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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32. Truce

Brinn opened his eyes to darkness. He blinked several times, trying to change what he saw in front of him, but it didn't make a difference whether his eyes were open or not: blackness was all that greeted him. Two thoughts simultaneously entered his head. The first was that the Gamemakers had enshrouded the arena in darkness. The second was that somehow, in the night, Brinn had gone blind.

Panicking, Brinn sat up. As he did so, a rustling sound accompanied him, and at the same time, both his fears were disproven. Instead of those horrific thoughts, all that had happened was that overnight, a pile of brown leaves had been dumped on Brinn. He then looked around his surroundings, finding that the trees were half-bare, and that the entire forest floor had been coated in a blanket of leaves. A chill struck Brinn: the leaves falling off meant that the trees were dying.

Brinn looked directly above him, seeing a bare, spindly branch looming over where he slept. Without wasting any time, Brinn jumped to his feet, making even more noise as his boots made the leaves rustle. He was breathing heavily, on the verge of breaking into a full-blown panic attack. The season had suddenly changed, and it felt as if he was back home in District 7, on the day of the accident. The day that had made so many ghosts etch themselves into his brain. It had only been sheer luck that the tree hadn't crushed Brinn back then, but now, surrounded by them, he knew that one of them would certainly kill him, in order to complete the cycle begun all those years ago.

And to make matters worse, he couldn't even sneak out of the woods: the fallen leaves had ensured that stealth was no more. It would mean that if there were any nearby tributes, they would immediately be drawn to the noise he was making. And right now, Brinn had to remind himself that the real opponents were the other tributes, not the trees. The trees were there to unhinge him, but the tributes were there to end his life. He had to remember that when confronting the trees: he was better than that.

But still, how come the trees had suddenly died? Brinn found himself pondering over this question as he trudged through the leaves, rustling with every step, also hoping that nobody would hear him. The arena had been full of life just last night: why had the climate changed? And as Brinn thought this, he noticed a definite chill in the air. He looked up, and noticed that the sky was now overcast, grey clouds staring down at him.

Brinn, the answer is simple.
Yes, so very simple.
How is the answer not clear to you?
It is the lord.
The lord of the dead.
He is raining judgement upon the tormented souls.
This is why the land is dying.
He is making his presence known.
And soon.
Yes, so very soon.
Soon, death will greet all.
Even you, Brinn.
None can escape death's grip.
Resistance is futile.
All are doomed.

Brinn felt a wave of panic attack him as the ghosts turned restless, whispering these ominous things into his mind. The lord of the dead? Here? It couldn't be. Could it? Then again, it did make sense for someone as vile as the Gamemakers to be in contact with the lord of the dead. Perhaps what Brinn had always dismissed as a story was real. And here. And willing to kill.

He desperately tried to avoid these thoughts, but with every step, Brinn felt his heart sink. Death was already all around him; he didn't need to see it to know. But that was what the ghosts were implying, and when had they ever been wrong? So far, they had steered him from death. But now to know that a brush with it was inevitable felt like a crushing blow. Brinn had done everything to keep himself safe, and out of harm's way. Why was he going to have to come face-to-face with death? It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair!

Brinn had only now become aware of the tears dripping down his face. Fear was gripping every inch of his being. Death was coming for him. That was all that mattered: Brinn was being silently stalked by death, which was waiting for the opportune moment to strike. He had to get away: the air felt too heavy here. It was suffocating him.

A crow cawed high in the sky. This was what sent Brinn off.

An unearthly scream erupted from the fifteen year old's lips as he began to run. He pushed past countless trees and bushes, each one either spindly and bare, or coated with dying leaves. But Brinn didn't pay attention to that; he just kept screaming like a banshee, and running. It was entirely compromising his safety, but he didn't care: Brinn needed a distraction from the ghosts and the impending death that lurked around every corner. He couldn't take it any more. He wanted to go home. He just wanted out.

Still wailing, Brinn burst through into a clearing. He looked ahead, and saw a withered field full of dried-up dirt and shrivelled bushes. No. Even here, the land had been choked by death. Nowhere was safe.

Brinn stepped forward into the field, but froze as soon as he saw the ground. It was littered with millions of dead tracker jackers. Every last wasp was now a lifeless corpse. All of them, dead. Brinn was surrounded by death. He couldn't escape it. There was no hope.

Suddenly, Brinn collapsed to the floor, trembling. Tears streamed down his face as he crushed several tracker jacker corpses with a sickening crunch. There was no hope: they were all doomed. Every last tribute was doomed. And there was nothing Brinn could do to change that.
"Please," he whimpered. "Not me."

That was all that Brinn said before he curled into the fetal position, and the voices of the ghosts exploded in his mind, rendering him immobile for the time being.

--

Kylee sat just inside the mouth of the Cornucopia, looking out as she bit into her apple. The fruit was sweet and juicy, and needed to be eaten: Kylee couldn't risk letting any of the food go off. And since she had enough food for the entire Career alliance, that was all that she had been doing: eating. And it wasn't as if there was much more she could do.

Her jacket was zipped up, and Kylee had cleared out the inside of the Cornucopia, placing two tents inside, one in front of the other; her personal tent was shielded by the other one. This was all because she had immediately noticed the season change, and realised what it meant: the Capitol was getting bored. So far, all the deaths had been in batches, all of them from the same alliance each time. It was pretty much a slaughter a day, happening in the same way each time, since the alliances were sheltered enough to avoid having to wander the arena needlessly. And by having them all together, it allowed whoever was nearby to swiftly dispatch of large groups at once. Kylee, of course, was no exception to this rule, having killed off all the true Careers. She could only imagine how that had gone down in the Capitol; half of the sponsors would have died of a heart attack, whilst the remaining ones would invest all their money in Kylee. After all, who wouldn't want the girl who took down the Careers to win? She had these Games in the bag.

However, the Gamemakers weren't making it obvious that they had decided on a good winner yet; the Capitol was still bored of the methodical killings, and the Gamemakers were definitely taking it out on the tributes. All day, the temperature had been declining, and with the cloudy sky, it meant that Kylee had no way of being able to accurately tell the time. But from how long she had been awake, it was probably early afternoon by now. More time was passing without any deaths, and soon the Gamemakers would take drastic measures: if a tribute didn't die soon, Kylee knew they would bring in the Muttations to speed things along. How very predictable.

But Kylee couldn't complain: she had to play by the rules if she wanted out. Despite how painfully obvious it was that Kylee was only doing this for her own benefit, she still had to act like the good little performer for the Capitol. It made her sick, but she knew that if she expressed any disdain over what was going on, it would severely compromise her chances of victory. She couldn't do that; she needed to win too badly to screw up like that.

Kylee sighed as she finished her apple. Hopefully the Gamemakers wouldn't mind boredom. And it wasn't as if Kylee could do much right now anyway: they were in a slow period of the Games. Nothing exciting was going to happen for a while; the other tributes were all safely holed away, and were merely going to be adjusting to the cooler climate. Kylee couldn't be bothered to go out searching for them: she was willing to appease the Capitol to some extent, but not at the risk of her own survival. No way was she that stupid.

Instead, Kylee merely grabbed another apple from the burlap sack next to her, and bit down. It wasn't as if she was in danger of running out of food, and she was more than certain that if the Capitol had to settle for one boring activity, they'd rather see the future victor enjoying her lunch than some scrawny outliers barely hanging on. Perhaps if the Games carried on at this slow pace, all the other tributes would die of starvation or something, and Kylee would be able to go home without having to bother with taking any more lives. Not that she had any problems with it; she didn't know anyone out there, and it would be self-destructive letting all the deaths get to her. It was no worse than hunting animals to eat. She had actually once sunk that low, a couple of years ago back home. But that was a dark time, when Kylee hadn't yet learned how to use her feminine wiles to get whatever she wanted. Now she was a much different person, and she was thankful for it. But now wasn't the time for dwelling on the past.

Kylee stood up, stretching. She looked out again, seeing the same dull sight. To be honest, she was beginning to get bored somewhat. Action was what the Games were known for, and to have the girl that wiped out the deadliest tributes in the Games to be just sitting around, waiting for something eventful to happen, was torture. Kylee was destined for greater things than spending her days as if she was on some absurd camping trip. Perhaps going out to look for tributes wasn't such a bad idea after all.

But as soon as Kylee had left the Cornucopia, and was halfway across the field to the edge of the forest, her idea was shot down. Fallen leaves lined the ground. There was no way she'd be able to use her stealth to her advantage: if she tried to find someone, they'd hear, and they'd just run before she could take them out. It would be a pointlessly tiring exercise.

However, as Kylee was poised to let out another sigh, a noise reached her ears: rustling. A coy grin crossed her full lips: perhaps she wouldn't have to go out after all. Perhaps the action would come to her. Kylee raised her scythe, and took a step closer to the trees. She barely saw the arrow until it was zooming right towards her.

Kylee ducked to the ground without a moment's hesitation, allowing the arrow to soar past her head, planting itself in the ground behind her. Her heart was beginning to beat faster: adrenaline was beginning to flow. So they wanted a fight, huh? Then let them bring it.

She began to run towards the trees, swerving out of the way of another arrow, when a figure emerged from the forest: the boy from 5, Markus. And he was armed with a sword, a crossbow, and two full quivers of arrows. Not your average tribute then. And no doubt the taller, stronger boy would be able to kill Kylee without a second glance. She swore softly under her breath: Kylee had forgotten about this guy. And now it seemed as if it was coming back to bite her in the ass. Big time.

Kylee began to back away as Markus' eyes met her own. The green spheres lit up with something that she pegged as a cross between glee and malice, and he began to run towards her, brandishing his sword. Kylee lifter her scythe as he approached her, just in time to parry his blow. But it was evident that if Kylee didn't pull away fast, Markus would snap her weapon in two, and it'd be all over. So she swiftly pulled back, making a sudden turn to the left, catching the stronger boy off-guard.

She then backed up, keeping her eyes on Markus as he raised his crossbow, and loaded it with an arrow. It launched out, and if Kylee were any other tribute, the arrow would have pierced her heart, killing her. But she wasn't any other tribute.

Kylee, to Markus' surprise, performed a perfect somersault, leaping out of the way of the arrow without missing a beat. As he stood there, looking at her, trying to determine the next course of action, Kylee winked at him. Now to play her trump card: if there was one thing teenage boys of all ages had in common, it was that they couldn't resist a mature young woman such as herself.
"Slow down, big boy," Kylee said in a slightly husky voice. "You're going to make me break a sweat if you're not careful." Markus didn't flinch. In fact, a smirk was spreading across his lips.
"Oh man," he said, barely stifling a fit of laughter. "You're going to try that on me?"
"Congratulations," Kylee said bitterly. She realised that something was up: by now, any other male on the planet would be reduced to a blubbering wreck, completely at her mercy. Markus, however was laughing. She'd have to change her approach. "The Neanderthal grew a brain cell."
"Please, Harker," Markus said. "Spare me the flattery."
"And you remembered my name, too," Kylee said. "I'm swooning."
"Don't bother," he said, lifting his sword. Kylee lifted her scythe in retaliation. "Not interested."
"What do you mean?" Kylee asked, taking a cautious step back. 
"It means I'm not attracted to you, to put it bluntly," he said.
"Oh?" Kylee taunted. "So we have a player for the other side, hm?" If she was sure about one thing, all guys hated breaching the topic of sexuality. This would make Markus squirm for sure.
"Nah," he said. "I guess I just sort of bypassed the whole becoming attracted to people thing. Not that I care: relationships just don't matter in my eyes."
"I see," Kylee said. She just had to keep him talking long enough to let him lower his guard. Even if it was just a little, it would be enough for her to gain the upper hand. And Markus didn't seem to have caught on just yet. "A shame, too. I always did think you were pretty hot."
"Whatever," Markus said. "Do I look like I care?" And then, suddenly, he rushed at Kylee with his sword. "I'm just here to add one more to my list of kills."

Kylee's eyes widened as Markus suddenly drew closer: this was not going as planned. She had no control over the situation: she just couldn't manipulate him in any way. She barely moved out of the way as Markus brought the sword down, striking the grass. Sweat was now beading on Kylee's forehead: just great, she thought. Now she was doing the one thing she had said she wouldn't do to Markus. Whatever, though, not that it mattered. As far as Kylee was concerned, only one thing was of importance right now, and it was taking this threat out.

She lunged at Markus with her scythe, but he merely raised his leg, kicking her in the stomach. It wasn't enough to deal any real damage, but it was enough to wind the girl from 2. Still on the floor, she rolled out of the way as Markus went to strike. This wasn't good: Markus was matching her equally. Kylee had to think. And fast. How the hell could she get out of this unscathed?

Then it hit her.

As Markus ran at Kylee, she swung her own leg out, catching the back of his knees. The monstrous boy from 5 toppled to the ground with a grunt, the sword and crossbow flying out of reach. Kylee then stood up, swiftly, and stood with her scythe above Markus, ready to kill. But then Markus raised a hand up.
"Wait!" he said suddenly, catching Kylee's attention. A dying plea, maybe. "I have an idea."
"Really?" Kylee said. "And what's that?"
"How about we work together?" Markus said. "You know, allies and all."

Kylee fought the urge to laugh. Was this really happening? Was the boy who had been trying to kill her mere moments ago now proposing an alliance? Was this what was happening?
"What the hell?!" she said. "If you haven't noticed, we're locked in deadly combat. And you're wanting us to join forces?"
"Well, yeah," Markus said coolly. "Why not?"
Kylee faltered. "I, uh..." Her mind began to run through the opportunities presented. Markus was a powerful force, earning the highest score out of all of the tributes, sharing it only with the late Topaz Doublet. Together, they'd be an unstoppable force. And besides, if it got too risky, she could just kill him in his sleep.
"Think about it, Harker," he said. "We're the only real competition left out there: the rest are just easy pickings. Totally undeserving of winning, if you ask me." So that was it. He was trying to appease to the inner Career in order to make Kylee agree to joining with him. But newsflash: Kylee wasn't a Career. She was only in the Games because apparently, sleeping with the head trainer in charge of selecting the volunteers allowed you to get away with anything. But Kylee decided to withhold this information from him for now.
"I see where you're coming from," she said, shrugging her shoulders, still standing over him. "And I suppose the two of us could wipe them out more efficiently."
"Exactly," Markus said. "The Games'll be over in no time. And then, the two of us could fight it out when we're the only ones left. So what do you say, Harker?" Kylee mulled over it for one moment more. With Markus, it was guaranteed that they'd take out all the tributes, destroying the option of a pesky underdog managing to survive. And to be fair, she could easily manipulate him into doing most of the work: he seemed the type to succumb to blood lust far too easily. He'd tire first, meaning that if Kylee played her cards right, she'd turn the tables in her favour far too easily. It was too good an opportunity to miss out on.
"All right then," Kylee said, backing up as Markus stood to his feet. "You've got a deal. But don't think that I won't hesitate to kill you early if I suspect you of betraying my trust."
"Likewise," Markus said. He then grinned darkly, and let out a slight chuckle. "You know what? I think this alliance is going to be the start of something beautiful."

Kylee couldn't help but laugh as well. It was a tad sadistic, but it was going to work. And besides, wasn't it obvious? The two most dangerous tributes in the arena had teamed up: the others were screwed. It was only a matter of time now before Kylee would be able to claim victory. And with Markus as her weapon, there was nobody to stand in her way.

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