I won The Challenge. Well, kind of. Four of us managed to complete it, but the real winner will be announced later today. I guess the judges still have to decide which one of us has the most bankable story to tell. I hope I'm not chosen. Sure the rewards are great, but the responsibility that accompanies winning is too overwhelming. I'm too busy as it is. Everyone who lives has to retell their experience in the form of a memoir. The most interesting story gets published and the writer receives a wealth of prizes. The other survivors have their biographies published, but generally fade into the shadow of the winner. While we're out in the wild, a group of elite Easterners travel to our homes and gather information about us to write these biographies. It's sort of like a preface, and they share excerpts with the public to keep them interested. If you ask me, it's a sick way to exploit us and promote The Challenge as anything other than barbaric.
The marble floors in this building are shimmering, and the white walls seem to mock me. The decor screams beauty and innocence. Ironic. We have all just been corrupted and turned into monsters. We've seen true darkness and felt real pain and fear for the first time in our lives. I sigh heavily as I remember the first week of The Challenge and someone shoots me a dirty look. She is a petite girl, with jet black hair and light brown skin. No doubt she's thinking that I should be celebrating my survival instead of moping around the building. I wonder for a moment why she isn't more sympathetic, but the gold bracelet on her wrist reminds me of her heartless nature. She comes from the East. I know she must resent me for standing here. People from my region don't usually last more than a couple of days out in the wild. Those from the East have more experience with the climate and, more importantly, the beastly animals that we must face. Of course, we become just as vicious, but Eastern kids are bred to turn into savages when their honor is threatened. Such creatures do not exist where I live, except for in the nightmares of previous competitors.
When I was eight years old, I held and shot an arrow into a man's chest. My region was allied with the East as we fought against the South. They were tall, muscular fighters with skin as black as night. When the war broke out, all of us Westerners were recruited by the rich and dominant Easterners. The real reason for the war is kept a secret and everyone knew better than to ask. The entire population of the South was killed off, except for the few men and women kept alive for The Challenge. Their anger and brutality made them perfect obstacles for the competitors. They were resentful and good hunters. This was the year that The Challenge changed.
For decades, The Challenge was a rite of passage. Once you turned sixteen, you were grouped up and sent away from the villages for a month. It was a test of strength, intelligence and survival. Anyone who came back alive was then considered an adult- and a true follower of Arzem, the god of strength. The East values Him above all other gods because He holds the greatest power. To survive The Challenge was to honor Arzem. To die meant that you were weak and undeserving of sympathy or His blessings.
Over the years, it became increasingly difficult to survive. The land was becoming more hostile with each day. The animal population was dying out, and plants stopped growing. All of the resources were being used up. The valor and hope associated with The Challenge was all but dead when the war broke out. The remains of the Northern regions were barren and abandoned, as the inhabitants had moved or died during the flooding. The East decided that a location change was needed and ended up choosing the South. The region covered such a vast amount of land that a new location could be picked every year. It was a region of lush jungle with exotic animals and plenty of natural resources. Since the humans had been slaughtered, it was the perfect location to host what had now become a competition. The East had nearly been defeated when the West had taken sides with the South, but eventually crushed any hope we had of winning. Their pride was hurt, and this meant we all had to suffer.
The terrain chosen appeared to be paradise, until you got a closer look. The beautiful plants held deadly poisons, and some were even carnivorous. The animals were foreign and beastly. They had large teeth and claws, and bodies bigger than some of us humans. People were horrified at this new location, and even more terrified that a few savage Southerners were still roaming around. My region is a peaceful place. We rely on farming to get our food, and hunt birds and rabbits. The biggest animals we see are wolves, but those are rare. This land in the South was something out of a nightmarish fairy tale. We didn't know how we could survive.
The East is a much more complex region than my own. They have tall, shiny buildings lining the streets and even buy their food. Some of them don't trade for their food either, they actually pay money. There is beautiful, luxurious fabric and rich spices that make your nose tingle. I can only dream of these items. Silk, for example, is such a rarity in my region that I've only seen it once. In the East, it is one of the most common fabrics. Some of the wealthy people there smoke. I don't quite understand this process, because the only smoke I know of is the black stuff that comes from fire. Apparently it's flavored over there, and they use big contraptions called "hookahs" to inhale it. Everything about the region seems like something out of a wild dream. The people are no exception; women are beautiful and pudgy. They wear embroidered silk dresses and use coal and other materials as cosmetics. They paint black designs around their chocolate eyes to make them look bigger. The red colors they put on their lips are magnificent against their light brown skin. Skin so different than my own.
My region's people have snow white skin that burns and turns red when we've had too much sun. Our eyes are blues and greens, which I find much more beautiful than the deep brown of the Easterners. My hair is wavy and light brown. It is much more coarse than I would like. My hair color is fairly commonplace here in the West, although some of us have blonde hair. A rare few have orange-red curls, which I always find amusing. We don't use cosmetics here because we need the resources to survive. I only own one dress, and it makes me itchy when it touches my skin. I usually wear flowing brown pants and a soft white t-shirt. The pants only just pass my knees, and sometimes when the wind blows, it looks like I'm wearing a skirt. My shirt gets dirty a lot when I'm farming, but I usually keep it clean when I'm out hunting. My older brother used to wear a white shirt too, and my mother would always shake her head and tell us how silly it was to wear something that gets so dirty. At least, she did until he died. He never came home from The Challenge, and she never spoke of my dumb choice in clothing again.
"Dalia, what are you doing?" someone snaps from behind me. "You're supposed to be in your room finishing up the story."
I spin around and see Miss Malbona shaking her finger at me. She looks tired, and probably hasn't been allowed to rest for very long.
"I was just clearing my head. I've been writing all night," I say. I give her a fake smile.
"Well...just don't be wandering around all day. You know you have to finish it before supper time," she says before scurrying away down the hall.
I don't like Miss Malbona. She's been in charge of making sure all of us write our stories properly, and while I understand it must be tiring, she doesn't have to be so mean. I don't think anyone particularly likes her, not even the kids from the East. She doesn't really fit in with any of us. She has short, choppy black hair and light skin. She's shorter than average and has very long, bony fingers. She seems like the real life version of a witch, minus the warts and broomstick.
I start walking back to my room. My sandals are clicking on the marble floor and my skirt is blowing delicately with each step. I wish more than anything that I could disappear and be back home. I want to blend into the background, not wear flashy clothes and stand out. When I finally see the beautiful wooden door to my bedroom, I run towards it. Never have I ever felt so excited to close myself off in this giant room.
I unbuckle my sandals and throw them in the direction of the bright window. The whole room is glowing with warm sunlight, and even the sterile white marble looks sparkling and inviting. I can't help but jump onto the big, cushy bed. It really is beautiful; a large, intricately carved wooden frame with matching headboard and dark red blankets with gold embroidery. The silk sheets feel nice against my skin, and I start giggling when I hit the bed. This is one of the first times I've had a genuine moment of happiness since being a part of The Challenge. My body feels warm from the sunlight, and I close my eyes. I know I should finish writing the conclusion of my story, but I'm so tired. I hate sharing my life story with these Eastern people. They don't care, they just scrutinize. I could lay in this bed forever, but the thought of Miss Malbona's skinny fingers jabbing my ribs are enough to get me up. Time to write.
My room has a big, heavy wooden desk opposite the bed with a typewriter on it. Only the rich have access to them, so my typing skills are extremely lacking. Still, using one of these machines has been exciting and certainly makes my writing more legible. I have a stack of papers filled with words describing the horrors of The Challenge and the details of my life back home. Now I just need to find the page where I left off...
It was at that moment when I realized he was dead. I knew I couldn't wait with his body, or even say goodbye. I had to run.
Dead. That word stung like a thousand knives stabbing my heart. After I had typed that last sentence, I needed to take a break. All I could think of was Allando, and how terrifying it had been to see him die. His beautiful, pale face was stained with his blood and his lips were cracked. His lively hazel eyes had been filled with tears as they dimmed and shut. I get shivers thinking about it, and begin to cry. This stupid tradition has killed so many young boys and girls and turned the rest into heartless and damaged monsters. I sometimes wish I hadn't survived. Life will never be the same. At least, not as long as Allando's face is in my memory.