Ripred met Gregor in the high hall after dinner, "The Queen insists that your friends are to leave tonight. Hazard and his bad have agreed to take them back up to the entrance below Central Park. They are smart enough to find their way home from there, I presume?"
"They'll manage," Gregor said, suppressing much less agreeable replies.
"Personally," Ripred continued without pause, "I think we should keep them around. Especially the girl; she gives Luxa some of that old spark back."
"Shut up, Ripred. What time should I have them here in the hall?"
"Oh, about nine," the rat answered, stretching out lazily and thumping Gregor hard with his tale. "That should give you plenty of time to convince them that they will die if they remain here."
"I think," Gregor said, snatching Ripred's tail in his hand before the rat could swipe at him again, "they might surprise you. They are friends with me, after all. But I'm sending them back anyway."
"Oh Overlander," Ripred said, snickering as Gregor walked away. "I have missed you so."
Gregor found his friends in the room that had been Anna's, sitting on the bed and talking in quick whispers, both of his friends looked rather guilty when Gregor entered the room.
"Gregor," Knight began, "we were just wondering if we should go looking for you."
Gregor knew Knight better than anyone, and he could see that his friend was clearly lying, but he let it slide.
"Well, I saved you the trip. But I have good news for you guys."
"They solved the prophecy thing?" Anna asked, wrinkling her nose.
"Well, they are working on that, but actually the good news is that I have a bat ready to take you guys back up to the Overland."
"What about you?" Anna asked.
"Hey look," Gregor began, "You guys are pretty much the best friends a guy could ask for. You jumped into a dark hole after me!"
"You should always remember that," Knight told him with a grin. "We get major points for that stunt. So cut the crap about us going home. What's the mission and all that jazz? We need to get some armor or something?"
"I can't let you guys go," Gregor said, "I have to send you back. Bad things happen to the people I drag here to the Underland. Like I said, there is a bat that has agreed to take you up to an entrance just below Central Park. You guys can get home from there, right?"
"Wait a minute," Anna said, and Gregor knew form her tone that he was in trouble. "You mean you're just going to send us back up to New York City, like 'see-ya later' and all that and we have to go home and tell your family you're stuck down here trying to figure out some wacked out poem?"
"Well, that's basically it, right? What if we never hear from you again?"
"And what if your families never hears from either of you again?" Gregor countered, his remark met with thick silence.
"He's got a point," Knight finally said, putting a brave hand on Anna's shoulder, "We can go back and at least let people know we're alive. Besides, I'm pretty sure that between my swordsmanship and your big mouth, we're going to get in more trouble down here than we need."
Gregor watched as Anna looked at Knight, sure she was going to rip his head off, but she finally relaxed, all the fight gone out of her, "Okay. I guess we're going back. Will we ever see you again, Gregor?"
He smiled a little, "I'm going to bet that you will one day. I couldn't have made it through life in the Overland without you guys."
Gregor's saw his friends to the high hall and left them there with Ripred and Vikus. The two would convince them that they were far better off in the Overland than hanging out down here with Gregor. Especially with another prophecy was looming over Regalia. Making a big deal about how tired he was, he disappeared to his room to take an inventory of his supplies. It was just less than an hour later, with his backpack full of Mrs. Cormaci's supplies and a few surprises he'd found in the museum he ventured out into the quiet palace. Carefully peering around each corner, he quietly made his way to the wing of the palace where the old nursery lay, long abandoned by Dulcet and the Nibbler pups who had taken up residence there during the war. He ran into no guards, and so figured that Luxa had set it up for people to forget about the exit hidden in the nursery. As he got closer though, he heard voices and paused to listen for a moment.
"But I must go, Luxa!" It was Hazard, sounding more instant than Gregor had ever heard him.
"You cannot go," she told him, "your father-"
"My father is dead," Hazard told her sharply, cutting her off. "I know it was his wish that I remain untrained, but is that any way to live in a place like this? I am asking to accompany you and Gregor, Luxa."
"No, Hazard," Luxa's voice was firm and icy with her point. "You will stay here. You will go to the high hall and take Gregor's friends home and then you shall return and help Vikus smooth this over with the counsel."
There were no more words exchanged and Gregor hid in a shadowed doorway as Hazard strode quickly back down the hallway. He waited until he could no longer hear the footsteps and then proceeded to the nursery. Luxa had left the turtle's shell open for him and he popped inside, closing it behind him as he headed down the tunnel.
"Luxa?" he whispered, when he reached the spout, looking out into nothingness.
"Drop, Overlander," he heard Elpis say and he dropped out of the spout and onto the bat's back.
"Is it not like old times," Luxa called from somewhere to his left, and he clicked in order to see her clearly. She was smiling, and as they flew away from Regalia, Gregor noted that the weight of the world on her shoulders seemed to lesson. She looked back though, back to Regalia, doubt clouding her eyes, and he figured she was wondering if she was doing the right thing. That weight would always be there. Doing the right-the best-thing for everyone involved.
When they were out of view of the city, she seemed to resign herself to her fate and turned to look forward once again. To his surprise, she flicked on a small flashlight and shone it at him, "Life in the Overland after you left here, it was not easy for you, was it Gregor?"
Although he knew Luxa's question was for conversation sake, he guessed that there was something in her that needed his reassurance. She needed to hear that she was not the only one for whom the world now held a ting of darkness. That she was not the only one who's sleep was still tormented by nightmares of volcanic ash burying her alive, of running into a rat in a dark corridor, or of losing those loved ones they'd been lucky enough to escape with.
He urged Elips to fly closer to Aurora, just a little ahead so he could look back squarely at Luxa, "The nightmares were horrible when we were still in our apartment in New York. I dreaded so many parts of the Underland, and yet I would go down and stand in our laundry room for hours and stare at the grate, fighting everything in my heart about coming back. Grandma was so sick though that none of us could do anything; we were frozen in a kind of limbo while we waited. After she died, my mom had us packed up and moved to Virginia so fast that I hardly had time to realize what had happened. I fought against it, but…" his voice trailed off, unable to put into words the vicious battle that he'd fought, mostly with himself, at that time.
"But you were just twelve," Luxa said, her voice showing compassion and understanding, she didn't hold it against him for not returning when he'd had so little choice in the matter.
"So were you," he reminded her. "You were just twelve, and left with a kingdom to rule."
She nodded, pushing the gold band on her forehead back up onto her head, a familiar gesture, "I was twelve and the youngest ruler of Regalia ever. I was given all the power of my people at that time because there was no one else to take control. I missed you though," she said watching him closely again. "You found friends in the Overland, I am glad for that."
Gregor nodded, "Yeah, in Virginia I had to accept my role as son and older brother again. Knight and Anna helped with that, they've been great friends."
"This Anna, she sees you as more than a friend though?"
Gregor felt his cheeks warm, hearing Luxa ask about his friend's feelings, "yeah, maybe. But I have only ever treated her like a good friend."
Luxa's rare full smile spread across her face, "That is good, Overlander." She said before she and Aurora took off at a high speed, racing them across the darkness below.
They raced for awhile, laughing as they did so, and Gregor relished in the feeling of getting to do something fun with Luxa. It seemed that they were always caught up in life or death situations, one or the other of them recovering from some kind of injury.
"We should give the bats a break," Luxa said sorrowfully when Gregor finally caught up to her. "We may have a long journey yet ahead of us."
The impact of the quest came crashing down on Gregor again and he thought for a long moment, over the prophecy Narissa had shared with them, and then over the theory they had turned up.
"Luxa," he began carefully, "exactly how do you think this will help? Finding some apple seeds to appease the rats? You think apples will feed the Underland?"
She was quiet for a long time, and Gregor worried he had offended her, questioned her authority or something like that, but finally, she answered.
"I think," she began, "It is more of a matter of what is right. The garden of the Hesperides represents a balance of things. I had not heard the story until Ripred told us, and I understand why Solovet kept it hidden from me. It was wrong what she told Hamnet to do; but it was just one example of how she thought the rats should be treated."
"Like the plague," Gregor added, thinking of the faint purple plague scars that still marred his mother's skin.
"Yes, just like the plague," Luxa agreed.
"The rats," Aurora broke in, "they fear the humans. Even now, without Ripred, they would fight back if they could. They fear the power the humans have."
Gregor knew the bat was right, it was why Ripred had stepped up and joined the human side. If he had not, the rats would have followed the Bane. And the Bane had been a tool for the rats, a tool Twirltongue had used to gain power and influence; but even they could not have driven the rats to war had the rats not already been willing to fight the humans.
"I do not know what to do, Gregor." Luxa broke into his thoughts, "But I must do something and the prophecy describes something that was once a gift, a tool of war, a grave and then a dove once more. That is what the Garden has been and must be what the prophecy describes. Perhaps, it will be something that we can give back to the rats so that they may know that we do not want to fight any longer."
"Okay then," Gregor said with a sigh, realizing she was right. "To the Jungle, or the Vineyard of Eyes. Where will we begin, Queen Luxa?"
"The Jungle," Luxa said decisively. "The Nibbler colony is living there again and will know if there is a place in the Jungle where the apples can be found."
Gregor shuddered, "What about the snakes?" he asked, thinking of the last visit he and Luxa had made to the Jungle mice.
"The Twisters?" She turned and gave him a wry smile, "After our last visit, they were apparently too afraid to remain in the nibbler home and have since moved on. The Warrior has become legendary, even among the lesser known creatures of the Underland."
Ignoring her teasing, he looked down over Elpis shoulder, using his echo location to try to see what was below them. He was relieved, that at least this time, they would be able to fly over most of the Jungle. Trekking through it on their way to find the plague cure had been horrible, there was no way to tell which plants were friendly and which ones were waiting for you to make one false move so you would be their next meal. But even will all its dangers, he would much rather be in the Jungle than in the Vineyard of Eyes.
The flight to the jungle was long but Gregor didn't mind. He was able to find out more of what Luxa had been doing over the past years and he was able to share with her some of the good memories he'd had in the Overland. The heat and humidity of the jungle reached them first and then the ground below them began to faintly glow from the jungles water source.
"We are near," Luxa said, as Aurora began circling the spring area, preparing to land.
Gregor was distracted though, when he saw Elpis ears pricked up in a symbol Gregor recognized well from Ares.
"What do you hear?" he asked, causing the others to look up as well.
"Someone is following us," Elpis purred in her soft voice. "I do not think they mean to harm us though."
They hovered there a several minutes more before they caught sight of who was behind them. The bat was light colored and Gregor thought he saw stripes on its body.
"Nike?" Gregor questioned.
"No," Luxa said with a shake of her head. "It is Eris; Hazard's bond."
He saw her face cloud, her intense glare never leave the ever drawing nearer bat. He saw now that the bat was a silvery color, with darker stripes on her face and wings.
Then he saw something else that made anger and frustration course through him. Hazard was not alone. He had brought Gregor's friends.