Chapter 2: Scylla
They say that you shouldn’t head for the Cornucopia unless you have a deathwish, but why put off the inevitable? I’d rather go down fighting than get eaten by a Mutt or get dysentery from drinking dirty water. The arena is different this year. It’s usually some kind of natural terrain; grass or sand or water. For the 69th Hunger Games (yes, haha) the arena is like a ghost town, a bombed out city, a blasted concrete waste of ruined buildings and pitted asphalt. The cornucopia itself isn’t the usual shining gold horn, but the remnants of what looks like an old grocery store, a hanging sign with the cornucopia emblem lit up in neon creaking in the breeze. That’s where I’m headed. Like a good District 4 girl, I’m handy with a trident and I can do things with rope that these pampered Careers can only dream of. If I’m going to survive this thing, I have to get my hands on the things that I can really use. The other tributes are stiff with fear on their podiums, with a few noticeable exceptions. That flame-haired girl Opal from District 1 looks alert but calm, while the creepy boy from District 9 looks positively delighted to be here. Kids from 9 don’t volunteer, so what the hell is his deal? He saw his mother fall into a combine harvester and I’m the one they call psycho? Okay… Most unsettling of all is Miss Perfect 12, the girl from 2 who lit up the Capitol audience with her flirting, who is actually sparking a cigarette on the podium. I don’t know how she got to bring a lighter in with her, because the Avoxes practically broke my arm when I tried to bring in some tooth floss. I guess there are different rules for the Careers -- you make better TV, you get better privileges.
The music plays and tributes start scrambling from their podiums, some scattering and some bounding towards the Cornucopia like dogs at the promise of fresh meat. Creepy Emmer gets there first, rummaging through crates looking for something sharp. Ares, warlike, finds a baseball bat and immediately whirls it into Gossamer from 8 hard enough to knock the spots off of her. First blood. I duck to avoid the other tributes and grab a length of rope with a sharp, heavy metal hook on the end, whipping it around to tear the stomach out of the giant boy from District 5 who’s trying to bury a hammer into my face. Opal takes the weapon from his hand as the life leaves his twitching body while I dive behind a stack of crates. I allow myself a look around before I go hide myself somewhere safe. Well, safer. Emmer has found a scythe and it’s sharp enough to cleave the arm off of the boy from 8, leaving blood soaking the ground as he stalks off to find new prey away from the Careers. Opal rears like a lioness as the bold girl from District 5 wraps a heavy length of chain around her neck, trying to choke her. Opal headbutts the girl in the face, loosening her grip long enough to jam the sharp end of the hammerhead into her neck, releasing a jet of arterial spray up a wall. Ares tries to take out a threat early but gets nothing but an elbow to the face from Opal, who runs as he staggers back. She could have finished him off: maybe this lioness is not as bloodthirsty as she’d have us all believe. Artemis throws a kitchen knife over fifty feet into the back of Rufus from District 12 as he runs away, dropping him to the ground for good. They don’t call it The Bloodbath for no reason.
Ares and Artemis have disappeared, off to regroup and strategize. Three kids try to team up to take Nero down -- Rowan and Ash from 7 and Rae from 11 -- but he slays them easily though they are armed and he is not. He twists the girl’s arm, wrapping his strong fingers around her knuckles and driving her knife into her chest while it’s still in her hand, before snapping the first boy’s spine as easily as opening a jar of pickles. The third tries to dig his fingers into Nero’s eyes, but Nero swings him around and crushes his head against the wall with his boot. Opal is far enough away that I could get to Nero while he’s distracted. This is my chance. I run. Opal sees me but I’m nearer and I’m faster. I swing the rope and I know my aim is perfect. This hook will be dug deep enough into his belly to tear him apart before he’ll have time to react. I’m about to loose the killing blow when he sees me and stops still. The tension is solid. This is the moment the Games change.
Nero bursts into tears. It’s just me and the District 1s left in the Cornucopia now. Opal stops still and looks at her District mate in disbelief.
“They came at me,” Nero sobs, “I didn’t have a choice. They can’t have been more than fifteen. Who am I? I mean, really, what is this all for? I broke that boy in half and he was so... small.”
“Okay, I can’t kill you when you’re being so pathetic,” I say to him, letting my rope go limp. “Shall we just… not kill each other for a while?”
Opal nods, helping Nero to his feet as he wipes tears from his face with the sleeve of his jumpsuit. We search through the crates and find cans with faded labels, which I’m able to prise open with my hook. It’s marrowfat peas and some kind of pasty, poor quality meat, which we eat with our hands, keeping a lookout the whole time. Nero cries periodically, and it’s kind of awkward but it’s better than him trying to crush the life out of me. The sky darkens and the faces of the dead tributes appear against glowering clouds. Gossamer, the first killed. Cable, who I killed. Sisal from 8, Tara from 5. Rufus who died with a knife in his back. Rowan, Ash and Rae, whose deaths broke Nero. And the kids from District 10, who ran away from the Bloodbath.
There’s a tang in the air, and it’s not the smell of blood, which I’ve gotten used to by now. It’s worse than that. It’s the smell of cigarettes. Artemis creeps out of the dark, a delicate stream of smoke rising from the glowing end dangling from her lips. Ares lurks behind her and Opal leaps to her feet.
“I know you’re probably not very happy to see us right now--” Artemis begins, taking a drag on her cigarette. Opal is white with anger.
“Your brother tried to kill me. Why would I be happy to see you?”
“I was only trying to talk to you!” Ares hisses, “We wanted to make an alliance.”
“At the Bloodbath? Pick your moments better.”
Artemis steps between us and puts her hand to the knife hilt tucked in her waistband. Opal’s knuckles tighten around her hammer, ready to strike. Then Artemis deftly flips the knife around and offers Opal the handle. A peace offering.
“Take this. Ares, drop the bat.”
He does. The air is brittle, like glass about to shatter at any second. Artemis speaks.
“We have bigger problems than each other right now. We have to make an alliance or things are gonna get really, really bad.”
“And why would you want an alliance with us?”
“Maybe I’m still hoping you’ll kiss me,” Artemis whispers.
“Very funny,” Opal says, but she’s loosened her hold on the hammer.
“Look, kill me all you want later, but there’s something I have to show you. You have our weapons, just follow us.”
“Straight into a trap, brilliant,” Opal snaps.
“They could have murdered us really easily but they didn’t,” I offer.
“Shut it, psycho.”
“I’m not the one breaking kids in two and then crying about it, why am I the psycho?”
“She has a point,” Nero sniffles in the corner. “Why not trust them for a couple minutes? We could tie them up or something?”
“Maybe later, Red,” Artemis says, shooting Opal a sly look. “I wouldn’t trust me either, but I’m begging you. It’s only, like, a block away.”
Opal grumbles but we follow them, tense but united by a curious truce. I once had to kill a shark with my bare hands and I’m more scared now than I was then. We reach a ramshackle building, broken down to the point that the iron support struts are poking through the brick. Artemis lights a torch off of her cigarette.
“They’re in there,” she says grimly, shining the light of the flames into a dark corner, lighting up the red walls. Blood.
There are two bodies sprawled on the stone floor, but they’re in more than two pieces. An unrecognisable set of dismembered limbs are scattered between smeared entrails. Nero vomits up his canned peas. The guts on the floor are steaming in the cold night air. Fresh. There’s a head. The boy from District 10, the one with a mouthful of teeth. Well, he did before. Someone has pulled out every tooth in his head, leaving a raw, bloody hole, his lips curling back in death.
Artemis lays a gentle hand on Opal’s shoulder and she doesn’t flinch.
“Now do you want to work with us?”