Chapter Fifty Four
Instead of running right out into the valley, Rory skirted the edge of the forest as far as she could, ignoring the smoke that wafted into her face. Once she'd cleared most of the smoke and could more clearly make out the hills she was able to spot one that would suit her needs - tall enough to be advantegeous both in that it would be difficult for others to climb and it would give her a birds-eye view of anyone in the valley, and steep enough on the side facing away from the valley that she could hide behind it. It took her a few minutes to reach her chosen vantage point, but she did so without interruption, careful to keep under cover and dart between openings.
Safely hidden behind her hill, she finally allowed herself to rest for a moment and wipe the sweat from her forehead with sweat-slicked hands. Rubbing her palms dry on her pants, she switched her attention to prepping her weaponry. Even with somewhat damp fingers it took Rory less than forty seconds to assemble her crossbow and lock in the first arrow. Next, she unshealthed all of her knives and stabbed them deeply into the thick grass of the hill, arranged by size, weight, and purpose, beside her for easy access. Twelve knives and three arrows. Five enemy contestants left to pool into the valley. She hoped she made the right choice in location.
She hoped Silas had escaped the fire, but didn't allow herself to focus on it. Crawling to the top of the hill until she could peer over it, she settled in to wait for the other Gamers. Within moments, a young man bolted onto the scene from the North, directly ahead of her, and skidded to a stop when he came to within sight of what could only be termed Death Valley. Her trigger finger itched, hovering a hairs-bredth over the trigger, and her breathing slowed as she targetted the newcomer.
Even with the shot lined up, she didn't pull the trigger. He hadn't spotted her, he wasn't an immediate threat. Maybe someone else would kill him and she wouldn't have to. She waited. A few minutes more and two more figures emerged, one from the West and another from the North, where the first had come from. The second Northerner immediately began running for the first, a war cry bursting from his lips. His eyes were black from a distance, mercy the farthest thing from his mind. It took her a heartbeat to line up the shot and pull the trigger, thinking, No one deserves to die in fear or agony. A burst of blood sprayed across the petrified face of the first Northerner who, scared beyond his own belief, turned wildly in search of the archer.
Ducking beneath the cover of her hill, Rory reloaded with steady hands and dragged herself back to peer over the hill. She supposed it would be kindest to just kill him; he was already wrought with fear - where was the compassion in that? And if the other contestants were as rabid for blood as the second Northerner had been, what then? At least she would show him some mercy.
The other contestants, she thought, and realized a moment too late that she'd forgotten about the other newcomer. The woman that had burst forth from the West. For a staggering moment, Rory knew her death was upon her in no uncertain terms, she knew in vivid clarity that she had made a terrible mistake, saving the Northerner. In the time it took her to blink, rope whizzed in front of her face and tightened around her throat, yanking her backward down the hill with a single, choked gasp. The world went black as she tumbled and the tightness around her throat only increased, the rough fibers of the rope scratching and burning with the pressure. Clawing at it with her fingers, she prayed for a loose spot she could slip her fingers into, any weakness she could use to tear the binding from around her neck. Coming to a painful halt at the base of the hill, Rory snapped her eyes open and struggled to her knees, still unable to breathe. A firm tug on the rope pulled her onto her back, following the rope to the holder, staring upside-down at a short-cropped brunette with a coldness to her amber eyes that frightened Rory. She was pretty certain it was a lasso choking her to death.
And this, she thought, this was definitely the moment she was going to die. Her knives were still stuck into the hillside, meters above her head, along with her crossbow. Her oxygen had depleted to nothing and she could feel her muscles weakening. Colors began to fade from her vision and she shut her eyes, fighting down the desire to give in, biting back the searing, agonizing hunger in her lungs. Kicking her feet up over her torso in a last-ditch roll effort and yanking the rope with every ounce of strength left, every pound of her own body weight, she dislodged the woman's footing and tore the rope from her hands. She scrambled to loosen the lasso knot, oxygen once again pouring into her lungs in frigid, splintering waves, Rory yanked it up over her head and tossed it to the ground.
It took three long strides to get close enough to kick the brunette directly in the ribs as she tried to lift herself from the ground. Relentless, she reached down and grabbed a fistfull of the woman's short hair to yank her up onto her unsteady feet. To her own astonishment, Rory considered finishing the fight with her bare hands, but opted for dragging the brunette up the side of the hill so she could get one of her knives. It took twice as long to reach her weapons as it had taken Rory to climb the hill alone, and she was more winded than she should have been, but she trudged upward anyway. With a fierce toss, she threw the other gamer against the ground and yanked one of her knives free in the next smooth motion.
It made it easier, having her victim's face pressed into the ground with Rory's hand on the back of her head. Something about it felt easier, and she hated it. Hated that she was growing used to it. She pushed her voice out from between her teeth, even though it hurt to speak, and whispered, "Forgive me," before plunging her knife into the side of her victim's neck, making sure to sever both arteries and nerves.
With a quiver, the brunette was dead.