Thank goodness for sunshine and the invention of barbecue grills!
After a few hot and arid summers this year has been of the more regular ‘German style’. In other words it’s been raining a lot and temperatures are low. But, I won’t complain. With groundwater levels sinking disturbingly low, and even the Rhine river resembling more of a dry dock at times, I was fearing the worst this year. So, yeah, rain’s okay in my book.
And there are those nice sunshiny days now and then that make it possible to meet outside with family (at a safe distance!) and enjoy a barbecue or other. This year I’m not travelling, instead I’m taking the opportunity to sit and get some serious writing down the next two weeks or so. Gotta get that next book on the way, right?
Speaking of which–have a new Chapter!
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
While Lian and Li Xiao collected their things, Abbida stretched her aching limbs. Even with the light of two hand lamps streaking the tumbled rocks, the cave was a sinister, treacherous pit, and the only way out was an even darker tunnel through which the stream coursed in a rush. Bleakness overcame her as she kicked gravel into the churning water.
“This is all my fault. I should never have suggested wandering into these caves. If we had stuck with the jungle and made our escape through the thicket we could be long gone, and wouldn’t all be buried now.” Her voice got thicker as tears welled again. “Cole would still be with us, he would be alive, and–”
Lian grasped her arm and pulled her around to face her. “This is not your fault! We could not have stayed out in the open. The Guard have all kinds of searching gear and would have picked us up in no time.”
“We don’t know that. We–”
“Drop it! We will get out of here, and then we’ll take it from there.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” Abbida glared at her. Part of her wanted to believe what Lian said to console her. But she knew she had messed up this time and endangered them all. “This stream is our only guide. What if it just runs on and on inside the mountain? We might never reach the end!”
“There has got to be an exit somewhere. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such a current,” Lian argued.
“That doesn’t mean it’s gotta be close! It could be miles before–”
“We don’t know that!” Exasperated Lian threw up her hands.
Abbida flinched, and Lian sighed. “No use worrying about something that can’t be helped now. Let’s just follow the stream where it leads, all right?”
“We’ll figure something out when opportunity arises,” Li Xiao added softly.
He hadn’t said anything for a while, still seeming flustered after giving up the gun. Now he stood at the mouth of the tunnel–the only exit from here. He looked worn out, almost as much as Abbida felt.
With a stab of guilt, she realized they were right. Her regrets didn’t change a thing, and she was not going to sit down and wait to die. If she gave up now, Cole’s death would have been completely in vain. And that was a thought she couldn’t bear. She wiped off tears she hadn’t noticed running earlier, and grabbed her things.
Though her bag had dried somewhat from the top, it left a puddle on the ground. By now it only contained her equally dank clothes, rolled up in a bundle and molding away. Apart from her still somewhat damp undergarments all she wore was Li Xiao’s jacket. Weighing down her shoulders, it hung over her hips like a skimpy dress, but at least it kept her warm. Her wet boots chafed her bare heels and foot soles, and she dreaded having to walk in those for miles. If they ever made it out of this mountain, she hoped to sit and dry by a crackling camp fire. The mere thought filled her with longing.
They set out again and walked in silence for a long while, sloshing through the rushing stream. The noise alternately filled Abbida with dread and lingering hope they might really chance across a way out. She had no means to tell how much time passed, and didn’t want to ask Lian who trudged along ahead of her. A slight hunch to her shoulders hinted on how taxing the trek must be with her injury. Up front, Li Xiao seemed to have withdrawn deep inside himself again as well.
Abbida still wasn’t sure what had happened earlier.
He had saved them from the sand viper, but why hadn’t he seized the opportunity and made a run for it? Or at least turn things around and make them his prisoners. Why give back the gun?
On the other hand–was he still a prisoner?
In all honesty, somewhere along the line she’d given up regarding him as her enemy. They weren’t friends either, just something in between, something impossible to define. He intrigued her. She wanted him to look her in the eyes, not evade her gaze like he did now. But of course it was all for the best. As long as they were trapped inside this mountain a truce might be in place, but out in the real world a whole different set of rules applied.
Out there, nothing had changed.
If they made it out alive they would part company, and then, inevitably, they would be standing on opposite sides of the fence again, as mortal enemies. She would do everything in her power to free her village, and he had to prevent that by all means. Even, if it meant shooting at her.
“Light!” Li Xiao cried, and she jerked her head up. “There’s light leaking in!”
He ran off and Lian fell into step, taking the only other lamp with her and leaving Abbida in the dark. With a shiver, she ran after them. Lian seemed to recover some of her agility, because by the time Abbida reached them they were already leaning out an opening, side by side, bathing their faces in glorious rays of sunshine! A smile lit up Lian’s tired features, and even Li Xiao lost his reserve. Somewhat giddy, he dug out his rappelling gear.
Catching her breath and starved for some warmth, Abbida craned her neck and peered over their backs– “Oh crap.”
The ‘exit’ lay on top of a cliff that plunged into a rock-littered canyon, with hardly a foothold, only some meager shrubs to cling to. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“I’ll rappel down first,” said Lian. “Then Abbida, you last, Zhao Li Xiao. That way you can hold us, and I can help Abbida if need be.”
“What? There’s no way I can make it down there in one piece!” Abbida cried.
Li Xiao taxed Lian’s injured side. “Are you strong enough for such an endeavor?”
Lian straightened and pierced Li Xiao with a look of steel that defied her slight build. “I was a security officer with the Guard! I have weathered more difficult situations than this.”
Li Xiao’s eyes widened, then he bowed deeply. “I apologize. We will follow your lead, Huang Lian.”
“Hello?! What about me? I am not strong enough for that!”
Nobody paid attention to her. Stomping her foot in frustration, Abbida bit on her knuckles.
Li Xiao produced the bolt gun he had used at the waterfall and fixed several support hooks inside and outside the exit hole. Lian pulled a cord through those and threaded in an eight-shaped hook, fastening in her carabiner and securing it all on a reinforced eye near her buckle. Lastly, she put on gloves and sealed them up with the cuffs of her sleeves.
Seeing this, Abbida was more grateful than ever for Li Xiao’s jacket. She wouldn’t have wanted to entrust her life with the loops on her own drenched clothes. Then again, she was perfectly capable of hanging herself even with the sturdiest of equipment. She bit her lips.
“Hang on,” Li Xiao muttered. He produced his med-kit and took out a reel of tape, about two fingers wide. “You need to bandage Abbida’s hands first.”
Lian lifted an eyebrow, but when he didn’t make a move to do it himself, she waved for Abbida to hold up her hands.
Trapped in an endless nightmare, Abbida complied.
Lian wrapped her wrists, the heels of her hands and her fingers up to the knuckles, leaving out only the fingertips. “Try bending and stretching your fingers.”
Abbida did, and though it felt uncomfortable, she had no trouble.
“Excellent.” Lian nodded. “Good thinking, Zhao Li Xiao.”
He shrugged, but the hint of a smile tugged on the corners of his mouth. Lian climbed on the ledge, and turned to face them. “See you at the bottom.”
Then she jumped.
Abbida gasped and rushed forward, but Lian was already rappelling down with astonishing agility despite her injury. Her feet had hardly touched the ground when she waved for Abbida to go next.
Li Xiao secured one of his carabiners and eight-shaped hooks on the line and the jacket she wore. With a confirming mutter he stepped away, flicking a questioning glance at her face.
Abbida took a deep breath. As she clambered up the ledge, a gust streaked her hair, blowing under her jacket. She froze. What was she doing?! One wrong step, and she’d be free-falling! Abbida squeezed her eyes shut.
A gentle touch on her ankle startled her. Brow furrowed, Li Xiao looked up at her, “You alright?”
She almost laughed. What an absurd situation!
Lian called up something, but the wind carried her words away.
They were both looking at her expectantly now, waiting for her to pull herself together and get moving. Abbida swallowed hard. Was she going to risk it or give up? Anyhow, she could not stand here forever. And there really wasn’t anywhere else to go.
“I’m okay,” she mumbled. Legs quivering, she squatted down.
“Good.” Li Xiao let go of her leg and stepped back. Cool air streaked the spot where he had touched her, and she suddenly missed the warmth of his hand. Confused, she tugged her hair back into a braid. “All right, here goes.”
On hands and knees she crawled backward until her feet met with nothing but air. Again she hesitated.
Li Xiao patted the cord. “I’ve got you. Just look at me, never down. If need be… just hang in there and wait for me to come get you. Then we can make the rest of the descent together.”
“You’ve got this!” Lian shouted from below, wind blowing away her words.
Abbida clenched her teeth. She was not going to embarrass herself in front of these two! Breathing rapidly, she shuffled backwards over the ledge, angling for some foothold on the rock. She slipped and panicked, then her feet met with resistance, and a wave of relief washed over her. Bracing herself against the cliff with her soles, she let go of one end of the rope and it glided through her clenched hands.
Gravity pulled on her and she lost her footing. A jolt ran through the tether and her arms, and she let out a cry. Then she bumped the rocky wall again, and clamped down on the rope with both hands in a vise-like grip. The abrupt stop almost dislocated her shoulder. Panting, she looked up. She’d dropped quite a way!
A dark shock of hair appeared over the ledge and Li Xiao gazed down. In a calm tone that defied his concerned look he said, “Everything all right?”
An affirmative chirp was all she could muster. After the rough ride the palms of her hands were burning despite the bandages. If only she had gloves! But the way things were she just had to suck it up.
The rest of the descent went better, though still much clumsier than Lian’s. More than once she slipped on the loose gravel and crashed into the wall. Her shoulders and wrists ached, and countless scrapes and bruises smarted on her elbows, hips, knees and shins.
At least she was making progress. Following Li Xiao’s advice, she only looked up at him, never down. He was keeping his promise and watched her every move. The distance between them grew, and she became bolder now that the ground was getting close. If she made it out of this alive, she vowed to start exercising more. Then again, maybe she’d just lay back and never move a muscle ever again. Yes, that sounded nice. She sighed in relief when her feet actually touched ground. Knees buckling, she flopped into the sparse grass.
Made it! She got out!
She hadn’t finished the thought, when another kneed her in the guts, knocking the air out of her: Cole was still in there, buried alive. Or not. She doubled over and groaned into her clenched fists.
Lian crouched down beside her. “My, you look beaten up. Let me see.”
Abbida shook her head. “Just give me a minute.”
“Sure,” Lian murmured knowingly and patted her shoulder. She held out one of her ration bars. “Here, you earned this.”
Moments later Li Xiao landed on his feet, almost as nimble as Lian had. He detached the carabiner from the rope and looked back up the cliff. “A shame we have to leave the hooks behind.”
Abbida and Lian exchanged glances: he’d said ‘we’–not ‘you’.
~ to be continued! ~
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Love and Sunshine!