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Gregor and the marks of.., p.12
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.12

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "But what about the good rats, Luxa?" asked Hazard. "Like Lapblood. She saved Boots's life in the jungle. Or Ripred. My father said he was a good rat and he is Vikus's friend," said Hazard.

  "Yeah, what about them, Your Highness?" said Gregor. This was exactly one of the things that had been worrying him the night before.

  "You must be very careful with rats, Hazard," said Luxa. "It would take many years and many acts of loyalty for me to consider a rat my friend. They teach their pups to despise us."

  "You do the same thing," said Gregor. "Or are we supposed to feel sorry for the Big, Bad Rat?"

  "You really have no idea how much they hate you, do you, Overlander?" said Luxa.

  That gave him pause. "I know most of them do," Gregor admitted. "But there are a few I would call my friends."

  "I wonder, would they call you their friend?" said Luxa.

  Gregor let the question hang there. If you came down to it, it was hard to imagine Ripred or Lapblood actually calling him their friend. The only rat who might do that was Twitchtip, but she had been driven into the Dead Land by her own kind because of her extraordinary ability to smell and then she'd hooked up with humans on a mission to kill the Bane. She was not really a representative rat.

  Hazard began to yawn and they stayed quiet while he went to sleep. It was not until the boy began to snore gently that Luxa spoke.

  "You are very angry at me about declaring war," she said.

  "I think it was the wrong thing to do," said Gregor.

  "It has to happen, Gregor. Everyone knows it. The humans and gnawers cannot live in peace. One of us has to leave," said Luxa.

  "Ripred said there was peace sometimes, in the past," said Gregor.

  "But only for short periods. It never lasts," said Luxa. "We may as well get it over with. Have the war that will answer the question of who stays and who goes."

  "Goes where, Luxa? If the humans lose, are you coming back up to the surface of the earth?" asked Gregor.

  "I do not know. More likely, we would be forced into the Uncharted Lands, those beyond the edges of our maps. Perhaps, after some trial, another home could be found," said Luxa sadly.

  "And if the rats lose, the ones who survive have to go into the Uncharted Lands?" said Gregor.

  "I might keep Ripred around. As a pet," said Luxa.

  Gregor had to smile. "A pet, huh?"

  "Of course. I'd put bows on his tail and feed him shrimp in cream sauce and let him sleep by my pillow," said Luxa.

  "He'd love that," said Gregor. He was laughing now. Something about the image of Ripred with bows on his tail.

  "I had a pet lamb once and it was quite agreeable," said Luxa.

  "Maybe you can teach him tricks," said Gregor.

  "Maybe," giggled Luxa. "How to fetch and come when I whistle. My lamb could even jump through a hoop."

  "It may take some time, but I'll bet he could learn that," said Gregor.

  "Oh, yes, Ripred is very keen," said Luxa. She leaned against Gregor's backpack. He could feel her shaking as she laughed. After a while, she relaxed, but she didn't move away. She rested her head on the top of his shoulder, and he could feel her hair against his ear. It was nice. He sat very still, not wanting her to move away. Not wanting to think about wars. Or going home. Just wanting to sit close to her, in peace and quiet.

  They flew a long while like that. The air grew warmer and a bad smell reached his nose. Like rotten eggs ... that must be sulfur ... and smoke. "We must be near the top of Hades Hall," Gregor thought. "Howard said the air would get foul as we came to the Firelands."

  Aurora banked for a curve in the tunnel and at that moment the fireflies blacked out. Gregor could still see some, though. For a moment he was confused and thought they might be in the jungle. As his eyes adjusted to the dim reddish light, he realized they had left Hades Hall and entered a whole new world. It was like flying over some far-off planet. It was impossible to tell how long the cavern was, but it was only about twenty feet high. The ground was desolate, pitted with craters, covered with an ashy dust that swirled up in small clouds and then settled down again. It did not seem that anything could survive here.

  But something was very much alive. Gregor could just make out the creatures' backs a few hundred yards away. They were rodents of some kind. A number of small ones were gathering around a gray figure, which towered over them. At first Gregor thought they had caught up to the mice and one of their rat guards. Then the gray figure gave a shake, freeing itself of a layer of ashes and revealing a pearl-white coat.



  Aurora made a sharp turn and they landed in a hollow space in the wall to their right. It was barely deep enough to be called a cave, but it did shelter them from the rats' direct line of vision. Ares and Nike were quick to join them.

  "The dust should prevent them from smelling us," said Howard.

  Gregor could hear the crowd of rats he had seen talking. But there were no angry cries to attack.

  "And they must not have seen us," Gregor whispered.

  "No," replied Aurora. "Their eyes are fixed upon ... upon ... is it him?"

  "Yeah, that's the Bane," said Gregor, sliding off her back. Howard and Luxa joined him as he peered around the stone opening to get a better look.

  "Let me see!" said Boots, lighting up her scepter.

  "No, Boots! We need it to stay dark." Gregor quickly confiscated the scepter and slipped it into his backpack. "I'll give it back soon," he promised.

  "He is enormous," said Howard.

  "He's even bigger than the last time I saw him," said Gregor.

  "What? When he was a pup?" asked Luxa.

  Of course, they didn't know about his meeting the Bane beneath Regalia. He hadn't told anyone. "I'll tell you later," he muttered.

  Luxa scowled. "Maybe you should tell us now. Have you seen him -- ?"

  But Howard cut her off. "Hush, he means to speak."

  The Bane had leaped up onto a shelf of rock before the other rats. "Gnawers! Gnawers!" called the Bane. "I beg a moment of your time!" His voice had matured since that day Gregor had watched him fight with Ripred. It was low and deep and commanded attention. At its sound, more rats appeared out of the wasteland and joined those already assembled, swelling their ranks to several hundred.

  "A moment of your time, to give you my thanks," said the Bane. "For being here. For standing beside me. Because what am I, what are any of us, if we stand alone?"

  The rats had settled down now and were giving the Bane their full attention. The white rat lowered himself onto all fours and began to pace back and forth before the crowd. His manner was almost casual, his tone philosophical. "I know what we once were. The unquestioned rulers of the Underland. And I know what we have been of late. Weak. Hungry. Diseased. At the mercy of our enemies. Tortured by humans, and mocked by creatures who in the past would not have dared to look us in the eye."

  A murmur ran through the crowd.

  "We've never been liked," continued the Bane. "But we were always feared. Until Gorger died. When the others stopped fearing us, .they stopped respecting us as well. Does it bother you when the crawlers laugh as they strip our rivers clean of fish?"

  A few of the rats called out, "Yes!"

  "When the cutters claim land we have held for centuries?" asked the Bane.

  "Yes!" More rats were joining in.

  "When the humans infect us with a germ that ravages our species and then try to smooth things over with a few baskets of grain?" said the Bane, his voice rising in anger.

  "Yes!" Most of the crowd had answered. Gregor could see the rats' agitation, their restless bodies, their swinging tails.

  "How many of you lost pups?" asked the Bane. "And how many of you still call yourself parents? Which is worse? To watch them suffer and die quickly or to see them die slowly, stripped of pride, groveling at the feet of inferior creatures? Is that the life we want for our children?"

  Several rats shouted, "No!" while
others called for the death of the humans.

  "The humans. The humans," said the Bane in disgust. "We knew from the moment they arrived that the Underland was not big enough to hold us both. And we will deal with the humans in the proper time. But there are others who must be taken care of first...." He stopped pacing and planted himself directly before the crowd. "If we ask ourselves who caused our troubles, we must ask ourselves who benefited by our suffering. Who found fertile lands to feed in? Whose numbers increased while ours diminished? Whose pups thrived while our own died of starvation and disease? You know who I'm talking about!"

  Cries of "The nibblers!" came from the crowd.

  "Yes, the nibblers! My father used to joke that the only good nibbler he ever saw was a dead nibbler," said the Bane wryly.

  Ugly laughter rippled across the crowd.

  "But maybe if he had used his time acting instead of joking, we would not be here today!" continued the Bane. "Tell me, if you can, why not one nibbler pup died of the plague? Why, when gnawers and fliers and even humans writhed in agony, they alone remained well? I'll tell you why. Because it was their plague. Everyone blames the humans; the fools even blame themselves. But where did that germ come from? It had to come from somewhere. The humans did not create it in their laboratories. We all know where the plague is born. In the jungle. And who, until quite recently, made the jungle their home? The nibblers. They found that germ. They gave it to the humans to turn into a weapon to be used against us. But not before they had the cure -- all along they had the cure -- all along they were safe and smug while they watched us die!"

  There was a confused rumbling in the crowd. Gregor had the feeling that this was the first time this theory had been presented to the rats.

  "Why should that surprise us?" said the Bane disdainfully. "Haven't they always plotted against us? Didn't they ally themselves with the humans the moment Sandwich arrived and offer to become his spies? Aren't they, even to this day, the eyes and ears of Regalia? Of all the creatures who take pleasure in our humiliation, I can stand the nibblers the least!"

  This was greeted with a roar of agreement. The Bane lifted his voice above the din. "We have tried to drive them from our lands again and again, but it is never far enough. I say, this time we drive them to a place that allows no return!"

  The rats were being whipped into a frenzy.

  "Do some of you hesitate? Do some of you think another solution can be found? Remember that we have looked for gentler alternatives in the past, and think where that got us!" said the Bane.

  The Bane reared up on his hind legs to his full height. "It is the law of nature. The strong determine the fate of the weak. Are we the weak? Are we the weak?"

  The rats were leaping into the air and screaming back, "No! No!"

  "Then gather the strength within you and fight with me! We have many enemies. The battle ahead of us is long and bloody. It will be difficult. But when you start to falter, find the hatred inside of you and draw power from it. Think of how the crawlers laugh, the humans smirk, the nibblers grow fat while we starve, and see then if you do not have the stomach for what lies ahead!"

  The crowd began to scream for the Bane.

  "You say you want me to lead you? I will lead you! But a leader is only as strong as the force that stands behind him. Are you strong?" bellowed the Bane.


  "Do you stand behind me?" he shouted.


  "Then let our enemies do what they will. No creature in the Underland can stop us!" The Bane tilted back his head and gave a bloodcurdling battle cry as the rats went wild below him.

  Gregor slumped back against the wall inside the cave, breathless and dazed. "Oh, no." It was not just the viciousness of the Bane's speech that stunned Gregor; it was its persuasiveness. "Twirltongue has been coaching him," Gregor thought. "Putting ideas in his head. Teaching him how to say them. And now he believes it all."

  Luxa's and Howard's faces were shocked and pale. "He is a monster," said Howard. "Did you hear his words? Is he insane? How can he blame the plague on the nibblers?"

  "The others believed him," said Luxa.

  "I half-believed him myself," said Ares. "He made it seem so logical."

  "What will he do to the nibblers?" said Aurora. "What does he mean, to drive them to a place that allows no return?"

  "I do not know. Out of the Underland for certain," said Howard.

  "And into the Uncharted Lands," said Luxa.

  The rat noise began to die down a little.

  Boots tugged on Howard's sleeve. "I'm hungry." He quickly pressed his finger against her lips. "Shh. We must not be discovered, Boots. Like Hide and Go Seek, you understand?"

  Boots grinned excitedly and gave a little bounce. "Shh!" she said.

  "Shh!" repeated Howard.

  But there was someone it was not so easy to quiet. Cartesian had been stirring in his drug-induced sleep. The Bane's words must have filtered into his dreams. "No!" he cried out. "No!"

  "Wake him, Howard! They will hear!" said Luxa.

  Howard shook Cartesian and the mouse bolted up in terror. "Where are the others?" he screamed, his head turning from side to side. "Where are the others!"

  "No, Cartesian, hush. They are safe. You are safe," whispered Howard urgently.

  But the mouse was not reachable. "Where are the others!" he insisted.

  Gregor allowed just one eye to slip around the cave wall. It was enough to see that the army of rats was galloping for them. "They heard! Mount up! Get out of here!"

  They reloaded the bats in a moment. Gregor grabbed Boots because it was all Howard could do to keep the frantic Cartesian on Nike's back. "Where are the others! Where are the others!"

  The bats shot out over the cavern but had no idea where to go. As soon as they were airborne, they were recognized. The rats began to shout, "The Warrior! Queen Luxa!" Some were laughing, almost crazed by their good fortune of trapping such excellent quarry so easily.

  "Where to?" called Ares, circling the air with Thalia and Temp clinging to his back.

  Gregor saw what looked like some tunnel openings along the walls, but the rats had stirred up the ashes from the ground into a cloud, making it even harder to see. "We need more light!" he said, expecting the bright shiner beams to turn on. But there was no response. "Shiners!" He turned his head from side to side, trying to locate the bugs. "Where are they?"

  "Gone!" said Howard in disgust. "They headed back into Hades Hall the moment we left the cave!"

  "Stupid bugs!" said Gregor. But what had he expected? This was not the kind of situation Photos Glow-Glow or Zap would hang around for. He snapped on the flashlight at his belt and shone it around the cavern. Below them, hundreds of seething rats called out curses and leaped as high as they were able. Others had split off from the main group and were running to block the mouths of the tunnels along the walls. A few were already impassable.

  "Should we go back to Hades Hall?" shouted Gregor.

  "No, we will be trapped there for sure!" said Luxa.

  "Then pick a tunnel, Luxa!" said Howard. He was literally pinning Cartesian to Nike's back now. "Make haste!"

  "The one on your left, Aurora! Take it!" Luxa ordered.

  The rats had not quite reached the tunnel entrance as the bats swept into it. But they were only seconds away and there would be no turning back. Gregor could hear them calling from the entrance, laughing and taunting. It gave him a bad feeling.

  "They don't seem too unhappy about our escape," he said.

  "That can only mean one thing," said Luxa. "Whatever lies in this tunnel wants us as dead as the rats do."

  The words had just left her mouth when Ares gave a warning. "Arm yourselves! Stingers! Arm yourselves!"

  The bats swooped into a huge chamber. Waiting on the floor with their tails poised in the air were a pair of giant scorpions.



  The two scorpions were about ten and twelve feet long. In addition t
o eight legs, each had a pair of pinchers snapping before it. But Gregor knew their most deadly weapons were their tails, which began to swing the moment the bats entered the chamber. He caught a glimpse of a foot-long stinger projecting from the end of a tail as it whizzed by him. Most of the scorpions in the Overland just gave you a terrible sting, but some had poison toxic enough to kill a human. And they were tiny beside these creatures. Whatever kind of venom these scorpions were packing, Gregor was sure one shot would be enough to finish off any of his party.

  He could tell the bats thought so, too, because they were expending all their energy dodging those tails, even if it meant taking a dive down into pincher range.

  Gregor had his right arm wrapped around Boots and was holding the flashlight in his left hand. He struggled to pull his sword off his left hip without letting go of her, but she was leaning curiously over the side of Nike's neck.

  "Who's that?" she said. "Spiders?"

  "Sit up, Boots!" he said.

  "We need more light!" said Luxa.

  "In my backpack!" said Gregor as he finally worked his sword free. Only now he had to hold his wiggly little sister with his flashlight arm. "Can you sit still!"

  "Are they spiders, Gre-go?" Boots asked. "Like 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider'?"

  "No!" said Gregor. "Boots, turn around! Hang on to me like a monkey!" She obeyed, but she still kept craning her neck around to see the "spiders."

  He could feel Luxa digging in his pack and a few seconds later another beam of light brightened the cave. "Geez," he said as he got a clear look at the larger of the two scorpions. He was even more formidable when you could see him better. His body was covered in an armor shell, and he had about five pairs of eyes. That multiple-eye thing always freaked Gregor out.

  "Hold on, Boots! I'm going to let go!" he said. This caught her attention. Maybe she remembered the flood and what had happened the last time he'd let go of her, because she locked her arms and legs around him so tightly he could hardly breathe. "Good," he squeaked out.

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