Boy and cub, yawning and stretching at the same time.
Max grabbed his pan, then started at a brisk trot into the jungle, Bandit hot on his heels and gaining. After hitting his stride, Max broke out into an all-out dash, zigzagging through the jungle toward the pond. His sleepiness had completely vanished by the time he reached the clearing.
He let out a long, ecstatic whoop as he took a flying leap into the water. He swam out to the falls. As he paddled leisurely, he again watched Bandit dipping his paws in the water and staring out at the pond with wary uncertainty. Max glanced around the pond for a moment, wondering if his furry friend wasn’t worried about the water itself, but something in it…
He shrugged his shoulders as he climbed ashore, and wrung out his clothes. Bandit was more than happy to follow him away from the water. Max then washed out his pan and filled it with berries from a nearby bush. Breakfast time.
He laid the pan on the ground and started a small pile of berries. Which he of course shared with Bandit, who was crestfallen at it not being crab, but hungry enough to wolf down his share anyway. When Max had eaten his fill, he went back to the pond and washed it down with cool water.
After washing the pan again, he climbed a tree near the pond. A large branch hung out over the deepest part of the water, and he worked his way out onto it, using a nearby branch for support. He stood more than ten feet above the water, the branch barely giving under his scant weight. He looked down for a moment, then jumped.
As the water rushed up at him, Max could see just how deep this end of the pond really was. In that brief second he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be an underwater cave. As he descended, the haze of bubbles fizzled out, and he could see the gloomy shadows beyond the entrance. Now just a foggy black blur, the cave felt increasingly ominous as he drew nearer.
Not liking this sensation at all, Max thrashed wildly, finally working his way back to the surface, letting out gouts of air that might have been cries of alarm.
He coughed and sputtered, remembering how long he had been holding his breath. He looked down at the cave entrance, wondering where it led. Why he hadn’t see it before. And why he had almost panicked as he drifted down to it. Robert had constantly told him to always, always listen to his instincts, and the gut feeling he had only seconds ago was one of great danger. Yet he could see no threat…
That thought trailed off in his head as he looked once more in Bandit’s direction.
As always, the cat had stayed out of the water. Which, now that he thought about it, seemed odd since he remembered seeing Bandit playing in the light waves on the beach yesterday…
That was when he noticed the salty, briny, seawater smell; it had been there the whole time this morning, he just hadn’t been paying attention.
He glanced back at Bandit. Now the cub just stared out at him with big, round, anxious eyes. As if he was afraid of something Max couldn’t see.
Max started to backpedal toward land, wondering why this situation so thoroughly unnerved him; after all, he had been here before and nothing bad had happened…
Even as Max thought this, his gaze again shifted to the underground cave. (Blue hole, he’d once heard Ian call them blue holes…) Even as his mind shifted gears, telling him he was being foolish, he caught a faint hint of movement in the shadows.
At first, it was only vaguely distinguishable from the dim depths, as if one of the shadows had somehow detached itself from the cave floor and started moving on its own. Moving right toward him, and with increasing speed. Max froze as he saw the shadow change into a black mass of flailing tentacles reaching out for him.
As it was almost upon him, Max found his hands and drew his laser sword, now glad he had forgotten to take off his pants before swimming again. He lashed out at one of the dark arms even as he retreated from the ever-shifting mass of tentacles. His only thought was that the shadows in the cave had somehow come to life and attacked him.
One of the tentacles caught him by the leg as he thrashed in futile flight, hauling him back under. Where he knew instinctively he was about to be smothered by still more of the foul appendages. Time seemed to slow down: he watched the stream of bubbles trickle out of his mouth even as he screamed. Somewhere in that shimmering maw of a creature, he could see a razor-sharp-looking beak snapping at him.
In a last ditch effort, he swung again, hacking right through the tentacle gripping his leg.
In his panic, though, he lost his grip on the sword. He paddled back desperately, lucky to still have his leg after such a close shave, watching the radiant green blade fade into the black, inky cloud that now eclipsed the creature and was beginning to engulf the surrounding water. As he swam clear of it, he could see it expanding, mostly in the direction of the blue hole.
He could still feel something clinging to his leg, and this only made him swim harder in spite of the loss of his treasured blade.
Before he knew it, he was dragging himself ashore, coughing violently with the horror of those last few moments. A dreamlike haze was already settling over him, fogging the memory of what few details he had seen. He rolled over, propping himself on his elbows, staring at the big black, swirling blotch in the water.
And that was when something heavy clinging to his leg started twitching.
“Get it off! Get it off!” cried Max as he staggered to his feet, dancing a frantic jig with the flopping appendage. “Dammit!…”
In his panic he reached into a rip in his pants—
“GET OFF ME!!”
—and ripped off half of his left pantleg to free himself from the dying tentacle’s grip. He could feel the suckers even through his clothes, and he was careful not to touch them as he peeled it off his leg; mostly he was glad the legs of his pants had still been intact. Even so, it would still leave several circular welts on his leg.
For a moment, he simply stood there, shuddering with disgust. Bandit slowly approached him and his grim souvenir, wary curiosity etched in his wide eyes. Max watched as the inky blob began to dissipate, until he could faintly see a dim glowing bar of green.
“Oops…” he mumbled, finding words again, “I must’ve locked it on...”
Otherwise, it would have shut off the second he lost his grip. He knew the laser blade would last for about half an hour at most before it ran out of power. It was what Dad called a “pulse weapon” so it would recharge while not in use, gathering power from the surrounding energy fields of the environment. He didn’t quite get the mechanics of it, but he had once heard Robert and Alida attempting to piece it together.
If nothing else, the glowing blade marked its exact location, so he would still be able to find it later. Years from now, he would laugh about this when he recounted the tale. Right now, though, there was nothing funny about it; he was with Bandit on the subject of going back in.
When he turned his attention back to his feline friend, he found Bandit batting gleefully at the feebly quivering limb. Grabbing a fallen tree branch, Max picked up the tentacle with it. He threw it at some rocks— well away from the water.
For fear that it would come back to life or something.
Max would stand there staring at the green bar of light, chilled more by the fact that there was a monster down there than the fact that he was all wet. This prized possession— this ancient family heirloom— this incalculably vital tool— simply shimmered on the bottom, halfway between the shore and the cave. Just daring him to jump in and go get it. It may as well be on the other side of the Ocean for all the good it would do him there. Ultimately, he would stand there marking its location and warily eying the blue hole until that green light winked a good while later.
All the while, he fought back the maddening urge to just jump in and go get it. It looked so simple, but he knew better. The part that tormented him most was the recurring notion that by staying out of the water, he was openly admitting that he was afraid of that thing.
Devilfish. The name popped into his head, along with the menacing image of the statue in Layosha. And I am afraid of it. And the voice of reason, the voice of Robert, in the back of his mind, told him that he very well should be afraid of it. At least now he knew what it was that Bandit had been so afraid of.
But that didn’t mean he had to admit defeat. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that it was merely common sense to be wary of such a threat. The important thing, he told himself, was not to let fear cloud his judgment. He would have to come up with a plan.
Just like Dad would.
Max would spend hours thinking about it, brooding.