A timer appears over the cornucopia, ticking down the seconds left until they all have to start fighting for their lives.
60… 59… 58…
Annie holds her hand against the sun and looks around. Dry earth stretches around her in a huge oval. The cornucopia seems to mark the exact center. Trees surround the area and curve upward. She can’t see the edge. Except for the side exactly opposite of her. There, the trees meet a huge, smooth wall.
43… 42… 41…
It looks like a cliff, but it can’t be a cliff. She can figure it out later.
There’s no sign of a fresh water source. There has to be one somewhere, though. Maybe there’s a river of some kind running through the trees. With the sun this bad, none of them will make it long without water. Annie’s already sweating.
30… 29… 28…
Some of the other tributes are looking around. She can’t see Sebastian. Hera is only two people away from her. They make eye contact but otherwise don’t acknowledge each other. Holiday is halfway across the circle on one side; Titus is halfway across on the other. Annie can’t see any of the other careers.
The cornucopia is facing away from her, so she can’t see what kind of things it holds. Undoubtedly, there’s a good amount of food, and some weapons. She’ll have to get a set of knives, even if she doesn’t plan on using them. A bunch of items are spread on the ground in front of the tributes. There’s a backpack just a few feet away from her.
16… 15… 14…
She could step off the platform now, and get blown to bits, and never have to face this.
11… 10… 9…
It’s happened before. She could make it look like an accident.
7… 6… 5…
Annie takes a deep breath.
4… 3… 2…
Stay safe, her father’s voice urges her.
The timer disappears, a cannon sounds, and the tribute next to her darts towards Annie and scoops up the backpack in front of her before she can even move. She watches him run full out into the woods before she remembers where she is.
She missed her opportunity to die on her own terms. She looks down at the ground, where the now inactive land mines are buried. If she hadn’t hesitated, she wouldn’t have to worry about any of this right now. It’s too late, though. She’ll have to die on their terms now. She forces herself to focus, or that death could come faster than she’d like it to.
The rest of the tributes seem to split down the middle. Half are racing to the cornucopia, or the supplies scattered around it, while the rest follow Annie’s thieving neighbor into the woods.
She still hasn’t moved from her platform, though. Her feet are frozen to the surface. It’s only been a few seconds, but they’re ticking along like hours.
“Annie!” she hears from somewhere to her right.
The shout makes her move. With one step off the platform, the world snaps into place. Screams reach her from the open mouth of the cornucopia. She can’t see what’s happening. She’s not sure she wants to.
She can practically hear Finnick screaming at her to move, to run, to hide, to do something besides stand there. She can practically see his eyes that look like home, wild with concern, his mouth….
No, she can’t think about Finnick. Not now.
She takes a deep breath and begins to run, full out toward the cornucopia. Tributes are already starting to streak past her for the woods. She dodges one who swipes at her with a sword. A moment later, the boy crumples to the ground with a spear in his back. Annie stops short. Ivory comes rushing up, skin glowing from excitement and exercise, to collect his weapon.
“You okay, mermaid girl?” he asks. She makes a weird gesture between a nod and a shrug. “Well, come on,” he shouts, turning to run back to the cornucopia.
Annie looks down at the boy who almost killed her. There’s a 7 on the sleeve of his jacket. She keeps running.
A flash of red catches her eye. Little Leeri, Hera’s district partner, just dived out from behind the cornucopia and is now sprinting as fast as his legs can carry him. There’s a small bag clutched in his hand. He’s easily the smallest person on the field. He shouldn’t be here.
He’s halfway to the trees, but then he cries out and collapses to the ground. Annie didn’t see the arrow hit him, but she sees it now, sticking out of his chest. He twitches a few times, then stops moving. She can only stare, horrorstruck, until another arrow lands at her feet. Her eyes quickly find Lark, the girl from 8 with long flaming hair, at the edge of the woods. She’s already loading another arrow.
And pointing it right at Annie.
Without thinking, she sprints and then dives behind the cornucopia, where she plasters herself against a wall and freezes. She squints to look around the clearing. The sun is blinding, the sky is too blue, the trees too green, and people move around her in blurs of achingly bright red. Blood, she realizes.
The people don’t have faces, and Annie has to remind herself to breathe. A tall, muscular boy falls to the ground at the feet of a short girl with a wave of blonde hair pulled back and secured tightly off her face. She kicks his sword away and slams her own into his chest, twisting it cruelly until he stops trying to fight her off and dies. A pool of his own blood leaks out around the sword. Some of it sprays on the girl when she yanks the weapon out of him and turns to find her next opponent.
When her eyes land on Annie, she shrinks down to the ground. Maybe if I just sit here, the cornucopia will absorb me, she thinks. Maybe I can hide like this for the rest of the Games.
“Hey, mermaid girl,” the blonde girl calls out. “What’s wrong? Come on! Don’t let us have all the fun!”
Holiday, Annie realizes as the girl runs to the other side of the cornucopia to hunt down some other kid. She looks at the boy Holiday just killed. Nothing about that looks like fun to Annie.
Suddenly, she’s 14 again. She’s walking home from school. Earlier that day, she got a kid on his back during hand-to-hand combat, but, instead of practicing a kill shot, she offered her hand to help him back to his feet. He slapped her hand away, though.
“Is this a joke to you?” he shouted, pushing himself back up. The groups around them stopped to watch. “I was on my back. You had me. Just take the kill shot, Annie. You gonna stop in the arena to help other tributes to their feet?”
She tried to respond, but the words stuck in her mouth and cemented it shut.
“What’s the use?” he said, mostly to the people around them, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to say anything. Her eyes stung with tears, but she bit her tongue to keep them off her face. “Better hope you don’t get picked, Annie. Or you’re as good as dead.”
Lorian. That was his name.
She sprinted out of the room when the day was done, not even stopping to put her equipment and weapons away. And then the arena’s gone, and she’s out on the street in her 14-year-old body, with the sun beating down on her skin, and the smell of salt and wet sand calling out to her.
But she doesn’t make it to the beach.
“Hey, Annie,” someone calls behind her. Her stomach knots around itself. She turns around and sees Lorian, with a few of his friends.
They don’t even have faces anymore.
“Good job today.” Her voice speaks but she doesn’t say the words. He smiles and they surround her.
“You know, I was thinking,” he begins. His voice is smooth like water over rocks and her dark velvet dress she got from her grandmother. “We should toughen you up.”
And then she’s on the ground, and her stomach aches where he kicked it, and she doesn’t like this part of training. Everything is black and red and that’s all she can remember until a loud crack radiates through her body, and she knows that the arm she wrapped around her stomach is broken.
Somewhere far away, a girl is screaming. It’s me, she thinks, and now that she knows, she can feel the rawness of her throat.
Everything goes black, and then, all at once, the darkness melts back into the arena. She stands on shaking legs and edges her way towards the mouth of the cornucopia, keeping her back plastered to the warm metal. Everywhere she looks, there are bodies, and smears of blood, and even various human parts.
Several people are still fighting, but it’s mostly the rest of the Careers taking care of those left in the clearing. A lot of the tributes have already made it to the woods. Even as she watches, Romana sneaks up on another girl and swings her sword in a wide arc. The girl’s head flies off her body, which crumples to the ground, blood gushing from the neck. Romana turns and shouts something at Annie, but she can only hear her own heart pounding in her chest.
Is that how I’m going to die? she wonders. Will I just fall to the ground so easily, while everything I ever was disappears? Is that how Romana will die? Or Hera? Or Sebastian? Her stomach lurches at the thought. Sebastian. Where is he? Could he already be dead on the ground somewhere nearby, with blood pouring out from where his head used to be? She can’t accept that. She has to find him.
Turning toward the mouth of the cornucopia, Annie forces her stiff legs into a jog. She doesn’t even have a weapon yet. Finnick must be going crazy by now.
No, she can’t think about Finnick.
After what feels like an eternity, she rounds the corner. The first thing she sees is a pile of weapons, with a set of throwing knives right on top that must be meant for her. Or they are now. She loops the strap holding them around her waist and turns to see Titus chasing down a girl with dark skin who must be about half his size. The girl is faster, but she trips, and he almost slices her right in half with a sword that looks too heavy for any human to carry. She screams when the blade hits her, but it doesn’t last long. Titus runs off in the same direction Romana did.
She stares at the dead girl, feeling like her blood has turned to lead in her veins. Maybe she won’t bleed when they try to kill her. Her blood is solid now, and they will stab her a million times and she’ll just laugh and run away and leave them all to kill each other.
“ANNIE!” she hears behind her, and then something sharp hits her arm. It cuts through her jacket like air and bites into her skin before it’s jerked away, leaving a gaping hole in fabric and flesh. “ANNIE!” the person calls again, and Sebastian is running full speed toward her while yet another girl is suddenly before her. This one is from 7, maybe, and she’s holding a spear covered in blood.
It can’t be her blood, though, because her blood is metal now.
The spearhead narrowly misses her face. She jumps back, arm throbbing, and reaches for one of the knives on her belt. Before she can even think her final thoughts, a long blade juts out from the girl’s stomach. She looks down at it curiously until it pulls up through her body. There’s a short pause, and the girl collapses to the ground, blood spilling out of her like water from a sink. Annie looks, wide-eyed, to Sebastian.
“Annie,” he says, his voice hoarse. He steps over the body and grabs her arm. “This looks bad.”
Then the moment catches up with her and pain rips through her entire muscle, down to the bone, and shoots all the way from her shoulder to her fingertips. A moan of pain escapes her lips. She clutches her arm and sinks to the ground.
“Too soon,” she murmurs, blood seeping out between her fingers. Her entire arm is drenched in it now. Sebastian’s face is in front of hers. His mouth is moving, his eyes wide with panic, but she can’t hear him. She doesn’t know how much blood she’s lost. Maybe all of it at this point.
Then it’s not Sebastian in front of her, it’s Finnick. He ties something around her arm and brushes her hair out of her face.
“You’re going to be okay,” he tells her.
He furrows his eyebrows.
“She’s lost a lot of blood.” When he moves his mouth, Hera’s voice speaks. “We need to act—“
He cuts himself off and glances to the sky. A bright silver orb floats down to them through the air. It whirrs softly, as relaxing as it is unsettling. A breeze kicks up and Annie shudders. Or maybe there’s no breeze and everything is just cold now. Annie’s aware that her eyes are open, but she can’t see anything.
“She’s white as a sheet,” someone says.
“I know. Give me the salve.”
“Hera,” she murmurs.
“I’m here. This’ll hurt, I’m sorry.”
“Finnick?” she asks.
“Yeah, he sent this parachute. You’re going to be okay. Just relax.”
“Finnick,” she says again.
Then something liquid and sticky jams into her wound. Annie screams, she feels the liquid oozing into her veins, and then the blackness sweeps her back up.
Somewhere in the background, someone yells her name. Then nothing but the blackness.