Aden was trudging along in the dark cave followed by a happy Charlotte holding a makeshift lease for the robot Great Dane. Luckily, they, being Cesium and Charlotte, were able to persuade Aden of just exploring a little bit of the cave before heading back to camp. The male was not happy though as he cracked his stick unevenly on the ground to check for surprises along the way.
“How much longer should we go, Cesium?” the girl asked exuberantly despite Aden’s dark glare. “Cesium? Cesium?” She stopped to look him over while Aden continued on.
“Bloody hell, how the hell can it still walk when it’s sleeping?” he muttered a darker complaint that Charlotte could not hear after that but, regardless, dropped it to avoid any more confrontation.
“I think it might have gone into power-save mode. It has been a while since its last meal.”
The two walked in silence for another short break before the boy with the stick finally stopped in his tracks and abruptly turned. “Are we done with this child’s play?”
The girl just stuck her tongue out, easily walking around his figure to step farther into the darkness. “This isn’t child’s play. What if Cesium knows this is our way back to the camp? Besides, last time I checked, it was like having an adventure.”
Aden did not venture a response to her but just listened to her ramble now. He was exhausted from all the climbing, jumping, running, and work he had to do just in this “adventure” as she put it. “Last time I checked, it was a survival of the fittest rather than an adventure. Let’s meet up with Damien and Xav at camp.”
“Oh, all right already!” Charlotte stopped, swerved around, and walked back to where the boy was.
“This was already a bothersome situation, Rothschild, or should I say Lionsheart?”
“Just because Cesium got lost, that does not make it bothersome, and would you knock it off! I have a name.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it does. And yes, I do know what it is, ‘Char, well, you know.’”
“Is not!” she exasperatedly yelled back at him, already fed up with his attitude against her.
“Is too,” he replied just as heatedly.
There was a loud crackling sound as the girl took a step toward her partner and saw the outline of him wince at the sound. She, however, felt the rush of gravity all around her as the ground gave way underneath.
The roar of wind and dripping of water rushed through her ears as she propelled farther down into the darkness. It was only a few seconds later when she finally crashed into what she assumed was an underground water reservoir. She struggled as she swam back up to the surface of the water, but two strong arms wrapped around her midsection to bring her up. She gasped for air when she finally broke through to the surface. Her arms went to grasp around his torso once again as she was reminded of her earlier fright with the tree.
“If this is your way of getting me to hold you in my arms, it is obviously not a very good way of doing so.” She heard the familiar husky sound of her partner swimming behind her. He was floating, hoisting both of them up to the surface while Charlotte was holding the lease to get the Great Dane into her arms.
“I wasn’t trying to—” she started immediately before feeling water go into her lips. She struggled until Aden situated her to float on her feet and then moved around her to help support the robot.
While they were floating and swimming through the dark tunnel into who knew where, the small space that they were in suddenly expanded into such a huge space where the walls appeared domed and man-made. The two cautiously looked around their surroundings before floating past a huge rock corner.
Charlotte and Aden watched as the area they were in went from barely any light to an explosion of strange neon-colored lights. It was a soft afterglow, ambivalent to look at, and made the room shine slightly.
They swam slowly over to the closest spot of land they could find before getting the robot dog out of the water. Charlotte and Aden both pushed the mechanical beast up, and when the mechanical beast recognized the dry surface, the Great Dane padded its way up. As it collapsed upon the bank, it started to twitch violently. Aden merely went to help Charlotte up onto the shoreline when she noticed his shoulder tensed.
“You’re injured,” she replied with concern, and he shrugged her complaint off.
“You’re going to need help getting up on the bank,” he stoically replied before coming up behind the girl to lift her up.
Much to Charlotte’s chagrin of getting picked up, she was trying to assess where the male was injured. She could easily tell from his movements that he was injured near his right shoulder because he was heavily relying on his left arm for guiding her to the land. His right arm was tense, and his hand was squarely tense on her waistline.
It was there that the two paused to look up at the ceiling of the cavern. It was spacious, deep, and filled with different stones producing a glow that was not humanly possible.
“What is that?” Charlotte gasped out while Aden swam toward her sitting on the rock cluster.
“Rocks with glow worms—possibly. They only appear in dark damp areas but are known to be a global phenomenon,” Aden explained, and he swam in front of her to check out her own injuries.
She reached over to Cesium before patting its head affectionately as Aden checked her ankles.
“Did you hurt yourself in that fall?” he replied lightly, touching her ankle and rolling it before moving on to the next one. He checked all the possible areas that he knew could have possibly been injured or sprained.
“Ouch!” she yelped as soon as he applied pressure to her wrist and palm.
“From falling or oaring?” he smirked at her from under his lashes, and she stuck her tongue out.
“I will never oar again in my life. That was terrible!” she complained aloud.
Aden merely grunted before floating up to her right side and pulling himself up with just his left and right arm. His right arm was tense as he brought himself up, but she could tell he had probably bruised it on the fall.
“Are you all right? Let me see your arm—”
He waved her off before commenting on her first complaint. “That’s unfortunate,” he grunted before collapsing on his back in exhaustion. “We still have a six-hour trip heading back to the Phoenix that you still need to help with.”
“You honestly cannot expect to oar back in your condition, are you?” She gave him an aghast expression. Her face must have bemused the gent beside her because he chuckled to himself.
“You must be really naïve to think this will slow me down. It’s just a bruise.” He merely lifted his left arm up and over his face to cover his eyes from the glowing lights. “I just need a couple of hours to rest.”
Charlotte stared at his profile in the glow of the worms, remembering her dreams from before. She did recall one that had just the two of them in a bright cavern like this, though he was forlorn and trying to find a way to save someone from their fate. She was lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice that he glanced at her from underneath his arm.
“You like what you see?”
“What?” Flushing at his comment, she quickly turned to look up at the ceiling. It was one thing to be staring at someone to make sure they were all right, but her thoughts took a sudden drop as soon as she saw his countenance in the glow. He was an attractive man, possibly even the same age as her, who seemed experienced in just about everything. She never would admit to herself that she still had dreams of him whispering her name for her alone and steal soft kisses on her neck—but she knew that would never happen in real life.
She stared up for the longest time, trying to think of anything than the guy beside her. Somehow, she found herself imagining the life of a worm and how it felt to glow for an entire lifetime—only it would glow for an entire life and lose its glow as its life continued to its sad end.
“What are you thinking about?” Aden said quietly beside her. It almost scared her off her rock when he spoke up, but she managed to keep her bearings.
“Just that this place seems familiar but also . . . I was thinking of how life is short for many things.”
There was a short pause between her sentence and the palpable silence of the cave before Aden bothered to speak up again. “I’m surprised you even thought that deep.”
Charlotte narrowed her eyebrows and flared her nostrils at the comment before turning to face him. “For your records, I do have intelligence. It’s just in the past four years, I haven’t been keeping up with my studies because of what happened to my family. I used to be in the top five percent of my class.”
Aden slightly moved his arm from his eyes briefly, hiding the dark look that encompassed his face. “I can tell when you’re lying.”
“Okay, so I was trying to embellish, but I was in the top ten percent of my class! I have awards from back when I was twelve. My uncle had all my stuff on display for some time, but after the attack, I do not know what became of it.”
Aden turned his full attention to the girl staring at him earnestly before buying her statement. “Surprisingly, I believe you.” This statement got a “hey!” But Aden ignored her jib and continued with his train of thought. “How big was your graduating class?”
Charlotte paused by tapping her index finger to her chin. She was counting off a couple of numbers in her head before finally having an answer. “We started out with fifty students, but we had almost half drop due to pirate raids, family dependence, and work. We had a total of thirty-four that graduated in my class. I was ranked thirty-first by the end of it all.” She paused before chuckling quietly. “I never would have imagined passing as high as I did without the help of Olivia. She really kicked my butt into high gear.”
Aden smirked at this, “Cheric has a certain flare for getting people to do what she wants.”
The eighteen-year-old girl deadpanned. “It was either top ten percent or having her drop buckets of pencil shavings on my workstation for the rest of our lives. Luckily, she has not held me accountable for the past four to five years.”
The boy hung his leg into the clear water and circled it a few times. “She assumed you were dead.”
“Everyone assumed that I was dead after my uncle’s death,” she replied sullenly, “I suppose it is lucky my life was spared. My brother though . . .” Charlotte’s dark expression looked to the earthy sands on the rocky platform before five seconds of silence lapsed between them. Her brother disappeared, and the only clue she had was a dream she had informing her of his reluctant betrayal.
Charlotte shook her head to rid herself of the morbid thoughts, and as the water droplets from her hair shook from her strands of soaking wet auburn hair, she finally smiled. “I’m incredibly lucky since you’ve been protecting me in my family’s place.” Aden turned his face abruptly away at the mention of her family, having a set jaw as she spoke. “It is like every time I get close to a body of water, somehow in some way, shape, and form, I find myself falling into it, and you are there for the rescue. I do not know if it was providence that brought that upon me, but thank you, Aden.”
The male stared at her for the longest time. A feeling of uneasiness slipped into her consciousness as she felt his eyes stare into her own.
“What’s wrong, Aden?”
“Say that again.” He faced the girl beside him.
“Say what again? That I am a nuisance or that I can’t seem to get my bearings whenever I’m near an ocean of water?” Charlotte shook her head and turned her attention up at the ceiling. The bioluminescent glow of the worms warmed her up from the slight chill she was starting to get.
Aden noticed her slight shiver before trying to position himself back into a sitting posture. “Both are true, but no.”
The eighteen-year-old girl merely let her head drift lightly to the left side as if inquiring more about his response, but seeing Aden move up again caused her to react as a mother hen would to its youngest.
“Hey, you should lie down and rest!” The auburn girl began to fuss over his well-being. She brought one of her hands up onto his chest to lightly push him back down while her other hand went to fix a strand of black hair that messily dropped in front of his forehead. With each gesture she did, he merely just watched her.
“What?” she inquired finally.
Although his right arm was objecting, he willed himself to caress the girl’s cheek lightly. His left hand was already moving to her hand that went straight to his chest, willing him to lie back down. She froze at the contact, but that did not stop her from giving one of the most bewildered looks possible.
“Say my name again.”
“Have you gone delusional?”
Aden brought his head slightly forward to stare into the girl’s hazel eyes intently before his forehead lightly tapped hers. “Charlotte.”
The girl in question wanted to pull back, but she was frozen underneath his gaze. Further, she realized that this was one of the first times he actually called her by her given name without a rude comment straight after. Further, she could not pinpoint a time that he had ever called out her name without a dire purpose.
“Why are you being so insistent about names all of a sudden?” She could feel his breath as he leaned closer in toward her. Emerald eyes stared intently into her wide hazel ones as he gave slight pause in his movement.
“Just say it already.”
“Give me one good reason why I—” She was going to chuckle at the whole situation of it, but as her lips were trying to form the next words, he had pressed his lips lightly on her cheek, effectively rendering her speechless. It only lasted for a brief second, pulling back slightly and staring deep into her eyes.
Charlotte shivered at the close proximity he was creating. “Aden—”
His right hand that had been caressing her cheek and strand of auburn hair had moved just underneath her jawline and neck, tilting her into another one of his kisses. He was slow at first, lightly applying butterfly kisses to her cheek and neck, then watched her eyes drift slowly closed. He could hear the gasp she made, though she did not pull away from him as he ventured forward with his irrational hormonal behavior.
He noticed that his arm agonizingly brought him back to reality just as her free hand went to his neck for support. He pulled away from her. She, at the same time, flushed a deep red and slightly turned her head away to regain her composure.
“I promise to protect you,” he spoke softly to her, closing his eyes and wishing that he could just stay where they were, exactly like that.
“Aden, do you—”
Suddenly, a light from up above shone through a tunnel near the top of the cavern. It looked like a lantern exploring the area, but it never shone down. Aden stopped to look up where the new light came from, and Charlotte could hear the familiar rumble of their other two companions.
“The nun was carrying a bottle of gin. How is that holy?” Damien’s voice perpetuated the cave, and Xavier’s voice carried over just as easily.
“Because her flask had a hole in it!” Xavier laughed fullheartedly, but Damien had not. In fact, no one in that cavern did.
“Xav, your jokes are something I do not miss,” Aden replied resolutely up toward where the other two were while Charlotte waved her arms up and down to attract their attention without giving away her flushed face.
“Hey, Damien! Xavier! We’re down here!”
There was a moment of confusion with the lantern as it haphazardly flew around the top of the cavern, trying to find the origins of their voices, but Xavier leaned himself out of the end of the tunnel where they were at to see Aden and Charlotte sitting with a Cesium sleeping beside them.
“Oiii! You blubbers were here all along? Damien, do you have any rope?” The older male waved down to them before turning back into the tunnel they were in.
An excess amount of rope was thrown down, just long enough to hit the rock cluster where Charlotte was sitting at. She grabbed the rope and wrapped the first rope around Cesium’s torso and signaled for Xavier and Damien to heave the dog out first.
Their comedy show lasted for quite some time, seeing the two older brothers struggle to bring the hundred-and-forty-pound dog up to where they were at. After some time, the rope was dropped back down.
Aden grabbed the rope while the auburn girl reached over from her sitting position to his now-extended hand. Taking it, she looked at the rope and then at the person holding it, seeing his emerald eyes harden as he looked down to her.
“Ready?” he dully replied to her, and she nodded.
After all that falling, she wasn’t that afraid of the fall now. Charlotte still clung onto him despite him being in pain. When she thought it hurt him too much, she loosened her grip, and in response, he tightened his grip around her waist even more. With one look, she went back to grasping his body. He merely wrapped the rope around his and her waists, tying it in a tight knot, and used his left hand to hold on to the rope.
As Damien and Xavier both pulled the two of them up, Charlotte could not help but try to find someplace to stare at other than the man with her. She could tell his arm was killing him, but her mind was reeling from the past incident that happened not ten minutes ago.
His words rung softly in her mind’s ear as they continued farther and farther up: “I promise to protect you.” Looking at the remnants of the ceiling where those magical glow worms were, she discovered that something was off as they scaled higher and higher up.
Charlotte Lionsheart knew she recognized this area from somewhere. This was a similar version of the same cavern, but not quite the same, that she dreamt of a year and a half ago when she was with Simone and Elliot.
Those were not glowworms like Aden briefly mentioned. They were stones, stones that were embedded in the bedrock of the cavern, glowing inhumane colors from the spectrum.
۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞ ۞
ANDDDD we’re in the last chapter of this book! Check in next week for Chapter XII: Revelation of a Lost One! 🙂 TR is out!