Author's Note - This is about the end of what i had planned. I know a lot of people will probably hate the choice i made in writing this, but deal with it. Writing for me, not you.
Disclaimer - I own nothing. Well... I own my socks, but that's about it. The Underland Chronicles belongs to Suzanne Collins, and if you haven't already, you should go read the Hunger Games Trilogy as well. If the fantastic authoress herself should ever stumble upon this, she is welcome to it. Any part or whole of this story is hers for the taking, cause i'd love to see a sixth book.
Chapter 9 - Bond
"Only those who risk going too far find out just how far they can go." - Walter Bishop
Gregor collapsed and pressed his back to the wall of the stone bowl, panting in terror. The Bane was alive... He squeezed his eyes shut and shivered as image after image flashed through his mind. It was as bad as one of his nightmares.
It may have been seconds or hours, Gregor couldn't tell, but at some point he felt Luxa's hands clasp around his. He opened his eyes.
"Gregor it is not the same Bane! This one is much younger!" Luxa tried to comfort him but she sounded as shaken as he was.
"What does it matter if it is the same Bane or not? It is still twice as big as any normal rat and it has an army!" Gregor was reacting badly. He knew it. He knew he should be facing this more calmly, but he couldn't get the images of his last battle out of his head. All the blood...
"Warrior! Get hold of your senses boy! This is no time to collapse on us. We're not going to make it through what is to come without you!" Ripred snapped at him quietly. The older rager's voice calmed him a bit. He closed his eyes again and took several deep breaths.
"Alright... Alright. I'm alright." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. Maybe he was.
"Listen!" Luxa crouched down next to Gregor and tilted her head up toward the opening. The Bane was addressing his army.
"Greetings! Fellow Underlanders! My dear, oppressed, fellow inhabitants of this land! Our time is coming! A new war is approaching, and it is a war that will show the humans once and for all that this land belongs to us, not them! That no warrior, king, or prophet can take from us what is our birthright! That we are strong and together no army can stand against us! There is only one way to take back our home. We must wipe every last human from this land! We must kill them all, down to the last woman and child, without mercy and without exception!"
"Now I know, many of you are afraid. You have heard rumors that the Overlander has returned to this land. Well fear not. My predecessor was not strong enough to defeat him, but I am. Pearlpelt was damaged, mentally scarred by a childhood of violence and confinement. I am in full control of my mind, and I tell you with absolute certainty that their precious Warrior will die by my claws. I will tear him apart and leave your way clear."
"This time, we fight not just for the gnawers, but for every race that has suffered because of the humans! We have the allegiance of the twisters, and even a number of the fliers, nibblers, crawlers, and the cutters! We will continue trying to recruit the diggers, but they may have finally left these lands for good. If that is so, then we will fight for their memory non the less!"
"My friends! The crimes committed all those centuries ago by the humans who took advantage of our kindness and generosity and stole so much from us all shall be avenged a hundred fold! We will take blood for blood! We will wash away the stain of humanity and return to the peaceful life our ancestors knew before!"
"You may wonder what will become of those who have sided with the humans. They will be treated mercifully. They may resist and fight to the bitter end, but once the humans are destroyed, we will never hold their allegiance against them. They will have all the rights of any other true Underlander. There will be only this exception. The gnawers Ripred and Twitchtip, who have taken the mantle of leader of the rats be force will die as traitors."
The army cheered for their leader. Gregor looked over the lip of the bowl to see the crowd. He could pick out the glossy backs of a few dozen crawlers, the small bodies of a handful of nibblers, three bats, and despite the great white rat's words, not a single cutter. The twisters seemed to be absent as a whole, probably for the comfort of the crowd.
"So, what next?" Gregor looked up at Ripred, begging him to have a plan.
"I don't know. We have to get back to Regalia and warn them. But we should try to bring back as much information as possible. I recognize this cavern. Gorger used it at one time as his meeting area." He pointed with his tail back down the path they had come from. "If we take the other path, I know a route that leads to a choke point that only one or two rats at a time could pass through. We will go that way, and not risk tipping them off that there is a newly unlocked pathway they can take. We'll gather any information we can on the way and then make our way back to Regalia to deliver our report."
Luxa nodded her agreement and then looked at Gregor. "What say you?"
"I agree. Ripred is right. We can't go back and just tell them there is an army of unknown size that might be attacking at some point. Lets go now. If we wait, they may find us on their own, and we wouldn't stand a good chance in this spot." Ripred smirked and turned, leading the way.
Gregor was surprised at how calm he felt now. The flood of images that had plagued him at first were now just the painful memories he had dealt with for years. He felt his rager side at the ready and he knew what to expect. He drew his swords and followed the older rat.
Ripred lead them past a very wide tunnel opening that he said narrowed out a great deal before widening again, which is why it had never been used as an attack route. They pass it and Twitchtip and Luxa took up rear guard positions in case anyone came from behind. They explored the surrounding caves quietly and carefully, taking care to stay out of sight of the army, and most importantly the Bane.
They reached the far side of the cavern and were about to head back when they rounded a corner and came face to face with five rats. Four were dead before they could draw breath to call an alert, but the fifth managed to give one loud gurgling scream as his throat was torn out.
"Run! Now!" Ripred ordered. The group did as commanded and followed the old rager into the nearest tunnel big enough for the bats to fly down. The ground felt unsteady under Gregor's feet and he thought maybe the army was so vast it was shaking the ground. It was Luxa's voice that made him understand it was far worse.
"Earthquake!" The whole cave was shaking violently, and they were all stumbling along, just ahead of the pursuing army. Gregor's heart was pounding against his chest. He fell back and ran beside Luxa. He wanted to make sure that if she died, he was already waiting for her. He would defend her with his last breath.
The ground began to settle back into silence when a drop of liquid hit Gregor's face. He looked up and clicked his tongue to see hundreds of droplets of water falling from the roof of the cavern. It was raining. Of course! The prophesy had meant this! There must be a body of water above them that had been damaged by the shaking.
"Ripred, are we under the waterway?" He was worried the ceiling might give in and crush them all with an ocean.
"No, I think we're under the Plains of Tartarus. We left the cavern on the wrong side, so I hope we can get out on the other end of this tunnel." Great. They may be heading into a dead end. Then another thought occurred to him and he looked up with his eyes just as Luxa's flashlight beam hit the ceiling.
He almost vomited again. It wasn't just water. The drops were red. He knew exactly where they were now. The enormous pool of blood and water must be right above this cave. He clenched his eyes shut and continued running. Judging by her gasp of horror, he assumed Luxa had come to the same conclusion. Twitchtip was the worst off. Her damaged nose was still torturous under these conditions.
The group sprinted into a large open cavern and slowed. The army had fallen behind by several seconds, giving them a moment to regroup. Ripred didn't waste a second.
"Luxa, go on Aurora. Twitchtip, go on Apollo. Find a safe place to make camp and then send Apollo back after us. Hurry! Gregor and I will hold them off." The rat turned and faced the tunnel opening. Gregor barely had time to kiss Luxa's cheek and turn to stand side by side with his mentor and friend before he saw the rats coming.
"Are you ready for this, Overlander?" The rat grinned at him.
"Nope." He smiled despite himself.
To there credit, the rats on the front line tried to turn back. Staring into the faces of two ragers who are both renowned as the greatest fighters the underland had seen in centuries was a daunting thing. But the oncoming tide of gnawers would not allow any one to go against its flow.
The army hit the two lone figures like a tidal wave hitting a stone cliff face. The bodies of the dead began to pile up immediately around the two as they launched into the battle with a ferocity that would have made the Bane shiver. Just as the two pushed the tide of battle back and took a moment to breath, Apollo returned.
"Go, Gregor. I'll hold them off a bit longer. He can't carry both of us at this point."
"No. You go." Gregor was worried that the old rager might be nearing his last fight.
"I can spin."
"So can I." Gregor turned to the cave opening without another word and launched into a spinning battle against the rats. He heard Apollo take off and knew he was fighting alone. It felt like hours, but he knew it had to have been much less before Apollo finally returned for him.
"Jump, Overlander!" The smooth voice purred. He completed one last spinning slash and leaped, kicking his legs out to the side and landing on the bat's strong back. He collapsed forward and began panting.
He hadn't realized how much the fight had drained him, but as the bat lifted him into the air and he saw the piles of bodies around the cavern he wondered how he had managed it. What sort of a force was he when he turned himself over to his rager side? He began to regain his breath.
"Thanks for coming and getting me. I don't know if I could have held out much longer." He gasped out as his breathing slowed.
"You seemed to be doing very well from what I saw. I never imagined I would get to see you face down an army single handed and come away victorious." Something seemed wrong. He couldn't place it. His mind was still to foggy from the battle.
He turned his head sideways and relaxed on the bat, watching the powerful wings pump up and down. Apollo had grown, even on their journey. He had even surpassed his father some. It seemed strange, but Gregor knew the Underland creatures grew much faster than humans.
The rhythmic cycle of the enormous black wings was hypnotic. He watched as the bones and the muscles moved beneath the skin and uniform dark fur. Then he realized something was wrong. Apollo had light stripes on his wings.
Gregor sat up and ran his fingers across the familiar fur. His mouth hung open in disbelief. It was impossible. He knew it couldn't be real. He must have died in the battle and never even realized it. Twitchtip was a different matter. He only had the report of enemy rats to go on. But this... He had seen the dead body with his own eyes. And there was no arguing, it had been dead.
"A-Ares?" Gregor stammered. Terrified that he might wake up any moment now.
"Yes, Overlander. It is me."
"I don't know."
"But... You died... You were dead... I saw the Bane rip out your throat..."
"Yes, and I saw him tear open your chest. But you seem to be just as alive as me."
To his astonishment, the bat seemed to be enjoying this. He sounded on the verge of laughter, even. Even more surprising, Gregor felt like laughing himself. There had been a few times in his life when his heart felt like it might just rise out of his chest. When he had danced with Luxa at Hazard's birthday party. When he had found out his father was alive. Now.
The two flew in silence for a while. After a few minutes, they met Apollo on his way back to get Gregor. The smaller bat nearly dropped out of the air in surprise. He led the way to the hiding spot they had chosen. When they landed, there was silence.
Then Gregor was opening his eyes. He felt his heart sink. It had been a dream. Of course it had. It was too fantastic. Too much to hope for. He was back to back with Luxa. He looked around to find everyone asleep except Ripred, who was on guard duty. It must be nearly time to get up then. Ripred would have taken last watch after that fight. Twitchtip was curled up at his side, and the three bats were huddled together at the back of the cave. He blinked. Three. His face split into a grin.
"Well that is a look I haven't seen in your eyes in a long time." Ripred was looking at him and grinning, his fangs bared. "When this is finished, two rose from the grave. Swift death on wings, and the one he died to save."
"Yes... I think you're right."
"Oh? I'd expect you to know by now, I'm always right." The smug rat laughed quietly. "So, Warrior. How do you feel?"
Gregor leaned his head back on the shoulder of the woman he loved. He looked across the cave at his bond and greatest friend. He listened to the laughter of his mentor and strongest ally. He felt an uncontrollable happiness that seemed almost foreign to him and he could not stop the smile on his face form widening even farther. He wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his broken blade, but it didn't seem broken to him any more. It was just different.
"I feel... Alive!"
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