The hunger games, p.30
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       The Hunger Games, p.30

         Part #1 of Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
 

  and me.

  But no, there’s the boy waiting beside me. I feel his arms wrap around me.

  “Two against one. Should be a piece of cake,” he says.

  “Next time we eat, it will be in the Capitol,” I answer.

  “You bet it will,” he says.

  We stand there a while, locked in an embrace, feeling each other, the sunlight, the rustle of the leaves at our feet. Then without a word, we break apart and head for the lake. I don’t care now that Peeta’s footfalls send rodents scurrying, make birds take wing. We have to fight Cato and I’d just as soon do it here as on the plain. But I doubt I’ll have that choice. If the Gamemakers want us in the open, then in the open we will be.

  We stop to rest for a few moments under the tree where the Careers trapped me. The husk of the tracker jacker nest, beaten to a pulp by the heavy rains and dried in the burning sun, confirms the location. I touch it with the tip of my boot, and it dissolves into dust that is quickly carried off by the breeze. I can’t help looking up in the tree where Rue secretly perched, waiting to save my life. Tracker jackers. Glimmer’s bloated body. The terrifying hallucinations...

  “Let’s move on,” I say, wanting to escape the darkness that surrounds this place. Peeta doesn’t object.

  Given our late start to the day, when we reach the plain it’s already early evening. There’s no sign of Cato. No sign of anything except the gold Cornucopia glowing in the slanting sun rays. Just in case Cato decided to pull a Foxface on us, we circle the Cornucopia to make sure it’s empty. Then obediently, as if following instructions, we cross to the lake and fill our water containers.

  I frown at the shrinking sun. “We don’t want to fight him after dark. There’s only the one pair of glasses.”

  Peeta carefully squeezes drops of iodine into the water.

  “Maybe that’s what he’s waiting for. What do you want to do?

  Go back to the cave?”

  “Either that or find a tree. But let’s give him another half an hour or so. Then we’ll take cover,” I answer.

  We sit by the lake, in full sight. There’s no point in hiding now. In the trees at the edge of the plain, I can see the mockingjays flitting about. Bouncing melodies back and forth between them like brightly colored balls. I open my mouth and sing out Rue’s four-note run. I can feel them pause curiously at the sound of my voice, listening for more. I repeat the notes in the silence. First one mockingjay trills the tune back, then another. Then the whole world comes alive with the sound.

  “Just like your father,” says Peeta.

  My fingers find the pin on my shirt. “That’s Rue’s song,” I say. “I think they remember it.”

  The music swells and I recognize the brilliance of it. As the notes overlap, they compliment one another, forming a lovely, unearthly harmony. It was this sound then, thanks to Rue, that sent the orchard workers of District 11 home each night. Does someone start it at quitting time, I wonder, now that she is dead?

  For a while, I just close my eyes and listen, mesmerized by the beauty of the song. Then something begins to disrupt the music. Runs cut off in jagged, imperfect lines. Dissonant notes intersperse with the melody. The mockingjays’ voices rise up in a shrieking cry of alarm.

  We’re on our feet, Peeta wielding his knife, me poised to shoot, when Cato smashes through the trees and bears down on us. He has no spear. In fact, his hands are empty, yet he runs straight for us. My first arrow hits his chest and inexplicably falls aside.

  “He’s got some kind of body armor!” I shout to Peeta. Just in time, too, because Cato is upon us. I brace myself, but he rockets right between us with no attempt to check his speed. I can tell from his panting, the sweat pouring off his purplish face, that he’s been running hard a long time. Not toward us. From something. But what?

  My eyes scan the woods just in time to see the first creature leap onto the plain. As I’m turning away, I see another half dozen join it. Then I am stumbling blindly after Cato with no thought of anything but to save myself.

  Muttations. No question about it. I’ve never seen these mutts, but they’re no natural-born animals. They resemble huge wolves, but what wolf lands and then balances easily on its hind legs? What wolf waves the rest of the pack forward with its front paw as though it had a wrist? These things I can see at a distance. Up close, I’m sure their more menacing attributes will be revealed.

  Cato has made a beeline for the Cornucopia, and without question I follow him. If he thinks it’s the safest place, who am I to argue? Besides, even if I could make it to the trees, it would be impossible for Peeta to outrun them on that leg—

  Peeta! My hands have just landed on the metal at the pointed tail of the Cornucopia when I remember I’m part of a team. He’s about fifteen yards behind me, hobbling as fast as he can, but the mutts are closing in on him fast. I send an arrow into the pack and one goes down, but there are plenty to take its place.

  Peeta’s waving me up the horn, “Go, Katniss! Go!”

  He’s right. I can’t protect either of us on the ground. I start climbing, scaling the Cornucopia on my hands and feet. The pure gold surface has been designed to resemble the woven horn that we fill at harvest, so there are little ridges and seams to get a decent hold on. But after a day in the arena sun, the metal feels hot enough to blister my hands.

  Cato lies on his side at the very top of the horn, twenty feet above the ground, gasping to catch his breath as he gags over the edge. Now’s my chance to finish him off. I stop midway up the horn and load another arrow, but just as I’m about to let it fly, I hear Peeta cry out. I twist around and see he’s just reached the tail, and the mutts are right on his heels.

  “Climb!” I yell. Peeta starts up hampered by not only the leg but the knife in his hand. I shoot my arrow down the throat of the first mutt that places its paws on the metal. As it dies the creature lashes out, inadvertently opening gashes on a few of its companions. That’s when I get a look at the claws. Four inches and clearly razor-sharp.

  Peeta reaches my feet and I grab his arm and pull him along. Then I remember Cato waiting at the top and whip around, but he’s doubled over with cramps and apparently more preoccupied with the mutts than us. He coughs out something unintelligible. The snuffling, growling sound coming from the mutts isn’t helping.

  “What?” I shout at him.

  “He said, ‘Can they climb it?’” answers Peeta, drawing my focus back to the base of the horn.

  The mutts are beginning to assemble. As they join together, they raise up again to stand easily on their back legs giving them an eerily human quality. Each has a thick coat, some with fur that is straight and sleek, others curly, and the colors vary from jet black to what I can only describe as blond. There’s something else about them, something that makes the hair rise up on the back of my neck, but I can’t put my finger on it.

  They put their snouts on the horn, sniffing and tasting the metal, scraping paws over the surface and then making highpitched yipping sounds to one another. This must be how they communicate because the pack backs up as if to make room. Then one of them, a good-size mutt with silky waves of blond fur takes a running start and leaps onto the horn. Its back legs must be incredibly powerful because it lands a mere ten feet below us, its pink lips pulled back in a snarl. For a moment it hangs there, and in that moment I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number... it’s Glimmer.

  A shriek escapes my lips and I’m having trouble holding the arrow in place. I have been waiting to fire, only too aware of my dwindling supply of arrows. Waiting to see if the creatures can, in fact, climb. But now, even though the mutt has begun to slide backward, unable to find any purchase on the metal, even though I can hear the slow
screeching of the claws like nails on a blackboard, I fire into its throat. Its body twitches and flops onto the ground with a thud.

  “Katniss?” I can feel Peeta’s grip on my arm.

  “It’s her!” I get out.

  “Who?” asks Peeta.

  My head snaps from side to side as I examine the pack, taking in the various sizes and colors. The small one with the red coat and amber eyes... Foxface! And there, the ashen hair and hazel eyes of the boy from District 9 who died as we struggled for the backpack! And worst of all, the smallest mutt, with dark glossy fur, huge brown eyes and a collar that reads 11 in woven straw. Teeth bared in hatred. Rue...

  “What is it, Katniss?” Peeta shakes my shoulder.

  “It’s them. It’s all of them. The others. Rue and Foxface and .

  . . all of the other tributes,” I choke out.

  I hear Peeta’s gasp of recognition. “What did they do to them? You don’t think... those could be their real eyes?”

  Their eyes are the least of my worries. What about their brains? Have they been given any of the real tributes memories? Have they been programmed to hate our faces particularly because we have survived and they were so callously murdered? And the ones we actually killed... do they believe they’re avenging their own deaths?

  Before I can get this out, the mutts begin a new assault on the horn. They’ve split into two groups at the sides of the horn and are using those powerful hindquarters to launch themselves at us. A pair of teeth ring together just inches from my hand and then I hear Peeta cry out, feel the yank on his body, the heavy weight of boy and mutt pulling me over the side. If not for the grip on my arm, he’d be on the ground, but as it is, it takes all my strength to keep us both on the curved back of the horn. And more tributes are coming.

  “Kill it, Peeta! Kill it!” I’m shouting, and although I can’t quite see what’s happening, I know he must have stabbed the thing because the pull lessens. I’m able to haul him back onto the horn where we drag ourselves toward the top where the lesser of two evils awaits.

  Cato has still not regained his feet, but his breathing is slowing and I know soon he’ll be recovered enough to come for us, to hurl us over the side to our deaths. I arm my bow, but the arrow ends up taking out a mutt that can only be Thresh. Who else could jump so high? I feel a moment’s relief because we must finally be up above the mutt line and I’m just turning back to face Cato when Peeta’s jerked from my side. I’m sure the pack has got him until his blood splatters my face. Cato stands before me, almost at the lip of the horn, holding Peeta in some kind of headlock, cutting off his air. Peeta’s clawing at Cato’s arm, but weakly, as if confused over whether it’s more important to breathe or try and stem the gush of blood from the gaping hole a mutt left in his calf. I aim one of my last two arrows at Cato’s head, knowing it’ll have no effect on his trunk or limbs, which I can now see are clothed in a skintight, flesh-colored mesh. Some high-grade body armor from the Capitol. Was that what was in his pack at the feast? Body armor to defend against my arrows? Well, they neglected to send a face guard.

  Cato just laughs. “Shoot me and he goes down with me.”

  He’s right. If I take him out and he falls to the mutts, Peeta is sure to die with him. We’ve reached a stalemate. I can’t shoot Cato without killing Peeta, too. He can’t kill Peeta without guaranteeing an arrow in his brain. We stand like statues, both of us seeking an out.

  My muscles are strained so tightly, they feel they might snap at any moment. My teeth clenched to the breaking point. The mutts go silent and the only thing I can hear is the blood pounding in my good ear.

  Peeta’s lips are turning blue. If I don’t do something quickly, he’ll die of asphyxiation and then I’ll have lost him and Cato will probably use his body as a weapon against me. In fact, I’m sure this is Cato’s plan because while he’s stopped laughing, his lips are set in a triumphant smile.

  As if in a last-ditch effort, Peeta raises his fingers, dripping with blood from his leg, up to Cato’s arm. Instead of trying to wrestle his way free, his forefinger veers off and makes a deliberate X on the back of Cato’s hand. Cato realizes what it means exactly one second after I do. I can tell by the way the smile drops from his lips. But it’s one second too late because, by that time, my arrow is piercing his hand. He cries out and reflexively releases Peeta who slams back against him. For a horrible moment, I think they’re both going over. I dive forward just catching hold of Peeta as Cato loses his footing on the blood-slick horn and plummets to the ground. We hear him hit, the air leaving his body on impact, and then the mutts attack him. Peeta and I hold on to each other, waiting for the cannon, waiting for the competition to finish, waiting to be released. But it doesn’t happen. Not yet. Because this is the climax of the Hunger Games, and the audience expects a show. I don’t watch, but I can hear the snarls, the growls, the howls of pain from both human and beast as Cato takes on the mutt pack. I can’t understand how he can be surviving until I remember the body armor protecting him from ankle to neck and I realize what a long night this could be. Cato must have a knife or sword or something, too, something he had hidden in his clothes, because on occasion there’s the death scream of a mutt or the sound of metal on metal as the blade collides with the golden horn. The combat moves around the side of the Cornucopia, and I know Cato must be attempting the one maneuver that could save his life—to make his way back around to the tail of the horn and rejoin us. But in the end, despite his remarkable strength and skill, he is simply overpowered. I don’t know how long it has been, maybe an hour or so, when Cato hits the ground and we hear the mutts dragging him, dragging him back into the Cornucopia. Now they’ll finish him off, I think. But there’s still no cannon. Night falls and the anthem plays and there’s no picture of Cato in the sky, only the faint moans coming through the metal beneath us. The icy air blowing across the plain reminds me that the Games are not over and may not be for who knows how long, and there is still no guarantee of victory. I turn my attention to Peeta and discover his leg is bleeding as badly as ever. All our supplies, our packs, remain down by the lake where we abandoned them when we fled from the mutts. I have no bandage, nothing to staunch the flow of blood from his calf. Although I’m shaking in the biting wind, I rip off my jacket, remove my shirt, and zip back into the jacket as swiftly as possible. That brief exposure sets my teeth chattering beyond control. Peeta’s face is gray in the pale moonlight. I make him lie down before I probe his wound. Warm, slippery blood runs over my fingers. A bandage will not be enough. I’ve seen my mother tie a tourniquet a handful of times and try to replicate it. I cut free a sleeve from my shirt, wrap it twice around his leg just under his knee, and tie a half knot. I don’t have a stick, so I take my remaining arrow and insert it in the knot, twisting it as tightly as I dare. It’s risky business—Peeta may end up losing his leg—but when I weigh this against him losing his life, what alternative do I have? I bandage the wound in the rest of my shirt and lay down with him.

  “Don’t go to sleep,” I tell him. I’m not sure if this is exactly medical protocol, but I’m terrified that if he drifts off he’ll never wake again.

  “Are you cold?” he asks. He unzips his jacket and I press against him as he fastens it around me. It’s a bit warmer, sharing our body heat inside my double layer of jackets, but the night is young. The temperature will continue to drop. Even now I can feel the Cornucopia, which burned so when I first climbed it, slowly turning to ice.

  “Cato may win this thing yet,” I

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