A rustle of vegetation drew her attention from the panorama around them. From several yards away, something was working through the field toward them, maneuvering around clusters of trees. Too low to be seen except for the wake of bending stalks, like a shark through water.
She glanced at Ben as she backed away. He pointed off to the left. Two more wakes arrowed toward them. She studied the field more closely, now noticing three other trails moving in their direction. Six in all.
She backed away, pulling Ben's sleeve. He didn't resist.
Almost tripping, she stepped from the field onto bare rock and stumbled back until she stood by the wormhole opening. Their sleds were lost somewhere in the field. Reaching for her pistol, her hand touched the empty holster. Damn, the gun must have been knocked away by her fall.
She turned to Ben. Thankfully, he had his pistol already gripped in his right hand.
"I lost mine," she said between tight lips.
"That's all right. I lost my extra clips. And I've got only three shots left on this clip."
She stared at the six trails inching slowly toward them. Not good. The nearest one was only ten yards away now. It had stopped and held its position. Waiting. Soon the others had drawn even with it.
"The wormhole?" she asked.
"Sounds good to me. Go on in."
Their words seemed to jar the stalkers in the field. They rushed with lightning speed. With their sudden movement, Ashley froze crouched by the wormhole, like a deer in headlights. The six creatures burst through the wall of vegetation, then stopped in unison, hunkering on all fours, haunches raised, ready to spring, tails slashing.
They looked like a cross between a wolf and a lion. Amber-furred, a cowl of thick mane around their necks, huge eyes, slitted pupils, long jaws bristling with fierce teeth. A steady growl arose from the pack.
"Freeze," Ben whispered. "No sudden moves."
She wasn't about to move, still frozen in her crouch, her eyes glued to the six sets of unblinking eyes that stared at her. And she was willing to stay that way for as long as it took, until something shot from the wormhole and grabbed her ankle. A high-pitched scream burst from her throat.
"TRY THE PADDLES!" BLAKELY CALLED ABOVE THE ROAR of the approaching falls. He gave one final pull on the engine's starter cord. It sputtered and died. He watched as the current dragged the boat toward the precipice. It was impossible to determine from here how high the waterfall dropped. But the noise! The crescendo of rumbling water and rock suggested a deadly fall. He grabbed his paddle and scrambled to the side of the boat. He noticed Jason digging with his paddle on the other side.
"Harder, Jason, harder!" he called to the boy as he added his strength to fight the current, his shoulders burning with exertion.
"I'm trying! It's not working! We're not slowing down!"
Blakely darted a look behind them. The stern of the boat was at the edge of the falls. He watched as the current pushed the boat over the edge. "Grab on! Tight!" he hollered, and grabbed the strap handles on the pontoons while Jason did the same.
The boat seemed to hover at the edge of the waterfall, teetering. Blakely held his breath as the boat flipped over the edge. For a moment, walls of water encircled the boat as it plummeted. He watched the boat try to tumble on top of him. He opened his mouth to yell when the boat slammed into the bottom of the waterfall, both of them pressed to the floor of the boat, sprays of water flaring in jets around them. Luckily, they hadn't flipped.
Blakely raised his head. The waterfall was only about fifteen feet high. "I can't believe it. We-"
The boat tipped over a second waterfall. Blakely almost lost his grip in his surprise as the boat slipped over the edge, crashing downward. Even above the noise of the thundering water, the sound of a ripping pontoon was terrifyingly clear. Damn it! The boat smacked into the bottom of the falls and rapidly filled with water, the remaining trapped air in the damaged float barely keeping it above water.
He pulled Jason away from the sinking side so the boy could grip the intact pontoon's straps.
Jason stared back behind his shoulder. "Here comes another one!"
Before he could even glance behind to confirm the boy's panicked statement, the boat twisted over the edge of another fall. The sinking pontoon, acting like a drag, spun the boat. The uneven motion tumbled the boat over the falls, capsizing it into the surging water.
Just before Blakely plunged beneath the water, he saw Jason fly from the boat, his hands still reaching to regain his hold as he was launched from his seat. Then salty water surged around Blakely, swirling up his nose, triggering a fit of coughing, which only emptied his lungs of life-giving air. He clamped his mouth closed, his chest screaming in protest. He fought the current to free himself of the foundering boat. With a final push off the intact pontoon, he shoved himself away and into clear water. With the aid of his life jacket, he popped to the surface of the roiling waves.
Gasping air, he searched the waters. Before him crashed the series of three cataracts down which they had fallen. He twisted to see if any new falls threatened as the current pulled him away from the others. Luckily, that was the last of them. They had reached the bottom of the deep cavern. The current pushed him into a pond-sized eddy, where the waters swirled torpidly.
Treading water, he searched around him. The cavern glowed with wide patches of phosphorescent fungi. In the faint light, he spotted an orange object bobbing near the far shore. Jason. Blakely kicked vigorously, his boots heavy with water. Jason did not seem to be moving, just drifting in the eddy. The current threatened to pull the boy from the shoreline and back into the main flow.
It was taking too long to reach Jason. As he swam closer, he could see blood trailing from a gash in the boy's scalp, but at least the jacket had kept his head above water.
"Hang in there, son!" He increased his effort and within a minute had the edge of the boy's jacket in his grip. He allowed himself a moment of relief when he heard Jason's breath, raspy but strong. He kicked for shore, hauling Jason behind him, careful to keep the boy's nose and lips above water.
His shoulder bumped into rock. He had reached land. Letting go of Jason for a moment, he clambered onto the slippery shore. Once up, he lay on his belly and reached out to Jason where he listed by the shoreline. Catching the jacket with the tips of his finger, he pulled the boy close enough to grip handfuls of jacket.
Just as he started to yank him up, Jason's lids fluttered open. Confused and dazed, the boy panicked, thrashing his arms wildly, garbled protests burbling from his lips.
A wild hand struck Blakely in the temple, and he almost lost his grip on the boy. He raised his voice, trying to be stern and comforting at the same time. "Jason, calm down! It's me. You're safe."
His words seemed to penetrate the boy's haze. Jason's thrashing quieted to a dull squirm. "That's it," Blakely said soothingly as he hauled him up onto shore. He dragged him back from the edge, then collapsed beside him. Jason struggled to sit up, but Blakely, his breathing ragged, held him down. "Don't move. Rest," he gasped.
Blakely's adrenaline rush from the falls seeped away into the slick rock, his limbs suddenly waterlogged and heavy. He hung his head a moment, taking deep breaths. What were they going to do now?
Jason coughed moistly beside him, drawing Blakely's attention once more. He reached over and unbuckled the boy's life jacket, then checked for any additional injuries. No broken bones. No other lacerations. He gently palpated the wound on the boy's scalp, where he must have hit his head on a rock. Grimacing, he decided that it looked worse than it was, but nevertheless he needed the first-aid kit from the boat for antibiotics and a dry dressing.
He glanced to where the damaged boat had eddied out a few yards from shore. Before the boat drifted back out, he decided he'd better salvage what he could-rations, flashlights, first-aid kit. No telling how long they would be down here.
He glanced at Jason. The boy was now staring back at him. A clear lucidity had returned to his gaze. Jason licked his lips. "My head hurts," he said, his voice a throaty whisper.
"I know, my boy. You got conked pretty hard."
Jason reached up and touched his head. He then stared at his bloody fingertips, his eyes wide.
Blakely patted his shoulder. "You're gonna be fine. It's only a small cut. I'm gonna swim out to the boat and get a bandage for it."
"Don't worry, I'll be right back." Blakely pushed himself up with a groan, his chest sending flares of warning pains. He did not want to enter the water again but had no other choice.
Jason raised himself up on an elbow, watching silently.
Slipping into the water, Blakely struck out for the boat. Thankfully, it had drifted even closer to shore while he had consoled Jason. Only a few kicks and strokes and he was at the half-submerged boat. Though everything had been secured with ties and straps, some things had knocked loose. At least the rations and first-aid kit were still there.
He searched the remainder of the boat. Damn it, the plastic carton that housed the spare flashlights and batteries had been knocked free. Leaning on the remaining pontoon, he rested for a moment. In this cavern, it was no problem-the fungus gave off sufficient illumination. But if they should need to leave…?
Shaking his head, he explored the remainder of the boat. He found Jason's gym bag tied to a strap. He fingered the bag. Hmmm, made of waterproof material. This discovery should offer some consolation to the boy. He picked loose the swollen knot and added the bag to his armload of supplies. With a final cursory exam, he kicked away from the boat and headed to shore. Luckily, the rocky coast was near; still, by the time he reached shore, his lungs burned and a pain had developed in his left arm.
He threw his collected items up on the edge of the bank, then followed them, slipping a few times in his attempt to get up. Finally, after severely scraping a knee, he managed to clamber up on shore and stand.
He froze, staring at the empty life jacket. "Jason?"
The boy was gone.