Chapter Thirty Seven: an unlucky series of events
Word Count: 1,193
*editing a few things into it as i re-read it but otherwise it's pretty much finished.
Every few hours, when she climbed down from her nest in a tree to do a perimeter check, the lands beyond the jagged cliffs of the mountains were different. After a while, she grew used to the shifting horizon and the sudden terrain changes – just as she had learned to adapt to the constant tremble in her hands, but each time, she re-mapped her location in a sketchbook she’d found hidden in a hole in one of the larger trees at the top of the mountain. She kept a small fire going beside her, barely a collection of hot embers, and dipped a sharpened stick into the ash in place of ink. From her idyllic perch at the top of the mountain, she could see for miles in every direction. Her lines were uneven and shaky in some places, where her careful concentration had been interrupted, but the map was reasonably accurate and with every day that passed without a kill, her hands quivered less.
She had endeavored to make it quite impossible for anyone else to make it far enough up the mountain to find her. Between pits hidden beneath layers of leaves and branches, stone avalanches rigged with a thin wire at shoe-level, and the wildfires she started every afternoon, any of the contestants that had the mountain in mind quickly altered their paths. The first contestant she’d caught was a small man with twitching limbs. He’d fallen into one of the pits and, as she’d made them to be, found himself entirely incapable of escaping it. She’d found him just before dark, hunkered down in the pit, whimpering to himself. At first, she’d felt sorry for him; for a brief instant, she even considered helping him out and sending him on his way.
But then he looked up at her, his pupils all she could see, and he waved his stumpy left hand up at her, wailing incoherently with grunts and squeals, every motion of his lips spraying fresh blood into the air. Pieces of his own flesh were stuck between his blood-coated teeth. She didn’t know what was wrong with him, exactly; he’d probably gone mad after eating the poison berries that lined the north side of the lake. Putting the arrow between his eyes had been the merciful thing to do.
According to her map, the jungle that had previously been to her West was replaced with a sandy flatland of caverns; instead of the city ruins that had been to her North there were dense marshlands that faded into a blistering desert to the East. Where the two met, small sandstorms kicked up sections of swampland and rained down shreds of plant life. To the South, she found the jungle again, and she counted her blessings. She needed to get to the freshwater waterfall one last time, before the cycle completed and the jungle vanished.
The landscape shifts seemed random at first, but something inside of her couldn’t help but think there was more to it; a system she could predict, even, if only she could decode the pattern. Finishing up her new map, she stomped out the embers and tucked her notebook safely into her pack. She’d learned her lesson after losing her second pack; the ever-changing terrain and overall shiftiness of the Arena had not been as clear to her, then.
She left nothing behind, even though she intended to return before dark. She’d grown used to her area, she’d made a somewhat comfortable nest in the tree for herself, she knew the mountain and the creatures and the climate, but she trusted nothing.
She could turn around late in the day to find her mountain gone, replaced with a cliff side that fell into ocean. She knew better than to grow attached or complacent. She was almost grateful for the constant need to be ready to move; it kept her from bogging herself down with supplies she did not need. It was easy to get wrapped up in the scavenger hunt for food packs or healing shards; she felt certain it was what got more than a few of the competitors killed. Materialism did no one any good in the Arena; just because she could have it did not mean she needed it, and that was what she told herself as she navigated her way down the mountain, passing at least two supply packs along the way, if her eyes were as sharp as she thought they were.
She tried to keep a mental tally of where she could find them if she ever needed them, but she had already figured out the hiding pattern for the supplies so keeping precise track of them wasn’t quite as necessary as it might have otherwise been. Her steps were effortless and ghostly as she began to make her way through the jungle, her crossbow, already assembled and loaded, held tightly in her right hand. All of her senses were on high alert; in her experience thus far, there was no terrain as dangerous as the jungle. There were others that were perhaps more lethal: the ocean, perhaps, or even the desert; but there were no hungry beasts hiding in the shadows. Even in the ocean, one had to spill hemoglobin to draw the bloodsharks.
The gloomhounds, however, needed no such trail.
At the precise instant that her eyes landed on the mammoth outline of another competitor, she heard the low rumble of a hound from behind her. Her instincts split in two – one controlled the left side of her body, the second controlled the right. Her hand lifted the crossbow to aim between the eyes of the beast as her left hand unsheathed a throwing knife and released it, nothing but hope and happenstance to guide it.
The world slowed down fractionally, almost sluggishly, and she dropped to her knee as the gloomhound lunged for her throat. Retargeting, she pulled the trigger into the roaring beast’s mouth. The arrow punched through the back of its throat and landed with an echoing plunk into a nearby tree. She allowed herself no time to be grateful for her luck; rolling into the bushes, she re-aligned her vision and gathered her balance. The other competitor was out of sight and she couldn’t even remember what he’d looked like; she’d only caught a glimpse of a blur of flesh and the glint of light on a blade. She scanned the area for any trace of blood or her throwing knife. Either would help her figure out where her opponent had gone.
It wasn’t until she rose to her feet that she felt the sting of tender skin being moved. She glanced down, her fingertips touching her ribcage, and had to choke back a curl of nausea as she realized she could see one of her ribs through the gaping wound in her abdomen. The hound must have snagged a claw into her before the momentum of the arrow pulled it away from her, she thought, distantly. This was very bad news, she remembered, but she could not trace the thought to a source.
The world around her began to spin.