the center of the stormMature

Chapter Fifty-Two
Ruarí (Rory) Savage, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,037

She woke choking on smoke as black as night and as dense as her mother's stale bread.  The rain had ceased.  As evidence to the dramatic changes within her subconscious due to the Games, she knew instantly the level of danger they were in.  The GameKeepers had lit a forest fire and they'd nested in the trees.  Her first response was to berate herself - how could she have been so foolish? - but she knew the truth: that she couldn't have done anything smarter.  That it was simple cruelty that had trapped them in the trees.  She was screaming even though her voice was hoarse, "Silas!  Silas, get up!  We have to go!"

Together, they scoped the canopy to pinpoint the closest thread of fire but the smoke was too thick to see through.  That's a bad sign, she thought, over and over.  Such a terribly bad sign.  The fire was too close; she imagined she could feel heat on her skin.  Her motions jolty and erratic, she gathered their things and stuffed them into their packs.

Silas' voice over the roar of the blaze caught her attention.  "We're gonna have to jump.  We don't know if the branches have caught already."

She peered down into the blanket of piceous smoke and frowned.  He was right: there was no way to tell, and starting the climb would only be a risk; if they got trapped halfway down, they might not be able to clear the flames with a jump.  She sighed and inwardly counted the three blessings she had.

Silas was alive.
She was alive.
She was still early enough in her pregnancy that a jump wouldn't do excessive damage to the baby.

Her eyes were stinging from all the smoke.  Lifting her gaze to Silas, she forced a smile and kissed him gently.  His fingers squeezed her hand.  They counted to three, then they jumped.  If it was possible for a moment in time to hover, to slow and stretch and continue, then she fell for eternity.  She lived through a lifetime of fear in that moment, and when the soles of her boots hit the dirt, she blew out all the terror in one swift, hot breath.

She didn't feel him land beside her, she realized.  Immediately, she began calling for him, slinging her pack over her shoulder and taking off into the smoke to find him.  Her heartbeat hammered in her ribs, panicked and frantic, but she kept running.  Tears ran in rivulets down her face as her eyes burned, her throat on fire with every breath.  She moved through the smoke by judging how hot each breath felt.  She began to feel as if she was swallowing hot coals.  Just as she came to an exhausted stop, almost believing it was useless and she'd never make it out, bent over, her legs and stomach cramping, her mind reeling with the very real possibility that she'd lost Silas, she tried to gather her bearings.  Ahead, she thought she could make out silhouettes, indicating the smoke wasn't as thick farther on.  Sweat poured from her face, dripping from her chin.  Soot caked itself all over her.  She began to run again, hoping the smoke would clear soon and she'd find Silas waiting for her.

The smoke did clear, but when she broke free into open air, gulping it down greedily, there was no Silas to be seen.  Ahead of her, the forest spread out thinly until breaking open into acres of fields and hills, dipping valleys, and small rivers. Turning to face the fire, she struggled over her options.  To go back in for him would kill her -  for all she knew, he'd run in the opposite direction, right toward the fire.

She stepped forward, inclined to chase after him, to make sure he made it out, but froze on the second step.  Would he want to risk the baby?  She hated herself instantly for thinking it; it was such an excuse, such a cop-out.  An easy out when she could save him instead.  He wouldn't want her to, she knew - he wouldn't let her risk it all just for him.  They'd already discussed it.  Agreed that she would be the one to leave the Games alive.  Maybe the moment she'd been dreading had arrived.

Maybe she had to accept that he could be dead.

The smoke crept closer to her, getting thicker where it had once been misty.  She needed to go, to get to higher, less flammable ground.  She should run for the hills and make her way to the highest one, but she knew it was a trap - that the GameKeepers were trying to force the remaining contestants into the valley. The problem was, she couldn't see a way around it.  Clouds were gathering above her, heavy and dark with a storm, the low throb of thunder catching on the growing wind.  The temperature began to drop rapidly.

To the West she heard the faint roll and gurgle of water.  Curious, she grabbed her pack again and jogged a few meters in the direction of the sound, coming to a stop within sight of a wide river.  Rip currents whooshed and rumbled, seeming to grow in strength and speed.  Mistrust and terror yanked at her gut, making her feel queasy.  Squinting further upstream, she found the source of the raging water.

A small tidal wave was building no more than twenty meters upstream, and it appeared there were a number of others growing behind it.   Shit, she thought.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

Her opportunity to flee was a window of mere seconds, but she took it - spinning on her heels and taking off in a full sprint toward the valley.  She hoped there were weapons to be snatched up; she had her crossbow in her pack but no more than three arrows, and her knives.  She needed something she wouldn't have to wrench out of bone in order to use again.  Her exhausted, scorched lungs screamed in protest of her pace, but she ran through it.  The sound of the rushing water was blotted out by the thunderous rhythm of her heart.

She couldn't help but wonder if she was about to die.

The End

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