First off; so sorry for our abrupt inactivity. Gamemaker Phoenix (Nina) has been ill as of late, in the E.R. for the past two days with thrush and bronchitis. We've been trying to organize and get things back on track but it's proved to be hard.
Which leads us into the next order of business: Hello Darkness, My Old Friend. We (as in Nina and her interns) haven't gotten to collaborating yet on questions and preparing for the forms for try-outs. Again, our faults. (I know you guys are just going to say, oh, feel better, it's fine, but grumbling on the inside, ugh, I just want to try-out and get started already! Trust me, I'm anxious to get to know you guys too!) We hope to get something together for a Saturday update. Please bear with us. Thank you all who have been so loyal and understanding.
Ah, now onto our chapter. Some of the chapters had to be switched around but I'm certain you won't know.
Erik Fiske of District Eleven
Evening – Day Ten
"He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore" – Sigmund Freud.
I stare at the girl in front of me, my eyes narrowed in distaste, but fortunately obscured by the mask of the scarecrow. I don't know what to make of her yet, but I'm close to finding out, I'm sure of it. Her eyes are focused at a point somewhere above my left shoulder, her face as pale and pallid as ever as she appears to smirk, then shakes her head and turns away. I watch her go, my fingers twitching slightly as I tightly grasp the scythe in my hands, trying to resist the urge to send the metal blade shearing through her flesh, separating her head from her body. I restrain myself, but only just. It has grown harder and harder to do so every day. Especially since she knows about us.
The very sight of her reviles me. The sight of all my so-called "allies". Snakes that would gladly stab me in the back at the first opportunity, and smile as my face lights up the sky that night.
But I need them, weak and insignificant as they are. The small, broody, insane one who my fingers still itch in the need to be wrapped around her throat, squeezing the life out of her small frame. Talking to her dead friends as though the dead had anything to say to the living, believing that "Death" guided her every footstep. The thought of her bothers me constantly. One day I would kill her…
No! I would not. She isn't a Career. She isn't my enemy here. She's the only one who's been truthful to us since I came here.
We don't know that yet, the voice of the Scarecrow reminds me, before fading away.
The red-haired girl, physically the greatest threat of the three, armed and almost as fast as Blackwater had been before the shrapnel had pierced his leg. She has been the biggest surprise to me and I often wonder how I had looked over her during our time in the Capitol. If any of them could best me, it would be her. If any of us were to win, my money would be on her. The girl whose district I despise, whose cheers constantly echo through my head at every moment making it impossible for me to THINK at times.
The boss man, inexpressive, immovable, unshakable and despicable. I had identified him as a threat right from the off, with his twitching and those eyes that screamed madness. Now, in the arena, he's like a different man. Calm, collected, silver-tongued and considerably saner than I could claim to be at this moment.
Make no mistake; I know I'm not the poster boy for sanity. There's a voice in my head constantly whispering to me, begging me to end the short, miserable lives of my allies, claiming that it would be "kinder" this way than letting the Careers get their hands on them. It rasps with the voice of the scarecrow that I had killed, not allowing me a single peaceful night's sleep, present in both my thoughts and dreams. Every minute out here is one locked in constant struggle, and I do not have any doubt that my companions know that something is off with me, but I doubt anyone of them could suspect how close they are to death at any waking minute.
Except maybe Maeve, who seems to see me for what I truly am. For what we truly are.
Our fingers itch.
"Fiske, you ok?"
My head snaps round and my eyes meet those of Atalanta Zimmerman. I stare at her a moment, breathing slowly, before nodding. I reach for the mask and slowly take it off, knowing that it will put her at ease. For some reason she assumes my instability was linked to the mask. She doesn't realise that it had always been a part of me, although it was only something I had realised in the arena.
"Yeah, I'm ok Zimmerman." I murmur slowly, a small smile on my face.
She stares at me sceptically for a moment, and nods towards Maeve, who appears to be having an animated conversation with a tree.
"What's going on between you two?" She asks, a note of concern in her voice. After all, she is the only sane one here. Or is she? I've noticed that sometimes she displays the same ticks I do, when the Scarecrow is whispering in my head. Maybe the sane one of the group isn't so sane after all…
I only smile at her question. "I think she's taunting me. She knows I'm not going to kill her. That's what her dead friends tell her, after all, isn't it? One day she might just push me too far." We've come very close.
Atalanta frowns at me, her eyes dark and unreadable, her hand gently fingering the Capitol-forged knife by her side. I glance down at it pointedly, causing her to blush slightly and look away. "We're supposed to be able to work together." She mutters. "That's what Drake told us, right? We're all compatible?"
I snort, laughing to myself. "What does Drake know about anything?" I ask, a wry smile on my face. "He's only using us to get the job done. Do you really think he'll be the one taking the risks when we finally go after the Careers? No, Atalanta, it'll be the two of us who're the ones putting our lives on the line. We're the muscle, Drake's the 'brains' and Maeve…well I don't really know quite what that crazy bitch is."
Atalanta whistles to herself, looking away, before slowly looking back at me. "Bit rich of you to be throwing words like crazy around, isn't it?"
I chuckle despite myself, shaking my head in admiration. Damn it, despite all of my plans and intentions, I like this girl. She almost reminded me of Any–
No! I have promised myself that I wouldn't think about her. OR him. I…maybe at times I'll admit to myself that it was rash to walk out on them. Wounded and weak as they were…I could trust them. I could even perhaps consider them friends, despite the short time I spent in their company. And damn it, that girl was funny. She could always make me laugh.
I miss laughing. Really laughing, not a sarcastic or mocking chuckle.
Atalanta was funny too, but something in my mind was always warning me about her eyes. Her eyes were dead, never happy or sad, and scream out to me that this girl cannot be trusted. But I was better here. Here, I had the chance to even the playing field. Here I had a chance to kill Sade and get my revenge. For both my father and Bianca.
"So," She murmurs, interrupting my train of thought. "You think we can take them?"
I glance away, shaking my head free of images of my dad and Bianca. "What, Lucian and Maeve or the Careers?" I ask half-heartedly, interest in this conversation beginning to dwindle as I slip back in melancholy.
"I know we could take Drake and Morghul." She says, rolling her eyes. "I'm talking about the Careers."
I pause for a moment, thinking on the question. "Well…" I begin before pausing. "With the element of surprise…maybe. It's still five on four though, and I have doubts over how much use Maeve or Lucian will be in a fight."
She raises her eyebrows at the doubt of Lucian's fighting abilities. "Lucian?"
"Come on, you really think that guy can fight? He's so…prim and proper. So damn dignified."
"He's trained. He definitely knows how to use that weird sword of his."
I only snort in amusement. "Oh he's trained? Well so have I. So have you! Didn't do Con Rossencourte much good though, did it?"
This silences Atalanta and after a minute she stood up and walked away, heading over to where Drake stood at the edge of the hill we have camped out on, arms behind his back, perfecting the image of the wise and farsighted leader. I shake my head, snorting, and turn away, staring into the embers of last night's fire.
When had I become so bitter? I wonder, before realizing how stupid this question sounded. Of course I'm bitter. I have every right to be. I'm competing in the Hunger Games after all.
But it's deeper than that. I…I can't remember the last time when I had been happy and content. Perhaps not since the day my father had died. Perhaps I never had been. As far as I could remember I had always been…angry. A part of me had always clenched its fists every time a Peacekeeper walked by. Its teeth grind each time it saw something that shouldn't be. Perhaps it was only now that I was being true to myself. Perhaps the scarecrow had always been inside my head, I just refused to hear it until now.
Or maybe the last few days had just pushed me too far. It wouldn't be the first time it had happened to a tribute, and it wouldn't be the last either. God knows I had cause enough to go crazy.
The last few days in particular would have been enough.
It had all begun at the start of the sixth day. I was on watch, mainly because I rarely slept anyway ever since entering the arena. None of the terrors the Gamemakers could whip up could match the terrors that haunted my dreams. I woke up Atalanta in order for her to take over and went down to the stream we had camped nearby, hoping to catch some of the small trout that swam through it for breakfast.
Without a net to fish with, and the spears we had were too large to be used to hunt the small fish, I was forced to resort to trying to grab them with my bare hands. Needless to say, it didn't go that well. Perhaps someone smaller and nimbler like Atalanta or Maeve would have had better success but I was loathe to ask for their assistance, determined to catch one of the accursed things myself. Fish were never seen in District Eleven, our rivers and lakes had long ago been converted to canals and reservoirs as the Capitol sought to control the water, just as they controlled the people.
Fish had long ago died out, not able to navigate through the complex systems of canal locks and dams, so my exploration in hunting fish had been doomed to fail from the off.
Then the weird stuff started happening, though I initially attributed it to the scarecrow screwing around with my brain. The water I was knee deep in suddenly began to take on a reddish tinge, growing thicker in consistency, and all the fish in the river slowly began to rise to the top, bobbing in an almost comical fashion on the surface of the stream. I stared for a moment, slowly reaching out to touch one of the fish that had eluded me up until now. My hand reached out, index finger gently tapping the dead animal and I almost sighed it disappointment when it failed to change form.
My previous hallucinations had been so much more interesting.
I wondered for a second if Harris could have caused this. She had certainly known a lot about poisons. I had little doubt that she could have done this, but for one unfortunate flaw in that hypothesis. Dead people rarely go around poisoning things. It's not really something they're known to do.
Not even in zombie stories.
I headed back to my allies, my arms full of lifeless fish, the scarecrow's mask hiding the wide grin on my face. I faltered for a moment coming into camp as the others looked at me in shock for a moment. I simply stood there awkwardly, confused by the looks of alarm that they were exchanging. Drake gently cleared his throat, taking a moment to phrase his question. "Erik," he began, seeming unsure of where to begin. "Why are you covered in blood?"
I looked down at my clothes, before noting in surprise that I was, in fact, completely drenched in blood. I dropped the fish near the fire and turned back to him, taking the mask off, suddenly thinking slightly clearer. "I…I think the water in the streams just turned to blood." I said, slowly, hesitantly. "Em…we probably shouldn't eat the fish." I finished, slightly dazed, pointing at the offending pile next to me.
Unsatisfied by my explanation, Lucian and Atalanta followed me back to the stream, wishing to see it for themselves. Maeve chose to stay by the fire, seemingly fascinated by the dead fish. Each to their own I guess. It'd be a funny old world if we were all alike. Actually…it wouldn't be that funny if we were all like Maeve. Or Lucian. And definitely not like Jet Matthews. I'm actually starting to wonder who the most insane person out there is. Could it be me?
I pause for a moment, and remember Jet's lifeless eyes, Lucian's constant twitching (although that has lessened since we've entered the arena) and Maeve fondness of talking to ghosts that only she could see.
Maybe the crown of crazy isn't mine.
I'd like to think I have a claim to it though.
We stood over the stream of blood for a few moments in complete silence before Atalanta tentatively offered a conversation starter. "That's something I haven't seen before." She murmured, but we sadly could not provide anything more satisfying than a grunt and a shake of the head, before turning away. The Gamemakers certainly had been busy.
We decided to move camp, as the smell of dead things was becoming unbearable, even to Maeve, and so we located a new place to set up a mile or two away, far from the miraculous transforming water of death, and more importantly, the smell. However, we hadn't set up for more than an hour before something leapt on top of Atalanta's wild mane of fiery hair, causing her to shriek in surprise as she tore the thing off of her, throwing it onto the dirt in the centre of our camp.
Lucian sighed at this lack of decorum, muttering something under his breath as we stared at the small frog, which stared back at us with deep soulful eyes.
"Could it be a mutt?" I asked curiously, poking it with the end of my scythe's handle, to the amusement of the group.
"Of course it is," Atalanta chuckled. "And Maeve really can talk to dead people."
Maeve directed a dirty look her way before lying back down against the fallen oak bough she was using as a headrest, only giving Atalanta cause to chuckle even harder. "It's just a frog." Lucian stated, breaking in before an argument could start. "A small, harmless amphibian. It's nothing to worry about."
"It's nothing to worry about?" I asked weakly, about an hour later. The forest around us had filled with hundreds upon hundreds of the damn things, and a tremendous croaking echoed through it every couple of seconds. Everywhere the eye could see, there were frogs. In the trees, climbing up the trees, jumping off the trees, on the ground, on our clothes, in our pockets, in our stomachs (after we wondered if we could eat them. Turns out we could). I'm going to say this as simply as possible, for those that haven't yet got the message. There were a lot of frogs. A lot of frogs.
I think we were starting to get the idea. The Gamemakers were bored. Not enough deaths yada yada. Meh. They could throw as many frogs at us as they wanted. They were just frogs. Not even poisonous or anything. I was beginning to wonder if the Gamemakers had really thought this one out. As irritating as a plague of frogs might be, in the end, they were still just frogs.
I was not going to be killed by a frog.
Sadly, the frogs had been the least of our worries. In fact, the majority of them dispersed after a few hours, leaving only a handful to keep watch on us, their croaks quietly reminding us of their presence at random periods. We weren't unduly bothered, merely presuming that they had gone to bother some other group of tributes. Personally I was hoping they had visited the Careers. They wouldn't put up as much of a fight if they had to spend a few nights with croaking frogs keeping them up all night.
Our camp settled back into normality, with Atalanta and Lucian discussing some plan or other for killing the Careers. I didn't pay much attention to be honest; we had yet to find their camp. And I had no doubt that they'd be properly dug in somewhere. They mightn't fear the other tributes, but, as I had witnessed in dozens of previous Games, a pack of mutts or some other Gamemaker meddling could wipe out any alliance, no matter how strong.
They'd be dug in somewhere safe. Waiting.
Waiting for us to kill them all.
I continued to glare at Maeve, although I doubted whether she could tell, given that I had put my mask back on. It made it a bit hard for people to discern my facial expressions. She just sat there, head cocked to the side, no doubt listening to another nugget of wisdom coming from one of her dead friends.
I envied her. It'd be nice, having friends out here. God, I missed An–the person whose name I refuse to mention. With her jokes, smiles, sarcasm and constant complaining. With her tired eyes, tinged with equal measures of mirth and sadness. Her constant sniping at my abilities for finding shelter. Her constant attempts to either steal my scythe while I was asleep, or to try to barter for it while I was awake.
Take care of her, Blackwater, I told the sky, as the sun began to go down in the distance. Take care of each other.
I slipped into my own thoughts, and sat there, silent, while Maeve muttered under her breath to a person only she could see and Zimmerman and Drake discussed their dreary tactics. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Drake scratch his head vigorously, and something in my mind pinged as Atalanta copied this movement seconds later. An itch began to build up on the back of my own skull, and I took of my mask, noticing that Maeve had begun to scratch as well.
I ran my hand along the back of my head and raked the area with my fingernails. The itching didn't subside, but only moved around my head. I continued scratching, barbarically tearing at the itching skin, the sensation tormenting me until it was all I could concentrate on.
I glanced up to see the others acting similarly, barring Drake who has inspecting something on the tips of one of his forefinger with a look of great distaste. He looked up at me and grimaced, squeezing his fingers together, crushing whatever had been perched upon them.
"Lice." He muttered, his face a picture of disgust. Atalanta groaned next to him, while Maeve continued scratching her scalp furiously. I only sighed, drawing one of the small knives I had fashioned for myself out of shrapnel, shaking my head slowly as the others tensed, eyes fixed on the knife, hands reaching slowly for their own weapons.
The level of trust in my alliance was just…breathtaking.
I grabbed a few tufts of my hair with my free hand and began angrily hacking away at it, wincing as flashes of pain shot through my skull each time the imperfect blade snagged on a strand. Atalanta's knives would have been better suited to this task, the perfectly fashioned blades sharper by far than my crudely crafted ones. However I persevered, shearing my hair as close to my skull as I could manage, determined not to give those parasites a place to live.
The others only stared at me in silence, Atalanta silently stroking her own hair, possibly in the fear that I was going to ask them to follow my lead. It was kind of funny. I hadn't pegged her as the vain type.
Drake stared at me for a moment, before coughing into his hand, not quite meeting my eyes. "That was slightly…" he paused, grasping for the right word "…excessive, don't you think?"
I shrugged. "I have enough shit to deal with without having to worry about lice." I muttered, turning away and picking up my mask.
He simply chuckled to himself as I walked away. "I think I'll leave mine alone. Got to look the part for our audience, don't we?"
There was a pause as I turned back to him, glaring, suddenly overcome by the urge to rip his throat out, extinguish the light from his mocking eyes, tear the smug smirk off his face. I held myself back, barely, knowing that this was just the Scarecrow talking, knowing that these thoughts weren't my own.
I think he saw it though. Drake leaned forward for a moment, the smug superiority in his eyes replaced by a look of fascination. The silence between us was only broken when Atalanta suddenly piped up, giving up her attempts to pick out each individual nit with her fingers. "I bet I have the best lice."
We all turned, as a cohesive unit, to stare at her with a variety of expressions ranging from amusement (Drake), disgust (Maeve) and absolute incredulity (me).
She grinned back to us lazily and shrugged. "I bet they'd beat yours in a fight. I bet they're fucking ninjas."
I laughed, despite myself, and Lucian and Maeve followed suit. Our laughter wasn't the kind to subside either, but continued to build until we were rolling around on the ground, clutching our sides in mirth, the tension gone and the lice forgotten.
We managed to ignore the itching as best we could as night fell. My attempts at lice removal hadn't been a total success, and my scalp continued to itch, but not as unbearably as before. We lit a fire, cooked up some of the frogs that we had killed before they had disappeared. Maeve and I ate ours with gusto, not being the sort to turn up our noses at anything edible, but Lucian and Atalanta were definitely not overly thrilled at the thoughts of a second meal of frog that day. They should have tried living in District Eleven for a few years. You either give up your preconceptions on the edibility of certain things, or you starve to death. It's a man eat frog world out there.
"What'll they send next, do you think?" Maeve asked between mouthfuls, as Lucian grimaced in distaste and looked away, clearly appalled by her lack of manners. I was starting to wonder in what sort of environment he had grown up in, to become so…prim and proper. District Twelve were the coal mining district after all. It was inevitable that he'd have gotten dirty at some point in his life previously. However, he always remained intriguingly tight-lipped about his past, clamming up whenever I geared the conversation towards our lives before the Games. Then again, he was no more reticent about sharing than I was. Outliers had a tough time of it. Everyone had their own personal scars.
If he wanted his past to remain a mystery, I was content to let it be. I wasn't the Capitol. I could respect a person's rights to privacy.
I merely shrugged in reply to Maeve's questions, Atalanta merely offered a hopeful "Food that's not more frogs?" while Drake appeared to ponder, gazing off into the distance with far away eyes. He stayed like that for a long time, lost in his own train of thought, before looking back at Maeve and shaking his head slowly.
"The water…the frogs…the lice…it reminds me of something." He said, his voice troubled and weary. "But I can't quite put my finger on it. Something from an old book perhaps…" His voice trailed off, and we all stared into the fire for a moment, before Atalanta suddenly straightened up and whispered. "Can you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Maeve whispered back, but I took no notice of her, for I could hear it too. A droning, buzzing noise began to fill the air, and the branches of the trees around us suddenly swayed in a different direction, as though caught in a strong breeze that had suddenly started up. I grabbed my mask, shoving it over my head, and picked up my scythe, eyes darting from side to side, waiting for this new threat to reveal itself.
Maeve cocked here head to the side, shaking slightly, before suddenly clicking her fingers and exclaiming. "Genesis!"
Drake turned to her, understanding dawning and smiled. "Of course, the Bible!" He paused for a moment, eyes closed in concentration, before grimly intoning. "Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt."
I glanced at Atalanta, who merely raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Maeve likewise closed her eyes and continued Drake's recital. "And the Lord said to Moses, 'Say to Aaron, 'Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the canals and over the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt!' So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.'"
I stared at them in confusion as the trees shook around us, and the almighty buzzing din grew louder and louder, until the only other thing I could hear was Drake yelling out the next few lines. "Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt."
Realisation suddenly dawned on me. Ok, so you've jumped to this conclusion way ahead of me. You (hopefully) aren't surrounded by people you know to be crazy, and are almost unable to hear your own thoughts due to some sort of buzzing hurricane that's growing closer and closer.
The Gamemakers had been ripping stuff off, yet again. I thought the scarecrows had been particularly unimaginative, but taking something straight out of an Old-World religious text still seemed a bit weak, even for them. Unimaginative, that's what they are. I guess I felt slightly insulted. They couldn't even put in the effort to come up with an original way of killing us.
God guys, where's your pride?
"What's the next part?" I yelled to Drake, screaming over the rising wind. He stared at me for a moment, his lips moving silently, his eyes wild. He finally raised his voice above the din, screaming until he was red in the face in the effort to be heard.
"Thus says the Lord, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me. Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand.'"
Flies. I thought, slightly relieved for a moment until I turned around, and realised that the night's sky was darker in some places than in others. I raised my hand, pointing towards the sky before understanding struck. I turned, grabbing my backpack, screaming "RUN!" with all my might. I didn't stop to see if the others had followed me, scrambling over tree roots and fallen branches in an attempt to put as much space between myself and the dark horde of insects that followed me, streaming through the forest like the very essence of darkness, swallowing up everything they landed on.
I heard someone crashing through the undergrowth behind me and glanced back, although I immediately regretted it. Atalanta was only a few feet behind me, her bright red hair streaming behind her, eyes opened wide in terror. Only a few feet behind her was a huge black cloud of the tiny insects, enveloping the undergrowth and trees it passed until they could not be seen. Atalanta foot snagged on a root and she pitched forward, screaming, arms waving, and was swallowed up by the cloud. I cursed under my breath and spun around, running into the host of flies, ignoring them as they swarmed around me, enclosing me into their midst, biting and smothering, all but blinding me.
A flash of red appeared before me and I reached out, pulling Atalanta up off the ground and half-carried, half-dragged her out of the swarm. When we burst through the mass of insects we collapsed onto the ground, utterly drained. The air was still filled with the flies but the host itself began to move on, scouring the forest for its next victim.
We lay there for about half an hour, shaking, still stunned by the sudden onslaught of flies. I pulled off my mask and ran my hands through what was left of my hair, breathing heavily, staring at the District Five tribute's prone form across from me. Occasionally I would swat one of the flies as it landed on me, taking a perverse satisfaction in crushing it between my fingers. Across from me Atalanta slowly began to unfurl from the fetal position I had found her in, and glanced over at me, trembling slightly.
It had been another five minutes before either of us found the courage to speak, Atalanta hoarsely muttering. "I really want to kill someone right about now."
I grunted, agreeing with her, before slowly clambering to my feet. "We better find Drake and Morghul," I said, offering my hand to her. She stared at it for a moment before grasping it in her own, and I pulled her to her feet.
"Yeah." She agreed, nodding, and then fell back into a contemplative silence. We had spent a few more minutes retracing our steps (slowly, we had no intentions of running into the host again) before she spoke again. "Erik." She began, hesitantly. "Just…thanks. For coming back for me."
I looked over my shoulder at her and smiled, meeting her eyes. "That's ok." I said. "I know you'd do the same for me."
Ok, I know what you're thinking. Even I thought that sounded hollow.
We found Drake a short while later, leaning against a tree, calmly inspecting his nails. "You took long enough," was all he said, but the multitudes of bite-marks across his face and arms defied his stoicism. Maeve had climbed up a tree a short way away in an attempt to evade the swarm. Like Lucian, she was also covered in bites, even more so than myself or Atalanta. My mask had been particularly useful and had protected my face from much of the flies' assault, as only a few had gotten underneath it to bite at my flesh.
Battered, bitten and bruised, we began searching for a new place to set up camp, as none of us had any desire to return to the site where the flies had first set upon us. Lightning might never strike twice in the same place, but I don't think that proverb could be applied to a horde of genetically mutated flies.
For what felt like the billionth time that day, we set up camp. To tell you the truth, the flies had probably chased us across the threshold of the seventh day, so this was actually the first time we had set up camp that day. So whatever.
I drifted off to sleep, despite my fears of nightmares, but encountered none during the night. Maybe the nightmares were born out of restlessness, not knowing what was going to happen next. Or maybe I was just exhausted from that last day. I mean, turning water into blood, sending a horde of frogs, lice and flies after us…well, I've got to hand it to them. They mightn't be particularly imaginative, but at least they don't let up.
Lucian nudged me awake, his face serious and impassive. I groaned, blinking rapidly in the harsh sunlight. Across camp both Atalanta and Maeve lay, still asleep. I rubbed my eyes wearily, sitting up, and glared at Lucian.
"What?" I rasped; my voice hoarse. He didn't reply, but instead simply turned on his heels and walked away, motioning for me to follow him. I gave out a weary sigh but scrambled to my feet and walked after him. A sense of unease grew within me as we walked deeper and deeper into the forest, but Drake still refused to speak. It was only when he reached a clearing that I suddenly understood the reason behind my premature awakening.
Four deer lay dead in the centre of the clearing, flies swarming over their rotting carcasses. The stench was by far the most revolting thing I had ever experienced, and I almost gagged, bile rising up my throat, before regaining my composure. Lucian himself just stared at the corpses, his face white and his eyes filled with the same look of curiosity they sometimes took on when he looked at me. He turned to me and nodded towards the dear. "Any ideas on what happened?" he asked.
"The next plague, I'd imagine." I murmured, slowly walking up to the corpses.
Behind me Lucian sighed. "Obviously." He muttered. "But how was it brought on. Did the water kill them or the flies? Or was it something else?"
I nodded, understanding dawning. Both Drake and Maeve had been pretty badly bitten by the swarm of flies. If those bites were poisonous, and had killed the deer, then they probably didn't have long to live themselves. As for the water, well, we had steered clear of streams and any other sources since my encounter with the stream of blood and dead fish.
We'd have to go find some eventually though. Won't be getter very far without water.
We could slit their throats and drink their blood? A dark voice suggested in my ear but I ignored it. At times I could easily differentiate between my own thoughts and the Scarecrow's, but quite frequently the division blurred, and I couldn't tell whose thoughts were whose. No matter what, they were always there, a dark, raspy voice commanding, pleading, threatening or bargaining.
It never stopped talking.
I crouched down next to one of the carcasses, a young doe, and inspected the bite marks on its hide. "This one wasn't killed by flies at any rate." I muttered, slightly relieved.
"How can you be sure?"
"The bites would be inflamed if they had been poisonous and inflicted before the time of death. This one's only been bitten afterwards. Something else killed it."
I shook my head vigorously. "No. If it had been the water the stomach would be visibly swollen." I gestured towards the deer's torso. Its stomach was utterly normal, with no unsightly bulges or anything to indicate foul play. "Something else killed this deer."
Drake stood there, nodding thoughtfully. "Behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks."
"Deer aren't livestock."
Drake shrugged. "Perhaps they weren't expecting us to be rigorously critiquing their methods. I am prepared to concede that deer are not livestock. I would continue by proposing that the Gamemakers do, in fact, not care."
I stared at him, the Scarecrow whispering in the back of my mind, my hand flexing, before nodding and standing up. "They are a shower of pricks all right."
"You certainly have a way with words." He remarked drily, a slight smile on his face.
"Let's head back to camp."
The next few hours had been amongst the worst in my life. The bites we received from the fly swarm began to swell into boils. Every step, every word, every movement was agony. If the Careers had come across us then, we wouldn't have been able to put up much of a fight. "If. I. Win." I hoarsely muttered to Maeve just after the boils had appeared. "Remind me. To kill. Whichever. Gamemaker. Came up. With. This. Idea."
She nodded weakly in assent, her eyes closing tightly in an expression of great pain. I sympathised. She and Drake had it the worst, after receiving the brunt of the flies' assault. That wasn't to say that both Atalanta and I weren't in agony to though.
As Drake informed us: "And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils came upon the magicians and upon all the Egyptians."
I sympathised with those magicians, but I must concede that having magic would have been suitable compensation, and would be very handy out here. I wonder if a sponsor could purchase that for me. One order of magical powers, pronto! There's a hungry, boil infested teenager out there who needs them! They didn't come sadly, but I suppose it had been an unlikely turn of events.
We were fortunate, however, as only an hour into this latest plague the tinkling sound of a silver parachute rang out from above and the shimmering box landed neatly at Atalanta's feet. Zimmerman quickly pounced on it and her face lit up the second she had opened it. The box was filled with creams designed to alleviate the fever brought on by the boils, reduce the size of the swelling, dull the pain and prevent further infection. While I entertained a hope, just for a moment, that they had, in fact, sent us magical powers, I suppose the creams were still a pleasant surprise. There was also a small piece of paper within, no doubt containing some words of wisdom from her mentor. Later, heartened by the fact that there had been enough of the creams for all of us, our pain already receding, and slightly encouraged by the fact that somewhere out there someone was rooting for our little alliance, we got to talking.
It had been the first time we had actually interacted as an alliance, rather than simply a group of people who had been thrown together by fate, and for a short while I was able to forget the events of the past few days.
"So, what's it like, having a mentor?" I asked, half in jest, half in genuine interest.
Atalanta just shrugged. "What, Vanyo? He's a decent enough guy I guess. But damn, talk about blowing his own trumpet. Thought he was the greatest mentor a girl could ask for. That every bit of advice that came out of his mouth was pure gold!" She paused, wincing as her clothes brushed off one of the boils on her stomach. The creams might have helped, but we weren't cured of them by a long shot.
You criticise him, yet you were pretty protective of that card. I thought to myself. "And were they?" I asked. "Pure gold, that is?"
She just shrugged and looked away, pretending to inspect her fingernails. "Didn't do Bastian much good."
A knife of guilt stabbed my abdomen, and I winced in real pain, remembering his screams just before he died. I think they'd stay with me until I died. I know the sounds of his district cheering would. Even now they still haunted my nightmares. Even now they caused my blood to boil.
"Are you…sorry about that?" I asked tentatively. "Are you sorry he's dead?" And my hand gripped the handle of my scythe tightly, trembling slightly, and in the back of my mind the Scarecrow crowed with mocking laughter, and the roaring cheers of District Five ran through my head.
She looked at me for a second, her eyes hard, but…possibly tinged with…regret? "Only one tribute can win." She murmured, her tone serious, her face expressionless. The silence stretched on for what seemed like hours, but couldn't have lasted more than a few minutes. Well, silent for the others. My head throbbed with the cheering, and slowly began to fill with bloodlust and anger.
Until she spoke again, and I let it all go.
"He was just a kid." She muttered, looking at the ground by her feet. "I'm not going to pretend I'm not relieved that he's dead but still…he was just a kid."
I nodded, slowly placing my scythe on the ground next to me, my heart no longer throbbing so strongly, the voice of the Scarecrow growing quieter and quieter, until I could barely make it out.
"Gage, my mentor, thinks I'm insane." Maeve intoned sadly.
I chuckled. "Maeve, I hate to break it to you, but we all think you're insane." She scowled at me for a moment, before I offered her my hand in apology. "But that's ok. We're all mad here, after all."
She smiled a bit at that, and nodded to me, seemingly content with my apology. We sat there for a while, slowly recuperating, chatting about insignificant things from our lives in the districts. Drake didn't contribute much, but I guess that was only to be expected. This time I was free enough with my life, apart from anything to do with my family. A guy has the right to have some secrets, after all.
"What's the next plague?" I muttered wearily, aware that it would be in our interests to prepare for it in some way, but loathe moving from my now very comfortable spot next to our campfire.
Drake glanced over at me, his face as composed as always. "Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them."
"Damn." Atalanta whistled behind me, surprise in her voice. I nodded to myself and stood up slowly, taking care not to aggravate any of my boils.
"I suppose we had better find shelter then."
We found a cave nearby, although the trek to it had felt like an eternity. By this stage we were in a sorry state, hungry and thirsty, but not yet desperate enough to touch the water that we came across, or go hunting. Dying due to poisoned food or water would be a horrible way to go.
Maybe our sponsors would take pity on us.
The hail began to fall like boulders of ice dropping from the sky. Wait…that's actually exactly what they were. Hail the size of my head struck the ground outside, smashing through trees and punching holes in the ground, throwing dirt up in the air wherever it struck.
"Just as well we're not out in that." Atalanta muttered, to which we all supplied our own grunts of agreement. "Surely someone's not going to get out of that. We might still be out there if Lucian hadn't known his Classics so well."
I nodded. That would not have been fun.
"How are the Career's coping with this, I wonder?" I muttered, voicing my question out loud.
Atalanta merely shrugged, and suggested that maybe they had all died. Maeve was quick to throw doubt on this, claiming that she'd know if anyone had died. Admittedly, she hadn't informed us of Juniper or Alaric's deaths, but would no doubt claim that she had known, just didn't think of mentioning it.
Maybe one of us had been giving magic powers.
And maybe Phoenix Snow actually has a heart.
Lucian said nothing, just sat there looking out as the hail plummeted down and crashed in to the earth, lost in thought. I hoped he had a plan. I sure as hell didn't.
The hail stopped after an hour or so, and we emerged from the caves. The ground outside was pockmarked from the falling hail, and all around us lay half melted chunks of ice. We broke off several pieces, heating them up in a large lump of metal that we had fashioned into a kind of pot. That sorted out our problems with finding water at least.
"Why the Four Horsemen, Drake?" Atalanta asked after we returned to the cave as darkness began to fall, pausing after to take a drink. "What were you hoping to achieve there?"
Drake had stared at her for a minute, his left eyebrow raised, before slowly smiling. "To make us memorable, Atalanta. Everyone will be watching the Careers. It's only natural after all. The Careers will satisfy their bloodlust." He stopped for a second, before nodding to himself. "Well, they should have. Obviously the death toll has been exceptionally disappointing at the moment. But they'll remember us. Especially after we break the Careers. How could they not? A group of four Outliers, none of them considered the out-and-out favourites in a year that contains some of the most promising Career tributes to date, along with Aleah Armani's brother and the son of District Seven's mayor, slaughtering the Career pack?! Trust me Atalanta, when they see us ride out, we'll be remembered for years to come. They'll remember the Quarter Quell's Four Horsemen."
So he's using us. The Scarecrow murmured in my ear. Without us he'd be vulnerable, unnoticed, uncared for. He needs us more than we need him. Remember that.
I shook my head, disregarding its words. They stayed with me though, despite my best efforts. He was using us. And we had spent the last two days moving from place to place, essentially doing nothing. We were no closer to killing the Careers than we had been in the beginning. I was starting to lose faith in Drake's ability to lead this alliance.
He doesn't know what to do.
I was interrupted from this revelation by the trees, which began to shake outside. Once again, the night's sky appeared even darker than before, the moon and stars hidden. "So it begins." I muttered, my face hidden behind my mask, my body tired of these plagues, just waiting for them to end, wanting to get this one over with as soon as possible.
Drake walked to the edge of the cave, muttering under his breath. When he reached the edge he threw up his arms, crying: "Behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country, and they shall cover the face of the land, so that no one can see the land! And they shall eat what is left to you after the hail, and they shall eat every tree of yours that grows in the field, and they shall fill your houses and the houses of all your servants and of all the Egyptians, as neither your fathers nor your grandfathers have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day!"
"Do you really have to recite each one Lucian?" Atalanta asked from the rough bed she had made in the far side of the cave. "You could just sat 'There's gonna be a shit-ton of locusts.' We'd all be so much happier."
Drake turned, looking irritated, his mouth set into a rather forced smile. "There's such a thing as style." He muttered, sound aggrieved.
"There are also about a billion locusts descending on the forest." Noted Maeve, whose eyes had stayed on the cloud of darkness, rather than on Lucian. The forest had indeed been covered by locusts, and the trees shook wildly as millions of the insects fought for food, some even collapsing between the weights of the swarm.
"They always manage to outdo themselves with each one, don't they?" Lucian asked after we stood watching this spectacle for a few minutes. "I mean, sure, this plague does bear similarities to the flies, but it still has its own unique effect. There's not going to be much food out there after today. All the animals have died and the vegetation will surely be gone too. This time next week, we'll have our victor."
"Good." Atalanta said, rising to stand next to him. "I'm looking forward to my coronation."
I took the first watch, gazing out at the locusts as they chewed their way through the forest. Could I control them with my mind, I wondered. I was Famine after all. Weren't locusts the perfect example of my power? I reached out with my mind, furiously commanding them to go and descend on the Career camp, wherever it was, but the insects ignored me, engrossed with their current task. Figures, I noted dourly. I'm not really Famine anyway. I'm Scar – Erik Fiske. Of District Eleven. Son of Malcolm and Sara Fiske. I'm a little insane but I'm still ME!
Am I not?
I fell asleep after waking up Atalanta. She was a bit groggy but got up without complaining, and as I drifted into sleep I heard her talking to someone. That in itself was nothing new, only this time I could have sworn I heard someone talk back.
Lucian must have woken up to; was the last thing I thought before drifting off.
We woke up the next morning to total darkness.
"It is morning?" I asked, for what must have been the millionth time, to an increasingly incensed Maeve Morghul.
"Of course it is!" She snapped. "I had the last watch. The sun never rose!" Her eyes were wild with anger and confusion, a feeling all of us reciprocated. The Gamemakers could screw around with all manners of traps and mutts and we'd accept that…fairly cheerfully. We wouldn't protest at any rate. We'd even let them away with tampering with the weather. But turning off the sun? What kind of bizarre super villain shit was this?
We all stared out into the pitch darkness. Nothing moved or stirred under the enveloping darkness. We were blind from now on. Anything could be out there. Atalanta summarised our feelings in three words.
"Well this sucks."
Lucian turned to us, a wry smile on his face, his twitch having returned slightly. "I think this is our cue guys. We always knew we'd need the element of surprise on our side if we were to overcome the Careers. Well, what's better than total darkness to provide it? They'll never see us coming. This is the time for the Four Horsemen to ride out."
We agreed. We were excited, pumped up on adrenaline and yearning for our chance to fall upon the Careers and slaughter them. Oh how naïve we were. We had come together for one sole purpose: to kill the Careers. Now we thought we had a chance to catch them unawares. We'd soon find out how wrong we were…
"They've dug in." Lucian stated simply, his voice emotionless, his face blank. Despite this lack of reaction I knew he'd be fuming inside. His grip on this alliance was tentative at best, and grew frailer every passing day. He needed a Career for us to kill. He needs us more than we need him.
We spent a few hours wandering through the darkness, no stars or moon to guide us. In a way, that made it easier for us to find the Career's camp: it was the only source of light for miles around. On the other hand, walking into trees and bushes got boring real fast. The highlight of the night I think occurred when Atalanta fell into a pond, screamed, and then began babbling about mutant alligators and turtles. That part was funny. Filled with optimism and the beginnings of bloodlust we snuck upon the camp, only to realise one thing.
It was impenetrable.
Well, when I say that I don't mean that we couldn't get inside. We could. Just not before they realised it and certainly not before they had time to arm themselves. They'd erected a wall of sharpened wooden stakes around the camp, connected together by a barbed wire fence. The only way in was through a narrow gap in the defences, to the north of the camp, which was no doubt guarded at all times.
The front of their camp is more exposed, not so heavily built upon as the rear, with only a light ring of sharpened stakes and some trenches that have no doubt been booby-trapped. While this area appears to be an easier target, the trenches and the fact that the camp was built upon a slight hill means that by the time we'd have scrambled past their defences they'd have seen us coming so long ago they could have prepared tea for us.
In other words, while they were inside that little base of theirs, we couldn't touch them.
So we spent the eighth day sitting here, back in a part of the forest. Not too far from the Career's camp, but far enough away that we're unlikely to come across them while they're hunting. We spent it arguing furiously over tactics, coming up with plan after plan, but none of our ideas were feasible. Everything stank of failure from the beginning. The only thing that managed to raise our spirits, even for a short moment, was when a parachute fell from the sky next to Drake, causing him to raise his eyebrows in surprise and, just possibly, expectation. He pulled a wickedly curved blade out of it, something that looked like a cross between a sickle and a sword, which he informed us was known as a khopesh. Apparently his uncle had used a similar blade during the Seventh Hunger Games, maybe even the very same one that he held in his hands.
Turns out being a psychopath runs in the family.
"We could attack the camp when they've gone out hunting." Maeve suggested, her eyes shining in the dark.
I snorted to myself. "Great idea." I muttered, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "Given that they'll never leave less than two people to defend the camp, who may well carry ranged weapons, and will pick us off, one-by-one, as we scramble over that little death-trap they've installed."
I could feel Maeve scowl, despite the darkness. Zimmerman had suggested that we start a fire but had been quickly shot down. This close to the Career's it was just too risky. Plus who knows how many other tributes would follow it to us, not to mention any wild animals or mutts that are still out here. No more risk taking. Not now. Not when we're so close.
"Then why don't we ambush them when they go out hunting? Four of us against the three of them, element of surprise on our side, and both Atalanta and Erik can climb trees better than anyone I've ever seen before! They'd never see us coming."
Maeve had been very eager for us to go on the offensive, but I didn't trust the smaller District Three tribute. She had spent quite a lot of time claiming to be Death's hand, hadn't she? If there's one thing I've learnt in my life, it's that even crazy people are more trustworthy than religiously crazy people. What happens if Maeve thought Death wanted us to die? Would she try to kill us herself?
Or just get us into a situation where she could let the Career's do it?
She was the most unstable of us all, and that took some doing. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her. Although that was partially because I could probably throw her a good few feet.
I don't think the others would approve though, for some reason. Rain on my parade much?
Lucian just shook his head. "With Jet Matthews out there, I don't want us to take any chances. He's been leading their hunting, more often than not. I'd bet he's had experience in tracking. We can't rely on the element of surprise any more. As for outnumbering them, they have spent their entire lives training in a district that accommodates them. No matter how quick we are, how skilled we are or how strong we are, they'll always have the advantage."
Atalanta then chipped in. "And they've all got an arsenal of Capitol-forged weapons by this stage, no doubt. At the moment all we've gotten are two knives, a scythe and a short sword Erik made Lucian."
I stood up slowly and looked at her. "I guess we'll just have to rectify that then."
I had spent the rest of that day forging weapons, heading back into the trenches to collect as much shrapnel as possible in order to make knives and spearheads. The Career's might out number us, but I was going to make sure we had better weapons. Or at least more weapons.
Maeve accompanied me on the last of my trips, as Lucian decreed that none of us should go out alone, not when we had no idea what sort of traps where out there waiting for us. "So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days." He muttered to us as we left, warning us to take care. The Gamemakers were building up to something. It just meant that we had to be constantly vigilant.
I wasn't too thrilled about her help though. As I've said before, there was just something about her that irked me. It was the fact that she claimed to talk to the dead, I decided. The dead should be left alone. It was the least we could do for them.
At some point we passed into the ninth day. The darkness showed no signs of receding. Maeve just sat down on a fallen tree trunk as I gathered up a pile of shrapnel, taking care to occasionally glance up at the nearest tower, reassuring myself that they couldn't see in this darkness any better than we could.
"Erik?" She asked quietly. I grunted in reply, accidentally scratching myself with the serrated edge of one of the pieces of shrapnel.
"Why do you hate me so much?"
I glanced up at her in surprise, wondering whether she was somehow winding me up, but her face was deadly serious. I let out a little laugh, shaking my head.
"I don't hate you, Maeve."
I sighed, dropping the shrapnel onto the pile I had gathered. "Why do you think I hate you?" I asked wearily.
"Because I can see it in your eyes, every time you look at me, in the way you clench your hands in anger."
I went quiet, my left hand subconsciously fingering the short knife I had fashioned by my side. Maeve noticed this and raised an eyebrow. "I…I don't hate you Maeve." I said weakly, my left hand moving away from the knife.
To my surprise she simply smiled, perhaps a little sadly, although it was too dark to say for certain, and nodded. "I know you don't, Erik. It's not you that hates me. It's him."
I looked behind me, half-expecting to see someone hiding behind my back, despite the fact that I could barely see in the darkness that shrouded the landscape. "Who?"
"Him." She said again, staring at a point just above my left shoulder. "The devil on your shoulder, as it were. He's always there, whispering to you, berating you, hating everything around him. And he knows that I can see him. That is why you hate me."
I stared at her in disbelief. "What?" I asked, shaking my head. "You expect me to believe that crap? I'm possessed am I? By some sort of devil? You really are insane, you know that Morghul?"
"Not a devil Erik, although not far off. He looks…almost like a scarecrow to me. He's so angry, poisoning your thoughts. But he's a part of you all the same. The part you cut off, ignored for years, pretended never existed. The part that raged as everything you sought to build in life was torn down, every friend you made killed, everything you cared about desecrated. He's you Erik. Just angrier than you could ever manage to be. But he's taking control, a little at a time. One day soon there isn't going to be an Erik Fiske left. All there'll be will be– "
"Scarecrow." I whispered, not even fully aware that I was doing so, a tear streaking down my masked face. "How?" I asked, not even able to phrase the questions I wanted to ask, not able to understand. "How did you know?"
"I can see a lot more than you give me credit for, Erik Fiske. I can see a man burning on a bonfire of books; I can see a woman, walking through the Capitol dressed like an Avox. They look like you. I can see two others, a man and a boy, watching us right now back in District Eleven. You think about them all the time."
I shook my head, my mind filled with pain and homesickness as each word she said rang through, echoing in my mind, twisting in my gut. Another tear crept down my face, swiftly followed by another. "Stop." I whispered but Maeve only laughed wickedly.
"I can see the eight dead tributes Erik. Each of them way down so heavily upon your shoulders. I can see Bastion Estatika in your every waking thought. Why do you feel so guilty Erik? Why do you care so much about the fate of one little tribute?"
"Shut up Morghul. I'm warning you."
"I see two people, walking through the forest, searching for you Erik. A girl and a boy. Why are you really wearing Damian Blackwater's jacket Erik? Why would the Eight's be looking for you."
I fell to my knees, clutching my head, my mind throbbing with pain. "Get out, you bitch. Get out of my head." I murmured, shaking,
"But most of all I see Bianca Neve. Her eyes wide open with fear as she died, his hands throttling the life out of her. How he lied to her, saying that you had perished in the Bloodbath, not satisfied with simply killing her but crushing the last of her hope out of her. All you do is think about her Erik. She's here, with us now, did you know that. She follows you around all the time. She says you promised to take care of her. Is that true, Erik?"
I slowly got to my feet, trembling, and took one weary step toward her. She just stared at me with wide open eyes as my arm stretched out. I grabbed her by the throat and lifted her a good two feet off the ground, eyes fixed on hers, my tears dried, my eyes hard.
"Stay. Out. Of. My. HEAD!" I screamed, tightening my grip and squeezing. Maeve gasped, her eyes opening even wider, but managed to cough out two words.
I looked into her eyes, and saw the sadness and insanity that raged with her, but for the first time, I also saw myself. I dropped her and stared at my hand in shock, shaking uncontrollably. Maeve landed on the ground with a thud and began coughing furiously, her hand holding her throat as she gasped for air.
"Maeve…I'm sorry. Really…I didn't mean to do that. I don't know what came over me."
She didn't even look at me, just continued wheezing on the ground. "You know exactly what came over you." She hissed. "The scarecrow."
I turned away, my face flushed in shame, and began scooping up the pieces of shrapnel, my feelings of guilt making it impossible for me to look at Maeve until something flashed red in my mind and I slowly turned around, eyes fixed on her.
"Maeve," I began, my voice cold and unfeeling once more. "How do you know how Bianca died?"
I took a threatening step towards her, unslinging the scythe from my back. She just glanced at it, wrinkling her nose in distaste and sneered at me. "How do you think, Scarecrow? I read it off him, just as I read you. He mightn't wear his heart as openly as you do, but he can't hide from me."
"Who are you talking about?" I asked, my voice as cold as ice, feeling almost detached from the scene at hand. Even before she spoke I knew exactly what she was about to say.
"Why do you think I'm here, Erik? I have no interest in seeing the Careers dead. I have a protector. If he decides my time is up, then there's nothing an alliance is going to do about. I'm here because I could smell the death off him, and it fascinated me. Drake, Erik. Lucian Drake. Who else?"
I stood there for what felt like hours, unmoving, not saying a word, staring into the eyes of a girl I knew I couldn't trust, but whose words rang truer than anything else I had heard in my life up until this point.
"I think it's time to head back to camp."
We walked back in complete silence. Maeve knew that I wasn't in the mood for talking and wisely kept her mouth shut. Her dead friends were no doubt talking away to her though, but there wasn't much we – I could do about that.
Drake and Atalanta were talking quietly to each other as we came into camp, looking up in confusion due to our lack of shrapnel. "Did anything go wrong?" Atalanta asked in concern. "Did you come across another tribute?"
I ignored her, my eyes fixed on Drake. "No." I murmured. "I just have a plan to draw out the Careers."
Lucian frowned at me, clearly taking in my agitated state. "I don't know, Erik. Atalanta and I were thinking about just hunting down the other tributes. We'll kill those we can't trust and allow the others to join us until we outnumber the Careers. And that way, it'll be our alliance the Capitol is watching. I imagine the Careers will get pretty boring if all the other game has been…taken care of."
I shook my head slowly, drawing my scythe, anger in my voice. "I won't kill Outliers, Lucian. That's not what I'm here for. We joined up to kill the Careers. That is what we're going to do."
Lucian stared at me for a moment and I saw Atalanta slowly reach for her knife, and I had little doubt that Maeve was doing the same thing behind me. His face was as blank as ever but in his eyes I saw…fear? Irritation? Maybe even a flash of anger?
Suddenly he gave a short, curt nod and smiled. "You're right. We're here to kill the Careers. What's your plan?"
We walked through the trenches in darkness, feeling our way along the sides, praying that we would pass unheard, unnoticed by the guards who populated the towers. Eventually, however, we reached our goal, and I stood smiling before them.
"This is where I found the flare on the first day." I murmured. "In here is everything we'll need."
I walked into the dugout and my foot hit off something. I bent down, rummaging around until my groping fingers wrapped around something and I smiled. I pulled the cap off the flare, striking it against the caps coarse top, igniting it. The room we were in was thrown into light, and the others collectively gasped.
"You've been keeping secrets, Erik." I heard Lucian murmur appreciatively. Little does he know, I mused to myself, my hand once again fingering the short knife by my side.
The room was filled with all manners of crates, and the crates themselves were filled with far more interesting surprises. We tore the cover off of one to reveal several of dynamite, another contained more flares, others were filled to the brim with deactivated mines, bombs, ammunition for guns of all kinds.
"Maeve," I said, grinning widely as I did so. "How much do you know about making bombs?"
She only frowned, dashing my hopes when she opened her mouth and said: "Me? I don't know anything about them."
There was a long, agonizing pause before she smiled slightly to herself. "But I know someone who does, and conveniently she's right here with us."
Lucian and I glanced at Atalanta and she raised her hands, shaking her head furiously. "It's not me."
"No, it's not," Maeve agreed, the smile not leaving her face. "Her name is Jules Surket. You may remember her."
I stood outside, gazing at the twelve district towers that surrounded the trenches. Atalanta walked out, gave me a small smile, then turned and followed my lead. "Drake said the towers are filled with people from our own districts."
I grunted in agreement, my eyes fixed on the District Two tower. "Drake says a lot of things."
"So what does Erik say? You still haven't filled us in on the whole plan. Sure, we've got our hands on some explosives, and I pray to god Maeve actually knows what she's doing, but what now? We won't be able to smoke the Careers out, and it'd take too long to rig up a bomb big enough to blow up their full camp. They'd see us."
I only smiled, shaking my head slowly. "I'm not going after the Careers, Atalanta."
She looked puzzled. A pity. Normally she just looked determined and angry. She was quite pretty then. "Then who are we going after."
I glanced at her and nodded towards the towers that I had been staring at so intently only a moment ago. "We're making it personal." I murmured, in a voice as soft silk. "We're going after One, Two and Four. We'll see if that smokes them out."
Creeping through the trenches once more, slowly getting closer and closer to the District Two tower. Each of us carrying a package under our arms. Bombs. One for each Career Tower and one for "just in case" or at least that's what I told them. A guy has the right to have secrets after all.
We'll see if District Five can continue cheering after this.
We reached the foot of the tower, and spread out along the base. I knew there had to be some sort of door here, which would be the perfect place to plant a bomb next to. Destroy the only exit and not many of them would make it out alive. I finally found the edge of the door, running my hands across it, but was shocked to find that it was open. Only then did I become aware of the stench emitted from the wooden structure, which brought to mind the dead deer from only a day or two before.
"Something's wrong." Maeve muttered beside me. "Death is all around us."
I groped inside my backpack for a flare, pulled one out, ignited it and held it out in front of me. Behind me I heard Lucian gasp (quite uncharacteristically) and Atalanta groan before throwing up. Everyone lay dead inside; their bodies riddled with red holes that had previously oozed blood but had dried out at this stage. Empty shell casings dotted the ground, perhaps supplying a clue as to how they met their fate. The floor was sticky with blood and the stench was revolting, stifling us, making it impossible to breath.
"They killed them." I said quietly, all thoughts of revenge banished. "The Capitol killed them all. Just because they could."
"We should bury them." Maeve finally whispered, shivering in the cold.
"Why?" Lucian wanted to know. "We don't have the time to waste on something like that. The Capitol will send them home for burial. We have more important things to do or are you forgetting?"
I turned to them, shaking my head slightly. "Let's just burn it and move on." I said wearily. "The Capitol won't send them home. They'll just be the people who never returned from the Quarter Quell. Just like us. Just like every poor bastard who's died out here because those shits up in the Capitol have nothing better to do than murder people for fun."
"Erik." Atalanta muttered warningly. I only shrugged, tearing off my mask and spitting on the ground.
"You really think they're going to show any of this Zimmerman? They won't. And no one will ever know the truth. Because that's the world we live in. People die and everyone just forgets them!" I sighed, before wearily finishing. "The odds were never in our favour, Atalanta. Or in these poor bastards favour. We're ants. And what happens to ants? They get crushed."
Lucian patted my shoulder, nodding to the open door. "Burn it." He said, his voice sounding as tired as I felt. "Burn it all."
We moved on to the others after that. In each tower we found the same thing. Piles upon piles of corpses, riddled with bullets, brutally murdered. I almost broke down when we entered the District Eleven tower. Some poor wretched guy must have survived the onslaught for a brief time, mortally wounded, for on the wall facing us as we walked in the symbol of the Scarecrows, two interlocking scythes before a glaring sun, had been daubed onto it in the painter's blood. We burned each tower behind us, not saying another word, our hearts heavy and our eyes hard.
We left in total silence, walking back to our camp in the forest, leaving behind twelve burning pillars which would no doubt attract the attention of every living thing for miles. When we had long left the trenches behind us, but still hadn't quite reached the forest, a shrill whine began to rise up and the sky roared with a noise that I hadn't heard since the Bloodbath. The sun had begun to rise, ending our two days of darkness, and we were just about able to make out the shapes in the sky. Planes, I thought. Here to kill us, no doubt. After all they couldn't let us win, not now, not after what we had just witnessed. Then again…what would we have to gain by revealing the truth? And if they threatened to hurt my mother, or Adam and Damien…well maybe I would keep quiet. Then why send the planes.
"I remember now." Drake said, standing next to me. His voice sounded particularly eerie in the poor light, cold and aloof, utterly unafraid about what was to come. "About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again."
I turned to him, looking away from the planes that continued to fly closer and closer. "You also told us there would be three days of darkness and there was only two. What happened there?"
"I'd like to think we have bigger problems at the moment."
We ran for cover as the planes roared, and the sky began to rain with what I first assumed was shrapnel as it fell to the ground. But it didn't smash into the ground as metal normally would, but instead kind of fluttered down, almost like millions upon millions of pieces of paper. I reached out my hand and plucked one from the air. It was a photograph, displaying Jonas Emerson appearing to be locked in an argument with an older man, possibly his father as he bore some passing resemblance to him. I picked up another. Here Sean Armani stood, laughing with his sister Aleah. In another Canicus Macaulay stood talking to a similarly bulked up teenager, no doubt a fellow trainee in District One. My allies began looking through the photographs too, gasping at random intervals, sometimes tearing up the photographs, but always reaching for another.
I finally picked up one that meant something to me personally, letting out a shocked gasp as I stared at my father's body, burning on that bonfire all those years ago. Desperately I reached for others: Me, standing next to Adam and Damien, holding the scarecrow I had made myself. Me, tracking a wolf pack with another Scarecrow, holding my bow firmly in my hands. Me, attacking the Peacekeeper after I had seen my mother in the Capitol. A picture of my mother, lying naked at the end of plush bed, a sneering Capitolite staring at her with a mixture of lust and disdain on his face.
Hundreds of others, containing both moments that had been precious to me along with others that only served to cause me pain. I began tearing them up, taken by a fever that burned through my body, the Scarecrow cackling maniacally in the back of my mind.
Behind me I felt Drake move, staring at photographs of his own that I could just about make out in the corner of my eye. A burning school, flames tearing through the wood and crumbling masonry. He was shaking, his face, normally so expressionless and controlled, was that of a man stunned to his very core. His mouth moved slowly, forming words that he failed to give voice to, before shaking his head angrily. "This is nothing short of propaganda!" he spat, tearing the picture up into pieces and throwing them into the air. "Poorly constructed forgeries. Lies of the highest order. How can they think to rattle us with such…with such…?" He trailed off, shaking, his twitch having returned. The first time I ever saw the guy stuck for words. His cheeks flushed, his eyes sparking dangerously with barely suppressed rage.
And the photographs continued to fall…
I shake my head, discarding those recollections, and stand up. "Drake?" I call out. He looks up and stares at me. "Do you want to go do the rounds? Just a quick scout?" He stares at me for another moment before nodding to me, getting to his feet and picking up his khopesh.
We walk in silence for a few minutes before I frown slightly and turn to him. "Lucian." I begin, calmly and reassuringly, but with an edge to my voice that betrays my intentions. "What happened to Bianca Neve?"
He just looks at me, understanding filling his eyes and he reaches for his khopesh. I'm on him like a shot, not bothering to reach for my scythe or any of my handheld weapons, tackling him to the ground, smashing his hand against the ground until he drops the weapon. I stand up, dragging him to his feet, and slam him against a nearby tree. "What happened to her, Drake?!" I snarl, spittle drenching his face.
"I…I don't know what you're talking about!" He yells, trying to wriggle out of my grasp. In his struggle something silvery is dislodged from his pocket and drops to the ground. Dog tags. With the name Bianca Neve stamped on them in a final, shattering manner. I throw Drake to the ground, slowly bending over to pick up his khopesh, rising and slowly turning around to him, murder in my eyes. In our struggle the mask had come off and lay discarded a few feet away, flat on the ground.
"Those are her dog tags, Lucian." I say slowly, a tear building up in the corner of my eye, before bursting and trickling down my face. "You…you killed her, didn't you. You bastard. SHE WAS A CHILD!" I roar, taking a step towards him, my knuckles white as I grip the khopesh's handle.
"Erik, you…you've got this all wrong." He mutters quickly, stuttering and shaking. "I was there when she died…but…but I didn't kill her. You know I wouldn't kill an Outlier like that. I'm from District Twelve! It's always been the two of us, Eleven and Twelve, together in arms…remember? We're…we're brothers, you and I."
I take another step forward, drawing the sword back, about to deliver the final blow. "It wasn't me, Erik. You've got to believe me." His voice is becoming more assured now, but also more desperate. "By the time I got there, it was too late. The Careers killed her. Sade killed her."
I pause. "Sade?" I murmur, something stirring in the back of my mind.
"Yes, Sade. Sade Artois. She strangled Bianca, Erik. With her bare hands. She said good steel wasn't worth wasting on District Eleven scum. I'm so sorry. There was nothing I could do. I was too far away. All I could do was watch."
He was actually crying now, tears running down his face. Something in the back of my mind screams for me to kill him, that they were just crocodile tears, but I couldn't be sure. I won't kill an Outlier. My ears detect faint voices coming from the direction we had just come from. Obviously Maeve and Atalanta are wondering what had happened to us.
I stare down at him, my eyes filled with revulsion. "If I kill her and find out that it was you that killed Bianca, nothing's going to stop me from coming after you and gutting you like a fish, Drake, understand?" He nods at me, his eyes locked on the khopesh in my hand. I hear Maeve and Atalanta coming closer and closer. How would they react if they found us like this, Lucian about to be beheaded by his own blade at my hand? Could I trust them to believe me or would they think I had finally gone completely insane? Would they attack me? Would they try to kill me?
Could I trust them?
I draw the khopesh back and Lucian winces in anticipation of a blow that never comes. When he opens his eyes his khopesh has been plunged up to the hilt in the tree I had pinned him up against only moments before, and I was walking away, my back to him, mask in my hands as the sun begins to set behind us.
"Erik where are you going?!" he calls out behind me, his voice full of concern, but I pay no attention to his words.
Where am I going?
To find Sade. To put an end to this once and for all.