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Gregor and the marks of.., p.13
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.13

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Sever their tails!" he heard Howard shout.

  "Right!" Gregor said, but he could not get himself into attack mode. What with Aurora flipping right and left to avoid the stingers and Boots squeezing the air out of him ... plus he had very limited motion with his sword arm since he had to fight around her. "I hope Luxa and Howard can take them," he thought. But he soon realized that was not going to happen. Howard had not even managed to draw his sword, because he was still trying to restrain Cartesian. Luxa was facing backward on Aurora, not the ideal fighting position, trying to keep herself and Hazard on board.

  "Gregor, can you attack?" said Howard.

  "I'm trying," said Gregor, chopping in the general direction of a tail. He missed by a mile. As to becoming a rager -- the idea was laughable. He felt none of the intense focus and fear that sometimes brought on the condition. Instead, he felt trapped in a really silly horror movie.

  "Baby spiders!" said Boots, as if making a pleasant discovery. "See the babies?"

  "They're not babies," he said, and then had the awful thought that these were babies and she had spotted even larger scorpions, like the thirty-foot kind, headed their way.

  "Hi, babies!" said Boots.

  "Where? Where are the babies?" said Gregor.

  "On the mama," said Boots, pointing. "See? Babies."

  Gregor shone his light on the smaller scorpion's back and for the first time knew what Boots was talking about. About a dozen little scorpions were squirming around on the scorpion's shell. "Oh, great," he thought. The only thing worse than fighting a giant scorpion was fighting a giant scorpion who was trying to protect her young.

  "I sing the babies to sleep," announced Boots.

  "Fine, sing," said Gregor, thinking it would be better if she was occupied if he ever did make contact with one of those tails. Any sort of violence upset her. She wouldn't want him to hurt her "spiders." It wasn't until Boots launched into her rendition of the "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" that Gregor realized what a bad idea it was. The song required hand motions as the spider climbed the waterspout, as the rain fell down. And to do them, Boots let go of his neck.

  "Hang on, Boots! Hang on!" he cried. But it was too late. Just as the sun was coming up in the song, Aurora did a full body roll to the side to avoid a tail, and Boots fell off.

  "Me!" said Boots as she flapped her arms, just as she had back in the arena.

  "Boots!" cried Gregor.

  Ares dove to catch Boots and managed to scoop the little girl up on his head, but the motion so startled Thalia that she fell off his back, taking Temp with her. Neither Aurora nor Nike had any means of catching the pair, so the little bat and the cockroach landed with a thud on the stone floor.

  "Thalia!" screamed Hazard. "Fly!"

  "Hold on, Temp!" said Gregor.

  Thalia scurried to her feet, and Temp scuttled sideways a couple of yards, unsure of where to go. Ares veered back, claws extended to rescue them, but it was too late. Lightning fast, the mother scorpion attacked and pinned Thalia's wings to the ground with her pinchers. Her tail flipped over her head, poised for the kill. Thalia let out a piteous cry, knowing she was moments from death.

  "No!" shrieked Hazard. "No!" He wrenched himself free of Luxa and leaped off Aurora's back. Fortunately, Aurora was only about twelve feet above the ground and he managed to land on his hands and feet. He scrambled straight over to Thalia, kneeled above her head, and extended his hands up to block the stinger. "No!"

  Luxa had flipped after Hazard seconds after she'd lost her hold on him. She landed solidly on her feet and made for the scorpion, her sword ready to attack. The scorpion let out an angry hiss and Hazard suddenly turned and grabbed Luxa's sword arm. "Don't! Don't attack her!" he said frantically. "No one attack!" Still clinging to Luxa's arm, he turned his head back to the scorpion and began to make a bizarre series of hissing sounds.

  The scorpion's tail quivered in place for a moment, as if in indecision. "Put your swords away! All of you!" said Hazard. Luxa hesitated. "Please, Luxa!" She reluctantly returned the sword to her belt, her hand still clenched on the hilt.

  Hazard let out another round of hisses. The scorpion slowly let her tail relax behind her, although she did not release Thalia.

  By this time Gregor and Aurora had landed. The first thing Gregor did as he slid off Aurora's back was sheathe his sword.

  "Can you talk to her, Hazard?" Gregor asked.

  "I don't know. I'm speaking Hisser, like I did with Frill. But I don't think the words are exactly the same for stingers," said Hazard.

  A thought struck Gregor. Boots was right about one thing: Scorpions had eight legs like spiders... . They were different species, but maybe ... "Try talking in Spider."

  Hazard began to drum on his chest and issued a series of vibrating sounds. The scorpion shifted slightly from side to side, seeming genuinely confused.

  "Temp! Temp! Try Crawler speech on it," said Howard.

  Temp pattered up to join Hazard, clicking tentatively. Hazard joined in; he was almost fluent in Cockroach now. And of course, someone else would not be left out.

  "Me, too! Me, too!" said Boots. She jumped off of Ares's head, and Gregor just barely caught her.

  "Hey!" he said. "You can't just jump off--"

  But she was already out of his arms, running over to the mother scorpion. "Let me talk! Let me talk!" Boots squealed, hopping eagerly from foot to foot. A stream of clicking intermingled with English poured out of her mouth. It was so frenetic, Hazard and Temp left off and let her go. Boots rattled on for about a minute, gesturing to the babies and singing little bits of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" and click, click, clicking away, and then suddenly she stopped, her hands clasped together, her chin forward, as if she was eagerly expecting an answer.

  There was a long pause, and then one of the scorpions behind Gregor made a few clicks. Then everybody started babbling or clicking or hissing until Howard called for silence.

  Nike came in for a landing. Cartesian had worked himself into a state of exhaustion and lay limp on her back, glazed eyes staring into space. Howard slid off the bat and took Hazard's hand.

  "What is it, Hazard? What do they understand?" said Howard.

  "I think that they both understand some Hisser, I can't tell about the Spinner talk, and the big one there knows Crawler," said Hazard.

  "All right, then," said Howard. "Ask them to free Thalia. Tell them we mean no harm and only wish to pass."

  Hazard communicated this to the scorpion who had clicked. They did not hear him respond. But he must have said something to the mother scorpion, because she released her grip on Thalia. The little bat fluttered right into Aurora's wings and buried her head.

  The scorpion began to click again.

  "He wants to know how we came here," said Hazard.

  "Tell him," said Luxa. "Tell him the rats chased us here, sure that the stingers would kill us."

  Hazard transmitted the message and the scorpion replied after a minute. "The gnawers are their enemies, too. They have recently forced the stingers out of some of their lands."

  "Have they seen the nibblers?" asked Luxa.

  Hazard talked a moment with the scorpion and said, "They have. The rats drove them by here only yesterday. And it does not go well with the nibblers. Many are sick or injured."

  Boots, who had been very patient for a three-year-old, could no longer contain herself. She went off again, clicking and singing and pointing at the mother scorpion.

  "What is your problem?" said Gregor, scooping her up.

  "She wants to pet the babies," said Hazard.

  "What? They're scorpions, Boots. You don't pet them!" said Gregor. But he was wrong again. A few minutes later, after some negotiation and assurances that they were too little to sting, Boots was sitting on the mother scorpion's back cooing to the babies as she patted their shells. Gregor guessed he shouldn't be surprised when he remembered how readily she'd taken to the cockroaches. And they were full-grown.

  Hazard came over to join
her and seemed to be able to talk to the mother some by hissing. Howard and Temp continued to exchange information with the bilingual scorpion. Luxa got out the last, very stale cake and laid it out as a peace offering for the scorpions. All thoughts of fighting were gone. Luxa licked a bit of frosting from her finger and shook her head. "It reminds me of what Hamnet told us in the jungle," she said to Gregor.

  "What's that?" he said.

  "About how many creatures do not wish to fight," said Luxa.

  "But you'll never know if you show up waving your sword around," said Gregor, remembering. "I guess it's a good thing we were all so useless."

  "Yes, if we could have actually fought, no doubt someone would now be dead," said Luxa.

  "The stingers have agreed to let us stay here and rest before we move on," said Howard.

  Ares and Nike got directions to a stream that ran through a nearby tunnel and soon returned with fish. They had a sort of picnic with the scorpions: raw fish and cake, and cold water to drink.

  Boots would not eat the fish herself but loved feeding it to the baby scorpions. They took the fish but couldn't really swallow it. The scorpions seemed to need to drink their food like the spiders had. Injecting it with some liquid until it turned to goo. So the babies stole bites from the pile of gunk in front of their mother. Gregor just tried not to look at it. Hazard and Temp continued to act as interpreters.

  "We know so little of stingers," said Howard. "Ask them, do they always live here or are they wanderers?"

  "They say they have always lived here. Usually it is very peaceful. No one bothers them. But of late, the whole Underland comes to their doorstep. Shiners, nibblers, gnawers, crawlers, fliers, and even killers," said Hazard. He bit into a raw fish as if he'd said nothing out of the ordinary. But Gregor could see the look of shock on Howard's and Luxa's faces.

  "Killers," said Gregor. "Who are they? Is there some other monster running around out here?"

  "Oh, no, Gregor," said Hazard simply. "It's us. We humans are the killers."

  ***

  CHAPTER 18

  "What do you mean, we're the killers?" asked Gregor.

  "You know how things have two names. Rats are gnawers. Bats are fliers. Most people call Temp a crawler, but my mother called him a cockroach like you do," said Hazard. "And she said 'spider' like Boots."

  "When Sandwich came down, he used 'spider' as well," said Howard. "But in time, 'spinner' became the more popular term."

  "In the Underland, creatures are named for what they do," said Hazard. "That's why they're the stingers," said Hazard, nodding to a scorpion. "And Ares is a flier. And we're killers."

  "I've never heard that before," said Gregor.

  "We do not like the name, so our friends do not call us by it. And our enemies do not use it to our faces, either, because it makes the humans seem too strong," said Howard.

  "Killers, huh?" Gregor said to Luxa. He had seen too much in the Underland to give the humans some sort of "good guy" status. They were capable of doing plenty of damage. But what had they done to have earned the name "killers"? Had they really killed more than any of the other creatures?

  "It is a very old name. As Howard says, we do not like it," she said. "I am surprised to hear you use it, Hazard."

  "My father used it sometimes," said Hazard.

  "Well, your father was not... he was not really one of us anymore," said Luxa. "I mean, he did not want to live with us."

  "No. He did not like being a killer," said Hazard.

  "Stop it! Stop saying that!" said Luxa.

  Hazard looked at her in surprise. She almost never rebuked him. "Why? It is true. Humans are known for their killing."

  "It is a very old name, Hazard," said Howard. "One we would like to see fade away entirely."

  "I don't know how that will happen," said Hazard earnestly. "It's what most creatures call you in their own tongues, even if they do not use it in English. The hissers, the spinners, the crawlers, almost everyone."

  "Well, that is an interesting piece of news," said Luxa, shooting a look at Temp.

  "An old word, it be, old," said Temp uncomfortably.

  "How could you not know that?" asked Hazard.

  "Because you and your dad were the first humans who ever learned to speak another creature's language," said Gregor. "Better let it drop now, Hazard."

  "I'm sorry," Hazard said, squeezing Luxa's hand.

  "It is of no account," she said, giving him a hug. But Gregor could tell she was still unhappy about the whole conversation.

  It was not exactly lifting Gregor's spirits, either. If the humans were known as killers, then what did that make him? Their warrior? Their rager? A killer among killers? For the first time he began to wonder what this war Luxa had declared would personally mean for him. Was it assumed that, as the warrior, he would participate? He had never fought in a major war. He'd only been in a couple battles and never faced off with an army of rats. He was, in reality, very inexperienced, but he doubted that would matter. What did the Underlanders expect of him? Did he have a special role? Like possibly ... killing the Bane? Gregor pushed the idea from his brain. No point thinking about that until he was back in Regalia with Vikus to talk him through "The Prophecy of Time." And then what? Then he would have to decide whether he was in or out.

  It had been a long day. Starting with that breakfast of slimy shellfish, then the flight up Hades Hall, the Bane's speech, the rat attack, and the scorpions. Somewhere in that mess was the lovely peaceful time he had shared with Luxa, when they'd leaned back-to-back in silence. He wanted to pull the experience out and examine it and relive it. But the minute he'd curled up beside Boots, he fell fast asleep.

  In the morning, the scorpions helped them work out their next move. The rats would have the mouth of the tunnel blocked, just in case any of them survived. But the scorpions knew the area far better than the rats. The best idea seemed to be to follow a series of tunnels deeper into the Firelands. Although it would mean a longer flight back to Regalia, they should have larger open spaces to fly in and less of a chance of being trapped by the rats. Luxa did not bring up her plan to pursue the mice, but Gregor knew she still meant to find them.

  "And they say be watchful of the currents," said Hazard.

  No one was too worried about the currents, though. Gregor had ridden the airstreams up and down to the Underland dozens of times now. He actually kind of liked the currents.

  As they were saying their good-byes, Luxa had Hazard translate a message for them. "Tell them from this day on, the humans consider the stingers their allies. Tell them we wish for nothing but peaceful relations between us. Tell them when they let Thalia live, they entered our hearts."

  Hazard relayed the message. The scorpions came back with a similar, if less emotional, pledge. But then, since they'd had very little experience with the scorpions and there were several different languages to take into account, no one could really judge its tone. You had a scorpion speaking in Crawler to a seven-year-old boy who had only recently learned Crawler and spoke a mixture of Overland and Underland English. Things could have been lost in translation.

  Gregor just considered it a huge victory that everyone got out of the situation alive. And there did seem to be the beginning of trust. Boots's affection for the babies had made a good impression. The scorpions were trying to help them evade the rats.

  "You know who'd have loved that? Your grandpa," Gregor told Luxa as they started down a tunnel on Aurora's back.

  "Yes, Vikus is very fond of peaceful resolutions. So am I. I just believe that in his eagerness to achieve them, my grandfather can trust too soon. Remember when we visited the spinners? We ended up as their prisoners," said Luxa.

  "But they didn't kill us," said Gregor.

  "They almost killed me!" said Luxa.

  "Well, you were trying to escape," said Gregor.

  "And then it took Gorger and his army slaughtering the spinners for them to ally themselves with us," said Luxa.

&
nbsp; "They might not have ever done that, though, if they didn't trust Vikus," said Gregor.

  "Perhaps not," said Luxa.

  "I'm just saying, it's nice when nobody gets killed," said Gregor.

  "That is pretty talk for a warrior," said Luxa. "Not the sort of thing you will want to be shouting out before a battle." She mimicked his accent. " 'Remember, it's nice when nobody gets killed!'"

  Gregor laughed. "Who knows? Maybe that's exactly what I should be shouting before a battle."

  He was in a strangely good mood given the circumstances. He was far from home, surrounded by enemies, many of his companions were wounded, his family was worried sick, the mice were being driven who knew where, the Bane had turned into some sort of evil genius leader, and there was some ominous prophecy lying in wait for him. And here he was joking around with Luxa. Maybe it was just the relief of still being alive. Or maybe it was something else....

  Luxa was leaning against his backpack again, her head on his shoulder. Howard flew by and gave Gregor a disapproving look. What? He hadn't made the seating arrangements. Howard had. It was more comfortable riding with someone to lean on. Probably Gregor was in for another speech about dates and queens and things. About how nothing was right about him liking Luxa.

  "Oh, who cares? My mom will probably send me home the second we reach Regalia, anyway," thought Gregor. But the idea didn't make him feel happy. The walls and floor of the tunnel began to transform from a dull gray to a shiny black. Light from Gregor's flashlight and Boots's scepter danced off the surfaces and reflected to other spots. When they landed at a spring-fed pool for a break, Gregor stooped down and ran his fingers over the surface beneath his feet. It was smooth. Almost slick.

  Luxa examined the ground beside him. "It is like black glass."

  "I think it might be obsidian," said Gregor.

  Boots quickly discovered the slipperiness of the floor. "Look, Gre-go, I ice-skate!" she said, sliding wildly over the black surface, waving her scepter.

  "I want to try, too!" said Hazard.

  Howard grabbed Hazard before he could work up much speed. "Oh, no, you do not, Hazard. The last thing you need is another head injury."

  Luxa was still focused on the floor. "What is obsidian?" she asked Gregor.

  "It's a kind of rock you only find around volcanoes. It's made from cooled lava," said Gregor.

 
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