Charlotte made her way to the ship on shore and had the strangest feeling that Cesium wasn’t there. She had peeked under the cover just in case, but she only saw darkness. Nothing barked to get her attention nor did anything run at her. She was cold, shivering from the wind, and her hair was soaking itself into her clothes. Her blouse was soaked through, but luckily, her vest managed to cover the areas it needed to.
The wind howled loudly. There was no indication of that Great Dane anywhere on that beach. It didn’t take long before someone had called her toward the tropic forest line. Damien waved his arms as he pointed into the forest. “Lionsheart! We need to go that way! Aden said he found some tracks.”
She dropped the cover of the ship and ran over to the blond. “Did Aden and Xavier go ahead of us?” she shouted over the wind, and Damien nodded.
“Yeah, come on! We’ll have more coverage searching for Cesium over there as well!” He grabbed her bandaged wrists and tugged her toward the forest due northwest of their location.
They ran to the entrance of the trees before looking back at the sea. The clouds were thick, murky, and laying the rain upon them as if it was a waterfall. The wind was whipping viciously around them, making them wonder if the tent would be all right throughout the storm.
When the two made it under the protection of the trees, it did alleviate some of the rain, but it did not stop the wind from howling and keeping the humidity up high. The water dripped down from the branches above them and poured in the open areas. Xavier was examining the ground near a tree stump while Aden was standing on a branch of the tree to the left of them. He was looking in the distance, wondering if there might be some places the robot would run off to. The trees shook violently, making the male grab the trunk with his hand to steady himself, only to hear the loud crackle of thunder above them. They looked up to see the flash of lightning in the sky, and past the woods, they could see another bolt of lightning hit a distance away.
“Aden, come down from there!” Damien cupped his hand over his mouth to shout at his younger brother. He was afraid that the lightning would strike the tree.
The male did just that a second later, merely jumping and landing on the haunches of his feet. “There are a couple of places it could have gone to. A small entrance to a cave is due east of here, and over to the west is a canopy of strong trees.”
The group strategized how they would get to each place before they finally started following the path heading north.
“Are we heading in the right direction? I thought you said it was either west or east of where we were?” Charlotte yelled as they jogged through the forest.
It had been fifteen minutes of them running aimlessly down the path, and it made everyone anxious that they had yet to see Cesium. Damien looked over his shoulder to the girl, not breaking his stride.
“It’s not a good idea to deviate from the paths in forests, especially if it’s storming like this. The visibility is low, and we do not know what surprises wait for us in the shadows.”
Charlotte swallowed the lump in her throat but nodded all the same.
“Hopefully, Cesium stuck to the path and did not run off.”
“Doubt it,” Aden piped up from the front.
Xavier led the group with his longer strides. “Damien, Lottie, less talking, more running.”
Aden was two steps behind Xavier now as he looked around the surroundings. He picked up the pace, easily moving past Xavier into the dense forest ahead. “Xav, two meters ahead is a mountainside with two splitting paths.”
They continued for another five minutes before stopping at the split. While Charlotte dropped her hands to her knees to relieve her shaky breaths, Xavier checked the ground for tracks. Aden and Damien looked unsurely at the sky.
“This storm is getting worse and worse as it goes on!” Damien yelled over the wind before moving to the path heading west.
Xavier had found nothing on the ground that would indicate that Cesium was around and made his way to the path where Damien was standing, but before he could say what was on the tip of his tongue, the sky flashed with lightning. The rumble shook the ground where they stood, and all four looked to stare as the sky ripped another lightning bolt downward toward the ground. It struck just in front of the mountainside just where the trees viciously blew with the winds, and the ground cracked.
The four watched in horror as the mountain seemed to move with boulders and mud sliding down toward their side. Xavier grabbed Damien’s arm and yanked him to the west path, avoiding the rush of rocks, boulders, and smoldering trees that slid down the top of the cliff.
“Aden! Lionsheart!” Damien shouted over the avalanche of mud and trees, and then his voice was overtaken by the noises of the forest’s rage.
Aden had attempted to follow Damien and Xavier, but Charlotte had pulled him in the opposite direction. A boulder slammed down where he had been. The ground quivered and splashed up mud and water on them. There was no time to rest as more debris came down in a surging tide. They scurried backward onto whatever path had been left over. Their breath had been knocked out by the frigid cold and adverse weather.
Aden grasped the girl’s wrist within his, and he went into survival mode. He scanned anything and everything until he noticed a safe location. “Come on!” A tree had begun its descent toward them, and he barely had enough time to pull her to safety.
She had regained her footing long enough not to stumble, but they were running out of options. Down the path, another smoldering tree slammed down to block their way.
Aden half dragged and half yanked the girl to run his pace. Time was of the essence as he pushed them to avoid the dangers. He surmised that they had about twenty to forty seconds before their path would be demolished by rushing water. He spied the prize, a sturdy tropic tree that had strong roots and then shouted over his shoulder, “I hope you know how to climb!”
The girl gave him a bewildered expression. Then her face transformed into shock as she registered what he had meant. Before she could retort, he stopped in front of her, planted both of his feet, and used his strength to throw the girl up. With his knees bent slightly, he waited for the inevitable squeak she made and used her momentum to toss her.
“I can’t ju—” she complained before she found herself already in the air. She yelped. The branch that was not in reach had swiftly came, and with some strange luck, she clenched onto it for dear life. But that was all she could muster. Her arms complained as she held herself up. With all the running and the boat ride there, it was no surprise she was starting to slip from the branch.
Seconds later, Aden jumped blithely onto her branch and plucked her up by her forearms. The time it took between her journey upward and the hang had felt like a few minutes had gone by, but time fast-forwarded so much she forgot the impending impact that crashed into the tree’s trunk right beneath them. Charlotte could feel the powerful rush of the mud and rocks slushing around them, and in fright, she grasped Aden’s torso. She buried her head into his chest and inwardly screamed. Or she might have just screamed aloud. She had no recollection after that as Aden sandwiched himself into the groove of the tree.
All they could hear at this point was the roar of the mud, rocks, and trees, seeming to cry out as the mudslide destroyed their path back to shore and even possibly back to Damien and Xavier.
They remained in the tree for another ten to fifteen minutes as the mudslide subsided in its fatal rush of mud, dirt, and water. The path beneath them was destroyed, and to the east, they could see that the trees that were too weak to withstand the beating of the mud had crippled with the onslaught. The rain pelted down harder than ever, playing a fierce tempo upon the canopy of the trees around them.
“I know I’m irresistible, but could you let go for two clicks?”
Charlotte hastily let go and almost slipped. Aden pulled her back into him as he sighed, “Apparently not.”
The girl eerily looked down to the messy ground below as she recounted in the last half hour how many times she could have died.
“Irresistible enough to . . . not want to die from falling,” she stuttered out an incoherent sentence. Her hands began to shake from the cold and shock.
“You won’t die from this height,” he stoically replied and realized that didn’t help ease her anxiety.
Aden scanned the tree for any branches that would hold his weight, and finding a couple of branches higher, he looked down to the shivering girl. “I need to go higher up to see if I can find or call out to Damien and Xavier. Can you not fall and break a bone?”
Aden then turned on the back of his foot and easily shifted the girl so that she was pushed right into the curve of the tall tree. Her hands still clenched his shirt, and her face was pale. “Breathe, damsel. I’ll be gone for two clicks.” He released the girl from his arms and jumped.
Charlotte stared up as she saw him disappear in the foliage before hearing a whistle echo through the forest. There were some moments of silence before an echo answering his call sounded back.
“Yooooo!” Charlotte felt the sigh of relief escape her lips, hearing Xavier call back.
“We’re okay!” Damien whistled out, and Aden grunted to himself.
The forest was still blowing with the wind, and the rain was slightly letting up from its onslaught. Suddenly, there was a crack above Charlotte’s head, and she snapped her attention up to see a branch snap and fall. She screamed as she felt the branch reverberate with Aden’s forceful landing. Her fingers dug into the bark as she tried not to slip off.
“Try to meet up at the tent!” Xavier called out to the air, obviously not knowing Aden had been close to becoming a flat pancake from almost falling out of the tree.
Charlotte gaped at Aden to be sure he was all right, but he merely whistled in response.
After he whistled, he looked to the frightened girl. “I’m jumping down. I’ll catch you.” And before she could reject his idea, he had already jumped down to the soft ground. He then expectantly looked up to the branch where Charlotte was still forcing her back into the trunk. He raised both his arms up, indicating that he would catch her.
Charlotte saw the gesture and blew out some of her oxygen she had been holding in. With her back to the trunk, she kneeled down to her haunches and then sat down. She positioned her feet so they were dangling over the branch but still held the tree, mostly out of concern. Memories of Cliffside danced in her vision as she steeled her resolve. She couldn’t dwell on these nightmares forever.
“We haven’t got all day, damsel.”
“Would you knock it off with the nicknames already? We almost died, and you act like such a pompous bigot.” The girl stuck her tongue out before inching her way off the branch.
“Now there’s the damsel we all know.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes at his comment and took the leap down. Aden diligently caught the girl in his arms and, with added measure, started to swing her around. With immense fright, she clenched onto him tightly and hid her face in between his shoulder and neck. His hands had evenly caught her waist, and he was staring at the back of her hair. He assessed she wasn’t too injured, but he had purposely scared her to see what she’d do.
“You’re all right,” Aden remarked. “I got you.”
Luckily for them both, they had avoided excessive amounts of physical injuries.
“Jerk!” she cried.
Aden shrugged, merely walking along the path with the girl still in his arms. “You’re fine. The fall wouldn’t have killed you anyway.”
“I hate you.” She hiccupped.
“But you trust me—that’s a step in the right direction.”
“I still hate you.”
۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞