The countdown begins. Only a handful of tributes appear to be coherent. The rest are still in a daze. I scan the platforms for familiar faces. A good number of the tributes across from me disappear behind the Cornucopia, which sits perfectly on the shimmering green meadow. It almost looks as though it's floating among the lilies in the water. However, now the only way to reach any weapon is to swim.
I scan the faces of the other tributes, realizing it will be next to impossible to sort out all who are from the Capitol versus those from the Districts. Only a few stand out. I spot Gale almost immediately, but he doesn't see me. His focus is on the Cornucopia. He's staring at it, just as he stared at that stupid wall. I know this is his chance. He's going to kill whatever Capitol citizens he can. And I know I can't go with him.
The next person I spot is Effie. She's the furthest person I can see, who hasn't disappeared behind the golden Cornucopia. If I hurry, I may be able to save her before anyone notices. We could escape into the mountainside. As far as I remember from Haymitch's games, there aren't as many death traps in that area. Still we will have to remain cautious, in case of an eruption.
While attempting to plan out a safe escape route, I realize I'm running out of time. That's when I notice who's next to me. The flattened nose. The black and gold stripes. Her distorted face is probably the most easily recognized in the arena. Tigris.
She glances in my direction only for a moment. When she does, a sympathetic look appears in her eyes. I know she must have been with me at some point in the Capitol. Just as with Dr. Aurelius, my mind has left me clues of who I've been with over the past two years. I doubt we met in the cellar of her shop as I had once imagined. Most likely, she was forced into captivity like the rest of us. But still, there must have been some kind of interaction between us in the darkened room where I had been kept.
Tigris stares off into the distance. It's not the intense stare that remains in Gale's eyes. But it's one I've seen before. A look I've seen worn by so many in the Districts. A look of defeat. The same look of defeat, I wore myself the day after my father died. How hopeless I had felt. Unfortunately, it's this very feeling of hopelessness which has convinced Tigris to give up and step off her platform.
Tigris vanishes in a blaze of fire and smoke. The explosion echoes across the meadow, causing most of the tributes to come out of their daze. I'm not sure if the blast startled some more off their platforms, or if Tigris' act of despair inspired others to do the same. Either way, three more detonations sound before the countdown is even halfway finished.
The last blast still echoes from across the meadow. That's when I see who else the Capitol has chosen for their tributes. Four peacekeeper uniforms are arranged on consecutive platforms, each already carrying a weapon. The first two I recognize from my last moments with Caesar. I believe the taller one's name is Murellus. The other two however, are even more unexpected.
An undisturbed Enobaria grins, revealing her metallic fangs, which reflect the sun's beams across the meadow. By her side is the last person in the world that I want to see here right now. Peeta.
For the first time, seeing Peeta terrifies me. And now I know why the Capitol has allowed for so many tributes to live. It's a ruse. A deceptive plan for misdirecting us. While one half of the tributes fight the other half, the Capitol's own hand-selected careers will go around and pick off whoever's left. Whether it's people from the Districts or Capitol-born citizens, it doesn't matter who wins. The Capitol isn't planning on letting any of us out alive.
The countdown finishes, and all at once, everyone scatters. Some run towards the meadow for weapons. Others run toward the forest for shelter. I run towards the one person I know I can save.
I pick up speed. It doesn't seem to matter whether the people I'm running past are from the Capitol or the Districts. They all stay out of my way just the same. A couple of them even dive out of the way. Effie hasn't moved. Her feet are still firmly planted on her platform. She's panicking.
As soon as reach her I grab Effie by her wrist, pulling her along as I dart past. At first this causes Effie to yelp. But when she realizes it's just me, Effie picks up her pace and runs alongside me.
The screams of the dying tributes resonate louder and more frequently. I do my best to block out the horrific sounds while hastening our speed. We're nearly there. The woods that lead to the snowcapped mountain grow closer and closer. I can already smell the pine when we collide with another tribute, who tackles us to the ground.
My head smacks into the dirt. I try to pick myself up, but I'm too disoriented. The man, who has tackled us is soaking wet and carrying a finely honed sword. He ignores Effie completely, and focuses on me. But just as he raises the sword, a three-pronged spear skewers his neck.
Swiftly I'm lifted to my feet again when I hear a familiar voice. "I thought you ladies looked like you could use some help." A wave of relief hits me, as I turn to see a drenched Finnick Odair standing beside me. After giving me a quick wink, he reaches down for Effie's hand, who already seems to be in complete awe. "We're going to need to hurry, if we plan on making it out of here alive," Finnick reminds her.
"Oh," Effie nods and immediately latches onto Finnick's arm.
After raising a blushing Effie to her feet again, we all retreat into the pine forest that guards the mountainside. We race through the trees, venturing deeper into the woods, as the screams from the Cornucopia finally fade away.
At the mountain's edge, we stop when the first cannon sounds. Remaining motionless, we count the booms that thunder through the trees. The first four rumble loudly for the tributes, who stepped onto their own mines. For the fifth, I picture the man Finnick had saved us from. Every cannon thereafter, however, rings with the possibility of death for someone I know.
Twenty-three booms in all. For a typical Hunger Games that would be the end of it. The Victor would be taken away, and it would all be over. Today, those are just the casualties for the first twenty minutes. I can't help but wonder how so many were slaughtered already.
Finnick must be able to tell what I'm wondering, by the surprised expression on my face. "It was the meadow," Finnick pants. "And the Cornucopia," he adds. A confused look registers on my face before he explains. "The meadow was filled with mutts beneath the surface. Any tributes that tread water for too long would get dragged under. The fastest in and out of the Cornucopia were the only to survive. The rest sank to the bottom with the Cornucopia."
"What?" I accidently shout.
"The Cornucopia was actually floating. It could only hold the weight of a couple people at a time. I managed to get there first. I grabbed a few weapons and got out as fast as I could. Once the majority arrived, the Cornucopia capsized taking them all down with it."
So that's it then. The last Hunger Games, and there are no interviews, no training, no sponsors, and now there is no Cornucopia either.
Thankfully, Finnick must have been planning to come and find me from the start. He managed to grab a bow and some arrows for me, as well as a trident for himself. He also acquired a couple of swords, one of which came from the man, who tried to kill me.
"Was there any food?" Effie asks.
"Not that I saw," Finnick replies. "If there was, it's all gone now. They must want to finish us all off as quickly as possible."
He's right. Without food from the Cornucopia, everyone will starve. There is nothing edible in this place. Everything in this arena is toxic. Even the water isn't safe to drink from. There's plenty of fruit found dangling in bushes throughout the arena, but every bit of it is poisonous.
After watching Haymitch's games, I've seen children die from as little as the scent of a flower or the sting of a butterfly. Everything is deadly. Anything edible would have been found at the Cornucopia. And even if there was anything there this time around, it's all gone now. The only thing left that is safe to consume is the rainwater. But how long can the Capitol expect these Games to last, without any food.
"Why would they want the Games to end so soon?" Effie questions.
Finnick gives a little smirk. "Snow probably expects that the rebels will try and rescue us again. Especially, since they've used this arena before. They might as well put up a big sign that says come collect your prisoners."
Effie's eyes grow wide. "Oh my, do you think they could really do it. Might they actually come to rescue us?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. Now that they've got Beetee working on the outside, I can imagine the shield around the arena would go down within the next day or so." This information seems to perk Effie up. Now she's even more awestruck by Finnick. I can't say I blame her. She's only just met him, and he's already saved our lives and given her the hope of being rescued.
Unfortunately, I'm not as confident as Finnick. I don't believe Coin will be risking more lives to save any of us. Me especially. To her I'm just a martyr, who should have been dead years ago.
Finnick takes the bow and arrows off his back, passing them to me. Then he hands the larger of the two swords to Effie. When she nearly topples over, Finnick decides to trade Effie the smaller sword instead.
Together the three of us continue beside the base of the mountain. Along the way two more booms sound. All I think about is whether those cannons signaled the deaths for tributes taken by the arena, or by Peeta. Have he and the other peacekeepers already begun to pick off the runaway tributes? I hope I'm wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised.
Another cannon fires. Now I wish I knew where Gale was. Is he alright, or were one of those cannons meant for him? I know he's strong enough to survive the initial bloodbath, but in this arena, nothing is certain. My head is splitting. I can't think about this anymore. The throbbing pain in my head has already returned and I don't want to risk making it worse.
The pain couldn't have come at a worse time. I can hear the crunching of leaves beyond the next grouping of pines. Someone else is approaching. Finnick and Effie can hear it too. We all freeze. I ready my bow, while Finnick scans the woods for any sign of the movement. Behind us Effie is trembling, as she clutches her sword with both hands.
As we wait, the footsteps grow nearer. I can see them now. There are three of them. I prepare to release an arrow into the heart of the nearest man, but stop, when I realize who it is.
The moment they hear me say his name, Effie and Finnick relax. Slowly, but surely Pollux stumbles out from behind the trees followed by a man I don't recognize and Boggs.
Boggs shoves the strange man along, while Pollux hurries along to embrace Effie and me. The last time I had seen either of them, they were being taken away by peacekeepers. Back in my cell, I often wondered if I would ever see them again. But now that they're here, even under the current circumstances, I'm happy to see them both alive.
I look over to see Boggs smiling at me. "Glad to see our mockingjay is still here."
"It's good to see you too, Boggs," I smile back.
Boggs looks away as he continues to push the unknown man along. Whoever he is, he looks to be wearing an old, worn-out peacekeeper's uniform.
Finnick's eyes fixate on the man sternly. "Boggs, what are you doing bringing a peacekeeper along with you?"
Boggs looks over to Pollux. "Well, I was going to kill him, but Pollux jumped in front of me the moment I tried to. He seemed to recognize his name."
"Who is he?" I ask.
The man's eyes gradually meet mine before he mutters his name. "Lieutenant Cooper."
Effie gasps. I ignore the questionable looks from Finnick and Boggs. All I can think of is Bonnie and that old communicator. Is this really the man, who it belonged to? How did he end up here? These are the words I want to say, but can't after seeing his uniform. Instead, a cold harshness triggers in my voice.
"Why does the Capitol want you dead?" I demand.
Cooper stiffens slightly. "They found out I was a contact for the rebels." I can tell he's attempting to speak up, but he's still barely audible. "They caught me sending information to Plutarch Heavensbee."
There's only silence now. Could it be true? Is he really on our side? Cooper's statement has caught everyone's attention. But I can tell Boggs remains unconvinced as his eyes look over the unknown man suspiciously. Without hesitation Boggs puts a spear to Cooper's throat, preparing to question him. "We keep track of all our contacts in 13. And Plutarch has never once mentioned your name before. Why do you suppose that is?"
Cooper glares back at Boggs, and without even blinking replies, "Plutarch didn't want to hand over all of his contacts. He doesn't trust Coin enough for that. I'm sure you of all people can understand."
Boggs goes silent. I've only ever seen him angry once before. The time he spoke to Coin after she sent Peeta in to replace Leeg2. However, right now Boggs looks like he could throttle Cooper.
But he doesn't. Instead Boggs lifts the spear away from Cooper's throat and doesn't utter another word.
This is something I can't ignore. Not with so many of our lives at stake. "Boggs, what is he talking about?"
Boggs doesn't look at me. He just stays silent.
"I can tell her. I don't mind," Cooper says quietly. Boggs throws him a look of disgust. "Really, she'll probably just hear it from someone else anyway. That is, if we don't all end up dead." Cooper takes Boggs' silence as permission to keep going. "Well, when you all were initially brought into the Capitol, the first thing Snow requested was that you all be tortured for information separately. Most died in the process. However, two members of your squad finally cracked under the pressure. Boggs was the first."
I glance over at Boggs, who is still refusing to look at anyone. "Why?" I ask.
Boggs says nothing, but Cooper carries on. "It seemed his allegiance was to you and not Coin. Once this was discovered, it became relatively easy for Snow to retrieve what little information Boggs had. The only significant information he got out of him was that you did not trust Coin, and Coin wished you dead. It wasn't much. But it was just enough to save your life."
"So that's when Snow decided to hijack me instead," I affirm.
Cooper nods. He seems somewhat surprised that I already know this, but he doesn't question it. "Snow had chosen a new purpose for you. All he needed was the proper motivation."
Prim. Of course, she was obvious choice.
I must have said her name aloud because again, Cooper nods, "All Snow had to do was link your sister to the bombing in the Capitol and you would have been ready to kill Coin." Cooper keeps going, but I can't focus on any of it. Not after hearing what he just said.
"The bombing. That really happened?" I interrupt.
Somewhat confused, Cooper stops midsentence. "Yes. Snow knew the bombs were coming. He just didn't expect the Capitol children would be the targets. Fortunately precautions were set up near President Snow's home, so the majority of children were saved before the second explosion."
I'm not sure whether to feel relieved or upset at this point, but I continue to interrogate Cooper. "How did they know the bombs were coming?"
"The information came from the other member of your squad. The Hawthorne boy. He apparently had worked on the team that came up with the design for the bombs, so he gave the peacekeepers everything they needed."
Gale. He's the last person I would have expected. I can't imagine what the Capitol could've done to make him talk.
Cooper must see the confusion register on my face, so he explains. "Although the boy had sworn his allegiance to Coin, it was noted his loyalty was stronger towards you. Snow made a few threats against your life and just like Boggs, he gave in relatively quickly. He probably would've only needed to last another day or so, and the Districts would have succeeded in winning the war."
It's my fault. I don't know what else to think. I never once tried to trust Coin. I never wanted to. I was never on her side, and because of it, Snow found the weakness he needed to use to his advantage.
Two more cannons fire, and immediately we all fall silent. The booming echoes have given us a reminder of where we are. We can't stay here out in the open. We need to find shelter before it gets dark.
Eventually we find a cave large enough for all six of us. Finnick volunteers to take the first watch. He sits outside to get a good view of the mountainside, in case of an eruption, while also keeping a careful eye on Cooper.
Inside the cave Boggs stares distrustfully at Cooper, while Effie and Pollux sit clustered beside me. Both of them seem completely content since we've all been reunited again. Their calmness has almost allowed me to forget that we're even in the arena. Then another cannon fires and I remember how much danger we are all in.
Through the darkness, I look over towards Cooper. Ever since I woke up in the Capitol, I've had nothing but questions. Now is my time to get some answers.
"Do you know what it's like on the outside? Do you know who's winning the war?" I ask.
I can barely see him, but through the darkness I hear Cooper sigh. "At this point, I don't believe anyone is. The rebels came close to ending it, but after the bombing, most of the rebels began to question Coin's tactics. The Rebellion fractured and splintered off into two factions. District 2 even rejoined the Capitol."
Of course District 2 has. That's no surprise. They were always the most loyal to the Capitol. But the entire Rebellion dividing; that's something I didn't expect. "What are the two factions?" I ask.
"Well Coin is still leading District 13, along with 10 and 11. And District 8 has been leading the rest, with the exception of 9," Cooper stops abruptly.
"What about District 9? What side are they on?"
Cooper takes a moment before responding. "District 9 isn't on any side. There isn't a District 9 anymore." I know the others are listening, but no one says a thing. I don't blame them. What more is there to say? Just like my own District, District 9 has been destroyed. Only eleven Districts remain and half of them aren't even on the same side. No wonder the war has lasted this long.
Out of the darkness, Boggs' voice cuts in. "Were there any survivors?"
"Not many. I believe District 8 was able to save a handful, but it wasn't anything like the 12 bombing. There was no one to lead them out in time," Cooper explains.
"Why District 9?" I ask.
"After you were all captured, word got out that the rebels were thinking about choosing another Victor to become the new mockingjay. When Snow heard that it was a District 9 Victor, he sent what few hovercrafts the Capitol had left to neutralize the situation." Cooper's voice goes really quiet now. "Anyway, that's the least of the Rebellion's worries."
Anger rises up in Boggs' voice. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Didn't they tell you?" Cooper asks surprised. He waits for a response and takes everyone's silence as a no. "They've announced to all of Panem that this is the final Hunger Games. But it's not exactly. There's a catch. Any District that chooses to leave the Rebellion and rejoin the Capitol will be welcomed back and exempt from all future Hunger Games. All Districts that don't abandon the Rebellion will continue to offer tributes for all future Hunger Games."
"They don't have the power to do that anymore," Boggs snaps.
"They're doing it now," Cooper growls. "And depending on how many Districts take the offer, who is going to be left to stop them?"
This unsettling question silences us all. Now I know why we've all been kept alive. It wasn't about us. It was about the Games. The Final Games. The Games that needed to happen in order to put the odds back in the Capitol's favor.
There's no way I can sleep now. My mind is too overwhelmed. Thankfully I have the next watch. Before I go take a seat outside the cave, Finnick hands me some vines that he managed to tie together like a short length of rope. "Thought you could use it," Finnick smiles.
"Thanks," I reply taking the vines from him.
After taking a seat outside the cave, I gaze up at the mountainside. If Snow doesn't care about our lives why doesn't he just make the volcano erupt? It would be quick. Just a couple of minutes and he would never have to worry about the girl on fire ever again. There are so many ways he could kill me now. Does he have something specific planned out? Maybe that's why Peeta is here. Maybe Snow wants him to be the one to do it. Just another clever punishment from the Capitol.
My gaze shifts from the mountain to the sky. I search the false scenery for weaknesses in its armor. Why haven't the rebels come? Do they know we're here? Do they even care? Now that the Districts are divided we're probably the least of their concerns. Maybe some of them have already given up and taken the Capitol's deal. Either way, it seems less and less likely that we're going to be saved.
I try thinking of ways to break the force field from within, like we did in the Quell, but I can't. Just when I thought they were gone, my headaches have return. I try to distract myself with the vines that Finnick gave me for rope, but the pain is too strong. This is the worst it's ever been.
I fall to my side gripping my head. The pain is searing. I can't keep my eyes open. It hurts too much to try to. Pretty soon the sensation of my head splitting in two overwhelms me, and I can feel myself passing out.
The pain vanishes, but now I'm lying on a hospital cot in a darkened room. Not another dream! I don't think I can handle another one of these right now.
I scan the room and find a man with a white coat and a syringe. As he approaches I can see his face. It's Dr. Aurelius. He takes my arm and touches it with the tip of the syringe, when a familiar voice calls out.
"Just a moment Aurelius, we must wait for our guest." The cold tone of the voice sends a shiver up my spine. Then the aroma of white roses and blood fills the air. I think I'm going to be sick. He's in the corner of the room watching, telling Aurelius to wait until the door opens.
A young girl enters the room escorted by peacekeepers. It's Prim.
"Okay, you may proceed Aurelius." Snow's eyes glare at me like a snake.
Dr. Aurelius turns to me with the syringe. Prim screams my name. She's begging them to stop. She's begging them to let me go. But it's too late. The needle has already pierced my arm. I feel as though I've been injected with fire.
This sends me into another world. A world made up of shine. I'm just outside of Snow's house, surrounded by Capitol children and silver parachutes. Then I see Prim. Then I see only fire, before my nightmare ends.
I awake, but I don't scream. I can't scream. Something has knocked the wind out of me. Or I should say someone.
A shadowy figure locks on top of me. I prepare to fight back, but I soon relax when I realize who it is. Pollux. He's supposed to be taking the next watch. He must have tripped and fallen in the darkness. Nothing to worry about.
There's someone else moving around in the darkness though. And it isn't until I hear Effie scream that I recognize that something is wrong. Panicked, my eyes dart back to Pollux's face, where I see the blood begin to trickle from his mouth.
End of Chapter 4
M. Cooper Jinks