Chapter no 22

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)

The grace period has ended. Perhaps Snow had them digging through the night. As soon as the fire died down, anyway. They found Boggs’s remains, briefly felt reassured, and then, as the hours went by without further trophies, began to suspect. At some point, they realized that they had been tricked. And President Snow can’t tolerate being made to look like a fool. It doesn’t matter whether they tracked us to the second apartment or assumed we went directly underground. They know we are down here now and they’ve unleashed something, a pack of mutts probably, bent on finding me.

“Katniss.” I jump at the proximity of the sound. Look frantically for its source, bow loaded, seeking a target to hit. “Katniss.” Peeta’s lips are barely moving, but there’s no doubt, the name came out of him. Just when I thought he seemed a little better, when I thought he might be inching his way back to me, here is proof of how deep Snow’s poison went. “Katniss.” Peeta’s programmed to respond to the hissing chorus, to join in the hunt. He’s beginning to stir. There’s no choice. I position my arrow to penetrate his brain. He’ll barely feel a thing. Suddenly, he’s sitting up, eyes wide in alarm, short of breath. “Katniss!” He whips his head toward me but doesn’t seem to notice my bow, the waiting arrow. “Katniss! Get out of here!”

I hesitate. His voice is alarmed, but not insane. “Why? What’s making that sound?”

“I don’t know. Only that it has to kill you,” says Peeta. “Run! Get out! Go!”

After my own moment of confusion, I conclude I do not have to shoot him. Relax my bowstring. Take in the anxious faces around me. “Whatever it is, it’s after me. It might be a good time to split up.”

“But we’re your guard,” says Jackson. “And your crew,” adds Cressida.

“I’m not leaving you,” Gale says.

I look at the crew, armed with nothing but cameras and clipboards. And there’s Finnick with two guns and a trident. I suggest that he give one of his guns to Castor. Eject the blank cartridge from Peeta’s, load it with a real one, and arm Pollux. Since Gale and I have our bows, we

hand our guns over to Messalla and Cressida. There’s no time to show them anything but how to point and pull the trigger, but in close quarters, that might be enough. It’s better than being defenseless. Now the only one without a weapon is Peeta, but anyone whispering my name with a bunch of mutts doesn’t need one anyway.

We leave the room free of everything but our scent. There’s no way to erase that at the moment. I’m guessing that’s how the hissing things are tracking us, because we haven’t left much of a physical trail. The mutts’ noses will be abnormally keen, but possibly the time we spent slogging through water in drainpipes will help throw them.

Outside the hum of the room, the hissing becomes more distinct. But it’s also possible to get a better sense of the mutts’ location. They’re behind us, still a fair distance. Snow probably had them released underground near the place where he found Boggs’s body. Theoretically, we should have a good lead on them, although they’re certain to be much faster than we are. My mind wanders to the wolflike creatures in the first arena, the monkeys in the Quarter Quell, the monstrosities I’ve witnessed on television over the years, and I wonder what form these mutts will take. Whatever Snow thinks will scare me the most.

Pollux and I have worked out a plan for the next leg of our journey, and since it heads away from the hissing, I see no reason to alter it. If we move swiftly, maybe we can reach Snow’s mansion before the mutts reach us. But there’s a sloppiness that comes with speed: the poorly placed boot that results in a splash, the accidental clang of a gun against a pipe, even my own commands, issued too loudly for discretion.

We’ve covered about three more blocks via an overflow pipe and a section of neglected train track when the screams begin. Thick, guttural. Bouncing off the tunnel walls.

“Avoxes,” says Peeta immediately. “That’s what Darius sounded like when they tortured him.”

“The mutts must have found them,” says Cressida. “So they’re not just after Katniss,” says Leeg 1.

“They’ll probably kill anyone. It’s just that they won’t stop until they get to her,” says Gale. After his hours studying with Beetee, he is most likely right.

And here I am again. With people dying because of me. Friends, allies, complete strangers, losing their lives for the Mockingjay. “Let me go on alone. Lead them off. I’ll transfer the Holo to Jackson. The rest of you can finish the mission.”

“No one’s going to agree to that!” says Jackson in exasperation.

“We’re wasting time!” says Finnick. “Listen,” Peeta whispers.

The screams have stopped, and in their absence my name has rebounded, startling in its proximity. It’s below as well as behind us now. “Katniss.”

I nudge Pollux on the shoulder and we start to run. Trouble is, we had planned to descend to a lower level, but that’s out now. When we come to the steps leading down, Pollux and I are scanning for a possible alternative on the Holo when I start gagging.

“Masks on!” orders Jackson.

There’s no need for masks. Everyone is breathing the same air. I’m the only one losing my stew because I’m the only one reacting to the odor. Drifting up from the stairwell. Cutting through the sewage. Roses. I begin to tremble.

I swerve away from the smell and stumble right out onto the Transfer. Smooth, pastel-colored tiled streets, just like the ones above, but bordered by white brick walls instead of homes. A roadway where delivery vehicles can drive with ease, without the congestion of the Capitol. Empty now, of everything but us. I swing up my bow and blow up the first pod with an explosive arrow, which kills the nest of flesh- eating rats inside. Then I sprint for the next intersection, where I know one false step will cause the ground beneath our feet to disintegrate, feeding us into something labeled Meat Grinder. I shout a warning to the others to stay with me. I plan for us to skirt around the corner and then detonate the Meat Grinder, but another unmarked pod lies in wait.

It happens silently. I would miss it entirely if Finnick didn’t pull me to a stop. “Katniss!”

I whip back around, arrow poised for flight, but what can be done?

Two of Gale’s arrows already lie useless beside the wide shaft of golden light that radiates from ceiling to floor. Inside, Messalla is as still as a statue, poised up on the ball of one foot, head tilted back, held captive by the beam. I can’t tell if he’s yelling, although his mouth is stretched wide. We watch, utterly helpless, as the flesh melts off his body like candle wax.

“Can’t help him!” Peeta starts shoving people forward. “Can’t!” Amazingly, he’s the only one still functional enough to get us moving. I don’t know why he’s in control, when he should be flipping out and bashing my brains in, but that could happen any second. At the pressure of his hand against my shoulder, I turn away from the grisly thing that

was Messalla; I make my feet go forward, fast, so fast that I can barely skid to a stop before the next intersection.

A spray of gunfire brings down a shower of plaster. I jerk my head from side to side, looking for the pod, before I turn and see the squad of Peacekeepers pounding down the Transfer toward us. With the Meat Grinder pod blocking our way, there’s nothing to do but fire back. They outnumber us two to one, but we’ve still got six original members of the Star Squad, who aren’t trying to run and shoot at the same time.

Fish in a barrel, I think, as blossoms of red stain their white uniforms. Three-quarters of them are down and dead when more begin to pour in from the side of the tunnel, the same one I flung myself through to get away from the smell, from the—

Those aren’t Peacekeepers.

They are white, four-limbed, about the size of a full-grown human, but that’s where the comparisons stop. Naked, with long reptilian tails, arched backs, and heads that jut forward. They swarm over the Peacekeepers, living and dead, clamp on to their necks with their mouths and rip off the helmeted heads. Apparently, having a Capitol pedigree is as useless here as it was in 13. It seems to take only seconds before the Peacekeepers are decapitated. The mutts fall to their bellies and skitter toward us on all fours.

“This way!” I shout, hugging the wall and making a sharp right turn to avoid the pod. When everyone’s joined me, I fire into the intersection, and the Meat Grinder activates. Huge mechanical teeth burst through the street and chew the tile to dust. That should make it impossible for the mutts to follow us, but I don’t know. The wolf and monkey mutts I’ve encountered could leap unbelievably far.

The hissing burns my ears, and the reek of roses makes the walls spin.

I grab Pollux’s arm. “Forget the mission. What’s the quickest way aboveground?”

There’s no time for checking the Holo. We follow Pollux for about ten yards along the Transfer and go through a doorway. I’m aware of tile changing to concrete, of crawling through a tight, stinking pipe onto a ledge about a foot wide. We’re in the main sewer. A yard below, a poisonous brew of human waste, garbage, and chemical runoff bubbles by us. Parts of the surface are on fire, others emit evil-looking clouds of vapor. One look tells you that if you fall in, you’re never coming out.

Moving as quickly as we dare on the slippery ledge, we make our way to

a narrow bridge and cross it. In an alcove at the far side, Pollux smacks a ladder with his hand and points up the shaft. This is it. Our way out.

A quick glance at our party tells me something’s off. “Wait! Where are Jackson and Leeg One?”

“They stayed at the Grinder to hold the mutts back,” says Homes. “What?” I’m lunging back for the bridge, willing to leave no one to

those monsters, when he yanks me back.

“Don’t waste their lives, Katniss. It’s too late for them. Look!” Homes nods to the pipe, where the mutts are slithering onto the ledge.

“Stand back!” Gale shouts. With his explosive-tipped arrows, he rips the far side of the bridge from its foundation. The rest sinks into the bubbles, just as the mutts reach it.

For the first time, I get a good look at them. A mix of human and lizard and who knows what else. White, tight reptilian skin smeared with gore, clawed hands and feet, their faces a mess of conflicting features.

Hissing, shrieking my name now, as their bodies contort in rage. Lashing out with tails and claws, taking huge chunks of one another or their own bodies with wide, lathered mouths, driven mad by their need to destroy me. My scent must be as evocative to them as theirs is to me. More so, because despite its toxicity, the mutts begin to throw themselves into the foul sewer.

Along our bank, everyone opens fire. I choose my arrows without discretion, sending arrowheads, fire, explosives into the mutts’ bodies. They’re mortal, but only just. No natural thing could keep coming with two dozen bullets in it. Yes, we can eventually kill them, only there are so many, an endless supply pouring from the pipe, not even hesitating to take to the sewage.

But it’s not their numbers that make my hands shake so.

No mutt is good. All are meant to damage you. Some take your life, like the monkeys. Others your reason, like the tracker jackers. However, the true atrocities, the most frightening, incorporate a perverse psychological twist designed to terrify the victim. The sight of the wolf mutts with the dead tributes’ eyes. The sound of the jabberjays replicating Prim’s tortured screams. The smell of Snow’s roses mixed with the victims’ blood. Carried across the sewer. Cutting through even this foulness. Making my heart run wild, my skin turn to ice, my lungs unable to suck air. It’s as if Snow’s breathing right in my face, telling me it’s time to die.

The others are shouting at me, but I can’t seem to respond. Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt whose claws have just grazed

my ankle. I’m slammed into the ladder. Hands shoved against the rungs. Ordered to climb. My wooden, puppet limbs obey. Movement slowly brings me back to my senses. I detect one person above me. Pollux.

Peeta and Cressida are below. We reach a platform. Switch to a second ladder. Rungs slick with sweat and mildew. At the next platform, my head has cleared and the reality of what’s happened hits me. I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder. Peeta. Cressida. That’s it.

What have I done? What have I abandoned the others to? I’m scrambling back down the ladder when one of my boots kicks someone.

“Climb!” Gale barks at me. I’m back up, hauling him in, peering into the gloom for more. “No.” Gale turns my face to him and shakes his head. Uniform shredded. Gaping wound in the side of his neck.

There’s a human cry from below. “Someone’s still alive,” I plead. “No, Katniss. They’re not coming,” says Gale. “Only the mutts are.”

Unable to accept it, I shine the light from Cressida’s gun down the shaft. Far below, I can just make out Finnick, struggling to hang on as three mutts tear at him. As one yanks back his head to take the death bite, something bizarre happens. It’s as if I’m Finnick, watching images of my life flash by. The mast of a boat, a silver parachute, Mags laughing, a pink sky, Beetee’s trident, Annie in her wedding dress, waves breaking over rocks. Then it’s over.

I slide the Holo from my belt and choke out “nightlock, nightlock, nightlock.” Release it. Hunch against the wall with the others as the explosion rocks the platform and bits of mutt and human flesh shoot out of the pipe and shower us.

There’s a clank as Pollux slams a cover over the pipe and locks it in place. Pollux, Gale, Cressida, Peeta, and me. We’re all that’s left. Later, the human feelings will come. Now I’m conscious only of an animal need to keep the remnants of our band alive. “We can’t stop here.”

Someone comes up with a bandage. We tie it around Gale’s neck. Get him to his feet. Only one figure stays huddled against the wall. “Peeta,” I say. There’s no response. Has he blacked out? I crouch in front of him, pulling his cuffed hands from his face. “Peeta?” His eyes are like black pools, the pupils dilated so that the blue irises have all but vanished. The muscles in his wrists are hard as metal.

“Leave me,” he whispers. “I can’t hang on.” “Yes. You can!” I tell him.

Peeta shakes his head. “I’m losing it. I’ll go mad. Like them.”

Like the mutts. Like a rabid beast bent on ripping my throat out. And here, finally here in this place, in these circumstances, I will really have

to kill him. And Snow will win. Hot, bitter hatred courses through me. Snow has won too much already today.

It’s a long shot, it’s suicide maybe, but I do the only thing I can think of. I lean in and kiss Peeta full on the mouth. His whole body starts shuddering, but I keep my lips pressed to his until I have to come up for air. My hands slide up his wrists to clasp his. “Don’t let him take you from me.”

Peeta’s panting hard as he fights the nightmares raging in his head. “No. I don’t want to…”

I clench his hands to the point of pain. “Stay with me.”

His pupils contract to pinpoints, dilate again rapidly, and then return to something resembling normalcy. “Always,” he murmurs.

I help Peeta up and address Pollux. “How far to the street?” He indicates it’s just above us. I climb the last ladder and push open the lid to someone’s utility room. I’m rising to my feet when a woman throws open the door. She wears a bright turquoise silk robe embroidered with exotic birds. Her magenta hair’s fluffed up like a cloud and decorated with gilded butterflies. Grease from the half-eaten sausage she’s holding smears her lipstick. The expression on her face says she recognizes me. She opens her mouth to call for help.

Without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart.

You'll Also Like