This story is very different from what you're used to reading. It doesn't center on the Hunger Games themselves, but on the characters who have been through them afterwards. Cheers,
As war settles over Panem, Katniss Everdeen finds herself part of a larger game. But she isn't the only one to have challenges to overcome. The Victors of the Hunger Games have long been symbols to the people, and symbols are dangerous things. Now, there are no more mind games and threats to convince Victors to act appropriately. If the Capitol believes a Victor would support the rebellion, they will be dispatched quickly and quietly.
But Victors are a breed of their own. They know what it takes to survive, and have done it before. And now, all that separates them from freedom is one last Arena: the Capitol itself.
The Last Arena
Chapter 1: The Blood Begins to Flow
Terra always had been a fast runner. In the forests of District 7, she’d learned to sprint while ducking and jumping over low branches and fallen trees. It was one of the things that not so long ago, had kept her alive in the Hunger Games. And she was running now.
But at least now, she wasn’t running from immediate danger. With people calling after her, she’d fled the building in the Capitol’s core, trying to put distance between it and her. Only one in this place of decadent, lazy rulers could keep up with her.
“Hey,” Kai shouted after her, vaulting a group of pompous Capitol citizens Terra had knocked over, “wait!”
But she didn’t. Running headlong forward, ignoring whatever chaos was left in her wake, she ran all the way to the edge of the Capitol’s safe zone. Even then, Terra was only stopped by a forcefield the Peacekeepers had put up to keep out the rebel army. She stood, staring up at the top of it, the wavy edge more than fifty feet up. Terra’s brown hair had been freed from the Capitol’s grooming and now was free to fall to her shoulders.
Kai caught up with her at last, checking behind him to make sure none of the Capitols were angry enough to follow them and complain. “Terra, why did you have to do that? It could only make it worse.”
“I don’t care.” She said, not sure she meant it. Her brow furrowed in uncertainty, the soft brown eyes searching for the words. “They threatened my family. I just had to . . . run. Clear my head.”
She spun to face him, and Kai nodded. He was almost a head taller than she was, with broad shoulders. The usual mischievous light was missing from his eyes as he held her gaze. “I know how it feels. My little sister. I’ve had to worry about Alyssa every moment I’m here. No one gets used to it. We just have to deal with it.”
They’d just left the mansion of Panem’s leader, President Snow. Until maybe a month ago, Snow had been the unchallenged, undisputed ruler. But in such a short time, almost every District had rebelled, turned against the Capitol at the realization that District 13 had survived fighting them, and now came back to bring the Capitol down.
They began to walk back the way they came, taking a different route to avoid the people they’d trampled earlier. Terra Storm and Kai Shivers were Victors, the sole survivors from deathmatches known as the Hunger Games. They’d been in the Capitol when the war started, and now weren’t being allowed to leave. The tight quarters with so many Capitol politicians demanding things of them was becoming unbearable. It was why Terra had started running. Just to try, pretend for a moment, that they could escape.
“I was surprised you could run that fast,” Kai grinned, “in that mess of clothes they stuffed you in.”
Terra laughed. The stylist who had forced her to wear it was a pushy Capitol dignitary, obsessed with the perfection of every small meeting. Just to shut her up, Terra had agreed, and was now bundled in layers of soft, flashy materials. It was actually very beautiful, but a bit harsh in color and very constricting. She’d had better stylists, and would have gladly traded the things for something more practical.
Of course, the same thing went for Kai. In the heat of another perfectly sunny day in the Capitol, he was sweltering under wool and cotton layers. His tight belt and tie looked like they were trying to strangle him. “You’re one to talk.” Terra teased back.
As they walked, each started to get rid of the more useless, tacked-on items, Kai throwing away his tie and jacket and Terr as much of the dress as she could get rid of without losing all of it. Able to breathe easy now, they readied for a fight with the dressers when they got back.
But as they neared Snow’s mansion, it became clear there was something wrong. Noticeable between the excessive costumes were plain, paper-white suits. They carried guns, stark black against the suits. Peacekeepers, the Capitol’s soldiers, were searching the grounds of Snow’s mansion.
Terra looked over it. “Maybe we should come back later?”
“Yeah . . . let’s go.” Kai said, taking hold of her arm and turning away. As he did though, someone spotted him, and a Peacekeeper walked after them calmly, about a block behind. Despite how he kept his distance, the two Victors knew he was tailing them.
“We’ve picked up a fan.” Kai said softly.
Terra was glad to be rid of the cloth. It hindered her running. “There’s more. Across the street, at the corner. And a block ahead, they’ll cut us off. Make a break for it?”
“Not yet . . .” Kai waited until they reached the next corner. The Peacekeepers were advancing from ahead, behind, and the right . . . but Kai and Terra took off left when he shouted, down a side-street.
The two now cared even less for the pedestrians in their way. Behind them, the Peacekeepers scrambled after them, but not to follow. Kai was shocked when only a foot away from his head, a glass lamp he was passing was shattered by a bullet. He kept low, and followed in the wake Terra cut ahead of him.
More rifle shots echoed off the walls of this concrete canyon, and the crowd instantly began to scatter, crying hysterically. Most couldn’t see where the shots came from, and ran in random directions. It only made running harder for the two being targeted.
As Terra tried to part a group ahead, she caught a glimpse of another Peacekeeper squad lying in wait. Instantly, she pulled Kai to the side and ducked into another path. The alley was narrow, but there were no people to get in their way. The move seemed to have worked, until another white suit showed at the end of the alley. Three more turned the corner behind them, and raised their rifles.
They were trapped, Kai realized, and stepped between Terra and the riflemen behind them to try and take the bullets himself.
Three shots rang out, one after the other. Kai shut his eyes tight. But a moment passed, and he was still alive. More than that, he wasn’t hurt. He looked up, and saw the Peacekeeper who had headed them off walking towards them, holding a revolver in his right hand, smoke still leaving the barrel.
Terra wasn’t sure what had happened, but wouldn’t die without a fight. She grabbed the man’s arm and raised her other fist to pummel him down, when the white suit shouted, “Don’t fight! Mockingjay! Mockingjay!”
It froze her with the fist raised. That was a codeword. She looked back toward the other Peacekeepers, and saw them lying still on the asphalt, red liquid seeping across the white fabric from holes in their suits.
The resistance agent pulled the hood and mask off his head. Under curls of amber hair, his forest-green eyes were narrowed, looking back and forth for more enemies. “No time to explain, at least not here. My name’s Kyler Teak, and you need to come with me, now.”
He led them to a doorway in one wall, and wordlessly they hurried inside. As they filed in and shut the door behind, Kyler stepped out of the Peacekeeper uniform, revealing a simple black bodysuit and dark green vest under it. But what really caught attention was that his left arm, which had stayed at his side, when pulled out of the suit’s sleeve ended just below the shoulder.
Kai froze as he heard the heavy clatter of footsteps running past the door. The Peacekeepers were still searching for them, but it meant that they hadn’t been seen.
Kyler finally got free of the suit, and pulled out a small earpiece. “Tyce, you copy?”
The two Victors could hear the buzz of static and an excited boy’s voice. “I’m reading two other heat signatures with you, so that means it worked? I’ve got the detonator rigged, and it’s waiting on your mark.”
“Mark.” Kyler said. There was a moment of calm before the storm, and he said, “Might want to turn off your electronics about now.”
The lights suddenly went out, and Kai cursed as his ear implantation suddenly went haywire. Within a moment, he’d pulled out a small piece of it to stop the ringing. Though he wasn’t in auditory pain now, his side felt as vulnerable as it had when he’d received the wound in the arena.
“What was that?” Terra asked.
Kyler turned and started walking, and they quickly followed. “Electro-magnetic pulse device.” He explained. “We set it off to disrupt the Capitol’s monitoring systems. It’ll take them almost ten minutes to reestablish control, and by then we’ll be in hiding. There’s a safehouse a block over, let’s hurry.”
Leaving the alleyways, Kyler ushered them into the apartment in another building, taking great care to ensure no one saw them. As he entered the room, Kai found two women were already inside, whom he recognized instantly.
One was another District 5 Victor, Kipcha Pryor. She had long brown hair like Terra, but while Terra’s fell freely to her shoulders like District 7s often did, Kipcha’s was held back in braids in a fashion closer to the Capitol. She was something of a damaged person, in her Games she’d lost a hand and was given a working prosthetic afterwards. What’s more, towards the end an explosion had killed all other remaining tributes, and Kipcha suffered amnesia that wiped out all but her memories of her struggle in the arena. Her earliest memories were of blood, fear, and how to kill.
The other was Ronda Grouge of District 4. She stared with distant blue eyes out the window into the alley below. Terra knew she had recurring bouts of depression because she had been one of those unfortunate enough to be called in the reaping with their sibling. Ronda had killed her brother by accident in a struggle, and never fully recovered from the shock. Kai had seen her around during the Games, slipping away from Capitol reporters easily. She had to be the stealthiest human being he’d ever known.
Kai and Terra were noticing a pattern. Kyler was gathering the Victors of previous Hunger Games. The one-armed man motioned them inside and shut the door behind himself, making sure to lock it. He whispered for Ronda to stay away from the window, fearing someone might see her.
“How did you . . .” Terra asked Kyler, but was cut off by an early answer.
“Get them here? I’ll just say it wasn't easier than getting you two.”
Kai watched him intently. “What is this? What’s going on?”
All four of the Victors turned to him, apparently none of them had been told. Kyler sighed. “It’s something of a long explanation. We don’t have much time, so first I have to ask that you get out of the fancy dresses and such the Capitol puts on you. They’re not much good for running, and we may have to do a lot of that later.”
Chapter 2: The Depth of Treachery
In the past, Kai had had better stylists. Getting rid of the stuffy silk-and-satin suit was done without complaint, but he’d paused at the bundle Kyler had thrown his way. The black shirt, pants, both with a myriad of pouches and pockets. Military boots that matched. It reminded him a little too much of what they gave to tributes each year.
Walking out of the bedroom where he’d changed, he saw that he’d been third to finish, Ronda and Terra were already waiting in the main room. He knocked on the door of Kipcha’s room to tell her to hurry up, and then paid for the mistake of opening the door with a ball of packed cloth smacking him upside the head.
Shaking his head and laughing, he joined the others and asked, “So, you feel like talking yet?”
“Just waiting on two.” Kyler replied. As Kipcha emerged from the hall, there was a noise at the door. Kyler swiftly moved to it with his revolver drawn and listened. Someone knocked outside.
tap, tap-tap-tap, tap
Kyler counted silently, one, two, three
Holstering the pistol, Kyler removed the lock and in came a shorter boy, only about seventeen or so. His complexion and choice of clothing instantly identified him from District 3. A headpiece with a mic in front of his wide, smiling mouth, eyes twitching back and forth among the Victors, with all sorts of electronic gadgets hanging from his vest.
Kyler remained stern. “No one saw you?”
The kid turned his smile on him. “If they did, I’d of known it, and lost them by now.”
A smile finally broke on the one-armed man’s face. “Good answer. Come on, I’m going to explain a few things. Everyone, this is Tyson Webster.”
Tyson took a seat at the floor near the window, and opened up a small laptop as Kyler cleared his throat. Before he started speaking, Kipcha asked from where she stood against a wall, “Who are you, really?”
He turned to her. “Does it matter?”
“I’d like to know who’s saving our lives . . . or trying to get us killed.” Her hard eyes demanded an answer.
“Fair enough. Do you remember the Hunger Games from about ten years back? When automated guns were used as an environmental hazard?”
Kai nodded, as did the others. “The Arena was a recreation of District 13, just before it was destroyed.”
The man smiled. “Kyler Teak. Tribute, District 7 male.”
“I knew there was something familiar about you!” Terra said, startling everyone. “You just looked like you were a Seven. We were in the same school . . . but you . . . you died in the Games.”
Kyler’s smile turned dark. “Glad to see someone remembers. But I’m very much alive. I escaped, and joined the people who right now are taking over the Districts and closing in on the Capitol. But what’s important right now is you.
“Because the war has broken out between the Capitol and a very real, alive District 13, your position in their politics has changed. You’re heroes to the people, and that can be dangerous. You four have gone against President Snow’s decisions, he thinks you would convince people to join the revolution.”
Ronda said quietly, “He’d murder us.”
Kai frowned. “No . . . he couldn’t do that. Could he?”
“He’s never held back threatening our friends and families. He would, if he had to.” she said.
“And now that you’re a danger to his power, he has to.” Kyler confirmed. “When he finds out his assassins failed, he’ll start a city-wide search for you, and won’t stop until he’s seen your bodies.” He crossed his one arm across his chest. “District 13 doesn’t approve of their hospitality. So, I’m here to get you out.”
A new voice spoke up. Tyson had his hand raised. “Hey, Teak, they’ve reestablished the systems in the area. But I’m keeping them permanently out of cameras. Peacekeeper squads are inbound.”
Kyler moved over to see what Tyson had on the screen. The others watched curiously, and then joined him as he cursed and looked out the window.
“Do they know where we are?” Ronda asked.
“No. But they know we’re nearby.” He said. “This isn’t good. The plan was for Tyson’s EMP to go off, and have the Capitols think we ran toward where the District battlefront is, on the other side of the city. Then we’d make our escape into the wilderness and circle around to reach them. But it looks like they figured it out and are searching for us in the woods.”
Kipcha drew a conclusion. “Then if we’re leaving, we’ll have to go through the city to the Districts.”
“And past Peacekeeper soldiers, pod traps, and muttations. Right?” Kai added.
“Right.” Kyler said solemnly. The odds of surviving it were low. But he’d just have to count on odds being in their favor. “There’s some food here. Grab a meal, and after that . . . let the games begin.”
Chapter 3: A New Sponser
For a time, it was silent in the apartment except for the unwrapping of ration bars and chewing. Tyson kept typing into his keyboard, and Kyler stared out the window while keeping hidden by its side. Finally, Ronda spoke.
“I give up.” She said, looking to Kyler. He glanced at her questioningly. She held up a bar. “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Keep going.” Kyler said, smirking. As his gaze swung back to the window, he caught Terra staring at him. After a moment, he asked, “Yes?”
She looked up, startled, and mumbled, “It’s just . . . you were dead. And now you’re here . . . how did you survive?”
Kyler’s remaining arm reached up and held his left shoulder, above where his arm was gone. “I was determined . . . and had insane amounts of luck.”
“A cannon strike. That was how they killed you.” She said, bringing the memories up. “A house you were in was hit and collapsed. They could only find . . .”
“My arm . . . a slab of concrete came down on it, and cut right through. But it took my tracking chip with it. I woke up hours later, and stumbled out when the forcefield passed over me. Stowed away on a truck and got help in District 2. But freedom carries a high price.”
“Yeah . . .” Terra thought for a moment, and then took off her boot. It was hers from the Capitol, and because she could run in them she’d kept them. Beneath the custom-fit, something not human was revealed. Kyler, Tyson, and a couple of the others gasped, not having known about this.
Below her knee, the human skin ended with the leg flowing into the silky-furred leg of an animal. Blood red, and claws on the foot. “. . . I didn’t get out without some scars of my own.”
“That’s a helluva surgical job.” Kai pointed out.
“It was a mutt that attacked me.” Terra stated. “My district partner, Oak, cut its leg off and bandaged it on as a splint. When I won, the doctors made it permanent. One of their ways of reminding me of him, of the Games, what they can do . . .”
“No one escapes unscathed.” Ronda said sadly. She had drifted into memories of her brother, and his death in the arena. Kipcha no doubt had her own ghosts to think about.
The silence that had once again settled over them was broken by a beep from Tyson’s computer.
Kyler stood up and checked his pistol. “Alright. It’s about time we get going. Tyce, you got the weapons?”
The young rebel stood and pointed to where the television sat dormant, waiting for a signal to display the Capitol’s propaganda. Grabbing hold of its sides, Kai and Kipcha pulled it away. As its screen shattered on the floor, an alcove was revealed, stocked full of sharp objects.
“Firearms would have been too difficult to hide.” Tyson explained. “And we thought you might be more effective with these, anyway. Consider them gifts from your new sponsor, District 13.”
Kai took hold of the shaft of a beautiful spear, the wood wrapped in a light metal to protect it with intricate carvings representing District 5 cut into it. The whole thing was just about as tall as he was, and the mirror surface of its tip gleamed silver in the low light. The head was made of one piece of metal folded again and again into layers to be thin but very strong. It was balanced for casting, but could just as easily be used in a two-handed grip and go through a mutt's hide or Peacekeeper's suit.
Kipcha withdrew a bundle with her name written on it. Within was a bow made of a solid, flexible wood, which also had scenes cut into it of District 5. But what was truly special was the short sword. Tempered metal ran in an elegant curve like it was quicksilver frozen in place, and its razor-sharp edges ran smoothly to the stained wood handle, with no crossguard interrupting. To protect her hand was a ring on the handle for her pointer finger to loop through and secure her grip for the fast, sweeping slashes it was made for.
Terra didn’t wish for anything more than the recurve bow Kai handed to her carefully. A single piece of treated yew, it had a leather-bound grip and when she went to string it, it flexed powerfully against her. A quiver of arrows came with it, each one razor-tipped and wide enough to open a fatal wound in its target. The serrated back edge warned that even if they were able to pull it out, the head would cause more damage on the way out.
Ronda was at first puzzled by the two belts that hung for her. Then she noticed each had a dozen cylinders looped into them, marked around their tops with different colors. The last cylinder was a spool of shining platinum wire, the multiple strands reflecting light in mysterious ways. She realized this played to her strengths, the long hours spent weaving snares for wild game. These were various types of grenades, with strong material for tripwires. There was also a glove. Slipping it over her left hand, she found that now when she moved her palm up, a short blade flicked out from under her wrist. The hidden weapon would be useful if an enemy got too close.
Each of them had used similar weapons before, if not in the Arena then in outside life, but there was a distinct, ominous difference. The weapons in the Hunger Games were used to kill, but in design meant to hunt for food and be used as tools; these were tools meant solely for the purpose of ending human lives. Despite their bright façades, the dark intentions behind them made the weapons they held feel . . . evil was one word to use.
Kyler sighed and pulled out a long knife about half the length of his forearm. "This was supposed to be for another of you, Kevin Keverson of District 3. But the Capitol caught up with him before I did." He began to sheathe the weapon's deadly edge and put it on the inside of his vest.
Kipcha knew him. Hesitantly, he asked, "Do you think he's . . . dead?"
"I don't know anything at this point. He could be, or he could be in a holding cell somewhere, or he could have even fought his way out himself." He checked the pistol again, pulling the hammer back until it clicked. “The Avox tunnels underground will be our best bet.” Next to him, Tyson had packed up his computer and was looking to them expectantly. There was no more reason to stay here.
Chapter 4: Dark Corners
It was a side of the Capitol none of them had ever seen before. Just below the streets and shops and beauty shops, only a ladder away, were the tunnels. Stepping off the ladder just behind Kyler, Ronda looked up and down the tunnel they were in. It was dark with the only weak illumination from lanterns at each end, about a city block apart. Water from some leaking pipe coated the floor, with no drainage system and no one ever bothering to mop up. The air was cool and damp, and carried a variety of nasty stenches. After the air-freshened rooms above, they had to struggle to keep the MREs down.
She stepped away from the ladder to give the others room, and peered down the tunnel. Using sight and sound, Ronda tried to take in as much about this new place as she could. The floor was slick, and she’d have to watch her footing. There were pipes all along the walls, which would make for excellent places to string tripwires and hide grenades. She’d tested the wire before, and found it very strong, so there were probably more than a few lethal snares she could set. The problem was getting a Peacekeeper to walk into it.
Amidst the sounds of the others’ boots coming down the ladder, Ronda thought she heard . . . something. But it was hard to tell. And the shape she’d made out, which had stood beyond the next lamp, would have been right in the middle of the tunnel, but there was no shape anymore. It was just a trick of her mind in this strange place.
“Which way?” she asked as the last one of them came down.
Tyson had unpacked the laptop again, and was transfixed by the screen. He slowly pointed in the opposite direction. “Should be . . . that way. District soldiers fought off the Peacekeepers a while ago, and should just be clearing out pods.
“Okay, Kipcha, you and I have point. Terra, keep your bow loaded, and Ronda and Tyson behind her. Kai, you’re our rearguard.” Quickly, they fell into the marching order and started down the passageway. But Ronda couldn’t help casting one last, curious look over her shoulder. She hoped what she saw was an illusion.
The feeling of a descent into this gloomy underworld soon fell upon the fugitives. Occasionally, the whole tunnel they were in shook as artillery or mines exploded somewhere above. Given the relative peace of the Capitol safe zone, it was frightening that forces that powerful could be so close by.
Fortunately for Kai, after a while his ear implant had come back online, after being messed up by the EMP. He regretted tearing a piece out, now everything just sounded a little weird. But it was bearable.
Just in front of him, he heard Ronda ask quietly, more to herself than anyone else, “Do you feel we’re being followed?”
Face fixed to his computer screen, Tyson said, “Don’t be silly. The Capitol thinks we’re out in the woods, and even if they didn’t there could be no way for them to pinpoint us in these tunnels.”
The casual answer didn’t help the troubled look on her features. Kai reached up and clasped her shoulder, smiling softly and hefting his spear. Her red hair contrasted nicely with deep blue eyes in the dark as she forced a return smile and went back to walking. The weak pale glow of the lanterns reflected off the layer of water . . . not so different from street lamps on a night when clouds had cleared from raining in the day. She looked back to find the reflection of the one behind them, and that was when she saw it clearly for the first time.
The eyes were the same dirty yellow as its teeth. The silhouette was impossible to see, maybe because of the light, but there was enough to tell it was only about the size of a dog. The maw opened wider as it met her gaze revealing even more pointed fangs.
“Mutts!” Ronda screamed, the memory of the creature that killed her brother fighting its way back to her. Kai spun around, alarmed, but it was Terra who reacted first. Before it could move, there was a twange, and an arrow dug into it.
It was as if she had hit shadow. The arrow’s red shaft was clearly visible, but in the same light, the body of the wailing creature blended into the tunnel itself. Ronda stood transfixed by it, just managing to make out a vaguely mammal head when something came between her and the small lantern, far off down the tunnel.
As the injured thing shrieked, the walls crawled. On the floor, walls and ceiling, shapes moved forward, all with only yellow eyes and teeth visible. Now that they knew their prey was aware, they chattered in high pitched squeaks like monkeys. Kyler yelled for them to run, and they did so without question.
The water now splashed up whenever they touched the ground, trying to run as fast as they could without slipping. Ronda wasn’t surprised that Kai with his longer legs passed her, but was more alarmed when she found herself falling behind everyone!
She was by no means slow, but found herself weighted down by the heavy grenades. Each must have weighed about two pounds, and twenty of them was no easy load when you were sprinting. The others were oblivious to her trouble, and she saw them gain more than twenty feet.
Okay. she thought. It was time to see what these weapons could do. She pulled a cylinder from her belt, this one with a bright gold ring, pulled the little ring, and threw it back down the tunnel.
A miniature sun and a thunderclap went off amidst the creatures. The flashbang wasn’t lethal, but their large eyes and ears made for nocturnal life must have been in pain. For a minute, their camouflage failed, and Ronda clearly saw them. Gray fur, four limbs, and hunched over. She remembered reading about an extinct creature, the Aye-aye. This looked a lot like what she had imagined them as, but with larger teeth. And after the ones less hurt sank back into shadows, she was sure these were muttations and not just lemurs.
Unable to outrun them, Ronda called for help. But the others were completely out of sight. She saw her one chance of escape, a very old iron door amongst the pipes on the wall, and threw herself against it. The thing squealed from ages of disuse and rust, but she forced her way into the bright room beyond.
One of the mutts leaped at her before she could close it. Ronda caught it in midair, but the force knocked her on her back. The mutt pushed against her arms, shaking violently. Its teeth snapped ferociously, trying to get purchase around her throat. For such a little thing, it had a lot of muscle and more than enough adrenaline to keep it going. But Ronda had the advantage of size. She tore it away and held it back. Though she didn’t want to kill it, the others were advancing fast, and her wrist flicked up, and a blade slid out from her wrist and deep into its neck.
Tossing the limp body aside, she pushed back against the heavy door, pushing with all she had to close it before the horde reached it. Just as a claw appeared around the edge, it slammed shut, and Ronda spun the metal wheel on its center to put a metal bar into place and lock it. For the moment at least, she was safe.
Kipcha had her sword out, and was struggling to get back toward where Ronda was, but Kyler hung onto her arm. For only having one, he had a surprisingly strong grip. “Let me go!” she screamed, yanking left and right to squeeze out of his grip.
“Stop! She’s already dead!” Kyler yelled, pulling her back and staring into her flashing silver eyes. “There’s no way she could fight them all off. Let’s hope she bought us the time we need, and not waste it!”
She pulled again, and this time Kyler let her go. But she didn’t run back. She knew he was right. Kyler seemed to have let her decide, thinking if she ran back she’d only give the others a few more seconds head-start. Kipcha gritted her teeth in frustration, but then turned and looked to Terra and Kai. Kyler and Tyson were already jogging ahead, determined to stay alive, and the others should be, too.
“He’s right.” She said resignedly. “We can’t go back for her.”
Why haven’t they come back for me yet? Ronda thought after a long minute listening to silence. The mutts had stopped scratching at the door, either trying to wait her out or gone after the others. Eventually, she decided there was no good to be done sitting here, and looked around the new hallway she found herself in.
It was nothing like the Avox tunnel. The floor was dry, and it was well-lit with fluorescent bulbs reflecting light off of clean white walls. Cautiously, she looked both ways before saying to herself, “Well, left is right and right is wrong.”
Heading what was arbitrarily left, she peered around a corner and, seeing no one in the hall, began down it.
This was a Capitol bunker of some kind, it was too clean not to be used. She found the hall lined with doors, taller than she was, and only a small window high up as a way to see inside. Ronda chose one of them, jumped up and held herself up to take a peek.
What she saw made her limbs grow weak, and she fell back away from the door, shocked.
Chapter 5: The Scent of Fear
The others, in the meantime, were in a standoff with the horde of creatures. They’d steadily gained on the Victors and rebels, but quite suddenly ground to a halt. Just a few yards away, the creatures stared and snarled at them, but didn’t come any closer.
“What are they waiting for?” Terra asked, her bowstring taut. No answer was forthcoming.
Watching the horde swarm around behind the first few, Kipcha recognized the same frustration she had felt, with Ronda just out of reach. “They’re not waiting . . . they don’t seem to be able to get to us.”
“Or are afraid to come this far into the tunnels.” Kai suggested. But whatever it was, the things suddenly sniffed at the air, and then the mass of furry bodies turned, and hobbled back up the tunnel, hissing over their shoulders. The Victors breathed a collective sigh of relief. “What were those things?”
“Muttation breed using DNA of Madagascar’s native life.” Tyson said, offering the information like a robot. He seemed to only say something useful when you asked him to. “The Capitol files them as camobeasts.”
“District 13’s troops call them Cheshire Cats.” Kyler added, holstering his weapon. “They’re supposed to be released in forest terrain at night, where they can use the canopy and ambush soldiers. Damn good climbers.”
“They must hate being underground.” Terra said. She was made for the forest like them. Terra loved the woods of District 7, especially at night with a full moon and stars just visible through the pines. Moonlight made the undergrowth seem a place of old secrets, and inviting enough if you left it undisturbed. The darkness down here was oppressive, claustrophobic.
She realized as they were walking, she was becoming distracted. She shook her head to clear it, and tired to stay focused.
“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” she heard Kipcha ask, up at the front. “How do you know we aren’t headed straight for a Peacekeeper patrol?”
Kyler seemed a bit on edge himself, and responded angrily, “Because the patrols, don’t check this area. But if you talk any louder, they might want to know what all the noise is about.”
“I’m just asking how you can be sure in a place like this, where everything looks the same.” Kipcha said, her lip curling. Kyler might have said something back, but Tyson piped up, his eyes still covered by the pair of night vision goggles.
“We have a schematic of old building records. None of the tunnels have ever been reworked, so it’s safe to say they’re accurate. But they are old . . .” It defused the argument, but neither of them seemed satisfied. Kai began to go into his own head, trying to imagine this a better place. Brighten it up a bit, some paint, get a mop for all the water. Despite his screen, Tyson looked troubled, his head turning this way and that, with nothing to see but the walls. “Does it seem like any of this could collapse anytime soon?”
The question went ignored, as Kipcha and Kyler were talking again. The mercenary was growling, “I could have left your carcass for the Caps to find. You want to start leading this thing?”
“I can’t do a worse job than you’ve done already. Ronda dead and we’re lost!”
Terra ignored the argument. If they wanted to fight, it was their business. Without much to look at, she drifted into her other senses. The chaos of their footsteps wasn’t appealing. But she could remember better ones. The hearty calling to one another of loggers in the docks of District 7 at the end of a day. The smell of pines and cut wood after a day in the forests. Then the smell of perfume on District 7’s escort . . . wait, perfume.
Uh oh. Kipcha and Kyler angry. Tyson afraid. The slight scent in the air.
“Move faster!” She yelled urgently. She pulled Tyson, but the kid was mumbling and his eyes looked detached. Kai seemed to be the only one with a bit of sense left in him, but the blissful smile and half-shut eyes said he might not have it much longer. “Kai! Help me move them! Push!”
Kai seemed to consider her request for a moment, still smiling, but then helped. But the others were either too out of it or too busy fighting to move, and Kai just picked up Kyler and Kipcha, threw each over a shoulder, and started running. Terra had to likewise carry Tyson against his mumbled protests. As they went on, Terra felt a little unsure herself of exactly what she was doing and how she got here. But she hung on to the feeling they had to keep moving, and ran until she was out of breath and had to let go of them both.
There was a painful throbbing in Terra’s head, pulsing loudly inside her ears. But within a minute, it eased and then disappeared completely. Drawing in the moist air, she surveyed the rest of them in the intersection they’d stopped at. Kai seemed to have remembered he was in a dark place, and Tyson was looking a bit more confident. Kyler and Kipcha’s faces were flushed, but they were no longer shouting at one another.
“What exactly . . . just happened?” Kyler asked, sounding confused.
Terra explained her hunch. “Everyone just kind of freaked out for a minute. I smelled something, like the perfumes the Capitols wear. I remember they sell love potions up above. I think this was a little twist on it.”
Kai agreed. “This place is even more dangerous than we thought. Just breathing can be a problem.”
Already with his computer out, Tyson looked up. “Maybe we should head for the surface. A lot less unknown variables . . .?”
“No.” Kyler shook his head. “The only thing waiting for us up there is the–”
Echoes from far behind them. It sounded suspiciously like boots. And the fugitives were running again.
Ronda took a moment to recover from the broken bodies she’d just seen. They were still alive, but only just. The flash instant she’d seen inside was imprinted in her memory, shackles and wounds left to just try and heal on their own.
Working up enough courage, and strength to keep her stomach down, she once again pushed herself up and looked inside. Two men had been chained to opposite walls. What little skin wasn’t hidden by the torn suits they wore was purple and black bruised. At every tear in the fabric, crimson liquid stained the cloth below a deep gash. Blood had curdled over the wounds, the red darkening to black scabs. But despite the condition, Ronda recognized one of them.
It took effort to decide to open the cell. But she forced herself to do it.
The smell hit her like a solid wall, making her cough and only just hold back vomiting. Covering her mouth and nose with part of her suit, she ventured inside.
Despite causing him obvious pain, one of the prisoners looked up when he’d heard her cough. “Ronda?”
The Victor from District 3, Kevin Keverson, was hardly recognizable with blood from a cut over his forehead streaming down his face. But despite the wounds, his brown eyes still held their spark of curiosity. The curiosity said volumes, how he had first become interested in electronics, won his Hunger Games using a wire trap, and even now in such a dire situation he was already interested in what the fifth next move in their escape plan was. It was a District 3 thing.
“I’ll get something to cut you loose.” She said, and looked to the rack of torture weapons on the wall. It was a gruesome display. Tools as small as scalpels for tormenting individual nerves, all the way up to . . . Ronda recognized the design at once. During her Hunger Games, she’d gotten hold of a trident. On the reverse end, she’d tied a spear to have a reverse point.
There were other weapons here she recognized as Victor weapons. Finnick O’Daire’s trident, Katniss Everdeen’s bow, even a mock-up of the pointed teeth of Enobaria. But this sharpened instrument was hers.
She took it off the wall, and got a running start, then slammed it against the chains holding Kevin. A link broke near his wrists, and she quickly repeated the procedure with the other. As the District 3 went to the wall to find a weapon suitable to pick the wrist-holds, Ronda put her weight into freeing the other man, who she didn’t recognize.
When the chains broke, she stood back and leaned against the far wall, inhaling and exhaling deeply. She felt the four-pointed weapon in her hand. It had been used for torture, and before that, this exact weapon had been her way of killing in the Arena. She nearly cast it away, but a new thought struck her.
Though in the past it had been used for bloody deeds, now it was in the hands of a freedom fighter. She would forge a new history for the weapon.
Slinging it over her back through one of the grenade belts, she offered a hand to the other prisoner. “What’s your name?”
Though his face was ravaged by what he’d endured, his green eyes still showed the kindness they always had.
“My name is Cinna.”
Chapter 6: Fight for the Lost
Ronda had heard of the stylist, overnight he’d become a legend for his display of flames. Why exactly he was down here, she didn’t know. A second of doubt asked her if she should trust the Capitol citizen, but the kind eyes and cracked lips with their edges pulled up in a warm smile told her she could. Kevin had her help with undoing Cinna’s chains, and then she went to the door to see if anyone was coming.
“You should leave me behind.” Cinna said behind her, not bothering to look to her. She looked him over again, and now noticed how his legs were bent at an odd angle halfway down his shins. They’d been broken and left to try and mend themselves, but the prisoners clearly weren’t fed enough to have the energy to recover.
She didn’t hesitate in replying. “We’ll carry you.”
“You’ll need to half-carry Kevin. I’d only slow you down more.” He protested.
“Leaving together or not at all.” Ronda said resolutely, throwing one of his arms over her shoulder. “So deal with it.”
On his other side, Kevin labored to do the same. The days of torture had left him weak, but he refused to acknowledge his pain. It simply couldn’t be a factor.
Using the quad-spear as a staff, the three of them stumbled out into the hall, and Ronda turned them in the opposite direction she had come from, listening for any sign of Peacekeepers or mutations.
“Do you even know where you’re going?” Cinna asked faintly.
“Away from here.”
Even if the gunshots above were quiet, no one on the surface would have heard the shots being fiercely exchanged below.
The muzzle of Kyler’s revolver flashed twice and produced a thunderclap each time. The Peacekeepers instantly targeted him from where they had taken cover in a door frame, and bullets tore apart the concrete he hid behind. But their own weapons revealed their locations, and two silent twangs went unheard as Terra and Kipcha released arrows that buried themselves in the soldiers’ chests.
And then it was back to running.
The two female Victors were faster than him to begin with, and now that he was trying to reload the empty chambers in his weapon one-handed, they were quickly leaving him behind. That was okay, it was the plan. As they disappeared down a corridor to the left far ahead, he took an immediate right that lead him past Kai’s hiding spot. When the Peacekeeper rounded after him, he ran right onto Kai’s spearhead.
Kyler had to give them credit. For no soldier training and not having killed in years, they’d taken well to fighting.
But even Kyler’s endurance could only last so long. Every time one of the Peacekeepers spotted them, he’d radio their position to the coordination team called Control. Then they’d start trying to box them in and finally kill them. Really, the only thing keeping them a step ahead right now was Tyson’s expertise with the Capitol’s systems.
“Go!” Kyler yelled, and he and Kai moved up another tunnel. It was becoming a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse, one that the Peacekeepers would win shortly if they couldn’t find a way out of here. But now that the Victors were circling back, around the ‘potion’ area, they hoped the Capitol soldiers would halt pursuit if they were in the mutt areas.
Another corner, and the two District men met two white suits. Cussing madly, Kyler raised his weapon when a blade sprouted from one’s chest, blood sluicing off the mirror-edge. As the other Peacekeeper turned, Kyler shot him.
The blade withdrew, and Kipcha Pryor appeared as the corpse fell. Kai could see her pupils dilated and heavy breathing as she stared at the body. Terra and Tyson emerged behind her.
“Now what?” Terra asked, holding her bow ready. Kyler just looked to Tyson.
“There’s only one surface access.” He said. “It’s in the Capitol-controlled tunnels, a bunker.”
Kyler nodded and stopped a moment to catch his breath. He was getting worn out with all this. But he nodded and took command, that was his job here, and he needed to do it. “We’ll split up. Tyson, with me, we’ll draw some fire. Give the others a map to a back door.”
Everyone was running. As blood and sweat poured from them, Ronda, Kevin, and between them Cinna had fled from the sound of approaching boots. They somehow doubted Capitol would like them being out of the cells.
They were moving very, very slow. Though starved from who knew how long in here, Cinna was taller than the others and weighed enough to be a burden. And he wouldn’t stop protesting that he needed to be left behind.
Finally, Ronda accepted they wouldn’t escape the Peacekeepers once they knew they were out. She eased the others to sit against the wall, but didn’t rest with them. Instead, she went back to the last corner and began stringing a grenade.
Kevin noted the wound on Cinna’s forehead had opened again. Ripping off another piece of cloth, he started tying a bandage around it. “Hang on, Cin, the rescue just came. Can’t die on me now of all times.”
The stylist smiled. Blood ran from his lips, too. “You know what my favorite style is?”
It struck Kevin as an odd question, but the Capitol citizen might be half-delirious. He humored him. “No, we talked about a few things in that cell, but you never did talk about work.”
“I can’t disclose my favorite color, mind you, but that’s akin to a magician revealing his hand . . .” he trailed off a moment. Then his voice returned with a newfound resolve. “Camouflage. Thanks to the District Army, it never goes out of style.”
Ronda returned, picking up her spear. She pulled Kevin up, when a shout startled them. They looked back to see a single Peacekeeper, his white hazmat suit only broken by a black, rectangular piece of glass hiding his face. He was raising his assault rifle.
“I wouldn’t do that.” Ronda smiled. But if the soldier heard, it was too late, and probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. As the weapon’s barrel came up, it met the tiniest bit of resistance in the form of a near invisible silver wire.
The force of the concussion grenade killed him before he had even hit the opposite wall, and sank to the ground with red seeping between the suits folds.
“Come on.” Ronda said, but Cinna shook his head.
“As Victors, you should know this. Sometimes, not everyone can be saved.” Ronda was going to argue, but she heard more bootsteps on the way. As much as she hated it, he was right. She stopped Kevin from trying to pull Cinna up, and shook her head.
She removed from her belt, one red-ringed grenade. Cinna accepted it gratefully, and pointed them on urgently. “Go, get out of this place. Find somewhere better.”
It was in only moments that the first Peacekeeper came into view. He shot tracers at the fleeing Victors, but no hits. More appeared, and the squad moved forward. They stood over them, their voiced muffled beyond comprehension with deep static, conferring with one another. Then one raised his rifle, the shadowed void of the barrel homed in on his head.
Cinna summoned enough energy to raise one arm, showing them the ring of the grenade’s pin, and smiling kindly.
Then as the incendiary detonated, for an instant, Cinna was the man on fire.
Chapter 7: Motive
Kipcha felt the grip of her sword in her right hand, raised in front of her. It was an elegant weapon, if nothing more than an instrument of killing. She was glad to have it.
The four Peacekeepers that circled her, Terra, and Kai, were no ordinary soldiers. They wore suits of jet-black, and carried swords of their own. Helmets with opaque tinted visors obscured their faces, not that she believed there was much humanity left behind them. Peacekeeper soldiers were brainwashed to make them better, more merciless killers.
She decided this pointless, tense standoff had gone on for too long, and broke it with a challenge. “Three of us, four of you. The odds aren’t in your favor today.”
The Peacekeepers swept forward, making for even closer quarters in the cramped tunnel. Metal rang against metal as Kipcha parried a blade and swiped at the attacker, but he merely stepped back and circled his blade to cut open her shins.
He was quite surprised when he again blocked by Kipcha’s blade. He’d expected these Victors to be easy pickings, not having fought since the day they’d won their Games, but apparently, he’d underestimated her.
Kipcha imagined the look that must have been on his face, and smiled at the thought. She continued smiling as she ran the Peacekeeper through, thinking back to what people had told her happened in her Games. Blair Quagmire, her ally and friend, had been killed by another tribute named Spring. Kipcha had killed Spring, but it hadn’t been her fault. It had been the fault of the Capitol, and its enforcers like these. So she made sure the last thing this Capitol saw was her contentment with his death, and whispered the last thing he’d hear. “That was for Blair.”
Kai, in the meantime, had his own problems. He’d been just lucky enough to match up against the squad’s leader, his shoulders marked an elite red, and was having trouble. Kai could handle a spear well, but it was plainly obvious that this Capitol had been training with a sword since childhood.
Every time Kai stabbed, the Cap squad leader deflected it with the flat of his blade, and then allowed Kai to try again. He was toying with him, enjoying his superior skill. Then the Capitol decided to wrap it up, and began to make attacks of his own. Each was keenly placed to break down Kai’s defense, and lead toward some last, artful killing blow. So Kai decided to do something the aristocrat never would: he cheated.
This time, Kai parried and held the Peacekeeper’s sword locked against the shaft of his spear. The Peacekeeper brought his helmet within inches of Kai’s face to mock him, when Kai’s left fist came up and connected squarely with his helmet.
Taken completely by surprise, he had no time to recover before Kai ended his life.
As these duels went on, it left Terra to deal with two of the assassins. She thought of a curse, but didn’t even have the time to say it amidst dodging attacks. When the Peacekeepers had first emerged, silently encircling the Victors, Terra had known her bow wouldn’t be any good this close. Kai had passed her the knife meant for Kevin Keverson, and held an arrow in her left hand. Unfortunately, the Peacekeepers had a longer range than she did.
‘Keep opponents in a line.’ She thought. It was one of the lessons she’d learned from her mentor, and Terra fought fear to keep a level head. Stepping sideways, she made it so one would now have to go around his comrade to get at her, and it bought her enough precious time to get in close, deflect with her knife, and stab the arrowhead into the base of the assassin’s skull.
It had been a desperate attack, which left her open to the other Peacekeeper. Only Terra’s eyes were fast enough for her. She couldn’t get the arrow out of the falling soldier’s skull, and watched the sword falling fast toward her, when a hand came between and got in front of the blade.
Terra watched in horror as Kipcha’s left forearm simply broke away. The Peacekeeper raised his weapon again, expecting a crippled opponent, but instead froze, dropping the weapon as Pryor’s blade found its mark in his stomach. To his credit, the assassin did not scream.
From where she lay panting on the floor, now with the silence reigning again, Terra looked up to Kipcha’s silhouette, as the Peacekeeper’s dark figure fell to the concrete. She heard Kipcha whisper, “That was for making Spring have to kill Blair, and forcing me to kill her.”
She sheathed the sword a moment, and leaned down, picking her arm up from the floor. Terra saw now that inside the glove, it was a robotic prosthetic. Then Terra remembered, she’d seen how Kipcha in her Games had had her arm severed, and then bandaged and fixed with a knife. Kipcha reunited her robotic arm with the port where her left arm had been severed. She offered Terra a hand up, extending the human right arm. Terra accepted it and was pulled to her feet.
“The door’s only thirty feet farther.” Kipcha said, almost cheerily. She redrew her sword. “Let’s go.”
Then she turned and kept going the way they had before the encounter. Kai followed, giving Terra a curt smile and nod, but Terra stayed a moment longer.
Kipcha had quickly accepted the sudden change of their lives, fleeing the Capitol without being sure they could trust Kyler. From what Kipcha had said, she realized, it was because she didn’t blame the other tributes for killing what friends she’d had in the Games. She blamed the Capitol, and rightly so. Every drop of spilled blood would be on the hands of the Capitol, and its soldiers, and its damned Games.
Terra knew that Kipcha, without her memories and told she’d been involved in desperate murdering between tributes, could have easily become a broken soul like Haymitch Abernathy or the older male from District 5. But she had trained, and waited because she knew one day she’d have a chance. To fight the real enemy. The one that had taken her past and attempted to steal her future.
Terra had heard a proverb once, It is the nature of man to create monsters. And it is the nature of monsters to destroy their creators. The Capitol would never stand so long as there were people who resisted it in such dire conditions, like Kipcha. And Kai. And Terra herself. They would never stop.
The days of the Capitol’s reign were numbered, and getting shorter all the time.
Great plan, Kyler, he thought to himself. Now what do you do?
The good news was, his diversion had worked, and now the Victors had no one chasing them. The bad news was, his diversion had worked, and now twenty PKs were after him.
“Tyce, get down!” Kyler yelled to the boy running in front of him, and without question Tyson dived. Kyler’s pistol was already raised, and his shot hit the Peacekeeper that turned the corner squarely in his mask. The visor shattered, the white suit fell to the floor and the rebels ran past.
They were headed for a doorway that would lead them into the Capitol chambers. Once there, they could lock it behind them and destroy the electronic systems, buying them hours the PKs would have to go around.
Almost sliding to a stop in front of the door, Tyson let the too-big-for-him rifle swing by his side on a strap and pulled out his laptop as Kyler nervously covered the corridor.
“Uh-oh.” He said.
Kyler was alarmed. “Uh-oh? What uh-oh?”
“This is a horizontal bolt latch, not a mechanical cam lock.”
“Are they different?”
“Yeah. Hence the two names.”
Kyler sighed and kept looking back and forth. “Well can you open it?”
The thirteen year old from District 3 grinned. “’Course I can. I just want you to know how awesome I am.” At that moment, the heavy iron door swung outward, revealing the clean hallways behind it.
“Hold on, I’ll clear it.” Kyler ordered. He moved forward, staying close to the wall. Except for the annoying hum of old fluorescent bulbs, it was quiet. He turned around and waved Tyson in.
The boy had been watching down the outside passage, and turned to look at Kyler. Before he could take a step forward, a spray of dust and red mist blossomed from his right kneecap. Shouting in pain, he fell to his knees as a Peacekeeper appeared from behind the doorframe obscuring Kyler’s vision, shot three rounds into the kid’s torso, and kicked the already dead body over.
Kyler remembered screaming, raising his pistol, and killing the soldier vaguely, but the image imprinted on his mind was Tyson’s body cooling, with the oversized rifle out of his grasp and the computer lying in pieces next to him. The two tributes, Kevin, and now Tyson. Another from District 3 Kyler had failed to protect.
There was nothing he could do except close the door before the other Peacekeepers caught up. Then he put a bullet through the controls next to the door, sealing off Tyson’s body beyond Kyler’s reach.
It was one more reason for him to fight the Capitol. One more reason he’d make them pay. One more cry for revenge.
Chapter 8: Dire Conditions
Kipcha felt herself actually longing for the dark, cramped tunnels they’d been in before. These white-washed halls were so quiet, so clean . . . too much so, it felt like the Capitol had succeeded to wipe out every living thing here. There weren’t even decorative plants, just blank walls. The smell at least, was better, though the sterilizing chemicals burned her nostrils annoyingly.
Kai muttered, “I just can’t wait to get outta here . . .” Kipcha couldn’t agree more.
Terra pointed ahead, her bow held relaxedly. “The map says we go this way to meet up with Kyler and Tyson.”
The Victors tightened the grips on their weapons when the sound of a muted explosion rocked the floor beneath their feet. Whatever had happened, it was in the direction they needed to go.
“That sounded like a grenade.” Kipcha said, sheathing her sword in favor of the bow’s range.
“Grenade?” Terra asked, a thought distracting her, she lowered her bow. “Ronda!” Without another word, she sprinted down the corridor, leaving the other two to catch up.
“Terra, wait!” Kai groaned. “This is the second time today.” With that, he and Kipcha ran after her doing their best to keep pace.
No, no, no, it can’t end like this . . . Ronda thought desperately as the Peacekeeper’s rifle came up, standing at the end of the hall behind her. The distance she’d gained on the soldiers was useless now, the passage just made her an easy shooting-range target.
Before he got a chance to fire, however, a spray of blood flashed from his head. For a moment, from where Ronda stood looking over her shoulder and half-carrying Kevin, it seemed the Peacekeeper had put on one of those fake arrow-headsets, but this was very real, and the Peacekeeper dropped like a puppet with his strings cut.
It didn’t make sense to Ronda for a moment, until Terra Storm came around the corner, standing over the body. “Terra!”
Terra’s head snapped up, smiling happily as she spotted Ronda. She started running up the hall to greet the two when Ronda yelled fearfully for her to stop. Terra cocked her head, wondering what was wrong, when she spotted the slender, silver wire hanging across the corridor. Her eyebrows raised, knowing she’d come close to exploding, not her favorite activity. Ducking carefully under it, she continued the rest of the way where Kevin was standing under his own power again, leaning against a wall.
She surprised Ronda with a warm embrace, then released her and said, “We thought you were dead.”
“It’s not easy to kill a Victor.” Ronda said, smiling back. Kevin made a little wave ‘hello’ as Terra looked at him, and the three walked back so Ronda could take down her trap. The explosive was hidden in a crevice like you might hide an Easter egg. Back at the corner, Kipcha and Kai finally caught up, their faces brightening with recognition.
“What happened to you?” Kai asked as Ronda and Kipcha clasped arms.
“Nothing.” Ronda replied. “I just didn’t think it would be right to let Kevin miss all the fun.”
The District 3 Victor smiled. “The room service in the Capitol has been better in other years.”
Kai didn’t laugh as the others did. “This is the rendezvous point. Kyler should be here . . .”
“He probably has a lot of Peacekeepers to deal with.” Kipcha said dismissively. The Victors began to settle in, setting a few grenades to act as an early warning system and listening to Kevin rant about the Capitol’s poor hospitality.
As it went on, Terra noticed Kai wasn’t laughing with the rest of them. He sat with his head turned down the hallway, waiting and watching for something. Smiling, she nudged the big guy’s shoulder. “You alright?”
Kai’s head turned. “Yeah. I’m just wondering where Kyler is.”
“He can take care of himself, you know.”
“I know . . .” Kai said slowly. His jaw tightened, as if hesitating to speak. “It’s just . . . the last time anything like this happened, I made friends and watched them die just as quickly. They didn’t deserve what happened to them, no one did. I couldn’t fight back against the people who put us there. But now we can. I’m going to make sure everyone gets out alive, even if I don’t survive it.”
The grim determination in her friend’s eyes unsettled Terra. Kai had always been positive, convinced there was a better way out. Now, there were chinks in his armor, showing a more somber, desperate man who’d been a stranger to hope for far too long. He’d latched onto this chance for escape, and he’d kill and even die himself to ensure the others made it.
“It won’t come to that.” Terra said. There was no opinion on it, it was as if she had stated a hard fact. Kai’s warm smile returned to his face, though his eyes remained the same.
Kevin had finished ranting for the moment. “Anyone see an access terminal anywhere? I’m getting tired of waiting for whatshisname.”
“Access terminal?” Kipcha asked. “What for?”
Kevin grinned. “I can get into their security systems like my mentor Beetee showed me. Cameras, even automated gun turrets. I just need two wires and a good paper clip.”
For about half a decade, Kyler had been delivering messages between resistance members. The sneaking around quickly got old, and by the time the rebellion began he’d been itching for real action. But now he was just tired of running from fragging enemy soldiers.
And after Tyson’s death, he wasn’t going to.
The tunnels so far underground weren’t exactly the place to go down as a legend, firing to the last shot, but being stuck down here without any idea where he was going, this section was as good as any.
He had just caught sight of the first Peacekeeper when from the ceiling a new wall dropped down, sealing him off from the Capitol soldiers.
“What the hell is this . . .” Kyler muttered, just before a speaker boomed and whined as a mic was being picked up.
“Kyler, it’s Ronda. I’m with the others, we’re waiting for you.”
It sounded like her voice. And if this was another Capitol trap, why wouldn’t they have just let the PKs deal with him? “Ronda? Where are you?”
“Kyler, there’s no sound coming from your end. There’s no mic.”
“Well how do I find you?”
Ronda’s disembodied voice ignored him. “I can see your lips moving, but I can’t hear you, just find us.”
“You’re not getting this, I can’t hear you.”
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?”
“Find us at the rendezvous point you agreed on with the others.”
It didn’t take him long, now. Corridors were blocked off, separating him from Peacekeepers and leaving him only one path. Before long, he spotted Kipcha waving at him. She clapped his shoulder when he joined them.
“Where’s Tyson?” she asked. There was no change in Kyler’s grieving eyes.
“How?” Kai asked. “When?”
“Peacekeepers hit him when I wasn’t looking. I . . . there’s nothing we can do. Let’s just go.”
“Go where?” Kevin asked. Kyler looked at him in surprise, but Terra anticipated his question.
“Ronda found him in the prison chambers.” A thought struck her. “That reminds me.”
She withdrew the long dagger, and offered it to the District 3. “This is yours, by the way.”
Kevin shook his head. “You keep it. I just need this weapon.” He patted the side of his head, grinning. “I have a plan to get us out of here, and help the Districts win.”
Shaking off his sorrow at losing Tyson, Kai asked, “Well, let’s hear it.”
“Alright. We know the Capitol has anti-aircraft guns all over the city. The reason they can’t turn the battle is because they don’t have enough of their own hovercraft to make raids, but if they have enough time, they’ll organize something. We need to hit them before they can hit us.”
Kyler’s gaze hardened, suspecting his plan. “How?”
“Their aircraft hangars. We steal one, and blow up the rest. Then the skies belong to the Districts, and we’re home free.”
There was quiet as everyone glanced to each other, looking for someone to speak first. It was Kai who did.
“Well . . . their AA guns might not fire on a Capitol ship, at least at first.”
They all turned to the speaker, Kyler.
“That is outright suicide. They must have dozens, hundreds guarding that place.”
“It would help the Districts.” Terra protested.
“No!” Kyler’s jaw set in determination. “The whole point of getting you out of the Capitol was to have heroes, people we can rally behind. And now you want to throw your lives away by fighting like common soldiers, you’ll be struck down like cannon fodder. What for? So we kill the Caps three days faster? No, I won’t tolerate it. Our mission is too important.”
He turned away, refusing to even look at the others.
“For Tyson.” Kai said softly, gripping his spear tighter.
“For Cinna.” Ronda added.
“For everyone we ever knew.” Kipcha said with finality.
Kyler sighed. There was no way he could argue with that.
Chapter 9: Bring Down the Sky
“Just so you know,” Kyler whispered quietly, “this is the dumbest idea I’ve ever agreed with. And I’ve done some stupid things.”
“If it’s stupid, but it works, it isn’t stupid.” Kevin retorted, crouched in front of him. He was searching for Kipcha’s signal, giving them the go ahead.
It had taken some time to get to the hovercraft hangar complex. It was a massive structure, a cylindrical pit deep under the Capitol lined with alcoves that served as berths for the craft themselves. Armed footsoldiers and a number of pilots and technicians, even them with sidearms belted at their waists, were everywhere, faces obscured by black visors.
If this plan was to work, they’d have to go quick, quiet, and unnoticed. Each two-man team had a separate objective. Kyler and Kevin would sneak aboard one hovercraft and prepare it for takeoff as their evac craft. Kipcha and Kai had to get to the control room and start the fueling for not only their craft, but flood the pipelines to every craft in the hangar. The massive amount of fuel would ignite when the explosives went off, which Ronda and Terra would have to put in just the right places. Thankfully, Ronda and Kevin had worked that out beforehand, using a stolen floorplan and a demonstration of engineering knowledge.
A mirror silver blade extended over one of the walkways above them, Kipcha’s sword used to reflect light as a silent beacon. Wordlessly, the two sprinted forward, at the right moment to avoid the patrol of Peacekeepers strolling by.
The two slid into one of the alcoves on the bottom floor of the hangar bay, using the hovercraft’s hull as cover. They paused for a second, listening. No one had spotted them. Kyler gave a thumbs up to whoever was up there, then followed Kevin as he broke the electronic lock on the hovercraft’s hatch, and went to start readying the ship.
High above, Kipcha retreated from the edge and nodded to Kai. They crept up on the door into the control room, bow and spear at the ready.
“We kill a room full of people, push some buttons and leave.” Kai mused. “I don’t see why we have the easy job.”
“That’s just the easy part. The hard part is however many people are in there, any one of them could wake up the beehive if we don’t kill them in three to five seconds.”
“Ah . . .”
Kai kicked in the door, and Kipcha took aim under his arm. The first body she sighted was a startled Peacekeeper, who never fully turned around before the arrow entered his neck. As he fell grasping at it, Kai kept his momentum and put it all into his spear, driving it through a chair and the spine of an air traffic controller before he could sound the alarm. Kipcha saw the last controller scramble for an alarm, and without time to notch another arrow, ran and grabbed his helmet, pulling it up, and used another bladed arrowhead to slit his throat.
Kai turned to the control panel. He blinked twice, and said. “I’m starting to get why this was the hard job. There’s about a thousand buttons and levers on this thing.”
“Wouldn’t hurt to read the labels once in a while.” Kipcha said, finding the master fuel control and switching it to ‘on’.
Kai smiled. “Brilliant.”
Ronda and Terra actually had the hardest job, because they had to remain hidden while they placed explosives all over the building. But these two Victors were masters of being unseen.
Like phantoms, the pair passed feet away from Peacekeepers idly sitting and meddling with their weapons. And everywhere they went, they placed high explosives.
At yet another alcove, Ronda began to push a grenade down a fuel tube, to where it would catch fire to the fuel and do the most damage.
“We have a celebration like this every year in District 4.” Ronda said, smiling as she worked. “We hide painted eggs and let the little ones find them. These should be a nice surprise for the Capitol.”
Terra kept watch, not enjoying the danger they were in as much. The Peacekeepers here didn’t seem to be alert, but it didn’t mean Terra would let her own guard down. Ronda found the grenade was caught up on something, and ignored the slight sense of frustration to get it unstuck. Terra looked over her shoulder at Ronda at the sound, and realized with horror it wasn’t Ronda making noise.
From under the hovercraft next to them, a technician stood, dusted himself off, and froze as he spotted them.
“Hey, you can’t -! Help!” was all he had time to shout before Terra leaped on him and used an arrowhead to quiet him permanently. But too late. There was an echo of grumbling as the group of Peacekeepers directly outside turned and looked at the alcove.
Knowing they were going to find them anyway, Terra made the first strike by firing an arrow into a Peacekeepers body. As he fell, the others picked up their rifles and took up positions. Damn, they were in cover and had the Victors well pinned down.
Several gunshots ricocheted in the alcove, but they were blind shots. The black-suited commando that approached them with a shotgun, however, was not going to miss. Ronda saw him bring the weapon to bear on her, and without hesitation, detonated the grenade.
Kipcha had seen the whole thing from above. As the explosion faded, a wall of earth descended from the alcove’s ceiling. This called for a change in plan.
“I’m going down there, they might still be alive.”
Kai nodded, expecting no different. “That’s suicide, you know.”
He sighed. Standing, he went over to the Peacekeeper they’d killed, and took up his rifle. “You’ll need some cover. I’ll be the diversion.”
They ran out into the atrium, and as soon as Kipcha had dashed away far enough to not be seen with him, Kai sighted the rifle on the first Peacekeeper he saw below, and fired. His head burst like a blood filled balloon. Instantly, the others that had been advancing towards the debris from the explosion looked up, and started firing back at him.
Kai ducked behind the rim of the walkway, and took off in the opposite direction of Kipcha. The Peacekeepers followed. Again, a diversion had worked, but now Kai had to deal with his success.
“I thought I said no noise!” Kyler said, his teeth gritted. He and Kevin had almost prepped their craft when the explosion went off, and gunfire started. He turned to Kevin. “Get this thing ready. If I’m not back in five minutes . . . for the love of Pete, don’t leave.”
He swung around the corner of the hovercraft’s door, and drew his pistol with his one hand as he ran in the direction of the gun battle.
Kipcha’s sword claimed the life of one Peacekeeper who’d been ordered to stay behind, and wasn’t fast enough to raise his rifle when she’d ran at him. She left the blood on the blade and tossed it aside, beginning to dig into the rubble.
She felt a hand in the dirt, and tugged. She recoiled when she realized it was clad in a black glove, but it had no pulse.
Refusing to give in, she dug deeper, her hands getting cut and blood mixing with dirt as she tore at pieces of jagged concrete and shards of glass, tossing them behind her. A cough from somewhere nearby made her pause, listening for it to come again.
“Over here . . . side.”
Kipcha looked around, and saw Terra’s head poke out from beneath the hovercraft. She was pulling Ronda behind her, and Kipcha helped them out from under the vehicle that had saved their life.
“Come on,” Kipcha said with the authority of a leader, “I’m getting you two out of here.”
“No.” Ronda groaned, fighting pain stemming from where shrapnel had cut her. “There’s one more charge to place.”
Terra, though covered in as much soot as Ronda was, said, “Give it to me. I’m faster, I can get it.”
There was no time for argument; the echoes of the gun battle were getting fiercer. Ronda handed her a grenade. “I’ve got the detonater. Once we’re on the ship, we won’t have long. So hurry back, or . . .” her words trailed off into regretful silence.
“You won’t have to.” Terra said, determined. Ronda put an arm around Kipcha, who picked up her blood-covered sword and started for the hovercraft. Terra clutched the grenade tight, and ran. She had always been good at running.
Kai stopped, crouched, and spun, bringing the rifle up. Once, twice, the weapon kicked against his shoulder and forced the Peacekeepers back. Three. The weapon clanged as the metal clip ejected, empty. Kai stifled a curse and ducked behind a crate of hovercraft parts as the enemy’s bullets pinged off of it.
If this was the way he had to die, Kai thought, it wasn’t so bad. He’d drawn the enemy off, and by now Kipcha and the others, if they were alive, were on the hovercraft and getting out of here. In an odd way, he’d won. He’d die, but he’d won.
Setting up the bayonet on the rifle, he prepared to stand and go out fighting, when an open hand entered his vision. Looking up, he found Kyler Teak with a lopsided grin standing over him, offering him a clip.
“It’s called reloading, District Five. Learn it.”
Kai accepted the rounds, pushed them down into the rifle’s chamber, and set the bolt. Taking the hand up, he readied his rifle as Kyler drew his revolver, and then the two left cover with guns blazing.
Enemy shots danced around them, bullets passing close enough to hear their whistle. The Peacekeepers charged, eight dwindling to five just before both of the District fighters’ weapons clicked empty. They wouldn’t reload fast enough.
But before the Peacekeepers were halfway across their catwalk, a shadow fell over them, and then a mass of metal slammed into the side, ripping apart the flimsy metal platform and sending the Peacekeepers into open air.
Kevin sat in the window of the hovercraft, smiling as he said over their radios, “Someone call for a cab?”
“And we’re supposed to let him drive?” Kai laughed. They hurried aboard, and found Kipcha and Ronda already inside. Ronda was laying still on one of the bench seats, fighting just to stay conscious. Kyler immediately knelt next to her to examine the wounds.
Kipcha had already bandaged the cuts to stop blood loss, and beyond that there wasn’t much to be done at the moment. But at worst, she was bruised with maybe a minor concussion from the force of the explosion. He put his one hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be fine, Ronda. The headache might not say so, but people survive worse.”
Ronda smiled, gritting her teeth against the pounding in her head. “If you find some aspirin in the glove compartment, I have dibs.”
“Where’s Terra?” Kai asked, looking around. He wasn’t about to leave without her.
“Relax.” Kipcha said. “She’s taking care of one last charge.”
Running, she was good at. But stairs were not as much fun, especially with six flights of them. At last, she reached the top, and spied the fuel valve. Terra started walking towards it, when she heard a rumbling, synthesized voice from below.
On instinct, she ducked in the nick of time to avoid a volley of gunfire. Bullets sparked off the railing, and Terra covered her head hoping not to be hit by a ricochet. The moment it let up, she began crawling forward. Laying on the floor panels, she felt the heavy thud of boots charging up the steps.
But for them, and for her, it was too late. Terra reached the valve and set the grenades activation. Now Ronda could detonate it.
She lay back on the floor, seeing no reason to exert herself. She pushed in on the radio Kyler had given her. “Last explosive placed. I can’t make it back to you, get out while you can and blow this place.”
Kevin’s voice answered. “Negative, then we’re coming to you, stay alive up there.”
Then there was hope for escape. All through this adventure, Terra had felt that Capitol boot pinching at her leg, and she decided to get rid of the stupid things. She took off the one on her mutt leg, relieved to have it free to move. As she removed the other, a Peacekeeper appeared coming up the stairs and she hurled it at him. As he ducked back, she got up and started running.
It felt awkward, but good to be running barefoot again, even if there was only the metal panels beneath her. A bullet zinged by her head, but from over the edge, the top of the hovercraft rose into view.
“Hit the explosives now! Now!” She yelled, sprinting as fast as she could. This time, Ronda must have listened, because the grenade now far behind her enveloped the Peacekeeper squad in a fireball, shaking the ground.
Other dull explosions surrounded from beneath. This entire place was about to go up in flames, and as she neared the edge, Terra didn’t slow. Jumping up, she launched off the rail and soared out over open space and the conflagration below.
For a moment, despair took hold as she realized she hadn’t jumped high enough. Then a hand shot down from the hatch and clasped firmly on her wrist. She grabbed onto Kai’s wrist and hung on tightly as the hovercraft accelerated up.
Inside, Kipcha and Kyler jumped and caught Kai’s legs as he almost slipped out of the hatch after Terra. Pulling against the high-G forces as the hovercraft shot skyward, the hauled him back in, and Terra followed in, scrambling away from the open door and kicking it shut behind her.
They began to feel heat creeping up from through the floor. Even though they were going fast, tongues of flame began to appear around the windows, until they overtook them completely and bathed the inside of the craft with orange light as it tried to cook them within.
From the surface, the Capitol Air Force base suddenly spouted a column of hellish fire, clawing its way up towards the sky with black clouds. Then, out of the side of the mushroom cloud, a single craft shot out of the inferno, across the landscape of the Capitol city. Inside, the handful of District fighters yelled with excitement, barely believing they'd come out of it alive.
"Angle around, Keverson, let's head for the District lines." Kyler said, patting the tech expert on the shoulder.
"Yeah, uh, problem there. I've lost some of the thruster control."
"What? How did that happen?"
Kevin thought back to ramming the catwalk. "I have no idea."
"Brace for impact!"
Just as it had suddenly appeared in the skyline, the craft began to plummet down, trailing thick black smoke and disappearing from view over the wooded hills beyond the Capitol's limits. Somewhere, in the midst of the pine trees, they came down with a screech of metal crumpling and throwing up a cloud of splintered wood as it crashed through the trunk of a tree.
For a while, the now dented and soot-covered hovercraft sat silently, smouldering. Then, the busted hatch dropped off, and one by one, the Victors emerged, shaken but alive. There was a saying among District pilots: Any crash you can walk away from, is a good one.
Gathering their weapons and a few supplies from the crashed ship, they started walking back the way they'd come. They’d survived the Hunger Games. They’d escaped the Capitol. There was no way a little hike would stop them now.
Sunrise Over New Panem
If the sunrise was anything to go by, today would be a good day. Oranges and blues had mingled at the edge of the horizon, and now the sun’s rays warmed the asphalt beneath Soldier Silk Denim’s boots. She felt proud to be part of Sergeant York’s squad as they moved up the street, the drill instructor was a legendary soldier, having trained nearly every fighter in District 13.
A day ago, she’d been running for her life to escape the Capitol alongside a handful of other Victors led by a Capitol agent. Not all of them had made it out, but thanks to York and her squad, most had lived to tell the tale. But there had been no rest, the Districts needed everyone they could get in the fight. She’d received no training, but at least she had York to look up to.
“Soldier Denim!” York shouted, her voice strong and loud despite her growing age. “Move up on our left flank, give me a lookout.”
“On it, Sarge!” she called back, and nudged Gillespie, the squad’s radio operator. He was Silk’s fireteam leader, and had a habit of using his radio equipment to listen to music. It was unprofessional and could be dangerous on a battlefield, but the war had ended days ago. Sergeant York’s demolition team was just disarming pods still left in the Capitol’s suburbs.
Gillespie nodded, acknowledging that she was going before returning to his music and marching on. Silk took off at a jog, and started scrambling up the rubble left when the side of a single-story building had collapsed after a mortar shell had hit it.
Only two days ago, Coin had been assassinated by the person who'd most embodied the resistence, Katniss Everdeen. It came as a shock to the resistence fighters, but Silk didn't think much of it. Whoever Coin had been didn't matter now, what did matter was who stepped up to lead, and that they could do the job well.
Reaching the highest part of what was left of the roof, she readied her rifle and used the scope to peer down the street. This part of the suburb was a luxurious place, reserved for only the richest members of the Capitol. Rumor had it that President Snow’s private retreat was out here on the edges of the forest. Silk wondered if they could get the job of checking it, and maybe use it for their own quarters . . .
Something moved. Silk trained her scope on where she’d seen it at the edge of the treeline just as she’d been instructed. She made sure her rifle had a full clip just in case it was a holdout squad of PKs. She’d heard other squads had ran into cells of them, and put them down quickly, but not before taking an equal amount of casualties.
Through the scope, she centered in on one of the targets’ heads. They were moving in a line, and not going for cover. Silk clicked off the rifle’s safety, and then got a clear look at them.
A ragged bunch, looking tired and hungry. One on the end had only one arm, wrapped around his neighbor, whose leg had appeared to be singed. A massive fellow using a spear as a walking stick, between him and a smaller man carried a red-headed woman who was laughing at someone’s joke. On the other end, a woman with a bow was waving, right at her! Silk decided she must have sharp eyes to have spotted her.
“Sarge!” she yelled. “I’ve got contacts. Looks like friendlies.”
“Hold on.” York said over radio, and within a moment had joined Silk on the roof. The Sergeant checked the targets with a pair of binoculars she removed from a leather case sewn on her armor and raised them to her eyes under the brim of her cap.
York’s mouth hung open as she saw who they were. “It’s Teak . . . I’ll be damned, he actually lived through it . . . Gillespie!” she yelled, getting a grip. “Get your ass up here with that radio! Command is gonna want to know about this!”
As the Victors cleared the woods and neared the District fighters coming out to meet them, the weakness of their tired legs faded as they realized they’d done it. They’d defied the will of the Capitol, and not just struck a blow against them, but lived to tell the tale. This was a real Victory.
The uniform of a District soldier was much different than anything the Capitol had dressed their Victors in, Ronda noted. It was less comfortable, more functional and utilitarian. But she felt proud to be wearing it. She fastened the boots, and prepared to leave when her eyes fell on her trident. The reverse point was bronze, coming to an evil point made for piercing bodies and armor.
But she'd taken the life of a soldier. She had to accept that her purpose was war now, too, and had a kindred purpose with this . . . killing tool. After a moment of staring at it, she picked it up, and with a leather strap fastened it across her back, brushing back her red hair after.
"That frogsticker isn't going to do much good in a gun fight."
Ronda spun around, surprised to see Kyler Teak was leaning against the room's doorframe here in what was the headquarters for District 4's new leadership. Recovering, she snapped her feet together with a sharp clack of the boots and stood tall. "Sir!" she shouted, aware now that he held the rank of Lieutenant and now that she had enlisted he was her superior officer.
The Districts had strongly suggested the surviving Victors should join the military, as a show of support, but Ronda was the only one who accepted. The others were done being pushed around by rulers. But Ronda felt a sense of duty toward the new nation. That it needed to be protected. She owed Cinna that much.
Kyler smiled and approached her. "At ease. And don't call me sir. Makes me feel old."
He walked over to a row of rifles stored on the wall, examining and passing over each as he came to it. "You'll want distance between you and any of the Peacekeeper holdouts we've been hearing about north of District 8."
"All the same," she said, "I'd rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it."
"Good answer." He turned away from the weapons and met her gaze. "Of everyone, I have to say I didn't expect you to join the army."
"Someone has to look out for dangers on the outside, and from within." Ronda said, standing tall.
Kyler sighed. Taking a seat on the bench near the row of guns, he said, "Very few things survived the days before the Capitol. Before the damn Games. But one of those that did was an old soldier's motto, from a long-dead language. Semper Fidelis. It means always faithful. Loyalty is one of the qualities of a soldier, but . . ." he paused for a moment, as if searching for the right words. "Do me a favor. Remember what you need to be loyal to. You're a soldier of Panem, but before that, you were and still are a human being. If an order is given that seems wrong to you, it may be for the greater good, but there are times you will need to break the rules to do the right thing. When that day comes . . . don't hesitate."
Ronda nodded. She would not allow the new Panem to become like the old one, and the District army would not be like the cold, mindless Peacekeepers. As long as she lived, that would never happen. "I won't."
"Good." Kyler stood up, his smile returning, although Ronda could see it was forced. "So you're going to become an officer candidate? Next time we meet, I'll probably have to be the one saluting you. Best of luck out there."
He walked to the door, and before he turned it, paused and looked over his shoulder. "May the odds . . ."
"Don't even say it." Ronda said, grinning. Kyler's returned grin was real this time, and he vanished into the hall.
The place hadn't changed much, Kai thought to himself. Gripping his jacket and pulling it tighter to stave off the wind, he kicked a bit of dust and watched the plume rise and fade away. This had been the spot where he won his Games, by killing Saprey Argile not so many years ago.
Old emotional wounds were opening again, and he looked to where not far away his friend Saydee Peterson had been killed by the talons of a muttation. Maybe some of Kyler's cynicism had rubbed off on him, but he was able to keep tears from forming this time he thought of her. It was the first time he'd returned to his Arena, though the now-dead President Snow had often asked him to come back and talk to the camera crews about it. Snow had been evil, but now he thought talking about it might have done him some good.
Behind him was Terra, standing quietly with her own thoughts. Just before this, they'd been to her Arena, and she'd faced her own ghosts. It was time for him to do the same.
Even if ghosts didn't exist, he spoke to the place itself, maybe to his own memories. "I did it. I got even with them for you all. Even Saprey's poor little sister, I made them burn for her. I don't know if you'd want me to keep this place to remember or to have it all forgotten, but destroying it isn't my choice anyway, but I'll remember it, and every one of you all the same."
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and clasped Terra's hand with his own. The Arena he'd killed in would someday be destroyed, to make way for some new city or other trapping of civilization. And with it, the memories would go to remain in history books, nothing physical to attest to the pain. The wounds would heal with time. But just for a little while, it would be best to remember.
"Kevin's got the ship waiting. Do you want to leave now?" Terra asked.
"No . . . I'm going to wander a while. Maybe a few hours."
Terra understood. She let her hand slip off his shoulder and let him go.
Kai wouldn't let his silence trouble her. "I'll be back for lunch, okay? Don't let Kevin eat everything."
He wandered off to rediscover, remember. To return.
Look to the Future
Kipcha Pryor walked through the halls of a new building in District 5. It was their new Justice Building, although that was a temporary name for it. She didn't want to be reminded of the whippings that had taken place on the steps of the old one. Those would never happen again.
No one had been more surprised than Kipcha when she was elected District 5's leader. She wasn't sure she was or ever would be ready for it, but when she had told that to Kai, he'd said that meant she was prepared for it.
It didn't quite make sense to her, but she'd accepted the position and gone straight to working on rebuilding the District. It made sense as a first step, so maybe she would do a good job of it after all.
A door opened before her, and she found herself in the center of the circular building. The middle section had been turned into a garden, with no ceiling the sunlight filtered down uninterrupted.
Before her stood President Paylor, the former leader of District 8 and now of all Panem, Plutarch Heavensby, a rebel hero, and Kyler Teak. Kipcha admired Paylor's confidence, it made her a good leader for Panem. She was a strong leader, promoting unity to overcome the challenges ahead, but was kind and fair when dealing with individuals. Plutarch didn't impress her with his fancy clothing and Capitol tastes, but he'd done enough to prove himself even before the rebellion. She was still making up her mind about Kyler.
"Keverson did a good job designing this place. Where is he?" Paylor said, admiring a flowering shrub.
"Somewhere with Kai and Terra." she answered. "He's earned a bit of vacation. He's worked almost nonstop on designing the new leadership buildings."
Plutarch nodded. "The whole of District 3 could use a break. The entire population just leaped at the challenge of rebuilding. In fact, I think all of Panem could do with a few days rest."
As he went on, Kyler quietly mentioned to her, "You're not wearing the official's robes they wanted you to . . . and you still carry that sword?"
"Old habits die hard." she answered. It was a symbol to her, a reminder of the past, both hers and all Panem's.
Plutarch and Paylor turned back to them, smiling pleasantly. "We know it's a few weeks late, but we think a celebration should be planned across Panem for the day we earned our freedom. What to call the festivities or what to do, we don't know yet, but we were hoping you might begin planning for District 5 on your own."
It was a good idea. For more than a month, everyone had been working on tearing down symbols of the Capitol and fixing the damage their bombs had caused. A day off was well needed.
"Call District 11. We'll need a lot of food."
Plutarch laughed. "Yes, I think there's enough left in the Capitol storehouses to help with that. Best of luck, Governor Pryor."
"Governor?" Kipcha asked, raising an eyebrow.
Plutarch frowned. "No? Well, we're trying to figure out names for everything, if not that we'll find something else."
The President walked for the door to meet a hovercraft outside, with Plutarch right behind. Kyler shrugged. "I'm going to grab lunch and head for District 12."
"You're not going with Paylor?" Kipcha asked.
"The communication lines are still down. They need messengers, and I've got plenty of experience. Best of luck, District 5."
Kipcha let him go, and looked to an empty firepit in the middle of the garden's cobblestone path. The storm had passed over Panem. From the ashes now, they would rise as phoenixes.
Enjoy the Present
Much of District 7 had been ravaged by the war that had gone on in its core. People had lost much more than just their homes there, but the forests had remained untouched. Terra was glad of that.
The trees meant something to her. They were a place of shelter, somewhere the Capitol would never touch. They hadn't even in the war. It was peaceful.
Terra knew the future would hold a lot of effort in rebuilding, and maybe someday war again. Humans learned quickly, but the one lesson they couldn't seem to grasp was that there was no glory in war.
But for the moment, Panem was done with battle. Terra started running into the cool undergrowth, where sunlight dappled the forest floor. She'd always liked to run.