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Gregor and the marks of.., p.10
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.10

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "At one point, Regalia will be directly over our heads," said Luxa. "I do not much like going so deep in the earth." Which Gregor found ironic, since she already lived miles below the planet's surface.

  They packed up their gear and got ready to travel. Hazard was the greatest concern. Howard settled him on Aurora's back, giving Luxa specific instructions for his care. Gregor took Boots and Temp on Ares, Howard rode Nike, and they all just hoped that Thalia, without a rider, might be able to keep up.

  At first Gregor was optimistic. Hades Hall was a massive tunnel. At times he could not see both sides of it at once. It had clean streams filled with fish, so they weren't likely to dehydrate or starve. The floor was rocky and uneven, but they would be up on the bats. On the whole, it seemed like it would be a decent enough trip.

  As the hours passed, though, he felt they were making little headway. The tunnel began to slope so dramatically that at times the bats were practically free-falling in space. They couldn't really fly ... they just sort of dropped and occasionally opened their wings to guide themselves. It was not a speedy way to travel. Besides that, it seemed like they were stopping every ten minutes for something. Boots had to pee; Thalia needed a break; Hazard's bandage had to be changed; Nike spotted a good stream and thought they should fill their water skins as a precaution.

  They carried on this way for about six hours, until Howard said they would have to make camp for the night. Hazard couldn't travel anymore. Hades Hall was still angled sharply down, but they found a big ledge on the tunnel wall to stay on.

  Hazard and the bats went to sleep. The rest of them gathered around the beam of Gregor's flashlight and tried to act like they weren't worried. Well, Boots really wasn't worried. She played I Spy with Temp. It wasn't much of a game, since it was too dark to see stuff. But that didn't stop her.

  "I spy, with my little eye, something that is black!" she said about a thousand times. Temp would try to guess. Often the big reveal was just Boots pointing into the darkness at different angles and saying, "That!"

  They were all a little relieved when she finally fell asleep. Gregor felt free to bring up something that had been weighing on him since that morning. Something he had not wanted to discuss in front of the little kids. "Howard, you said this trip was more perilous than other routes. What did you mean by that exactly?"

  "The depth of the tunnels is difficult to navigate. The air becomes foul as we near the Firelands. And then there are creatures who live here who would rather not be disturbed," said Howard.

  "Dangerous creatures?" asked Gregor.

  "Some. Most will simply avoid us. Of those who would seek to do us harm, many do not fly, so we shall elude them. And then there are others who are not hostile but must be acknowledged," said Howard.

  "Like who?" said Gregor.

  It was as if the creature in the darkness had only been waiting for the right opportunity to break in. And when he spoke, Gregor recognized the high whiny voice immediately. How could he forget it?

  "Greetings, all! I am he called Photos Glow-Glow ... and she is Zap."

  ***

  CHAPTER 13

  "No way!" was the first thing that burst out of

  Gregor's mouth. He had never expected to see the fireflies again. The bugs had deserted the ship on the quest to find the Bane and betrayed everyone aboard to the rats. Gregor, Boots, Ares, Howard, Luxa, Aurora, and Temp had all nearly been killed because of their deception. Gregor didn't know what the fireflies were doing here in Hades Hall, but he couldn't believe that they had the guts to come up with a big friendly hello.

  Howard, who had been the most outraged at the bugs' disloyalty, sprang to his feet and drew his sword. "Show yourselves, shiners!" he shouted into the darkness, waking the bats. "Show yourselves, you bloated bags of treachery!" There was a long pause. Then Gregor heard Zap say, "Well, that was rude."

  "Very rude," agreed Photos Glow-Glow.

  "And after all we did for them. One would think a little gratitude might be in order," said Zap in a wounded tone.

  "Gratitude!" spat out Howard. "You sold us to the rats and now you expect gratitude? Show yourselves!"

  "Someone has a very selective memory," said Photos Glow-Glow. "You do not seem to recall how we starved for you, guided you across the Waterway, and masterfully defended you from the squid!"

  "I remember you ate some squid," said Gregor. "That's about it." He hadn't even bothered to rise. The shiners were such lazy, inept creatures, he knew they would never attack. He supposed he could chase them down in the dark ... and then what? He despised them, but he wasn't going to go kill them.

  But Howard was of another mind. "Nike!" he called. "Let us rid ourselves of these traitors once and for all!" Nike fluttered to his side.

  It was Luxa who grabbed Howard by the arm. "Wait," she said. Howard looked at her in surprise. "Do you not join me, Cousin? After all you have suffered at their hands?"

  Gregor could barely hear the next thing she whispered to Howard. "They have light."

  Howard's shoulders hunched forward as he wrestled with what she was suggesting. Finally, he shoved his sword back in his belt.

  "Shiners, will you not show yourselves?" said Luxa pleasantly. "We mean you no harm."

  "It seems more prudent to remain aloof," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "He means aloft," said Zap. "He can never keep words straight."

  "I meant aloof! As in distant, remote, and detached!" said Photos Glow-Glow.

  And the two launched into a big argument about "aloof" and "aloft." When they were winded, Luxa tried again.

  "That is too bad. For we find ourselves with an overabundance of food that will soon be unfit to eat. Particularly cake," she said.

  "Cake?" said Zap. There was another long pause.

  "Has this cake ... been frosted?" asked Photos Glow-Glow.

  "Oh, yes. I do not care for it any other way," said Luxa. "But it is such a pity to waste it." She removed a round cake from the hamper and looked at it regretfully. It was rather battered from being tossed over and over in the flood, but it gave off a delicious smell.

  "Well, Your Highness has not been rude to us, as some have. So if my eating that cake would please you ... I do not have any objection to it," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "Nor I!" said Zap, and suddenly the pair of fireflies were right in front of Luxa, their rear ends ablaze with yellow light.

  For the first time in days, Gregor could see properly. He was immediately aware of things he had missed. That there were large patches of mushrooms growing on the ceiling. That puffs of vapor periodically emerged from cracks in the walls. That Boots had a big bruise on her arm. If he had not seen these things, what else had he been blinded to? What dangers lay out in the dark beyond his vision's reach?

  Gregor knew Luxa absolutely loathed the shiners. She also knew they could be of use. He had to admire how quickly she'd assessed the situation and made the decision to make peace with them. He thought Ripred would have applauded her shrewdness. It was something the big rat would have done himself. If he were here. Instead of hunting down the Bane. Or whatever. Hopefully by the time they returned to Regalia, Ripred would have checked in.

  Luxa divided the cake in two and the bugs gobbled it down to the last crumb.

  "How come you to be in Hades Hall, Most Gracious Queen?" said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "We crossed the Swag for a lark and were cut off by an avalanche. Now we must proceed home this way," said Luxa. "And yourselves?"

  "We live here," said Zap unhappily.

  "You live here?" asked Gregor. He had never thought of the fireflies as living anywhere.

  "We were driven out of finer lands by villains who greatly outnumbered us," said Photos Glow-Glow. "The slimers."

  Howard gave a snort of derision. "Snails, Gregor. They were chased out of their lands by snails."

  "Are snails fast down here?" asked Gregor.

  "Fast enough!" snapped Photos Glow-Glow.

  "At full speed, t
hey travel one yard an hour," said Nike.

  "But they are persistent!" said Zap indignantly.

  "It is widely believed that the snails did not even know they overthrew the shiners, so nonexistent was the resistance," said Howard.

  Gregor could tell Howard had hit a nerve. Zap's light came in short, angry bursts, and Photos Glow-Glow's butt had turned bright red.

  "Howard, Nike, why do you provoke my guests?" said Luxa.

  "We are hoping they will be offended enough to leave," said Nike.

  "And I am hoping they may join us for a few days," said Luxa. "After all, this is their territory. They know it well. Do you two?"

  "No," said Howard sullenly.

  "Then counter not my desires," said Luxa.

  "I hope you know what you are doing, Your Highness," said Howard.

  "You seem tired. Why do you not get some rest?" said Luxa.

  Grumbling to himself, Howard wrapped up in a blanket and lay down. Nike fluttered over to his side. They would make good bonds, Howard and Nike. They both were honorable, brave, and good-natured. Already they trusted each other with their secrets. And they clearly agreed about the shiners.

  "It seems that some believe us to be the villains in our last encounter. When in truth it was you humans who broke your contract with us," said Photos Glow-Glow. "We were guaranteed a certain measure of food ... which was not supplied."

  "We stayed extra days, just as a favor," said Zap.

  "Yes, unquestionably we were the injured party," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  It was sort of interesting to hear things from the fireflies' perspective. They had some valid points, in a way. The trip to find the Bane hadn't been their quest. They were hired lightbulbs. Gregor still couldn't stand them, though.

  "It wasn't so much that you left. It's that you told the rats we were coming," said Gregor.

  The fireflies shifted around uncomfortably.

  "That was Zap's idea," mumbled Photos Glow-Glow.

  "Liar!" shrieked Zap. She flew furiously at Photos Glow-Glow. Their heads smacked into each other with an unpleasant cracking sound, and they both plopped back on the ground, groaning and spitting insults at each other. Then they just glowered at each other.

  "Well, let us let bygones be bygones," said Luxa. "Perhaps you will journey with us through Hades Hall. I cannot promise large quantities of food, but we will share what we have and the fliers are excellent fishers."

  Photos Glow-Glow and Zap agreed, probably because they were hoping for more cake. Besides, what else did they have to do? Gregor couldn't imagine them having enough willpower to work up any constructive plan for themselves. If their species had been driven out of their lands by snails, they weren't highly motivated. They made it seem like their schedule was packed, though.

  "Well, I suppose we can fit it in," said Zap. "If we break a few other commitments."

  "Yes, others will be disappointed, but we will fit it in," said Photos Glow-Glow. "We can hardly leave you down here with the rats to fend for yourselves."

  "Rats?" said Howard, sitting right up. He hadn't been sleeping at all. "Have you seen gnawers down here of late?"

  "Oh, look who deigns to speak to us now," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "Yes, la-de-da-da," agreed Zap.

  "Shiners, if you have knowledge of the gnawers, I would greatly appreciate your sharing it," said Luxa.

  "They came past our lands," said Zap, indicating the tunnel ahead of them with a nod.

  "After the nibblers," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  All that had happened, the earthquake, the flood, the avalanche, Hazard's injury, and the journey through Hades Hall, had overshadowed the nibblers' plight for Gregor. But he could tell by Luxa's response that she had never stopped thinking of them.

  "Where?" she said, springing to her feet. "How many nibblers? Were the rats with them or did they flee? Tell me!"

  "Oh, there must have been hundreds," said Zap. "Maybe thousands."

  "The rats were driving them somewhere. They are always driving the nibblers somewhere. Out of the caves, into the jungle, out of the jungle, into the tunnels. The whole thing is very tedious to watch," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "We fell asleep," said Zap.

  "Were these nibblers from the jungle?" asked Gregor.

  "No, they took the ones from the jungle straight to the Firelands," said Zap. "At least, I think someone said that. It was days ago. But the rats have been moving the nibblers around for years."

  "Maybe they'll just leave them all in the Firelands and stop annoying the rest of us," said Photos Glow-Glow.

  "The nibblers could not make a decent home in the Firelands," said Nike.

  "Everyone has troubles, and no one helps," said Zap. "Look at us. Those slimers drove us from our home, and who came to our aid?"

  "No one knew you were under attack," said Luxa.

  "Because ... we were too proud to ask for help!" said Photos Glow-Glow dramatically.

  "And it was such a long trip to Regalia," admitted Zap. "Nobody wanted to fly that far."

  "But mostly... because we were too proud to ask for help!" repeated Photos Glow-Glow with a flourish.

  The fireflies claimed they'd flown for hours and had to be exempted from watch duty that night. Soon they were snoring. Luxa asked Howard to take the first shift with her, and as he drifted off to sleep Gregor could hear her trying to reason with her cousin about the shiners, saying they would give Hazard comfort and that they might reveal more information about the nibblers.

  The next morning, Gregor was awakened by Boots's surprised voice. "Fo-Fo? Are you Fo-Fo?"

  "I am he called Photos Glow-Glow and will answer to no other name!" said the firefly.

  "Oh, shiners!" said Hazard, rubbing his eyes and smiling. "How bright they are!"

  "Temp! Temp! Look! Fo-Fo is here!" said Boots cheerfully.

  "I said, I am he called ... oh, never mind," said Photos Glow-Glow crankily.

  His mood improved with breakfast. The bats fished to provide a base for the fireflies' meal, and Luxa gave them each some shrimp salad. It was starting to spoil, but they didn't seem to notice.

  The little band hadn't flown for five minutes when they passed the fireflies' current home. It was an enormous cave off Hades Hall that emitted a continuous whiny buzz. Multicolored lights flashed from the inhabitants' butts and a few voices demanded to know what Photos Glow-Glow and Zap were doing, but none of the other bugs could be bothered to fly out and find out.

  Apparently Photos Glow-Glow and Zap were real go-getters for their species.

  Hades Hall continued to veer downward at an alarming rate. They were moving deeper into the earth every moment. Often when Gregor swallowed his ears would pop.

  They had to stop many times and fish for the fireflies just to keep the bugs going. Gregor wondered if they were really worth the effort. Then he remembered being knocked around the cave by Twirltongue and her friends and knew that they were.

  "We near the bottom," said Photos Glow-Glow finally.

  "Good, we will make camp there," said Howard.

  "Not us," said Zap.

  "Why not?" asked Gregor.

  "Are your noses of no use at all?" asked Photos Glow-Glow.

  There was a smell. A horrendous smell, wafting up from below them. Gregor flashed back to a summer several years ago, the farm in Virginia, his grandpa dragging a possum carcass from under the shed. "Something died down there," Gregor thought. A moment later, he saw them.

  At least a hundred mice lay twisted and motionless at the bottom of the tunnel.

  ***

  CHAPTER 14

  "The mouses take a nap?" said Boots. "Kill the lights!" Gregor shouted at the fireflies. In another few seconds even Boots would realize that the mice were not sleeping but dead. Some lay in pools of dried blood. The eyes of others were wide open as they stared frozen into space. "Turn them off!"

  The bulbs on Photos Glow-Glow's and Zap's rear ends went dark. Gregor flicked on the flashlight a
t his belt but did not direct it to the ground.

  "What did Boots say? What mice? Did we find the nibblers?" asked Hazard, struggling to sit up.

  "Lie back, Hazard; there is nothing to see," said Howard.

  "What is that smell?" Hazard insisted.

  "It comes from a foul stream. We will fly on," said Luxa.

  None of them wanted Hazard or Boots to see the corpses. But there was no concealing them from Thalia. When they found a place to land about a thousand yards beyond the graveyard, Gregor noticed the little bat was trembling. He felt pretty shaky himself.

  Howard made a bed for Hazard and then pulled Luxa and Gregor aside. "One of us must stay with the young ones while the other two go back."

  "I must go," said Luxa.

  "You stay, Howard. In case Hazard feels bad or something," said Gregor.

  They left Howard, Nike, and Temp to watch over Hazard, Boots, and Thalia. Photos Glow-Glow stayed at the campsite while Zap escorted Gregor and Luxa and their bonds back to the mice.

  Before they left, Howard provided them with cloths wetted with an antiseptic solution to hold over their noses as a barrier to the smell of decomposing flesh. "Do not touch any of them," he instructed. "You do not know what contagion they might carry."

  The cloths helped, but when they reached the mice Gregor still could not help gagging at the stench. Zap's light was enough to illuminate the whole area. The bottom of the tunnel had ended with a sheer drop of about forty feet. The mice must have been driven straight off the side of the cliff and fallen to their deaths. Some, by their squashed and battered appearance, had clearly broken the fall of others. Several pups were crushed completely. There were no rats among the dead.

  Even Zap, who showed remarkably little compassion in general, seemed affected by the scene. "What a waste. What a waste. I do not pretend to like the nibblers, but what a waste."

  "I guess they ran right off the edge of the cliff," said Gregor.

  "They would have found a way to scale the wall, had they been given time," replied Luxa bitterly. "This was the gnawers' work."

  "Should we do something with the bodies?' asked Gregor.

  "There is nothing to be done. If we place them in the water, we pollute our own drinking supply. We do not have enough hands to bury them in stone, nor the fuel to burn them properly," said Luxa. All this was true. Yet somehow they couldn't just fly away and do nothing.

 
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