Cienne’s and Flince’s footsteps pounded against the sepia dirt of the naturally molded forest path. They jetted through the forest at stunning speeds, wind whistling by their ears. Cienne’s short russet hair flew behind her in the wind; the hood of her twin brother Flince’s light jacket repeatedly slapped the back of his head. He jerked his arm back swiftly and pushed away the hood. It did not cooperate. The twelve-year-old twins’ jackets---Cienne’s a plum color and Flince’s a navy blue hue---were both speckled with mire from running through the forest.
Cienne---a few paces ahead of her twin---thrust a glance behind her at Flince, who yelped at her, “Cienne! Hold up! I hear something!”
His sister stopped cold. She swiveled around to face him. “Someone?” A pang of hope caressed her voice, but Flince shook his head ruefully and answered, “Something.”
He caught up to her, gasping. His heart pummeled his chest like a sledgehammer as he slowly cast his gaze skywards, peering up at the thick forest canopy. The sun filtered through the treetops as it descended the sky, which was streaked with brilliant shades of orange, gold, coral. . .
“What is it, Flince?” Cienne inquired in response to his clarification.
“It must be an animal.” The angst in his tone was unmistakable. In the last five days that they had been lost in the forest, they had encountered a multitude of wild animals; in fact, not one hour ago, they had been running from a panther.
“Run, then! What are you waiting for?” Cienne gestured to her brother to follow her, but Flince called, “Wait! We’ve been running for nearly an hour straight!”
“It’s either sprint for your life or be slain by an animal!” she reminded him, backtracking toward him. “You choose!” The wind roared, but the iciness of it was negated by the sun’s heat. “It’ll only take a few minutes to shake the animal, anyway. We can’t even see it yet.”
“But if our legs give out. . .” He trailed off. “We might as well save that energy for climbing up a tree if we need to,” Flince pointed out. “Chances are, the animal can’t climb.”
“And if it can?” Cienne demanded, not harshly.
For that, he did not have a reply. With a resigned sigh, he forced his legs forward, his feet beating the path. Again, Cienne was faster, but he caught up and they sprinted together.
They did not hear any sound of pursuit from the animal, however, and they slowed in unison. The sky was now lavender. The stars twinkled beside the ivory moon. Only a fraction of the majesty of the night could be seen through the lofty forest canopy, though.
Flince plunked himself onto a tree stump. Cienne sat opposite him, on another stump. “Let’s turn in for the night.” She thought he was nodding in assent until she realized the bobbing of his head was too incessant to be a nod---he was asleep. She followed suit.
At midnight, something shook Flince’s shoulder. Eyes still closed, he groggily writhed away from the touch that had disrupted his sleep. A second later, his chocolate eyes blinked open, and he realized that there was a reason Cienne had roused him.
“Flince,” she hissed. “Get up! There’s definitely something on our trail this time.”
He mumbled unintelligibly. She hefted him until he stood erect. That woke him up.
“What?” he whispered, maintaining a low voice. “Which animal is it? Did you see?”
“No. Let’s get out of here before we find out.” They took off. A moment later, there was the audible noise of claws raking against soil. An irate growl sounded behind them. No, not an irate growl---a hungry one.
Cienne and Flince dove into a dense wall of foliage. The animal behind them roared in famishment, following them into the looming forestry. At some point, though, one large tree cast too dark a shadow, and the twins lost sight of each other.
The animal located Cienne first. She had dashed into a thicket in an attempt at hiding when suddenly, in the darkness of the shadows of the shrubbery, she blinked and found two yellow eyes roving over her. A second later, a body of black fur slunk into the thicket, matching the pair of malicious tawny irises. The animal was undoubtedly a panther.
Cienne tried to cower into the dense shrubbery of the thicket, but the panther approached her now, cornering her at last. “Flince!” she yelled. Was he safe for now?
The panther’s beady eyes were fixated on Cienne, its prey. It lunged for her, and her knee-jerk reaction was to propel herself further into the thicket. She shoved herself backwards, through the fronds and thorns, scraping her arms. The panther followed. The scratchy brambles elicited roars of anguish from the animal, but it did not relent.
The predator and prey both tumbled out of the thicket and reached a forest clearing. The panther lashed a claw at Cienne, who backflipped clumsily and rocketed away. It pursued her, lunging for her. She somersaulted away from it and bolted ahead, colliding with a tree. One look at its unyielding roots, and she was intent on scrambling up the tree.
She clambered up the trunk, glancing down every few seconds. The panther snarled, clawing at the bark---which was black when swathed in shadows ---but did not follow her.
Cienne locked her hands around a thick branch, hoisting herself lithely into the treetop. She crouched in its boughs, balancing on one gnarled yet strong branch. The panther tore at the bark again and again. Eventually, it roared and bounded away. Obscured in the tree, Cienne could think of only one other target it aimed to make its quarry---Flince.
Meanwhile, her brother was backing deeper into the foliage when he suddenly heard the snarl of a panther stalking towards him. Trepidation channeled out every instinct in Flince’s mind that told him to run. Dread and fear rooted him to the soil more firmly than any tree here as two yellow eyes found him. A whimper slipped from Flince’s lips when the panther charged him. Flince whirled away and barreled ahead. He spotted a sturdy tree and made for it, but he didn’t reach it in time; the panther had caught up. The panther leapt toward him, but he sidestepped, and then rolled to the side just as it jutted its head at him.
The menacing panther now faced him; Flince lurched away from it and inadvertently rammed himself straight into a tree. His clammy palms gripped a knobbly branch, and he attempted to swing himself upwards, but failed. He fell back down to the sodden soil and found himself gazing up warily at an aggravated panther. It opened its maw in a roar and bared its row of dagger-like teeth at him. Flince flinched.
Suddenly, unbeknownst to the panther, there was a russet-haired, chocolate-eyed silhouette towering above the panther’s head. Still on the ground, Flince knew he must be hallucinating; there was no way his sister could have somehow survived the panther. . . .
Cienne stared down at her twin, who was lying on the ground at the mercy---or lack thereof---of a panther. She flourished the large, thick branch she was wielding and raised it above the panther’s head, then brought it down. Obviously, this was not a fatal move, but the very brief bout of agony would be enough to distract the panther.
The panther yowled from the short-lived pain of the branch jabbing its head, giving Cienne enough time to yank Flince up from the soil. Together, the twins flitted off into the night, having suddenly spotted something very enticing. They darted towards the one thing they had desperately sought for five days, the only thing they had eyes for right now---
The path out of the forest.