I've got to tell somebody about this. I can't keep it a secret. Scion's riddles, his shadows, they all come down to this: The man's out to destroy anything and everything he sees. I can't just let that happen; I can't sit by while everything around me burns.
Who could I tell? Certainly not Nero, that's for sure; I can't trust the President's own machinations. I fear if I tell any of the other victors, Scion will take it out on them. He's already shown he can follow me anywhere; how hard would it be to stalk Omaha, Selene, Finnick, Aura, or someone else? Besides, what could they do? Sympathize? Nobody in District 9 has the power to fight back against this kind of thing – and by the sound of it, everyone who can even just hold their own back home has been corrupted by Scion's Vox.
Even Reed. Oh, Reed, why…
Do I know anybody else? Anybody at all who could put an end to this.
Scipio. I don't know the man, but he's the only one in the Capitol I can trust who has a measure of power. He doesn't like Nero either…and while I don't think he really likes me, he's better than nothing.
First, however, I need to take care of Wren. I'm still a mentor…and the Hunger Games are still going on.
Scion leaves me back at the Control Center, and I rush inside past the columns and foyer. It feels like I haven't been gone all that long, but my trip into the mountains around the Capitol has burned the better part of the afternoon. Already the setting sun makes its way down towards the horizon, sending jets of orange across the alpine sky.
The Gamesmakers are still hard at work around their computer consoles as I step back into the Control Center, pushing past the two aging mentors from District 6 and into my district's suite. Omaha's standing over the center hologram and inspecting labeled dots moving around the map, but besides him, the place is empty.
"I'm not going to ask what you were doing," he says quietly. "Probably better I don't know."
"Yeah," I reply. "It is. Where's Selene?"
"Rubbing elbows at some lounge across the city. Cicero's at an artist's gathering, trying to bring in sponsorships. It might not matter for long, however."
"Why's that? What's happening?"
Omaha looks at the map grimly, running his thumb along his chin. "We might have trouble."
I hurry up to the hologram, frantically looking around the map until I find the lone dot marked with a '9'. Wren's at the base of the hills that ring one side of the map – but two other dots are moving towards her quickly. I glance down at their numbers: 4 and 7.
"Turn on the screen," I say, breathing in slowly and sitting down in a chair. "We can't just watch the map."
"Skye," Omaha says carefully. "Are you sure you want to watch? After Aston –"
"Just turn it on. Please."
Omaha sighs and flicks on the screen. I fold my hands, take a deep breath, and hope for the best.
Wren's alone. She scrabbles over a pile of boulders at the base of the hills, the cold desert wind darkening her bright face with dust. She rubs a piece of dirt out of her eye, clutching her blanket close to her chest in an effort to keep out the cold. The girl doesn't have enough to survive on: She's already drank a third of her water, and the rest won't last long out on the harsh desert flats. With no food and no other supplies, she'll be a goner if she can't find food and shelter. I don't even want to imagine how cold the night will get.
She stops and sits down on a smaller boulder in a crevice in the rock pile. Wren's partly out of sight in the ditch, but it takes all I have not to scream at her to move with other tributes nearby. She's cold and looking for a way to warm up: The girl takes off her jacket, looking around quickly to make sure she's safe before opening up her blanket and wrapping it around her chest and torso. She shivers and clutches her arms, rubbing her limbs to get circulation flowing before putting the jacket on back over her newly blanketed body.
I bite my lip and clench my jaw as someone approaches. Wren hasn't seen him yet, but he's seen her.
It's Ash. The boy already proved his worth by taking out Cormorant; Wren won't stand a chance. He closes the gap silently by treading lightly atop the boulder pile, one hand keeping his balance while the other clutches a tomahawk.
I glance over at the map. Triton's nearby, about a hundred meters behind him and approaching. Further up the hill, Phoebe – the last member of the non-volunteer alliance – works her way down towards the base.
3 on 1. These are not good odds.
Somebody help, I think nervously. Somebody do something. Don't kill her.
Wren gets up just as Ash scales the last boulder overlooking her crevice. He crouches down on all fours, narrowing his eyes and getting ready to leap down to her. Wren looks up just as Ash starts to jump: She shrieks and dives out of the way, scampering to her left as Ash bounds down into the crevice. Wren scrambles for safety, scrabbling into a narrow fissure between two of the rocks, but it's too late.
Ash reaches out like a bolt of lightning, grabbing Wren's ankle in one massive hand. She screams and kicks, striking the boy in his face, but Ash won't give up. He yanks her back, throwing Wren head-first into a boulder. She cries out in pain, grabbing her forehead and grimacing as blood trickles down her face. The fight's over fast: Ash leaps to his feet, bending down and grabbing Wren by the neck as she whimpers. He carriers her easily in one hand, climbing back on top of the boulders and calling out to his ally.
"'Ey, Odair," Ash yells, holding Wren aloft like a trophy as she claws at her throat. "Want me to kill this one?"
"The hell is that?" Triton shouts back, climbing on top of the boulder pile and jogging closer. "Is that even a tribute? They had people mutts in the arena last year."
"Yah. It's one of the little ones."
Triton scrunches up his face as he walks up, brushing his bronze hair aside with his free hand. The rough desert hasn't even touched his good looks: The boy's still the Capitol icon he was when he arrived, and sponsors far and wide have to be loving this: "Good lord, man – did she mess up your face? Your nose's bleeding."
"Only a kick. You want to kill her?"
"Ah, hell. This is gonna feel dirty – she's like what, 12? Maybe? But one less tribute…can't argue with that. Just flip her over and I'll make it quick."
Ash tosses Wren to the ground, pinning her on her stomach by planting a foot on her back. She breathes quickly and shallowly, the gash on her head dripping blood onto the boulder. Triton tosses his spear up in the air, catching it in a reverse grip and holding the point over the back of Wren's head.
"Sorry, girl," he says.
"Please," Wren pleads. "Please don't…please don't…"
Anger surges up through me as I look away. This is Finnick's son – his only child – about to murder Wren in cold blood. She's innocent! She did nothing – nothing! Triton's no better than any other volunteer. He's a murderer; a killer; a –"
"Triton! Triton Odair!" a high-pitched voice calls out in the arena. "Don't you dare do that! I'm watching what you two are doing!"
Phoebe marches down the hill, her brown hair swirling about her face and her spear leveled in front of her. The dust blowing up around her makes the girl from District 5 look like some sort of avenging warrior goddess, come to swing the tides of battle in her favor.
"I don't care if you want to gut and skin Alecto or Jasper or any of those other clueless mooks," she shouts, climbing on top of the boulder pile and keeping her fierce eyes fixed on Triton. "But I'm not going to let you take out your sadistic fantasies on a little girl like that!"
Ash takes his foot off Wren's back as Triton sighs, "It's not a sadistic fantasy; it's paring down the competition. C'mon, Phoebe; this is ridiculous."
"What's ridiculous is you acting like any other fool," she replies sharply. "It's ridiculous that you think she's gonna hurt us. You're not going to, are you sweetie?"
"This is idiotic," Triton wipes his face with his hand and looks around. "This is the kind of thing that gets people killed."
"I guess you weren't watching the Games last year, then," Phoebe says. "Is this what they teach you in District 4? Kill everyone? And what were you doing, Ash; just going along with it?"
"Just doing my job," he shrugs.
I feel a surge of relief wash over me. Thank you. I don't know a thing about this Phoebe girl, but she has my thanks. At least someone's got a heart; someone's watching out for Wren when it seems like the whole world's against her. If I can't be there in the arena with her, at least someone who can look after her can be.
"Give me a second to make sure you didn't kill the poor girl," Phoebe says to her companions. "Go play with yourselves or something to stay busy."
"We should keep moving," Triton opines, tapping his spear butt against the ground and looking off into the distance. "I want to get to the caves before nightfall. No telling what's gonna prowl around here."
"I said give me a damn second."
"Fine, fine, whatever. You heard her, Ash: We gotta go play with each other."
"Inappropriate for family-friendly viewing, Odair."
Triton and Ash walk off as Phoebe bends down, holding out her hand to Wren: "Are you okay, sweetie? I'm not gonna hurt you."
Wren holds back, watching Phoebe with a careful eye. The girl from District 5 slips off her pack, pulling out a bottle of water and a long strip of cloth.
"What's your name?" Phoebe asks her with a smile, doing her best to keep her at ease.
"I'm Phoebe, from District 5. Is anybody with you?"
"Wren," Phoebe sits back. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you – alright? C'mere – lemme clean your head up. You're bleeding."
Wren steps forward nervously, keeping her eyes on the girl from District 5. Phoebe pours out some of the water from her bottle onto the cloth, wiping it over Wren's gash and cleaning some of the blood away.
"I don't know what those boys were thinking," she sighs, wringing the cloth out and tying it around Wren's head like a headband. "But this'll stop the blood. Makes you look a little fiercer too now, huh? Tell you what, Wren – you don't look like you have much in terms of supplies. We have enough to share – why don't you come with us? I'll keep you safe, and those two are so interested in fighting that they'll keep the bad kids away."
Wren looks up cautiously, her eyes filled with hesitation: "They don't want me, do they?"
"Pff, I don't care what they want," Phoebe waves her concern away. "Those two are gonna have to live with it. Just stick with me. I'll make sure nothing happens…and that they keep their hands to themselves."
"Hey, Phoebe?" Triton calls out from higher up the hill. "Ash doesn't play nice with others. Are you done collecting strays so we can move on?"
"Yeah, we're coming," she grunts back. "C'mon Wren – let's go on an adventure."