Friday, January 29, 2016

The 24th Hunger Games: Part Eleven: The Hanging Tree

The 24th Hunger Games: Part Eleven: The Hanging Tree
By L. N. Price

“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?  Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.  Strange things did happen here.  No stranger would let it be if we met up.  At midnight in the hanging tree,”-Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

            “Enemy?”  When she nodded, he dropped the question.  “We don’t have to do this,” he tried once more.
            “Don’t try to talk me out of this, Kaede.  There can be only one Victor.”  Her spear angled out in front of her as though she were about to spring at him.  Instead, she stayed planted in that position, studying him.  She was studying him for weaknesses, and he knew he had many, too many.
            Her gaze centered on his leg, finding it still roughly bandaged around the burns.  With how little he had been able to stop, it was most likely infected, but that wouldn’t matter if he was dead.  Having taken count of everything, Lux darted forward, her spear drawing into an upward angle, its point aimed at him.
            He wanted so badly to let her kill him; to end it all.  As frightening a conclusion it was, it would be so easy.  He wouldn’t even have to move a muscle, the spear would simply stab him wherever it fell.  Lux would be victor, and he would be free of all this, never to suffer under Panem again.  It all sounded so great, except for the part where he would be dead.
            From inside him he dredged up that one goal he had decided on from the very beginning.  The goal that didn’t care what anyone thought of him, and only sought to win.  Closer and closer the spear’s tip edged in, as if in slow motion, his decision dictating its final course.  In a whip like speed his axe flew upwards, a loud screech issuing as it met metal and knocked the spear aside.
            Whatever relationship had existed between the two was gone, Lux only glaring at him for fighting back.  The course her weapon had been on had been merciful, now it would find whatever it could lay claim to.  She would maim him if it got her exactly what she wanted.  The look she gave him said as much, if not more, her body leaning forward, ready to strike.  “You shouldn’t have done that, Kaede,” she growled.
            He didn’t cower under her stare, facing her with every bit of determination he could muster.  “And let you kill me, Lux?  What gives you the right?”
            An eyebrow lifted at his question, but no smile appeared.  “That’s the point, Kaede.  One of us has to kill the other.”  Mockery dripped off her tone, no pity available.  “You should have taken the little bit of mercy I offered.”
            “I’m sorry, Lux.”  She merely shook her head at him, settling into her stance, her spear drawn behind.  He felt the sweat pooling between his fingers, loosening his grip on his axe, and a cool calmness quelling his fear.  If she wouldn’t regret this then he wouldn’t either.  He didn’t get into a stance like hers, but his grip tightened on the handle of his weapon, ready for her next move.  It came quick enough, Lux moving with alarming speed, her spear still tucked tightly behind her, still not coming between them.  That was when he noticed its absence, and a bright flash of metal, a familiar machete coming at him.  He hardly had the ability to take in the information and move in the same span of time, his body dropping to the ground hard to avoid being slashed.  There was no grin of triumph on her face, or troubled frown, she was stone faced entirely, giving no sign to her real emotion.
 She paused before coming back at him, letting him stand, his eyes wide, unsure just who stood before him.  “Where did you get that?”  His eyes didn’t leave the form of the machete, knowing the answer already even as he asked.
“I found it.  I didn’t fail to see just who took Mason out though.”  There, right in her eyes was the spark she had shown before.  “Shame they left this.”  She held the machete in front of her, eyeing its blood spattered metal; blood that had belonged to the one friend she had claimed.  The light was gone once again, and the blade had done its work, shaking up every inch of him.  Her spear was gone now too, with every last bit of her he had known, the machete making her seem more like Mason.
“Maybe it disgusted them.”  He narrowed his eyes at her, finally bracing himself for the stranger she was. 
Lux smiled though in return, lifting the machete in a menacing point at him.  “Then maybe they shouldn’t have made it this far.”  There wasn’t an opportunity to speak again as she rushed him, swinging the machete around her like it had always been hers.  He could only lift his axe in time to parry her attacks, never getting ahead of her quick speed.  Again and again, she cut at him, moving her body in such an agile way that he would find himself whirling to simply keep up.  His head whipped back and forth, between the place she had been and the place she was now, losing track of her completely in those moments.  She was an entirely different person.  Every thrust of the machete was aimed at two distinct places on his person, which was the only reason he was able to block her.  She wanted to take out the two weakest spots, his leg and left hand, the two locations that would not only pain him, but disable.  He could feel the weight of the Capitol citizen’s stares, their awe at the intense showdown that had culminated between the two tributes it had written off from the beginning.  Irony was afoot, they just didn’t know what kind.
Kaede ached with the movement of keeping up, his arms hefting the axe through the sweat and pain that covered him.  Whatever was motivating Lux wasn’t letting her slip, her attacks solid, and the holes almost invisible to detect, save for one.  With her gaze locked on his leg, and arm, her head only occasionally snapped up to look at him.  Her upper torso was a weak wall, crumbling with the effort of defending everything else.  All he had to do was get his axe up high enough to strike her somewhere up there without her getting any clues to his plan.  Even with her focus solely on quartering him her attention was widespread, her senses like those of a cat, its whiskers picking up the slightest hover of a finger. 
It was the next strike that pushed him forward, sliding ever so slightly to the side as she dove down in the direction of his leg, the machete on the kind of path that was hard to come back from.  He didn’t stop to think; didn’t stop to question his own intent, the axe pulling itself with the given momentum, flying out of his hands.  His eyes didn’t go to her in the instance, locked as they were on the peaceful forest that surrounded them.  He could only hear the small whimper that came from her as it made impact, reality dawning on her, slowly but surely.  With her realization came his own, his body moving before his mind to catch her.  In doing so, his eyes fell on the damage he had inflicted, catching the blade in his gaze, its new home a cavity in the area between her lungs.  Blood flowed all over his hands, coating them in a red that was the stuff of nightmares.
“Kaede,” she whispered, her voice mingled with a gargle of blood as it found new avenues out.  “I-.”  Her eyes centered on the sky above, blinking still, but covered in unwept tears.  “I’m sorry.”
Kaede shook his head, trying to wipe the blood off his hands enough to touch her face.  The heavy liquid though, stuck to him, drying in a crusty layer even as more was attracted to him.  “Don’t be.  I’m the one who should be sorry.”
“For what?”  Her voice was weakening.
“For acting out of character.”
“You’re the-,” she stopped, her body arching in pain, a cough forcing up more blood.   “You’re the Victor.”  The smile on her face was meant to be assuring, but that was exactly when her body chose to quit, her face relaxing, and the eyes losing their luster and focus.  He stared down at her, his stare on the one bit of skin that hadn’t been touched by blood; her eyes.  They had lost the soul that had lit them up, merely glass orbs in its absence.
“Why did you have to fight?”  The question came out softly, nearly a whisper in the quiet glade.  “You could have just killed me in my sleep and avoided all of this!”  If the birds had not flown away earlier they would have now, his shout ringing out in the cold air, falling on the deaf ears of the kids he had slain.  “Why?”  He leaned his forehead on hers as the sobs came, unaware of the ship that began to float over him.  Its motor hummed in the empty sky, sending a rough wind in its approach, Kaede finally staring up at it, knowing who it was, but unable to reign in the torrent that was his emotions.  There was no message of congratulations that met him that night.  Instead, they gave him darkness, likely prying him off the dead tribute girl, and hauling him aboard with a grumble.  Why should they care that he had killed the one person he cared about?  The one person who had cared for him?  Why should they care that it was their fault?  Why?
It was the sound of beeping that awoke him after that endless darkness; a constant, irritating beep that reminded him of what he had done.  The light beyond his eyelids beckoned him out his sleep, but there was that sense of welcome that came from the darkness, the kind that wouldn’t remind him of what had happened.  It was a new feeling that jolted him out of the void, sending a deep chill down his spine in its wake.  Muscles that had been broken and weak since birth were now made whole, twisting in his panic with that of their partner.  Slowly, he turned his stare to his left hand, taking account of the long, thin, and unmarred digits that flexed before him.  He twitched the fingers in a test, his stare hardening as the fingers moved with little effort, as if his hand had been fine all along.
The door to his room opened and a young nurse watched him in shock, a smile passing onto her face as she noticed his attention on the hand.  “Isn’t it amazing what technology can fix these days?”  She came closer, checking the instruments arrayed around his bed, nodding her head absently.  “I bet you thought you’d never be able to fully use that hand.”
“No,” he tried the word out, grimacing at the truth of it.  “I didn’t.”  He stopped moving the fingers, laying the hand further from his side.
“I’ll tell the doctors that you are awake.  Everyone is excited to see the new Victor.”  She smiled again and he had to bite his lip to hold back the shudder that wanted to run through him.  It was shocking to see how little these Capitol people could see past their own silly lives.  “I’ll be right back.”  The door closed behind her, Kaede sitting up in the bed, frowning as he had to use that hand to support himself.  Most of the flat surfaces nearby were clean, not housing a thing on them.  He needed something with an edge, but these people were smart enough to at least not leave those things lying around.
His eyes gazed out at the wall with the door, scanning it for shadows through the windows, wondering at how long it would take the doctors or nurses to arrive.  He checked each of the tables again, seeking out the scalpels or other sharp objects that were available.  All that he could find was a small scalpel that was on the surface at the end of his bed.  Quickly, but silently he crawled across the bed, pulling along his IV drip to keep it from dragging on his arm.  He had just barely managed to grasp the scalpel when the door swung back open, his body collapsing against the bed, the blankets falling on him and the scalpel as the nurse walked in.  “If you are feeling better, the Doctors have cleared you.”  Her eyes looked at the table, but didn’t notice or care for the missing instrument.  “Your stylist arrived a few minutes ago, they’re simply waiting for your word.”
“I’ll be ready in a couple of minutes.”  Kaede gripped the scalpel hard in his right hand, digging it into the soft mattress, hiding it in the firm material as she pulled off the blanket.  The hole was easily hidden, but eventually they would find it, hopefully when he was far away from the Capitol.  He gave her an easy smile as he got up, standing without any trouble, even his burned leg fully healed.  They had left nothing to remind him of all he had been through; he had been dually robbed.  The nurse returned his smile, leading him out of the room and into the hallway where his team waited.
They stood him in front of the entrance to the stage, just out of view of the crowd, the President’s voice booming out on the other side.  “This is a glorious day!”  Kaede stiffened at the words, his fists tightening.  “Out of the destruction from the war we were given the Hunger games, and out of the games we have received a Victor; one of strength and valor.”  The President raised his hands skyward and the crowd cheered, the sound vibrating the stage.  Devri came up behind him, pride showing in the smile he gave.  “It’s time, Kaede.”  He nodded and stepped out onto the stage, trying not to wince as the clapping and cheers surged at his arrival.  The President met him half way, showing him to the small platform that had been erected for the Victor, leaving him there as he got the Victor’s crown.  When he turned back to Kaede, the thin crown rested in his hands, and then was set on his head.  “Congratulations, Victor.  I look forward to seeing more of you in the future,” he nodded his head at Kaede, and faced the crowd, waving to them as he left.
“If you would come this way,” another man stood in his place, his hair dark, but the look in his eyes old and cunning. “It’s an honor to meet the Victor of such a games,” the man said smiling, his smile almost disarming with its callousness.  He wore an equally dark suit, a white rose pinned carefully on its lapel, the smell of it hard to ignore.  The smell wafted off the flower, choking the air between the two, Kaede trying to smile, but ultimately failing.  He shook the hand that was offered to him weakly, staring him in the eye.
            “As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Kaede.  I apologize for not doing so earlier, but of course I was not in the position I am now.”  He smiled wider, and motioned for Kaede to follow him off the stage.  “I was glad to see how great that hand looks.”  Kaede’s head snapped up at that, his hand hiding behind his back.
            “You did that?”
            “Fixed your hand?  No.”  He chuckled at Kaede.  “I simply told the doctors how nice it would be for the Victor to have a fully working hand.”
            “What if I didn’t want a working hand?”
            “Then it would be best to keep that opinion to yourself.”  The fakeness behind the smile showed itself, highlighting the threat that was implied.  “Victors should be grateful for the opportunities afforded them.  There are worse things to lose.”  With another smile, he walked away, leaving Kaede with Devri and Berkeley, who were all too happy to lead Kaede away from the growing crowd. 
There were many things that were spoken of as they boarded the train that night, ready to return home, but Kaede didn’t listen.  His companions ate, relaxed in light of how the events played out, but his stare could only rest on the hand they had fixed.  The way the Capitol people had spoken to him, he was expected to accept his new life and body, no questions asked, but that felt like more of a weight than surviving was.  He stood from the table the three of them had sat at, not offering a word as he walked to his quarters, letting the door slide shut behind him.  It was dark in the large room, the only light coming from the window near his bed.  On the decorative tables all he could spot were plates, bowls, lamps, and vases, nothing that helped him in his despair.  He grabbed onto the nearest object, a bowl, and flung it with all his strength, a shout of anguish escaping him as it crashed against the wall nearby. 
            It took him a moment to calm his breathing, his ears listening out for any sign of someone coming to check out the noise, but no one came.  Silence was all he received for his breakdown, the broken shards of glass scattered the floor, waiting for him to forget and step on them.  The feeling of being trapped seemed even more real now than it ever had when he had been in the arena, forced to kill kids younger than he was.  Berkeley’s words from before began to make sense, the reality of winning the games finally sinking in.
            When he woke up the next morning the shards were gone, cleaned while he had slept.  Neither Berkeley nor Devri mentioned the noise that had come from Kaede’s room, both seemingly happy to just be arriving back in district seven.  He could only go along with their feigned ignorance, stepping out on the train platform with a Capitol smile, waving at the people who had all thought, and maybe even had hoped he would die.  The cheering that came from them though revealed none of that, their applause just as loud as those of the Captitol people.  From the old footage of the prior victors, he had recalled their bright and happy faces when they has spotted familiar faces in the crowd, but for him there was none of that.  He had lived with these people since he had been born, but they were complete strangers.  Having had enough, he cut short his last wave, and walked off the stage, the smile still in place, but his patience gone. 
            “You did great, Kaede.”  Devri stopped him for a moment, patting him on the shoulder encouragingly.  “You are by far my favorite Victor, though I am biased.”  He gave him a wink, and let Berkeley walk him home; his real home, not the one the Capitol had fancied up for him.  They had moved most of his stuff in the new residence, but he knew they wouldn’t have taken one item, the one that meant more than the rest of his material possessions.  Though Berkeley likely knew where they were heading, he didn’t say anything, simply letting Kaede take the lead.  They went down dozens of dirty paths, weaving around rough wooden homes until Kaede stopped at one near the edge, his hand falling on the worn wood door.
            “Is this your home?”  Kaede nodded, hesitant to open the door and find all that had been left of his life.
            “What was it like when you returned Berkeley?  Was it this hard?”
            Berkeley snorted, and pushed past him, opening the door with slight annoyance.  “It’s only hard if you let it be.  I know we only survived the games, but be happy for the chance you have at life.”
            The hardness of the words didn’t escape Kaede, his feet bringing him inside, but his mind a million miles away.  “There are things I can’t forget.  Things I can’t forgive.”  His left hand was fixed, but it stayed still at his side like it had every day of his life.  He wouldn’t use what he wasn’t supposed to have.
            “The Capitol had its shot at you, Kaede, and you won.  Get over whatever vendetta you have, it won’t get you anywhere.”
            “It’s not a vendetta.  Look, Berkeley.  I’m fine, I just need a moment and I’ll meet you back at the Victor’s Village.”
            Berkeley didn’t seem so sure of that, his eyes narrowing at Kaede’s unmoving hand.  “Are you sure?”
            “I promise.”  Berkeley frowned, but he nodded, leaving Kaede alone in the small house.  With the house all too himself, he found the object he had been looking for, and sat down at the table, resting the old axe on the surface in front of him.
            There wasn’t any fear or sadness in him right then, as if his body was under one understanding.  He grasped the axe with his right hand, firm and without hesitance.  His left was laid out on the table, still and in waiting.
            All it took was raising the axe above himself, and letting it fall, the thud telling him it was done.  There was pain, but it was more gratifying than agonizing, as if to tell him it was finally over.  A hysterical laugh escaped him, letting a cool sense of relief wash over him.  “Johnson, you still in there?”  It was one of the peacekeepers, and no matter how quick Kaede was, there was no hiding the missing hand.  While he had hacked off the offensive limb, he would likely die before they could get to him from blood loss.  What he wasn’t banking on was for the Peacekeeper to knock his way into the one room house, and take in the scene with alarming speed.

            “I need backup,” was all he said into his radio as he removed the axe, and grabbed Kaede’s left arm, wrapping a cloth tightly around the stump.  “Are you an idiot?  Do you know what happens now?”  That was when the other Peacekeepers darted inside and yanked Kaede out of the chair, pulling him out the door, and dragging him back to the train before the district seven people noticed a thing.  He was then strapped to one of the dining chairs, and a needle injected in his neck before the darkness reclaimed him, letting him relax until he would face the unknown.
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