Time Unknown, The Church.
The blood was gone when he woke up.
Kano's entire body ached. He felt as if he'd been drained of energy entirely and left to rot, every joint and ligament in his body protesting his movements. His mind was fuzzy, a cacophony of noises ringing in his head despite the stark silence surrounding him.
The room spun around him as he tried to gain his bearings. His head pounded relentlessly as he tried to make his way to his feet, groaning and clutching his side. As he glanced down, he realized that his jacket was soaked through with blood. Kano touched it, dazed, and then glanced over at the empty spot on the wall.
The pieces were starting to come together again, but it was all too fast for Kano to keep up. A fight, the stained glass, a knife, sharp pain, a snap, blinding rage, the thrill of a fight, Shai.
Oh god, what had he done?
A high, sharp laugh tore out of him, echoing in the church. Kano ran a hand through his hair, a flash of pain running through him at the slightest movement. He couldn't imagine the sight he was now, bloodsoaked and alone in a church that was looking more and more demented by the moment. He could feel eyes on him from all around, like he was being seen, but when he looked, there was nothing but the stained glass windows looming over him.
Gingerly, he managed to lower himself back into one of the pews, hissing as his wound throbbed. His hands trembled as he untied his makeshift bandaging from… when was it, anyway? Without any real way to tell time, he was adrift, lost in his own mind.
He gritted his teeth as he pulled supplies out of his backpack, any slight movement sending pain through his body. Kano tried to remember if he'd woken up at all since their fight, but it was all a giant blank spot. Maybe he'd been in and out of consciousness, but there was no way to tell.
You can't do it alone.
Kano's hands stilled as he tried to tend to his wound. He tried to ignore the voice, the remnant of someone that was supposed to be gone, but it was as if something had taken root in Kano and refused to leave.
"Leave me alone," he muttered, attempting to go back to what he was doing. He hoped the pain would sufficiently distract him, but no matter how hard he tried, it wouldn't stop.
You're just another killer in the Games. Not a hero at all.
He squeezed his eyes shut. "Get out of my head."
Kano could almost sense Shai's presence beside him, lips tilted up into a cruel smirk. Kano couldn't tell whose fault this was anymore. His fault for dealing the final blow? Shai's fault for antagonizing him?
He wasn't sure about a lot of things anymore.
Too weak to go on without me, too much of a coward to return. What do you have anymore, Kano?
"Not weak," he insisted, starting to wrap bandages around his stomach. Once he was satisfied with his work, he tried to get to his feet again, but the world started swaying around him once more. Kano gripped the back of a pew tightly, like it was a lifeline to reality.
He wondered what everyone back home thought of him now.
A cool wind met the side of his neck, like someone was moving past him, and Kano whirled around only to see that he was still alone, alone, alone. He realized he was panting quietly, short gasps falling from his mouth. He couldn't tell if it was from the simple exertion of moving or if he was just finally, finally losing it.
"I won't be like you," Kano proclaimed to the empty room, voice cracking. "Or Lyre or Caspian or anyone! I'll show you all!"
Only his own echoing voice answered him, and he winced as it rang dully in his ears. Even though Kano knew he was more than capable of doing things on his own, his sudden loneliness made his skin crawl. But he knew what he had to do. He'd do what he always came here to do.
Nothing would stop him.
But the damage was already done. Kano felt himself splintering, fracturing into a million pieces that swept out into the vast ocean faster than he could even dream of collecting them. He wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to fix this. But he had to try. He had to. He still had to show them all.
"I'll show you all," he whispered again, grabbing his backpack off of the pew. It was turning into a mantra in the back of his head, a constant drone that allowed him to tune out everything else.
Somehow, he'd find a way. He hadn't ruined everything. He just had to figure out how to put the pieces back together.
As he stepped out into the aisle, he nearly stumbled over a single knife, the blade stained red with blood. His breath caught in his chest as he surveyed the room again, almost certain that the knife wasn't there before. Or was it? He couldn't remember anymore.
Still, he summoned the energy to grab it, biting back a pained noise as his side protested. Kano turned it over in his hand, unable to determine if it was the knife he'd been stabbed with or if it was the one- the one-
Shaking his head, he wiped the blade on his pants, some of the blood flaking off. It didn't matter. He'd need at least some kind of weapon now, and this would do.
Not enough, the back of his mind whispered.
"Shut up," he told it.
He staggered towards the door, knife clenched tightly in his hand. Kano wanted to escape this place before it ruined him forever. Surely there was something else around.
There had to be something he could do.
3:25 am, Second Floor of The West Wing.
Jack was tired. But sleep didn't come as easy as it used to.
Deep down, part of her believed that there was something alive in this Arena, something that was watching her every move. She wouldn't dare mention that to Thay, though; Jack had no interest in giving him any more information. She was tired of his empty stares, of the way he hadn't cared when Eleanor was struck down so easily.
God, she missed Norrie.
It was a strange thought to admit to herself in the dead of the night, and it held true even when she was wandering around in the day. Jack had never had a friend before, and while she wasn't quite sure that Norrie had been a true friend - this was the Games, after all - she could feel a certain fondness that lingered even after Norrie was gone. It was a similar feeling to the raw, festering wound that was her relationship with her father. But all Norrie's wound did was ache quietly, keeping Jack awake even when she tried to succumb to the sleep she so desperately longed for.
Even now, bitterness clogged her throat as she stared at Thay's back, fighting down whatever semblance of emotion was trying to claw its way out of her. They'd gone through the very basic gestures of two allies yesterday, from wandering this wing to their usual sparring routine, though Jack was largely fueled by her newfound disdain for him.
She'd almost managed to win once. Jack figured that meant now was as good a time as any to head out on her own. If anything, she didn't know that she could stand to be around Thay any longer. His mere presence grated on her, reminding her that he could've done something to save Norrie. He could've let her do something.
He didn't even let her try.
For Jack, everything was about her ability to try, to work, to fail, to succeed, to do it all herself. And he'd held her back, prevented her from that very first step. If he'd done that now, then what about later? What about when the stakes were higher?
There was something unassuming about Thay, which was why Jack had agreed to the alliance in the first place. If she was going to ally with anyone, she preferred working with someone who would stay under the radar, and she figured they'd had some kind of mutual understanding when it came to Norrie. But she'd ended up being wrong on both counts; Thay had somehow attracted the attention of the Careers, which Jack had wanted to avoid at all costs, and he'd let Norrie die.
Perhaps he was cursed. There was something off about him - that much was made clear by their brief conversation before Norrie had gotten killed. She couldn't let him bring her down as well.
Jack wouldn't be wrong again.
Carefully, Jack got to her feet, collecting her supplies as silently as she could. She was tired of sitting around, tired of just letting things happen around her. Jack wanted to go home, and she was going to take whatever steps she could to do so.
Every movement rang too loudly in her ears. Part of her already knew that Thay was likely awake, but she couldn't find it in herself to care. She just wanted to avoid a fight at all costs.
But as she put on her backpack, Jack hesitated, glancing down at Thay. It wasn't that she was beginning to regret her idea to leave - certainly not, she'd been making preparations for this - but as she was about to break off anyway, perhaps it was a good idea to take out one of the biggest threats in the Games.
With a soft sigh, she shook her head. Jack wouldn't do that to anyone, not even Thay. She knew that the longer she lived, the more likely it was that she'd be in the situation where she had to take a life, but Jack wanted to avoid that for as long as she could. Steeling her nerves, Jack took a step away from where they'd camped for the night, only for a quiet voice to break the silence.
"You need to learn not to hesitate."
Jack stopped in her tracks, refusing to turn around and face him. "I don't care," she said, and she found that she meant it.
There was a quiet rustling, as if he was turning over, but Jack kept her back to him. "You could've killed me at any point over this past day. Why didn't you?"
"I don't intend to pick any fights I don't think I'll win," she said lightly. "And besides, not everyone thinks the way you do."
"What way do I think?"
Her lips pursed, and Jack just sighed. "Figure it out yourself. You shouldn't need me to spell it out for you."
There was a beat of silence before he said, "I wish you luck."
Jack clenched her hands into fists. "I don't want your luck."
"There's nothing wrong with just accepting it. It's not like-"
"I don't need to hear this from you," Jack said, trying to keep her voice level. "Just… I hope I don't run into you again."
Another shuffle. "Take care."
Jack didn't have it in her to respond; she was only grateful that They didn't try to bring Norrie up to her. Instead, she just rolled her shoulders back and walked away.
She was back on her own, just as she'd always been, yet somehow it didn't feel right. Now that she'd had even a taste of what a real friend was like, there was an empty space that Jack couldn't seem to fill. But she couldn't let herself linger, not now.
There was an entire Arena waiting for her, and Jack was ready to face it on her own terms.
8:22 am, Bottom Floor of The North Wing.
If someone had told Merix just last year that the happiest days of his life would come in the middle of the Hunger Games, he never would've believed them.
Well, maybe not all of them were in the middle of the Games. Some of them were beforehand. But the sentiment stayed the same regardless: Merix was having the time of his life.
That being said, he was still constantly on edge due to the ever-present threat of death. Sometimes, when he got too stuck in his head, he'd get jumpy and imagine things moving around him only to realize that was silly. The house couldn't be alive. His allies hadn't magically been replaced by those clones from day four. Other tributes weren't lurking around every corner.
It was fascinating, how every little noise could be amplified in his mind. Merix was starting to grow embarrassed by it, even though Lilith and Nash didn't even seem to notice. Or maybe they did. Merix was too focused on trying not to freak out to pay attention to what they were doing.
Still, he liked to think that their adventure in the kitchen yesterday had helped everyone relax. They'd made a mess of things along the way, but it had felt like they weren't in the Arena at all, even if it was only for a few hours. Merix was still riding that high, but he could tell that his allies were closing themselves off once more. Not that he could say anything, as he was in the same position. Maybe that's why this Arena was crafted the way it was - it led to overthinking, to drawing closer and closer to the edge of sanity until all you needed was the slightest shove off the edge.
Merix so desperately missed the days where his only worries were the future.
"Do you think we should've broken into that room?" Lilith asked, for once being the one to break the silence.
"Huh?" Nash asked, blinking down at her.
"The room. With the…" she waved her hand vaguely, "clones. Should we have done that?"
Nash offered a shrug. "I don't see why not. Nothing too bad came out of it."
There was a beat of silence as they all remembered the distinct discomfort of hearing cruel words come from the form of a friend before Lilith said, "But there were more of those things in there. If we opened the door, could they get out now?"
Merix thought back to the room, trying to remember if there was a way for the clones to get out other than the door they came through, but he was drawing a blank. "Maybe so," he said slowly, "but we haven't had any issues yet."
"Yet is the key word," Lilith insisted, frowning to herself. Something Merix had noticed about her was that she worried far more than one would assume just by looking at her, though her worrying usually manifested in her pressing for answers in a conversation instead of saying it directly.
"Maybe they caused trouble for other people," Merix suggested, the words feeling strangely bitter in his mouth. He didn't like thinking that other people had gotten hurt because of something they'd done.
"That was the day Five and One died," Lilith mused, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
She seemed to realize her mistake at the same moment Merix did, as both of them slowly turned to look up at Nash. Even though they hadn't been allies, Nash had spoken of his district partner with a certain amount of fondness. There were likely still some hurt feelings in there somewhere.
"It's fine!" Nash said, forcing a grin. "Don't worry about me, Lily bean! I just hope it wasn't too rough on Norrie. She was a bit fragile, something about her job back home. It really is a shame, though. I…" he trailed off, sighing and hanging his head.
"It'll be okay as long as we're still together, right?" Merix tried when Lilith didn't seem to be speaking up.
"Yeah!" Nash said after a beat. "Yeah, that's right."
Merix shrank into himself, wrapping his arms around his stomach as they kept walking. He couldn't help but feel like he said something wrong, but he didn't know what else to do. That's what happened when you'd never really had friends, he supposed. It was hard to comfort them.
For a while, Merix had thought he'd been getting better at the whole friendship thing. But maybe he'd just been wrong the whole time, and he'd just been leeching off of Nash and Lilith. They helped him so much, and he could barely offer a few supporting words when they needed it. Did they need him at all? Had they ever?
Was Merix as useless as he always had been?
"I'm going to look in this room," Lilith said, cutting into Merix's thoughts. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and glanced at the door she was gesturing to. "Want to come with, Merix?"
"No, I'll, uh, go in there," Merix said quickly, pointing to the first door his eyes landed on.
Lilith just shrugged. "Whatever you want."
She brandished her crossbow before heading into the room, and Merix waited a beat before relaxing when he didn't hear any noises. He didn't want to hang around any longer, crossing the hall to open the door he'd pointed to.
Immediately, his brow wrinkled as he peered in and surveyed the room. It was like some sort of computer lab; the room was filled with desks, and computers with darkened screens lined the walls. But instead of being excited, Merix felt the pit of his stomach twist, though he wasn't sure why. He strolled over to one and tried to turn on the display, but it stayed blank. Merix managed a sigh and turned to look around the room again. He couldn't even do this for his friends.
"You seem troubled," Nash said lightly, startling Merix as he spoke, as he hadn't heard Nash come in behind him.
"I'm okay," Merix insisted. "Just looking around."
"You usually like going with Lilith," Nash pointed out, moving farther into the room. "And you didn't even wait for me."
Merix bit his lip. "It would be more efficient if we all scoped out different rooms."
"True, but it's more fun if you go with a friend."
There was a brief moment of silence, and Merix sighed to himself. He knew there was no getting out of this one, but he did hope that Nash wouldn't think less of him.
"I wanted to go on my own to show I'm brave like you guys," Merix finally muttered, kicking at the edge of a desk and wincing when his toes stung.
"Brave like us?" Nash blinked in surprise. "You don't have to show us that! You're your own kind of brave. Besides, it's not like we aren't scared all the time too."
A frown tugged at Merix's mouth. "But you don't look scared."
Nash laughed softly. "That's the thing about being brave. You do it despite that fear. It's not like fear will go away just because you want it to."
"I feel like I'm scared of a lot of different things though," Merix insisted. "I'm scared that one of us will die or that we'll get attacked by someone or that someone's watching us right now."
Humming to himself, Nash slowly nodded. "I'm terrified of ghosts, you know."
"Ghosts?" Merix repeated, staring at him in confusion.
"Yep! They scare the shit outta me. And this place is kinda like a haunted mansion, right?"
"I guess so," Merix agreed, conceding to his point. "Maybe that's why I feel like we're being watched all the time."
"Well, the cameras broadcasting us probably don't help," Nash said lightly. "But it's also the ghosts!"
"I'm not sure that ghosts are real," Merix said slowly, growing confused as to where this conversation was headed.
"My point is that even though I'm scared of ghosts, I'd still fight one if it was for you guys!" Nash announced proudly, puffing out his chest.
Merix just frowned at him. "I don't think you could fight a ghost considering they're supposed to be intangible and all."
Nash sighed and rolled his eyes. "Come on, just let me look cool! And besides, you missed the actual point. I'm trying to say I'd do things I'm scared of if it was for you guys."
"Oh," Merix said softly. "Really?"
"Of course!" Nash shot him a grin. "It's because I care about you two. And I'll always be there for you. It's a promise."
Giving Nash a worried look, Merix said, "Are you sure you should be promising something like that?"
Shrugging, Nash shoved his hands in his pockets and started strolling towards the door. "Why not? It's something I don't intend to break no matter what."
Merix weighed that in his mind before nodding and trailing after Nash. "Where are we going now?"
"Wherever," Nash said casually. "Doesn't matter much where I am as long as I'm with my friends."
Merix thought that was a fair response. He did always feel better after talking to Nash, anyway. It made him feel like he was capable of doing more, of being more, and he was grateful for that.
He just hoped that nothing would change anytime soon.
9:13 am, The Cornucopia.
Phaedra didn't know what to do about the return of Kano.
Granted, she wouldn't let his reappearance stop any of her plans. If anything, it cemented the idea in her mind that they had to leave today. Nothing good could possibly come out of Kano coming back, even if all he'd done was make a bold accusation and pass out. Even now, he still hadn't fully awoken, but Phaedra didn't trust it. She didn't trust him. At the very least, he looked too out of it to be much of a real threat - not that Phaedra would've considered him one in the first place.
Strategically speaking, she could argue that his return would mean that her and Justus might get away without much issue. Kano could serve as a distraction at best, a detriment at worst. Phaedra wanted to get away without much of a fight, so she'd begun sneaking supplies out in the middle of the chaos from last night. They were stored in a room a hallway over - plenty far away, but easy enough to get to when they needed it.
"Any updates?" Phaedra whispered, sliding in place next to Justus by the Cornucopia.
"He's awake," Justus said lightly. "Got into some kind of argument with Makani and she left a few minutes ago. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but Alila's worked up about it. I think she tried to help with his wound and he told her off."
Phaedra frowned. "Why would he do that? There was a lot of blood; he looked rough."
All Justus could offer was a shrug. "No idea. Not our problem soon."
"Fair point," she conceded. "I think we have everything almost in place, so we should be ready to go in a few minutes."
"The sooner the better," Justus muttered. "Something about this doesn't feel right."
"I agree. I think he's lying, certainly, but I don't want to press. A clean break, right?"
Phaedra gave a firm nod. "Right."
A clean break. Phaedra so desperately wanted a fresh slate after Alila had singlehandedly thrown the pack into chaos into a mere hour into the Games. She could've sworn she remembered Justus mentioning that the whole debacle could be traced back to Shai, but it really didn't matter whose fault it was in the end. The pack had been splintered from the moment the Games started, and Phaedra wanted the chance to pick up the pieces again.
Or at least, to pick up the pieces she wanted to.
If anything, she was growing increasingly on edge due to the limits that came from being in the Pack. All Phaedra did was try, and yet her destiny gnawed at her, telling her that she wasn't doing enough. There had to be something bigger for her out in the Arena, and the least she could do was find out what it was.
Glancing around at the remnants of the pack, she realized that Justus was right. Makani wasn't anywhere to be seen, leaving Alila to go back and forth between pacing in the far corner and shoving stuff into bags. Phaedra hoped for their sake that the two girls were about to head out as well. Kano, on the other hand, had managed to heave himself into a sitting position, hunched over something in the Cornucopia. If it was any other day, she'd try to figure out what he was doing, but all Phaedra wanted to do right now was leave.
Still, it was almost hard to let go. Phaedra was unsure about the contents of most of the Arena, and she had to wonder what secrets were still out there. Even if they considered themselves to be well prepared, surely they couldn't be ready for every possible outcome.
"Almost ready?" she asked, unable to hold it in any longer.
Justus nodded. "If you head out first, I can follow in a few. I'll meet you outside where we left our stuff."
Though it was part of their plan, Phaedra didn't want to part with him even for a moment. Their goal was to leave separately, to stagger their exits just enough to make sure that no one would try and tail them.
She just hoped it would work.
"I love you," she whispered, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek.
"Love you too. I'll see you in a few."
They had been sitting close enough to the door that it didn't take much for Phaedra to slip out with nothing but her sword and shield by her side. She didn't offer a final look over her shoulder, too weary from all the things that had gone wrong to mourn what they once had as an alliance. All she ever needed was Justus anyway.
Her footsteps were quiet as she headed down the hall, turning the corner and immediately ducking into the room where she'd left supplies. They often had to make runs to the bathroom, so her leaving frequently wasn't terribly suspicious. At least, she didn't think it was. Phaedra was doing a lot of hoping these days, and she was ready for something to just go right.
She breathed out softly as she saw that the bags she'd stored were still there; at least the first part of her plan had worked. Phaedra started sorting through them again, taking inventory once more as if that would soothe her nerves. She'd managed to pack away food and medicinal supplies into four bags, two for each of them, and they would obviously bring their own weapons with them when they ran off. Phadera figured that would be enough to get them to the end, or at least close to it. With only half the tributes left, surely the Gamemakers wouldn't drag things out too much longer.
When she was on her own, the minutes seemed to crawl by. All she could do was pace just outside the doorway waiting for him to arrive. She felt like it couldn't have been that long, but the anxiety was making her pulse race at every slight noise. Phaedra felt about ready to go back to the Cornucopia to check for herself how things were doing when she finally heard a familiar voice.
"Sorry for the holdup!"
Phaedra turned to see Justus jogging towards her, letting out a silent sigh of relief. "I was worried you weren't coming," she teased.
"Don't be ridiculous," Justus said with a laugh. "I'd never leave you hanging."
"I know that," Phaedra said, nudging him. "No one's tailing us, right?"
"Hm?" Justus muttered before shaking his head. "Not from what I could tell."
"That's good, at least," Phaedra said, her shoulders slumping. "I'd hate to make a big deal out of this."
Justus laughed softly. "Well, we're already ditching our allies, and it's not like you couldn't take them in a fight anyway."
"Fair point," she said, handing him two of the backpacks from inside the room. "We're almost free of them."
"Thank god," he joked, giving her a smile that she returned. "We're far more capable on our own, aren't we?"
Phaedra hummed and started down the hallway. "Shai was far too capable for his own good, Kano too volatile, Makani too sensitive, and Alila… who knows if she'll be able to pick herself back up."
"A shame," Justus said with a sigh. "She would've made a wonderful opponent."
Giving him a strange look, Phaedra had to agree. "I guess you're right. Her fighting style was particularly lovely."
"It's a shame she almost went down to Kano of all people."
Phaedra stopped where she was. "I think that just proves that you can't underestimate people. He's more capable than we wanted to give him credit for, that's all."
"Maybe she'll get her chance to prove herself this time," Justus said offhandedly, moving on without her.
"This time?" Phaedra asked, frowning at his back. "Was something happening back at the Cornucopia?"
"Not yet," Justus said lightly… too lightly. Phaedra's skin tingled, but she couldn't place why. "But I expect it to happen soon."
"Soon?" Phaedra jogged a few steps to catch up with him, placing a hand on his arm to stop him as well. "Justus, what are you going on about?"
"This feels familiar," Justus said instead, staring at something on the wall behind her. When she looked up at him, an unsettling grin was plastered on his face.
Phaedra slowly took a step back, scanning the hall. "I… I don't know what you're talking about. Are you feeling okay?"
"I feel great," he said lightly. "But you look rather unwell."
Somehow during their conversation, they'd wound up in an unfamiliar hallway, lined with closed doors and a single gilded mirror. Phaedra felt her danger sense prickle, but she couldn't tell what exactly was wrong.
Think, Phaedra, think.
"Maybe we should stop for now," Phaedra said slowly, grip tightening on her spear. "Something doesn't feel right."
Justus chuckled and ran a hand through his hair. As he did so, Phaedra couldn't shake the feeling that something was different about him. She scanned him carefully, Phaedra's eyes widening as they landed on his finger.
His ring was missing.
"You're not Justus," she breathed.
That was all it took for his body language to change entirely, as if he was morphing into someone else in front of her eyes. Phaedra shrank back, brandishing her spear as he laughed and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Unfortunately not. Your Justus is still back at the Cornucopia. He'll be… held up for a few more minutes."
"Is he okay?" Her question came rushing out before she could stop it.
Whoever was in front of her tilted his head to the side, almost as if he was receiving data from somewhere. "For now. We couldn't manage to get Alila out of the way, so he has some help. Maybe he'll be fine."
"We?" Phaedra asked, taking an instinctive step back as he pressed closer. Normally, she'd attack without another thought, but with Justus possibly in harm's way, she couldn't bring herself to take the chance.
"Oh, don't worry about it," the thing in front of her said, waving a hand. "It's not like Alila has lost to Kano before… oh wait."
None of it was making any sense, as if Phaedra was being left out of some sort of cruel inside joke. But at the very least, she was tired of listening to his tirade. Phaedra lunged towards him, hoping to at least knock him back so she could make it to the Cornucopia. But she was stopped by a steely hand wrapped around her bicep. Phaedra tugged against it before turning her head just enough to see-
Phaedra froze as she found herself staring at her own face, teeth bared into a smile. Somehow, her own reflection had come through the mirror and grabbed her. Now she was stuck without answers, without a plan, and without Justus.
Oh god, Justus.
But she didn't have time to worry about him, not as her reflection dragged her closer and whispered, "We've been waiting for you, Phaedra."
And without getting the chance to respond, Phaedra felt herself fall backwards into an inky blackness that swallowed her whole.
"We're looking forward to exploring that destiny of yours."
9:14 am, The North Wing.
Imperia was sick and tired of following Crush around like she was the obedient little pet. Crush's desperation was pathetic enough, but she had to be a complete moron to let Imperia take over as much of the plan as she had.
Not that she'd had much of a choice. Crush wasn't exactly any good for stealth missions, so Imperia had to be the one to get close. In theory, she was supposed to draw Makani out of the Cornucopia and lead her down to where Crush was waiting. But that was little more than a half-baked idea. Instead, Imperia was going to try winging it, which was close enough to its own kind of experiment to send a thrill through her veins. She didn't tend to stray from her plans - and certainly not so recklessly - even if they were only partly formed, but Imperia was tired of nothing getting done.
Imperia Bachmann was not made for useless endeavors.
That being said, she was still trying to determine exactly what she was going to do. Trying to escape now would be too easy - and besides, she was within Crush's eyesight, even if she couldn't see the other girl. Crush was entirely too overprotective of Makani for her own good, and Imperia could hardly guess why. Based on what she knew about Makani Allard, the girl was almost infuriatingly timid compared to her fellow Careers. It didn't make any sense to Imperia. From what she knew of past Games, the Careers were always the true barbarians. They chose to volunteer for this, chose to train for it, and at the end of the day they were nothing more than heartless killers.
Makani, on the other hand, was not a heartless killer. In fact, to Imperia's knowledge, she hadn't killed anyone. Imperia had been silently keeping tabs on everyone since the bloodbath, and now that the tributes were halved, she could rather safely assume that the girl still hadn't managed to do what she'd volunteered for. The only deaths Imperia couldn't at least guess at were Shai's and whoever had died after the bloodbath. Strangely enough, she still couldn't see either of those being the fault of Makani.
It almost infuriated her. Why was Imperia Bachmann supposed to get all cozy with the degenerates of the Arena against her will when Makani had not even put a shred of effort towards doing anything that she'd volunteered for? From what Imperia could tell, Makani had everything, and yet she'd thrown it all away - and for what? Imperia couldn't fathom why anyone would do something that moronic. And that's what she was counting on.
Drawing a knife out of her bag, Imperia let out a soft sigh. The things she'd do for a good experiment.
She dug the tip in right at her hairline, wincing at the sting of pain before dragging it over a couple inches. Even the shallowest of cuts could cause head wounds to bleed a fair amount, and all Imperia needed right now was blood on her hands. Anything to make her look more like someone injured and knocked down.
Theory: Makani Allard's impossibly soft heart would lure her into a false sense of security, allowing Imperia to draw close.
Was it a gamble? Perhaps, but Imperia didn't do anything without some kind of risk on her part. Part of the original fun with Diana was the allure of dancing on the edge, of having to rely on her plan wholeheartedly to make sure it all went off without a hitch. And here in the Games, there was no way to get to the top without learning how to swim with the rabble and make it out alive.
The blood was pouring down her forehead now, so Imperia wiped some of it off and smeared it on portions of her pristine white jacket. Since she'd largely avoided picking fights up until now, she looked no worse for wear. Tragic that she had to muss up her outfit for the sake of an imbecile. As if she'd thought her into existence, a door creaked open down the hall. Imperia rolled her eyes. She waved a hand at where she knew Crush was hiding, trying to get her to stay back.
Imperia knew what she was doing.
Once she found herself to be sufficiently bloodied up, she tucked the final piece of her plan behind her and slumped against the wall. For something she'd come up with rather quickly, she figured it had a good chance of working. She waited a moment, breathing slowly, before she finally heard the faint sound of footsteps from down the hall.
"Stupid Kano," Makani muttered, the ebbing and flowing of her voice indicating that she was pacing . "He needs to mind his business. It's not like the friend he made was a wise decision. Look how that turned out for him!"
It sounded like she was having a conversation with herself, one that had been going on for a while. Imperia listened intently, tilting her head to the side. It was really a shame she wouldn't be able to get more information out of Makani - the current state of the Careers fascinated her. Imperia hoped they were falling apart, but she wouldn't hold her breath just yet.
Imperia heard a sigh, and then Makani said, "I should get back… I might worry Alila."
Knowing that she was running low on time, Imperia let out a low groan, keeping it just loud enough to be heard but not so loud that it was suspicious. She planted one hand on her forehead, making sure to smear the blood in her hair so it looked more like she'd gotten an injury. At the very least, even a fool knew that head wounds were dangerous.
"Hello?" was Makani's soft reply, her footsteps stopping. "Is someone there?"
As if spurred on by a reply, Imperia made a louder noise, fluttering her eyelashes as if she could barely keep her eyes open.
Like a frightened deer lulled into a false sense of security, Makani rounded the corner with wide eyes, lacking even a weapon to fend off any attackers. Imperia almost rolled her eyes at how truly stupid the girl had to be - and this was who Crush was obsessed with? Pathetic.
Makani's right hand fluttered at her side as she surveyed Imperia, involuntarily reaching her left hand into her pocket. She looked worried, as if Imperia was someone she was supposed to care about. Makani took a breath, then slowly brought her left hand out of her pocket, fist clenched around something.
"Are you… okay?"
It took everything in Imperia not to bite out an obviously fucking not, but she settled for shaking her head, wincing, and lifting a limp hand to gesture at her backpack that she'd last minute tossed a couple feet away. Makani, to her minimal credit, seemed to get the picture.
"I, um, can't really help," she said lightly, dragging the backpack over to Imperia. She hesitated for a moment, surveyed Imperia's current state, and then dropped to her knees to root through the backpack. "But I'm sure there's something in here that could at least staunch the bleeding."
Knowing that she had a limited amount of time to make this work, Imperia was ready to go fully off script, hand clenching around the rock she'd stolen from Crush's rather unsettling underground lair. In a swift movement, she lurched into a proper sitting position and swung at Makani's head, hoping to daze her and knock her off balance at best.
Makani didn't even see it coming, letting out a startled yelp as she crumpled to her side, one hand going to cradle her head while the other dropped whatever object she was holding in favor of reaching for something at her side. Imperia didn't hesitate before stomping on her hand with all her strength, hearing a soft crunch as her foot caused one of the bones in Makani's hand to give. It was only after she heard the noise that Imperia realized that Makani had merely been trying to push herself off the ground.
"At least you took care of the weaponless part for me," Imperia muttered, scooping the object off the ground. "There, I did my part."
Without waiting for a response from Makani - as if she'd even get one - Imperia snatched her backpack up and tore off down the hall, aiming for one of the mirrors Crush had pointed out earlier. It was a real shame that Makani hadn't brought any supplies with her - Imperia had been hoping to take those too.
She shot one last look over her shoulder to see that a practically murderous Crush had appeared, but Imperia's other theory had proven to be true as well. If anything happened to Makani, even if it wasn't life threatening, Crush would drop everything to help her out. That being said, she didn't stop until she'd managed to make it down to the second floor. She wanted to put as much distance between herself and Crush as she could.
Panting quietly, Imperia leaned up against the wall and looked down to see what she'd taken from Makani. There wasn't any particular reason for the theft beyond the vague suspicion that it could be something important, but the shell she was holding had nothing special about it. She turned it over in her hand, trying to see if there was any kind of inscription, anything that could tell her more about Makani's life before the Games, but she found nothing at all.
With a sigh, Imperia deposited the shell on a table before making her way to the next room. She had no use for something that couldn't benefit her.
While this whole expedition may have been a largely futile endeavor, Imperia had learned enough that she couldn't discount the entire experience; she could at least rest easy knowing that she had a productive day. If anything, she knew that getting Makani with Crush was merely the catalyst for whatever came later between them.
She just hoped she'd get the chance to see it all come to fruition.
9:17 am, The Cornucopia.
Alila didn't know what to do about the return of Kano.
Granted, she hadn't known what to do with herself since her fight with Kano on day one. She'd spent days spiralling, sinking into the failure of her own making, and Alila still hadn't managed to claw her way free. In her mind, the Games had always been straightforward: fight, kill, win. It was a simple three step plan in which Alila expected to stick with her allies until they were of no use to her, get out when the time was right, and spend the rest of the Games fighting her way to the top. Nowhere in that formula did she have "sit around for five days and contemplate the meaning of life," but that's what happened anyway.
If Alila had known she'd be subjected to this before she volunteered, she might've reconsidered. Not the volunteering part, certainly; vying for the chance at victory was always in the cards for her. Becoming a Victor was the highest honor anyone could achieve, and Alila wanted that more than anything.
(Which was only mostly true. Since getting to the Arena, Alila had discovered that her greatest wish was simply to get back home. After all, Thee was waiting for her, and she didn't want to let him down. She'd never really missed anyone before, so the lingering ache in her heart was more than enough of a driving factor to get back to him.)
(Maybe she would have altered her actions in the bloodbath if she'd known they would make it that much harder to get back to him.)
But perhaps that's what frustrated Alila the most. In her mind, she had everything that she needed to make this all work out for her, and yet everything had gone wrong so quickly. She couldn't pull herself back up, no matter how hard she tried.
And she was getting real sick and tired of not seeing any results.
Her fingers nimbly tied off another braid as she paced. All she could do was keep moving, keep thinking. There had to be an answer somewhere, something that she was just missing.
For the first time in a while, Alila looked up and surveyed the Cornucopia. Barely visible on the other side of the horn was Justus, who appeared to be rifling through a bag. His movements were hurried, as if he was trying to do so quickly. She expected to see Phaedra with him, but she was nowhere to be found.
Then again, the Fours were nowhere to be found either.
Alila took a deep breath, running the events of the morning through her head. She knew Makani had left several minutes ago after a talk with Kano and had insisted that she wanted to be alone for a few, so that was one ally accounted for. But she had no idea where Phaedra or, more importantly, Kano had gone. Alila cursed softly. If only she'd been paying more attention.
Then there were Phaedra and Justus. The two had been growing increasingly secretive since the day before, so their hushed conversations that spanned the night weren't much of a surprise. For all she knew, Phaedra's absence signaled the beginning of the end of the pack, and frankly, that wasn't an outcome she was mad about. She was still irritated by the house arrest they'd forced her under, so if they were planning to get out of her way, then good riddance.
But there was still something off about the whole situation- of course. It came back to Kano. Alila thought back to Kano's accusation, then the way he'd been in and out of consciousness since. What was the point in returning, causing chaos, and then disappearing before anything could truly be done about it?
And if he was injured, how far could he really have gotten?
Her mouth twisted. Alila flicked her braid over her shoulder and snatched her fans off the ground. At the very least, she could try asking Justus about Kano, as she liked him a fair amount more than Phaedra. She wasn't in the mood for a fight anyway, and she figured that, outside of Makani, Justus was least likely to try and pick a fight.
Flipping her fans over in her hands and relishing in the comfort they brought her, Alila rounded the corner and realized that somewhere along the way, she had made an incorrect deduction. Not only was Kano still here, but he was moving around as if completely uninjured. The Cornucopia had blocked her view of him, but now she could see him and the knife that gleamed in his hand, hovering a few steps on the other side of Justus.
For a beat, words caught in her throat. This could be her chance to cripple her biggest adversary, to run after Makani so they could leave together, to finally set things back on track. She could leave now and never look back.
But for the second time since the Games started, Alila felt her feet move on their own. She wasn't sure why she entertained the thought of leaving in the first place.
Alila Perwane always faced things head on.
Justus glanced up as she approached, eyes wide as he saw the weapons clutched in her hands. He raised one arm in a feeble attempt to defend himself, but Alila just slowed down for a breath to kick him onto his side and out of her way. She planted her feet and met Kano's knife with the blade of her fan, expertly twisting until the weapon flew out of his hand and clattered to the floor several feet away. He appeared unperturbed as she planted her foot in the middle of his chest and shoved back as hard as she could, sending him to the floor.
Alila didn't want to seek out a fight. But this? Oh, she'd been waiting for this.
She could see the instant Justus put the pieces together, glancing between her, Kano, and the knife before paling. Instead of immediately getting to his feet though, he glanced over at the door worriedly before turning back.
"Why would you help me?" Justus asked, dazedly blinking up at her.
Alila's mouth tightened. "I don't run from things."
Kano let out a harsh laugh and got to his feet, tilting his head to look her over. "You're a little eager for a rematch, aren't you? Don't you know you're supposed to wait your turn?"
"Fuck off," Alila bit out, adjusting her grip on her fans.
"As eloquent as ever, I see," Kano mocked. "I'm sure you've been waiting for this chance, but will it really be as satisfying as you're hoping?"
"I don't care," she breathed, narrowing her eyes.
He grinned and gestured for her to come closer, clearly trying to egg her on. "Have at it, then."
Under normal circumstances, Alila prided herself on the fact that she didn't easily fall for taunts. But she'd been hoping for a chance like this for days. Alila was beyond ready to prove herself.
This time, she was determined to make the first move, ducking low and striking out at his stomach in that same bloodstained spot. She felt his fist skate over the top of her back, but she was moving too quickly for him to land a solid hit. He barely grunted at the contact, though her fan did come away stained red.
He grinned dangerously, eyes watching her every move. "Good to know you're not too out of shape with all that sitting around you've been doing."
Rational, she had to be rational. He was trying to poke and press at all the weak spots she'd garnered since the last time they fought, and if she wasn't careful, it would end up working. Alila was sick and tired of being underestimated, of being shoved down over and over. She wouldn't let it happen ever again.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Justus get to his feet. Her pride told her that she had to do this herself, that she couldn't accept any help or else the outcome of the fight would be meaningless, but she shoved it all down. Her useless pride had gotten in her way before, and she wouldn't let it happen again.
Instead, she let herself become the distraction, darting around Kano to keep his eyes on her. She was content to lead him in circles, twisting her body to dodge every blow that came her way. He wasn't as proactive this time around, preferring to let her nick at his skin and clothes while he stayed just out of her reach, ensuring that she didn't hit anything too dangerous. His movements were more fluid, as if he'd learned something since their last fight - but then again, she'd changed as well.
Maybe it was the hint of desperation that clung to her now. She had experienced the cruel touch of failure, and she never wanted to feel it again. Whatever it was, Alila let herself embrace it for once. She'd do whatever she had to in order to win this fight.
As she focused in on Kano, she had to admit that his nimbleness was unsettling - as someone that was injured, she wasn't sure how he could still move like that. It was as if he had settled into their dance, timing his movements properly until one jab finally landed on her nose again.
Alila stumbled back, gagging slightly as blood began to trickle down her throat. She was forced to breathe through her mouth, her nose already beginning to drip with blood too thick to breathe through. As she regained her bearings, she saw Justus lunge towards Kano with a knife in hand, driving it fully into his stomach. Kano finally lurched to the side, his hand fluttering towards the knife but not moving to take it out. "Nice shot," he muttered before grabbing Justus's shoulders and ramming his knee into his stomach.
Doubling over, Justus took a few shuffling steps back, and Alila was on Kano before he could try anything else. It looked like the only way to get him to back down was to slowly hack away at him, so she threw all restraint out the window. He easily sidestepped her, throwing out a foot to try and trip her up, but Alila at least saw that coming and dodged out of the way. It was almost as if he was nimbler than the last time they fought, but that didn't make any sense in her mind. How could he fight faster than before he got hurt?
"You don't move like someone that got injured," she said, ducking under his arm to dig the blade of her fan into his back before ripping it out, frowning as she noticed an odd resistance against its blades. She could've sworn she saw something gleam within the wound, but it was covered by welling blood too fast for her to figure out what the source was.
He didn't even flinch at the contact, giving her an unamused look before all but shaking it off. "You'll get there," he taunted. "Just keep thinking on it."
"You know who killed Shai, and it certainly wasn't Thay," Alila wagered, blocking his next hit with her forearm. She could see Justus advancing over his shoulder, hoping to keep his attention on her by continuing to talk. "In fact, I'd safely guess it was you."
"Almost there," Kano said, knocking her feet out from under her in one swift move before intercepting Justus's next attack and grabbing his arm, bringing the Two boy to his knees with a harsh twist. "Kano did kill Shai. A real tragedy, wouldn't you say?"
Alila panted quietly, carefully getting up to her feet. "What the hell…?" she muttered. "Why are you talking about it like you're not Kano?"
"I don't think he is," Justus said, letting out a pained cry when Kano twisted his arm further. "I… I think he's something else."
"Ooh, you really are clever," Kano said, giving Justus's arm a wrench until Alila heard a pop. Kano gave Justus a light shove to the side, knowing he was at least out of commission for a few minutes. "Sure, I'm not really Kano, but I have a similar skillset. I think you'll find we still have quite a bit in common."
"You're some kind of mutt," Alila realized, eyes widening. "But if you look like one of us, then…"
"Fascinating, isn't it?" Kano held his arms out wide. "We're incredibly lifelike, don't you think? I even hold some of his memories."
"You're just as annoying as him too," Alila said, trying to catch her breath.
"Aw, you flatter me," Kano cooed, batting his eyelashes. At some point during the fight, he'd completely dropped whatever charade he'd been keeping up. "Now, are you done standing around? I didn't take you as the type to drag out a fight with pointless talking."
Gritting her teeth, Alila breathed in and out slowly. She'd only lost the first time around because she underestimated him, and she wouldn't let herself make that mistake again.
She blocked his next hit with her fans, the blade biting into his skin. Twisting her fans, she ripped through his hands, wrinkling her nose as a red liquid flowed forth. If he was only a mutt, then she was nearly intimidated by the level of realism that went into making him. It was no wonder they were so easily fooled.
Her brief distraction led to her taking a hit in the jaw, a hiss escaping her mouth as she tried to grit her teeth. Alila stumbled back, and Kano ducked his shoulder down to ram into her chest. The breath left her lungs in a whoosh, and she gripped his jacket, using it to stabilize herself as she dug her fan into his back repeatedly. No matter what she tried, Kano didn't appear to weaken at all. If anything, she could swear he'd gotten stronger somehow.
He gripped the front of her shirt and shoved her to the ground, and she had to roll to the side to dodge a harsh kick. Alila swept her leg out to catch him off balance, successfully dragging him to the ground with her. She lunged out with one of her fans, dragging it across his thigh before scrambling away and getting to her feet. But he followed her in an instant, not slowed down by anything. She had never fought something that wasn't alive, and the drawbacks were becoming obvious.
Whatever this Kano thing was, he clearly wasn't getting tired.
Alila was starting to feel herself drag; the relentless pace she was forcing herself to follow was wearing on her despite her attempts at exercise over the past few days. Her opponent being nearly unstoppable didn't help in the slightest, but there had to be a way. Alila just had to find it.
She wouldn't lose again.
Thinking quickly, Alila figured the best way to go about this was to act like she was beaten down already. Alila needed to lure him in closer, needed him to have a bit of momentum going so she could catch him off guard. She let her shoulders slump, let her grip on her fans loosen, and instead focused her energy into her feet. It was as easy as a dance, she insisted to herself. She twisted her body just enough to avoid the brunt of his hits, using her feet to dance around him. He may have some sort of inhuman senses, but she had the instinct, and she needed to make that work for her.
She saw her opening right after she ducked under one of his punches and darted to the side. It seemed like he had been telling the truth about one thing - he appeared to possess at least a hint of Kano's temper. Each consecutive miss was getting him more riled up, and now he was nearly seething as he turned back to her. She almost shuddered at the sight of him covered in blood - could she even call it blood? - but Alila had to finish this now.
As he came towards her again, Alila twisted her body and caught his outstretched arm. She took his momentary surprise to leverage it against her shoulder, using his weight against him and driving him into the floor. Before he could move to get back up, she planted a knee on his chest and aimed the blade of her fan directly at his throat.
"Not bad," Kano said lightly.
"Is he down for good?" Justus asked cautiously, slowly sitting up where he was.
Alila frowned down at Kano. "I guess so. I don't think he'll be getting up anytime soon, mutt or not."
Kano smiled sweetly despite Alila's fan pressing into his neck. "Good distraction, huh?"
The blood in her veins iced over, and Alila shared a wary look with Justus. "Distraction?'
"Of course," Kano said innocently. "What, you think I came up here to pick a fight with you just for fun?"
Justus groaned and got to his feet, still clutching his shoulder tightly to prevent it from moving. "Where's Phaedra?" he asked in a low voice, his intimidating tone offset by his slight swaying as he moved towards them.
Kano lifted a finger on his hand, tilting his head to the side. He didn't seem bothered when Alila drove her knee into his chest harder at the slight movement. "Gone now. Makani too. I think it's safe to say I did my job well."
"Makani?" Alila whispered, thinking back to the gleam in Kano's eyes when he'd driven her from the room. "What the hell did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything," Kano insisted, his ever-present grin making Alila feel sick to her stomach. "This was all your fault for getting distracted. Don't you know that's dangerous in the Games?"
Without letting him continue, Alila drove her fan down into his neck as hard as she could, hacking away at the mechanics within until she felt sure that he wasn't moving anymore.
"Is he… dead?" Justus asked uncertainly, edging closer.
"I don't think he can really die," Alila said, shuddering and moving away from him. "But I don't think he'll bother us again."
The two of them fell silent. Alila leaned back, licking her lips and tasting the blood still slowly leaking from her nose. She smeared blood across her face as she tried to wipe off her chin with her jacket before giving up on the endeavor entirely, sighing wearily.
"Do you really think it's too late?" Alila whispered. "I mean, we haven't heard a cannon yet."
"Even if he was telling the truth, I think we should be anticipating something far worse than cannons," Justus replied, his voice barely loud enough to be heard.
And somehow, deep within her heart, Alila knew he was right. There was no telling what they'd done by letting Makani and Phaedra out of their sight. And no matter what Kano said, they had to try.
But despite Alila finally achieving some semblance of a win, she couldn't help but feel as if she'd only lost again.
Thay Yukimura: II
Shai Kingston: II
Crush Xing: II
Phaedra Nikostratos: I
Alila Perwane: I
Lilith Beherit: I
Justus Arculeo: I
Kano Arledge: I