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Bleed Harder: Another Hunger Games Story


Artemis Liu is the perfect score, but nothing is guaranteed for any tribute, and this year is particularly dangerous. The arena is a perfect place for a serial killer to live out their wildest fantasies...

Action / Drama
Age Rating:

Chapter 1: Opal

Chapter 1: Opal

It’s the 69th annual Hunger Games, and if you find that funny then you have no fucking clue what you’re in for. The ride to the Capitol passed in a blur. It didn’t help that the other tribute from my district, a hard wall of muscle named Nero, didn’t say a word the whole time. He volunteered, but it seems he did it more out of duty and tradition than any real enthusiasm. I spent the journey ignoring the twittering of our useless mentors and demolishing the buffet. Tiny yuzu cakes shaped and colored to look like cardinals, rich beef stew with sesame served on plump grains, delicate savory biscuits slathered in thick cream and topped with slivers of bright pink fish. You can’t drown your sorrows in artery-clogging food but you can try. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, trained District 1 killer and it’s not my fifth helping of rose and cardamom ice cream that’s making me feel like I’m gonna throw up. Meeting the other tributes in the training center was farcical. Shaking hands with 23 people you’re going to have to kill is never fun, I guess.

At this moment, I’m sweltering under stage lights while Caesar Flickerman, his hair and eyebrows encrusted with orange glitter the same shade as his garish suit, interviews my competitors. Nero is stoic and unshakeable, a little stiff, but his devastating jawline alone will guarantee him sponsors. Next up is the girl from District 4, a twitchy ball of tangled energy that the other tributes nicknamed “Psycho Scylla” because she screamed as she swung her trident at the holograms in the training center. She refuses to do the interview, even once she’s maneuvered into the spotlight by the Avoxes. She won’t engage with Caesar, won’t meet his eye, until he asks her about her family back home, when she snaps and starts screaming the kind of words that are not allowed on primetime TV. The attendants hurry on stage and inject her with a sedative before dragging her back to her seat. More tributes slip through and I begin to lose count. A terrified little boy with a gap between his two front teeth that whistles as he speaks. He can’t be more than twelve or thirteen. The great hulking brute from District 5 who grunts in response to all of Caesar’s probing. The weird, skinny boy from District 9 who tells the audience that he saw his mother fall into a combine harvester with no expression on his face. Gennie from 6 who is visibly shaking with nerves. It’s not fair, they don’t have the training that we do. They haven’t spent their whole lives practicing for this, and the media persona takes as long to develop as the weaponry skills. We’re taught to not only cut a person in half using nothing but a foot of cheese wire but to be charming and effervescent doing it. We’re used to being in the spotlight, thrive on it even.

My own interview went as well as could be expected. I feigned humility when I was congratulated for my score of 10, as if years of hardcore fitness training wouldn’t give me an insurmountable advantage over the underfed waifs from the outer districts. I groaned good-naturedly at Caesar’s awful jokes and sat with perfect poise the whole time, painted like a courtesan to induce the sad, pervy Capitol viewers to send me trinkets. I artfully teared up when I confessed that I volunteered to stop my little sister Garnet from volunteering, though the artifice wasn’t putting on the tears, but holding them back. I’m eighteen and I’d hoped to get out of going forever. But Garnet is only fourteen and thinks she rules the world, desperate to show Panem what a badass she is. At breakfast on the day of the Reaping, she was boasting that she would volunteer this year and I couldn’t let her do it. I volunteered the second we reached the square, before they even started trotting out their speeches about what a valuable institution the Games are. Now my sister hates me and I’m almost certainly going to die to protect her. Maybe seeing my guts spill on live TV will put her off volunteering in the future.

The night of interviews is winding down but they’ve saved the best until last. The final pair of tributes being interviewed are the twins from District 2, Artemis and Ares. Ares is good-looking, charming and relaxed, but his sister upstages everyone. I noticed her the second she stepped into the training centre, sleek shoulder length hair in iridescent black, shaved to the scalp on one side, revealing a set of intricate piercings, a silver bar linking one side of the ear to the other. Smooth skin and intelligent almond eyes. She made my breath catch in my throat and it wasn’t the thought of violence. Artemis and her brother glide onto stage dressed in matching black and even Caesar Flickerman looks excited.

“Artemis Liu, welcome. How is life in the Capitol treating you? Something of a change from the Career Academy you’re used to?”

She takes a sip of water and turns to Caesar, then wrinkles her nose in mock disgust and raises the glass to the light as if appraising its qualities.

“I was hoping for something a little stronger, to be honest.”

The audience giggles. They’re in safe hands with this girl.

“We have a live one tonight, don’t we! Shall we go for a cocktail after this interview? I don’t want to get you into trouble with your parents.”

“It’ll be our secret, Caesar, don’t worry.”

If any of the tributes are worth making an alliance with, it’s Artemis, and not just because her support would also ensure my safety from her brother. Her skill is matched by her defiance, like she’s determined to play the game by her own set of rules. I have to get her on my side, but I have no idea how.

“Now Artemis, a stunning young woman like you must never be short of admirers. Have any of our brave boys caught your eye?”

She laughs.

“Definitely not.”

“A pity! Well, maybe there’ll be some contenders amongst our boys in the Capitol?”

“I don’t think so, Caesar. Boys bore me. Girls, however--”

Caesar’s eyes light up. Good girl, good TV. He gasps in surprise, only half of which is put on for the cameras.

“Girls keep me interested.”

“Goodness me, well, ladies and gentlemen, we can always rely on our tributes for a few surprises, can’t we? My, my, Miss Liu, you aren’t shy, are you? Dare I ask, have any of the young ladies tickled your fancy?”

“Not ’til the second date, Caesar. My mother raised me right.”

Caesar throws back his head and positively screams with laughter, delighted as titillated chatter ripples through the audience.

“You are just a firecracker, aren’t you? I believe you’ve made me blush.”

“That’s what she does, Caesar,” Ares chimes in, laughing and shaking his head at his sister. “Imagine living with her. You don’t want to compete for attention with Artemis.”

Caesar is rubbing his hands together with glee as he asks her if she has a crush on any of her fellow tributes. A hush falls on the crowd and there’s the soft creak of thousands of people leaning forward in their seats to hear what she has to say. Artemis is clearly enjoying this.

“Absolutely, Caesar. I have a message for the beautiful red-haired girl from District 1.”

That’s me.

Well, the red-haired District 1 bit, at least.

She turns towards me and I’m painfully aware that my minutest reaction will be blasted in high definition across Panem. How is this girl so relaxed? She stretches back in her seat, as comfortable as if she was in her own home, looks me dead in the eye and says, “I’m really hoping for one last kiss before I die so let me know if you’re down.”

The powdered, coiffed women in the audience are fanning themselves amidst all this drama. Caesar breathes through his dazzling white teeth at me.

“Opal, any response?”

Maybe there is a way to get this magnificent girl on my side. Don’t show them your fear. You’ve signed up to kill people. So why is this somehow scarier?

“Stranger things have happened, Caesar.”

Massive applause lets me exhale, finally. The cameras pan across the crowd to let the audience at home know exactly how they should be reacting, so they don’t catch the wink Artemis throws me before she turns back around. I’ll admit, it hits me somewhere between my neck and my knees. The thought strikes me this is probably not real, just a show for the cameras. A bid for approval from the richer sponsors. Still, I can’t say I don’t like it. And I’d rather she kissed me than killed me.

“On a final note, Artemis, do you have a request for any potential sponsors out there looking to support you in the arena?”

“I do, Caesar. To anyone kind enough to send me gifts for the games, I implore you,” She looks straight into the camera, her face deadly serious, “Please send me cigarettes. People keep telling me they’re bad for me but I think I’ll take my chances.”

It’s meant to come off as flippant, but she means it. I’ve realised why she got the perfect score. It’s not just her deadly aim, though when the overseer in the training center asked her to shoot a bullseye she threw a knife into a dummy’s rubber crotch so hard it knocked it over and it took two Avoxes to pull the knife out again. It’s not just her nerves of steel that let her proposition her competition on live TV without breaking a sweat. What makes her a perfect 12 is that she doesn’t care if she lives or dies. She’s here on a one-way ticket and, unlike the rest of us, that doesn’t bother her. That makes her unstoppable.

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