The word has been lingering in my mind for days, and as I stand at the head of the training floor I grin. I am in my element. The intense lights line the ceiling, allowing for perfect visibility in every area of the room. The floors are coated with soft, black material that's perfect for hand-to-hand combat, yet at the same time the dark colours throughout the room create a dangerous and final atmosphere. The room looks nothing like any arena, yet as the rest of the tributes file in behind me I feel an excited bloodlust that stands my hair on end. The last seventeen years of my life have been building up to these next few weeks – I have lived for the Hunger Games and I don't intend to stop now.
As I look around the circle of tributes, I realise how many kids there are. Everyone expects a few, but this year the number of young ones is overwhelming. Everyone from the Districts hates it, and I'm no exception. The first few will be fun to kill, but after a while the pleading and crying will surely get old. Older tributes are better for chasing and fighting, and everyone knows that's the best part.
I count twenty-four including myself, and the double doors behind me close and lock securely. Even before we get into the arena we're monitored and guided around like toddlers, and even though I'm used to intense training being treated the same as the uncouth tributes from poverty-ridden Districts makes my blood boil. A dark-skinned woman stands on a podium in front of us and clears her throat.
"Welcome, tributes. Over the next three days you will receive intense training that will prepare you for the challenges of the arena. Every day there will be three hours of mandatory strength and fitness training, but after this you can spread out to whichever stations you please." The woman gestures around the room, and everyone turns their heads to look. One large area of the floor has been dedicated to a series of obstacles and weights, which will be where we do our mandatory training, and the rest of the room is occupied by several smaller stations where we can learn anything from skinning animals, to climbing trees and fighting with swords.
"So," The woman says, directing our attention back to her, "after your three days of training you will be individually assessed, and given a ranking from one to twelve; one being the lowest, twelve being the highest. However, a twelve has never been awarded before." She looks at us expectantly, and I grin. "But remember, before you all go running to the weapons," Hah. Like half of these kids could even hold a weapon. "almost half of the deaths that will occur in the arena will be due to things such as infection, starvation and dehydration. So I suggest you all pay close attention to every lesson on offer." She flashes us a quick smile before stepping off the podium and leaving the room. For a moment everyone looks around, confused, and I roll my eyes.
Swords. That's what I'm good at. I know how to hold them, how to manage them, and most importantly, how to get the quickest kill with them. The official rules of the Hunger Games are that no tribute is allowed to receive training before arriving in the Capitol, but everyone knows that tributes from One and Two are fed and trained for the Games, and since we're on such good terms with the Capitol, no one has the guts to do anything about it. But every idiot who comes to the Games knows not to show your strengths whilst training. What's the point in having a strength if you can't keep it a secret? The element of surprise is one of the most dangerous weapons in the arena, and so is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies. As everyone rushes to the different stations dotted around the room I stand, arms folded, watching them intently. The brother-sister pair from Four stay together – one of the most idiotic moves in the history of the Hunger Games – and make their way to the fire building lesson. They will have no problem making traps or catching food, and I decide that if I don't need to watch out for Edie, I at least need to watch out for Aedan. Normally Districts One and Two would join up with Four to form what the other tributes call the 'Career' pack, but I highly doubt Aedan would consider joining us. Anyway, his little sister will be especially fun to kill.
The rest of the tributes shuffle around alone, wandering from one station to another. Some really pay attention, like the tributes from Three and Ten, but a lot of the others become confused and frustrated with the lessons that are probably beyond their capabilities. After about a quarter of an hour I decide I've had enough of people watching, and make my way to the climbing station, where Daray Caverly – my District partner – stands, eyeing up the fake tree in front of him. I stand behind him, waiting for him to make some sort of move.
"If you're this slow in the arena, you're going to get killed by that kid." I say, pointing to the twelve year old girl from Seven. She looks at me, confused, but runs away as I hiss at her. I laugh.
Daray nods at me and starts to ascend the tree, and I feel like grabbing him by the collar and pulling him down for his rudeness. In the end, I decide to simply show him up instead.
I leap for the tree, clasping the appropriate hand-holes and latch myself onto the wood. This one leap has gotten me almost as high as Daray has managed to climb, and I grin as I start to manoeuvre my way up the tree with animal-like stealth. Daray isn't bad at climbing, or anything else for that matter, it's just that I'm a lot better. We trained together back in One, and he knows how good I am, so he knows not to underestimate me. I flash a smile at him as he finally catches up to me, reaching the top branch of the surprisingly realistic faux tree.
"Show off," I hear him mutter from under his breath, and in less than a second I've got a firm grip on his collar. I push him against the branch and hold my body over his, staring him straight in the eyes.
"Don't ever say that again." I say quietly and threateningly, "We're going to be allies in the arena, but if you double cross me once, I'll have your fucking head on a stick, Caverly. Got it?"
He stares me down for a few moments before shoving me harshly away. I grab onto a branch behind me and stop myself from falling, thankful that if I did fall the height isn't enough to hurt me. I grin at Daray, licking my lips, and he scowls before quickly descending the tree. It takes one glance around the room to realise that everyone has been watching our exchange, although I doubt many people could actually hear it. What do they think was going on? Tributes from One and Two are always expected to be allies, and I don't intend to break tradition. I will enjoy killing Daray, but only when the time is right.
Just as I set both feet on the ground again, the dark-skinned woman, whose name turns out to be Lena, returns to the room.
"Tributes, it's time for lunch. Please everyone congregate in the lunch room – you'll have half an hour, after which you should meet back here for your mandatory strength and fitness training." I sigh. Making us eat lunch together is almost as humiliating as making us train together. What are we supposed to do? Make friends with the tributes from Eleven and Twelve? Learn how to mine coal over a bowl of stew? I'd rather die.
I stride nonchalantly into the lunch room and take the first white tray from the pile. Everything laid out on the long table looks delicious, but my mentor Jewel has given me a specific meal plan. I stock up on chicken, fish, bread and fruit, and pour myself a large glass of water. I look at all the empty tables in a long line across the room and smile at the fact I don't have to wander around like a lost sheep, looking for somewhere to sit in amongst the socially starved tributes. Now, if I end up sitting alone it will be because I am intimidating, not because I didn't have anywhere else to go.
It turns out that I don't end up sitting alone; I am joined by Daray Caverly, and both tributes from Two; Adriana Tate and Colt Mauritius. Adriana is tall and blonde and has been instructed to play the sex-goddess turned fighter, but from where I sit she just seems a little bit ditsy. Colt on the other hand is sixteen, a year younger than me, but I can't help but think of myself when I look at him. I think we'll make a good team, however long teams last in the arena. We make idle and boring small talk about weapons and stations and weather in the arena whilst Daray constantly stirs his soup, almost falling asleep in the process, and I watch all the other tributes to see if anyone at least tries to become friends. Most everyone sits alone, with the obvious exception of Aedan and Edie Sparks (shocker), however when eighteen year old Lily Wysor from Six sits with a group of young kids I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. They don't talk much, but even being seen with them is enough for everyone to think she's weak. Her funeral.
I finish my lunch first, having been taught to always eat quickly, and throw my tray on the disposal unit near the exit. The doors open and close for me as I make my way back into the training room, and instantly something doesn't feel right. The room looks empty, but I know I'm not alone. I walk around the maze of obstacles to find whoever's lurking in the room, and suddenly I feel a brush of air on my head, and a loud thud next to my ear makes me jump. I turn around, my eyes focusing on the razor-sharp blade that hit the wall only centimetres from my head. I spin on my heels, fuming with rage, and spot Lux Everley and Calix Ackworth from Three, standing together at the head of the knife-throwing station.
"WHO THREW THIS?!" I scream, pulling the blade from the wall and holding it between my fingers, poised to throw it at either one of them. Neither of them answer. My blood is boiling and I can feel my heart pounding. I clench my fists, unafraid of throwing a punch in this deserted and secluded area of the training room. My feet carry me closer to them at what feels like a hundred miles per hour, and before I know it my fist is in the air and crashing down on Lux Everley's cheekbone. It's a good, satisfying punch, except I forgot that I had the blade locked between my fingers, and the gushing stream of blood that pours from Lux's cheek and pools on the black floor is anything but unnoticeable. It turns out that this area of the training floor, or any area for that matter, is not so secluded, as the security cameras start flashing red and within seconds medics rush on to the scene to take Lux and her bleeding face to the hospital wing. I laugh, unable to care if it was actually her who threw the blade or not, until I feel horrifyingly strong hands lock around my wrists, beginning to drag me toward the exit.
I scream and kick the air incessantly, writhing and fighting against the hands that constrain me. For a moment we stop and I think that I've won, until I feel the deep pinch of a needle being inserted into my upper arm, and I know that I've been sedated. My eyes begin to feel heavy, and I glare at the small crowd of tributes and mentors that has gathered to watch me being dragged away. I know I must look crazy, and the thought makes me laugh. If crazy is what they want, crazy is what they'll get.
I give one last defiant kick with all the strength I have left, and laugh menacingly as my body finally succumbs to the sedative.