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Gregor and the marks of.., p.9
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       Gregor and the Marks of Secret, p.9

         Part #4 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "No, we will never make it. Follow me!" said Howard, and headed up the tunnel that led to the far side of the Swag.

  Rock chips began to rain down from the roof of the tunnel. First small ones, like the gravel that lined the floor, but soon larger pieces. One caught Gregor on the shoulder, and the sharp edge cut through his shirt to his flesh. He pressed Boots forward over Ares's neck, protecting her with his body as best he could. Suddenly an awful thought hit him. "Temp! We left Temp behind!" He had not seen the cockroach on anyone's bat. A reassuring bump came from behind Gregor, and he knew the bug must have scurried up on Ares when the earthquake started. A good thing, too, because there was no going back for a rescue.

  With his head bent over Ares's neck, Gregor could see the floor, rolling as if the gravel were waves on the ocean.

  Cracks began to appear in the walls of the tunnel. First thin lines, which shot up the stone faces, etching treelike patterns in the surfaces. And then deeper fissures. That's when Gregor felt the water on the back of his neck. It was only a gentle patter like rain, but he knew that wouldn't last.

  "The roof! It's breaking! The river's coming in!" he cried. He didn't know if Ares could hear him over the noise. Anyway, he was already flying as well as he could. The falling rocks had increased in both size and quantity, and despite the bat's best efforts, he could not dodge them all.

  Suddenly the waves of gravel were replaced by rushing water and Gregor knew that somewhere behind him the river had broken through. The mouth of the tunnel was in sight. Nike and Aurora had just shot out into freedom when the wave hit Ares.

  Boots was ripped from Gregor's arms. Ares disappeared from under him. Gregor was alone in the water, dragged along, unable even to seek air, because he had no idea where the air might be. "Boots!" his brain screamed. "Boots!"

  Gregor was dashed against some rocks and allowed one ragged breath before another swell of water engulfed him. He tumbled over and over in the black water. His head struck something and he gasped, filling his lungs with water. He felt consciousness slipping away.

  Then he was vaguely aware of a sharp pain in his foot and there was air around him again. He was dangling in space, water running from his nose and mouth. A bat had him from above, but he was unable to see which one.

  The claw released him on a stone outcropping where he choked out the rest of the river he'd inhaled. The earth trembled ever so slightly beneath him. Gregor forced himself onto his knees. His flashlight was still working. Howard, Luxa, and Aurora lay bloody and gasping beside him. The wave must have caught them as well. There was no sign of the others.

  "Boots!" Gregor cried out. His flashlight beam cut into the darkness. They were up very high over an expanse of churning water. Several hundred yards away, he could just see the top of what must have been the opening to the Swag. Ares and Nike were speeding over the water, searching for the others.

  "Hazard! Hazard!" Luxa's voice was as desperate as his own.

  Boots, Hazard, Thalia, Temp. The smallest, the youngest, the most vulnerable, were all missing.

  "Aurora, can you fly? Can you fly?" begged Luxa. But the golden bat was still gagging up water and unable to answer.

  The flashlight beam caught something floundering in a shallow area nearby. Ares dove and when he came up he had a sodden Thalia in his claws. And in her claws was Hazard.

  Ares gently laid the pair on the stone before he fluttered off again. Thalia was waterlogged, probably going into shock, but she was at least still fighting. Hazard appeared lifeless. His pale skin had a bluish tint. Blood ran from a deep gash in his forehead. There was no movement in his chest.

  Howard was over the boy at once, trying to restore his breathing. It took both Gregor and Aurora, who had recovered slightly, to hold Luxa back from Hazard.

  "Let Howard do it! He's an expert!" Gregor said as she struggled. If Mareth were here, he'd have just knocked Luxa out. He'd done that to Howard when he'd flipped out the time his bat, Pandora, had been devoured by mites. But Gregor couldn't imagine hitting Luxa that hard.

  When she'd calmed down enough that Aurora could contain her, Gregor waved his arms and called to Ares to retrieve him. They flew low over the water, searching frantically for a sign of life.

  "Boots!" yelled Gregor. "Boots!" Every second that passed drained another bit of hope from his heart.

  He could feel despair overtaking him when a tiny wail caught his ear. "Ma-maa!" It increased in volume. "Ma-maa!"

  "Oh, man, she's alive!" said Gregor as tears of relief blurred his vision. "Boots! I'm coming! Hang on!"

  "Ma-maa!" came back at him, but they still couldn't find her.

  "Where is she, Ares?" said Gregor.

  "I do not know! I cannot locate her!" said his bat.

  "Ma-maa!" The cry was fainter this time.

  Gregor felt the darkness was about to swallow her up forever. "Boots! Where are you?" As if she could tell him. But it turned out she could. For suddenly a pinprick of light caught his eye. Her scepter! Her stupid, silly, wonderful, amazing, and apparently waterproof princess scepter!

  They found her in a small pool. Weeping. Her tiara and princess skirt gone. Clutching her scepter. Sitting on Temp's back as he paddled around in a circle, unable to climb up the steep rocks that surrounded them.

  "Oh, sweetie," said Gregor as he pulled her up into his arms. "Oh, Boots."

  She clung to him but was mad at him, too. "You let go. In the water. You let go of me!" she sobbed, and hit him with her small fist.

  "I'm sorry. I tried not to. I'm sorry, Boots," he said, but she was not ready to forgive him.

  There was no easy way to retrieve Temp. Ares ended up tossing the cockroach into the air with his snout and catching him on his back. Temp landed with a hollow thud that couldn't have felt too good, but the bug wasn't one to complain.

  Boots, on the other hand, was just warming up. "You let Temp go! You let Temp go, too!"

  "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," was all Gregor could say as they coasted in to join the others. Howard was still trying to restore Hazard's breathing when the earth began to shake again.

  "An aftershock," thought Gregor. "I think that's what they're called." As he locked his arms around Boots he wondered if they should be trying to escape. But where do you run to when the whole world is unstable?

  The sharp collision of rock on rock drew Gregor's attention back to the exit of the Swag. The stone wall above the tunnel, already cracked and damaged from the initial earthquake, began to break away. A deafening explosion of sound assaulted his ears, and then he was lying on his side, Boots still in his arms.

  He lifted the flashlight just in time to see the avalanche bury the opening to the Swag under a mountain of rock.



  The impact of the avalanche as it hit the water was enough to send waves splashing over the edge of their haven, but no one was washed away. Nor could anyone get any wetter. They were all soaked, inside and out.

  Howard was almost oblivious to the latest disaster, because he was so focused on Hazard. The rest of them sat dripping and shivering as he pumped the boy's chest and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The seconds dragged on. Luxa had stopped fighting and now just stared at Hazard, stiff and distant. Gregor knew she thought the boy was lost.

  Only when Howard cried out, "His heart beats!" did everyone come to life. Luxa sprang forward and clutched Hazard's hand, saying, "He is alive? He is alive?"

  At that moment, water gushed from Hazard's mouth. Howard rolled the boy on his side and let Luxa comfort him as he retched. The picnic hampers were still secured to the bats' backs. Howard dug into the smaller hamper on Nike and pulled out a large leather box. Leave it to Howard to think to pack a first-aid kit. It had never even crossed Gregor's mind. Just another reason he was probably not doctor material.

  Gregor had brought flashlights, though, and several spare batteries, which was good because, besides Boots's scepter, that was all the light he had. The torches had
been taken by the flood.

  "I must stitch his wound," said Howard. While Luxa cradled Hazard in her arms, Howard cleaned and sewed up the gash in his forehead with quick, deft strokes. He shone Gregor's flashlight in Hazard's eyes and checked his pupils.

  "Will he recover?" asked Luxa.

  "Oh, yes. Just a knock on the head and a bit too much water," said Howard cheerfully. "Next time you are thirsty, Hazard, you might try a cup instead of a river." Hazard managed a weak smile. "I will."

  Thalia laughed hysterically until she began to cry. The whole day had been too much for Thalia. Nike snuggled the little bat in her wings until she could calm down.

  Howard stripped off Hazard's wet clothes and wrapped him in a blanket. "I will wager your head aches." Howard gave Hazard a swallow from a big green bottle that Gregor recognized as painkiller. "Try and lie still. Can you do that?" Hazard gave a nod.

  "All right, then. How fare the rest of you?" said Howard.

  They all just stared at him. Their injuries so paled in comparison to Hazard's that no one felt they could complain. Except for Boots, of course.

  "Gre-go let me go," she said, still sniffling. "Look." She held up her little pointer finger dramatically. It would have been an exaggeration to call it a cut. A nick maybe.

  "Oh, dear. We must address that immediately," said Howard. "And line up, all of you. I do not want anyone being brave."

  It took less than a minute to fix up Boots, and then Howard worked his way through the rest of the party, stitching up cuts and checking for broken bones. They were banged up and bruised, but no one had serious injuries. Luxa, who had been holding Hazard while the others were treated, came up last. She had sprained a finger on her left hand.

  While Howard immobilized it with a thin strip of stone and fabric, she said, "I am so grateful you came."

  "I would like that to be carved in stone. For when you are deciding who to invite on future picnics," said Howard.

  "Thank you for saving Hazard," said Luxa tremulously.

  "He is my cousin," said Howard as he tied off the fabric. "As are you, right?"

  In answer, Luxa put her arms around Howard's neck. "Oh, no, are you actually giving me a hug?" He hugged her back, grinning at Gregor over her shoulder. "And it only took an earthquake, a flood, and an avalanche to get it."

  They all laughed then, even the bats and Temp. Even Luxa.

  Now that the immediate crisis was over, they had to deal with the larger crisis at hand.

  "The avalanche blocked the Swag. So, how do we get back to Regalia?" asked Gregor. The pursuit of the mice was over. They had to get Hazard home now.

  "It is easier said than done," said Howard. "For we are in Hades Hall."

  "Okay, what's that?" asked Gregor.

  "It is a long passageway that goes very deep into the earth. But there are only two ways to gain entrance to it. On this end, the Swag, which is no longer an option. At the far end, many miles from here, the Firelands," said Howard.

  "What, there's no other way to get out?" asked Gregor.

  "I am afraid not. There are some caves. But no other tunnels," said Howard.

  "The Firelands ... aren't they near the jungle?" asked Gregor. He was trying to call up the image of the Underland map he had once seen, but it was foggy.

  "Yes. The journey should require about five days of travel. Three for Hades Hall, and two to get back to Regalia. But before we begin, we must eat; we must rest. We are all in need of recovery, and I would not move Hazard so soon," said Howard.

  No one wanted to eat. The river water had made their stomachs feel weird. Gregor put his flashlight on low and set it in the middle of the group. It was all they could allow themselves, with a long trip ahead and no torches.

  "Your light, Gregor. How long will it last?" asked Luxa.

  "Not for five days," said Gregor.

  "I don't like the dark," said Hazard plaintively. "I miss the jungle. There was always some light there."

  "When we sleep, Hazard, it will not matter if it is light or dark," said Luxa, smoothing back his curls. "May he go to sleep now, Howard?"

  "Yes, Hazard may rest, but we must wake him every time the watch changes," said Howard. "It is standard with head injuries."

  Luxa wanted the first watch. She was still too worried about Hazard to do anything else. Gregor realized that her loving Hazard had brought a new dimension of anxiety into her life. Made her vulnerable in a way she had not been before. It was unbearable to think about losing anyone you loved, but that time Gregor had thought he'd lost Boots it was as if the world had ended. Little kids ... you just loved them in a special way.

  Between the incident with Hazard and her ongoing fear for the mice, Luxa was being pushed to the limit. Gregor volunteered to take the watch with her before anyone else had a chance. Just to keep an eye on her.

  Despite the dampness of their clothes and fur and even Temp's shell -- periodically trickles of water would run out of some part of him -- the others fell asleep quickly.

  Gregor sat next to Luxa on the smaller picnic hamper that she had positioned over Hazard's bedside. He reviewed his situation in his head.

  Boy, was he ever in trouble now. The list of his transgressions was quite impressive. He had secretly gone to the mouse colony with Luxa. He had taken Boots along. He had crossed the Swag, which he knew nothing about, and then been cut off by an avalanche. He was five days from reaching Regalia, which meant during that time his family would be in hell. All they would know was that he had taken Boots on a picnic and never returned. A thought hit him.

  "Hey, Luxa, if all that water ran into the Swag from the river, they would know in Regalia, right? I mean, the whole river would be lower," said Gregor.

  "Yes, I suppose so. The water here stopped rising after the avalanche. It seemed to have blocked it off. But we have no idea what happened on the other side of the Swag," said Luxa. "Why?"

  "I was thinking, at least people might guess we had come here and know it might take us some time to get home," said Gregor. "I mean, say they came to investigate why the river was low. And they found where we'd had a fire at the nibblers' colony. Maybe they could put two and two together and know we'd gone through the Swag."

  "But, Gregor, that could have been anyone's fire. And once the river fills the Swag it may flood the nibblers' colony as well, erasing all signs of us," said Luxa.

  She was right. If a big wave had come out of this side of the Swag, a big wave had probably come out of the other side, too. Gregor didn't know enough about science to even guess what would happen to the river or to the surrounding areas when everything had settled.

  "Besides, they have no reason to think we would come so far. Had it been only you and I, possibly. We are not much trusted. But we took Hazard and Boots, whom we cherish. And Howard ... no one ever would expect Howard to make such an unauthorized trip. He is so dependably good," said Luxa.

  "That didn't keep them from putting him on trial for treason," said Gregor.

  "True enough, but he was easily cleared of the charge. And this morning Vikus saw us off with two hampers of food. I expect they are searching well-frequented picnic sites for us," said Luxa.

  "Oh. It was just a thought," said Gregor. "So ... how are you doing?"

  "Better, now that Hazard breathes," said Luxa.

  "Don't worry. Howard will make sure he's okay," said Gregor.

  "Yes, Howard watches over him," said Luxa.

  "He watches over you, too," said Gregor, remembering his uncomfortable date conversation. His face turned hot again. "Look, you know when we were leaving Regalia and I said that whole thing about the picnic being a date? I'm sorry. That was just to get us out of there. I didn't mean ... you see, I didn't know... in the Overland a date's not that big a deal... well, it would be for me, but for other people ... okay, you can stop staring at me now. I'm done."

  Those violet eyes had been locked on his face as he floundered through the explanation. "Did Howard say something to you abou
t it?" asked Luxa, not looking away.

  "Yeah. He made it pretty clear you and I weren't going on any dates," said Gregor. They both laughed.

  "I knew you did not mean anything by it," said Luxa. "I am sure I am not at all the person you would choose to invite on a date."

  "That's not true," Gregor blurted out. Oh, man! Why did he say that? She had been perfectly willing to go with the "that was just to get us out of Regalia" excuse! And here he was, stepping right back into it. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with you." That sounded bad, too. "It's just the whole queen thing."

  "And the Overlander thing," she said, finally looking away.

  "Yeah," he said. What did that mean? That if he weren't an Overlander she might... she might what? He had to stop this now. He needed to change the subject. New subject... new subject... "Do you want a sandwich?" he said.

  "A sandwich?" said Luxa. "Yes."

  "I'll make some," said Gregor. They ate cheese sandwiches and talked very little. When Ares and Nike awoke to take the next shift, Gregor lay down next to Boots and pulled the edge of the blanket up over his face, grateful to be away from Luxa's eyes.

  The next morning, while they had breakfast, Howard explained the geography of Hades Hall. "I have never traveled it myself. Humans rarely take this route, for others are shorter and less perilous."

  "Where does it come out exactly?" asked Gregor.

  "In the Firelands. Here, Gregor, it is like this," said Howard. He dipped his finger in some kind of spicy sauce and drew an A. "We are here." To the left of the A he made a long line. "Here is the river that leads into the Waterway." A large oval indicated the Waterway. To the left of the Waterway, way off to the side, he made a B. "Here lie the Firelands. And Hades Hall runs something like this." Howard drew an S-shaped line between points A and B.

  Gregor stared at the map. Something was confusing him. "Where's Regalia?"

  "Here," said Howard, indicating a point directly on top of the 5-shaped line.

  "So, why don't we run into Regalia on the way?" said Gregor.

  "Because Hades Hall is far below Regalia and there is no access to it. You must not think of the Underland as a flat plain. Think of it as a sphere, where one can go up and down as well as side to side," said Howard.

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