Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (Underland Chronicles 2) - Page 12

PART 3: The Maze

***

CHAPTER 19

"You cannot. You cannot do it alone," Howard said, with a shake of his head.

"Yes, I can," said Gregor. "Tell them why, Twitchtip."

Twitchtip raised one rat eyebrow at Gregor, to see if he was sure. He nodded. "All right, then," she said. "He may stand a chance. He's a rager."

The word had an effect on everybody. Ares and Andromeda both ruffled their wings. Howard's mouth dropped open. "A rager?" he said. "How know you this?"

"Ragers put out a very specific scent when they fight," said Twitchtip. "It's slight, even for me, but I can detect it. I smelled it the first time I met the Overlander, but later wondered if I'd confused it with Ripred's scent. He'd been fighting as well."

"I was hitting the blood balls that day," said Gregor. "That was the first time I felt like that."

"Yes, and then when the squid attacked, I was certain about it," said Twitchtip. "I told him he was a rager a few days later, but he denied it."

There was a pause, and Gregor could feel the others watching him. "Because I didn't want it to be true. But that doesn't matter, what I want. I don't know what it is; something happens when I fight. Something weird. And if Twitchtip thinks she smells this rager thing on me, she's probably right."

"Well, say it is true, Gregor, and you are a rager. It does not make you immortal. It does not mean you can walk into a maze full of rats alone," said Howard.

"He will not be alone," said Ares. "I will be with him."

"And I'll lead him into the maze as far as I'm able," said Twitchtip. "I got a good whiff of white fur before I lost my nose. If I can't lead him to the Bane, I can get him close."

"Then Andromeda and I will come, too," said Howard.

"You're not invited," said Gregor.

"What?" said Howard.

"I don't want you in the maze, Howard. I want you to take Mareth back and tell people what happened. Someone has to. And if I don't come back, I need you to somehow get word to my family," said Gregor.

"You are not in charge of this mission," said Howard. "I had orders from Regalia."

"Okay, but if you try to follow me, I'll fight you," said Gregor.

"You will not stand a chance on foot, fighting a rager on a flier," said Ares.

"Especially with a rat on their side," threw in Twitchtip.

Howard was starting to lose it now. "Maybe I will take that chance! Maybe Andromeda will, too!"

"Please don't, Howard. Please go back. I don't want my mom and dad waiting for Boots and me to walk in the door when it's not going to happen. And sooner or later, if we don't show up, I know they'll come looking for us," said Gregor. "And they need to know in Regalia, too. About Luxa. They have to find a new queen or king now, right? Because no matter what Luxa said, Nerissa probably can't handle it. So it will be Vikus, then your mom, and then you. But if you die, it will be --"

"Stellovet. Oh, I did not think of that," said Howard.

"You going to leave her in charge of Regalia?" asked Gregor.

"No, I am not, I am --" Howard ground the palms of his hands into his forehead. Between losing Pandora and Luxa, whom he'd only just found, really, and the responsibility of a kingdom hanging over him -- he was clearly overwhelmed. "I do not know what to do. Andromeda, what say you?"

"I will not fight the Overlander and risk injuring him. I am taking Mareth home," said Andromeda. "And you should come with me."

"Oh..." The resistance seemed to go out of Howard. "I cannot fight all of you," he said. He sat there for a few moments, his head bowed. Then he shook it off and tried to get back to business. "Well, then, every second counts if we hope to get Mareth back alive. But Andromeda cannot make the flight without rest, and there is nowhere safe to land."

That was true. They all pondered it, then Ares spoke up. "There are some pieces of the boat in the Tankard. Not large, but they still float."

"Maybe you could make them into a lifeboat," said Gregor.

"What is this, a lifeboat?" asked Howard.

"In the Overland, big boats, like ships and things, have lifeboats attached to them. They're small boats you can get in if your ship sinks or something," said Gregor.

"If the boat were light enough to carry, and I could rest for a few hours at times, I could make it," said Andromeda.

Ares volunteered to search for wreckage.

"I'll go with you," said Gregor. He needed to talk to his bat. He waited until they were flying out over the Tankard to speak. "You don't have to do this, Ares. Come after the Bane. I'll go alone."

"No. We will go together," said Ares. "Besides, the gnawers have killed every reason I had to return to Regalia. If by some strange chance we live and you return home, the silence begins for me."

What the bat said was true. With Luxa and Aurora gone, Ares would have no contact with anyone. He could probably sit in his hideout for years without anyone bothering to check on him. Gregor would go home, his heart dead, and Ares would be as good as banished.

"Okay," said Gregor. "We'll go together." He had a feeling they would never have a discussion like this again -- about whether one would go into danger without the other. He didn't bother to thank Ares. Somehow they were past thanking each other. Somehow it would almost be like thanking himself. Gregor realized that the journey filled with squids and whirlpools and mites and serpents and loss, great loss, had changed them. It had made the oath they had sworn in front of that furious crowd in Regalia real. He remembered the feel of Ares's claw clasped in his hand and thought of the words he'd said with Luxa prompting him.

"Ares the Flier, I bond to you,

Our life and death are one, we two.

In dark, in flame, in war, in strife, i save you as i save my life."

Ares was his bat. Gregor was Ares's human. They were truly bonded now.

If there was one positive note, they made a good haul. Ares found three pieces of the boat, and Howard was able to fashion them into a sort of raft using the last few strips of duct tape. It wasn't anything you'd want to try crossing the Waterway on, but when they went down and tested it, it held up under the combined weight of Gregor, Ares, and Howard.

"It should do for a few hours at a time," said Howard. "Long enough for Andromeda to sleep a bit."

Almost as important as the boat wreckage were the two packs they retrieved. They had washed up inside one of the tunnels when the waves were high. The first contained food. The second, to Howard's great relief, was his first aid kit.

"Oh, this! This is as good as light itself!" he said. He immediately opened the pack and began to work on everyone. He changed Mareth's and Twitchtip's bandages, dousing the wounds with medicine. He rewrapped Gregor's arm, which was actually showing some improvement, and dabbed Ares's mite bites with salve.

Howard insisted Gregor take the rest of the food, since Mareth couldn't eat, anyway, and he and Andromeda could live on raw fish. "And who knows what you will find in the Labyrinth?"

Gregor took Mareth's sword; Howard still had his own. Finally, they divided up light. They had two working flashlights; Howard's had died during the serpent attack, and two had disappeared into the deep with Luxa and Boots. So, there was one flashlight per party, but Howard made Gregor take every spare battery. "Even with no light, Andromeda will get us home. You have many more difficulties with which to contend."

Gregor nodded. He put his candy bars, the food, and the spare batteries in one backpack. He wedged Mareth's sword between two straps. The flashlight was still taped onto his good arm.

Andromeda flattened out her back, and they laid Mareth on it. Howard tucked the spare blanket from his first aid kit around him. Then he swung his leg over the bat's neck. "Fly you high, Gregor the Overlander."

"Fly you high," said Gregor. Although "Been nice knowing you" seemed more appropriate. He didn't really expect to see Howard again.

Andromeda took off, snagging the raft in her claws as she left the tunnel. Almost immedi

ately, they were lost from view.

Gregor, Ares, and Twitchtip turned and headed into the tunnel without a word.

***

CHAPTER 20

Guided by what she remembered of the Labyrinth before her nose was injured, Twitchtip led Gregor and Ares through the maze. Almost at once, the tunnel began to divide. Some paths led to intersections that branched off into four or five directions. Others twisted around like a corkscrew so that it took ten minutes to cover the distance you could've walked in one if the path had been straight. As they moved farther into the maze, the tunnels became even more unpredictable. A narrow passage they could barely squeeze through would suddenly open onto a huge cavern that in turn would lead to an obstacle course of boulders.

It was hardest on Ares, since most of the journey had to be made on foot. He hopped along, fluttering, taking tiny, rapid bat steps in the tighter passages and opening his wings with relief when they reached a larger space.

There were no rats. "They must have witnessed your sister's fate," said Twitchtip. "The gnawers think they have defeated you, and the Bane is safe. But eventually one will get your scent, and then the fight begins."

They drove themselves forward for about an hour, then stopped to catch their breath.

"You can remember all this? Just from what you smelled from the Tankard?" Gregor asked Twitchtip.

"Well, that, and the fact that I'm more familiar than most with the Labyrinth. I lived here for about a year after I was banished," panted Twitchtip. She was not doing well. The bandages on her nose and tail stump were soaked with blood, and her eyes had a hot, fevered look.

"I thought you lived in the Dead Land," said Gregor.

"Not at first. I hid in a cave down by the Tankard. The rats never came there because of the serpents. It wasn't ideal, but it offered more protection than the Dead Land. Then one day I dozed off gathering mushrooms and a patrol saw me. I had to run, and the only place left to go was the Dead Land," said Twitchtip. "I didn't speak to a soul for years. Then I realized there was another rat around."

"Ripred," said Ares.

"He let me stay in his nest sometimes, if he was gone. You've been near there. It's where you first spoke to him," said Twitchtip. "Now he has a whole band of rats. But I can only stay, he says, if I help you find the Bane," said Twitchtip. "Otherwise, I'll be on my own again." This fear seemed to rouse her. "We have to keep moving."

As they took off again, Gregor found himself thinking of Ripred. Letting Twitchtip stay near him in the Dead Land, letting her use his nest and join his pack, these could almost seem like acts of kindness. But were they? Everything was conditional on Ripred getting something back from Twitchtip. Ripred knew he could use her and that incredible nose. Twitchtip was desperate to belong somewhere again. They had mutual need. Like Ripred and Gregor did. For Twitchtip, like Gregor, the question would be what would happen when that need ran out.

Or was he being too hard on Ripred? He seemed to be friends with Vikus and Solovet. There had been moments when Gregor thought he'd sensed a genuine compassion in the rat, behind the sarcasm and the snarls.

Maybe things were more complicated for ragers. They certainly were for Gregor.

Twitchtip began to stumble, and Gregor could see she was about to give out. She lost her footing one last time, fell on her belly, and did not get up. He squatted down beside her. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.

"I can't go on," she said. "It doesn't matter -- I'm at the end of my scent map, anyway. Ahead, the path splits in three directions. Your guess is as good as mine," she said.

"Are we supposed to just leave you here?" said Gregor.

"I'll rest awhile. If the rats don't find me, I may be able to make my way back to my old cave. But, you...you have to move forward now. You are close to the Bane. I know it. The rats will smell you soon. Go...go...," she gasped.

Gregor pulled out a hunk of meat and some stale bread for her. What was there to say? "Fly you high, Twitchtip."

She laughed, and blood dripped from the bandage on her nose. "You don't say that to rats."

"What do you say in a situation like this?" asked Gregor.

"Like this? Run like the river," said Twitchtip.

"Run like the river, Twitchtip," said Gregor.

"You, too," said Twitchtip.

And Gregor and Ares left her lying on the tunnel floor. When they came to the place where the tunnel split in three, they paused. Gregor had an image of Twitchtip, lying in the darkness, bleeding to death.

Ares read his thoughts. "She is strong and cunning, to have survived in the Dead Land on her own. And she has a place near enough to hide."

"I know," said Gregor.

"She loathes her life alone. Your killing the Bane is her only hope. If I were Twitchtip, I would not want you to come back," said Ares.

Gregor nodded and surveyed the tunnels. "Which one looks good to you?"

"The one on the left," said Ares.

They followed it for a while, hit another corkscrew, and somehow wound up back at the stop where the three tunnels met.

"On further reflection, I favor the right," said Ares.

They took the right tunnel and within five minutes had reached a dead end and retraced their steps to the opening.

"I think you should choose," said Ares.

They headed down the middle tunnel and after about twenty minutes arrived in a large, circular cavern. It was almost perfectly cone-shaped, with the walls slanting up fifty feet to meet at a single point at the top. Around the base, at least a dozen tunnels led out from it like the spokes on a bicycle wheel.

"Oh, great," said Gregor. "Now which way?"

Ares had no idea. "But, Overlander, it has been many hours since we fed. If we are to continue, we must eat."

When had they last eaten? Gregor tried to think back -- back through the time with Twitchtip, through the serpent attack, through the passage into the Tankard, through Temp's voice waking him, through the night to that evening when they were all together. He'd eaten a slab of raw fish and given Boots all his bread and meat.

"We shut eyes?" he heard her little voice say, and a hot pain stabbed him in the heart. He took a deep breath, pushed Boots out of his mind, and imagined the rats laughing. The ice sealed back over his chest.

"You're right. We have to eat," Gregor said, and opened the pack. They sat on the stone floor, choking down the dry food, washing it down with water from a leather bag that looked like a wineskin.

"There is something wrong about it. My still being alive," Ares said out of the gloom.

"How do you mean?" asked Gregor.

"When Henry and Luxa and Aurora are no longer. How many days ago was it that you first fell?" asked the bat.

"I don't know. Maybe five or six months," said Gregor.

"There was a match. Henry and I had scored seven times. A feast was planned that night for Nerissa's birthday. The rats seemed far away. And then you ran into the arena with your sister and the crawlers, and nothing has ever been the same. What happened to that world? How did it change so quickly?" said Ares.

Gregor knew what he meant. His world had completely transformed the night his dad disappeared. And it had never really been right since. "I don't know. But I can tell you this, that world -- it's not ever coming back."

"I let my bond die. I am an outcast. Luxa and Aurora are gone. It seems a crime for me to be alive," said Ares.

"It wasn't your fault, Ares. Not any of it," said Gregor. "It's like Vikus said to me once, we just all got trapped in one of Sandwich's prophecies."

This did not seem to cheer Ares up much. For a while he was silent, then his black eyes caught and held Gregor's gaze. "Will it make us feel any better, do you think, to kill the Bane?"

"I don't know," said Gregor. "But I don't see how it could make us feel any worse."

Ares's head lifted sharply in a manner Gregor had begun to recognize.

"Rats?" Gregor asked.

"Two of them. Coming at a r

un," said Ares.

In seconds, Gregor was on Ares's back. The bat shot up into the cone, and they were circling as the rats ran in. There were two, as Ares had predicted, with mud-gray coats and gnashing teeth.

"There he is!" cried one rat.

"We were fools to leave him with Goldshard," said the other.

"That will be remedied as soon as these are dead!" growled the first. Although Gregor was well out of range, the rats began to leap for him immediately. They could not reach him, but they prevented Ares from flying down low enough to escape through one of the tunnels. Eventually, Gregor would have to fight them, and it was best to do it now, before Ares tired or more rats showed up.

As he pulled the sword from the strap on his pack, the rager sensation began. He didn't fight it this time. The rats broke up into fragments in his vision, as if he were looking at their reflection in a shattered mirror, but only certain parts were lit. He caught glimpses of an eye, a spot under a raised paw, a neck...and somewhere in his brain, he understood that these were his targets.

"Now," said Gregor quietly. And Ares began to dive.

***

CHAPTER 21

Gregor was almost within striking distance of one of the rats when something caused Ares to veer straight upward. A third rat with an unusual gold coat had bolted into the cone right beneath them.

"That makes three to fight," Gregor thought as Ares shot up and off to the side, but as the ground came back into view, he could see the gold rat tearing the throat out of one of his attackers. Then it spun around, blood flying from its muzzle, to face the other gray rat.

Gregor shook his head slightly, to clear it. What was going on?

"Don't be an idiot, Goldshard! He's come to kill the Bane!" snarled the gray rat.

"I would rather have the Bane dead than have it trust you," the gold rat hissed back. The rat's voice was slightly higher pitched, like Twitchtip's, and Gregor felt certain it was female.

"All you guarantee is your own death!" The gray rat crouched down to lunge.

"Someone will die, Snare, the question is who?" said Goldshard. As Snare sprang toward her, she went into action.

Gregor had never seen a full-scale rat fight before. Ripred had killed two rats in a tunnel en route to rescuing his dad, but they hadn't had time to fight back. Then the big, scarred rat had taken on some of King Gorger's soldiers. But Gregor hadn't witnessed it because he was busy leaping to what he had thought would be his death. Now he had a bird's-eye view.

Tags: Suzanne Collins Underland Chronicles Fantasy
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