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Gregor and the marks of.., p.14
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.14

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "You must be right. The Firelands are known for their volcanoes," said Luxa.

  "Active volcanoes?" asked Gregor. "Do they still work?"

  "Why would they not?" asked Luxa. "They cannot break."

  "They can become dormant. Asleep," said Gregor.

  "I do not know, then. No human has ever stayed long enough to study them. The air is too bad for extended visits," said Luxa.

  Suddenly all four of the bats lifted their chins, usually a sign they had sensed something alarming.

  "What is it, Aurora?" asked Luxa.

  "I do not know. Some creature moves within," said the bat, nodding in the direction Boots was heading.

  "I cannot detect its shape," said Ares, in a puzzled tone.

  "Come back, Boots!" called Gregor. But either she wasn't listening or she was ignoring him. "Hey, I'm not kidding!" he said, taking off after her. After about ten steps, he lost his footing and landed on his rear end. "Boots!"

  "Wheee!" said Boots as she spun across the floor, and then suddenly she gave an "Uh-oh!" and dropped out of sight.

  "Where is she?" exclaimed Hazard.

  "Ow!" said the little voice from the dark. "We bumped." Her sandals pattered around. "I know you!" she said. "Oh, ow...." But this second "ow" was a sound not of pain but of sympathy.

  Gregor ran toward her voice and would have fallen as well had Howard not caught him by the arm and lifted him back. They were at the edge of a large pit that was about twenty feet deep. The obsidian walls were very steep and smooth.

  "Gre-go! Gre-go!" Boots was trying to climb out of the pit, but she slid back down its side almost immediately. "Gre-go, see who is here! Ow!" She pressed her hand against her teeth and then pointed her scepter at the creature beside-her.

  A scrawny rat lay a few feet to her right, panting for air. His front teeth were way overgrown, at least by a foot, and had locked together, spreading his mouth in a horrible grimace and distorting his face painfully.

  But Gregor could still make out the scar on the agonized face. "Ripred," he said.

  The rat locked eyes with him but was unable to speak.

  "Don't move," said Gregor. "We're coming."

  PART 3: The Queen

  ***

  CHAPTER 19

  Gregor turned to Howard, figuring he was the best person to handle a medical crisis. "What do we do?"

  But even Howard was at a loss. "I do not know. Perhaps we can file his teeth down some way. I doubt pulling them is an option, but if we must --"

  "Oh, move aside!" said Luxa impatiently, pushing by them. She stepped sideways onto the slope and slid, one leg extended, one leg bent at the knee, straight down into the pit. She landed on her feet and drew her sword, sweeping it back as if to attack. "Stand back, Boots!" she ordered, and the little girl cleared out of the way. For a moment, Gregor thought Luxa was going to kill Ripred. She had certainly done nothing to stop the rat from suffocating in quicksand when they'd met up with her in the jungle that time. But instead of cutting Ripred's throat, her blade smashed into his locked teeth. The ones on the left half of his mouth cracked off in jagged points. Ripred emitted a guttural sound of pain at the impact but lifted his head up for her to swing again. Luxa's second hit shattered through the other half of Ripred's teeth, and he slumped forward on the ground, gasping. The uneven edges left by the blow cut into his gums, causing them to bleed, but his jaws were freed.

  Ripred stared at Luxa for a minute, then spoke in a hoarse whisper. "You remember ... in the jungle ... you said you would be in my debt..."

  "If you told me Hamnet's story. About the Garden of the Hesperides," said Luxa.

  "Consider the debt... paid in full," said Ripred.

  "A story for your life? That is not a fair exchange. I believe you owe me now," said Luxa.

  "I hate that," sighed Ripred.

  "I bet you do," said Luxa with a grin. "Ares, can you bring him up?"

  Ares flew down, clamped his claws into Ripred's shoulders, and hauled him out of the pit while Aurora brought up Luxa and Boots.

  "Water," was Ripred's first request.

  Howard opened up a skin and held it while the rat drank his fill. "I have a rough stone, a small one, for sharpening blades. Shall I try to even up your teeth?"

  Gregor knew it must be killing Ripred, who was so relentlessly powerful, so universally feared, to be sitting there while a human filed his teeth. Guessing an audience would only make things worse, Gregor mobilized the others. He asked the bats and Temp to fish in a nearby stream. Hazard and Boots helped Luxa fill the water bags. Cartesian was too medicated to really matter.

  When the fish started to arrive, Gregor busied himself by chopping some up into tiny pieces. He stirred in some water and a handful of dry bread crumbs. By the time Howard had the edges of Ripred's teeth smoothed out, Gregor had a nice big bowl of fish mash waiting for him. Boots wanted to feed him, but Gregor thought that would be too much for the rat, so he scooped the food into Ripred's mouth himself. Although Gregor had made several pounds of fish mash, several more bowls were needed before Ripred was satisfied.

  "All right. I'm all right now," he said, finally pushing away the bowl, with a few remaining bites of mash stuck to the bottom. The rat gingerly opened and closed his jaws. "Can I see that rock?" Howard gave him the rock, and Ripred worked a little on his teeth, shaping them into his usual style. After a while, he stopped gnawing and sized up the group for the first time. "So, what brings the Children's Crusade into the Firelands? I don't flatter myself you were looking for me."

  "We got lost on a picnic," said Luxa.

  "I know I'm down, but don't humiliate me further with transparent lies, Your Highness," said Ripred. "Don't I always tell you the truth?"

  "You lied to me about 'The Prophecy of Blood.' You said I just had to come to a meeting when you knew I had to go to the jungle," said Gregor.

  "Not exactly. If you think back, my comments were very open to interpretation. And you happen to be easily misled," said Ripred. "As for the queen, who is difficult to lead anywhere ... I have always been and intend to be entirely straightforward."

  Luxa considered this for a moment. "We went looking for the nibblers," she said. "One sent my crown, as a plea for help. The jungle nibblers have disappeared. Those by the Fount are being driven here to the Firelands."

  "My little charge, the Bane, doesn't fancy them much, does he?" said Ripred. "And what do you mean to do by following them?"

  "Draw the Regalian armies after me," said Luxa. "I said 'The Vow to the Dead' in Hades Hall."

  "Did you indeed?" said Ripred. "It seems like only yesterday you were a baby bouncing on your grandpa's knee. And now you're starting wars. They grow up so fast."

  "And what would you have done?" Luxa asked.

  "Now I'm in an awkward position, Your Highness. Ordinarily, I'd have said I'd have hunted down the Bane myself and killed him, hopefully disabling the serpent by beheading it. Of course, as you've just rescued me from a pit where I was being slowly tortured to death on the Bane's command ... my advice seems to have less impact," said Ripred.

  "You could not leap out?" asked Howard.

  "No, the walls are too high to clear, too slick to climb. And there wasn't so much as a pebble for me to gnaw on. So my teeth kept growing. Mine locked, as opposed to growing up through my brain. Lucky for me, if not the Bane," said Ripred.

  "He put you in there? He outfought you?" asked Gregor.

  "Who, the Bane? Please. His soldiers did," said Ripred.

  "But... no one can touch you!" said Gregor.

  "Even a rager can be outnumbered, Gregor," said Ripred. "I start to crack at about four hundred to one. You, I hear, crumbled in the face of three. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances."

  "What is he talking about?" asked Luxa.

  Gregor didn't answer. It was too embarrassing to think that Ripred knew about his episode with Twirltongue. That all the rats knew and were laughing at him.

  "You might as we
ll tell her, before someone else does," said Ripred.

  "Three rats kicked my butt in the tunnels under Regalia," said Gregor.

  "What were you and three rats doing under Regalia?" asked Luxa accusingly.

  "I'll take that. See, I'd brought the Bane with me to echolocation lessons, so Gregor could meet him and help me kill him. Unfortunately, my pearly friend sneaked off in the night. I had to chase him, of course, and when Gregor came down the next day for the assassination, he found not me or the Bane but three of the Bane's pals," said Ripred. "Now the warrior, as I understand it, was actually doing quite well, until... ?" He looked pointedly at Gregor.

  "Until I lost my light," muttered Gregor.

  "And at that moment he realized that all along he'd been wrong about being so uncooperative during his lessons and that... ?" Ripred waited again.

  "You were right, Ripred," said Gregor.

  '"You were right, Ripred,'" said the rat slowly, savoring every word. "You know, I think it's all been worth it just to hear those words, from that mouth," said Ripred. "Any more fish mash? I'm hungry again."

  Ripred stuck his nose in the remaining fish mash and lapped it up.

  Gregor could feel Luxa's eyes burning holes in him.

  "So when did you plan on telling us about the Bane and his three friends running around under our palace?" said Luxa.

  "Never, if possible," said Gregor. "It didn't seem to matter."

  "It would matter a great deal to you, if it was your home," said Luxa.

  "Vikus said the door was solid," said Gregor.

  "And was that door barred when you were fighting those rats?" asked Luxa.

  "No," admitted Gregor. If he had not waylaid them with the lamp, nothing would have stopped the rats from entering the palace. "But I didn't know they were there. I thought it would only be Ripred and the Bane."

  "They are everywhere, Gregor," said Howard softly. And that's when Gregor knew how careless he had been. Howard didn't fly off the handle like Luxa. If he was concerned, there was a real problem.

  "I always left the door unbarred during my lessons," said Gregor. "Vikus never told me different."

  "Because he knew I was there and I wouldn't let anyone up to the palace. Lay off the warrior. Blame me, blame Vikus, if you want to blame someone," said Ripred.

  "I blame you all," said Luxa.

  "If you must. But it's not fair," said Ripred.

  "It is not your city!" said Luxa.

  "It may not be yours much longer, either, Your Highness, if such incompetents as Gregor and I do not choose to defend it!" snarled Ripred. "Or have you not kept up on your prophecies?"

  "Your defense is no guarantee of anything, or have you not kept up on your prophecies?" retorted Luxa. "And finding you languishing in a pit does little to reassure me of your worth!"

  "Stop!" Howard sprang to his feet. "You upset the children. You upset us all. You gain nothing by being at each other's throats."

  Gregor looked around. Howard was right. Hazard and Boots stood by Temp, holding each other's hands tightly, worried looks on their faces. The bats were rustling their wings in agitation. Cartesian tossed in his sleep.

  "Who are you again?" said Ripred to Howard.

  Gregor thought the rat was just trying to be insulting. "Shut up, Ripred. You know who he is," he said.

  "No, I actually don't," said Ripred.

  "Oh. His name's Howard. He's Luxa's cousin. His dad runs the Fount," explained Gregor.

  "Well, all I was going to say was that I thought Howard made a good point," said Ripred. "Fighting gains us nothing, Your Highness. We have much to do if we are to help your friends."

  "I do not need your help, Ripred," said Luxa.

  "I suppose you can take on the Bane's army yourself," said Ripred.

  "The Regalian army will be here in a few days. They will free the nibblers," said Luxa.

  "In a few days, there will be no nibblers left to free," said Ripred.

  ***

  CHAPTER 20

  The rat's comment was enough to make Luxa drop her hostile manner. "What do you mean?" she said.

  "What do you think the Bane's doing out here, anyway?" asked Ripred.

  "We heard him speak. He said he was driving the nibblers to a place from which there is no return," said Howard.

  "And did he mention where that would be?" asked Ripred.

  "Somewhere outside of the Underland," said Gregor uncertainly.

  "In the Uncharted Lands," said Luxa.

  "The nibblers could return from the Uncharted Lands. They would only have to retrace their steps," said Ripred. "My dears, there is only one place from which there is no return."

  The rat waited while it sunk in.

  "Death," Luxa whispered.

  "So it would seem," said Ripred.

  "Are you saying he means to kill them? All of them?" said Howard.

  "That is the general idea, yes," said Ripred.

  "But there are thousands of nibblers. They may allow themselves to be driven somewhere, but they will not lose their lives without a fight," said Howard. "How can he kill so many?"

  "Now there you have me," said Ripred. "Nibblers are good fighters, when backed against a wall. They outnumber the gnawers here, I would guess, ten to one. It would be bloody, they would lose many lives, but they could overpower the Bane's forces now if they wished to. So, they must believe, as you did, that they are only being moved to a new home. That they are saving their lives by not resisting. But have no doubt about it. The Bane means to kill every last nibbler."

  "So say I!" a raspy voice choked out. "So say I!"

  They all turned to see Cartesian. He had rolled onto his stomach and was struggling to lift himself up on his front legs.

  Howard hurried to his patient. "Easy now. I will give you something to help you heal." He removed the large green bottle and pulled the stopper.

  "We must fight! This is not like the other times. The gnawers do not want this land by the Fount. The humans will not allow them to have it!" said Cartesian.

  "Stop, Howard! Let him talk!" exclaimed Luxa. She ran over and kneeled by the mouse.

  "He believes he is still at the Fount," said Nike.

  "Yes," said Luxa. "Cartesian. Cartesian, I am Queen Luxa of Regalia."

  "Oh, the good queen. The good queen," said Cartesian, calming a little. "Tell them, 'Fight now! Fight here by the Fount!'"

  "I will tell them," said Luxa, running her hand down his back.

  "I told them so, but few will take my side. Most believe the gnawers when they say they will only take us to other lands," said Cartesian. "Do not believe it!"

  "No, I do not believe it. I believe you!" said Luxa.

  "Why would the gnawers want this land by the Fount? You humans will not let them keep it," said Cartesian.

  "Why would they want the jungle, either?" said Ripred. "No rat would live there by choice."

  "So say I!" said Cartesian, and then his fevered eyes locked on Ripred and he went wild at the sight of the rat. "Where are the others? Where are the others?" He bared his teeth at Ripred and tried to attack. Cartesian's broken leg crumpled beneath him. "Where are the others?" he demanded.

  "Now might be a good time for that medicine," said Ripred.

  "Where are the others?" shrieked the mouse.

  Howard quickly dosed Cartesian before he could really lose control. Within a few minutes, the mouse went limp.

  Cartesian's words had given Gregor insight into the rats' invasion of the nibbler colony. The mice had argued then, about whether to fight the rats or go quietly. And Cartesian's side had lost. Gregor bet it was Cartesian who had scratched the scythe into the cave wall.

  "So, you can believe me and your nibbler friend there, or you can continue to console yourselves with the idea that the nibblers are going to some lovely new life somewhere," said Ripred.

  Gregor thought of the baby mice, the twisted bodies beneath the cliff, the Bane's speech. "No, I can't. We've got to find the mice an
d warn them. Can you travel?" he asked Ripred.

  "Yes. I'm a bit stiff, but give me a few miles and I'll loosen up," said the rat.

  "I have not agreed to let you join us," said Luxa.

  "Fly on ahead, then," said Ripred. "You may miss me when you reach your destination."

  A line appeared between Luxa's eyes as she pondered what to do.

  "It is better to bend a little than to break, Cousin," said Howard. "We do need him. Let him pay off his debt to you."

  "Yes, let me make things even between us," said Ripred.

  "I will not be taking orders from you," Luxa snapped at the rat. "You will be following mine."

  Ripred shrugged. "Fine. I have given enough orders for a lifetime. You make the plans. Of course, if you'd like my advice at a given moment, don't hesitate to ask."

  "Let us go forward, then," said Luxa. "Keep to the gnawer's pace."

  They climbed back on the bats and took off, flying at Ripred's running speed. The rat made pretty good time given that he'd been confined to a pit for several weeks.

  Gregor was preoccupied with the nibblers. How could the rats kill them all? Drive them off a cliff maybe, like they had in Hades Hall? Drown them? He was pretty sure the mice could swim. Starve them? That seemed like a popular choice in the Underland. Or maybe they would try to infect them with a plague....

  After about half an hour Gregor looked down and realized that Ripred really needed a break. He was panting hard and foaming slightly at the mouth. Gregor knew the rat would be too obstinate to ask to stop.

  "Ripred can't keep going like that," said Gregor to Luxa.

  "It is good for him," said Luxa.

  "He's going to have a heart attack or something," said Gregor.

  "Do not worry about Ripred," said Luxa.

  "You just planning on running him into the ground?" said Gregor. Luxa leaned over Aurora's wing and watched Ripred struggling to keep up. Then she sat up. "He is too rotten to die," she said.

  "Luxa!" Suddenly Gregor had had it with her. "Okay, stop! Everybody land!" he shouted.

  "You do not give orders here!" said Luxa.

  "Neither do you. Not to me, anyway," said Gregor. He swung off Aurora's back while she was still in flight and crossed to Ares as the bat touched down. Thalia and Temp were piled on top of Ares. "Thalia, can you fly?"

  "Yes, if we do not go too fast," said the little bat.

  "Ares, can you carry Ripred?" said Gregor. Ares was the one bat who might have the strength to do it.

 
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