23 Cannons: The 69th Annual Hunger Games.

24 tributes are reaped by the Capitol to enter the 69th Hunger Games, marking the end of the sixth decade of Games. And as they all prepare for the fight of their lives, none of them know the true extent of the twists that will face them in the arena. With rebels, liars, and killers thrown into a deadly arena governed by power-mad Gamemaker, who will live to hear every one of the twenty three cannons sound out?

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26. A Matter of Fortune

Kaye lay on the ground, shielded from view by the countless nightlock bushes. He hadn't moved since earlier today; he wasn't sure why. Perhaps he was just being overly cautious for no apparent reason. But whatever it was, it wasn't important. Remaining hidden was keeping him safe, and safety was the most important thing.

The first rays of the morning sun were beginning to crawl out from beyond the horizon, marking the beginning of the second day. Kaye hadn't really slept much last night, for obvious reasons. However, it did mean that he caught the first projections of the dead: the boys from 6, 9, 10, and 12. If he remembered, those kids were in an alliance. They were probably found by the Careers or something. Whatever it was, the important thing was that they were all dead now. Four down, twenty left. If Kaye did the numbers, it would mean that his chances of survival had increased to five percent. It was still a pretty low amount, but compared to what it was yesterday, it was a massive improvement.

Kaye stretched, and grabbed his dagger, which was laying right next to him; he was fairly sure that now he was in the arena, that dagger would not be leaving his side any time soon. In fact, it would most likely be pried from his cold dead hands before anything else.

Suddenly, a noise sounded out, catching Kaye's attention. He sank down, hiding behind a bush as a figure emerged from the trees. The faint morning light made it difficult to make out, but Kaye soon realised that it was that Salvera girl from District 6. Last he checked, she was some harmless girl that probably had a mental problem. However, Kaye had been dealt a fair share of crazies, and the first thing he made himself aware of was just how unpredictable they could actually be.

So as Salvera wandered by, Kaye didn't make a sound. Instead, he eyed her closely, and soon noticed the blowgun she was holding. And then he looked to her main bag, seeing a small burlap sack of darts hanging off of it. It was clear to anyone with eyes that a blowgun was a far more formidable weapon to have than a pathetic little dagger: Kaye needed to get that weapon somehow. But just jumping Salvera for the weapon would be a stupid move; he somehow needed to distract her enough to snatch it from her. Right now, Kaye saw no way to do that. So he'd have to follow her until the opportunity came up.

With this in mind, Kaye quickly put on his bag, and stood up, watching as Salvera headed north, vanishing into the trees again. He couldn't just go after her; that would attract too much attention, but he still had to maintain enough distance to know where the girl was. He waited around fifteen seconds, before starting to walk through the nightlock field swiftly, making as little sound as possible on the dirt floor, until one bad move made him step right onto a bush.

Kaye knew there was something wrong as soon as he heard a cracking noise, not unlike that of a stick snapping. He looked down to his right foot, and saw through the bush that he had crushed a strange papery shape. Juice from the nightlock berries was seeping through into the shape, and for a moment, he stood there, confused. Until he heard a buzz from behind him.

Kaye swivelled his head around sharply to see about three tracker jackers rising up from the bush, facing him. He hadn't studied Muttations in training, but even the simplest person knew of the danger posed by the super-sized wasps. And as Kaye stared at the deadly insects, he realised something: he had just crushed their nest, and killed nearly all of the wasps in one fell swoop. And the survivors were clearly furious.

Before Kaye could even turn and run, the wasps darted towards him. He ducked to the ground as they tried to stab him in the face with their stingers. As the wasps once again aimed at Kaye, he sprung up, and ran through the field, not looking back. He couldn't let them sting him: everyone knew that a sting from a tracker jacker caused powerful nightmarish hallucinations, and if enough venom was inserted into the blood stream, it would be fatal. It only took around three stings to kill a person. And there were exactly three wasps flying behind Kaye, buzzing loudly. They would kill him if they got too close. But then Kaye remembered that a tracker jacker could stalk prey for days on end, and there was no way he would be able to run for that long. Somehow, he needed to kill the wasps before they killed him; the thought had never occurred to Kaye that his death would be at the hands of an eight inch long wasp instead of another tribute. But that was the reality if he didn't do something fast.

Kaye spun around, and, clutching his dagger, swung outwards. The blade made contact with a tracker jacker, and sliced the golden wasp in two. The two halves fell to the ground, and twitched for a moment before going still. Kaye leaped back as another wasp aimed to stab his hand, and he swung his dagger again, this time swatting the second wasp as it fell to the ground in a heap. Kaye then wasted no time in stepping on the wasp, grinding it into the ground. He then went to turn around and face the final wasp when suddenly, a sharp pain erupted in the back of his neck.

Already beginning to feel woozy, Kaye lifted a hand to the back of his neck, and pinched down, crushing the wasp with his fingers, but not before it could administer a second sting. The broken wasp fell to the ground, and Kaye looked around, seeing everything beginning to spin.

Colours were flashing by as Kaye stumbled forwards. He couldn't let the hallucinations get to him: he had to find Salvera... and... he had to.... had to...

Kaye's head began to pound, and what sounded like a million screams erupted in his ears. Everything around him became blur; he tried to look around at the familiar trees, but just saw sharp light that hurt his eyes. Kaye shut his eyes, and was vaguely aware of doubling over and vomiting, before falling backwards onto the hard ground, losing consciousness.

--

Emily pressed down on the tent, trying to get it to collapse. They had ended up staying in this one spot overnight, which wasn't what Liam wanted: he thought it would be safer if they kept moving throughout the night. But then darkness had come, and they decided that they would be able to risk it for just one night.

Now, though, the sun was up, and the early morning light was reflecting off of the dew that had gathered on the grass. It was a beautiful dawn, and with the birds chirping higher up in the trees, it was almost as if they weren't in an arena full of kids willing to kill them at any given moment. And as much as Emily didn't want to think about it, the projections last night had shown that the Games were progressing despite the lack of action in the bloodbath. Four tributes were already dead, and even though Emily didn't really know them, she still kind of felt bad. They were all pretty young boys, and from the looks of things, they were allies. Which probably meant that the Careers had gotten to them; the poor kids probably didn't stand a chance.

But that wasn't worth thinking about, Emily decided. If she continued to get hung up on every death that happened during the Games, then it would make everything too depressing. And she had to keep her spirits up, anyway: she couldn't have Liam fretting over her because her mood was low. So instead, she continued to try collapsing the tent, not having much luck. But she was determined to do it, if only to prove she was indeed capable of fending for herself; so far, she had sort of just hidden behind Liam. But Emily realised that if something happened to Liam, then the Capitol would write her off as dead before she would even have a chance of surviving. And that would hinder her chances of gaining any sort of sponsors dramatically.

Finally, Emily managed to collapse the tent, and she swiftly gathered it up, and shoved it in the bag it came in. It didn't fit as perfectly as it had done when she had received it, but it would do. And besides, if it showed signs of falling out, then she could simply put it in her main bag.

Liam then returned from the trees, holding the wire, having coiled it up again.
"I'm back," he said with a smile.
"I can see that," Emily replied flatly, smirking.
"Well, yeah," Liam said. "I'd be pretty damn worried if you suddenly went blind."
"But I don't plan on letting that happen," Emily said. "I'm not that dumb."
"I know that," Liam said. "And with me there with you-"
"Just stop with that, would you?" Emily said, placing a finger to his lips. "You're projecting the idea that I'm as fragile as fine china, and wouldn't be able to stand on my own two feet without you there to help me out."
"Really?" Liam said. "I just don't want any harm to come to you."
"I'm aware of that, and I find it sweet," Emily said. "Just... try and tone down the chivalry, would you?"
"Okay then," Liam said. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Emily said, giving him a playful smile. "Now, where are we headed today?"
"I'm planning on heading north," Liam said. "These woods are bound to end, and I feel that there'll be something good up ahead."
"Yeah," Emily said. "And it has the added bonus of getting us further away from the other tributes."
Liam nodded in response. "Yeah, so let's get moving, since the sooner we move now, the further we will have gone before dark." Emily nodded, and followed Liam as he moved north through the trees. She wasn't sure what they would encounter, but she had a good feeling about this plan: something good would come to them at the end, surely.

--

Salvera pushed her way past some foliage. She was roughly in the south-west corner of the woods, after trying to avoid the nightlock field. Those berries were pretty much a symbol of death, and she remembered clearly how they had been responsible for the death of the boy from District 6, Tyler Hawes, she recalled, last year. That kid's death had caused quite the outcry back home, and for a moment, Salvera's mind wondered to seeing Mason's face projected for all to see. His entire alliance had been taken out in one evening, and the thought of it made Salvera sad. She hadn't really spoken to her district partner, but he had always been there, and part of Salvera wondered if she could have done something to save him if she had joined his alliance.

No, she decided, she would have just gotten herself killed. Salvera grinned: she had managed to internally chastise herself once again without Velcro undermining her entire self-worth. It was too good to be true, and yet, Salvera was free from the tormenting voice, and the hallucinations, from what she could tell. She then recalled the nightlock field: just before she abandoned the area, she remembered seeing the boy from District 8 being swarmed by tracker jackers. That was kind of odd in a way, she realised: she had stopped hearing Velcro after crashing into the boy that heard the voices of the dead, and then her hallucinations had ceased after seeing someone get stung by a tracker jacker, which were notorious for causing terrifying hallucinations. It was almost as if as other people got crazier, Salvera became saner and saner. Not that she had a problem with it: it was great to finally be able to be normal. Of course, she knew that she was still a long way from normal, but it was better than what she was before.

Salvera turned right, and began to follow a small dirt trail north. She wasn't sure where it would take her, only that she didn't have any voices or hallucinations to deter her. For once, she was free. Salvera ran ahead, grinning to herself as she leaped over bushes. She was still at least one mile from another tribute, but she only cared about being able to freely navigate, both physically and mentally. And Salvera knew, that if she were to die at all in the arena, that she would die a happy girl.

--

As the sun crept into the late morning position, most of the tributes were up and awake. A few had decided to move on, whilst most remained where they had arrived yesterday.

Alexis was part of those who hadn't moved from her first destination. She was still in the same house, and Rose and Xander were still there with her. And why would they leave? The house had electricity, and, as they discovered last night, heating. It was pure luxury being in this house, even for district standards, which was normally the best tributes got. But the fact that they had found such a perfect house was unbelievable. And none of the three tributes had any plans to leave.

Currently, the three of them were sat in the dining room at a wooden table, eating from their bags. One of the two bags Xander had snatched from the Cornucopia yesterday was just full of chocolate bars, and they had been steadily munching through them. Alexis took a bite into the one she was currently eating, finishing it off. Sunlight streamed through the drawn curtains, giving a warm glow to the place.
"So," Xander said, having also finished eating. "What is exactly the plan for today?"
"Not much," Alexis replied, shrugging. "We can only really sit tight. There's no reason for us to move right now, and there are still too many tributes left to safely get out of this area." She was phrasing her words in a way that her allies would understand, but the Capitol would be oblivious to. That was one of the perks of having joined up with District 3; their tributes were notorious for being able to pick up subtle cues that the average person wouldn't; they were the best to go to if you needed to speak in code.
"I know what you mean," Xander said. "If we step outside right now, then there's a high chance a threat could come out of nowhere, and take us out before we can fight back."
"Yeah," Rose added. She was currently sat against the curtain, previously deep in thought. "It's too risky for us to venture out right now."
"So we'll be staying inside for a while longer," Alexis confirmed. Both of her allies nodded, and she also nodded. Her token slammed against her chest from under her shirt: it wasn't comfortable having the cold metal pressed against her flesh, but she couldn't let anyone see until the final moment: that was just how it would have to go, unfortunately.

The three tributes fell into a comfortable silence as Alexis thought through the escape plan again. The first thing would be for them to not put anything into action until they were in the final eight at least, and then once Alexis did the technical side of things, they would need enough supplies to keep them going after breaking out of the arena. However, if there were too many tributes alive, there was no telling how many of them wouldn't know that Alexis would be inadvertently also saving them, and just assume it was a natural part of the Games, and kill her and her allies before they could get out. So if there were only five tributes besides them out in the arena, they would be able to get far enough away before the others found them. And for the supplies, they would need to gain as many sponsors as possible before then. But with twenty tributes out there including them it wasn't going to be happening for a while. Alexis knew what it would require before the sponsors would seriously consider them: it would require several of the Careers to die. And that wasn't going to happen any time soon, unfortunately.

Alexis suddenly became aware of a scratching noise. She stopped her train of thought, and listened intently, but didn't hear it again. However, something about the noise struck Alexis as odd. It almost seemed to sound like a person clawing at one of the windows with a knife or something. The air in the room suddenly seemed to go cold. If there was something outside, then if it was threatening, they'd all be dead. For the first time, Alexis felt a pang of fear.

The scratching noise again. This time, it came from the dining room window. Alexis turned her head to the drawn curtains, and saw a shadow slink by. Her heart rate was increasing, and her breaths were growing shallow.
"Did you guys see that?" she said to Xander and Rose.
"See what?" Xander said, confused. But then Alexis looked at Rose, who had gone white as a sheet.
"There's something outside," Rose said in a voice lower than a whisper. Alexis nodded shakily.
"I know," she said. "I saw it too."
"What is it?" Rose said.
"Something that's going to try and kill us," Alexis said bitterly. Rose began to tremble, Xander's eyes went wide, and Alexis wasn't exactly feeling calm herself. She looked at Xander again. It was an odd thing to notice, but Alexis saw Xander was wearing the same glasses he had on during the interviews. She supposed it was because they fitted him better. But that was beside the point: there was a very real threat just outside of this house, and they needed to dispatch it before it tried to kill them.

Alexis shakily stood up from the table, and glanced at the window. No sign of the shadow. But just as she observed this, Alexis heard the scratching coming from the roof of the house. Whatever it was was now directly above them. Alexis now realised that they were dealing with some kind of Muttation that was trying to claw its way into the house through the roof.
"Guys," Alexis said in a very calm voice, so as to not alert the attention. "We have to get outside. Now." 
"Why?" Xander questioned, but nonetheless he still stood up.
"Because whatever it is is trying to get in through the roof," Alexis said. "In fact, it could already be upstairs by now." She looked over at Rose, who was covering her mouth with her hands, trying desperately not to cry out in horror. "So just follow my lead, and get outside as quickly as possible."

Xander and Rose nodded furiously, and Alexis reached into her jacket pocket, pulling out a throwing knife she had retrieved from the Cornucopia. It was one of the only weapons that they had, and Alexis prayed it would be enough to defend them. She then slowly turned around, and walked through the dining room, and into the main hallway. With every step that they took, the scratching sounded out from elsewhere on the house. It was following their movements, she realised. If they stepped outside, it would swiftly take them down. But if they stayed inside, then it would simply break into the house, where they'd have no chance of fighting back. The safest bet was outside.

Alexis walked down the hallway as the scratching sounded out like no tomorrow. She could hear shaky breaths, which she soon realised were her own. The door drew closer, and Alexis' legs began to feel like lead. She was in a corner, and no matter what action she took, there was every chance it would end badly. Still, she had to at least try...

Shakily, Alexis gripped the door handle, and pushed the door open. Sunlight streamed in, but there was no sign of anything out there. She continued out onto the porch, immediately followed by Rose and Xander.
"Where is it?" Xander asked, looking around frantically.
"I don't know," Alexis replied. "Still, let's get off of this porch." Xander nodded, and Alexis walked down the steps, and onto the cracked dirt. They all walked a few more paces forward, before Alexis turned around, looking at the house. What she saw instilled fear into her very soul.

On the roof was a massive, black serpent-like creature. It had six long legs, each one equipped with several razor-sharp claws: Alexis looked at the walls of the house, and saw huge claw marks everywhere. And then, to her horror, the Muttation looked right at her. The two of them remained like this for a moment, neither one breaking the stare.
"Don't move," Alexis said through gritted teeth to Xander and Rose, who were just behind her. Slowly, she tightened her grip around the knife, and gradually lifted her throwing knife. But this action was enough to spur the creature into action.

The Mutt scrambled down from the roof, bringing shingle with it as it hit the floor. Rose screamed, and the two District 3 tributes ran in opposite directions, leaving Alexis the sole target of the beast. It rushed forwards towards her, and Alexis realised that she was most likely going to die. But then the cold metal of the token touched her flesh again, and Alexis was spurred into action.

She rolled to the ground as the Muttation leaped towards her, causing the abomination to crash into the dirt, rolling around, contorting itself into unnatural position. But then, as Alexis scrambled to her feet, it simply twisted its body back into position. Alexis was half aware of her allies yelling, but the adrenaline pounding in her head was enough to block them out. She sharply ran to her right as the Mutt swiped out at her with its claws. It came close enough to her for Alexis to see the endless rows of razor sharp teeth. It would tear her to shreds in an instant if she was any closer.

Alexis leaped back as the Mutt swung its tail around in an attempt to bring her to the ground, but she was just out of range. Sweat was dripping down her forehead as the hot sun beat down. But she wasn't really aware of that: her only thoughts concerned the nightmare creature in front of her. She clenched onto the throwing knife, and prepared to launch it when suddenly, the Mutt leaped without warning.

Alexis tried to side-step again, but she was simply too slow. The Mutt threw her down, and Alexis' head slammed against the dirt floor. Intense pain coursed through her, but Alexis still found the strength to kick her feet up, bringing her face just out of reach of the heavy beast. Her hand scrambled for the dropped throwing knife as she kept her eyes on the exposed throat of the Muttation. And then, as if by fate itself, Alexis gripped onto the knife, and time seemed to slow down as she brought her arm closer to her body. Then, still holding onto the knife as tight as possible, Alexis rammed the knife upwards, digging it into the creature's throat. Pitch black blood dripped from the wound, but Alexis didn't stop. She dragged the knife down the contour of the underbelly of the beast, and she felt its body go weak. And then, with one more burst of strength, Alexis flung the creature off of her, still holding onto the knife.

As the Muttation fell to the ground, Alexis leaped up, and breathing heavily, she readied herself to continue fighting it. However, to her surprise, Alexis watched as the Mutt seemingly began to dissolve into a cloud of steam. The black blood also followed, and Alexis' face felt hot as the blood dissolved. This continued for a few more minutes, until there was nothing left.

Alexis then took a shaky step back. The Mutt had dissolved upon death. This was new, even for Gamemaker standards. But it didn't really matter; the creature was dead, and nobody had been killed.
"You okay?" Xander cried out as he and Rose ran over to Alexis. She just brushed them off.
"I'm fine," she said. "The damn thing died before it could hurt me."
"That's good to know," Rose said. "So now what?"
"We go back to the house," Alexis said. "By killing the Mutt, we've earned a few days at least of reprieve. We'll be fine."
"Okay then," Rose said. "Come on, Xander. Let's go."

Rose and Xander walked ahead to the house, but Alexis held back for a moment. Her hand reached for her token, and she felt it thoroughly for any damage that might have happened during the fight. Alexis found nothing, much to her relief. But, she realised, she would have to be much more careful in the future: it was pure luck that it wasn't damaged. And without Alexis' token, all hope would be dashed before they could even taste freedom.

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