"Funny. And curious. She always had to be the first one to see something new. And she loved to eat shellfish," said Howard with a smile. "Great big piles of them."
Gregor thought of the slimy shellfish Howard had kept insisting were a delicacy, and wondered if his passion for them had anything to do with how much he associated them with Pandora.
"You're not crying about her now," said Hazard.
"No," said Howard. "I have become used to carrying her in my heart."
"My heart is so crowded already," whispered Hazard. "But I'm sure the others will make room for Thalia. She is not a very big bat." And with that, he drifted off to sleep.
Gregor thought about all the others Hazard had lost... his mother, his father, Frill... and now Thalia had gone to join them....
They were all silent for a while. No one wanted to be responsible for waking Hazard up and bringing him back to this aching reality.
Finally Ripred spoke to Gregor. "Well, at least you showed up. Thought we'd lost you for good."
"I'm all right," said Gregor. "What happened?"
"Not exactly sure. You blacked out and fell. Fortunately you had the sense to push your sister onto the bat's head," said Ripred. "Ares tried to go back for you, but we had no idea where you were and the ash was so deep."
"I'm all right," Gregor repeated, although this was one of the worst days of his life.
Aurora and Nike flew up. They had discovered a tunnel that led upward to cleaner air. Everyone could squeeze on to the two bats, except Ripred, who said he would wait for Ares, anyway, and then follow their trail. It was only a short flight to the passage. The higher they traveled the sweeter and cleaner the air got. Eventually they broke free of the tunnel and came out on a rock formation with a flat top and vertical sides. Fresh breezes washed over them. A cold spring burbled out of a crack and fell hundreds of feet, where it disappeared into a dimly lit tangle of thick vines.
"We're back at the jungle," said Gregor.
"Yes, it borders the Firelands," said Howard.
They took turns gulping down the spring water and washing the ash from their skin. Boots said she was hungry, and Howard gave her the last piece of stale bread. She curled up next to Hazard on a blanket and went to sleep. Cartesian had fallen into some kind of stupor as well, although he often sat up and looked around, squeaking rapidly, before collapsing back on the ground.
No one else seemed able to sleep. Or talk. They just sat around, staring at the flashlight, or down at the jungle. Gregor watched Luxa watching the spring for a while. She seemed unnaturally calm.
About an hour later, Ares arrived with Ripred. "Where did you take her?" Howard asked.
"Back to the queen. So she might lie with the nibblers and not alone," said Ares. "The lava will claim them all soon. Half were already covered."
"Yes. The Bane does not only want to kill them. He wants them to disappear without a trace," said Ripred.
"So, it seems the Overlander was on to something about the song."
"You mean that it's a prophecy," said Gregor.
"If it is, we should name it," said Aurora.
"I have already done so in my head, but the name need not stick," said Nike. "I call it 'The Prophecy of Secrets.'"
"It is well named," said. Ares. "Since the marks of secret led us to it."
"And even its nature was a secret," said Howard. "No one suspected our childish song to be a prophecy."
"One we still need to break," said Ripred. "I think we understand the first two parts now. We know who the queen is. We know about the nibblers. How does the last part go?"
Luxa spoke the last verse. Without the playful melody, they were just words. And loaded words at that.
"now the guests are at our door
Greet them as we have before.
Some will slice and some will pour.
Father, mother, sister, brother,
Off they go, I do not know If we will see another. "
"I suppose the first question is who the guests are?" said Howard.
"Well, if the door opens to Regalia, which I'm assuming since Sandwich called it 'our door,' then given the circumstances, the guests are probably someone Her Highness has recently declared war on," said Ripred.
"The gnawers," said Luxa. "And we will greet them as we have before."
Gregor remembered that this was the part in the dance where everybody pretended to pour tea and serve cake.
"Some will slice and some will pour."
"What does that mean?" he asked.
"Swords slice," said Luxa. "And when the city is under siege, we pour boiling oil over the walls and onto our enemies."
She said the words without any particular sense of fear or revulsion. But Gregor was filled with both.
"I wonder when the attack will be," said Howard.
"Someone must return at once to warn the Regalians," said Nike.
"No point in me coming, of course. Neither side would welcome me. No, I think I may hang around here for a while," said Ripred.
"And do what?" asked Gregor. Ripred always had a plan.
"Those nibblers we saw today ... they're only a fraction of the ones who've been driven here. The others might still be alive. I was thinking ... they'd make a likely army," said Ripred.
"For you?" said Luxa. "They would never follow you."
"That's where you come in, Your Highness," said Ripred. "If we go together, we might be able to mobilize them."
"I might alone. What do you add to the mix?" asked Luxa.
"Don't be impertinent. Is it yes or no?" said Ripred impatiently.
Luxa only took a second to consider the proposition. "Yes," she said. "Howard, will you come?"
"I will have to, Cousin, if you insist on doing this," said Howard doubtfully. "Cartesian will want to join us."
"He's too beat up," said Ripred. "But with you two on fliers and me on the ground, we might be able to break them out."
"I am sure they will follow me, if we can get in close enough for them to hear my voice," said Luxa.
"I'm counting on that," said Ripred. "Let's say four hours' rest, and we begin."
Gregor had begun feeling like he was invisible. No one was involving him in the plans at all. "I'll be ready," he said.
"No!" Ripred and Luxa spoke in the same breath and with the same intensity.
"What?" said Gregor in surprise.
"Not you, boy. You're taking the pups back to Regalia," said Ripred.
"No, I'm not!" said Gregor. "I'm going with you!" "You cannot!" said Luxa. Her eyes darted around as if she was trying to find a reason. "What about Boots and Hazard?"
"I don't know, they can ... Howard, you could take them back," said Gregor.
Ripred, Howard, and Luxa exchanged glances. Gregor had an awful realization. They didn't want him to come. They were thinking about how he had choked in the fight with Twirltongue and they thought he would fall to pieces again.
"You don't think I can fight," he said bluntly. "Well, fine, okay. Maybe I did freak out when I lost my light, but it's not really dark here, with the volcanoes and all and I think there's been a few other times when I've shown that --"
"It's not that, Gregor. Everyone knows you can fight. Far better than I can," said Howard.
"Then what? You're still mad at me?" he asked Luxa.
"No, I am not," said Luxa.
"So?" said Gregor.
"Has he not been told anything?" asked Howard.
"About what?" said Gregor in frustration.
"Just this. You've got to get back to Regalia. Now that the war's begun, you're of no use to us without your sword," said Ripred.
Gregor's hand went to his hip in confusion. His fingers wrapped around the hilt of his weapon. "I've got a sword."
"Not any sword. Your sword," said Ripred. His eyes narrowed. "You didn't lose it in the tunnel, did you? When you fought Twirltongue?"
"What?" said Gregor, totally conf
used. "Yeah, I lost that sword. I threw it behind me at the rats. So, what? There's, like, thousands of them."
"No, Gregor. He means the sword Vikus gave you. Sandwich's sword," said Howard.
"Oh, that," said Gregor. It was true, Vikus had tried to give him an impressive, jewel-studded sword that had once belonged to Sandwich, but Gregor had refused to take it. He knew where it was, though. It was in the museum, which had always seemed an odd place to keep it, since the museum held items from the Overland. It was on a shelf wrapped in the same silken cloth that Vikus had originally presented it in. For the first time Gregor wondered if Sandwich's sword was there because everyone believed it belonged to him now, whether he had accepted it or not. "That's not really mine."
"Yes, it is. It says so in that prophecy I mentioned to you, about killing the Bane. 'The Prophecy of Time,'" said Ripred.
"And it says I need Sandwich's sword?" asked Gregor.
"Among other things. I had assumed Vikus had at least let you know of the sword's importance. That you were destined to inherit it," said Ripred. "That we all believe it is your sword. Any of that sound familiar?"
"No. He just seemed happy I wouldn't take it," said Gregor.
"Ever the optimist, your grandpa," said Ripred to Luxa and Howard.
"Yes. Perhaps we should arrange for him to spend a bit more time in the field," said Luxa grimly.
"Listen to you," Ripred said with a chuckle.
"Do you know what he said when we were taken prisoner by the spinners that time? He said he thought things would be different because of some recent trade agreements he'd made with them," said Luxa. "I was eleven and I knew that was idiocy."
Ripred grinned. "He might have been right."
"We might have been dead," said Luxa.
"We would have been dead if it wasn't for your grandpa," said Gregor, suddenly protective of Vikus. "The spiders were going to kill me until I mentioned his name."
"Yes, yes, you don't have to defend Vikus. But the sword. You know where it is?" said Ripred.
"Yeah," said Gregor.
"Good. Go back and put it in your belt and don't let it leave your side again," said Ripred.
"What is the big deal about telling me about the prophecy?" said Gregor. "I've been through four of them now. How much worse can they get?"
"We didn't really know if it was going to happen. Some thought certain events were supposed to occur. But after today, it seems they have," said Howard.
"And?" said Gregor.
"And no one wants to tell you because ... the odds are ... look, we don't even know if we're interpreting it right," said Ripred. "We're usually wrong, aren't we?"
Gregor knew he could no longer wait for Vikus to explain things. "What's it say, Ripred?"
"It says ... well, it suggests ... you're probably going to --" Ripred broke off abruptly. "Vikus will tell you. That crazy girl, what's her name? Nerissa. Ask her about it. She'll explain it better than me," said Ripred.
"But I --" said Gregor.
"No!" said Ripred. "You ask in Regalia. As soon as your bond is rested, you can leave. Take the pups and Cartesian and Temp."
"To fight, I stay, to fight," objected Temp.
"No, Temp," said Luxa, kneeling before him. "I would wish you at my side, but we have much greater need of you at home. You must go to the crawlers, tell them what has happened, and rally them to our cause."
Temp shifted back and forth on his feet in indecision.
"And I beg another favor as well," Luxa continued. "I need you to look after Hazard now as you have looked after Boots for Gregor. I put him in your care."
"My care, the boy be in, my care?" said Temp in surprise.
"If you will take him. For there is no one among us who perceives danger so quickly and accurately as you do," said Luxa. "Or meets it with such courage."
This was true, as they had all found out the hard way. Temp had warned them against exploring the island with the mites, they had ignored him, and Howard's bond, Pandora, had been eaten alive. Temp had warned them not to wander into the jungle after the sweet odor of fruit, they had ignored him, and one of the rats, Mange, had been swallowed up by a carnivorous pod. Temp had warned them about the volcanic gas, Luxa had ignored him, and both she and Aurora would have ended up poisoned if Ripred hadn't listened. Yes, this was true, but...
Gregor flashed back to the girl he had met when he first arrived in the Underland. The girl who had made fun of the roaches ... their slowness, their inability to fight, their cowardliness ...
She had certainly come a long way.
"You, so say, you?" said Temp.
"I, so say, I," said Luxa. "Will you do this, Temp?"
"Yes," said the cockroach.
"Thank you," said Luxa. She laid her hand on his head and his antennas gave a quiver. It was the only good moment in a very dark day.
Gregor volunteered to watch while the others slept. He was just going to spend the next day riding on Ares, anyway. Luxa said she could not sleep and walked off to the edge of the rock. She sat, her legs hanging in space, unimpressed by the sheer drop below her. The sadness on her face made Gregor's heart ache. He couldn't seem to take his eyes off of her. It didn't matter. She didn't even notice. But someone else did.
"What's the story with you and the queen?" said Ripred softly.
"Nothing," said Gregor. "I thought you were asleep."
"You've become very fond of her," said Ripred.
"I don't know. I guess," said Gregor.
"You want a piece of advice?" said Ripred.
"Don't bother. I know what you'll say. The whole thing's stupid," said Gregor.
"Quite the contrary. I was going to say that life is short. There are only a few good things in it, really. Don't pretend that one isn't happening," said Ripred.
It was the most un-Ripred-like advice Gregor could imagine. Was the rat just making fun of him? No, he sounded on the level.
"That's crazy. I mean, it's not like the two of us could ever ..." Gregor didn't even know how to finish the sentence.
"Boy, there's a war on. We might all be dead in a day or two. I wouldn't project too far into the future if I were you," said Ripred. He gave a gigantic yawn. "Well, I'm done in." He circled around three times and lay down. In less than a minute he was snoring.
Gregor sat there a few minutes more, watching Luxa. Then he found himself walking over to her. He hadn't figured out what to say to her, how to tell her that he cared about her, about what happened to her. So he just sat near her. Off to one side, but not hanging his legs off the edge. After all the hours in the air, he still avoided heights. Luxa spoke first. "Those nibblers in the pit. They were not from the Fount. They were from the jungle. Many of them were my friends. I saw several of the pups born. I even named one."
She hadn't cried yet. Neither had he. Not about the nibblers or about Thalia. That would come later. If there was time.
"They love mathematics, you know," she said. Gregor didn't particularly know that, or much else about the mice, but he didn't say so. "So, I called him Cube."
"That's a good name," said Gregor.
"He was in the pit today," said Luxa. "I recognized his marks."
A light breeze blew over them, warm and muggy and bringing up the smells of the jungle below them. Gregor's thoughts shifted from the victims in the pit to Hamnet and Frill, who had died in the jungle during the battle with the ants. He wondered if the vines had grown over their bodies. Probably by now ...
"Gregor, I was thinking about what you said in the tunnel," said Luxa. "About you being only a visitor here."
"Forget about that. I was just going off," said Gregor.
"No, listen. You were right," said Luxa. "When you get
back to Regalia, no matter what people tell you, you have no obligation to stay. This is not your world or your war," said Luxa. "If you were to return home after you read the prophecy, I would not hold it against you."
"This must be some prophecy," said Grego
But she avoided the topic and went on. "To even involve you in the nibblers' plight was unfair of me. You owe them nothing."
"I didn't try to help them because they owed me anything," said Gregor. "What was happening to them was wrong."
"But when you see what the prophecy demands of you, that may not be enough," said Luxa. "I declared the war for the nibblers' sake. You share no history with the nibblers. We humans here have many reasons to be indebted to them. What have the nibblers ever done for you?"
The breeze ruffled her hair, pushing it back from her face, giving him a clear shot of her eyes. They were asking for an answer. Needing to know if she could count on him.
"They saved your life," he said.
And for just a moment, Luxa's face softened and she smiled.
Gregor insisted Luxa try and rest. He didn't want her going into battle dropping with fatigue. She resisted at first, and he had to threaten to wake Ripred for backup. "And then, he won't shut up until you're begging to sleep," said Gregor.
"All right, then, all right," she said. She laid down with Hazard and Boots and he was gratified to see she soon drifted off.
Gregor went back to being on guard. He didn't have a watch or any means of telling the time. But it wasn't a problem. Ripred woke himself up at what was probably precisely four hours and roused everyone but Hazard, Boots, and Cartesian.
The mouse began to stir as they readied themselves and soon was on his feet. When he found out about the plan, he was determined to join the party to liberate the nibblers.
"I must go! I must find Heronian! You will need her to break the code!" insisted Cartesian.
"Heronian? I'll keep an ear out for her. But you're going to Regalia," said Ripred.
An argument ensued and was about to get ugly when Howard suddenly shouted, "Enough! Cartesian is right. They are his family, his friends. He must be allowed to go! But first..." Howard dug through his medical kit and removed a small reddish bottle Gregor had not noticed before. He held it up to Cartesian. "But first you must take a dose of this. It is an elixir of potent herbs to give you strength."
Cartesian gulped down the liquid without hesitation, blinked a few times in confusion, and then fell to the ground like a stone.
"What did you give him?" asked Gregor.
"A very powerful sleep agent. We use it only rarely, when a patient must lose consciousness immediately so that we can operate. To remove a limb or some other drastic measure," said Howard. "Was this wrong of me?"