Always the last to wake, the others are already moving about when my bleary eyes crack open as Terlum gently shakes me, coercing me back into reality. His face is the first thing I see, and looking at him so closely, I take a moment to appreciate the rosy pink in his cheeks that only days ago, I thought I would never see again. The jungle, as always, is buzzing with the cheerful song of mockingjays. We gather our leaf-blankets and packs and stand next to the tree roots.
“Let’s split up,” I say. “I’ll go and get more water; you guys stay here” The others nod and I move off into the jungle. The sun rises higher and higher to its apex and I pull my heavy coat off and shove it into my pack as the rays beat down upon me. I use my finite navigating skills to direct myself back to the last water source we used, about 8 kilometres away, it’ll probably take me a few hours to get there and back to Leigh and Terlum. I make it to the stream and fill our flasks, sitting on the moist earth of the banks and resting for a while before I start the trek back.
As I sit and admire the millions of crystals of light sparkling off the surface, I think about my allies. After watching the evening announcements, we’ve established that there are only a few tributes remaining. I feel like we have such a good chance, but it pains me to realize that not all 3 of us will win. I imagine that in another world, one where we weren’t condemned to eventually watch the others die, I would be very close with Leigh and Terlum. I know that now is not the time to be nostalgic, but I wonder if I will ever get a chance to in the midst of all of this. I think about Leighs incredible intellect, and admire her amazing survival skills. I smile as I recall Terlums optimism and wit. I’ll miss them both so much either way…
A crunch behind me draws me back to the humid atmosphere that I unfortunately am stuck in and jolt around, crossbow in hand already.
“Only me!” Leigh laughs quickly, before I shoot her. That could’ve been awkward. Suddenly, a primal shriek pierces the air as both Leigh and my heads whip around to determine the source of the helpless cry.
“Terlum!” Leigh yells with a dreadful realization, racing back into the jungle, my legs pushing me right behind her.
Branches and vines lash our faces but we sprint forward in pursuit of our tribute. When we arrive, my heart stops mid-beat. Harlow Lilywalk is standing next to Terlum with her… my?… no, her hands around his throat. I inhale sharply and turn to look up at Leigh, wide-eyed. Who is this person? I would never hurt Terlum! The fake Harlow whips around when she hears my gasp, still clasping onto Terlums neck, his helpless splutters not having any effect on her. Her skin starts to undulate, she drops her hands and a demonic grin crosses her features as her skin melts off of her bones, leaving behind shimmering, gold scales. Her body protract as her limbs all morph into one, and her wide bright green eyes transform into to sharp, black slits. Where ‘Harlow’ stood, there is now a gigantic golden snake, speckled with black diamond-shaped spots. It’s forked tongue flickers as it lets out a low deadly hiss, its black eyes locking on Terlums.
“NO!!” I cry, and both Leigh and I lunge forward forcefully. The mighty reptile swiftly bats us aside with a flick of its tail, hissing irately.We jump up from the mossy carpet, but are already moments too late.
Terlum screams one last horrific shriek as the snake rises above him, then descending upon him with force, swallowing Terlum whole. “TERLUM!!” Leigh screams, pulling her knife out of her pocket and lunging at the gigantic creature. It swats her aside again and then turns to slither off into the jungle. Leigh runs after the snake with a frenzied attempt to regain her District member. I know how it feels to lose your district member, and I don’t want to lose Leigh today either, I reach out and grab her wrist.
“There is nothing we can do” I tell her helplessly, a sadness laced through my voice that I am too weary to even bother trying to hide.
Leigh collapses on the floor, tears streaming heavily past her eyelids, and soon I sink to the earth alongside her, realizing that I too can’t bear the pain that this has caused. The gates that are my eyelids relinquish their barrier and tears begin to stream down my cheeks as I break down into a desperate sob. Terlum had such optimism, even in this arena, filled with death and despair… I just can’t believe that he’s gone. I feel like in a few minutes, he’ll pop up from a tree around the corner and walk back to us, that childish grin that seemed to be permanently plastered to his features greeting us with its warmth.
I take a deep breath and compose myself, standing upon precariously shaky limbs, pulling Leigh up with me.
“We’re too exposed. We have to move.” She says, her voice thick with tears. I feel guilty, as if I should spend the next week mourning Terlum, but that will get us nowhere, and I know that he would have wanted Leigh and I to fight on. So we will… for him.
We stumble back through the jungle, stopping for a moment to gather Terlum’s pack and spear. I grip onto Leigh, both of us supporting the other on every unsteady footstep. Eventually, we come across the tree that we spent the last evening in. We climb maladroitly back up to the bough, setting our packs down and our blankets out. no words are needed now. We give each other the necessary space to process and grieve separately. Leigh pours out some of the rat-meat stew that she got sent this morning and holds it out in offering, but I shake my head. I can’t stomach anything right now. the sadness of the day filling every crevice of my body. I pull my leaf-blanket over me and settle into the crook of the tree trunk. Images of my face on the shape-shifters scaly body flash before me as guilt wracks my soul. If it weren’t my face that the snake had portrayed, Terlum would have been able to defend himself. I lone tear rolls down my cheek as my eyes flutter shut, taking me away to a dreamless state for yet another tense night…