Annie is standing in a corner of the hovercraft, muttering things. No one is listening but Finnick. He stands very near her but is very careful not to touch her. Nance is preoccupied with pretending to be busy, and Melinda, Owen's stylist, and Isaak are conversing in quiet voices by a small table. I've curled up in a ball, clutching myself together on the couch. Owen's been in a fitful sleep for most of the flight.
I roll onto my back and look at the rounded ceiling, finding little to distract me. Numbers continue tallying up in my head; how long I've been away from home, the odds on the scoreboard in the center of the Capitol, the minutes until we arrive. That's the very thing I'm trying not to think about, but the remaining seconds tick by faster than I can count.
I think I fall asleep, because only a moment later Isaak shakes me awake. He looks worried, so I try to smile at him, managing only a grimace. Owen's eyes are huge, and I lean over and touch his shoulder.
"Don't worry, I'll find you."
He nods, and then Isaak leads me off the slight ramp out of the hovercraft. Annie spares me a glance. Her eyes are glassy.
"Good luck," she murmurs. Then the hovercraft closes and we're alone in the catacombs of the arena.
The room we enter is empty but for two armchairs, a black table set up with a little meal, and a silver disc I will stand on to enter the arena. Isaak sits down in one chair and motions for me to take the other, which I do.
"You be careful out there, okay? Climb a tree."
"I'll be sure to do that," I say distractedly, touching the middle bead on my necklace.
The smell of the food churns my stomach, and I'm sure I would be throwing up all over my shoes if there was anything in my belly. Instead, I can only curl up in the chair and clutch my stomach, eyes shut, rocking back and forth.
When finally my uniform arrives, Isaak helps me dress. It consists of an olive green shirt, tawny pants, a belt and a heat-preserving, thigh-length black jacket. The dark brown boots are made of supple leather and Isaak claims the treads on the bottom will make running easy.
Isaak stays in his armchair, remarkably cool. I, on the other hand, pace the cement floor, counting my footsteps. One two three. Six. Nine. Twelve. I keep going like that until a smooth female voice informs me to prepare for launch. Isaak takes my hands as I position myself the disc, straight and quaking as an aspen. When the glass tube seals around my feet, I realize that I'm about to lose everything. My home, Rhea and Titan, my life. I could die in an instant, I could be speared or stabbed or I could watch someone else die, someone who had a normal life just a week ago. We're all about to die.
One two three four five six seven eight nine...
I'm panicking, which is the very worst thing I can do. It's worse in this tight dark space, but in a flash of a moment I'm standing in an open field and it's worst. I can't breath.
"Ladies and gentleman, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!"
I have to breath or I'm going to die in the sixty seconds before the Games start for real. In, out, that's not so hard. It's very much easier if I ignore the weapons resting in the golden Cornucopia. After a couple of seconds, I recover enough to get a look at the arena.
There's a satiny blue lake to my left, a home-looking forest to my right. I wonder what's behind me, but I don't look because the minute is ticking down and I have to find Owen. He isn't anywhere near me and I can't find his face…I'm forgetting how to breath again…calm down! He must be on the other side, that's not far, I can get to him. One glance tells me the other Careers aren't concerned about anything but the Cornucopia, so I'm on my own. That's okay. I can do this.
The gong rings. I run.
I haven't accounted for the fact that twenty-three people are about to charge at the golden horn at exactly the same moment as me. Though I've never been fit, adrenaline gets me there first, but I ignore the supplies because I can see him now.
"Owen!" I shriek.
He looks up and sees me, an expression of absolute relief breaking across his face. I dash across to him and hug him so tight I think I might break his ribs. We're past the tail of the Cornucopia. I already hear the screaming.
"NYX! Nyx, look out!" His voice breaks in my ear, followed by a whistling sound. I shove him away as I realize what's about to happen.
Something sharp and heavy slices a burning line down my back. I arch forward, pressing my hands against the wound, and twist around before my attacker can strike again. I catch a glimpse of a short blonde girl trying to get a grip on her axe. Suddenly all I can think of is Joshua crouching over me in the darkness, wrapping up my arm. But he's not, and I'm not there. I'm here…I'm supposed to be fighting…but I'm bleeding. Why am I bleeding?
My mind wants me to stand up because there's something bad nearby, but pain clouds my thoughts and anyway I can't move. I moan. The axe glints as the girl brings it up again, but before she swings it down Owen pounces.
Little kids can be wild. Owen tears at her face and arms, leaving bloody scratches, and the girl can't get the axe in a position to hit him. She tosses it away and it nicks my cheek as it goes by. It doesn't register. The girl twists in circles, snatching at Owen but his grip is tight. Someone has to break.
I find my feet through sheer force of will. Teeth clenched together, cheeks wet with tears, mind thick and murky, I find the axe and hold it the way Joshua taught me.
"Owen!" I try to shout, though it comes out quiet and strained. He hears me, though, sees the axe, and scampers away from the girl.
Surprised at her luck, she takes several quick steps away from him and I swing—
I let the handle go. Her cannon won't come for hours, not until the bloodbath is over. Owen looks sick but starts to tell me something. I don't hear him for a few seconds.
"Nyx? Nyx! Okay, you go hide out, I'm going to grab stuff—"
"NO! You're coming with me!" I grab his arm.
"We'll die if we don't get something!"
"Yeah, we are, that's why we have to get good stuff before it's all gone. To win. I'll be right back!"
He wriggles his arm free. I scream and run after him, but he's already gone. He's smaller than me and faster. A shrieking pain in my back drives me to my knees and I know I can't go after him. When he vanishes into the mouth of the Cornucopia I turn, tears in my eyes, and drag myself toward the forest.
That night his face is in the sky.
"Wait, guys!" Clove throws out her arms, catching Marvel in the stomach. He gives a funny wheeze and stepped back. "Look."
She leans forward, pointing toward a flickering light ahead of us and to the left.
"Someone's up late," says Glimmer with scorn. "Think we should remind her when bedtime is?"
"I want to kill them." Cato already has his sword out.
"Doesn't matter what you want, I saw them first!" Clove sticks out her tongue.
"Guys, guys, come on," says Marvel. "I think we all know how to share. It's more fun that way."
Cato shakes his head, but Glimmer and Clove jump at the idea. Peeta Mellark hangs back as they slip through the trees, shifting from foot to foot, but eventually follows. I'm last in line, still hurting despite the medicine and bandages from the Cornucopia. I never check behind me because I'm not scared. We're Careers. We can't be touched.
Marvel grabs the girl from behind and forces her into a nelson hold. Her scream rattles me and reminds me of the dried blood on my hands. Marvel laughs, kicking her knees so that she falls.
"You can scream, but no one's coming. Who would help you?"
"Please don't kill me!"
Clove mutters something to Glimmer and they snicker. Glimmer nudges her forward and Clove pulls a dagger out of the collection strapped to her body. She kneels in front of the girl.
"I'm not going to kill you," she whispers.
"No." Clove cups the girl's chin, rubbing her cheek. "No, I'm just going to hurt you. Killing isn't fun. That's boys' work. I just hurt."
The knife flashes in and out of the girl's stomach. She screams, so loudly birds startle out of their nests. I want to join them and fly away. I can't watch this. This is torture.
"There, that's all I'm going to do. See how nice I am?" She pats the girl's head and she tries to bite Clove's fingers. Marvel snaps her head down. "I'm so nice I'm going to let Cato finish you. He's been so patient."
Cato grins, moving into the light of the fire. The girl's eyes widen when she sees him, probably recognizing him from training. I remember how easily a sword moved in his hands and feel her terror.
Don't do it don't do it. Please, please don't do it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by.
His sword passes through the fire when he thrusts it forward, through her heart and out. She doesn't have time to know she's dead. Marvel drops her and kicks her body away.
"I didn't get to do anything," Glimmer complains, hands on her hips. "Which means I get to kill the next one!"
Clove rolls her eyes, wiping blood off her knife. "Yeah, why not? You hit what, one dummy with that bow in training?"
"Six! I hit six!"
Marvel claps his hands to get their attention. "What does it matter? Check it out, twelve down and eleven to go!"
"Better clear out so they can get the body before it starts stinking," says Cato.
We walk back to the spot where Clove first spotted the fire. The others are laughing and mimicking the girl, commending each other on a job well done. Peeta and I, we're quiet at the back.
"Shouldn't we have heard a cannon by now?" asks Glimmer suddenly, her head tilted uncertainly.
"I'd say yes. Nothing to prevent them from going in immediately," replies Marvel. Even as out of tune as I've been with the world in the last hours, I pick up on the anxiety in their voices.
"Unless she isn't dead," says Glimmer.
"She's dead. I stuck her myself." Cato sounds slightly offended.
"Then where's the cannon?" Glimmer again. "Someone should go back. Make sure the job's done."
"Yeah, we don't want to have to track her down twice," pipes up Clove.
"I said she's dead!" Cato shouts the words, and a rabbit scurries out from under a bush and away from us.
"We're wasting time!" Peeta snaps. "I'll go finish her and let's move on!"
"Go on, then, Lover Boy," says Cato, jabbing him lightly with his sword. "See for yourself."
Peeta rolls his eyes and descends back into the darkness, a little dot of fire that is his torch marking his place. The group erupts into whispered arguments in which I cannot force myself to take place. It feels like reality is slipping away from me. I close my eyes and whisper Annabel Lee to myself.
"Why don't we just kill him now and get it over with?" Even with my eyes closed tight, I know it's Clove's voice.
"Let him tag along. What's the harm? And he's handy with that knife." Glimmer, always the kinder of the two. "Besides, he's our best chance of finding her."
"Why?" Cato scoffs. "You think she bought into that sappy romance stuff?"
"She might have," says Clove. "Seemed pretty simpleminded to me. Every time I think about her spinning around in that dress, I want to puke."
Marvel taps his chin. "Wish we knew how she got that eleven."
"Bet you Lover Boy knows." Cato shoves his sword back into its sheath.
Peeta returns moments later, jaw set. His spear is covered in blood.
"Was she dead?" asks Cato.
"No. But she is now."
The cannon sounds, sharp and clear. I look at the sky, then remember we've already seen the death toll today. When I try to find my favorite constellations I also have to remind myself that this isn't the real sky.
"Ready to move on?" asks Marvel.
No. I'll never be able to forget this day.