|Tributes of the Sun
Author: 13ASB PM
Darkness falls over Panem in the sequel to "Empire of Bones" and the third novel of the "From Dust" series. In District 10, Samantha Parker tries to move on after her failure as a mentor in the 99th Games - yet her wishes for peace cannot escape the conflict within a fracturing Capitol on the verge of exploding in violence.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Hurt/Comfort - Finnick O. & Other tributes - Chapters: 32 - Words: 87,214 - Reviews: 116 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 15 - Updated: 08-24-12 - Published: 06-14-12 - id: 8218835
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: Welcome to a future of Panem where Katniss and Peeta never made it home to District 12 alive. In the years since, the Capitol has evolved from a bloated, isolated autocracy into a powerful, corrupt, and calculating serpent. Now, following the buildup of tension between its two most prestigious citizens – the President, Octavian, and the Head Gamesmaker, Phaeston Rex (who was summarily arrested after the conclusion of the 99th Hunger Games,) the Capitol slowly is becoming a victim of its own ambition.
This story is the sequel to "Empire of Bones" and the third installment of a six-part series that began with "From Dust to Dust," in which the young yet determined Samantha Parker of District 10 took home an unlikely victory in the 98th Hunger Games. Now having failed in her first year as a mentor – sacrificing her own best friend's life in her loss – Sam must confront a Capitol and nation plagued by undercurrents of strife and deception; in the machinations that follow, she will find that the consequences of victory are never left behind.
The Hunger Games, Panem, Thresh, Finnick, Cecelia, Haymitch, et al all belong to Suzanne Collins. Rated T for violence and some mature themes, although the entrance to this chapter is very bloody/violent. Just letting you know now…
2,000 Years Before The Present
Tenochtitlan, Mexico – Capitol of the Aztec Empire
Ahuizotl did not care about one hundred thousand chanting, dancing individuals below the great temple of his empire's capitol city. He cared about twenty-four of them, and those twenty-four only.
The ones to feed our Gods…
They had been pre-selected beforehand; twelve couples partnered for less than a year to be now sacrificed in the name of the Aztec sun god during the greatest festival of the year. It was no less than a spectacular tribute for the greatest of all deities; one that would keep Quetzalcoatl strong enough to keep the world alive and turning against the great threats of the cosmos. Ahuizotl was his emissary on Earth – a God himself, the personification of greater beings to the lesser masses below.
The Aztec Hueyi Tlatoani had a short stature, but his arrogant attire atop the great temple in Tenochtitlan expressed his supreme rulership and status. A great headdress of brilliant feathers and carved red wood sat atop his painted head, all overlooking a nearly-naked body adorned in enough shells, jewels, and colorful paint to put any display in nature to shame. He raised his thick hands to the burning yellow sun, reaching out to embrace the warm rays of the morning as his people below shouted for more, screaming in a great, winding throng for the blessings of their emperor and God on Earth.
He would give them what they wanted…life.
The twenty-four offerings who stood atop the pyramid with Ahuizotl and his priests were a shambling bunch, despite their coveted status as sacrifices to the sun. They were Zapotec – less than human in the eyes of Ahuizotl. Their deaths meant nothing – yet their deaths meant everything. The extinguishing of their souls was nothing more than the snuffing of meaningless lives; yet to the God-Emperor and his kingdom, it was the continuation of a means of control and cycle of religious zealotry that had existed seemingly for time immemorial.
Ahuizotl held his palms out flat, silencing the crowd in one swoosh. He turned his flat, barren, brown eyes towards the sun, asking for blessing as the first prisoner was moved up. He was a weak specimen; scum, really. The thin man quivered as he was laid out on the sacrificial alter stone, his hands and legs held down by four priests who looked to Ahuizotl with adoring gazes. The God-Emperor placed his hands on a ceremonial blade – a gleaming obsidian weapon of brilliance, curved and lethal in so many elegant ways. He looked down upon the blue-painted body of the trembling tribute with some envy – today, you will further all our lives. You are more than just the insect body of a tribute.
But the sun did not demand souls – it demanded blood.
The God-Emperor raised the blade above his head and brought it down – the deed be done!
Thump! The Zapotec tribute's eyes bulged in shock and agony as the blade worked its way under his rib cage, snapping aside bone and sinew as Ahuizotl searched for the one organ that mattered. Yes, there it is! With a fierce drive of his hand and a ripping motion back, the God-Emperor withdrew his blade – now holding aloft a beating, bleeding heart. The sun be nourished!
Below the great pyramid, the throngs of Aztecs who looked on went berserk. Dancing and shouting coursed through the mob of onlookers like a great tidal wave, filling the crowd with animation and life. The blood of the dead tribute gave them much more than entertainment and fervor; it gave them conviction, knowledge and faith that their God-Emperor was the deity he claimed to be. High atop the Aztec citadel and holding the heart-topped knife aloft, Ahuizotl stood greater than any mere mortal.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Twenty-three other tributes died one by one, sacrificed for the good of the sun and the screaming hysterics of a citizenry wildly lost in passionate ardor. Ahuizotl let some of their energy flow through him; how could he not be a God? His subjects loved him, worshipped him – he was their greatest hope and truest salvation on the green planet. Standing atop the deaths of twenty-four meaningless tributes, Ahuizotl had once more established himself as the unquestionable, unchallenged ruler of his fervent dominion.
Yet he had one more surprise waiting on this day – one more offering left for the sun and his people. There would not be twenty-four, but twenty-five tributes to the sun.
And the last would be the best.
The strange, alien female was pulled forward towards the alter, her hands unbound and held firmly as she struggled and panicked. Such a strange creature, thought Ahuizotl – clearly, Quetzalcoatl had far more wisdom than he in making beasts for this world. The tall alien female had skin as white as limestone with strange, straight, yellow hair. Her face was long and gaunt like the jaguar's, so incompatible with the Aztec world around Tenochtitlan. She had been gifted by a client civilization to the north, apparently found and taken from strange white men – if the word of insects was to be believed. Ahuizotl found it high fantasy himself – surely the sun had created this alien female specifically to be sacrificed.
He looked down into the strange, pleading gray eyes of the alien as the crowd below went wild. They seemed so distant, so foreign…as if they could not comprehend the great duty to be performed. What strange thing had the sun given Ahuizotl? Was this meant to be the personification of a demon, destroyed by his immortal hands?
Perhaps he was not meant to understand such things. A God rules – and thinks later.
"¡Ayúdame – por favor, déjame ir gratis!" the alien female shouted at Ahuizotl. What devilish tongue was this?
Wasting no time, the God-Emperor raised his obsidian knife and brought it down straight into the screaming alien's sternum.
District 10 – Modern Day
The girl bolted up in her bed, drenched in sweat.
"Just a dream…just a dream, Sammy," she told herself, letting the soft, milky moonlight of the autumn prairie night filter in through her wide glass windows.
Samantha Parker pulled her powder blue fleece blankets around her tighter, trying to block out the darkness that lurked in her bedroom. The expansive house in District 10's Victor's Village had never truly been a home to her; while it offered luxury and spaciousness that few others in the rural district could lay claim to, it only reminded Sam of the past that still haunted her ever too closely. More than anything else, the memories and visages of two bloody games – one that she had succeeded in and one in which she had failed her tribute and best friend, Clara – punished Sam the worst for her newfound notoriety.
Still, such a nightmare! She had woken up only after reliving the terrifying last moments of Clara's life: watching the huge girl from District 2, Nyx, cock her knife-armed hand back and letting the weapon fly through the air. It had sung like a fallen angel in Sam's dream, hanging in flight for far too long. Clara's stunned face stained her memory as the knife slammed into her sternum: it had been the fatal blow that had taken her life and left Sam that much more alone in a world slowly stripping away every ounce of hope she had.
She couldn't sleep anymore; the pain was far too great. It had been months since the end of the 99th Hunger Games and Clara's death, but Sam still felt that knife in her soul every day. She was an emotional creature by nature, but this failure had struck her far greater than any death or trial in her own Hunger Games experience the year before. Perhaps it was the lack of control or the closeness of death, but Sam knew she likely would never forget the stabbing feeling in her heart.
Sam tossed on a violet robe and walked to her bathroom, flicking on a switch that cast soft yellow light about wood paneling and granite counters. She barely recognized the blue-eyed girl who stared back at her from the mirror; a year and a half ago, she had simply been the fifteen year-old daughter of a wealthy (in District 10's terms) rancher, understanding concepts as complex as riding a horse and herding the heads of cattle that made up the district's staple industry. Now the girl in the mirror was a dead woman walking, knowledgeable and well-versed in the art of death and loss. The Hunger Games had ripped away her innocence and childhood, rendering her nothing but a shell of the young spirit she once embraced.
"You up, Sam?" a sleepy male voice droned from a nearby room. Sam's twenty year-old brother, Jake, often stayed at her home: the alternative was either substandard shack-like hovels that made up District 10's public housing or staying in the ranch home of their abusive father, neither a good option.
"Can't sleep," Sam mumbled, wishing she hadn't woken up. Jake carried a protective streak for his wounded younger sister that had only grown fiercer since Clara's death; right now, she didn't want protection. She wanted a gasp of fresh air. "I'm just goin' for a walk."
Sleepiness won out over Jake, leaving Sam to do as she saw fit. She slipped out of the house barefoot, trotting into the darkened dusty alley of the Village. The air cooled dramatically outdoors with the seasons slipping towards winter; already, the nip of cold elicited exhalations of white vapor from her breaths. Still, she felt no reason to hurry. Sam wanted to see Clara.
The Bowie family, being ranching landowners like Sam's father, had buried their only child on a small family plot afforded to only the well-to-do. The twenty minute walk from the Village to the grave site let Sam observe the tranquility of the night in District 10. She had never taken the time to really see her home for what it was before, but Clara's death – and to a lesser extent, her previous experience as a tribute in the 98th Games – had impressed upon her the need for living in the present and appreciating what was on hand. The future could be taken away all too quickly.
A hairless stray dog sniffed about the dusty Merchant Ward as Sam walked through the town center. It looked up with moonlit eyes as she walked quietly, easily distracted by a rat corpse's fresh meat and uninterested in the pattering footsteps of a teenage girl. A barn owl perched on the dry rafters of a nearby apothecary hooted at Sam, fluttering its wings at her presence. Sam ran a hand through her brown ponytail, keeping her eyes up and alert. The experience of being a tribute had taught her the lesson of caution: even in District 10, one had to be alert for danger. Anything from a mindless drunken beggar to a Peacekeeper having a bad night could spell trouble, although the Peacekeepers had been decisively lax in enforcement for the last ten months.
The green grass of the prairie rewarded Sam's bare feet with relief from the hard dust of the town. She quickly strode across the fields she'd known all her life, cutting through the Ranching Ward and the land of the well-off citizens of District 10. As she came onto the Bowie plot, however, she saw she had company.
Sam topped a small grassy mound to see a hunched-over figure sitting before Clara's stone grave in the moonlight, sitting and doing nothing more. Sam hesitated, pausing as she decided whether to stay or leave. As she began to make up her mind, the figure called to her.
Cal. Sam had only known Clara's cousin for six months – introduced by the late girl in the spring, months before the Reaping. The guarded boy had quickly become one of Sam's friends after she'd returned from the Capitol with both in mourning. While Sam thought from time to time that Cal thought of her as more than a friend, she had her heart set elsewhere. Clay Lamar, her only remaining friend from her life before the Hunger Games, still held her desire and sometimes-requited affection. Sam wasn't the type to play the games of dating and passion, but what few dreams of the future she still held led to a tomorrow where she and Clay took on the unknown road together.
It was an up-and-down road, too.
Still, Cal had provided her an emotional outlet. Clay's stony response to Clara's death had pushed apart he and Sam for a month before the two got over their feelings, and Cal's comfort with listening to her express her emotions had provided a basin in the meantime.
"I just thought," Sam shrugged, arms askew. "I dunno. Why are you…up?"
"Couldn't stay inside," Cal turned his boyish face towards her, his close-cropped blonde hair illuminated like a field of wheat in the moonlight. "Why're you up?"
Sam stumped for the right words. "I…um, guess I needed to talk to somebody too."
He laughed; a soft, dismissive thing, indicating for her to sit next to him. "We're just two peas in a pod, I guess."
Sam smiled. She preferred it when he was doing the listening, not talking: Cal was abjectly terrible with words. She needed him not as an adviser or soundboard, but as an emotional well.
"Do you think she can see us?" Sam changed the subject quickly, pulling her knees to her chest and nodding towards Clara's grave.
The headstone was born of simple granite, carved quickly and easily by Bowie family ranch hands for extra pay. A simple epitaph rang out from a carved inscription, saying all that needed to be said:
TRIBUTE, FRIEND, DAUGHTER
NOTHING SO SACRED AS A FIGHTER
NOTHING SO LOYAL AS LOVE
"Why not?" Cal gave her a half-hearted smile, his brown eyes partly obscured by sunken eyelids. "She's in a better place now."
"Is she?" Sam asked, her eyes not leaving the headstone. "I dunno. I guess I've spent too much time thinking about death and not enough about what happens afterwards. Does it even matter?"
Cal shrugged. "I'd like to think so. We spend so much time here fighting over everything from food to entertainment…why wouldn't there be a place that's worth fighting for in the end?"
Sam let the question sink in momentarily before responding. "I don't know if I believe in happy endings like that anymore."
"You can't let this-" Cal nodded towards the headstone. "Take away what you believe in, Sam. Clara believed in something more. She believed in the people around her and she believed in you. If you let her dying pull you apart, only then are you letting her down."
"Just keep your head up," he put an arm around her shoulder. "There's still some good in the world, even if it doesn't look like it now."
She let his arm rest for a second before shrugging it off and shuffling a few inches away from him. Sam didn't want his words, didn't want his embrace; she simply needed someone who could listen and knew Clara just as well as she did. Nothing more.
"I should probably go," Sam motioned awkwardly, getting to her feet and gathering her wits. "It's gonna be morning soon and-"
She froze. Her eyes had caught the slightest bit of movement in the dark of the night; a flicker of shadow where none should have been. She turned towards Cal suddenly, grabbing his arm and pulling the bewildered boy to his feet.
"C'mon, we have to go," she urged him, changing direction quickly. "I'll walk with you back to your house, okay?"
"Sam, what…" he started.
The two had taken nary a step before a dark, gravelly voice called out behind them.
"Am I…interrupting something special Miss Parker? Oh, of course not. Your friend's not Mister Lamar."
She turned around slowly, knowing all too well who had called. Crouched in a gargoyle-like stance beside Clara's grave hunched a huge, well-muscled man wearing denim overalls and a dirty white shirt. He stared up at the two teenagers with blazing black eyes, as dark as coal and wielding a stare that knifed through the night like a scalpel. His bony face wore a misshapen smile that spoke only of ill intentions and foul play.