Oookay, Nat said, the last episode was too short. Hehe, I kinda like that 😉 Just to please you–here comes an extra long episode!
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
Diving deeper, Abbida found the increasing darkness unnerving, but the faint fluorescent glow of her skin formed her shield, her protective cocoon against the loneliness in this icy stream, where no sound reached. The shimmer was not much, but the delicate bubbles of air drifting upwards from her pores gave her a sense of direction. Fighting the buoyancy she dived further until her toes hit the slick bottom of the grotto.
Lian was hanging on for dear life with both hands now, and from the corners of her eyes Abbida could see her eyes were squeezed shut. Her face was contorted in a mask of pain, her feet paddling only meekly now.
Abbida nudged her gently, so she would look at her. ‘Relax,’ she tried to mouth, patted first Lian’s head then her shoulder. Lian didn’t look up, but maybe she understood, because she stopped kicking water and rested her head on Abbida’s back. Was she running out of breath?
Alarmed, Abbida pushed forward some more. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she felt a current streaking her almost numb legs. And really, now that she paid attention she could feel the pulling towards a dark opening. This must be the tunnel Cole had discovered!
Following in, the water streaked past them, and Abbida fought a sudden rush of claustrophobia, concentrating instead on the shimmer coming from her skin. Her limbs ached, her lungs burned, and her brain screamed at her to go up–up! The ceiling was too low, the rush of water tore them along, and then, suddenly, they drifted upwards! A few more desperate strokes, and they broke through the surface.
Spluttering and coughing, Abbida filled her lungs with air. She heard Lian do the same, her hands clamping onto her shoulders in a vise-like grip. The stream’s bed widened and the pull lessened. For a while, all Abbida could manage was to tread water, taking ragged breaths, before she somehow mustered up the strength to swim to the water’s edge. Lian let go, and they flopped on their backs side by side.
Completely spent they just lay there, staring at the ceiling that arched high above their heads, the rock throwing rugged, hostile shadows over the cave. They must have been deep inside the mountain.
Lian lifted her head and croaked, “That was terrible!”
“If I never have to do this again it will be too soon,” Abbida groaned.
“But we’re alive!” Lian started laughing breathlessly, and Abbida chimed in.
“How’s you injury?” she asked, catching her breath.
“Better not to look. Not until we find somewhere dry to rest.”
Her hair stuck tangled to her skull, dark skin rimmed her eyes and her lips seemed blue from the cold.
“Wonder what’s taking the guys so long?” Abbida said, craning her stiff neck. Lian frowned. Sudden anxiousness made Abbida get on her feet. She shivered. She really didn’t want to jump back into the ice-cold water, but if Cole or even Li Xiao didn’t show in three… two…
Before she could count to three, it was as if the ground was pulled away from underneath her feet, followed by a series of booms.
Lian grabbed her arm, but her cry was lost in the rumble and a shock wave of dust and debris as the ancient limestone beneath their feet became liquid, and Abbida lost her footing. An inescapable force rattled her until up was down, and then, with a deafening crack, the ceiling collapsed in an avalanche of rocks and gravel.
By pure instinct, Abbida threw her arms up and ducked, coiled herself up, making herself as small a target as possible. Her heart beat like a hammer against her ribs, her arms and legs prickled from the surge of adrenalin. Boulders came tumbling past her, crashing into others, splinters of rock shooting through the rubble like projectiles.
A sharp, hot pain on her forehead made her gasp, and she felt blood trickle down the side of her nose. Before she could do anything, a blow to the back of her head knocked her down. It happened so fast, she hardly knew what happened. A throbbing, dull sensation filled her skull, a ringing pierced her eardrums and invaded her mind, drowning out all conscious thought. Holding in her breath, Abbida squeezed her eyes shut.
After what seemed an eternity the vibrations stopped. The droning ebbed down, but for that in her head and the alarm still shrilling in her ears.
All around everything had changed.
On the far side the ceiling had caved in, the walls were a tumbling mess, and a heavy coat of debris covered everything. The air was thick with dust. It grated on her teeth and rasped on her tongue, causing her a coughing fit. She spat out and called for Lian.
Well, she tried, but she couldn’t hear her own voice through the ringing in her ears. Only when someone grabbed her shoulder did she realize Lian was right beside her. Covered in dirt like everything else, she wasn’t looking at Abbida, but staring right past her.
With a fresh feeling of dread Abbida turned to face the spot where they had crawled ashore just moments ago. Rocks and boulders now jutted out of the water, blocking the view. Abbida’s heart skipped a beat. The tunnel! Was there a chance it withstood the earthquake?
Where was Cole? She had to get him!
She wasn’t sure if she said it aloud for she still couldn’t hear anything other than her tinnitus. Scrambling over the rocks to the water, she ignored the splinters and sharp edges that cut into her hands and knees. She was about to jump in head-first when someone surged up right in front of her!
It was Li Xiao. Coughing, gagging and thrashing wildly, he shot through the surface and sank back with a splash, only to fight his way up again. His face was contorted, he came up just long enough to cry, “Cramp!”
Abbida jumped. Her own voice sounded as if under water as she called out: “Hold on to me! Just don’t drag me down!”
He sputtered something through chattering teeth, then his eyes rolled back, and he went down.
Whipping out a hand, Abbida got hold of a shock of his hair and tore him back to the surface. She shoved her free arm under his chin and fought the waves back to the shore. “Lian! Help me!”
Though hardly able to carry herself, Lian reached out with both hands. Somehow they managed to drag Li Xiao over the boulders and onto the rubble. Flopping to her knees Abbida put an ear to his mouth. “There’s nothing!”
“Let me, I know what to do,” said Lian.
Putting her hands together, she started pressing rhythmically on his rib cage. Then she pinched his nose and, pulling down his jaw, breathed into his mouth. Li Xiao reared up, and she sat back hastily as he heaved up water. Wheezing, he sucked in air and coughed. His eyelids fluttered open.
“Welcome back,” Lian croaked.
Abbida sighed, her voice still seeming to come from far away. Although she felt terribly drained, she struggled onto her feet again. Stumbling, she made her way back into the water. How was she supposed to dive like this and get Cole?
“Thank you, Huang Lian,” she heard Li Xiao say. “You saved my life.”
“Abbida fished you out. You should thank her.”
Abbida was already half submerged in water, tiny bubbles rising all around her, making her skin tingle. When he looked at her, his eyes grew large. He pushed himself up to sit and bowed awkwardly. “Thank you. That was… noble of you.”
“Couldn’t let you drown now, could I?” she rasped, for some reason irked again. At least her hearing was coming back, the ringing subsiding.
He threw her a look of uncertainty, before getting up and making a show of shaking off the water. His hair was plastered to his head, and water kept dripping into his eyes. Which brought her back to the real issue here: Where was Cole?!
She strained her eyes, but the water was so murky now, she could hardly see down to her feet.
“He’s dead,” she heard Li Xiao say, so quietly, she almost missed it.
Must be her ears.
After a moment the meaning registered, and she whirled around. “No! Cole is a good swimmer–the best in the whole village!”
“He didn’t even make it to the water. The tunnel caved in and buried him. He’s dead.”
Abbida tried to speak, but no words came. She marched up to Li Xiao and stabbed his chest with her index finger, “What do you know?! He could be unconscious! He might be trapped and need our help!”
“Then go and see for yourself! He–is–dead!”
Tears of fury shot into her eyes. “That’s exactly what I’ll do!”
Turning on her heel, she jumped head-first and dived without even thinking to take a breath first. Her limbs were quivering from all the exertion, and even with the faint greenish glow from her skin she could hardly see a thing in the murky water. Already running low on air, she battled the current, only to run into more boulders looming up in front of her. Larger than herself, they were barring the entrance to the tunnel.
She pressed against a smaller rock, hoping to push it away–it was no use. Her lungs were burning, and she groped between the rocks frantically, but couldn’t find anywhere she might fit through, even if she squeezed hard.
Without a pulley nobody would get through here.
The urge to gasp for air became overwhelming. Her field of vision narrowed, turning into blackness from the fringes. Anger and desperation surged through her, but she had to give in and turn back. Kicking water violently, she thrust her arms out. She would come back! She would bring a crane, and she would get Cole out!
She made it, somehow. Probably thanks to the small reserve of air her skin produced. Just when she thought her lungs were about to burst, she broke through the surface, gasping for air, thrashing and kicking wildly.
Strong hands clamped under her shoulders, and she lashed out.
“Hold still!” Li Xiao yelled. “Stop fighting me!”
“Abbida, it’s all right! He’s helping you!” Lian cried.
Once she recognized their voices, the panic subsided. Suppressing any living instincts, Abbida forced herself to lay still while Li Xiao pulled her to where Lian waited.
“I really thought…!” she cried, throwing her arms around Abbida.
She didn’t say, what exactly she’d thought, and Abbida was in no condition to answer or even move a muscle. Gasping for air she just lay limp in Lians embrace. The light of two hand lamps cast ghoulish shadows on the burst rock overhead, making them look like carcasses of perished animals. She looked away.
Over Lians’ shoulder she met Li Xiao’s gaze. It was full of guilt.
“You were right,” he said. “I should have… I was too slow.”
The truth finally hit her like an aftershock: if Cole had survived this, he needed help. Help, that would not come.
No matter how you looked at it, he was dying. Alone.
Big, strong, reliable Cole. He had always been there for her. Had always had her back whenever she got into an argument with anyone. No more. Never again would he encourage her, never again pull her leg. They would never ponder new inventions together and never again celebrate the completion of a project. His warmheartedness would be gone from her life, forever.
Tears welled up, unstoppable, a moan from so deep within, it hardly seemed to belong to her. Lian rocked her gently. She, too, was crying.
Abbida thought she could never stop.
Tarek’s ears were ringing from the blast. Disoriented and jittery, he brushed debris from his chest and legs, raked his fingers through his tangled hair and blinked his burning eyes rapidly. He could still feel the quake ripping through the jungle like a storm, felling trees and tearing up the soil.
“Rona? Rona!” he croaked, dust getting into his air pipe, making him choke. Coughing, he could feel more than he could hear the reverberations of moving ground vehicles. Were they moving away or getting closer?
Someone stirred beside him, and to his utter relief, it was Rona. Tilting her head to the side and shaking it, she looked at him, pointing at her ears. “I can’t hear a thing!”
At least that’s what Tarek thought she said. She tried getting up, but he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down next to him. Putting his lips to her ear he called, “The demolition squad! They’re coming this way!”
Frantically, Rona searched around. “Let’s hide over there!” She pointed at a crease in the mountain, half-buried under rubble.
Tarek was already on his feet. “Go, go, go!”
He poked Ole in the side and the elder council apparitor devolved into a coughing fit. Before he had time to recover, they pulled him up and shoved him towards the rock shelter.
Rona poked her head in first. “It’s pitch dark, but bigger than I thought!”
“I don’t care if it’s the friggin’ sewer tunnel all over again, just get inside!” Ole cried.
They crowded in and Ole sighed in relief only to cough again.
“You two keep an eye on the soldiers,” Tarek said. “I go have a look around.”
Rona made as if to say something, but then she just shrugged.
She had been right, though. The place was narrow, and Tarek had to duck his head, but the cave turned out to go deeper than it first appeared. Outside, the engine noise became a roar, as the large vehicles passed the cave, then it subsided. Tarek risked striking a match. A tunnel!
He followed in and had used up half his matches when it abruptly ended in what must have been a recent rockfall. When the flame licked his fingers, he flinched and dropped the match. Before the tiny flame died he caught a glimpse of something he would never have expected down here: buried under the rocks stuck out the barrel of a gun… and a shred of leather, embroidered in ridiculous hearts and flourishes.
~ to be continued! ~
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