Welcome everyone to my tenth entry in my Hunger Games series! In my last games, The 400th Annual Hunger Games, Caspian Mahoney from District 3 and created by Can't Think on a Decent Username Right Now was crowned victor. These will not be a normal Games, but read on to learn more.
After the events of the 400th Annual Hunger Games, Panem has been thrust into a war between the Capitol and a mysterious organization known as Those Who Don't Exist. Now embroiled in a costly and bloody battle, the District's and their residents must fight to survive...and determine the fate of world along the way.
Unlike all of my past Games, which have taken place in and around the Hunger Games, this blog will not focus on or even contain the Hunger Games. Instead, it will focus on the war currently engulfing the country. As such, the characters involved will not be tributes, but rather people spread out across the District's and the Capitol. Where exactly they start will be decided upon by the individual in question and their backstory. I plan on taking a more novel-like approach with these and I hope everyone enjoys it.
1: There will be thirty-two characters originally, but if these spots are taken then more may be added
2: You may have up to two characters (number may change)
3: The District and gender of your character does not matter. They may be from any District and of any gender. There are no limitations on either District or gender
4: These will not be a typical Games. In fact, they will not be a Games at all.
5: I will not accept any characters that have been in my previous Games
6: Reservations last 48 hours (In certain cases this may be extended. As there is no hard character limit, this rule does not matter as much as in past Games)
7: Characters may not appear right away. As they are not in a Hunger Games, everyone is not in a central area and are instead spread out across the country. It will take some time for them all to show up in the story
8: Submitted characters will be PoV characters (as in all my other Games)
9: Because of the size of these, I anticipate it will take a long time for them to finish. If you're not comfortable joining a blog that will last many months than I'd advise you refrain from joining
10: Character Form:
Allegiance: (either Capitol, Rebel, or Neutral)
(Note: As mentioned above, the District and gender of your character does not matter. They may be from any District and of any gender. There are no limitations on either District or gender. The spots on the chart are merely placeholder)
|Capitol||Male||Surorian Chaos||18||6'4||Chakram, Axe||SirEatALotisk|
|Capitol||Male||Giorno Giovanna||18||5'10||Fist, Scythe||Skrillisdroppin|
|Capitol||Female||Pandora Stryker||21||5'7||Throwing Knives, Sword||Aerialchinook|
|Capitol||Female||Bridget Idylwyld||18||5'9||Chain Whip||The Symphonic Taco|
|0||Male||Topher Celene||17||5'9||Cleaver||Zephyr the Exalted|
|1||Female||Valencia Sonar||18||5'5||Javelin, Whip||The Symphonic Taco|
|2||Male||Tate Lockwood||18||6'3||Sword, Hands||BaconCandian|
|2||Female||Bridgette Wells||17||5'8||Mace, Spear||That1Girl|
|2||Female||Amberly Kamber||19||5'9||Shotgun, Sword||The Wayward Daughter|
|2||Female||Harley Paramour||18||5'9||Hammer, Knife||Wolfgirl23|
|2||Female||Kanani Alsia||17||6'0||Spear, Machete||Kaeghan-is-a-tribute|
|3||Female||Camilla Vause||20||6'2||Knife, Walther P99||mistymolla|
|3||Female||Jayda Idylwyld||17||5'9||Axe||The Targaryen of District|
|3||Female||Marcella Brynlee||17||5'7||Katana, Knife||FrostyFire|
|3||Female||Anna Hastings||17||5'9||Wire, Knife||Bacon Canadian|
|3||Male||Newt Scamander||17||6'2||Shuriken, Poison||The Waywayd Daughter|
|3||Male||Teddy Bridges||15||5'5||Shuriken, Trident||Redhairblueyes|
|5||Male||Stewart McKellun||15||5'10||Throwing Knives, Traps||Summer Salmon|
|5||Female||Safara Froste||23||5'8||Dagger, Poison||Hicaterpillars!!|
|5||Female||Corin Greer||15||5'8||Sword, Knife||Enraptured Misfit|
|6||Female||Lavender Morton||16||5'7||Sword, Knife||Biel1458|
|6||Male||Rockkit Turbine||34||6'3||Shotgun, Medieval||Mistfire333|
|7||Male||Finale Spectrus||14||5'11||Knife, Rifle||Mistfire333|
|8||Female||Amaranth Darner||32||5'4||Rolling Pin||PerniciousFabrication|
|8||Male||Oxford Roope||17||5'10||Bow, Knife||Biel1458|
|9||Male||Quentin Ryes||16||5'9||Scythe, Flail||Enraptured Misfit|
|9||Female||Cheyanne Violanta||12||???||Bow, Spear||Skrilliadroppin|
|9||Female||Hazel Maize||14||5'2||Sickle, Knife||Summer Salmon|
|10||Male||Kane Brunus||20||6'4||P90, Combat Dagger, Colt .357 Magnum||Summer Salmon|
|10||Male||Butch ConCarne||20||6'2||P90, Knives||Mistfire333|
|10||Female||Mable Winslet||32||5'6||Butcher knife, Dagger||Aerialchinook|
|11||Female||Taligelia Rendervault||16||5'5||Spear, Knife||The Targaryen of District|
|12||Male||Brandon Corringham||12||5'0||Hands, Knife||That1Girl|
|12||Male||Hemsway Jr. Shirelale||15||5'8||Whip||SwimmingLion|
|13||Male||Esther Xavi||23||5'6||Pistol, Knives||~Ms.GlitterDay~|
|13||Male||Garrick Hillary||24||6'2||Throwing Axe, M1911 pistol||Zephyr the Exalted|
|13||Male||Corbin Mallory||17||6'2||Garrote, Rapier||Wolfgirl23|
|14||Male||Altur Lysander||34||6'0||Power, Fear||Bacon Canadian|
|14||Male||Caesar Sharpclaw||15||5'7||Teeth, Claws||SirEatALotIsk|
Capitol Supporters: Surorian (C), Pandora (C), Bridget (C), Hope (0), Kane (1), Valencia (1), Marcella (7), Verena (8), Oxford (8), Hemsway (11), & Altur (14)
Rebel Supporters: Giorno (C), Cara (1), Tate (2), Harley (2), Bridgette (2), Teddy (3), Newt (3), Jayda (3), Camilla (3), Tabitha (4), Stewart (5), Safara (5), Rockitt (6), Lavender (6), Oxon (7), Theodore (7), Lola (7), Aster (8), Amaranth (8), Hazel (9), Taligelia (11), Garrick (13), Esther (13), & Mateo (14)
Neutrals: Topher (0), Kanani (2), Amberly (2), Marcella (3), Armado (6), Morina (6), Finale (7), Mable (10), Zamara (11), Brandon (12), & Corbin (13)
Mutt Army: Caesar (14)
Those Who Don't Exist: Whisp (14)
Sheltered from the war by its vast distance from the other District's and the harsh elements that constantly surround it, District 0 has seen very little destruction or action. Yet to be attacked by Those Who Don't Exist and not yet having experienced a rebel uprising, District 0 is safely secured in the Capitol's hands. How long this will last, especially with the Capitol focusing it's defensive efforts on other Districts, is yet to be seen.
With District 1 being located within the protective ring of District's that surrounds the Capitol and being one of it's biggest supporters, it is safely in possession of the Capitol. It has yet to be attacked by either TWDE or Rebels.
Perhaps the biggest supporter of the Capitol, District 2 is in no danger of hosting a rebellion anytime soon. It is one of the closest District's to the Capitol in terms of location, and contains many of it's soldiers and weapon caches. District 2 seems poised to fight for the Capitol to the very end.
Filled with factories of all sorts and host to an aggravated population, it was only a matter of time before District 3 was the sight of massive warfare. With Rebels, TWDE, and the Capitol all vying for control of the all-important weapon factories, District 3 has become a sight of constant warfare, and shelling of the District has become a daily occurrence.
A so-called "Career District", District 4 was originally allied with the Capitol, favouring it's policies and authority. However, a rapid Rebel force attacked the District early on in the war and the populace began to shift in opinion. But before any large change was made, a TWDE naval force invaded from the sea, overwhelming all opposition. Currently, all word has stopped coming from the District.
Being the center of The Capitol's electrical pipeline, and home to several nuclear power plants, District 5 has been heavily fortified by the Capitol, who are afraid of losing the invaluable plants located there. While TWDE have yet to touch the District, several Rebel factions have been operating covert missions for some time. However, the District currently remains in Capitol possession.
With it's massive population and rampant rebel forces, District 6 has proven nearly impossible for the Capitol to keep secure. They have long since chosen to neglect any attempts to retake the District, and have instead opted to try and assail the TWDE and rebel forces duking it out. Constant warfare is waged around the District, bringing death and misery to it's large populace.
District 7 fell from the Capitol's grasp the very night the war began, after being blitzed by a large contingent of TWDE soldiers. No word has left the confines of the District since, and all missing Capitol soldiers and citizens located there have been declared deceased.
While bearing very little strategic or logistical importance, District 8 has become the sight of bloody warfare. The Capitol focuses less effort here then in other District's, yet they are loathe to just abandon it completely. Rebel forces, however, have made great pains to try and secure the District. The seizure of any District, no matter the importance, is a win in their book. TWDE, meanwhile, fights to control the District for their own mysterious ends.
Holding an absolute hatred of the Capitol and their Hunger Games, District 9 is home to, perhaps, the largest contingent of rebellion supporters, save for District 11. The Capitol lost their foothold in the District very early, and have struggled in making any military advances through the large rural District, thanks to the rebels guerilla tactics. As it is a buffer between the Capitol's protective ring and the outlying District's, it is an important strategic position. TWDE however, have largely ignored the District.
District 10 holds many advantages, with its large livestock population and railroads leading towards the eastern District's. Thus, the District has been host to many chaotic and bloody battles, with each of the three sides trying desperately to wrest control of the District from their enemies. However, none have yet to succeed, and the District remains in chaos.
Rising up against their oppressors, District 11 was one of the very first District's to be taken by the Rebel forces. Led by an enigmatic leader, Commander Korus, the rebellion houses their base of operations inside this District, plotting their war plans as they try to secure the country for the good of all District citizens. The Capitol has yet to attack the District in any meaningful capacity, and TWDE have not been sighted within its borders.
While technically still controlled by the Capitol, everyone knows that this will not last for long. Peacekeepers have already received orders to pull out, burning any important supply caches that may be used against them along the way. Rebel forces march upon the District, led by a successful leader. However, they are not the only ones with their eyes set on the District. TWDE loom on the horizon, their dark cloaks flapping in the wind as they stare down from the sky with their sightless masks....
One of the two District's blitzed by TWDE the night the war started, District 13 has been an empty husk ever since. Capitol reconnaissance and aerial scans show no sign of life inside the District's cities. While the meaning of this is not clear, Capitol surveillance suspects that the vast stretches of tunnels hidden beneath the District are being employed by TWDE. What happened to the citizens of the District remains unknown.
It's healthy distance from the rest of Panem has given District 14 the luck of avoiding any and all battles that currently plague the mainland, especially with the citizenry being heavily suppressed by their Mayor. That being said, District 14 is not without it's share of problems. Rumors of packs of roaming mutts have begun to spring up, and reports of a strange fleet of ships gathering on the horizon abound.
The very seat of President Stryker's power, the Capitol is currently secured in its high mountain home. The protection and barriers erected around the mountains are stronger then they have ever been before, and an enormous wall, rumoured to be over one thousand feet high, has been in place ever since the death of Dolan Stryker. Merely gaining access to the Capitol, let alone attacking it, seems nigh impossible.
I lay in a jumble of limbs and skin, not that I knew it, I am just another fragment of the landscape. A surface of khaki and blood surrounds the shore, clouded a dusky pink ocean where a ship sat deserted and alone. Sand gatherings are sleek as they followed the wind and flustering specs as sharp as glass, were deciding where to settle, inspecting every body, joining them for a while, but will soon be gone.
Now my clothes are crusted with blood. A gunshot so neat can rip through your body; like a mole it burrow's within the depths of flesh, blood and bone, stopping at nothing to pass to the other side. A gunshot so destructive, can take no longer than a fraction of a millisecond, to puncture your heart, to suck the air from your lungs and leave the blood to empty your veins hour after hour. Hour after hour...its time to bleed. I can no longer feel the bitter sting of open sand on my wounds, nor the suffocating tunnel carved by the bullet, still seeping blood. All I can feel is one large general ache, the fact that I'm still alive, feels inadequate. Suppose I should be thankful they used a standard ballistic bullet. Can only imagine what would have happened if they had shot me with their pulse weapons.
I feel like a tap that has been left on, waiting for my life to be effortlessly cut off. The taste of the fluids dripping from my face is recognizable. I'm drowning in my own blood, sweat, and tears.
I let out a low moan as I lie here on the sand, surrounded by my dead comrades. Why had I chosen to join this battle? This war did not need to be mine. I should have just allowed them to win. They're going to win, regardless of my input. Why had I not stayed away?
I try to lift myself up but fall back onto the bloodstained sand with a groan. I am not strong enough to move. Not strong enough to keep myself alive.
I will not just lie here and die. I refuse! Taking a deep breath, I try to muster the last of my strength. I'll need every ounce of it to stand, to get away. But get away where? Cross that bridge when you reach it. A voice tells me. Concentrate on getting yourself up.
Moving myself is hard. Everything hurts. Aches. Black dots buzz around my vision as I strain with effort, trying to pull myself up to no avail. I fall back onto the sand over three times, losing precious energy with each failure. I cannot afford that. Cannot afford to lose any more. The sand is soft against my head, inviting. If only I could sleep...Then the pain would go away.
No. Keep fighting. Don't give up.
With one massive push I try again. Straining with effort, muscles screaming in agony, body tearing itself apart. It feels like I'm about to fall to pieces when my body lifts itself up and I find myself on my feet.
I nearly laugh with hysteria. I'm free from the shackles of the earth! I am free, freed into what? I'm stumped between a prison and a mass grave that was once a beach. Everything around me is death, leads to death or inspires it. Ghoulish faces look at me from all around, but with no expression. Their features lie beneath the murky layer of dust and dirt.
One who is settled very close to me, has deep red stains all around his mouth and nose, it is possible to see the dried out tracks where blood had quickly escaped through his lips and nostrils, and even faint fingerprints where he must have rapidly checked the bleeding. He had been shot only once, in his neck, one move for one life and that touching of his face was likely to be the last move he ever made.
I will not let that happen to me. I refuse to die out here.
I stumble over the crimson sand, nearly tripping several times over the scattered bodies of my allies. That would be bad. I don't think I have the strength to get up again. Barely have the strength to walk. On one side I'm surrounded by the ocean, glistening pink from the rising sunlight and streaming blood. On the other, there's a long, cobbled wall that stretches across the coastline. The checkpoint we were meant to guard.
I laugh darkly as I realize we never stood a chance. Weren't supposed to have a chance. We only meant to slow them down, delay them while the others went about securing and defending the District. Well, we did that. We slowed those bastards down alright.
The wall looms closer as I stagger towards it, holding a hand against my gut to keep my insides in. Perhaps there's some medicine left inside the keep. Maybe a friend. Surely I can't be the only one to have survived?
The wall is high, twenty-five feet in the air. Turret nests and sniper holes line the ramparts. Along with corpses and the crows that surround them. I tear my gaze away, fearful that I will face the same fate.
My fear turns to despair when I see it. The main gate, the entrance to the keep, is bolted shut. A large, metal gray shutter is tightly pressed shut. It's slightly scorched black and is riddled with bullet holes, yet otherwise it is perfectly intact. It echoes and clangs as I slam my fists against it, desperately trying to knock it down.
But it's too strong for that.
I lean my back against the door and slide to the ground, weeping bitterly. Accessing the keep was my only chance. Now my death is assured.
Why did it have to be shut? How is it shut? Didn't the enemy have to open it? Wait, no. They didn't. They probably went over it. Only had to destroy the anti-aircraft guns to allow their aircrafts safe passage. Their ancillary force probably scaled the wall with their damned boots. Now they must be marching on the District, slaying any opposition they encounter along the way, burning innocents homes and destroying their livelihoods.
I feel sick.
Weaker than I have ever been before, I lie my head back and shut my eyes. I hope I can find some peace and quiet. That's all I want. Peace...and quiet.
My hand brushes against something hard and immediately my eyes flicker open. It's a clasp, a lock for the shutter. It's what's preventing the door from opening, preventing my escape. It's my enemy.
I fall upon it with my bare hands, trying to rip it open or tear it off. But it's hard, cold metal and my hands are useless. So I draw a knife from my belt, the only weapon I have left. I stick the blade into the latch and try to unlock it. Jiggle it around, shake it.
It doesn't work.
I moan and drop my efforts. The wound in my body is growing worse by the second. I will not be able to keep going for long. But...but...
I grab a nearby rock, settling in the sand. It's tan and brown and the size of my palm. I smash it against the clasp, smash it into the one thing impeding my progress with as much force I can muster. One strike, two strikes, three. I beat it against the latch until I have no more strength, when the rock drops from my hand and rolls across the desolate beach. Then, when I look at the clatch, I find it broken.
Now the door will open. Must open. Only, will I have enough strength for it? I edge my chest against the shutter wall, pushing with my back muscles as I strain my legs to curl and stand, fingers reaching under the shutter and lifting. It's painful and slow, but in time I get the shutter to move. Slowly. So very slowly. It doesn't want to open, but it must.
Again, the shutter doors must open, the jagged edge is now broken. A great weight lifts off my mind when the entrance is clear. The gate is now satisfactory and lifts quite swiftly. A gasp mixed with pain and laughter slips from my lips as I stumble into the cool shade of the keep, falling almost immediately on the cold, wooden floor.
I land beside the stiff, uniformed body of my dead comrade. A hole has been torn through his chest, straight through the bone. His blood is black and thick as tar where it crusts around the gap left by one of their accursed plasmic weapons. The sour scent of death reaching my nose, tells me that no one has escaped death here. Painfully lifting my head up, I can spot two more of my dead comrades slumped over against the rectangular plastic table where we had our meals. Now it is stained with crimson blood.
Doubt that I will find anything useful clouds my misty mind. I'm too tired to stand up again. I just want to lie here and rest...
Minutes pass. I don't know how many. I don't keep count. I just lie on the hardwood floor, watching the cheaply painted ceiling, spotting where flakes have begun to chip away. I'm content to just lie here and pass into legend. Then I think of my family back in the District. They need me. I can't give up.
Once more I force myself to stand, making use of a nearby chair and using the corpse of my dead comrade to prop myself up. The air is cool and damp, unlike that of outside. It lends me some energy as I throw my torso onto the table, spitting in disgust as my face lands in a warm and sticky pool of blood.
I'm surprised that I haven't yet died from bloodloss. Still, there is plenty of time for that.
The kitchen I find myself in is simple fare, large enough only for the plastic table, a wood fuelled stove, counters, and the multitude of cupboards that lined the wall. On the stove rests a teapot, as if the attack came while someone was preparing for a cup. I glance at the two rickety chairs that surround the table, each laden with a corpse. It was probably one of them.
Too exhausted to search the cupboards for medical supplies, I let myself wonder how the attackers got inside. The shutter was shut tight. How did they get in? My eyes wander over the room with no answer. Then I see the door to the hall, blasted off it's hinges and thrown to the side.
I stumble over fragments of broken wood and loose bricks, entering the hall and peering up. A large circular hole rests in the ceiling, shining bright sunlight down into the normally dim hall.
They came from the roof. Of course.
I ransack the keep afterwards, slowly shambling from cupboard to cupboard. But I find no medicine. Nothing that will help me. Feeling dizzy and extremely light-headed, I rush for the exit. Going through twisting halls and spiralling rooms. All filled with signs of battle. With bodies of my friends. Twice I nearly slip in slick pools of blood, once I jam my toe against the eviscerated torso of a comrade. The enemy was thorough with their job.
Eventually I find myself on the opposite side of the keep, stumbling out a doorway nearly identical to the one I entered through. Only, this one's shutter has been blasted down. It's only a twisted hunk of metal glistening in the sun as I step over it and entered the canyon that we fought so hard to protect.
Cliffs rise high on each side, shielding the old, battered dirt road that winds it's way east for over twenty kilometres before arriving at the District. I remember it as a peaceful, beautiful sight. But now it is anything but. Bodies are strewn across the road, burnt husks of half-racks and APC's still smouldering as they lie abandoned along the road. I limp past this carnage, desperately hoping that a friendly patrol will find me. But I know that will not happen: all allied forces are at the District, fending off those fiends as they attempt to lay waste to my home. No one will find me.
I trip and fall. This time I know there will be no getting up.
Several other bodies lie close to my own. Looking at them, my gaze now meets that of another pair of eyes drained of all emotion. I stare at him. I want him to look unhappy, I want to feel sympathy, but it looks at me with pride, it had died in honour, it had done his duty, so nothing mattered. I reach out and gently pull his eyelids over those misty orbs. He is at peace. I look over him towards the admirable surroundings, where I always wanted to come, huge cliffs tower above me, crowned with beautiful plants, the vague outlines of which I see swaying, almost dancing beneath the beautiful sunlight. The sun had done nothing but added to my pain, but the sky now glows with it, its rich blue tones comforting me.
My family will be safe. My comrades will protect them. I need not worry, need not despair. Though I will die here, my family will be safe. I can trust in that. Trust in the ideal all Peacekeepers strive for. Trust in the Capitol.
My tenure as a Peacekeeper will end here, after only three months.
A figure suddenly appears atop the cliffs. It stops on the edge, staring down into the road with that evil, blank mask. Long, dark cloak billowing in the wind. It looks so smug, so secure. I hate it. I hate that monster and all its allies. My friends are dead because of them, my District will burn because of them. My family's lives our at stake because of them.
Those Who Don't Exist have destroyed my world.
My head slumps back to the ground, all my strength leaving me. Though I will die here, I have done well. This I knew as I released my thoughts into the cloudless sky, where I stayed, until the end.
Part 1: This War of Ours
Blade Spectrus (Location Unknown)
When I first discovered I was free from the Hunger Games, I never imagined that I would spend the next month trapped inside an entirely white room.
I lie flat on my bed in the corner of the small windowless room. The mattress is white. The sheets are white. They match the walls and ceiling, the floor and door. It never opens. Occasionally, three times a day, a tray with food will pass underneath through a small slot. They never speak as they give me my food, never give any sign of life.
I'm completely isolated.
It's been four weeks, a full month, since I first woke up in this small room. I might actually have been here longer, depending on how long I was unconscious. Also, I have no real way of tracking time. No watch, no clock, no sun. I reley purely on my own instincts, on how much time I believe is passing. The blinking, piss-pale fluorescent light that illuminates the room never turns off. I sleep only when I feel tired. The meals help, at least. They always come at the same exact time everyday, and I've long since begun to base my schedule around them.
All in all, I think I'm managing to keep a firm hold on my sanity. Though the whiteness threatens that. The terrible, all-pervading, whiteness. It's everywhere. Even on the small, steel toilet in the corner and the large table that takes up majority of the rooms open space. The table is weird. My only use for it is eating my meals, sitting on the similarly white chair provided.
See? The white is everywhere!
I like to close my eyes and just lie on the bed. I find respite from the whiteness there. I find calm in the endless black of my eyelids and the writhing memories of the arena. Alone, in endless silence and with unlimited time on my hands, I spend a lot of energy thinking back on the events that led me here.
I still remember the angry despair I felt when Daisy and Solar left me alone. My leg was searing with tremendous pain, despite the antidote I had just injected myself with. I could barely walk, let alone fight. When the tremors struck the arena, and gigantic holes began forming all around me, I thought that my death was assured.
Yet somehow I escaped. I avoided the gaping chasms, the pulsating steam vents. I hid myself amongst the boroughs of a felled tree when those cannons rang throughout the arena, signalling that just about everyone was dead. Then the sky exploded with dazzling light and I was more confused then ever before.
That's when they came.
Wearing black cloaks and strange masks, they approached me quietly and without warning. I tried to fight them off, but I didn't have the strength or even the willpower. They swiftly took me down and, right before pumping a cold liquid into my veins, told me that I was now safe and that the Hunger Games were over for good. Then I blacked out. When I woke up, I was here, in the white room. With my leg completely healed and a dull, throbbing ache in my head. An ache that persisted for several weeks, only now fading away...
I squint my eyes open and the mocking glint of the white ceiling stares back at me. I hate the white. Hate how it continually surrounds me. I hate it just as much as I hate those cloaked people who locked me in here. Why? What purpose does it serve? They told me I was safe. They told me that the Games were over. Well, if they're over, then what am I playing now?
"You lied to me!" I scream without warning, my anguished shout echoing around the padded white walls and bouncing right back to me. The whiteness stares back at me, uncaring and unaffected. The door remains shut.
Sighing with a mix of rage and exasperation, I roll off my bed and begin to do push-ups. I exercise every day. I don't know why. It's just a desire lingering in the back of my head, a desire to keep myself fit and in perfect shape. There's nothing else to do. So why not improve my body?
After thirty minutes of the push-ups I switch to do doing crunches. I'm improving. When I first started exercising, I couldn't go for more than five minutes without feeling like I'm about to throw up. Now, I feel like I have boundless energy.
Every time I lift my head, I stare hopelessly at the door. Some day it will open, I know. Not by my hands though. I've already tried opening it countless times to no avail. No. It will open on its own accord, on its own time.
I exercise in silence. Only the sound of myself grunting fills the white room. Maybe that's why I'm exercising. So that I will be prepared when the door finally does open. When it opens, I'm certain that nothing good will be heading my way. Why else would I be trapped in this room? But also...if these people meant me harm, then why heal me? Why rescue me? They could have left me to die in the arena, but they didn't. Why?
When that door opens, I mean to find out.
This is how I spend my days. Eating, sleeping, exercising. There is nothing else to do. I continually think about the Games, about the dead brothers I have left behind. The Capitol has claimed everything I have ever known, destroyed all I've held dear. They've killed my entire family. How many Spectri are left? I don't think there's any, other than myself. It's a sad, pitiful thought. My family was once so large and full of vitality and now...Now the Capital has destroyed them.
They will pay. I swear it. When I get out of here, when I escape from this endless white room, I will make the Capitol pay for all they have done to me. And just as I finish thinking this, the door opens.
It swings inwards, letting out a brief puff of air. I scrabble to my feet, out of breath from my exercising and the sudden sthock of the opening door. Then someone else is inside the room with me, and its not who I expected.
It's a young woman, dressed entirely in white and looking vaguely like a nurse. Her shimmering blonde hair is tied up neatly behind her head, her sparkling blue eyes glint playfully as they gaze at me. A folded sheet of paper is tucked beneath her arm. Small, slender hands grip the edge of a chair as she pull it out and sits at the table. She turns and smiles at me. "Hello, Blade."
"Who are you?" It's been so long since I've spoken aloud that I'm actually surprised by the sound of my own voice. For a short moment I stand silent, then I quickly get out of this stupor and a flood of questions come rushing from my mind. "Why am I here? Is this the Capitol? What do you want from me? Why--"
The woman makes a small noise and raises a hand. "Please, Blade. I promise that I will answer all of your questions, but I cannot answer them all at once." She flashes me a patient smile. "So calm down, okay?"
Her voice is so soft and soothing that I actually fall silent. But the gears in my head continue to churn. What if this is an elaborate ruse to get me off my guard? Send this woman in to try and unsettle me, make me less careful. Well, it's not going to work!
"You don't have to look so suspicious," The woman smiles. Her eyes still shine with that playfulness. "No one is going to hurt you. You're among friends here."
I raise a questionable eyebrow. "Oh yeah? Where is "here" exactly?" I'm not expecting an answer, so I'm surprised when the woman dips her head and gives me just that.
"We're in The Tower."
Okay. Not expecting that answer. What does it even mean? "The Tower?" I blurt out, pacing back and forth in the small white room. "What's that? Where is that?"
"First things first. Won't you sit down?" She gestures at the empty chair across from her. "It must be better than all that pacing."
"I like pacing." Still, I take her advice and sit down in the chair, mind still whirling. It feels weird to be sitting at a small plastic table with this strange woman, like we're having a nice little chat about nothing more important than the weather.
"Thank you, Blade." She smiles at me once more. She likes smiling. I cross my arms and lean back in my chair. I want to take control of this conversation. I want to have control of something at least. I'm well aware that I'm at the mercy of this woman and the white room. The woman nods. "You may ask me anything you wish."
"You haven't told me your name," I say after a moment of silence. Best to start simple.
"It's Palutena." She answers almost immediately.
"Okay, good to know." I stall for time as my mind tries to figure out which of the hundreds of questions I have to ask next. I finally decide. "Who are you? Like, who were those masked people who took me from the arena?" And why? I don't say that aloud, remembering what she said about too many questions at once.
"We are Those Who Don't Exist," The woman's smile fades as her eyes lock onto mine. "And we're going to destroy the Capitol."
I nearly fall out of my chair, I'm so surprised that sudden declaration. Destroy the Capitol? Hell yeah! That's an objective I can get behind! But a small voice in the back of my head tells me not to be too trusting. I've been tricked too many times to just believe everything Palutena tells me.
"Why should I believe you?" I voice my doubts aloud. "Yeah, you pulled me from the arena, but how do I know that this wasn't exactly what the Capitol was planning?"
A small smiles plays on Palutena's ruby lips. "What does your mind tell you?"
"It..." What does it tell me? My first reaction when she told me that she wanted the Capitol destroyed was exhilaration, but then I realized how easily they could be tricking me... They trapped me in this room for a month. A month with no contact with the outside world. But they also healed my leg..."It doesn't know," I admit, staring down into the desk. "It doesn't know what to think."
"A reasonable answer," Palutena nods. "Very reasonable. But if you wondering whether or not we were lying or tricking you, read this." She takes the folded paper and slides it across the table to me. I pick it up, wondering what it could possibly be.
"What is this?" I ask as I unfold it. It looks like a pamphlet advertising the 400th Games and showing....showing the final placements. My eyes widen as they slide down the page, reading the listings. Day one, two, three, all the way to day eight. That's where I find it, listed at finishing in fourth place.
I stare at it in blank silence for several long minutes, not believing what I'm seeing. According to this, I was killed right before the finale by falling into a massive chasm. But...but that doesn't make any sense. I didn't die...
"The Capitol had to fake your death," Palutena speaks quietly. Her face is tight and quiet, eyes focused on my expression. "They needed to have something to explain your disappearance before the District's got riled up. Not that it mattered. Our invasion began right after the Games ended."
"What?!" If I was surprised before, I'm utterly shocked now. Invasion? Of Panem?! That seals it. In no way can this group--Those Who Don't Exist, I think Palutena said--can be associated with the Capitol. But that doesn't resolve them of all wrongdoing. "Why the hell did you keep me trapped in this white room for a month?"
Palutena smiles. It's something she does a lot apparently and it can get very aggravating. "You didn't know it, but upon your revival the Capitol implanted a device in your head." Instinctively my hands fly to my head, feel the shape of my skull for any weird lumps or anything else abnormal. Palutena laughs lightly. "Don't worry, it's not in there anymore. We had it removed. That's why you had to be locked in heere, by the way."
I frown. "Why? What could...this device do?" A strange feeling has begun to swell in me. One of fear and confusion. I don't like the thought of the Capitol messing around inside my head, fiddling with my brain.
"It could read your thoughts, for one thing." I freeze where I sit. A cold chill runs down the length of my spine. If the Capitol could read my mind...Frantically I try to remember everything I've ever thought. Try to remember all the things I've thought about the Capitol. All the hate. All the vitriol. They could hear it all. Suddenly I feel very weak.
"They could read my mind?" I croak out in a small voice. Palutena nods seriously.
"Yes. This device also allowed them to disrupt thought patterns and we believe they may have possessed the ability to eliminate thoughts as well." I can feel the color drain from my face. A suddden weariness has overtaken me and I slump back into my chair. What kind of power does the Capitol possess? I never would have thought them capable of this!
Palutena must see the stress on my face, for she offers a reassuring smile. "Don't worry. We've already removed the device. Your mind should be completely private now."
"Uh...thanks?" The thought of her poking around inside my head, digging for a strange device buried deep within, does little to quell my uneasiness. Now that I think about, maybe this is why my head has been throbbing so much. I decide to bring this up to Palutena and she nods.
"Yes. You have been feeling the aftereffects of the surgery for the past few weeks. Sounds and colors would have further aggravated it. That's partly why we kept you locked in here.
"Well, yes." She frowns, as if unsure on how to go on. I motion with my hands that I want an answer, so she smiles politely and goes on. "You see, this type of surgery has never been done before. It was entirely possible that we would fail, and in that event we wanted to make sure that you were kept somewhere secure. Somewhere you couldn't get any information that the Capital could use against us."
I understand now. They kept me isolated from the rest of this "Tower" so that the Capitol, if they could still read my mind, wouldn't be able to see anything but this white room. Smart.
"But the device is gone, right?" I want to be very clear on this subject. The thought of my mind being read...it just gives me the willies.
Palutena nods. "Correct. The device has been removed without incident."
I squeeze my eyes shut tight. This little conversation has proven more useful then I thought it would be. I've actually gotten some answers. But not all of them. Not yet.
"You mentioned an invasion," I begin carefully. Already I'm trying to piece together the information presented to me. "Is your group, Those whatters, invading Panem? Do you have an army?"
Yet another smiles crosses Palutena's face. "Yes. We do. Why do you ask?"
I push my chair away from the table, standing. I've only put a little bit of thought into this, but it is what I've been striving for. An opportunity to do what I was just silently promising myself. "Does this group plan on destroying the Capitol?" I ask, pacing across the small confines of the room. I'm thinking of my family now, how they have suffered at the Capitol's hands.
Palutena nods. "It does."
I turn, slamming my hands down onto the table. I stare across it, stare right into this mysterious woman's eyes. "Then let me join you."
She smiles. "Of course, Blade. Of course you can join us in battle. That's why we brought you here, after all."
Blade Spectrus (The Tower)
Palutena smiles as she rises from the table, extending a hand towards the closed door.
"Wait!" I scramble out of my chair and to my feet, suddenly terrified of being left alone in this horrible white room. "Where are you going?"
She turns, a frown on her face. "We are going to meet up with the rest of the rescued tributes."
"The...rest of them...?" It may be an indictment on myself for not remembering--or caring--about the other tributes until now, but you have to admit that there has been a lot in my mind. "Are they here too?"
Palutena nods. "Of course. We have all of the surviving tributes, minus Caspian."
I squeeze my eyes shut once more. How many of us were left? I don't remember. I can't even remember who was left. I know that Solar and Daisy were still alive...I ask Palutena who else made it but she only smiles. "You'll find out soon enough," She says as she slides a hand out for the door once more.
"Wait!" I find myself shouting out once more. I'd have thought that after a full month locked inside this room I would want nothing more than to escape as soon as possible. But I don't. Not yet. "What is the outside world like?"
"The outside world," I place a hand against the door, making sure she cannot open it. "Panem. What is it like? You mentioned an invasion. How are you doing?"
"I suppose I can answer that," Palutena's eyes flicker to the corner of the room and I get the feeling she's glancing at a hidden camera. So she can only tell me what they authorize her to. Interesting.
"District 7 and 13 have fallen," She tells me briskly. "They were the first two Districts we invaded and they fell before the Capitol could even react. They were busy with the 400th Hunger Games, you see." Here she stops to flash a proud smile. I motion for her to continue. "However, once the Capitol mobilized their forces things became significantly trickier. Especially when the Rebels sprang into action."
"Wouldn't that be a good thing?" I've noticed her disgusted tone when mentioning the rebels. "Aren't they after the same thing?"
Palutena looks away. Obviously she doesn't think so. I can't imagine why. "District 3 and 10 are in utter chaos. No side can claim it for themselves," She pats her head thoughtfully. "District 4 and 12 are currently being assailed as we speak. In fact, we should be receiving word from District 4 very soon." She glances at a watch on her wrist.
I nod, letting my mind sift through these new revelations, hoping it will keep track of everything so I can think on it later. "What about--"
"Come now, Blade!" Palutena interrupts with a bright smiles, her wide eyes shining with cheerfulness. "Must you ask all these questions? You should be happy!"
"Must I?" My eyes narrow as I regard this strange woman. Does she expect me just to go along with everything she says? "Why should I? What have you done for me?"
"We healed your leg," She responds in an almost sing-songy tone.
"Right. But I had already taken an antidote. Sure, you made it easier to walk, but that would have came in time anyway." I'm beginning to think I may not owe these people as much as I had thought. That is, until I hear her next words.
"It was a potent poison," Palutena says. "The antidote flushed it from your leg, but not your whole system. If we hadn't intervened you would have died within the day."
"So you see, we have done something for you, other than save your life from the Games. You can trust us."
I feel sheepish when I think of how ungrateful I must have appeared. I try apologizing, but Palutena tut-tuts this. "It's only natural to doubt us," She tells me. "Especially when you've grown up in the Capitol." Her hand reaches for the door a third time. "Now, let us meet with your friends." She opens the door and steps out. I, with a moment of hesitation, go to follow her, leaving the white room once and for all.
I'm heartened to discover that the hallway I find myself in doesn't have a trace of white in it. Fluorescent lights hang down from a plain ceiling, illuminating a brown tiled floor and utilitarian gray walls framed with numerous pictures of various scenes. I stop beside a pair of these; one shows a brown haired woman who looks constipated and the other has a night sky dotted with dorky looking yellow stars.
Palutena notices my staring and steps beside me. "That's the Mona Lisa," She says, pointing at the constipated woman. "And that's van Gogh's Starry Night. Both are the originals." A vast amount of pride fills her voice, but I have no idea what she's talking about.
"Van who's what now?" I squint at the painting, trying to see if there's something I missed. It looks like something a kid would draw.
Palutena shakes her head in mock despair. Or maybe it's real despair. "Do you know nothing of art?"
I shrug. "Art doesn't really help you do anything." Why bother with paintings and junk like that? There's many more important things to worry about. Like staying alive.
"You'll find many ancient pieces of art around the Tower," Palutena tells me with a frown. "It would do you well to learn about them."
She continues down the hall with me following. The air begins to fill with the smell of antiseptic and lemony floor cleaner and I wrinkle my nose in disgust. I hate those smella. We take a few turns before coming to another long hall, but this time it's filled with frenetic action.
People flood the hall, dressed entirely in white just like Palutena. A pair of them push a gurney down the hall, towards a swinging door. Atop the gurney lies a figure-- dressed in the same dark cloak of my rescuers and wearing a similar mask-- writhing feebly ans screaming wildly as dark crimson blood gushes from a stump where their right arm should be.
"Get him medicated!" One of the white-wearing men shouts.
Another rushes across the tiles, flinging open a small white cabinet and removing a hypodermic needle, which he hands to the first man. Without wasting a second, he jabs the needle into figures neck. Immediately it stops writhing and falls limply back onto the gurney, faint gasps escaping its masked face.
"Get him to operation!" The whites push the gurney through a pair of swinging doors and disappear. When the doors slam shut again, Palutena and I are left alone in an empty hall that reeks of blood.
"What happened?" I ask weakly. I've seen injuries like that before--in the Games and without-- but never have I seen anyone actually trying to save the person who was wounded, at least, be extremely capable of doing so.
Palutena stays silent as she leads me down the hall, carefully stepping over the slick pool of blood lying in the center. "I don't know," She says when we reach the other side. We take a few more turns. "He might have been attacked by a mutt, or had it blown off, or cut off. Anything, really."
That doesn't do much to lift my mood. But another question pops into my mind before it can linger any longer on the grisly scene. "What's with the masks? Why do some people wear them but others?" Pakistan doesn't have one, nor did any of the white shirts.
"All operatives wear their assigned mask," Palutena tells me. "Except for us Four's."
"Because we're medics, doctors, surgeons. We heal people."
"Yeah, but why don't you wear masks?" Is everyone but the doctor's ugly or something?
Palutena smiles. "Would you like to have your insides sewn up by someone wearing a mask?"
"I guess not." Good point, that is. Just thinking about being treated by someone wearing one of those masks makes me feel uneasy. A lot of things make me feel uneasy nowadays.
Little else is said as Palutena leads me through the halls of this mysterious Tower. Nothing I see is particularly impressive; a bunch of walls, tiled floors, and several different hallways containing rooms full of hospital equipment. "We're in the Medical Wing," Palutena says after I give one of these rooms a thorough look through. "Or one of them, at least. We have four."
"Need a lot of medical attention, huh?" I give a sardonic chuckle. "Must not be such great fighters."
"You'll be one of them soon enough," Palutena remarks calmly. "I suppose we'll find out how good they are then." Ooh. Right. I had almost forgotten that I had volunteered my services to these people. Only now I do I wonder if that was a mistake.
We continue on. Palutena takes me inside a small, cube-like room that seems vaguely familiar until I remember that it's an elevator. The training center in the Capitol had one of these. "Where are we going?" I ask as she presses a button on a panel chalk-full of them.
"To meet up with your friends."
At the words "friends", I internally recoil. The other tributes are not my friends. Not even Solar, and he was my ally! Perhaps Daisy could be considered one, if only because of what she meant to Shade. But the others? Friends? The thought makes me laugh.
"That's a peculiar reaction," Palutena notes as she watches me chuckle. The floor beneath us shakes slightly as we begin to head upwards at an almost frightening pace. How many floors does this Tower have?
"I'm a peculiar person."
After what feels like only seconds, the elevator come to a halt. A small chime goes off and the doors slide open, revealing a hallway very similar to the one we just left.
"Does everything look like this?" I ask, staring at the brown tiles that dot the floor. But Palutena doesn't answer. She walks up to the nearest door on our right and presses a hand against an odd panel. There's a brief glow of a ceruleaun color and then a beam of light runs across her palm.
"Access permitted," A robotic, feminine voice says before the doors slide open.
We enter a large octagonal central space, punched with wide skylights that dutifully brighten the room. Clusters of simple couches and small chairs of muted colors fill the room. Several pairs of bunk-beds line the walls, each covered with plain gray sheets. Palutena leads me past these beds and through the heart of the room, where most of the couches and chairs surround a round rock fireplace, and into a small, efficient kitchen. She stops just before a dining table ringed with five chairs. But it's not the chairs that gets my attention, it's the people sitting on them.
"Glad you could join us, Blade," Doug greets me with a wry smile.
The other tributes. They're all dressed up in clean clothes, hair brushed and eyes bright. All of them sit at the table, staring at me with impassive eyes. I recognize them all, despite not seeing most of them in the Games. There's Aisha Hakeem from District 8, the strong-willed girl who never gives up. Her District partner, Banette Tsukomogami, the strange but deadly zipper kid. Azalea Finch, the shattered girl who lost her lover. Amaya Lovelace, the weirdo. And, of course, Douglas Biles.
"Are...are these all the survivors?" I ask Palutena, my voice shaking slightly. I don't see Daisy or Solar anywhere. And does that mean...
"Not all," She corrects me a smile. "Only the Dual and Voted."
"Those newbies didn't have to go through a month of quarantine," Aisha grumbles from her seat nearest me. I frown and cast Palutena a questioning look. So everyone but those newbies went through what I did, huh?
"Why is that?"
Everyone turns to look at Palutena as she smiles politely. "They weren't clo--" She stops herself with a brisk cough before continuing. "They weren't revived, I mean. Thus, the Capitol never put the device inside their heads."
Banette gives off a low whistle. "Lucky them. I hate knowing that those bastards were in my head!"
"All of our heads," Aisha corrects him. "They knew everything we thought."
"They saw some unpleasant things then."
As they banter, I become aware of another person in the room. He's in the corner, leaning against the countertops with a blank stare in his gray eyes as he watches Palutena. A purple bandanna rests across his head, concealing his face from the world. Josef Wilder. Huh. Didn't expect to see him here. Guess he would be though. If he survived the arena along with the rest of Voted and Dual then--
It hits me like a bag of bricks.
All of the surviving dual and voted tributes are here. All of them. Only those who died in the arena are unaccounted for. Daisy and Solar aren't here, meaning...
A strange sensation digs at my chest as my stomach flips itself over unpleasantly. I didn't think--didn't expect to be hit so hard at their loss. Solar...Daisy...She meant so much to Shade. Meant the world. And she's dead. Just like him.
The anger and hatred I feel for the Capitol all comes rushing back. My hands clamp down on the table, fingers digging into the polished wood. They will pay.
"Blade?" I'm surprised when Aisha speaks my name. I look up to see the others, even Palutena, watching me with a bit of uncertainty in their eyes. "Are you okay?"
"Y-yeah. I'm fine." I let go of the table, trying to push my fury away. It's hard, almost impossible. It's like trying to drain a waterfall fed lake with only a bucket. No matter how much water you get out, a thousand more gallons will just pour in. "I'm just...thinking about everything they took from me. From us."
A somber silence fills the room. We're all alike, in this respect. We've all lost something to the Capitol. Lost something precious along with our very freedom. Those conniving, world-destroying, monsters have taken our lives once before. Never again.
"That's why you're here," Palutena speaks, her voice low and soft, sweet like syrup. "You're all here for vengeance, for your justice. It's what you all crave. What drives you. And we can give it to you. Those Who Don't Exist can help you do things that otherwise would never be possible. With our help, the world can be yours."
Aisha Hakeem (The Tower)
Palutena leaves us with that ominous promise of power. She tells us that she has to be there when the District 4 soldiers return, and that the seven of us will have to wait here until a guide comes to fetch us. Then she slips out the door without another word.
"She locked it behind her," Blade says. He didn't even wait a single second before crossing our large dormitory and jiggling the doors knob. Now he glances back at us with arched eyebrows.
"Of course she did," Doug casually splays himself back in his chair, feet resting atop the table. "They don't want us wandering around unattended." Somehow, he's remarkably calm given the situation. I'm not. My mind is constantly buzzing with thoughts and theories on what's going on. I was the sixth to be led into this room, arriving only half a day before Blade showed up.
"And why is that?" Azalea crosses her arms and fixes Doug with a stern gaze. "Do they have something to hide?"
A lazy smile flickers across the boy's face. I don't fully remember, but I don't think he was ever this secure in the Games. "It's just common sense. You don't let strangers wander around your home unsupervised, do you?"
"You don't let prisoners out of their cells either," She points out darkly. Is that we she thinks we are? Prisoners? I never came to that conclusion, even while imprisoned in the white room. I always had the sensation that, somehow, these people were trying to help us. Why else would they destroy the arena?
I answer my former ally with a logical response. "If we were prisoners they'd never have let us out of the white rooms." Azalea's brow furrows, but she says nothing as she sits back down on her chair. None of the others have anything to say either. Blade is still attempting to pry the door open, Azalea and Doug sit casually at the table, Banette rummages through the kitchen cupboards and emerges with a wrapped pastry of sorts, he wastes no time in scarfing this down. Amaya and Josef remain deathly silent; neither has ever said a word since I first entered the room.
I'm not surprised by Josef's silence, that boy was always strange. But I am a little curious as to why Amaya glares at the ceiling with such fury. Does she agree with Azalea's thoughts about us being prisoners?
"Well, what are we suppose to do now?" Blade gives the door one last kick before stomping back over to us with an exasperated groan.
"Relax." Doug's eyes slide shut as he reclines in his chair. "Aren't you tired of fighting and scratching? You should rest, let your mind deal with your stress." Easier said then done. My mind is filled with images of Colin, of the brutality I've seen in both the 398th and 400th Games. Everytime I close my eyes I see Madeva's spear slicing into Luxray's neck, I see her thick hand clenching my throat, blocking off my air. I would have died if not for the implosion of the arenas force field. If not for...Those Who Don't Exist.
I glance at Azalea. She would have let me die. She sat by and watched Madeva choke the life out of me, all because she wanted to win. For some reason I'm hurt. I know I shouldn't be, I know that's what tributes are supposed to do, but I trusted her. I thought she was different. Guess I was wrong.
"Who do you think the others are?" Azalea breaks the silence that has sprung up around us. "The rescued newbies, I mean?"
"Madeva," I speak without even having to think. "They took her along with us. I thought she was dead, but..." I remember the gloved hands looping around the unconscious girl's waist, hoisting her into the plan that appeared over our heads.
"Julian, Mahogany, and Kaneki," Doug adds helpfully.
"Annabelle...Kennedy...and...I'm sure there's more." I wrack my brain, trying to think who else was still alive by the advent of the eighth day. Nothing pops out at me.
"Camiren." We all spin, surprised to see that it was Josef who spoke. His gray eyes stare down at us from behind his bandanna. "Camiren was still alive."
"Oh," I say quietly. "I forgot about her."
"Odd," Josef's eyes swviel from me to Banette and back. "She was your District partner too." Right. How much I have forgotten in such a short time.
Banette shrugs and goes back to the cupboards again. I excuse myself from the table and head towards the bunk Azalea and I share. There's only four of them, two on each side of the room. Since there's now seven of us, Blade will have to take the top half of either Doug's or Amaya's. He'll probably bunk with Doug.
I lie myself flat on the bed, listening to the muted strains of conversation. Blade is asking questions, but he won't find very much answers. We're all as confused as he is.
The bed isn't like the ones in the training center, they're not perfect. It's firm, far too much for my liking, but I kind of like that it's not completely comfortable. Makes me feel better knowing that these people aren't going out of their way to make us content with our lot. Maybe they can offer us what we desire.
But what do I desire? It was a peaceful life with Colin, but that ship has long since sailes. So what's left for me to desire? I can't think of anything. Except vengeance. And that's what they're offering, but...
Who are they exactly? And why are they taking the Capitol down? I'd understand why a Panem citizen would want them destroyed, but these people aren't from Panem. I don't know where they're from...
My mind drifts off as I stare at the underside of the top bunk. Trying to figure out what's happening on my own is useless. Sooner or later they will tell us everything themselves, all we have to do is wait. Wait...
Armado Roynclaw (District 6)
The wailing sirens strike fear into the struggling crowd of panicking civilians as, overhead, the first of the hovercrafts appear. A rush of adrenaline fills me as I barg pass all the strangers and knock an old man off his feet. He falls into the puddle beneath him, launching muddy water against the throng of people pushing past. Nobody cared, I could not help unless I wanted the same to happen to me, but as I turned around an aircraft shoots past, a thundering rumble following and shaking the ground. As the old man searches for his walking stick on the marshy ground something causes an explosion; obliterating the helpless man and propelling rock and mud towards me at unbelievable speeds. Everything goes black as a heavy rock smashes into my face, and I lay unconscious between two mangled bodies.
I wake up to the same noise; aircraft shaking the earth, bombs breaking the ground and incessant screaming that sends a chilling sensation through my bones before silenced by another explosion. Only now the sounds of destruction are quieter, the loudest noise was two men shouting at each other. I keep my eyes closed to try and understand exactly what is going on and listen intently.
"Open the door! What are you doing?" A man is yelling from the other side, voice thick with panic and fear.
Another person responds quite calmly. "We have enough people in here and we don't need anymore blood around the place."
"What? You're just going to let them die!" It's a third voice that shouts out in obvious distress.
"It looks like it, doesn't it?" Their arguing is silenced by a ground shuddering detonation. The screams outside fall quiet for longer than normal and everybody goes silent, listening for signs of life outside the mysterious room.
I decide to stop pretending to be asleep and open my eyes slowly. I'm lying flat on my back in the corner of a room, above cold, hard stones. In front of me, a small group of people sit clustered around a small, dingy table. Their clothes are ragged, faces worn and tired. The room itself is chilly and damp, walls made of solid stone and lined with thick boards and many cabinets. By the lone, thick metal door, two men stand apart from the group, arguing.
My head is ringing and everything is unfocused. A by-product of my knockout, I guess. As I sit on the cold floor, slowly shaking my head, a girl about my age in the large group notices me. She's thin and blonde, hair streaked with dirt and grime. Her pale face is covered with cuts and scrapes. Blue eyes flash with friendliness as she sidles over to me.
"Hi, I'm Lavender. What's your name?" I don't answer. I try hard to think about what's happening. How could she be so happy at a time like this? And who are these people? Why am I here and where is here? What the hell is going on?
My back cricks as I sit up, leaning it against the cold stone wall as Lavender settles down next to me. I glance around again and finally notice the obvious; I'm in a bomb shelter. I probably would have realized this early if I had thought that District 6 had many of these. Glancing at the door, I see that the two men are still arguing about something. Curious, I turn to Lavender and speak with a croaky voice. "Why are they fighting?"
She smiles, glad that I've finally spoken. Then she explains. "The tall blonde man is John." She glances at the door the very same way I did. "He did something terrible..." Lavender tells me that John had claimed the bomb shelter for himself and shut the doors on a large group of people that were seeking shelter from the bombs. "They were stuck outside and died," Lavender says with a hushed voice. Her eyes are wide with fear and mistrust as she gazes at John.
I'm shocked at what the tall man had done, but right now I don't really care. I'm more concerned about my difficulty breathing and the throbbing pain in my head and chest. Lavender continues to explain the details of the event while I look around the room. It's lit my a few fluorescent lamps that hang over head, occasionally shaking and shuddering from explosive blasts in the distance. They light up majority of the room, but the far corner is shrouded in darkness, where a woman sits crying, her tears glistening in the dim light as they slide down her cheeks. Lavender notices me watching.
"That's Silvia," She tells me the name of the woman. "She had three children, but...they didn't make it to the shelter."
"Oh, wow..." I don't know what to say. That's more terrible then I could ever put into words. Three children? All dead? I don't know how she even keeps going. Suddenly feeling very uncomfortable watching the crying women. I move my gaze from her and stare hopelessly at the blank ceiling. I never thought about how I got here, all I can remember was the adrenaline rush, the running for my life and the old man receiving a direct hit from a missile. Somebody must have carried me here, whoever it was saved my life and must have risked theirs.
My thoughts are interrupted by a feeling of warm liquid running up my throat, I cough loudly and everyone turns towards me as I spurt thick blood out of my aching nose and mouth. I can feel everybody--even the arguing men-- looking intensely at me as I keep spitting the oozing liquid into the ground beneath me. On my hands and knees I bend over the small pool of blood and see my reflection. There are grazes all over my cheeks; blood is seeping out of the gaping wound beside my nose. My face is battered; my left eye bulbous and so slightly sticking out from its socket. I stare at my bruised lip as red saliva drips out of a deep cut.
"Why didn't you tell me I looked this bad...?" I ask Lavender between a fit of hacking coughing. She shrugs helplessly.
"We all look that bad." She's right. I see the others now, see their faces. Scarred and marked. One boy has half his face burnt away, nose a pulpy mess. Another man has only one arm, the other just a cauterized stump. Of everyone in the shelter, only John looks unharmed. He's taken over leadership duties, accessing the cabinets of supplies in the far back of the room and handing out rations accordingly. Tells us not to waste it and that, for now, only the sick and wounded get to eat.
"Here," He tosses me a wrapped container of dried bread. "Eat."
I shake my head, nauseous at very the thought of eating. "I'm good."
He pauses, serious green eyes taking in my condition, looking me up and down. Does he think I'm challenging him? Well, I'm not. I don't feel like I could challenge a fly in this state. Finally he shrugs. "Whatever. Give it to someone else then." He turns and calls for someone from the large group of people. A lanky man with stringy brown hair steps forward.
"Yes, John?" He asks, nervously wringing his hands together.
"Get some medicine and heal this kid. I don't want him dying and stinking the place up."
"I'm not going to--" I try protesting but break off as another fit of coughing strikes me. Warm blood splashes against my hands. John scowls.
"Heal him, Spanner." He tells the lanky man before turning and stalking back to the door. I'm conscious of everyone's gaze on me as Spanner kneels beside me, thin hands fumbling with a small, leather bag. This was not the first impression I was hoping to make. As Spanner checks through his bag, Lavender watches me with wide eyes. I wonder why she hasn't moved on yet. This can't possibly be that interesting.
I shift my hands back against the stone wall and feel a warm liquid pool around my fingers. I've been lying in a pool of my own blood. It's only then that I notice just how severe my injuries were. I'm suddenly struggling to keep conscious, head falling backwards as everything fades.
I wake up once more to the sound of bombs detonating in the distance. The ground shake and quakes, shuddering as if a giant walks among us. My head still hurts. It throbs with a raw pain. Like one of the explosions has gone off inside of my skull. Yet when my hands feel the cool stones around me, I can tell that the blood has been cleaned up.
"You're awake." A quiet voice sounds behind my ear, and I turn to see Lavender watching me with her clear, liquid blue eyes. How long has she been there? How long have I been here? "Spanner thought you might not pull through."
Wearily my head turns to search Spanner out. I find him beside John and a few others standing in the back of the room, by the storage crates. The thin man seems to be getting something to eat. "How long?" I ask Lavender, my voice is hardly more than a hoarse whisper. At least the pain in my chest has been alleviated.
Lavender tells me that we've spent several hours in the shelter. Fortunately there's more than enough rations for the dozen or so of us that reside here. Unfortunately, we used majority of the medicinal items healing me. I don't like that. I know that those supplies will be very valuable later, and using them on me was a waste.
"That's not true," Lavender says when I tell her this. "You were going to die if Spanner didn't do something!"
I shrug. "Maybe it'd be better if I had." I doubt I will be of much use to these people and the world outside will not get better anytime soon. This war has just begun. The Capitol may even completely destroy us District's if things get too bad. They've done before.
"You don't mean that." Lavender seems offended by the very thought.
"Maybe." The dull ache in my head has begun to fade ever so slightly, letting me get a better look at the room we're all stuck in. The large group that had been huddled against the wall the first time I woke has spread out, filling the corners and open space. For the first time I count them. There's fifteen, including me and Lavender. How long will our supplies last us?
The crying woman, Silvia, is surrounded by a few other survivors, most of them middle-aged women. The men and the younger people cluster around John, drinking in his words. One other person, a dark-haired girl a little younger then Lavender and I, sits in the far corner, glaring at me with angry eyes. "Whose that?" I ask Lavender, taking my eyes off the girl.
"Huh?" She glances to the corner and the lithe girl. "Oh, Morina. She's just upset that Spanner used so much supplies on you. Said it was a waste."
I shrug. "She's not wrong."
Lavender frowns but doesn't say anything. I get the feeling that she doesn't want to argue with me. Good. I don't want to put up with her constant rebuttals, especially if I'm going to be stuck in here with her for any length of time. "What's Spanner's story?" I ask her suddenly as I watch John hand the thin, frail looking man a package of wrapped food. "He a doctor or something?"
"Sorta." Lavender looks embarrassed all of a sudden.
"Sorta? What does that mean?"
"Well, he's not a doctor. But, well, he kinda is."
"Is he or isn't he?"
"He's a veterinarian." Lavender's cheeks flush pink and I find myself groaning loudly. A veterinarian? I allowed myself to be healed from life threatening injuries by a veterinarian?! "He's very good," Lavender tries to defend him. "And treating people isn't all that different from animals."
"I suppose I'm just a big overgrown animal, huh?"
"No!" Lavender's eyes spark with an angry light. "But you have to admit it's better than not getting healed at all."
"That's debatable." I already made it pretty clear that I'm not exactly clinging to life here. I don't bother bringing the point back up though. My head is throbbing with an intense pain once more and I...I can't really remember anything that happened to me before I woke up here. Only that old man getting blown to pieces. The gruesome image plays over and over in my head.
"You still haven't told me your name," Lavender says, shattering the image of the old man exploding in my head.
"Haven't I?" I thought I did. But maybe I didn't. Now that I think about it, I can barely remember it myself. Everything about the past is fuzzy, like a screen coated with a thin layer of vaseline, it's blurry and undetailed. I can't remember a single thing about my own life, not where I lived or who I am, I can just cling to a name. This should horrify me, but it doesn't. I can't bring myself to really care.
"No. You haven't." Lavender crosses her arms expectantly. "Don't tell me you don't remember it. Because that would be the most cliched thing imagine--"
"My name. It's Armado." Armado Roynclaw. I remember that. It's definitely right. I also recall that my life...wasn't anything special. Normal fare. Nothing spectacular. Not much details though. Maybe I got a concussion. I should ask Spanner.
I rise to my feet, ignoring Lavender as she's in the midst of conversation. Suddenly I don't want to be in this room, cooped up with these people. Their crying is getting to me. Their shrieks of panic and terror everytime another detonation shakes the room. It's annoying.
John, Spanner, and a few of the other able-bodied survivors are still hanging around the far edge of the room, near the supply cabinets. I'm going to ask them to open the door. I don't want to spend another second in this room. Not a single one.
A hand grabs my shoulder before I get even halfway across the room.
"What are you doing, Armado?" Lavender scowls at me, blonde hair whipping over her shoulder.
I tell her what and she shakes her head patiently. "You can't leave, Armado. Not yet. It's too dangerous."
"I understand you want to find your friends and family, but we have to be careful. Otherwise we'll die before we can meet them." There's a sad glow in her eyes, one that tells me she has people she cares for out in the District. I wish I could relate. I can hardly remember what my family is, thanks to this stupid concussion. "Besides, you think John will open that door for you? Especially after all that trouble he went through to keep it closed."
That part convinces me more than the danger going outside presented. From what little I know about John, he cares only about himself. No way he'd open the door for me. "Guess you're right," I mutter to Lavender while keeping an eye on John. The others seem to revolve around him, willingly take orders from him. People always want a confident leader who knows what he's doing, even if no one else does. Doubly so in times of crisis.
Lavender leads me to another corner, different from the one I woke up in, and asks me if I want something to eat. I tell her I do and she heads off. Once alone, I become aware of another set of eyes on me as I try to relax. Following my instincts, I turn to find the girl Lavender called Morina watching me again. Her eyes gleam with a strange anger.
What's her problem? Yeah, the medicine usage was an issue, but that doesn't justify the fury that seems to radiate from her. And it almost feels like there's...recognition in her eyes. But that's impossible. Isn't it?
"Here you go!" Lavender returns and sits down, handing me wrapped slab of dried beef strips. "Spanner is glad that you woke up."
Glad I woke up? Seems like he wasn't very confident in his abilities. Still, I don't say anything about this as I take a bite of the beef strip. It's not the best tasting thing I've ever eaten, but right now any food is great. I can't remember the last time I ate.
"Spanner says that the bombings will end in a few hours," Lavender whispers to me as I eat. "We should be able to leave then. John will probably be glad he won't have to feed us anymore."
There's something odd about the way she speaks, but I can't decide what it is. Doesn't matter either. I'll be gone soon. All I have to do is wait. Wait for those bombs to finish and then I'll be gone.
Tate Lockwood (District 2)
I head down the empty streets of District 2 at a brisk pace. Overhead, hovercrafts float by, carrying bombs and death to the rebel forces. Trains fill the station, overflowing with supplies and soldiers as they crisscross through the nation, stopping at each and every District. The mountain fortresses swarm with troops, each and every one ready to kill for their country.
Panem is at war.
The claustrophobic streets are silent and empty as I slip through them, heading towards the most important people in my life. I need to get them out of here. The television has shown me the atrocious occurring in the District's that currently are embroiled in the war. Common sense tells me what is happening. We need to escape. Escape to the rebels.
Easier said then done.
The buildings seem to constrict around me, grab at me with their concrete walls and brick foundations. I've always hated District 2 and its narrow, confining streets. It's so different from my home, District 10, and its large empty pastures. The ever-existing plains and wide moors that seem to continue forever. I never felt trapped there, never thought that I couldn't escape. It was always so open.
But District 2...
Here, buildings are packed closely together under the massive shade of the mountains that jut up around us like swords ripping through the belly of Earth. People fill the tight streets with their stinking bodies, jostling and bumping into one another as they head their different ways. The air is smoggy and unpleasant. Of all the District's my travelling circus has visited, District 2 has to be my least favourite. There's hardly anything I like about it, well, except for Harley.
I feel my insides tighten with nerves as I think of her. The Mayor's daughter. She is so far above me, a simple farmhand turned circus musician. She should never have glanced twice at me. But she did and...
Heck. A lotta stuff has happened because of our relationship. The biggest is probably our child. A child. Hah. I, well, never expected to have something like that to deal with it. But I love him regardless. I love little Blair and his mother, Harley. They're why I'm so desperate to escape this District.
I keep on track towards Harley's home. Ever since the war began her father, Mayor Cobalt Paramour, has kept her shut up inside his house. Located in the richest portion of District 2, locked behind a guarded gate. Getting in would be a problem. But luckily, I know how to get around problems.
As I draw closer and closer to the neighborhood, the sirens in the sky warning of an impending air attack continue to scream. It's not a real attack, of course. District 2 is far enough away from the fighting not to worry about such things. It's only a drill, a test for the citizens. Right now everyone is hiding in their houses or bunkers or fortresses, rehearsing their actions in case of an attack.
Which means that the streets are completely empty
No one sees me as I stop just outside the gates to the neighborhood. A long, gold studded metal fence stretches along the border. Beyond it, I can see a row of shining houses. Fancy houses.
My stomach tightens once more as I think of Harley. She's in there, locked in her house. Getting her out won't be easy, but I gotta try.
The security booth in the middle of the fence is deserted as I walk up to it, the guards obviously off reacting to the air siren. Good. I expected this.
I jump over the retractable fence and land gently on the other side. Racing down the streets, barely paying attention to any of the ornamental statutes or hedges as I keep low to avoid detection. Everyone may be off the streets, but that doesn't mean they're not looking out windows I can't afford to be caught, not with Harley's father just waiting for an opportunity to execute me.
At one point I pass by a series of elaborate golden statues, interlocked in a intricate pattern around a small park. Everything here is far too fancy for my tastes. Everything too rich. How do the people stand it?
Mayor Paramour's house stands at the very edge of the street. It's mammoth, with an intricate, multi-faceted structure, almost like a jewel. The beige roof is pointed, almost like a hat perched atop the house. The windows are illusionary mirrors as they glint in the mid-morning light. Whatever I think about Mayor Paramour, he sure has a pretty house.
I'm taking a step towards the house when I spot the two Peacekeepers standing upon the porch, patrolling pass the wicker furniture. Hurriedly I duck to the side, throwing myself deep into a bush of daffodils. Darn nabbit! I hadn't expected for there to be guards!
Harley's father must be very serious about his protection if he's putting Peacekeepers on patrol outside his front door. "Better think of somethin', Tate." I can't leave now. Not after I've gotten so far. But I also can't just stroll up into the house. Not that I was planning on doing that anyway. Always knew I'd need ta find my own way in.
Carefully I pick my way along the edge of the house, sticking close to the bushes that grow along the ornamental fence. The house is large, with three stories and many rooms on each floor. Harley could be in any one of them. I've never been inside before, thanks to her Father's extreme dislike of me. Besides, she ain't been living here long. Just since the rebellion started.
Thinking of this makes thoughts of the circus pop back in my mind. I've spent all my life with them, ever since my musical talent showed itself at the age of ten. I've spent years with them, made hundreds upon hundreds of memories. They became another family for me, a boy who never really knew his actual family.
And now my time with them is done.
In some ways, I'm glad. I never got to experience any other type of life while I was in the circus and my obligations to them kept me from living with Blair's and Harley, my new family. Well, my obligations and Mayor Paramour.
I scowl as I stare at the beige walls of the house. Harley and my son are somewhere inside. Probably locked in a room or something. Mayor Paramour has always hated our relationship. He's done whatever he could to try and separate us. His most recent effort was right before the war began, when he attempted to have me sent back to District 10. I only narrowly avoided that. But now...What will he do to keep Harley away from me? He's already taken her against her will and locked her up. How much further will he go?
I don't intend to find out.
I take a quick glance over the yard, see that all is clear, then sprint across the lawn. Within seconds my long legs take me to the houses side. Closer up, I can see that the walls are laced with interlocking twirls of green and copper vines. They start out at the base, growing and twisting as they climb higher and higher, only petering out at the last window...
A plan forms in my head.
Holding my breath, I reach down and grab the largest of the vines. It's thicker and heavier then I'd have imagined, fitting snugly into the palm of my hand.
But will it hold me?
Cautiously, I pull against the vine. Nothing happens at first, so I put more force behind my tug and instantly it rips free from the wall with a loud tearing sound. But it doesn't come all the way free, just around the base. "Really hope I don't get myself killed," I mutter as I give the vine one last tug, this time with my full strength.
It splits at the seams and tiny, almost microscopic holes form at the sides, but somehow it holds. My plan is viable. Before I can get cold feet, I grab a vine in each hand and begin to climb.
The ivy makes for good handholds, but the effort of pulling myself up sheer wall with only vines to support my weight is taxing. Twice I nearly lose my grip. It's only the thought of what would become of me if I were to be found lying injured on Major Paramour's property that keeps me going. Still, by the time I reach a second-story window, I feel spent.
My legs kick out and catch a hold of the window seal, allowing myself to manoeuvre the rest of my body onto the flange that juts out. There's just enough room for me to sit. My chest heaves with breath as I try to get my energy back. Once I do, I'll try the window. If it's open--
"What do you mean you can't find him?!" A shrieking voice pours out from the closed window, even louder and more shrill then the air siren still ringing.
"Sir, we've checked the circus grounds and have seen nothing--"
"Of course he wasn't at the circus grounds! I closed that damn place down last week!" My heart goes cold as I recognize that voice which is prenaturally and as smooth as Harley's skin. Mayor Paramour is inside this window.
"I apologize, sir. I didn't realize--"
"Of course you didn't!" Paramour sneers and I can just imagine him waving his hand flippantly. "You're completely incompetent! Otherwise you'd have captured and killed that boy my now!"
"Kill? I thought you just wanted him deported."
"Things have changed! That bastard has already spawned with my daughter, completely defying my orders! Not to mention his continued ignoring of my warnings. He needs to be destroyed. The sooner the better."
I nearly fall from my perch as I gasp in shock. The boy. He means me. He's talking about me! If it was possible for me to dislike the man anymore than I already did, then I would. Being upset is one thing, trying to kill me is something completely different!
"What about your daughter?" The other voice is asking when I tune back into the conversation.
"What about her?"
"Won't she, ahem, be upset if you kill her boyfriend?"
"No. In fact, after I finish with the boy, she won't be upset about anything ever again."
"She'll be dead, fool! She'll be taken care of after the boy. I'd do away with her now, if I didn't think we could use her to draw him in. I've tried to reconcile with her, God knows I did, but that damn fool never listened to a thing I said. How am I supposed to keep her around when all she's ever done is make a mockery of her family's name? She threatens to ruin our family by her tinkering with that farm rat. Do you know what the other Mayor's say about me behind my back? Do you?"
As the other man stutters a response, I pull myself away from the window. This is bad. Worse than bad. Worse than anything I could put into words. I need to get Harley and Blair oit of here, before that madman can harm a hair on their heads.
I turn back to the vines. Continue my climbing. It's easier now that I have motivation, that I know just what hinges on my rescuing my family. At first I just wanted them to be safe from the fighting, but now...
I reach the third story window with seconds of climbing. I hoist myself up onto the windowsill, glancing carefully through the window and into the plush hallway. No one in sight. Good. My hands reach the top of the window and slowly slide it open. Thank God it was unlocked. I don't know what I would have done if it wasn't...
Silently I enter the house.
The air of the third floor is ripe with a fresh, pine wooden flooring smell, I can almost see my reflection with how shiny the floor was. The sense of delicacy hits me straight away as I turn and look into an open doorway, spotting the crisp clean white bedding layed in the giant four-poster bed.
I let out a low whistle as I stare at the magnificence. I never knew that Harley's family was this well off. Almost makes me understand Mayor Paramour's psychotic need to keep me away from his daughter. Almost.
I head off down the hall, my boots squeaking against the freshly shined floors. How am I suppose to find Harley in a place this large? There's over a dozen rooms on this floor alone, and odds are they're not all unoccupied. If I just went poking my head into each one, I'd be caught for sure.
So what do I do?
Unfortunately, I can't think of anything. So with a helpless shrug, I decide to check each room individually.
As I head for the first door, it is as though I can hear my breathing echoing for miles around me, the house is that big. With spiraling banisters and the sweet scent of baking bread wafting up from what is undoubtedly the kitchen two floors below. It gives the house a warm, homely feeling. That is until I remember the man who owns it. Then the place just seems mockingly cruel.
I reach the first shut door and with a deep breath, I slowly slide it open a crack. Peeking through the narrow hole, I can see that it is a drawing room. An empty one at that. No Harley. Damn.
I carefully shut it behind me and begin my search anew. The next two doors I check are two bathrooms, which is confusing. Why would anybody need two bathrooms right across from each other? Does Mayor Paramour need to go that badly? Huh. That thought conjured up an image I ain't never want to see again.
After this, I skip the next two doors as I hear footsteps beneath me. Voices rise and then a door slams shut. Someone isn't in a good mood and I'd rather be far away from me here before I find out who, Harley beside me, of course.
I approach the door at the very end of the hall. A large stained window hangs beside it, letting in a layer of multicolored light that shines against the floor, illuminating a swath of dancing dust motes.
"I hope you're in here, Harley," I mutter as I press my hand against the knob. It's strangely wet. Or is that just the sweat from my hand? I can't tell. A familiar tightness constricts in my chest aa I imagine what would happen if I'm caught. I'd die, Harley would die. Everything would be ruined.
With another deep breath, I swing the door open.
I find myself in a bedroom. A large, sturdy desk sits in the corner, a stack of untidy papers strewn across it. On the other side of the room rests a bed, black and red sheets neatly folded. And just next to this lies a crib.
Now that is a good sign. Why would there be a crib if not for Harley and Blair? A confident grin plastered on my face, I stroll into the room.
And a second later a heavy object smashes down onto my skull.
Kane Brunus (District 10)
The wind flutters silently as a roiling mass of clouds roll in overhead, masking the moors horizon with a dark gray screen. Thick, impenetrable fog drifts across the empty plains. The smell of burning manure wafts up to where I stand, surveying the smouldering ruins of District 10 from a high hill.
What a hellhole this place is.
Laughter rings out around our encampment as a few of my men drink and play poker around a small table set up in the middle of the hill. I chose this place for the strategic advantage it offered; from the hilltop we can see anyone approaching District 10 from miles away in every direction. No one can launch an attack without me knowing about it.
In the far distance, a hovercraft shoots over the buildings of District 10. A tiny opening appears in the bottom of the plane, and then something slips out, hurtling towards the city below. At first nothing seems to happen, then there's a flash of light followed by an explosion of fire. I'm too far away to hear the screams, but I know that they're happening. The hovercraft must of just bombed a rebel base, igniting their damn hideaway with uncontrollable chaosFire. I smile as I imagine rebels writhing and screaming in agony as unquenchable flames lick away at their flesh.
I wish I could see it.
But, no. I have a duty to fulfil with my squad, the best damn squad ever assembled. I handpicked most of them myself, selecting them from the available pool of Peacekeepers assembled at the District when I arrived from my home in District 1. My talents were being wasted there, where no battle ever took place. I knew I could be the best squadron leader there ever was, capable even of taking control of a District. So I requested to be shipped off to a District that needed my help, any District at all. That District ended up being District 10.
I was met at the train station by General Kass, one of the Six-God Generals of the Capitol and the man in charge of taking back control of southern Panem. He gave me the squad I now control and the standard supplies. After that, he left me with only the simplest of orders; Eliminate the enemy with extreme prejudice.
And that's just what I've done.
The first Rebels my squad encountered were a sorry lot. We had only gone a few klicks from the station when we stumbled upon a group hiding in a barn we sought out for shelter. They were scrawny and weak, incapable of holding their stolen rifles without their arms shaking. My soldiers and I killed most of them with ease. We even managed to take several prisoner, only, they didn't last long enough to be of use. We roughed them up too much and they all died like the weaklings they are. Bah. Who can't even take a little beatings?
After that first group, things got a little tougher. District 10 isn't like most of the other District's, it's not all centered in one large city. Most of the populace lives on farms and ranches out in the countryside, with a few sparse outcroppings of neighbourhoods in-between.
Naturally, this suits the cowardly rebels and their guerrilla warfare just fine. They attack us, or more likely, one of the other Peacekeeper force attempting to assert control, hit hard and then bleed back into the countryside. Difficult to track. The damn ranchers know the wilderness like the boils on their buttocks. Still, I found a way to combat them.
Head through the countryside, burning and pillaging every barn, loft, house, and stable I came across. That flushed those ripe bastards out alright. Things began looking up after this new strategy, until...
Damn blackcloaks! I utter a swear under my breath and turn away from the desolate city. Despite all the victories I've made over the past two weeks, all the rebel nests I've destroyed, I'm still not any closer to getting the District under control. "Damn blackcloaks!" I begin marching back down the hill, towards the swath of tents set up just in the dip, when I spot something amiss.
Leaning against a small, spindly tree that grows upon the hills crest, is a scrawny Peacekeeper. His white uniform glows in the mid-morning light as he rests his unblemished head against the tree, dozing peacefully.
I march over to the tree, teeth gnashing together on a furious rage. The Peacekeeper snores gently as I approach, eyelids fluttering slightly. He looks very content.
I smash my boot into the side of his head.
"What the hell are you doing, Romper?!" My scream echoes along the hillside as he rolls along the grass, squeaking pitifully and crawling about as his hands clutch at his head. "You were supposed to be on guard! Not sleeping like a frickin' little girl!"
The man looks up, eyes wide with fright and blood dripping from his jaws as tries to steady himself. "I'm sorry, Kane! But I was on the night shift and--"
My boot catches him right in the ribs. He grunts with the thus of impact and rolls over onto his side, gasping and heaving for breath. By now the rest of the squad has heard the commotion and begin to ascend the hill, weapons held warily. "The blackcloaks could have ambushed us while you slept!" I scream as I throw another kick at Romper. The thin man cries out in pain as it connects with his shoulder.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" It's all he can say as he tries to catch his breath. My hands finger the magnum on my belt. Romper is useless. The absolutely most incompetent man in my squad. I should kill him now and spare me any future mishaps. But...I need every man I can get. Especially with those blackcloaks on the prowl.
"Tybalt! Aevil!" I shout the names and instantly two of my men break rank and stand beside me, saluting crisply.
"Take over sentry duty for Romper. Circle around the hills and check all the gullies. I don't want any damn surprises when we march!"
The two jog off, belts jiggling with weapons. I turn back to the others. "Pack up the tents and supplies. We'll be off in a hour."
"Where will we be going?" One of my men asks. I watch him carefully, studying his face for any signs of insubordination. But all I see is simple curiosity.
"You don't need to know!" I tell him with a glare. As usual, my men avert their gaze when I get angry. They fear my temper and respect my ability...for now. But if my losses keep piling up, I may soon lose their support. Another reason to crush those blackcloaks soon as possible. "Now get going! You have an hour!"
The group dissolves immediately, everyone rushing off to do their individual tasks. I watch them file to the camp where they begin to unfurnish it, unpitching the tents and putting out the fire. The men who were playing cards sort the plastic squares into a neat pile before folding the table, carefully inserting it into one of our waterproof bags. Yuri "Excuse me, sir." A voice sounds in my ear and I turn to yell at the slacker to get to work when I see who it is; Vons, my lieutenant. He's a brutal, violence-loving man who always has an appetite for destruction. His favourite way of killing--everyone has their own preferred method of offing an enemy, a calling card of sorts--is to strangle them to death. And with his thick, muscled arms that look like a pair of pythons, no one ever escapes once his hands wrap around their throat. The rest of the squad as taken to calling him "Von Strangle". In essence, he's the perfect soldier.
Right now, his protective helmet has been removed, revealing his long face and cold gray eyes. A large scarred hand scratches at his scruffy, blond beard as he gives me an inelegant salute. When he finishes, I give him the go-ahead to speak. He promptly does, his loud, brass voice booming across the hilltop. "If you don't mind my asking sir, where exactly are we going?"
I tap my head as I answer. "I'll tell you when I figure it out," I growl impatiently. And I'll never be able to think if I keep getting interrupted!
Vons shrugs, a sign that shows he doesn't actually care where we go. "Very well. I also wanted to let you know that a blackcloak was sighted just before dawn, floating over the city."
My hands clench into fists. Those blackcloaks--or Those Who Don't Exist, the stupid and ostentatious name they've given themselves--have been the bane of my existence after the first encounter.
I thought that they would be like the Rebels, easily defeated and eluded by an elite squad of Peacekeepers, but I was wrong. They're nothing like the rebels, either in skill or technology. They're just as skilled with standard ballistic weapons as my soldiers, but that's not the extent of their weaponry. They have pulse weapons, guns that shoot laser-like beams of light that will blast straight through the toughest of armor. Grenades that give off fatal blasts of electricity and--worse yet--ones that create a vortex-like field that grabs and pulls nearby objects into the grenades blast radius. Rail cannons that can shred dozens of men into pieces within seconds, Rocket propelled weapons that launch clusters of grenades, sometimes including the electric ones. And these are just some of their weapons.
They seem to possess some sort of shield, an invisible aura that fends off our bullets. In the first few encounters with the damned cloaks we shot bullets that we thought would be fatal only to watch them ping off or lose momentum and fall harmlessly to the ground before even reaching their targets. They aren't infallible, we've killed some of those blackcloaks with concentrated fire, but it damn sure is annoying.
"Where did it go?" I ask Vons, not bothering to try and keep the rage out of my voice. We're both well-aware how they've run rough shot all over us.
My big lieutenant nods a head at a discrete building just on the edge of the city. It's nothing more than a square block of concrete with a door, really. There's not even any windows. "Went inside there. Hasn't come out since, to my knowledge."
"Could have left while Romper was on guard," I point out. Another reason to be furious with that slack-jawed yokel. I'm seriously reconsidering my decision not to kill him.
"No." Vons shakes his big burly head. "After Aevil spotted it, I kept watch. Nothing has entered or left since."
I frown. "That doesn't make sense." What the hell would a blackcloak go into such a useless building for? And why stay there for several hours? It's utterly nonsensical...Unless, of course, there's another exit. A thought pops to mind. "Vons."
"You wanted to know where we're going? Well, we're going to check out that building."
Teddy Bridges (District 3)
The earth shudders and shakes as another shell detonates just down the street. Through the window, I watch as a building slowly collapses, it's supports giving out under the immense strain of the explosion.
"Get away from there, Teddy!"
A hand grips my shoulder as Nora hauls me away from the window, dragging me further into the darkened room where we reside. I don't protest, because I know she's right. All it would take is one richoeting bullet to pierce through the window and I'd be dead. So I merely follow my sister quietly to the back to the room, surveying our new temporary home as I do.
We are on the upper floor of what evidently had been a public building. The room is cavernous, bare and empty, with whitewashed walls that are stained yellow and green with mold. All along each wall stretch row upon row of empty shelves, covered in dirt, grime, and bird droppings. Discongulate piles of wood that might once have been tables or chairs lay in a few corners. Tall windows look out onto the street where the Capitol and the rebels make war, and marbled stairs led to the lower floor. The whole place stinks of damp and decay.
I hate it.
"It's safe, Teddy," Nora tells me when I bring up the stench. She sits on one of the broken crates, flipping a strand of her long dark hair out from her pale, haggard face. She's much thinner then she was before the war, but that's not surprising. Everyone is much thinner. "And safe places are few and far between nowadays."
"Maybe." She's right, of course. I should just be grateful that there's no reason for anyone to target this abandoned and decaying building, no reason for the Capitol to shell it with their mortars. I hate the shelling. Day and night it continues, shaking the earth and filling the world with endless screaming of missiles. You can't sleep without the sound reaching into your head, threatening to blow up your senses. Already I've seen buildings that stood tall my entire life reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble. The urbicide of District 3 is still on going.
As I think, the piercing cry of another shell fills the air. Nora stands up immediately, rushing to protect me, but it's pointless. The building shakes and trembles as the shell smashes down, somewhere far off and away from us. Everything goes back to an eerie silence.
Nora stops halfway across the room. "I hate this," She mutters, turning back to her spot, with her satchel swinging behind her. Immediately my stomach rumbles. "You hungry?" To my embarrassment, Nora hears it. Already she's reaching into our back, grabbing one of our precious few rations.
"I don't need it," I say quickly as she goes to hand me a slightly squashed chunk of bread. "I've already eaten today." Our supplies are low. Too low. We've barely enough water and hardly any food, the bread being one of the last things in the bag, along with a few sour apples and a string of too-tough jerky.
"C'mon, Teddy. Eat it. For me." My sister gives a small, sad smile as she presses the bread into my hands. I shake my head and try to give it back but she won't take it. Then my stomach rumbles again and the look she gives me let's me know that I won't be doing anything but eating that bread.
Nora backs off as I slip the hunk into my mouth, chewing it quietly. The faint sounds of distant explosions still ring in my ears, making me more nervous with every bite. I still remember how the siege started, that day we were in the marketplace. Nora and I were only buying food on our way back home when the earth shook like it was being torn apart. Then, in the sky, we saw the first of the shells.
The large marketplace was crowded with people, everyone just minding their own business, but it didn't matter to the attackers. The very first shell hit the center of the crowd, completely obliterating everyone who stood there. Blood splattered across my face right before Nora tackled me to the ground, saving me from getting crushed by a dislodged pillar.
Screams filled the air. The scent of death was everywhere. Nora pulled me up and led me into a side alley as several more shells rained down on the market, killing even more people. It wasn't until two days later, while desperately searching for a home and overhearing a Capitol broadcast, did I learn how many people died. One hundred and fourty-four. Another hundred and sixty-seven wounded. The television told us that the attacks came from some terrorist organization known as Those Who Don't Exist, but I know that's not true. It was the Capitol. They're the only ones with the technology and manpower of firing shells like the ones that tore apart the market and killed so many...
"You okay, Teddy?" Nora has noticed the crestfallen look on my face. I offer a fake smile to try and keep her from worrying. She's all I have in this world, especially now. We lost our parents young and were then sent to live with our aunt and uncle, neither of whom care very much for us. Not that it matters right now, as we've lost contact with them after the the rebellion started, when we were at the market.
"I'm fine, Nora." I'm anything but fine, actually. I'm worried about myself, about my fellow District 3 citizens and, most importantly, about Nora. But I don't want to admit this, because then she'd worry about me.
"Okay." My sister slips towards the exit of the room and instantly I'm on my feet.
"Where are you going?"
She turns back to me with a forced smile. "I'm checking the other rooms for supplies. Who knows? Maybe someone left some stuff in here."
"But..." The protest dies on my lips. Nora is a big girl, older than me. She can look after herself. Who would be in such a derelict building anyway? Still, if a shell hit us and we were separated...
"I'll be right back, Teddy. Don't worry."
I watch her leave the room, wishing I could feel as she said. How can I not worry? People die in the District every day. Blown up my mortars, or shot by snipers hiding on the rooftops. Sometimes even just ran over with tanks. No one cares about us unaligned citizens in this war; not either side.
I sigh and drift towards the window. There's been a rare lull in the artillery. For some reason they've stopped firing. Why could that be? Does it matter? Not to me. Maybe Rebels have assaulted them...
Down in the streets a shape bursts out from the building across from us. It's a man, dressed in dusty and ripped, but otherwise fancy clothing and screaming at the top of his lungs before a gunshot rings out through the quiet night.
The man stumbles to the ground. He does not get back up.
"Sniper..." I mutter my thoughts, but something doesn't add up. The way he fell, you'd think he was shot by someone from my side of the street. But that can't be. I'd have seen anyone else walking the street, unless they....
I throw myself away from the window, go running for the marble staircase where Nora disappeared. No, no, no! Not good! The only way someone could have shot that man from this side was if they were inside the building.
"Nora!" I scream my sister's name as soon as I reach the bottom of the stairs. In response, I hear her scream.
The scream comes from the door on my right and I throw myself against it, slamming it open. I stumble into a room very similar to the one I was just in and see her.
Nora lies on the ground, eyes closed and breathing slowly. A large, purple bruise covers the side of her face and a tall and thin young woman stands over her, clutching a black pistol. Behind her, half a dozen people mill about, all of them armed.
I let out a scream and rush for the unconscious body of my sister, only to be intercepted by one of the gun-toting goons. His thick hands clamp around me and he lifts me into the air, kicking and screaming with furious rage. "What do we do with him, Camilla?" The guy asks.
The young woman turns to face me, brushing a strand of red tinted blonde hair out of her face. Regarding me and my screaming with a contemptuous roll of her eyes, she scowls. "He's making too much noise. Silence him."
Before I can do anything else, the big man slams me against the wall and all goes black.
Aisha Hakeem (The Tower)
The door opens only half an hour after Palutena left. I roll myself off the bed the instant I hear that familiar muted pop, but I'm still not quick enough to be the first to the door. Blade and Banette race from the kitchen, nearly knocking me over in their haste to reach the door. The others follow much slower, and I join them after dusting off my sleeves.
Blade and Banette stop a few feet from the door, staring at the figure that has just appeared. Dressed entirely in black, wearing the same type of cloak that my rescuers did, the figure wears a mask inscribed with a "5". Unlike most of the others, this one seems to have a smaller body and is only slightly taller than Josef.
"Who're you?" Blade asks with a scoff, clearly not intimidated.
"I guess I'm supposed to be your guide." The figures' voice is young, younger than I'd have thought. It's also vaguely familiar, though I can't imagine how or why that would be.
"Guide?" Banette snorts loudly, stepping forward so he's toe-to-toe with the figure. "Guide to what?"
The figure shrugs. "To the Tower, I suppose. But first things first." Gloved hands reach for his head, and with one deft motion, slide the mask off.
Someone behind me gasps as a young, smiling face turns towards us. The boy laughs as he sweeps his dusty brown hair back with one hand, his blue eyes twinkling with amusement. "Amaya recognizes me," He says with a chortle.
We all spin to face Amaya. The girl is staring at the boy with wide disbelieving eyes. Then she glares. "You're with her, aren't you? You helped that imposter!"
The boy frowns as Banette snaps his fingers in realization. "Stephen! You're Stephen Star!"
That's when it dawns on me. Why I recognized his voice, why his face is so familiar. Stephen Star was the District 10 male from my original Games. He died on Day five, torn apart by a pack of ferocious mutts. But if he died...
"How are you here?" I ask him, suddenly very suspicious. Was he revived like us? And if so, why?
The boy scratches his head. "What do you mean?"
"She's wondering why you're not dead," Doug speaks before I can. His tone is calm and level, and his eyes betray no emotion. "In fact, I'm wondering the same thing myself."
"Oh!" Stephen slaps his forehead, laughing. "I forgot the Capitol faked my death."
"Faked?" We all pretty much speak at the same time.
"Yeah. I didn't die. Neither did Aelia. The two of us were taken from the arena by Those Who Don't Exist and--"
A loud, shrill shriek cuts him off. Amaya, who until this point has been very quiet, suddenly steps forward until her nose is inches from Stephen's own. "Shut up! Aelia is dead! Your masters killed her!"
Doug glances warily at Amaya. Her hair is frizzy and wild, eyes bright with a burning rage. Everyone else steps away from her as Stephen brings his arm up and taps against his wrist. A dull 'Pop!'echoes and I get the feeling that there's something different about him now.
"I don't know what you're talking about," He tells Amaya, backing up. "Aelia--the real Aelia--is alive and well. You saw her when she came to rescue you."
Amaya let's out a scornful laugh. "Oh? Did she? All I saw was an imposter. An imposter who killed my best friend!"
"What is she talking about?" I sidle up besides Doug and ask. I have no idea what she's going on about. Or what Stephen is saying. Two Aelia's'? Real and imposter? Huh?
He doesn't answer, but his eyes seem to gleam with knowledge.
"You're just confused," Stephen tells her, clearly uncomfortable now. "You should get some rest. Then you can--"
Amaya lets out a screech and leaps for Stephen, hands flying for his neck. But once she gets within inches of his skin, she's thrown backwards into the air. She zooms across the room, smashing into the far wall, where she slips and falls to the ground, shaking violently.
"What did you do?!" Blade shouts in horror at Stephen as Doug rushes to Amaya. Her shaking stops as his handa grab her shoulders, and he carefully checks her pulse.
"She's alive," He says.
"I--She grabbed me!" Stephen's stunned gaze flits between our horrified faces. "I didn't do anything! She just set off my pulse shield!"
"Pulse shield?" I raise a questioning eyebrow as I watch Doug tend to Amaya. Her skin smokes ever so slightly as she lies on the ground, breathing fast and shallow. If I didn't know better, I'd say she ran into a force field.
"Y-yeah. I-it's a thing we have here at the Tower," Stephen peers over Blade's shoulder, watching Amaya with concerned eyes. "It's a shield, kinda like--"
"The Capitol's force fields?" I interject.
He nods. "Yeah. But smaller and mobile. Nanoparticles are woven into our cloaks, which is why we wear them all the time. I don't know the scientific specifics, but they're strong enough to fend off bullets. Of course, only the Council and 9's have the best. My shield can probably only take one bullet at close range before oveheating and sputtering out."
"That's amazing technology," Doug says, rising to his feet.
Stephen shrugs. "We have lots of amazing things here."
"That's great and all, but will she be okay?" I nod at Amaya. I don't particularly like or even know the girl, but she survived the arena and that has to count for something.
"What?" Stephen lools back to where Amaya lies prone. "Oh, yeah. She'll be fine. Just unconscious for a few hours. Probably will miss the tour..." He turns around and begins fiddling with his wrist. "I have to tell the Council what happened. You two move her somewhere comfortable."
Josef and Banette, under Stephen's order, pick up Amaya and move her to her bunk. I notice that they're not very careful, just tossing her down and moving on. Once that's done, Stephen turns back to us with a forced smile. "Okay! Council said that the tour will continue as planned. Now--"
"Wait!" I hold up my hands. "How did you contact them?"
He smiles, showing us his wrist. A faint ceruleaun light glows from underneath the cloak. "I used my DNAC. But don't worry. I'll explain that later. For now, you have a tour to take."
Pandora Stryker (District 7)
The overwhelming scent of pine floods over me as I slowly move through the forest, feet dragging behind me as I aimlessly wander towards...somewhere.
The pine trees loom up like wooden skyscrapers, reaching for the sky with their frizzy birstles. Birds scatter in the sky, letting out shrill squawks as a hovercraft shoots overhead, leaving orange streaks against the pale-blue sky. I duck behind a nearby tree peeking my head up. Is it one of ours?
The symbol on the hull is different. The Capitol mark has been scrubbed out, replaced with the glowing triangle that those rebels so love. It's not a Capitol craft, but at least it doesn't belong to Those Who Don't Exist.
Unlike District 7.
Their invasion began only hours after the 400th Games ended. As the screens went black, the first of the bombs dropped. Their soldiers poured in from the sky, flying like winged demons as their pulse fire and missiles tore apart both men and steel. The local Peacekeeping force could do little to stop the massacre.
I, of the noble Stryker family, was only here by chance. I was learning about the District in an effort to gain the escort job. I inhabited the Mayor's home as the assault came, and I fled through the basement window when the killers came, slaying each and every person aligned with the Capitol.
I've been on the run ever since, desperately seeking a way back to the Capitol without being discovered. Because if I do, I will die.
The hovercraft disappears from sight, no doubt on its way to the main portion of District 7, where the homes and buildings are. If there's one good thing about those Rebels, it's good that they dislike Those Who Don't Exist almost as much as we do. Pitting them against one another would be a good idea.
I set off the moment the hovercraft is gone. Heading at a walk towards the mountains in the distance, it's peaks are like a row of arrow tips reaching for the sky. If I remember correctly, then the Capitol is pass those mountains. My home is a long way away.
My feet already seem to hurt as I move through the forest over nettles past glades. The peaks rarely seem any closer, and motivation is hard to come by. What will I even do when I get there? I know nothing about surviving out here. I'm surprised I'm not already dead.
When I first set off, I held out hope that the Capitol would send someone to retrieve me. After all, I am Pandora Stryker, cousin to the President and one of the most influential persons in the countfy. But then I recalled that it would be Leopold who is calling the shots. He'd never send a ship out only to collect me. He certainly wouldn't risk losing men and effort in an attempt to rescue a cousin he doesn't even like.
With that option gone, I thought that maybe I could meet up with some Peacekeepers while they attacked the District. Unfortunately, none ever showed up. I can only assume that is because the situation is too dire elsewhere for forces to be spared in an effort to regain a District that excels in a mostly useless export.
My journey continues. The sun stretches into the sky and my mouth begins to dry just as spot a gem-blue stream in the forest. It is seeping and dribbling as it swerves through the trees. Pebbles whisk about in the under wash like pieces of glitter as I kneel beside it and take a pleasant drink.
I remember that someone once told me that rivers are the heart of the forest. That they're where all life flocks, where roads open. Is this a good sign? I stand and glance up to the skies, where the serrated mountains loom in the distance. The river seems to stretch down from it's slopes. Could it be that I only need to follow it?
"Oh! Hello there!"
I freeze as a strange voice greets me. Leaves crunch underfoot as the person approaches from behind. Panic jolts me into action. I leap to my feet, hands flying out in what I assume to be a defensive position. I will knock him out. I will--
A young kid stares back at me, a bemused expression on his youthful face. "You planning on attacking me?"
My arms fall back to my side. The kid is like fourteen years old. What harm could he do? Tell the rebels were I am...
"Who are you?" I challenge.
He shrugs. "Just a boy trying to survive."
"That's not an answer." My eyes study the boy more carefully. His hair is a strange mix of black and white, blue eyes that twinkle with some silent promise. He's thin, but tall. Taller then me.
His eyebrows wiggle. "Yeah? Well, I don't see why I have to give an answer out here..." His eyes glance downwards. Only for a fraction of a second, but it's enough for me to notice the dagger curled in his hand. He's armed.
"Are you with the Capitol?" I adopt a small, scared tone, softening my features as I shrink away from the boy. I know for a fact that he's not aligned with the Capitol. Meaning he has to be with either the rebels or Those Who Don't Exist. Either way, it's best if it seems I'm frightened of the Capitol.
The boy is silent for a moment, then he laughs humorlessly. "I wish. Things would be much easier that way."
"Why is that?" Interesting. I fully expected him to vehemently deny any connection with the Capitol.
"Long story." The kid brushes past me, stooping beside the river and taking a long drink. I watch him carefully. I am no longer afraid of him. Even with that dagger I know I could take him. But, he seems to be useful...
"Why is a kid like you by yourself?" I ask him when he's finished drinking. He narrows his eyes.
"You're from the Capitol, aren't you?"
A paroxsym of shock spreads through me. How could he have known?! I open my mouth to deny the allegation, maybe come up with some lie, when the kid continues. "Your hair and accent is a giveaway. Also, your clothes are much too fancy to be out in the woods."
"You're perceptive," I say through pursed lips.
He shrugs. "Not really. I don't really...know much about the world."
"So why are you out in the woods?" I glimpse where and how he holds the dagger. He doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in attacking me. A good thing, that is.
"I..." He frowns and turns back to the water, muttering something to himself. "I need to get to the Capitol."
"Oh?" So do I. What a surprising similarity.
"Yeah. I need to get there...to heal myself." Pain flashes in his eyes as he turns around to gaze at the distant mountains. "I'm the last of my family. I can't afford to die. I need to live."
"I understand." This kid can be useful. He can assist me with what I need to do. So of course I need to be friendly with him. "What's your name?"
"Huh?" His eyes narrow for a moment, then he shakes his head. "I'm Finale. Finale Spectrus."
Altur Lysander (District 14)
I sit at my desk, carefully thinking.
The office walls are of paneled wood, and on the floor lies a hieroglyph covered rug that excudes power and prestige. It is thousands of years old, it's existence stretching back to long before the Dark Days. It has lasted the years, though all if it's owners have long faded from history.
A thin man stands before my bare wooden desk, just before the bloodstain where District 14's previous mayor had his head parted from his body by a Stryke Force operative.
"Our soldiers have not been able to catch the perpetrators, sir," The man is saying as I idly run a hand across the smooth mahogany desk, watching data and information stream across the flat-screen computers before me. "Whoever they are, they're very fast. Always slipping away into the shadows before our soldiers arrive."
"I don't want excuses, Spurius. I want results!" I drum my fingers against the desk and spin my chair around, staring out the wide, circular window at the gentle blue ocean behind me. The gigantic metal ships of God-General Belisaurus' National Fleet rest upon the waters, as still as death. Their commander is on his way as I speak.
"I understand, sir." Spurius bows his head. He is my assistant, a man whom I believe holds great potential. He is not very old, just entering his twenties, plenty of time to develop his skill further. And what skill he has. Manipulation, intimidation, and bribery are just a few of his many talents. He reminds me of myself.
But all his skills aside, his valuable position at my side is currently very tenuous if he does not get me the answers I seek.
Spurius' coiffed blonde hair bobs on his head as he bows his straight soldiers, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Sir, General Belisaurus will be here soon."
"I know that!" I eye him coldly before looking back out the window at the ocean. I still remember how I gazed upon this sight when I first gained office. The euphoria I felt whilst exploring District 14, from it's sugar fields to the fiery volcanoes hidden amongst it's jungles. I had everything I could possibly want. Money, power, a lab to continue my work. Everything was perfect.
But then Panem was flung into another war. The District's assailed. Even the Capitol's mighty forces couldn't prevent the outpouring of forces that attacked its borders. Several District's have even fallen, slipped from the Capitol's grasp. Needless to say, President Stryker is not happy.
I, however, remain in his good graces. Save for the District's that form the Inner Core, my District alone has not yet been assaulted by Those Who Don't Exist. My District alone that does not hide rebels amongst it's citizenry--I had stomped those out long ago. My District alone creates weapons above all others. Living weapons of mass destruction.
I, Altur Lysander, head of the Stryke Force B-Squadron, am one of the few people who currently does not earn the ire of our President.
Which makes the arrival of General Belisaurus very peculiar.
"Excuse me for asking," Spurius watches me through the tops of his eyes. "But why does a God-General come here? To District 14? Surely there are far more pressing matters for him to attend to."
Indeed. General Belisaurus is amongst the six highest ranked operatives in the Capitol. They control the armies, the navies, supply lines, battlefield operations, and tactical operations. They essentially lead the battle against the rebels and invaders.
So why does one come here?
The answer to that question lies with the string of unsolved murders that Spurius and his men have failed to crack down on. I turn to my assistant now, fingers steepled. "He is coming, because you have not yet managed to apprehend that murderer!"
The young man's face flushes red. "I assure you that I am trying my hardest! It is just that this is not a normal murderer! He seems inhuman! And there's those reports of wild mutts running about--"
"Stop! Just stop!" My composure has begun to slip. There is only so much stupidity one can put up with. "Stop with that nonsense!"
I hold up a hand and he silences immediately. "There are no wild mutts," I tell him firmly. "That is a lie fabricated by over-imaginative citizens bored with their meaningless lives."
"Sir, I really must insist--"
"Shut up, Spurius!" I slam my fist down onto the desk, rattling the computer screens and silencing my assistant immediately. "The murderer is a normal human being. He is not a monster, not anything remotely inhuman. He is a man. Plain and simple."
"Sir, if you would--"
"As for this supposed "mutt pack"," I continue, ignoring his protests. "I've checked every factory and found that no mutts have escaped. None. So there is absolutely no possibility that a pack of them are running loose in the District. Anyone who thinks otherwise is an uneducated ignoramus!"
"Sir..." Spurius tugs at his collar and points into the now open doorway. "General Belisaurus has arrived."
I turn my shoulders and curse inwardly as a heavyset man steps into the room. Tall and imperious, with a square chin and face chiseled from marble, wearing a rugged white shirt, smog-gray jacket, crisp and squared, decorated with bright red buttons, General Belisaurus steps up to my desk.
"It is interesting to hear you say that," He speaks with a loud, booming voice that echoes around the room and back. "Because, as it so happens, President Stryker has sent me here with the precise aim of investigating this "mutt pack" that you so vehemently deny exists."
Spurius steps back from the desk, shrinking into the shadows. I watch him coldly before turning back to the General, fake smile plastered across my face. "I have found no proof of this pack, despite a weeks worth of searching. So, I hope you would excuse me for not believing it exists."
I did not anticipate this. Why would the President send a God-General to investigate such a meaningless problem? And why Belisaurus, of all six he could have chosen? Belisaurus is well known for his straightforward nature and workaholic attitude. He also possesses a high moral fiber and prides himself on his honesty and trustworthiness. Essentially, he is a damn fool.
"Perhaps you are right," The General does not even look at me, passing by my desk as he goes to stare out the large viewport. "Or perhaps you are wrong. Either way, I mean to discover this for myself. I assume that you will lend me any assistance that I may require?"
My fake smile twitches on my face. "Of course, General. I will offer any services you may require."
How dare he treat me like this? I, Altur Lysander? I've studied more technologies than he has eaten! I've created majority of the mutts he's used in warfare! Any success he may have achieved on the battlefield belongs to me!
And he just strolls into my office with no sign of respect or deference! Without knocking! He has the gall to just ignore the proper necessities that I am owed! Who does he think he is?
A God-General, of course. The only people in all of Panem that hold more water with the President then I do, save, perhaps, the Capitol Council.
Belisaurus nods and moves away from the viewport. "Very well. My men will sleep on their ships, so you will need not find the housing to accommodate them."
"Is that all?" I can barely suppress the anger seething inside me. He came to tell me absolutely nothing then? To just impress his power upon me? I cannot stand that. I rise up to my full six feet, still several inches shorter then Belisaurus. "You'd better have had a good reason for coming here!"
He stops and eyes me coldly. "I don't believe you're showing the proper amount of respect for a God-General, Altur." He turns his back once more. But my hand shoots out and grips his jacket sleeve.
"I am Altur Lysander," I tell him as he eyes me in sudden surprise. "Mayor of District 14 and head of the Stryke Force B-Squadron. If you wish for any modicum of respect from me, you will treat me with the proper respect that I deserve." He stares me in the eyes for a long moment, then he dips his head, lips twitching into a faint smile.
"Very well, Mayor Lysander. I will."
I eye his expression carefully. I do not like this man. Wonder how much the rebels would pay to see his ships scuttled in the night... "Did you have any other reason for coming?" I ask. "Besides for informing me of your investigation?"
Belisaurus pauses where he stands at the foot of my table. "Indeed. The President has a few questions about...the specimens he had you commission." A gloved hand digs into his jacket pocket and returns clutching a tightly sealed manila envelope. "He would like you to look this over." He tosses the envelope onto the desk, and it slides just under my arms.
I watch it with glinting eyes. "You mean...the pair?" I ask him.
He nods. "The very same. You see they're rather..." He frowns, and I just notice the faint glimmer of fear in his eyes. I smile to myself. It appears I am still the absolute best when it comes to mutt manufacturing! "Well, they're rather unstable. President Stryker would you to report back to him as swiftly as possible. Now, if you don't mind..."
He jerks his jacket free from my grasp and heads back out the door, boots stamping along the wooden floors as he retreats out of sight. I forget about him immediately, turning to the envelope on my desk.
"He's a particular person," Spurius says, edging out from the shadows. I ignore the man as I pick up the envelope with deft fingers. What information does it hold, I wonder? What news of my greatest creations yet? I am quite certain that Stryker will be pleased with their performance...
"Handle the rest of my daily duties," I tell Spurius, heading for the door that leads to my personal quarters. "I have a letter to read."
Marcella Calico (The Capitol)
The floor beneath me is granite and angular. Black and white stones were arranged in mosaic to form an eagle carrying arrows, scrabbling across the floor in shades of obsidian and marble.
I neatly press my feet over the eagle, very careful not to tread across Panem's greatest sigil of power.
Above and around me, shadowed by balconies and lit in areas by small windows, the rest od the hall was built with stone and clad in mahogany and obsidian--every furnishing was either black or deep brown. Rustling in the evening sunlight were huge red banners, with the black sigil of Panem emblazoned on each one. Carefully, I raise a hand and touch one such banner, enjoying the smooth velvety feeling spread across my hand.
To my left, an armed guard makes a sound and I quickly retract my hand.
"Sorry!" I flash a small smile, but none of the gun-toting guards flash even a half-amused chuckle beneath their dark visors.
My escorts, all four of them, are apart of the Stryke Force. I was a little nervous greeting them at first, but they don't seem too threatening. Besides, they listen only to Leo; and he'd never authorize them to harm me.
I think back to the day the 400th Games ended. I was alone in my family's mansion, watching Madeva assault Aisha just after she killed Luxray. Then the inexplicable happened; the television cut out. For half an hour there was only speculation and re-runs. None of my Capitol sources could tell me anything.
I was about to up and leave when the television came back on, this time from a camera with a birds-eye view of the arena valley. It must have been attached to the dome of the force field.
It was an odd sight, but it became even odder when the camera began moving. Blue sparks flew from behind the camera, and suddenly it was pitching downwards. Steel beams and sparking plates of nanoFiber came crashing around as the camera began shaking and spinning as it fell. Everything was a blur, and then there was debris everywhere, light and shadow, then just light, light like a fire and--
The feed cut out again. Back to blackness, then a test card. But this time it was painfully obvious what had happened.
The forcefield had been destroyed, and the arena alongside it.
By this time no one was taking my calls. None of my sources would tell me anything. I was about to give up and check the streets when my phone called with a very welcome name. A childhood friend. Leopold Stryker. President of Panem.
He said very little, and spoke in a very quiet tone. Told me that the attacks were perpetuated by Those Who Don't Exist, the very same group that had killed my sister and father. But then he said that he had things to attend to, and that I should await his further instructions.
Weeks passed with no word from Leo. Panem slipped into rebellion, the District's rising up against the Capitol. And Those Who Don't Exist struck.
The very same night the Games ended, they blitzed District 7 and 13. Both fell within the night. Their superior technology and ruthless aggression were too mighty for even the Capitol. The Inner District's are safe for now, but how long would that last? We lose ground every day. Sooner or later the barbarians will be at our gates and...
My worries had abated when Leo called me. He told me to meet him in the mansion immediately and not waste any time. The Stryke Force operatives showed up at my door and then I was off, being led to the Presidential Mansion.
The guards transition me to another hall. I expected to me taken to the Reception Hall, but instead the guards take a left at the end of the huge lobby and down into a lavish--but far more secure--section of the mansion. Perhaps we are going to Leo's personal presidential quarters? A place where even I, after years growing up here, have never seen.
More turns. Right, right, left, right and then down to the end of the corridor, up to a large gold-painted door. One of the guards quietly knocks.
"Come in," A faint, but fantastically familiar voice emanates from within. I suppress a grin as one of the guards open the doors. They motion me inside and I quietly step over the threshold and into the tool. The door shuts behind me.
I stand in a large hall. It is, perhaps, larger than the lobby, and maybe even the Reception Hall. The walls are clad in flawless white marble, but there are no windows. Spotlights illuminated objects on plinths and inside of display cases, but everything else is cast in a deep shadow. I pace forward a few steps, looking at the items.
They vary in size and type: in the closest display case lay a larger-then-life marble bust of a long, austre faced man wearing a top hat. Atop a plinth in the far corner lights illuminated a black and partially destroyed vehicle of ancient aerial warfare--a helicopter. Along its side, huge white words, smeared and scorched with age, read USA.
"Admiring the Hall of Antiquities?"
He steps out from the shadows behind a display case, hands holding a small, age-battered book. My heart thuds against my chest as I see him. Leo! It's been so long since I've last had a real conversation with him! I admire his shapely face as he stops a few paces from me. "It's truly remarkable, isn't it?"
"What is this place?" I ask, gazing at the plinths.
"A place where we keep antiquities," He opens the book and flips through a few pages. "Things from long ago, best forgotten by the citizens of Panem. Some of the things here are old memories of the past, others would incite rebellion by merely being seen."
"Why do you keep it then?"
He shrugs. "Because it remains useful to those who wish to remain peace. If you know how your enemy thinks--or hopes to think--you can crush them before they start."
I nod. Leo was always so smart and strategic. I always knew that he would grow to be a fine military leader and diplomatic commander...It was why I always knew he'd never be mine.
Leo crosses over to an empty display case, carefully sets the book down and waves his hand. Immediately the glass retracts over it. "You know whom it was that destroyed the force field and ended the 400th Games, I presume?" His voice is flat and distant.
I nod. "Yes. Those Who Don't Exist."
I feel my blood boil at the very name. Those cowards were the ones to destroy my sister, assault my country...I couldn't hate them more.
"These items are from a time long passed." Leo waves his arms at the display cases around us. "They are ancient, and possess a powerful allure. Mixed with today's technology and beliefs, they could very well end the world once more." He paces towards the center of the room, where a dispay case sat elevated above the rest. The black rectangular item within was small and scorched, but it clearly was valued higher then everything else.
"Do you know anything of the world before Panem?" Leo asks quietly.
"I...no. Only that natural disasters destroyed it." Why is he asking me this? No one is taught about history that long ago. It's pointless.
Leo turns and offers me a small smile. My heart skips a beat. "Those Who Don't Exist are much like the items kept here," He tells me. "Powerful with words and actions. Old-thinking, but deadly. They rile up the District's to try to wrest me from power, but I very much doubt they have any plans on what to do when the rebels get out of hand. You see, that's the problem with people who make overly grand plans. They never know what to do once it works."
"I understand," I say.
Of course you do. You're a smart girl, Marcella." The smile he sends my way makes my knees as week as jelly. "So very intelligent and perceptive. I know that you will be perfect for this task."
"Yes. Task." He slides open a panel in the centre display case, carefully grabbing the item within. He turns it over in his hands, smiling. "It is a very valuable task. One that--if you succeed--could help change this war. It would also, and perhaps more importantly, allow you to avenge your dear father and sister."
I don't know what to say. An important task? Me? He trusts and values me enough for this? Even with the time we grew apart? I knew it! I knew Leo would see! I know that he hasn't forgotten about me! And when I succeed, I know that he'll forget all about that awful Anais Morrisa...
"Are you up to this, Marcella?"
This is the moment I've been waiting for. The opportunity I've always wanted. I can prove how great I am, why he should love me. No one else could help him as much as I will. No one else has the skills that I will use. No one else would full-heartedly put their life on the line for him like I will. I am the only person suited to do this.
"Are you up to this, Marcella?" Leo repeats the question, eyes boring into me. And I have the only answer I could ever give him.
Tate Lockwood (District 2)
I wake in a dark, cold room. Everything is eerily silent as I quietly lie flat on my back, one hand rubbing my head, where a large bump has formed. It hurts like hell, but I don't remember what happened to me. Must have made a mistake at the circus...
Memories of Harley and Blair flash back to me, and suddenly I remember where I am and what happened.
I sit back up quickly, blinking in the darkness. My mouth is warm with blood. I was entering Harley's room when something struck me over the head, and I must have been knocked unconscious. But...who hit me?
I reach out into the darkness with my hands, finding slight comfort when they brush against a wall on each side. I'm not in a large, empty room. That's good. But I might be in a small, cramped cell. That's bad.
"What have you gotten yourself in to, Tate?" I try to stand up and gaap in pain when I hit my head on something hard. Blinking away tears of pain, I stumble backwards and suddenly the wall behind me gives away and I fall out into a brightly lit room.
"Tate! You're awake!"
A familiar voice washes over me as I blink rapidly, adjusting to the sudden light. Soft hands grab my shoulders, helping me up to my feet. A warm scent touches my nose and I know who it is immediately, even before I see her. But when I do see her, I nearly faint with joy. Her fiery-red hair seems to radiate with an innate glow as her chocolate brown eyes stare into my own.
I throw my arms around her, bringing in for a hug that lasts minutes. "I had to come rescue you," I whisper into her ear. "Before he could harm you."
Harley breaks the hug, staring into my eyes quizzically. "What? Who?"
I don't know how to explain, but I have to try. But first, I check to make sure that the door is shut. It is.
"How..did I get here?" I ask, remembering that I had entered this room before being struck. "I thought someone attacked me."
"Well..." Harley looks off to the side.
"Harley...why are you blushing?" I can't help but notice the red flushing her usually pale cheeks.
"Well, I kinda...It was me who hit you."
She fiddles with her hands, a faint smile playing on her lips. "You see, I was planning on escaping from here, so I took a vase and waited for someone to come in. I thought it would be one of my father's men, so I didn't hesitate when you..." She trails off, looking only slightly ashamed.
I grin, despite my pounding headache. "You hit hard!"
She punches me playfully in the shoulder. "You already knew that!"
I pull her in for a long kiss. It's been such a long time since I've been allowed to kiss her. Much too long. I never want to stop, but unfortunately I must. We're still in danger.
"Are you going to tell me what you came here for?" Harley asks as I pull away and check the only window in the room. It's over the garden, but the ground is much to far to jump. "I take it you didn't just break in to see me, right?"
"Originally that was the only reason." I wish it still was. The fact that I'm here puts us in even more danger isn't lost on me. "But now things are...worse then ever." I relate what I heard on my way to her, and she listens in silence. Not until I finish does she speak, shaking her head slowly.
"No...No, he wouldn't kill me!" She's shocked. And rightfully so. What kinda monster kills their own daughter? "He's...he's not perfect, but he'd never kill me..."
"He sounded pretty serious, Harley."
"Yeah, but..." She blinks twice, turning away and holding her face in her hands.
I watch in miserable silence when a baby makes a noise and I turn to see little baby Blair lying in his crib. As usual, I lose my breath as I stare into his liquid eyes. I never get tired of watching him...
"When does he plan on doing it?" Harley spins back to me.
"Kill me! When does he want me dead!" She's terrifyingly calm now. Eyes flashing with a cold fury as she paces across the room, hands folded behind her back.
"Whenever he catches me," I tell her. She stops and regards me with a fierce expression.
"And you thought it would be wise to come here, knowing that?" Her voice has begun to rise now, and I sense the panic coming off her in waves. "If he finds you here..."
She doesn't need to finish. We both know what will become of us if we're caught. "We need to escape," I say suddenly. "Before he finds out."
"And how do you expect we do that? He has all the entrances guarded!"
"I know." I need to think. Think of a plan. There's vines outside the window, just like the ones I used to climb up. I could easily get back down that way. But could Harley? And what about Blair? No way can I leave him behind. "Maybe we can climb out the window."
"With Blair?" Harley raises a sceptical eyebrow.
"Well, maybe I could climb down first. Then you could drop him to me--"
"I'm not throwing my baby out a window!"
"You're not throwing him! Just...lowering him down," I sigh with exasperation as I see that Harely i® glaring daggers at me. That idea is done for. But what idea is left for us? We can't just waltz out the front door. I saw the type of security that was set up, and I have no doubts that it will be almost impossible to escape by simple means...
"Tate." Harley's voice is thick with worry as she gazes at the circular clock on the wall. "We have to go. Now."
"Why? I mean, why exactly now?"
She swivels her head to face me, eyes flashing with fear and worry. "Because my Father sends a guard to my room every three hours. And the next shift should be starting right now."
Teddy Bridges (District 3)
I have vague memories and thoughts flit through my head after I am knocked out. I can barely understand what is happening, what is going on. I can't see anything. My hands are tied behind my back, a strip of tape covers my mouth. Something over my head.
Rough fabric scratches against my face as I shift around on the hard metal floor. The air that filters through my mask is infuriating. Warm and thick. And with my mouth taped, I can only breath through my nose. Several times I panic and think I'm about to suffocate before remembering to breath and remain calm.
Remain calm. Stay down. Stay silent. Wait for an opportunity...then strike.
Whatever it is that covers my face--whether it be a cloth or mask--is pulled taut over my head. Down to the base of my neck, where it is tied off with a belt or something. My hands are stuck behind my back and the metal ground, raw and throbbing from where the ties dig into my skin. My ankles have been bound the same way.
Where am I? Where is Nora? Consciousness has begun to flood back to me as the ground beneath me shakes and rattles. Am I in a vehicle? But if I am, who put me here? That woman and her thugs? Why would she do that?
I wince and give a muffled gasp of pain as the vehicle gives another sharp jerk and my body bounces over my bounds wrists. Another, similar gasp echoes from the darkness around me.
I try to call for her, but the words can't get out from beyond the tape. Nothing can be done about it. I don't think I can do anything about anything. I'm trapped, prey. Whoever captured me has me at their mercy. I just pray that they actually have mercy.
I don't know how long I lie in the truck. Minutes, hours, days. I don't know. It could be only seconds, for all I know. But then it happens. The truck shudders to a halt. Engines turn off. I hold my breath and wait.
A door swings open. Behind me. I hear the sound of feet upon gravel as a pair of hands roughly grab me around the shoulders and drag me out the back of truck. I fall to the hard gravel with a gasp.
"Get up!" A man's voice growls at me as a boot connects with my hindquarters. "Get in line with the others!"
Others? I still cannot see through the bag, but I can sense the presence of others around me. And not just those who captured us. Others like me.
Hands pull me up and shove me along. The air is cooler, less thick. I can feel a pleasant breeze upon my hands. We're outside. But outside were? I don't hear the city. I don't hear the air sirens, the explosions, the gunshots. I don't sense the ground shaking with impact from the shelling. These noises are the lifeblood of the city. And even in the quiet moments when they are gone, there is a hum of electricity, a buzz of life. But I hear none of that.
Instead, I hear the swishing of the bag around my head, the whistling of far-off birds, and the crunch of gravel under my feet.
Where are we?
We walk in silence. I try to count the steps, but my head is too muddled to keep my numbers clear. Eventually the gravel under our feet gives away to paving, then lineoulum. Hands shove me to my knees, loosen the belt holding the mask in place, and then rip the thing off my head.
My nostrils flare with fresh air as overwhelmingly bright fluorescent lights shine down from above me, nearly blinding me. Dark shadows lurk around me, and I think I can just make out the shape of Nora, kneeled beside me.
Somehow the sight of my sister calms the panic that has been rising inside me. Now that I know she is here--for now--I worry about nothing.
Except for what these people might do to us.
"Think they'll be recruits?" A voice from behind us asks.
"Nah. I think boss just wants them outta the way. Too many people running around the District complicates things, ya know?"
"Correct. Also keep in mind that they stumbled upon one of our hideouts. If they were to tell the Capitol..."
They speak a lot. I can't wrap my head around all of it. Too much muck in my head. My vision is still adjusting to the bright lights that surround us. Nora sits beside me on my right, to my left is another brunette haired girl. I don't recognize her at all.
Then there's more footsteps and I look up to see another person entering the large, empty room through a pair of swinging doors. She's someone I recognize. It's the woman. The one from before, the one that ordered the man to knock me out.
"Don't just keep them here!" She snaps at the men behind us. "Take them down the corridor and place them with the others!" Once more hands haul me to my feet, but then the woman yells something at the guards and the mask is shoved back over my head as I'm steered away.
It's not a long journey. A minute or two of walking, and then the mask is once more pulled off my head and I'm face-to-face with a gaunt faced middle-aged man. A long, jagged scar runs from the bridge of his nose to the base of his neck. "Give me your hands," He growls, rancid breath billowing in my face.
Reluctantly I hold up my tied wrists. The man produces a rusty knife from his belt, and I cringe as he brings it down towards--
The blade slices through the rope and then I'm being shoved into a cold, barren room. Moments later, Nora and the other girl land beside me as I turn and see the man slamming a metal door shut and locking us inside. Quickly, I rip the tape off my mouth and wiggle the rope off my ankles.
"What an ignoramus!" The unknown girl huffs as Nora embraces me in a big hug.
"I'm so glad you're safe," She whispers in my ear. Safe? Not the word I'd use. Not when a group of grungy rebels just locked us inside a cobblestone room.
But I don't tell her this. Nodding numbly, I throw a glance around the room. "Where are we?"
The room isn't very big. About fifteen feet deep and twelve wide. Lumpy gray mattresses lie in the far right corner, four in all. The walls and floor and ceiling are made from the same exact material. A simple gray cobblestone. But I don't pay much attention to the decor, because in the near corner rests a much more interesting sight.
A trio of people.
"Hello, there." One of them steps forward, warily regarding me, my sister, and the other girl with cautious blue eyes. "I see we have more roommates."
Nora shoves me behind her as the other girl nods at the man. He must be in his early twenties, at least. His arms are thick and muscular, giving me the impression that he could snap my neck as easily as I snap a twig. He smiles wryly at us.
"I'm not going to harm you," He says to Nora. My sister huffs.
"Can't trust everyone."
"No. No, I suppose not." His eyes wander over our faces, and I notice the pair behind him watching us with much more malice then he is. One, a tall and broad-shouldered man with a thick skull and deep-set brown eyes, cracks his knuckles repeatedly.
"I don't like the looks of them, Dexio," He rumbles, voice sounding just like the truck running over the gravel.
"Easy, Edric," The guy apparently named Dexio waves a hand at the bigger man. "They're here just like us. Don't think they volunteered."
"Still don't trust them," The large man's gaze seems to focus on the unknown girl with us. Why does his eyes gleam with so much distrust?
"We were captured by those...people." Nora decides to take charge of the situation. "So, we have no idea why we're here or where here even is. I'm assuming they captured you three too?" Smart. My sister is so smart. Not that it's surprising.
"Yup." Dexio nods his head a bit more cheerfully then the situation requires. "They jumped us in the street, took our supplies, and knocked us out. Next thing we know, we woke up here."
"How long have you been here?" I ask, curiosity getting the better of me. I shrink away as their gaze turns on me.
"Not long," Dexio answers. "Just a few days. Newt's been here a bit longer." He jabs a thumb at the third member of his group. He's just as tall as the others, but thinner and younger then them too, not much older than Nora or the girl with us. He has neatly kept brown hair and brown eyes, but these eyes never seem to drift from the door where we were thrown in. "Isn't that right, Newt?"
The boy nods slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, we were taken a few days before Edric and Dexio."
"We?" Nora whispers in my ear. Who is he talking about? No one else is here with him, other than us three new arrivals. For some reason, the absence of another person sends a chill down my back.
"Why have they taken us?" The other girl speaks now. She's been silent for a long while, but now rises to her feet, dusting her hands off as she approaches the door. "And what will they do with us?"
Dexio shrugs. "No clue. And I don't think they've decided that, yet."
"They don't know what to do with us?" Nora asks incredulously. I feel another twinge of despair and fear inside my gut. "Then why'd they take us?"
"I already told you I don't know," Dexio sits back down, his back resting against the cobblestones. "But I don't think they're going to kill us. I mean, they seem to only hate the Capitol. And none of us are Capitolians, right?"
"Right." The unknown girl gives up on trying to force the door opens and drifts back to the center of the room. "I despise the Capitol."
"So do we," I say quickly, before anyone gets the wrong idea.
Dexio chuckles. "Good, good. Long as we're not affiliated with the Capitol, I think we could be just fine."
Harley Paramore (District 2)
Tate's face transforms into a mask of horror for only a short moment before his eyes twinkle with a clever light. "I can just hide in the closet," He says with a confident nod.
I shake my head. "No. The guard checks the closest. He checks everywhere." We had gotten lucky that no searches took place while Tate was unconscious. I don't want to think about what would have happened if it did. I can't believe what I've been told. Cobalt was never the best Father, but...killing me? I never thought he'd sink so low.
"What do you suppose we do then?" Tate throws his hands in the air and sits himself down on the bed. "You don't like my idea."
"Because it's stupid!" How does he expect I get Blair out that window? It's insane and suicidal.
Tate just mutters something under his breath as I turn and face the door. It will open soon. Within a span of a few short minutes. What can I do to prevent our deaths? "Hide behind the door," I order Tate, thoughts sinking in. He looks at me in confusion, but does as I say, pressing himself against the wall.
"Why?" He asks once in place.
"I need you to jump the guard." The door opens inwards. Tate will be hidden behind it. Once the guard enters...I've been planning an escape for awhile now. Only, I didn't expect to have Tate with me. So that should make things easier, right?
"Okay. But if--"
"Shh!" I shush him as the sound of footsteps become audible from outside the door. Someone is heading up the stairs. "Get ready!"
I slip to my desk, pretending to write something. In reality I'm positioning myself next to the slot where I've hidden a scrap of metal from the window. If Tate fails at silencing the guard, he will need my help.
Tate mouths something at me just as the door opens and a guard enters.
He's new on the job, so I don't know his name. He's one of the younger guards, with coiffed blonde hair and a perfect face. A perfect face that gets slammed with Tate's elbow.
The guard offers a meager shout that's quickly muffled by Tate as he swings the man around and slams him headfirst into the wall. The man slumps to the ground, unconscious.
"Think anyone heard that?" Tate asks, turning to me with a sly smile.
"If they did, then we're as good as dead."
I hurry across the room and shut the door, but not before carefully examining the outside landing. No one else is around. Good. "Get dressed in his uniform," I tell Tate briskly, grabbing a small bag I've kept hidden under my mattress. Inside I've stored some basic supplies that I have stolen and been hoping to use when I escaped. A flashlight, a roll of bandages, cotton swabs, a bottle of pills, several bottles of water, and a few other miscellaneous items. Not much, but something is better than nothing.
"What's your plan?" Tate is already pulling the guards uniform on, and I have to admit that we're very lucky that the two of them are the same size.
"That's not a plan, Harley. That's an objective!"
I don't answer as I throw a sling over my neck, gently picking little baby Blair up and lifting him into it. "I don't care how we get out. We just have to." I refuse to die. I've gone too long to give up now.
Tate finishes with his outfit, frowning as I pull the long sheet of metal out and hand it to him. "What's this for?"
"Hitting anyone in our way."
I don't wait for a reply, pushing the door open and creeping out into the hall. The warm scent of delicious food lofts up from the bottom floor, where the servants are undoubtedly preparing a meal. I head for the staircase.
Tate catches up and grabs my sleeve. "You're going to get yourself captured."
I yank myself free. "Do you have a better idea?" I ask, keeping my voice low so I don't wake Blair or alert any possible guards. I can't quite remember how many my father has employed. But it's more than enough to capture Tate and I.
He shakes his head. "No. But let me go first."
I relent and allow him to pass me, creeping dow the staircase at a snail's pace. I don't like this. I have no idea what the guard usually does after checking up on me. Does he go report to my father? Because if he does...won't he notice his absence?
Tate pauses as we hit the second floor. Why does our house have to be so large? It'd be much easier to get out if it wasn't. Then again, it'd also be much easier to keep an eye on me...
"Coast is clear," Tate waves me on and we continue down into the second floor. I can't help but notice how Tate marvels at every vase and opal-laden mirror we pass. You must think we're awful," I say quietly. "Living in such opulence while the people of District 10 starve."
He shakes his head. "No. I don't think you're awful." He pauses and peers down the next flight of stairs. A serving maid swiftly walks past below. "Only your father is." I bite my lip. But are his sins not mine too? Sometimes, I feel as if I should try and right what he has done. But how? How could I change or fix anything? I'm just one small, insignificant person. The problems my father has created are too vast for me.
Nothing happens as we reach the ground floor, but a new problem arises. How do we leave the house? There's three separate doors, but my father is sure to have them all guarded. Tate sees my hesitancy and stops. "What?" He asks. "Where to now?"
I don't know. But we can't just sit out in the open. If we're spotted... "The east door," I say thinking quickly. "Let's check it out. It's past the hall, two turns to the left."
Tate follows my instructions and leads the way. We encounter no people, which is odd, but welcome. Hopefully they're all in one big meeting and we can just waltz out the--
Two guards are stationed at the side door. One on the outside, one inside. Tate stops himself just in time and turns to me, sweat trickling down his brow. "Now what?" He whispers.
I grit my teeth together to prevent a scream. Of course they have the doors guarded. Why wouldn't they? I had hoped against hope that the doors wouldn't be so heavily guarded at least. But no luck. We're trapped.
"Harley?" Tate watches me with wide eyes. He shows none of the despair I feel. "What do we do now?"
I don't know. I never thought this far ahead. I don't know how we can get past. "Harley?" Tate continues to prod, but I have no answer for him. He grins and heads for the door. "Don't worry. I'll handle it."
"Wait!" I try to grip his arm, but miss as he walks around the corner and comes into full sight of the guard. Fear claws at my throat as the man lifts his gun and aims it suspiciously at Tate.
"Who're you?" He asks. His face is masked by a dark visor. Not a good sign. These guards are of a higher class then the ones who check on me.
Tate holds up his hands innocently. "I'm just a guard. A new recruit," He adds after the man doesn't lower his weapon. I just got here yesterday."
I bite my lip so hard that it bleeds. This is a dangerous game that Tate is playing. If the guard knows all the others, or if my Father has told them to be more on guard...
"You came with Chaswell?" The gruff man sounds a little surprised, and to be my great joy, lowers his gun so that the muzzle points at the floor. "So what do you want with me? His platoon was placed in the west wing."
"Yeah, but...I needed some help." Tate adopts a tone of false urgency as he waves the man closer. "I think I saw something..."
"The boy?" The guard steps away from the door. The one on the other side has his back to us and doesn't notice.
"Maybe. But I don't know. I saw him this way..." Tate heads down the hall. Right towards me. I want to scream, but I don't. What the hell is he doing?! When Tate turns the corner, I almost hit him. Instead, I save him.
"The belt," I hiss. "They keep a tazer on their belt!"
He gives a swift nod just as the guard arrives around the corner. Immediately he spots me, giving off a shout and lifting his weapon as he takes--
Tate slams his shoulder into the guard, pressing him up against the wall. The man shouts again as Tate takes the tazer from his belt. Activating it with a flick of his thumb, Tate slams the weapon into the man's gut.
He screams as arcs of bright blue electricity races across his body and he hits the ground with a dull thump. Tate turns to me. "Think anyone else heard that?"
Swaddled in my arms, baby Blair begins to cry. "I don't know. But we should get out of here."
We hurry around the corner, back to the door. The outside guard is entering the house when he spots us, but Tate quickly sticks him with the edge of tazer and the man goes down like the other, shaking and shouting as electricity spreads across his limbs.
Then we're out the door and onto the lawn. The fresh wind of air on my face feels indescribably pleasant after many long weeks of being cooped up inside. But we don't have any time to enjoy it.
Behind us we can hear the first signs of trouble. A man calling for help. Someone's noticed our exit, and that's not good. It's very bad.
"Just keep running," Tate tells me, helping me along. "Run until we reach the woods. Then we can escape the District. Just run for the woods."
Kane Brunus (District 10)
We gather outside the small building, all our guns trained on the entrance. "You sure they're inside?" Aevil asks, adjusting his string of grenades strapped across his chest. My entire squad is here. All twenty-eight of us. I will not allow this opportunity to pass me by.
"There's nowhere else for then to have gone," Vons answers. My lieutenant has his gin focused on the top of the doorway, where the head of a person would appear. He's wrong, of course. I have a hunch that there is somewhere else for them to have gone. And my hunches are never wrong.
"Scans show no sign of life," A thin, bearded man reports as he runs a mechanical device across the flat stone exterior of the building. "Nothing at all."
"I don't think Wexler is wrong," The simpering fool Romper thinks now is a good time to run his mouth. "The blackcloak must have found another way out."
My fingers itch to grab my glock and shoot him right in the head. How did such a weak fool ever manage to become a Peacekeeper? He couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, let alone a squadron of rebels. Still, he has his uses. So I won't shoot him in the head.
"Romper, check it out."
"Uh…excuse me, sir?" Romper turn his stupid little head towards me. "Did…did I hear you correctly? Did you--"
"You heard me!" I whip my glock out and level it right between his eyes. "Now, get inside. Or else." My finger settles on the trigger.
"Going!" Romper turns and very slowly approaches the doorway. It's dark and motes of dust float across the entrance. He looks back nervously and I thrust my weapon forward.
He steps inside the building and disappears. My soldiers exchange nervous glances, but none of then say a thing. Unlike Romper, they're all professionals. "What's in there, Romper?" Wexler calls.
The faces of those without visors reflect back a nervous confusion. I simply tap my feet impatiently. "We're all waiting, Romper!"
There's another moment of silence before Romper calls back. "It's empty. There's no one here."
A few of my men mutter amongst themselves, obviously frightened by the prospect of disappearing blackcloaks. I'm less so. I know exactly what has just happened. "If I call your name," I say, stepping towards the door. "Come with me. Now…Vons, Cyril, Wexler, Aevil, Severus, Stanford, Bellflower, and Launceston, fall in line."
The called soldiers gather themselves and slowly shuffle after me as I enter the small building. The place is dry and dusty. Our boots scuffling against the floor kick up a cloud of the stuff as we all pile in. I'm so stuffed, that I'm about to order everyone else out when the room suddenly widens and our group gratefully fans out.
"What's this room for?" Stanford asks. Stanford is a thick-haired fellow with a bushy black beard. His Peacekeeper outfit has been decorated with several colourful markings. He also isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.
The rom itself looks like a typical office. A flat wooden desk stands in the center, the far corner filled with a bright metallic lamp. The floor is covered with gray panels, and there's a painting hanging on the wall.
But there's no sign of the Blackcloaks.
"Where the hell did they go?" Vons demands as I stare wordlessly at the room around me. It's so small. Is my hunch correct? My men begin to fan out, a few of them poking at the walls with their weapons, searching for another door.
"There has to be another way out." I'm too busy thinking to really sound forceful. How in hells fire did they get out of here? I know there must be a way. "No way they just disappeared. They're not ghosts."
"What's your scanner say, Wexler?" Cyril asks as he rummages through the desk's drawers, nearly toppling the chair over. My technology operative whips his device out and waves it across the room. The thin, metallic device beeps a few times before going silent.
"Nothing else is here," He says after a moment. "Only us."
My men begin to murmur to themselves, their fear of the Blackcloaks returned. What kind of technology do they possess? Teleportation? No. No, don't be stupid. There must be something we're missing. Another door, or…
Here," Aevil says. He bends down and traces a tiny groove in the floor, between two gray panels. The groove runs around in a perfect two-meter long square.
"A secret passage in the floor," I say with a shake of my head. "How cliche."
Aevil pressed his hands on the center of the square and pushed. Nothing.
"It can't be pressure activated," I say. "If it was, it'd be popping open everytime someone walked across the room. Maybe there's--"
"Romper!" Vons suddenly leaps to his feet. "You found something?"
We all turn to see Romper leaning against the old wooden desk, a vacant expression across his face as he stares at the old, raggedy tapestry of the Garden of Eden. I snort in amusement. Where do the Blackcloaks think they fit into that story?
Romper ignores Vons, slipping around the desk and old wooden chair until he reaches the tapestry. There he lifted up the lower right-hand corner.
Underneath lies a small white square of power outlets. With nothing plugged in. Undeterred, Romper flips the pair of light switches next to the panel.
A hiss of compressed air blasts out from the floor behind us. A panel of tiles in the floor begin to slide open and reveal a hidden tunnel beneath.
"No way," Vons shakes his head as everyone brushes past him to gaze into the tunnel. "How did you know it would be there?"
"I didn't..." Romper frowns. "I just saw it."
The panel of tiles have slid into a slot in the tunnel, revealing a set of shiny, silver stairs.
"Well," I say with a wide grin forming across my face. No supernatural abilities here. The Blackcloaks just have another trick. "Whose coming down with me?"
No one answers at first. Then Vons shoulders his way past Bellflower and Severus to stand beside me. "I am," He declares with his thick, gravelly voice. "I ain't afraid of those damn Blackcloaks!"
His admission shocks the other men into action. One by one they all volunteer, until there's just Launceston and Romper. "How do we know it isn't a trap?" Launceston asks. He's a lanky blonde man, long-limbed and muscled from years as a Peacekeeper. "We could get stuck down there."
"Y-yeah!" Romper nods and points out the door, where the rest of the squad awaits. "We also need to let the others know, just in case." Coward. He's just frightened of what will happen to him down in the darkness. Not that it matters. I've made up my mind to execute him when this mission is over anyways.
"You're coming with, Romper!" I say. He cringes, then nods.
"Very well..." He reluctantly takes his place beside Vons. The taller man sniffs disdainfully at him as I face Launceston.
"Tell the others where we're going. Say that if we don't return in an hour, they should come search for us. Renault is in charge while we're gone."
The message is passed on, and then Launceston returns, standing beside us with a thin film of sweat on his forehead. He still doesn't like the thought of going down there. But I do. Those Blackcloaks have led us on this merrt chase for too long. Now, it's our time to get them.
"Get ready, you bastards!" I stare down at the steps as my men arrange their weapons. "Because we're coming for you."
The hallway we descend into is long and curving. The walls are a sheer metal, the floor a solid chrome. Pale lights hang on the walls, wrapped in protective casings. I can't see where the hall ends, as it twists halfway down.
"Keep sharp," I order my men, raising my P-90 so that I am ready to shoot anything that may appear in this hall. "And form up. Be prepared to shoot anything that moves."
They shuffle into place beside me, adopting the preferred formation for approaching unknown, possibly dangerous areas. Three of them, Vons, Bellflower, and Cyril making a triangle ahead of me. Romper and Stanford take places just beside me, while Aevil, Severus, and Launceston spin to cover our backs, walking backwards as we slowly make our way down the corridor.
Wexler keeps his head glued to his scanner.
"Picking anything up?" I ask him as we walk. Those damn Blackcloaks can't be far, and their advanced weaponry won't help them in such enclosed quarters.
"Still shows nothing," He replies without looking up.
I grunt. Where are they? A quick glance at my men shows me that they're nervous. None of them--save Vons--seem particularly eager for the upcoming showdown. Well, they should be. We're going to win. Guaranteed.
"Corridor is opening up," Cyril reports just as I see it myself. The walls suddenly grow out, opening into a large square room. "Keep the formation?"
"Keep the formation." If they're going to spring their trap, it will be here. Yet Wexler's scanner still shows nothing.
We enter the room slowly, our boots echoing on the shiny chrome flooring. I don't know what I expected, but what I do find is nothing surprising.
A row of neatly made single beds line the wall to our right. Enough for an entire squadron of Blackcloaks. Off to the left, a little kitchen area is set into the wall, and a pair of frosted-glass windows lead to what I presume to be the bathroom. On the far side, rows of shelves jut out from the wall, covered in boxes and crates filled with food.
"This is their base," Vons says. I snort. Of course it is. And they led us right to it.
"Fan out!" I shout, approaching the shelves. "Search for anything that will tell us where they went!"
My men spread out, guns up as they poke amongst the boxes and shelves. All except for Wexler. He steps up to me with a grimace. "I don't like this, sir. It seems too...easy, almost."
I narrow my eyes, watching as Launceston and Severus empty some of the boxes onto the floor. Old tin cans filed with food spill out. "It's definitely a trap," I tell him, crossing the room towards a corridor on the opposite side of the room as the one we entered from. "I just don't know what kind."
That doesn't seem to comfort Wexler. It wasn't supposed to. These Blackcloaks may be smart and ridiculously tough, but they have nothing on my ingenuity and instincts. Whatever their trap is, I'll sniff it out the instant they try to spring it. I'll see it coming and--
The hallway explodes behind me.
It is a horribly loud sound. The crumple and cracking of a structure falling apart, cement breaking, metal collapsing. A fog of dust clouds its way from the old hallway, blocking the already faint light.
My men spin around in terror, their heads swiveling around like owls as they search for the source of the explosion. Ears ringing, eyes blurry, I force myself to my feet and begin bellowing orders to form up.
Which was a wise move as it happened, because the next instant a detonation exploded against the floor directly behind me. The impact was so great that I was sent flying headlong at an angle down the hall and half into a wall.
Struggling to my feet amidst the confusion of shattered bricks, I turn around.
About half of my men are struggling towards me, their visiors clogged with dust and fog, their uniforms ripped. One of them--Cyril--staggers towards me then falls face first to the ground. A jagged piece of metal sticks through the back of his uniform, now soaked with crimson blood.
"OVER HERE!" I bellow at the top of my lungs, hoping those damned idiots will hurry. I can't see anything through the dust, but it seems that the explosion originated from the hallway we arrived from.
A pair of my men reach me just as a loud cracking sound vibrates from above. I look up at the ceiling and see something awful. "Get moving!" I scream at my remaining soldiers. One of them perks up and sprints towards me. The others don't seem to hear. "The ceiling is coming--"
Before I can finish, an entire section of the ceiling comes crashing down to the ground in front of me, blocks of cement falling atop one another with thunderous cracks. Two of my men are crushed instantly. The third is lost in a cloud of dust.
I curse loudly and turn to face the dark tunnel behind me. That room is destroyed. I can still hear the tremors of explosions as more are set off. If I don't get moving, I'll be crushed soon too.
"Follow me!" I shout to be heard over the sounds of the explosions, and the three men with me nod as I turn and sprint into the darkness. I think I see another figure join our ranks, but I'm not certain. I'm too focused on running.
Damn. I didn't think that the trap would be an explosion. I should have seen it coming! I silently berate myself as I take a sudden right turn, the distant sound of explosions fading as I lead us further into the tunnels.
Where are we? It's hard to see. Very few lights remain lit on the ceiling. One out of every five, probably.
Eventually, when we're far enough away from the original explosions to be safe, I slow us to a halt. I turn and regard my men, taking a quick headcount. There's four, so someone did join us as we were running.
"That idiot Romper triggered the explosions," Vons snarls, slamming his fist against the wall. "He tried to sneak back the way we came and set off some sort of red light. The initial blast killed Stanford."
"Did Romper die?" I ask. I feel nothing but a cold fury. If Romper's not dead, then I'm glad. That way I can kill him myself. Slowly.
Vons shakes his head. "No clue. The explosion threw me to the ground, and I had to focus on staying alive."
The rest of my men recount their experiences. Wexler lost his scanner; he dropped it while running with Severus and Bellflower. He managed to reach me before the ceiling crushed them. A pity. Those two were good soldiers.
Aevil and Launceston also survived. They were the first two to reach me. Apparently they had no idea what happened and went to go find me. Smart.
And as I saw Cyril die, that has everyone accounted for. Half my men died. Half my best soldiers. And now we're trapped down here, with the Blackcloaks. It's enough to get my blood boiling.
"What now?" Wexler asks, wiping his brow.
"There's only one thing left for us to do," I say, turning to face the seemingly endless blackness before us. Our way out is gone. No way we could dig through that blockade. And the rest of my squad won't be searching for us. They'll see that rubble and conclud that we are dead. I'd do the same thing. So we have one option left.
"We continue through these tunnels. And when we find the Blackcloaks...we kill them."
Anais Morrisa (The Capitol)
The elevator dings as it reaches its destination.
At the topmost floor of the world's new tallest tower, the Capitol becomes a mere map beneath me. The doors slide open, and Shay and Shiva escort me out.
I've never been here before, despite my closeness with Leo. This tower serves as the hub for the God-Generals, and Leo usually has them visit him instead of coming here himself. But today is supposed to be a special day.
I find myself in a large lobby. The floors are made of colored tiles arranged in jagged patterns, and the walls are entirely glass, revealing additional views of the Capitol and the vast mountains to the east. Leo must think this place secure from any attack, if he's willing to meet in such an open place. Then again, this is the Capitol. If those murderous bastards could strike here, then nowhere would be safe.
I purposely try to forget the attack on the Capitol Tower, the previous tallest building in the world.
A frosted glass partition separates the lobby from a private office, probably the one where Leo is meeting with the God-Generals. Silk banners hang from the ceiling. Polished stone pedestals hold golden and silver statues portraying a variety men and women in different poses. Victors? Here? Very odd. Everything in the room was rich and lavish; I find myself bored, and more than a little tired of seeing places so luxurious. When you're constantly surrounded by elegance twenty-four seven, it quickly loses its appeal.
Shay and Shiva guide me through a set of glass doors in the frosted glass partition, and we pass into a wide open office space. The office looks much like the lobby, only instead of statues and banners there are holograms and display screens. Contrasting with the bright floors and the bright exterior view, there is a black desk in the center of the room, made of a rare dark organic wood. It is large and rectangular, and several men and one woman sat on chairs beside it. At the head of the table, with his back to the glass windows looking down on the Capitol, sat Leo himself.
"Ahh, dear Anais!" He rises with a flourish, giving me an elegant bow. I giggle and curtsy in return, ignoring the icy gazes of the people at the table. Leo offers me a chair beside him, and I politely sit down as Shay and Shiva slip away into the rooms corners. "How pleasant that you have joined us!"
"I didn't think that your...friend would be joining us," One of the men at the table, of which there were are, fixes me with a glare as I primly cross my ankles. General Avias Vespasian, one of Panem's six God-General's. He is tall and blonde, with flashing green eyes and a smile that cuts like a knife. He's dressed in his usual get-up, with crimson silk, high black boots, and a black satin cloak.
In short, he's an arrogant, pompous ass.
"Anais is always welcome wherever I am," Leo says, sitting back down and organizing some papers before him. "If anyone has an issue with that, feel free to speak up."
No one does, of course. Leo is President and anything he wants is given to him. Including my presence at these highly secret, highly sensitive meetings. Smirking to myself, I turn and examine the others at the table.
Other than Vespasian, there are four in total—excluding myself and Leo—and all of them are God-General's. The most powerful people in all of Panem. Four men and one woman, these were the people responsible for fending off Those Who Don't Exist and saving the country. And all of them are here, in one room. Except for General Belisaurus; he is off on a mission in District 14.
General Parlin stands up to speak. He is tall, with heavy muscle like a soldier slightly out of his prime. His light brown hair, peppered with gray, hangs around his shoulders; his beard is short and well groomed. His blue-green eyes are keen and sharp, never leaving Leo's face. I listen closely, as I've learned that Leo harbors much respect for the man.
"With all due respect, President," He begins, facing Leo. His voice is a deep, brass tremor and vibrates throughout the room. "Your idea is...impractical."
"He means to say that it is absurd," A man at the end of the table says lazily. He's lounging back in his chair, stylish boots resting on the table as he picks at his fingernails. This is the first time I have ever seen General Crowe, and I must say that I do not have a very good opinion of him.
Despite his clothes being of the latest style, they are a disheveled mess. His heavily embroidered jacket is wrinkled and its golden buttons are undone, revealing his white shirt underneath stained with...something. His stringy, blonde hair is an untidy mop on his head, and his dull blue eyes seem lifeless, despite the amusement in his voice.
"It's simply absurd. I mean, we're in the middle of a war for our very lives and you wish to throw money away on this frivolous project?" His nasally voice echoes across the room and the other Generals nod in uneasy agreement. "It's such a waste of resources."
There's a long pause. Leo steeples his fingers, staring down at his papers with an intense look of concentration. I realise why I don't like Crowe. He looks and acts just like Leo's brother, Noctis. He's not present at his meeting; neither are the other two remaining Councillors. They've rarely left their villas since the war began.
Good riddance. The lot of them are bleeding heart cowards.
"This project would give the citizens of the District's the knowledge that the Capitol is still in control," Leo looks up calmly, staring each of the General's in the eyes. "It would slow the Rebels growing ranks, and show them that we're not worried, not even about that terrorist organization."
"Terrorists? They've already taken several District's from us!" Vespasian slams a fist on the table, his face turning beet-red with anger. "They've goddamn moved up from being called "terrorists", I think."
"Words have power," Another man, General Rahvin Kass, speaks now. He is a physically large man, with broad shoulders and a barrel-like chest that is twice as wide as anyone else in the room. His hair is dark black, but white at the temples. Most unusual are his eyes, which are a deep violet color. He claims that this is their natural color. "It is best to call them something derogatory, something that will make the common people think less of them."
"It won't matter what we call them when they're burning our homes to the ground because we wasted time and effort on a stupid distraction!" Vespasian takes a deep breath, then thumps back into his chair. "Their forces constantly harass my navies and hovercrafts. I could use the resources we'd spend on this...distraction...on improving those!"
Despite all the arguments against him, Leo seems remarkably calm. He watches his Generals argue with a passive expression, finally blinking when Vespasian falls silent. "We will soon turn this war around, General. Once Lysander's creations have overcome their...quirks, we'll see those terrorists crumble. Not to mention my brothers ExoSuits."
"Our President is correct," The only woman at the table other than myself finally speaks. Her long brown hair, cascading to her waist in waves, frames her caramel colored face. "We will turn this war around soon enough. But it will help greatly if we could crush the District's hopes whilst doing so."
"I still have my doubts about this entire thing," Kass says after a long moment of silence. "And yet, I see why you think that it is a good idea. I will lend my support for the movement."
Leo smiles. Despite the fact that he is President, and thus all true power lies with him, he has taught me that it is important to have the support of your advisors and generals. More than one President has been assassinated for failing to see that.
"Does anyone disagree with General Kass and Melendez?" Leo looks around the table, the beginning of a smile playing on his lips. None of the Generals make a sound, except for Crowe, who yawns loudly. "No? Then we have come to an agreement. The proposal is hereby passed and—"
The door to the office swings open. Every head in the room swivels to stare as a tall man strides into the room, a confident smirk on his face. Immediately the two Stipators step forward, but Leo waves them off with his hand, which surprises me. Did he expect this arrival?
The man stops a few feet from the table and I get a better look at him. Surprisingly, he looks to be around the same age as me, with long, shoulder-length black hair and purple eyes that are almost as vivid as General Kass'. I don't know who the boy is, but he is dressed the part. He wears a black suit over a purple and black patterned dress shirt. His shoes are tipped with crystals.
"I got a present for you," He drawls, lifting his hand and tossing something on the table. I can't tell what it is until Vespasian cautiously lifts it up. One of the masks that Those Who Don't Exists wear.
"Interesting..." Leo folds his hands together, leaning back in his chair. His eyes are alight with fiery anger. He does not enjoy being interrupted like this.. "Pardon my asking, but...who the hell are you?"
The boy laughs. He actually laughs in the face of Leopold Stryker, President of Panem and the most powerful man in the world!
"My name is Surorian Chaos, and I intend to be made a general!"
Now that elicits a response from everyone. Immediately the table explodes with shouts, Vespasian and Melendez calling for his execution for daring to think that he could rise to their position. Kass narrows his eyes and whispers with Parlin. Crowe claps his hands together and laughs hysterically.
Surorian, for his part, takes this in stoically. He stands straight as a blade, his unsettling eyes never leaving Leo. A chill runs down my spine. I don't know why, but this boy...he unnerves me.
"Why are you hesitating?" Vespasian addresses Leo, his hands balled into tight fists. "This insolent child just waltzed into our chambers and demanded to be made a general! He should be executed on the spot!"
For once, I find myself agreeing with the man. For this Surorian character to barge in and say what he did is the biggest insult that could be made. One does not demand anything of the President. One must beg and hope that he is merciful!
Yet Leo does move. He sits in his chair, silently contemplating the boy with folded hands. His two Stipators stand motionless. They will not act without Leo's express orders.
"Why do you believe that you merit this distinction?" Leo finally addresses the boy, his voice low, yet hard. Vespasian gawps in disbelief.
"For I am a great leader and can surely lead The Capitol's forces to victory!" There is not an ounce of boastful pride in his voice. This boy truly believes that he is not only capable of this feat, but worthy of it.
"Just shut this runt down and send him back to the hole he crawled out of!" Melendez fixes a fierce glare on the intruder. I can't say I disagree with her either. Why hasn't Leo already killed this boy? If it was up to me, he'd have been dead the moment he entered the room!
Leo ignores her, rising from his chair and slowly rounding the table. His Stipators follow. "So, you wish to help the Capitol, do you?"
"Yes." The boy sounds legit, yet I wonder about his true intentions...
"You desire to help us in this war, whatever way possible?" Leo is a few feet from the boy, and only now do I notice how tall he is. Almost six and a half feet tall, to be precise.
Leo peers into the boy's face for a moment, then nods. He turns his back on him, walking to his seat. "Pax, Dax, seize him."
The boy struggles but is too late. The two massive Stipators grab him by the shoulders, forcing him to his knees as he screams and howls about being better than this. Despite his size, he looks like a child compared to those two giants.
"Stop screaming like a petulant brat," Leo says as he retakes his seat. He calmly goes about reorganizing his papers. "You will get what you wish. You will help the Capitol."
"How?" Surorian nearly screams the word.
Leo fixes him with a smile. "By participating in the event the Generals have just voted to reinstate. By being the Capitol's male tribute in the 401st Annual Hunger Games."
Julian Veritas (District 8)
The air is alive with the sounds of modern warfare. Of bullets screaming through the sky, of the anguished screams of the wounded, of the shrill shriek of launched missiles, and of my labored breathing as I face down a squad of Peacekeepers.
"Concentrate fire!" One of the men screams the order as I take another out with my Telepistol. My pulseshield sputters and hisses as their bullets hit, but it holds up and I am undamaged as I take out a Scatter-grenade and ready to throw it, to eliminate the entire group.
Yet I hesitate.
Those are men. Enemies, yes. But still men. Living, breathing men with real families and real responsibilities. What if they didn't come here by choice? I didn't. I didn't sign up to fight for a strange organization, to take over faraway Districts. I didn't want any of this. I was just recruited against my will.
What if the same could be said for these men?
My hesitation costs me. My pulseshield fails under their sustained fire. The first bullet takes me in the upper arm, punching through my cloak and ripping a hole through the muscle underneath and emerging out the other side.
I scream, dropping to a knee. The Peacekeepers are apparently surprised that my shield failed, for they stare in wonder for a moment. Then they raise their guns to finish me off. I take one last breath and stare death in the face.
She falls from the sky, landing in the center of the plaza between me and the squad. Instantly they switch focus from me to her and fire, but their bullets are deflected by the pulseshield. She raises a hand and activates her Shockfist and the men are sent flying as a shockwave smashes into them.
Several are sent careening across the plaza, their momentum stopping only when they hit the walls of surrounding buildings. There's a sickening crack as each one hits, then they fall to the ground with a muted thud.
The ones further back in the ranks aren't sent so far. These are only blasted back a few feet, disoriented but otherwise very much an active combatant. But not for long. Not with her around.
She takes two out with well aimed shots, their throats splashing red as an incendiary bullet hits home. Then she flicks a wrist and tosses a grenade. It lands in the center of the three remaining Peacekeepers, and they stare at it in frightened shock before leaping away.
It doesn't matter.
The grenade explodes, scattering smaller, less explosive grenades as it does. But it's enough. The plaza comes alive with these tiny explosions, sending a cacophony of noise and flashing lights through the sky. When the smoke clears, all the Peacekeepers are dead.
She turns to me.
"Can't you do anything by yourself?" Though the words themselves are harsh, her tone is not. Madeva McGranger rarely ever takes her famed temper out on fellow allies, typically saving it for the Capitol and its soldiers. "That was the third time I saved you today!"
"Fourth, actually," I suck in a deep breath as I stand, trying not to look at all the bodies. I hate this senseless death.
The mask she wears hides her face, yet I can tell that she is glaring. "Okay, fourth. At this point you're just a liability."
"Yeah, I know," I'm a terrible soldier. Don't even know why they made me one, let alone send me off to a battlefield as volatile as the one in District 8. "But right now is really not the time to be having this conversation."
The sounds of war are still all around us. I can hear the fighting, the killing, the dying. Why? It's all so pointless!
"Where's the rest?" Soldiers of Those Who Don't Exist are typically broken down into groups of five, called cells. Each group consists of one Nine and either four Sevens, or Fives. Sometimes it's a mix of both. My particular group has Seven's.
"Annabelle and Gavin are patrolling the rooftops around the plaza," Madeva helps me up, injecting a StimPak into my arm as does. My body shudders with a mix of pain and adrenaline as the substance courses through my veins. In a minute or two, I won't be able to feel the pain of the wound at all. "Sven is dead. A squad of Peacekeepers jumped him as he was doing reconnaissance at the warehouses."
"Oh." I didn't really know Sven that well, but his jokes were always funny. I'll miss him.
"We're withdrawing now that you're wounded," Madeva takes one last look around the plaza, then turns her DNAC on. I close my eyes as I realize that we've failed. Sven was our cell's medic, and with him dead we don't have access to the proper equipment to fully fix me. It's Madeva's task as our cell leader to make the decision on whether or not we pull out.
"What of the other cells?" I ask Madeva. We weren't the only group deployed here. Seven different cells were sent to try and wrest control of the District, meaning a total of thirty Those Who Don't Exist agents. As of this morning, eight of that thirty were dead. Sven makes it nine.
"I don't know. Haven't heard from them. Might be having the same trouble, might not be." She finishes meddling with the DNAC and relays a message to Annabelle. As the receiver clicks on, the sounds of gunshots flood through.
"We're under attack!" Annabelle's harried voice shouts, swiftly followed by an explosion that makes me jump. It was so close, that I can hear it without the DNAC. "Several Peacekeeper squads! They have us surrounded!"
Madeva curses loudly. "Julian, are you ready to fly?"
"I think so." My Icarus wasn't damaged, so I should be able to move. Not that she needs my help. Since being rescued from the arena, Madeva has become somewhat of a legend on the battlefield. She's killed more Peacekeepers then anyone else, save the Council. People like to joke that when she arrives, death follows.
Those people are right.
I follow death itself as we take off into the air, our Icarus boots carrying us through the sky. Flying in the sky is undeniably cool, and it gives us agents an advantage that the Peacekeepers can't match. But it's also terrifying. One well-placed bullet can overload the Icarus's systems and destroy it's flight power. I once saw a man plummet over sixty feet just because a Peacekeeper landed a lucky shot.
We rise over the roofs of the dinghy tenements, staring down at the grimy, filth-covered District. I don't know if it was always this way, or if the war just created this mess, but it is a terrible sight.
Tall buildings rise all around us. As black and dark as the gloom of the deepest mine, with shattered sides and broken doors. Every surface—from the walls of the buildings to the numerous cracks in the cobblestones—is coated with a patina of grime. The slick, oily substance has an equalizing effect on the colors, blending them all into a single depressing hue—a color that mixes the pessimism of black with the polluted greens and browns of sewage.
We follow along the roof of one such building, honing in on Annabelle's location. The gunshots and screams that fill the sky are close. So very close. I find myself shaking with fear and trepidation as we crest a large smokestack and come upon the battle.
Annabelle and Gavin are hovering over the entrance of an ally, facing off against two squads of Peacekeepers and a halfrack mounted with a gun turret that occupy a nearby thoroughfare. Only the cover of the alleyway keeps them alive.
"Julian, stay back!" Madeva barks the order as she holds up one of the deadliest weapons we've brought with us on this mission. The Flustercluck.
I nod as she lines up the shot and fires. Two missiles rocket out from the guns massive barrel, they slither through the air; then detonate, becoming a dozen different micro missiles. These hit the Peacekeepers.
The first squad is torn apart, blown to pieces as half a dozen missiles slam against the ground around them. The second squad has more time to prepare; several soldiers dart away before the explosions, scampering down adjacent alleys and escaping the fate of their comrades. Most, however, are killed within seconds of the detonation.
I had thought that the arena was horror, that the terror I felt there could never be replicated. I was wrong. There you could see death coming, you knew who wanted you dead and how they would go about seeing it done. But here, here it is instantaneous. Any mook with the right weapon could end your life within seconds.
The halftrack is spared from the explosions. Hurriedly it tries to pull away, but Annabelle and Gavin are upon it. In seconds, it is reduced to nothing but a smoldering heap of scrap metal.
Then they spot us, and they float up with their Icarus boots. Gavin raises his fist in salute. "Ho, Madeva!"
Madeva checks her DNAC, ignoring the man's greeting. "I've just received a message from command. We're pulling out of the District."
"What! Why?" Annabelle and Gavin are a flurry of questions as I breathe a silent sigh of relief. I had thought that Command would never relay the order. Not that it matters, I reflect, since we were pulling out anyway.
"The Capitol has some new weapon, apparently," Madeva says, checking the skies. "They've annihilated two whole cells with it."
The shock of that news is like a blow to the head. I am unable to breathe as my mind runs the numbers through my mind. Two cells? That's ten agents. And counting the four of us, only twenty-one of us were left in the District before that...
"There's only eleven of us left?" Annabelle voices my thoughts aloud, the disbelief audible in her voice. We've never lost that many agents in such a routine encounter before. Many more have died in larger scale conflicts, but not in a simple raid!
"We need to move quickly," Madeva is saying, reloading the Flustercluck. Only she is allowed would touch the thing; if she were to fall in combat, a tiny explosive inside the weapon will be triggered and it'll explode in order to not let it fall into the Capitol's hands. Those Who Don't Exist are insanely possessive of their toys. "Before whatever killed them—"
A lone gunshot rings throughout the city, then Gavin's head explodes in a shower of red. His body tumbles through the air, control of his Icarus boots lost as he ragdolls to the streets far below.
"Sniper!" Madeva screams the word as she activates her thrusters, zipping across the sky and over to a new tenement. Annabelle and I fly in the opposite direction, panic controlling our every move.
A single shot with a high-powered sniper rifle is enough to punch through the weakest of pulseshields, especially at the mask, where the nanoparticles are weakest. Stronger shields—like the ones Madeva and the other Nine's wear—can withstand two to three shots, but sustained fire could damage it irreparably.
I try not to think about how my pulseshield is already down.
The sniper fires two more times as Annabelle and I adopt evasive maneuvers. We dodge behind chimneys, and duck and weave between buildings as we fly across the skyline. We're too exposed up here. If another squad of Peacekeepers spot us...
"Land in the streets!" Annabelle shouts as the air around us is warped by a screaming bullet.
Immediately she dips down and I follow suit. Our landing isn't as smooth as I'd have liked—I hit the ground too fast and am forced to roll in order to survive without injury—but anything is better than facing the same fate as Gavin.
I force the somber thoughts away. Now is not the time for mourning. I gasp for breath, glad for the StimPak that has neutralized my arm pain. I don't think I could have lasted this long without it.
"Annabelle, we need to..." I trail off as I watch my friend. She stands right beside me, staring down the street. Her rigid posture indicates the shock she must be feeling.
When I flow her gaze, I feel only terror.
Ahead of us, situated directly in the center of the street, is several dozen Peacekeepers. Beside them, placed atop a huge chassis, is a large, metallic gun. It's bigger than I'd have thought, but I know what it is, I've seen our own prototype version before.
A plasma railgun.
The very air around us begins to crackle with energy as the weapon charges. A humming fills my ears, threatening to deafen me, it is so loud. Purple sparks form at the guns muzzle.
Blind panic drives me onwards. My Icarus boots activate and I fly forward at an angle. A dark tenement looms before me as I rocket forward, but my momentum is too much to stop. I crash through a window at full speed.
Glass shards sprinkle around me as I hit a wooden floor, tossing and spinning too fast to see. A sound that is like a sonic boom explodes outside the window. A purplish-gold glow lights up from somewhere.
I crawl to my knees, my stomach doing somersaults as I do. I'm in a old study of sorts, a dusty bookshelf sits in the corner, and an old, decrepit desk is behind me. I ignore this, however, and head for the window.
Outside, on the street I just fled, Annabelle is nothing but a pile of ash. Annabelle Harret. She survived the Hunger Games, escaped the arena. She was one of the few, one of the most ingenious tributes. She thought her survival was a divine blessing.
Now she is dead.
I fall back onto my heels, feeling numb. I can't...I don't...Everyone I know dies. Everyone. Why do they all leave me? I want to cry, but no tears come. I'm too dumbfounded to do anything but stare as the floor shakes beneath me.
Something approaches the door to the study. I feel it as it walks, rattling the floorboards and shaking the flimsy walls. I stand up and stare at the old door. I will face it on my feet.
The doorway explodes in a shower of dust. The mask prevents me from inhaling any as it swirls around me, wafting around my knees. The floor shakes. I breath in deeply, then the dust fades.
What faces me is something from my nightmares. I only ever saw it on television, but it has haunted my dreams ever since. It is one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen. And I had thought it was dead. How foolish I am.
The Annihilator takes a step forward, unleashing a earth shaking roar.
I laugh. I laugh until tears stream down my face and I can barely breathe. I won't be left behind! I won't be alone anymore! Jolee, I'm coming! Jane will understand. She'll join us soon enough anyways. I laugh my head off as the Annhilator raises a clawed hand towards me.
Death is a sweet release.
Banette Tsukomogami (The Tower)
Stephen slips his mask back on and opens the door, gesturing for us all to exit. "Don't worry about Amaya," He tells us. "She'll be perfectly fine here."
"I don't think anyone is worried about her," I snort as Josef and Aisha push past Stephen, wasting no time in leaving our room. "We all didn't survive the Hunger Games by caring about others."
Stephen shrugs his shoulders and turns to follow after my District partners, not bothering to see if the rest of us are following him. I turn and share a doubtful look with Azalea. "Think we can trust them?" I ask. I've been burnt too many times to believe these people have anything other than their own interests at hearts. No one does.
"We can't trust anyone," Azalea grunts, passing me by. "Not even each other."
"Pretty pessimistic," Blade mutters as he follows behind.
"Or just pragmatic."
He shrugs. "Same thing, really."
Out in the bland hallway, Stephen wastes no time in heading down the right corridor, still not even bothering check and see if we're following. We all are, of course. Where else would we go?
"The Tower is very large," Stephen tells us as he approaches a pair of elevator doors. I think they may be the same pair that I took to get here. "So we use elevators to get from floor to floor. Much easier then using the stairs."
"What if you get attacked?" Azalea asks, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "Wouldn't it be difficult to move?"
Stephen laughs like she just told a hilarious joke. "The Tower won't be attacked. You'd have to be the world's greatest fool to even try." The doors swing open and he turns to face us. "Everyone get inside. I don't want to leave anyone behind."
We all crowd into elevator and I'm surprised by how easily it accommodates us. "How come it's so large?" I ask as Stephen hits a button to shut the doors and send us on our way.
"Needs to be. Entire platoons have to move between floors." Stephen hums a cheerful tune as the elevator continues to...descend? I'm not sure. I've only been on these things a handful of times. Don't even know how they work.
Anyway, it's not long before we touch down...or up. At any rate, the doors slide open and Stephen ushers us all out into another non-descript hallway. He sets off at a brisk pace and we all follow in silence. There's really nothing to say.
"This," Stephen says, stopping beside a pair of wide swinging doors. He fixes us all with a long look, his tone growing unusually serious. "Is perhaps the most important room in the entire Tower. You must be exceedingly careful, as many people have gone mad from trying to learn it's secrets."
I exchange a look with Doug. It's that dangerous? Should he really be showing us it then?
"So, without further ado...I present..." Stephen gives the doors a little shove and they slowly slide open, revealing...
Aisha gasps as the room before is shown to be nothing more than a modern cafeteria with round tables circled by plastic chairs. The faint smell of food hangs in the air. It's empty as Stephen strolls into the center of the room. "Nice place, eh?"
"This is the most important room in the Tower?" I ask incredulously. "A cafeteria?!"
"Hey! An army marches on its stomach!" Stephen slips across the room, towards the kitchen area of the room. We all fall him quietly, though Doug and Aisha are muttering mutinously.
"Is everyone here a soldier?" Azalea asks as Stephen approaches another set of doors. He turns to look.
"No. There's many different vocations. Electronics, navigation, gunnery, medicinal services, lighting and repair, cooking." He shrugs, as if it couldn't matter less to him. "Many different things."
"How many people?"
Stephen opens the door and doesn't turn around as he goes through. "Don't know. Classified information."
Our tour continues. More sanitized halls and corridors decorated with strange art. Only now, we see other people. Majority of them are dressed in cloaks and masks like Stephen, but a few are wearing only gray jumpsuits as they slowly and methodically cleanse the floors.
"Why are they different?" I ask, narrowing my eyes at one as he passes by me. His face is completely blank and emotionless. His distant grey eyes don't even seem to notice my presence, despite the fact that I pass with a foot of him.
"They're Drones," Stephen answers without stopping. "Not people."
"You heard me."
I exchange a look with Azalea. Now that is a little suspicious. Not people? Whatever else could they even be? Somehow, I don't think I want to know.
We all continue to follow Stephen down the mazelike series of corridors. As we walk, Stephen narrates the journey like the tour guide that he supposedly is. He tells us that the Tower doesn't have very many windows because of them posing a security risk, and the fact the Tower often traverses through places with very severe weather.
"We would have to be continually repairing them," He says with a laugh. No one joins in, but he doesn't seem to notice. "But we do without. That's why we have the paintings, and the holoscreens."
He stops beside a simple gray panel that, when he claps his hands, transforms to show a picturesque view of an island. A striped orange and white lighthouse stands on a cliff overlooking a sandy beach. "We can make our own holographic images of anything we wish," Stephen says. "So we don't really need windows."
I shrug. "Whatever you say."
The tour continues, and we're shown some more places that seem very conventional and not at all interesting. Some bathrooms, an empty meeting room, a large lobby. Nothing spectacular.
"Where are all the cool rooms?" I ask as Stephen leads us into yet another elevator. How many floors does this place have? I'd ask Stephen, but the idiot would probably tell me that the information is classified.
"Cool rooms?" Stephen waits until we're all inside before pressing the button that sends the elevator off.
"You know, like weapon depots and stuff." A place with so many elevators has to have wickedly cool weapons, right?
"Oh. Those," He laughs again and I have to resist the urge to punch his stupid face. "I can't show you those. They're--"
"Classified," Doug finishes with a sigh. The guy almost sounds as disappointed as I am.
"Yes, well, I can't bring you there. But I can show you this next room!"
The elevator dings as it reaches it's destination. The doors slide open and reveal what looks like an insanely large room. It's filled with a multitude of things that I can only describe as...training stations.
"This is just like the training center!" Azalea says with a gasp.
Stephen nods in a way I bet he thinks is sagely. "Yes. That's what I thought when I first saw it too!"
The room is divided into two separate areas by a thick, white line that runs down the middle. On the outer side is a running track. It's just a plain, flat surface designed for easy running. The inner side is where everything else is kept.
Weights, lifting machines, rowing machines, treadmills, medicine balls and even a small pool are only some of the things I see here. Seems as if the tower is intent on keeping us in shape.
And the others. Everything I ever saw in the training center is here, from the knot-tying station to the holographic battle cube that only existed in the 400th games, it's all present and accounted for. It's the largest, most state-of-the-art training room I've ever seen!
"What is the point of this?" Doug asks, his eyes running along the length of the room. Is that...fear I see there?
"We're soldiers, aren't we?" Stephen doesn't seem to notice what terrible memories this room drags up. Which is weird, considering he was a tribute once too. "We need to keep in shape, and learn new skills to win this war."
"Then why is no one here?" Doug asks the question that should have been my first. Absolutely no one is inside the room. It's completely empty. How did I miss that?
"We have three floors devoted entirely to training. This is the smaller one, used mostly by lower ranking agents and new recruits. It doesn't see much use, but you should be glad for that. No lines for you!"
Too much information in too little time. My head is swimming with everything I've learned through the day, and its hard to keep it all straight. And I haven't even scratched the surface!
"Like I was saying before," Stephen crosses the room with a merry bounce in his step. "You don't have to--"
The air becomes alive with sirens. The noise seems to be coming from Stephen's wrist. Everyone looks around in fear and confusion as Stephen rushes for the elevator.
"What's going on?" I ask, noticing the frantic pace at which he moves.
He doesn't look at me as he signals for the elevator. "A patrol has just returned from District 8. And judging by the sirens, they didn't bring good news."
Brandon Corringham (District 12)
Groups of people past me by, on their way towards the train stations and presumed safety. I watch them as they go. Their bleak expressions show what little hope they still have. Their ratty and torn clothes show what little they own.
They have more than I do.
Families past me by. Men and women with children following behind. Though their faces are masks of fear and trepidation, they still have something I don't have anymore. A family.
I turn away from the long line of people, disgusted. They all think that the trains will save them. Save them how? Where can the trains bring them that is safer then here? There is no such place. All of Panem is living hell.
I stump down the cold, dark street, looking at my reflection as it flits through the wide square windows. My shoulders are hunched against the wind, my hands deep in jacket pockets. White trainers scuff the concrete. I look just as I feel; dejected and miserable.
Better than dead. Anything is better than being dead. I have to keep reminding myself that.
I stare into the bleak overcast sky. Dark grey clouds roil there, like harbingers of a storm. Soon that storm will break and all of Panem will feel it. And I know who will bring the storm.
Cloaked figures float in the sky, forming a ring around the District. They hover more than a hundred feet in the air, staring down on us poor peasants as we scurry about like ants. They've been here for days now; no one knows what they want. I have a theory, though. I think they're waiting for something.
I don't know what, nor do I really care. Why should I? It's got nothing to do with me.
I scurry down a side alley to avoid the throng of people flooding down the main streets. It seems that everyone in the District believes the Rebels promise of "a safe place to wait out the war". People are flooding in from both the Seam and the merchant section.
Idiots. People are idiots.
The deeper into the District I go, the less people I come across. Is everyone truly buying into that idea? Well, that's good for me. The fewer people still here, the easier it will be to sneak into houses and steal. That's how I've been getting by for the last few weeks; there is no other way to attain food, besides begging.
My destination-less journey takes me past the entrances to the mines. They're located on the very edge of the District, near the Seam, so that the odor wouldn't bother the richer folk.
I step pass the chain link fence that blocks the way into the mouth of the three massive tunnels that miners like Father worked in, digging up valuable ores. The largest of these is called the Reek, because of the lecherous stench it gives off and for the dark fog that fumes from its depths. Father worked there before he was killed in the rioting.
It was the rebels who did it. It was their sabotage that took down the mines and killed Father. People like to pretend that they're better than the Capitol, that they would change things, but those people are wrong.
The rebels are corrupt, just like the Capitol. If they won, things wouldn't get any better. They'd just get worse.
The sight of the mines is just making me angry. I should go. With my head down, I turn away from the sight and pick a random direction in which to walk. For several long moments I trudge along in depressing silence, then I turn a corner and bump into him.
"Watch where you're going!" The boy shouts out furiously as his butt hits the cement. Rubbing the spot ruefully, he stands up and fixes me with a glare. "What are you even doing?"
I could ask him the same thing. The dark-skinned boy has a backpack over his shoulders and a duffel bag across his arms. Not to mention the fanny pack. "Why do you have so much stuff?"
He narrows his eyes, squiggly eyebrows looking like their dancing across his face. "That's none of your business!"
I shrug. "Guess not."
The boy seems surprised that I'm so disinterested. He shouldn't be. The only reason I asked him anything was because he asked me first. Usually I couldn't care less about what other people do. They bore me.
I go to walk on past, but he grabs my elbow and pulls me back. "Are you a thief? Have you stolen something?" The venom in his words take me back. And how close they are to the truth.
"No! I've stolen nothing!" Today, at least.
"Oh." He lets go of my elbow and I pull it back to my chest, rubbing it carefully. He wasn't very gentle with that grip. "Then what are you doing?"
"Don't you have a train to catch?" I shoot back.
His green eyes widen in surprise. "How do you know about that?"
"Where else would you be going with all that stuff? Half the District looks just like you." I hadn't taken this boy as an idiot, but idiots always sneak up on you. I'm about to head off again when I finally recognize his face. I've seen him before...
"You're the Mayor's son."
"Oh. You know that, do you?"
"Yes." I don't have much love for our Mayor. He has done nothing to improve my life. But I don't hate him like some other people do. He's just a figurehead for the Capitol. He doesn't really have all that much power.
"Hmm..." The boy—Hemsway Jr. Shirelale is his name, apparently—bites his lip, staring down the street with an absent expression. I shift from foot to foot. What is he thinking about? And why would the Mayor's son be fleeing the District...?
I decide to ask. "So, uh, why you getting on the train?"
The boy starts in surprise at first, but then he laughs. "I'm helping my Father, if you must know." He fiddles with his duffel bag, checking the watch on his arm. It's an expensive, gold thing. I should have known he was the Mayor's son from when I first saw him. No bones show through his skin, his eyes aren't pale and haunted, and he's actually a little chubby.
"You gonna spy on the rebels?" It was only a guess, but by the way his eyes light up with shock, I'd say I guessed right.
"H-how did you know? I didn't—I mean, I don't think...How?" He's panicking, his words coming fast and slurring together. It's almost amusing.
"I'm not going to tell anyone."
"—Only a plan, I wanted to—Excuse me?" He looks up, his panic fading. "What did you just say?" I repeat myself and a small grin forms on his lips. "Oh, great! Thank you! I mean, of course you wouldn't. You couldn't get paid if you turned me in!"
"For your silence, of course! Here, let me get it out," He digs a hand into his pocket; it comes out with a fistful of gold coins, which he presses into my hands. "Take this. Go."
I stare at the coins in amazement. The Capitol calls them "credit coins". They are a valuable currency in Panem, highly sought after. And Hemsway just handed me ten of them as if that was a minimal amount. As if it was an insignificant thing to give. In scrap value alone, a single coin could get me enough food for a month. Ten coins was an excess of wealth I had never before saw in my hands, and it had been just the change in that boy's pockets
"You don't need to thank me," The boy says with a grin. He's gone back to checking his watch. "As long as you keep silent, that's good enough for me."
I stare at the coins for a moment longer than stuff them into my pocket, afraid that Hemsway will realize he made a mistake and demand them back. With this much coins, I don't need to steal anything!
"Huh. Are there more of them then usual?" Hemsway's question catches me off guard. I look up to see him pointing at the sky. "Those floating guys. Wasn't there like, half as much of them only an hour ago?"
I squint at the sky. He's right. There's definitely more of them floating around up there. In fact, there's now so many that they seem to blot out the weak rays of sunshine that managed to squirm through the clouds.
"What are they doing?" Hemsway scratches his head just as a terrible thought strikes me.
"They're preparing to attack..."
As if my words were the signal, the assault begins. One of the floating men holds out a hand, pointing, then another hoists a large gun to his shoulder and fires. A trail of smoke blasts across the sky as a rocket hurdles down towards the District, barreling straight for—
"The Justice Building!" Hemsway screams just as the rocket hits. The building explodes. Brick and mortar is sent flying every which way as the rocket strikes home, emitting a fiery explosion that shakes the earth and sends me sprawling to the ground. I roll onto my knees, pulling myself up as two more blasts shake the ground. Two more rockets slam into the Justice Building. Soon, there is no more Justice Building. Just a heap of smoldering rubble.
"Those bastards!" Hemsway is screaming profanities, shaking a fist at the sky as the attackers descend over the District like a black wave. They come screaming down to Earth as if they're shooting stars, smashing atop buildings and firing off bullets at any who resist.
There's not many. The Peacekeepers have abandoned District 12 a short while ago and now there is only the Rebels. Their soldiers fighting experience is almost as poor as their equipment; most of them have makeshift armor and weapons stolen from Peacekeepers.
They die in droves. Anyone who holds a gun is shot down by one of the cloaked men. They fall to the dirty streets, coughing out their last breath as their home burns around them.
And burn it does. The attackers fight with weapons specifically designed to set the District ablaze; flamethrowers, incendiary grenades, and rocket launchers send the coal dust filled buildings up in flames as easily.
District 12 will be obliterated for the second time.
"Get moving! We need to reach the train!"
It's not until Hemsway grabs my arm and pulls me along the streets do I realize what is happening. I need to get out of here. Before everything burns.
We sprint down the street, our feet pounding against the cobblestone. A trio of Rebel soldiers pour out of a flaming building, screaming about regrouping. A cloaked figure appears overhead and fires off several rounds. Two of the rebels go down with bullets in their skulls, the third is shot in the leg.
We run past this man as he screams for mercy, begging us to help. We don't. And why should we? Every soldier gets killed. Everyone who even looks like they're resisting gets killed. As we run, I see a woman trying to put out the fire that is ravaging her house get shot by a passing blackcloak. Another man is merely attempting to haul an old chest down the street, yet another Blackcloak lands beside him and fills him with bullets.
The message is clear. Leave the District. Take nothing with you.
Hemsway and I avoid the main thoroughfare of the District, for that seems to be the center point of the Blackcloaks attacks. Screaming people come filing out from here, scattering in every direction as they flee the unquenchable fires.
I don't understand what their goal is. Why are they just completely annihilating the District? The Peacekeepers and the Capitol have already abandoned us! As we near the edge of the District, where I started my day, Hemsway skids to a halt. "My parents! They're going to kill them!"
He turns to plunge back into the flaming District, but I grab the back of his shirt. "Stop! You'll get yourself killed!"
"I can't leave my parents behind!" Hemsway is stronger than I'd thought, and he easily shakes me off. The boy darts forward again, but this time I leap after him and grab at his legs. I catch his ankle and he falls to the ground, sobbing. "They'll die!"
"There's nothing we can do for them," I tell him coldly. What's the point in risking your life trying to find someone who may already be dead? "They wouldn't want you getting yourself killed looking for them."
An explosion punctuates my words. There's a loud creaking sound, then a building tilts over, falling sideways and slamming into another building and taking it down as well. The two buildings fall with a dusty shudder.
"You see? There's nothing but death in there!"
I pull Hemsway up. He allows this as I haul him to his feet, steering him towards the rail station. We don't have much time. No time at all, really. Our feet pound against the ground as we sprint for the station. I can see it now. Massive groups of people flock around the train as it slowly pulls out of the station, chugging along the rails.
People are desperately attempting to climb onto the train, grabbing onto the sides, crawling up to the roof, or trying pull themselves into the container cars on the back. Some of them make it. Most don't. They're either shoved off by the people already inisde, or they're unable to pry the doors open.
"We're too late!" Hemsway let's out a wail, clutching his head. "We're doomed!"
"No we're not. Not yet."
I take off sprinting, not bothering to check if Hemsway is following. Another massive tremor shakes the earth beneath my feet. I stumble but stay up, running through the plains towards a hill overlooking the rails. The train will pass by here then…
"This is crazy!" Hemsway screams from beside me. So he followed after all. "You're crazy! The whole world's gone crazy!"
I don't bother pointing out that nothing about the world has changed. It was always this way.
My legs and calfs are screaming as I reach the hill. My breath comes in ragged gasps as I cast my eyes about for the train. It's about halfway here. Those poor people are still attempting to get on, but it's really picking up speed. Soon it'll be too fast. "Wait for it to come closer," I tell Hemsway, lining myself about on the edge of the hill. "Then, you jump."
He doesn't respond. He probably thinks that I'm insane. I don't care. I feel rather insane today. Might as well risk my life for this. It's not like I've anything to lose.
The train rapidly approaches. I tap Hemsway on the shoulder. "Get ready."
I hear him moan in terror as I stand up and watch the first few train cars hurtle past. Then I fling myself off the hill.
Everything happens too fast. One moment I'm suspended in midair, the train a blurry sight before me, and the next I'm slamming into a group of people aboard the very last container.
They shriek and scream as I fall atop them. The ones who face the bulk of my weight buckle and fall. I fall with them. Into the pile of human debris, into the collective sweat and filth of humanity.
For a moment, I think I'll drown in the people. What a way to go. But then the weight disappears and I'm being hauled to my feet by a beefy armed man. "What the hell was that! Who are you two?"
Two? I blink twice, trying to look around the crowded container. The side doors are open on both sides, and its jam packed with people. Judging by their haunted expressions and slim bodies, they're all from the Seam. There's barely any room for me and the beefy man to stand. As I think this, someone elbows me in the ribcage.
"You're insane!" A boy shoves his way through the crowd, eyes rolling wildly around in his skull. "Absolutely, positively, insane!"
"Good to see you made the jump, Hemsway." I'm actually surprised he jumped at all. He doesn't seem to share the sentiment, however, as he fixes me with a fierce glare.
"You! I should strangle you! You nearly got me—"
"Who. Are. You. Two!" The beefy man interrupts Hemsway, grabbing him by the back of the collar and pulling him forward with a squeak. There's really not very much room for the both of us to stand here. The stuffy container is only bearable because of the wind whipping in from the open sides.
"I'm Hemsway—" Hemsway cuts himself off with a nervous look around at the people in the container. I guess even he is smart enough to know that telling a bunch of poor people from the Seam that he's the mayor's son isn't such a good idea. "We're, uh, brothers."
"You two?" The beefy man arches an eyebrow, looking back and forth between me and him. Probably comparing my pasty, pale skin to Hemsway's dark mocha colored skin. "Are brothers?"
"I…" I really don't know what to say to get us out of this situation. Why the hell would Hemsway go with such a stupid lie?
"You don't believe us?" Hemsway puffs his chest out and adopts a hurt look, for a moment, I actually think that he is offended. "Well, that's just racist! We're close brothers! Very close! Me and...uh..."
"Brandon," I say quickly.
"Yes, right. Me and my brother Brandon! We're such good—"
"Hold up, hold up!" The beefy guy tries to stop Hemsway's outpouring of words to no avail. I don't know much about this kid, but he sure can be a motor-mouth when he needs to be. I doubt that they will stop him anytime soon.
I turn my head to look out the open side of the train, past the huddled masses of refugees. District 12 burns. I can barely make out any buildings through the raging inferno that scours what was once my home.
Black shapes fly in the sky, veering away towards the horizon now that their task is complete. I feel like I should have some sort of reaction to watching this, but there is only this hollow sensation deep in my gut.
At least I'm still alive. That counts for something, I think.
Kennedy Marks (The Tower)
Inside the shooting range deep inside the bowels of the Tower, I take aim with a rifle. My target is far away on the opposite end of the long, narrow room. It's a foam dummy set up in a threatening position, complete with a fake gun. It's probably the most basic of all training exercises. Yet my hands sweat as I try to hold the rifle steady.
Today is a test. Higher ranked agents are here overseeing the training of us lowly Five's, ensuring that our skills are up to snuff. I've been here in this Tower for over a month, and yet I'm still treated like a child playing with her parents weapons.
That's just how I feel.
I'm no soldier. I'm not a warrior or a rebel, a spy or a technician. I don't belong in this place, this place of high tech design and advanced weaponry. I don't understand most of what I see on a daily basis.
Why did they kidnap me and take me here? I've never been given a straight answer. Camiren thinks it's just because they wanted to stick it to the Capitol, and the best way to do that was by stealing their tributes. Mahogany believes that they have some sort of plan for us. So either we're expendable or extremely valuable.
I don't know which one scares me more.
"Agent Marks, take the shot!" The man overseeing today's practice--the only way I can tell he's a man is by his voice; he's a very slight guy--stands beside me and nods. My mouth goes dry as I check my aim again and fire.
The gun recoils against my shoulder as the bullet streams across the room. For a brief second the only thing I can feel is my heart beating against my chest. Then the bullet slams into the wall beside the dummy, more than several feet away.
There's silence as I straighten up and hand the rifle to the next person in line. For once I am thankful for the mask--no one can see my cheeks burn with shame.
Everyone ignores me as I'm swept into the next phase of the test, joining a group of Five's as they jostle around the memorization board.
"Tough luck," Mahogany makes me jump as she sidles up to whisper. I didn't know she was here, thanks to those masks and cloaks. Why do they insist we always wear them? I can barely tell anyone apart!
"I don't belong here," I say bitterly. I want to go home. I feel as if I've already avenged Jamieson by surviving the Hunger Games. I don't need to personally destroy the Capitol too. That seems to be what drives the rest of these people. All of them, for one reason or another, want to see the Capitol completely annihilated. It's especially weird considering the fact that many of them insist that they didn't originate from Panem.
Where are they from then? There's nowhere else left in the world. I remember my teachings from school, and that lesson stood out to me most vividly. There's nowhere but Panem. Nowhere to escape to.
"Julian always says the same thing," Mahogany goes and unintentionally jams an ice pick into my heart. Julian. I still remember how I went and betrayed him in the 400th Games. In my defence, I totally thought that he was dying and that I'd never see him again. But then...this happened.
He's never spoken to me. Despite the fact that we were put in the same group for our first two weeks here. I never attempted to initiate conversation either. What could I say? I'm sorry for leaving you to die? I can't imagine that would go over well.
So we never spoke at all. We trained together, ate together, and lived together but we never spoke to one another. I should change that. Maybe I'll try and approach him when he comes back from patrol. I'm still surprised that he's actually a decent soldier. His skills were good enough that he was put into the same Cell as Madeva. Madeva McGranger, the Angel of Death.
Of all the tributes rescued from the arena, she has risen the furthest the fastest. She's already become a Nine, the highest ranked position you can get outside the Council. She's a better soldier then I've ever thought. I'm just glad that the Games ended before I had to fight her to the death.
Mahogany steps up to take the memorization test and spares me from having to make a response. The three of us--Camiren, Mahogany, and I--aren't yet approved for field missions. So we're just left back at the Tower, waiting for the time when we become ready and running drills and tests ad nauseam. It's very fatiguing.
Mahogany soon finishes with the test and it is my time to test my memory. Before I can, however, a beeping sound filters in through the intercom.
"The District 8 raid is over," The small man in charge of us stops the exam, checking his DNAC. "They want us to finish with the test and...Hmm. Agent Marks, Agent Vesta, they want you to report to Hangar 5."
"Huh? Me?" What could they possibly want with me? I'm not even allowed on patrols yet! Mahogany nods quickly, patting me on the shoulder and slipping past towards the door leading out from the large room.
"C'mon, Kennedy. Let's get going."
I follow wordlessly. The hallways and corridors that fill the Tower are many and winding. I've gotten lost trying to navigate them before, despite the fact that there are handy lights on the wall that lead to certain destinations. Blue, for example, leads to the Hangars.
Mahogany leads the way, following the lights. As we go, I notice that many others are following the same path. Are they also reporting in? Everyone seems to be moving at a quick pace, with hurried movements and quiet, urgent whispers. What happened?
"This isn't good," Mahogany mutters to me as we step into an elevator. Several other Agents--all Nine's--are also inside. One of them presses the button that will take us to level 68 and Hangar 5. "Something bad has taken place."
That's when it occurs to me. "Wasn't District 8 where Madeva's squad was sent?"
I can't see Mahogany's expression through her mask, but her shoulders suddenly tense. "Yes. Yes it was."
Other than Julian, I didn't really know any of the tributes who were saved from the arena with me. I mean, I've seen them before and kinda interacted with them, but it's not like I had a special bond with them or anything. So I'm kinda surprised that I feel so stressed out about this. The only reason I care, I assume, is because when you survive an arena with someone it...I don't know, brings you together.
The elevator touches down. The Nine's on board hustle out immediately, running for the Hnagar doors just ahead. Coming out from an elevator nearby, a troupe of non-masked people emerge. People I recognize.
"The other tributes!" The word escapes my lips before I can stop them, and soon enough I'm being swarmed by the group.
"The newbies!" Azalea says, her dazzling emerald eyes spread wide in shock.
"So Stephen wasn't lying," Banette grunts, sounding as gruff as usual. Tell the truth, he's always slightly scared me.
"Out of my way!" Mahogany shoves her way past the group, following the trio of Nine's into the Hangar. I stay put, marvelling at all the familiar faces. I haven't seen any of them since the arena. I was told that they were all...
"You're a real, live human being, huh?" Doug folds his arms, staring at me with cold expression. "Lucky you."
I don't know what to say. Have they been cleared by the Council? I suppose they must, otherwise they wouldn't have been allowed to wander the halls like this. The lone masked figure with them, Stephen Star, judging by his appearance and what Banette called him, turns to face me. "Uh, hello, Kennedy."
"Kennedy?" Blade, my former District partner--one of them, at least--pushes his way to the front of the group. Boy, his face brings back memories. Not all of them pleasant. Okay, none of them pleasant. "What've you been doing for the past weeks?"
"Uh..." I throw a glance towards the hangar doors. Do they need me? Probably not. "It's hard to explain..." How much has Stephen told them? What are they allowed to know? They are Capitol puppets, after all.
"That's really not important, Blade," Stephen sounds hassled as he slowly approaches the hangar. It seems to be a hive of activity. So many Agents crowd around the doors. "We were summoned here because...?"
He looks to me. I shrug. "Dunno. I just got here."
"Annabelle was on that patrol, wasn't she?" Stephen sounds sad as he watches Mahogany force her way into the room. Judging by the reaction of the emerging agents, the news is not good.
"Yes. She was." Annabelle was Mahogany's best friend in the arena and the short time they spent together in the Tower. If something happened to her...
"Ah. You've arrived."
A new voice draws my attention. A man emerges from the elevator, dressed in the usual black cloak but his is different. His is decorated with strange symbols and golden string. A member of the Council.
"Jack!" Stephen and I both salute at the same time. I place my right hand over my heart and my left behind my back, forming fists with both.
Jack waves a hand. "At ease, agents."
We drop our salutes, but we certainly don't go at ease. "What happened, sir?" Stephen asks, glancing at the group assembled behind him. They're all staring at Jack, probably wondering why we showed him so much respect.
"Nothing good, I'm afraid." Jack sighs, folding his arms behind his back as he watches the hangar doors. A group of Four's are helping a wounded Nine through the doorway. His cloak has been severely burnt, and his mask has been torn off.
"Whose that?" Doug breaks the silence, pointing at the man as he's led into an emergency elevator.
"The only survivor from the District 8 raid," Jack replies.
It feels like I've been punched in the gut. The only survivor? But Julian...Annabelle and Madeva...are they all...dead?
"I...I think I misheard you, sir," Stephen is flustered, whipping his head back and forth between Jack and the doorway.
"Unfortunately, you did not. Haven Nightlock is the only confirmed survivor from the attack on District 8. We have twenty-two confirmed deaths and seven agents missing in action. Agent McGranger is among them."
"Wait. McGranger? As in Madeva?" Aisha speaks for the first time. She looked confused for majority of the conversation before now.
"The very same. She is missing, so it is possible that she may yet still live. But for Agents Veritas and Harret..."
He goes on to tell us how there is eyewitness reports from Haven Nightlock that both Julian and Annabelle lost their lives on the field of battle. He uses many big words and talks about honor and dying for what you believe, but all I can focus on is that they're dead.
Dead. Gone. Like Jamieson. I take a shuddering breath. Mahogany must be torn apart...I feel torn apart, and I had betrayed Julian. But now that he's dead...
It's not fair.
"They survived the arena," Doug is speaking when my hearing return. He faces Jack with determined grit. "And yet you've already killed them all? How irresponsible."
An awkward silence falls on the group. I've never really seen anyone speak to Jack--or any of the other Council members--like that before. How will he react?
The man barely looks at Doug. He fiddles with something in his pockets, staring up at the ceiling. I hate these masks. You can never tell what anyone is thinking when you can't see their faces. Eventually, he turns and fixes Doug with a look. "You know nothing of the situation. I'd advise that you refrain from making judgments until you know more."
Doug seems to be about to say something, but then he frowns, lightly touching his forehead with one hand. "I…you're right. I shouldn't be blaming you."
The rest of the group shuffles their feet uneasily. They don't know anything about this organization, I realize. So they probably assume that they're just like as strict as the Capitol is. I thought the same thing when I first arrived.
It's not true, though. You're allowed to question the higher-ups, and you even get answers from them sometimes, if the question isn't too probing. They do have some secrets, but doesn't everyone?
"Now that you've all seen the risks of being an Agent of Change," Jack folds his arms before him, examining the group. Once again I wish that I could see his face. "You have a choice to make."
"What kind of choice?" Azalea asks.
"An important one. Will you join with us and become soldiers, fight to bring down the tyranny of the Capitol? Or will you refuse? You can, if you want. We will bring you to the City and you will be allowed to live out the rest of your lives in peace. I will give you some time to think it over."
Jack turns and walks away, motioning for me and Stephen to follow as he does. He leads us towards the hangar doors, which are slightly ajar. Inside, I spot Mahogany sitting slumped against the wall. Her mask is off as she sobs into her hands. Pity stirs in my heart. Annabelle and Julian are dead...
"Do you think they will accept the proposal?" Stephen is asking Jack. The taller man hesitates a second before answering.
"They will accept. I am certain of that."
We watch from afar as the group forms a tiny circle, their hushed voices carrying over the linoleum floor. I can't quite make out the words, but I think someone is trying to convince the others to refuse.
"Doug is not quite fond of us, yet," Jack says quietly. I look up sharply. How does he know it's Doug? "But he will be, in time."
"What if he decides to leave?" I'd been offered the same choice. Stay and fight, or leave to the City. I don't know much about that place, actually. Only that it's apparently a bastion of peace and tranquility, as well as the home of everyone Those Who Don't Exist has "liberated". There's a lot of things I don't know about them, to be honest.
"He won't," Jack sounds completely certain of himself as checks the time on his DNAC, "He'll go along with the others. They'll all stay and fight. Every one of them."
As he says this, the discussion amongst them seems to come to an end. Aisha seems to lead the way. Doug hangs around at the back, looking sullen. "We've made up our minds," Aisha stops in the center of the small lobby, fixing Jack with a determined gaze. "And we accept your proposal. We will help you in the war."
"I already agreed to do this anyways," Blade says with a small grin. The rest only nod to themselves. Banette is scowling, though. Then again, that's his normal expression.
"Very well." Jack nods to himself. For some reason, I get the feeling that he is smiling. "Then from this moment on, you are all Agents. You will receive the rank of a 3, and starting tomorrow, you will be trained in our ways."
Same thing that happened with me. I wonder if they know what they're getting themselves into. Probably not. I still don't know what I signed up for.
Jack raises his arm over his head, making a salute with his gloved fingers. "You're all Agents of Change! Train with honor, for with your assistance, we will bring destruction to the Capitol!"
Tate Lockwood (District 2 Outskirts)
I lead the way through the woods, occasionally throwing a glance backwards to make sure that Harley is still with me. She follows a few paces back, her bright red hair shining brightly in the pale glow of the rising sun. Blair is wrapped up tightly in a blanket that she clutches close to her chest.
I'll die before I let anything happen to those two.
It's the second morning since our escape from Harley's house. Getting into the woods wasn't that hard, actually, and once we were inside we quickly lost our pursuers. Or so I think. I can't be certain that they're not still following us, slowly closing in on our position...
No. I can't start thinking that way. They won't catch us. I won't let them. Harley and I have escaped, and we won't ever be captured again.
A crisp morning wind blows against my face as I push through the undergrowth that grabs at my ankles with reaching vines. Even though it's late summer, the evenings have begun to get a little chilly. It's not good for Blair. We'll need to find some kind of shelter before the night.
"Tate, what's our plan?" As usual, just hearing Harley's voice sends a tingle of pleasure running down my spine. Just being around her makes me feel more alive then anything else in the world.
"We need to get away from District 2. As far as we can." I stop on the brink of a small dip in the earth, staring ahead. All around us the serrated mountains of District 2 loom. Maybe we could find a cave up there?
"How?" Harley sounds exasperated as she pushes past me, settling down on a nearby flat stone. "You know that they've set up checkpoints all along the District's borders. This war has set my father on edge even before our escape."
I had been trying not to think of that, honestly. Despite all my thinking, I've yet to think of a way that could get us out of the District. Or where we'd go once out. None of the District's that border ours would be friendly to our cause, except maybe District 9. And their border is far away.
"We'll see once we get there," I mutter the same thing I've been saying for the past few days. Even though we've escaped from her father's house, it feels like we haven't actually gotten anywhere. We can't just stay penned in here. What if some patrols find us?
"We need food, too," Harley says as she checks on Blair, "Or it won't matter if we can get past the checkpoints."
That's another thing that has me worried. Normally hunting in a forest this filled with wildlife would be simple for a skilled woodsman like me, but to hunt, I'd need to leave Harley and Blair alone. And that's something I'm not prepared to do.
"I'll think of something." So much stuff to worry about! It feels as if the world itself is plotting against me, eager to ensure that I never get the happiness I desire. Why does everything have to be so hard? I just want a peaceful life with Harley and Blair, but sometimes that seems impossible.
Harley must sense my desperation, for she stops asking questions and focuses on the mountain ranges. I pace back and forth, trying to clear my head. How best to solve this quandary? I ain't the best thinker, but I usually can get myself out of any situation. How do I go about it this time?
"Tate?" Harley's voice has an edge of panic to it that draws my attention immediately. Within seconds I'm by her side.
"What's wrong? Are you hurt? Did something happen--"
"Shut up!" Her hand grabs my wrist, pulling me down below the bushes. Looking around, she lowers her voice. "I think I heard something!"
"You did? What?"
For a moment I forget to breathe, then I snap back to my senses. I whip out the tazer I stole from one of Harley's fathers guards and adopt a defensive position. I'll need the element of surprise if I am to beat more than two of them...
I strain my ears, listening for anything that does not belong in the forest. I can hear the wind whistling as it wraps around tree trunks, disturbing the undergrowth around us. The chattering of woodland creatures filter down from the path above us, but below us...
"Where are we going, Bridgette?" The voice is oddly youthful. I didn't think that Mayor Paramour would send someone so young after us. I thought he'd send his best soldiers. Then again, maybe they're with this kid.
"How many times are you going to ask that?" A different, feminine voice responds to the question. I motion at Harley, pointing down the slope, where the voices emanate. We can sneak past them! I mouth. If they're headed this way, we could avoid them by going in the opposite direction.
Being very careful to make as little noise possible, I tiptoe towards the slope. Harley follows close behind, still holding Blair. I really hope he doesn't decide to cry. That could ruin everything.
The voices become inaudible, yet I know that they're still nearby. I check and double-check the ground for obstacles before setting my feet down. I won't make a stupid mistake and step on a dry twig or something.
We get several paces away when the worst thing happens. A bird shoots out from the brush, cawing loudly as it zips right past my face. I lose my balance during my shock, and I feel the soles of my boots slide against the knobby tree roots underneath me.
Then I'm falling.
"Tate!" Harley screams as I teeter forward and slip down the hill. My body grates against chunks of rock jutting out from the dirt as I roll downwards, finally coming to a crashing halt against a tree trunk.
Dazed, I stare up into the blue sky. Why was it spinning? I chuckle softly. It's such a strange sight.
"Percy! Someone is here!" The same feminine voice that I heard earlier cries out, and I'm scrambling back onto my feet, trying to get my bearings. I'm on the edge of a little forest path, where berry bushes and brambles grow close to the side. And on the center of the path, stands a girl.
She has to be around my age, with long red hair highlighted with blonde that spills around her shoulders. Her bright blue eyes are narrowed as she stares at me. But most importantly, in her hands she holds a rifle, with the business end pointed right at me.
"Who are you? Who sent you?" She spits out rapid fire questions, her hands shaking with either fear or anger as she cocks the rifle. "Talk or I shoot!"
"No one sent me!" The situation is moving too fast for me to form many thoughts. "I was just--I mean, we were only trying to--"
Both my and the unknown girl's heads whip around as Harley appears on a small overlook above us. Her face is contorted with fear until her gaze finds me, wherein it softens with relief. "Tate!"
"Another one!" The unknown girl spins on the spot, leveling her rifle as she takes aim on Harley. But my instincts have already kicked in, and before she can even get fully turned, I plow into her like a bull.
The girl hits the ground hard, the rifle squirting out of her hands and bouncing across the forest floor. Briefly I worry about it going off, but I'm seeing red, furious that anyone would endanger Harley and Blair like that. I hold out the tazer, ready to give this girl a shock she won't soon forget.
"I'd drop that, if I were you," Someone steps out onto the path, hoisting a large, double-barrel shotgun on his shoulder as he does so. His pale blond hair seems at odds with his ratty blue jacket and torn pants. "You see, I'm quite fond of my friend and don't think I'd like it if you...did something to her." He eyes my tazer quizzically.
"She attacked me first," I say, not lowering the tazer, "so she should be apologising to me!"
"What? That's a lie!" The girl's face wrinkles with anger as she pulls herself up, giving me a scornful glare. "I never touched you! I only asked some questions!"
"You aimed a gun at me!" And more importantly, at Harley and Blair. Thinking of them...where are they? I glance up and see Harley crouched behind a nearby beech tree, watching me with wide eyes. I nod reassuringly to assuage her fears. These two aren't searching for us, I think.
"You snuck up on us!" The girl walks over and picks up her fallen rifle, checking its scope before slinging it over her shoulder. "And were probably planning on murdering us!"
"Why would I want to do that?" Just who are these people? Looking closer, they really don't seem familiar in any way.
"Why else would you be lurking about in the woods?" The girl sneers as she checks a knife belt at her side. I think that she does it just so that I know that she has more weapons then just the rifle.
"Why are you lurking in the woods?" I challenge.
"That's...not the point," The girl actually looks uncomfortable, which is immensely satisfying for me. But I have to be careful. I don't know these people, and they could very well stil shoot me. "We asked you first."
"I'm Percy," The guy ignores the hostility that the girl is showing and lowers his gun. "And this is..."
"Claudia," The girl huffs the word. "Claudia Vaughn."
"Right. Claudia," Percy nods, seeming amused for some reason. He offers me a hand. I stare at it dubiously. "I'm not gonna bite you," he says with a smile.
"No. But you might shoot me." I'm adequately convinced that these kids have nothing to do with us, but that doesn't mean I need to trust them.
"Claudia is just worried," The guy lowers his hand, looking even more amused now. "There might be some...people after us."
"Oh?" Not good. I don't need whatever people whose chasing them to be after us as well! We already have enough pursuers!
"Yeah..." He seems oddly deflated now. I itch my shoulder, wondering if they'll let me leave now. If they don't, I'll have to find some way to disable them. But it wouldn't be easy.
"Who're you running from?" Claudia asks, catching me by surprise.
I blink twice, gaping at them as I try to think of a response. "H-how did you--I mean, why do you think anyone is after me?"
"Wait. You don't recognize him?" Percy interrupts with a look of surprise. The girl stares at him blankly, so he continues. "This is the guy who kidnapped the Mayor's daughter."
"What?" The exclamation escapes my mouth before I can stop it. We've only been gone for a day, and these kids already know? How?
"They're handing out flyers with your name and face," Percy continues, sounding almost embarrassed. "There's a reward for your capture. You might even be more wanted then we are!"
"I..." I hold a hand to my temple, reeling from shock. I mean, yeah, I technically did kidnap Harley, but she was being held against her will! She was going to be killed! By her own father, no less! "Hey, hey. You guys don't understand..."
I try my best to explain the situation. At first, I don't think that they believe me, but then halfway through Harley emerges from the forest and backs me up. "My father is an insane, cruel, and abusive man!" She says with a shake of her head, "Blair and I couldn't stand to be with him for another day!"
At the conclusion of our speech, Claudia and Percy exchange looks. "I suppose that sounds somewhat believable," Claudia mutters.
"I didn't really care if it was true or not, either way," Percy says with a small laugh.
"So you're not gonna turn us in?" I ask, feeling a small ray of hope. After learning that they knew about me, I had totally expected them to act against me.
"Hell no!" Percy almost sounds offended. "Didn't you hear what I said? People are after us, too!"
"What a...relief," Harley steps closer to me, clutching my arm. I pat her hand reassuringly. I don't think this situation will turn deadly, which is a very, very fortunate thing.
"So...where you guys headed?" Percy asks, earning a glare from Claudia. I really get the impression that the girl does not like us at all.
"Away." I don't feel as if they need to know our plans. Even if they won't purposely give us away--which I am not 100% convinced of yet--they might be forced to if they're captured.
"You have a plan to get past the checkpoints?" Percy raises an eyebrow. When we don't answer, he pats the backpack on his shoulder. "And do you have any supplies?"
An uncomfortable silence. This was always the low point of our plans. Percy waggles his eyebrows as Claudia scowls at us. Harley shifts from foot to foot. "Might as well tell the truth," She mutters.
"No. We don't have any supplies," I say quietly.
Percy nods, as if he knew that all along. "Then you guys should come with us. We have more than enough supplies, and we've also got a plan to get through the checkpoint!"
"Percy!" Claudia spins around and punches the guy in the shoulder. He grins. "Don't tell them that! They don't need to come with!"
"Why not? A bigger group makes everything easier, doesn't it?" As the two of them devolve into an argument, I turn to speak with Harley.
"What do you think?"
"We don't have much of a choice. We have no supplies, no food, no water. And that checkpoint is almost impossible to get past, if these kids have an idea..." She shrugs. "It's worth a shot, I think."
Well, I certainly don't like it, but what can I do? If Harley thinks it's a good idea, then maybe it is. I square my shoulders and face the two squabbling teenagers. Their argument seems to be coming to an end.
"We accept your proposal," I say as Percy faces me with a grin. Claudia is glaring at the ground. I think that she lost the argument. The boy holds out a hand. I take it.
"Then I guess we're now a team!"
Armado Roynclaw (District 6)
A few days have passed since I first woke up in the shelter. I didn't leave as originally planned, because I was terrified of what I'd find out there. I still can't really remember much of my life prior to this room. Who knows what awaits me out there?
But now that fear has passed. I will venture outside and see for my own eyes what has happened to District 6.
"Is everyone ready?," I ask, surveying the small group that is lining up behind me. I didn't want to announce my departure, but John made it mandatory that everyone who wishes to leave must say their desire aloud. I don't know why.
I wasn't the first to do so. The first day after the initial bombings, a thin man with a scraggly beard announced his intentions to leave. John gave him permission and he quietly left. The following night, two others decided to leave. There was a small scuffle as they attempted to take some provisions with them, but John and two other men forced them out before they could take anything.
That left twelve of us. Now, with my planned departure and the people who have offered to come with me, there will only be five left.
I had expected Lavender to come with, especially since she had chosen not to join either of the other groups. But the rest were a surprise. Spanner is coming, and so is Silvia—the woman who lost three children in the bombings—and Morina. That spunky teenage girl still hasn't said a word to me, only ever offering heated glares that leave me confused. What did I ever do to her?
Two others are also among my group. One is a young man who can't be much older than I am and the other is a shady looking man who likes to stroke his thin moustache. I can't remember either of their names.
"We're all ready, Armado!" Lavender replies with a cheerful grin. I think she's forcing her optimism; she's already told me how worried she is about her family.
"Right. Okay, then. Guess we're doing this." I nod at the door guard, one of John's followers, and he begins to twist the hatch to the door. All though he hasn't said so, John must be ecstatic that so many people are leaving. Since no one is allowed to take any supplies with them, he and his followers will have the whole stash to themselves.
The man finishes turning the wheel and the door slowly opens, it's rusty hinges creaking the entire way. "Out you go," He grunts.
"Thank you," Lavender nods at the man and steps out, tying a blue ribbon in her hair. Morina and Silvia silently follow her. When it comes Spanner's turn, John calls out to him.
"Don't you want to stay?" The tall man crosses his arms, fixing Spanner with a level look.
"I...no. I must go. I h-have people waiting on me, you see!" Stammering the whole time, Spanner slips out the door. As he does, John nods at me.
"You're all going to die out there, you know." He says it so matter-of-factly that I'm actually a little taken back. He stares me up and down, searching for...something. "You'd be better off here. You'd survive longer, that's for sure."
"I thought you wanted to be rid of all us," I say drily.
He shakes his head. "Only the weak. You're not weak, and Spanner has some actual skill. The two of you would have a space here."
If I had only wanted a safe place to stay, if I only cared for myself, I'd accept this offer in a heartbeat. But I have things I want to know, and I can't bring myself to abandon Lavender and the others.
"Thanks, but no thanks." I give a quick nod, then I'm out the door. Stepping out into a debris filled alleyway, I hear the door slam shut behind me. I didn't expect John to like my decision, but I really don't care what he thinks. I'm already pushing him out of my mind.
"Where to, Armado?" I'm greeted by the rest of the group, all of whom are just milling about by the rubble of what once might have been a bus stop. The air shelter was apparently built sandwiched between two large, tall, narrow buildings.
"Why are you asking me?" I stare at the sky, which is filled with midmorning sunlight. My skin prickles uneasily under all their gazes.
"I thought you'd have a plan," The young man asks me with a shrug of his shoulders. Now that I look closer, I can see that the other unknown man isn't with the group.
"Where'd the other guy go?" I ask, scanning the alleyway. He's nowhere to be seen.
"Huh? Oh, you mean Dwyer," The young man waves his hand dismissively, "he ran off the moment he was outside. Don't think he wanted anything to do with us."
Smart man. Looking at this ragtag group, I'm dismayed that they even want to stick with me. Silvia is a broken shell of a woman who jumps at the slightest noise, Morina is a scrawny teenager with trust issues, Lavender is an overly optimistic girl who trusts everyone, and the other guy...well, I'm sure he has some sort of flaw.
"What's your name?" I ask the man as I set off down the alley, glass shards crunching under my boots as I do.
I nod. I still don't like this. I don't want to be responsible for anything, yet alone anyone, but I don't see a way out of this. Those fools are going to follow me no matter what I do, so I might as well accept that fact. Taking a deep breath, I lead the way out from the alley.
District 6 stretches out before me. Its tall, modern buildings are lined with chimneys and flag poles. Everything seems broken and ruined; the streets are filled with bomb created craters, the buildings windows are shattered or ridden with bullet holes, and empty husks of cars flood the streets.
"It looks even worse than before," Morina grunts as the rest crowd around me for a glimpse. "It was always garbage, but now it's bigger, dirtier garbage."
Our footsteps sound against the cobblestone streets as we file out onto the thoroughfare. Morina is right. This place was bad before the recent air strike, but it's much worse now. I don't wanna think about how the people are faring.
"Be alert for Peacekeepers or rebels," Spanner says as we walk. "They're often wandering the streets, and getting on their bad side can have...ill effects on your health."
"Thanks, Spanner. I'll keep that in mind." Sheesh. Is this District just a walking death trap? Seems that way.
Soon the street we're on feeds into a large, open courtyard that I remember was a major community site before the riots. An enormous fountain decorated with dolphins sits in the center. The stone animals have shattered, and the water inside the fountain is brackish and resembles sludge. The stench is almost overwhelming. It has a musty, rotten scent, like that of dying fungus. Wrinkling my nose, I let my gaze travel around the rest of the courtyard.
Before, I hadn't been able to see any of the District's inhabitants. Now I can see them very clearly. A dozen or so people lay scattered across the courtyard’s fetid cobblestones. Many sit uncaringly, or unknowingly, in pools of dark water; the remains of last night’s rainstorm. And they are moaning. Most of them are quiet about it, mumbling to themselves or whimpering with some unseen pain. But one woman at the far end of the courtyard, however, screams with a sound of raw anguish. She falls silent after a moment, either her breath or strength giving out.
Most of them wear what looks like rags—dark loose-fitting garments that are as soiled as the streets. How did things go so poorly in such a short time? Is this what I will become? In a few weeks will I be nothing more than a dejected body, a corpse whimpering in the corner?
Glancing sideways at Silvia, noting her crazed expression and twitching posture, I realize that it has already begun with her. I don't doubt that it may spread to the rest of us as well.
"This is terrible," Lavender murmurs as she stares at all of the shivering, trembling people. "We should do something for them."
"Do what?" I spare a short glance for the gnarled form of an old man huddled next to a nearby building’s wall. The man moans piteously, reaching up with a thin arm. I take a closer look, and feel a sudden chill run down my spine.
The “old man” was no older than I am. The poor guy's soot-covered skin is dark and spotted, but his face is that of a teenager, not a man. I take an involuntary step backward. If this is a diease, I do not wish to catch it.
The boy, suddenly noticing me, stretches out a hand. “Food?” he mumbles through a mouth only half-full of teeth. “Please?”
"We have to do something!" Lavender forces her way past me and crouches beside the boy, placing a hand atop his forehead.
"You can't help him," I say, a little surprised by my own lack of emotion. "You can't save any of them."
"We can try," Lavender doesn't even spare me a look as she examines the boy's body for injuries. She finds a few; a cut on his arm, a bruise across his thigh, and a large, red boil on his wrist. "Spanner, get over here!"
"I can't do anything without supplies," The thin man complains but comes over regardless. He kneels beside Lavender, going over the beggar with her.
"We're wasting time," Braddock grunts, casting a acrimonious look around the clearing. None of its other inhabitants have moved, despite our presence. I still feel eyes on me, however. "If we don't get moving, the gangs will get us."
"Gangs?" I ask, only half-listening. "Are there gangs here?"
"Yes! They were bad before the riots—robbers and thugs, the lot of 'em—but now that there's nothing to hold them back, they're much worse."
"Damn." That's the last thing I need to deal with right now. I'm already terrified that we'll wander upon a Peacekeeper patrol, or a group of Rebel soldiers. But now there's that threat of the gangs...
"I don't think you have anything to fear from the gangs," Morina practically sneers at me from her spot leaning against a building.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
She doesn't answer. What does she mean? Why wouldn't I have something to fear? I exchange a glance with Braddock, but he looks as confused as I feel. What exactly does this Morina girl know?
A slight motion on the other side of the courtyard brings me out of my thoughts. Some of the District's inhabitants are crouching in a shadowed doorway across from us. I can't make out much from their silhouetted forms, but they seem to be waiting for something. I can feel their eyes on me.
"Braddock..." I speak quietly, sidling up to the man. "Don't look now, but there's a group of people watching us from a doorway." Glancing over his shoulder, I can see that one of them is now standing. He seems to be talking to the rest.
"Oh, no..." Braddock twitches as he reists the urge to turn around and look. Sweat builds atop his forehead. "Not good. No one gathers like that for anything good."
"They wouldn't attack a group as big as ours," I try to sound reassuring. There's not that many of them. Maybe only two or three more of us. If they attacked, we could fend them off, maybe. We could...
"They've got weapons," I didn't even notice that Morina has joined us. "They're hiding them, but I saw a knife in the tall guy's hand. Another has a club."
Hoo boy. I really can't think of anything reassuring to say to that, in fact, I can't think of a way out of this situation either. "Why would they attack us?" I ask. Maybe if I stare at their hiding spot, they'll know that we see them and give up.
"They probably think we've got supplies," Morina says, reaching down into a pile of rubble and pulling something out. I think it's a glass shard. "Bigger groups usually do. Besides, everyone else we've seen so far looks like that beggar boy. We're probably the first self-sufficient group they've seen."
"We need to go." The words are the first things that forms in my head. "Now. Before they're ready." I turn to Lavender and Spanner, both of whom are still checking on the beggar boy. After quickly explaining the situation, Spanner rises to his feet, nodding eagerly. Lavender is more hesitant.
"What about him?" She gestures at the boy. He seems hardly lucid, at best. I don't think he'll last long. "We can't just leave him!"
"We'll come back for him later," I lie as I pull her to her feet. "They won't hurt him. He doesn't have anything they want."
Lavender is still reluctant, but she doesn't really have a choice anymore. Shepherded by Braddock, we're about halfway down the alleyway when Lavender shouts out. "Silvia!"
Turning, we see that the disheveled woman is still sitting in the mouth of the alley, staring blankly into the sky. Lavender moves to head back, but I grab her shoulder. "Leave her. She doesn't want to come."
"It's her choice. She chose to stay here." Good riddance, I think. While I feel terrible for her and her loss, she was about as useful as a train that could only move a few feet an hour.
My argument convinces Lavender. Without another word, the whole lot of us hurries down the length of the alley. This time, when we reach the end, something else halts us.
A group of men have appeared at the opposite end. They slowly approach, watching us warily. I notice that not only are their clothes in better shape than anyone else's I've seen, but their bodies are more muscled, better fed. They've been thriving here, while everyone else has been dying.
"Stay where you are," One man says, walking ahead of the rest. His smooth bald head reflects the morning light as he strolls forward. "We've got some questions for you."
They have weapons. One man has a club, another holds a length of pipe, and yet another has a chain. The most rudimentary of weapons, perhaps, but still leaps and bounds better than anything we have.
The bald man continues to approach. He takes several more steps when something stands up from the ground and leaps at him.
The man falls to the ground, shouting in surprise, as Silvia launches herself atop him. She screams wildly as her nails claw at the man's face with a fierce tenacity. She only has the upper hand for a few seconds.
Regaining his composure, the bald man heaves Siliva off him, swearing loudly as he wipes blood from his face. Another one of the group steps forward and brings his club down onto the woman's head with a crunch that resounds through the small alley.
"No!" Lavender screams and darts forward only to be hauled back by Braddock. Tears stream down her face. "You monsters! You'll pay for that!"
"She was with you?" Another man asks. He's more of a boy, really. Can't be much older than I am.
"Yes!" Lavender's chest heaves with sobs as Braddock drags her back down the alley. Everyone else is standing totally still. The wrong word could send this whole encounter down a very, very bad road.
As I try to form words in my head, one of the men—the boy my age—points a finger straight at me. "You! I know you!"
"You do?" I blink in surprise. My memory is still pretty foggy, but bits and pieces are coming back to me. None of them include this boy.
"Yes!" He nods his head vigorously. "You're apart of that gang in the uptown area! They were new, and didn't really do much more than petty crimes, but most of their members were teenagers. And you are one of them!"
There's a long silence. I'm not sure what to think. Could this be true? I can't remember, but since I cannot, how could I rule the idea out? No one else seems to know what to say, then Morina speaks.
"It's true! He was in that stupid gang that was always causing trouble in my neighborhood!" She flashes me a vicious glare. "He's not any better than all of you—he's just a petty crook and liar!"
I don't say anything. What could I say? Instead I stand in silence as everyone stares at me. Then there's a shout from down the alley and a man comes running down. "Peacekeepers! Two squads of them have just pulled in!"
"Everyone run!" The bald man shouts the order and everyone in his group scatters. As soon as they exit the alley, the sounds of gunfire resounds from the clearing. As if I needed anymore proof that it was time to leave.
Lavender, it appears, thinks otherwise. Finally breaking free of Braddock's grip, she rushes forward and drops beside the prone body of Silvia. Suppressing a sigh, I join her as Spanner and Braddock both do the smart thing and bolt out of the alley.
Silvia's eyes stare blankly into the sky. Her neck has been completely crushed, and there is a massive gash in its side, exposing the vertebrae and throat. She is dead.
"We've got to go, Lavender!" I tug her shoulder, wondering why I care to bring her with. Logically, I should have sprinted away as quickly as Braddock, but for some reason I can't explain, I'm held back.
"Rest in peace, Silvia," Lavender whispers to the corpse of the woman. "You're with your children now..."
Finally she allows me to pry her away. With the resounding beat of gunfire and screams in the background, the two of us hurtle down the alley. When we reach the end, I am surprised to see that Morina is still there.
"What were you waiting for?" I ask her.
In answer, she bares her teeth. "None of your business."
"Suit yourself." Now is really not the time for conversation anyways. I lead the way as we sprint through the twisting back allies. Twice we nearly stumble upon groups of Peacekeepers before quickly changing routes and heading down a different path.
What are they doing? Peacekeepers often randomly show up on patrol, true, but they don't usually come in such force. Since the revolt began a month ago, I've rarely seen more than a single squad together. But now...
Sounds of pursuit come from behind. I whip my head around to see five Peacekeepers dressed in tactical gear emerge in the opposite end of the alley. "Don't shoot!" One shouts as another takes aim. "We want them alive!"
"Crap." Grabbing Lavender's hand, I pull her along as I take a sudden right turn into an adjacent alley. Morina follows us.
I run madly, expecting my breath to go short and a pain to stab me in the side, as usually happens whenI overextend himself. Neither occurrs. Instead I simply begin to feel horribly tired, weak to the point that I know I'll soon collapse. It is a harrowing feeling, as if my life is slowly seeping away. Obviously I haven't fully recovered from my injuries.
We take another sharp turn and this time I lose my footing on the uneven cobblestone. Pulling Lavender along, we fall forward and collide a rotting mass of wood. The wood—which might once have been a pile of crates—squishes, breaking our fall.
I struggle to my feet, aware of the fading sounds of gunshots. Footsteps echo from down the alley. Lavender sits up, then cries out in panic. "It's a dead-end!"
At the end of the alley opposite the direction we entered, there is nothing but a solid brick wall. I stare at it in despairing silence as the footfalls of the Peacekeepers draw nearer.
"There's a fire escape!" Morina points out the contraption. The ladder leading to the first landing hovers over the cobblestones, just far enough off the ground to be out of reach. "Boost me up!"
Immediately I brace my back against the wall, cupping my hands together and holding them forward for Morina. "Kick the ladder down when you're up, then we'll follow!"
She nods, then places her foot in my hands. She's about as light as she looks, and it's very little strain hoisting her high enough to grab onto the ladder and pull herself up. "Okay, kick it!"
Morina scales the first landing without stopping.
"Morina?" Hope begins to dwindle in my chest as Morina continues climbing, not even stopping to look back. What is she doing? "Morina!"
"Morina! Help us!" Lavender cries out, desperately reaching out for the ladder. Morina actually looks back, only a landing away from the roof. There is no pity on her face.
"Sorry, but Armado deserves his fate. You reap what you sow!" She scales the roof and disappears. We are left alone.
"I'm sorry, Lavender." The words feel hollow, even to myself. I turn away from the fire escape and face the alleyway, where the first Peacekeeper has appeared. He aims his rifle at us. "This is all my fault."
"No, it's not," Lavender wipes her tears as the rest of the Peacekeepers file into the alley. "You couldn't have anticipated that Morina would do that. No one could."
The lead Peacekeeper, identified by his blue sash, steps out in front of the group. "We will take these two back," He says calmly. "They fit the profile the Capitol wanted."
That is how the two of us are taken in Peacekeeper custody. I don't know where we're being taken, or why, but I know that it cannot be anyplace nice. I wish I had listened to John and stayed in the shelter.
Kanani Alsia (District 2)
I take a deep breath, carefully positioning my bare feet on the hardwood floor as I adopt the proper defensive posture, raising my elbows to eye level. Every lesson that I have ever learned passes through my head, giving me confidence as I face the open air.
I go through the motions of my arm, striking the air with quick and deadly precision. I must be light on my feet. Always ready to dodge an incoming blow. Most male opponents I will ever face will be bigger and stronger than I am, despite my height. A single strike could incapacitate me.
Thus, I must ensure I dodge each and every blow. It was a lesson I learned the hard way. Since that lesson, I've never been hit.
I finish the forms at a quick, yet unhurried rate. Rushing things makes you sloppy. Sloppiness leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to death.
With one last motion, I take a bow. No one is here to watch, yet I bow anyways. Respect is the mark of a true Victor. A human being without dignity and grace is little better than an animal destined for slaughter.
I take one knee, resting upon the wooden platform that is meant for duels and demonstrations. I've been training since dawn, honing my skills for...for what?
Since birth my father has desired for me to become a Victor. He was a Victor in his own right, though he won over 30 years ago. He was the champion of the 367th Hunger Games. The year I was born, the 384th Games had not yet finished.
My father's Games were of a different era, yet he still trained me from birth in his own style. Few combatants of today's era have anywhere near the skill that I possess. Were I to enter the Games, my victory would not be certain, because nothing in life is, but it would be the closest thing to it. Unfortunately...
I rise with a sigh, crossing the room to the far end, where the long, wooden benches are. Here I sit and think.
This war...it has caused many hardships. While I have no doubts that the Capitol will emerge victorious in the end, I am not quite certain when "the end" will be. It's quite possible that this war will stretch on for several years, and if it does, that means there will be no Hunger Games in those years.
By the time the Games are reinstated, I may very well be over the age of eighteen and no longer eligible to compete. Then what? I have spent my entire life preparing for these Games, what would I do if I could no longer compete?
I have spent many days ruminating on this possibility. So far I have come to no conclusions.
To my left, the door to the training facility opens. A heavyset man steps through, flanked by a pair of Peacekeepers who take up guard positions beside the door as it shuts behind them.
I watch silently as the man approaches me. I have seen him before. What brings Mayor Paramour here?
He stops right before the benches, acknowledging me with a stiff nod. "Ms. Alsia, it is a pleasure to meet with you."
I bow formally. "The pleasure is all mine, Mayor Paramour." I respect the position he inherits, not the man himself. I barely know him.
"Yes, I suppose it is." He takes a seat on the bench, folding his hands neatly. "I have a request to make of you, Ms. Alsia."
No doubt he does. I would hardly think that a man of his status would visit me for anything less. I have a thought as to what he will ask, too. People come to me for only one thing, after all.
"Who do you want me to find?"
The man looks startled. I don't know why. You'd think that he would be smart enough to figure out that I'd know exactly why he came to me. "You're quite perceptive," He says once he has recovered.
"That's why you came to me, isn't it?" I cannot help but say.
He smiles. "Yes, yes it is. Since you're so very smart, I don't doubt that you know who I will ask you to find."
I think back to all the flyers posted around the District and realize I the answer. "You want me to find the boy who kidnapped your daughter."
"Yes and no. I want you to find him, yes. But I'm going to pay you to find my daughter and grandson," He leans back on the bench, a frown wrinkling his face. "The boy will be extra. If you find him, you can get him. But I want my family back, first and foremost."
I nod. It's no wonder he has come to me for this. I am the Training Academy's best tracker. In fact, I'm the best tracker in all of District 2. No, scratch that. In all of Panem.
For the past few years people have come to me asking for my skills to locate something that has gotten lost. A runaway child, lost pet, or lover, I've brought them all back. Since birth I've honed my ability to find anything and everything I set my mind to. If something exists, I can find it. People call this the Kanani Law.
"Will you accept the job?" The Mayor fixes me with a solid look, and I wonder just how long his daughter has been missing before he swallowed his pride and asked for my help. No doubt he attempted to do everything on his own, at first.
I let the conversation rest for a moment. "What are your terms?"
"I wish for you to locate and return my daughter and grandson. You will be provided with a team of Peacekeepers, amongst them District 2's best hunters. You will have bloodhounds, supplies, and anything else you may wish to possess. If you bring my family back unharmed, I will pay you beyond your wildest imagination."
I mull the words over in my head, thinking. "And the boy? What do I do with him?"
A cruel smile slinks across his face. "Him, you may kill."
"Very well. I accept." This will not be the hardest job I've ever done. In fact, with all the assistance I've been provided, it will probably be amongst the easiest. I rise to my feet, already formulating a plan in my head. "When did they disappear?"
"A few days ago, I tried to have them followed, but my men couldn't quite..." I tune him out. So. I was right after all. That delay could be costly. The trail could have gone cold.
"Do you know what their destination is?"
The man stops mid-sentence, staring at me with a slack jaw. "I, uh, do not know."
"Which way were they headed?"
He runs a hand along his forehead, wiping away sweat. "I don't know that either."
"Do you have any information for me to go on?"
The man shakes his head helplessly. Fool. He has given me absolutely zero information. He's lucky, though, that he has someone like me to bail him out. Anyone else would have failed him. The calculations in my head are complete.
"I will have your family back in a week, at most."
This shocks him out of his seat. He stumbles to his feet, eyes widened in shock. "A week?"
"At the most."
"That's absolutely absurd!" He fumbles with his words, babbling incoherently as I locate my socks and boots, fitting them both onto my feet. I need to head home and get my supplies, then meet up with Mayor Paramour's Peacekeeper squad. They'll probably slow me down, but I need their supplies and manpower if things get hairy. Then I can start this hunt for real.
A smile forms on my face. I may not be able to compete in the Hunger Games, but there is something that I can focus my energy on. Finding that kidnapper. I don't know who he is, or what he's trying to accomplish, but he will not escape from me.
No one does.
Teddy Bridges (District 3)
My days in captivity pass by at a snail's pace. There isn't much to do when you're trapped inside a small, stone cell with a handful of people you barely know for days on end. I spend most of the time in conversation with Nora, discussing what we'll do when we get out. The rest of the day I stare at my digital watch as the time slowly ticks away, wondering where I went wrong in life.
Edric and Dexio, the two men who were in the cell when we first arrived, like to joke around about how the rebels don't even know what to do with us. They still make me uneasy, but I'm glad for their presence. They bring a much needed levity to the situation.
Right now, the two of them are laughing and joking as they eat lunch. It's not a very elaborate meal, just half a cup of beans and a roll of bread, but it's more than I'd have if I wasn't captured. I only wish it wasn't the same thing every day, for both lunch and dinner.
"Don't worry, Teddy," Nora looks up from her lumpy mattress and gives me a reassuring nod. "We'll get through this."
"I'm not worried." It's true. I'm not really worried at all. These people obviously aren't going to harm us—they would have done it by now if they wanted to. The biggest thing that affects me is boredom. There's literally nothing to do in this room. I'd even prefer being back on the streets during the shelling then be locked in here. At least then I'd be able to do something.
Having already finished lunch, I'm left with nothing to do until dinner, which occurs at eight thirty P.M every night. They're very consistent with their feeding schedules.
Sighing, I roll over on my mattress, hoping to find a non-lumpy spot so that I could catch some winks. Unfortunately, I'm not tired in the slightest. Looks like it'll be another mind-numbingly boring day.
A soft moan escapes the lips of the other person who was here before Nora and my arrival. His name is Newt, and he's a tall, lanky brown-haired dude. Apparently he and his girlfriend were captured by the same group, but his girlfriend isn't being kept in here with us.
Personally, I think that's a good thing. Newt, however, has taken it to be a bad sign and is constantly moping around about it. He seriously annoys me.
In an effort to tune him out, I roll off my bed and cross over to the girl's section of the room. It's not really a different section—the girls just dragged their beds to the opposite side of the room—but that's what Nora calls it.
Over here is where Nora lies on her mattress and the other girl who was brought in with us paces back and forth. I don't really know much about her. She's refused to tell us her name, and rarely says anything at all. There's a blank look permanently etched on her face, and sometimes I wonder if she's just an apparition. Silly, I know.
"You trying to wear your shoes out?" I ask as she passes by me. To my surprise, she actually stops and stares at me. Somehow she's managed to keep her long brown hair neatly combed as it frames her heart-shaped face.
"Pay attention to yourself," She snaps then goes right back to pacing. I sigh. That girl is a real mystery. I don't even know how old she is. I'm a terrible judge of age, but my best guess is that she's about Nora's age, which means she's somewhere between sixteen and twenty.
But as I said, I'm a terrible judge of age. For all I know, she could be as old as twenty-two. I don't think that's the case, though. You'd think that a twenty-two year old would be more mature.
"Camila won't like this," A voice from outside is just barely audible through the doorway. I perk up, turning towards the doorway. This is odd. Rarely does anyone pass close enough by for us to overhear. "You know she won't."
"I don't care what she thinks," I recognize that voice! It's the man who originally brought Nora and I here, the grizzled looking one with the scar across his face. "And she won't even know, unless some idiot tells her."
"The other prisoners..."
"Camila won't visit them. She's had them for days now and hasn't bothered to even ask about them. I'm sure she won't notice a few missing."
Up until that moment, I had been the only one actively listening. But now everyone is up and alert. Edric and Dexio stop their joking, Newt halts his moaning, and the unknown girl pauses mid-step. "Did he say "missing"?" She asks.
Dexio nods slowly. "Indeed he did."
"But then that means..."
We never get to know what she thinks it means, for at that moment the door swings open and several men step inside. Each one of them holds an assault rifle, and they're all armed with bulletproof vests. The man who leads the way is the bearded man from before, just as I thought.
"Which of you are under eighteen?" He almost bellows the question. And what a sinister question it is. Why in the world would he need to know such information? Is he some kind of—
"I am." The mystery girl speaks briskly, stepping forward to meet the group. So she's under eighteen, huh? First real information she's ever given.
The man studies her for a long moment then nods. "You'll do. What about the boys?"
I exchange glances with Nora. Should I speak up? I mean, I really don't think I need to, since I'm very clearly under eighteen. But I also don't think that I want to be part of this, uh, thing?
"He's under eighteen," Newt does the speaking for me, pointing a long finger in my direction. I glare at the boy. He's under eighteeen too! So why is he volunteering me?
"Very well. Bag the both of them." The bearded man motions for the soldiers behind him to step up. Instantly they head for me and the mystery girl.
I throw up my hands. "Wait! What are you doing? I don't think—"
One of the men throws a bag around my head and everything goes black. I hear Nora screaming, then a thump as something heavy hits the floor.
"Damn bitch bit me!" Someone growls as I'm hurried forward. Nora! Panic threatens to shatter my icy calm. What have they done with her? Soon I hear the slamming of a door and know that I've been taken out of the room. I think they took the mystery girl too.
"Get 'em to the van," The bearded man snaps, and the arms pulling me along suddenly pick up the pace.
I don't know how far we go, but there's many twists and turns involved. So many that I lose track. That almost makes me cry. How am I supposed to meet up with Nora again if I can't find my way back?
I know that we've reached the van when I'm thrown forward and land roughly on what feels like sacks of potatoes. Then another door slams shut, and the ground beneath me is suddenly jostling and shaking.
With a gasp, I rip the bag off my head and emerge in complete darkness.
"What's happening?" The words are almost a sob as they escape my lips. "Where are they taking us?"
"Calm down," The girl's voice reassures me that she is still here. "I have a plan to get us out of this."
"You do? What is it? How will it help? Can you—"
"Please shut up. I need to think."
I snap my mouth shut. She's my only hope, now. I don't know what these men plan, but I know that I need to find my way back to Nora. She is the only thing I have left in this world. If I lose her...
I don't know how far we go, or for how long. Eventually I hear the squeals of tires, then the door is thrown open. A shining light blinds me as a pair of hands grab my collar. "Get on out!"
We're in a desolate parking lot. A large building looms overhead, which I recognize as one of the factories that build computers for the Capitol. It's empty now, abandoned at the start of the war.
"Do you know who I am?" The mystery girl is speaking as she's hauled out of the van. Several of the armed men contain her. "I am apart of one of the most prestigious families in all of—"
"Shut up!" One of the men punches her in the gut and all words cease as she falls to ground, moaning in pain. "Pick her up! The meeting point is right over there!"
Two of the men drag her forward and I'm led by another as the bearded man leads the way towards the factories. If I was still thinking coherently, I'd think about how strange a choice this destination is.
They're none too gentle with us as they shove us forward, heading right for the wide gates that lead inside the factory. They speak quietly to themselves as they walk, and I'm certain that they sound a little bit frightened. Why?
I see why when a group of men dressed in pure white uniforms come around the corner, each wielding a submachine gun.
"Don't try anything funny," One of the men hisses in my ear as he pushes me forward. Another shoves the mystery girl. Yeah, I don't think I'll be trying anything at all, not with all those guns on me.
"Did you bring them?" The bearded man asks in a low growl, stopping just short of the Peacekeepers. Their leader, a tall man with auburn hair, laughs loudly.
"Of course. Though, I'll ensure that these two are up to snuff before letting you have them..." He stalks forward and peers intently at me, studying my face. "This one is fine." He moves on to the girl, grabbing her chin and forcing her to face him. "So is she."
"So you'll return your prisoners?" One of my captors asks eagerly. That's when I know what is happening. A prisoner transfer. As I watch, two more Peacekeepers lead a small group of bedraggled people out from the factory and shove them forward.
"I always keep my promises," The lead Peacekeeper says, "Even to rebel scum like you."
Without warning, he grabs me and the girl by the shoulders and steers us towards the other side. So the people who captured me wanted their own back, but why did the Peacekeepers want us? What do we have that they need? I'm wondering this as I watch my old captors clamber back into the van and leave even quicker than they came.
"You have to listen to me," The girl speaks almost as soon as the van is out of sight. "My name is Jayda Idylwyld. My family is influential, beyond influential. If you let me go, I can repay you beyond—"
"We know who you are," The lead Peacekeeper nods at his men and they grab us as they head for the factory. "It seems that your family has been looking for you. Too bad for them that the Capitol already has a use for you."
With one last smirk, he closes the doors behind us.
Stewart McKellun (District 5)
“That’s it!” Alba Genera insists. As always, her girlish voice contrasts with her height, her broad shoulders, and her aggressively strong but no less feminine physique. More importantly, she is a part of the Rebellion, and one of their best fighters too. Which is exactly why I brought her with me.
The building she indicated was almost aggressively nondescript. In the darkness, squeezed between an inn and one of the hundreds of waterfront warehouses, it could’ve been any tavern in any District. We stand in the doorway of a closed blacksmith shop across the street, waiting to get a look at the clientele. So far, there has been none.
"No one’s gone in or out the whole time we’ve been here,” I say. Impatience has long since begun to claw at me. I've been on this trail for so long—since the 400th Games were announced.
“But it’s open,” Alba points out. Glowing lights do shine from the windows, and a lamppost beside the hanging sign made sure we could read the name: Matilda's.
So it is open. I shift from foot to foot, wondering what our next move should be. This is the place, all of my sources have said so. And if they're telling the truth, then the answer I've been seeking since Jonathan's death lies just inside.
The two of us stiffen as a pair of Peacekeepers, dressed head-into-toe their highly visible all-white uniforms, walk down the road, laughing and shouting. I have to be careful around them. Word on the street is that they're rounding up teenagers for something. My sources have said that they already have a teenage girl; Carey Graham, or some name like that.
It's an interesting story, but I don't have the time to pursue it right now. I need to finish what I started first. We watch silently as the Peacekeepers disappear from sight.
"I'm going inside," Alba abruptly decides, taking a step towards the building. I grab her with my left hand before she gets more than a few feet.
"No. I'll go."
She laughs loudly, then motions at my right arm, which is held close to my chest in a sling. A consequence of collecting information. "You think that is a good idea?"
"It's not like we're here to assassinate him. I'm just planning to talk."
"And suppose he decides to talk with weapons, hmm?"
I laugh. "You're getting paranoid, Alba!"
She grimaces. "My "paranoia" has saved our lives more often than you'd like."
She has a point there. And I did bring her along precisely because, with my arm currently out of commission, I can't really put up much of a fight. But it's still my life's work, and I'm not about to get crucial information secondhand, even from someone I trust as much as Alba. "I'll call you if I need help, okay?"
"By then it'll be too late." She groans and complains, but when it comes time she steps aside and let's me walk towards the tavern. I notice that she pulls out her handgun, though, before fading back into the shadows.
District 5 is located on a bay where two rivers meet the lake, and thus is a vast commercial hub for all kinds of merchandise. Like any place where a lot of money changed hands, the criminal element thrives here. In the years since Jonathan volunteered for the Games and saved me from death, I've learnt a lot about criminals. All so I can bring them to justice.
But the people I seek are no simple criminals. And the man who might help me find them, who supposedly hangs out in this tavern, is no simple informant.
The painted image of a cheery, round woman offering a bowl of soup decorates the tavern door. Given what Alba has told me about the place, I suspect that anyone who comes here looking for an actual meal will pay for it in the next few days. And not with money.
A bell rings over the door as I enter. I try to appear casual while thoroughly on my guard, nodding at the older woman behind the counter and looking around in what I hope appears to be mild curiosity. The place is empty save for one man seated alone at a table in a back corner. The carefully placed overhanging lamps keeps him in a pool of darkness so I can neither see his face nor tell if he is watching me. But the precautions alone say that he has to be the man I seek.
I saunter over, hoping that I'm not about to be ambushed. I stop a respectable distance away. I have a dagger in my sling and I hope that I can wield it successfully with my left hand if the need arises. “I’m looking for Froste," I tell the man.
“Why are you looking here?” The man in the corner asks. No emotion, just flat words that give nothing away.
“Where else would I look?”
He does not reply for a long time. He does nothing for a long time. Apparently he has mastered the art of waiting until the other person gets too nervous or anxious to keep silent. The problem is, so have I. So, we stare at each other while overhead lamps sway and behind us someone moves around in what I assume is the tavern kitchen.
At last, he pushes the chair opposite him with his foot so that it slides away from the table. I carefully sit down. “What do you want from Froste?” The man asks with a grimace.
"I'm looking for the Factory."
The man grunts, grabbing a spoon off the table and examining it slowly. The taverns lights reflects off the silver. Finally, he speaks. "Lots of factories around here."
I set my good elbow on the table, leaning forward. He doesn't move away or react at all. "Not a factory. The Factory."
The man studies my face as he slowly set the spoon back onto the table. The light finally shows me his face. It's lean and sharp, the face of someone who has turned deprivation into a source of strength. His eyes never leave mine.
I feel a presence behind me. I hadn’t heard it approach, but it is definitely there now, making the air between us heavier, close enough to kill me any number of ways. So that's what all the business with the spoon was about. Distracting me.
"Who's behind me?" I ask quietly.
The man chuckles. "Why, Froste is, of course!"
Surprise and disbelief has me sputtering my words. "But you're Froste! If you're not—"
A woman sits dowb in the chair next to the man. She's skinny, with highly visible cheekbones and long black hair, highlighted red, that hangs around her shoulders. I've never seen her before.
"Who are you?" I can't help but ask, even though I've already been told the answer to that question.
"I'm the person you've been searching for. I'm Froste," The woman—Froste—adopts a genial tone, leaning back in her chair as she watches me with an amused expression. "You've been searching for me, yet didn't know what I looked like?"
I don't feel any embarrassment. Why should I? Everyone of my informants had neglected to mention this fact. Actually, I don't think any of them mentioned a gender at all. "Who are you, then?" I jerk a thumb at the man, who smiles in response.
"He's Asper," Froste answers for him. "He's my partner. But we're not here to discuss him. You mentioned the Factory. Why?"
I'm going to have to careful here. Froste is one of the most influential and powerful rebels in all of District 5. She knows everything there is to know, including some stuff that could kill me for just asking.
"Do you know who Jonathan Mikeal is?" They both nod. Of course they would. "Well, I'm the boy he volunteered for in the 398th Games. And I've been collecting information about...Life Models, since his revival."
They both fall silent, exchanging looks. "You know about Life Models?" Froste asks.
"I learnt awhile ago. Funny what you can learn on the streets." Nearly got myself killed a dozen times over asking such questions. Some things the Capitol just doesn't want you to know.
"So you know that they're just clones. Fake. Facsimiles." There seems to be some disgust in Froste's tone.
"Yes." They seem genuine, though. Jonathan's clone acted very much like him. I still wish that he had won the Games. Then I could ask him directly.
"What does this have to do with the Factory?"
Ah, the Factory. One of the most top secret and elusive factories in all of Panem. Few people know that it exists, much less that it's right here in District 5, more or less. And that's just how the Capitol likes it.
"I believe that the Factory is where the Life Models are made."
Froste's eyes stretch wide. "You do? You have...no. Of course you have proof. You wouldn't have came to me if you didn't."
"I need to get inside that Factory," I continue to press my advantage. "The Life Models are too dangerous. If the Capitol just keeps churning them out, then us rebels don't have a chance."
"That's impossible," Asper shakes his head slowly. "The Factory is impregnable. It's surrounded by sheer mountains on all sides. The only way in is on a specially marked hovercraft, or on the train that runs through the mountain itself."
"Then we sneak on."
"You don't understand. They keep both under strict guard, and they rarely use either. You could be waiting months for a hovercraft to enter, and even then you need to pass an iris scan, a fingerprint check, and a blood sample. Not to mention the Peacekeepers crawling all over the place."
I try not to lose hope. This whole plan has been my life's work. I can't just give up on it now! Besides, everyone I've spoken to has told me that Froste knew a way inside...I glance at Froste. She's sitting silently at the table, biting her lip. "You know another way, don't you?"
She nods. "Yes. An emergency escape route. It's not nearly as well guarded, but getting inside still has it's risks."
"I don't care! If we don't destroy that factory, then this war is as good as over. What do you think will happen when they start cloning soldiers?"
My plea gets to her. She sets both hands on the table and looks me square in the eye. "Very well. I'll help you get inside. But know this; if you die, you'll have no one to blame but yourself. And if you get me or Asper killed, so help me..."
"Good. Then let's start planning."
Finale Spectrus (District 7)
Being the last surviving member of your family sucks.
Being the last surviving member, while also poisoned with a deadly toxin that will invariably kill you within weeks, is beyond sucky. Having to go to the Capitol for the cure is just the icing on the cake of suck that is my life.
"Do you know where we're going?" The tall, pink haired woman asks as she lags behind me. Even though we've been together for days, I really don't know the first thing about her. I've made a few guesses, though. First off, she's clearly some higher up from the Capitol; her clothes, hair, and smug attitude pretty much scream that. Secondly, she's very eager to get as far away from the rebels as possible. Thirdly, well...okay, I don't really have that much knowledge. She said her name was Pandora, though, I think that's only an alias.
"As long as we're headed south we're on the right track," I reply, stopping as a stream cuts off the path I was taking. It is seeping and dribbling as it swerves through the forests tall trees.
Pandora sniffs disdainfully. "That would just take us to District 4. We need a more easterly direction."
"Well, exuuuse me princess!" I mutter under my breath, circling back around the stream and searching for another path. How was I supposed to know? It's not like I've ever left the District before!
The pine trees tower over our heads as we walk. I can't help but think of food, the one thing that has been short in supply since I set off from home. I'm not exactly a great hunter or forager, and Pandora seems to have rarely ever been outdoors. I still remember the fuss she put up when she realized she had to sleep on the forest floor. She blamed me for that. I don't know why. It's not like I enjoy sleeping on the floor. I'd much rather sleep on a bed.
With all my whining about Pandora, you'd think that I'd just desert her, but I can't. I need her authority and position when I get to the Capitol. I don't know how else I'll get the cure. I don't think just asking for it would work.
After a couple dozen minutes of walking without a real plan, I stumble out from the forest and find a pine-nettle covered path. Stooping down, I examine the dirt underneath.
"What have you found?" Pandora asks, folding her arms as she stares at the path.
"Looks like footprints," I point out the impression in the dirt of what seems to be a boot sole. "People have used this trail recently."
"Well, then we should get away from it as soon as possible!"
"Huh? Why?" I stand up, dusting off my hands and inhaling the sweet scent of pine. Who'd be here? Hunters? Lumberjacks?
"Because they'll quite likely be hostile to us!" Pandora says it like it's the most obvious thing in the world. And maybe it is. To her. I, however, will need a little convincing.
"They're probably just average District 7 citizens. They live so far on the outskirts that I doubt they even know about the rebellion." Or those strange masked men who have overtaken our homes.
"Do I look like a person the average District 7 citizen would help?" Pandora motions to her hair, then her marvelous figure. That's another thing about her; she looks like a freaking goddess. Wait, no. That's not right. A goddess would wish that she looked half as good as Pandora does.
"S'pose not," I admit her point, but can't help but stare wistfully down the trail. If the Capitol didn't insist on dying their hair all the time, then this wouldn't even be an issue!
Pandora begins to head off, grumbling to herself, when I call her back. She doesn't look happy, but she returns anyways. The glare she gives me feels like it ought to be melting my flesh. "You just admitted that I was right!"
"Yes, but...think about it. They could have food, shelter. A warm bed to spend the night, maybe even a telephone so you could connect with whatever people you know in the Capital!"
Pandora bites her lip, and now I know that I'm convincing her. She seems to be running the idea through her head. "Just consider it," I say.
At last, she sighs. "Very well. We'll try and find these people. If they attack us, however, keep in mind that I will kill you."
I think she's joking. She doesn't look like she's joking, but I'm sure she is. Pretty sure, at least. Half sure.
At any rate, I head off down the path at a trot, following the footprints. Though I know enough of life to not get too excited, I'm getting eager over the possibility of a roof over my head and some delicious food.
To prevent this daydreaming, I focused on the things around us. Hares are scampering away from us up ahead. The morning stars shine in the sky like silver snowflakes. Wood sorrel flecks the blankets of grass that grow along the edge of the path. The peace of the morning was almost soothing. I say almost, because no matter how hard I try, I cannot help but think of my disease and imminent death. When will it happen? Will I start feeling ill beforehand? Or will it just happen? Will I be fine one day, then dead the next? These thoughts send chills running up my spine.
"Stop. Finale, stop!"
Pandora's voice snaps me out of my thoughts and I turn to face her, blinking in surprise. "What's up?"
"That farmhouse is, you imbecile!"
Ahead of us the path emerges from the forest and enters into a large, open clearing. In the center of the clearing is a wooden cabin. A square chimney sits atop the peaked veranda, and a funnel of dark gray smoke pours into the sky.
"Looks like someone's house," I say, also taking note of the red barn situated near the edge of the clearing in a copse of small trees. There's also a small shed full of chopped logs and what appears to be a pig pen of sorts.
"Obviously!" Pandora rolls her eyes at me. "But how should we approach it? Just barging into their home is obviously a foolish idea."
"I didn't say we should do that!"
"You were thinking it."
"I don't think I'll even respond to that allegation." Mostly because she's right. I was thinking of just knocking. But, considering the current climate, that probably wouldn't be the best idea. "Okay, maybe we should--"
"What are you people doing here?"
The voice sends me quite literally jumping in surprise. Reaching for the dagger in my belt, I turn around to see who it was that snuck up on us. Pandora, I note, hasn't changed expression.
An old, wrinkly man stares back at me. He's dressed in dark red flanel and wears a hunting cap atop his head. Bright blue eyes that are much too lively for his age stare over a large, knobby nose.
"Whatcha doin' on my property? You don't belong here!" The man growls softly, pulling up an axe. It looks old, but more than sharp enough to deal serious damage. I gulp.
"W-we didn't mean to trespass!" Words start pouring from my mouth, suddenly terrified that I'll be hacked to pieces by a crusty old geezer. "We didn't think that anyone--"
"Oh, please sir! You have to help us!"
Pandora surprises me by stepping forward, her voice full of despair and fear. In fact, is that tears I see in her eyes? What the hell kind of actor is she?
"Depends on what you need help with," The old man grunts sourly, not the slightest bit moved by Pandora's theatrics. In truth, as he studies her, his features begin to harden. "You with the Capitol? You look like a damn Cappie. If you are..."
"Please don't mention that horrid place!" Pandora shudders, clutching her arms close to her chest. "They are the absolute worst!"
Before I know it, she's launching into an entirely fabricated story about who she is and how we met. Apparently, she was just a common, hard-working District 7 girl who only ever minded her own business. Then a man from the Capitol, who was visiting the mayor, saw her and decided to make her his wife.
He abducted her, dyed her hair, and was about to "abscond back to the Capitol, home of all debauchery and evil" when the rebellion broke out. Her kidnapper was killed in the riots and she barely escaped with her life. When she got into the woods, she was assailed by bandits until I leaped out and came to her rescue, fending them off.
"You saved her from bandits?" The old man asks, squinting at me.
Numb with shock that Pandora is actually getting away with all this, I nod silently.
"They must not have been very good bandits." The old man grumbles under his breath. I think that's some kind of insult, but I choose to ignore it. As long as he's not hacking at me with that axe, I'm good.
"Won't you please help us?" Pandora looks up hopefully. If I didn't know any better, I myself would believe that she's actually that young, scared girl she's pretending to be. "We have no food, nor water. The wildlife terrifies me..."
The old man seems to be thinking. He looks back at the log cabin, then back to us. He lifts his cap and scratches his bald head. "Lola would kill me if I let you two stay out here..." He sighs heavily. "Fine. You two, come with me."
He hobbles off across the field, heading for the cabin. "I can't believe that worked!" I whisper to Pandora.
"Shut up, you idiot!" She elbows me in the ribs and follows after the man, even walking with a more dainty step now.
I rub at my ribs with a grimace. "Still hits as hard, though..."
I follow after Pandora and am surprised to see that the old man has already reached the cabin and is entering. "He's certainly spry for his age," I mutter. "Are we sure he's not some kind of psycho killer?"
"Shut. Up." Pandora pushes past me and enters the cabin. I follow with a shrug.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness and find the old man. He is sitting at a three-legged table, hunched over a cup of coffee like a dog guarding a bone, staring into the snowy screen of a black-and-white television. Ghostly images flicker in and out. There is no audio except for a static hiss.
"Dang thing hasn't worked properly since the invasion," He mutters, setting his cup down on the table and turning towards us. He jerks a thumb to the corner. "Meet Lola, my wife."
Lola turns out to be a small, rotund woman with curly gray hair and a pair of glasses. She's actually a little chubby, and makes me think of the perfect grandma.
"You poor, poor things!" Smiling sweetly at us, she hobbles over from her place inside the kitchen and hugs Pandora. To my surprise, the girl actually hugs her back instead of shoving her away. "You're always welcome here. Too many people don't have a safe place to stay, nowadays."
As the two woman strike up a conversation about how hard our journey was or something like that, I let my gaze wander around the room and take everything in. It's not very big. Only two rooms are visible from where I stand, the main room slash living room where the old man sits, and a small kitchen area set in the corner of the cabin. There's also a hallway that I suppose must lead to some bedrooms.
"Please, sit down!" Lola practically drags Pandora to a large, wicker chair set up in the living room, just before the television. "I'll get you two some tea. Theodore, please start the fireplace to warm our guests."
"The fireplace is already on," The man grumbles, motioning at the crackling fireplace. That must be the source of the smoke we saw outside.
Lola ignores him, quietly moving over to the corner of the room, where a tub of water sits idle. I notice that there's a purification system rigged over the tub, allowing the old couple access to relatively clean water from inside their homes. Very neat.
The old woman opens a kitchen cupboard and takes some water and leaves she had stored inside. Then she prepares two cups of tea, working diligently with trembling old hands. I sit at the low table and watch as she prepares the tea, observing the woman's technique as she mixes ingredients and stirs them in wooden cups.
"You're very skilled," Pandora says from her spot on the chair.
"Why thank you, dear." Lola slowly makes her way back to us, handing Pandora one of the cups. "It comes from my many years of experience."
I nod in thanks as she hands me my own cup. I hold it in my hands, enjoying the warmth if nothing else. I've never drank tea before, but it's never looked very appetizing to me. It'd be rude to refuse, though.
"Do you two live by yourself?" I ask as Lola sits herself down on a chair across from Pandora's.
"No," Theodore surprises me by speaking. He's sitting low in his chair, staring deeply into flickering television. "Our grandson, Oxon, lives here too. He should be back from his hunt soon."
An awkward silence follows. I really don't know what to say, and neither of the old people seem to be about to say anything more. I wiggle in my seat, trying to look for something to start up a conversation.
Pandora does before I can. "How old is your grandson?"
"He's about your age," Lola says with a smile. "He's such a kind boy. Always making sure we have everything we need."
I think back to the game trail I saw in the forest. Is that where Oxon hunts? I wonder what would have happened if we met with him in the woods first.
"He's much like you two, in a way," Lola continues, looking slightly sad. "His father--our son--was murdered by Peacekeepers four years ago. Poor Oxon was devastated. He's lived with us ever since."
"Those bastards in the Capitol take everything from us!" Theodore's voice is thick with fury. "They take advantage of our hardwork and sacrifice, then decide to take our lives as well! Damn bastards!" He heaves his coffee mug across the room, where it slams into the wall and rolls across the ground.
Pandora shifts uneasily in her seat. Is she feeling guilty? Or just nervous about what may happen if our lies are discovered? Perhaps my fears of being chopped to pieces weren't so farfetched.
"Grandfather? What's happening?"
A tall young man stands in the doorway. He's dressed in woodland leathers, and has several muskrats hanging from a belt around his waist. His blonde hair is neatly combed despite being out in the forest, and his face seems to be carved from marble. In short, he's as handsome as Pandora is beautiful. If the two of them got married, they'd make appallingly beautiful babies.
"Oh! Welcome home, Oxon!" Lola lifts herself from her chair and gives the man a hug. He seems to have finally noticed our presence and barely reacts to the hug.
"Who are they?" His eyes narrow when he sees Pandora's hair. "She looks like someone from the Capitol!"
"Don't be so unfriendly, Oxon!" Lola tries her best to wave his fears away, taking him by the hand and leading him to the table. "The two of them have had a rough go of things." She launches into a word by word recap of our story, all the while Oxon stares at us with a look that can only be described as suspicious.
I try not to squirm under his gaze. Does he know? Are our lies so easy to see through? Tricking a pair of elderly folks is easy if you know what you're doing, but what about him? And what'll they do if they find out?
I try telling myself that I'm not lying, that I'm not actually from the Capitol, nor do I support them--I just need their cure. Unfortunately, I don't think that these people would care about the specifics of the situation. If they discover that Pandora is from the Capitol, I'll be guilty by association.
By the time Lola finishes her tale, Oxon hasn't changed his expression in the slightest. I throw a nervous glance at Pandora. She's sipping her tea calmly; it doesn't appear that she's the least bit frazzled. How does she do it?
"I suppose that you can stay here," The man finally says, almost begrudgingly.
"Of course they can stay!" Lola admonishes him with a stern finger wag. "We don't just throw people out in the cold!"
"There won't be as much food as before," Oxon rises from the table, unclipping the muskrats from his belt and tossing them on the kitchen counter. "Hunting for five people will be much harder than for three."
"I'm very sorry for the inconvenience," Pandora says with a dip of her head. She almost sounds meek! "But I hope I can rely on your generosity. I do not know how to provide for myself..."
Lola quickly reassures her as Theodore rises from his chair and heads outside, mumbling about the need for more firewood. I'm watching him go when I notice Oxon staring at me. "What's your story?" He asks.
"Lola pretty much said it," I say, not liking how his eyes seem to pierce through me. My palms are already sweating.
"That was Pandora's story. You just came in halfway through it. What did you do before that?"
"Oh, you know...stuff." My mind is seriously blanking. What do I say? The truth? Rebels attacked the home I shared with a former victor, then they brutalized and poisoned me so that I had to go in the run?
"Stuff." Oxon does not sound amused. I notice the sharp skinning knife on his belt. Great. Now instead of being chopped to pieces I can be slowly fileted!
"Yeah, you know, chopping wood, thinking about life, trying not to die...stuff." I'm a few seconds away from a total freakout. Pandora is deep in conversation with Lola and can't help me. What do I say?
"Must have been tough escaping the District," Oxon turns his gaze away from me and I let out a breathe of relief. "Few people have managed it so far."
"Yeah, it was hard." That's true. For some reason, the cloaked people didn't exactly like everyone trying to flee. I suppose it was because they didn't want anyone important to the Capitol escaping; like Pandora. "Think they'll come here?"
"Nah." Oxon shakes his head, grabbing my untouched cup of tea from my hands and taking a long swig from it. "Their army has already moved on. Rumor has it that District 4 has fallen."
"Whoa. Seriously?" District 4? But that's pretty close to the Inner Ring of Districts. Has the Capitol already been pushed back so far?
"Don't know for sure, but that's what I hear. Grandpa is mad the television doesn't work," He motions at the static filled television. "We'd know for sure then; or maybe not. Capitol propaganda runs pretty deep. Then again, they might not have control of the radio waves over here anymore."
Finishing off the tea, he sets the cup back on the counter and moves for the door before stopping and fixing me with a long stare. "You seem like a good person, so I'll trust you. But do anything, anything that will bring harm to my grandparents, I'll kill you. They're the only thing I have left in this world. And I'll protect them no matter the cost."
Without waiting for a response, he stalks back out the door. I watch him go with a pit the size of District 9 in my stomach. I really hope Pandora knows what she is doing...otherwise we might just pay dearly for this.
Bridgette Wells (District 2 Outskirts)
I crouch on the egde of our campsite, watching as Tate unrolls the sleeping bags on the ground as his girlfriend Harley watches, her arms wrapped tightly around their child. Percy, the only person who I trust in this world, is pacing around the clearing where we made camp, checking the perimeter for any intruders.
As far as I'm concerned, we've already got two intruders inside the camp. I don't trust those two kids. Not one bit. The guy is a wanted criminal, and the girl is the daughter of one of Panem's most corrupt mayors! How could anybody trust them?
Yet, apparently Percy does. If it was up to me, I'd have either killed or deserted them by now. But he thinks they can be of use. And he's just too trusting.
One day he's going to get us killed.
"How do we know they won't betray us?" I ask Percy as he walks by. He stops and fixes me with a lopsided smile. If he wasn't so charming, I'd punch him in the face.
"You worry about the strangest things."
"I worry about real things," I say in exasperation. "People are always going to betray you. It's just in their nature."
He only smiles. Has he forgotten all the people who've tried to betray me over the years? Probably. He doesn't think on the past very much. Sometimes I wish I could be the same way. At other times, I think that being like that would get me killed.
"I'm going to go hunting with Tate," He says, adjusting the rifle strap around his shoulder.
"With Tate?" I throw a look at the broad-shouldered boy as he speaks quietly with Harley. "He's actually going to leave her side for once?" Since the four of us joined forces, the guy has never went hunting with Percy. In fact, he never left our camp in general. He's too protective of that girl.
"Yeah. Guess he finally trusts us, huh?" Percy chuckles as if he said something funny and moves on, calling for Tate. I watch the two of them join together on the edge of the clearing. After a few parting words with Harley, the two of them walk off into the forest.
Great. Now I'm all alone with that girl. There's not much I have to say to her, so hopefully she doesn't want to talk. I move in closer to the sleeping bags, checking my satchel for my supplies.
Harley just sits nearby, holding onto her baby. She never seems to put it down. That must be annoying. How can she stand it?
"So, you guy's finally trust us, huh?" Repeating what Percy said to me, I watch her from the corner of my eye as I take out the map of District 2 I have in my pack. Harley narrows her eyes at me as I spread it out along the ground.
"Thought you were the one who didn't trust us," She says flatly.
"I didn't and I still don't." Harley seems taken back by my bluntness. "But Tate clearly didn't trust me and Percy. That's why he never left you alone before now."
"You're a strange girl, Claudia," She says with a shake of her head. I begin to bristle at the veiled insult, but decide to show some restraint. The daughter of the Mayor probably never had much interaction with other people. I shouldn't blame her for her clear lack of social skills.
"Strange people are my kind of people." Is all I say. She doesn't even know that Claudia isn't my real name. She has no idea that she is talking to Bridgette Wells, a member of one of the most influential families in Panem. Sure, we're not the biggest and best--that's an honor reserved for the Idylwyld's, the Trevelyan's and the Valii--but we're sure up there.
Sometimes I forget that I'm not Claudia. Sometimes I wish that I was just Claudia Vaughn, a no name girl that nobody cared about. That would be nice. Life would be happier that way, I think.
"So what's your story?" Harley watches me closely as I eye our path through the rest of the mountainous forest. We're not far from the border. Soon we'll need to fool the guards into letting us across. No worries. Percy and I have a plan.
"Excuse me?" I don't look up from plotting our course. "My story?"
Harley shrugs. "Why are you on the run? Whose chasing you? What were you before this all happened?"
"That's a lot of questions."
"I'm sure you have many answers."
Huh. The girl isn't as stupid as she looks. Too bad. I look up and stare her in the eyes, readying to tell my tale. But the words don't come. It's hard to speak about the past. I can't help but think about it, dwell on it, but I never speak about it. Percy is the only person who I've ever confided in anything.
"It's...hard to talk about," I finally force words out my mouth. "I'll tell you when Percy gets back. It'll be easier, then."
She nods as I just said the most sensible thing in the world, though, I don't think it made any sense. Why would it be easier if he was here?
We lapse into silence. I've given up on charting our course. We're so close that it doesn't matter anymore. We'll be hard pressed not to find the checkpoint.
"Do you love Tate?" I don't know why the question pops into my head, but I ask it anyway. Harley stares at me with a startled expression.
"Of course! I love him more than anything, except for Blair, of course!" She snuggles the baby close to her face and I feel a little...angry? That's weird. Why would I feel angry?
"So what's it feel like?" Now this is something I've always wondered.
"What does what feel like?" Harley looks up from the baby, which is making very baby-like noises, and stares at me in confusion.
"Love. What does it feel like?"
"I..." She trails off, a frown forming across her face. Closing her eyes, she thoughtfully taps a finger against her lips. "Mmm. It's hard to explain. Exciting would be one word, I suppose."
"Exciting? Love feels...exciting?" I ask, sounding more than a little dubious.
"In some ways," She waves a hand, as if that explains anything! "In other ways, it's terrifying. You always worry about the people you love. You're always hoping that they're safe, wishing that you could protect them."
"And when you see someone you love after a long absence, it's the greatest feeling in the world. It's pure ecstasy. When you love someone, you can't imagine a world without them. You can't fathom being apart. Of not being able to hold them close."
She falls silent then, staring off into the sky with a forlorn expression. It feels like she just said something profound, but I only feel confused. That's what love is like? It sounds miserable! Not to mention I've never felt that with anyone or anything ever.
But I don't say these aloud. No doubt the love besotted fool wouldn't understand anyway. So I just pull my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around them. When Percy gets back from hunting, I'll ask him to abandon Harley and Tate again. I still don't think they're good for us.
If we're not careful, they're probably going get us killed.
Tate Lockwood (District 2 Outskirts)
"So...you've been hunting for long?" I ask Percy a question as the two of us skirt around the main path and slink deeper into the woods. We're both armed for the ongoing hunt—him with a high-grade rifle, and me with a homemade sling—but I can't help but feel defenseless out here. We're just too close to District 2.
"Nah. I've only started hunting when we went on the run," Percy cracks a smile as he stops to examine the dirt beneath him. Looking for animal tracks? "I learned pretty fast when I was starving for food."
I nod. Then he shouldn't totally outclass me. I've been hunting since basically forever; I'm from the rural District 10 after all. I should be able to keep up with him.
It's been several days since Harley and I grouped up with the two mystery teenagers. In that time span, we've made steady progress towards the border. Last night, when we went over the maps, we found out that we're less than twenty-four hours away from the first checkpoint.
That makes me nervous. No matter how many times that Percy tells me they have an easy plan to get past, I can't help but fear we won't succeed. And if we don't, then that will be the end for me and Harley. I can't let that happen. Not under any circumstance.
"Looks like a deer is nearby," Percy says cheerfully. He's scanning an open clearing that is below our switchback with a pair of binoculars. I'm envious of how much supplies the guy has. "That would really fill our bellies."
"We already have enough food," I say idily. "A deer would be hard to bring along with us. We just need something small to supplement our current supply."
The boy laughs and slaps me on the back. "But the thrill of the hunt! Do you not feel it, man!"
I feel it, alright. I feel the noose of Mayor Paramour slowly wrapping itself around my neck. That man is psychotic. He won't stop chasing us. Ever.
"Now come on, I think we can head it off." Percy stuffs his binoculars back into his pocket and hops down from the rock, heading off into the forest at a brisk jog.
I follow him, feeling a tad uneasy. This is the first time I've left Harley alone since I rescued her. I know that I can't be by her side every moment of every day—no matter how much I want to be—but I can't help but feel...worried. What if Mayor Paramour has been following this whole time, just waiting for the right opportunity to strike? What if he kidnaps Hary while I'm gone?
Realistically I know that these fears are unfounded. If Mayor Paramour had found us, he wouldn't wait until I was gone, he'd have more than enough Peacekeepers to overpower us, even with Percy and Claudia.
Claudia. At least she's still with Harley. The girl may be a total sourpuss who glares at everything, but I know that she wouldn't go down without a fight. That makes me feel better. Slightly.
Soon Percy comes to a halt, kneeling atop a tussock of grass and unslinging his rifle. He brings it up to aim, peering through the scope.
"You found something?" I ask, trying to see what he's aiming at. I see nothing but trees and bushes.
"Yeah. Deer just ahead. Got it in my sights." The boy takes careful aim, slowly adjusting his rifle. His finger rests on the trigger.
A gunshot rings throughout the forest. Odd. I didn't see Percy pull the trigger, in fact, I didn't even see a bullet come out the gun. Did he—
Percy slumps over, head hitting the ground. His eyes stare blankly into the sky. Blood blossoms from a bullet wound in his chest.
I throw myself to the ground just a a hail of bullets rip through the tranquil peace of the forest. I cover my head with my hands, feeling the whooshing of air as tiny projectiles of death rip over my head.
Terror has my heart pounding like a hammer. They found us. Oh, God. They've found us!
"Stop, you fools!" A single voice rises over the gunfire, loud and commanding. "You could hit the girl! Remember that we have to take her alive!"
That seals it. Any doubt that I may have had about what was going on is now burnt away. Mayor Paramour's forces have arrived. For a moment, I'm paralyzed with fear. I just lie on the forest floor, Percy's bleeding corpse next to me, anticipating my slow death.
Then I think of Harley and Blair, and all my strength returns. I will not let then harm my family. I. Will. Not.
The gunfire has ceased. I hear voices calling out to one another as Peacekeepers begin to search the area. Do they think that they killed me? I don't know. Doesn't matter. I need to get back to Harley, and whether or not they will be expecting me factor's not a whit.
I take in my surroundings. A group of trees that are growing close together lies about five feet off—they would serve as a barrier from the bullets. But getting there could be a problem, especially if I am seen by the Peacekeepers. Next to Percy, lying in a pool of his blood, is the rifle. I reach out a hand and pull it close to me. I don't have time to mourn for Percy. I need to save Harley.
"You see anyone?" A gruff voice calls out not far from my position. From the sounds of it, it appears that they're closing in on me. If I don't move soon, I will be discovered and killed.
"Negative. I don't think the girl was here."
I take a deep breath. Time to do it.
I throw myself up, ducking low as I run for the trees. A shout rises behind me, then there's a burst of gunfire as someone unleashes bullets. I throw myself to the side, expecting that they would shoot for my back, and narrowly avoid another hail of death. I stumble in place, but don't fall or stop. I can't afford to.
"He's alive! The boy is alive!"
I reach the trees just as the next round of firing starts. I slam myself behind the trunk as the bullets smash into the other side, sending a shower of splintered bark flying into the air. The tree shudders with the vibration of the bullets. How many Peacekeepers are there? Are they flanking me? There's too much I don't know.
A log is lying nearby. Without thinking, I dive behind it and begin to crawl. Our camp was due east of here. Harley is there. Would she have heard all these gunshots? And if she has, what has she done? I'd prefer if she decided to flee, but knowing her, she probably has gone looking for me. But if the Peacekeepers find her first...
It's hard to think straight with all the panic that is flooding my system. Adrenaline is pumping through my veins, and I can't help but get angry. Angry that Mayor Paramour hates us enough to try and kill us. Angry that the world seems to be conspiring against me. Anger gives me strength.
Reaching the end of the log, I jump to my feet and break out into a sprint. There is no shouts, no bullets. I haven't been spotted. Yet. Forcing away all thoughts, I follow the path that Percy and I took to get here. It's easy once I find the path. I sprint as hard and as fast as I can, my mind flooded with images of Harley and Blair being captured and executed. I can't allow that. I can't. I can't. I CANNOT.
The clearing were we made camp comes into view. I blast into it without slowing down. "Harley!"
"Tate!" Harley steps out from behind a leather-leaf tree. She has Blair in her arms and a bright smiles plastered on her face. "You're okay!"
I'm beyond relieved. I've never felt as happy as I do now, but I don't have the time to stop and celebrate. "We need to go! Peacekeepers are here—probably your father's. We can't afford to—"
I fall silent as Claudia emerges from behind another tree. Her face is a mask of concern. I open my mouth, then close it. The words die on my lips. I forgot about her. Forgot that she would need to be told about Percy. What was he to her? I don't know.
"Where is Percy?" She repeats the question, looking around the clearing as if expecting him to show up. Her eyes widen when she sees the rifle in my hands. The concern turns to horror. "No...no. Don't tell me..."
"Claudia, I'm sorry..." Gunfire erupts from somewhere in the forest. What are they doing? "But Percy..."
"Don't say it! Don't say it!" She hugs her shotgun close to her chest. "Don't say it!"
"Percy is dead."
Harley gasps, covering her mouth with one hand. Claudia rises her head to the sky and lets out one long, mournful scream. Remorse fills me. Could I have avoided this? No. No, it wasn't my fault. The Peacekeepers just found us while we were hunting, there was nothing that could be done. That doesn't stop me from wishing otherwise, though.
"You bastard..." Claudia lowers her head, staring right at me. Then, for some inexplicable reason, she aims the shotgun straight at my chest. "You bastard!"
"What the hell are you doing?" Harley shouts, stepping forward. She looks to intervene before I wave her off. Claudia is filled with grief, and grief makes people unpredictable.
"It wasn't my fault, Claudia," I try to keep my voice calm, though I feel anything but. I don't know this girl. What if she's murdered dozens of people before? "They shot Percy while he was focused on a deer. There was nothing I could have done!"
"You brought the Peacekeepers here!" She screams the word, spittle flying from her mouth as she waves the shotgun about dangerously. "They would never have came if you hadn't been with us!"
"I didn't make you join us!" To the side of us, Harley is slowly inching backwards. I realize what she is doing. Get behind Claudia and incapacitate her. It puts her in danger, but if we don't solve this soon, the Peacekeepers will arrive and then we will be in serious danger.
"You just being there made Percy join you!" Claudia is insane. A stark, raving, lunatic. But there's nothing I can do. She has a shotgun pointed right at me, and all I have is a rifle held at my side. If I could get the muzzle up, I could shoot her leg, maybe, but it would be a huge risk.
"We told you people were after us," Keep her talking. Distract her. Harley is almost behind her. I see the stone she has in hand, one the size of my fist. One strike would knock Claudia out. "I told you it would be dangerous."
"I should have killed you when I had the chance!" Claudia jerks the shotgun forward, her eyes glinting with fury. "Killed you the second I laid eyes on you!"
"Percy wouldn't have wanted that," I say softly. Harley is only a few feet away. I silently urge her on.
Claudia's face contorts. "Don't tell me what Percy would want! You didn't know him! You don't know anything! Just die! Just die, you bastard!"
Harley steps forward to bring the rock down. Too late.
Claudia pulls the trigger.
Kanani Alsia (District 2 Outskirts)
The boy, the one who kidnapped the Mayor's daughter, goes flying as the shotgun slugs take him right in the chest. His body slams against the trunk of the tree behind him, and he slowly slumps to the ground, blood seeping from his destroyed chest cavity.
A wordless scream of horror shakes the clearing as Harley falls to her knees, her face that of pure, unadulterated despair. The other girl, the one who killed the kidnapper, turns to face her. She aims the shotgun at her skull.
"Tate wasn't the only one," She says through gritted teeth, her manner that of a rabid animal. "You're to blame too! You were part of this!"
For a moment, I'm frozen in place. It's what I've been taught to do when two enemies of mine are going at it—just sit back and watch them take each other out. But this time I need to take one of them in alive.
I line up my shot and fire.
The bullet takes the girl in the neck. She falls to her knees, the shotgun slipping out from her grasp and bouncing across the ground. Her hands fly for neck, trying to stem the flow of blood that bubbles out there.
It's too late, though. She's a goner.
"Move in!" I give the command and the five Peacekeepers that have found this clearing with me fan out, circling the clearing and fixing their weapons on Harley in case she runs for it.
But she doesn't. She's frozen in place, staring at the kidnappers body with a look of sheer disbelief. She's almost catatonic. Guess his death sent her into shock.
"Someone call for Mayor Paramour," I say, walking across the clearing and taking care to avoid the dying girl's spasming body. "We've got his daughter."
I was surprised when the Mayor told me that he would be personally accompanying this expedition. I thought that he would just wait back in District 2 for us to return with his daughter.
Not that it matters. I still get paid no matter what, especially since we've recaptured his daughter within a week, as I had predicted. This was amongst the easiest jobs I've ever taken. The foolish kidnapper did very little to cover his tracks, and after a day of hiking, the bloodhounds picked up their scent. From then on, it was almost guaranteed that we would catch them.
"He's been alerted, ma'am," One of the Peacekeepers gives me a salute as he replaces his walkie-talkie.
"Thank you." I approach the girl, the Mayor's daughter. I have no idea who the other one was. She's finally quieted down, having gone stiff as she lies in a pool of her own blood. She wasn't mentioned in the case report.
I kneel beside Harley. She is still staring at the boy's body in utter shock. "You should have expected this," I tell her. "The Capitol never let's anyone get away, and neither does District 2."
She doesn't respond. It's like she doesn't even see me. She stares at the boy in complete silence, oblivious to the world around her. According to the official dossier, the kidnapper was also her lover. Makes sense for her to be so devastated.
The child in her arms begins to squirm. I'm glad that he was unharmed. Hurting infants is not something I ever wish to be apart of.
I stand back up, returning to the group of Peacekeepers as they idle around. With all three of the Mayor's daughters helpers dead and she herself incapacitated, we don't have anything to worry about. Job well done.
The arrival of several more Peacekeepers alerts me to Mayor Paramour's presence. I stand at ease as he storms into the clearing, his long, dark jacket flapping around him. "Where is she?" He demands, casting his gaze around the clearing. I point at the girl, still kneeling before the kidnappers corpse.
A smile crosses his face. "You killed the boy?"
"No. The girl with your daughter did."
He frowns, but makes no comment. Stepping over the dead girl's body, he approaches his daughter. The moment he draws near, she snaps out of her stupor. "Stay away from me!" She tries to pull away, but he snatches her by the wrist.
"I am so glad to have you back, beloved daughter," His tone is not kind as he motions for a pair of Peacekeepers to come over. "And my precious grandson too! Please, let me see him!"
Harley spits in his face. "I'll never let you have Blair!"
Calmly wiping his face with his sleeve, he snaps his fingers. Immediately the two Peacekeepers raise their weapons, aiming not at Harley, but the child in her arms.
Disbelief rides over me like a wave. He wouldn't! Not an infant, not his own grandson! I take an involuntary step forward, fingers inching towards my gun. If he gives such an order...
Harley's arms go slack as the anger on her face turns to terror. "Don't harm Blair, please! Anything but that!"
Without hesitation, Mayor Paramour grabs the baby and yanks it out of her hands. "I would never harm him," He says, holding the child close. "Nor would I hurt you, for that matter."
Harley makes a noise that is somewhere between a sob and a scoff. The two Peacekeepers force her to stand, handcuffing her hands behind her back.
"Your newest venture is most dangerous, however," Mayor Paramour says as he turns away from his daughter. "Volunteering for the Hunger Games? Why, I never thought that you would do that!"
"Excuse me?" Surprise has me break my professional silence. "Did I hear you correctly?"
The Mayor seems to have forgotten my presence. He shrugs his shoulders. "Apparently the 401st Games will be beginning shortly. President Stryker has asked all the Career Districts for volunteers. To my surprise, my very own daughter was the first to do so!"
I do not know what to say. The Games are coming back? Already? Then that means my dreams have not yet been dashed. I could still...no. Didn't he say that his daughter volunteered?
I look at at her and seeing her dismayed expression I know that she has not. He is lying. He's forcing her into the Games so that he has an easy excuse to be rid of her. That makes me irrationally angry. The Games aren't meant for punishment! They're suppose to be an honorable battle, where the District sends their strongest and most capable warriors! And he's corrupting that! Turning a great beauty into something awful!
"I must protest your decision, Mr. Mayor," I say through gritted teeth, barely keeping my anger in check.
He glances at me in bewilderment. "Excuse me? I must have misheard you, because I thought that you just refuted something that I said, and I know that a loyal employee like you would never do such thing!"
"I am not your "employee". I am an independent contractor." Not the point. I brush my slight annoyance away to focus on the major one. "Besides, you promised me anything I desired as long as you got your daughter back."
Unsure of where I am going with this, Mayor Paramour eyes me carefully. "I did."
"And what I want, what I desire above all else, is the chance to compete in the Hunger Games."
"Out of the question. Impossible!" He waves a flippant hand, turning away from me and walking away. I reach out to grab his arm, but stop short, suddenly conscious of the Peacekeepers around me. Though they respect and admire me for the leadership I showed during this mission, they would not hesitate to shoot me if ordered to.
"You promised me!" I shake a fist after the man, "You're a liar and a cheat!"
"You're not the first to call me that," He says smugly, not even bothering to turn around. Several Peacekeepers begin to follow him, the rest pick up Harley and drag her along behind him. "But I will not renege on our deal. You will get whatever you wish...besides for the chance to be District 2's female tribute. My daughter has already volunteered, and the paperwork has been filed."
And he departs. Just like that. I am left in the forest clearing by myself, surrounded by the corpses of the fallen. They didn't even bother to bury them. Dishonorable. Swallowing heavily, I turn away and begin to rummage through my pack for the service shovel I brought with. The one thing I want in life is the one thing I cannot have. I am sure I am not unique in this aspect, but it feels as if I am.
I wallow in anger and self-pity as I begin to dig a grave for the kidnapper.
It is the least I can do.
Anais Morrisa (The Capitol)
Responding to Leo's summons, I make my way down the long corridor. The two Peacekeepers at the wide, lion-carved doors to the Map Room are experienced soldiers, one short and the next thing to scrawny, the other wide enough to appear squat though he is of average height. Nothing visible picks them out from any other men in the Stryke Force, but only good marksman, trusted men, get this duty.
The Map Room is the second-largest ballroom in the Manor, and spacious, with four red-streaked marble fireplaces where small fires burn beneath the carved mantels, a domed ceiling worked with gilt and supported by widely spaced columns two spans from white marble walls that have been stripped of tapestries, and sufficient mirrored stand-lamps to light the room as well as if it had windows. The greatest part of its tile floor is a detailed mosaic map of the Capitol, originally laid down hundreds of years ago, after the New City was burned to a crisp. It has been redone several times since, as tiles faded or became worn, so every street is exact.
I've always wondered why they'd go through such trouble. It doesn't seem as if a map of the Capitol would be of much use to a President, at least, not during peacetime.
Long tables between the columns hold data tablets and holographic screens, some large enough to fill entire walls, and shelves placed alongside these hold stacks of reports, those not so sensitive they needed to be locked away or else committed to memory and destroyed. Leo's wide writing table, completely covered with holographic images, rests at the far end of the room.
The President himself stands beside his desk, deep in conversation with a man he knows very well. Lean and craggy and bald save for a thin white fringe, Aubrem Barkley should have been back home playing with his grandchildren, but his back is straight, his eyes clear. He is one of Leo's closest confidants, the man who was his tutor from birth. There is no one Leo trusts more.
"It appears that Madame Morrisa as arrived!" The old man says heartily, giving me a eloquent bow. "She is a beauty indeed."
I giggle and offer him a curtsy. I see why Leo likes the man. He is much better than those stuffy old generals he usually hangs out with. The President notices my presence and gives me a brisk nod before going back to examining the holographic screen before him.
"We may have halted their progress for now," He says, addressing Barkley. "But I don't like how few District's we control. Order General Kass to take his vanguard into District 9. We need a larger buffer between the Inner Circle and the Rebels."
I would not admit this to anybody--not even Carmine, where she here--but I am worried. The large holographic screen that takes up majority of the northern wall shows a map of Panem and its Districts. Each District is color coded for who controls it; District's 7, 13, and 4 are red for Those Who Don't Exist. 3, 10, and 11 yellow for the Rebels, and 1, 2, 5, 14 and 0 green for the Capitol. The rest of the District's are a mix of all three colors.
The Capitol has been losing ground since the war's start. Slowly, yes, but it has been losing. If things don't turn around soon, the Capitol could very well end up losing, if not the war, at least some sizable territory. Rumors already say that District 12 has been utterly destroyed.
"We should be careful not to stretch ourselves too thin," Barkley says as he looks over some papers. "They could still administer a strike at the Capitol itself, try and kill each and every one of us whilst we think we are safe."
“You do think dark thoughts,” I say bleakly. The possibilities are enough to give me a sour stomach.
"There is no need to worry about that," Leo says smoothly. He holds his hand behind his back as he studies the map. "There is no way they will be able to breach the Wall, yet alone the Manor's new security devices."
"That is what your father thought," Barkley thumbs a finger along the desk. "And look where it got him. Do not take these people lightly, Leopold."
"I am not taking them lightly," There is a hard edge to Leo's voice. "I know better than anyone what atrocities these people are capable of committing. But I have something that my father did not. I have a personal grudge against these people. A burning desire to see them destroyed."
"Do not let that desire consume you."
"I will not. I will allow it to feed me, to give me strength, but I will not let it become my sole reason for existence." Leo turns to face me. He does not smile. "I am glad to see you, Anais. I have something to ask you."
"You may ask me anything, of course!" I do wonder what this is about. I have my suspicions, but nothing else.
"It is about the 401st Hunger Games," He reaches a hand out and Barkley gives him a file grabbed from the desk. "I was wondering whether you wished to be a mentor in them or not."
I had nearly forgotten that I was eligible for such a thing. Of course I had mentored during the 400th Games, but that was a very...unique experience. Too many tributes to really focus on training any of them. A more typical Games might be a better time.
"I would very much like to, yes." I pause. "Is there some reason why I wouldn't?"
Leo shrugs. "The Training Apartments will not be as safe as my Manor. Not to mention the fact that we might still have some traitors in our Victor pool." His voice is as placid, and as matter-of-fact, as his face.
"You are speaking about Watt Chargy?" I'll admit that I had not seen that coming. Who'd have thought the old bat would betray the people who've cared for her all these years?
"Not just her. The Victors who disappeared after the 399th Games, as well as Watt's accomplice."
"She had an accomplice?" This is news to me.
"Yes. We are hoping that Those Who Don't Exist will try and contact her again. That is the only reason she is not yet dead." Leo stares at a holographic screen, where District 14 has begun to flash. "If you decide to mentor, then read that file. It contains names and descriptions of the 401st's tributes. Each District has already supplied us with them."
I silently accept the file. Leo doesn't say anything else as he gazes forlornly into the screen, so I take the opportunity to open it. True to his word, the file is full of biographies on the tributes that will compete in the next Games.
The first file is on the District Zero male, someone named Topher Celene. Apparently, the kid was found locked inside his own manor house in the District. The file says that he's an asocial idiot who is destined to be a bloodbath death. Staring at the attached picture, I can't really disagree with that assessment. He looks like a zounderkite.
But the file that interests me most is the one on the District One female. She will be one of the two tributes that I will be mentoring, and has the slot that I did during the 399th Games. Since I was enrolled at the Career Academy, I'm not really surprised that I recognize the name: Valencia Sonar.
I don't know much about her, just her reputation. Some people at the academy--a few trainers included--feared her because of how many "training accidents" that happened while she was around. She put pretty much all her time and effort into training, and was quite brutal while doing so.
I was never afraid of her, I know that she didn't--and still doesn't--hold a candle to me. Still, she looks like she could be quite the contender in the 400th Games. I'm looking forward to see what she can do.
"I'll be accepting mentorship in the Games," I tell Leo, closing the folder and placing it under my arm. He does not seem very surprised.
"I expected that. But make sure you keep Shay and Shiva close; I do not wish to see anything...unsavory happen to you."
"Just make sure that nothing happens to you, either." Leo's death would jeopardize my position of power here, not to mention severely demoralize the Capitol. And...okay, I would actually be mortified to have that happen. But not for any sentimental reasons!
"I already told you that the Manor is beyond secure," Leo sounds almost annoyed.
Barkley fingers the four golden knots on the shoulder of his white-collared red coat. “I do not have to remind you that overconfidence can lead to devastating follies."
“Do they frighten you that much, Barkley?” Leo asks with a small smile.
"I am not frightened. Any day you wake up, you may die, after all. But only a fool courts death, and only a fool overlooks his enemies cunning."
Any day you wake up, you may die. There were worse ways to look at life, I suppose. Still, I shiver. I'm safe, at least I am as of right now, but no one else is. Those monsters still have Carmine. What will they do with her?
"You may leave me, for now," Leo turns back to the holograph, arms folded behind his back. I can't tell if he is paying attention to Barkley's words of wisdom. "I need to relay a message to General Belisaurus."
The dismissal is clear. Barkley bows and departs, moving swiftly for one his age. I leave more slowly. The 401st Games are nigh, and soon all of Panem will be focused on them. Will Those Who Don't Exist try something, I wonder?
I almost wish that they do. Then I could fight against them myself. For what use am I, a skilled fighter, just sitting here in the Mansion? I should be doing something of use. Something that would help rescue my dear, beloved sister.
Perhaps mentoring will let me think of something. For the 401st Games are coming, and with them, a brand new Panem.
END OF PART 1
Part 2: What The Storm Brings
Altur Lysander (District 14)
I try to stifle my brewing anger as I leave my office and head down the hall towards the room that General Belisarius indicated. That General truly grinds my gears. He thinks that he can order me around? Me! The Mayor of District 14! The creator of many of the Capitol's most fearful muttations!
No one should tell me what to do. I should be above anyone and everyone. But not now. Not during wartime. The God-Generals get uncontested control in matters of District safety and defence during such times. It is truly an affront to my integrity.
"The freighters have been sent out, sir!" Spurius's shoes click on the mahogany floors as he rushes to catch up with me. I could slow down, but why bother? If the news he brings is important enough to bother me with, he can afford to sprint a little.
"And all the requested mutts were on board?" The Capitol surprised me with the announcement of the 401st Games. I honestly hadn't expected that. If they had given me more time, I could have created some mutts that the Gamemakers would truly love. But, alas. They'll have to make do with the mutts we already have.
"Yes, sir. All hundred and sixteen of them. All thirteen species accounted for."
I nod my head. "Good. Then they'll have nothing to complain about. Those specimens are quite tenacious. I especially like the—"
"Ah, Mayor Lysander!" General Belisarius himself steps out from a doorway. Today he is wearing brown corduroys and a shearling coat over a pale shirt. He looks like a damn cowboy! "I am glad that you decided to meet with me."
I sniff disdainfully. "I wasn't aware that I had a choice!"
"Of course you had a choice. And I fully expected for you to ignore my summons. You are not a very punctual man, Mayor Lysander."
"I had a choice? Well, in that case..." I turn to walk away, ignoring Spurius's squeak of surprise.
General Belisarius laughs. It is not a pleasant sound. "You may go, if you wish. But then you will not see what I have to show you."
I stiffen. The promise of information is one of the few things that always gets my attention. Just what does this General have to show me? Something I could use for my own benefit, perhaps?
"Step inside, if you wish to see." The man reenters the room, which if I recall correctly, is one of the tech rooms used for surveillance of the District. I grit my teeth and follow him inside.
Inside there are huge computers screens on the wall, many showing static footage of high-security areas around the District. A long table at the edge sits a few Peacekeepers, not from District 14, but ones that came with the General. The rest of the room is just absolutely cluttered with various pieces of tech.
"This is what you wish to show me?" I ask, trying to elicit a response. The man only smiles and gestures at one of the screens.
One of the Peacekeepers flicks on a switch and a green dot appears on the screen. The dot explodes into waves of ghostly interference, and then an image materializes in a cloudburst of static: a squadron of Peacekeepers standing outside what appears to be a warehouse.
"Are you all prepared?" General Belisarius asks. As the Peacekeeper gives an affirmative, I suspect that this is a live camera feed. But why? What exactly is he trying to show me?
"I don't think this is necessary," I tell him as I check my watch. "I've seen many routine Peacekeeper operations before."
"This isn't a routine operation," Belisarius says as the on-screen picture rotates as the Peacekeepers move about. Fragments of images whoosh by; the ocean, a Peacekeeper van, and the late afternoon sky, before the image settles on the doors to the warehouse.
"Then what is this for?" I ask, annoyed but also very curious.
"We're a searching for signs of that wild mutt pack," Belisarius replies. I can't help but scoff.
"You're chasing a ghost there, General. The pack does not exist." I've spent many days trying to validate those rumors, and so far have found nothing. "The killings are the work of a serial killer, nothing more."
On the screen we watch as the Peacekeepers approach the warehouse. We can hear the sound of gravel crunching under their boots, and their breathing. Belisarius hits a few buttons and our view flicks from one Peacekeeper to the next. So they all have the cameras hooked up to their helmets, do they?
Just before they reach the warehouse, they turn and begin to approach a nearby small house-like structure. "That's the dock managers home," I say to Belisarius. "Why are they going in there?"
He keeps his gaze focused squarely on the screen. "He has not been seen in two days. Yet just a few hours ago, two freighters were granted permission to travel to District 5."
Well, that certainly is suspicious. Since this war started, no one has been allowed to leave the District except with my leave. All dock managers report to me directly, and I have been very thorough in what ship gets to leave. Those freighters were most certainly not given permission.
"Entering the house," One of the Peacekeepers reports as he steps up to the door. The squad slowly and carefully enters, posting one guard at the doorway. The floors creak beneath them. "No lights on. We'll keep it that way, in case anything is still here."
The squad moves down the hall and enters into the living room. My hands clenched at my sides as I saw it. It has been ransacked. Books scattered, chairs broken, wallpaper ripped from the walls. Floorboards have been ripped up and left in jagged stumps. Even the sofa has been torn apart, it's stuffing lying across the room.
"Still think this was the work of a serial killer?" Belisarius asks as one of the Peacekeepers step forward to get a closer look at the wall. Deep gouges have been left in the paneling, like the claws of some creature had raked across it.
I grind my teeth together, saying nothing. So I was wrong. Some mutts had escaped. But how? And why did no factory report anything missing? Someone will pay for this mistake, and pay dearly.
The Peacekeepers make their way through the room and find a staircase in the neighboring hall. They climb up it. The lights grow dimmer as they do; all the doorways are closed. The whole house is deathly silent. The only noise comes from the Peacekeepers breathing. "It's hot up here, sir," The captain says, "Much hotter than below."
Belisarius throws me a glance. I shrug. Many mutt species prefer more humid environments, but the existence of such an environment does not equate to there being mutts present.
The hallway floods with light as the Peacekeepers open one of the doors. It takes a moment for the camera to adjust, but when it did I see a bedroom. Or what was left of it. Everything has been torn apart.
"Check the drawers of that desk," I speak into the microphone to the Peacekeepers directly. "That's where the dock manager keeps his files."
One of the Peacekeepers nods, passing by the bed, which has been slashed and stripped to the coils, and began to rummage through the desks drawers. After a few seconds, he looks up. "There's nothing here."
"Check the closet," I order. Belisarius gives me an odd look but does not dispute me. Good. He's learning, then.
The Peacekeepers move to the closest. It's a walk-in, deep, spacious, and dark. The Peacekeepers flick on their gun-mounted flashlights, casting the illuminating beam around the room. Clothes and hangars have been torn off the rails, they lie on the ground in a shredded pile.
"There's nothing there," Belisarius says sharply.
"There's a false panel in the ceiling," I tell the Peacekeepers. "In the back left corner. You'll need a chair." I was made aware of all the secret areas when I was made Mayor. There is nothing about this District I don't know. Or at least that is what I thought.
As the Peacekeepers drag a chair into the room, one of them climbs up to look at the insulated ceiling panels. "I think I see it. There seems to be a seam loose." He pries away a panel, about a foot square, out from its place. "I can see the rafters. There's something there. I think it's a note..."
The camera fuzzes and blurs as he reaches up to grab it. When he comes back down, the camera returns to normal. In his hand he holds a note, completely blank except for what appears to be a scrawled message.
"What does it say?" I demand. Why would they leave a message in the rafters? Did someone betray us?
"I...Take a look for yourself," The Peacekeeper holds the page close to the camera. On it, written in an almost indecipherable hand, is a few simple sentences.
Haha. You're too late. Me and my brethren has already escaped. You can't stop us. We will be free. P.S, I left some friends behind to play with you.
A second after reading it, I hear a muffled boom. As if something large and heavy has hit the ground on the floor below.
"Was that the furnace?" One of the Peacekeepers asks.
Alarm begins to filter through me. I lean forward, speaking rapidly. "You need to get out of there. Now."
Belisarius turns in surprise when one of the Peacekeepers rubs at his nose. "Something really stinks in here." Another muffled boom. This time from above them. "I think something is in the vents."
I find myself screaming. "Get out of there! Now!"
The Peacekeepers spin around, their flashlights whirling around the room. One of them stops on a hatch in the ceiling, which slowly creaks open. Something stands on the edge of the opening. Something I created.
It has a tiny head atop a pale stalk; pinchers sprout from its jaws. Big bright eyes protrude from an almost human face. It rears up on its hindlegs, revealing its segmented body and the rest of its limbs, three pairs of small, black legs.
"What the hell is that?" One of the Peacekeepers raises his gun to the beast. To the Spewer.
The beast let's out a high pitched screech, leaping from its perch at the nearest Peacekeeper. The man is bowled over, screaming as the creature lands atop him and digs its legs into his neck.
"Run, you fools!" Belisarius roars into the microphone and the three remaining Peacekeepers hustle out of the room, slamming the door shut behind them. The Peacekeeper they left behind has stopped screaming.
"What is that thing?" One of the three remaining asks, bending over to catch his breath.
"You're not safe yet, you damn morons!" I scream just as the Spewer slams itself against the inside of the door. Its pincers drill straight through like twin drill bits, spewing a orange liquid that quickly melts a hole through the wood. "Idiots! There's a reason it's called a Spewer!"
Belisarius throws me a bewildered look. "You know what this thing is?"
"Of course I know! I created it!"
One of the Peacekeepers fires, point blank, at the Spewer as it tries to crawl through the hole. It explodes into loose fluids that scatter and burst into flames. Liquid fire flows down the door.
"Its blood is highly flammable!" This situation is getting more and more unpredictable, especially with soldiers ill-trained to deal with this threat.
"Why the hell would you make it have flammable blood?" Belisarius has gone red in the face.
"The Capitol wants excitement! Unpredictability!" I can't believe I have to explain this to one of the Capitol's own generals. What has he been watching all his life?
Fleeing from the fire, the remaining three Peacekeepers hurtle through the hallway. When they near the staircase, another Spewer appears down the hall. One of the Peacekeepers lines up a shot, but before he can fire the Spewer launches itself forward and lands atop one of his fellows. He stumbles backwards, flipping over the banister and falling to the floor below with a solid thump.
The remaining two Peacekeepers sprint down the hall as yet another Spewer emerges from an overhead vent. It leaps down, attaching itself to one man's back, jaws snapping at him. The Peacekeeper slams his back against the wall, there's a sickening crunch as the Spewer is crushed, its greenish blood splattering against the wall and bursting into flames.
A loud skittering sound has the Peacekeepers spinning around. Behind them, a dozen Spewers are pouring up the staircase, scrambling over themselves in their haste to reach their prey. One of the Peacekeepers lets loose a spray of bullets, setting off the mutts like a string of firecrackers, flames erupting across the stairs.
I watch in grim silence as the two men run to one of the bedrooms, slamming the door shut. One goes to pry the window open while the other holds his gun towards the door, his arms trembling with fear. Pincers begin to tear through the door, their acidic spew dissolving the door at a rapid pace. The Peacekeeper fires a round at them, then the door explodes inwards.
When the window is open, the first Peacekeeper climbs through it without hesitation. The other is lost in a swarm of Spewers and flames.
The lone remaining Peacekeeper runs across the shingles, his breath ragged and quick, sliding down towards the ground. He leaps at the last moment. The camera jerks about as he lands roughly on a pile of crates, rolling back onto his feet. The Peacekeeper they left to guard the door turns to him, face full of concern. "Captain! What the hell happened in there?"
The whole house goes up. Windows shatter as flames spew from the windows, licking at the sky. There's a heavy groaning as a large portion of the second floor collapses into a fiery inferno.
"Mutts! We need to go, now!" The Captain rips the van's door open and climbs inside, the second entering the back. Starting up the vehicle, he pulls the van out, turning rapidly. "General! This doesn't look good. I think—"
Something large and heavy appears in front of the van. With an ear-piercing scream, it hurls itself at the windshield. The van swerves hard to the left. The screen goes blank.
Belisarius lets out a long breath, placing both hands against the deck as he stares into the blank screen. Sweat builds along my head, running down my back. "Mutts have escaped," he says after a moment's silence, "And now I have to deal with them."
"I can handle it. I know the Spewer's weaknesses, I can still get the situation under control. I can—"
"No. No, Mayor Lysander, you will report to the Capitol. President Stryker would like to have some words with you." Belisarius stands up straight, grabbing a walkie-talkie and calling up a Peacekeeper.
Icy dread grips my heart. Thoughts of punishment fly through my head. Execution could be a very possible outcome—or worse—I could be sent to Stryker's Hell. I've heard rumors of that place, rumors that make even me shudder. I know that most of those are fabricated to spread the terror of the place, but I'd rather not see if that assumption is true.
"Don't be hasty!" I could still fix this. I could avoid this punishment! I refuse to accept it. I'll turn to the Blackcloaks before I do that! "I can solve this. It's a minor problem. I could have it fixed in a week!"
"Stop fretting, Lysander. You're not being punished."
I stop moving. Belisarius has finished barking out orders, he slams the walkie-talkie down on the table, facing me with a grim expression. I am not sure I heard him correctly. "I'm...Of course I'm not. I was just saying that I could easily fix this problem!" As if I'd be punished! I knew that I was worrying about nothing! "What exactly am I being summoned for?"
"Your written correspondence has not been enough. President Stryker wishes to have you nearby, so that you may help with his...pets." Belisarius grimaces. "He is finding them...hard to control."
"Ahh. Of course." Those two were my greatest creations yet. I doubt that anyone besides for myself would be able to create such majestic beasts. Hard to control, are they? Well, he asked for unstoppable killing machines, so what did he suspect? Still, I believe could solve this little quirk. Besides, it's been awhile since I was last in the Capitol. "When do I leave?"
Belisarius heads for the door. "Tonight. Gather your stuff, then head for my ships. Stryker wishes to have you there as soon as possible."
"What about the escaped mutts?"
Belisarius pauses in the doorway. "I will deal with them. You just concentrate on fixing those creations of yours. We cannot afford any mistakes in this war. No mistakes at all."
Brandon Corringham (District 11 Outskirts)
As the train hurtles through the war-torn landscape of District 11, I find solace in my thoughts.
Many sobbing people fill the traincar around me. Not as many as before, but still over two dozen. None of them have spoken to me since we first boarded. And why would they? What is there to say? We all saw our homes burn, destroyed by people that some had suspected came to help us. No one really feels like holding conversations after that. Hemsway sits beside me, staring numbly at the Capitol credits in his hands. Sometimes I forget that both of his parents were lost in District 12's destruction. He keeps saying that they're still alive, but I know better.
None of the people on this train have loved ones who survived. If they did, they'd have boarded with them. Since they didn't, they're burnt corpses back in District 12.
"We'll be arriving at the rebels main camp, soon enough," Hemsway surprises me by speaking. His eyes are a puffy red. Maybe he's been crying while I slept. "That has to be our destination."
"How do you know?" My own voice is not more than a whisper.
"We're clearly headed deeper into District 11. That's where Commander Korus has set up base. And these trains were supposed to bring us to safety. Where else would we find that?"
"Do you believe that they'll find safety there?" I cock my head at the sobbing people. One of them, a middle-aged woman, is staring blankly out the open container door. There are some like her, some who don't cry, but rather sit in terrible silence. They make me more uncomfortable then the criers.
Hemsway shakes his head. "No. Not true safety; that doesn't exist anywhere. But it has to be safer than where we came from."
We lapse back into silence. I think about the stops we've already made. The first was not more than a few hours after we set off. It was at a District 12 refueling station, and the only people who got off were the ones who wanted to go back and check for survivors, or try and rebuild what was lost. Idealists and optimists, I guess. Couldn't have been more than a dozen of them.
The next stop was at the station that borders Twelve and Eleven. A lot of people left here. I don't know where they're going. Doesn't matter. Some people tried convincing them to stay, saying that the few Rebel soldiers on board would protect them, but they weren't swayed. I didn't mind. Less people means more room for me.
As people left the train, the Rebels started rearranging the train cars. Apparently, they like to order things. Now each section isn't overflowing with people, and Hemsway and I can actually sit comfortably.
Each section also has its own attendant. That's really just a fancy word for Rebel soldier. Ours is a small, underfed man with ash-blond hair. His "uniform" is really just a charred white vest that he probably stole from a dead Peacekeeper.
Right now he sits on his heels, rocking back and forth as he stares at the countryside whipping by. He spits, then turns to us. "Yep. We're headed for Commander Korus' base, alright."
I bristle with indignation. "Where you listening to us?"
He shrugs his spindly shoulders. "Kinda hard not to, amico. No one else is speaking, see?" He gestures at all the other people, a few who have stopped to stare at us. I don't like people who listen in on others. It's...wrong.
"What'll happen with us?" Hemsway asks, clearly not as concerned as I am.
"You'll be looked after. Fed, given proper shelter, all the good stuff." The guy laughs. As if he said anything funny!
"Will we be allowed to help? I mean, if we want to belp you guys, would you allow us to?" I throw Hemsway a questioning look. Does he still intend to infiltrate the Rebels ranks and spy for the Capitol? I would have thought that the plan would have died in District 12 with his parents.
The man fixes Hemsway with a piercing look. "Volunteers are always welcome, amico." A pause. "You volunteering?"
"Maybe." An illusive response is what Hemsway gives. "Depends on what your army looks like. You think you could actually threaten the Capitol?"
The man smiles. "Oh, yes. Our forces are larger and better trained then ever before. Especially with Commander Korus calling the shots." It doesn't look like this guy is very well-trained. "Especially with those blackcloaks on the prowl. As long as they kill everything in sight, the Capitol will focus most their attention on them."
"They were supposed to protect us!" The woman who was staring blankly out the window pulls herself away to fix us with a sorrowful look of despair.
The man scoffs. "And why did you think that? Just because someone hates the Capitol doesn't mean they're our allies. The moment the Capitol falls, I bet they focus all their effort on subjugating us!"
The woman stares ahead lifelessly. It's as if someone just popped her bubble of hope with a needle. "You're not doing a very good job inspiring confidence in these people," I say flatly.
The man shrugs. It's a familiar move of his. "What can I say? I'm a realist."
"I don't understand why they did it," Hemsway speaks quietly, still staring at the coins in his hands. "Why destory twelve? It doesn't make sense. The rebels weren't their enemies before that, but they will be now."
"They're showing us what they can do," It's something I realized awhile ago. It's the only thing that makes sense. "They want us to know that they could annihilate an entire District, if they so chose."
The man nods. "Makes sense, amico." He turns and fixes the woman with a rather unfriendly look. "You still think that those people sound like friends?"
The woman gives him a fierce look that I didn't think her capable of. "You want me to throw you off this train?"
The man laughs, slapping his knee as he stands up. "You got spunk, little lady. I like that. Maybe you should join up with Commander Korus when we reach the base." He walks away, approaching another small group of survivors that seem to me deep in conversation.
The woman goes back to her silence. Only sorrow masks her face now. I hastily avert my gaze. "What are we going to do?" I meant the question only for myself, so I am surprised when Hemsway answers.
"We join with the rebels. We become soldiers or something, whatever it takes. We gather information, and when the time comes, we turn to the Capitol and give them everything we know."
"Sounds good." Not like I have anything else to do. I can't go home, and who knows? After seeing what the Blackcloaks have done, whose to say that the Capitol aren't the good guys? I don't personally believe it, but Hemsway deserves to have someone support him. I know that I'd want a friend by my side, if I were him.
As our train hurtles towards its destination, I find solace in my thoughts.
Kennedy Marks (The Tower)
I sit on the edge of my bed in the room I share with Mahogany, thinking deeply as I gaze at the plain gray walls that surround me. The deaths of Julian, Madeva, and Annabelle still weigh heavily on my mind. They were among the few people to survive the biggest, bloodiest games ever, and now that they're gone, there is only a handful of survivors left.
Sure, those seven Life Models are technically survivors too, but I don't really count them as people. If you were created in a lab, then you're not human. At least, that's how I look at it.
So excluding them, that only leaves myself, Mahogany, Camiren, and Caspian. All I know about the latter is that he's in Capital hands and was apparently passed off as the Victor and only survivor of the Games. Camiren I don't see as often as Mahogany, though she is being trained as a recruit, she hasn't been issued a cloak or mask. I rarely see her except when I visit one of the Recreation Levels.
I like those areas. It's the only place in the Tower where everyone isn't wearing one of these cloaks. It's s bit jarring, just seeing a bunch of non-masked people after seeing nothing but masks for days on end, but it's very refreshing.
"We need to make them pay."
I tear my gaze away from the wall to turn to Mahogany. Our shared room isn't very big, it's rather utilitarian, really. There's only two beds, one in each corner, a pair of smalls desks, and a closet where we can store our personal effects, of which I have none beyond Tower-issued clothing.
"We need to make the Capitol pay," Mahogany continues. She's pacing across the floor and looks completely different from when I first met her. She's always dressed in that cloak--even when she doesn't have to be--and her hair, which use to be such a vibrant red, is now just a plain brown. I think it might be because she no longer has access to the materials required to dye it.
"That's what they're trying to do," I say flatly. Honestly, I'm tired of all the killing and death. The Capitol is terrible, yes, there's no denying that. But must we continue this circle of death? What do we get from it?
"We're not trying hard enough!" Mahogany growls as she suddenly stops in front of the bed, stalking towards the door. I catch up to her halfway there.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know. Somewhere." She pushes past me and slips out the door. I follow with a sigh. Where is she going now?
My friend cuts a path through the empty halls, I have little choice but to follow. She leads me down the hallway where our rooms are located, back towards the central lobby full of bright and colorful couches. Corridors run down from the lobby like spokes on a wheel hub. Mahogany swiftly goes down one of these and I follow, barely keeping my head straight.
I know that I've walked these halls many times over, but I always have trouble remembering much of what I see. I doubt that I could find my way back to the labs where I first woke up if my life depended on it.
Mahogany never looks back to see if I am following. For all she knows, I could have stayed back at our rooms. Probably thinks that I did. I don't know why I came with. Regardless, I follow her into an elevator.
When the doors close behind us, she turns to me. "I'm going to speak with Jack," She says simply. "Maybe he can do something about this."
About what? I want to ask her, but I also want to keep her privacy. Maybe I'll learn more when we meet with Jack. He's the only member of the Council who I see on a daily basis. He's usually hanging around during our training, or popping in at lunch. He seems to be the only one who really cares about us.
The elevator stops and we step off. Immediately Mahogany sets off down the hall, speeding towards the training room on the forty-sixth floor. But before we get there, we run into someone I wasn't expecting. Jack.
He's standing in the middle of an intersection, facing off with two bristling unmasked figures. Jac and Azalea. The real Azalea.
"That massacre was pointless! We got nothing from it!" Jac is shouting, his face red with anger and body trembling with it. Azalea is rubbing his arm, trying to soothe him. Jack is standing straight, arms clasped behind his back.
"We weakened an enemy. That is what we gained from District 12's destruction."
Oh. So that's what they're arguing about. Mahogany and I have both heard about the...attack. District 12 was utterly destroyed. Annihilated. By us. By the supposed good guys. It's part of the reason I'm so sick of this war.
"District 12 wasn't our enemy!" Jac is furious. Rightly so. He himself is from District 9, a place not so different from Twelve. "They were civilians! Innocents! And you had them massacred!"
"District 12 had aligned itself with the rebels. The Rebels want Panem for themselves, they want to see us destroyed. Naturally, that makes them our enemy." Jack is so calm. So collected. You'd never guess he was speaking about wholesale slaughter.
"The rebels only want to free themselves from the Capitol!" It is Azalea who speaks. She is much more controlled then Jac. "They have no intention of hurting us."
"I must beg to differ. They have murdered dozens of our agents."
"Yeah, but..." Azalea trails off, wordless. Jack straightens himself further and looks the pair of them in the eye.
"To defeat monsters you must become a monster. You must surrender your humanity. And believe you me, there is no bigger monster then the Capitol."
Jac's face flushes red. "That's nonsense! You don't have to--"
"Mr. Price. Calm yourself."
A deep, suave voice fills the corridors. A man appears at the end, slowly walking towards us. He is tall and broad-shouldered, that much is evident despite the cloak that he wears. His cloak is a majestic ornate purple, emblazoned with many strange symbols that I have never seen before. Gold trim lines the edge of the cloak, and its ornate nature is something else. I cannot place him for a moment.
Then I see his mask.
It is King.
Mahogany gasps, quickly falling to one knee. She pulls me down beside her. Jac and Azalea stare in shock as Jack makes a strange hand motion. "I am glad that you are here, King."
"Yes. It appears that our young agent is upset with some of our choices."
"Upset? That's putting it mildly!" Jac seems to have gotten over his surprise and is now focusing the full might of his anger on King. King. I still cannot believe he is here. Since I've been in the Tower, I've seen him exactly twice. Both times he was far away, giving a speech to an entire group. This is the first time I've seen him up close.
His very presence is awe-inspiring.
"You don't seem to understand the gravity of our situation," King speaks slowly, stepping forward until he is right in front of Jac. He is almost half a foot taller than him. "War's aren't won by sparing your enemy. They are won by destroying them."
"Those are people you're talking about. Real, living people with families!"
"To rend one's enemies you must think of them as objects, not people. Hollow of meaning and soul." King seems to be reciting something. He folds his arms behind his back, staring right through Jac. "And those people were working with the Rebels. An ineffectual, worthless lot."
"How can you say that? They've barely had any time to make a difference!"
King doesn't respond right away. He merely stares at Jac, waiting for him to calm. When he finally does, King reaches a hand into his cloak. "The Rebels are worthless. They cannot even stop the one thing that represents Capitol dominance."
"Wait...You don't mean..." Azalea seem to have realized something, her face turning pale.
"Yes. I do." King pulls something out and hands it to Jac. I can see it from here. A newspaper. The Capitol Chronicle. Jac's eyes move at a rapid pace as he reads. Judging from his expression, he sees nothing good.
"But this...I thought..." He drops the newspaper. It hits the ground and for the first time I can see what the headline displays. The 401st Hunger Games opening ceremonies underway!. I swallow deeply. The Games...I thought that we had put an end to them...
"That doesn't mean we should just annihilate them. Just because...just because they couldn't stop the Games..." Even Jac is thrown off by this news. How can they be holding a Games when a war is going on? Are they that confident in their victory?
"Do you believe that you would be a better leader then myself?"
The question is so sudden. So out of nowhere. Jac sputters for a few moments before regaining his bearings. "What are you talking about? No. I don't think--I couldn't..."
"You could challenge me for leadership, if you so chose," King continues calmly. "Anyone may challenge me for the mantle of King, so long as they follow the proper protocol."
I don't even understand what is happening anymore. Is King offering Jac leadership? Of the entire organization? Why would he do that? I exchange a look with Mahogany. She is as confused as I am.
"If you wish to become King, you must challenge me to a trial by combat. You and I will fight one-on-one with the weapons of our choosing. The last one standing will be pronounced the winner, and thus, the new King."
"I...that's possible?" Azalea sounds utterly bewildered. How can they have any sort of stability with such a procedure in place? Wouldn't everyone be challenging King?
"It is possible," Jack speaks now. He sounds gravely serious. "It has been done twice before. Both times King retained his title."
"What happens to the loser?" Jac is quiet, his eyes cast downwards. He isn't seriously considering it...is he?
"They die." King's voice is emotionless. "The battle is to the death. One man emerges as the new King, the other dies. That is our way." Jac doesn't respond, but Azalea grips his arm even tighter than before. She, obviously, does not like the idea at all. "But be warned: if you wish to challenge me, then ensure that you have made your peace. I do not intend to relinquish my leadership."
Then he turns and walks away, his ornate purple cloak flapping behind him. Jack bows to each of us before following after him. The four of us are left in heavy silence. Then Jac speaks.
"I won't challenge him. Not now. But if his armies commit one more atrocity..." His silence says more than his words ever could.
Leopold Stryker (The Capitol)
President Leopold Stryker sat quietly at his desk, thinking long and hard about how he'd smash an entire organization to tiny pieces.
He never wanted to be the one to make the hard decisions like this. Oh, he was willing to make the decisions, one of the few people who actually was, but he had never wanted to.
When his Father had died, someone needed to step up and claim leadership. It would never have been Noctis--his brother was anything but someone who was willing to put a bullseye on his back. So that left Leo. Leopold Stryker, President of Panem.
It still sounded so strange, even after all these years. His Father was President, not him. He was merely his son. But that hadn't been true for a very long time now. Like it or not, Leopold was the most powerful man in the world.
And with power, came responsibility.
The President sighed as he looked over the latest intelligence reports. Sometimes, he truly despised what his career had brought him; sometimes, he truly wanted to step away and let everyone else make the decisions.
But he knew that he couldn't do that. Without him, Those Who Don't Exist would take over the world. They would kill all of his citizens. Not just kill. Decimate. They'd make sure that there was never anyone to challenge them ever again. They'd do what they did to his Mother to everyone else.
He couldn't allow that.
Leopold squared his jaw and looked up at his current visitor, Cascade Melendez. One of the six God-Generals, she was currently here to give him the latest war report. Cascade was brilliant, if slightly drawn to the odd styles of the Capitol; she forwent the austere adornments of her fellow Generals for a strange, colourful outfit, covered in glitters and candy colours.
"What happened here?" Leopold asked, pointing a finger at the report detailing the death of numerous Peacekeepers on the outskirts of District 9.
"They sent a short-range ballistic missile into the barracks; we believe it could be a newly developed pyrotechnic homing device." Cascade pursed her lips, clearly not liking the latest news.
Leopold sighed. Where were they getting their technology? Most of what that organization had was thought lost during the Dark Days. How in the hell did a terrorist organization get their hands on such weapons?
Unless...Leopold didn't like to consider this, but it was a distinct possibility. Long had the Capitol thought that they were the last vestiges of humanity left in the world--most people, Capitol officials included, still thought that was the case. After all, if there were more people left out there, then why had they not tried to contact Panem in the last four-hundred and fifty years?
It made sense, that logic. But it did not account for Those Who Don't Exist. He knew little of them; even his intelligence officers could only learn very few tidbits. But what he did know said that many of the agents in that organization claimed to be from "another place". Leopold supposed they must be talking about another country, or landmass. If that was the case, then it may be the Capitol's own fault for their current predicament. Ignoring what is around you always led to trouble. Hopefully Operation Shade would be a success, then they would learn so much more.
Mind troubled with thoughts, Leopold turned back to the task at hand. "We're going to respond with a comms strike; EMPs, missiles, anything that can damage antenna," He slipped the document detailing the Peacekeeper deaths into a drawer. "They can't use a homing device if they can't control it."
"Yes, sir." Cascade dipped her head respectfully.
Leopold was about to tell her that she was allowed to depart, when a loud beeping filled his office. Red lights flashed across a large monitor set up against the far wall, and a map of District 14 appeared on screen.
"Oh, no..." Cascade let out a little gasp.
Leopold smashed his fist across his desk, sending the papers flying. No! Not now! Not there! How did they even find the District? How much did these people know about Panem? They knew enough to kill my mother...
"Sir, that is...many ships," Cascade spoke with a trembling lip, pointing at the dots on the screen that were pouring in from the north. Hundreds, if not thousands, of ships approaching District 14.
The home of mutt production.
If those terrorists got their hands on the mutts, if they learned the secret of their creation...Leopold didn't like the thought that sprang to his mind. It wouldn't matter how impregnable the Wall was; The Capitol would lose the war. And lose badly.
"Sir..." Cascade sounded terrified. Even she knew what would happen were the District to fall. "The failsafe. You'll have to activate the failsafe."
Failsafe. She spoke of the nuclear bomb that existed beneath District 14. It was placed there in case of a mass muttation escape, if they ever overran the District. In such an event, the President, the only person with the code necessary, would activate the bomb and blow the entire District to hell.
"Mr. President, I don't believe you have a choice. Those ships..." Cascade trailed off, her implication clear. The Capitol never had much in the way of a navy. It was its one weakness. What was the point of possessing battleships when your enemies, the District's, completely lacked any sort of navy?
The Capitol had lost majority of the ships it did own during the fall of District 4. The ones they had left were stationed in District 14 right now, with General Belisaurus. They weren't enough. Not nearly enough.
District 14 was about to fall.
Leopold sighed, leaning back in his chair. So. It came to this. If Those Who Don't Exist captured District 14 and secured the secrets behind the mutts, it would be checkmate. If only he had closed those factories down sooner. He had tried to, earlier this year. But it was a lengthy process, and it was too late now.
Leopold despised the fact that he would have to kill the innocent civilians in District 14. Unlike majority of the Districts, they had not rebelled against him. And General Belisaurus. He was as good a man as a general. Him and his men would be greatly missed. Killing his enemies was easy, something to be enjoyed. Killing your own allies was another matter altogether.
But that fleet of battleships had to be destroyed. The secrets of the mutts must be preserved. At least Lysander had escaped, answering Leopold's own summons just a few days back.
Yet him living would not make up for all the lives taken.
Leopold gave the orders and they were followed. Cascade left, then soon returned with the heavy lockbox. Leopold had to enter a dozen different passcodes before it would open. The last one was his mother's birthday. He was one of only three people alive who knew it. His siblings were the others. He wondered how Rosalie was doing. He hadn't seen her in years.
The box opened, revealing a plain gray button resting upon red velvet. The detonation trigger.
"Aren't you going to press it?" Cascade asked when he only stared at it.
"Not yet. I'll wait for their ships to get closer. We must not allow any of them to escape the blast radius." The monitor was showing his own soldiers, the Peacekeepers under Belisaurus's command, as they took defensive positions along the island. Little did they know what lurked beneath them.
The ships drew closer. Soon they were well within range. Leopold supposed that they had finally come into conflict with his own soldiers. He wanted to wait it out, to see if by some miracle his side could emerge victorious, but he knew they could not. One by one the lights representing his men began to flicker off.
They were being massacred.
"This will be the destruction of a second District," Leopold said quietly, staring at the button. "First twelve, now fourteen. How many will we lose?"
"However many are required," Cascade quoted his own words back at him. Leopold gave her a small, tired smile.
"God save our souls, Cascade."
He pressed the button.
Camiren Paisley-Idlywyld (The Tower)
There's a sense of blissful peace up here in the Tower's deepest sanctum. There is little noise, no extraneous movement, and a sweet scent of candles linger in the air. The shrines and churches that are set up in the wide open room are serene as people slowly drift back and forth between them. It is a peaceful place. I have not had one of those in a long time.
I don't really remember how long I've been in the Tower. I try not to think about the place I was before being brought here--the arena left me precious little fond memories. Sometimes I have nightmares about the arena and the teenagers I encountered there. About the ones I killed. Shade, Fawn, Daisy. Their faces always show up when I least expect them. Sometimes I wake up screaming for Ore, only to remember that he is not here. Then I sit in my dark little room, feeling sad and empty. Then I come here.
This floor is called the Chamber of Serenity, and what a proper name it is. Hundreds of different shrines and artifacts are located here, remnants of religions long lost. The Capitol does not have a true religion--they are their own gods, for the most part. The District's have a few temples or churches, but nothing compared to what is stored here.
I was told that Those Who Don't Exist spent decades recovering all this paraphernalia. Some of it is from the Dark Days, some from long before that. I don't know if it's true. All I know is that they have a truly remarkable collection. It makes me feel at ease.
I sit on a long pew in the center of the chamber, eyes closed and breathing softly as I just try to make sense of life. All of the other rescued tributes have been made into agents. Not me. I overheard a couple of Eight's when they thought I wasn't listening and learned that they don't trust me enough to me an agent. Apparently it's because of my family.
No matter how hard I try to leave my past behind me, it always manages to catch up. It's not fair. But then again, nothing in life is. Still, I wish I did not have to suffer from my family's influence.
I'm ruminating over this when I hear the bell over the intercom. A shift change. At the far end of the Chamber lies a pair of large, metallic doors. Day and night it's guarded by a trio of Six's. Rarely do I actually see anyone enter the room, but occasionally a Council member or a lesser agent will do so. When I asked someone what was inside, they simply told me it was the Seer.
I don't know who, or what, that is. Nor do I need to. All I want in life is to be reunited with Ore.
I sense rather than see it as someone sits down next to me. I open my eyes and am surprised to see a cloaked figure. But not just any figure. His cloak has the golden string and strange symbols that mark him as one thing. A Council member.
"Hello," I say quietly, wondering what he could possibly want from me.
"Why, hello there!" The man bobs his head up and down cheerfully. His voice is high-pitched and he speaks in a quick, almost frantic matter. "Enjoying the peace and quiet of serenity?"
I was before he interrupted me. I have conflicting feelings on Those Who Don't Exist. On one hand, they rescued me from the arena and saved my life. On the other, they keep me trapped in this Tower and tell me next to nothing about what is happening in the outside world. I've practically exchanged one prison for another.
"Well, you're a quiet one, aren't you?" The man throws his head back and gives a rambunctious laugh. A few people sitting on nearby pews turn and give him odd looks, but he doesn't mind them. "I don't blame you. Most people here don't appreciate my humor. They're a rough bunch."
"Excuse me, but I don't believe I know your name." Why is he bothering me? There's plenty of other people here.
"Oh, yes, of course," The man makes a flourishing half-bow. "I am known as Joker. And, as you probably know, the joker is wild."
"I just want to go home..." The words are out of my mouth before I even think them. I don't know why I'm telling this man. But it's true. It's the only thing I want; to go home to Ore.
"Home, eh?" The man laughs, for some reason. "Well, which home? The Capitol? Or District 8?"
"Whichever one has Ore."
"So the Capitol, then."
I spin around so quickly that my neck nearly snaps. "What! You know where Ore is? Is he okay? Is he..." I trail off as the full extent of the words hit me. Ore. In the Capitol. There's only one reason he would be there... "No. Oh, no, no, no..."
"Yep, the Capitol sent a team in and captured that hubby of yours!" Joker speaks so jovialy that I want to punch him. But despair wins out over rage. If Ore has been captured, then it is all over. My family has finally won. "Don't look so down!" The man continues, still giggling to himself. "He's still alive. They're trying to use him to draw you out, but we're too smart to fall for that bait."
That gives me slight comfort. But only slight. "You have to save him!" I grab the man by the front of his robes and shake him. "You need to save him. You saved me and the others, so you can save him! You have to!"
For a long moment Joker only sits there giggling. But then wags a finger at me. "Ah, ah ah! Didn't I just tell you that we're too smart to fall for that bait?"
"Do not worry, Camiren," The man gently removes my hands from his robe. "We will save your husband. But we will have to be clever about it. Very clever."
My hands clench and unclench, a flurry of thoughts rushing across my mind. I don't care what happens to me. If Ore dies, then so do I. He is the most important thing in the world. The only thing that matters. "I'll help! I'll do anything! Please, if there's anything I can do..."
"Do you remember your cousin Bridget?"
"Huh?" Of course I remember her, but I am horribly confused as to why he'd bring her up now. Bridget was also a member of the Idylwyld family but, unlike me, she reveled in the power and corruption that our family deals in. She hates me. No, that isn't strong enough word. She absolutely despises me. "Yes, I remember her. But what does she have to do with anything?"
Joker gives off another giggle. "Oh, cousin Bridget has been moving up in the world in the months you've been gone. She's now an Event Planner in the Capitol. In fact, she's planning a major event for them right now."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Cousin Bridget also happens to be in charge of the group that kidnapped your beloved husband. So, it stands to reason that she'll keep him close to her. Odds are Ore will also be at that major event."
Of course. Why am I not surprised? Bridget has always had it out for me. Of course she'd be the one who kidnapped Ore. Oddly, I'm not feeling any more despair. Only anger and fury. I turn to the man. "You're going to crash that event, aren't you?"
He nods. "Oh, yes. We are going to crash it hard."
"I'm going to be apart of that mission." It is not a question.
He nods again. "Yes, yes you will be. But you will need to train. We have a lot of chips riding on this one mission and we cannot afford any mistakes."
I will not make a mistake. Not with Ore's life on the line. I feel more prepared, more ready, then I have ever felt in my life. Not even the finale of the 400th Games has given me this sense of alertness. "When is the event? What is it for?"
The man gives one long laugh. "It's for the biggest event in Panem. The Capitol's personal spectacle. But I need not say much more right now. After all, we have plenty of time to prepare."
As Joker throws his head back and laughs, I find myself nodding. Yes. I will do whatever it takes to rescue Ore. If that involves killing Bridget, so be it. If it requires destroying the Capitol, so be it.
If it involves betraying Those Who Don't Exist...so be it.