Chapter Forty Four: the magma storm
Word Count: 1,824
Dawn came through the branches in broken streams. Rory could smell something in the air, but she didn’t know what it was. It was the scent that woke her, stirring her from peaceful sleep against Silas. She sat up and rubbed her eyes until she could see properly. Nothing seemed to be amiss in their cove, but the smell was so strong. She couldn’t understand where it was coming from.
Glancing down to Silas, she smiled gently to herself as she got up and stretched out her sore muscles. Whatever the smell was, she needed to find it. She grabbed the rifle and slung her bandolier over her chest. She did a perimeter search, never straying anywhere she couldn’t still see him, and circled the area twice. She found nothing, but the smell grew stronger from the West and that was indication enough. Returning to the cove, she roused Silas with a kiss on the cheek, and almost instantly he began sniffing at the air.
“It’s stronger from the West,” she interrupted; she was focused, then, pulling all of her thoughts in one straight line towards the conclusion. “We should go see what is going on. I’ve got a bad feeling.”
He kissed her temple and they gathered their things in relative silence. Slinging her pack over her left shoulder so she could keep the rifle in her right hand, she led them out of the cove, casually disassembling her trip wires as they went along and stuffing them into the spare pack Silas carried.
By the time they reached the top of the cliff that hid their cove, they could both see where the smell was coming from. Where there had been jungle the day before there was a tropical wonderland spread out before them – and just at the edge, on the outskirts of their vision, black smoke billowed in the soft breeze, growing taller and fatter with every passing second.
“I think we have a problem, Silas.”
He lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the blazing sun, squinting to see into the distance. “Where’s the smoke coming from?”
“That’s the problem,” she said. “I think that’s an active volcano – and by active, I mean, we should probably be running.”
He dropped his gaze to her, as if uncertain if she was serious, but she kept her expression gently empty. She loathed the tingle of fear that curled down her spine, and she wasn’t about to let him see it. Stoically, she said, “We need to find higher ground. Much higher.”
And so they began to climb higher. The cliff side seemed to rise forever; almost a stairway to the fabricated heavens of the Arena. Rory ignored the stiffness in her side, even once it became a stabbing knot of discomfort. Halfway to a height she had deemed safe, the ground beneath their feet began to quake. Low, unsettling rumbles shook the ground, trembled in the air; the smoke had expanded, stretching long, deadly feelers out in all directions as the top of the volcano began to pump more and more into the atmosphere. It moved so quickly that Rory was able to watch the ashen clouds take over the sky, blotting out the sun and casting the entire valley and cliff side into a dense, smoky pseudo-night.
She reached a hand across the distance separating her from Silas and entwined their fingers. She was scared; there was no more ignoring it, no more suppressing it and hoping it would go away if she was insistent enough. No, she thought, there was nothing else except the very real, very claustrophobic feeling that she was going to die. She detested the feeling; it had haunted her for what felt like most of her life, though she knew it to be a matter of days, weeks, maybe. She couldn’t move her feet, she felt entrapped by the sight that was unfolding before her.
The dome almost seemed to move, to dip in on itself, before exploding outward in a shower of gleaming, twisting, scalding droplets of lava. Time slowed; Rory could feel the achingly slow build-up of tension in her heart as it beat in her chest, felt the sudden drop in her stomach as the tension released and blood rushed out into her veins. The slow motion instant shattered and she was flung into motion – Silas, his hand still gripping hers as tightly as she could handle, moved around her, tugging her along behind him, leading her further up the ever-narrowing path along the cliff. Her brain was grateful to him, but her body screamed in protest, the tender ghost-wound on her side wailing with fresh pain. She knew she was healed, she knew there was no more gaping hole in her flesh, but her nerves still rang with every motion. Still, she followed him at a full run to match his.
Ash and cinder and embers and lava poured from the sky in every direction, all around them. She could feel small spittle-like drops of magma littering her exposed skin, could feel strands of her hair catching fire and burning out. Still, they ran; stumbling over rocks, tripping in small pits, ducking the larger, glowing chunks of basalt as they went. Every now and again, she could hear the faint echoes of his voice, already carried away by the wind or muffled with the thunderous cracks of the erupting volcano, telling her to jump or duck, but for a long time, all she knew was the declining strength in her legs and the sick burn in her lungs. Every inhale felt as if she were breathing in fire.
Soot clumped on her eyelashes and blurred her vision. Eventually, he came to a stop and were it not for his grip on her hand, she would have continued running over the edge, propelled by momentum alone. Instead, his fingers tensed and stopped her motion, his elbow bent and he swung her inward, switching the direction of her velocity at just the right instant. She crashed into his chest and he took the blow easily, his skeleton barely shaking with the force of it, his arms strong around her as she caught her breath.
Ashes rained down on them, coating everything in an onyx powder.
From behind them, Rory heard steps. Instantly, her breath still coming hard and uneven, she freed herself from Silas’ arms and pivoted on her heel. Her rifle was up, her left hand grasping the barrel as she leveled it between the eyes of their unexpected guest.
Fox said, “Of course it would be you two.”
At that instant, Rory realized she hadn’t loaded the rifle. She wondered what was wrong with her, where her mind had been for the last eon of hiking she’d lived through, but she tried to keep the realization out of her eyes. It would do no good to broadcast her failure; to help keep her secret, she kept the rifle up and aimed, her eyes narrowed as she peered down the scope.
Fox snarled, “That’s incredibly fair of you, Rory, seeing as I clearly have a rifle of my own.” She lifted her hands, both empty, as if to reassure them she wasn’t armed.
As if she needed to be, Rory thought, but said, “I think so, since I haven’t shot you yet.” It was easier to be rid of the weapon since she’d essentially been asked to – it only sealed her decision when she realized her vision was weakening in the dense smoke that spread like a hot mist through the atmosphere - and once she lowered the rifle, Fox did not hesitate – she lunged and she was faster than Rory could have thought possible. Her body was a handful of meters away one moment, the next, with a lightning fast blur, she was close enough to send a fist into Rory’s face – but what was most shocking, at least for Rory, was how quickly Rory reacted.
She dropped her to her knees – hitting the ground synchronously with the clatter of the rifle - and as Fox’s punch cut through the air above her head, she brought her own upward, into Fox’s ribcage with a sickening crunch. Gasping for air, Fox floundered for a moment, but it was all Rory needed. She rose up and kicked out, the heel of her boot cracking into Fox’s kneecap; an ear-splitting pop punctuating the blow. With a wail, Fox collapsed to the ground, but not before she pulled a blade the length of her forearm out and swung it at Rory in a wide arc. It was pure luck that moved Rory’s spine, bending it outward and sucking her abdomen inward to avoid the edge of the blade.
Her attention was drawn away for an instant, glancing to the left as she heard a shuffle from beyond her peripheral vision; as she came within sight, the disturbing sound of bone cracking floated through her eardrums. That was all she needed to hear for fear to course through her like liquid fire, burning hot and molten, as if competing with the scoria that still rained down onto her exposed skin. She could feel small blisters developing where the droplets hit.
It was too late, by then, for her to retract her lapse in attention, and she felt the cold blade slice through the muscle of her left calf. She didn’t need to look to see the blood spurt forth, gushing down to her ankle to soak into her boots. Strangely, she felt almost no pain, but her leg would no longer support her weight and she fumbled to the ground. Unable to see Silas, she had no choice but to hope for the best and tackle the problem threatening her own person; she twisted around in time to watch Fox lunge for her, again, but Rory was ready.
From the sheath along her spine, she pulled her hunting knife and stabbed it upward as Fox landed on her; the slurping shink of metal piercing flesh and muscle was all she heard for a long time. Blood, still hot from the vein, poured from the wound in Fox’s chest, sliding down Rory’s hands and further staining the front of her suit, as Fox gurgled out one final breath before going limp above Rory. Sanguine-tinted spittle dribbled from between her cracked lips as her eyes rolled behind her eyelids.
It was the closest Rory had ever been to a kill, and even before she could shove Fox’s body off of her, her hand began to tremble terribly. Fox weighed roughly a hundred and eighty pounds, but for all the strength it took Rory to move her, it may as well have been a thousand. Her muscles burned with the burden of Fox’s corpse, her palms slick with blood and sweat and soot. Scrambling away from the corpse, she heard the sounds of hand to hand combat behind her.