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Gregor and the marks of.., p.8
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.8

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  As they neared their destination, Howard and Gregor flew ahead to scout out the area. The nibblers' colony began with a large open area just off the river. A honeycomb of small caves and a network of narrow tunnels flanked it. With its access to the river for fishing and clean water and its natural nesting places, it seemed an ideal location for the mice.

  But there were no mice around today. Luxa's greetings were met with silence. The bats could pick up no signs of life through echolocation, either. For closer inspection, they had to land on the beach.

  "This area officially belongs to the Fount, but my father allowed the nibblers to use it. He has always been sympathetic to their plight," said Howard.

  "What exactly is their plight?" asked Gregor.

  "They have great difficulty finding a home," said Howard. "They have been driven out of lands by cutters, by spinners, and most often by gnawers, who particularly hate them as they have always been our allies. They have ended up scattered in colonies around the Underland, trying to carve out a life."

  "Well, then it seems weird they'd leave here," said Gregor.

  "That is just the point," said Howard. "I do not believe they would leave here on their own. They must have been driven out again."

  "We must check the caves," said Luxa.

  What they found inside was spooky. Half-eaten meals. Rumpled nests. A pattern of small stones on the floor suggested a game had been in progress. It was as if one second before they'd entered the colony it had been alive and bustling with nibblers, and then poof! They had all vanished without a trace. As to where they had gone or what had compelled them to go, there was no clue.

  By the last cave, Luxa seemed about ready to lose it. "What can have happened to them? There is no rhyme or reason to any of this!"

  Just then Hazard gave a sharp cry from the back of the cave. They all ran to him, certain he must be injured, but he was backing away from something on the wall. When Luxa reached him, he wrapped his arms around her and held on tight.

  "Hazard, what is it?" she said, running her hands over him to search for injuries. "Are you hurt? Why do you tremble?"

  The boy pointed to the cave wall. Howard held his torch to the wall, and in the flickering light Gregor could see a mark had been hastily scratched into it. A familiar mark. A straight line with a thin beaklike appendage.

  "Ares and I found this same thing under Cevian's body. We thought she was trying to make a letter, a P or a B. To spell out someone's name," said Gregor.

  "No, no!" said Hazard in a shrill voice. "It is one of the marks of secret."

  "What's that?" asked Gregor.

  "A secret means of communication. An old collection of symbols that you could use to pass information to your allies but that were unknown to your enemies," said Howard.

  "But, Hazard, no one has used the marks of secret for centuries. They have lost all meaning," said Luxa.

  "Not in the jungle," said Hazard. "We use them. Frill taught them to my father and he to me. That is the scythe."

  "And that means something bad?" said Gregor, nodding to the mark.

  "It means death," said Hazard, and he was starting to cry.

  "It means someone will die?" said Luxa, holding him close.

  "Not just someone," said Hazard. "It means us! It means we who see it will die!"

  PART 2: The Marks

  ***

  CHAPTER 10

  Despite many reassurances from Luxa, it took Hazard quite a while to calm down. Even when they had left the cave and assembled on the shore of the river, he was still traumatized by what he had seen. Gregor couldn't think of any symbol that would be so scary in the Overland, but then compared to Hazard, he'd led a very safe life.

  "What is a scythe, anyway?" Gregor asked.

  "It is a tool used for harvesting grain. The farmers were using scythes today as we flew over the fields," said Howard.

  Gregor remembered the tools then, being swung from side to side. "So, why do those mean death?"

  "Because they cut down life. In old scrolls from the Overland, sometimes the figure of Death, in a hooded black robe, also carries a scythe. To cut down humans' lives," said Howard.

  "Oh, yeah. That's where I've seen it," said Gregor.

  Howard built a small fire to try to cheer things up. Unfortunately, in the ghost town that was the mouse colony the shadows the flames threw against the stone walls only made the place feel more eerie.

  Boots, who was puzzled by the whole situation, squatted next to Hazard and patted him on the leg. "Hazard is crying. Hazard is sad," she said.

  "It's okay, Boots; everybody is fine," said Gregor, picking her up for a hug.

  "No, we are not fine. We have seen the scythe," said Hazard.

  "And yet we still live," said Luxa, stroking his curls.

  "Yes, perhaps that mark was meant for someone else," said Howard.

  "Or they made it during the plague," said Luxa. "Before the cure was found and all warmbloods were as good as dead."

  Hazard quieted a minute to consider this. "I don't know," he said. "In the jungle everyone dreads the mark."

  "Did you ever see it yourself? In the jungle, I mean," said Gregor.

  "Once. There was a swarm of flying insects. Their bite brought quick death," said Hazard.

  "But you did not die, Hazard," said Howard encouragingly. "Or you would not be here to tell us of it."

  "My mother died," said Hazard wanly. "Frill outran them, but my mother was bitten first."

  There was nothing to say after that. No explaining to Hazard that they were safe. Around any corner could be another swarm of stingers. Another plague. Another way to die.

  Some mouse had scratched that mark in the cave wall. Cevian had made the same mark at Queenshead. Why? What threat was upon them? Gregor didn't believe it had to do with the plague. Or the snakes.

  "Hazard, when you lived in the jungle, how did the nibblers get along with the snakes?" asked Gregor. "The ones that look like vines."

  "You mean the twisters?" said Hazard. "They avoided each other. The twisters eat the nibbler pups, and the nibblers eat the twister eggs," he said.

  "It is true," said Luxa. "The twisters never came near the nibblers when I was there. I believe neither thought it was worth the risk."

  "So you think the twisters only moved in after the mice had left?" asked Howard.

  "That is my hope," said Luxa. "But also my fear. It would mean that not one but two colonies of nibblers have left their homes because of an unknown threat."

  "It sounds as if they have a lot of enemies," said Gregor. "The spinners, the cutters --"

  "Those were land disputes. Once the nibblers had left their regions, neither the spinners nor cutters had any interest in pursuing them. I can think of only one animal that would do that," said Howard.

  No one had to mention the rats. They all knew who Howard was talking about.

  They had snacked from the picnic baskets on the flight, mostly eating whatever was on top. Now Howard laid out the delicacies the cook had prepared. Spicy fish salads, a dozen kinds of cheese, pickled vegetables, roasted chicken, sliced beef, stuffed eggs, several loaves of bread, and a variety of sweets. It was an amazing spread, but no one really enjoyed it except Boots. She ate until her belly stuck out like a basketball. "See?" she said to Gregor, pulling up her shirt. He poked her stomach and shook his head. "Talk about eating like a shiner!" he said. She was probably about to hit a growth spurt. At least, he hoped so.

  By the time the picnic was over, everyone was dropping from fatigue. Except Boots, who'd had a nice long nap on the trip and was ready to play. They broke up guard duty into two-hour shifts. Gregor and Temp volunteered for the first watch.

  Gregor dug in his backpack for something to keep his sister quiet. Since he hadn't planned to bring her along, he hadn't come prepared to entertain her. The best he could do was the binoculars.

  "Look, Boots, magic glasses," he told her. He had to take a few minutes to show her how to look through
the binoculars. She was fascinated by the magnified images. She peered into the eyepieces and then dropped them down repeatedly. "Temp is big. Temp is small. Temp is big. Temp is small."

  "Shh. Everybody's going to sleep," said Gregor.

  "Temp is big. Temp is small. Temp is big. Temp is small," whispered Boots.

  Gregor was glad to get a little time with the cockroach. Temp rarely spoke in large groups, although in private he'd chatter along with Boots and Hazard in that bizarre mixture of English and Cockroach the three had developed. Most of the time, it was easy to forget Temp was there.

  "So, Temp, what do you make of this thing with the nibblers?" asked Gregor when the others were asleep.

  "Hate the nibblers, the rats do, hate the nibblers," said Temp.

  "Well, we don't know if the rats are involved yet," said Gregor.

  "It be too late, the knowing, it be," said Temp.

  "Too late for what, Temp?" said Gregor.

  "For the doing," said Temp.

  "Doing something to help the nibblers, you mean?" asked Gregor, and the roach nodded.

  By the time Gregor's watch was over, Boots had worn herself out. He lay down with her, and she soon drifted off. It took him a little longer. He kept thinking about what Temp had said, about it being too late for the doing. Gregor glanced unhappily around the empty colony, afraid that the cockroach might be right.

  No one felt satisfied with the idea of returning to Regalia the next morning.

  "What we have seen will not be enough to incite the council to action," said Luxa.

  "Perhaps telling the story of your crown will aid our case, after all," said Howard.

  "No. As Cevian was not able to tell us the reason she sent it, it will be assumed the twisters drove the nibblers out of the jungle and have gone in search of a new home," said Luxa.

  "What about the marks of secret?" said Hazard. "That would be enough in the jungle."

  "But we do not know specifically why they were made, so the council will not be able to justify sending soldiers after the nibblers," said Luxa.

  "In truth, Cousin, I believe the most likely scenario is that the rats drove the nibblers out of both of their colonies. But we have no evidence of that. And even if we did, we have never sent an army to prevent the nibblers' relocation before," said Howard.

  "We should have," said Luxa grimly.

  "What about that basketful of baby mice?" said Gregor. That somehow disturbed him more than anything else.

  "The council could say, like you did, that the mother was mad. Or, if something drove the nibblers out, that she did not believe the babies could make the journey. They will reason all of this away. Yet when I add it up, the crown, Cevian's death, the baby mice, two empty colonies, and the marks of secret, I know in my heart that a grievous wrong is occurring," said Luxa. "We must find more substantial proof."

  "That will be hard to get, since we will all be restricted to quarters the instant we return to Regalia," said Howard.

  "My mom will send Boots and me home," said Gregor. "I doubt she'll let us come back again."

  "For how long?" asked Hazard.

  "Maybe forever, Hazard," said Gregor. His family was only waiting for his mother's return. The second she could manage it, she'd pack them all up and take them to Virginia.

  "You mean, we will not see you after this trip?" said Luxa.

  "Probably not," said Gregor. It didn't seem quite real that by tomorrow he might never see the Underlanders again. But his mom would never trust him down here, especially since he'd taken Boots on this "picnic."

  "We would not have allowed you to come if we knew this!" said Luxa. She was always running off on dangerous adventures, and there were never any real repercussions. But Gregor was not a queen and the Underland was not his home. "But wait, you must be wrong, Gregor. What of 'The Proph --'"

  Luxa cut herself off, but Gregor could complete the phrase. What of "The Prophecy of Time"? The prophecy no one wanted to tell him about. The one about him "possibly" killing the Bane one of these days. He thought about pursuing the subject, but Nerissa had said knowledge of the prophecy might be damaging to him or people he loved. Was she afraid that if he knew what it said he'd run off and do something stupid? He remembered how obsessively he had thought about "The Prophecy of Blood" as he tried to work out its meaning ... that hadn't helped anything ... but the idea of this new one kept nagging at him. He decided not to ask Luxa about "The Prophecy of Time," but when he got back to Regalia he was going to confront Vikus about it. What did it say exactly? Was it definitely about Gregor? Because if it was, he would have to stay in the Underland to fulfill it, and his mom would never agree to that. For now, he would pretend he hadn't heard Luxa's comment.

  "Look, me leaving ... it was going to happen pretty soon, even if I didn't come here," said Gregor. "But I wanted to come. To help you find out what happened to the nibblers."

  "Which we still do not know," said Howard. "Not what happened to them nor where they are now. They were not killed here, anyway. Nor thrown in the river, for their bodies would have washed past Regalia."

  "They went deeper into the tunnels, then," said Luxa.

  "Possibly," said Howard. "But how is it that a colony of nibblers escaped the notice of the Fount scouts? They patrol these regions."

  "So, where could they have gone?" asked Gregor.

  "I can think of only one alternative. The Swag," said Howard.

  "What's that?" said Gregor.

  "A tunnel that runs from these caves under the river," said Luxa. "Do you know where the entrance lies, Howard?"

  "I do. I had friends among the nibblers who showed me. I have crossed the Swag once. And I cannot help feeling we may find some answers there," said Howard. "But I would not risk bringing further trouble to Gregor."

  "Forget that. I've exceeded my trouble limit," said Gregor. "Do the Swag, don't do the Swag. I'm still getting sent home."

  "What harm can it do, Howard? We are all past redeeming," said Luxa.

  A few minutes later, they had located the mouth of the Swag and were practically sliding down the steep slope of the tunnel. It was particularly difficult to get a footing because the floor was covered in some kind of gravel. The tunnel was large enough for the bats to fly through, but since they were hoping to find clues to the nibblers' whereabouts, they agreed that a slow journey on foot would be more helpful than a quick flight.

  Crossing the Swag reminded Gregor of riding the subway that linked Manhattan to Brooklyn at 14th Street. You had to go under the East River. It was not a long trip, only a few minutes, but at about the halfway point Gregor always felt a little anxious. It was something, having a whole river running above your head. Wouldn't it have been better to build a bridge?

  Eventually the slope tapered off and they were walking on even ground. For the first time, Gregor felt able to concentrate on something other than his feet. He moved his flashlight beam across the gravel floor, hoping for a sign that the nibblers had been this way, but the rocks yielded nothing. He tried examining the tunnel walls next. At first, they seemed as untouched as the gravel, but just as the floor began to turn upward, indicating they were nearing the far side of the river, Gregor spotted something.

  "Wait a minute," he said. He crossed to the wall and shone his light on a spot about a foot above the floor. It was a paw print, slightly smeared but unmistakable. "Look here." He kneeled down and braced himself against the wall with one hand.

  The others gathered around. "It is a nibbler print," said Luxa. "There is no doubting that. But what is it made of?"

  Howard scraped the print with his fingernail, rubbed the residue between his fingers, and sniffed it. He held his hand out to Nike for confirmation. "Blood?" he said.

  "Nibbler blood," she confirmed. "But a few days old."

  "If you didn't have time to scratch out another scythe ..." began Gregor.

  "Or if you could not be seen doing it..." said Luxa.

  "Right. This would be a fast w
ay to leave a message," said Gregor.

  "Especially if one was already bleeding," said Aurora.

  They stood staring silently at the paw print. There was a whole story behind it. As there was in Cevian's cold body and the basket of baby nibblers and the empty colonies. In and of itself, it was not proof of anything. But Gregor's instincts told him that Luxa was right. That it all added up to something ... evil. That was a funny word. A word for comic books and action-adventure cartoons. Not a word he ever even used in its real sense. But here in the tunnel it felt real.

  Luxa, as if unable to help herself, pressed her hand on top of the paw print. Her head dropped forward slightly, and for a moment she squeezed her eyes shut tight. Gregor could almost feel the sorrow radiating from her.

  He was trying to figure out what to do next when he noticed the tremor beneath his feet. "It's just another subway going by," he thought. The trains made the platforms vibrate, and you could even feel them above-ground. Then he remembered he had not arrived in this tunnel by subway.

  "Mount up!" cried Howard, and the bats fluttered into positions for takeoff.

  "What is it?" asked Hazard. "What is happening?" Gregor grabbed up Boots and hurdled onto Ares's

  back. He did not need to wait for Howard's answer to know this was his first earthquake.

  ***

  CHAPTER 11

  Gregor and Boots had just landed on Ares's back when a shock wave knocked the bat off his feet. Ares managed to get into the air, as did Nike, who carried Howard, and Aurora, who had Luxa. But Thalia was not so lucky. The little bat, with Hazard on her back, was thrown sideways.

  "Hazard!" cried Luxa. She swooped down on Aurora with her arms extended to pull him up beside her, but he brushed her away.

  "No, Luxa, I must stay with Thalia!" said Hazard. "We mean to be bonds!"

  "She cannot take flight with you on her back!" said Howard. "Oh, we have no time for this! Nike!" Nike dove for Thalia, and Howard plucked the boy off her back with one hand.

  "Thalia!" shrieked Hazard as Howard hauled him onto Nike's back. "Thalia!" Despite desperate flutterings of her wings, Thalia could not get into the air.

  The entire world seemed to be shaking now, and a deep rumbling sound threatened to drown out their voices.

  "Hold tight!" ordered Ares, and Gregor locked his legs around the bat and his arms around Boots as they tipped downward. Then they were level again, but Gregor could feel the drag on Ares and knew he had Thalia in his claws. "Which way?" the bat cried. "Back to the colony?"

 
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