Chapter Thirty Three: one step closer to the edge
Word Count: 1,498
*unedited 'til my sprint is over, please forgive errors.
The terrain beneath his combat boots was as bland, empty, and eternal as the wasteland in his ribcage was developing to be. The same breeze that whistled though the stale air around him also flitted between his ribs. Thistle bushes scuttled about the parched land, catching on the fabric of his suit as they blew past. Within minutes of the soles of his boots crashing into the sand, his whole body was dry – he struggled to remain upright, putting one foot in front of the other, as a chokehold of thirst tightened around his throat. For miles in every direction, he could see nothing but barren desert. It took him only a few moments to make his decision but even then, by the time he kneeled down, every muscle hurt with the steadily growing stiffness of dehydration.
For a long time, he simply dug his fingers into the sand, pulling fistfuls to each side. Even through his gloves the sand was molten hot. He knew every movement he made was wasting water, but he had no other option. The Arena desert was easily eighty or ninety degrees hotter than any of the simulated deserts he’d practiced in during training. All he could think about was decomposition – maggots squirming beneath his flesh, vultures with knife-like beaks pecking into his broken, cracked skin.
His world began to narrow rapidly; as if his skeleton was shrinking from lack of water, and it was starting with his skull. The pressure of a trillion expectations pulsed behind his eyes. A trillion heartbeats too strong, too powerful, for his dwindling body. And still, he dug ever deeper. Now and then he would glance up in search of the sun to keep an eye on its path – desperate to be certain that he had predicted it correctly. This went on for hours, until his limbs were weak and his thoughts grew more and more feeble. There was more than just the endlessness of the desert, he told himself, although he could not be certain of where he really was, or why he was there; but there was more, he was certain. He could not help his belief that whatever was out there was his purpose – it was the one expectation he could not disappoint – it was the most important thing in his infinitely narrowing life, and it was blue – like the ocean, he remembered. It was this aqua-blue destiny that dragged him, tired and sore and hungry and bone-dry, through all of the digging.
He collapsed into his hole, gobbled up by the shade as the sun vanished behind his makeshift wall of sand, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Even in the shade, the heat was suffocating, but in his little pit it was less so. His thoughts were fractionally clearer. He knew he sought a pair of eyes; oases in a desert – gleaming like two small seas.
He had hours left before nightfall, though it felt he’d been digging for days, and this fact concerned him. Without the pools he so urgently needed to search for, he would be dead in a few more hours. A quick death was beginning to sound merciful in comparison to his ceaseless thirst. The sound of his unconscious chanting wafted from his pit. His lips framed the words, his tongue pushed them out in raspy, arid whispers. Oceanic eyes, he muttered, again and again.
A muffled thunk interrupted his thoughts. There, in front of him, was a moderately sized black box. He didn’t know if it was knowledge or instinct that had his fingers tearing the lid off, but it didn’t matter; soon, the box was discarded and he held two full canteens in his hands.
Night fell like a silence upon the land. Aeon did not dally to pull himself out of his trench. The sand was still warm but it was tolerable. He slid the canteens into the thigh pouches Seres had personally sewn into his suit and analyzed his position in the desert. The sun had set behind him, he knew, but this was the Arena and he had no way of knowing which direction it was meant to rise or fall in. Without any shrubbery or wildlife, he had even fewer options. Above him, the stars began to emerge from the eternal blackness.
He would have to make due with the constellations, though they were foreign to him, and he settled in to watch them light up for a while. He needed to pinpoint the Pole star before he could move from his location. Within twenty minutes, he was able to find it – it seemed the Gamemakers had been kind; the stars moved quickly across the expanse above him, and he realized it was because the Arena was only so large, even though it felt massive. Finally armed with a direction, he did not hesitate to follow it.
With the water he’d been gifted with, his body felt multitudes better than it had in the day. He was awake, having napped in his hole to replenish what energy he could, and most of the stiffness had gone from his muscles. These were small graces, ones he knew to treasure, since plenty of time had passed for other Gamers to reach the desert – and they had not been nearly sapped of their life in the blazing sun, as he had. The darkness was his cowl, naturally covering him from onlookers. The only light was faint and distant, coming from the sliver of moon that hung lazily on the edge of his vision.
He froze mid-step and crouched, his senses on high alert at the whisper of a voice being carried by the wind. There were two voices, he realized, and they seemed to be having a heated discussion. He listened closely, tracing the sounds to their sources. He crept closer, careful to stay low to the ground, and peered over a dune when he was certain he was close enough to see them.
He had no weapons, he reminded himself. His best bet was to move in the opposite direction, to continue on his path as he’d decided, and confront no one until he was armed. He warred with himself. They were stupid, that much was apparent; standing idle in the desert having a reasonably loud conversation – they did not even seem to be keeping an eye on their surroundings. Would it not benefit him later to have two players already out of the game? He knew from the video that had played earlier that Silas had taken First Blood; but no other videos played, which meant there were still twenty four other Gamers roaming about. The likelihood was that most would be armed, since they had been able to make use of an entire day of scouring the terrain while he had been trapped in his pit.
To attack or not to attack?
He did not have time to wait, he decided, and threw his body over the dune. With the rush of adrenaline scorching through his veins, he bit back a war cry and ran for the pair. He kicked his foot out and spun, knocking the feet of one from beneath him, and completed the motion with a high kick to the face of the second. He landed in a crouch, his mind reeling for an instant to catch up to his eyes. What struck him was the lack of sound; he heard only the grunts and thuds of his opponents hitting the ground. Even though he knew he was moving, the motions were soundless, as if he had cotton in his ears that muffled only the rustle of his movements.
The first man he had knocked down was to his right, then, and Aeon dropped the full weight of his body onto his opponents face with the point of his elbow. The crack echoed all around him for a long moment; his heartbeat lightning fast and eerily silent. He could feel the warmth of blood seeping into his suit, the jagged edges of bone prickling at him through the material.
He rolled away from the body as a canon sounded from a pointless place in the sky. From his left, he could see movement. The man he’d kicked was up and about. He rose to his feet slowly, proudly, and followed the flicker and vanish of the movement carefully. He saw him lunge the instant it began, and Aeon’s arm whipped out in perfect synchronization with his opponents appearance at his side. His knuckles connected with the cushy pop of the man’s throat and he heard the crack of his attacker’s neck snapping with the whiplash of its sudden stop.
Then, the second canon, as he shook the numbness from his fingers.