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Gregor and the marks of.., p.6
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.6

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Together, they slid Cevian back into the hole. It actually did a lot to conceal her.

  When Gregor turned away from the mouse, his torchlight fell on a mark on the ground. He had not seen it before, because Cevian had been lying right on top of it. Gregor squatted down and examined the mark more closely. It had been roughly scratched into the chalky rock. And recently, too, by the look of it. There was a straight line. At the top, going off to the right side, was a thin, slightly curved appendage. It reminded him of a flamingo's beak. "Look at this," he said to Ares.

  "Do you think Cevian made this mark?" asked his bat.

  "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe she was trying to write a word. Do the mice know how to write? Ripred said something about the rats not being able to hold a pen," said Gregor.

  "Both gnawers and nibblers can scratch out a word if they wish," said Ares.

  "Well, it kind of looks like Cevian started to make a P, but she couldn't finish it," said Gregor, tracing the mark with his forefinger. "P is for Pincess," he heard Boots say in his head.

  "Perhaps she was trying to write a name. A P could also become an R or a B," said Ares.

  Gregor felt a pang of guilt. R is for Ripred. B is for Bane. They were both running around out here someplace. Could one of them have attacked Cevian?

  "It is strange. I believe Cevian died instantly when her head was struck. She must have made this mark before she was attacked," said Ares.

  "She could have seen her killer coming and started their name," said Gregor. "If she recognized them." Both Ripred and the Bane were famous in the Underland.

  "And then been attacked, yes," agreed Ares.

  They both stared at the mark for a while longer in silence, but it gave them no more information.

  "Has enough time passed for me to have convinced you to go to the jungle?" asked Ares.

  "Seems about right," said Gregor. He swung onto Ares's back and they sped off.

  In about thirty minutes, they'd caught up to Aurora and Luxa. When they did, Gregor and Luxa exchanged a glare and then ignored each other for the rest of the trip to the jungle.

  The first thing Gregor noticed was the heat. The humid air hit him like a wall, and he knew that the ground below him had changed from barren stone to thick vegetation. Then he could smell the decaying plant life and hear the mechanical chatter of the insects. Gregor had nothing but bad memories of the place, with its poisonous frogs, flesh-eating plants, and stretches of quicksand. He hoped they could get in and out of it as soon as possible.

  Their destination was a spring deep in the heart of the jungle. Gregor had arrived there some months before, severely dehydrated and caked in quicksand. A group of mice had lived in the area and, under their protection, Luxa and Aurora as well.

  "Do not dismount yet," said Luxa when the bats touched down at the spring.

  They sat quietly, surveying the area. The only good thing about the jungle was that it always had some light that was provided by the small volcanic eruptions on the floors of a network of streams. At least Gregor could not be thrown into total darkness here.

  Nothing seemed amiss. "Nibblers! It is Queen Luxa! Will you show yourselves?" Luxa called out.

  There was a ripple of reaction in the vines at the sound of her voice, but no mice appeared.

  "We must check the caves," said Luxa, sliding off Aurora's back. She drew her sword. "I will lead. Then Aurora and Ares. The Overlander will cover your backs."

  The Overlander, not Gregor. She was still mad at him for ... whatever. Not showing immediate enthusiasm for the jungle trip or something. And who put her in charge? He was doing this as a favor.

  Gregor tried to decide if it was worth an argument. One of them did have to lead and one of them did have to take the rear, and since she knew the area better, this lineup made sense. But it was only when he remembered that she had just lost a friend that he pulled out his sword and got behind Ares.

  The path was familiar. Gregor knew it led between the spring and the cave where he had first seen Aurora lying crippled in pain from her dislocated wing. It was more overgrown than he remembered it, as if it had not been recently traveled.

  When they reached the cave, Luxa called out again to the nibblers but received no response. With her sword, she cut away the heavy thatch of vines that concealed the mouth of the cave, and peered inside. "No one," she said in a puzzled voice. "It is deserted."

  They wound their way down paths and checked several other caves. Luxa called out repeatedly, but there was no sign of the nibblers anywhere.

  Luxa sat on a large flat rock at the center of a clearing, her eyes fixed on the mouth of an abandoned cave. "I remember we had not slept in several days when Cevian led us to this colony."

  "Or eaten," said Aurora.

  "Or eaten," agreed Luxa. She gazed up at the dome of vines that enclosed them. "At best I expected to find the nibblers as we left them. At worst suffering the aftermath of a battle. But that they have vanished without explanation is most disturbing."

  "Maybe they moved somewhere," said Gregor, sitting beside her.

  "The gnawers already drove them out of their home in the tunnels of stone. They barely managed to survive here," said Luxa.

  "Perhaps they decided to join the nibbler colony near the Fount," said Ares.

  "No, my uncle who governs the Fount forbade any new arrivals. He said the land would support no more. Besides, it is nearly an impossible journey to make on foot," said Luxa.

  "Is there anyone around here we could ask?" said Gregor.

  Luxa gave a wry smile. "Hazard could. He can speak the tongues of several jungle creatures. I regret none of us share his skill."

  There was nothing to do but fly home. As they rose to go, something caught Gregor's attention. It was a small movement, almost a shiver, in the vines above him. He shot his flashlight beam up into the canopy but could make out nothing but the tangled mess of greenish-gray vines.

  Suddenly Ares stiffened beside him. "Something is here," said the bat. "To our right."

  "To our left, also," said Aurora.

  "What? I do not see anything," said Luxa, flashing her light around.

  "Look here," said Gregor. He shone his light on a patch of vines above them that had begun to undulate. "It's the vines. They're moving."

  "But I know these vines," said Luxa. "They are harmless."

  On his previous trip to the jungle Gregor had been attacked by carnivorous yellow pods and later drugged and lassoed by sweet-smelling tendrils that wanted his blood. He assumed anything with roots was dangerous. "We've got to get out of here. Now."

  The four of them hurried toward the path that led out of the clearing, only to find that the vines had woven together to close it off.

  "Use your sword!" said Luxa. Gregor's arm was already in motion and their two blades sliced into the greenery simultaneously. Something sprang straight for Gregor's eyes. At first he thought it was a vine with a thick arrowhead-shaped leaf on the end. But then the mouth opened and he could see the deadly pointed fangs.

  His blade severed the head from the body just as he cried out a warning to his friends.

  "Snakes!"

  ***

  CHAPTER 8

  Gregor, Luxa, Ares, and Aurora retreated quickly to the flat rock. Their attack had brought the entire canopy to life. It was a writhing, hissing mass of snakes. They were a variety of sizes. Some as thin as pencils. Others as fat as baseball bats. So closely did they resemble the vines that Gregor could still not distinguish them from the plants unless he saw the heads. And there were plenty of heads to see. The decapitation of the first reptile had triggered a full-scale attack. Snake heads were shooting out at them from all sides. Flicking tongues, flashing fangs. Suppressing his fear, Gregor gritted his teeth and counterattacked with his sword. He thought of the blood-ball training back in Regalia. It was the same principle. Incapacitating the missile before it struck you. What he couldn't hit with his sword he deflected with his torch.

 
Only the largest snakes could cover the distance to the rock, but it was all Gregor and Luxa could do to keep them at bay.

  With relief, Gregor felt the rager sensation begin buzzing through his body. He welcomed the adrenaline rush, the heightening of his senses, the giving over to his instincts. Ripred had been right when he'd said that there would be times that Gregor would be glad of the gift of being a rager. Maybe he was getting a better handle on the phenomenon, because today he was able to fight without losing awareness of his actions and without fear at his transformation.

  Now, for instance, he was quite cognizant of the fact that Ares was trembling behind him. The bats were utterly helpless. Trapped in the dome, they could not take to the air to flee or even to fight with their claws.

  "Make yourselves small!" Luxa ordered them. Ares and Aurora pressed tightly together. "The twisters cannot reach you with Gregor and me here!"

  He hacked off head after head, but the onslaught only increased. Smaller snakes had joined in as well.

  "The jungle!" cried Aurora. "It is shrinking!" She was right. The snakes were closing in on them. The dome was still intact but several feet closer on each side. Soon every snake would be able to reach them, and there would be no way to fight them all off.

  "To the cave!" Luxa shouted to the others. "There is only one entrance; we can defend that!"

  Moving as one unit, the four of them inched their way to the mouth of the cave. Gregor caught a glimpse of Luxa's blade and torch, whirling in some crisscrossing pattern as she held off the snakes while Aurora and Ares fluttered inside. Gregor and Luxa stood angled out, shoulders touching, backs to the opening, as the assault continued. For every snake they killed, another two seemed ready to take its place. It was only a matter of time before one broke through, one set of fangs made contact, and their defenses fell.

  "This is no good!" shouted Gregor over the hissing. "They'll just keep up until we're beat!"

  If only Ripred were here! Much as the rat infuriated Gregor, there was no better companion in a fight. Ripred would know how to get out of this alive!

  Ripred ... Ripred ... what would he do? Gregor tried to picture the big scarred rat beside him at this moment. But he couldn't. Ripred wouldn't be standing in the cave mouth swatting at snakes. He would be, he would be ...

  "I'm going to try something!" yelled Gregor. "Get the bats out if you can!"

  And before Luxa could object, Gregor was slashing his way back to the rock. He had no more than an image in his head. The image of Ripred, fighting off the humans in the arena, shredding the plants that held the yellow pods, in battle with the ants. When he was far outnumbered, Ripred always relied on the same fighting technique. He spun. He spun in a circle so fast that no matter what adversary reached him, they would encounter his claws. Gregor had only one sword, but he had a torch and he was a much smaller target than Ripred. If he could just spin quickly enough ... !

  The second Gregor's feet hit the rock they began to turn him in place. He spun with his sword in front, his torch straight behind his back. Faster and faster until there was only a blur of shooting heads, spurting blood, and twisting bodies. He stopped thinking, abandoned himself, and let his rager senses completely take over. At some point, the number of snakes lessened, but he did not let up. It was Luxa's sword, thrust out to block his own, that finally brought him back to reality. The clash of metal as their blades made contact had such force that he broke hers in two. The second he stopped spinning, he was reeling wildly around the clearing, overcome with dizziness. He crashed into the vines, which were entangled with headless snakes, and grabbed hold of anything he could as the world careened around him. It was one of the worst feelings he had ever experienced. He thought he vomited but could never clearly recollect the moment.

  Then a pair of claws lifted him into the air and deposited him on Ares's back. "No," Gregor said. "Too dizzy."

  "Hold fast to my fur!" ordered Ares. "We must be gone from here!"

  Gregor clutched Ares's fur and just wished for the whole thing to be over.

  Time passed. The world steadied. Ares landed somewhere and Luxa helped Gregor off the bat's back. Gregor sat on the ground and tried to get his bearings. Luxa held up cupped hands filled with water to his mouth, and he eagerly drank. His heart slowed down. He was all right. They were no longer in the jungle. Gregor gratefully felt the stone floor of the tunnel beneath him. He dipped his whole face into the cold stream, less to drink than to clear his head. When he sat up, feeling refreshed, the other three were staring at him uneasily.

  "Are you ill?" asked Ares.

  "No, not now," said Gregor. "I just got a little dizzy spinning around."

  "Your mind ... it is calm?" asked Luxa tentatively.

  "Think so," asked Gregor. "Actually, I feel pretty good." He did. Like when he'd run miles in track and then gotten a buzz. Only this was a much deeper sense of well-being. "Why?"

  No one answered.

  "What's wrong?" he said.

  "When you fought, it was as if something had possessed you," said Aurora. "Your face changed. You made sounds that were not human."

  "I was fighting off about a zillion snakes. It was just that rager thing," said Gregor.

  "I have never seen it before," said Aurora. "Except when you hit the blood balls, but that was not the same."

  When Gregor thought back, he realized that was true. Aurora had never been around when he was actually in battle. "Well, that's how I always get. Tell her, Luxa."

  "No, Gregor, it was different this time," said Luxa. "Not like when I saw you fight the cutters."

  "How?" asked Gregor. It had not felt that different to him. He'd felt a little more in control for a while.

  Luxa chose her next words carefully. "You seemed ... to be enjoying it."

  "What? Well, I wasn't!" Gregor said. "And that's a really rotten thing to say."

  "I did not mean to --" Luxa began.

  "Let's just go home," he said. They scrubbed the gore from their skin in silence and mounted the bats. Not until he was up on Ares's back, away from Luxa and Aurora, did Gregor dare to ask, "What did I do?"

  "You fought magnificently. You will one day be every bit the warrior that Ripred is," said Ares.

  "See, that's what I was thinking about. How would Ripred get us out of there? That's how I came up with the spin!" said Gregor excitedly, and then stopped. Why was he excited? The whole thing had been a terrible, bloody encounter. It must just be the relief of having survived it. Or was it something else? "Why did Luxa say that about me enjoying it?"

  "Because, as the fight progressed, you began to smile," said Ares.

  "I smiled?" said Gregor. His skin crawled at the thought. At home, he never got involved in fights unless he was forced to. He had never liked physical violence and had a low opinion of kids who did. It sickened him to hit another person. "I smiled?"

  "Overlander, do not make too much of this. Everyone knows being a rager is not a choice," said Ares. "Only it took us by surprise to see you so. As we know you do not revel in death."

  Gregor didn't say another word the rest of the trip to Regalia.

  They had left the torches in the jungle. Gregor ripped the duct tape off his arm and returned the flashlight to his belt, flipping it off. He wanted darkness to hide in while he tried to understand this new thing that had happened to him. But he didn't understand it. His postbattle exhilaration drained away, leaving him feeling empty and quietly afraid of himself.

  He had a desperate desire to see Ripred, to talk to the only other rager he knew about what he had just experienced. But he had no idea where to find the rat. Ripred had taken off after the Bane; they could be anywhere....

  It was only when Gregor and Luxa were climbing back into the old nursery that he realized he had another problem.

  "Listen," whispered Luxa, grabbing his arm. Footsteps were coming down the hall. They had been gone all night and well into the day. Both Gregor's mother and the Regalian council would freak out if they knew
about the secret trip.

  "Lose your weapon," Luxa told Gregor. They both quickly unhooked their belts and set them down on the stairs. Luxa flipped the turtle's shell closed, shoved Gregor onto an old pallet, and dove onto one about ten feet away. "Sleep," she told Gregor, and immediately pretended to do so herself.

  Gregor had just flattened out and shut his eyes when the footsteps stopped at the door.

  "Did Mareth have them check the old nursery?" he heard Vikus's voice say.

  "I do not think this wing was checked at all. It is so rarely used," Howard replied.

  "I believe I see a light," said Vikus. Gregor had switched on his flashlight so he and Luxa could climb into the nursery and never thought to turn it off. Too late now, though. He could hear Vikus and Howard entering the room.

  Vikus gave a chuckle of relief. "Ah, here they are. Slept the whole night here by the looks of it. Luxa, awaken," he said softly.

  Gregor felt Howard's hand give his shoulder a shake. "And you, Gregor. Before the council sends out the army to find you."

  "What?" said Gregor in his best sleepy tone. He sat up and gave a fake yawn. "What's going on?"

  Luxa rubbed her eyes and blinked up at her grandfather in confusion. "Oh. Have we been here all night? I was showing Gregor the nursery. He started telling some endless tale about his bravery in the Labyrinth. I must have dozed off."

  It took Gregor a second to realize she was trying to capture their normal banter. Trying to act as if they had not experienced the awful night behind them. He could play along.

  "Yeah? You should hear yourself go on about how rough it is to be a queen," said Gregor, stretching. "What time is it, anyway?"

  "Nearly luncheon," said Vikus.

  "Good. I am famished," said Luxa.

  "Come then, and eat. And I shall instruct Mareth to call off the search for you. What would you have me tell the council, Luxa?" said Vikus.

  "Something very dramatic. Tell them I sneaked out at night, evaded the guards, and ran off to the jungle," said Luxa.

  Gregor shot her a look, but she knew what she was doing.

  "Yes. Very witty. See that you take better care where you sleep tonight, Your Highness," said Vikus. Then he left the nursery.

 
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