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Gregor and the marks of.., p.15
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.15

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "I can try," said Ares.

  "No, Ares, you do not need to carry that rat," said Luxa.

  "Yes, he does," said Gregor. "Thalia, take Temp."

  "Oh, now you are in charge?" said Luxa.

  "Why does one of us have to be in charge? We were doing fine until you declared war back there and started bossing everybody around!" said Gregor.

  "I recall it starting much earlier," said Ripred, dragging himself onto Ares's back. "Even as a baby she was very pushy."

  "I am trying to help the nibblers!" said Luxa.

  "Really? Well, you're not helping them by hurting Ripred," said Gregor. She scowled and opened her mouth to speak, but Gregor didn't give her time. "And I don't care if that makes you mad, Luxa. Get mad! Don't talk to me! How will that be different from about ninety-five percent of the time, anyway? You're always mad at me for something. Usually, I can't even remember what! What's it matter? I don't live here. I'm just visiting. Anything that I've been doing to help you, that's just a favor! Not something I owe you. And when we get back to Regalia, I'll be sent home and we can forget we ever knew each other! Okay?"

  The last word hung in the tunnel. The outburst surprised even Gregor. It was too extreme. Where had it come from? Was it connected to his rager thing? Why had he said it? What, in fact, had he said? He couldn't quite remember, but whatever it was, he could tell by the look in Luxa's eyes that he had actually hurt her feelings.

  "Gre-go is too loud," said Boots. She scooted up to Luxa and held her hand protectively. "Shh, Gre-go."

  Everyone was staring at him, waiting for his next move. "I really think this will be faster," said Gregor in a gruff voice.

  "Fine," said Luxa, and crossed back to Aurora with Boots trotting beside her.

  Howard touched Gregor's shoulder. "Perhaps I will ride with --"

  "Yeah, I'll go on Nike," said Gregor. "Don't worry; I'll hold on to Cartesian."

  As he climbed up on Nike's back, he felt Ripred's eyes on him. "What?"

  "Nothing," said the rat innocently, but Gregor noticed his nose give a deep and distinct sniff.

  They did move more quickly now. Gregor tried to justify yelling at Luxa with that thought, but it didn't really work.

  A light wind blew over his face. It was more than the usual breeze he caught by just being on a moving bat. The air was warm, too, and smelled more pun-gently of sulfur. A bit of something blew into his eye and he blinked repeatedly to get it out. It was hard to get any tears going in the wind.

  What had he said that had hurt Luxa? It wasn't just that they had argued; they were always arguing. He tried to recall his speech. Something about the nibblers. Ripred. Go ahead and get mad. So, what? "We can forget we ever knew each other! ..."

  That last part. He tried to imagine Luxa saying those words to him and realized how awful it would be. To suggest it would be possible to forget the last year. To forget what they owed each other. Without Luxa, he would have been killed his first night in the Underland. He would never have gotten his dad back. Boots would have died in the rats' maze. And he had done things for Luxa, too. Good things. Things he was proud of. Saved her from the spinners. Helped find the plague cure. He was here now tracking down the nibblers, wasn't he? For better or worse, their lives had wrapped in and around each other since the moment they'd met. He didn't ever want to forget he had known her.

  "Nike, can you speed up?" said Gregor. "I need to tell Luxa something."

  Gregor worked on his apology as they caught up. "I'm sorry," he thought; that would be a good opener.

  Nike's nose was even with Aurora's feet. Hazard was asleep, his head on Luxa's lap. Howard sat with his back to her, holding Boots. Luxa looked at Gregor, waiting.

  Gregor swallowed and leaned forward so he could speak quietly. "Look, I just wanted to say, I'm --"

  And that's when the currents hit them.

  ***

  CHAPTER 21

  The first blast of air caught Nike from below and tossed her upward, slamming Gregor and Cartesian into the ceiling and pinning them between the bat and the stone. Luckily, Gregor had been leaning forward. His backpack cushioned the blow somewhat, although he could feel the edges of his extra flashlights and the binoculars cutting into his back. His face was pressed into the fur on the back of Nike's head. He struggled to turn his head sideways, so he could at least breathe.

  Nike was battling to free herself from the powerful current when it suddenly abated. They dropped down a few feet and the second blast hit them from behind. Nike's wings shut as they shot like a bullet through a gun barrel through several hundred yards of tunnel and then out into wide-open space.

  Then the winds took over.

  There was not ore or two but dozens of currents competing in the cavern. You could see the individual airstreams. Each had the same misty look as the one that had first brought Gregor to the Underland from his laundry room and gave off a faint white light. Gregor was ripped off Nike almost immediately and then buffeted by the currents that accosted him from all sides. He felt like a kite being flown in a storm. A kite whose string had snapped that had no hope of being reeled in.

  Fortunately, his flashlight was securely hooked to his belt loop. As he whipped around he caught glimpses of the others. They seemed as helpless as he was.

  He panicked for a moment when his flashlight beam revealed the cavern floor fifty feet below. But then he realized he wasn't falling. None of them were. The currents held them aloft, swirling them around like leaves on a fall day.

  Gregor got his hand on his flashlight and felt a tiny bit more in control. A particularly strong wave of air caught

  him from behind and he struggled to break its hold.

  Ripred sailed by him with his legs stretched out flat like a flying squirrel. The rat shouted something at Gregor, but he couldn't hear over the roar of the winds. A few minutes later, after slamming into Howard and almost catching Boots as she whizzed by looking puzzled but not particularly upset, Gregor passed Ripred again, flying in the same position. This time Gregor could just make out the rat's words: "Stop fighting!"

  Stop fighting? Gregor realized every muscle in his body was so tense, it could snap, because he was, in fact, trying to fight off the wind. To somehow gain control of the currents with his arms and legs. "Stop fighting," he thought. "Just relax!" It couldn't hurt to try. He made an enormous effort to unlock his muscles. It wasn't easy. Every new wave of air made him tense. "Relax!" he ordered himself. "You can't fight it. Think of Ripred!" Gregor stretched his arms over his head and straightened his body out. Suddenly he was not being attacked by the wind; he was being carried by it. He got thrown off course almost immediately but fought the impulse to struggle. "Relax!" he ordered himself, stretching out again. The stream of air swept him along easily. And this time, he understood. If he didn't fight the current, he could ride it. Exhilaration flooded through him. "I'm flying!"

  For a minute, he was completely absorbed by his newfound talent. This was nothing like riding the bats, where he was merely a passenger. This was just Gregor zooming around in the sky -- well, not the sky -- but zooming around in the air like a superhero. The freedom, the sense of power, was amazing. If he could always have wings, Gregor didn't think he would ever be afraid of any creature the Underland could dish out. He gave out a wild whoop and rode smack into Ripred. Gregor slid down the rat's body but managed to grab hold of his tail and hang on.

  "Having a good time, are we?" called Ripred over the wind. "Checked up on your friends lately?"

  Instantly ashamed that he was enjoying himself, Gregor shot his flashlight beam around. He spotted Luxa above him, and it was clear she had mastered the trick of riding the winds. She had one-upped him, actually, because she seemed able to move from current to current without losing control. When Luxa rolled sideways to catch another wave, Gregor saw Boots was on her back. The little girl had her arms and legs wrapped tightly around Luxa's body. Temp coasted by with Hazard clinging to his shell. Cartesian was having no
difficulty, as the mouse was asleep and riding easily around. Howard was still getting tossed around quite a bit, as he was trying to make his way to the bats. But the bats! They were the ones having the most trouble of all.

  Those long, beautiful bat wings were not an asset in this situation. They picked up several competing currents at once. Having ridden milder currents all their lives, the bats could not suppress the instinct to try to navigate these. But every time their wings opened even a foot or two, they'd get spun around like a top. Ares, who was the largest and had the greatest wingspan, was in the worst trouble.

  "Ares!" Gregor cried out. He let go of Ripred's tail only to find the rat had reached out and snagged his backpack with his back claws.

  "What's your plan?" called the rat.

  Gregor had no plan. He was merely following an impulse to help his bat. "I don't know! I don't know!"

  "We have to land!" shouted Ripred. "Form a base!"

  "Okay!" said Gregor, although he really had no idea what Ripred was talking about. The rat began to maneuver from one current to another, moving them farther away from the center of the windstorm with each shift. Gregor, who was still being dragged around by his backpack, twisted his head around to see where they were going and realized they were headed straight for one of the stone walls of the cavern. "No!" he cried out, thrashing around to get free before they crashed. But at the last minute Ripred caught another current and Gregor found himself being dragged along the floor of a cave.

  "A little trust, please," said the rat in disgust.

  "Sorry," said Gregor. He sat up, rubbing his elbow that had been scraped on the floor. Outside the cave, he could see his friends flying around. "Now what?"

  "We have to find some way to bring them in. You don't have anything handy like a rope in there, do you?" said Ripred, nudging Gregor's backpack.

  "No," said Gregor.

  "No," sighed Ripred. "Well, then, I suppose it will have to be my tail."

  Ripred positioned himself backward at the edge of the cave, gripping the floor with his claws and letting his long rat tail blow out into the currents.

  "Now what do we do?" asked Gregor.

  "Wait," said Ripred. "Don't worry, they'll catch on."

  Gregor moved his flashlight in a figure eight at the cave mouth to attract attention. Ripred was right. In a few minutes Luxa had made her way through the currents and grabbed hold of his tail. The rat pulled her into the cave and Gregor scooped Boots up off her back.

  "Hey, what's going on?" he asked Boots.

  "Luxa is a bat," said Boots. "I ride. I fly, too."

  "You did a good job," said Gregor. "Now we have to get the others in."

  "I can help!" said Boots, and ran for the cave mouth.

  As she launched into the air, Gregor barely caught her by the ankle and pulled her back in. "Whoa! No, Boots. I've got a special job for you."

  "For me?" said Boots, immediately interested.

  He didn't. Gregor considered having her sing again, but that probably wouldn't hold her attention if nobody was falling asleep. He dug in his backpack looking for an idea and came upon the binoculars. "Here," he said. "You're our scout. You look through these and tell us when you see somebody fly by."

  It was a pointless task. Between the light the currents put off and his flashlight beam, they weren't having trouble spotting the others. But it gave Boots something to do. "Temp is big. Temp is small. Temp is big. Temp is small," she said importantly as she raised and lowered the binoculars.

  "Heads up, here comes the crawler," said Ripred.

  Temp sailed in and clamped on to Ripred's tail. The rat hauled him in and Hazard slid off his shell.

  "Hazard, are you well?" asked Luxa, hugging him.

  "Yes, I am fine. But the fliers are not," said Hazard.

  Things looked bad for the bats. They were still being hopelessly tossed around, unable to manage the currents.

  Howard made his way in next, dragging in Cartesian by the tail. "I do not know how to get the fliers in," Howard said. "I tried to ride Nike, to help her, but I only added to her difficulties. They are tiring quickly."

  "We must do something!" said Luxa.

  "We could form a human chain maybe," said Gregor.

  "All holding on to my poor tail, I suppose?" asked Ripred. "I'll never be able to manage the lot of you with that wind force."

  "We cannot just leave them there!" said Luxa. "I am going back in!" She was about to dive back into the winds when Ripred blocked her with his tail. "What's your plan?"

  "I... I do not have a plan," said Luxa.

  "Oh, that's too bad," said Ripred. He dropped his tail, but she didn't jump.

  "Do you have one?" demanded Luxa.

  "I might, if someone asks nicely," said the rat.

  "Will you tell me your plan?" asked Luxa stiffly.

  "Pleeeease," instructed Ripred.

  "Please," said Luxa through gritted teeth.

  "All right. Get to the fliers. Start with the little one. Pin her wings down with your legs; you'll have to fight her. I doubt they can help trying to fly any more than you can help breathing. Ride her in," said Ripred. "Don't let her open her wings. Understand?"

  "Yes," said Luxa, and dove into the currents.

  "Yes, thank you!" R ipred called after her.

  It didn't take Luxa long to get to Thalia. It took not only Luxa's legs but also her arms to hold down the bat's wings. Then Luxa was able to guide Thalia to the cave. When Thalia came in reach of Ripred's tail, she caught it the only way she could, with her teeth.

  "Ouch!" said Ripred, dragging them in. "All right, all right, let go, you little viper." Thalia unclenched her teeth and lay exhausted on the cave floor.

  "I think I can bring Aurora in. I do not know about the others," said Luxa, panting with exertion.

  "Do you want me to take Ares, Gregor?" asked Howard. He was a lot bigger and stronger than Gregor. It would make sense for him to have the biggest bat.

  "No, he's my bond. I'll do it," said Gregor. He had no idea what he was in for. He made his way out to his bat without too much trouble, switching from one current to the next until he was only a few feet away. Only at that distance did he realize how much Ares was suffering. The bat's body was contorting violently as he tried to break free of the currents. It was as if he was trapped in some horrible force field that would allow him to move only a few feet in any direction before it yanked him back to its center. The thing that unnerved Gregor the most was the sound Ares was making. Not words or the clear, high bat squeaks Gregor could sometimes hear. It was like a scream. A continuous, tormented sound of pain. Being caught in the currents seemed to be literally driving Ares insane.

  Gregor felt a hundred times guiltier for having enjoyed flying and not realizing Ares's predicament. Getting his arms around Ares's neck was the first challenge. Every time Gregor would move into range, one of the bat's powerful wings would jerk out and send him spinning off to the side. It hurt and it prolonged the rescue, because then Gregor had to work his way back to Ares and start all over again. Ripred was right. The bat had no control whatsoever over the impulse to fly.

  On about the tenth try, he finally managed to dodge the spastic wings and fasten himself on to Ares's neck. The rest of Gregor's body whipped around wildly. There was no opportunity to lock his legs around the wings. He knew Ares wasn't intentionally trying to shake him off, but that's what it felt like.

  "Stop fighting!" he told the bat, just as Ripred had told him. But he wasn't even sure Ares heard him. The screaming continued unbroken and there was no perceptible difference in Ares's body movements.

  "Stop fighting! Give up!" ordered Gregor. Still no change. Gregor didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to hang on. Then a fortunate current blew Gregor flat against Ares's back just as his wings shut. Gregor clamped his legs around Ares's sides. "It's Gregor!" he shouted right into Ares's ear. The screaming cut off, and Ares seemed to be aware of Gregor's presence for the first time. "I
've got you! Don't open your wings! Do not open your wings, Ares!"

  Now Gregor could feel a different kind of struggle as Ares fought the instinct to open his wings as the different currents struck him. "Overlander ... I cannot -- !"

  "Yes, you can. Hold them closed. I'll fly for a change. Okay?" said Gregor.

  "O -- kay!" said Ares back. "Do not... leave me!"

  "I won't leave you! I promise!" said Gregor.

  It was slow going. Gregor was still pretty shaky at flying on his own. Directing his bat's body through the maze of currents was an entirely new skill to master. Especially since he felt he had to keep talking the whole time, reassuring Ares, reminding him to keep those wings shut. If he took even a slight pause, he could hear the beginnings of the scream starting to build in Ares's throat again.

  Gregor had thought they were almost at the cave once, only to turn and discover its light receding from him as another powerful current swept them away. His legs began to shake with the strain of holding down Ares's wings. Gregor needed help, but there was no way to go back for it. No way he could possibly let go of Ares after his promise.

  He realized he no longer had the strength to try to guide Ares anywhere. All Gregor could do was hold on. Maybe they'd both just pass out soon and then the others could --

  Someone landed behind him. Gregor almost went limp with relief. Then he remembered he was not the one being rescued and reinforced his grip on Ares's wings. Gregor leaned his head against the bat, shut his eyes, and just kept talking, kept talking until somehow they were lying on the floor of the cave.

  Gregor released his stiff limbs and turned his head. Both Howard and Luxa were behind him on Ares.

  "It took both of us to bring in Nike," said Howard. "We thought you might need a hand."

  "I did. Thanks," said Gregor. He looked at Luxa. Remembered that he had been about to tell her something when the currents had knocked him into the tunnel ceiling.

  Ripred's nose pushed him off Ares. "Off. Off. Let him breathe."

  Gregor rolled off on to his side and wobbled to his feet. All four bats were lying on the floor, too traumatized to get up.

  "Well, there goes our ride," said Ripred in frustration. "It will take hours for them to recover."

 
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