She’s running through the forest. Trees pop and swirl and crumble into dust around her, and she keeps running. She stops for a moment, listening.
“Annie!” Way off in the distance. She’s running again.
If she looks at the ground for too long, it melts under her, so she doesn’t look at the ground. This is all she knows now. This is her entire life. There was a moment of peace. A stabbing sensation around her ankle, then she drifted into comfortable darkness, only to be awoken a few moments later, a bright jab of white light making her blind, making her fall. There were people around her. People with drooping faces and fangs dripping with poison, and they were all saying her name, so she ran.
A leaf falls off a tree, and turns into a knife, and shoots down at her feet, making her jump three feet in the air and start to run away, but her shoes are made of cement blocks. She can’t move, and the knife is still at her feet, except now it’s a leaf again.
“What is happening,” she says to herself.
“Annie!” Closer now. She pulls off her shoes and keeps running. The ground tries to suck her feet in, but she’s too fast for it. It must be working with them, with the people who are after her, but she’ll get away.
She can go anywhere. She can keep on running and go anywhere she wants and they’ll never find her. They’ll never get her. She’ll run until the trees stop melting and then she’ll climb one, and she’ll hide there. She’ll stay there, she’ll eat the bark to keep herself alive, and they won’t find her.
She stops running to laugh.
“What if I win?” she asks herself. “What if I win and I’m hiding and they can’t find me and I have to stay here?”
It could happen. She could hide herself so well that no one will ever find her, and she’ll live in this forest forever, with the popping trees and the river of blood rushing up to her knees.
“When did this get here?” she asks. She tries to take a step, but she can’t. Her heart starts pounding, beating away at her bones to get out of her chest. She tries another step, but can’t do it. The blood rises to her hip and she screams.
She’s going to drown. She’s going to drown in blood, she’s going to choke on it and breathe it in until she dies.
“But I can swim,” she exclaims.
She dives, headfirst, into the river, hoping she can get out of it at some point, and slams into the ground. She scrambles to her feet. Another trap. Another trick by the people who are after her. Well, that won’t work either. She can get away from them. She will. She has to.
Her heart bursts when she thinks of him. That’s why she’s running. If she runs far enough, she’ll get back to him. They’ll laugh and they’ll embrace and they’ll kiss and things will go back to normal. Actually, they’ll go back to better than normal. Normal Annie would see Finnick a few times a month and he’d hold her at arms length and never say her name. Better-than-normal Finnick will never stop saying her name. He’ll say it over and over, again and again, except when he’s kissing her. And he’ll smile when he kisses her. His hands will run all over her body, and hers all over his, and they’ll never stop. Never ever.
She runs and runs and runs, over glass and water and fire and even ice at one point. By the time she stops, it’s dark. The sun has gone, and she can’t hear any sign of the people who are after her. The trees here seem sturdier. She must have run far away.
Suddenly, the sky lights up, and music blares all around her. She jumps, reaching for a knife, but there’s no one there. A single face appears in the sky, and then it’s dark again.
The boy from 11, she thinks, but she doesn’t know what exactly that means. She climbs up into a tree. The branches make her hands ache and the bark scratches her feet, but she keeps climbing, up and up and up, until she reaches a strong, sturdy feeling branch.
She closes her eyes for a split second, and then it’s light out again. The rays from the sun make the trees shimmer, like they’re absorbing all the light. She climbs down from the tree and it wilts at her feet, blocking her path forward. No way to go but back.
When she turns around, Annie realizes that she has no idea where she is. She could be a hundred miles from everyone at this point. She wonders if she’ll be the first Tribute to ever get lost in the Arena. The idea makes her laugh, and she starts walking. The obstacles from yesterday are gone, but they’ve left their marks. Scorched trees surround her while she treks through thick mud that swallows her feet whole. Her legs are smeared with blood. Just like the tree trunks. She could stop walking and turn into one, probably.
The sun rises higher, and the mud gets thicker. It cakes around her ankles and her calves, but her feet are smacking hard ground.
“It’s not real,” she whispers, and the mud disappears. The trees go back to normal. There are long scratches down her legs, but they’re not covered in blood. Her bare feet are covered in dirt and dust. And then it all snaps back, and the blood is everywhere, and the fire, and the mud.
Screaming, she runs until she trips on something in her path—an arm? A leg maybe? No, it’s a whole body. It’s a large boy with dark hair, and his leg torn open. His lips are blue and his eyes are open and staring at her. She stays on the ground, shrieking.
“Annie!” Close. Too close. She tries to stand, but her legs give out. They’re going to get her. She pulls a knife off her belt.
“Stay away!” she yells. Her voice is raw.
“Annie!” The trees just in front of her start moving. But they’re not trees, they’re people. She throws the knife and hands wrap around her arms. The people are on top of her, grabbing her, carrying her, but she can’t move. She can’t stop them. She reaches for another knife, but her hands are bound.
“Sorry about that.” A girl. “You’re gonna kill one of us if we let you keep them, though.”
“We have to get you back to the Cornucopia.” A boy. “We’re lucky we even found you.”
The girl laughs. “Yeah, well, Sebastian would’ve killed us if we didn’t.”
“Sebastian,” Annie says. The name hits a chord.
“Yeah, Sebastian. Your District Partner? Come on, we haven’t got all day.”
She still can’t see their faces. She trusts Sebastian, though. Sebastian wouldn’t hurt her. She doesn’t know how she knows that, but she does. After a walk through the forest, back through the popping and melting trees, they pull her into a large clearing made of dirt. A dark, shining palace sits in the middle of it.
“Annie!” Several cries, a cheer, and two different sets of arms around her, helping her to the palace. They help her to the ground, in the shade, and one of them places something in her hands. It’s cold.
“Drink that,” a voice says. It’s feminine, smooth and comforting and deep for a girl’s voice.
“Yeah. It’s me. Welcome back. Drink that. It’ll stop all the confusion and the scary things.”
She lifts it to her mouth and drinks it down. The liquid is cool and a little sweet, and it makes her tired. Within seconds, she feels her head hit the wall behind her, and she’s asleep.
Hours later, she wakes up to the sound of wind instead of the rush of blood through her head. Birds are tweeting, people are talking, and everything seems clear again. Someone put her shoes back on her feet. She tries to stand up, but falls back down.
“Woah, there!” Sebastian half-jogs over to her and helps her stand. “Careful. You should be taking things slow.”
He wraps an arm around her waist to keep her steady.
“You’re walking,” she says.
“Good eye,” he replies with a small smile. “That medicine we keep getting is amazing. Really. I’m not totally better, but I can walk, and that’s the important part, right?”
“Right,” she says. “Glad to see you on your feet.”
He steers her towards the rest of the group, which isn’t far. They’re a little outside the mouth of the Cornucopia. The world around her is a little wobbly, but everything’s intact.
“You shouldn’t be up yet,” Hera says while Annie takes a seat in the group. “You went untreated for a whole day. You must be—“
“—good enough,” Annie finishes. “What are we talking about?”
She looks around the little circle. Holiday isn’t there, but everyone else is looking at her like she’s a bomb about to go off.
“Annie, you should really be sleeping,” Ivory says. “When we found you yesterday, you tried to kill us. You looked like hell. No offense. You should sleep until it’s all out of your system.”
“I’m fine,” she says, assertively. “Where’s Holiday?”
“Still sleeping,” Hera answers. “She got two bites. A lot more poison than you got. Almost a lethal amount. She’ll need to sleep for awhile.”
Annie nods her head, and it throbs. Sebastian hands her a canteen and a small array of food.
“Thought you’d be hungry,” he says. She smiles and takes a long drink of water.
“What happened? I don’t remember much of anything.”
“Those snakes were Mutts,” Hera explains. “They had Tracker Jacker venom. A certain amount would’ve killed you, we think three or four bites based on Holiday’s state. We think the boy from Eleven was watching us for the other group when the Mutts attacked.”
She still doesn’t know what snakes are. She looks to Sebastian, who shrugs at her. He apparently doesn’t know, either.
“Tracker Jacker venom?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Romana snaps. “You were seeing things that weren’t there, everything was scary, but you’re okay now, right? Can we get back to the discussion?”
Hera purses her lips but doesn’t say anything.
“The other group,” Ivory says, taking the lead. “We have no idea where they are, but they have a pretty good idea of where we are.”
“They have to be close, right?” Sebastian looks at each person, making sure his contribution is valid. “If they can send people out to watch us and have surprise attacks for us, then they have to be close by.”
“All their plans have failed, though,” Annie says. “They could’ve gone farther for safety. Protect their slimming numbers, as it were.”
“Who’s left?” Romana asks.
“Gavon,” Hera says. Her eyes are shut tight, remembering. She taps all of her fingers in turn while she talks. “He’s from Five, I think. Amory, from Six. Lark, from Eight. Andrea, from Ten. I think they’re the only ones left now.”
“That leaves ten of us total,” Annie says.
There’s a short, awkward pause while they all avoid looking at each other.
“Yeah,” Ivory says. “There’s ten of us.”
“Does anyone have any ideas?” Sebastian asks.
“I do,” Hera says after a short moment. “We go hunting.”
For a moment, her face looks like it’s melting. Annie shuts her eyes and takes a deep breath. When she opens her eyes again, everything is mostly back to normal.
“If they’re watching us, hunting them is pointless,” Ivory says.
“No, not for them,” Hera explains. “We go hunting. We go out into the forest. We pretend to drop our guards. They’ll attack because they think we won’t suspect it, and then there we are, waiting for them.”
“Do you think that’ll wipe them out?” Romana snaps. “What if they see that coming, or if they run away?”
“We’ll probably get at least one of them,” Hera offers.
“No, this is a good idea,” Annie says. “If we’re fast enough, we can maybe even scare them off or something. As long as we get them off our backs, that should be enough.”
“Wait, wait a minute,” Ivory interrupts. He’s pointing right at Annie. “You were wandering around the forest all night dazed out of your mind and hallucinating. Did they not go after you? Their watch might be down.”
“We don’t really know anything about them,” Hera says. “But I don’t really want to sit here and do nothing while they get all of us injured and killed. We can act like we need meat or something and go out. We’ll be loud, and hopefully they’ll take the bait.”
“This is good,” Annie says. “This’ll work.”
“I’ll stay here with Holiday,” Ivory says. “Someone needs to. She’s still passed out. She can be a bitch, but she doesn’t deserve to get killed by someone from some weird District while she’s sleeping.”
“Alright,” Romana says, standing up. “Let’s get going. You okay mermaid girl?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She’s not. Spots pop in her vision from time to time. She doesn’t want to just sit here, though. She wants to do something. She wants to get up and go out and be a part of the action.
The four of them pull on backpacks as the bottom of the sun drops below the horizon. Annie lost three knives during her long forest walk.
“Oh, well,” she says, tightening the belt around her waist. “That’s what happens when I go running off on my own.”
“You still have three,” Sebastian says, holding onto her arm while they walk. “Don’t worry about it.”
The woods are eerily quiet again. The animal noises Annie had heard when she woke up are gone now. The trees cast weird shadows. There’s only the crunch of their boots on rocks and sticks, or the occasional yell one of them will give. It’s a noisy trek, but not suspiciously so.
“This could really work,” Annie murmurs to Hera at one point. “Good idea.”
Hera responds with a smile and hangs back from the group, prompting Annie to join her.
“We have to leave soon,” she says.
“To blow the dam. Tonight, when we get back from this. We take Sebastian and some mines and we go.”
Annie looks at her and sees the determination in her ally’s face. If this plan works, they get closer and closer to being the only people left. They can’t all stay in a group forever. This is the Arena. Only one person comes out alive.
“What are you two doing?” Romana calls back to them. She stops walking and turns, hands on her hips, to look at them. “Come on, hurry up. Don’t fall so far back.”
Hera straightens up.
“Maybe if you two weren’t so loud—“
She stops suddenly and lurches to her knees, landing hard on her palms.
But then Annie sees it. The arrow sticks from her back, long and thin. The setting sun reflects off it in gold streaks that don’t fit. She sinks to her knees next to her friend.
Her voice is hoarse and faint. The tree shadows suddenly get darker, they start moving, and Annie’s hands start shaking. Romana runs full on into a group of them. Sebastian is on the ground, driving his weapon down into a dark mass.
She reaches for the arrow, but as soon as she touches it, Hera jerks awkwardly to her side.
Her voice is trembling now. She can feel her lip quiver. She forces herself to look into Hera’s eyes. They’re still dark and glistening. She draws a shaky breath and reaches out to pull Annie closer to her.
“Take S…Sebastian. R-run. Don’t trust them.”
“And you’re coming with us,” Annie says. “Come on, any second now we’ll get a parachute and we’ll—“
“You’ll what? P-patch up my l-lung?”
“Yes,” Annie sobs. She lies next to her and takes her hands. “I’ll help you, like you helped me. I still haven’t repaid you for that.”
“And you won’t,” she groans. “Not everything gets repaid.”
“I still need you,” Annie whispers.
“You’ll do fine. You’re g-going to win. You know that, r-right? You are.”
“Your mentor is c-crazy about you. It’s been you all along.”
“Stop saying that,” Annie shouts, sitting up again. “You’re going to be okay. I’m going to help you.”
“Blow the dam, mermaid girl.”
Hera gives her one last small smile before she winces and starts shaking.
“Did you hear me, Hera?” Annie shrieks. “I said stop.”
And she does. Her hand is still clutched in Annie’s, and her eyes are still dark and glistening, but the light is gone from them.
“STOP IT,” she screams at the top of her lungs.
The cannon goes off.