The Conspiracy

Chapter XVII: Somethin' to Run to

We track 23 for the next two days. 24 maintains that he recognizes her trail but even 1 have perceived that he's no great hunter. Cato and I are on round the clock watch of him, making sure nobody tries anything. 7 decides she wants to come with us instead of sitting around with 6. I don't wonder why. I wouldn't want to sit around with 6, though maybe he saves the guilt tripping for just me.

When a massive fire starts on the fourth day in the arena there's a good deal of panic, at least from the other four, the ones who weren't trained in 2. Cato and I look around, assessing the situation. We seem to be at the end of the flames, but that doesn't mean we're completely out of danger, as we quickly find out when a fireball very nearly decapitates 7. She yells and dodges out of the way. I guess that's our cue to move it or lose it.

I'm always the path finder. "Go," Cato tells me, grabbing my shoulders and turning me around, away from the fire. "Go!" My eyes sweep the trees, looking for a safe way out. Cato doesn't need a verbal warning or command to follow me, so I don't give one. I just dig my feet into the forest floor and take off at a dead sprint.

It's a miserable run. My eyes water, my lungs burn, my brain is foggy with panic and a lack of clean air. Ordinarily, Cato and I could take off running and lose the other four if we wanted, but we're slowed now, inhibited by both the close quarters of the trees and our uncooperative muscles. The others keep up somehow. They're clearly not as adept as we are to running, but under pressure, you'd be surprised what even the weakest tribute is capable of.

We know as we run that we were right to do so. The fire pursues us, pushing us I don't know where but the last thing I want to do is ask it. Instead, I keep my eyes ahead, looking for animal guides to follow and keep my ears pricked for any ominous sounds, the telltale crack of the trunk of a tree, the hiss of one of those nasty fireballs. My nose is alert and my lungs are desperate for clean air and I cough violently but don't stop. Move it. I don't care how much it hurts. Move!

As it turns out, my eyes are most useful. Yes, I hear the hiss and the explosion of the fireball, but the visual of it blowing the trunk of tree not fifteen feet in front of me in two is the most important part. I stop and fling my arm out to my side, catching Cato hard in the chest with such force that what little air was left in him leaves in lungs. He gasps for breath and sputters something like, "What?" but stops mid-word when he sees the tree fall, blocking our intended path. I swallow hard and look around, but it's so smokey I can hardly see anything.

I'm concentrating so hard that I don't hear the next hiss. The only thing that saves me from taking a fireball to the back of the head, is Cato's hand on me, pushing me roughly to the ground. The fireball explodes barely ten feet in front of us, sending flames and debris everywhere. Instinctively, I bury my face in my arms, protecting my eyes. I don't know where the rest of the group is, but I don't seem to care. Neither does Cato. In fact, it seems he doesn't care that we're probably live on national television because I feel his arms, one around my neck, the other gripping the wrist that's closest to the last explosion. Protecting me. He's got his face pressed down on my shoulder, but I've rarely, if ever, seen a Career, especially one from 2, protect another individual in the arena.

"There!" A hoarse cry reaches our ears. 2's voice. "She's there!" He's pushing himself back to his feet and pointing. Sure enough, there's a figure, very distinctly human, darting away from us.

We're all up and on our feet in a matter of seconds. We chase her for several minutes, far enough behind her that, over the roar of the flames and the cracking of the trees, she doesn't hear us. Of course that disadvantage works both ways and we lose her for several minutes. When the sound of water reaches our ears, we decide it's as good a place as any to look for her. We're thirsty and I for one am starting to feel a little nauseous. The fire has died down now but the air is still thick with smoke.

It's at the stream that we find her resting with her legs in the water. I can see red where the leg of her pants was burned. She's injured. Well, she'd better be able to run. I make no effort to be quiet as we approach her, hoping to rouse her so she'll flee before we get there and have to cut her throat in her sleep.

She does, and thankfully she was smart and had all her gear ready to go at a moment's notice. This is it 24, you'd better not let her die. We cross the stream and follow her but stop when she begins to climb a tree. I could get her, but in all honesty, I'd rather wait down here. 1 start yelling at her, taunting and trying to scare her, and I follow suit. 24 is silent, watching her, which I ascertain from a quick glance at him. She's got guts, there's no denying that. She's teasing us back which genuinely annoys me because first, we all look stupid when she does that, and second, if she's making us look stupid, we have no choice, as Careers, but to go after her with everything we've got. 1 offers Cato her bow and arrows, but he decides against it. "No," he snarls, making for the base of the tree. "I'll do better with my sword."

I'm more agile than he is, lighter too, and therefore a better climber, but telling him no at this point will only make things worse. He's not bad, actually, and he's twenty feet off the ground and still moving before his size becomes a burden. There's a telltale creaking, cracking sound, he stops, listens, looks down then scrabbles frantically trying to catch himself as his branch gives way. He lands on his back, which ordinarily would be murderous if the leaves weren't so thick here. We're past the line of fire but the smoke doesn't care. Cato lays there, catching his breath for a few seconds, but I think only I notice that. He's back on his feet, cursing as 1, now looking annoyed at Cato, notches an arrow on the bow and aims high at 23. She releases the string and the arrow flies, landing in the trunk of the tree, nowhere close to 23, who taunts us back now. Cato's doesn't seem eager to repeat his venture into the tree. Instead he's fuming beside me, humiliated and furious, not a pretty combination for her. Even with our plan, if he gets ahold of her...I just really hope he doesn't.

Then 24 speaks up, his first words in minutes. He suggests that we wait for 23 to come down. We look at him, then I agree, thinking that maybe it'll be good to let her sleep up there. We seem to only be embarrassing ourselves chasing her. We sit down on the ground and pass time sitting around a fire, which 2 strikes up with some matches. I throw some of my smaller knives at the cracks of the bark of 23's tree, scoot over, retrieve them, repeat.

We set up a watch, privately leaving 24 out of it. None of us really trusts him. I'm first, then Cato, 2, and 1. The hours are split up differently for us than they are for the group with 24 included. We each have a two hour shift when we don't include him but when we do, it's a little less. If we're to be on watch with him, we're to be subtle so he doesn't know we're awake.

I sit next to Cato, my back against a tree, for my watch. I don't distract myself, but hold a knife in my stronger throwing hand for the duration of my shift. When my watch from the Cornucopia beeps, I shut it off quickly. I'd feel lazy if I woke Cato the second after my shift ended, so I give him a few more minutes, then rouse him. He passes his hand over his face, trying to wake himself up. When he's sitting, I hand him my knife, "Hold this and look menacing," I tell him with a slight smile. He picks up the sword he stole and holds it up for me to see.

"I'm pretty intimidating already, I think."

"It's easier to throw a knife than a sword, especially from this angle." I shake the handle of the knife at him, insisting that he take it, "Here." He takes it and I lay down. Typical of me, both at home and out here, I can't find a comfortable way to sleep. I'm awake for fifteen minutes just lying on the ground, moving around occasionally. "Tell me something," I say to Cato.

"What?" Like, 'what do you want me to tell you?'. Like he thinks there's more to my sentence.

"Anything. Just talk. Talk quietly." He does. He starts recounting stories from home. Not anything that would give something important away to a tribute pretending to sleep, nothing that'd incriminate either of us, but nice stories. I pay less attention to the leafy bed and focus more on remembering the stories he's telling me in detail. It still takes more than half an hour, but I drift off.

It's the shriek that wakes me with a jolt in the morning, 1 is writhing on the ground, covered in what look like wasps. I feel stings too and panic. I hit Cato, one sharp whack to the shoulder, but he's already awake. We're up and running before we even register that 1 isn't going to make it and 7 is gone, off screaming somewhere. I feel the spots where the stingers get me immediately begin to swell, big, to the size of oranges. "Tracker jackers!" I shout to Cato. He knows what those are; we learned about them at training.

"To the lake!" I know it's really a waste of breath to scream and try to run at the same time, but the stings hurt and now that I know what's coming, the horrible hallucinations, I'm really terrified and can't help it. The venom is already making me dizzy. Cato's yelling too as he beats the things away from him. I'm not sure but I'd guess 2 is following or ahead of us.

I jump in the lake and begin pulling stingers out, trying not to count. I stay under for as long as I can, hoping to lose the tracker jackers. When I resurface, Cato's climbing out of the water. I swam away from the other shore in my effort to stay under, (for some reason it was easier to move and hold my breath) so I swim for the opposite shore and sprawl out on the ground, shaking with pain, sick with trepidation. Already trees are changing colors above me, swirling around and around. The hallucinations have begun. No. You must fight this. Where's Cato? I say his name but receive no reply. Maybe I was too quiet. These hallucinations don't seem to be merely visual.

That's 24. His words are indistinguishable but that's his voice, then Cato's roar. I raise my head off the grass and push myself up but I'm already feeling weak. There's no way I can stand up. Take cover. Move yourself. I pull myself further away from the water. I don't know how long it takes, but it can't be more than a couple of minutes, before I hear Cato's voice again, "Give me somethin' to run to, Clove!" I look up and search for him. He's standing on what I know is the bank where we jumped in, but it's changed so drastically in the last few minutes that it's nearly unrecognizable. It's darker, much darker, black and intimidating. It looks like I'd imagine and island to look in the middle of a hurricane.

"Here," I try again but my voice just won't cooperate. Damn your incompetence, Clove! Tell him where you are! His eyes are good, maybe good enough to see across the lake. I raise one arm off the grass, cough once to clear my throat and at last, it works. "Here!"

One of those things must have worked because there's a splash and a minute or three later I feel water dripping on me. Cato turns me from my stomach to my back, puts an arm around me and hoists me to my feet. Maybe he wasn't stung as many times as I was or maybe it's just his body mass that's giving him the strength for this. I'm on the tips of my toes and trying to help him support my weight but I think I'm just hindering us. "Stop," he commands. He keeps one hand high on my back, supporting me, then leans down and puts his other arm under my knees. My right arm is lying on my stomach and I try to make my fingers bend to grip the front of his jacket or his shirt or something, something to tell him I'm trying to help, but I've been stung on my fingers and moving them is like trying to bend sausage. It doesn't seem to make a difference. Cato runs as best he can, which right now is a swerving trot. I let my head rest against him.

It's darker where we are now. I can tell through my eyelids. He brought us somewhere safer, out of the sunlight, away from the reflection of the water. Finally though, the venom must be affecting him, or maybe he's just stopped fighting so hard, or maybe he tripped. I feel myself on the forest floor, Cato's head on my stomach. He must have had the forethought to push me away from him as he fell so he wouldn't completely land on top of me.

He gives himself about a minute to rest, then pushes himself to his elbows and knees again. I don't know where he's getting the strength for this. He crawls about a foot, reaches out and pulls my hood over my head. His fingers fumble with the zipper but he fastens it and slides it up to my chin. Protecting me from exposure. It's then that I notice blood on his shirt. Over his heart. I think I mumble his name and I see my hand reach out to touch him without feeling the actual movement. When I pull it away, my fingers are soaked in blood. I blink. What's happened? When I open my eyes again, there's no blood on him and the hand I thought I'd moved rests at my side.

Maybe he saw it in my face, the flash of panic, because he tells me, "I'm ok. I'm stung too...not hurt."

I hear myself say, "Your jacket," meaning that he should zip it up and pull on the hood, but he doesn't understand. Apparently the thought was on his mind though because he does it anyway. It takes him about a minute.

By the time he has, more vivid hallucinations are beginning. I see us down in the training center below the mountain in 2. Cato, Caleb, me and the rest of our friends are there. We're practicing, fooling around some, provoking each other, play fighting when suddenly the alarm sounds. It's supposed to keep going until the emergency is over, or until everyone has evacuated. A second later all lights go out. Above us, we can hear panic. My palms sweat, I'm scared, tense, and anxious, knowing the worst has to be coming, but silent. My head hurts just thinking of what Brutus or any of the trainers would do if this crowd screamed and ran about.

"Clove?" Caleb's beside me. We were beside each other when the lights went out. He's holding a spear, or he was when I last saw him. I doubt weapons will do us any good for this kind of emergency though. There are more than footsteps above us now. The floor is shaking. I step back and feel Caleb's arm against my back.

"I'm here," I answer in a whisper. "Where was your brother?"

"He was working with Brutus at swords." Swords. Cato was always best there, but still Brutus and the others took him aside to fine tune his technique, to make sure he was the absolute best, like me with knives. Swords is the first station on the left as one enters the door to the training center.

I take hold of Caleb's wrist and begin to walk toward the door. My eyes aren't entirely adjusted, so I walk into a few people but push past them. I know where I'm going. When the sound reaches my ears, I know what it means and I run, dropping Caleb's hand, shouting orders. "Clear the entrance! Clear! Get back! Get out of the way!" Caleb's a pilot, or training to be one, and he's told me how dangerous the fumes from the hovercrafts can be, especially when ignited. He knows what the sound means too and I can hear him repeating my orders. They're not stupid though. They know what the loud bangs mean. Not many of the fumes reach down here, but there are enough. There are also gas tanks and power sources...

For a split second, everything is illuminated, the entrance, the people moving quickly to the other side of the room, the abandoned weapons now lying on the tile floor. I see Cato and scream at him but it's too late. The illumination means that the explosions have reached this room. The floor cracks, chunks of tile fly everywhere and the shock waves from the explosion take his legs out from under him. He lands hard on the ground and doesn't have time to get up again before the billowing fire reaches him.

Falling precedes the flames for me too. I'm on the ground, then engulfed and everything goes black.

I'm screaming I think, lying down, curled up on my side shaking and sweating and feeling sick. ", Clove. I'm here. It's ok. I'm not hurt. You're not hurt. We're fine. Remember the tracker jackers?" Tracker jackers. Those awful wasp-like mutts from the Capitol. He keeps talking and I cling to his hand. This is what's real. He's right. We are fine, and unless another tribute who hasn't been stung finds us before the venom wares off, we'll still be fine when this is over.

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