Chapter no 21

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)

‌Tiny, searing stabs. Wherever the droplets of mist touch my skin. “Run!” I scream at the others. “Run!”

Finnick snaps awake instantly, rising to counter an enemy. But when he sees the wall of fog, he tosses a still-sleeping Mags onto his back and takes off. Peeta is on his feet but not as alert. I grab his arm and begin to propel him through the jungle after Finnick.

“What is it? What is it?” he says in bewilderment.

“Some kind of fog. Poisonous gas. Hurry, Peeta!” I urge. I can tell that however much he denied it during the day, the aftereffects of hitting the force field have been significant. He’s slow, much slower than usual. And the tangle of vines and undergrowth, which unbalance me occasionally, trip him at every step.

I look back at the wall of fog extending in a straight line as far as I can see in either direction. A terrible impulse to flee, to abandon Peeta and save myself, shoots through me. It would be so simple, to run full out, perhaps to even climb a tree above the fog line, which seems to top out at about forty feet. I remember how I did just this when the muttations appeared in the last Games. Took off and only thought of Peeta when I’d reached the Cornucopia. But this time, I trap my terror, push it down, and stay by his side. This time my survival isn’t the goal. Peeta’s is. I think of the eyes glued to the television screens in the districts, seeing if I will run, as the Capitol wishes, or hold my ground.

I lock my fingers tightly into his and say, “Watch my feet. Just try to step where I step.” It helps. We seem to move a little faster, but never enough to afford a rest, and the mist continues to lap at our heels. Droplets spring free of the body of vapor. They burn, but not like fire. Less a sense of heat and more of intense pain as the chemicals find our flesh, cling to it, and burrow down through the layers of skin. Our jumpsuits are no help at all. We may as well be dressed in tissue paper, for all the protection they give.

Finnick, who bounded off initially, stops when he realizes we’re having

problems. But this is not a thing you can fight, only evade. He shouts encouragement, trying to move us along, and the sound of his voice acts as a guide, though little more.

Peeta’s artificial leg catches in a knot of creepers and he sprawls forward before I can catch him. As I help him up, I become aware of something scarier than the blisters, more debilitating than the burns. The left side of his face has sagged, as if every muscle in it has died. The lid droops, almost concealing his eye. His mouth twists in an odd angle toward the ground. “Peeta —” I begin. And that’s when I feel the spasms run up my arm.

Whatever chemical laces the fog does more than burn — it targets our nerves. A whole new kind of fear shoots through me and I yank Peeta forward, which only causes him to stumble again. By the time I get him to his feet, both of my arms are twitching uncontrollably. The fog has moved in on us, the body of it less than a yard away. Something is wrong with Peeta’s legs; he’s trying to walk but they move in a spastic, puppetlike fashion.

I feel him lurch forward and realize Finnick has come back for us and is hauling Peeta along. I wedge my shoulder, which still seems under my control, under Peeta’s arm and do my best to keep up with Finnick’s rapid pace. We put about ten yards between us and the fog when Finnick stops.

“It’s no good. I’ll have to carry him. Can you take Mags?” he asks me. “Yes,” I say stoutly, although my heart sinks. It’s true that Mags can’t

weigh more than about seventy pounds, but I’m not very big myself. Still, I’m sure I’ve carried heavier loads. If only my arms would stop jumping around. I squat down and she positions herself over my shoulder, the way she rides on Finnick. I slowly straighten my legs and, with my knees locked, I can manage her. Finnick has Peeta slung across his back now and we move forward, Finnick leading, me following in the trail he breaks through the vines.

On the fog comes, silent and steady and flat, except for the grasping tendrils. Although my instinct is to run directly away from it, I realize Finnick is moving at a diagonal down the hill. He’s trying to keep a distance from the gas while steering us toward the water that surrounds the Cornucopia. Yes, water, I think as the acid droplets bore deeper into me. Now I’m so thankful I didn’t kill Finnick, because how would I have gotten Peeta out of here alive? So thankful to have someone else on my side, even if it’s only temporarily.

It’s not Mags’s fault when I begin falling. She’s doing everything she can to be an easy passenger, but the fact is, there is only so much weight I can handle. Especially now that my right leg seems to be going stiff. The first two times I crash to the ground, I manage to make it back on my feet, but the third time, I cannot get my leg to cooperate. As I struggle to get up, it gives out and Mags rolls off onto the ground before me. I flail around, trying to use vines and trunks to right myself.

Finnick’s back by my side, Peeta hanging over him. “It’s no use,” I say.

“Can you take them both? Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.” A somewhat doubtful proposal, but I say it with as much surety as I can muster.

I can see Finnick’s eyes, green in the moonlight. I can see them as clear as day. Almost like a cat’s, with a strange reflective quality. Maybe because they are shiny with tears. “No,” he says. “I can’t carry them both. My arms aren’t working.” It’s true. His arms jerk uncontrollably at his sides. His hands are empty. Of his three tridents, only one remains, and it’s in Peeta’s hands. “I’m sorry, Mags. I can’t do it.”

What happens next is so fast, so senseless, I can’t even move to stop it. Mags hauls herself up, plants a kiss on Finnick’s lips, and then hobbles straight into the fog. Immediately, her body is seized by wild contortions and she falls to the ground in a horrible dance.

I want to scream, but my throat is on fire. I take one futile step in her direction when I hear the cannon blast, know her heart has stopped, that she is dead. “Finnick?” I call out hoarsely, but he has already turned from the scene, already continued his retreat from the fog. Dragging my useless leg behind me, I stagger after him, having no idea what else to do.

Time and space lose meaning as the fog seems to invade my brain, muddling my thoughts, making everything unreal. Some deep-rooted animal desire for survival keeps me stumbling after Finnick and Peeta, continuing to move, although I’m probably dead already. Parts of me are dead, or clearly dying. And Mags is dead. This is something I know, or maybe just think I know, because it makes no sense at all.

Moonlight glinting on Finnick’s bronze hair, beads of searing pain peppering me, a leg turned to wood. I follow Finnick until he collapses on the ground, Peeta still on top of him. I seem to have no ability to stop my own forward motion and simply propel myself onward until I trip over their prone bodies, just one more on the heap. This is where and how and when we all die, I think. But the thought is abstract and far less alarming than the current agonies of my body. I hear Finnick groan and manage to drag myself off the others. Now I can see the wall of fog, which has taken on a pearly white quality. Maybe it’s my eyes playing tricks, or the moonlight, but the fog seems to be transforming. Yes, it’s becoming thicker, as if it has pressed up against a glass window and is being forced to condense. I squint harder and realize the fingers no longer protrude from it. In fact, it has stopped moving forward entirely. Like other horrors I have witnessed in the arena, it has reached the end of its territory. Either that or the Gamemakers have decided not to kill us just yet.

“It’s stopped,” I try to say, but only an awful croaking sound comes from my swollen mouth. “It’s stopped,” I say again, and this time I must be clearer, because both Peeta and Finnick turn their heads to the fog. It begins to rise upward now, as if being slowly vacuumed into the sky. We watch until it has

all been sucked away and not the slightest wisp remains.

Peeta rolls off Finnick, who turns over onto his back. We lie there gasping, twitching, our minds and bodies invaded by the poison. After a few minutes pass, Peeta vaguely gestures upward. “Mon-hees.” I look up and spot a pair of what I guess are monkeys. I have never seen a live monkey — there’s nothing like that in our woods at home. But I must have seen a picture, or one in the Games, because when I see the creatures, the same word comes to my mind. I think these have orange fur, although it’s hard to tell, and are about half the size of a full-grown human. I take the monkeys for a good sign. Surely they would not hang around if the air was deadly. For a while, we quietly observe one another, humans and monkeys. Then Peeta struggles to his knees and crawls down the slope. We all crawl, since walking now seems as remarkable a feat as flying; we crawl until the vines turn to a narrow strip of sandy beach and the warm water that surrounds the Cornucopia laps our faces. I jerk back as if I’ve touched an open flame.

Rubbing salt in a wound. For the first time I truly appreciate the expression, because the salt in the water makes the pain of my wounds so blinding I nearly black out. But there’s another sensation, of drawing out. I experiment by gingerly placing only my hand in the water. Torturous, yes, but then less so. And through the blue layer of water, I see a milky substance leaching out of the wounds on my skin. As the whiteness diminishes, so does the pain. I unbuckle my belt and strip off my jumpsuit, which is little more than a perforated rag. My shoes and undergarments are inexplicably unaffected. Little by little, one small portion of a limb at a time, I soak the poison out of my wounds. Peeta seems to be doing the same. But Finnick backed away from the water at first touch and lies facedown on the sand, either unwilling or unable to purge himself.

Finally, when I have survived the worst, opening my eyes underwater, sniffing water into my sinuses and snorting it out, and even gargling repeatedly to wash out my throat, I’m functional enough to help Finnick. Some feeling has returned to my leg, but my arms are still riddled with spasms. I can’t drag Finnick into the water, and possibly the pain would kill him, anyway. So I scoop up shaky handfuls and empty them on his fists. Since he’s not underwater, the poison comes out of his wounds just as it went in, in wisps of fog that I take great care to steer clear of. Peeta recovers enough to help me. He cuts away Finnick’s jumpsuit. Somewhere he finds two shells that work much better than our hands do. We concentrate on soaking Finnick’s arms first, since they have been so badly damaged, and even though a lot of white stuff pours out of them, he doesn’t notice.

He just lies there, eyes shut, giving an occasional moan.

I look around with growing awareness of how dangerous a position we’re in. It’s night, yes, but this moon gives off too much light for concealment.

We’re lucky no one’s attacked us yet. We could see them coming from the Cornucopia, but if all four Careers attacked, they’d overpower us. If they didn’t spot us at first, Finnick’s moans would give us away soon.

“We’ve got to get more of him into the water,” I whisper. But we can’t put him in face-first, not while he’s in this condition. Peeta nods to Finnick’s feet. We each take one, pull him one hundred and eighty degrees around, and start to drag him into the saltwater. Just a few inches at a time. His ankles. Wait a few minutes. Up to his midcalf. Wait. His knees. Clouds of white swirl out from his flesh and he groans. We continue to detoxify him, bit by bit. What I find is that the longer I sit in the water, the better I feel. Not just my skin, but my brain and muscle control continue to improve. I can see Peeta’s face beginning to return to normal, his eyelid opening, the grimace leaving his mouth.

Finnick slowly begins to revive. His eyes open, focus on us, and register awareness that he’s being helped. I rest his head on my lap and we let him soak about ten minutes with everything immersed from the neck down. Peeta and I exchange a smile as Finnick lifts his arms above the seawater.

“There’s just your head left, Finnick. That’s the worst part, but you’ll feel much better after, if you can bear it,” Peeta says. We help him to sit up and let him grip our hands as he purges his eyes and nose and mouth. His throat is still too raw to speak.

“I’m going to try to tap a tree,” I say. My fingers fumble at my belt and find the spile still hanging from its vine.

“Let me make the hole first,” says Peeta. “You stay with him. You’re the healer.”

That’s a joke, I think. But I don’t say it out loud, since Finnick has enough to deal with. He got the worst of the fog, although I’m not sure why. Maybe because he’s the biggest or maybe because he had to exert himself the most. And then, of course, there’s Mags. I still don’t understand what happened there. Why he essentially abandoned her to carry Peeta. Why she not only didn’t question it, but ran straight to her death without a moment’s hesitation. Was it because she was so old that her days were numbered, anyway? Did they think that Finnick would stand a better chance of winning if he had Peeta and me as allies? The haggard look on Finnick’s face tells me that now is not the moment to ask.

Instead I try to put myself back together. I rescue my mockingjay pin from my ruined jumpsuit and pin it to the strap of my undershirt. The flotation belt must be acid resistant, since it looks as good as new. I can swim, so the flotation belt’s not really necessary, but Brutus blocked my arrow with his, so I buckle it back on, thinking it might offer some protection. I undo my hair and comb it with my fingers, thinning it out considerably since the fog droplets damaged it. Then I braid back what’s left of it.

Peeta has found a good tree about ten yards from the narrow strip of beach. We can hardly see him, but the sound of his knife against the wooden trunk is crystal clear. I wonder what happened to the awl. Mags must’ve either dropped it or taken it into the fog with her. Anyway, it’s gone.

I have moved out a bit farther into the shallows, floating alternately on my belly and back. If the seawater healed Peeta and me, it seems to be transforming Finnick altogether. He begins to move slowly, just testing his limbs, and gradually begins to swim. But it’s not like me swimming, the rhythmic strokes, the even pace. It’s like watching some strange sea animal coming back to life. He dives and surfaces, spraying water out of his mouth, rolls over and over in some bizarre corkscrew motion that makes me dizzy even to watch. And then, when he’s been underwater so long I feel certain he’s drowned, his head pops up right next to me and I start.

“Don’t do that,” I say.

“What? Come up or stay under?” he says.

“Either. Neither. Whatever. Just soak in the water and behave,” I say. “Or if you feel this good, let’s go help Peeta.”

In just the short time it takes to cross to the edge of the jungle, I become aware of the change. Put it down to years of hunting, or maybe my reconstructed ear does work a little better than anyone intended. But I sense the mass of warm bodies poised above us. They don’t need to chatter or scream. The mere breathing of so many is enough.

I touch Finnick’s arm and he follows my gaze upward. I don’t know how they arrived so silently. Perhaps they didn’t. We’ve all been absorbed in restoring our bodies. During that time they’ve assembled. Not five or ten but scores of monkeys weigh down the limbs of the jungle trees. The pair we spotted when we first escaped the fog felt like a welcoming committee. This crew feels ominous.

I arm my bow with two arrows and Finnick adjusts the trident in his hand. “Peeta,” I say as calmly as possible. “I need your help with something.”

“Okay, just a minute. I think I’ve just about got it,” he says, still occupied with the tree. “Yes, there. Have you got the spile?”

“I do. But we’ve found something you’d better take a look at,” I continue in a measured voice. “Only move toward us quietly, so you don’t startle it.” For some reason, I don’t want him to notice the monkeys, or even glance their way. There are creatures that interpret mere eye contact as aggression.

Peeta turns to us, panting from his work on the tree. The tone of my request is so odd that it’s alerted him to some irregularity. “Okay,” he says casually. He begins to move through the jungle, and although I know he’s trying hard to be quiet, this has never been his strong suit, even when he had two sound legs. But it’s all right, he’s moving, the monkeys are holding their positions. He’s just five yards from the beach when he senses them. His eyes

only dart up for a second, but it’s as if he’s triggered a bomb. The monkeys explode into a shrieking mass of orange fur and converge on him.

I’ve never seen any animal move so fast. They slide down the vines as if the things were greased. Leap impossible distances from tree to tree. Fangs bared, hackles raised, claws shooting out like switchblades. I may be unfamiliar with monkeys, but animals in nature don’t act like this. “Mutts!” I spit out as Finnick and I crash into the greenery.

I know every arrow must count, and they do. In the eerie light, I bring down monkey after monkey, targeting eyes and hearts and throats, so that each hit means a death. But still it wouldn’t be enough without Finnick spearing the beasts like fish and flinging them aside, Peeta slashing away with his knife. I feel claws on my leg, down my back, before someone takes out the attacker. The air grows heavy with trampled plants, the scent of blood, and the musty stink of the monkeys. Peeta and Finnick and I position ourselves in a triangle, a few yards apart, our backs to one another. My heart sinks as my fingers draw back my last arrow. Then I remember Peeta has a sheath, too. And he’s not shooting, he’s hacking away with that knife. My own knife is out now, but the monkeys are quicker, can spring in and out so fast you can barely react.

“Peeta!” I shout. “Your arrows!”

Peeta turns to see my predicament and is sliding off his sheath when it happens. A monkey lunges out of a tree for his chest. I have no arrow, no way to shoot. I can hear the thud of Finnick’s trident finding another mark and know his weapon is occupied. Peeta’s knife arm is disabled as he tries to remove the sheath. I throw my knife at the oncoming mutt but the creature somersaults, evading the blade, and stays on its trajectory.

Weaponless, defenseless, I do the only thing I can think of. I run for Peeta, to knock him to the ground, to protect his body with mine, even though I know I won’t make it in time.

She does, though. Materializing, it seems, from thin air. One moment nowhere, the next reeling in front of Peeta. Already bloody, mouth open in a high-pitched scream, pupils enlarged so her eyes seem like black holes.

The insane morphling from District 6 throws up her skeletal arms as if to embrace the monkey, and it sinks its fangs into her chest.

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