I notice the firelight first.
The flickering light dances on the walls of the hidden canyon. There's no other sound. The light isn't visible from any other part of the arena. The only chance a hiding tribute has of being discovered would be if someone else already knew the canyon was there and came of their own accord. Someone like me.
I duck away, sliding out of the canyon entrance and climbing up the ridge. It takes longer than I'd like but silence is absolutely essential. There's no doubt that I've come across one of the last remaining Careers. Finding out who it is will determine my next step.
I crawl towards the edge of the canyon wall, making my best estimate of where the fire is. Far behind me, howls ring through the night. I ignore them.
I peer over the edge. The campfire is dancing merrily. A dark figure is hunched over the flames, warming his hands. For a moment the image of Lil and Rowenna sleeping in this very spot so many days ago flashes across my mind. I drown the image out.
The figure turns, stretches himself out. The light pours across his face for a moment. It's the big, handsome boy from 4. Gillard. He's alone. More to the point, he's injured. A rough swath of bandages is wrapped around his torso, stained a deep red. His shirt has been cut up to make a sling for his right arm.
What's more, he doesn't have anything else with him. No supplies, no water, no food. Nothing but himself and the fire.
I sit back, looking up at the stars. I've been expecting this confrontation ever since the anthem played in the sky last night. I was still in the forest when the faces lit up the sky. The boy from 1, Pomponia from 2, and the girl from 3. Three more dead in one day. The Career alliance clearly fractured. The girl who Cora and I believed to be the most dangerous opponent dead without me ever setting eyes on her in the arena.
That was the moment when Cecelia Rheys realized that she might actually win the Hunger Games. The hope and shock and wild joy rose up in my chest until I managed to drown Cecelia in the river again, reminding her that the job wasn't done yet. Early this evening, the howls began. I don't know who they were tracking, me, the girl from 11, the last of the Careers, but I picked up what little supplies I had left and fled from the forest back into the maze of red stone towards the river. I got a sponsor gift along the way, another canteen and a small bottle of iodine. No food. There's been no food for a couple of days. By now food costs more than any other sponsor gift. Only the Careers will be fed, and maybe not even them. The hunger pangs have been stabbing through my belly since yesterday morning, and they've only gotten more difficult to ignore.
I set the canteen aside for now. It's half filled with water yet. I remove my rapier and belt and tuck it in a crevasse behind two boulders. My knife joins it. I step back and fix the place in my mind, memorizing every detail so I can find this spot again without trouble. Then I begin to strip. I tuck my filthy breastband and trousers behind another rock. I keep my boots on for the moment. Naked and stained with the marks of more than a week in the arena, I walk down to the river's edge and look up into the sky.
"You know what I need, Cora," I say.
Cecelia is talking inside my head again, pleading, saying she doesn't want her Da and Kerry to see her like this, something about too many lives taken already. I kick off my boots and step into the river and drown her again. I scrub away the stains on my skin as best I can. When I step out, the parachutes are already falling.
The linen shift is sheer ivory and beautifully embroidered. I pull it over my head. My curves are thin and angular after so much time in the arena, but it hugs them well, leaving virtually nothing to the imagination. A small make-up case comes next, and a hairbrush. I brush out my hair as best I can and flip open the case and look into the small mirror. The girl staring back at me is a stranger. Wild-eyed and savage, scarred and bruised.
I try to remember what the girl on the train did to me. It seems so long ago. Simple is best. I'll muck up anything more complicated than the basics. I manage to apply blush, eyeliner, and lipstick with moderate success before tossing the case aside. The last parachute brings a necklace of dazzling opals. I choke back a half-hysterical giggle as I put it on. The worth of the necklace could probably feed every family in my tenement for a year, but in the Games it probably cost less than half a cracker.
The anthem plays and the seal of Panem shines across the sky. No faces appear. No deaths today.
I pull my boots back on. Look back towards the entrance of the canyon.
"Remember that you are beautiful," I whisper to myself. I walk towards the firelight, armed with nothing but half a canteen of water.
Gillard doesn't hear me coming. He's crouched over the fire, rubbing his bad arm. I take a moment to study him. He's sweating, but sitting as close to the fire as he can. He shivers for a moment. His eyes aren't entirely focused. Something's off. Either his wounds are beginning to affect his mental capabilities, or he took some sort of painkiller that's deadened his senses.
I step forward, purposefully kicking aside a rock. The clattering rings against the canyon walls.
Gillard leaps up, his eyes darting frantically to every shadow and corner.
"Who's there! Come on out, I heard you!"
"It's just me," I say. "Cecelia. From Eight. Please don't hurt me."
He turns in the direction of my voice. "You come here to die, Eight?"
"No," I say. I imitate Lil's plaintive, pleading voice. "Please. I can help you."
"Step into the light," he says.
I do so, stopping about twenty yards from him. The hard look in his eyes falls away when he sees what I'm wearing.
"What…why are you dressed…" He gawps at me for long seconds, his eyes raking over my body. Finally he shakes his head. "No. You die, Eight. Now."
"But I told you I can help!" I say with a sob for added effect. "Here, see? I have water." I hold out the canteen.
He lurches forward, then stops. "You poisoned it," he says, his eyes narrowing.
He's smarter than I anticipated. I unscrew the cap and take a drink, letting water run down under my shift and over my breasts.
Gillard gives a cry and rushes me. He snatches the canteen and drains it in three long gulps. He shakes it, licking up every drop his tongue can reach before shoving it back into my hands.
"What are you doing here, Cecelia?" he asks. He's still standing very close to me, his eyes darting down.
"I've hidden here before," I say. "I came back and saw the fire. I thought maybe we could hide together. From the wolves."
"Wolves?" Gillard's eyes flash up to the walls of the canyons as if expecting mutts to come leaping down on us. "What wolves?"
"Haven't you heard them?" I whisper.
On cue, howls echo from the direction of the distant forest. I give the Gamemakers my silent thanks.
"Wolves…mutts?" he asks. "They chased you? Are they…big?"
"As tall as my shoulder," I lie. "Two long fangs on either side, like those lion things from the Fifty-First."
Gillard shivers. "You think we'll be safe here?"
I place my hand on his arm and allow my breasts to press against him for a moment. "They didn't follow me here. I think they're tracking the rest of your alliance. They don't seem to like fire very much."
Gillard looks down at me, then up at the canyon and back to his campfire. "If you're still here in the morning, I'll kill you," he says. He turns and walks back to the flames.
He is a terrible liar. I wonder if it's due to the effects of his injuries, or if he's just not the sharpest spear in the Career pack. He watches me as I follow him and lay down next to the fire. I push back the rumbles of hunger as I turn my back on Gillard. I feel his eyes on me. I let my breathing even out, hoping I don't have to wait hours for him to make his move.
It only takes twenty minutes.
I hear him get up, shuffle towards me. His good arm wraps around my body for a moment. He holds it there, as if waiting to see how I react. I don't move. Gillard moves closer, pressing himself against my body. His arm holds my own arms tight against me. He starts moving, pushing. His breathing gets heavier.
I don't resist him. I let my body relax, I move with him, and he gives a sharp gasp. My breathing gets heavier. He realizes that I'm not going to fight him and starts running his hands along my body. His teeth bite at my ear. I give a small moan.
Gillard grabs my hips, pushing me onto my stomach. He sits up for a moment. I hear him grunt as he undoes his trousers.
I spin around and smash a rock the size of an apple against his face. Blood peppers my linen shift as Gillard's ear flies off into the night.
He screams, long and loud. "You bitch! You evil fucking bitch!"
I'm up, running. Gillard is howling and cursing behind me. I can hear his footsteps racing, his breath laden heavy with pain.
I dart out of the canyon, scrambling up the rocks like an animal as Gillard pursues me. He's still screaming my name, along with every other vile word he knows. I fall and cut knee, barely feeling the warm blood trickle down my leg as I leap across the stones to the top of the canyon wall.
When Gillard finally catches up to me, his face a mask of blood broken only by his wild eyes, I'm standing above him, my hair blowing in the wind. My rapier is in my hand.
Gillard chokes for a moment, then spits out a wad of blood. "You sneaky little bitch," he says as he glares at me.
I smile. "You have no idea, precious."
He picks up a rock as big as my head. "You even know how to use that?"
I run a finger along the edge, licking the blood off my finger. "Why don't you come find out?"
Gillard doesn't waste any more time. He barrels towards me with a wild cry of fury.
I give my own cry and lunge forward.
Twenty minutes later, I watch the blood-splattered linen curl and blacken in the fire. I'm wearing my trousers and breastband again. The fire flares as the cloth catches entirely, the embroidery dancing until the delicate embers break apart.
Killing Gillard was harder than I thought it would be. And easier. He had me for a moment, his arm wrapped around his neck. Only one of the fighting moves I learned during training saved me. I dug my finger and teeth into the soft skin between his fingers until blood coursed over my mouth. A twist, a feint, and a thrust through his neck, and I made it to the top four.
I think about the boy from 4 as I clean my blade. His death was…different. I looked down at his handsome face, his wide sightless eyes staring back at me and felt…nothing. I tracked him down. I deceived him. Seduced him. Attacked and killed him. The old Cecelia would be curled up by the fire right now, gasping for breath and trying to purge the memories from her mind. I sheath my blade and wonder if any food is coming.
The skies stay empty. I lean back and finger the string of opals around my neck. The shift is nothing but ashes, the make-up case lies shattered on the river, and I have no idea what happened to the hairbrush, but even as I pulled off the opals to toss them into the night, I hesitated. Maybe I'm drawing strength from them. Or maybe they'll come in handy if I have to stage another seduction. Although I'm certain that the remaining tributes aren't big enough fools to fall for the same trap as Gillard.
I sleep, I think. The stars wheel through the sky. Not for the first time do I wonder if they're even real. I brush the thought away and let exhaustion take over again.
It's still dark when the trumpets sound.
I sit up, wide awake, heart pounding. Did I somehow miss three cannons? Are the Games over? Am I the Victor by default?
No, the strange voice that echoes through the arena says nothing about victory. The Gamemakers are going to play with their toys again.
"Attention, tributes! My name is Claudius Templesmith, the newest Hunger Games announcer. Congratulations on making the top four. The Capitol commends you for your courage and sacrifice."
The voice stops, and I can't help but roll my eyes. Anything to build up the tension. I'm sure the audience in the Capitol are on the edge of their seats.
"To honor your achievement, the Capitol has graciously set up a feast. Everything you could need or want will be provided. Now, the feast is already set up, so you should get moving quick as you can. The location is hidden, but all you need to do is find the fairy lights and follow where they lead. Good luck, and may the odds be ever in your favor."
The anthem plays and the night is quiet again.
Immediately to my left, a boulder begins to glow with a pulsing blue light.
I leap to my feet, a hundred thoughts running through my mind. This must be one of the fairy lights. The ones that will lead me to the feast. I move around closer to the entrance of the canyon and see a faint blue shadow. The next light.
I close my eyes and gather my thoughts. The Gamemakers are trying to lure me to the feast, that much is obvious. I'm no match for the remaining tributes. Not in a free-for-all. The Gamemakers know this. They're either trying to get rid of me so the real action can happen, or they're giving me the only advantage possible, by giving me the opportunity to reach the feast first.
The question is, which is it?
I pull my hair back, tie up my boots, and start to run. I don't know what game the Gamemakers are playing, but it doesn't matter. There will be no more food. That much is certain. If I go to the feast, I'll probably die. If I don't, I will die, just a bit later.
Another stone is pulsing with light at the mouth of the canyon. The next is along the riverbank.
I fill my canteen before running out into the night.
Cecelia Rheys would have stayed in the canyon. Cecelia just wanted to survive.
I'm going to win.
Dawn is painting streaks of fire across the sky when I reach the last marker.
I'm in another forest. One that I could have sworn wasn't here when the Games started. The trees are tall pines, like the ones you can see in District 7 during the reapings. It's much cooler here. Goosebumps are actually rippling over my skin. I push through the heavy tree branches, trying to move as silently as I can towards the clearing in the center of the forest.
The last fairy light crowns a glass hut set up in the clearing. It's almost identical to the glass hut in the tiny park in the Clear back in District 8. A gazebo, Spindella once called it. Snow is falling lightly around the clearing. Pale lights fill the glass walls and dance across the film of snow.
I don't hesitate. I draw my rapier and start running. With every step I expect to die, for a trap or a tribute to leap out at me. My breath comes in huge, ragged sobs, clouds of steam exploding from my mouth.
The door of the gazebo opens on its own. I dive through it and collapse on the ground, tears of relief pouring down my cheeks.
Get up you fool, get up.
I pull myself to my feet and gasp. I can't help myself. The evergreen tree inside the gazebo is shining. And beautiful. Hundreds of burning candles are set among the branches. Balls of glass gather the candlelight and through it back onto the glass panels. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
Set in piles around the tree are dozens of boxes, all wrapped in sky blue paper and tied with white bows. I pick one up and start to open it before I notice the tag.
To Ferrus, with love, from the Capitol.
I throw the package down like it burned me. I've seen far too many Hunger Games to know not to touch something the Gamemakers have left for another tribute.
I begin rummaging through the pile of presents. Some are for Ferrus, others for Andromache, and a few are for someone named Abundance who I presume must be the girl from 11. Finally, at the bottom of a pile, I come across a small box labeled To Cecelia, in generosity, from the Capitol. I rip it open. Inside is a steaming hot loaf of bread. I can't help myself. I rip my teeth into the warm bread and wolf down hunks like a ravenous animal. Half the loaf is gone in under a minute.
There are a few more presents with my name on it. A satchel. I stuff the rest of the bread inside. A long silver dagger, lighter and sharper than my knife. A healing kit, filled with bandages, ointments and creams, and pills.
It's been long enough. I need to go.
But there tucked under the tree is one more gleaming package. To Cecelia, for your protection, from the Capitol.
I shouldn't. But I do.
I'm opening the box when he speaks.
"You're the whore, aren't you?"
I spin around, rapier drawn, but he's out of reach. The boy from 2, Ferrus, is leaning against the glass wall of the gazebo. I didn't even hear him come in. He's holding two strange swords, one in each hand. The blades are each as long as my forearm. Ferrus smiles slightly, holding a finger up to his lips.
"Shhhhh. Don't make a sound, or I'll have to kill you earlier than I intended. I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Ferrus, from District 2. You must be Cecelia. The whore from District 8?"
I stand a bit straighter. My mouth is dry as paper, my heart beating out of my chest, and every nerve is screaming at me to run, run, run, but instead I face this diminutive, plain-looking boy and incline my head.
"I am Cecelia, and yes, I'm from District 8."
Ferrus makes no more inquiries. He merely nods towards the package in my hands. "That looks nice. Why don't you open it?"
I don't. "Why don't you just kill me?"
He gives that strange little almost-smile. "I don't want to kill you quite yet, Cecelia. You see, it'll no doubt be noisy and messy. There are still two tributes out there. They don't know we're in here, not yet. If Andromache or Eleven suspect I'm here, they'll never risk it. I'd rather have all of you in one place so I can end this quickly. So why don't you open your presents while we wait? Oh, and if you try to run, or scream, or make any sound, I won' hesitate, Cecelia."
My hands are shaking as I open my box. There's a vest inside, black, made of a strange sort of padding. I drop the box and hold it up.
"That's quite fetching," says Ferrus. "Why don't you put it on?"
It's light and fits over my chest snugly. Ferrus raises his eyebrow.
"You know, Gillard and Zin were idiots, but I can't deny they had good taste. You should have heard all the things they were saying about you during training."
I smile, trying to appear unconcerned and confident. I don't think it works. "And now they're dead," I say. "And I'm still here."
"For now," says Ferrus. "Ah, Andromache, I was beginning to think you weren't coming!"
Ferrus speaks just as another set of panels in the gazebo swing open and the girl from 4 dashes in. Her dark hair flies as she spins around and faces her one-time ally.
"Andromache, this is Cecelia, but you know that already. Go stand over by her."
Andromache is armed with nothing but a spear. She sidles around towards me. The fisher girl doesn't take her eyes off Ferrus but she motions for me to back up as far as I can. I do it without hesitating. We both know who the more dangerous enemy is here.
"Only one more," says Ferrus. "One more and we finish this."
"You're overconfident," says Andromache. "Once Gil gets here we can-"
"Gillard is dead," says Ferrus, his eyes glinting. "District 8 killed him. She has quite the impressive kill list."
Now Andromache does look at me, her eyes burning with hatred, and in that moment Ferrus makes his move.
He spins towards Andromache in a blur of speed and steel. The girl from 4 barely fends him off. The shaft of her spear is made of silver and she uses it to block the twin blades, once, twice, until Ferrus pushes her back into the glass. The impact leaves a spiderweb of cracks.
The one chance, the one desperate chance I have burns the fear and aches from my muscles in a surge of fire. I give a scream and leap towards Ferrus, thrusting at him with my rapier in the pattern dance that Tanni taught me so many days ago. Ferrus is taken by surprise, his defense is lowered by just a hair, and my blade cuts through his shirt and into his skin from navel to collarbone.
I don't have time to savor it. Ferrus moves with that unearthly speed. I'm locked against him, my body pressed against his. I see the blade turn, the kiss of steel bites against my neck for the briefest of instants, and then Ferrus breaks away to block Andromache, who moves almost as fast. Her spear thrusts, blocks, cuts through the air like the claws of some vengeful bird of prey. Ferrus is still holding me, but Andromache puts him off balance just for a moment. It's enough. I use the technique Tanni taught me, twisting my wrists and body to break his hold and throw him back.
Andromache steps just in front of me. "Try and flank him, District 8," she says.
I have no idea what she means. "Flank?"
"Get around behind him."
Ferrus wipes the sweat from his brow. "You're slow, District Four," he says. "And you're quick, Eight. I won't make that mistake again."
"You won't live that long," Andromache growls.
Ferrus doesn't answer. He cocks his head to one side, holds his finger up, telling us to wait. I don't dare look away to Andromache, but I can tell by the tenseness in her shoulders that she's just as wary as I am.
Ferrus gives his little smile, steps back, and kicks over the beautiful tree. It tumbles over with an almighty crash. The boy from 2 leaps over it, putting the tree between himself and us. He's still between us and the open door. Ferrus winks at us and looks down, smiling.
"Hello, Eleven. I'm impressed. You almost got away with it. No, don't get up. You look hurt. And cold. Let me warm you up."
Deep inside, I know that the terrifying boy is just pandering to the cameras, but the bile and horror rises in my throat as he plucks a fallen candle and lights the branches on fire. The flames roar up, consuming the tree and many of the presents. A long, keening wail rises above the crackling and the air is filled with a sick, overwhelmingly sweet scent of burning meat.
"Looks like I got the only present I wanted," says Ferrus. "The Gamemakers gave me all three of you, bundled up just for me."
The cannon fires.
My heart is pounding. The heat of the flames presses against me. My nostrils are filled with searing smoke.
"Let's finish this then," says Andromache between coughs.
My hands are trembling. It matches the vibrations in the ground.
"This is almost too easy," says Ferrus. "I expected the finale to be more….climactic."
"You've got your wish, Ferrus," I spit. "You brought it on your own head."
For the first time, Ferrus seems unsettled. "What are you talking about, Eight?"
I point up to where the glass panes are quivering in their iron braces. "You forgot the first rule of the Hunger Games, Ferrus. Never, ever tempt the Gamemakers."
Andromache is choking on the fumes. Ferrus gives a gasp of rage.
I smile. "If I were you, I'd run."
The Career boy gives a roar and leaps towards us, his blades raised.
I take the chance. I snatch up my satchel and run directly at the burning tree. The fire burns, it burns, and I scream so loud, but I'm through, I'm through it, and it was the one direction Ferrus didn't expect me to go. I'm out the door and running into the snow just as the gazebo explodes in a shower of glass and burning wood.
Massive beasts are pounding through the snow, a stampede of animals who stand taller than I am at the shoulder. They're four-legged with cloven hooves, horned and snorting, like huge bulls with a dog's face and sharp fangs. We're all running together, running for our lives. Andromache is on my left, still holding her spear, stumbling along as fast as she can.
Ferrus is on my other side, sprinting through the snow. He sees me. He heads my way. I look behind me. One of the beasts has me in its sight. It lowers its enormous head and barrels towards me.
I slow down, measuring my pace, trying to time it. Just when Ferrus is five yards from me, the beast bellows and tries to run me down. I spin away, but I'm not quite fast enough. My shoulder is nearly ripped from my socket by the impact and I fly away into the soft snow.
Ferrus gets it worse. The mutt-bull gores it's horn into his shoulder, sending him screaming into the snow. Blood peppers around him like rain. For a moment I think the cannon must sound, that he must be trampled, but he's up, he's up, and he's running towards the tree line without a look back.
More beasts are bursting out of the trees towards me. I sheath my rapier, grab my satchel in my good arm, and run.
The screams stop me once again.
I look to my left. Andromache has fallen. She ducks. Not quick enough. A beast tramples over her. She lies motionless, her spear yards from her body. There is no cannon.
I register that this is the most important decision I'll have to make in the Games. It's one thing to decide to kill someone. But entirely more dangerous to do the opposite.
It's not a decision I have time to ponder. So I run.
I run to Andromache's side. Another beast breaks out of the forest. It sees us, lowers its head, gives a bellow of rage.
I grab Andromache's spear. Plant my feet. Close my eyes. Thrust.
Thrust and thrust and thrust.
When the beast is dead and drained of blood, I pull out the spear. I grip the shaft in my teeth as I take Andromache's hands and begin to drag her away towards the edge of the pine forest. The fairy lights are still shining.
By the time we reach the hidden canyon, Andromache is a groaning mess of bruises and blood who stumbles forward on my shoulder, only half-conscious. My shoulder is screaming with pain, and dusk is beginning to fall.
I fall forward and drift to sleep before my head even hits the ground.
Far above me, Abundance's face lights up the sky.
And then there were three.
Which means there is only one more chapter left until the Games are over.
Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me this long. Thanks to my reviewers from Chapter 20: God1801 (for all the reviews!), melliemoo, Clove'sAllies, anla'shok, Ibbonray, beaches, and MangoLee123,
It's now been a year since I started this story, and we're almost at the homestretch. I didn't think I was going to finish for a time, but now it's certain I will. Thanks again for all your support.