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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31. Rays of Hope

Alexis sat on the porch of the house yet again as darkness took hold over the arena for the third time. The lights from the house still shone brightly, illuminating the cracked dirt in front of the house: Alexis still saw some cracked tiles on the ground from the Muttation earlier today. Clearly the Capitol had been getting bored, but now, hopefully, their daily blood-lust quota was satisfied: since the last time the anthem played, nine tributes had perished, bringing the number of surviving tributes down to eleven.

It was a chilling thought, having less than half of the tributes remaining. And even though Alexis had ensured that she had no ties to anyone, she still felt bad. The families of the perished tributes would have to live with knowing that the Capitol forced their child into a situation where their death was inevitable. Alexis felt disgusted: the Capitol thrived on crushing the hopes of those who so desperately wanted their children to come home. It was the only thing that they could manipulate entirely without risking an uproar. And even now, as Alexis sat on the wooden porch, there were people who were hoping for her safe return from the arena. Her father, Luke Rays, who had won roughly two or so years before Alexis was born, and Maia Kentner, last year's victor, were two people worthy of mention.

Alexis sighed. She had far too many ties to victors, which meant that the Capitol would be equally invested in her as any old Career. And with the number of survivors rapidly diminishing, Alexis was beginning to worry that executing this escape plan would be too risky. Ideally, they had to be out before they were down to the final eight, since if they were all still alive by then, which was something Alexis intended to happen, then they would receive a lot of attention, as when the numbers would be that low, this alliance would consist of nearly half of the remaining tributes. Escape would be all but impossible by then.

"Hey." Alexis was brought out of her thoughts by someone approaching. She turned her head around, and saw Rose standing in the doorway.
"Oh, hi," Alexis said. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," Rose said. "I'm just letting you know that Xander and I are eating, and that you can join us if you want to." There was no point in worrying about something she had no influence over, Alexis realised, so she nodded.
"Okay then," she said, standing to her feet. Rose smiled, and Alexis followed her through the front door, and into the dining room. Xander was sat at the table, eating another energy bar. That was all they really had, but none of them were going to let it get them down at all.
"Hey guys," Xander said between bites of his bar. "Alexis, how are you doing?" Alexis knew what he was referring to: Xander was asking if Alexis had been able to get any closer to putting the plan into motion.
"Oh, you know," Alexis said, shaking her head. "A little bored, but just glad to still be in one piece after the Mutt attack." Xander got the message, and nodded.
"I see," he said. "But at least we're all still alive, what with all the deaths going on."
"Yeah, that is good," Alexis replied, continuing the conversation to throw off any suspicion from the viewers. "I am wondering how much longer we can remain holed up in this house though. Other tributes are bound to find us eventually."
"I've been wondering that as well," Xander said. "How long do you think?"
"I'm thinking just before we hit the final eight," Alexis said. "I don't know. I just have a feeling that's when things are going to go down concerning us." Immediately coining in on what Alexis was saying, Rose and Xander's faces lit up.
"Really?" Rose said. "I wonder how long that'll be though."
"Probably not too long," Alexis said. "Since more than half of the tributes are already dead. I'd give it a few more days, honestly."
"Yeah," Rose said, taking a bite out of one of the countless energy bars that they seemed to have. "Just a little longer, right?"
"Just a little longer," Alexis confirmed, before sitting down at the table. There was just a little more waiting to do, and then, finally, they would be able to set things into motion.

--

Dixie pushed past another branch, panting as she did so. She had been running since last night, and had only briefly stopped in the morning to rest and check out the wound that Kylee had given her. It hurt badly, but it wasn't fatal. It had stopped bleeding a while ago, but her arm was caked in dried blood. It wasn't as if it was something to get worked up about, but with Dixie's right arm looking light a bright red massacre scene, and her left with the missing fingers, she appeared to be some kind of monster, when she wasn't. And she knew that if she didn't clean herself up soon enough, the sponsors would lose interest.

Inside, Dixie still burned with shame and regret. She had been asking herself the same question time and time again: how had she been so stupid as to lower her guard around Kylee? She had known from day one that the girl had been up to something, yet being so dumb, Dixie hadn't told anyone. She supposed it was out of fear of disrupting the harmony in the alliance, or fear of her being wrong, but whatever the reason was didn't matter: long story short, everyone else was dead now. Osiris, Topaz, Dylan... even Ren and Annabell. Dixie felt especially bad for those two: they were just kids that had been thrown into these Games because there weren't any true Careers with the balls to risk their lives for the slim chance of victory. They didn't deserve to be murdered by Kylee.

Dixie felt the urge to scream rise up, but she bit down on her tongue harshly enough to draw blood: she wasn't going to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing how much this was affecting her. However, even though Dixie hadn't made any noise, she still looked back behind her. There was nothing but the darkness of the woods: no sign of Kylee. And that was Dixie's biggest fear right now: that Kylee was following her, waiting to kill. But if that was the case, Dixie reasoned, then how come Kylee hadn't caught up yet? Perhaps she wasn't following Dixie. Or she was playing the long game, waiting until Dixie had exhausted herself from running, and then swiftly ending her life, becoming the only remaining Career.

But that was just the fear talking, Dixie decided. As far as Kylee was aware, Dixie's wound was fatal, and she would be dead soon. Of course, this was ignoring the intense hunger and dehydration Dixie was feeling: her stomach felt like it was literally collapsing in on itself, and Dixie's head was pounding so hard that she just wanted to collapse on the ground and not move. But she couldn't: the first thing Dixie was going to do was to try and find her way out of these woods, and then hopefully either find food and water, or draw the attention of the sponsors. Either one was good in as far as she was concerned.

Suddenly, as Dixie pushed past another branch, she tripped on a root, and crashed onto the ground. But she still held onto her spear and whip as she collided with the cracked dirt, the moon shining down on her. Wait a minute: the moon was shining directly down on her. Shakily, Dixie stood to her feet, and looked around. The woods were behind her, and now she was standing on the edge of an open stretch of dried, cracked dirt.

Under any other circumstances, Dixie would have lost hope then and there. But she saw power cables slinking across the ground, continuing west. Dixie wasn't an idiot: she knew that power cables meant electricity. And if there was somewhere with electricity here... Dixie laughed to herself. If she managed to find it, then she'd be set for the rest of the Games.

With a renewed vigor, Dixie followed the cables as the moon rose higher in the sky. She was entirely hopeful that she would be rewarded by following these cables. And as she did so, Dixie noticed a light in the distance. And as it drew closer, Dixie began to run: it was a sign that she was meant to go there. And go there she would.

However, as Dixie approached the light, she soon found the source. It was a house, standing out in the middle of nowhere. She noticed a few more houses behind it, but this was the only house with power to it. Suddenly the confidence and hope drained away. This place was pretty deserted, which meant that for this house to have the lights on, it meant that there were other tributes here. And being a Career, Dixie knew that they would try and kill her. Her grip on the spear tightened as she drew closer to the porch.

But as Dixie approached the house, the front door suddenly opened, revealing the girl from 5, Alexis. Dixie felt her blood turn to ice as Alexis' eyes met her own.
"Don't come any closer," Alexis said coldly as she drew a knife. Dixie readied her spear, prepared to attack if she had to. But to be honest, Dixie really didn't want to fight.
"Wait!" she cried out. Alexis raised her eyebrows. "I don't mean any harm."
"Oh, of course not," Alexis spat dryly. "So, how long until the rest of your allies get here, hm?" Of course. Nobody knew that the other Careers were dead: their faces were due to appear tonight. So it was natural that Alexis was expecting an ambush attack.
"Hold up," Dixie said. She lowered her spear and whip, dropping them to the ground. "I'm alone. The other Careers are dead."
"Really now?" Alexis said, rolling her eyes. "How gullible do I look?"
"It's the truth!" Dixie said, raising her voice. "What reason would I have to lie to you if I was going to kill you a few seconds later?"
"Look," Alexis said. "I don't know what you're playing at, Semming, but it isn't going to work."
"For the last time I'm not playing at anything!" Dixie was getting desperate now. She was hungry, thirsty, and tired.
"Fine," Alexis said. "Let's assume that what you're saying is the truth. And if it is, answer me this: how exactly did all the Careers bar you die?"
"Well," Dixie said. "I'm not the only survivor."
"Really?" Alexis said. "How did I not see this coming?" The sarcasm dripping off of her words was annoying Dixie, but she just had to continue her story.
"You see," Dixie said. "The other survivor is Kylee from Two. You know, the manipulative one?"
"The girl who was obviously trying to blind-side her alliance?" Alexis said.
"Yeah, that one," Dixie replied. "Anyway, late last night, she killed everyone in their sleep whilst I was on guard."
"And you didn't think to stop her, providing this tall tale is the truth?" Alexis questioned.
"She was surprisingly fast and agile," Dixie said. "Basically, she deceived me into thinking she was just some bitchy stuck-up pseudo Career. But she's the real deal. She's smart, strong, and deadly."
"I still don't believe you though," Alexis said. She opened her mouth to say something else, but as she did so, the anthem began to play.

Both Dixie and Alexis looked up as the faces of the tributes that had died in the past twenty four hours appeared in the sky. First up was Osiris, followed by Topaz, and then Dylan. Next up came Ren and Annabell, and then, the other tributes; the girls from 7, 10, 11, and 12. For a brief moment, Dixie wondered how they had all died: she recalled that they were in an alliance. But she put this thought aside, and instead watched as the realisation dawned on Alexis' face.
"See?" Dixie called over the blaring music.
"So you were telling the truth, then," Alexis yelled. "Then I suppose I should make this short: would you like to join our alliance?"
"What?!" Dixie yelled.
"You heard me," Alexis said. "Now, I know why you'd think hooking up with a few outliers would be a waste of time, but hear me out: this is the only time I can tell you what the true plan is, since the music is obscuring our conversation."
"Okay then," Dixie replied, confused.
"Basically," Alexis explained. "We're going to escape." Dixie opened her mouth to reply, but Alexis raised a dismissive hand. "To do this, we're going to use my token to break out. I can't explain just yet, but trust me. It's a tactic used in the rebellion to break into the Capitol, and something they didn't see coming. And I'm going to replicate it." The music began to slowly fade out, and Alexis spoke faster. "So this is it: are you in or not?"
"Well, uh," Dixie said, hesitating. She didn't really buy the whole escape plan right now, but Alexis seemed determined to go through with it. And besides, if she didn't agree, then there was a chance she'd die. "Okay then."
"Great," Alexis said. "Having a Career on our side will definitely help." Once she finished talking, the anthem faded out to silence. "Now let's head back inside, and have something to eat. I'll also introduce you to Rose and Xander."

Dixie nodded, and followed Alexis into the house after grabbing her weapons. She had joined this alliance for her own survival, but in reality, she had no idea what she had now committed herself to. Because from now on, Dixie would forever be remembered as being part of the most controversial moment in the history of the Games.

--

Kaye sneaked around yet another bush, continuing north. He had been going in this direction all day, yet he hadn't seen another tribute at all. It was rather disappointing, actually: after obtaining the deadly poison earlier today, Kaye had finally psyched himself up to kill. Now, though, he was beginning to feel weary. Walking all day tended to have that effect, he realised bitterly.

However, today hadn't been all that bad: the projections a little while back had provided the best news Kaye had received since entering the arena: all but two of the Careers were dead, along with that alliance of girls. The girls were nothing special, but to have nearly every Career wiped out in one fell swoop? That was certainly interesting. And as much as Kaye knew it was pointless, he couldn't help but speculate on the matter. How on Earth did they all manage to die? So far, Kaye was leaning on the theory that there was a traitor in the alliance: his gut feeling told him it was probably the girl from 2, Kylee. She had struck him as the type to deceive anyone she came in contact with. And he didn't doubt for one second that behind her charade was a deadly killer.

But he wasn't anywhere near the Cornucopia, so he didn't really deem it that important right now. But one thing Kaye realised that if his theory was true, then the girl from 9, the only other survivor, would probably no longer be a part of the alliance. In other words, both of the Careers would be alone. And Kaye could deal with lone tributes: it was confronting active alliances that bothered him; being outnumbered was the main issue. However, he could probably take the lone girl if he encountered her: if someone truly had slaughtered all the Careers, then she'd be lucky to escape with her life. Easy pickings, Kaye decided.

Right now, though, Kaye was still focusing on one thing: finding Salvera. The girl had evaded him all day, and from what he saw, there was no way she could get that far. She was alone, and with that psychological illness she probably had, she would have to be close. Of course, that was what Kaye had been telling himself for the past twelve hours. It was a much different story late at night, with not a single tribute in sight. He'd probably keep going for a little longer before calling it a night.

Kaye pushed past another low hanging branch, but didn't push back fully, earning a face full of leaves as a result. He cursed softly under his breath: how wonderful. But whatever: he couldn't exactly allow the Capitol to assume that he would be bested by a branch of all things. Instead, Kaye pushed onwards, his head held high, making the foolish mistake of not looking at the ground.

As such, he never noticed the long-discarded section of strung-up wire that Kaye had just wrapped his foot around. He stumbled to the ground, dropping his dagger in the tall grass surrounding him. Kaye rolled his eyes at this misfortune: the Capitol was probably laughing at these unfortunate circumstances surrounding him. But he was better than that, and was not going to be brought down by this. So he continued to search for the dagger, and soon enough, his fingers danced over the cold metallic blade. He moved his hand down the length of the dagger, and, firmly clasping the handle, Kaye stood up, continuing forwards.

He didn't have to walk for long, though, as soon enough, Kaye found a small clearing. It was completely empty, but there were signs that someone had been here: Kaye noticed a discarded empty bag of nuts. Someone had been here, and if Kaye had any luck, it had been Salvera. However, as Kaye felt that he was closer to finding the first person he would kill, he looked up: it was nearly midnight. To keep going would be pointless, and instead, he walked up to a tree, and slumped down against it, closing his eyes. And as he began to fall asleep, Kaye was certain that soon, the Capitol, and all of Panem, would see the true killer Kaye was meant to be.

--

Salvera sat outside the tent, listening to the sounds of the night. Mostly it was wind and some birds calling distantly, but she still found it to be beautiful: for so long Salvera had gone without the peace and quiet of her surroundings that others had taken for granted. And now that she had access to what had been forbidden by Velcro for so long, Salvera was going to make the most of it.

It was quite mild out, and the skies were clear. Salvera looked up and saw the stars in the pitch-black sky, looking down on her. Back home, she had heard several stories about how the stars represented the guardians that created this world, but Velcro had scoffed at it, forcing Salvera to dismiss these thoughts. But now that Velcro was gone, Salvera could make her own thoughts and beliefs, and stick to them. And right now, she was wondering if the stories she had heard were true. Maybe there were beings out there, somewhere, that had made this world. But of course, perhaps they had neglected to see what had happened; surely, no being would allow their creation to fall into such despair.

Salvera played with her hair as she sat on the grass, appreciating the feel of it. She had never really paid attention to her hair before, but now she could. It was all so surreal, this sudden self-awareness. She didn't really know how to fathom it into words, but it was a wonderful feeling like no other: she was in control, and she planned for it to stay that way.

Suddenly, a sound reached Salvera's ears. She turned around to see Emily crawling out of the tent.
"Hey," she said in a soft voice.
"Hello..." Salvera replied. Despite having most of her health issues vanish, she still spoke in an odd way. But her allies didn't seem to have any objections to it. So she just smiled at Emily, who was fast becoming a good friend.
"I couldn't sleep," Emily said. "There's just been so much going on in my mind."
"Really...?" Salvera said, sitting closer to Emily.
"Yeah," Emily replied. "It's about the dead tributes." Salvera knew what Emily meant: they had learned that five of the Careers had been wiped out, along with another alliance, leaving less than half of the tributes alive.
"I know..." Salvera said. "Only eleven of us left alive... it won't be long before the Games are over..."
"That's exactly the problem," Emily said. "Because the closer we get to endgame territory, the more likely it is that something will go wrong within this alliance, and we'll end up killing each other."
"That won't happen..." Salvera said. "We're friends..."
"I know that," Emily said. "But I'm worried about Liam. He acts like this knight in shining armour, and I'm just horribly afraid that he'll begin to only have eyes for me. And if need be, he might kill you." Salvera felt a chill run through her body. Liam, kill her? No, it was absurd. But Emily certainly seemed worried about the possibility.
"That's unlikely..." Salvera offered. "I know Liam wants to protect you... but I only see him doing that when there are no more threats left..."
"And that's just it," Emily said. "With all but two Careers left, Liam might begin to question how dangerous the outliers are. And he may end up paranoid, which would not end well at all. I just don't want the peace of this alliance to die because of doubt and fear."
"I see..." Salvera said awkwardly. She wasn't too good on the emotional support front, but she had to try her best. Emily was a friend, and Salvera wasn't going to let Emily be upset. "But have faith in Liam... he is smarter than to resort to pointless suspicion..."
"Maybe," Emily said. "However, I'm worried that he's using his devotion to me to prevent the horrors of the Games from getting to him. If that's the case, then he might grow dangerously obsessed with protecting me to the point where it's suffocatingly dangerous."
"You think this obsession is his way of coping...?" Salvera said.
"Yeah," Emily said. "Since this is going way beyond just looking out for a friend."
"Is that what you think...?" Salvera said, realising something. Emily nodded. "So then... you don't see it..."
"See what?" Emily questioned. "Salvera, what is it?"
"Liam..." Salvera said. "He's not going mad... he's not obsessing over you... Emily... Liam loves you."

Emily's face flushed a bright red as Salvera said this.
"What?" she squeaked, her voice breaking.
"Don't you see it...?" Salvera said. "I have seen this thing many times before... a boy in love with a girl... he will do whatever he can to get her to realise... without ever directly saying it."
"Oh my god..." Emily said, covering her mouth with her hand. "Really?" Salvera nodded. "How did I not notice before? I mean, it's so obvious now you've put it like that."
"You did not believe he would love you..." Salvera said. "For you... it was just platonic feelings... and in the arena... your only real focus until now has been survival... you were oblivious to his displays of love..."
"Oh god..." Emily said again. "I can't believe it. But it just makes perfect sense; the devotion, the closeness... This wasn't him being a good friend and ally, this was him trying to tell me he loves me!" She let out a strange whimper. "Salvera, what do I do?"
"I am not sure..." Salvera said honestly. "I think it depends on how you feel towards him..."
"I... I don't know," Emily said. "I don't know what I feel. I mean, I like Liam, but romantically?" She continued to mull this over, before suddenly, tears dripped down her cheeks. "Oh god, no..."
"What..?" Salvera asked.
"I just realised something," Emily said. "It's sweet that Liam feels that way, but I could never love him. As much as I actually think it would be great to be in a relationship with as nice a guy as Liam, I can't love him in the arena. Only one gets out, and if I were to allow myself to fall in love, and if Liam were to die... I wouldn't be able to carry on."
"I understand..." Salvera said. "I forgot that there is no place for true love in the arena..."
"Yeah," Emily said, wiping her tears. "So I guess love is out of the question. But that isn't going to stop us from being close friends until the bitter end. Friendship is okay, but love will only lead to self-destruction in the long run." Salvera nodded, assuming this was correct: she had very little experience with love, and was basing everything she was saying off of observations.
"So you will tell him that you cannot be together like that...?" Salvera suggested.
Emily shook her head. "No." She took a deep breath. "It would break Liam's heart if I were to tell him right now. So I'll wait until the right time, whenever that is."
"That sounds like a good idea..." Salvera said. "Ease him into it... it will be kinder that way."
"I hope so," Emily said. She then turned to Salvera. "Thanks for telling me: you're a true friend."
"It's no problem," Salvera said with a smile.

The conversation then died down, and Salvera returned to stargazing. Then again, perhaps the guardians of this world were still allowing hope and happiness to shine through. Because, even though they were surrounded by death and destruction, there was still room for love and friendship. And Salvera found it to be a truly beautiful thing.

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