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Gregor and the marks of.., p.19
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.19

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Quite the contrary. But obviously, the rest of us need to keep an eye on you," said Ripred, only half-joking.

  They loaded Cartesian, Boots, Hazard, and Temp onto Ares's back. Gregor rinsed out his water bottle and filled it with clear spring water. He placed it in his backpack with the binoculars, duct tape, batteries, and all the flashlights, even the one he usually wore on his belt. Then he slid the backpack around Luxa's shoulders.

  "What is this?" she asked him as he adjusted the straps. While the supplies from Regalia were common property on trips, Gregor's backpack was always treated as if it was exclusively his.

  "I don't need it. You might," he said. "You know how to change the batteries in the flashlights, right?"

  "I think so. But what will you do for light on the way back to Regalia?" she asked.

  Gregor held up Boots's scepter and hit the on button. "I've got it covered."

  When they hugged good-bye, there was one moment where he thought he wouldn't let go. But he did. He embraced Howard, too. Kind of patted the bats. Nodded to Ripred since the rat wasn't particularly physical unless he was knocking you down. Then Gregor climbed up on Ares. He took them all in ... Luxa, Howard, Nike, Aurora, and Ripred ... knowing there was a good chance, a really good chance, he might never see them again.

  "Run like the river, boy," said Ripred.

  "Fly you high," said Gregor back. But it was Luxa's face he could not take his eyes off of as Ares lifted into the air.

  He lay down between Boots and Hazard and put an arm around each of them. Temp sat at his feet, to watch over Cartesian.

  Gregor turned off the scepter to save whatever light might be left in it. The thing had already performed way beyond expectations. For a while, there was a faint aura from the jungle below. Then it was pitch-black.

  He wanted badly to sleep, knew he needed to. But sleep did not come. The darkness made him highly sensitive to sound. Sometimes he would hear a rushing stream or a cry from some kind of animal, but mostly there were the sounds they carried with them. The flap of Ares's wings, Boots's soft breathing, and Hazard's ramblings in his drugged sleep. Gregor caught words here and there ... Thalia ... mother ... secret...

  Secret. The very word filled Gregor with weariness. How exhausting it was to keep a secret, to hide a secret, to discover a secret, to know a secret existed and waited for you in the dark.

  This summer had been nothing but secrets. The scars on his legs that no one in New York could see. The clandestine visit to Queenshead. The hidden mark of the scythe under Cevian's body. Lying to Vikus about the picnic. Sandwich's concealing the prophecy as a song. And the worst secret of all... the truth of what the rats were doing to the mice.

  There was another secret waiting back in Regalia -- at least it was a secret to Gregor -- about what Sandwich had written in "The Prophecy of Time."

  But Gregor didn't think it was as big a mystery as his friends imagined. No one could even begin to tell him the truth about it. So he could only assume one thing. That in no uncertain terms, the new prophecy called for death. Either his own, or that of someone he deeply loved. What else could make even Ripred stumble around for an explanation when it was mentioned?

  A new sound filtered through his thoughts. The sound of claws, rat claws, against the stone surface below him. Gregor rolled over onto his stomach and looked over Ares's shoulder, but of course he could see nothing without light. The rats picked up on their presence, though, smelling them, even recognizing Gregor's scent because they were screaming his name, calling for his death.

  In a few minutes, it was quiet again.

  "How many were there?" Gregor asked Ares.

  "Six or seven hundred," said Ares.

  "Heading to Regalia or the Firelands?" said Gregor.

  "Regalia," said Ares.

  "Do you think the Regalians know the rats are coming?" said Gregor.

  "I do not know," said Ares and his wings began to beat even faster.

  Gregor thought of the unsuspecting city lying in wait, of all the people, of his mom in her hospital bed ... and Ares could not go fast enough.

  By the time the bat had reached High Hall, it was clear no one knew about the approaching army of rats. They were waved through the gate without any special clearance, although they did get some worried looks. No extra guards were posted. In the city, people were going about their regular business.

  The instant they landed, Gregor ordered the guards to take the rest of his party to the hospital. "And tell Vikus the city is about to be attacked by gnawers."

  Before they could ask any questions, Gregor took off down the hall. His knee was swollen and pain stabbed him at every step, but he didn't stop. He knew his way around the palace now. It didn't take long to get to the museum.

  Sandwich's sword was in its usual place, still carefully wrapped in cloth. It hadn't been touched since he'd last seen it. He reached for it and something caught his eye. Mrs. Cormaci's camera. He'd put it in here after the party, so it wouldn't get broken or anything. Beside it was the stack of photos he'd taken the day of Hazard's party. His mom had suggested Gregor take them home and put them in a special album for Hazard.

  He couldn't stop himself from lifting the photos. On the top of the stack was the first picture he'd taken of a beaming Hazard and Thalia. It was only about a week ago, but it seemed like another lifetime. Now Hazard was crazed with grief and Thalia lay dead in the pit with the nibblers. Five of his friends were on a desperate mission in the Firelands to warn the nibblers and try to assemble an army. Rats would surround the city in a few hours, fueled by the Bane's hatred.

  Gregor's hands began to tremble. A few of the photos fell to the ground. He quickly scooped them up and found himself looking at one he'd never seen. Who had even taken it? It was a picture of him dancing with Luxa. The camera had caught the moment where he lifted herupintheair.Theywerebothlaughing.Heremembered just how happy he'd been....

  Then the trumpets began to blare out their warning. Frightened voices called to one another in the hall. Everyone knew now. The rats were coming.

  Gregor tucked the photo of the dance in his pocket and piled the rest on the shelf. He pulled the sword from his belt arid tossed it away. The soft, silky fabric was cool on his hands as he unrolled Sandwich's sword. The sight of it, covered with jewels and intricate carvings, took his breath away. He had forgotten how awesome it was.

  He hesitated a moment. To take up Sandwich's sword. But why? He had already made his choice, back when he had watched the mice dying in that cloud of poison gas. He would fight because he could think of no other option. But what would that mean for him, the warrior? Who would he be ... if he survived ... who would he be when he laid down Sandwich's sword?

  No, not Sandwich's. It was his now. His hand grasped the hilt and he made a few cuts in the air. A deep, satisfying swish accompanied each movement. It was heavier than he expected but perfectly balanced. It made every sword he'd ever held seem like some cheap plastic thing you might wear as part of your Halloween costume. He slid the blade in his belt, letting his hand rest on the hilt, feeling its weight, its Tightness. Something new welled up inside him. A sense of power he was not accustomed to. It came from wearing the sword. "Don't let it leave your side again," Ripred had said. Gregor didn't think there was any danger of that.

  "Have you found all that you need?" Vikus's voice was infused with sadness. He had never wanted to give Gregor the sword in the first place.

  "Yeah," said Gregor without turning to see him at the door. He tightened his hand on the jeweled hilt. "Yeah, I think I've got it."

  Suzanne Collins, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, ISBN: - 9780439791465

 
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