Chapter Forty: no light, no light
Aeon Neil + Ruarí Savage
Word Count: 2,236
He was hesitant at first, to leave her to hunt; but her condition had not worsened and it was growing dark; if he did not hunt soon, she would have nothing to eat when she woke. The food supplies in her pack were dwindling, and he was cautious about using them, anyway; Aeon was a man that knew pharmaceuticals, and it made him all the more skeptical of them. If it hadn’t been his own parents that worked on the team that designed the health shards, he probably wouldn’t use them, either. The food supplies, however, were made by an entirely different lab – and Aeon trusted no one he couldn’t measure the dignity of, face to face.
He had gone on the hunt after all, and he’d been lucky enough to find a few small rodents to roast and some berries that, when held up to the light of the fire, appeared to be raspberries. He went through the motions of preparing the two rabbits and the single squirrel, his hands moving without conscious thought; his mind was elsewhere, piecing together some form of plan, some emergency, worst-case-scenario, apocalyptic scheme.
He needed to get her out of the Arena, that was what it all came down to, really. How to get her out alive. He wondered if he’d simply stopped expecting to get out, or if his mind simply was incapable of thinking he would not. He couldn’t tell if he was assuming his place by her side once she was free, or if she would be standing alone. As he rotated the meat over the fire, he chose not to acknowledge the unlikelihood of his survival. He went into the cave now and again to check on her, bringing a small torch so he could study her condition. He peeled apart her eyelids and observed her pupils, the small black holes in the center of two small oceans, the tides twisting and rolling as he watched. She was having fever dreams.
He sighed to himself, wondering how he could break her fever. He glanced to his hand and realized he was turning over the health shard between his fingers, only, he didn’t remember getting it out of the pack. He had to use it, he reminded himself; she’d shown improvement, and that was all he needed to know.
If he needed to, he’d go searching for more supply packs to find another health shard. He would do what needed to be done; he was man enough for that, at least.
When the second shard didn’t help, he had no choice but to crawl onto the makeshift cot with her and hope that with his body heat, the heated blanket, and her own feverish skin, she would finally break the fever. During the worst of her fever dreams, she bolted upright, her blanket tangled around her, fighting against his arms to get free. He knew better; she was still in the dream, she was fighting a monster in her mind, not him, and that was the only thing he could think as he clamped his hand down over her mouth to muffle her piercing scream. He struggled to keep a hold of her, feeling a bit like he was trying to ride an angry bull, but he succeeded, and eventually she settled back into a reasonably calm slumber, and he continued to cling to her until he woke a few hours later with the first light of day blinding him.
She was stood at the cave entrance, the lambency of dawn silhouetting her, burning the smooth lines of her figure into his retinas.
She said, “Good, you’re awake,” and he couldn’t help but think, No, I’d rather be sleeping.
She turned to him with a slowness that he thought he must have been imagining. No creature moved so eloquently, as if she alone dictated the pace of the world around her. She said, “Why did you save me?”
“Why did you expect that no one would?”
For a long time, she simply studied him. After a while, he swung his legs over the side of the cot and pulled on his boots. As he checked his pockets and supplies, he said, “You know, there’s been someone prowling around the area. Did one of the competitors do that to you?” He gestured casually at the remaining scar on her abdomen, showing clearly through the tear in her suit.
She shook her head and her eyes returned to the Arena outside of the cave. “No, that was a gloomhound, but I did see someone.”
“I don’t know, it was out of the corner of my eye while the gloomhound attacked. I threw a knife but I couldn’t find it after I killed the dog.”
Aeon nodded and took a sip from the canteen. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he offered the canteen out to her. “We have to find them,” he said, “before they find us.”
He shrugged, “I’ve had a few.”
“Are you hungry?” He was asking, but he did not wait for an answer to hold out a chunk of cooked meat and berries on a wide leaf.
She waved her hand gently at it and closed her eyes again, shaking her head. “I’ll just throw it up, but thank you.”
He continued to hold it out to her, his hand never shaking the way hers did, and said, “You should eat something.” There was no room for argument in his tone, and she knew he was right – of course he was; the only way for her body to be strong enough to fight off the poison was to nourish it. She was glad for him, in that moment; glad he’d found her and not put a bullet between her eyes. She’d broken his heart, after all, but there he was, keeping her alive. He was a better man than she’d ever given him credit for.
She took the food and nibbled on it while he poured over the map sketches she’d been keeping. For miles as far as they could see, the early dawn light began to warm the shadows away from the terrain. Tendrils of fog lifted from the ground into the atmosphere. It didn’t seem much had changed, but she preferred to keep new maps, in case she missed something little, so when they’d done a scan of the area and he offered to sketch the map, she let him.
As she ate, he poked a stick into the embers of the fire he’d had going the night before, and began sketching the newest layout of the Arena. She watched him quietly, studying the angles of his face and the hard squint to his eyes as he focused. She wondered when he’d grown up so much, remembering his face when he’d stepped onto the train – mostly frightened but holding up a façade of bravado, his eyes wide with curiosity and adrenalin. He was somber, sitting before her, his fingers moving the twig around the paper with careful precision.
She wondered if he was scared of what was to come; she wondered what his motives were, why he was so quiet and calm, and if he could really be trusted. What she wondered most, though, was if he could hear the war drums in the air like a dozen heartbeats thumping in boom box speakers, the way she had since she’d first touched her boots to the Arena soil.
He didn’t know exactly when things began to go wrong, but once they started to, they only developed momentum.
He had the high ground, she was moving like a ghost between the trees. He supposed their first mistake was in only expecting one person to be waiting for them in the jungle; he knew immediately that things were getting out of hand. Twigs began snapping in opposite directions, and he realized they had Rory surrounded. He needed to tell her, but he would be abandoning his post if he went to her. It became a guessing game: would his chances of saving her be better from a distance or if he were closer? It would depend how many competitors were skulking around in the shadows. He could see movement between the foliage and he peered through his scope to get a better view; a bulbous head atop wide, body-builder shoulders.
He flashed through the headshots he could recall. Clayton.
More movement to the right caused him to shift his focus. A woman he didn’t recognize, her lithe frame snaking between branches above Rory’s head. Rory turned just as Aeon pulled the trigger; the nameless woman dropped from the tree and hit the ground with a weighted thud, dead long before she reached the soil.
Clayton was making too much headway – he was getting too close to her, and there was more shuffling from somewhere he couldn’t see. Too many factors involved, too much potential for chaos, and not a single clear shot of Clayton's enormous cranium.
He left his post, slinging his rifle over his shoulder; he got a jogging start and slid down the side of the mountain until he hit the soil of the jungle at a full run. He saw the glint of a spearhead long before he reached her, and by the time he was close enough, he’d already made the decision.
He lunged in front of her at the last second, their eyes connecting as she watched the spear sink into his spine and break out through his ribcage.
He was no more than a few feet away from her, but she felt as if she were running through invisible sand; every step took hours, every breath was harder than the last. Everything felt out of synch, as if the proportions were all skewed. She was screaming; she could feel it as a fading tingle in her throat; screaming at the top of her lungs, crying out his name as if it alone could pull him back, pull him out of range of the spear. She didn’t care who heard her, she didn’t care if they all did.
Let them come, she thought, as rage and guilt and unrestrained vengeance clouded her vision; let them all come.
She ducked behind him as his knees buckled and he crumpled to the ground, blood spilling out from between his lips, bubbling and frothing, his pupils dilating wildly. She caught him with one of her arms, keeping him from falling backward, and with her right arm she leveled the crossbow. It took her a fraction of a second to aim and pull the trigger, and Clayton went down like the mammoth structure that he was; crashing into nearby trees until Rory heard the heavy crack of his skull hitting stone. Even though she knew he was dead long before he hit the ground, the sound alone was enough to haunt her for the rest of her life. Already, she could feel her hands shaking, but she clung to Aeon with all of her strength, whispering into his ear as she desperately listened for his heartbeat. Her hands came away from him coated in blood, dripping onto her suit and the soil.
She was crying, hard enough to blur her vision, and she smeared his blood across her face as she tried to wipe the tears from her eyes with her wrists.
Behind her, a twig snapped, and a voice she didn’t recognize said, “Tyberos is going to shit himself when I bring you back.”
She let go of Aeon and spun around, rising to stand as she pivoted on her heel, bringing her empty crossbow up to crack the flat side against her new opponents face. A spray of blood burst from his mouth where she hit him, but he was too close. It took no more than half a dozen inches for his blade to press into the tender scar tissue of her abdomen, and no more than one good jab for it to sink in hilt-deep.
She tried not to panic, but her breath was impossible to catch and her heart rate skyrocketed. With her last good exhale, she muttered, “You son of a bitch,” and shoved him back with what remained of her strength. She could feel her knees trembling beneath her, quivering beneath the full weight of her leaking body. There was so much blood on her hands that they slipped as she tried to put pressure on her new wound, her fingers sliding knuckle-deep into the puncture on accident. She cringed and hoped the hot liquid pooling in her mouth was saliva that happened to taste like copper.
She stumbled back a little, her body instinctively attempting to get away from the other competitor, but her foot bumped against Aeon’s corpse and she realized she didn’t really have anywhere to run, even if she could. She tried to crouch to pick up her crossbow, but the motion was unbearably painful and she couldn’t help the whimper of agony that tumbled from her lips.
This was it, she thought.
She was going to die at the hands of this stranger, with his gaunt face and his too-sinister eyes. She spit out a mouthful of blood and said, the curl of a sneer twisting at the corner of her mouth, “I hope Silas is the one that kills you.”