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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9. Coming Together

Erika worked carefully with the lighter, trying to get a steady flame going. The trainer had set up a different simulated environment for the lighter: she was now trying to set a fire as if she was in a rain storm. The wood was coated in a slick liquid that would make it considerably harder to set alight, and the lighter would only stay lit for maybe a few seconds. She needed to get her reflexes just right to set a fire.

"C'mon, now..." she said under her breath, managing to finally get fire from the lighter. Swiftly, she placed it near the logs. The orange flame licked at the slick wood, doing nothing to it. Suddenly, the flame began to die out. Erika quickly tried another section of the wood, and to her surprise, it caught fire. The flames rushed underneath the coating, burning the wood to nothing but a pile of ash in only a couple of minutes.
"Good job," the trainer said. He was a fairly young man with several ear piercings, and jagged purple hair.
"Thanks," Erika said, smiling. She wiped the sweat from her brow, and stood up, her black hair moving into her face. She pushed it away, and looked at him. "And uh, if ya don't mind, I'm gonna go try another station."
"That's fine," he replied. "And anyway, I'm certain you have sufficient skill with this station to help you in the arena.
"Okay then," Erika said. "See ya." She waved at him, and walked away from the station, smiling to herself.

So far, she had only tried out the fire making station. This was due to a combination of curiosity and fear; she had always thought learning how to make a fire was a useful skill to have. And since the other stations she was interested in were occupied, she went there. There was something that intimidated her about working at a station with another tribute. Perhaps it was the idea that anyone in here could be her potential killer, or that she knew that all but one of them would be dead very soon. Already it was like she was staring at a sea of ghosts. However, in the same breath, Erika had a feeling, deep down, that her personal survival depended on at least one of these tributes: for the past few years, every victor had been in an alliance throughout the majority of the Games. And that seemed to be how most victors were born; they worked together with their allies until the end. Erika sighed at the realisation: she needed an ally.

Erika walked across the room, surveying the tributes. She immediately avoided the Careers; joining with them would be suicide. District 3 seemed to already be with the girl from 5, and Erika didn't want to come across as a desperate add-on. The boy from 5 was brutally mauling some dummies with a sword, smiling gleefully. Also someone to not join with. The boy from 6 was too young, and joining with him would mean that Erika would be looking after him most of the time. His district partner was at the edible plants station, staring off into space. Too much of a liability. The next tribute Erika saw was the girl from 11, Lucy. She was at the archery station, practising with a bow. Her aim was pretty good, and the trainer there seemed impressed. And most importantly, Lucy wasn't with anyone. She seemed to be someone that would make a pretty good ally.

Erika approached the station, and stood at the sidelines, waiting for Lucy to finish her round of arrows. Most of them hit pretty close to the centre of the target: it was clear Lucy had a natural talent for the bow, but she hadn't ever used one before. Of course, growing up on a ranch back home, Erika was proficient in a crossbow, so she knew several things about handling this sort of weapon.

Lucy finally finished her firing practice, and walked back over to the shelf to put her bow back, when Erika intercepted her.
"Hiya," Erika said, smiling broadly.
"Hey," Lucy said quietly. "Is there something you want?"
"Actually, yeah," Erika replied. "I was thinkin' that the two of us could be allies."
"Why me?" Lucy questioned.
"Because ya seem like an equal for me," Erika explained. "That way, it could be a mutual thing, ya see?"
"I guess," Lucy said. "And I've been meaning to ask someone about becoming allies. So I suppose I'll join you." 
"Great!" Erika said, beaming. "So what do ya wanna train with, ally?"
"I'm thinking of-"

The conversation between the two girls was cut off by a bell ringing out, signalling the lunch hour. They followed the other tributes through a pair of doors at the far side of the training room, entering the dining hall. It was smaller than the main training area, but still ridiculously large in Erika's eyes. There were several tables laid out, each one with a bowl of fruits and chocolates on it. In one corner was a sort of serving area, where cooks stood with food. The Career pack instantly flocked to the cooked food, whilst the other tributes gradually filled out the other tables. Erika and Lucy stood there, searching for a table.
"So, where do we sit?" Lucy asked, looking around nervously. Erika laughed.
"Oh my," she said. "This is just like when ya go to a new school for the first time and there's the awkward moment when ya don't know where to sit." Lucy smiled at Erika as she said this.
"Well then," Lucy said. "The table near the corner there is free." She pointed to an empty table on the right hand side of the room. It was slightly larger than the other tables, but there was a decent sized distance between it and the other tables.
"Seems good," Erika said, beginning to walk over to it. "Come on!"

Lucy followed Erika to the table, shaking her head ever so slightly at her new ally's overly energetic nature: it would probably end up rubbing off on her if she wasn't careful. She reached the table, and sat down opposite Erika, who was buzzing with joy; she was beside herself with managing to form an alliance with somebody before the Games began.

Erika paused her thoughts for a moment: last year's tributes from 10 also arranged an alliance. Nikki and Hunter weren't going to go around together, but were going to keep a close eye on one another, and Nikki and Magnum were in an alliance together. Nikki died in the bloodbath, and Hunter, Magnum, and April from District 12 all ended up in an alliance together. All of them died in the end, but because of the alliance, they all lasted until the final day in the arena. Of course, that was ignoring the fact that the Games only lasted four days, but Erika was positive that she'd survive longer with an ally than without one. She looked over at Lucy, who was returning the glance awkwardly. Oh, right, neither of them had given proper introductions. Well, Erika decided that she might as well get to know Lucy.
"Uh, so," she said. "Name's Erika Jersey. From District Ten. You?"
"Lucy Caspian," Lucy replied. "District Eleven. A pleasure to meet you." 
"Aw, thanks," Erika said, grabbing a chocolate from the table, and placing it in her mouth. "So, what's life like for ya back home?"
"Well," Lucy said, trailing off in thought. "I came from a pretty normal family. There's me, my parents, my two brothers, and my sister."
"Huh," Erika said. "Sounds nice. Back in Ten, it's just me and my ma working the ranch: I have no idea who my pa is; he got Ma pregnant and disappeared."
"Oh," Lucy said.
"Don't worry about it," Erika replied. "I never knew the guy, anyway."
"Well, I guess that makes it better."
"But that's enough about my home life," Erika said. "What do you do back home?"
"Well, I work weekends in the orchards picking fruit," Lucy explained. "And on weekdays I go to school, so I guess it's a pretty good life, especially compared to my peers."
"Same here," Erika said. "I'm kinda lucky that I don't have to work in the slaughterhouses or factories, like most do."
"At least you have some sense of freedom, I imagine," Lucy said. "In District Eleven, everything's so strict that if you so much as breathe in a way that the Peacekeepers dislike, they'll shoot you on the spot, as well as anyone that reacts. I remember a couple of years back when an entire team in one of the orchards was gunned down because they stopped working when some small girl was shot for not being able to climb a tree."
"Oh my god," Erika said softly. "And this is okay?"
"I never knew any different, really," Lucy said with a shrug.
"In District Ten, the only real punishment we get is a public whipping if ya directly bad-mouth the Capitol to a Peacekeeper. 'Sides that, it's pretty lenient."
"Sounds like a preferable life to have," Lucy mused. "In fact, I think Eleven is the most oppressed district; the others only tend to have it bad in the lower class sections or the slums."
"Can't argue there," Erika said. "They really overwork those who can only work in factories; in fact, your shift ends when ya pass out from exhaustion." As the conversation was passed between the two, Erika felt rewarded slightly: Lucy seemed to be a good person. And definitely someone that would be good to have around in the arena. She was also quite interesting to talk with.
"Really?" Lucy said. "We work with the sun, meaning that summers are awful. Winter is more manageable, however."
"I can imagine," Erika replied. "Winter's pretty easy on the ranch, too, since we send half the animals to the slaughterhouse, and are basically just feeding the others."
"Wait," Lucy said, her eyes going wide. "How can you do that?"
"Do what?"
"So easily part with your animals, knowing they're going to be killed?" Lucy had a horrified expression on her face, and geniunely looked upset by that.
"I guess ya sorta get used to it, and don't really think about it," Erika explained nonchalantly. "It's no big deal or whatever; we don't even name 'em."
"I see," Lucy said. "Well, I guess it's not so bad."

Erika opened her mouth to reply, when suddenly, two figures approached the table. Both Erika and Lucy looked at them, instantly recognising them. The taller girl was Gwen from District 12, and the smaller one was Rosa from District 7. Both seemed to be together; probably allies.
"Hey there," Erika said. "Anything ya want from us?" There was a long pause for a moment as both of the new girls seemed to mull over their response.
"Actually, yes," Gwen replied. "You see, Rosa and I saw you two talking together, and Rosa noticed how you guys seemed to be in a similar alliance to ours." She hesitated again. "So I'm wondering, if perhaps, our two alliances could come together to form one larger alliance? It will really help all of us in the arena by increasing our chances of survival." Gwen stopped talking, and Erika took a moment to consider the offer. On one hand, having an alliance of four would make them a larger target for the Careers, but on the other hand, they would have strength in numbers. And neither of the girls seemed likely to betray, so it probably wouldn't be harmful for them to join up.
"All right then," Erika said. Both Gwen and Rosa seemed to light up with joy. "You're in. The both of ya. Now c'mon, sit down here; we might as well get to know each other."

As the girls all began to talk to each other, Erika smiled. She had managed to form a large alliance, and it was a known fact that larger alliances lasted longer than solitary tributes. Hopefully, this alliance would be the best choice she could make.

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