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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24. Nightfall

The sun had now almost entirely sunken behind the horizon, leaving a brilliant golden sky, and casting everything in a dusky shadow. Most of the tributes had settled down for the night, with one or two staying up to keep watch to protect their allies. Most of the tributes, minus one group: the Careers.

Dylan stood by the Cornucopia, in front of the array of tents, holding his knife in hand as the other Careers stood in front of him.
"All right," he said. "This is the plan for tonight, guys: we're going to go out, and try and take down some tributes."
"Sounds great," Osiris said. "I can't wait to begin thinning the numbers."
"Yeah," Dylan said. "However, we're going to need a couple of us to stay behind to guard the Cornucopia whilst we're gone."
"Who?" Dixie asked, absently playing with her whip.
"Yeah," Kylee also added, leaning against the Cornucopia, holding her scythe. "Who's it going to be?"
"Don't worry," Dylan said. "You two are coming with us for tribute hunting."
"Whatever," Kylee said with a shrug. Dylan simply rolled his eyes. That attitude of hers would really end up rubbing him the wrong way if she didn't wind it in soon enough.
"But then who's sticking around?" Topaz questioned, spear in hand.
"Uh, Ren, Annabell," Dylan said. "Hope you don't mind, but I want you two to keep watch here. Take out anyone that tries to come too close, okay?"
"Okay then," Ren said. "I guess we can guard this place."
"Nothing personal," Dylan said. "But I feel that it'd be best if you stayed behind; you aren't exactly the strongest, and it would be stupid to put you two at risk."
"I understand," Annabell said calmly. Unbeknownst to the other Careers, she was masking her relief. "We'll stay back."
"Glad you understand," Dylan said, before motioning to Osiris, Kylee, Dixie, and Topaz. "Now come on, let's go!"

The five Careers stormed out from the Cornucopia, leaving Ren and Annabell behind, who were honestly relieved that they wouldn't have to partake in the first murders of the Games. Dylan took the lead of the pack, heading north. Osiris and Topaz were close behind, and Kylee and Dixie made up the back of the group.
"So," Osiris said once the Cornucopia was out of view. "Any reason why north?"
"Yeah," Dylan said. "It's the only direction that isn't surrounded by woods, meaning that if any tributes are up here, then it'll be easier to find and hunt them down."
"I see," Osiris said. "And if there aren't?"
"It's not the end of the world, is it?" Kylee added, before receiving a harsh glare from Dylan. She looked to the floor, trying to hide a smirk. Dylan ignored it.
"If not," he said. "Then we simply try elsewhere. The night is young, Osiris: we have plenty of opportunities."
"If you say so," Osiris replied. "I don't know if I want to be combing the arena endlessly for tributes, though."
"Come on, now," Dylan said. "It won't be that bad. In fact, I'll let you get first blood."
"Why, man?" Osiris said.
"To show I'm a good friend," Dylan replied. "That's all."
"Please," Kylee added. "You're just trying to butter the boy up so he doesn't complain."
"And who asked your opinion?"
"Jeesh," Kylee said. "Dylan, it's almost as if you have a problem with me. Or is it a problem with girls in general? Is that it? Do you have some sort of alpha male complex that makes girls worth very little in your eyes? Because I've encountered that type before, and I'm not afraid to deal with them."
Dylan sighed. "Fine. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," Kylee said sweetly, beaming. She turned to face Dixie, who was glaring at her. "What?"
"Oh, nothing," Dixie replied. "I guess I just spaced out."
"Okay then," Kylee said. "Sorry for that; I don't want to create tension between good friends.
"Yeah."

Dylan continued ahead, ignoring the conversation between Kylee and Dixie. In his opinion, Kylee wouldn't be much use, except for sponsor eye-candy, which could work in their favour. She had only scored an eight, and generally seemed quite harmless. Then again, from what Dylan could gather, Kylee had never received formal training before entering, not making her a true Career. And at times, he did feel as if the girl was on a whole separate level to the others. But it wasn't too much of an issue; it wasn't as if the fate of the Games rested on Kylee's shoulders; she would probably end up dying during some fight or other. It was all a matter of time. And once she did go, then Dylan could focus on the more useful Careers, which was basically everyone currently out travelling, minus Kylee. Ren and Annabell were also not that useful, but they could be used to guard the camp whenever the other Careers went out, so at least they had some purpose. Kylee just seemed to be a waste of space in Dylan's eyes.

He continued along the dirt path, and continued to look around. There wasn't much save for a couple of small hills here and there; silhouettes in the night. Dylan looked around the hills as the path weaved between them: no signs of any tributes. Of course, what tribute would be stupid enough to remain this close to the Career camp? Not one that wanted to live, clearly. So the Careers continued onwards, eyes peeled for any signs of life, until Osiris suddenly stopped.
"What is it?" Dylan asked.
"Up ahead," Osiris replied. Dylan turned around, and looked ahead. His eyes couldn't have lit up any more if they tried. Just ahead of them was the village, with an endless expanse of houses. But most of them didn't grab his attention. What did, though, was one house in particular. In the fading light, it was hard to make out, but Dylan could faintly see it: a trail of smoke coming from the chimney of the house. 
"You see that?" Dylan motioned to the smoking house. The other Careers nodded. "Well guys, I think I know where we're going first..."

--

Mason leaned against the door of the house, sighing. It had suddenly gotten dark in the past couple of hours, and as he looked ahead in the direction of the Cornucopia, he saw only darkness. Being on watch was all well and good, but it was awfully boring, and Mason was beginning to feel somewhat sleepy. He glanced over at Tavish, who was stood a little further away from the house, holding a knife. It wasn't the most foreboding of weapons, but it should hopefully be enough to deter anyone who came nearby.
"Hey," Tavish said, looking up to Mason. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," Mason said, stretching. "Just feeling a little tired, is all."
"Yeah," Tavish replied. "But just after midnight, we can switch out with Derek and Griffin. That's only a couple of hours from now."
"I know," Mason said. "But this is awfully boring."
"It is," Tavish said. "But surely better to be safe than sorry, huh?" Mason couldn't argue with the team leader on this: Tavish was right. It was better to be slightly tired, and keeping an eye out for any danger, than to just sleep, and hope for the best.
"Yeah," he finally said, letting the conversation drop.

Mason continued to look ahead into the darkness, seeing nothing. There was a slight chill to the air, and he placed his hands in his pockets. The arena outfits could have done with being somewhat more heat-trapping. But it wasn't as if it was that cold, and he would just end up pointlessly complaining about things, which wouldn't put him in a good light. He was a decent member of this alliance, and was determined to show it. His hand rested on the flashlight in his pocket; Mason wasn't sure why he had brought it out, since shining the light would be a sure-fire way to grab the attention of anyone nearby. But he felt that if he had it, it would ease the discomfort he felt by being in the dark.

The sun continued to sink further and further beyond the horizon, and the sky was now almost entirely black. Mason looked ahead, and saw the hills just outside the village. They now looked like ominous shadows in the distance, watching him. It was almost as if they were screaming for him to run for it, but Mason knew that it was just the fear talking there. There was nothing really to be worried about; if there was any danger, then they would have heard it by now. They were safe for tonight, at least. Mason let out a sigh. It was just the darkness getting to him.

However, just as Mason thought this, a sudden loud noise reached his ears. Panicking, Mason fumbled for the flashlight, and turned it on, sending a beam of light shining out into the night sky as he searched for the source of the noise. He soon found it: just a mockingjay perched on the roof of a nearby house. Sighing in relief, Mason turned off the flashlight, but not before he saw Tavish glaring at him.
"Why did you do that?" he hissed, now talking in a hushed voice.
"I though I heard a tribute," Mason said.
"Well, it wasn't," Tavish said, slightly irritated. "But you should know that by flashing that light, you are practically inviting other tributes to come find us."
"Sorry," Mason said. "I didn't think."
"It's okay," Tavish said. He smiled, and took a step towards Mason, shaking his head slightly.

Mason was still looking at Tavish as he saw the small shape strike the back of his ally's neck.

Tavish's eyes went wide, and he began to tremble. And then, the boy from District 10 fell forwards, crashing into the ground, not moving.

BOOM

Mason gasped suddenly, and turned on his flashlight, aiming it at his ally as the cannon sounded out. There was a throwing knife embedded in the back of Tavish's neck, and blood was gushing from the wound.
"Oh my god..." Mason said as he dropped the flashlight. Tavish had just been killed. Right in front of him. His ally, and the leader of the alliance, dead. It couldn't be.

And then, Mason's blood turned to ice. Whoever threw that knife was still close by, and could go for him next. Without any hesitation, Mason bent down, and reached for the flashlight. He picked it up, and fumbled for the button, but it was hard to press down on it: Mason's hands were trembling. However, he finally managed to press the button, but as he did so, he caught a glimpse of his worst nightmare: for a split second, the Career pack was caught in the light, before they vanished into the darkness.
"Dylan, you were right: there are some tributes here! Can you believe how stupid they are; who in their right mind would go to the most obvious house for shelter?"

Mason backed up, before turning around. He ran for the door, and as his hands reached down on the handle, another throwing knife lodged itself into the door. His heart was pounding in his chest, and tears were streaming down his cheeks: in all thirteen years of his existence, Mason Irizarri had never been so afraid.

Finally, the door opened, and Mason burst in, slamming it shut behind him. He was breathing loudly, and he looked up to the balcony as Derek appeared.
"Mason?" he said, half asleep. "What's going on?"
"Derek!" Mason cried out. "The Careers!"
"What?!" Derek replied, his eyes going wide. "Where?!"
"They got Tavish," Mason replied, hysterical. "And they're-"

Suddenly, the door burst open, and Mason turned around in horror as the boy from 2 lunged at him. Before he could move out of the way, the larger Career pinned him to the ground, and, holding a knife, plunged it into Mason's throat. An immense burning pain spread throughout his body, and he lost the ability to breathe. He kicked and squirmed, trying to break free, but to no avail. And then, just before the knife sliced his jugular vein, Mason realised that he was going to die. Feebly, he turned his head up to the balcony, but found that Derek had fled back towards the bedrooms. With his dying breath, Mason hoped to god that the remaining two members of the alliance would somehow get out of this alive.

The knife was then brought across Mason's jugular, and in a spurt of blood that smeared his glasses, his life was swiftly cut short.

BOOM

--

Alexis was sat on the porch of the house as the lights shone out, illuminating the dried up dirt ground before her when the cannons went off.
"Hey," Rose said, suddenly emerging from the doorway. "Did you hear that?" 
"Yeah," Alexis replied. "So much for a day without death."
"Who do you think it was?" Rose asked.
"With any luck, the Careers," Alexis replied. "But in reality, I have no idea who the hell it was. We'll find out soon though: the anthem is due to play in a little bit."
"You know," Rose said, sitting next to Alexis. "This all still feels surreal, you know? It doesn't feel as if we're actually in an arena, fighting for our lives, does it?"
"Not really," Alexis replied. "And without the familiar bloodbath, I think several tributes also feel the same way. But the showing of the dead is probably going to be a wake-up call that this is all real."
"Yeah," Rose said, huddling her knees up to her chest. "You know, I used to doubt your plan for the arena."
"Really?" Alexis said, appreciating that Rose was avoiding directly mentioning the escape part. 
"But now I think I'm ready to accept it," Rose continued. "I just want this all to be over with as soon as possible."

Alexis was taken aback for a moment. She always knew that Rose wasn't the most trusting member of the alliance, but now that Rose had fully decided to accept the plan was touching in a surreal way. She smiled softly at Rose, who returned the smile.
"You know what?" Alexis said. "I'm glad I decided to approach you two on that day. I have no idea what I'd be doing now without you guys."
"Neither do I," Rose said. "If you hadn't approached us, I'm not sure if Xander and I would have become allies; things were pretty awkward between us before you approached."
"Really?" Alexis said. Rose nodded. "Then I guess it's good that we did become allies."

Rose nodded again, and the conversation trailed off to silence. Alexis didn't want to admit it to Rose, but the first deaths were a good thing: the plan could only come into effect once the numbers had worn down; Alexis needed something from sponsors, and the only way they would pay attention would be when this alliance consisted of most of the remaining tributes. Until then, they just had to sit tight.

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