moving. By moving, they could actually draw attention to them. Neither he nor Balthazar knows anything about the floating-reefs. For all they know, the two-tails could be watching them now. Castiel refuses to allow any course of action that could bring further danger down upon them or the colony should they be followed.
Balthazar has been a warrior longer than Castiel has. He is willing to allow him a little leeway in his reaction. A bruise is mottled purple, black and blue, colours his forehead. It extends under his hairline and Castiel’s head hurts sympathetically just looking at it.
A large hook crashes into the waves next to the floating-reef. Castiel reflexively tightens his hold on the hilt of his sword. Balthazar drags him around the edge of the outcropping of not-rock, placing it between them and the hook. They watch over the top as it sinks to the light-beds and settles in the sand. Belatedly, Castiel realizes that the wrong-song has stopped.
(Cassie, we should go. We NEED to go.) Balthazar tugs his hand again, trying to catch his eye. (We’ll keep to the rocks. Please. I was trapped in that wrong-cave and I’m not going to be caught by two-tails.)
Castiel nods, slowly. Technically, Balthazar is of higher status than he. He is the youngest of the nest and is of a lower rank warrior. If Balthazar gives him an order, Castiel has no choice but to follow. He still thinks it is foolish to move but he follows as Balthazar presses himself to the sand and slithers along the edge of the light-beds, moving away from the floating-reef.
They barely move a few tail-lengths when Castiel hears another splash. He looks over his shoulder and warily eyes the shell being lowered toward the outcropping. It is attached to a twisted something Castiel thinks looks a lot like their ropes of kelp. The shell snaps around a protuberance on the not-rock outcropping.
The water echoes with a painful grating noise as the not-rock is pulled away from the real-rock. Even Balthazar stops and watches with wide eyes as it swings free from the sea floor and is pulled up and out of the waves. Surprise and horror washes through the kin-connection and Castiel is unsure if it is his own or Balthazar’s. If their escape had taken a few minutes longer, Balthazar could have been lost to the world above the sea. The thought terrifies them both and as one they turn and swim away.
Balthazar insists that Castiel return to the colony first. He insists that Castiel will be in less trouble if he arrives alone and claims to have been searching for Balthazar beyond the trench. Castiel refuses. He has been gone too long to be able to use that as an excuse. His absence would have been noticed by now and he would have likely been called for too. A lack of response from him could only have indicated that he was no longer within the colony’s territory.
Their return is met with relief and rage. Balthazar is immediately escorted to the healer and Michael. Castiel is left to explain what happened to Raphael, another colony leader from a different nest. To his surprise, Lucifer and Gabriel come forward with explanations of their own. Raphael’s anger is palpable. Castiel can almost taste it in the water.
He is dismissed with the strict orders to remain on his sleep-shelf until he is called upon by Michael. Castiel leaves Lucifer and Gabriel, both righteously indignant of Raphael’s handling of their nest-brother, to deal with Raphael. They are all strong willed, but their debates will be pointless once Michael becomes involved.
Castiel is tired and he finds it hard to care about much beyond that. His sleep comes fast once he has settled in the shallow groove of his shelf. He dreams of steady-blue.
The colony is at war. Their territory is being encroached upon by a new group of fin-kin. They are fast and strong, with many characteristics different from Castiel’s own family. He has not lost any of his nest-brothers or sisters, yet, but many members of the colony have died to defend what little of the sea they call their own.
The trench is a prime location. There are many choice hunting grounds nearby and deep at its base lies a smoldering volcanic vent where they forge their weapons and tools. There is plenty of room for both colonies. But these new fin-kin refused the offer to join them and share the trench as one colony and they were the first to spill blood, declaring war over the land.
Castiel is leading his garrison on a mission. Scouts have returned with word of the enemy fin-kin striking out toward the light-beds. His orders are to investigate and intercede should the enemy do anything that could bring the two-tails down upon their home. Castiel wonders if these new fin-kin know of the legends, if they sing the same songs to their hatchlings before bed.
Their colony does not share an immediate kin-connection with these new fin-kin. They choose to speak with sounds from their mouths in a rough, guttural language that Castiel does not understand. He has never heard them sing. He knows that, if pressed, they can communicate with their minds if they open themselves to the connection. He has not yet met one on the field of battle who is willing to do so.
Castiel rests his garrison at the rock-face he and his nest-brothers once sat upon all those seasons ago. Like then, he inspects the true colours of his garrison with a hint of wonder at the vibrant shades and differences from one fin-kin to the next. None of the members of his garrison are from his nest, so none share designs similar to his own.
His second in command, Uriel, is dark-skinned and dark-scaled. He stares stonily up into the brightening waters with his ever-permanent frown. The ribs of his side-fans are constantly spreading and flattening, listening to the currents. Slowly, he turns his gaze to Castiel. (I don’t hear anyone nearby. How close are we going to get to the beds?)
(As near as need be.) Castiel responds, giving the signal for the others to follow. They fall into an easy formation as they continue the climb.
They are seven strong and armed with their swords and several daggers filed to wicked points. Castiel hopes no blood will need to be spilled this day. He hates killing fin-kin, even if they look like no fin-kin he has ever seen before. He knows this is nothing to care about. There are many different breeds of fish who swim in mother-sea. It is inconceivable that all fin-kin look similar.
Castiel’s garrison crests the crimson coral of the light-beds. Bright-pearl rests high in steady-blue and the water is alight with colour-arcs. He takes a moment to appreciate the beauty, unchanged like when he had seen it the first time. He sends a silent thank-you to mother-sea that the wrong-song is not ringing through the waves.
There are no other fin-kin in sight. Castiel sends two groups of three off in either direction. Uriel is in charge of one, Hester – a female with a surprisingly strong will – in charge of the other. Castiel settles against the coral and opens his mind to theirs. He will relay messages between the two teams to ensure everyone stays in contact.
Their orders are to remain outside of the light-beds and ensure that none of the enemy fin-kin enter it. It is a difficult task, considering the ridiculous size of the light-beds. Anna’s garrison should – Castiel hopes – be covering another section of the coral much farther along than where he is stationed. Her garrison had left the night before.
Both of Castiel’s teams have checked in with no signs of the other fin-kin. Hester’s group has made kin-connection with a division of Anna’s garrison. No members of Anna’s teams have seen even a glimpse of the fin-kin they were sent to keep away.
Castiel digs the point of his dagger into the coral, carving designs into it. He is bored and annoyed. The scouts could have been wrong in their interpretation of the fin-kin’s actions. It is entirely possible that they were never headed to the light-beds in the first place. Not that Castiel would ever say anything against Raphael’s orders. He is a good soldier and will follow his orders to the letter. Though that doesn’t mean he won’t complain privately about how much of a waste of time this is.
There are a few floating-reefs above the light-beds again. Castiel checks on them every few minutes. He alternates between scanning the open ocean behind him and the descent into the deep and out into the light-beds. He has as much luck as his teams at spotting any of the other fin-kin. The currents ripple with the movement of fish, but there is nothing even remotely close to the size of the fin-kin nearby.
Castiel spends a few long hours lounging against the coral. Uriel reports that his group is splitting up, leaving one member behind where the kin-connection is growing weak. From there, the rest will continue their search. Castiel gives his consent and sends word to Hester’s, informing her she should do the same, even if they end up overlapping with Anna’s garrison.
It is while he is watching out into the light-beds that Castiel hears a solid thrumming sound. It surprises him and he immediately draws his sword, looking about for the source of the noise. A creaking groan overlaps the pulsing thrum and he twists off of the coral, staring down into the deep and out along the edges of the light-beds. Belatedly, he looks out into the open ocean and up at the waves to the approaching floating-reef.
This floating-reef is smaller than the ones Castiel is used to seeing over the light-beds. A small part of his mind thinks it’s close to the same size as the one he and Balthazar had been close to. The thrumming that makes the water and Castiel’s head throb stops and it shakes him from his slight stupor. The floating-reef is dragging another of the odd shaped hooks behind it, letting it sink deeper into the sea.
He dives over the coral, pressing himself to the other side to shield himself from sight. Castiel sinks to the sandy floor of the light-bed, ignoring how the edges of the shine-stones dig into his tail. He barely suppresses the flinch at the hollow thud of the hook catching on the other side of the coral. The weirdly pointed end of the floating-reef can be seen over the edge of the coral, but it moves no further into the light-beds.
Castiel sends words of warning to his garrison, telling them not to return. He ignores Uriel’s protests, ordering him and the others to stay away. It will be difficult for Castiel to escape notice if he is worrying about the garrison as well. He returns his sword to the loop of kelp around his waist and keeping his movements fluid and calm, he drags himself along the coral and away from the floating-reef.
He never takes his eyes off that pointed-round end. He hears a few splashes and there are ripples of sound that he doesn’t recognize in the water. They’re like pulses of movement similar to thrashing fish. Castiel wonders if the two-tails are dropping more of those rope-shells from before, or if it’s another fake-cave or one of their woven metal hands. He doesn’t investigate, but pauses all the same – just in case.
There is movement out of the corner of his eye. Something long and black is moving at the edge of the coral. It expels bubbles. Castiel’s breath catches in his throat. His gills and fans flare in surprise and his fingers tighten painfully where they grip the coral. Instinctively, the ribs of his fans retract, flattening against his tail and back as he tries to make himself less noticeable. He presses into the coral and sand and prays to mother-sea that they do not see him.
There are two-tails in the ocean.
Their faces are flat blocky and flat. Tubes, thick like some sea plants, sprout from under their flat faces, wrapping around to their bulky backs. Bubbles issue in periodic hissing streams from where the tubes connect to their faces. Their hands are pale and white, like Castiel’s, but their bodies are covered in black. Their odd tails scissor in the water, kicking their flopping webbed fins to propel them slowly forward.
One is significantly longer than the other. Castiel thinks it might be a male. The other is smaller, with more delicate limbs and curves like the females of his colony. The female’s hair is golden and braided. It trails behind her as she swims. The male has hair like Gabriel, longer than a warrior’s cut and floating around his head in a darker-brown cloud.
It’s his warrior training that takes note of all the little details. This is the first that anyone in the colony currently has actually seen, up close like this, a two-tail. Everything they know has been passed down from stories that grew old ages ago. What Castiel sees today will greatly expand upon their knowledge of the two-tails. Granted, that’s only if he escapes.
Uriel and Hester can feel Castiel’s panic. Their questions and requests for updates and orders are a constant stream in his mind. They only stop when he hisses at them (Two-tails!)
Castiel watches the two-tails from the corner of his eye. He won’t move. He can’t move, for fear that they will see him. He can only hope that the light-beds are enough of a distraction for them to not notice the stretch of black and cream against the crimson coral and sand. Castiel prays fervently to mother-sea for her protection.
The male two-tail is holding a long rod with a pointed tip. He waves it around in front of him, gesturing out at the light-beds with his face tilted towards the female. The female is gesturing too and the hissing streams of bubbles increases during the exchange. It occurs to Castiel that they may be communicating and he wonders if they have something similar to the kin-connection too.
It’s a stupid idea. A truly foolish idea. But once the thought is there, Castiel can think of nothing else. He reaches out with his mind like he would if he wanted to speak privately to a member of the colony. He reaches for the thoughts of a creature he’s not sure will even be able to hear him. There could be nothing but silence, like with the forced quiet of the enemy fin-kin.
Castiel can sense the male. He can’t read his thoughts without them being first projected, but he can feel the presence of his mind and a thin layer of emotions. He prods at it, gently touching but giving nothing of himself, no words or feelings.
The male jerks violently at the first brush of Castiel’s contact. He twists wildly in the water, looking everywhere and Castiel immediately withdraws. It’s apparent the two-tails could feel the touch and he curses himself for even listening to the stupid foolish idea. His curses turn profane when the male stills with his blocky flat face turned towards him.
Castiel has been seen. He stares back, unblinkingly, but doesn’t move. The female is touching the male’s shoulder trying to get his attention, but she stops moving when she sees him too. It’s a standoff. Castiel tells himself he won’t move unless the two-tails come toward him or look away. The moment they do that, he’ll take off over the coral and straight out into the ocean. He won’t return to the colony until he is certain that the two-tails are not following him.
The movement is slow, but Castiel tenses when the female brings her hands to her waist. He turns his head fully towards them, eyes wide so as not to miss a thing. She pauses for a moment before continuing. Her white fingers pull at a cube attached to a rope around her hips. Castiel bares his pointed teeth and hisses a soft warning when she pulls it away from her body. She moves even slower as she lifts the block to her flat face.
Castiel can hear a clicking noise, not unlike his own echolocation, but nothing is happening. He tilts his head slightly to the side, his fans spreading to catch the sound of the snapping. The noise increases momentarily when he moves.
(Castiel?) Uriel’s voice echoes in his mind and reminds Castiel of their mission.
(I couldn’t get away before they came in sight. They’re watching me. The first chance I get, I’ll swim. Uriel – if anything happens to me, you take the garrison to Anna and fill her in if Hester’s team hasn’t already. Am I understood?)
Uriel is good at following orders. Castiel knows he will do as he is told. He tells him and Hester to meet at the rock face from earlier and to take a longer route to it. Dive into the deep and approach from there if they have to. If he escapes – and Castiel can only hope he will – then he will meet them there.
The female has drifted away from the male. She is sinking closer to the sea-floor, but remaining the same distance away. Castiel knows that he can outswim any two-tail any day, but he keeps an eye on her all the same. His eyes dart from the female to the male and he frowns. The male has moved, but not from his location. He has drawn the thin rod up to his shoulder and the sharp tip is pointed at Castiel.
He realizes too late that it is a weapon.
Castiel is sure that he scrapes his hand on the coral when he scrambles at it. He might have bruises on his tail too from how hard it beats against the sea floor when he kicks off in a flurry of movement as he swims away from the two-tails. A cloud of sand rises, blurring him from their sight. Castiel spreads his fans aggressively anyway, hissing and snarling.
There’s a soft whumph of sound and Castiel’s arm jerks suddenly. He feels no pain and ignores it, angling his body along the coral to go up and over. He’s cresting the top when the sea blurs before his eyes, colours melting together and shapes losing their edges. Castiel crashes shoulder first into the coral. He doesn’t even feel when it rips his skin and he can barely see the fine tendrils of blood that dissipate in the water. His throat works around the notes of a song, pitiful, scared and weak. He can’t hear it, he can’t hear anything. And despite bright-pearl resting high in steady-blue, the waves around Castiel turn black.