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Gregor and the marks of.., p.4
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.4

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  " twirltongue the gnawer

  Believes she's a clawer,

  But Twirltongue is more of pup for

  "She can't fight a cutter

  Although with some butter

  She'd happily eat one for supper. "

  Gregor couldn't help joining in the rats' laughter.

  "Not very witty, but it served its purpose," said Twirltongue. "I felt demeaned by both the poem's content and its inferior quality."

  Gregor could feel himself nodding. Twirltongue had just nailed the way Ripred operated. "Like you were too worthless to even make up a decent insult about."

  "Yes! Yes!" cried Twirltongue. The rats happily began to swap stories of Ripred's abuse, one-upping one another.

  Gregor's sword arm relaxed and he let the tip rest on the stone. Sometimes he had to wonder about Ripred. How well did Gregor know him? Maybe Ripred really was delusional about leading the other rats, about the threat the Bane posed, and about Twirltongue and her friends. Maybe Ripred was nuts.

  The idea gave Gregor a jolt. Because if Ripred was crazy, then why was Gregor doing what he said?

  Just then, Twirltongue rolled on her back, giving a luxurious stretch. "Oh, Overlander, oh, Warrior. How I wish I'd met you before Ripred did," she said. "But since I didn't, I think now would be a good time."

  Gregor was completely unprepared for the attack. He just had time to dive to the right of Reekwell's lunge before the rat's claws scraped the ground where he'd been standing.

  "No claws, Reekwell. And no blood. We need him to disappear without a trace," Twirltongue said pleasantly. "Break his neck."

  There was no time to ask why they wanted him dead. Probably because he was the warrior. Shoot, his being a human was a good enough reason for most rats.

  Gregor made it to his feet as both Reekwell and Gushgore came at him, whipping their thick tails at his neck. He backed up against the cave wall, fending off the blows with his sword. He began to sidestep his way along the wall, heading for the opening that led back to the city. If his blade made contact with the rats' tails, they pulled them back reflexively before they could be cut off. Gregor could not take a full swing and sever a tail because he always had another to block.

  When the rager sensation began, Gregor felt his spirits lifting. Now he would at least have a fighting chance. His vision altered, zooming in on points of attack; his arm became indistinguishable from his sword. He could feel the rats beginning to hesitate and was just about to go on the offensive when it happened.

  Gushgore's tail smashed the glass of Gregor's flashlight and the world went black. He lost his bearings instantly. Up, down, right, left had no meaning. There was only darkness and the sound of ugly laughter, so different from the kind that had followed Twirl tongue's poem.

  The rager feelings evaporated. Gregor's knees went weak and his heart began to race. This was it! The moment Ripred had always warned him about. Being trapped in a cave with rats without a light. Ripred had not exaggerated. It was the reason he had been so relentless about the echolocation lessons. Gregor was as helpless as a baby without the use of his eyes. Gregor swung the blade wildly in front of him now but met empty air. He heard the whistling the instant before the tail knocked him upside the head and sent him sprawling sideways. He landed on his hands and knees and began to crawl frantically through the blackness, his sword clanking along the stone. "Ripred! Ripred!" he called desperately. Where was the rat?

  Another blow caught Gregor on the seat of his pants and launched him several feet into the air before he slammed onto his stomach.

  "It's over," Gregor thought. "This is it."

  But as he lifted his head, a glimmer of light caught his eye. The last hit had thrown him into the opening of the tunnel, where he could just see the glow from the glass lantern he'd left on the floor of the circular cave. He was on his feet in a flash, running toward the light as fast as his legs could carry him. The rats took a moment to regroup, and then he could hear them behind him. He had a head start, but would it be enough?

  The brightening light gave him hope, even as the rats closed in. He flung his sword behind him, and one of the rats cried out. With his hands free, Gregor pounded across the last ten yards to the lantern. In one motion, he swept it up and spun around. Just as Twirltongue leaped into the cave he smashed the lantern on the floor before her. The spilt oil ignited and a narrow wall of fire spurted into the air, blackening the fur on her muzzle. He didn't wait to see what happened next. He just bolted up the stairs to the palace.

  Gregor burst through the stone door, slamming it behind him. His hands were shaking so hard, he could barely get the bars in place. When the last one was secured, his knees gave way and he sat on the floor, leaning against the door for support.

  No sound came from behind the door. The rats had not followed him. Slowly he calmed down. As his fear faded, it was replaced by an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. He remembered himself crawling around on the stone floor. Calling for Ripred. Ready to give up. The warrior. In all his glory.

  Gregor couldn't believe that Twirltongue had gotten him to doubt Ripred so quickly! Sure, he argued with the big rat a lot. But Ripred had saved his life repeatedly and he had only known Twirltongue for a matter of minutes. Ripred had not been kidding about her powers of persuasion. And if she could manipulate Gregor so easily, what could she do with the Bane? When Vikus touched Gregor's shoulder, he nearly jumped out of his skin. "Pardon, I did not mean to startle you, Gregor."

  Gregor hopped to his feet. "No, no problem. What's up?"

  "I have been looking for you. I had a message from Ripred. Your lesson today has been canceled," said Vikus.

  "Canceled?" said Gregor. "Oh, yeah, I went down to meet him, but he wasn't there. Did he say why?"

  "He said he had misplaced something and had to go find it. You will resume lessons on his return," said Vikus.

  Misplaced something. The only thing Ripred had to misplace was the Bane. Had the white rat run away? He had certainly been upset when he left the cave. He must have run away and now Ripred was hunting him down. Twirltongue and her pals must have just missed them.

  "You know, Vikus, if Ripred can get down under the city, other rats probably can, too. All they'd have to do is follow his scent," said Gregor. "Are you sure this door's solid?"

  "It has withstood four hundred years of attacks," said Vikus. Gregor gave it a couple of approving slaps. "Good."

  "Why does it concern you all of a sudden?" said Vikus.

  If Gregor was going to tell Vikus about the rats, now was the time. But Ripred had warned him not to mention the Bane, and doubting Ripred had brought him enough trouble for one day. It was better to keep it a secret.

  "Just crossed my mind," said Gregor.

  For the moment at least, he had avoided having to confront the issue of killing the Bane. And after all, the Bane might escape entirely. If Ripred did find the white rat out in the tunnels somewhere, wouldn't he just go ahead and kill him? Or maybe Ripred would have a change of heart and try to help the Bane. That seemed the most unlikely outcome of all.

  Gregor could imagine any number of similar scenarios, but as he lay awake that night, he knew he didn't believe any of them. There was a prophecy that no one wanted to tell him about. And that prophecy was about Gregor and the Bane.

  ***

  CHAPTER 5

  During the next few weeks Gregor traveled down to the Underland almost every day, but there was no word from Ripred. Gregor didn't know how to interpret this. Had Ripred just killed the Bane and moved on with his life? Or had he run into some kind of trouble? The rat was the most resilient animal in the Underland, but as the silence continued, Gregor began to wonder if something had happened to him.

  Gregor could tell that Vikus was concerned as well. "It is not like Ripred to leave me in the dark so long," he confided in Gregor, who constantly fought down the temptation to tell Vikus all he knew. But he couldn't. Not only because Ripred had advised silence but also because th
e old man was so burdened by his wife Solovet's upcoming trial, Gregor didn't want to add to Vikus's cares. At first it had looked as though she might simply be reprimanded and perhaps dismissed from her position. However, as the actual death tolls from the plague became known, there had been growing pressure from not only the rats but the humans, too, that she be put on trial. People were saying that Dr. Neveeve, who had carried out the research and had been executed for her role in the epidemic, had only been a scapegoat. That it was Solovet, as the head of the Regalian military and the person who had given orders to develop the plague as a possible weapon, who should accept the ultimate responsibility for the plague.

  So Gregor kept his thoughts to himself and tried to focus on the good things about his summer vacation. Like how his mom was getting better every day, and how Lizzie's letters said she actually seemed to be enjoying camp, and how there were really a lot of fun things to do in the Underland if you weren't being attacked. Swimming, exploring caves, playing ball games on bats. Sometimes there were even parties.

  One morning, just as he and Boots had landed in

  the High Hall, Hazard came running up to Gregor excitedly with a small scroll in his hand. "It's an invitation! To my birthday party! For turning seven! You will come, won't you?" he burst out before Gregor even had a chance to open it.

  "Sure, we'll come," said Gregor. "So what do you want for your birthday?"

  "I don't know," said Hazard. He looked to Luxa for guidance.

  "Maybe he would like something from the Overland. Something we do not have here," she suggested.

  Hazard nodded vigorously. "Yes, something I've never seen!"

  "Hmm, I'll have to think about that...." said Gregor. But he already knew what he wanted to get Hazard.

  The violin from the museum had brought a good price. Enough to live six months. At the moment, every penny did not have to be counted. So, on the morning of the party, Gregor and Boots took the subway to the big toy store downtown to shop for Hazard's gift. Gregor found what he wanted at once. It was a plastic disc with animals around the outside of the ring. You spun an arrow around and pointed it at an animal, pulled a lever, and it played the sound the animal made. Since Hazard was such a whiz at imitating creatures in the Underland, Gregor was pretty sure he'd get a kick out of the toy. Boots found a little set of jungle animals to go with it, and then, because she'd been really good about not pestering him about it, Gregor told her she could pick out something for herself.

  This was a big treat and Boots took it very seriously. She tested almost every toy in the preschool section before she saw it -- a princess dress-up set. It had three pieces. A plastic tiara studded with jewels, a gauzy pink skirt with an elastic waistband, and a scepter that lit up when you pressed a button. Boots was overcome by the costume's beauty. "I can get this, Gre-go? Because I am a pincess?" she asked hopefully.

  "Okay, Pincess. Put it in the basket," he said.

  But she couldn't let it go. She carried it all the way home, hugging it tightly to her chest and occasionally murmuring, "P is for pincess." The second they got to their apartment, Boots had to put on her princess outfit, which was, in fact, fabulous, and they headed off to the party in the Underland.

  Mrs. Cormaci had one of those cameras where you took a picture and it popped out of the camera and developed on the spot. She made Gregor stop by the apartment to get it. "I want pictures. And take some for the birthday boy so he can remember his special day."

  Luxa had gone all out with the preparations. The arena was festooned in swaths of bright-colored cloth. Long banquet tables were piled with food. A huge cake, decorated with bats, cockroaches, and other animals, sat in the place of honor. And there were about fifteen musicians playing cheery music.

  Hazard dashed up to them the moment they arrived, and Gregor let him have his presents then and there. He was so fascinated by Gregor's gift that he sat right down on the moss to play with it, pulling the handle again and again to hear the horse neigh and the turkey gobble and the dog bark. After several minutes, Luxa gently reminded him he had guests to attend to.

  The place was packed with excited kids, swirling bats, and even a dozen cockroaches. The bugs immediately surrounded Boots, speechless with admiration for her princess outfit. Boots climbed up on her friend Temp's broad black shell and gave a demonstration of how the scepter worked, flashing it on and off.

  "What on earth is that child wearing?" Gregor turned and saw his mom, bundled up in blankets, sitting in a chair near the banquet table. She was shaking her head in amusement at Boots.

  "She's a princess, Mom," Gregor said. "You can't expect her to show up at a party in hand-me-downs." He gave his mom a big hug. "How's it feel to be out of the hospital?"

  "Just like heaven," said his mom.

  Gregor pulled out Mrs. Cormaci's camera to get some pictures. No one understood what he was doing until he got Hazard and Thalia to stop running around for a minute and snapped a great shot of the two of them with their arms and wings wrapped around each other. As the image slowly came into focus, the Underlanders were amazed. They had never seen photographs of themselves. The whole thing seemed like magic to them. When he rounded up a bunch of little kids for a group shot they stood up very straight, arms stiff at their sides, serious looks on their faces. Gregor made them say "cheese" about ten times, until they were giggling and had forgotten how important it was to be in a picture.

  Luxa made an announcement that the dancing was about to begin, and Gregor quickly took a seat next to his mom. He was not much of a dancer even in the Overland, and the last thing he wanted to do was strut his stuff in front of a bunch of people ... doing what? Minuets or something? Something with steps.

  But all the Underlander kids and quite a few grownups streamed into the middle of the field to join in. The first dance was called "Bat, Bat" and required a partner. A small chorus of people sang with the musicians, but a lot of the kids knew the words, too. Boots, who must have learned the routine in the nursery, was right in the thick of things, dancing with Hazard and singing:

  "Bat, Bat,

  Come under my hat, i will give you a slice of bacon,

  And when I bake, I will give you a cake,

  If I am not mistaken. "

  One person flew around like a bat and their partner had to coax them to their side by pretending to offer them food. There were specific steps and hand gestures that went with the words, as Gregor had suspected.

  "It's weird. I think I know the words to that song," he told his mom.

  "It's in Boots's nursery rhyme book at home," she said. "I used to read it to you when you were little, too. It's from hundreds of years ago."

  "Oh, right," said Gregor. He'd read the book to Boots, too, but hadn't made the connection. It was strange to think that he and Luxa might have been hearing the same nursery rhymes when they were Boots's age.

  The musicians did a few more songs, one about spinners making a web, another about being in a boat, and then there was a short break.

  Flushed and breathless, Luxa, Howard, Hazard, and Boots came over to join Gregor and his mom.

  "Why aren't you dancing, Gregor?" asked Hazard.

  "I don't know any dances, Hazard," said Gregor.

  "Sure you do," said his mom. "You know the Hokey Pokey."

  "The Hokey Pokey? What is that? Will you show us?" begged Hazard.

  Gregor held up the camera. "Sorry, I'm taking the pict--" he began.

  "Of course he will!" said his mom, grabbing the camera.

  And then to Gregor's horror, he was being dragged out to the middle of the field to teach about two hundred people the Hokey Pokey. Not only did he have to do the motions he also had to sing the words until the musicians had picked up the tune and the general idea of the lyrics. Fortunately, Boots was beside him, enthusiastically shaking it all about, because Gregor just felt like sinking into the moss and disappearing. It didn't help that he could see Luxa and Howard off to one side, laughing hysterically at his obviou
s discomfort. The Hokey Pokey was doing nothing for his warrior image.

  The song was a big hit with the Underland kids, though, and they learned it so quickly that by the time they'd repeated the number, Gregor was able to slink back to his chair.

  "Thanks a lot, Mom," he said.

  "My pleasure," she said.

  When the next number was announced, the kids began to shout, "Who will be the queen?"

  "Luxa, of course!" said Hazard, and ran to get her. She protested as he pulled her into the middle of a large ring of children, but she didn't really seem to mind. Why should she? Luxa looked as natural dancing as a bird did flying. As the children clasped hands and circled in one direction, Luxa spun in the other.

  "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. "

  Next about a dozen kids joined her in the middle of the ring and mimed being nibblers, which was what the Underlanders called mice.

  "Catch the nibblers in a trap. Watch the nibblers spin and snap.

  Quiet while they take a nap.

  Father, mother, sister, brother,

  Off they go. I do not know

  If we will see another. "

  For the final verse, as near as Gregor could figure, everyone went around pretending to serve cake and pour tea for one another.

  "now the guests are at our door

  Greet them as we have before.

  Some will slice and some will pour.

  Father, mother, sister, brother,

  Off they go. I do not know

  If we will see another. "

  The words did not entirely make sense to Gregor, but all the dancers seemed to know just what they were doing. He guessed a lot of kids' songs in the Overland were kind of confusing, too. Especially those old ones. "Hey Diddle Diddle" ... "Ring Around the Rosie" ... "Sing a Song of Sixpence." What did any of those mean?

  A little while later, Gregor was at the buffet table ready to load up his plate when Luxa came up and grabbed his hand. "Come, Gregor. Hazard says you must be my partner for this dance."

 
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