13. It Seeks to Kill Us

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"Farid!"

I yelled and ran downslope, my footsteps thumping with a hollow sound on the rock from which the slab had broken off. Gritting my teeth and hoping this part wouldn't break off, too, I continued. I gained the edge and skipped off the rock without incident. The rubble beyond it was loose and muddy, and I half ran and half slid downwards, gaining momentum as the vegetation drew nearer.

I tried to slow down, but the rubble under my feet just yielded. I crashed through the bushes just like Farid's slab only moments ago. Wet, tough leaves slapped my legs, my arms, and my face.

The rock that had toppled the slab was to the left of me, and I tried to steer closer to it to stop my slide, but my fingers just grazed its rough surface.

The end of the valley materialized through the mist and rain. And it wasn't the beach as I had expected, but it was an edge high above the waterline. The valley ended in a drop, and that drop was approaching fast.

A gnarly tree stood at its edge, to my right. I jumped and made a dive for it.

For a second, I sailed through the air. Then my chest slammed into its trunk.


~~~


I had stopped. That dwarf of a tree had caught me.

My breastbone ached where it had hit the wood, and my arms and face burned with a searing pain from cuts where the leaves had slashed at me.

Farid!

The thought of him smacked my face and made me forget the hurt of my body. Steadying myself against the tree, holding on to it with one hand, I bent forward, looking down over the edge of the drop to where the angered sea assaulted the dark rocks yards below. I expected to see a shattered figure in a blue shirt and dark trousers.

Sprawled on stone or floating in the water.

But my gaze found nothing human down there, just wilderness of rock and surf.

"Megan?"

The man's voice was close and took me by surprise. I nearly lost my balance.

He was just a few steps to my right, sitting on the ground, leaning against a rock. Blood covered his forehead and one half of his face.

Blood as red as Sam's, my husband's, as he died on the tarmac.

"Farid!" I let go of my tree and clambered over to him. "How are you?"

He nodded but didn't say anything. I knelt down at his side.

There was a lot of blood—on his face, in his hair, and on his shirt. A gash started on his forehead and cut into his scalp, still oozing red onto skin and into hair.

"You're bleeding bad," I said. "You've hit your head."

His dark-eyed gaze was on my face, but he said nothing.

"Do you hear me?" I touched his arm.

He nodded and moved a hand to his temple. "I..." His fingers came away bloodied. He studied them, then put them to his lips. "I..."

"Listen, Farid, is anything else hurting?"

He gazed back at me, tilted his head, and licked his finger, obviously confused.

"Can you feel your legs?"

He stirred his feet. "Yes." Then he took a long, shuddering breath and rolled over into a kneeling position. He moaned, and—before I could stop him—he pushed himself up against the rock and stood. "I'll live," he said, looking down at me.

Not having expected him to get up so quickly, I rose, too, ready to secure him. But he stood firm, like a statue in the steady downpour.

"Take it slow," I said.

We had to get away from the drop behind him and out of the rain.

Sheer walls of rock framed the ravine on both sides, and the only way out was the one we had entered through—up.

One of the walls had a slightly overhanging section, a recess. It might offer some shelter.

"Can you walk?" I still didn't trust the bloodied man's ability to stand, let alone to clamber up the slope.

He nodded.

"Good." I gestured at the overhang. "Let's try to move over there. It looks dry. Okay?"

He didn't reply but started towards it. I followed, relieved to leave the drop behind us.

The recess in the wall was large enough for us to squat in, and it was deep enough to get us out of the rain. It became narrower as it reached into the rock, and its far end was too dark to make out.

"Let's wait here until the rain stops," I said. "We don't have better shelter at the camp."

"The others will be worried."

I shrugged and sat down on the pebbly ground. He settled beside me.

The rain had washed his face clean. The bleeding had stopped. The wound probably had looked worse than it was.

"You may have a concussion," I said.

He rubbed his temple. "Probably, but I'm strong-headed." Then he pointed a finger at the cuts on my arm. "You're hurt, too."

"I'm strong-armed." I didn't feel like it, though, and tried to ignore my shaking knees.

He gave a brief smile. As usual, it lingered only for a heartbeat, and I missed it as soon as it was gone. He looked away from me, out into the rain. "At least we'll get some fresh water now," he said.

"Yeah." My throat was parched, and my lips were chafed. I licked my still wet lips. I hadn't dared drink much from the stale water at Chris Pond this morning. "I hope the others will remember to fill our bottles."

"I trust Chris to do that," he said.

The rain was strafing the bushes before our shelter, making their leaves shudder. It intensified, and the noise turned into a deafening hiss. The spray of the drops exploding against the ground drove me back into the recess. I pushed deeper, expecting to touch the wall behind me.

But there was no resistance, and I almost fell backward and bumped my head against the ceiling.

Cursing silently, I rubbed my hurting head. Then I turned to inspect the rock behind me. There wasn't a wall, just the dark mouth of a tunnel. It was almost round, barely an arm's length across.

"A cave," I said, moving away from it as claustrophobia oozed from its the opening.

"This looks like a lava tube," he replied. "These things are made by molten stone flowing through it."

I peered into the dark opening, but it just stared back at me, all sinister and forbidding.

A sulfuric, musty smell wafted from it.

"You were right," I added.

"What about?"

"This place gives me the creeps. It's as if it tries to kill us."

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