“What are you talking about?” Anna had started screaming. “Are you mad? Of course not!”
“We’ve no choice but to jump,” I whispered.
“But we’ll never survive that fall!” Ian said hoarsely.
“We have to try. I’ll go down first with Ben. I’ll better be able to help catch you two that way,” I said.
“The others!” Sofia gasped.
The door to our room began to rattle. There was time left for neither talk nor doubt. I lowered myself out of the window, and, trying to at least land on a branch, I let myself go.
Black flashed beneath me. The next thing I knew, I was hanging in the air, one arm supporting Ben, and the other clutched by a Hawk. For a second I feared that looking up would bring me face to face with Arron.
But then Aiden’s voice reassured me.
“Climb up onto my back! Hurry!”
He helped me get into a secure position on his back as I used all my strength and agility to avoid crushing Ben beneath my weight. Then he called through the window. “Sofia! Jump!”
Sofia leapt into his arms and clung to his chest. Despite our weight, Aiden’s heavy wings remained steady.
At that moment, another Hawk appeared beside us, hovering at our level outside the window. I feared again that it was Arron. I yelled but Aiden interrupted me: “It’s all right. This is Rufus. He’s a rebel and he’s with me. Ian, jump on his back now!”
“I can’t leave Anna back there!” Ian shouted.
Just as he spoke, Anna and Kyle came bursting into the room, only just managing to slam and lock the door before Arron squeezed in after them.
All three of them leapt onto Rufus and then we were all flying up toward the green leafy roof of the city.
“The Hawk carving,” I breathed into Aiden’s ear. The sudden movement had knocked all the breath out of me and Ben was now crying. “The gate is near that carving.”
Aiden nodded but said nothing. I could see that all his concentration was in hurtling forward as fast as his wings could carry us. As we were about to hit the ceiling, Aiden shouted, “I’m not going to slow down! Cover the baby and brace yourselves!”
I curved myself around Ben as we hit the roof, taking all the cuts from sharp leaves and branches against my own body. As soon as we made contact with the canopy, Aiden’s wings closed so they wouldn’t get torn, but he had already worked up enough momentum for us to shoot through the leaves and appear above the roof. I closed my eyes and hoped Sofia had done the same. Once we were under the heat of the blazing sun, I could barely open them due to the bright light.
Sofia moaned in pain as the rays hit her. The disguise doesn’t protect her from the wrath of the sun. I hoped Aiden wouldn’t keep us flying up there too long.
By the time my eyes had adjusted, Aiden had stretched out his huge wings again and was carrying us forward. I looked behind me and to my relief saw that we had not lost the others.
Barely a few moments had passed when Kyle shouted out, “Arron!”
I turned to look back again and saw Arron had now emerged from beneath the treetops. His eyes had narrowed to slits as he came hurtling toward us with all the speed his mighty wings could muster.
“Hurry!” I shouted to Aiden over Ben’s cries.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” Aiden gasped.
Arron had the clear advantage, with no weight to carry but his own. I looked around wildly at the sea of treetops beneath us in hope of spotting the Hawk carving.
“The carving is too short! It won’t show among the treetops!” I panted. The ceiling of leaves was far too dense.
A gust of wind blew down on me from above, and to my horror, I realized that Arron had caught up and was now hovering over us. Trying to keep Ben safe with one hand, whilst holding on for dear life with the other, I was incapable of even a feeble attempt at fighting him off.
A pain shot through the nerves in my lower back. I looked up again and saw Arron’s talons covered with blood. My blood. The weight of Arron’s attack made Aiden falter in the air and for a moment I thought he was about to lose all stability.
He’s playing with his prey before the final swoop. Arron positioned himself for another attack. Perhaps this time he would pierce right through my midriff.
Abruptly, Aiden took a nose-dive back down toward the treetops. I closed my eyes and wrapped Ben even tighter against me as we once again made contact with the leaves and branches. As soon as we had made it through the layers of leaves in the ceiling, we reemerged in the open area of the city, Arron popping out from the leaves just a few seconds after us.
“Faster!” I urged.
Initially I didn’t know why Aiden had chosen this particular spot to duck back down beneath the leaves, but as we hurtled further downward, I saw it: the carving.
As we reached the first level of the Lower Layers, Aiden let out a scream as he miscalculated a dodge and a branch dug right into his wing. Our dive halted to a violent stop. I was flung against a branch as I struggled to make sure it was my back that landed against the bough rather than Ben. Feeling dizzy, I looked around and saw Sofia hanging from a branch just next to mine. She looked just as out of breath as I felt but she managed to swing herself up to safety.
Then we both looked up. Aiden’s wing was caught on a sharp branch. It had pierced right through it, leaving him hanging and writhing.
“No!” Sofia shrieked.
Arron dropped down through the leaves and hovered next to Aiden, laughing at his helpless state.