Hi guys, sorry for the delay in posting. The motel I've been at for the last two weeks has no internet access. On the upside, I've finished the story.
In the end it takes less than an hour to find water. Either I'm getting better at guessing the right path or they all lead here eventually, but I quickly arrive in the open space I saw from the tower roof. The water seems to be flowing in from under the hedges, though I suspect any attempt to swim under would result in an unpleasant end. Not that I can swim anyway.
Thirsty as I am, I'm not so desperate yet to not check the water for parasites. The first strip I dip in near the water's edge comes back the bright red colour that means dangerous levels, so I clamber out over the rocks to where the flow is faster. I nearly turn my ankle on the slippery stones several times, but eventually make it out to the end of the run. This time the strip shows mostly green, so I fill the bottle, adding the iodine drops as the instructor showed me.
Scrambling carefully back, I wedge the bottle between two decent rocks and spend the half-hour cleaning the blood from my face and searching amongst the pool's edge for suitably sharp stones. I've seen enough rock-weapons from previous Games to know that a stone blade can be as effective as a steel one, and I will need something to sharpen staves and cut vines if I am to build defences around my tower.
Finally my mental timer ticks over and I drink down the bottle a few mouthfuls at a time, savouring each one. It's so clean and sweet compared to the water back home, and all the sweeter after nearly two days of rationing and thirst. Once it's empty I make the hop out to the rocks again to refill it. The bottle should last a day or two if I ration it carefully, but I will still probably need to make this journey several times if my plan to outlast the others succeeds. As I am clambering back, a rustling from the hedge to my left alerts me and I stop on the large rock, waiting to see if it is a fellow tribute.
As soon as I see the furred head I let out a sigh of relief, though the small size doesn't mean the creature is harmless. Long and sinewy, it would probably reach past my knee if it stood upright, and as it bends its head to lap at the water I can see the fine row of pointed teeth. Presumably it can deal with the parasites in the water, and I could deal with it if it tried to attack me alone. I just hope there aren't more of them about as I hurry back into the greenery, my satchel loaded with new stone knives.
The sun sets completely before I'm half-way back, but I feel comfortable about the path and continue on, pausing only when the anthem blares overhead. Belatedly I remember the cannon I heard while on top of the tower. It was distant enough that I didn't stop to worry about who or where the death occurred. Was it Junis, finally caught by the Careers? Or maybe she fought back and took one of them down. I wouldn't be surprised. What about Anton from Ten, who scored so low in training?
The first face to appear is Felton from Eight. Unconsciously I clench my hands, trying not to remember the sticky feel of his blood that had coated them last night. The other is the girl from Nine, Tarragon, who I had completely forgotten about. In the interviews she seemed so sure her secret skill would save her. Apparently it wasn't enough.
I slow my approach as I near the last turn before the tower, peering cautiously through the foliage to make sure no-one else has found my hide-away. After five minutes without any sound or movement to suggest otherwise I make the climb back up to the sheltered platform. As I soak the dry bread in a bit of water for dinner, the grating insect song that they always play in outdoor scenes in movies starts up and the stars above begin to shine.
It all seems too easy. Usually the tributes from our district are dead in the first hour. The few that escape tend to be picked off by the vindictive Career pack during those early days before the strongest tributes begin fighting amongst themselves. At nearly two days, I've outlasted almost every one of Three's tributes in the last decade. In fact the last one who made it this far was….
My appetite vanishes at the thought of Janey Wallace, both her agonising end and the knowledge that she was Stuvek's friend chasing away any desire to keep eating. Except she did what Junis did; outshone the Careers at their own game, and was targeted accordingly. To them I'm an average nobody, a lucky survivor who they can pick off at their leisure. Right now it's probably worth more than several years of training. And if Junis can keep them distracted long enough for the faults to appear in their alliance, my chances will be increased even further. As long as she doesn't lead them here.
Curling up on the wooden slats with the bar clenched in my fist, I have to hope that no-one will find this place before morning.
It's amazing how long seemingly simple tasks like collecting and stripping vines and sharpening stakes ends up taking. By the time the sun sets on the third day in the arena I have several basic tripwires in place, attached to the largest chunks of wood I could find to hang so that they will clatter if triggered. Three more simple snares are also in place on the approach from the Cornucopia direction, which should leave their victims entangled in thorns, though I haven't yet been able to replicate a decent swinging arm like I used in my demonstration to the Gamemakers.
Unfortunately it's thirsty work, and by sundown I am exhausted, hungry and very thirsty, though determined to make the water last at least until midday tomorrow. I take one last armful of creepers up the tower with me to strip during the evening, opening the packet of dried beef as the anthem plays overhead. No deaths today. Not even an echoing cry or howl from the hedges nearby. I guess I got lucky and chose the quiet corner to make my base, though I doubt it will stay that way for long. If all the action is happening in the other parts of the Arena then my safe little corner will be the first targeted by the Gamemakers, and I will have to start afresh.
Still, they will probably give me a few days, and if I make a show of ranging back along some of the paths and setting up more traps out there they might let me be.
I sleep much better this night than the last, waking just the once when a muffled cry echoes from far over the west, helped along by the breeze. I wait for the cannon, but it doesn't sound so whoever it was must have got away. Maybe in my direction.
Surprisingly I do sleep again, safe in the knowledge that my noise-traps should give me warning if anyone does approach, because I wake again to the blinding sunlight of another scorching day. I never thought I would wish for the smog layer that covers our district, but after feeling the pink, peeling skin on my nose and arms from yesterday's efforts I realise I could do with a break from the constant sunshine.
My stomach growls as I dump the stripped creepers down to the ground, and I give in and open the dried fruit pack. I know I really should be conserving food, but the counter-argument that I need to stay in moderately good shape wins out. After all, there's no point conserving food if I am too weak to escape the Career pack when they come calling. It won't do me any good if I'm dead, and there are always berries in the surrounding hedges, though none convenient to access.
I spend the rest of the morning fixing the snare traps on the other approach, the one that leads to the water-clearing which had at least one other exit. Here I find a suitably springy branch near ground level to attach some spikes to, so that anyone who gets caught will hopefully not be chasing much further.
I also use the time to examine some of the paths I neglected the day before yesterday, finding several that loop back on themselves, and one which joins up to my previous route to the water. The last leads away from the water clearing to the north, and quickly becomes a series of narrow turn-backs. Now that I have this area mapped I can lose my pursuers between the double-backs and my snares, leaving a suitable escape route for myself.
While I wait for the water to purify again, I spy some familiar green strands near the rocky outcropping that the furred creature was drinking from yesterday. Cress, the trainer called it, and a good few handfuls to feast on tonight. I have about half of it bundled with some twine when the growling starts behind me. Turning slowly I see the furred creature from yesterday, fangs bared as he snarls.
Heart suddenly beating too fast, I raise the sharp rock to throw at him, when another furred head appears from the bushes. Then another and another. Of course it was all too easy, thinking I was safe in the Arena.
Stupid Wiress, you're not supposed to be safe.
They all attack at once, and my throw misses the lead one, though it bounces off the paw of one of the others. Wishing I had the metal bar, or had thought to cut a wooden stick for myself, I fend off the next attack with my satchel until the sharp claws tear a wide furrow through the material. A sharp pain behind me makes me cry out, and I look down to see blood dripping from my leg. Kicking out, I am rewarded with a squealing grunt and the sound of something heavy splashing into the water. Then the other three attack again, nipping my ankle and clawing my thigh through the soft clothing.
Scrambling in the torn bag, I stab myself twice before I get a hold on several of the three-inch thorns, my only other weapons. Slinging the bag up on one shoulder I lash out at the closest of the creatures, who darts backwards and slices open my hand with its own claws. Suddenly there is a weight on my shoulders, and a sharp pain on one ear, and I slam my fist backwards, burying the thorn spikes into the writhing flesh. It falls off with a thud, and I take the chance to back away, keeping my handful of spikes between me and the creatures' prowling pursuit.
Almost to the hedge I remember the water bottle, and hurry back to grab it, earning myself another stinging bite to the leg. I run as soon as I reach the grassy path between hedges, and by the third turn I realise they aren't chasing me.
Unfortunately I lost the sharp rock I was using for a knife, as well as the cress that was going to be dinner. Examining the now torn satchel, I realise that half-eaten packet of beef strips is also missing, and I am tempted to go back and look for it until the distant cannon fires.
Reminded that going back could mean my death, and that the creatures might have eaten it anyway I hurry back to the relative safety of my tower, so lost in thought that I nearly set off one of my own trip-lines. Who was the latest victim of the Games? And was it a tribute who killed them or some deadly creature? The bites and scratches are stinging from my salty sweat as I drag myself back up into the shaded tower, and I use one of my other rocks to cut strips from the now ruined satchel to bind them.
"Just a few cuts," I say out loud in case my family is watching. Just some cuts and bites because I was foolish enough to forget where I am, and why I am here.
Luckily I was aware enough to grab the water, a little of which I use to wash each bite and cut before bandaging. Now I have a different problem, and a lack of food will begin to tell very quickly in here. Also, I will have to go back for water at some point, and just hope that the furry little savages are gone. Maybe if I go at a different time of day?
Or I could find a different source of water. And of food. I don't like where this line of thought is taking me, but as I lie back on the wooden slats, trying to ignore the stinging wounds, I realise that maybe it's not as crazy as it sounds. After all, there were far too many supplies at the start for the Careers to carry with them, or to have used up already. And if they're all out hunting Junis, or the other survivors then they can't be guarding the Cornucopia very well. But surely they would leave behind one guard. Could I take on one guard? Let them see me, let them chase me around a blind corner into a prepared snare?
And then I could take whatever I needed and escape back to my safe corner for at least another day or two. It would be interesting enough that the Gamemakers would leave me alone for a bit after. Especially if I took some weapons with me. Make it look like I was planning something big. Surely it would be enough to make the audience wonder, and to keep me alive for a little longer.
"Damnit, Ezra. I need to bounce some crazy ideas off you."
My older brother has always been my go-to person when I had some mad new plan or thing I wanted to try to make. He is logical to a fault, and we would sit down together, me giving him each piece of my plans and him picking apart every common-sense fault that I had missed until we covered all the problems or decided that it would never work. What I wouldn't give to have him here now.
Clutching his ring that he gave me for a District token, I try to channel his voice. What would he say? It's crazy, but sometimes you can't play it safe to win? Don't be so foolish, it's what they want you to do?
"What do you reckon, Ezra?"
My stomach grumbles in reply and I take that as an answer. Back home they would be just about ready for dinner now. Tinned pasta in barely flavoured sauce or beans on little squares of bread sounds wonderful right now. It's Balia's thirteenth birthday in a few days. Maybe I'll be alive to see it. No, I can't die on my sister's birthday. That wouldn't be right. Then they can't enjoy the fruit and biscuits.
But if I don't get food, I'll have starved by then. I have to do it. It's my only chance.
The breeze picks up as the sun sets, blowing down from the northern parts of the Arena. Without it I would never have heard the distant screams, though it takes me a minute or two to realise that is what they are. On and on they go, desperate cries, though the words are completely incoherent at this distance. I would put them directly north of me, somewhere between here and the north-east tower, maybe half a mile in direct distance.
From my look over the Arena two days ago, I was able to determine the basic shape and size. Each of the six equal sides appeared to be two thirds of a mile long, meeting in the typical 120o corners of a standard hexagon. Dragging my mind through various formulae, I came up with a rough figure of 1.6 square miles. It doesn't sound like much until you realise just how many lengths of passageway can be crammed in, like the twisting, folded wires jammed into many appliances. That puts the towers a little under a mile apart, and each a little over half a mile to the Cornucopia. Without the wind blowing directly this way I wouldn't have heard a thing through the layers of shrubbery.
The cries stop abruptly after nearly twenty minutes, and a few seconds later the cannon-fire rings out. Before the echoes die, the anthem blares, and I smile at the thought of the Gamemakers scrambling to add the picture of the suddenly departed. Then I frown. Have I become so numb to the thought of children dying already? And such a long and terrible death too by the sound of it.
The first victim of the last twenty-four hours is Dalton from Five. I'm surprised he made it this long, and I'm guessing he was the death I heard on my return from water-gathering this afternoon, as he hovers there a good minute before Tobias from Twelve replaces him. Eleven of us left, less than half by the end of day four.
I've seen faster, and I've seen slower. Now that we are down below half the Gamemakers will start picking up the pace. They need to keep the audience interested, and maybe they have so far. After all, both Junis and Sparrow are still alive, with the entire Career pack after them. And they still have their underdogs in me, Aleksander and Anton.
Now is the time when I have to make myself interesting. If I don't carve out the path that I want now, then the Gamemakers will choose one for me. And I don't want to be the next wild card pushed into the paths of the killers. If I take the initiative and meet them on my terms then I won't have to worry about being chased towards them by some monster or natural disaster, leaving me unprepared and defenceless.
Tearing the remains of the satchel down the sides, I use it as a rug while I try to get some sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow.