"Howard?" said Gregor. He liked Mareth a lot, but he didn't want Luxa's cousin going along. Howard was part of that Fount crowd, and who knew if he'd ever seen a rat -- besides that dead one on the beach?
"Apart from being a most excellent fighter, he is well versed in the ways of water travel," said Solovet. "We are most fortunate his visit coincided with yours."
"Uh-huh," said Gregor. "So Ripred's not coming, either?" Nobody made him feel safer than Ripred...when he wasn't wondering if the big rat would kill him.
"He left this morning for the Dead Land," said Vikus. "Oh, I see the boats are loaded! We had best get you on your way!"
Ares landed beside them. "The river is too hazardous. We will fly to the Waterway and then board the boats."
"Glad you're coming, anyway," Gregor muttered, shooting a resentful look at Luxa and, while he was at it, Vikus. He climbed on Ares's back.
Dulcet handed Boots up to him with a slight sound of exertion. "Oh! Boots, you have been growing well!"
"I big girl! I ride bat! I ride bat!" Boots squealed in delight, bouncing in front of Gregor. On the first trip, Gregor had carried her in a backpack, but she was getting too big for that, especially with the life jacket.
"Temp ride, too!" said Boots. The cockroach scurried up behind them, his movements somewhat restricted by his bulky flotation device.
Twitchtip slid into one of the big boats and flattened herself in the middle. Her nose poked over the side, trying to catch the breeze that blew up the river. Gregor felt a twinge of sympathy for the rat. She might be the only one more miserable about this journey than he was.
Teams of bats lifted the two loaded boats by rope loops and started down the river. As Ares took off after them, Gregor wrapped his arms tightly around Boots. He was becoming familiar with the journey now, the fading lights of Regalia, the glimmer as they passed the crystal-walled beach where he had had his first encounter with rats, and finally the wide-open expanse of the Waterway.
They flew a few miles out over the Waterway before the teams of bats lowered the boats into the water and took off. Howard's bat landed in the boat with Twitchtip. Ares settled in the second boat, as did Mareth's bat.
"This is Andromeda. She is my bond," Mareth said, touching his hand to the wing of his gold-and- black-speckled bat. Gregor remembered Mareth had been riding her during the rat fight back on the crystal beach. She'd been so badly injured that she had not come on "The Prophecy of Gray" trip. Gregor still felt kind of responsible for that fight because it had happened when he'd tried to escape.
"Hey, nice to meet you," he said. Did she still blame him for that night?
"I am honored to meet you also, Overlander," she said. Maybe, like Mareth, she had forgiven him.
Mareth also introduced him to Howard's bond, Pandora, a graceful bat with beautiful rusty red fur. All she said to him was "Greetings."
Vikus had flown out after them to bid them good-bye. "Gregor, I forgot to deliver you this," he called. His large gray bat swooped over Gregor's boat, and something fell to the floor. Gregor picked up a scroll and found a copy of "The Prophecy of Bane" written in Nerissa's elegant hand.
"Fly you high!" Vikus headed back toward Regalia, giving them an encouraging wave. Gregor managed a nod back.
Boots was wriggling madly to get out of Gregor's arms. Letting her loose in the boat made him nervous, but he couldn't hold her for days at a time. He set her down on the floor with strict instructions to "Stay in the boat!"
Fortunately the vessel was so deep that she couldn't get out, anyway. When Gregor stood in the middle, the sides rose up to his shoulders. It was about twenty feet long and made of some kind of animal hide stretched over a bone frame. A two-foot-wide strip of floor ran down the center of the boat. About a third of the way from the front of the boat, Mareth hoisted a wooden mast into the air and secured it at the hinged base. It was only the second wooden object Gregor had seen used in the Underland, the first being the door to Sandwich's room. There were a few seats fashioned from leather, and a lot of supplies. Especially food.
"Are we really going to eat all this?" asked Gregor.
"Not by ourselves. But the shiners will require a great deal of food," said Mareth.
"The shiners?" said Gregor.
"Vikus did not tell you?" began Mareth.
Gregor wondered how many times he was going to hear that in the next few days.
"On long voyages, we cannot carry enough fuel to provide light. So we hire shiners to aid us," said Mareth. "They should be here directly -- yes, see...here they come now."
Gregor looked out into the dark and spotted two points of light. They went out, and then turned on again, closer this time. As the flickering light continued to approach, he could make out the forms of flying insects. By the time the two giant bugs had landed on the bows of the boats, he had identified them.
"Oh, they're fireflies!" he said. Back at his dad's family's farm in Virginia, they flew at the edge of the woods at night. Their little twinkling lights made the whole place look magical. The three-foot-tall versions perched on the boat weren't nearly so enchanting. But he had to admit that when their butts lit up, they put out some light.
"Greetings, Shiners," said Mareth with a bow.
"Greetings, all," one of the fireflies said in a high and impossibly whiny voice. "I am he called Photos Glow-Glow and she is Zap."
"It was my turn to make the introduction," wailed Zap. "Photos Glow-Glow made it last time."
"But we both know that, as a male, I am more visually pleasing to humans," Photos Glow-Glow said, his rear end blinking in a variety of colors. "Zap can only make one color, and it is yellow."
"I hate you!" shrieked Zap.
And Gregor knew this was going to be the longest trip of his life.
Gregor had never bitten his nails before, but he started doing it about five minutes after the fireflies arrived. They were unbelievable! They argued about where they would sit, they argued about who should take the first shift, they even argued about whose servant Temp should be since he was obviously just a no-account crawler, until the roach spoke up with uncharacteristic force, "Only the princess, Temp serves, only the princess."
Mareth tried to feed them to distract them, but they just bickered about each other's table manners.
"Must you talk with your mouth full, Zap?" Photos Glow-Glow said. "It kills my appetite."
"This from someone who just sat in his milk!" Zap said, and apparently she had him there, because his rear end went bright red in anger, and he chomped on a mushroom in silence for at least thirty seconds.
"Are they always like this?" Gregor whispered to Mareth.
"In truth, these two are not as bad as some others I have traveled with," whispered back Mareth. "I once saw a pair try to fight to the death over a piece of cake."
"Try to?" said Gregor.
"They are not very capable fighters, and they tire quickly. So they ended up accusing each other of cheating, and giving up. Then they sulked for several days," said Mareth.
"Do we really need them?" asked Gregor.
"Unfortunately, yes," said Mareth.
Even Boots, who had stationed herself on the floor of the boat to roll a ball around with Temp, seemed aggravated by the newcomers.
"Fo-Fo, too loud!" she said, tugging on one of his wings. "Shh, Fo-Fo!"
"Fo-Fo? Fo-Fo? I am he called Photos Glow-Glow and will answer to no other name!" said Photos Glow-Glow.
"She's just a little kid. She can't say Photos Glow-Glow," said Gregor.
"Well, then, I cannot understand her!" said the firefly.
"Allow me to translate," Twitchtip said, not even bothering to move. "She said if you don't stop your incessant babble, that big rat sitting in the boat next to you will rip your head off."
The silence that followed was blissful. Gregor felt positively friendly toward Twitchtip, and decided he wouldn't mind riding in her boat at all.
/> They were far out into the Waterway now. The torches had been extinguished when the shiners arrived, and the fireflies' glow only illuminated the immediate area. Gregor snapped on his best flashlight for a minute and shone it around. All signs of land had vanished.
There were waves, too, now. And even a decent breeze. Mareth and Howard ran silken sails up the masts and were preoccupied with steering the two vessels. Their bats settled comfortably together and dozed off. Gregor noticed that Ares didn't join them. On the first quest, all the bats had gathered in a clump to sleep together after flights. But maybe Ares wasn't welcome now.
"Hey, Ares, do you know how long it will take us to get to the Labyrinth in this boat?" asked Gregor.
"At least five days," said Ares. "If we flew, we could make it in less time, but it is believed that very few bats could make the journey. No one has ever tried it."
"I bet you could make it," said Gregor. He meant it, too. Henry hadn't chosen Ares just because he was a troublemaker; the bat was also impressively strong and swift.
"I have thought that I might try it someday, to see if I could accomplish it," admitted Ares.
"Like Lindbergh. He's the first guy who flew across the Atlantic Ocean by himself," said Gregor.
"He had wings?" asked Ares.
"Well, mechanical ones. He was a person. He had a plane. That's a machine that flies. Now people fly across the ocean all the time in great big planes, but not when Lindbergh was flying," said Gregor.
"He is famous, in the Overland?" asked Ares.
"Yeah, I mean, he was. He's dead now, but he was real famous. People were mad at him, too. Because of something about a war," Gregor said, unsure about that part. There was a sad thing, too, about a baby. But he couldn't remember that exactly, either.
Gregor picked up the scroll with "The Prophecy of Bane" and opened it.
DIE the baby, die his heart,
Die his most essential part.
He let the scroll snap shut. He looked at Boots, who was quietly singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" while she drummed on Temp's shell. She was so perfect, somehow, in that way little kids are perfect. So innocent. How did anyone think they were going to solve anything by killing her? And yet at this moment, Gregor knew squads of rats were scouring the Underland to do just that.
"Can rats swim?" Gregor asked, peering out into the water.
"Yes, but not as far out as we are. The rats cannot reach her here," Ares said, following his thoughts.
But eventually they would have to land. And there would be the Bane.
"Have you ever killed a rat?" asked Gregor.
"Not alone. Together with Henry, yes. I flew while he held the sword," said Ares.
Then Gregor remembered he had seen the rat Fangor die on Henry's sword, back on that crystal beach. But it was sort of a blur.
"How do you do it? I mean, where exactly is it best to...where do you stab it?" The words felt strange in his mouth.
"The neck is vulnerable. The heart, but one must get past the ribs. Through the eyes to the brain. Under the foreleg is a vein that bleeds greatly. If you strike at the belly, you may not kill instantly, but the rat will likely die within days from infection," said Ares.
"I see," said Gregor. But he didn't. That is, he couldn't really see himself doing it. Killing the giant white rat. The whole thing was surreal.
"Is it okay if I'm riding you? Or do I have to be on the ground?" asked Gregor.
"I will be there, if it is at all possible," said Ares.
"Thanks," said Gregor. "Sorry I got you into this mess."
"You also freed me from one," said Ares. And they left it at that.
Mareth called a dinner break and passed around food. The fireflies ate with gusto, even though they had just been fed.
After everyone had eaten, Mareth lowered the sails in his boat and hooked the front of his craft to the back of Howard's with a towrope. "Howard and I will take turns sailing the lead boat while the rest sleep. But we need someone on guard and one shiner on duty at all times."
"Zap will take the first shift," said Photos Glow-Glow. "My light requires more energy."
"It is a lie!" howled Zap. "I can only make one color, but the effort is the same. He only says this so that he will be given more food and less work!"
"Photos Glow-Glow will take the first shift," said Twitchtip. "Or I'll shred his wings into ribbons." So that settled that. "Who wants to watch with him?"
"We are many and can switch guards every two hours or so," said Mareth.
Gregor was wiped out, but he hated the idea of being woken up after an hour or two of sleep and then having to be on guard, so he volunteered to go first.
In the lead boat, Howard took his place by the rudder to steer. His bat folded its wings to sleep. Twitchtip, who had barely moved since they left Regalia, closed her eyes. Zap's soft yellow light faded out, and she began to snore.
Gregor took off Boots's life jacket, wrapped her snugly in a blanket, and settled her down next to Temp in the stern of their boat. Ares perched next to them. Mareth stretched out on the floor, with Andromeda nearby. Photos Glow-Glow turned his bulb to a steady orange light and lit on the bow, a few feet in front of Mareth, illuminating the space between the boats.
Gregor sat on a pile of supplies and laid his forearm across the side of the boat. It was quiet except for the lapping of the waves, soft breathing, and firefly snores. The rocking of the boat had a hypnotic effect. His eyelids felt leaden.
He had barely slept in days...the rats were after Boots...maybe he could just rest his head on his shoulder...he had to kill Ripred...no, the Bane...he had to kill the Bane...how many nights had he been down here?...he had to kill somebody....
Boots's cold little hand was wrapping around his wrist. "What, Boots?" he murmured. She was squeezing him now. Squeezing him hard. "What? You need a blanket?"
He tried to pull his arm away. Her fingers dug in deeper, creeping up his arm, causing real pain. Gregor's eyes flew open. Boots was sleeping peacefully next to Temp, yards away from him. He twisted his head to the side.
Curled around his forearm was a slimy red tentacle.
"Aah!" Gregor had just enough time to let out a yell before the tentacle gave a terrific yank. He flew over the side of the boat and would have gone straight into the water if one of his boots hadn't caught on the edge. "Ares!" A second yank pulled him headfirst, under the water up to his waist. He managed to get a good breath of air before he submerged. His legs were sliding under, too, now. He could feel the cold water climbing over his thighs, his knees, his ankles -- oh! Someone had him by the feet and was pulling back!
A tug-of-war ensued, with Gregor as the rope. For a dreadful minute it was touch-and-go, with the creature dragging him deeper and Ares dragging him back out. Gregor beat at the tentacle with his free hand, but it didn't seem to have much effect. Finally he got his mouth up to his arm and sank his teeth into the tentacle as deeply as he could. He didn't know if he did any real damage, but he surprised the animal enough for it to loosen its grip a bit. Just then Ares gave a big heave-ho and Gregor flew out of the water, coughing and gasping for air. He dangled upside down a moment, his boots locked in Ares's claws, before the bat dropped him on the floor of the boat. Gregor retched, and a gush of water rushed out of his mouth. He vaguely noticed it was salty, like the ocean.
"Overlander!" he heard Mareth cry. "Can you fight?"
Fight? Gregor struggled onto his hands and knees and got his first good look at their situation.
Tentacles were shooting up over the sides of the boat right and left, their suckers latching on to anything they came in contact with. The crew was fighting back with whatever they had -- swords, teeth, claws, pincers -- trying to sever the appendages from the ghastly creatures looming in the dark water beneath them.
"Catch!" he heard Mareth yell, and he saw a sword flying at him. He grabbed it out of the air by the handle just in time to slice through a te
ntacle that had encircled his ankle. Photos Glow-Glow and Zap were blazing. But even without their help, Gregor could have seen by the light of the water, which shone an unearthly phosphorescent green. "Squid! It's some kind of squid!" he shouted.
The three bats were in flight, diving down and ripping with their claws. Mareth and Howard were slashing away with swords. Twitchtip was a whirlwind of gnashing teeth.
"Overlander, your sister!" he heard Ares warn.
Gregor turned to see Temp, standing over the still-sleeping Boots. The roach's mandibles were snapping away at the* intruders. He was disabling many tentacles, but they kept coming. Three grabbed on to the cockroach's life jacket and pulled him into the water, leaving Boots completely unprotected. As Ares dove in to battle for Temp, a particularly large tentacle whipped over the stern.
When Gregor saw the suckers latch on to Boots's blanket, it happened again: the strange phenomenon that had occurred with the blood balls. The greater world receded, and it was as if nothing but he and the tentacles existed. Around him, somewhere, there were voices, and thuds, and glowing green water being beaten into frothy foam. But all he was really aware of was the attackers. His sword began to move -- not in a premeditative way, but with some instinctive precision and force utterly beyond his control. He hacked away at tentacle after tentacle after tentacle and --
"Overlander!" He heard Mareth's voice reach out for him. "Overlander, enough!" He didn't stop.
"Ge-go, no hitting! No hitting!" he heard. Boots was crying.
The world zoomed back into perspective. Gregor was standing in the middle of the boat. Severed tentacles flopped on the floor around him. His breath was coming in short, rasping gasps.
Mareth grabbed his shoulders and gave him a sharp shake. "They are going. It is over."
Gregor's arm, the one the squid had caught, not the one holding the sword, throbbed. Four angry red circles, sucker marks, swelled on his forearm. He was drenched with sweat and seawater and squid slime.
"Ge-go, no hitting! Go home! Boots go home!" came from behind him.
He turned out of Mareth's grasp and saw her sitting, still half-tangled in her blanket, sobbing, but unharmed. Muck from the squid had splattered her as well. Temp sat next to her. He was missing two legs. Gregor tossed away the sword, reached out for Boots, and held her tightly. "Hey, you're okay. You're okay, baby. Don't cry."