Chapter Thirty One: combat baby
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 1,700
He could hardly believe what he was seeing. Silas, all honor and dignity and charm, struggling to maintain face for the camera; but there was something deeper, there, beneath the images flickering on the screen. There was something more, he could feel it. It was the story, he knew that much – and he couldn’t help but wonder what had triggered such a plea to fall from Silas’ mouth. Immediately, he flashed back to the Banquet, to the night that everything had gone so terribly wrong for him.
Tyberos, the giant. Was it possible that Silas actually wanted Aeon to swoop in and protect Rory? Was it possible that, amidst their little war, there was something bigger? Of course he would protect Rory, he would protect her with his dying breath – that had been in the cards since he’d laid eyes on her for the first time so many years ago; but was it possible that Silas did not fear giving Aeon the upper hand in that situation?
He knew that.
It was desperation; it was the plea of a terrified man, one that sat on the edge of losing everything and was clinging to every scrap of hope he could scrounge for. Aeon was not entirely unfamiliar with such hopelessness. A part of him pitied Silas; a very small part, an iota, really, but it was there, nonetheless.
Silas’ ending confession was the last thing Aeon wanted to witness, and the rage was a torpedo to his chest. Before he understood his reaction, before he felt the muscles of his torso shifting, his fist was through the screen and his blood was dripping on the floor. He did not bother to prevent the mess, didn’t bother to cover the wound. Instead, he let it bleed, and as the puddle grew, his rage dissipated until all that was left was a singular focus – a determination that consumed him.
Hawthorne was at the door, then, giving Aeon a politely sorrowful frown as he said, “It is time.”
Ruarí stepped into her pod and everything around her faded into the mist of forgetfulness. Her heart rate leveled out and her breathing slowed; her nerves vanished all together. There was nothing except her training replaying in her mind’s eye a thousand times a second. She’d expected a consuming fear of death, she’d expected her terror to overtake her and blot out all reason or self-preservation; but there was a calm stillness where her panic had once been, and she did not question the blessing.
Then came the wind. It blew around her like a hurricane contained within her pod. She was encompassed in a brilliant white glow that whipped at her hair and tugged on the well-fitted layers of her suit. She could feel static on her skin like needles and sand. It was over as suddenly as it began, and she found herself standing at the base of a mountain, her combat boots mere yards away from a glittering lake larger than the whole of District 3.
She looked up and the sky stretched on and on. Already, Rory felt like a goldfish in a fishbowl, swimming for the sake of the viewers, holding out hope that one day she might leave the tank and make her own way. For the time being, she pressed down the swelling resentment for her predicament and took the first step onto Arena soil.
First things first, she reminded herself, she needed weapons, shelter, and food. She knew the supplies would be hidden around the Arena, anywhere at all; buried beneath a den of cougars or hidden at the bottom of the lake.
She was already half-way turned to the mountain when she froze. Hidden at the bottom of the lake, she thought again, and spun around. She could see nothing beneath the shimmering surface of the lake, but she didn’t need to see. She could feel it. There was something at the bottom of the lake, and it was practically calling to her. She scanned the area, despite the knowledge that every other competitor was probably half a day’s trek away, and they were all surely searching for their own supplies.
If they weren’t, they were doomed to be dead by dawn.
She stripped down to her undergarments and dove into the lake before she could second guess herself. The water was frigid against her skin and she immediately shirked back, her body instinctually retreating to the surface, before she steeled herself against the frore and dove deeper. The further down she went, the harder it was to push herself onward; the water seemed to thicken, almost congeal, and it felt as if she were swimming in pudding. It must be the cold, she told herself, pressing onward; her muscles strained against the unnatural resistance of the lake.
She remembered, then, that she was in the Arena, not in a lake back home in District 3. The water probably did get thicker the deeper she went, to dissuade any less-than-stubborn Gamers from seeking the treasure at the bottom.
She became convinced that she might be on the brink of discovering a secret weapon. Maybe one that could save her life.
She felt as if she had been swimming forever. For years, at least, and her lungs burned with a fierceness that threatened to overpower her will. Just as her thoughts darkened with the strange pull of unconsciousness, her fingers found sand. It was more difficult than she imagined to open her eyes, and the liquid she was submerged in, which she’d recently come to the conclusion could not possibly be water any longer, burned her eyes. She closed them again, and felt around with the tips of her fingers as her lungs seemed to cave in.
Her nails scraped against something smooth and solid, and she tried to keep from speculating over what it was. Instead, she found where it ended and grabbed hold. Using her heels to propel her upward, Rory kicked off from the bottom of the lake and sped up to the surface with the last remnants of oxygen being sucked from the very blood in her veins.
She broke the surface and greedily gulped one enormous lungful of air after another. For a moment, she simply kicked her feet to keep herself buoyant while she caught her breath. Once she reached the edge of the lake, she dragged herself out of the water and sat a few feet away from her clothes.
In her hands was a crossbow, seemingly un-phased by its previous location, gleaming in the sunlight like a holy grail. There was no hesitation, then. She threw herself up from the shore and took a running dive into the lake. There had to be arrows down there somewhere, she told herself, as her lungs cried out in protest. She scoured the floor of the lake for hours, diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing. She only surfaced when she had an arrow clasped tightly in her fist; it did not matter how long it took her, and the more she dove, the longer she could remain submerged.
With two dozen arrows piled neatly beside her crossbow, she allowed herself to dry in the sun for a few minutes before she pulled on Seres’ custom made suit. The material was something Rory had never heard of, but it fit against her as if it longed to replace her flesh. It moved as easily as her skin, but it was durable and it held her body heat better than the down comforter she’d unwillingly left in her chambers at the Training Center. Littered with little zip pockets and built-in sheaths, it was a suit designed precisely for the battle she had been thrown into.
Using the hair tie she’d worn into the Arena, she yanked her hair back into a tight ponytail and pulled on her combat boots and weapons belt. Rory regretted that she hadn’t found a shoulder strap to sling the crossbow over her shoulder, but chose to search elsewhere. It would do her no good to linger in the open for too long – and she’d already spent at least four hours diving. She didn’t have time to waste. She would lose daylight soon enough, she reminded herself, and began to search for strong leaves she could fashion into a sort of carrier for her arrows.
She’d found some soft twigs that she could bend without snapping, and those would have to do. It took less than ten minutes for her to twist them into a makeshift satchel. The hardest part had been finding a vine she could twine through the twigs to use as a shoulder strap, but it wasn’t as difficult as it could have been and she allowed herself a moment of pride as she tested it. To her astonishment, the crossbow disassembled easily and fit better than she could have hoped in her little, awkward carrier. She didn’t allow herself to dwell on her good fortune.
Scaling the mountain was the easy part. She wanted to reach higher ground before the sun began to drop, and she did with surprising effortlessness. Heaving herself over the edge, she rolled onto the highest plateau she could find and stared up at the pale sky until her breathing regulated. She was thirsty, and part of her wondered if she should have sipped from the lake, but there was something about the liquid it was filled with that made her nervous. It hadn’t been easy to keep from accidentally swallowing any while she dove, but she’d managed.
She would just have to find a different source of water, Rory told herself, and dragged herself to her feet.
The mountain seemed to be a safe haven for her. A small jungle spread out before her; trees taller than buildings in the Capitol offered her shelter and protection, the dense shrubbery and foliage promised a wealth of small creatures she could hunt. Water first, she thought as she attempted to suppress the hunger already gurgling in her stomach. Water, shelter, food, then fire once the sun went down and she was hidden amongst the trees.
She began the trek.