The Hunger Games / Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Five


25

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 high-pitched 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 pluminets 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 whisper to Peeta.

"Don't you believe it," he says, pulling up my hood, but he's shaking harder than I am.

The next hours are the worst in my life, which if you think about it, is saying something. The cold would be torture enough, but the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him. After a very short time, I don't care who he is or what he's done, all I want is for his suffering to end.

"Why don't they just kill him?" I ask Peeta.

"You know why," he says, and pulls me closer to him.

And I do. No viewer could turn away from the show now. From the Gamemakers' point of view, this is the final word in entertainment.

It goes on and on and on and eventually completely consumes my mind, blocking out memories and hopes of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change. There will never be anything but cold and fear and the agonized sounds of the boy dying in the horn.

Peeta begins to doze off now, and each time he does, I find myself yelling his name louder and louder because if he goes and dies on me now, I know I'll go completely insane. He's fighting it, probably more for me than for him, and it's hard because unconsciousness would be its own form of escape. But the adrenaline pumping through my body would never allow me to follow him, so I can't let him go. I just can't.

The only indication of the passage of time lies in the heavens, the subtle shift of the moon. So Peeta begins pointing it out to me, insisting I acknowledge its progress and sometimes, for just a moment I feel a flicker of hope before the agony of the night engulfs me again.

Finally, I hear him whisper that the sun is rising. I open my eyes and find the stars fading in the pale light of dawn. I can see, too, how bloodless Peeta's face has become. How little time he has left. And I know I have to get him back to the Capitol.

Still, no cannon has fired. I press my good ear against the horn and can just make out Cato's voice.

"I think he's closer now. Katniss, can you shoot him?" Peeta asks.

If he's near the mouth, I may be able to take him out. It would be an act of mercy at this point.

"My last arrow's in your tourniquet," I say.

"Make it count," says Peeta, unzipping his jacket, letting me loose.

So I free the arrow, tying the tourniquet back as tightly as my frozen fingers can manage. I rub my hands together, trying to regain circulation. When I crawl to the lip of the horn and hang over the edge, I feel Peeta's hands grip me for support.

It takes a few moments to find Cato in the dim light, in the blood. Then the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is. And I think the word he's trying to say is please.

Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull. Peeta pulls me back up, bow in hand, quiver empty.

"Did you get him?" he whispers.

The cannon fires in answer.

"Then we won, Katniss," he says hollowly.

"Hurray for us," I get out, but there's no joy of victory in my voice.

A hole opens in the plain and as if on cue, the remaining mutts bound into it, disappearing as the earth closes above them.

We wait, for the hovercraft to take Cato's remains, for the trumpets of victory that should follow, but nothing happens.

"Hey!" I shout into air. "What's going on?" The only response is the chatter of waking birds.

"Maybe it's the body. Maybe we have to move away from it," says Peeta.

I try to remember. Do you have to distance yourself from the dead tribute on the final kill? My brain is too muddled to be sure, but what else could be the reason for the delay?

"Okay. Think you could make it to the lake?" I ask.

"Think I better try," says Peeta. We inch down to the tail of the horn and fall to the ground. If the stiffness in my limbs is this bad, how can Peeta even move? I rise first, swinging and bending my arms and legs until I think I can help him up. Somehow, we make it back to the lake. I scoop up a handful of the cold water for Peeta and bring a second to my lips.

A mockingjay gives the long, low whistle, and tears of relief fill my eyes as the hovercraft appears and takes Cato's body away. Now they will take us. Now we can go home.

But again there's no response.

"What are they waiting for?" says Peeta weakly. Between the loss of the tourniquet and the effort it took to get to the lake, his wound has opened up again.

"I don't know," I say. Whatever the holdup is, I can't watch him lose any more blood. I get up to find a stick but almost immediately come across the arrow that bounced off Cato's body armor. It will do as well as the other arrow. As I stoop to pick it up, Claudius Templesmith's voice booms into the arena.

"Greetings to the final contestants of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games. The earlier revision has been revoked. Closer examination of the rule book has disclosed that only one winner may be allowed," he says. "Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor."

There's a small burst of static and then nothing more. I stare at Peeta in disbelief as the truth sinks in. They never intended to let us both live. This has all been devised by the Gamemakers to guarantee the most dramatic showdown in history. And like a fool, I bought into it.

"If you think about it, it's not that surprising," he says softly. I watch as he painfully makes it to his feet. Then he's moving toward me, as if in slow motion, his hand is pulling the knife from his belt  -

Before I am even aware of my actions, my bow is loaded with the arrow pointed straight at his heart. Peeta raises his eyebrows and I see the knife has already left his hand on its way to the lake where it splashes in the water. I drop my weapons and take a step back, my face burning in what can only be shame.

"No," he says. "Do it." Peeta limps toward me and thrusts the weapons back in my hands.

"I can't, I say. "I won't."

"Do it. Before they send those mutts back or something. I don't want to die like Cato," he says.

"Then you shoot me," I say furiously, shoving the weapons back at him. "You shoot me and go home and live with it!" And as I say it, I know death right here, right now would be the easier of the two.

"You know I can't," Peeta says, discarding the weapons. "Fine, I'll go first anyway." He leans down and rips the bandage off his leg, eliminating the final barrier between his blood and the earth.

"No, you can't kill yourself," I say. I'm on my knees, desperately plastering the bandage back onto his wound.

"Katniss," he says. "It's what I want."

"You're not leaving me here alone," I say. Because if he dies, I'll never go home, not really. I'll spend the rest of my life in this arena trying to think my way out.

"Listen," he says pulling me to my feet. "We both know they have to have a victor. It can only be one of us. Please, take it. For me." And he goes on about how he loves me, what life would be without me but I've stopped listening because his previous words are trapped in my head, thrashing desperately around.

We both know they have to have a victor.

Yes, they have to have a victor. Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemakers' faces. They'd have failed the Capitol. Might possibly even be executed, slowly and painfully while the cameras broadcast it to every screen in the country.

If Peeta and I were both to die, or they thought we were.

My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it. Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. "No, I won't let you."

"Trust me," I whisper. He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go. I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own. "On the count of three?"

Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. "The count of three," he says.

We stand, our backs pressed together, our empty hands locked tight.

"Hold them out. I want everyone to see," he says.

I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta's hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. "One." Maybe I'm wrong. "Two." Maybe they don't care if we both die. "Three!" It's too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare.

The frantic voice of Claudius Templesmith shouts above them. "Stop! Stop! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present the victors of the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark! I give you  -  the tributes of District Twelve!"


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