Chapter Eleven: The Creature in the Woods
It's a bear. The beast of the woods is a goddamn bear, and not just any bear either, but the biggest, meanest, nastiest bear I've ever seen even the worst of my nightmares.
There is no way that thing is not a muttation. Reared back on its hind legs it stands at least twelve if not fifteen feet tall. Its fur is inky black, rippling over muscles three times the size of North's. Its eyes blaze a brutal, blood-shot red. Its massive jaw opens, revealing dozens of teeth as long as a knife. It roars.
Tooth flings her dagger, catching it right in the shoulder. The blade digs deep into the muscle and lodges there. The bear doesn't even blink, swiping at us with claws that put the knife to shame. He misses me by bare inches, only because I use the staff to fling myself back and out of the way.
"Run, Jack!" Tooth shouts, abandoning our efforts with the berries. "Run, now!"
We move in the same instant, darting into the trees. The bear bellows its anger and gives chase, charging after us on all fours. It tears through the woods, ripping up bushes with paws the size of my heat and shrugging off impacts with the trees like they're nothing. It's fast. Too fast. I can feel its putrid, hot breath on the back of my heels.
My body slides completely out of my control and into pure flight instincts, flinging itself through the night with the staff and tree-trunks as leverage. Tooth flits ahead, matching my speed, leaping from tree trunk to tree trunk without daring to fall behind or press too far ahead.
"The tunnel!" I hear my own voice call over the thundering weight of the bear. "We have to get back to the tunnel!"
But in this dark, with this monster on our heels, there's no way either she or I can divert our path back to the entrance we used before. It's all we can do to keep the beast from catching up. It's fast, much faster than a creature its size has any right to be. If either of us slow for even a moment, it will catch us, and then all we'll be able to hope for is a quick death.
Tooth suddenly darts across my path, her violet eyes locked dead ahead. She leaps at a thin tree, swings herself once around the trunk, and propels her body into the air. If I wasn't so terrified for my own life, I'd be amazed. The trees are too thin to hold anyone's weight, but she never lingers long enough to let them bend or break. Instead, she flings herself ever further up and up, her feet and hands alighting briefly on the thin branches just long enough to give her a leg up on the next leap.
"This way, Jack!" she calls to me. "Hurry!"
She makes it sound so easy, but the five seconds it costs me to change direction is enough for the bear to take a swipe that catches the back of my jacket. My heart stops at the ripping noise, but I feel no pain. The claws did not reach my skin.
I stumble, catching myself with the staff. I can't afford to fall. Up ahead I catch sight of Tooth, crouching in the moonlight, gesturing wildly with her arms. It's not a tree she's perched in. It's rock, an outcropping of gray stone shoved straight up from the ground as though pushed by an earthquake.
Just short of her perch, I drop the end of my staff, drive it into the ground, and let my own momentum carry me up, up. Tooth snatches my outstretched arm, holding onto the rocks with her other for dear life. The rocks cut my feet as I scramble for purchase, pushing as she pulls. With a furious yank, she drags me onto the ledge. I snatch up my staff seconds before the bear hits the rock.
It slams into the space with a ferocious roar, jarring our ledge like an earthquake. On instinct, I grab for the only safe thing: Tooth. She does the same, our limbs tangling as we cling to one another and press our backs to the safe, sturdy rock.
The monster snarls and growls in frustration, raking its claws along the cliff a mere foot from our perch. Its nails give a bone-rattling screech as they drag across the stone. Its massive jaws rip the air, strong enough to rip a Tribute's limb from its socket, searching for a mouthful of meat and bone to satisfy its hunger.
After long, endless minutes, it finally clues in that we're out of its reach. The bear sinks back onto all fours, snarls up at us in the dark, and takes up a sentry position below our perch, pacing left and right to keep us boxed in.
Tooth and I continue to cling, the presence of another warm body – even a stranger's, even a Career's – filling some instinctual need for safety in the face of death. My mind wants to push away, but my arms refuse to obey.
"Did it get you?" Tooth whispers, her voice trembling. I can feel her fingers trying to feel out the damage to my back, but neither of us want to take our eyes from the beast for a better look.
"No." It's a fight just to pull in enough air for that whisper. "Just tore up the coat, I think."
The adrenaline that kept us tangled begins to fade, loosening our muscles and allowing our bodies to settle. But it doesn't leave for good. The predator continues to lurk just beyond our sight, its rumbling growls keeping us both pinned. There is not a lot of room up here, either. Tooth and I are going to have to stay close together if we're both going to fit.
I shift my staff until it lies flat, wedged clumsily by the gray stone to our backs. With Tooth's hand bracing my shoulder, I risk leaning back enough to peer up the sheer wall of rock. It's perfectly flat, with no notches or plant life to use as hand holds. Even if we were to climb, I can see that the cliff leads nowhere – it's not part of the mountains, only a crop of rocks pushed up by the river or an ancient earthquake.
"Can't go up."
"Can't go down." Tooth says, hers eyes locked on the bear pacing below.
I sigh, freeing my arms and turning away from her to rest my back against the stone. "Great. We're stuck."
Tooth's hand finds mine in the gloom and offers a quiet squeeze. "We told North and the others when we'd be back," she says. "When we don't show, they'll come looking for us."
"Can they fight that thing?"
She bites her lip. She doesn't have to answer. That bear, that muttation, was designed by the Gamemakers specifically to take out Tributes, to tear through the packs of trained Careers and offer wildcard hopes to the lesser Districts in order to keep the betting pool more interesting.
"They'll figure out something," she says finally. "Or maybe it'll get tired of waiting and go away."
"Maybe." You never know with muttations. It may have the instincts of a normal bear, or it may be programmed to hunt Tributes to the death without rest or pause.
Either way, it doesn't change our current situation. I am stuck up the side of a rock with Iana Tooth, flying warrior princess of District One. Who, not fifteen minutes ago, made out with me in a berry patch. And bit me. No doubt on live broadcast for all of Panem to see.
I rub the still-sore bite on the side of my neck, unable to look Tooth in the eye. The only sound for miles is the rumbling growls of the bear. If I have to listen to that for the rest of the night, I'll short out every nerve in my body.
"So," I say, fishing for anything to fill the silence. "Where'd you learn to fly? They big on the rope swings in District One?"
Tooth chuckles. Is it my imagination, or does she sound almost…sad? "Not exactly." She gives my hand another squeeze and tucks her legs to one side, settling beside me so that our shoulders barely brush. "The fighting, the knives, those I learned in District One. The 'flying', I got from my mother."
I quirk an eyebrow. This attempt at small talk has officially taken a turn for the strange. "I thought your mother was a Victor."
"She was," says Tooth. During her interview with Caesar Flickerman, he asked her a similar question and she beamed with pride. Now, her answer is only a statement, not a thing to be celebrated. "You know how Victors take up a hobby, after the Games? Something to fill their time since they don't have to work and show off in the Capitol during the annual celebrations?"
"What, like, painting or playing some instrument?" That's really all I can remember, even wracking my brain. The outlying districts rarely see the finery and side-shows of the Games, save for the opening and closing ceremonies. There's too much work to be done to waste the time. "So, your mother had free time and…taught herself to fly?"
Tooth elbows me, but not with any anger. The corner of her lips twitches up in the barest smile. "I suppose you could say that, wise-guy. You know District One makes luxury goods, right? That includes props and cast work for the shows they put on in the Capitol when it's not Games-season, like back-up dancers and musicians. So, when she got the chance to choose her talent, my mother decided to take up sky-dancing."
The confusion on my face must be visible even in the dim light, because she sighs pityingly and adds, "You do have dancing in District Ten, don't you?"
I sputter. "Of course we do!"
"Well there you go," she says, like that explains everything. "It's the same basic thing."
"Except we dance on the ground." I swear, this girl's logic doesn't make a lick of sense. It's like the schools in District One exist to fill their students' heads with sparkles and bubble gum, save for the few with a predilection towards murdering their peers. "How do you dance in the sky?"
"Like that." Tooth nods towards the thin trees she leapt up as though they were nothing. "And, like you said, there's swings. There are also silk curtains and ropes, rings suspended in the air, elastic cords that make you bounce, balance beams…there's lots of tricks to get up there. Sky-dancing is simply the art of using them to move."
I shake my head, trying and failing to wrap my mind around taking your own life in your hands for a silly thing like that. Or perhaps worse, wasting time watching someone else risk their necks for your enjoyment. But then again, they are shows for the Capitol. Some danger must be required, lest the audience grow bored with a lack of bloodshed.
My foot slips towards the edge of our perch, only to be reeled back in when another growl reminds me of what lurks below. With night in full swing, the temperature up here is dropping, though it's nowhere near as bitter as the frozen winds I faced on the mountain. Beside me, Tooth shivers, though she tries to keep it under wraps. She folds her arms for extra warmth and shifts a bit closer to me.
"My mother was brilliant at it," she continues, apparently as afraid of the silence as I am. "Citizens from District One usually don't get to be the stars of the show, but because she was a Victor the Capitol was willing to pay for her shows. They sold out every time she went there. It's where she met my father, too – he was the only man working backstage with the strength and courage to pull off the stunts she wanted to perform. They were partners for the longest time. When they were wed, her biggest sponsor in the Capitol insisted on funding the entire ceremony. They arranged it to happen live on national TV."
Something tickles at the back of my mind. During the interviews, Flickerman mentioned that Tooth's mother was a beloved Victor. He and Tooth both spoke of her as a thing of the past, because she'd passed away. It was recent enough that her fans were, apparently, still grieving.
"What happened to her?"
I'm not entirely sure where the question comes from. There's no reason I should care about One's lost Victor. It certainly isn't like they don't have more than enough to spare.
Tooth sighs. Her head comes to rest on my shoulder. She still hasn't let go of my hand.
"There was an accident. It happened last year, during one of their shows. Something malfunctioned and they both…"
She bites her lip and squeezes my hand. For a split moment, she looks so vulnerable that I twist my rest to return to the grip. "I'm sorry."
"No you're not. But thank you for saying it anyway." Her hand on mine is like a vice, holding tight and steady, refusing to let go. She takes a few deep, steadying breaths before she finally eases up and straightens her spine. "It doesn't really matter. She's gone. He's gone. There's no use dwelling on the past."
Suddenly, her body – which had been trembling with adrenaline – goes utterly still. Her voice drops so breathy and soft that I have to strain my ears to hear it. Her eyes, now staring into nothing, are both wide and intense. "Anyway, that's not even the whole story. It's just what the Capitol wants them to hear."
The way she says it makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. But before I can ask or even think of asking, a piercing sound cuts through the night air. It sounds like a high note played on a glass flute, higher than any human or animal voice could reach. However, it isn't loud enough to echo. If anything, it seems, somehow, contained to the woods.
Instantly on alert, Tooth jerks straight-backed, her head going this way and that in search of the source. "What is that?"
"I don't – wait. Look."
Far below our perch, the monstrous bear stops its restless pacing. It turns its head to one side, tilting an ear towards the sky. Its continuous growling fades until there's only the high note and the whistle of the wind. Then, it turns its back to us and slowly rumbles away into the trees, its massive footsteps heavy in the underbrush. The last glimpse we get is a flash of moonlight off the knife still lodged in its shoulder.
Tooth holds her breath and squeezes my hand. Without thinking, I do the same. We stay frozen on our ledge for a full five minutes – the time it takes for the high note to fade away. Then we linger for another ten, saying nothing, just to be sure.
Finally, Tooth sighs. Her entire body relaxes and she finally releases my hand. "It's gone."
I want to believe that, but we have to be sure. I find a small stone on the edge of our perch and pitch it into the trees. It bounces around, rattling a bush, but there's no sign of animal life. Daring to stand on our tiny ledge, I hook a second rock with the crook of my staff and sling it even further into the greenery. We hear it bounce off several trunks before it settles but, again, there's no sign of the bear.
I breathe a sigh of relief. We're alone. "Guess we know now how they control the bear. Not that it does any good."
In response, Tooth shrugs. "At least we might get a warning next time," she reasons. "Come on. Let's get out of here before it comes back."
She drops off the ledge, rolling gracefully when her feet hit the ground to cancel out the fall. Bracing my staff on the ground and balancing on its tip closes enough of the distance for me to safely follow her down. She looks impressed when I do. Her smile warms me, even though I've no way to tell how much of it she really means.
"So," I say, turning on the spot to a get a sense for the various un-blazed paths through the surrounding trees. "I hope you know where we are. Otherwise we could be stuck 'topside' for a while."
Tooth nods approvingly at my ability to pick up the lingo of their group. "It's a little different in the dark, but I think I can find the way. If we stick together, we should be able to…"
A bush rustles, leaves and branches crinkling in the night. It's too dark to see where it is, but we both hear it.
In an instant, Tooth goes still. Knives gleam in each of her hands. Where is she keeping those? How many did she bring? The questions flit in and out of my head as quick as lightning, unable to linger because my instincts are also screaming to defend. Of course, the Gamemakers couldn't just send the bear away with no reason. They lured us down because there's a Tribute nearby. Or worse…a pack.
The trees rustle again. I automatically slide closer to Tooth and she presses against me, her back to mine. A shadow darts through the trees on my side and my heart leaps into my throat. If it's Pitch Black, he could spear us both with one shot.
"There!" I point out the shadow with my staff.
Tooth whirls, but by the time she turns we've both lost it. She sucks in air through her teeth, raising her arms and their knives across her chest defensively. "Who's there?" she calls into the trees. There is no answer. "If you're not looking for a fight, then neither are we. If you don't want any trouble, give us a sign, and leave. Okay?"
I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Does that mean she serious about her pack's vow to only defend? Or is she just trying to avoid an unnecessary confrontation? If it is Pitch's pack, sentiment like that is just asking to be torn apart. But if it's not…
The bushes rustle again, this time close enough that I can finally see – they're less than ten feet away! I twist towards them, pulling the staff diagonally to defend. A split second, a Tribute bursts from the bush and rushes me with a high-pitched squeal.
It's the girl from District Six. Even in the dark I recognize the bob of her short, tightly-curled hair. She plows into me shoulder-first, bounces off the staff, and comes again, arms flailing. She's unarmed and missing her coat. Her clothes are torn and the tips of her bare fingers have gone completely black from frostbite.
I hold her at arm's-length, my staff across her shoulders. She screeches like a wounded animal and something warm hits me in the face. Spit, I think. She's snarling and drooling like a rabid dog. Her arms are too short to reach me, but she tries anyway, clawing at the air with fingers as dead as the grave.
"Jack!" Tooth calls. I expect her to fling a knife, like she did with the bear, but instead she braces one hand on my back and leaps directly over my head. She twists in mid-air, lands directly behind the girl from District Six, and pulls the attacking tribute into a full-body hold.
The two girls are about the same size, but Tooth is a Career and an athlete to boot. No matter how the girl from District Six struggles and fights, she's no match. Tooth drags her bodily away from me before spinning them both and tossing the other Tribute to the ground.
The District Six girl tries to roll to her feet, fails, and trips. On the next try she makes it to her hands and knees, no further. She gives a soft wail of pain and jerks, flinging her arms as though trying to shake off attackers. But there's no one there. Tooth and I both hang back, watching as the other Tribute's face twists further into unspeakable horror. With a violent twist, her arms give out, dropping her face-first into the mud and the underbrush. She continues clawing at the air, the plants, her own skin, kicking and writhing. Then, before Tooth or I can even think to interfere, she gives a staggering gasp and goes completely still.
A canon echoes through the Arena.
It takes a moment for both Tooth and I to reconcile what's happened. In that time, the girl from District Six doesn't twitch. She's dead.
Tooth gives me a nervous look. "I didn't do that."
"No. You didn't."
Carefully, we approach the fallen Tribute. The girl from District Six clearly didn't make it away from the Cornucopia with enough to keep her alive. After only a few days in the Arena, she's been starved to the point of fragility. Her arms are covered in strange lumps, each the size of a Capitol coin, but bright and hard as though cherry pits were stuck under her skin. However, these are dwarfed by the three muti-inch long gashes that pockmark her shoulders and back.
"These are arrow wounds," says Tooth, tracing the shape of one with her fingers.
"How do you –"
She shoots me a pointed look. Right. Career.
She leans a little closer to the fallen girl, squinting curiously at the puncture wounds. She dips her fingers into the viscus liquid around the edges and holds it to the moonlight. Instead of red, the liquid shows deep violet, so dark that it is nearly black.
"This isn't blood," mutters Tooth, half to herself.
My heart nearly stops. Arrow wounds and a thick liquid the color of bottled death…
"Tooth, don't touch anything. Give me your hand."
Tooth blinks at me, bewildered, but immediately offers up her hand. I wipe the juice from her fingers with the edge of my shirt, careful not to leave even a trace on either her hands or mine. Out here, our hands are our only utensils. If it lingers on the skin it could get to the mouth, or enter through a cut. It all must be cleared away.
"What is it?" Tooth asks. "Jack, what's wrong?"
"It's berry juice." "Those thick berries that grow by the trees, the ones that weren't at the booth in the training center, they're some kind of hallucinogenic poison. Like…like…" Blast it, what are those things called? It's on the tip of my tongue…
"Tracker jackers?" Tooth finishes, her eyes wide with horror.
"Exactly." At least, I assume. Tracker jacker nests lurk all over the Districts, particularly on the outskirts as one of the ways to keep people inside. But I've never seen one – that kind of bug doesn't deal well with the cold that envelopes 10-23. "Pitch Black used them on the boy from District Ten, experiment on him so he'd know what they do. He must have coated his arrow-tips with the result. That's why she attacked us. And that's why…"
My eyes fall on the face of the girl from District Six. Her face remains twisted in an expression of horror, eyes half-open even in death. Tooth makes a soft sound of regret and lays her hand over the girl's eyes, pushing them closed.
The District Six girl…I think she was my age. Or maybe younger, between me and Solstice. Now she's gone.
I swallow hard, smothering the sympathy welling up inside me. There's no time. "We need to go."
Tooth looks up. Understanding dawns on her features. "The Pack. They might have fallen behind to collect the arrows she dropped…"
"…but there's no way they'd let her run without making sure she was dead. Especially if they think they can raid her supplies." I snatch up my staff and pull Tooth up by her hand. "They're coming. We need to leave. Run!"
We take to the trees, dashing into the dark as quick and silent as our feet will carry. The near-silent hum of the hovercraft follows once we're far enough away, descending from nowhere to gather the body of the girl from District Six. There isn't another sound from anywhere, but Tooth and I don't risk slowing down until we return to the hidden entrance and disappear back into the relative safety of the underground maze.
A/N: For those of you playing at home, the Tribute pool is currently down to ten: The Guardians (5), Pitch's Career Pack (4) and the boy from District 3. Just FYI for the person who asked.