Brace Yourself

Chapter Six: The Arena, Part I

Disclaimer: I do not own the Hunger Games.

Warning: Graphic content, minor character death scenes, cursing.

Note: The canon goes a bit haywire here. Suzanne says eighteen die in the bloodbath, and then five more between the bloodbath and volcano. I say seven. Forgive me.

Chapter Six: The Arena, Part I

Race, life's a race
And I am gonna win
Yes, I am gonna win
And I will light the fuse
And I'll never lose
And I choose to survive
Whatever it takes

-Survival, Muse

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"Ladies and Gentlemen, let the Fiftieth Annual Hunger Games begin!"

Sixty seconds. That's all the time we get until the gong sounds; until the Hunger Games officially take a turn for the worse. Sixty seconds to survey the arena. Sixty seconds to take in your surroundings. Sixty seconds to find the general locations of items at the Cornucopia. Sixty seconds to size up some of your competition for what may be the last time. Sixty seconds to form a plan, stick to the plan, and, once the sixty seconds are over, carry out the plan.

60 seconds. The countdown has begun. The tinny female voice rings in my ears as the bright light surrounding me fades away and the arena comes into focus.

59. The first thing that hits me is the sweet, sickly scent. Very sweet. Much too sweet, and this is coming from a girl whose father owns a candy shop. And, yes, after living in a candy shop all these years, I know what sweet smells like- sugary and real, while tickling your nose slightly. But this is an artificial sweet. It burns my nose with its very being.

58. It isn't a pleasant smell. I absolutely hate it. And I can't place my finger on why I feel so endangered by scent alone, which scares me half to death.

57. The arena is finally clear. I quickly distinguish the many bright, fluorescent, pastel colours. The colours that, combined with the smell, make me feel that the most treacherous thing in the Hunger Games this year will not be the tributes. They also serve a purpose in my majour headache.

56. Blue. Bright, azure blue. That's the colour of the sky. It clashes with the puffy, unnaturally white clouds that drift around almost lazily, suspended high above us. I get the notion that they do not carry much rain.

55. Green. Green so vibrant it hurts my eyes to look at it. The grass- that's the source of the green- looks lustrous and soft to the touch. It sways slightly in a nonexistent breeze.

54. This puts me off. How can grass move when there is no breeze?

53. There are dainty flowers dotting the grassy landscape. Violet, magenta, glowing pink, sunny yellow, periwinkle, orange, ruby, pale greenish-blue, white. Poppies, marigolds, impatiens, black-eyed susans, violets, cynthias, daisies, bluebells, primroses, and snapdragons. So beautiful and fragile, with velvety petals that look so soft to the touch. They seem to be giving off the artificial scent. Do not go near those flowers whenever you can help it, Maysilee.

52. Songbirds call to each other, while soaring through the perfect sky. Large butterflies flit about, attracted to the flora. A bumblebee buzzes near me, extracting pollen from a salmon-coloured impatiens flower. Its yellow and black stripes are very prominent.

51. The grass, the flowers, the songbirds and the butterflies and the bees. They make up a meadow. A huge, expansive meadow stretching on for an infinite amount of kilometres. It seems to never end.

50. To my left, far (but not too far) in the distance, is a snow-capped mountain. It is massive, judging on how large it appears to be from here.

49. Maybe it's the color of the mountain that unnerves me, a light brown tinged with an almost venomous purple; maybe it's the large, inviting caves I can see from here for tributes to hide in; maybe it's its perfect cone-like shape or the menacing way it parts the clouds; but I know I am not setting foot on that mountain.

48.To my right is a forest. It is also a ways away, but not so far that I cannot sprint the distance. The trees there are dark green against the blue sky. Most bear fruit.

47. I focus entirely on the fruit. Each one I see is a different colour, the first one more vibrant than the next. The fruits are dangling from the branches enticingly: ripe, appetizing, and ready to be picked. If this were a normal arena, some would not be so ripened, but this is not a normal arena.

46. Behind me is a stream. It burbles loudly, curving to the right, eventually disappearing into the forest. The water is crystalline and flows easily over a bed of smooth, polished pebbles.

45. I take it all in. The scent, the sky, the meadow, the mountain, the forest, the stream. Why do I sense peril wherever I look? And then it clicks into place.

44. Poison.

43. At least, most of it. The stream is probably fine; since it seems to be the only source of water in the arena. But everything else?

42. Poison.

41. I look to the tribute next to me, wondering if they have discovered the secrets of the arena. I'm very near the centre of the half-circle. We are spaced closer together than normal, since there are so many of us, but not so much that a strong tribute could step off their plate, run a few metres, and then strangle a tribute to death in the first few seconds.

40. I'm surprised to find the tribute next to me, a boy from Six, I recall, standing with his body completely relaxed and a dazed expression splayed across his face.

39. You're in the Games! I mentally scold the boy. Get it together, idiot!

38. But he cannot hear me.

37. I look to my right. Different tribute. Same story.

36. Glancing around me quickly, I realise most tributes have dreamy looks on their faces. Not the Careers; Platina, placed at the end of the half-circle, looks merciless. But Hemlock, I perceive with a pang of worry, is staring longingly at a picturesque monarch butterfly.

35. And there's Hestia. One hand is weakly reaching up to the sky, almost as if she is attempting to touch the clouds.

34. It breaks my heart to see Rosalina, as well. She stands with her eyes closed, completely oblivious to everything around her, breathing in and out peacefully. She doesn't seem to be aware that she's in the arena, and I want to scream at her. Wake up! We're allies! I want you to survive! This arena is poison and you have to make up a plan in the next thirty-four seconds!

33. She cannot hear me, either. And I can't very well inform her of the dangers here without warning everyone else.

32. I search and search, and finally I find Haymitch. He is located across from Platina, on the left side of the Cornucopia, the side of his body facing the mountain.

31. Haymitch is awake. Thank Panem, he's awake! His gray eyes flit about. Observing wildly. Contemplating. Calculating. Just what I had hoped for.

30. We're halfway through the sixty seconds. His eyes catch mine. We hold the gaze.

29. One second. I stare at him in longing.

28. Two seconds. I wish I could run over to Haymitch and fling my arms around him.

27. Three seconds. He looks away, frowning.

26. My eyes scan over his body once more, twice more, and then I turn away as well.

25. Now the Cornucopia. Golden, gleaming, looking the same as always. The goodies this year are mostly packs and weapons; any food outside of the packs positioned so it will not touch the grass. Of course, that means the grass or the flowers (or perhaps both) are toxic. Ha, I think. The Gamemakers seem okay tributes dying from touching grass, but they wouldn't want to taint any good food.

24. My eyes skirt over the weapons, finding a rack of knives. No, I don't want them, nor need them. Then, I turn to stare at the axes. Probably meant for Platina, since there are only a few of them.

23. Spears. I need a spear. So why isn't there a spear?

22. Why didn't the Gamemakers think to include spears?

21. Too late now. This is bad. This is really bad. The only weapon I've practiced and have excelled at, and they don't have any!

20. I have to settle for a pack, then. I aim for one- a good, large, sturdy-looking bag. It is bright green, which will blend in with the arena perfectly. There's plenty of food in it too, I'm sure.

19. Keeping my eyes on the pack, I think of my family, and Fauna. I might die today, and if I do, I hope they know they didn't go unacknowledged. I remember Myra's stubborn insistence on my finding the boy of my dreams, and how picky she was about what dresses she wore. I miss her. I remember my weary father, who was kind, dutiful, and well-spoken. I miss him. I remember Fauna, and her gentleness; the way her eyes danced and how eager she was to help anyone she met. I miss her.

18. I dwell in memories for a bit, knowing that the Games might be fast-paced this year, knowing I may not have other time to dwell.

17. I inwardly wish them luck in life.

16. I hope Fauna goes against the ways of the merchants and marries Hearth Everdeen, despite him being from the Seam.

15. I hope Myra isn't torn to bits if I die, and will consider George Undersee as husband-to-be (we used to play together when we were little, and I remember well Myra's adoration for the mayor's son).

14. I hope Father can deal with the loss of two family members (my mother and I).

13. I think that I hope for too many things.

12. Not much time left. I keep my attention on the green backpack.

11. Please don't die, Tyler. No matter how close we are- which is not very close- no thirteen-year-old deserves to die today. Nobody deserves to die today, but I can't help that- someone is always killed during the bloodbath.

10. Please don't die, Hestia. Her ability to ramble on for ages about one topic is annoying, yes, and the contrast of her hair and skin are unappealing and Capitol-like; but we are still friends. She taught me to throw a spear, and brightens my day with her humour.

9. Please don't die, Hemlock. She's frail and fragile, but has such a strong spirit for a girl the age of twelve. She is my saviour and my friend. If she does die, I know she will be in a better place, but it will be hard for me to handle.

8. Please don't die, Rosalina. Her episodes are quite frightening, but she's still caring, and she's still been my friend since the first night on the train. We are allies. I just hope she's not spending these last seconds sniffing the air.

7. Please don't die, Haymitch. I think if he did, I would die too. I've known him a week and the love I hold in my heart for this boy is more than I could accumulate in a decade for Myra. Please, please, please don't die. I beg you.

6. Six seconds left. Wasn't it sixty seconds just moments ago? Time does go by fast... too fast for my liking. Come on, Maysilee. The gong will ring soon. Prepare yourself.

5. I tear my eyes from the pack and look to my left. Six is still trapped in his stupor. You dolt! The Games begin in five seconds!

4. I look to my right. This boy is trying to collect himself, I see, but can't seem to awaken fully. And there is simply not enough time.

3. I shift my gaze back to the pack. But, wait! I've lost it. Where is my pack, the green one I have specifically chosen, in the midst of the Cornucopia?

2. Where is it? WHERE IS IT?

1. Oh. There it is.

0. The gong rings.

A wave of adrenaline passes over me, but I hesitate. Why is no one moving? Did I just imagine that gong, imagine the entire countdown? Is there still time? If I step off my plate, will the ground explode, the way it did when that girl from eight stepped off her plate to retrieve that little wooden token of hers in the sixteenth Games? Then, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a flash of movement. It's Haymitch, running like the wind, faster than a hovercraft going at full speed. He snatches up a pack. He cuts through the meadow and darts into the woods. He is safe.

And he has also made me realise: the gong has gone off. This is all the information I need. I step off my plate and sprint to the Cornucopia, searching for the green pack. But I cannot find it. Anywhere. Where did my pre-selected pack go? Haymitch took it. And what am I running towards now? Platina. She hefts a glistening silver axe. I can't stop running. The momentum is too great. I am racing towards my ultimate death.

"Hello, Twelve," she says, when I am but fifty metres away from her, trying, desperately, to slow down. "Ready to die?"

Platina's words echo around in my mind like a repetitive chant. Ready to die? Ready to die? Am I ready to die? "No," I say, finally skidding to a halt. "No, I am not ready to die."

"That makes you weak," the girl from District One spits on the ground. "The only strong tributes in the arena are the ones who can look their fate directly in the eye."

"Are you implying that the strong tributes die in the end?" She nods, smirking deviously. "And do you consider yourself a strong tribute?" She begins to affirm this, but then her composed expression slips and boiling rage radiates from her lethal figure.

"How dare you use my words against me?" She hisses, angry that I am smarter than she is, angry I have beaten her at something she might have prided herself in. "How DARE you?" And with that, she throws the axe at my chest.

It often happens that, when a weapon is thrown at you, time seems to slow down. The axe leaves her manicured hand in what is milliseconds, but seems close to a few measured breaths. The axe sailing through the air, within my line of sight, is intriguing… seemingly taking minutes to close the distance. The blade reflects the bright sunlight, making the axe glint astoundingly. Who knew that death could contain such grotesquely beautiful things?

But someone interferes. Someone jumps in front of me, in the path of the axe, knocking me backwards in the process. Someone with deep bronze skin and flowing brown hair. Someone petite. Someone who takes the hatchet for me, crumpling with the weapon sticking out of her once perfect forehead.

Hemlock. Hemlock. Hemlock is dead, is dead, is dead. Hemlock has an axe buried deep in her head. It's not me who died, it's Hemlock instead. My saviour is gone; she's dead, dead, dead.

I let out a noise between a gasp and a squeal of shocked agony, scrambling away from Hemlock's dead body and Platina's live one. The girl from One is tauntingly choosing another axe, and I keep my eyes directly on her as I crawl away. It's no use backing up- she can hit the dead centre of a target from at least sixty metres- maybe more, I'm not sure. But before my hopes are completely smashed, my hand falls upon something rough. Canvas. A pack, albeit small, made of canvas, with a wooden pole-like object attached to it. It reminds me of my purpose here (to "stay alive," as Haymitch says), and it will have to do. So, in the split second that Platina admires her cleaver, I'm jumping to my feet, grabbing the pack by a strap, and running to the forest.

A stream of frenzied yells, as well as highly explicit language, stream from Platina's mouth as I get away, having caught her off-guard. I hear an axe whistle by my ear and, just in time, duck to see it fly a couple more metres and harm a patch of phosphorescent daisies.

I tear through the carnage that is occurring around me. Dead bodies litter the grass. The red blood against the green creates an impressive but sickening contrast. Platina seems to have let me get away, because by the time I fling myself into the coverage the woods gives me, no Careers are on my tail.

Dashing through the unfamiliar forest, I dodge roots and large, prickly, maroon-coloured bushes. I narrowly avoid running into countless trees covered in succulent fruits (that I make sure to stay away from). It's only after ten minutes of extreme exertion that I stop to rest on a fallen log, the adrenaline fading away to be replaced with a surge of fatigue. However, I do exert a sigh of relief. I have made it past the bloodbath.

But Hemlock hasn't.

Grief falls upon me like a curtain of black velvet, obscuring my vision so I can only see memories of that lively, sweet young girl. Her brown eyes looking at me in concern after she saved me from Hestia's spear; her soft voice telling me that her observations gave her an advantage; rattling off all of my traits (some which I knew from the beginning, some that I had yet to discover); explaining all of the foods I didn't know during a training luncheon; handing me that tomato; smiling politely for the interviews; looking at the arena in wonder. And, finally, her unblemished forehead impaled with Platina's axe. Hemlock never had a chance- I know that now. But I let myself hope that she could at least survive past the first day, and now she's gone.

I allow myself five seconds to mourn. One. Her face flashes before my eyes. Two. A tear slides down my cheek. Three. I picture Hemlock laughing at some pointless joke, her eyes alight with joy. Four. Platina throwing the axe. Hemlock falling over, her life slipping away before my very eyes.

Five. Her soft voice tells me, "See you soon, Mays."

That's it. Five seconds. I wipe away my tears and collect myself as best I can. I put Hemlock far in the back of my mind, and unzip my pack for something to do. The contents spill out, and there are scarcely any. A small plastic bowl, coloured a deep blue. A package containing a meagre amount of dried beef. And, finally, a pouch of twenty-four darts.

Curiously, I unstrap the long wooden pole from the front of the backpack. I had no idea what it was when I snatched the pack from the ground, but now that I closely examine the object, the purpose of the darts comes clear. This is a blowgun. Just to make sure, I extract a dart from the small leather pouch they came in. I push it carefully in one end of the blowgun and bring it up to my lips. I inhale through my nose, and then exhale in a puff of air.

The dart flies out the end, but only a few feet. I laugh to myself. It seems that I have come out of the Cornucopia with a weapon, after all, and one better than I'd hoped for. All I need now is practice.

But how am I supposed to defend myself with a dart?

I grumble to myself as I stare at the (now deemed worthless) blowgun. These darts are a decent size, so it is possible to kill a small rabbit if you, say, hit it through the eye. But against tributes? To think that I could inflict any damage at all with this useless weapon is preposterous!

Annoyed, I bend down to pick up the used dart, but find that the point has been constructed to automatically detach itself from the shaft once the dart buries itself into a material (as in flesh… or dirt, in which the point has entered just now). Basically, these are single-use darts. I mentally curse my luck today as I toss the useless shaft of the dart to the ground, strapping the blowgun to the front of my pack and stuffing my supplies inside. Then I throw on the pack, easily when you consider its light weight, and decide to keep on moving.

I scratch at my hands. For the past few minutes, they have grown terribly itchy. Looking down at them, it is clear why: the skin is a bright, irritated red, signifying that there was some sort of toxin in the grass I landed in during the bloodbath. Not strong enough to ail me immensely, but contaminated enough to induce extreme aggravation. Besides, it's clear Alder won't bother to send any cream to apply to my hands… not that I have any sponsors. Who would want to sponsor the average girl from Twelve? Nobody.

I will have to bear the itchiness of this odd rash for as long as it continues to remain on my hands.

Wonderful.

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Boom. The cannon startles me. I almost leap backwards into a tree.

Boom. The bloodbath is over, of course. And an awfully long bloodbath it was. The Careers seem to have dragged the deaths out as long as possible. Or maybe, they did not clear out fast enough.

Boom. Boom. Boom. It saddens me to think that one of these cannons is for Hemlock. And possibly Tyler, or Rosalina, or Hestia. Haymitch is safe, considering his quick getaway once the gong sounded. But there's no way to know the identities of these tributes until tonight, when the anthem plays and the dead's faces are shown in the sky.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. How many are there? Boom. That's eleven. Boom. Twelve. Boom, boom, boom. I'm beginning to think that the cannons will never end, and that i am the winner of these dreadful Games.

Boom. Boom. Seventeen. Boom. Eighteen.

Silence.

Eighteen. Eighteen dead, thirty tributes left, twenty-nine more to go. There has never been a larger bloodbath in the Hunger Games. And although the outcome was somewhat predictable, based on the number of tributes this year, it is still jarring to the mind. Almost half of us are dead, and it is only the first day.

I keep walking.

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Eventually, I come across a stream. It must have branched off of the larger river I saw before the gong rang. It is a good thing that I have found a source of water, because I am thirsty after sprinting so far. The clear water calls to me, burbling a melodic tune as it flows amongst the rocks and pebbles. I reach into my pack and extract the plastic bowl the Gamemakers provided me with. Next, I lean down and dip it into the water, bringing the bowl up to my lips.

A rustling comes from somewhere across the stream, as well as the murmuring of multiple voices. As I jump in surprise, the water sloshes out the side of the bowl facing opposite from me. A good thing, too, because when the liquid spills onto the ground, a plant growing between two rocks becomes its victim. There is an audible sizzle as the small weed crumbles to ashes. I stare in shock.

There is another rustle, louder this time. I hear someone hiss at another to be quiet, and following this I empty out the acid water as quickly as I can and scurry back into the forest, holding my empty bowl by the tips of my fingers. I dive into a bush and am able to conceal myself at the last minute. Peeking through a gap between a couple of tiny branches, I see that had I hid myself from view a second later, the two tributes would have discovered me.

It is a boy and a girl, from District Seven. I recognize one of them- the boy, whose name is Pine. He and I rode the same lift on our first day of training, and I vaguely remember him and one of his female district partners, chattering on about this and that. Alas, that district partner, Harpin was her name, is not the girl in front of me now.

"Thank Panem. I'm so thirsty," Pine exclaims, upon discovery of the stream. The girl nods in reply. She has fiery red hair done up in two stiff braids, and from her distinct appearance, I feel that I should know her name. Unfortunately, she has done well in blending in with the other tributes (or maybe I simply looked over her, thinking she was lottle to no competition), and I know nothing about her personality or skills.

The two allies sit on a larger rock and stare at the water. Even though Pine did confess his thirst, neither moves to take a drink. Instead, they are content to enjoy the view. I wonder how long they will stay here. Hopefully no too long, because my legs are starting to cramp from staying in this position for a few minutes of time.

Suddenly, Pine speaks. "Do you miss them?" He says, out of the blue.

"No," the other replies sharply. "It's good to be rid of them. Grant was an arrogant idiot who tried countless times get in my pants, with no success. Harpin was much too naïve for seventeen years old, and she could never shut up! I don't know what you ever saw in her."

I think her words are extremely harsh, but Pine must be used to her biting comments, because he only winces slightly. "Oh." Is his soft reply.

"I'm sorry," the girl apologizes quickly, in a softer tone. "I didn't mean it." But I know she did. The lie is effortlessly detectible.

I watch as she rips a blade of grass from its place growing between a couple stones. She throws it into the stream when Pine is staring at his feet. A wide grin splits her face when it is reduced to ashes, which are swept away instantly.

"Hey, Pine. Aren't you thirsty?" There is a smirk in her voice as she extracts a bowl from her pack, identical to mine except for this bowl is a vibrant red colour. Then, careful not to touch the water, she reaches down and fills the bowl, handing it to her district partner.

No. I don't want to watch this. But I cannot pry my eyes away as he accepts it gratefully. If only Pine knew. And now he is going to die at the hands of his deceptive, corrupt, evil district partner. How dare she?

"Yeah. Thanks, Gracen," he smiles.

But she does not smile back and throw out a sickeningly untruthful reply. Instead, this Gracen goes into a fit of rage. "I told you not to call me that! Last name. Call me by my last name."

"Fine, Blaze," Pine rolls his eyes and brings the bowl to his lips. "Don't throw a tantrum on me. I'm just trying to be polite."

I want to scream at him. I want to yell at him. I want to laugh at the cruel irony of mistaken trust, and I want to cry at the innocent way he tips back his head and takes a large swallow of the acid water. I want to fall into hysterics. But the shock of it is too great and I cannot force myself to close my eyes, or even blink. I can just watch, horrified beyond any horror I've ever experienced before, as Pine's eyes widen and the bowl drops from his hands, which clutch at his throat.

It's terrible. I cannot believe it, and I cannot turn my head. Not when he falls to the ground, not when he chokes and screams in agony, not when he turns his accusing eyes on Gracen, not when his throat starts to disintegrate little by little. His murderer, with the fiery red hair, berates him the entire time. "Pine," she says mercilessly, towering over his hunched figure, "politeness holds no place in these Games. Tributes can deceive and kill and win, or they can trust and love and die." She smirks. "I was always going to get rid of you in the end, so consider it lucky that I gave you a relatively short, albeit painful death. Sleep well, Piney Boy." And then she throws back her head and laughs, laughs, laughs. A laugh that leaves her clutching her sides in mirth, but is cruel to all ears that hear it.

Pine's cannon booms. His neck has completely disintegrated, the acid eating at him from the inside out. It's a gruesome sight that I can finally look away from- I can't even imagine what his loved ones are thinking. However, the only thing I can bring myself to look to is Gracen, who has (of course) busied herself with the daunting task of removing Pine's intact pack from his motionless body.

She catches me off guard when her oddly pale-coloured eyes find mine, and hold. I panic slightly as she calls, "Don't you know it's rude to stare, Twelve?"

Laughing again, she continues while I stay in my crouched position, paralyzed and terrified. "I have no weapon. I cannot force feed you acid without getting any on myself. So let me strike a deal with you," Gracen says, and I do not respond. Instead, I wait for her last words, and they chill me to the bone.

"Final two, you and me. You come out of hiding willingly, and I'll give you a quick death. You remain undercover, I hunt you down and chop you to pieces, little by little, for hours and hours, until you die. Your decision."

Grinning maniacally, she turns her back toward me, calling over he shoulder, "Now, run, Twelve! Run like a mouse scampers from a great eagle. The eagle will let you go, but she'll find the mouse again in due time. So run! Run away! Run away from the Blaze!" She sprints out of sight, cackling the entire way.

I don't move for what seems like an eternity. Soon, two hovercrafts materialise out of nowhere and giant metal claws extend from their undersides. One of the claws collect Pine's body, and one collects his head. The sight is enough to put me over the edge. I do the only thing I can do: turn and throw up whatever substance I had left in my stomach.

Gracen Blaze truly is insane. And I am not mentally fit enough to stay strong throughout these Games. Both of which may pose to be a problem.

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Boom. A cannon sounds and I pause. I wonder whom it's for. Thankfully, I have the sense that it's nobody I know.

I continue to lope through the forest at a steady pace.

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I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. My hands itch like hell. But I keep on heading in the opposite direction of the snow-capped mountain, which still doesn't cease to disturb me. Every once in a while, I'll reach a stream or a spring, and I'll avoid that too. But there is still poison and acid and danger; and any or all of these things surround me with each step I take. The fruits still stay suspended over my head. The river and the streams and springs still sing to me from their various locations. And I wonder which thing I will be driven mad from first… fear of tributes, loneliness, or the ever-present, enticingly disguised contamination of this arena?

Eventually, it begins to grow dark. The sounds of the nighttime forest awaken. Crickets chirp, owls hoot to each other every minute or so, and the noise of distant acid water on smoothed pebbles puts me at peace, a thing that is very hard to achieve in a place such as this. Alas, I cannot fully relax, for there is always a possibility that I could be attacked from behind by a rogue tribute, angry possum-mutt, or an imaginary, fiendish pear tree.

There is not too much for me to do in the last rays of light. My main focus is to construct some sort of shelter; and so I do. Although I know how to climb a tree, I do not want to risk falling off a branch in the midst of slumber, so I decide the ground will fit my requirements. After about fifteen minutes of thorough searching, I come across a perfect little alcove in which a tree's base is obscured by shrubbery that is unlike the thorn bushes I spotted on the outskirts of the forest.

Before I proceed to enter the shelter of the shrubs, I indulge myself with a single beef strip from my pack. It satisfies my growling stomach only the slightest bit. Although I originally thought that if I ate plenty in the Capitol, I would be able to live longer without food in the arena, I am starting to think that that was a faulty idea. Compared to the amount of food I consumed in the Capitol, my diet now consists of virtually nothing. It will take time to get used to the gnawing hunger that I haven't experienced before (although living in District Twelve was not all the best, my father earned enough so that we never went hungry for long).

I laugh to myself thoughtfully as I finish off my beef strip. So this is why they call it the Hunger Games. Not because the tributes face starvation after a week or so; but because the Capitol feeds them vast amounts and then, once they enter the arena, their bodies, used to the luxuries, grow hungry even in the first days of the Games.

I really am regretting eating those two slices of chocolate cake after the interviews. Not that there's any left, having thrown up all of the contents earlier today.

Now, having reached my limit of food, I replace the contents of the pack and crawl in between two bushes. It's a tight fit in the niche, and not at all comfortable despite the use of my pack for a pillow, but eventually I have camouflaged myself well whilst still able to see the sky when the anthem plays.

Slowly, I let my guard down. Even more slowly, I fall asleep. Not that it is a relief- nightmares plague me from the moment I lose consciousness. But the fact that I can sleep is miraculous, because not many can achieve it on the first night of the arena, immersed in a sense of foreboding.

For once, in this arena, I don't feel overpowering fear. Yes, it's there. But it's as if this shrubbery protects me from the demonic figures of the outside world. It provides me with a sense of security that shouldn't feel so safe. After all, it's faulty security. The shrubbery is made of leaves and twigs, for Panem's sake! But it's nice to feel safe, and I let the false safety sing me to sleep.

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I wake up, not much later, to the anthem playing. The Capitol's seal flashes in the sky, showing us that the Capitol is whom controls these Games... as if we don't already know. There's no one else to take credit of the creation of this grim arena.

Once the anthem has ended, the faces of the dead appear in the sky. Under each picture is not the name of the tribute, but their district, as if we are nameless characters in some horrible reality television show. Which we are. No surprise there.

First to show is a young girl with frizzy raven hair and small, wire glasses that take up the majourity of her face. She is from District Three, which means the tributes from One and Two are all still alive and breathing. It does seem that her fellow partners have survived, though.

The next comes a surprise. Siren Faith, from District Four. The beauty who was scared of water and talked to much. The woman who will never see her yet-to-be-born nephew. Somehow, the girl with the wavy sienna hair and wide turquoise eyes, the Career's weapon to abundant sponsorships, has died. And while my hunger was not satisfied with a single beef strip, my loathing for the Careers that fueled my wishing for their deaths is satisfied by the passing of one of their most important assets.

Liner and Tricia from District Five are dead, and District Six has been completely obliterated from the Games. Harpin and Grant from Seven appear, and so does Pine, whom I feel a pang of grief for. Two from Eight, three from Nine, and seductive Stara Canther from Ten. Mendel and Till from Eleven, and then finally, Hemlock. Beautiful Hemlock, with a faint smile on her lips and her hair cascading around her slim shoulders. And then, she is gone. The anthem plays once more.

Hestia lives. Rosalina lives. Tyler lives. Haymitch lives. Haymitch… how are you faring? For the moment, my greatest wish is to be mentally telepathic. How dearly I want to converse with a friend. But the moment passes, as all moments do, and I fall back into fitful slumber.

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I drift in and out of sleep. After a while, the nightmares fade and happy thoughts of home enter my dreams. Getting a package of dark chocolate truffles on November the second, my birthday. Racing Myra down the cobblestone street that runs through the merchant part of the district. Getting complimented by Benjamin Cartwright on the dress I wore to the graduation ceremony in year six. Simple things that make me happy.

When I wake up fully, with the good memories on my mind, I instantly think that I am home. The Games were all a bad dream. Myra was mad at me, so I slept outside. Now it's time to get up and slip upstairs to get ready for the day. Right?

Not right. I'm still nestled uncomfortably in the middle of a clump of bushes. I'm in the Hunger Games, and it's morning; around nine o'clock, I think. And I need to get up, now. There is much to do before I shall have to set off again, walking through the deadly wilderness that appears utopian.

Once I roll out of the bushes, effectively flattening them, I retrieve my blowgun from the front of my pack and contemplate how to create a useful weapon out of it. It is too short to use as a defensive staff, and I can't make a spear out of it because I don't have a knife or a rock that could be used to sharpen one end. The only way this blowgun can be a weapon is if its purpose is put to use… which is, to propel darts at worthy targets.

So, if I cannot manipulate the blowgun in a convenient way, then I will have to focus on the darts themselves. Dumping them out of the pouch they came in, I examine them. Each is about the size of my index finger, with colorful fletching, skinny wooden shafts, and sharp metal tips that I don't dare pull on lest they fall off, rendering the darts ineffective. They cannot injure, they cannot kill. The largest effect they could have would to draw blood, which would coat the tips, and…

Coat the tips! Maysilee, you are such an idiot!

What are these? Darts. Where am I? The arena. What is the arena full of? Poison. What can I coat the tips of these darts in? Poison. Aha.

Even though I have to reprimand myself harshly for laughing at the thought of finally being able to harm someone, I do laugh anyway. Not in a gleefully malicious manner, but in realisation of something that eluded me previously. Following this, I glance around me and leap over to a patch of innocent-looking pastel flowers.

Holding my breath so as not to inhale their scent, which I'm sure will do something damaging to my body, I lean down to examine the flowers. Now, under close inspection, I see that there is some sort of liquid coating them that could be dew, but is probably a poison of some kind. Quickly, I retrieve my darts and dip half of them into the substance, careful not to touch the points after having done this. Next, I locate a shrub adorned with supposedly safe berries, pluck a few, and release them so they fall to the ground. After stomping on them with the heel of my boot, I lean down and repeat the same process with the other half of the darts. Satisfied, I return back to my blowgun.

I give myself ten darts maximum for practice. Loading my blowgun with the first one, I aim at the trunk of a tree about ten metres away from me and inhale through my nose. Exhaling in a forced puff of air, the dart flies out the other end, flying two pathetic metres until it drops to the ground. I sigh. Nine more darts left. Hopefully, I can get the hang of it by then.

One, two, three, four, five more darts wasted. Each time, I get the teeniest bit further, but not even close to ten metres. I'm starting to get light-headed. So I promise myself one more… if I can make my goal, I'll keep practicing, and if I don't, I'll call it quits and save the last three for later on. I load the dart into the blowgun, bring the weapon up to my lips, tilt the weapon a little higher than usual, inhale, and then exhale as hard and as fast as I can. To my instantaneous surprise, the dart sails through the air, past the tree, and hits the tree behind it, a good fifteen metres away from where I am standing.

Now, it is clear to me that if I am to use this blowgun, my lungs are going to go through a special kind of torture. It will be worth it, though, in the end.

In two more shots, I think I have the basics of aiming and calculating the correct amount of breath per distance. I'm very light-headed now, but I have one dart left. I decide to discover if I can kill with this weapon, and for that, I have to move to live prey.

I sit, silent and stealthily, with the blowgun loaded but not yet pressed to my lips. My eyes dart everywhere, looking for movement. Finally, a small rabbit leaps out of a bush a metre from me, pausing to sniff at the ground. This is my chance, for the animal is not moving. I take careful aim, inhale, and blow with all the strength I can muster. The dart comes in contact with the rabbit seconds later, and I have to turn away as the creature goes through noticeable spasms almost instantly.

Once I'm sure it's dead, I venture over to the carcass. I caught it in its foreleg, and the poison worked much faster than I thought it would. My stomach growls as I look at the rabbit, but than I realize I cannot eat it bbecause then the poison may get into my body as well. Disappointed, but pleased that I can finally protect myself with my blowgun, I reward myself with a strip of dried beef.

But the dried beef is salty. And, thirty minutes later, my tongue feels remarkably dry as I trek through the never-ending forest. I need water, and food that does not contain anything that will contribute to my thirst.

Suddenly, I realise that the Cornucopia could still have leftover supplies, including water, if the Careers haven't taken it all. This entire time I've been heading in a diagonal, away from the snow-capped mountain, the meadow, and the Cornucopia… when after all, I probably should have stayed near the Cornucopia in the first place. Curse it all! Maybe I can keep traveling in the same direction I have been for at least three quarters of a day now- but eventually, I will die of lack of supplies. I have to turn back. I have no choice.

I roll my eyes and turn on my heel, huffing loudly. "Stupid, stupid," I mutter to myself. My plan to get far away from the mountain and the Cornucopia could have worked if I hadn't hesitated at the gong and snatched the pack that Haymitch currently has. But now I have a pitiful pack containing a bowl, dried beef, and darts: being respectively empty, salty, and poisonous.

As I begin to walk back the way I came, I pluck a luscious fruit from one of the trees, examining it. I'm sure the cameras are trained on me now, thinking that my cannon will fire at any moment. I'm not that much of an idiot… if you think I am, then you are. Instead of biting into it like someone in a haze of hunger would, I dropkick it into the trees, and then burst out laughing when I imagine the shocked faces of the Gamemakers. It feels good to laugh, even though it sounds a touch hysterical… which is why I pluck another fruit and dropkick it. Again. And again. And again. Laughing the entire time.

If I'm not going mad, I don't know what I am.

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Boom. I've been walking a very long time when the cannon fires. Through the canopy, the sun is high in the sky. I think it's a few hours after noon. I am very hungry, and I am very thirsty. When I allow myself two beef strips, my stomach only barely thanks me, and then my tongue suffers from the salinity. The cannon provides a nice distraction for a bit, despite my continuous scolding at myself for thinking this.

I play a little game with myself. Who has died? I try and look through the fruit-bearing trees to see if I can find the hovercraft that will retrieve the body, but the foliage is too thick. No clues, then. Hmm. My gut says it isn't Haymitch, Hestia, Rosalina, or Tyler- and it would be preposterous for another Career to have died. Gracen, in her state of insanity, doesn't seem like a good candidate, either. All that is left are three tributes from District Three, three tributes from District Ten, two tributes from Five, Calico and Bolt from Eight, and little Tess from District Nine.

All of the sudden, there is a scream. A little too late, I think. It is a boy's scream, and following it is a name repeated multiple times. "Tellie! Tellie! Wake up, Tellie!" But I assume she doesn't wake up, for it was probably her cannon, and it's not long after that whatever she died from, he dies from too. Boom.

Tellie. I try to remember the name from the list of leftover tributes I have provided myself with. The girl from Ten (not Stara- she is dead) is named Lassona. How Tellie would originate from that name is beyond me. That leaves only the girl from Three or the girl from Five. What was the girl from Three's name?… Intella, right? Yes. Intella Gently, whom could have easily chosen the nickname "Tellie." And her partner was probably that tall, lanky boy who had a lot of metal (braces, I think they were called) on his teeth. Now they are both dead, dead, dead.

Dead like little Hemlock, with an axe in her head. I wish that axe killed me instead. But now I'm walking away, looking for water and bread. Not mourning for Hemlock, who is dead, dead, dead.

I feel guilty for not keeping Hemlock on my mind, but I have to move on. I have to move on from all the death. It's a wonder it's not driving me mad. Maybe it already is. I think it already is. I need someone to form an alliance with, so they can talk to me, and keep me from drifting away from the firm ground that is sanity, like a balloon. I need to stop reminding myself of Hemlock, need to not think of Pine, need to forget about the little game I have created to identify dead tributes. And I do. For a while.

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That is, until there are more screams. They come from the mountain, and I have a feeling that the Careers have set up camp there, for a while. Good- I'll have access to the Cornucopia. And also bad- because a tribute is dying. The screams are long and drawn out, and with their help, my identification-of-tributes game is easier. It's little Anahita from District Five. Their district is notorious for their "Pacific Northwest" accent, and is the smallest bit distinguishable from the screams. Not that I know what "Pacific Northwest" means.

By the time her screams are ultimately cut off by the boom of a cannon, I am very close to the Cornucopia, and too close to the mountain for comfort. I've gotten used to the sickly-sweet smell of the forest, but as I approach the meadow, I am hit with the smell again. The smell of the meadow is obviously more pungent than it is in the woods. I don't know how I could bear to stay in the meadow at all, like the Careers probably did the first night- in tents, of course, not on the grass itself, for they'd develop the same rash that is making my palms so itchy.

The trees begin to thin out, and vibrant, lime-green grass is making its appearance. I shudder at the sight of it and scratch at my hands some more, cursing the grass internally while hoping that there is some sort of cream or paste at the Cornucopia to relieve the itchiness. If this goes on much longer, my hands will begin to bleed!

Now, at the edge of the tree line, I survey the area. The Cornucopia isn't too far off- just about two hundred metres away. I don't see any movement, besides the gigantic butterflies and bumblebees that flit about, and a few songbirds that drift lazily in the nonexistent breeze. The Careers are still on the mountain, not likely to return to the meadow for hours, if not days. All clear. I run in the direction of the gleaming piece of golden metal.

I'm about a hundred and fifty metres in when I spy something lying in the grass. It's the body of a boy. At first, I think he's dead… but why hasn't he been picked up by a hovercraft, if he's dead? And where was his cannon? On closer inspection, though, I realize he isn't dead, but unconscious. His features aren't easily distinguishable, because he is covered in small lumps, which are naturally shrouded in a deep red rash from contact with the grass. As he lies there, he mutters to himself, and shouts out a few times, while fondling the handle of a huge sword that is situated by his side. With the swollen lumps and rash, I cannot figure out who he is, but I can tell he is a Career.

Sure he's not going to wake up anytime soon, I veer around his unconscious body and continue to sprint toward the Cornucopia. Finally, I'm there, and I am elated to see a few items scattered around the mouth. There's probably more inside, too, but I cannot see into the mouth yet, as I have been running at the sculpture from the side.

I stoop and pick up a small loaf of bread wrapped in plastic, careful not to touch the grass. Then I turn into the mouth of the Cornucopia, letting the shade engulf me, ready to wrestle food out of the remains of the goodies in the company of nobody but myself. However, I am not alone. Two figures are rifling through the supplies, and I cannot make them out in the shadows. Instantly, I lift my blowgun to my lips.

"Who's there?" One of the figures says, as she turns around and stares at me, startled. I train my weapon on her, but I recognize the voice. That's a good voice, right? Yes… it's… it's…

"Hestia!" I exclaim, after lowering my blowgun. "Oh, it's nice to see someone who won't murder me." I train my eyes on the other figure, who is trying to cower behind a crate. "And you are?" I ask warily, but doubting it's anyone harmful.

Hestia approaches me, dropping the sack of apples in her hands and hugging me, with little regard for the blowgun at my side. I hug her back, even though I'm not one for cuddliness- especially in the Games. "That's Tess," she whispers in my ear. "From Nine. She and I aren't allies or anything… I came down here to get more supplies, and she had the same idea. Scared the wits out of each other. But we've promised that whenever we meet, we'll just walk away again. I would make an alliance, but…" she shakes her head. "Tess doesn't seem to trust me much. She doesn't trust anyone, probably. Scared we'll all stab her in the back.

I stare at Hestia, my brain processing her words. She sounds much more mature than she was at the Training Centre. These Games have changed her, even in the day and a half we've spent in the arena. It's almost sad. "Okay," I say, nodding to her, and then staring at Tess, who still peeks at me from behind the crate. "It's okay, Tess. I'm a friend, like Hestia. I've simply come here to get more supplies, like you, and afterwards we can go our separate ways. Sound good?"

I can barely hear her soft reply. "Yes," she says in a shaky voice, and then shyly steps away from the crate, bending to collect a small first aid kit from the ground and stuffing it in a large pack that hangs by her side. It is so massive that it looks to be twice her weight and twice her height. How the girl will carry it around is beyond me.

After that, we work in silence. I retrieve a lavender-coloured pack that isn't very big, but larger than the one I own, and empty my supplies into it. I also store two loaves of bread inside, a few packs of dried fruit, bandages, rope I'll probably have no use for, a knife I hope I never have to use, and a blanket that the Careers must have accidentally overlooked, for it is quite miraculous- it blends in to whatever background it is sat on. Like a chameleon-blanket... or I suppose it could be called a camouflage blanket. Yes- I like that name- for if I wrap myself well in it, it will serve as wonderful camouflage.

I also, out of necessity, grab a large tube from the ground. On it is a label pronouncing "Itch Cream," and I give out a small squeal of delight. Instantly, I open it and rub the cream on my irritated hands. The relief comes immediately and I all but kiss the tube before stuffing it in my pack. I also find all the water bottles I can, but to my great disappointment, they are empty. I wonder how we will get water, if the river, streams, and springs are all contaminated. Possibly the rain? After searching even more thoroughly for water, I decide that rain will be my saviour, whenever it comes. Doesn't seem like that will occur anytime soon: looking outside of the Cornucopia, I see that the clouds are as white and puffy as ever.

We all finish gathering supplies about the same time. Tess makes a quick exit into the trees, but Hestia and I hang around the mouth of the Cornucopia, talking. I ask her if she's seen anyone besides Tess, and she answers that yes, she has… glimpses of the Careers while spying on them, and she also had a run-in with Calico, from District Eight, who just glanced at her and then pretended she hadn't seen Hestia. "What about you?" She asks.

"I've been lucky. Nobody except you and Tess, and that boy on the ground… he's a Career, correct?"

"Yes. I think that's Frond. Ya know, the kid my age, but from Four, who has a talent for swords?" I nod, staring at the small lump on the ground fifty metres away. Poor kid.

We cry together over Hemlock, although I don't tell Hestia she took the axe for me. I feel so terrible, as the cleaver was meant for me, and me only… not Hemlock who is dead with an axe in her head. I ask where Hestia's been hiding out and she tells me about a little cave she found on the mountain. She also tells me that she saw Rosalina run into the woods during the bloodbath, about a minute before I did, alone. "Maybe we could form an alliance, like we were going to do before the Games, and try to find Rosalina," I offer, hoping she will agree.

Hestia shakes her head. "I don't know. I really like my cave. I just don't feel safe without it, you know? The forest has so many poisonous fruits and nuts and berries and the river water is…"

"Acid. I know. I saw the boy from Seven drink," I say, shuddering at the memory. "How did you figure it out?"

"Well, you know how the river runs past the mountain? I traveled there when I got thirsty, and since I'm not stupid, I touched it with the tip of my finger. It hurt so much," she says, showing me the tip of her index finger, which is charred black. "I figured I shouldn't drink it. Then, I went to the woods this morning to get something to quench my thirst… berries or something… and I saw the girl from Three eat one of the fruits. And then her partner. It was horrifying. I decided to gather supplies at the Cornucopia, and then not leave my cave ever again. As much as I would love to have an alliance, I don't want to go into the forest."

My heart sinks to my stomach, but I shrug my shoulders. "Well, I guess an alliance is out. I will not go to that mountain. Ever."

"Why?" Hestia asks curiously.

"I'm getting bad vibes," I reply. "It seems too safe to be in this arena. Its caves lure tributes in, invite them to make a home there. Its color is the most sickening purple I've ever seen."

"Oh," she laughs. "I think you're mistaken. Well, if you will risk the woods, then I will risk the mountain. Let's see who survives the longest."

"Deal," I say. We shake hands, and I tuck my hair behind my ears, ready to leave. I hoist the lavender pack so the straps fall over my shoulders, and turn to say goodbye to Hestia, but I back away in shock as I see she is holding a sharp knife in her hand. "What are you doing?" I shriek, eyes widening.

"Calm down!" Hestia laughs, putting her hands in the air to perform a surrendering motion- except it doesn't work so well, as she's still holding the knife. "I'm not going to kill you, Mays. I just had an idea. You know how every tribute fears Platina, the girl from One, right? Well, your hair colour and her hair colour look pretty alike, from a distance. I just thought, since your stylist idiotically left your hair down, that maybe you could style it to look like Platina's. Then, if a tribute saw you, they'd run away in fright."

I raise an eyebrow, fear of the knife gone, considering Hestia's logic. "I suppose you're right," I say, and then grab at the locks of my dirty blonde hair. I'm not sure I want to part with it.

She looks at me in sympathy. "You don't have to do it, you know. I mean, it was just an idea…"

I grit my teeth. Time to man up, Maysilee. "Just do it," I mutter, and she circles around me, standing at my back. Hestia carefully gathers my hair- braided pieces and all- up so it forms what would be a ponytail if I had a hair band, and positions the knife underneath it. "Are you sure? Last chance to back out," she says.

"I'm sure! Now hurry up before a tribute that can actually use a weapon comes along and kills us!"

This makes her shut up, and she begins to move her knife against my hair, hacking it off little by little. My head tingles sharply as she yanks at it, but I don't make a sound as my hair is cut off. When she's finally done, she shows me the bundle of hair she clutches in her grasp, and I let out a tiny gasp. It is so odd. My hand drifts up to the ends of my hair, which is shorter in the back (reaching the top of my neck) and longer in the front (about an inch past my shoulders). I've never cut so much of my hair off at one time before, and my head feels oddly bare without the weight of my hair pulling it down.

"Do you want to keep it?" Hestia asks, amused.

"Don't laugh!" I say, grabbing it from her and throwing it to the grass. I watch as it sizzles, and begins to disintegrate. Not something I expected- but if skin develops a rash when coming in contact with the poisonous grass, then it makes sense for hair to burn, albeit very slowly.

"I'm not laughing," she says, but I know she is because her lips twitch. "It's just, I've never had much of a connection with my hair. I do like it, but it's like a part of my clothing- something I can change every day without worrying about it." She touches her bleached-blonde locks, which are put up in a very sensible high ponytail. "If it makes you feel any better," she addresses me, "the short style suits you."

"Does it?" I run my fingers through my hair, and it's almost as if a little bit of my heart breaks every time they stop at my shoulders.

"Yeah," Hestia smiles sadly. "I think we'd better go. If the Careers see us from the mountain…" She trails off, but I know very well what will happen if they do. Experience an early death. Wouldn't want that, of course.

"Good-bye, Hestia, and good luck," I say, hugging her one last time.

"Last offer to join me in my cave," she says hopefully.

"Nah," I laugh. "Gotta go find Rosalina. And if this is the last time I ever talk to you, well, thanks for throwing that spear at me on the first day of training."

"Of course!" She shouts, and we are already fifteen metres away from each other. "Thanks for running onto the range!"

"Anytime!" I call back, sprinting away. I'm laughing and crying by the time I enter the woods again. Well, I think, at least Hestia's okay.

Can't help feeling that that won't last long.

~finis de capitulum sex~

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