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Gregor and the marks of.., p.16
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.16

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "It would help if they could hang," said Howard, running his hands over Nike.

  "There's a ledge in the back," said Hazard.

  "Good, Hazard. Excellent," said Howard. "Let us see if we can get Thalia on it."

  Gregor was not sure exactly what they were doing, but he helped Howard carry Thalia back to a rock ledge and flip her upside down. Her claws immediately fastened on the rim, and her body seemed to relax. On trips the bats usually slept huddled together on their feet, but of course, this was their most natural resting position.

  One by one, Gregor and Howard moved the bats to the back of the cave and hung them from the ledge. They shifted their claws only enough to move into a tight line. None of them spoke, but they seemed calmer.

  "Rest," Howard said to them. "All is well. Rest."

  Everyone gathered near the bats, as far away from the howling winds as possible. Temp discovered some mushrooms that were edible. They broke the mushrooms off the cave wall and ate them straightaway, ravenous from the workout. Then they passed around a water bag.

  "To sleep, go you all, to sleep," said Temp. "Watch, will I, watch."

  Since there seemed little danger of anything getting into the cave, everyone took him up on his offer.

  Sometime later, Gregor awoke to the sound of the others breathing. The wind noise was gone. He could see the outline of Temp, sitting patiently at the front of the cave. As Gregor rolled over, his ear pressed against the stone and he heard another sound. A faint scratching intermingled with a sort of tapping. He sat up and found Ripred awake beside him in the dark.

  "I can hear something. Scratching around," said Gregor.

  "I know. It's nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep," said Ripred.

  Feeling secure under the rat's guard, Gregor did as he said.

  Hours must have passed when Gregor felt Howard shaking his shoulder. "Gregor, the currents come and go. We need to move on while they are still." Gregor was so stiff and bruised, he had trouble getting to his feet. He could only imagine how bad the bats must feel. They were on the ground now, nibbling some mushrooms. Gregor crossed to Ares. "Hey. Are you all right?"

  "Yes," said Ares, but his voice was weak.

  "We must never be in those currents again," said Nike.

  "It is madness," said Aurora.

  And Thalia began to cry just at the memory of it. She huddled in Nike's wings miserably.

  "Hey, Thalia, I've got a special one for you," said Gregor gently. "What did one wall say to the other wall?"

  "I do not know," sobbed the bat.

  " 'Meet you at the corner,'" said Gregor.

  It took a few moments for the joke to sink in, and then Thalia's sobs were interwoven with giggles and finally she was just laughing. A little more shrilly than usual, but laughing all the same. The other bats laughed, too, happy to see Thalia distracted.

  They had to move on. Somewhere the nibblers were in peril. Precious time was running out. The bats were still in need of recovery, but it couldn't be helped.

  "Do we have any idea where the rats have the mice?" asked Gregor.

  "I believe if we follow this cavern we will intersect the path the rats were driving them along," said Ripred.

  "Do not fly out into open space. Stick close to the walls. Always keep a cave or two in sight that we may take cover there if the currents resume," said Luxa.

  "Now that is a good plan, Your Highness. And how refreshing that you have one," said Ripred. But Luxa was too tired to do more than shoot him a look.

  They took off, flying close to the walls. Gregor kept expecting the cavern to end or dwindle into a series of tunnels. Instead it went on and on. It was by far the largest open space he had seen in the Underland, except for the Waterway. He saw his first volcano after about an hour. It was quiet, except for the plumes of smoke that wafted out of its top. They passed others. Some rumbled threateningly. One had a few steady streams of lava leaking from it. None of them were really exploding, but they made the air hot and fetid.

  Occasionally the currents picked up and they would quickly dive into nearby caves until the winds died down enough for safe flying. On the good side, after a windstorm the air was usually somewhat more breathable. About the fifth time they headed in for a landing, Gregor thought the bats were overreacting. The currents were barely more than a breeze. Then he realized the stop had nothing to do with the wind.

  Ripred ordered them all to flatten out on the floor before he remembered he wasn't in charge. "Sorry," he said to Luxa. "Old habit."

  "Do as he says," said Luxa. She was already on the floor, peering out from behind a small pile of rocks. Gregor got on his stomach and then scooted up beside her.

  At first, he didn't know what he was looking at. There was a volcano. A golden glow issued from the top. That wasn't a reason for pulling over, though.

  Then he heard Cartesian's voice behind him as it whispered, "The others."

  ***

  CHAPTER 22

  Gregor squinted into the ashy gray light and finally made out the nibblers. They were walking single file down a long curved path that began at what looked like the mouth of a tunnel high in the rocks and that led to a pit at the base of the volcano. On one side the path ran along the edge of a sheer cliff with sharp rocks at the base. A stone wall ran along the other side of the path, blocking the view of the pit from their sight. It wasn't until the nibblers were almost at the bottom that they realized where the rats were sending them.

  The nibblers who had reached the pit began to squeal out warnings to those following them. Gregor could see the alarm spreading up the path. Mice turned and tried to force their way back up, some literally crawling over the backs of the others to try to reach the tunnel at the top. A handful made it only to be driven back by rats. Then the mice began to shriek as a large boulder was rolled into place, sealing the mouth of the tunnel. They threw themselves against the boulder but could not budge it.

  "Let us go!" cried Luxa, jumping to her feet.

  "And do what?" asked Ripred, stepping in front of her. "You, all of you, you've got to stop running into dangerous situations without using your heads! There is no faster way to get killed!"

  "We can carry them out of the pit to safety!" said Luxa.

  "Yes, a handful of them. But there are hundreds trapped down there. Do you not think the rats might notice an airlift going on? And then what? We lose the one element we have in our favor. Surprise," said Ripred.

  "Then what do you want us to do?" demanded Luxa. "Wait for the volcano to smother them in lava?"

  "I want you to think about it a moment!" snapped Ripred.

  "Vis for volcano," Boots reminded everyone. "And valentine." She poked Ripred on the haunch with her scepter. "Valentine!" Ripred sighed. "Why are you here?"

  A gust of wind swept by, drawing everyone's attention. "Oh, great. The currents are starting up again," thought Gregor. If they became too strong, the bats wouldn't be able to navigate them. At least they were clearing the air a little. One overriding current seemed to be blowing out of a nearby cave. It was sweeping the ashy haze toward the nibblers and giving Gregor his first breath of clean air in hours.

  "Look, the nibblers are taking action," said Howard.

  The mice had overcome their initial panic and were organizing themselves to carry out an escape plan. They had begun to build a pyramid by bracing themselves along the far wall of the pit. A single row of mice formed the base. Others were swarming onto their backs swiftly. The pyramid was rising before their eyes.

  "That's smart. A pyramid," said Gregor.

  "No, it is the Isosceles Maneuver," said Cartesian.

  Gregor looked at him. For the first time since Cartesian had joined them, the mouse seemed lucid. "What's that?" Gregor said.

  "It is not a true pyramid, for it has three, not four, points. Rather, they aspire to mimic a two-dimensional triangle," said Cartesian.

  "Oh," said Gregor. It seemed to him that at home almost anything with people s
tanding on top of other people was called a pyramid, but he didn't feel like arguing the point with Cartesian, especially after all the mouse had been through.

  "See, they have a plan. Let's work with it," said Ripred. "What they need is someone to hold that path if the rats come through."

  "Then we will do so," said Luxa.

  "Agreed. Temp, watch the pups. The rest of you mount up," said Ripred.

  Gregor was about to jump onto Ares when Ripred stopped him. "No, I'll need him to get to the path. Ride with someone else and change over when he drops me off."

  "Here, Gregor," said Howard. He extended a hand and pulled Gregor up behind him on Nike.

  "We should wait until the boulder begins to move. That will give us time to reach the path but not alert the rats to our presence beforehand," said Luxa.

  "Good. Very good. Now you are thinking," said Ripred. "Everyone wait for it, as she says."

  They sat watching, tense and poised for takeoff.

  The mouse pyramid was nearing the top of the pit. Soon they would be able to begin freeing themselves. Still the boulder didn't budge.

  "If there were to be lava, would we have some warning?" asked Howard.

  "Generally, I believe there's a rumbling, some sort of sound," said Ripred. "Although I am no expert."

  The first nibblers began to climb over the edge of the pit. The escape plan was working.

  "Maybe the rats won't come back," said Gregor. "Maybe they didn't figure the mice could get out."

  The mice were sending the pups up now. Trying to save them first. When five little ones had reached the top, a pair of full-grown mice began to corral them away from the pit as fast as possible. No rats appeared to interfere.

  Back in the tunnel, they watched silently for a few more minutes.

  Then Luxa broke the silence. "Something is wrong. Why would the rats allow this?"

  "They wouldn't," said Ripred. He paused. "Unless they were expecting something else to do their work for them."

  "But there's no lava. The volcano isn't even erupting," said Gregor. Suddenly Temp began to wave his antennas, his feet stepping nervously on the ground. "Not lava, it be, not lava," said the cockroach.

  "What is it, Temp? What's wrong?" asked Gregor. One thing he had learned from past experience: If Temp was alarmed, there was good reason.

  "Not lava, it be ... it be --" Temp did not know the words for it. He broke off and began clicking in agitation.

  "What's he saying, Hazard?" asked Gregor.

  "I don't know. It doesn't make sense. I think he's saying the volcano is breathing," said Hazard.

  Boots puffed out her cheeks and blew a stream of air in Gregor's face. "Like this. It goes breathing like this." She blew again. "Like balloon goes out."

  "The nibblers. Something is happening to them!" said Howard.

  Gregor squinted to make out the scene in the distance. His eyes flew to the boulder first to see if the rats had pushed it aside, but it was still fixed in place. He scanned the mice. They looked okay. They looked fine. Then one mouse at the top of the pyramid fell. Then another. Then the entire pyramid disintegrated.

  Every last mouse left in the pit had collapsed in a heap. But they weren't dead. He could see their bodies flailing around.

  Chaos broke out in the cave.

  "What is going on?" cried Gregor.

  "We must go!" cried Luxa.

  "Not go, you do, not go!" begged Temp.

  "Take flight, Aurora!" insisted Luxa.

  Aurora seemed as eager to go as her bond. She extended her wings to take off. With lightning-fast speed Ripred leaped at the pair, flipped Aurora onto her back, and threw himself across her body. Luxa, who was trapped under Aurora's shoulder, yelled at him furiously, but Ripred completely ignored her.

  Gregor upended his backpack, dumping the contents on the ground, and snatched the binoculars. He trained them on the mice and felt his heart start to pound.

  "What do you see, boy? What's happening to them?" said Ripred.

  Gregor stammered as he tried to describe the nightmare unfolding before his eyes. "I don't know! They can't! They --" The mice were rolling on the ground, pawing at the air, at their necks, their bodies wracked with terrible spasms. "They can't breathe!" he finally burst out. "They're suffocating!" Luxa was screaming like a maniac. Hazard pushed on Ripred's shoulder, trying to move him. "Let her up! Let her up!"

  Howard grabbed Hazard and forced the boy's face into his shoulder. "No, Hazard. She cannot go. She cannot help them," he said. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

  Now they could hear the desperate screams coming from the pit. Cartesian limped to the cave opening and tried to fling himself into the air, to either catch a current to help the other nibblers or simply kill himself. Gregor didn't know which. But Ares caught Cartesian before he fell.

  "It's poisonous gas," said Ripred. "It must be leaking from the volcano."

  "But I can't see it! I can't see anything!" said Gregor. His hands shook as he tried to adjust the binoculars.

  "It has no color," said Howard.

  "Nor odor that I can detect," said Ripred, his nose twitching furiously. "Of course, the wind carries it away from us -- will you hold still!" he growled at Luxa. "Temp, are we in any jeopardy here?"

  "Heavy, the poison be, heavy," said Temp.

  "Then it's all settling in the pit," said Ripred grimly. When Gregor saw a pup, gasping to draw air, fall lifeless from its mother's back, he had to drop the binoculars. But now that the currents had cleared the air, the nibblers' agony was visible from the tunnel. They went into convulsions, teeth snapping on empty air, claws lashing out to battle an enemy they couldn't see.

  "Nike, can you shield Thalia's view?" said Howard. "She has seen too much!" Nike enveloped Thalia in her wings.

  "Come here, Boots!" said Gregor, scooping up his sister and laying his hand over her eyes to block the gruesome scene, although it did not seem to be upsetting her. She wriggled to get free.

  "No, Gre-go, I want down!" said Boots.

  "Get off of me!" Luxa freed her sword and stabbed it into Ripred's shoulder.

  "Aah!" cried the rat, leaping back. Blood poured from the wound. His gums pulled back, showing his newly sharpened teeth.

  Aurora righted herself and Luxa sprang to her feet, Ripred's blood dripping off her blade.

  Gregor dropped Boots and was pulling his sword to step between them when Ripred snarled at Luxa,

  "Fine, you stupid brat! Fly right into it and get yourself killed!"

  "Shh," said Boots, putting her forefinger to her lips. "You are too loud."

  Luxa spun around to the cave mouth, preparing to mount Aurora. Then Luxa saw the mice and froze, one hand clutching the fur at her bat's neck.

  The screams had faded away. Here and there was a bit of movement. Then all was still.

  The only sound in the cave was Howard, softly weeping.

  "Shh," said Boots, patting him. "Shh. The mouses are sleeping."

  ***

  CHAPTER 23

  "They sleeping? Right, Gre-go?" asked Boots, frowning slightly.

  "That's right, Boots," said Gregor, trying to keep his voice steady. "They're sleeping." This was what he always told her when something died. Even if they found a dead bird on the playground, he'd tell her it was asleep and then pick it up with an old newspaper or something and hide it in the trash when she wasn't looking. Later she'd see it was missing and be happy it had flown away to its home. And Gregor would act happy with her. If he couldn't tell her that a pigeon had died, there was no way he could tell her about the mice.

  "I know. They take a nap. Like in the song," she said, reassured.

  "That's right. Like in the song," said Gregor.

  "Ripred. Is there anything we can do?" said Luxa hoarsely. "Please."

  "No, Luxa," said Ripred. Gregor thought this was the first time he had ever heard Ripred call her by name. "Nothing can be done for them."

  "May I see your glasses, Gregor?" she asked.
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  Gregor was reluctant to give her the binoculars. It was bad enough from a distance. Magnified, the scene was even more horrific. "They're not really working," he mumbled. But she took the binoculars from his hand and pointed them at the mice.

  "So this is it," she said. "This is how they plan to kill them all."

  "Without the nibblers resisting," said Ares.

  "You may let me go," said Cartesian quietly, and Ares released him. The mouse curled into a ball and buried his face.

  "I thought they would starve the nibblers, attempt to drown them perhaps. But this ... this has no precedent," said Nike.

  "This has too much precedent," said Ripred grimly. He began lapping away the blood from his shoulder.

  "Let me," said Howard. He gave Hazard to Luxa and got out his medical kit. "It is not too deep," he said, examining Ripred's shoulder.

  "It's deep enough," said Ripred, shooting a look at Luxa. "I consider my debt paid. My life for your life."

  "Yes. Paid in full," said Luxa.

  Everyone sat there stunned, watching Howard bandage Ripred's wound. They avoided looking out where the murdered mice lay in the pit.

  Gregor could not make sense of what had just happened. He had seen death before, plenty of it. But nothing like this. It was not just the number of dead. When they had fought the ants in the jungle, the ground had been covered in corpses. But that had been a battle, with two armed forces facing each other. It had been horrible, but at least everyone had had a fighting chance to survive. What had happened to the mice ... trapped in the pit... unable to even defend themselves against the gas ... not just soldiers but everyone, even the pups ... it was murder on a grand scale. It was a massacre. And probably only one of many.

  Only Boots seemed unaffected by what had just occurred. "Hazard dances with me?" she said, tugging on her friend's hand.

  "No, Boots, I cannot," said Hazard.

  "I dance myself," said Boots. She began singing as she spun in a circle.

  "Dancing in the firelight

  See the queen who conquers night.

  Gold flows from her, hot and bright.

  Father, mother, sister, brother,

  Off they go. I do not know If we will see another. "

  Gregor vaguely wondered if he should stop her. It seemed disrespectful to the nibblers. But he could not seem to speak.

  Boots turned into a mouse now, pawing the air and spinning here and there.

 
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