Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.17Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
"Catch the nibblers in a trap. Watch the nibblers spin and snap. "
It was too awful, watching her dancing around like a mouse after what they had just witnessed. With Cartesian lying beside him. "Stop it, Boots," Gregor said, but she was caught up in the song. She curled right up on the ground and pretended to sleep.
"Quiet while they take a nap. "
"Stop it!" repeated Gregor, more harshly than he had intended. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. Her lips pressed together and he could see tears filling her eyes. Gregor hugged her close to him. "Sorry, I'm sorry. It's just not a good time for dancing," he told her.
"Mouses do dance," she said. "I just do dance like mouses."
"I know," said Gregor. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"I want to dance like the mouses do dance," said Boots, sniffling.
"It's okay. Don't cry," said Gregor, stroking her curls. He guessed the writhing of the mice had looked like a dance from the distance. In fact, the words from the song: Catch the nibblers in a trap. Watch the nibblers spin and snap.
They very accurately described what he had just seen....
Quiet while they take a nap.
Gregor turned and took in the lifeless bodies in the distance. If you didn't know they were dead, like Boots you'd think they were taking a nap. The words of the song began to drum in his brain.
Catch the nibblers in a trap.
Watch the nibblers spin and snap.
Quiet while they take a nap.
"She's right," he said aloud. "How so?" asked Ares.
"That song. That part about the nibblers," said Gregor. "We just watched it happen."
Father, mother, sister, brother.
Whole families had died out there.
Off they go. I do not know If we will see another. They wouldn't see another, if the Bane had his way. He was determined to kill them all and --
"That's not a song," said Gregor suddenly. "That's a prophecy! Don't you see?"
He could tell by the expressions on their faces that they didn't. It had been a song so long, for hundreds of years. It was like someone telling him that "Hey Diddle Diddle" would explain a train wreck in Nevada. But Gregor had not grown up singing the song and doing the happy little dance that accompanied it. To him, the words were still new, and now they were sinister.
"Sandwich wrote it, right?" said Gregor. "He carved it in the nursery."
"Yes, he carved it in the nursery, not the room of prophecies. And we do not know who wrote it, it is so old," said Luxa.
"It didn't come from the Overland. We don't have nibblers. It's from down here and Sandwich made it up and it's happening now!" said Gregor, totally convinced. "We just watched the nibblers get caught in a trap and dance all around and take a nap, only it isn't a nap, not the kind you wake up from! 'Father, mother, sister, brother, off they go'! To die! Don't you see?"
The others didn't look convinced, but Ripred pushed aside Howard's hands and began to pace. "What is it? That nonsense in the first verse. How does it go? Someone sing it!"
Hazard's high voice piped up.
"Dancing in the firelight
See the queen who conquers night.
Gold flows from her, hot and bright. "
"That's enough. 'Dancing in the firelight...'" The rat stared out at the glowing volcano. "We've got firelight, anyway."
"'See the queen who conquers night,'" said Nike. "Luxa, you could be the queen."
"I am not dancing," said Luxa. "Nor have I been."
"Maybe it's not the queen who dances," said Howard. "Things may be said to dance in the light. When it flickers. Someone's eyes, water, anything really...."
"The nibblers danced in the firelight," said Aurora.
"We still need a queen," said Ripred.
"'Gold flows from her, hot and bright,'" said Ares. "Luxa has no gold."
"I have nothing but rags," said Luxa, looking down at her tattered clothes. "I cannot be the queen."
There was a low but unmistakable rumble. Everyone's head turned to the volcano. A thin stream of lava bubbled out of the top and ran down the side toward the pit. As gold as gold can be.
"'Gold flows from her, hot and bright...'" said Nike. "You do not think --"
"I think the Overlander's right," said Ripred. He nodded at the volcano. "There's your gold."
"And there's your queen," said Gregor.
Asecond, louder rumble shook the ground under their feet. "Get out of here!" shouted Ripred. Everything fell into confusion as they tried to mount the bats. They had changed riders so many times during the trip that no one was sure where their designated seat was. Gregor grabbed Boots and jumped on Ares, only to remember that no other bat could carry Ripred. He slid off and slipped on a battery, which was lucky, because it reminded him to scoop all the stuff he had dumped out earlier into his backpack and sling it over his shoulder. By that time, Boots had run off and had climbed on Temp's back.
"Stop!" called out Ares. "Luxa, Hazard, Gregor, and Boots on Aurora. Howard, Temp, and Cartesian on Nike. Thalia, fly under me in case you tire." He assumed the takeoff position and said to Ripred, "Let us go."
Everyone stumbled around but by following Ares's directions managed to get a seat. Gregor ended up at the front of the bat with Boots hugging him around his neck. Hazard and Luxa swung up behind them.
The second the bats left the cave they were swept up in the strong current that was blowing in from a cave overhead. It was the same current that had cleared away the ashen air and assured that the poisonous gas did not drift their way. Now it was carrying them directly toward the glowing volcano.
Gregor was afraid the bats were going to flip out again, but they were doing all right. It was not one current that overwhelmed them but the convergence of multiple airstreams that had occurred earlier. Almost immediately he felt Aurora turn away from the volcano and begin to head into the wind. It was so strong, they made little forward motion. He wrapped his arms around Boots, trying to block as much of it as possible. Switching tactics, all the bats suddenly whipped back around and flew straight for the volcano. At first it seemed insane, but then Gregor realized that the only way they could get away from the volcano was by riding the current that blew right over it.
Between the force of the wind and the bats' own wing power, they were moving through space at an incredible velocity. The volcano, which had been a distant vision, quickly rose up in front of them.
Gregor was awestruck by the "queen." She was majestic and imposing but most of all furious. Clouds of steam hissed from fissures in her sides. Molten lava oozed out of her top and flowed downward in fiery streams. Even with the wind whistling in his ears, Gregor could hear her rumbling growing into a roar.
As they flew out over the volcano, Gregor could see the bubbling lake of lava brewing inside. The air seared his lungs. Everything was suffused with a hot red light, including the pit where the dead mice lay. Gregor pressed his cheek against Boots's so she couldn't turn her head in the direction of the mice. But he forced himself to look at the bodies, to keep the image clear and alive in his brain. He knew he had to be able to tell their story, and tell it as fully as he could, when he returned to Regalia. He had to be able to impress upon people the magnitude of what had happened. Was happening. So much counted on it. Gregor began to feel dizzy. Some of the fumes rising out of the volcano must be riding along the current with them. He knew the fumes must be affecting the bats as well, but none of them showed any sign of slowing. They left the volcano behind as quickly as they had approached it.
Another ominous rumble rattled the earth below them. Gregor was feeling sicker, not better, as they flew on. What if they were just riding along in a pocket of poisonous gas and it was only a matter of time before they were overcome? He tightened his hold on Boots.
"You okay, Boots?" he hollered over the wind.
"I sleepy," she said. "I take a nap."
"Oh, no. No
"Okay," said Boots faintly, but he could feel her trying to nestle up against him.
"A tunnel! Find a tunnel!" he heard Ripred shout.
They were approaching a giant stone wall that signaled the far end of the cavern. The bats began to dodge in and out of openings on the wall, trying to judge what was merely a cave and what might be a tunnel and a means of escape. Above him Gregor saw Nike begin to circle at an opening. Howard was waving his arms wildly for them to follow. Aurora made straight for the tunnel. Nike disappeared inside it first, followed by Ares, who now had Thalia locked in his claws. Aurora brought up the rear.
Gregor immediately felt safer when they entered the tunnel. The air was still nasty, but at least they were out of the volcano's reach. He relaxed his grip on Boots a little and was just turning to check on Luxa and Hazard when the "queen" erupted.
Nothing else could account for the deafening explosion, which rattled his teeth, sent flares of color shooting before his eyes, and left him unable to hear anything but a shrill ringing in his ears.
A blast of hot air hit them and then there was no air, only a stinging cloud of ash and dust that blocked out everything else. He struggled to breathe, to see, thought he must pull Boots's T-shirt up over her face to protect her. He could feel himself losing consciousness and felt Luxa's grip on his shoulder loosening. "No," he wanted to cry out. "Hold on! Hold on! Boots!" That was the last thing he remembered... .
When he came to, Gregor was lying facedown on what felt like a large rock. His chin hung off a sharp ledge. He began coughing immediately. As he sat up he could feel the ash falling from his body, sending up a cloud, making it even harder to breathe. He staggered forward a few steps and fell off the rock hard, landing in at least four feet of ash. Struggling back to his feet, he began to wade through the stuff, waving his hands blindly in front of him. His head pounded so badly, he thought the pain might actually split it in two. Making it to a wall, he braced himself and vomited until nothing but bile came from his stomach. Trembling and disoriented, he leaned against the wall and tried to clear his thoughts.
"What happened?" he thought. He remembered the volcano ... flying ... a vision of the mice glowing in the red light... light... he needed light....
Gregor fumbled for the flashlight at his belt and found the switch. At first he thought it was broken. Then he realized the plastic face was obscured by ash. He knocked the flashlight against the wall and wiped it as best as he could on the inside of his shirt.
The light revealed a large tunnel blanketed in gray dust. It had drifted into deep banks like snow in places. In others, just a fine layer covered the floor. Gregor waded to a relatively clear spot to try to get his bearings. He must have passed out and slipped off Aurora's back at some point. But then where was Boots? She had been in his arms. Where were Luxa and Hazard? Where were the others?
"Where are the others?" Gregor remembered Cartesian's panicked cry. "Where are the others?"
Gregor plowed back to the rock, dragging his feet through the ash, trying to locate anyone else who might have fallen with him. By the time he had covered the area, he was choking on a cloud of dust but had discovered no one. He started down the tunnel in the direction his head had been pointing when he awoke, hoping that he might find the rest of the party ahead.
The smooth surface of the ash was unbroken by footprints. It muffled his footsteps, making them barely audible to his still ringing ears. He had never felt so alone in his life. Never had been, probably. There was no sign of life anywhere. It was a miracle he was even alive, that he had not suffocated in the eruption. Probably he would have if his chin hadn't been hanging off the rock. If he'd landed on the ground, most likely he'd have been buried alive and died under the ash.
"Where are the others? Where are the others?" Cartesian's voice screamed in Gregor's brain.
What if none of them had survived? What if they had all fallen unconscious to the tunnel floor? Maybe he was passing by them as he shuffled along, unaware of their bodies under ...
Gregor stopped and pressed his palms against his eyes. "Don't. Don't think like that. Just keep walking. You just keep walking."
It was impossible to gauge how much time was passing. The tunnel remained unchanged. His breath came in short ragged gasps. Every inch of him, inside and out, seemed coated in a layer of ash.
He remembered the water in his backpack and popped it open. The first mouthful he just swished around his mouth, rinsing the grit from his teeth, and spat on the floor. Then he took a long, deep drink, not bothering to ration it. Feeling slightly better, he trudged on.
At some point, he became aware of a faint breeze on his face. "Another current," he thought, and wondered if he should try to take cover behind a rock. But the breeze remained gentle and carried air that was definitely sweeter than what he'd been breathing. It eased the pain in his chest and the ache in his temples.
He thought the twinkle of light in the distance was only a reflection of his own light. But when he directed his beam to the ground, he could still see it there. He moved faster, causing more dust to rise. "Hey!" he tried to call. "Hey!" But he couldn't even hear his own voice.
Then he could make out a figure, as ghostly and gray as his surroundings. He caught glimpses of the light again, brighter now. Gregor broke into a run, more like a clumsy gallop really, because his knee had been damaged when he stepped off the rock.
"Hey!" he called again, and this time he heard himself and the figure turned.
Gregor stopped short. One look at Howard's face confirmed what Gregor had been dreading. Someone was dead.
"Who is it?" said Gregor, his heart slamming against his chest. "Not Boots?"
Howard stepped aside, squinting at the gray figures before him. Boots was all right. She was sitting on Temp's back, holding her scepter with its tiny light. At first glance, everyone looked all right. Ripred, Cartesian, Luxa, Hazard, the cluster of four bats. But he had miscounted. Only three bats huddled together. Lying on the floor, almost obscured by the dust, her head cradled in Hazard's lap, was Thalia.
"Oh ... not Thalia," he said. Silly, laughing little bat. But brave, too. Going under the river water to retrieve Hazard. Trying so hard to keep up with the full-grown bats. Still trying after the flood and the scorpions and the nightmarish currents.
Gregor thought of the last joke he'd told her. "What did one wall say to the other wall?" And how her frightened sobs had turned to giggles at the punch line. "Meet you at the corner." She was barely more than a baby really.
He walked over and knelt by Thalia's side. She looked so tiny, with her wings folded against her. Without that bright bubbly thing that was Thalia radiating from inside her. He gently laid a hand on her chest, brushing away some of the ash, revealing a small patch of peach-colored fur.
Hazard wept inconsolably, his tears raining down on Thalia's face. "It was the mark. The mark of secret. It took my mother and now it took her."
Under the gray powder, Luxa's face was still and distant. "It was my fault," she said. "I should never have allowed any of them to come on the picnic."
"The picnic was not the danger, Cousin," said Howard. "I was the one who insisted on trying the Swag, and it was there our troubles began."
"No, I did not fly fast enough," said Ares. "I had her, but I did not fly fast enough."
"Stop it, all of you," said Ripred. "She died from poisonous fumes, not by any of your hands. She was flying, so she breathed deeper. She is small, so she succumbed more quickly. None of you are to blame."
The whole episode was beginning to worry Boots. She slid off Temp's back and came over to Thalia. "Wake up! Wake up, Thalia!"
"Don't, Boots," said Gregor, catching her hand.
"She needs to wake up," said Boots. "Hazard is crying. When does she wake up?" Gregor could not find it within him to give his standard reply. To pretend that in a
"She doesn't wake up?" said Boots.
"No, not this time," said Gregor. "This time, she had to go away."
Boots looked around at all their faces, at Hazard crying. "Where did she go?" No one had an answer. "Where is Thalia when she doesn't wake up?"
The question hung in the air for an eternity. Finally, it was Howard who spoke up. "Why, she's in your heart, Boots."
"My heart?" said Boots, putting both hands on her chest.
"Yes. That's where she lives now," said Howard.
"She can fly away?" asked Boots, pressing her palms tightly against her heart as if to keep Thalia from escaping.
"Oh, no, she will stay there forever," said Howard. Boots looked up at Gregor for confirmation. He gave her a nod. She went back over and climbed onto Temp's shell thoughtfully.
"If you mean to do something with her, do it now. We cannot stay here long or this dust will finish us all," said Ripred.
"I will take her," said Ares.
"Hazard, you must say good-bye now," said Luxa.
"No!" cried Hazard. "No! You can't take her! I won't let you!"
And then an awful scene followed where they literally had to drag Hazard from Thalia so that Ares could take her body away. To where, Gregor did not know. There was no comforting the little boy. Howard finally got a dose of sedative down his throat between wails, and his sobs quieted.
Ripred sent Aurora and Nike ahead to scout for a less toxic area. While they were gone, Howard cradled Hazard in his arms and rocked him back and forth. "You know, I lost my bond, too," said Howard. Thalia and Hazard had not been officially bonds, but it seemed a minor detail now. "Pandora was her name."
"What happened to her?" asked Hazard.
"We were on the Waterway. She flew out over an island and was attacked by mites. They killed her," said Howard.
"Couldn't you help her?" asked Hazard.
"No. I wanted to. Even when she was lost I still wanted to try. But there was nothing I could do," said Howard. "Nothing but cry, just like you are crying now."
"What was she like?" asked Hazard.
Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins / Science Fiction / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes