Quarter Quell applications are now at a close!

Thank you all so much for your applications. They all look so promising! We're going to have a talented bunch of authors for the Quarter Quell!

Nina and I should have a list of the final authors up by the end of this weekend, so keep your eyes peeled for them! (I've always hated that idiom...)

Now, ONWARDS, with the packet chapters, where no one, not even our very own authors, knows what to expect...*mysterious eyebrow wiggle*

"I've come a long, long way,
Made a lot of mistakes.
But I'm breathin', breathin',
That's right and I mean it, mean it.
This time I'm a little run down,
I've been living out loud.
I can beat it, beat it,
That's right 'cause I'm feeling, feeling

—Invincible, Hedley

Ari Locus, District 9


I shoot upwards from the small hollow under the bushes that I chose to rest in, my breath coming in short, fast gasps while my heart pounds so powerfully that I feel like at any moment it's going to burst out of my chest. The memory of where I am returns immediately and I jump to my feet as quickly as I awoke, turning in circles and scanning the arena wildly for any signs of tributes. But, for once, luck seems to be on my side, and other than a spooked chipmunk, nothing living is in view. I swallow hard and give myself a little break to try and catch my breath. One thing's for sure, even if I get out of these Games alive, I'll never be able to sleep properly again.

The adrenaline quickly fades from my system though, and soon I register the stinging pain coming from my back as the warm trickle of what I'm positive is blood seeps through the pathetic attempt at a bandage that's supposed to be covering the wound.

Sitting back down in the little hollow, I try to reach my hands around to tighten the bandaging or do something, but I'm no Maia Spring; despite my efforts, my body just cannot possibly contort into positions to make this any easier. Of course, it'd also help if I knew the first thing about medicine and injuries and things like that. Oh, and having some proper supplies would help too, but hey, I knew I wouldn't be getting anything from any sponsors the moment I volunteered for the Games. So I had to deal with ripping the spare blanket from Oak's pack into strips and attempting to messily tie them around myself and stop the blood flow.

Oak. Obviously the name brings a volley of memories to mind. But it's not exactly something I haven't felt before; every second of every minute of every hour since the mutt attack, my head's been pounding with names, the words echoing in time with the beating of my heart or the aching of my back. Sapphire. Oak. Dad. And the events of that night five days earlier really did nothing to help matters.

I'm stumbling around the forest, trying to analyze the different types of plants despite the growing darkness and remember which ones Oak said were actually edible. Since I got away from the Cornucopia with nothing but a water bottle and a sword (which now lays deserted back in the forest, never to be touched again. At least, not by me) and Oak only managed to grab a backpack, our food supply depleted pretty quickly. Neither of us were from districts which might help us out in the arena— although if my dad had been normal and decided to go into the study of muttations, that might have helped a bunch. Then again, if we'd been a normal family I wouldn't even be here—but we'd picked up a bit of knowledge during the training days. It isn't much, but it's just enough to survive, which is really all that matters.

I'm just about to call it a night due to lack of visibility – I'm sure Oak, out trying to hunt in the forest somewhere, isn't having much luck either – when suddenly a loud clang echoes through the arena, making me jump about a foot off the ground. Quickly, I try to regain my composure and look around for the source of the noise, mostly just so I can get the heck away from it. But it seems to be coming from the North-East—the direction Oak had gone off in. Doubts well up inside me but I do my best to brush them away; I have to check, just to make sure nothing's wrong.

It isn't long that I've been heading on my new course before another loud bang rents the night air, a bright flash accompanying it from the direction I'm heading in. Thanks to the brief illumination of the arena around me, I can see that the foliage is slowly changing; trees becoming less like those of a forest, looking more bent and creepy by the second. I must be close to entering a part of the arena I only glimpsed during the bloodbath; the graveyard.

The sounds are growing louder now, and I can just hear the distant echoes of shouts and fights coming from somewhere ahead. I speed up in anticipation, my hand unconsciously gripping my water bottle for defense – it's the only thing I could use as a weapon – when I feel a chill creep slowly up my spine as the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Like the feeling you get when someone supposedly walks over your grave. I never used to put much stock in sayings like that, but considering where I'm heading right now, I guess it's appropriate. Something crunches right behind me, like a foot treading on a pile of leaves, and I whirl around, but all I'm met with is a view of the empty forest behind me. My eyes flit from tree to tree, but no hidden figure is to be seen and reluctantly I turn back towards my destination. But before I can take another step, a new sound can be heard, one that may seem less menacing at first, but hearing it here where it couldn't possibly be heard freaks me out more than the crunching of footsteps ever could.

"The darkness holds all sorts of monsters and creeps,

It's oh so pitch black, so dark and so deep,

But when you let your eyelids sink and slip into sleep,

Darkness becomes your guiding lead."

It's Sapphire's song. Abandoning all attempts at trying to stay calm, I circle the area continuously, water bottle held at the ready and desperately searching for...actually, I'm not quite sure exactly what to look for. Something that could possibly make sense of this situation, make it a whole lot less creepy than it is now.

"Rock back into goblins and fairies and elves,

Witches and princes and lords a'leaping twelve,

Let the darkness consume you until you're no longer yourself,

Lean into hurricanes and wishes to delve."

Despite myself, my hands start to shake as a voice joins in with the tinny sound of Sapphire's token. And I know that voice. Anyone who had watched the interviews would have heard it sing along, the voice sounding uncaring and free, unburdened with the knowledge that it wouldn't live to survive another night. But that's not possible, this can't be real...She's dead! I saw her die. This can't be happening.

All at once, the song cuts off, and the forest collapses into a deafening silence. Even the sound of my own breathing can't be heard, though that might be because I'm holding it in, waiting paralysed for something to happen. And then it does.

"Hi Ari."

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This isn't real. But when I manage to get my frozen body to turn, I can't see a way around it as the truth stares right at me with her wide, green eyes, the mane of blonde hair out behind her. And held in her one remaining hand is the singing token, the one I thought I'd seen the last of when I left it with her little memorial. Still, this can't possibly be her. It can't be . . .

"Forgotten me already?" She cocks her head to the side. "Don't you remember? 'We should ally.' That was what you said. Then again, you also said that there was a better chance of us surviving if we banded together." She laughs without humour, her eyes shining dangerously as she shakes her bloody stump of a hand out in front of me. "That didn't work out too well, now did it?"

Even if I could think of anything to say, I wouldn't be able to make a sound. Instead I just stand frozen in the same spot, my mouth moving wordlessly as the blood begins to drain from my face. This can't be her. But it is. It's Sapphire.

Her lips curve downwards into a pout. "Well, it's no fun if you're not going to talk. Don't you think we have a lot to catch up on?" She glances over my shoulder. "Really, I thought you'd raised him better than this."

"I thought so too. Isn't it a shame when they disappoint you like this?"

If I thought I'd felt terrified a second ago, that was absolutely nothing compared to what I felt now as the new voice spoke in my ear, so close that I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard the person come up from behind me. But as I hesitantly begin to turn, every inch of my mind screaming not to, I realise why. Because this is the man who can sneak around without ever making a sound. The man who can travel right behind a Peacekeeper and never give any indication that he's there. It's-

"Hello, son."

One glimpse of his eyes, that's all I manage to see. But unlike Sapphire's, they don't hold their original colour. Instead, they're completely black, absolutely no whites showing. Just two black, endless orbs of darkness. I see them for a second, that's all. Because then, I run.

It took me a good long while to cross the forest carefully in the darkness, but I don't even care about the branches whipping in my face every few minutes; I just allow my reflexes to take over and run, faster than I ever have in my entire life. Behind me I can hear the sounds of pursuit and my heart leaps into my throat as my brain kicks into overdrive, screaming over and over to get away, that I'm not fast enough. I don't want to listen, but it's true; I can hear them gaining on me. And then, as if the whole thing wasn't horrifying enough, Sapphire begins to sing again. No, not Sapphire, it can't be Sapphire; I don't know what it is but it can't be her. And that's not my dad. It can't be. Please, no.

"And once your face pales and you give yourself a fright."

I narrowly miss tripping over a nearby tree root, trying not to imagine what would have happened if I had fallen. They would have caught me, and then who knows what terrifying things would happen? They'd try to kill me for sure; but what if beforehand, they cut off my arm, like Sapphire? Or did any number of horrifying things? Really, the gruesome possibilities are endless. Not helping, I manage to think over the cacophonous tumult of millions of other terrified thoughts trying to cram their way into my brain.

"You'll know it's more than the werewolves' bite."

Just run! my brain screams. Don't think, just run as far away as you can! But they're fast too, and little things like wayward tree branches and obstacles like that don't seem to bother them. I wince as my blind sprint takes me straight into a patch of painful brambles, but don't dare stop and try and find a way around them; just brace myself and try and get through as quickly as I can, trying to ignore the stinging and small beads of blood that fall from my hands as they push through the spiky plants in an effort to get away.

"It has to be something that is to do with that Light."

I nearly stumble again as my arms sweep forwards to plunge through the next set of brambles, only to find that there's nothing to grab onto. My momentum carries me forward and I nearly crash into a tree but I don't even notice, just right myself and get ready to take off again. Maybe they're still stuck in the brambles; my heart leaps at the thought and for the first time during the night a thought crosses my mind that doesn't have something to do with my imminent, frightening death. I might actual get away...

"So fall backwards into the NIGHT!"

The Sapphire/non-Sapphire's voice cracks in fury as she shouts the last word of the song, and out of nowhere a hand latches on to my back. No, hand isn't the right word; it's a claw, a claw with giant, elongated fingernails that tear through the flesh near my shoulder blades, sending agonising shoots of pain all through my body and causing me to cry out in pain. For a terrifying moment, my brain completely freezes up as it tries to get over the fact that it's done, they've caught me and now I'm going to die at the hands of my sweet thirteen-year old ally and my dad. My dad...

There's always another option.

The phrase echoes through my ears as a sudden burst of adrenaline rushes through my veins and in a desperate attempt to shake her off, I whirl around and swing the only tool I have at her; my water bottle. Sapphire/non-Sapphire lets out a shriek of anger but her grip loosens slightly and I use all my remaining strength to send out a kick, hitting her squarely in the stomach and sending her tripping back into Dad/non-Dad. Without hesitating, I turn so quickly I nearly slip in the soft dirt of the forest and dash off through the trees, not thinking about the new horror the Capitol decided to unleash on us or the fact that I nearly died a few minutes ago. Just run. Run.

I wince as the memory sends more pain shooting up the newly-opened wounds in my back and finish rewrapping the bandage as best I can. Luckily for me, the two...things decided to give up after that. Or they just reached the limit of their trap; every Gamemaker ambush has its borders, or else the Games wouldn't be any fun if tributes weren't being killed by each other. But as I saw the night after the attack, Oak hadn't been so lucky.

After that, I'd just sort of travelled through the forest in a state of numbness, not really having a set direction. It wasn't just that Oak died – I mean, he was a great guy and if those things I saw were anything like the horrors he'd had to face, then I felt absolutely awful. Still, we had only known each other for three days in the arena, and as awful as it sounds that did somewhat lessen the blow—but everything that had happened in the arena sort of got to me. Though not in a way that made me want to collapse in a heap and die of hopelessness; but if I'm going to be completely honest, I had wanted to do that a few times. But each time, something stopped me; I guess seeing my dad, even if it wasn't really him, made me think about how much I wished to see the actual him again, not the one that was attempting to tear me apart. I'd never really considered the possibility of actually going home; I'd always thought that the Capitol wouldn't allow that. But maybe...well, best not to get my hopes up just yet. At least now I was being a bit smarter, actually thinking about everything that had happened, something I must admit I probably don't do enough of.

Two of my allies now have died. Two. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But still, I keep getting this strange feeling that there's something more to it. Especially when I think about where I am now, in my hollow surrounded by oak trees. Sapphire Tree , Oak Loaker; it'd be so easy to repeat the whole memorial thing. And even as I think about it, I feel like all of the cameras in the arena are zoomed in on me, daring me to do it again. I don't think the Capitol is particularly fond of that sort of thing. Mind you, I knew they'd have it out for me from the beginning. What kind of message would it send to the people of Panem if a criminal won the Games? Not a good one, that's for sure; at least, not good for them. But still, they haven't killed me yet. So what's their game? Trying to make an example out of me or something? Make me suffer first?

Or maybe they just figured that I'd end up dying without them having to even lift a finger. After all, wasn't I going into the arena with the intention of trying to help Sapphire out? Hadn't I supposedly "made peace with death?" Maybe, but that all changed when she died, and then when Oak shared her fate. That night with the mutts I'd come closer to death than ever before in the arena, and I certainly did not go peacefully. In the end, survival isn't a choice. It's an instinct, and one that's pretty hard to turn off at that.

Then again, I might just be over-thinking this whole thing, developing a major case of paranoia, courtesy of the arena. Still, if I haven't gone completely insane yet, I guess I should count myself as lucky.

"So what now, Ari?" I ask myself out loud. "What now?" Of course, my question is met with silence, the only noise a slight rustling as the trees stir in the soft breeze. My dad was always a careful planner; he knew every detail of every job before he pulled it off. But on more than one occasion, something would go wrong and we'd end up having to improvise. No matter how things were supposed to go, something would always intervene. But that was alright. Because there was always another option.

Somewhat unconsciously, I rise from the hollow and make my way over to a nearby boulder, careful to not move my shoulders too much and aggravate the wound more. For a few seconds, I just stand and stare at the rock, not entirely sure why I came over to it. But there's something about its shape, how it's positioned...it's too perfect. Frowning slightly, I place my hands on what I expect to be the cool surface of stone and instead wind up touching something that is definitely solid, but hotter than I expected, like it's absorbed more energy from the sun then it should have.

The wheels in my brain begin to turn and I position myself in a sturdy stance facing the rock, hands still pressed to its surface. My muscles tense as I begin to push against the stone, my back complaining heavily about this new strain by throbbing even worse, but I grit my teeth and continue the job until the stone's rolled over to reveal, not a hard-pressed rock indent in the dirt as would be expected, but a hole, big enough for a person to fit through. I tilt my head, analyzing this newfound discovery; it seems like it leads to some sort of rocky, underground cavern. I try to see down the tunnel but it curves off sharply in two different directions, obscuring my view. Great, just what this arena needed; more freaking mazes.

But it could be pretty useful, I reason with myself. What if no one else has found it yet? You could travel anywhere in the arena and no one would be able to follow you.

Admittedly, the idea does sound appealing. Yeah, but who knows what's down there? What if that's where the people/mutts live?

I completely freeze at the thought, the idea of having to face another potential encounter with Dad and Sapphire again sending shoots of fear into the pit of my stomach. There's no way I could survive another encounter with them; either they'd take me down physically or I'd just completely snap from the insane terror of it all. So...what's worse? Staying up here, where I know danger lurks in the forms of the other remaining tributes in the arena? Or delving into the dark unknown of this cavern below?

Mind you, I had been complaining constantly to myself about the forest throughout the last few days since Oak died. There were too many memories, memories of allies and friends, sadness and death, and of course the ever-present fear that those creatures might show up again. Hadn't I been looking for a way out? Well Ari, I think, smiling slightly despite myself. Looks like you found your other option.

So the underground cave it is, then. I take a deep breath, steeling myself at the thought of what I'm about to do. I'm taking a huge chance, I know, but then again, when have I not taken risks? My whole life prior to the Games was one big risk; funny how you can completely forget your old self in light of the new, terrifying grounds of the arena.

But before I go, something stops me, calling me back to the circle of trees. I hesitate, knowing that I shouldn't do it; who knows what the Capitol would do afterwards. But I'm not planning on allying with anymore tributes that I see, so really, the only one they can hurt here is me. And they've probably been planning to do that from the start, so...what the heck?

Of course, it would have been nicer if I'd had an actual knife, I think fifteen minutes later, gazing and the carved tree bark that's supposed to read "Oak Loaker" but sort of looks like "QdR Lapbn." Well, I tried. "You were a good ally," I whisper to no one in particular. "Wish we could have known each other longer."

I don't stay long at the tree, because my job's done. My alliance with Oak was nice, but short-lived, and we didn't really get to bond much other than over the mutual loss of our own district partners/allies, though it would have been nice if we could have spent longer together. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if carving his name into the tree wasn't so much for his benefit, but for mine. My urge to be remembered seems to be steadily growing into some sort of unhealthy obsession, but seriously, I'm in the Hunger Games, I think I deserve some slack. I'm sure there's plenty of worse ways to deal with the stresses of the arena; I could have gone flat-out crazy even. I nearly did there, the day after Sapphire had died. But that awful cloud of misery seems to have left me alone, for now at least. I made my peace with her, I tried to make sure that she would be remembered. She's gone now, she's safe; really, the only thing left to do to try and help her is by winning and bringing her family a year of prosperity along with the rest of our district.

My lips quirk upwards into a small grin as I head back for the tunnel to the underground labyrinth. Winning might be a bit of an unreachable goal, at least for a criminal like me. But I'm starting to think that, like having an ever-present other option, there are more than one ways to win the Games. The Capitol might be trying to make an example out of me, but who knows? Maybe I might find a way to make them look bad along the way. Something like that would be nice. At the very least, getting as far as I possibly can in the Games would be good. I guess I haven't resolved to die just yet. I'm not ready to give up like that anymore.

"Look out, Capitol," I mutter quietly to myself as I head off into the darkness, leaving the sun behind for who knows how long. "The old Ari is back. And he's going to steal the show."