Chapter Thirty Nine: the one that holds his place
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 1,749
Aeon did not know when exactly he had fallen asleep, but when he woke up everything was different. He’d chosen a small nook in the roots of a tree in the woodland sector; and buried himself beneath moss and dirt clumps and stray shrubbery; he’d been invisible to passerby and relatively comfortable. He was grateful to find that his belongings were still nestled around his body where he’d tucked them to keep them safe. Everything was difficult to get in the Arena, and he wasn’t about to risk having something taken when he’d had to kill two men to come into possession of what little he had.
He’d understood why he had risked an attack the minute his hands fell over the sleek metal; but there, in a strange place, one he’d not even appraised yet, panic was all he knew. No one could take it from him. He had to make sure no one could. His fingers twitched around the bandolier he’d slept with slung over his chest. He rose to his feet to take in the scope of his surroundings. His fingertips grazed the cartridges nestled into the loops, swirling in small circular motions as if he were in meditation as his eyes fixated ahead, his pupils shifting in and out as he observed every minute detail of the new terrain he found himself in. Instead of forest stretched out for miles before him, he saw only smooth, rolling stretches of sandy stone. Cavern openings littered his view, breaking apart the otherwise undisturbed plain. The sun floated above him, scorching the terra beneath his feet until he could feel it through the soles of his boots. He took a swig from the canteen he’d gotten off the corpses in the desert, and tried to swallow down the phantom taste of guilt.
He lifted his weapon from the ground at his feet and scanned the area as quickly as he could; the first thing he noticed was how little cover there was available to him. A few narrow, sparse trees littered the ground but they were few and far between and did not offer much real value at all. He needed to find high ground, and for a long time, that was all he allowed himself to think about.
She was unsteady on her feet, but she had to press on; her only chance to find her opponent was to follow the fresh tracks. If she could find them. As she stumbled, she attempted to load her crossbow again, her fingers fumbling around the mechanisms as she quivered and her vision blurred in and out. The first time her fingers slipped the arrow out of line, she stopped moving and took a steady breath. She refused to rush herself; there were no sounds around her, if her opponent was near, he wasn’t ready to attack. She had a moment, she would be grateful to herself for taking it later on, she knew. Shutting her eyes, she felt the crossbow with the tips of her fingers, remembering it precisely from training. With her eyes shut and her focus reigned in, her hands stopped trembling and she slid the arrow into place until a satisfying click echoed in her eardrums.
She opened her eyes again, not before taking another deep, regulated breath, and began the search as the shadows around her shifted and coalesced. Everything felt distant and surreal; as if she were looking at things through a rushing tide, and the color trails of every motion were beginning to blur together. As long as she could keep herself upright she would continue the search, she told herself; but through the nebulous vision she was left with, she couldn’t remember what she was looking for.
Crossing the cavern plain had been surprisingly easy; the flatlands were even terrain and he was able to keep a steady jog for a good few hours before he slowed, and better yet – by the time he slowed, he was almost to the base of the mountains. He knew it was where he would find Rory; she was a clever girl, and she knew mountainous terrain better than anyone else in the Games – she was from District 3, after all, and she’d grown up nestled between mountains larger than Capitol buildings. He’d kept his eyes on the sky as the videos played, but never once did she genuinely seem at risk. It always appeared she had the upper hand. It was comforting to know she was handling herself; and he tried to ignore that ever-present quiver of her fingers that seemed to be nothing more than a faltering video stream.
The minute his palms grasped the protruding sections of rock, he remembered training in the Capitol; he could feel the cables taught around his body, the cool rock-wall façade beneath his hands; he could nearly see her climbing the wall far above him, calling down to him to hurry up. With the echoes of her voice in his ears, he began the vertical climb; every motion strained his body, sweat glazing his skin beneath the suit, dripping into his eyes and threatening to put his grip in jeopardy of slipping. He pushed himself further, stopping only once on a wide ledge to sit for a moment and sip from his canteen. Using the butt of his sniper rifle, he crushed small pebbles and rubbed them onto his hands to help his grip. After a short respite, he continued his ascent.
In her head, she was screaming; screaming so loudly that her eardrums threatened to rupture, that her vocal chords seized in her throat. Remembering where she was or how she’d gotten there had become increasingly difficult. She’d stumbled around for what felt like a lifetime, grasping for sturdy looking branches to find nothing but air, scrambling away from predatory beasts with wings and fangs the length of her forearm, only to blink and find herself alone, her crossbow trembling in her unsteady grip, aimed at a leaf as it floated to the ground, her heart pounding wildly away in her chest. Her suit was soaked through, the crimson penumbra growing as she watched; her entire body felt sticky and weak.
She shifted onto her knees; one palm pressed flat against her chest as if to willfully slow down the rate of her pulse, and tried to breathe normally. Silhouettes and apparitions curled and contorted in her peripheral vision, only to be long gone when she sought them. The quiver in her hands was beginning to spread to her arms, then her shoulders; soon, her entire body was quaking. She could smell sweat and blood as her eyes grew heavier; fatigue hanging like anchors from her eyelashes. She scrambled against the tide of unconsciousness, fighting it with all that remained of her awareness, only to be swallowed up by the darkness as she heard the gentle crunch, shuffle, crunch of footsteps.
It was pure chance that brought him to her, her body strewn upon the jungle floor like so much dead weight, her eyes glazed and unresponsive. Pure chance, he told himself, pushing down the whisper of destiny that tingled along his spine. He let the back of his hand rest against her forehead and tried to keep from cringing at how clammy and ill her skin felt. She was burning up and her breathing was irregular; after checking her pulse, he grew even more concerned. She had a pack with her and he did not hesitate to tear it open and dig around for anything useful. It did not surprise him to find a plethora of useful things stowed away in her supplies, and he tried not to smile for the camera as his suspicions were confirmed: Rory was probably the single most capable person roaming the Arena. The thought did not last long, however, as his eyes found the blossoming sanguine stain. The gash in her flesh was swollen and a bright, petrifying red; she’d clearly lost more blood than her body could replace; it was then that the full pressure of her condition weighed on his shoulders. He knew the healing shards she had in her pack would not be able to save her, not with whatever toxin was causing her wound to froth sickly greyish foam that swirled in the rivulets of blood and discolored them, as if sucking the ink from a roll of film.
Knowing full well that it might be a waste of supplies, he used one of the two shards immediately. He would try the second if she showed improvement; if she didn’t, the second wouldn’t help, anyway. He did not wait for the shard to take effect – they didn’t have much time; he had no way of knowing just who might be lurking behind every shadow in the jungle, and the risk was too great to stay where they were. He needed to get them to higher ground – the highest he could manage – and he knew the trip would take longer if he was carrying her weight, too. Propping her torso up so he could slip his left arm beneath her knees, he hoisted her into his arms and grabbed her pack as he rose. After he checked to be sure her crossbow was settled safely in her lap and his grip on her was firm he began the steady hike up the mountain, one step at a time.
She opened her eyes.
She was in a cave, the shadows around her too dense to see, except for the soft glow of a small fire beyond the entrance of the cave; from somewhere out in the open space, she could hear footsteps, the sound of metal cutting through flesh, the quiet smattering of blood fleeing the vein and hitting the rocky ground.
Her heartbeat was in her throat. Who had taken her here? She was certain she did not remember coming to the cave; and the harder she thought about it, the more she realized she remembered nothing. She recalled a gloomhound in the jungle, the faintest glimpse of human skin, the wet puncture of an arrow through bone and tissue. She had just enough time to roll onto her side as the contents of her stomach rushed up into her mouth and she vomited onto the stone floor of the cavern. For a long time, all she was aware of were the flames dancing just beyond the dimness of her cave.