Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.2Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
"What's that smell?" he asked.
"Lizzie sent you this," Gregor said, and tossed the doughnut at the rat.
Ripred easily caught it in his mouth and rolled it around, savoring the sweetness. "Lizzie. Why is it I never get to spend time with the nice members of your family?" asked Ripred. "And the bag?"
"It's from Mrs. Cormaci," said Gregor.
"Ah, La Bella Cormaci," sighed Ripred. "And what does the enchantress of the kitchen send me today?"
"See for yourself," said Gregor. He was about to send the macaroni salad sailing after the doughnut when he heard a scuffling in the adjacent tunnel. The sound startled him. No one was ever down here except him and Ripred.
"I told you to stay put!" Ripred barked in the direction of the tunnel.
There was a slight pause, as if the creature was considering retreat. Then came a sullen reply: "I smelled food." On the word "food" the low-pitched voice broke into a squeak. Gregor thought of his cousin Rodney, who everybody had teased when he'd become a teenager and his voice kept cracking between his kid voice and what was to be his man's voice.
"Who's that?" asked Gregor.
"That's your little friend the Bane," said Ripred. "After he maimed his last two babysitters, the job fell to me."
"The Bane?" said Gregor in surprise. He had not seen the Bane in months. He remembered the soft bundle of white fur that had huddled in his arms in fear. Last December, Gregor had been sent on a mission to kill him, but when he'd discovered the Bane was only a baby, he simply couldn't do it. He'd delivered the pup to Ripred instead.
"Can I come in?" the voice said from the tunnel.
"Oh, why not?" said Ripred. "Come on in and you can personally thank the warrior for saving your life."
Gregor turned his flashlight beam to the mouth of the tunnel, expecting a slightly larger version of the rat baby. Instead, he found himself looking up at an eight-foot mountain of white fur.
Gregor's mouth dropped open. "Geez!" In a matter of months, the Bane had gone from a pup Gregor could carry to the massive rat before him.
"And he's not even full-grown yet," said Ripred. "We're expecting another two to four feet by Christmas."
"Like snow," Gregor thought. "'We're expecting another two to four feet to pile up on that big white mountain.'"
"You've met, but allow me to reintroduce you." Ripred pointed to Gregor with his tail. "This is Gregor the Overlander, the warrior who refused to kill you when he had a chance." Then Ripred gestured to the Bane. "And this is the rat we call the Bane, although his mother gave him a much sweeter name ... Pearlpelt." Because his pelt, his coat, was white as a pearl. It did have a strange iridescent quality, like a pearl, too. When patches of it caught the light, Gregor saw glimpses of color, pink and blue and green. In the Underland, it was not uncommon for mice and even bats to have white coats. But there was only one white rat. That's how everyone had known Pearlpelt was the snowy rat mentioned in "The Prophecy of Bane."
"Hey," said Gregor to the mountain.
The white rat shifted uneasily but didn't answer.
"So, what do you like to be called?" Gregor asked.
"It doesn't matter what I like to be called. Everyone just calls me Bane or the Bane except Ripred. He makes fun of my name," said the Bane. "Calls me Pearlpet or Pearliegirlie."
Ripred just shrugged. "It's a hard name to say, Pearlpelt. Practically a tongue twister. Try to say it three times fast. Go on. Pearlpelt, Pullpet, Purput. See? It's impossible."
"Pearlpelt, Pearlpelt, Pearlpelt," said the Bane rapidly. He locked eyes with Ripred. "He can say it. He just wants to humiliate me."
Gregor knew the Bane was right about that. Ripred was a master of humiliation. He hadn't been too bad to Gregor until that trip in the jungle, but he'd been awful then and it had continued right through the echolocation lessons. If the Bane was with Ripred full-time, he was probably a constant target. Gregor felt a twinge of sympathy.
"Ignore him. That's what I do," said Gregor.
"It's different for you. You're a rager," said the Bane. "I wish I was a rager. Or at least full-grown. Things would be different then."
"And tell us, please, how things will change when you're full-grown," yawned Ripred.
"I'll be king, for one thing," shot back the Bane.
Gregor felt a stab of uneasiness at the words. The reason he had been ordered to kill the Bane was to keep the white rat from coming to power. A prophecy had warned of the Bane's potential for evil. And here he was already talking about becoming king. That wasn't good.
"Oh? And who's been telling you that?" said Ripred. "Twirltongue?"
The Bane shifted his glance to the ground. "Maybe."
"She's very persuasive, isn't she? But I wouldn't put too much stock in what Twirltongue says. She once convinced me I was well liked," said Ripred.
"And my other friends," said the Bane.
"Your friends," said Ripred with loathing. "Anyone can be your friend if they give you a few fish. And they whisper their little words in your ears ... how you're so strong and so brave ... how one day you'll be king ... and you greedily gulp down the fish and the lies ... you big white fool... . You have no idea who your real enemies are."
"You're my enemy, I know that!" spat out the Bane. "You're every gnawer's enemy. Making deals with wretched humans and fliers and nibblers, when you should be thinking of ways to kill them off! Twirltongue told me how you turned on Gorger because you thought you could lead us. As if any decent gnawer would ever follow you. To the rest of us, you're nothing but a joke! I should, I should --"
"You should what? Kill me? You know you're always welcome to try, Pearliegirlie," said Ripred.
And then, to Gregor's amazement, the Bane let out a roar and attacked Ripred. There were very few rats with the guts to do this. Ripred was just too deadly. The Bane might be a few feet taller and a few pounds heavier than Ripred, but how could he possibly think he could take the older rat on? Gregor took a running leap for the stairs to avoid the flying claws and teeth. The Bane was fighting furiously, but he couldn't even touch Ripred, who was knocking him around the cave without any apparent effort. Still, watching them go at it, Gregor felt afraid of the Bane for the first time. It wasn't his size or what any prophecy had said about him; it was his willingness to battle Ripred. He was either very brave or very stupid or just very deluded about his own power. Any one of those qualities was frightening in an animal that people thought might one day be responsible for destroying the Underland.
"All right, all right, settle down," said Ripred. "I'm getting bored, and when I'm bored, I'm dangerous."
But the Bane bellowed and lunged for him again.
"I said knock it off," said Ripred, deflecting the Bane so his head smacked into the wall with a loud thud. It was enough to stun the white rat for a moment. "You can't ever stop until you hurt yourself."
Apparently crashing his head into a stone wall had hurt, because the Bane gave up. He sat hunched over, running his paws over his eyes. Then to Gregor's surprise, he began to cry. Not just sniffles, but deep, body-shaking sobs.
"Oh, wonderful. Here comes the flood," said Ripred.
Seeing the Bane cry was somehow awful. All traces of the giant attack rat were gone. He seemed like an oversized, bullied child. "Why don't you lay off him, Ripred?" said Gregor.
"Because he hates me!" wept the Bane. "He's always hated me. He made me come with him. He made me leave my friends. I've spent my whole life as his prisoner."
"Is that what they tell you? Those wonderful friends of yours?" said Ripred. "And did they also tell you I spared your life and raised you from a pup? Were you fed? Did you get the plague? Are you here now to complain about me?"
"You didn't raise me," said the Bane. "Razor did. He's the one who cared for me."
"Yes, he's the one who cared for you, and how did you repay him? Tell the warrior here, before he starts feeling too sorry for you. Go on; tell him!
But the Bane did not continue. Instead, he trapped his long pink tail between his front paws and began to suck on the end of it.
"Oh, boo hoo hoo, the poor little abused Bane. But Razor treated him as his own pup. Went hungry so he could eat, protected him, tried to teach him to survive. And where is Razor now? Dead. And why? Because Pearlpelt here killed him over a crawler carcass," said Ripred.
"I didn't mean to," whimpered the Bane. "I was hungry. I didn't think it would kill Razor."
"For you to knock him off a cliff? Well, that is the usual result," said Ripred.
"I didn't think he'd go over the cliff. I didn't hit him that hard," said Bane, his words garbled by his tail.
"And then you tried to eat his body to conceal the evidence." Ripred turned to Gregor in disgust. "That's how we found him. Soaked in Razor's blood, chewing on his liver."
Gregor felt his stomach tighten in response to the gruesome image. He looked at the Bane with a new sense of alarm.
"No, no, no, no," said the Bane. Along with sucking, he began to gnaw on his tail, drawing blood.
"Yes, yes, yes, yes. Just in the past week you blinded Clawsin in one eye and ripped off Ratriff's foreleg. Why? You can't even tell me why! So now I've got to drag you around with me because no one else can bear you. Stop sucking on your tail!" Ripred burst out in frustration. "King, indeed! Do you really think anyone will take orders from someone who sucks on his tail?"
"Maybe they already do," the Bane hissed back at him. "You don't know anything! Maybe they do!" And with that, the white rat bolted out of the cave and disappeared.
"You wait where I told you to wait!" Ripred hollered after him. But there was no reply but the faint scraping of the Bane's claws as he ran away. "If he can find it," the rat sighed. "He gets lost if he blinks."
Ripred slumped against the cave wall a few feet from Gregor and waited a bit before he spoke. "There, he's out of earshot. Well, you've seen him now, Overlander. What's your opinion?"
It took Gregor a while to answer. In a few minutes he had experienced shock at seeing the Bane, discomfort at his kingly ambitions, fear at his boldness, pity at his obvious emotional instability, and revulsion at his murder of his caretaker. "He's a mess," said Gregor finally.
"He's a dangerous mess, and we let him live," said Ripred. "You because you couldn't kill a pup. Me because I thought killing him would forever shut the door on any hope of peace. When you said no one would follow me if I killed him, you were right."
Suddenly it occurred to Gregor that he did not really know Ripred's plan. The very first time they'd met, the rat had made it clear he'd wanted to overthrow the reigning rat king, Gorger. Gregor had helped Ripred do that. But what was he after now?
"Do you want to be king yourself, Ripred?" Gregor asked.
"Not really," the rat almost sighed. "But I want the warring to end for good. And do you think the Bane is the one to put a stop to it?"
"No," said Gregor.
"Well, he wants that crown and there's no reason to think he won't get it. So what do you think we should do?" asked Ripred.
"Do?" Gregor had no idea what to do about the Bane.
The rat's voice was filled with urgency as he leaned in toward Gregor. "I thought maybe you were right. That I could teach him to be something other than what he was fated to be. But I got him too late. His father had already left his mark."
"His father?" said Gregor.
"Snare. You met him. You watched him and the Bane's mother fight to the death," said Ripred.
"Oh, yeah...." Gregor remembered the horrible rat-fight in the maze between Goldshard, the Bane's mother, and the gray rat, Snare. But it had never occurred to Gregor that Snare was the Bane's father. There was nothing paternal about him.
"Snare was a vile creature by anyone's account. Why Goldshard ever agreed to be his mate is a mystery. I warned her against it. She didn't listen. But she regretted it. Didn't you wonder where the rest of the Bane's litter was?" asked Ripred.
"No," said Gregor. But now that he thought about it, it was strange that the Bane had been the only pup.
"Snare killed them. Right in front of Goldshard and the Bane. He didn't want them competing for the Bane's milk," said Ripred. "It was totally unnecessary. Any number of families would have taken those pups."
"That's awful," said Gregor.
"The Bane remembers it, too. And that Snare beat him. And that his parents killed each other," said Ripred. "You would have thought he'd been too little, but you need only mention Snare's name if you want to watch him tremble."
"Do you really think he could end up as king?" asked Gregor.
"He will find followers, because he's the Bane. He's got the white coat, and the size, and enough hatred brewing inside him to wipe out the Underland as we know it. Most rats will overlook the fact that he's unbalanced, because he'll be telling them exactly what they want to hear. They've been starved too long, and then so many died from the plague ... especially the pups. No, the gnawers won't care who he is or what he does if he brings them revenge," said Ripred.
A chill had been rising up Gregor's spine as Ripred spoke. Gregor tried to connect the giant white rat -- sullen, vicious, violent, pathetic -- with the baby he had spared. Remembered the Bane nuzzling his dead mother, trying to get her to respond. "Maybe if Goldshard had lived," said Gregor, "maybe he would have been okay."
"But she didn't, so we'll never know," said Ripred. He shook his head and sunk back against the cave wall. "Razor took good care of him, though. And whatever conclusions you may draw from today's little drama, I was not unkind to him as a pup." Ripred's eyes burned into the darkness. His claws agitatedly groomed the fur on his chest, smoothing it down around the edges of the big scar he'd received on the journey to save Gregor's father. Ripred's shoulders hunched as if some heavy burden rested upon them. He looked miserable.
Gregor thought about what Mrs. Cormaci said about everyone needing some joy in their life. He held out the bag of macaroni salad. "Here."
Ripred took the bag and stuck his snout into it. After a few bites, he balled up the paper sack and ate that, too. The food seemed to shift his mood. His muscles relaxed, and he made a sound of resignation. "Hrm. Well, I guess there's nothing else to be done. Waiting won't make it easier. We may as well get it over with."
"What?" asked Gregor. "What do we have to do?"
"Haven't you been listening to me?" said Ripred.
Gregor had, but he was still at a loss. "I know the Bane's a problem...." he began. Ripred laid a paw on Gregor's shoulder, cutting him off. Gregor could see his reflection in the rat's shiny black eyes. Tiny and distorted.
"We have to kill him, Warrior," whispered Ripred. "And the sooner the better."
"Kill him?" asked Gregor in shock. He was thinking more along the lines that the Bane needed some sort of counseling or to be placed under some kind of watch. Yes, he was a mess, maybe even a little crazy, but look what he'd been through. And Gregor didn't believe the Bane had intended to push Razor off that cliff. Not with all that crying and tail sucking. Of course, the cannibalism part was sickening, but for all Gregor knew, rats ate rats. On his first quest, they'd watched one spider eat another, and Ripred hadn't had a problem with that. As to the Bane's hurting the other rats ... well, the rats fought all the time. Did the Bane just need someone to help him learn to restrain himself? To Gregor, who was a rager who had not yet "learned to control his powers," condemning the white rat to death seemed pretty harsh.
"Yes, kill him. And we can't afford to wait long," said Ripred.
"But... I already had a chance to kill him. I didn't do it, remember?" said Gregor.
"Things were different then," said Ripred.
Gregor's brain could not process what Ripred was saying this quickly. He tried to stall. "If you want him dead so bad, why don't you just kill him yourself?"
"Because of the prophecy," said Ripred.
"I haven't heard of any prophecy," said Gregor. Maybe this was just another of Ripred's half-truths, like the one he had used to lure Gregor into the Underland to search for the cure to the plague.
"We all thought you could use a break after the last two hit you back-to-back. But trust me, it's there," said Ripred. "It's called 'The Prophecy of Time.'"
"And it says I kill the Bane?" said Gregor.
"That's my interpretation, yes. But don't worry; I'll be there to help you," said Ripred. The rat began to pace as he worked out his plan. "Listen, we'll do it tomorrow during your lesson. Bring your sword," he said. "And don't tell anyone about this!"
Gregor didn't like the sound of that. "Not even Vikus?" The old man was the head of the Regalian council, grandfather to his friend Luxa, who was the reigning queen of Regalia. Most important, he was one of the few Underlanders who Gregor was sure was looking out for him.
"Especially not Vikus. He'd be beside himself if he knew I'd brought the Bane down here. The council doesn't even want me down here. Anything you tell Vikus now, he'll feel obligated to tell the council. He's become practically useless to us because he's so guilt ridden over his wife's involvement with the plague," said Ripred. "So tomorrow, same time, same place. You bring your sword and we'll dispose of him."
Gregor pressed his lips together. To argue with Ripred now would be pointless. The rat had obviously worked through the whole necessity of killing the Bane already. It was better not to put up any resistance until he could figure out what to do. Because if there was one thing he did not feel right about, it was secretly teaming up with Ripred in some cave and basically murdering the Bane.
"I'll see you then," was all Gregor said.
"I'm glad you understand, Gregor. We simply have no choice." With that, Ripred melted into the shadows.
Gregor slowly made his way back up to the city, his head in a whirl.
Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins / Science Fiction / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes