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The first Hunger Games were little more than a series of televised executions. The Capitol had not yet hit upon the idea of commercializing mass murder, and with nothing to make the Games more palatable to its audience, there were riots all the way to the arena. The tributes were not picked at random—one from each district was the child of a rebel leader, and the other the child of a family who had kept their heads down, waiting for the war to end, refusing to defend their Capitol and daring to survive anyway. And—most crucially—not a single tribute was to be left alive. The Capitol would be the only victor.

“There are no innocents among you,” they proclaimed from every Justice Hall balcony. “You will be killed and your children will be killed and that is all that you are good for. Let this be a reminder of the horror you brought upon yourselves.”

But a heartless oligarchy dispensing poetic justice with words of fire and brimstone scared the citizens of the Capitol almost as much as it scared the districts. News channels broadcast footage of screaming children being dragged from their homes by Peacekeepers while pundits argued each other to tears over the ethics of such a punishment. A boy in District Six put a gun in his mouth rather than be taken, and he died on his seventeenth birthday. Protesters swarmed the City Circle demanding an end to the Games and scattered only when shots were fired into the crowd. An eighty-year-old Capitol woman went on her knees before the President, begging him not to kill her granddaughter in District One, whose father's only crime was refusing to execute a rebel prisoner. The girl was taken anyway. Her grandmother died of a heart attack. Two days later, someone attacked the President with a knife.

From his hospital bed, the President gave the order: “The Hunger Games must continue.”

There were no more Capitol protests after that.

 

All was quiet in the fields of Nine the day Bran Salomon and Amaranth Czajka were taken by Peacekeepers. Bran was thirteen years old, the youngest member of a large clan of factory workers who had taken refuge from the war in one of the granaries. Amaranth was fifteen, the only daughter of Mateusz Czajka, leader of the Burned Crops Uprising, currently awaiting trial in solitary confinement in the Capitol. The warden of the prison made sure to put a television set in his cell so he could watch his daughter die.

The tributes were brought to the Capitol and made to march through the streets in handcuffs. There was no survival training, but assessments of tributes' strengths and weaknesses were quietly conducted by the military council that ran the first Games. Two boys, one from the coal mines of Twelve and the other from a quarry in Two, could wield pickaxes with ease, but the Twelve boy's lungs were full of smog and dust and Two had severe claustrophobia. The tributes from Three, Five, and Eight, industrial districts, all had quick hands from darting in and out of machines' gnashing teeth, but they knew nothing about vegetation or wilderness survival. Eleven's tributes were both twelve years old and severely malnourished. Four's tributes, though masters of the ocean, would be helpless in the face of dehydration or cold.

The District Nine tributes, they predicted, would have extensive knowledge of cereals and other edible grains. “At least their bellies will be full when they're killed,” one general joked. 

“Do they still use scythes out there?” another asked.

“Doubt it. Besides, neither of them have even worked a day in the fields. Too young. All they know is the rebellion. I'd give them two, maybe three hours in there.”

“Don't drag it out,” the President said, to murmurs of assent from the council members. “That will only give them hope.”

 

The night before she was to enter the arena, Amaranth Czajka wandered the halls of the compound in which the tributes were being held. She climbed up and down stairs, slipping past the guards stationed on each floor who were tasked with keeping tributes away from restricted areas. Amaranth had always been good at staying out of sight, keeping her head down and her eyes hidden beneath the shadowy curtain of her hair. She stuttered and she fidgeted and she pulled her shoulders and spine back into herself until a shy, trembling child was all the world ever saw. She knew what it took to convince others that she was beneath notice.

She had been only three years old when the war began—it was war, not rebellion, her father had always said, because the Capitol was so distant, so far removed from Nine and its heart, that it might as well have been a country all its own. Ever since she could remember, Father had trained her to be a soldier. He taught her how to look at a battlefield and see the thoughts of the commanding officers just from where they placed their men. He taught her how to look at a human body and see pressure points, veins and arteries. And when the Capitol issued their ultimatum to Thirteen, and Thirteen was bombed for its refusal, Father had taken her aside and told her quietly that the districts were going to lose the war. 

“There is no other way,” he had said. “If we do not surrender now, they will destroy the whole district and all of us with it. Oh, pochiecha...” He sighed and squeezed shut his eyes. “I must teach you now how to forget. How to bury every memory of what we did inside yourself until you can no longer remember the information they are trying to pull out of you. And it will hurt, pochiecha, it will hurt. I am sorry. But this is what we must do.”

And he had taught her, and it had hurt. He had slapped her and roared in her ears, showed her the sharpened edge of a scythe's blade and pressed it close to her skin. He taught her how to build a fortress inside her mind, impregnable, and how to grow lies out of grains of truth so that they would be believed, but mostly he taught her that no matter what pain they put her through, he would put her through worse if she betrayed his secrets, and he would weep but he would do it anyway and it would be more than twice the pain, to make her father cry.

But the enemy had not even tried. They had taken her father away and declared to the citizens of Nine that he had never existed. Amaranth was now, officially, an orphan, born to a nameless father and a nameless mother and now they had taken her away too. Would they make Nine forget her, like they forgot her Father? Had she been so quiet, so beneath notice, that the district would not care if she disappeared altogether?

 

The tributes were drugged and brought to the arena in cages. It was pitch black except for the search lights of the hovercrafts that lowered the cages to the ground, but in the brief moments when the lights swept across the arena, they could see weapons and supply kits—leftover rations from the war—piled high in the center of the circle of cages. The boy from Four spied a heavy fishhook almost like the one he had slung at home; the Twelve boy's eyes lighted on the glimmer of a pickaxe's blade; the Eight girl saw needles, suturing thread, and gauze bandages like the ones she had once made in the factories. Bran Saloman saw a pack of granola bars and his stomach rumbled.

Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire and a flare of light, and the tributes could see clearly that their arena was an abandoned battlefield.

The Two boy was the first to break out of his cage, his fear of confinement pumping adrenaline into his battering-ram legs. The boys from Four and Twelve soon followed. They rushed toward the supply pile, and Four, the fastest runner, reached for his fishhook.

It was heavier than he expected, and he had to shift all his weight back on his heels to tug it out of place. He lost his balance. He fell to the ground, grip still on the hook.

As he hit the dirt, the ground underneath him exploded, and he was blasted apart in a mess of blood and bone. 

The explosion sent the supplies flying in all directions. The pickaxe from the pile landed by the Elevens' cages, and both Two and Twelve went running after it while the Eleven girl scrambled to open her cage and grab it herself. Shrapnel from the blast pierced the Eight girl's stomach, and she collapsed, bleeding. Another round of gunfire, or just the sound of it. Bran's hands flew to his ears instinctively as he flashed back to memories of Peacekeepers banging on the door to the granary and shouting that they'd kill everyone if they didn't open up. “We have hostages and we'll shoot one every five minutes, let us in or you've killed them-”

“Bran. Bran!” Amaranth crouched beside his cage, prying open the lock with a knife that had landed within her reach. She had used it to pry open her own cage just a moment before. Her voice was loud enough to be heard over the fake gunfire, but nobody seemed to be paying attention to them in the chaos of the explosion. Amaranth broke the lock and grabbed her district partner by the arm. 

“No one's looking this way,” she said. “It's time to run.” And they did.

 

In the first fourteen minutes of the Games, eight tributes died. The initial explosion of the mine under the supply pile took the boy from Four and the girl from Eight; the Twelve boy stabbed the Eleven girl during the pickaxe struggle. The Two boy abandoned the fight, grabbing a nearby tomahawk instead and running west, away from the circle. The Six tributes tried to follow his lead, but the girl tripped over debris from the explosion and hit another mine. Both Sixes and the boys from Seven and One died in the second blast.

In the fifteenth minute of the Games, the military council in the Capitol gave the order to detonate the third mine. The mine with the blast radius the size of the entire tribute circle.

The Two, Five, and Twelve girls and the Three, Five, and Ten boys were still within that blast radius. They died of various injuries at various speeds, and the generals of the council murmured uneasily. They had hoped to arrange it so that every district had a tribute killed in this first bloodbath. It would have happened, if only the Nines hadn't gotten away.

“As quickly as possible,” the president reminded them. No one, not even the Capitol, wanted these Games to last long.

 

For all they knew, there could be active mines anywhere in the arena, and so Amaranth insisted on throwing pieces of debris ahead of where she and Bran walked. “Not sure if they'll detonate for random bits of trash,” she said. “Better than doing nothing, though.”

Bran glanced back over his shoulder at the smoking ruins of the supply pile nearly half a mile behind them. The two tributes had heard the explosion—it had nearly knocked Bran off his feet, it was so sudden—but they could only guess at how many tributes had been killed. He picked at the threads of his shirt. “Amaranth-”

“What?”  She spoke with no trace of the stutter that she'd spoken with for all their time together in the Capitol. She'd pulled her hair out of her eyes and tied it up with some cloth ripped from her shirt. She was in the arena already; there was no point hiding her strength now, not when she finally had to use it.

“Why did you save me?” he asked. “Why take me with you, when you could've run away all on your own? I can't—I don't know how to fight. I don't even really know how to hide. Why not let me die?”

Amaranth turned around to look at him, brows furrowed in mild indignation. “Why would I? You're from home. You're my ally. Soldiers don't just abandon each other in the middle of battle.”

“But I'm not a soldier! My family, we, we were all just civilians.”

“So? Soldiers are there to protect civilians, aren't they?”  She scoffed, as if it offended her to have to state something so obvious. “We fight for you. We do what you can't.”

Bran stared at the dirt under his feet. After a moment, he said, “My babcia was attacked by soldiers. Ours, not theirs. Our granary, it was still processing its quota and sending it to the Capitol, and the soldiers said it was collaborating with the enemy. They didn't kill her—just beat her and broke her arm. Said it was a warning. That was it, for her. She brought us all into the granary and barricaded the door and said no one was coming in or out until the war was over.”

Amaranth let out a slow breath. “Well,” she said after a minute's thought. “Like I said. We do what you can't. Sometimes that means hurting people who don't deserve it.”

Bran tensed. “Is that what your father taught you?” he said, bitterness creeping into his voice. “Soldiers can do all the bad things normal people can't?”

Amaranth didn't answer. She only took up another piece of debris and hurled it ahead of her, watching as it hit the ground and burst into flame. “Let's not go that way,” she said, and Bran agreed.

 

At midnight, the names of the dead were announced through the arena's loudspeakers. Thirteen children, gone. Helicopters came to pick up what remained of them, and to bring in a litter of bloodhound mutts, bred during the war, that the Capitol had no further use for. The mutts had been meant to sniff out and attack those of inferior district blood hiding in the Capitol, but the science behind it had been faulty and the mutts just attacked everyone but their handlers. For the purposes of the Games, they would do.

The District One girl heard the sound of the chopper and was running toward it, hoping it meant rescue or even just supplies. Her hope brought her right into the middle of the bloodhound pack, and she barely had time to scream before they sunk their teeth into her throat and tore it out. The President, still nursing his own wound, was said to have smiled. The Capitol citizens who had once rallied around the girl's grandmother now stayed silent, whether out of shock, fear, or resignation.

The pack dispersed after that, each chasing a different tribute's scent. A pair of hounds went west, where the Two boy was clearing a trail with his tomahawk through thickets of barbed wire, a trail that the Seven girl was unknowingly following. Three went south in search of the Four girl, Eleven boy, and Twelve boy, all of whom roamed the trenches and expanses of no man's land alone. Three went east into the rubble of destroyed bomb shelters for Three girl, the boy from Eight, and the girl from Ten, and two particularly vicious mutts began their hunt in the north of the arena, the minefield, with the pair from District Nine as their intended prey.

And, of course, they were the first of the hounds to reach their quarry.

 

Amaranth had woken Bran up at the announcement of the dead and handed him the knife with a curt nod before curling up on the ground. “How do you know I won't stab you in your sleep?” Bran asked.

Amaranth rolled her eyes. “If you were planning on it, you wouldn't have asked me that question. You're not stupid enough to warn me of an attack when surprise is your only advantage. Good night. Don't get us killed.”

Bran clutched the hilt of the knife with both hands and stood next to her, eyes on the horizon. The arena seemed to stretch on endlessly—no walls or electric fences in sight, though there had to be something to keep the tributes from escaping. Was this an actual battlefield, a real city that had been destroyed by the war? The Capitol skyline, with its tall and gleaming spires, was nowhere in sight, nor were the mountains that sheltered it from the rest of Panem. Where were they?

Two gray forms started moving over the horizon. At first Bran thought they were other tributes, but their speed and way of moving quickly dispelled that notion.

He shook Amaranth awake—she grabbed his arm so hard it bruised, then muttered something about instinct—and the two of them ran back through the path they'd cleared the day before, hoping they'd lose the mutts in the minefield.

They ran as fast as they could, but so did the mutts. Soon their pursuers were gaining on them. Thirty feet behind. Twenty feet. Fifteen feet behind—

The explosion knocked both tributes to the ground. One of the mutts had stepped on a mine, and both creatures were blown to pieces. Amaranth, a faster runner than Bran, staggered to her feet and turned to look at the boy behind her.

Bran’s legs were a mess of blood and burned flesh. The boy tried to push himself up off the ground using just his arms, but his strength failed, and he fell back into the pool of blood that was quickly forming around him.

Amaranth crouched down by his side. “Bran,” she said quietly. “Can you move your legs at all?”

He shook his head, lower lip starting to tremble. In his hand, he still clutched the knife. He pushed it toward Amaranth.

“Is that what you want?” she asked.

“Be a soldier.” The boy closed his eyes and let go of the knife. “Do what other people can’t.”

Amaranth took in a deep breath. “On the count of three,” she said, then cut the boy’s throat immediately, before dread and panic could build up in his mind. She stood vigil by his body for half an hour, until the helicopter came to retrieve his remains. Then she turned and began walking eastward, alone.

 

The mutts got the girl from Seven, too, and one badly wounded the District Eight boy before the Ten girl beat it to death with a club. Eight tributes left.

 

The next day, a cloud of ash and smog rolled across the south of the arena, triggering the Twelve boy’s asthma. He died coughing and gasping.

The Eleven boy and Four girl, blinded by the filthy air, ran into each other. Thinking he might be a mutt, the girl shanked the twelve-year-old boy, and he collapsed into her arms and bled out.

Six tributes left.

 

Amaranth, still trekking east in search of food, found some rye grass growing through the cracks in the cement above the bomb shelters. She ate as much as she could, then cursed herself for not saving some. As the sun set, she found shelter in a crevice that none of the other tributes had found. She tucked her knees to her chest, closed her eyes, and tried not to think of the look on Bran’s face when he’d asked her to kill him.

Rain beat down on the arena. Amaranth stepped out of her shelter to catch some fresh water in her mouth, then turned and locked eyes with the Three girl across the battlefield.

Amaranth gripped her knife, still spattered with Bran’s blood, and threateningly held it in front of her so the girl could see. The Three girl screamed, ran, and vaulted down what had once been a sewer drain. A loud thud came from under the ground, along with a sickening crack.

Amaranth retreated to her makeshift shelter. A burst of thunder came—she nearly jumped out of her skin. Not a bomb, she told herself. Not gunfire. Just the storm.

She thought about Bran’s grandmother, beaten by rebel soldiers—Amaranth’s father’s soldiers—just for keeping her head low, for keeping her family safe. “Is that what your father taught you?” Bran had asked her. “Soldiers can do all the bad things normal people can't?”

 “It will hurt, pochiecha,” the memory of her father’s voice added. “But this is what we must do.”

 

That night, the Eight boy died from his injuries in the fight against the mutts. Amaranth saw the helicopter on its way to pick up his body and followed it. There she found the Ten girl with her club and a pack of protein bars. She shifted her weight, the movement catching the other girl’s attention.

“Want some?” the Ten girl asked, offering her a bar.

Amaranth took the food but kept her knife at the ready.

“I don’t blame you,” said the Ten girl. She herself had a death grip on her club—more of a metal bat, really. One that was meant to be used for ball games, not bludgeoning. “Do you think, if we just survive for long enough… they’ll let us be?”

“No,” Amaranth said. “They’re broadcasting this to the whole nation. Backing out now would only make them look weak.”

“What’s your name?”

“Amaranth,” she replied, a bit taken aback by how readily the Ten girl asked the question. In her experience, it was easier not to know the names of those you knew were going to die.

“I’m Lauree,” the girl said. “You look like you haven’t slept in days.”

“I haven’t.”

“Get some rest, then,” she insisted. “I’ll keep watch.”

Amaranth lay down on the cold concrete and drifted in and out of sleep. After a few hours, she sat up and walked over to Lauree. “My turn,” she said. “You should rest, too.”

Lauree smiled and lay her metal bat on the ground. Soon Amaranth could hear the girl’s breath slowing. She waited until she was fast asleep, then slowly began to gather the supplies Lauree and her previous ally, the boy from Eight, had amassed. Food and a half-full bottle of fresh water.

She walked back over to the sleeping girl. “I’m sorry,” she said in a voice low enough that it would not wake the other girl. “You were kind to me.”

And she cut the Ten girl’s throat.

Three tributes left.

 

The day she killed Bran, Amaranth had realized that the Capitol had a problem. The slaughter of every single tribute in the Hunger Games was sure to breed even more rebels than they had before. The districts would be united in their hatred of the Capitol, and those Capitol citizens who still secretly thought the Games were wrong would side with the districts. If all the tributes died, the war would start up again, and it would never end.

On the other hand, if the Capitol could use the Games to divide the districts rather than unite them, the Capitol would still come out on top. And what would cause more resentment than twenty-three children dying senselessly and one child surviving? One district would have a victor thanks to the supposed mercy of the Capitol. And all the other districts would hate them.

But what kind of tribute would the Capitol let live? Dead martyrs were inconvenient, but a living martyr was a far worse prospect. They could become a figurehead for the revolution: the child who refused to die, the child who had been thrown into hell by the Capitol and climbed their way out. The survivor would have to be divisive. Hated, even, by some of the district people.

It was hard to make a martyr of a murderer. A soldier’s daughter, ruthlessly efficient, who’d killed another tribute—from her own district, no less—then found she had a taste for killing. A blood hunter. Proof that the people of the districts were just as cruel, treacherous, and violent as the Capitol said they were.

Maybe someone watching her would see her murders as the necessities—even kindnesses—that they were. Everything she did was being broadcast live into the homes of the whole country. The Capitol could take her story and twist it, shout their power and impose their narrative upon the world, but another soldier’s child, used to seeing the world as a battlefield, could watch her and understand.

And if she did this right, she would never be forgotten and erased like her father had been. The people of District Nine would know her name. They’d know what she had done.

 

The Four girl was easy to track down and even easier to kill. Ever since she accidentally stabbed the twelve-year-old boy from Eleven, she had stayed where she was—not eating, not sleeping, not doing anything except sobbing, loud enough it could be heard from the ruined bomb shelter where Amaranth had killed Lauree.

Amaranth felt like crying, too, but she held it in. The months of torture she had endured at the hands of her own father made her vigilant against showing any signs of weakness. She did not have the luxury of remorse—the cameras were watching her every move.

She met the Four girl’s gaze as she walked toward her. Still the Four girl didn’t move. Amaranth took out her knife, still stained with blood, and wiped it clean on the leg of her pants.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” the girl whimpered. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I know,” Amaranth said, although she had no way of knowing what had happened to the other tribute. But she recognized the shock and guilt in the girl’s eyes. “I’m going to help you,” Amaranth said.

She cut the girl’s throat—the same way as the others. The Capitol would probably have enjoyed some variety, or a more creative way of dispatching the tributes. But Amaranth was from District Nine, where reapers scythed through the grain in steady, rhythmic, monotonous motions. She took no enjoyment in her work, but her hand would not waver.

 

It took her three more days to find the boy from Two. One was spent trudging through no-man’s-land, scavenging for any supplies she could find. The next day, she made her way to the thicket of razor wire and spent hours searching for a way through. It was sunset by the time she found the boy’s trail, so she decided to wait rather than travel in the dark. One misstep and she could be impaled like a shrieking bird on a thorn.

The Capitol must have been getting impatient. They sent helicopters to firebomb the area. One bomb landed a few feet away from Amaranth as she dove out of the way, scorching the left side of her body. She almost used up the water bottle trying to salve the burns, then tore strips of fabric from her clothing to wrap them up as best she could.

Now able to see from the firelight, Amaranth set out on the path the Two boy had cleared. She found him at dawn—also severely burned from the firebombs, half his face scarred so badly it made Amaranth flinch. The look in his eyes was feral. He raised his tomahawk, and Amaranth realized with a start that he might have come to the same conclusion as her: the last one alive just might get out of there alive.

He brought the axe down as Amaranth darted to the right and stabbed him in the side with her knife. A sharp burst of pain—the tomahawk dug into her burned leg, just below the knee, causing her to drop to the ground. She dragged the knife down with her, splitting open the boy’s wound. He screamed and pulled the tomahawk out of her leg so he could use it to behead her. She ducked, slid the knife out, and threw the bloody blade through his eye socket.

His body collapsed. Amaranth vomited.

And now the wait, she thought. Will they leave me to bleed out? Or will they change the game?

She made a tourniquet out of the bandages she had put on her burns. They could send mutts to finish her off, and she wouldn’t be able to run. Or they could just bomb the hell out of this place. A helicopter didn’t necessarily mean rescue—it could simply be another tool of annihilation.

Maybe she had miscalculated. Maybe the Capitol had too much to lose by backing down now. Maybe she’d killed four innocent kids for no reason at all.

Dawn broke, and a helicopter came over the horizon. Amaranth used all her effort to stand up. She would face them on her own two feet, even though one was burned and bleeding.

They picked up the Two boy’s body first. Then the helicopter just hovered in the air for a minute or two. “Well?” Amaranth shouted at it. “What are you gonna do?”

A rope ladder fell down from the open hatch. Dizzy, Amaranth limped over and started to climb.

They could drop her. Say it was an accident, say that they tried to save her but she was too weak to hold on.

But they didn’t. Amaranth climbed into the helicopter and collapsed onto the floor next to the corpse of the boy from Two. Her last thought before falling unconscious:

Maybe I should have died.

 

After the fight between the Nine girl and the Two boy, the president had called his military council for an emergency meeting, at the suggestion of his PR advisor, Veturia Snow. They had come to the decision that the Capitol would allow the girl to live, under the following conditions:

I. She would not be allowed to return to District Nine, but instead must live in the Capitol under close surveillance. Her father was to remain a prisoner for life, with the threat of his torture and/or execution enforcing her compliance with the Capitol’s demands.

II. All official proclamations, news articles, and other media would be retroactively altered to reflect the fact that the Capitol had always intended for the final tribute to be spared execution. Anyone claiming otherwise, including the girl from Nine, was to be reeducated and their comments censored.

III. The Hunger Games would be instated as an annual televised event. All citizens were expected to watch, and betting, sponsorship, and Victor celebrity was to be introduced for the entertainment of Capitol citizens.

IV. From now on, the tributes—one girl and one boy from each district—would be chosen by lottery. In honor of the district industry of the first Victor, the lottery ceremony was to be known as “the Reaping.”