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Gregor and the marks of.., p.3
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.3

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Overlander!" The voice brought Gregor back to attention. He had automatically gone to the hospital floor. He saw Howard standing outside his mom's room. Gregor could never look at his friend without comparing him to the preplague Howard, who had been healthy and stocky, with unblemished skin. Several months after he had barely evaded death, he was still twenty pounds under his normal weight. The purple scars that pitted his skin would never leave, although the doctors were optimistic that they would fade some.

  The illness had set Howard on a new path in life. The Regalians had put him to work in the hospital, which was still overflowing with plague patients, and he was training to become a doctor. Howard was young and strong and had bounced back faster than most of the victims. But many were still struggling, like Gregor's mom, and Howard was committed to helping them.

  "Overlander, we have a surprise for you!" said Howard.

  "I hope it's a good one," said Gregor, thinking that one really horrible surprise from Ripred was about all he could handle that day.

  "Come and see for yourself," said Howard, waving him into the room.

  Gregor found his mom sitting up in a chair. His face broke into a grin. "Now what do you think you're doing out of bed?"

  "Me? I've been up since six. Cooked a big breakfast, went for a ride on a bat, and now I'm thinking about rearranging the furniture in this room. Getting kind of tired of the decor," she said.

  Gregor laughed. Of course, she had done none of those things. This was the first time she had even been out of bed since she had fallen ill. "Maybe you ought to save the furniture for tomorrow."

  "Yes, in fact, we should get you back to bed," said Howard. "We do not want to overdo on the first day." He reached to help her up.

  "No, Howard, let me try it myself first," she said. With great determination, Gregor's mom got herself to her feet. The bed was only about five paces away, but she barely made it, collapsing on the covers at the last moment.

  Howard and Gregor hurried to help position her in bed. "This is most excellent," said Howard encouragingly. "Every day a little more and you will have your strength back in no time. Now I must make my rounds with the medicine."

  "That's a good boy, that Howard," said Gregor's mom when he had gone.

  "He's the best," said Gregor.

  "He'll make a fine doctor," said Gregor's mom. "Maybe you'll be a doctor someday."

  Gregor nodded, but he had never even thought about being a doctor. He had no idea what he wanted to be, really. Since he'd fallen to the Underland, it seemed like he already had a job. Warrior. But it was not a job he liked or wanted, and it was certainly not a job his mom approved of for her twelve-year-old son. She knew that the Underlanders considered him the warrior in their prophecies, but she looked upset whenever anyone mentioned it.

  "Where's Boots?" he said, to change the subject.

  "Oh, she visited with me, then Luxa took her down to the field to get some exercise," said his mom. "Did Lizzie get off okay?"

  Gregor gave his mom the update from home. Lizzie off to camp. Plans to sell the violin. The heat wave. She nodded, eager for every crumb of information. He tried to think of more details to stretch it out, but his mind was largely occupied by his encounter with Ripred and the Bane.

  "Your head is somewhere else today," said Gregor's mom. Her fingers found a purple scar on her cheek. This was something she did when she started to worry. Rub that scar. "What's the matter, Gregor?"

  "Not a thing," he said.

  Her look said she didn't believe him, but fortunately, Howard came in at that moment with her medicine and a suggestion that she needed rest.

  "I'll see you soon," said Gregor, grateful for an out. He headed off to find his friends. If Luxa had taken Boots to the field in the arena, there must be a game or a training session scheduled. He hoped they weren't using the blood balls for target practice. Even on good days, he disliked watching the wax balls burst open, spraying bloodred liquid as the sword blades hit them. At the moment it was a little more violence than he could handle.

  When Gregor arrived, he found a much more benign sort of training in progress. The toddlers were learning to fly on bats. At first glance, it looked like little kids were raining from the ceiling. But none of the raindrops ever reached the ground. The bats would fly a toddler high up in the arena and then flip over, letting them fall into the air. The kid might drop five feet or twenty yards before they would be swept up by a second bat and flown back up into the air.

  Mareth was directing the exercise. The soldier stood in the center of the field, leaning on a crutch. The doctors had fashioned a prosthetic device made of fishbone and leather for his missing leg, but he was still in the process of learning to use it. Regalia's queen, Luxa, was assisting him, if you could call it that, because at the moment they were both laughing helplessly at the scene above. Mareth was pointing up at Boots, who was trying out the somersault Luxa had been teaching her. When a bat dropped her, she would curl up in a ball and rotate a few times through the air. But inevitably she'd lose control of the move and go careening toward the ground, flapping her arms wildly like they were wings. "Me!" she called out, as if to remind the bats she needed a lift.

  "Stay tucked up, Boots!" Luxa called through her laughter. "Hold your knees!"

  "I hold my knees!" confirmed Boots. She launched into another somersault that quickly deteriorated into her baby-bird routine. "Me!"

  "Almost, Boots! Try once more!" called Luxa encouragingly. Gregor stopped watching the kids and the bats for a moment and just focused on her. He had not gotten used to the sight of Luxa looking happy.

  Being stranded in the jungle for three months with her injured bat, Aurora, and a colony of mice had changed Luxa. She was so glad to be home, and her people were almost ecstatic to see her. It was as if for the first time they had recognized how lucky they were to have this twelve-year-old girl on deck as a ruler. Luxa would not have the full powers of a queen until she was sixteen, but at twelve she had great influence and could now cast votes at the council meetings where policy was decided. While she was stubborn and gave the council fits with her attitude, Luxa was smart, strong, and unquestionably brave. A mutual appreciation had blossomed between the young queen and her subjects.

  This all contributed to Luxa's happiness, but Gregor knew the real source of her joy was Hazard, her six-year-old Halflander cousin, with his lime-green eyes and black curls, who had been discovered living in the jungle. When his father, Hamnet, had been killed by an army of ants, Hazard had been orphaned. Luxa had brought him back to Regalia, and true to her word, it was as if they were now brother and sister. He lived with her in the royal chambers, ate with her, followed her like a puppy. And Luxa had allowed herself to love him.

  Gregor spotted Hazard flipping off a bat high over his head. Hazard was older than most of the kids, but riding on bats was still a new skill for him. While the boy was allowed to participate in flying exercises, Luxa had strictly forbidden anyone to train him in weapons. His father's dying wish had been for Hazard to be anything but a warrior, and Luxa had promised to fulfill it. While the other kids his age studied combat training, Hazard was developing his already extraordinary talent with languages. Ordinarily, the Regalians made no effort to learn other creatures' tongues. But Hazard had been raised in the jungle, where he'd tried to speak to anything that would speak to him. He'd come to Regalia with a fluency in Lizard and an ability to get by in several other animal languages. Vikus, who was Hazard's grandfather as well as Luxa's, had arranged for a group of tutors. Showing far more patience with the quick, willing Hazard than he ever displayed with Gregor, Ripred was teaching him to squeak in Rat. Temp, the cockroach who had rescued Boots from several disasters, taught both Hazard and the "princess" the clicking dialect of the crawlers. And Purvox, a beautiful red spider, had been shipped in to tutor him in her strange vibrating means of communication. In his spare time, Hazard would try to talk with the bats, although some of their sounds were simply too high-p
itched for human ears.

  As he walked toward his friends, a voice behind Gregor purred, "Jump." He took one step and leaped as high as he could in the air, stretching his legs out to the sides. The next second he was riding on Ares's back. Gregor always felt a sense of security with Ares. They were bonds, a human-bat team who had taken an oath to defend each other to the death. And after facing a string of impossible difficulties together, they were real friends, too.

  "How's it going, man?" Gregor asked.

  "Well. It goes well," said Ares.

  Gregor ran his hand over Ares's neck. A brand-new layer of glossy black fur was beginning to conceal the purple plague scars. Gregor's bat, who had been the first victim of the plague, had not only managed to survive it but had also made an extraordinary recovery. Within a few weeks of receiving the cure, he'd been begging the doctors to discharge him from the hospital. Afraid that he would fly back to his remote cave outside of Regalia before he had fully healed, the doctors released him into Luxa's custody. So now he lived with her and Hazard and Aurora, in the royal wing of the palace. Gregor thought Ares probably preferred being with his friends to living in that lonely cave anyway.

  "How soon do we eat?" said Gregor as his stomach rumbled. Mareth whistled, bringing the bats and their small charges down to the field.

  "It must be now, for the training ends," said Ares.

  Ten minutes later, they were seated around a big table loaded with food. Besides Gregor, Luxa, Hazard, Boots, Ares, and Aurora, there was a young bat that Hazard had taken a shine to. Thalia. She was a soft peach color with white streaks like a tabby cat, only about half-grown, and had a love of jokes that Gregor found unsettling. He had modified some Overland jokes for her. "Why did the bat cross the river? To get to the other side." Something like that could make her laugh for, no kidding, ten minutes.

  Today he told the old standby: "Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven ate nine." Unfortunately, she'd had a mouthful of food when the punch line came and nearly choked to death as she cracked up.

  "Do you think she'll grow out of that?" Gregor whispered to Luxa.

  "I hope so. Hazard has his heart set on bonding with her," she whispered back.

  Gregor ate a hearty meal of grilled fish, marinated mushrooms, and fresh bread. He contributed little to the conversation, though, because he kept wondering about Ripred and the Bane. After dinner, when the others went back to Luxa's apartment to play games, Gregor said he had to make a trip to the museum. He really just wanted some time to think. Despite Ripred's warning, Gregor's impulse was to track down Vikus and tell him everything. But it was true that Vikus might go to the council. And most of the council members were jerks. If only he could find out what was in the prophecy Ripred had mentioned ...

  Nerissa! Gregor spun on his heel, heading away from the museum and to the stone room that housed Sandwich's prophecies. Nerissa spent much of her time there. If anyone could tell Gregor what awaited him, it was that girl. She was part of the royal family, Luxa's cousin, and had even worn the crown for the few months when everyone thought Luxa had been killed by the rats. But unlike her resilient cousin, Nerissa was thin to the point of emaciation, psychologically fragile, and had the ability to see glimpses of the future ... sometimes. She was no more able to control her visions than Gregor was to manage his powers to fight as a rager. She often had no idea if an incident she saw was about to occur in an hour or had happened a century before. Still, when she was right, she was dead right. As he had hoped, Gregor found Nerissa sitting alone in the prophecy room. Her physical state had deteriorated back to her prequeen days. Long tangled hair fell to her waist, and she was huddled in layers of mismatched clothing. "Greetings, Overlander," she said with her ghostly smile.

  "Hey, Nerissa," he said, and decided to get right to the point. "Look, I was wondering about the prophecies. About me. Are there any more of them?"

  "Yes," said Nerissa. "One in particular."

  "Am I supposed to kill the Bane again?" asked Gregor.

  She looked at him quizzically. "It is unclear. Possibly he will die," said Nerissa. "Why are you asking this, Gregor?" He didn't answer because that would mean exposing Ripred. "Someone has been putting ideas in your head about the Bane again. But you may tell this 'someone' that the prophecy of which you speak lies in the future, not our present time."

  "How do you know?" said Gregor.

  "Because events reported in it have not yet come to pass. It is possible they never will. As I suspect this 'someone' well knows. Perhaps he believes he can control fate, but he cannot," said Nerissa.

  "She knows it was Ripred," thought Gregor. "Will you show the prophecy to me?" he asked aloud.

  "No. It can be of no use to you now. In truth, I imagine it would be quite damaging. For your own safety and that of those you love, I believe you should avoid knowledge of it at all costs. Of course, if you would like to ask Vikus about it, there is nothing I can do to stop you," said Nerissa.

  After a warning like that, what could he say? Besides, Gregor had already ruled out asking Vikus, so he just shrugged, like it didn't matter. "No, if you think it would just throw me, never mind."

  On the one hand, he was relieved by the idea that at least temporarily he didn't have to deal with the issue of killing the Bane. From what Nerissa had said, it might never come up. On the other hand, Gregor realized that Nerissa's opinion would do little to sway Ripred. The rat, like many others, expressed a low opinion of her prophetic abilities.

  Although he had racked his brain, Gregor found himself without much of a solution when his lesson time rolled around the next day. As he unbarred the stone door, he tried to review his plan. He would meet Ripred and try to talk the rat out of killing the Bane. Gregor had little confidence in his ability to do this, though, so as a backup he went ahead and hung a sword at his belt in case he had to try to protect the white rat's life. The idea of taking on Ripred was ludicrous, but maybe Gregor could distract him long enough for the Bane to escape.

  Knowing that if they fought, Ripred would try to take out his light immediately, Gregor had duct-taped a flashlight to his forearm. Instead of a torch, which would require a hand to hold, he had chosen a large glass oil lamp similar to the ones they had carried in the jungle. He could set it on the floor, if need be.

  He mentally braced himself as he neared the circular cave, trying to sort out his argument for keeping the Bane alive. But when Gregor reached the meeting place, it was empty. No Ripred. No Bane. No one at all. He waited ten, maybe fifteen minutes. It was not like Ripred to be late. If anything, he had a way of popping up before you expected him..Just when Gregor was about to head back to Regalia, he heard a faint scratching noise in the tunnel the Bane had come from the day before.

  "Ripred?" he called softly. There was no answer. "Pearlpelt?" The faint scratching came again. "Is somebody there?" Gregor set down the oil lamp and adjusted the flashlight on his arm. As he crept down a long tunnel toward the sound, he had the feeling it was receding, leading him away from the lamp, the stairs, and the city above. "Hello?" He entered a small cave. Another sound, a muffled laugh, came from his left. An unpleasant tingle ran up the back of Gregor's neck. Suddenly he knew he had made a terrible mistake.

  He spun around, preparing to sprint for the door. Three rats emerged from the shadows, blocking his way. Gregor didn't recognize a one of them.

  ***

  CHAPTER 4

  Gregor's sword was in his hand in an instant.

  The rats fanned out, making any movement back toward the palace impossible. But they did not assume attack positions. Instead they lazily flopped on the ground as if they were all about to enjoy a fun day at the beach.

  Two of the rats had the unexceptional mud-gray fur that was most common in their species. But the coat of the one directly in front of Gregor was a beautiful silvery hue. This rat spoke first.

  "So, at long last, we meet the warrior. Ripred is so possessive, the rest of us can't get near you." Gregor could tell i
t was a female by the pitch of her voice. And what a voice! Silky and low, with an unmistakable friendliness. Charming, that was the word for it. "You can lower your sword, Gregor, as you can see none of us are in a fighting vein."

  Gregor didn't move his sword. "Who are you?"

  "This is Gushgore and Reekwell," said the silver rat. Both rats gave a polite nod at their name. "And I'm called Twirltongue."

  Twirltongue. So this was the rat who had been telling the Bane he should be king. What had Ripred called her? Very persuasive?

  "You're the Bane's friends," said Gregor.

  "You've met the Bane?" asked Twirltongue.

  "Yeah, I met him when --" Gregor stopped himself. Why was he telling this rat anything? He knew Ripred didn't trust her. The question had been so casual, Gregor had almost told her the Bane had been here. "When he was a pup."

  Twirltongue laughed. "It's all right, Gregor. We already know he's been here. His scent is everywhere. Not to mention his blood."

  For a moment Gregor thought Ripred had killed the Bane without him. "He's dead?"

  "Probably wishing he was. I would be if I were on a road trip with Ripred," said Twirltongue. The rats laughed. "No, we found some drops of his blood. Been gnawing his tail most likely. Why would you think he was dead?"

  "Because ... you mentioned blood," said Gregor. Something about this rat kept him off-balance.

  "Of course. So, you haven't seen him?" said Twirltongue.

  "Not recently," said Gregor.

  "Well, if you do, please tell him his friends are looking for him. Frankly, we're concerned. The Bane's barely more than a pup and Ripred is, to put it politely, somewhat delusional," said Twirltongue. "Not to mention dreadful company, but I don't have to tell you that after your jungle trip, do I?"

  "No, you don't," said Gregor.

  The rats cracked up and Gregor allowed himself a smile. After all the abuse, it was a relief, really, for someone to acknowledge how awful Ripred could be.

  "I once spent four days holed up in a cave with him hiding from an army of cutters. By day three I'd begun to consider slipping out. I thought, 'Yes, I'll be torn apart by mandibles. But would it really be worse than listening to Ripred make up poems about me?'" Twirltongue began to recite:

 
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