"This was wonderful," Katniss said, "but Gale, you really must come home. My family will be coming over by eleven." Gale looked to Johanna, and inspiration struck.
"Why do we have to go back home?" he said. "Haymitch has plenty of room left. They should come over here and join us."
"But they will be coming to our cabin," said Katniss, "and our food is already there."
"I know," Johanna said. "I can go back, tell your family, and get the food."
After a moment's pause, Katniss said, "That will be perfect."
Almost simultaneously, Maysilee said, "I will go with you."
Johanna followed a path through the forest outskirts. Maysilee did not protest or comment, which made Johanna more suspicious. The fragrance of the trees was strong, and she found it harder to remember things apart from the cues. It was ominous, but there was definite comfort there: After seeing Katniss appear and disappear, she had been considering very strongly the first possibility that occurred to her on finding herself in this place, which was that it not even a real "place" but something like the computerized simulations they had in the Capitol. But if the apparent environment was having physical effects on her that served the purposes of its designers, then she could be reasonably sure it was real.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the head of a shovel swinging for her face. She froze instinctively, and the shovel struck with a clang, against an unseen barrier inches from her face. "Thread," she said to the figure who stepped out from behind a tree.
"You know my name," he said. "I know you. Johanna. Mason. Yes! Have you seen a Mutt? I am looking for a Mutt. It is a very dangerous Mutt, the kind that hurts people. I must kill the Mutt, because it is my duty to protect the people. It is my duty to hold onto the shovel."
Johanna reached out, and found no resistance. She couldn't resist asking, "What does this Mutt look like?"
Romulus shrugged. "Anything," he said. "The Mutt can look like anything. I must be very careful. I must check everyone."
"By hitting them with a shovel?" Johanna exclaimed.
"No," Romulus said. "This is a magic shovel. It can only hurt a Mutt. If I swing at a person, it stops itself, because it is magic."
"That's not magic, and it's not in the shovel," Johanna said. "It's a force field that turned on to stop me from being hurt." She pondered, and then pointed at Maysilee. "I think she's the Mutt. Kill her."
Romulus took a look at Maysilee. "Of course she's a Mutt," he said. "But she's not the Mutt."
"Could you kill her anyway? I want to see what happens." Romulus advanced on Maysilee, who only stood silently. Johanna looked away. There were three blows og the shovel, the last of which brought a grisly pop. Romulus came back, holding up Maysilee's head. He pointed back to the rest of her. "Look away. It only happens when you look away. Look back, and you might catch it."
Johanna did as he said, keeping the body just outside her vision. She heard the faintest hint of a sound, and jerked her head back in time to see the last of a boneless mass disappear into the ground like an octopus down a small hole. She looked very intently, and saw grains of dust pouring into the last traces of a hole like sand in the funnel of an ant-lion. Much the same process was already covering up the last traces of blood. Romulus nudged her to look away, and tossed the head after the body. She looked as soon as she heard the head hit the dirt, but there was nothing left to be seen but a last, fleeting trace of a hole.
She looked back to Romulus. "I think I'm getting this," she said. "Whoever or whatever controls this place is trying to give people whatever they think they want most. Why? Who knows, and we probably don't need to. They- as good a word as any- put us in this place, with planted memories and a cast of Mutts to keep us happy. For some reason, that's very important to them, at least for the time being. We have to be protected from harm, so the Mutts aren't allowed to fight us even in self-defense. They're probably expendable anyway. If we try to hurt each other, they have the force fields. That gets me thinking, this whole place could be under a force field, just like a Games arena. In fact, I'm pretty sure the arenas were copied from something like this.
"Then there's the wishes. You were simple enough, all you wanted to do was play soldier, so they let you beat the bushes for a monster in paradise. I'd say that's just an extra bit of crazy they planted in your head, but then again, they could have made a special Mutt, just to give you something to chase. They gave Gale Katniss, or his ideal of Katniss. No telling what they did for Peeta, if he's in here. Haymitch they gave a family, all copied from his old girl that Snow killed, plus that poor mole woman they wrangled in. And me, they put with an old man and a Mutt playing his daughter, who actually died in the Games Haymitch won. That's different from the rest. For Haymitch and Vic, they probably thought it would fulfill some of the feelings that were between them. For me... My best guess is that they decided to kill two birds with one stone. That old man needed more than a Mutt for company, and I wanted to feel what it was like to be in a family... Oh, tell what I just said to Gale, and I'll eat you."
As they talked, footsteps came up the path. It was Maysilee, coming from the other direction, with a basket of food in hand. "I decided to go on ahead, and give you time with your friend," she said. "The Eberdeens will be coming soon." Sure enough, footsteps were coming behind, and then singing, a rich tenor that made the birds fall silent.
"Here," Johanna said, "I'll help you with that..."
The birds listened, until the singing stopped with a hoarse gurgle. Then the birds began to sing again.