"...Oh, and look at that! Maddy is down, Flash taking advantage of her surprise to gain the upper hand. They're the last two competitors left in the arena and this really is a final desperate struggle for the title of this year's Hunger Games. Maddy is trying to escape, sustaining a heavy wound to the chest, but Flash is lethal with that double-headed axe. There really is no doubt about who's going to win this. Oh! Maddy's daemon has just dissipated; the last remaining tribute of District Five is out of the competition leaving Flash victorious, as this year's Hunger Games Champion-"

I hurriedly pushed a button to turn the television off, blacking out the horrible picture of last years Hunger Games winner, his teeth bared in a savage grin and his daemon roaring triumphantly next to him. Behind the victors, Maddy's lifeless body lay crumpled in the grass, her eyes a glassy blue gazing up at the sky, and a steady river of blood trickling into a puddle around her.

I vividly remembered the Games from last year. Flash had only been thirteen, but he'd been a Career from District One, and with ruthless training he'd become a deadly opponent within the arena, easily beating the favourite from District Four, and claiming the crown of Hunger Games Victor. Even his daemon Immitis took highly aggressive forms, and the two had been an unstoppable combo.

I had managed to avoid being picked for several years, and was terrified at the thought of being chosen. There was no way I would make it through; I had no knowledge or skills of survival being the adopted daughter of District Four's mayor. The thought of dying made me shudder uncontrollably. The thought of losing my own daemon, watching him flicker out like the flame of a dying candle was unbearable. I couldn't live without him, and I often had nightmares where I woke sobbing uncontrollably, convinced that the Capitol had taken him away.

At that moment, my daemon Kairan was curled up next to me, his thick fox pelt a deep russet and umber that danced with golden highlights in the late afternoon sun. His luxurious brush twitched restlessly, and his large golden eyes watched me anxiously. He hated the Hunger Games as much as I did, and shared the same worry of being separated in the ring. I placed a soothing hand on his head, letting my fingers sink into his soft fur, and he licked me in response, giving me a little comfort against my nightmares.

I sank back into the sofa, warmth creeping up my arm from my contact with Kairan. The bright sunlight echoing in through the large bay windows made me squint through eyelashes painted gold and crimson, the pleasant colours sparking across my vision as lightning does across a stormy horizon. The warmth made me drowsy, and I had trouble remaining awake. Next to me, Kairan yawned slowly, revealing sharp white canines and the striking pink flesh of his throat and tongue, before curling even tighter.

I would've drifted gently to sleep if the door hadn't suddenly burst open. I shot up onto my feet, startled by the loud noise, just as a pheasant would do at the sound of a rifle, and Kairan fluttered to the ceiling in distress before landing on my shoulder with ruffled feathers.

A snow leopard prowled into the room, cold, blue eyes regarding me with distain, heavy paws silent on the thick carpet. A tense silence, thick as oil, smothered the room. I'd instantly recognised the prowling daemon - the powerful grace emitted by the animal was unmistakable - and the sight of her filled me with fear and dread. Kairan swooped from my shoulder, shimmering green-brown pheasant feathers highlighted in the sun for a second before melting into deep shadow-black fur. He glowered at my side, a panther coiled to strike, his fangs bared in a warning snarl. His warmth next to me gave me confidence, and I gratefully buried my fingers into the soft fur on the back of his neck.

The leopard merely sniffed at Kairan's display, sinking to the floor to wait by the doorframe for her person to appear. Her tail flicked to and fro restlessly, sunlight glancing off of her silky white fur as it would do off of snow, or cruel icicles polished to dagger points.

Her person walked in a moment later, and his mere presence made the back of my throat go dry. My hands, already clammy with apprehension, balled up into tight fists, and the knuckles soon blushed red and white.

He towered over me, eyes flashing with intelligence. His form was large and muscular, but yet he moved with a sharp poise that seemed impossible for his figure. The beginnings of a beard hid thin lips that were pressed into a disapproving line, possibly because of my disheveled appearance or the savagely snarling daemon at my knees. I smoothed the bristling ruff of fur on Kairan's neck, trying to calm him down. He cocked an enquiring ear my way, eyes still fixed on the man in front of us.

"Imogen, please try to keep your daemon under control," the man snapped, a dangerous undertone in his voice warning me to heed his command.

"Calm down, Kairan," I muttered into the panther's ear. He growled in protest, but reluctantly he shrank into a ferret, swiftly scampering along my arm to perch on my shoulder, beady black eyes fixed on the newcomer, and body stiff with hostility arched against my neck.

Oblivious to Kairan's seething hatred, the man settled back into the luxurious upholstery of a claw-footed armchair, releasing a little sigh of pleasure as he did so. I knew he had a love of all things expensive.

His dark eyes bored into me, examining my face, my hands, the casual clothes I chose to wear instead of what I was supposed to: fussy dresses hung with frills and frothy lace, made of delicate, expensive materials that would never withstand the activities I got up to on most days.

"So, Imogen…" His deep voice rumbled around the room, reverberating off of the domed ceiling, making me flinch. Kairan whispered words of comfort, whiskers tickling my cheek, and I sat up a little straighter, feeling reassured.

"Uncle Asriel," I returned.

"How are you? Have you been well looked after?" His anger had given way to a restless awkwardness, and he fumbled for things to ask me clumsily. His agitation was reflected in his daemon, who paced impatiently around his seat, pausing only to lick elegantly at a paw.

"I'm very well, thank you," I replied. The formal words spilled from my mouth stiffly, like they had to claw their way up my throat to escape off my tongue.

"What have you been getting up to in your spare time?"

"Um…" I sat in panicked silence, hurriedly hunting for something to say. "I like going on the beach, and going swimming. Sometimes I go into town." The lies tasted stale, but I couldn't tell him what I actually got up to. Somehow I had a feeling that Asriel wouldn't approve if I told him that I spent most days with my best friend Ellie, a child notorious for pickpocketing and general thievery. We often pillaged gardens and market stalls, pinching apples, biscuits, and other unattended goods before retiring to an empty harbour or hiding in the sand dunes to split our wares. I was already supplied with plenty of food, three square meals a day, and so did most people living in District Four - we were a highly prosperous district and poverty was almost non-existent - but there was something about a stolen loaf of bread which tasted far better than the stuff served at the dinner table.

"Have you made many friends?"

I shrugged noncommittally. "A few."

"And you get on well together?"


He sighed in exasperation at my ever-shortening answers, and the sullen mask fast-consuming my features. His daemon leaned forward to whisper urgently, and he muttered a quick response, far too quiet to reach my straining ears. She opened her mouth to utter a reply, but Uncle Asriel frowned angrily. "Enough Stelmaria, we'll discuss this later," he hissed, and she withdrew obediently, a sulky look glimmering in her eyes.

Conflicts between a person and their daemon were frequent, and Asriel had an especially rocky relationship with his own daemon, Stelmaria. I was nonplussed at this sudden outburst, and during their hurried exchange, Kairan took the chance to point something out.

"Have you noticed how tired he looks?" he said curiously.

I had noticed the bruise-purple shadows beneath his eyes, and the lines deeply etched across his brow. He seemed to slouch a little more, and as I watched him, he sank back into his seat, eyes fluttering shut in complete exhaustion. I had thought nothing of it, and conveyed this opinion to Kairan who huffed in derision.

"He's been away on loads of trips, but he's never looked this tired before. Something must've happened," he whispered.

"Stop being so suspicious," I muttered in reply. Kairan was an adventurer at heart, and so was apt to make mountains out of molehills. I had experience of his suspicion, and I knew that his deductions were usually wrong.

He wrinkled his tiny ferret nose at me, and I knew he was going to continue pondering over possible explanations. This wasn't the end of it, I could tell.

"Well, I'm glad that you're healthy and happy," Asriel said, rising from his chair. His size made him look powerful and dangerous, and his eyes, glinting like polished shards of jet, only reinforced his aura of power and wealth. "I've got more business to do, so I'll be leaving for the Capitol tomorrow. Good luck with the Reaping this afternoon." A sudden sadness appeared in his eyes, and I felt an aching pang of jealousy. He was probably remembering Lyra, his real daughter.

She'd been killed in a Hunger Games several years ago, aged only thirteen. From what I remembered, she'd been taken in by the Career pack, and then stabbed in the back by one of her own allies. He'd adopted me soon after, which was why I called him uncle, so I'd never met her properly, but before I'd often seen her racing around town with the local street urchins, blonde hair framing a stubborn scowl, with burning blue eyes that had the haughty glare of an aristocrat. Her daemon had been the same: wild, rebellious, and scruffy, a personality that had never suited the embellished name of Pantalaimon.

"Thank you, uncle," I said, the words choking out of my throat. I'd almost forgotten about the Reaping. It always came too quickly; as soon as one ended where, much to my relief, my name remained safely within one of the glass choosing bowls, the next one reared its ugly head, bringing with it uncertainty and fear for all of the Districts in Panem.

Kairan mewled anxiously from my shoulder, sliding down my shoulder to perch on a proffered wrist. "It'll be okay," I whispered, knowing exactly the cause of his distress. 'We'll get through it, I swear."

He pushed his head up into my chin, eyes shut in complete bliss. I gave him a quick scratch, on the soft part of his neck where he liked it best, no matter what form he was in. I looked up, as it was only polite to wish my uncle well on his trip, only to see that he was standing over me, watching the exchange between Kairan and myself with what I could only describe as amusement.

I was enraged. How dare he watch a private conversation between myself and Kairan! Daemons only ever rarely spoke a person other than their particular person, but when someone else listened in on a conversation between a person and their own daemon, a part of their own soul, it was regarded the height of bad manners, almost as bad as the taboo of touching someone else's daemon.

"How dare you!" I gasped, and Kairan, sensing my indignation, immediately launched himself at Uncle Asriel's face in a torrent of fury, a whirlwind of flashing feathers and slicing talons, beak open in a silent scream. Asriel stood completely still, never flinching, eyes locked with those of the eagle daemon. I could feel Kairan's frustration, the hurt he wanted to inflict and yet he could not; the taboo held him back. Instead, he swooped at Stelmaria, eyes wide with malice, and Asriel's mask immediately crumbled as he felt the fear of his daemon pierce his heart.

Stelmaria snarled, ducking low to avoid Kairan's swirling talons, before leaping up to claw at the air where he'd been seconds before. He circled over her head, mockingly diving to tweak at her ear or tail before swooping out of harm's way. Beneath, Stelmaria spat and clawed, fur bristling and her fangs bared.

"STOP!" Asriel's voice rang in my ears, and both daemons stopped in astonishment before backing away from eachother, hackles lowering. Kairan flew to my shoulder, and I flicked him a quick smile which he returned with warm eyes.

"I cans see that you and your daemon are just as wild as before," Asriel raged, spittle flying from his angry words. "It's time you learned to control your temper and found some manners!" With that he stormed from the room, his daemon pressing against his knees, giving Kairan one more look of pure hatred before following her person.

I sighed heavily, leaning back to stare at the ceiling. Most of our meetings ended like this - our personalities were too similar, they clashed together like two angry dogs going for each other's throats. I think that was why he adopted me in the first place. Instead of going for any of the cute girls with pigtails and pinafores and gamboling kitten or puppy daemons, he chose to take in me, the sulking child in the corner with the scruffy fox for a soul. Maybe he liked the competition, but I could never tell - I never knew what went on inside his head.

We sat in a tense silence, neither of us moving, neither of us speaking, neither of us touching. Kairan lounged next to me over the silken cushions, back in his favourite fox form. His auburn fur glowed in spears of sunlight thrown through the glass. Eventually, I climbed to my feet, pacing backwards and forwards over the sun-soaked carpet.

Kairan was the first to break the silence. "Stop pacing, you're making me nervous." His tail twitched uneasily, ears flicking backwards and forwards like satellite dishes.

"I can't help it. I just hate this, you know?" I glared at him fiercely, but my anger was directed at someone, or something else. "I hate the Capitol, what they make us do. Why can't we put an end to this?"

Kairan's amber eyes were flecked with fear. "Shut up! They might be listening." He got up, stretched, flowed down to the floor in a blur of gold and deep rosy chestnut. "There's nothing we can do." He pushed himself up against me, his muzzle against my hand, trying to make me calm down. But I couldn't, I just couldn't. I felt sick with apprehension. This year could be the year my name got plucked from the rest, the year I was pushed forwards to satisfy the Capitol's cruel sense of pleasure. Made to compete, to change who I was and what I stood for, or die alone and in pain.

I slouched back onto the sofa, the sun's heat so warm and gentle on my face, glinting off my eyelashes and pouring down my cheeks like tears. My daemon crept up beside me, and my fingers automatically curled into his thick, lustrous fur. My eyes sank shut, dragged by the irresistible warmth bathing my face and the gold light washing over my skin…

I woke suddenly, jerking upright like I was a puppet, and suddenly someone had pulled my strings. Kairan was on my lap, a furry grey lemur wrapped in his own black-and-white ringed tail. His orange eyes opened sleepily, and blinked a few times before yawning widely with long white teeth.

I stretched. Yawned once, twice. Let my gaze wander around the room before lazily settling on the clock perched high over the fireplace. I squinted a little. Already one o'clock? I must have fallen asleep…

One o'clock.

Oh my God.

The Reaping.

It was time.

So, what do you think so far? Don't forget to write a review, and try the next chapter. By the way, sorry about how long it is - I kinda get carried away and end up writing about 5 pages per chapter. Oops.