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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30. Played for Fools

Markus pushed past another branch, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow. The sun was setting behind him, casting a golden glow over the arena that was strangely serene compared to the grim nature of the setting. But being as observant as Markus was, the sunset was only important in a couple of regards: the first was that it meant night was coming soon, and the second was that Markus' vision would be obscured somewhat if he were to face west.

Luckily, Markus was heading east, slowly but surely; he had been spending the last couple of days combing the woods finely, searching for any tributes. And with the death toll rising, he had to find someone soon, or else he'd miss all the fun of killing, and end up in the endgame with precisely zero deaths that he was responsible. And that couldn't happen; not only would it look bad, it would also lower Markus' sponsor count. If that were to happen, then the Gamemakers may end up deeming him disposable, rendering him useless; something to kill when the Games got a little too slow for the audience's liking.

However, the luck had turned in Markus' favour. Whilst walking around the southern edge of the arena, dangerously close to the forcefield, Markus had found a dirt trail heading north. Surely it had been put there for him to follow, and find tributes to kill. He had been following this path since around noon, and was still no close to the end.

Birds called out in the trees high above Markus' head, creating a peaceful atmosphere; he was almost tempted to climb the nearest tree and kill the bird then and there for the hell of it, but decided that in no way was it worth the energy. So instead he quietly endured the noise as he walked along the overgrown path. Hopefully some tributes would show up soon: either way, the Gamemakers were leading him to somewhere with action taking place. And hopefully, Markus would be the one causing the action.

Markus entered a clearing, and saw a wild bird hopping along the path. It was clucking and squawking and generally being a nuisance. However, Markus simply stepped past it, and was about to leave the clearing, when he heard the sound of voices. Female voices.

Quickly, Markus crawled into a bush nearby, and looked up ahead on the trail, seeing two girls walking down: they were from 10 and 11, if he recalled. The girl from 11 held a bow, but what captured Markus' attention was the crossbow in the girl from 10's hands. He could work wonders with that weapon, but he couldn't run out and grab it: fighting against two opponents with ranged weapons would be suicide. Instead, Markus watched as they drew closer. As they did so, the wild bird hopped closer to Markus, curious.

"So, Erika, do you think we'll get lucky and find something for dinner?" Markus heard the girl from 11 say.
"Sure hope so, Luce," the girl from 10 replied. "I'm starving." Markus couldn't see them, but he could hear them. The bird clucked in his face, and suddenly, a plan formed.

Markus reached into his bag, and pulled out a tube of cream: it was actually a type of poison that was only toxic to one in five people. He squirted the cream all over the bird, that didn't seem to mind as its flesh absorbed it. However, after the entire tube had been absorbed, the bird grew woozy, and staggered away from Markus, out into the middle of the clearing. The plan was simple: have the girls eat the bird, hope that one of them reacted to the poison, and then Markus would take out the other one, obtaining the cross bow. It would certainly be more fun than waiting until nightfall and taking them out in their sleep at any rate.

Suddenly, the girls stepped into the clearing. Markus hid from view inside the bush and watched as the girl from 10 fired an arrow at the wild bird, cleanly killing it. The girl from 11 picked it up, and they walked back up the path. Markus waited for a few moments, before beginning to follow them up until he reached the end of the woods. He watched as the two girls walked up the hill just ahead, and up to the small cottage. The girl from 7 was standing in the doorway, obviously keeping watch. However, Markus was certain she wouldn't see him, and instead watched with glee as all three girls vanished behind the door, unaware that they had all just sealed their fates.

 

Erika walked through the doorway, closing it behind her with a creak. It was a little loud closing, but there wasn't much she could do about it. And besides, it wasn't as if there were any tributes nearby that would know of this place. She looked ahead as Lucy carried the wild bird they had shot through to the kitchen area, where Gwen stood over a stove, ready to prepare dinner. Wild bird wasn't as bad as any of them had thought, and in fact, they were living quite comfortably together.

She walked across into the main room, following Rosa. The two of them pulled up seats at the large dining table, placing their weapons under their seats. Rosa sat across from Erika, smiling warmly.
"So," Erika began. "How's bein' on guard duty treating ya?"
"Oh, fine," Rosa said with a smile. "At first it was a little frightening, but it's not as if we're in any real danger, is it?"
"You're right there," Erika replied. "After all, how much further from all the action can we get?"
"I suppose we could camp out at the arena forcefield," Rosa offered, grinning. "But for some reason I feel that wouldn't sit well with the Gamemakers."
"It's probably not the best idea," Erika said, leaning back in the wooden chair. "Since we'd probably be swamped with Mutts or the like."
"Speaking of which," Rosa said. "I'm curious: would the bird we're eating be classed as a Muttation or not?"
"I don't know," Erika said. "Too bad we can't consult the Gamemakers about it."
"But whatever it is," Rosa said. "At least it's edible."
"True, true," Erika said casually. She looked to her right as Lucy walked through into the main room, also sitting at the table.
"Hi guys," she said.
"Hey," Erika said. "Any idea on how long Gwen'll be?"
"No idea," Lucy said. "As long as she has been; we've been hunting the same type of bird. Haven't you noticed?"
"Not really..." Erika admitted sheepishly. "I sorta just see it, and shoot, ya know? I don't really think about stuff like that."
"Well, simple knowledge like this can help to keep you sane," Lucy said. "As it is important to keep stimulating your brain, even in places like this."
"I know," Erika said. "Anything else ya have to add?"
"Uh, not much," Lucy said. "But did you know that the songbirds in the trees are in fact jabberjays?"
"Are they?"
"Yeah,"
"Cool," Erika said. "Perhaps tomorrow I'll try and get one to repeat somethin'."
"Perhaps," Lucy said. "It would be cool though."
"I know," Rosa added. "Maybe you should try and get one back to the house: it could be like our pet or something."
"Now that," Erika said, grinning widely, "is an awesome idea. Good thinkin' Rosa."
"Thank you," Rosa said, smiling. "So, should I be expecting a new pet tomorrow?"
"Ya sure should be," Erika said, stifling a laugh. "Look at us, talking about such strange things."
"At least it's better than the alternative," Lucy said. "I'd rather have silly conversations than be thrown into the despair of this situation."
"True," Erika said. "Since really, who'd wanna be spending what could very well be their last few days cowerin' in fear?"
"Nobody," Rosa said solemnly. "But that's why we should keep positive, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Erika said.

Gwen suddenly emerged from the kitchen, holding several plates containing cuts of the cooked bird.
"Dinner's ready," she said with a smile, placing a plate in front of each of the girls.
"Thanks," Erika said, picking up a piece. She placed it in her mouth, and smiled in delight as the flavour burst across her tongue. Rosa then ate a piece, enjoying it equally as much.
"You know," she said between mouthfuls. "If it weren't for these Games, I'm pretty sure you'd make an amazing chef, Gwen."
"Oh, stop," Gwen said, smiling. "You're making me blush!"
"But Rosa's correct!" Lucy said, eating a piece. "You're great, Gwen!"
"Well, thank you," Gwen said. "It's a shame then that I didn't have more bird to go around."
"Well," Erika said. "We'll be sure to get more tomorrow."
"I'll hold you to that promise," Gwen said jokingly.
"Knowing Erika," Rosa said, swallowing another piece. "She'll definitely follow through. After all, when doesn't-"

Rosa then suddenly stopped talking, and clutched her throat. She then began to cough violently, clutching onto the table for support.
"Uh, Rosa?" Erika said. Rosa looked up at Erika with bloodshot eyes, still choking. It was strange to see; Rosa's face was going red from the straining, and she was flailing around. "Rosa?!" Rosa didn't reply, and coughed harder. It was now that Erika noticed red flecks flying from her mouth an onto the white plate. Rosa coughed harder still, and more and more blood spewed from her mouth, until she began to gag, and she began to vomit endless streams of blood onto the table. The colour then drained from Rosa's face, and she fell face-first into the pool of blood on the table.

BOOM

Nobody moved for a few moments as it sank in. Rosa had just died. One of their allies, their friend, dead. Erika fought back the urge to scream. It was surreal to be seeing the dead body of someone who was alive mere seconds ago right in front of her; half of Erika was still expecting Rosa to sit back up and continue the conversation. But she knew that wasn't going to happen: the girl from District 7 was gone, replaced with a pale, lifeless corpse.

Lucy suddenly stood up, her face pale. She let out a scream, and before Erika knew what was happening, Lucy had loaded her bow, and was pointing it at Gwen.
"You did this, didn't you?" Lucy said in an emotionless voice. "You killed Rosa."
"Why would I do that?!" Gwen exclaimed, standing up. She grabbed her knife, and pointed it at Lucy, who backed up. Erika knew that she needed to do something before it exploded into a full-on confrontation.
"Now," she said shakily, standing up. She placed her hands on the table, but touched Rosa's blood. As she pulled her hands away, Erika noticed that the blood was warm. "Before we get at each other's throats, we need to know what just happened."
"Isn't it obvious?!" Lucy screamed, tears running down her cheeks. "Gwen poisoned Rosa's food!"
"But if Gwen were to poison the food," Erika suggested. "Then why aren't we layin' on the ground with Rosa? Because it wouldn't make sense just to kill one person, would it?"
"She's right," Gwen said. "Why would I kill any of my allies anyway?"
"Unless she was planning this suspicion!" Lucy said, still aiming the bow at Gwen's face. "She could have made it so that we suspected one another, but I'm ahead of her sick game."
"Lucy!" Erika shouted. "You're being entirely unreasonable!"
"Oh, shut up," Lucy said. "This whole diplomatic leader act is really getting on my nerves." Her face darkened as she aimed her bow at Erika now. Erika felt her blood turn to ice. "You know, why bother with a leader? Only one of us will get out."
"Lucy..." Erika said. "What just happened to you? This ain't like you at all."
"I guess the death of my best friend was a wake-up call," Lucy snapped. "It's kill or be killed, Erika. And I'm planning on winning now."
"No," Erika said sternly. "Not at the risk of destroying this alliance. We still don't know how Rosa died. Perhaps she just was allergic to the bird?"
"Oh," Lucy said. "But she was fine with the other ones?"
"This bird might have been carrying something that was toxic to Rosa only," Gwen offered. "Knowing the Capitol it sounds reasonable for them to create tension like this."
"Oh, really now," Lucy said. Erika noticed tears running down her face. "Then why would they go for us? Why not another alliance that would be more entertaining to see break down?"
"I don't know!" Gwen suddenly snapped. "You're being suspicious for no reason!"
"Am I now?" Lucy said. "Pretty hypocritical for the girl who killed her own ally!"
"For the last time I didn't-"
"Shut up!" Erika said, furious. "Both of you. We need to get to the bottom of this, and arguing and bein' at each other's throats is getting us nowhere!"
"You know what?" Lucy said. "I'm done with this petty civil approach. I'm going to end this problem right now."

Suddenly, without warning, Lucy fired the bow. A single arrow flew across the room, embedding itself in Gwen's arm. She let out a cry of agony, and gripped her dagger tighter.
"I'll kill you for that!" she screamed. "You just wanted this alliance to fall apart anyway!" Erika watched in horror as Gwen lunged across the table at Lucy. She swung down with the dagger, catching Lucy's wrist. The hand came clean off, falling onto the table, next to Rosa's lifeless corpse.
"Oh my god!" Lucy screamed. "You murderous monster!" She reached out with her remaining hand, and grabbed Gwen by the hair. Gwen screamed as Lucy slammed her head against the table repeatedly, eventually causing it to collapse, bringing everyone but Erika into a heap on the ground.

Erika found herself shaking as a cloud of dust rose up. The alliance had shattered before her very eyes, over an unknown cause of death. And as much as she still held onto the faint hope that peace could be restored to the alliance, Erika found herself picking up and loading her crossbow: perhaps this intimidation would be enough to calm them down. But then she saw the two girls standing up. Gwen backed away, bleeding from her forehead as Lucy held the dagger. Erika saw Lucy's severed stump, and wanted to scream. But instead, it clicked: there was no hope left for them now. Lucy was too far gone. And there was no way that just Gwen and Erika would be able to survive for long. The perfect alliance was all over with.
"Heh," Lucy said, looking pale from the loss of blood. "You know what? I'll just kill you both now, and then go on to win: I'm as good as anyone for a victor."
"But your hand..." Gwen said, her voice breaking. "Without immediate attention, the blood loss will kill you!"
"Shut your damn mouth!" Lucy screamed. Erika leaped out of the way as Lucy rushed past, pinning Gwen to the wall. Gwen struggled, but Lucy's grip was surprisingly firm. Erika felt helpless as she watched Lucy bring the blade of the dagger up to Gwen's throat. For a split second, Erika prayed that Lucy wouldn't go through with what Erika knew was going to happen. But it was futile: Erika stood there, unable to do anything as the dagger was shoved into Gwen's windpipe. The girl from 12 struggled for just a moment, before slumping to the ground with the dagger still embedded in her throat.

BOOM

Erika felt numb as she watched Lucy pull out the dagger. Half of the alliance was dead, and they had all turned on one another. She had failed as a leader. Tears dripped down her face as Lucy staggered towards her, the effects of the loss of blood becoming apparent.
"No..." Erika whimpered, holding the crossbow tightly as Lucy drew closer.
"You think I planned this?" Lucy said, half laughing, half sobbing. "You think I wanted all my friends dead?"
"We can still work together, though!"
"It's too late for that," Lucy spat. "It's too late for hope, Erika. Too late." Lucy lunged at Erika, and, without thinking, Erika pulled the trigger on her crossbow.

Lucy let out a light yelp as an arrow struck her chest. She stood there for a moment, wobbling on her feet, before falling backwards, slamming to the ground.

BOOM

Lucy was dead. Rosa was dead. Gwen was dead. All of Erika's allies were dead. And she had killed one of them. She had turned on her own friend.
"N-no!" Erika screamed, looking over the pile of corpses resting in the pool of blood that was the floor. She had to get out: she couldn't stay here. She had to leave.

Without even thinking, Erika ran for the door, pulling it open. Night had now fallen, but she didn't really care; as soon as she left the house, Erika collapsed to her knees, sobbing weakly. What had she done to deserve this? Nothing. It wasn't her fault. It was the Gamemakers. They wanted this to happen. They wanted this alliance destroyed.

However, Erika's sobbing was interrupted by a deep chuckle. She lifted her head up, and saw the boy from 5, Markus, standing over her, grinning.
"Oh my god!" he said. "I expected one of you to die, but this was priceless! You should have seen the looks on your faces as you turned on one another!"
"No..." Erika said, her voice hollow. "You? You caused this?"
"Hell yes," Markus said. "All because of that pretty little crossbow in your hands. I need it, and I'm going to get it."
"You killed Rosa..." Erika said. "You destroyed our alliance..."
"Yeah, we established that," Markus said, rolling his eyes. "Now, let's finish this."

Before Erika could comprehend it, Markus swung his sword, slicing her temple. She looked up at him in horror and pain for just a moment, before the spark of life left her eyes. Blood gushed down the side of her face, and Erika collapsed to the ground in a heap, her last thoughts being of how they had all been played for fools.

BOOM

Markus didn't even hesitate to take Erika's crossbow. He placed his sword in his bag, and then proceeded to enter the house, stepping over the bodies as he gathered all the arrows. He didn't even spare the corpses of the girls a second glance. Satisfied with having a large enough supply, Markus sauntered out of the house, and back down the the woods. As satisfying as the house would be to stay in, he still had tributes to find: the Games were far from over with. And Markus was still going to make sure that he had some fun before there wasn't as much cannon fodder left to play with.

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