Note: Warning. Uh. Violence.

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Day 5-6: It Gets Real

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I always wanted to be a saint
but I thought I'd be one of the miserable
ones
sainted by pain
burnt alive inside

'I Won't Lie This Plague of Gratitude,' Kaveh Akbar

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Damask Bhatti, District 8

There's something burning up ahead.

It started out small - could have been a campfire, the little plume of grey smoke I noticed first (ha!) from maybe a mile away.

The swamp forest, though, over the last few nights but especially tonight, has become a tinderbox. As the air has cooled down, it's like all the moisture is being sucked out of the mud and the plants. Moss that used to be soft and greenish has shriveled and browned, and trees with bigger leaves have gone yellow.

Samil was excited by the smoke, which seems typical of him. I'm starting to get a real sense of his patterns. Plunge right into the fire headfirst kinda guy. Guess I already knew that from the start, but I can't honestly say that I thought things would go…

Well.

We're approaching a campfire that has spiraled out of control. The forest is choked with smoke in this part, and the crumbling, dried-out mud underfoot doesn't make me very hopeful that there's any chance of stopping the fire at this point.

My slingshot is out, of course. The fire has driven a shocking amount of game our way - boars, smaller than the ones that surrounded me in the tree way back… could it have just been a few days ago? They have no interest in us, barely even seem like mutts, just big old wild pigs fleeing the wildfire. Herds of little deer that barely come up to my knee, springing through the dried-up underbrush like children's toys, the sort of animal I could barely imagine…

I took a few shots, didn't hit anything. I'm pretty useless from more than like ten feet away, and fuck me if I'm gonna be able to kill anything that's trying to run away, it's hard enough to aim at a stationary target.

We don't talk as we approach the source of the fire, and maybe that's for the best.

That guy we met near the coast the other day died. He died bad. We saw his blood on the sand, way too much fucking blood to have come out of one guy, but we knew it was him once we saw him in the sky last night.

I say 'we', but Samil didn't give a fuck.

He was alive, and an hour later he was dead. So fucking dead. Bits of him, shreds, left in the sand.

Samil was half-smiling when I looked up from the carnage. Didn't care enough to put on a concerned face.

"Led us right to them," he explained, seeing my reaction.

"Them?" I asked, already knowing his answer.

The fucking trainee girls.

You'd - well, maybe I'm just dumb, but I'd have expected him to be directing the force of his anger at the one who jacked up his face, the one who probably ripped that boy to pieces. That's a fair thing to be mad about, to be… there's just no explaining his…

I don't know.

I'm getting uncomfortable with the way we're walking into the fire as animals flee in the opposite direction. Among other things.

"What's the move?" I finally ask, coughing through my watering eyes as the smoke gets thicker. "We're gonna fucking suffocate before we find anyone."

"Nah," he says. "We keep at it. Trust me, where there's smoke…"

He thinks he sounds so cool.

A few days ago I thought he sounded so cool. I thought it was so fucking cool, the way he could flip that stupid bat around his arm all fancy, but…

"Okay," I say doubtfully, a tone that he definitely doesn't miss.

"If you don't want to play to win, be my guest," he laughs, trying to hide a cough in the harsh, humorless noise.

Flips the bat. To remind me he can.

I think about the few shards of rock - shells? - something hard and pointy I've been picking up whenever I find them.

I don't think… fuck, I know he could kill me before I killed him. I just gotta wait it out, until he sleeps, he sleeps so fucking much but I've been too chicken to do anything about him, even though I know this is a problem, there is a goddamn problem here that has nothing to do with the forest going up in flames.

My leg hurts from where it got tusked, but it's been healing pretty good, oozed a bit but scabbed over a while back and now it just kinda itches and pulls a bit.

"I'll tell you what the move is," Samil adds. "Pick up the pace, the forest's opening up, they must be around here somewhere -"

Before I can say anything about that, mulling over a response as he half-jogs ahead of me, too pleased with himself, too fucking weird about all of this, something happens.

I'm not totally sure what. It's smoky as hell at this point.

But it's like the sand before him explodes as he kicks aside what looks like a fallen branch, and suddenly there's something on him, like… a mutt?

Ringed with… branches? Heavy branches, woven into something silver-grey, sort of dully shiny if that makes any sense.

And I stare, just stop right in my tracks.

It's like this fucking net just fell straight out of the sky, though I can almost see a complicated network of branches and strands of the stuff, having held it in perfect balance until he came along - we came along - and missed the thing in the smoke.

"What the fuck," he's spitting, struggling - does he have a knife?

Can he get out of this alone?

I take a half-step back. Then a full one.

"Damask, what the fuck," he repeats.

Almost panicking. That's new for him. The woven strands of the net seem to expand as he tries to tear his way out. It made such a loud noise, surely someone must be coming… though…

I have a horrifying thought, imagine the encroaching wall of fire, the increasingly dense and suffocating smoke.

The net-makers, though, don't seem to have quite that plan in mind,

Three figures materialize, all wearing something bound to their faces - damp cloth-filled water bottles? It looks more complicated than that, but they seem to be breathing better than we are.

I raise my slingshot, fearing the worst, only to realize that at least one of them is way too small to be a trainee. I wrack my brain for who could possibly be left in the arena in these numbers - three people in an alliance! Final eleven, and three non-trainees?

But I recognize the District 3 girl by her shaved head, though her eyes are reddened by smoke. Unfortunately, I recognize her right as I point my slingshot at her, and I quickly drop it to my side. Glance at Samil. Glance back at her, and the dizzyingly tall man who must be her district partner.

It's like I'm seeing them for the first time. They exchange glances, water bubbling in their weird face-sets as they communicate without speaking.

I'm not sure if I dare to hope I'm getting out of this alive, let alone…

The smoke is making me dangerously light-headed, and while I can't feel the heat of the fire yet, I can hear it in the distance.

"Is it them?" the District 3 girl asks one of her allies, voice muffled by the headset.

My heart sinks as I recognize the third figure.

Unmistakable with her jaw swollen disgustingly underneath her water-bottle mask.

Two things happen at once.

Samil slices through the net - not quite enough to escape, but enough to get his face out, to start in on the rest of it, with a knife blade wrapped in silver paper.

Renata, the girl from District 4, says "yes".

I look at them, and back at Samil, ripping at the net with his knife.

They must see how fucking terrified I am, how much I don't want to hurt them, because even the District 4 girl with her bigass fucking spear doesn't take so much as a step forward. I want to say something.

I want to beg them to let me come with them, anywhere but here.

But my throat is dried out and useless.

From overhead, rain begins to fall. Not unexpected, since the sky had seemed greyed out by more than smoke, but the cool water on my skin jolts me into action. Samil is almost out of the net cocoon.

I turn to him, raise my weapon with a white shard of shell-bone loaded, and send the payload of my slingshot into the base of his skull.

Blood, but of course not enough, I'm so goddamn bad at this, and now he's out and looking at me with murder in his eyes.

The District 4 girl approaches him with her spear raised, and he rolls away to buy time, bringing his bat with him, springing up into a defensive crouch.

"How the fuck," he rasps, voice nearly erased by the smoke swirling through the shower around his, "did you get even uglier?"

Like a vacuum has been turned on somewhere beneath the arena, the smoke begins to clear - enough for me to realize where it's disappearing to. The three allies are backed up against a giant hole in the ground, enormous, maybe forty feet across and who knows how deep.

The smoke swirls in the depths of the pit in the earth. Like a portal to hell. I wonder if I died earlier and this is where I ended up, throat still burning, eyes still watering, the shredded net and the obscured faces of the people in front of me, I want to run away. But I also want to be sure he's dead, that it's over, and couldn't they… if he kills the girl, maybe, what if they…

How fucking cowardly.

But I want them to help me. We're running so low on everything. I'm hungry and parched and it's like I'm on fire and I just don't want to run away from maybe my only chance not to be alone.

He smashes her in the face. Just like last time. Her vision is obscured by the breathing device and he gets her as she tries to rip it off, it must hurt her jaw badly, but not as bad as his second blow.

One of her allies finally breaks away and tries to help her, the big guy, though he's rocking a bad limp, but the District 3 girl looks just as paralyzed as I feel. I make eye contact with her again, try to make a plea with my face, but she just looks disgusted, shakes her head, and follows her partner into the fray with her knife drawn.

Bad move.

Samil is so smart. No one expects him to be so clever. He laughed as he told me that.

He immediately pinpoints the bad leg on the District 3 guy, and rather than finishing off the girl, he has a go at his leg and the guy stumbles, slashes at Samil with some kind of knife on a stick, catches him in the ribs but takes a bad hit to the skull.

Then Samil is leading the only one still posing any sort of threat, the District 3 girl, towards the giant pit, and I try to warn her -

"Don't!" I call, the same way I tried to help the District 4 girl when he would have killed her the last time, I just don't want to kill anyone, is that so fucking wrong?

I point my slingshot to him, move closer so I'll maybe have a shot… at an eye, at his face, anywhere it might fucking help, and even though I'm trying to help her the District 3 girl looks at me like I'm some kind of fucking scum.

He laughs as my face falls and I lower my slingshot in disbelief.

Takes a swing at her, misses but sends her ducking closer to the pit.

"Bridget!" the District 3 girl's partner calls, half-limping back - Samil feints swinging at the District 3 girl again.

She edges away, neatly dodging, but his reach is so much better than hers with his bat that she opens up a space for him to turn around and fucking whale on her partner, catch him by the temple as he stumbles, glassy-eyed and disoriented by far more than the fire, teeters on the edge of the pit…

And then he tumbles in, and his partner cries out his name in horror -

"Dion!"

Though there's no immediate cannon, it's a long second before we hear his body hit the ground.

The District 4 girl is up, now, bleeding profusely from her nose and mouth, and she seems to notice me for the first time. I scramble to reload my slingshot - stupid, stupid, stupid - but it's not enough.

Samil sees what's happening, dances away from the District 3 girl as she comes at him with the knife, and runs for me.

I just wish I knew what to do. Where to run. Both of them bearing down on me, I scramble towards the pit, towards the District 3 girl, and I find myself scrabbling at the same spot where the District 3 guy, Dion, stood before he fell.

Still no cannon, though.

Before Samil can break my legs - he's faster than the girl, and I know that's what he's going for, he's threatened to do it often enough - something very strange happens.

There's a buzzing noise like the sped-up wings of a giant insect. Something moving very fast.

Samil is still a good ten feet away, but it's like I've been punched, the wind knocked out of me completely. A crushing noise in my chest, then radiating, stabbing pain and cold and heat all at once.

I stagger in place, look down too late to see the arrow pass through.

Another noise like an angry hornet, and before I can react to the first one, I feel my throat torn open by the force of the second arrow. This one, I see coming, almost, too fast to do anything about it, just to know… 'oh'.

I wish I thought something better than 'oh'.

But Samil is already booking it, I see that, see him fire off a last mocking salute in my direction as he disappears into the forest, as the District 4 and District 3 girl scramble to figure out who's shooting.

Blood moves so fast. My blood is everywhere, and gravity seems to go opposite… everything is going dark so quickly, I can't tell the wet of the blood from the wet of the rain, but I feel myself falling backwards, see something bizarre… the District 3 girl grabbing the torn-up net, descending into the pit?

That can't be right.

As the trainee guys from District 1 and District 2 break into the clearing - 'he went that way!' one calls - I'm already on my way down, not holding on to anything, just dark and fast and wet and hot and cold and sharpfastjoltpain

Oh, I think again.

There's the cannon.

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Guess who decided not to run for president again (I've been telling everybody to make sure I don't slip and do it accidentally, sorry) and will be back to writing regularly? I have a sick new job in an orgo lab and I am unstoppable!