1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

So we break camp, walk over to the beach that borders the lightning section, and head into the jungle. Beetee’s still too weak to hike up the slope on his own, so Finnick and Peeta take turns carrying him. I let Johanna lead because it’s a pretty straight shot up to the tree, and I figure she can’t get us too lost. Besides, I can do a lot more damage with a sheath of arrows than she can with two axes, so I’m the best one to bring up the rear.

The dense, muggy air weighs on me. There’s been no break from it since the Games began. I wish Haymitch would stop sending us that District 3 bread and get us some more of that District 4 stuff, because I’ve sweated out buckets in the last two days, and even though I’ve had the fish, I’m craving salt. A piece of ice would be another good idea. Or a cold drink of water. I’m grateful for the fluid from the trees, but it’s the same temperature as the seawater and the air and the other tributes and me. We’re all just one big, warm stew.

As we near the tree, Finnick suggests I take the lead. “Katniss can hear the force field,” he explains to Beetee and Johanna.

“Hear it?” asks Beetee.

“Only with the ear the Capitol reconstructed,” I say. Guess who I’m not fooling with that story? Beetee. Because surely he remembers that he showed me how to spot a force field, and probably it’s impossible to hear force fields, anyway. But, for whatever reason, he doesn’t question my claim.

“Then by all means, let Katniss go first,” he says, pausing a moment to wipe the steam off his glasses. “Force fields are nothing to play around with.”

The lightning tree’s unmistakable as it towers so high above the others. I find a bunch of nuts and make everybody wait while I move slowly up the slope, tossing the nuts ahead of me. But I see the force field almost immediately, even before a nut hits it, because it’s only about fifteen yards away. My eyes, which are sweeping the greenery before me, catch sight of the rippled square high up and to my right. I throw a nut directly in front of me and hear it sizzle in confirmation.

“Just stay below the lightning tree,” I tell the others.

We divide up duties. Finnick guards Beetee while he examines the tree, Johanna taps for water, Peeta gathers nuts, and I hunt nearby. The tree rats don’t seem to have any fear of humans, so I take down three easily. The sound of the ten o’clock wave reminds me I should get back, and I return to the others and clean my kill. Then I draw a line in the dirt a few feet from the force field as a reminder to keep back, and Peeta and I settle down to roast nuts and sear cubes of rat.

Beetee is still messing around the tree, doing I don’t know what, taking measurements and such. At one point he snaps off a sliver of bark, joins us, and throws it against the force field. It bounces back and lands on the ground, glowing. In a few moments it returns to its original color. “Well, that explains a lot,” says Beetee. I look at Peeta and can’t help biting my lip to keep from laughing since it explains absolutely nothing to anyone but Beetee.

About this time we hear the sound of clicks rising from the sector adjacent to us. That means it’s eleven o’clock. It’s far louder in the jungle than it was on the beach last night. We all listen intently.

“It’s not mechanical,” Beetee says decidedly.

“I’d guess insects,” I say. “Maybe beetles.”

“Something with pincers,” adds Finnick.

The sound swells, as if alerted by our quiet words to the proximity of live flesh. Whatever is making that clicking, I bet it could strip us to the bone in seconds.

“We should get out of here, anyway,” says Johanna. “There’s less than an hour before the lightning starts.”

We don’t go that far, though. Only to the identical tree in the blood-rain section. We have a picnic of sorts, squatting on the ground, eating our jungle food, waiting for the bolt that signals noon. At Beetee’s request, I climb up into the canopy as the clicking begins to fade out. When the lightning strikes, it’s dazzling, even from here, even in this bright sunlight. It completely encompasses the distant tree, making it glow a hot blue-white and causing the surrounding air to crackle with electricity. I swing down and report my findings to Beetee, who seems satisfied, even if I’m not terribly scientific.

We take a circuitous route back to the ten o’clock beach. The sand is smooth and damp, swept clean by the recent wave. Beetee essentially gives us the afternoon off while he works with the wire. Since it’s his weapon and the rest of us have to defer to his knowledge so entirely, there’s the odd feeling of being let out of school early. At first we take turns having naps in the shadowy edge of the jungle, but by late afternoon everyone is awake and restless. We decide, since this might be our last chance for seafood, to make a sort of feast of it. Under Finnick’s guidance we spear fish and gather shellfish, even dive for oysters. I like this last part best, not because I have any great appetite for oysters. I only ever tasted them once, in the Capitol, and I couldn’t get around the sliminess. But it’s lovely, deep down under the water, like being in a different world. The water’s very clear, and schools of bright-hued fish and strange sea flowers decorate the sand floor.

Johanna keeps watch while Finnick, Peeta, and I clean and lay out the seafood. Peeta’s just pried open an oyster when I hear him give a laugh. “Hey, look at this!” He holds up a glistening, perfect pearl about the size of a pea. “You know, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls,” he says earnestly to Finnick.

“No, it doesn’t,” says Finnick dismissively. But I crack up, remembering that’s how a clueless Effie Trinket presented us to the people of the Capitol last year, before anyone knew us. As coal pressured into pearls by our weighty existence. Beauty that arose out of pain.

Peeta rinses the pearl off in the water and hands it to me. “For you.” I hold it out on my palm and examine its iridescent surface in the sunlight. Yes, I will keep it. For the few remaining hours of my life I will keep it close. This last gift from Peeta. The only one I can really accept. Perhaps it will give me strength in the final moments.

“Thanks,” I say, closing my fist around it. I look coolly into the blue eyes of the person who is now my greatest opponent, the person who would keep me alive at his own expense. And I promise myself I will defeat his plan.

The laughter drains from those eyes, and they are staring so intensely into mine, it’s like they can read my thoughts. “The locket didn’t work, did it?” Peeta says, even though Finnick is right there. Even though everyone can hear him. “Katniss?”

“It worked,” I say.

“But not the way I wanted it to,” he says, averting his glance. After that he will look at nothing but oysters.

Just as we’re about to eat, a parachute appears bearing two supplements to our meal. A small pot of spicy red sauce and yet another round of rolls from District 3. Finnick, of course, immediately counts them. “Twenty-four again,” he says.

Thirty-two rolls, then. So we each take five, leaving seven, which will never divide equally. It’s bread for only one.

The salty fish flesh, the succulent shellfish. Even the oysters seem tasty, vastly improved by the sauce. We gorge ourselves until no one can hold another bite, and even then there are leftovers. They won’t keep, though, so we toss all the remaining food back into the water so the Careers won’t get it when we leave. No one bothers about the shells. The wave should clear those away.

There’s nothing to do now but wait. Peeta and I sit at the edge of the water, hand in hand, wordless. He gave his speech last night but it didn’t change my mind, and nothing I can say will change his. The time for persuasive gifts is over.

I have the pearl, though, secured in a parachute with the spile and the medicine at my waist. I hope it makes it back to District 12.

Surely my mother and Prim will know to return it to Peeta before they bury my body.

The anthem begins, but there are no faces in the sky tonight. The audience will be restless, thirsting for blood. Beetee’s trap holds enough promise, though, that the Gamemakers haven’t sent in other attacks. Perhaps they are simply curious to see if it will work.

At what Finnick and I judge to be about nine, we leave our shell-strewn camp, cross to the twelve o’clock beach, and begin to quietly hike up to the lightning tree in the light of the moon. Our full stomachs make us more uncomfortable and breathless than we were on the morning’s climb. I begin to regret those last dozen oysters.

Beetee asks Finnick to assist him, and the rest of us stand guard. Before he even attaches any wire to the tree, Beetee unrolls yards and yards of the stuff. He has Finnick secure it tightly around a broken branch and lay it on the ground. Then they stand on either side of the tree, passing the spool back and forth as they wrap the wire around and around the trunk. At first it seems arbitrary, then I see a pattern, like an intricate maze, appearing in the moonlight on Beetee’s side. I wonder if it makes any difference how the wire’s placed, or if this is merely to add to the speculation of the audience. I bet most of them know as much about electricity as I do.

The work on the trunk’s completed just as we hear the wave begin. I’ve never really worked out at what point in the ten o’clock hour it erupts. There must be some buildup, then the wave itself, then the aftermath of the flooding. But the sky tells me ten-thirty.

This is when Beetee reveals the rest of the plan. Since we move most swiftly through the trees, he wants Johanna and me to take the coil down through the jungle, unwinding the wire as we go. We are to lay it across the twelve o’clock beach and drop the metal spool, with whatever is left, deep into the water, making sure it sinks. Then run for the jungle. If we go now, right now, we should make it to safety.

“I want to go with them as a guard,” Peeta says immediately. After the moment with the pearl, I know he’s less willing than ever to let me out of his sight.

“You’re too slow. Besides, I’ll need you on this end. Katniss will guard,” says Beetee. “There’s no time to debate this. I’m sorry. If the girls are to get out of there alive, they need to move now.” He hands the coil to Johanna.

I don’t like the plan any more than Peeta does. How can I protect him at a distance? But Beetee’s right. With his leg, Peeta is too slow to make it down the slope in time. Johanna and I are the fastest and most sure-footed on the jungle floor. I can’t think of any alternative. And if I trust anyone here besides Peeta, it’s Beetee.

“It’s okay,” I tell Peeta. “We’ll just drop the coil and come straight back up.”

“Not into the lightning zone,” Beetee reminds me. “Head for the tree in the one-to-two-o’clock sector. If you find you’re running out of time, move over one more. Don’t even think about going back on the beach, though, until I can assess the damage.”

I take Peeta’s face in my hands. “Don’t worry. I’ll see you at midnight.” I give him a kiss and, before he can object any further, I let go and turn to Johanna. “Ready?”

“Why not?” says Johanna with a shrug. She’s clearly no happier about being teamed up than I am. But we’re all caught up in Beetee’s trap. “You guard, I’ll unwind. We can trade off later.”

Without further discussion, we head down the slope. In fact there’s very little discussion between us at all. We move at a pretty good clip, one manning the coil, the other keeping watch. About halfway down, we hear the clicking beginning to rise, indicating it’s after eleven.

“Better hurry,” Johanna says. “I want to put a lot of distance between me and that water before the lightning hits. Just in case Volts miscalculated something.”

“I’ll take the coil for a while,” I say. It’s harder work laying out the wire than guarding, and she’s had a long turn.

“Here,” Johanna says, passing me the coil.

Both of our hands are still on the metal cylinder when there’s a slight vibration. Suddenly the thin golden wire from above springs down at us, bunching in tangled loops and curls around our wrists. Then the severed end snakes up to our feet.

It only takes a second to register this rapid turn of events. Johanna and I look at each other, but neither of us has to say it. Someone not far above us has cut the wire. And they will be on us at any moment.

My hand frees itself from the wire and has just closed on the feathers of an arrow when the metal cylinder smashes into the side of my head. The next thing I know, I’m lying on my back in the vines, a terrible pain in my left temple. Something’s wrong with my eyes. My vision blurs in and out of focus as I strain to make the two moons floating up in the sky into one. It’s hard to breathe, and I realize Johanna’s sitting on my chest, pinning me at the shoulders with her knees.

There’s a stab in my left forearm. I try to jerk away but I’m still too incapacitated. Johanna’s digging something, I guess the point of her knife, into my flesh, twisting it around. There’s an excruciating ripping sensation and warmth runs down my wrist, filling my palm. She swipes down my arm and coats half my face with my blood.

“Stay down!” she hisses. Her weight leaves my body and I’m alone.

Stay down? I think. What? What is happening? My eyes shut, blocking out the inconsistent world, as I try to make sense of my situation.

All I can think of is Johanna shoving Wiress to the beach. “Just stay down, will you?” But she didn’t attack Wiress. Not like this. I’m not Wiress, anyway. I’m not Nuts. “Just stay down, will you?” echoes around inside my brain.

Footsteps coming. Two pairs. Heavy, not trying to conceal their whereabouts.

Brutus’s voice. “She’s good as dead! Come on, Enobaria!” Feet moving into the night.

Am I? I drift in and out of consciousness looking for an answer. Am I as good as dead? I’m in no position to make an argument to the contrary. In fact, rational thinking is a struggle. This much I know. Johanna attacked me. Smashed that cylinder into my head. Cut my arm, probably doing irreparable damage to veins and arteries, and then Brutus and Enobaria showed up before she had time to finish me off.

The alliance is over. Finnick and Johanna must have had an agreement to turn on us tonight. I knew we should have left this morning. I don’t know where Beetee stands. But I’m fair game, and so is Peeta.

Peeta! My eyes fly open in panic. Peeta is waiting up by the tree, unsuspecting and off guard. Maybe Finnick has even killed him already. “No,” I whisper. That wire was cut from a short distance away by the Careers. Finnick and Beetee and Peeta—they can’t know what’s going on down here. They can only be wondering what has happened, why the wire has gone slack or maybe even sprung back to the tree. This, in itself, can’t be a signal to kill, can it? Surely this was just Johanna deciding the time had come to break with us. Kill me. Escape from the Careers. Then bring Finnick into the fight as soon as possible.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I only know that I must get back to Peeta and keep him alive. It takes every ounce of will I have to push up into a sitting position and drag myself up the side of a tree to my feet. It’s lucky I have something to hold on to because the jungle’s tilting back and forth. Without any warning, I lean forward and vomit up the seafood feast, heaving until there can’t possibly be an oyster left in my body. Trembling and slick with sweat, I assess my physical condition.

As I lift up my damaged arm, blood sprays me in the face and the world makes another alarming shift. I squeeze my eyes shut and cling to the tree until things steady a little. Then I take a few careful steps to a neighboring tree, pull off some moss, and without examining the wound further, tightly bandage my arm. Better. Definitely better not to see it. Then I allow my hand to tentatively touch my head wound. There’s a huge lump but not too much blood. Obviously I’ve got some internal damage, but I don’t seem in danger of bleeding to death. At least not through my head.

I dry my hands on moss and get a shaky grip on my bow with my damaged left arm. Secure the notch of an arrow to the string. Make my feet move up the slope.

Peeta. My dying wish. My promise. To keep him alive. My heart lifts a bit when I realize he must be alive because no cannon has fired. Maybe Johanna was acting alone, knowing Finnick would side with her once her intentions were clear. Although it’s hard to guess what goes on between those two. I think of how he looked to her for confirmation before he’d agree to help set Beetee’s trap. There’s a much deeper alliance based on years of friendship and who knows what else. Therefore, if Johanna has turned on me, I should no longer trust Finnick.

I reach this conclusion only seconds before I hear someone running down the slope toward me. Neither Peeta nor Beetee could move at this pace. I duck behind a curtain of vines, concealing myself just in time. Finnick flies by me, his skin shadowy with medicine, leaping through the undergrowth like a deer. He soon reaches the sight of my attack, must see the blood. “Johanna! Katniss!” he calls. I stay put until he goes in the direction Johanna and the Careers took.

I move as quickly as I can without sending the world into a whirl. My head throbs with the rapid beat of my heart. The insects, possibly excited by the smell of blood, have increased their clicking until it’s a continuous roar in my ears. No, wait. Maybe my ears are actually ringing from the hit. Until the insects shut up, it will be impossible to tell. But when the insects go silent, the lightning will start. I have to move faster. I have to get to Peeta.

The boom of a cannon pulls me up short. Someone has died. I know that with everyone running around armed and scared right now, it could be anybody. But whoever it is, I believe the death will trigger a kind of free-for-all out here in the night. People will kill first and wonder about their motives later. I force my legs into a run.

Something snags my feet and I sprawl out on the ground. I feel it wrapping around me, entwining me in sharp fibers. A net! This must be one of Finnick’s fancy nets, positioned to trap me, and he must be nearby, trident in hand. I flail around for a moment, only working the web more tightly around me, and then I catch a glimpse of it in the moonlight. Confused, I lift my arm and see it’s entangled in shimmering golden threads. It’s not one of Finnick’s nets at all, but Beetee’s wire. I carefully rise to my feet and find I’m in a patch of the stuff that caught on a trunk on its way back to the lightning tree. Slowly I disengage myself from the wire, step out of its reach, and continue uphill.

On the good side, I’m on the right path and have not been so disoriented by the head injury as to lose my sense of direction. On the bad side, the wire has reminded me of the oncoming lightning storm. I can still hear the insects, but are they starting to fade?

I keep the loops of wire a few feet to my left as a guide as I run but take great care not to touch them. If those insects are fading and the first bolt is about to strike the tree, then all its power will come surging down that wire and anyone in contact with it will die.

The tree swims into view, its trunk festooned with gold. I slow down, try to move with some stealth, but I’m really just lucky to be upright. I look for a sign of the others. No one. No one is there. “Peeta?” I call softly. “Peeta?”

A soft moan answers me and I whip around to find a figure lying higher up on the ground. “Beetee!” I exclaim. I hurry and kneel beside him. The moan must have been involuntary. He’s not conscious, although I can see no wound except a gash below the crook of his elbow. I grab a nearby handful of moss and clumsily wrap it while I try to rouse him. “Beetee! Beetee, what’s going on! Who cut you? Beetee!” I shake him in the way you should never shake an injured person, but I don’t know what else to do. He moans again and briefly raises a hand to ward me off.

This is when I notice he’s holding a knife, one Peeta was carrying earlier, I think, which is wrapped loosely in wire.

Perplexed, I stand and lift the wire, confirming it’s attached back at the tree. It takes me a moment to remember the second, much shorter strand that Beetee wound around a branch and left on the ground before he even began his design on the tree. I’d thought it had some electrical significance, had been set aside to be used later. But it never was, because there’s probably a good twenty, twenty-five yards here.

I squint hard up the hill and realize we’re only a few paces from the force field. There’s the telltale square, high up and to my right, just as it was this morning. What did Beetee do? Did he actually try to drive the knife into the force field the way Peeta did by accident? And what’s the deal with the wire? Was this his backup plan? If electrifying the water failed, did he mean to send the lightning bolt’s energy into the force field? What would that do, anyway? Nothing? A great deal? Fry us all? The force field must mostly be energy, too, I guess. The one in the Training Center was invisible. This one seems to somehow mirror the jungle. But I’ve seen it falter when Peeta’s knife struck it and when my arrows hit. The real world lies right behind it.

My ears are not ringing. It was the insects after all. I know that now because they are dying out quickly and I hear nothing but the jungle sounds. Beetee is useless. I can’t rouse him. I can’t save him. I don’t know what he was trying to do with the knife and the wire and he’s incapable of explaining. The moss bandage on my arm is soaked and there’s no use fooling myself. I’m so light-headed I’ll black out in a matter of minutes. I’ve got to get away from this tree and—

“Katniss!” I hear his voice though he’s a far distance away. But what is he doing? Peeta must have figured out that everyone is hunting us by now. “Katniss!”

I can’t protect him. I can’t move fast or far and my shooting abilities are questionable at best. I do the one thing I can to draw the attackers away from him and over to me. “Peeta!” I scream out. “Peeta! I’m here! Peeta!” Yes, I will draw them in, any in my vicinity, away from Peeta and over to me and the lightning tree that will soon be a weapon in and of itself. “I’m here! I’m here!” He won’t make it. Not with that leg in the night. He will never make it in time. “Peeta!”

It’s working. I can hear them coming. Two of them. Crashing through the jungle. My knees start to give out and I sink down next to Beetee, resting my weight on my heels. My bow and arrow lift into position. If I can take them out, will Peeta survive the rest?

Enobaria and Finnick reach the lightning tree. They can’t see me, sitting above them on the slope, my skin camouflaged in ointment. I home in on Enobaria’s neck. With any luck, when I kill her, Finnick will duck behind the tree for cover just as the lightning bolt strikes. And it will be any second. There’s only a faint insect click here and there. I can kill them now. I can kill them both.

Another cannon.

“Katniss!” Peeta’s voice howls for me. But this time I don’t answer. Beetee still breathes faintly beside me. He and I will soon die. Finnick and Enobaria will die. Peeta is alive. Two cannons have sounded. Brutus, Johanna, Chaff. Two of them are already dead. That will leave Peeta with only one tribute to kill. And that is the very best I can do. One enemy.

Enemy. Enemy. The word is tugging at a recent memory. Pulling it into the present. The look on Haymitch’s face. “Katniss, when you’re in the arena …” The scowl, the misgiving. “What?” I hear my own voice tighten as I bristle at some unspoken accusation. “You just remember who the enemy is,” Haymitch says. “That’s all.”

Haymitch’s last words of advice to me. Why would I need reminding? I have always known who the enemy is. Who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.

My bow drops as his meaning registers. Yes, I know who the enemy is. And it’s not Enobaria.

I finally see Beetee’s knife with clear eyes. My shaking hands slide the wire from the hilt, wind it around the arrow just above the feathers, and secure it with a knot picked up in training.

I rise, turning to the force field, fully revealing myself but no longer caring. Only caring about where I should direct my tip, where Beetee would have driven the knife if he’d been able to choose. My bow tilts up at the wavering square, the flaw, the … what did he call it that day? The chink in the armor. I let the arrow fly, see it hit its mark and vanish, pulling the thread of gold behind it.

My hair stands on end and the lightning strikes the tree.

A flash of white runs up the wire, and for just a moment, the dome bursts into a dazzling blue light.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23


Top