(I DON'T OWN THE UNDERLAND CHRONICLES.)
Gregor and the
Rage of the Biters
The tunnel was extremely dark, but that was no surprise to the rat. He and the two slightly smaller rats behind him didn't need light to see down here. He was leading the small party forward, treading carefully as he sniffs the air. The stench was repugnant, and he had to pat at his nose with his paws for a moment.
One of the rats behind him says, "It is still fresh in the air. Shall we stay on the trail? Perhaps we can catch the vermin, whatever it is."
For the past few weeks, many of the rats had been picking up the scent of…something. It was completely foreign to them, which was surprising. As long as the rats had been down in the Underland, they could instantly recognize any of the other species they shared the land with. But this…was unexplainable. Not a single rat had ever smelled anything like it before.
Which is why they were even here to begin with. Three rats, a scouting party to try to track down who or what was sneaking around their territory. They had been traveling for almost four days, getting by on fish they had packed for the trip. The leader of the group, a large brown and grey rat, contemplated the thought of continuing to track the…whatever it may be. It would certainly be embarrassing to turn back up with nothing to report, and he didn't want to hear another lecture out of Ripred.
"How fares the food?" he asks over his shoulder.
One of the rats behind him slips a sack off his back and onto the ground. He crouches low and sticks his face right into the bag. "About a dozen fish left," came the muffled reply. The leader nods, looking back into the direction the scent was leading them.
"What say you, Brookmark?" questions the other rat.
Brookmark wrinkles his nose in thought. "We will continue for another half day," he finally replies. "And if we see nothing, still, we will turn back." He smacks his tail on the ground, sending a loud thwack echoing around the tunnel. He begins moving again, followed closely by the two other rats.
They travel for a few more hours, the stench filling their noses up more and more with each step. When they come to a fork in the tunnel, Brookmark steps forward, giving the air a long whiff. He points to the tunnel on the right with his tail. "The smell is stronger down this way."
"Agreed," says one of the rats behind him.
They continue onward down the right tunnel. After a few minutes of traveling, they notice the tunnel starting to slope downward. As they continue, it gets steeper and steeper. Brookmark begins to take slower steps, using his claws to get a better hold on the slick surface. The stench is flaming in his nose. As he moves, he kicks a small stone out of place, and he watches as it slides down the surface. He waits for a few moments, but hears nothing that sounds like a landing.
"Take caution," the rat says to his companions, who have taken support on the tunnel's other wall on his right side. "We know not where this tunnel leads. If you fall, I cannot guarantee your survival." Grunting, Brookmark continues onward at a slightly slower pace. The tunnel seems to be widening as they move. After a few more painstakingly slow minutes, he calls out.
"Hookshade, Runningfur! How long have we been descending?"
A look of discomfort passes over Hookshade's face as he tries to think while still focusing on his foot holes. "I have lost track of time, truthfully," he finally replies with a deep breath. "Runningfur?"
Runningfur, almost immediately behind Hookshade, stumbles slightly before catching himself. "The same," he admits with a deep breath. "I have only been concentrating on not falling."
A silence stretches over the rats as they descend farther into the tunnel. It's only getting steeper, and there pace has slowed to a crawl. Brookmark is seriously considering telling them to just start climbing back up. He has no idea what they are about to walk into anyway. He mulls the idea over. Perhaps they should just regroup and return with a few more rats. Ripred can't possibly get to irritated if they're at least on the right trail.
That's when Hookshade falls. As he steps, his foot literally gives way out from under him, forcing him on his back. With a yelp, he begins to slide forward. From the other side of the tunnel, Brookmark watches the series of events in horror.
"Runningfur!" he calls to the only other rat on that side.
Runningfur, to the best of his ability, shuffles forward quickly trying to reach Hookshade. Hookshade has clawed the ground, doing his best to stop his slide, but to no avail. Crouching low, Runningfur offers him a paw. Hookshade makes to grab it, but repositioning a set of his claws quickens his slide, moving him farther down out of Runningfur's reach.
"Your tail, Runningfur!" Brookmark calls. He has hastened his pace slightly, trying to keep up with Hookshade's sliding.
Runningfur whips his tail around his side. The extra feet are enough, and he dangles it over Hookshade's mouth. Just as Hookshade is about to bite it, however, he loses his grip, and rockets down the tunnel, letting out a nasty, terrified yell.
"Hookshade!" Runningfur cries after him. A few moments of silence pass with the two rats staring down into the dark depths of the remaining tunnel. "Ohhhh…" Runningfur says softly. "It's all my fault…!"
"No, Runningfur!" Brookmark replies. "The fault is mine. I should have turned us back an hour ago."
"Hey!" a voice calls out. Brookmark's ears perk up. It's coming from farther down the tunnel. "Hey! Can you hear me up there?"
"Hookshade?" Runningfur calls down into the space. "Hookshade, is that you?!"
"Of course! Who else? Listen, just drop. As luck would have it, we were almost to the end of this thing."
Brookmark and Runningfur exchange quick glances. Runningfur shrugs, quickly dropping on his back. Brookmark watches as he disappears farther into the darkness, waits a few long seconds, and then detaches his claws from the wall, sliding down as well. Brookmark is expecting the ground to scrape against his back, but he's forgotten how slick this part of the ground is. It actually feels like he's picked up speed since there is nothing to help halt his momentum. His gums flap wildly against his face as he cuts through the air. Finally, he hits the end of the tunnel, stumbling out of it in a massive hump.
He's landed on something soft. He pulls himself up, shaking the feeling of the slide off of him. The "something soft" he landed on is actually the ground itself. It's soft and squishy, almost damp under his paws. He lowers his head and gets a good smell of it, and while it is familiar, he cannot quite make it out. It is also surprisingly cool, not just the ground, but also the very air around him.
"Where are we?" he ventures to ask, already knowing the answer.
"I…am not sure," Hookshade replies. "I had to get over my initial shock as well before I called back up."
"It is odd," Runningfur says. "This place is right in our territory. How have we not discovered it before?"
"Perhaps it was the earthshake those weeks ago," Hookshade offers. "It closed off many tunnels and passageways. It could have opened some as well."
Brookmark thinks. The tremor had caught the entire Underland off guard. It did not last for more then a half hour, but the damage it caused was monumental. The rats were not the only ones affected. Brookmark had heard many spinner caves collapsed, and even the human city of Regalia had some of its older buildings crumble down. A massive relief effort had been organized by the representatives of each species, but it was taking time. It seemed highly plausible that the tunnel they climbed down was opened by the tremor.
"I agree," Brookmark says to Hookshade. "Let us ascend," he continues, pointing his tail back to the tunnel. "We will mark this passage and report it to Ripred. I am sure he wants to see it himself."
"Hang on, Brookmark," Runningfur replies. "We are already here, and we have yet to uncover the source of this terrible stench." He pauses, taking a short sniff. "It is extremely heavy here."
Brookmark takes a quick smell as well. Runningfur is right; the smell is burning in his nose. If he had too guess, Brookmark would say this is the source. He frowns. They couldn't merely return to Ripred with the source but nothing that produced the stench itself. Knowing Ripred, he'd be just as furious.
"You're right," Brookmark finally replies. "We will venture forward, but not for to long." He shoulders past the other rats, leading the way.
The ground squishes under their steps, and the sound begins to irritate Brookmark to no end. But he pushes that thought out of his mind, and instead begins to wonder how it could be so cool and damp down here in the first place. He looks up, and for the first time, notices a dim light overhead. It's casting a wave of blue tinted rays over them. Brookmark is so distracted he doesn't notice something smack him in the face. Growling, he leaps back instantly, barring his teeth.
However, when he realizes what hit him, he relaxes. A plant was just finishing swinging back into place from the hit. He had been the one to run into it. He leans forward and sniffs the plant. It reeks of the stench they've been chasing.
"Foliage?" Hookshade says, not quite believing it. "All the way down here? How is this possible?"
Looking, Brookmark realizes they are seated at the edge of a large grove of plants. Dark green trees extend high into the air, their branches crisscrossing with each other in key places. Low bushes sit at the bottom, ruffled and thick. Looking left and right, Brookmark can see the line extends quite a ways.
"A jungle?" Runningfur offers.
"No," replies Brookmark, shaking his head. He did not know what this was, but he knew that it was not a jungle.
"Wait," he hears Hookshade say. "Take a smell." Brookmark does, and is repulsed by the stench that continues to enter his nose. But he pauses. Something else is there as well. Not just the stench they've been chasing but…but…
"Water…" Runningfur puts the word in his thoughts. "A great deal of it as well. It lies just beyond here."
"It explains all the plants," Brookmark agrees.
"Shall we enter?" Hookshade asks. "The stench is only getting stronger."
Brookmark hesitates. He had heard Ripred tell stories of plants devouring rats whole. But after a moment's thought, he crashes through the line, his companions right on his tail. Beyond the line, the foliage was actually fairly spaced and not nearly as thick. They had no trouble navigating through it. The tree branches were swooped down, as if they were inviting them farther in. The stench was still burning around Brookmark's nose, and he tried his best to ignore it.
He was suddenly stepping into water, and he instantly pulls back in surprise. He watches as the ripples settle. He narrows his eyes. The water was a disgustingly green color. It wraps ahead of them, extending farther into the foliage. Where he had stepped had been quite shallow, but Brookmark suspects the water only got deeper.
Runningfur crosses beside him, and slouches against a rather large log that was sticking out of the water. "Now what?" he asks.
Brookmark thinks for a moment, a shiver running down his spine. "I think it best we return."
"Agrred," Hookshade says from his other side. "We have scouted far enough. This place is beginning to make me uncomfortable." Brookmark is glad he is not the only one. "What say you, Runningfur?"
Runningfur shrugs. "I suppose we've done all we can. I'm itching for a nap, anyway." He gives a big yawn.
As Brookmark watches him, he sees something horrifying. To Runningfur's right, a big yellow eye half the size of Runningfur's head has opened. It widens for just a moment before narrowing.
"Runningfur…" Brookmark says softly, taking a step back. He tries to keep his voice as steady and calm as possible. Hookshade has noticed the eye now as well.
"What?" Runningfur asks, still oblivious.
Brookmark swallows. "Remain…still…"
Panic washes over Runningfur's face for a moment, finally realizing something's up. "What…?! What's happening?!" He moves away from the "log," and in that moment, it happens.
In one swift movement, the "log" turns toward the rat, and its front end begins to separate. And that is when Brookmark realizes that it is a mouth! It continues to silently separate as it turns, the eye locked onto Runningfur.
"Runningfur!" Brookmark calls. "Move away!"
But just as Runningfur begins to sprint toward them, the mouth lunges forward, closing its jaws around the rat in one satisfying snap. The sound hangs in the air around them. The mouth remains there, and Brookmark and Hookshade watch as the rest of the "log" moves out of the water. It slides out almost gracefully, and as it turns, Brookmark can see both of its eyes trained on the two remaining rats. It is easily triple their length, maybe more. It has four proud legs extending from its body, and its back is hard and scaly. An extremely long tail is the last thing to pull out of the water. The stench they've been following is pouring off of the creature in waves.
Hookshade begins to move forward, but Brookmark moves his tail to block his path.
"But…but Runningfur!" he pleads.
"No!" Brookmark replies gruffly. With a bit of effort, he pushes Hookshade back with his tail. "No… There is nothing we can do for him now!" He turns his attention back to the creature in front of them. He watches as it tilts its head up, giving off a painfully loud swallow. He can feel Hookshade move behind him, but he continues to hold him back with his tail. It…it swallowed Runningfur whole!
The creature towers over them, not taking its eyes off them for a second. Brookmark racks his brain for a way out of this situation. If they fought, would they win? If they ran, would they be able to out speed the thing? Suddenly, Brookmark can hear a low rumbling sound emit from the creature. After a moment it stops, and when Brookmark does nothing, the rumbling starts up again.
"Is it trying to communicate?" Hookshade remarks.
"I can't say for certain…" Brookmark admits. He raises his voice, speaking loudly and clearly. "Are you trying to speak to us?" The rumbling starts up again, and Brookmark can only assume that the creature is in fact trying to say something. There's a sudden sloshing of water that grabs his attention. Brookmark looks to his left, out toward the water, but he doesn't see anything. The rumbling starts up again, louder this time. Brookmark thinks it's coming from the creature's throat. As he waits, he can finally hear it.
Brookmark perks his ears. The words sound so rusty and ancient. It is almost as if this creature has not spoken in quite some time. The rumbling starts up again, but this time, the words, while still sounding hollow, are much clearer.
"Who…are…you?" the creature rumbles out to them.
Brookmark rejoices. Finally, something to work with! He steps forward slightly, giving a small bow to the creature. It is terribly un-ratlike, but even rats know when they can't win a fight. "I am Brookmark," he says, making sure to keep his voice clear and loud. He gestures to Hookshade with his tail. "And this is Hookshade. We are rats, merely trying to return to our home. We seemed to have accidentally stumbled into yours. And for that, I apologize." He does not mention Runningfur.
The creature seems to think for a moment before the rumbling starts back up. "…Rats?" it asks gruffly.
Brookmark is stunned for a short moment. How could this creature not know of rats? Looking at the two rats in front of him now did it honestly now know what they were? The rats were one of the older species in the Underland. "Gnawers," Brookmark offers, disdainfully using their nickname.
The creature sweeps its tail back and forth along the ground behind it as it replies to them. The volume of the rumbling has diminished, and his words are becoming even clearer. "I know not of gnawers. I know not of rats. I ask again. Who are you?"
Brookmark shuffles back slightly, feeling extremely confused. "I…I have already said I am Brookmark and this is Hookshade." There's another sloshing sound of water to his left that sends Brookmark's nerves into overdrive.
The creature takes a step toward them, but Brookmark and Hookshade hold their ground. "I know not of Brookmark. I know not of Hookshade." It sweeps its tail again. "Why are you in my home?"
"We did not know," Brookmark replies. "As I've said, we did not know!"
The creature sweeps its tail from side to side once more. "I talk not of this place," it replies. "I speak of the Underland."
Brookmark stares up at the creature. "You dare claim the entire Underland?" The comment had actually got him riled up a bit.
"The Underland is mine," the creature retorts instantly. "The Underland is ours…!"
Another sloshing of water. But this time, as Brookmark looks over, he can see two bright yellow eyes sticking up out of it. Another set pop up. Off in the distance, he can see several of the creatures start to swim toward the bank. Toward them.
"Brookmark…" Hookshade hisses.
The creature in front of them raises its mighty head, and gives off the loudest rumble yet. "Brothers! Sisters! We have slept for far to long… Other creatures have taken up refuge in our Underland!" There is an echo of rumbles in reply. Brookmark has to cover his ears it's so loud. It seems to be coming from all around them!
The creature bends its head again. "These…rats have informed me of this." He sweeps his tail out behind him again. "Let us retake our Underland!"
"Wait!" Brookmark cries out, holding his arms up. "Wait! We are not your enemy!"
The creature locks its eyes on him. "Anything that is not us. That is our enemy."
Brookmark backs up. He and Hookshade had to get out of here. They had to get back and tell Ripred. He would know what to do. Maybe they could team up with the humans and fliers, or…!
The creature eyes him for a moment longer. "You have told me your name, Brookmark and Hookshade. Allow me to tell you mine." It spreads its jaws wide, revealing a row of razor sharp white teeth. The creature's stench burns Brookmark's nose again. "Shatter." Then, in one swift movement, the creature lunges at them.
In an equally swift movement, Brookmark pushes Hookshade away, and the rats fall on either side of the bite path. Shatter's jaws snap at nothing but the air, and he reels back, preparing for a second shot. Brookmark glances up and sees the other creatures are joining him now, climbing out of the riverbank.
"We must move, Hookshade!" Brookmark calls. Shatter lunges at him, but he rolls out of the way just in time. Shatter's head is so close that Brookmark can't resist a counterattack. He reaches up and claws the side of Shatter's head. But as he rakes his claws down, he has to pull away from the pain. Glancing at his claws, he sees they have been worn down slightly. The skin is as hard as stone…!
To his left, he sees Hookshade bounding away from another set of jaws, also attempting to strike back. Beside Brookmark, Shatter begins to turn slightly. It's a quick spin, and at first, Brookmark cannot understand why, but then he sees it! The tail! It's to late, though. It slams into Brookmark's underbelly, sending him flying into the air. The pain is awful, and as he lands, he struggles to get back to his feet.
"Watch the tails, Hookshade!" he calls, wincing. As he looks, he notices Hookshade avoid another harmful bite from a second creature, and he dives under its legs. The creature begins to stomp wildly, causing Hookshade to keep moving from side to side, until he finds his way out from under it, and almost directly into another bite. He just barely is able to dodge it, and scurries over to Brookmark.
"We must flee!" he says desperately.
Brookmark only nods, and the two rats fly back into the foliage at top speed, making their way back to the tunnel. The crash through the plants, and behind them, they can hear Shatter and the other creatures giving chase. Luckily, they had not traveled that far, because within minutes, they are blasting out of the grove line. The tunnel is in sight, and the ground squishes under their feet as they run. Behind them, they can hear their chasers also breaking through the line.
The softness of the ground prevents them from running at their top speed, but Brookmark thinks they are making good pace. Suddenly however, Hookshade stops running, and is pulled backward. He claws at the ground as he is slides, but can get no kind of catch. Brookmark skids to a stop and looks behind him.
One of the creatures, Brookmark assumes Shatter, has lunged forward and grabbed Hookshade by his tail, and is now pulling him backward. Hookshade is screaming, and in one movement, Shatter snaps his head and propels him into the air. Hookshade flails around as he reaches the peak of his height and begins to fall back down.
"Hookshade!" Brookmark calls, unable to hide the panic in his throat.
"Brookmark!" Hookshade cries back. There is pure terror in his own voice. As he continues to fall, Shatter spreads his jaws wide. Hookshade seems to notice this as well, and only flails around harder, doing his best to try and twist through the air. "Avenge me!"
The words have no sooner left his mouth before Shatter claps his jaws tight. Brookmark watches in horror. He had misinterpreted the angle. He thought Shatter was going to swallow him whole, as he had Runningfur, but no. In one bite, Shatter snaps Hookshade right in half. Blood splatters everywhere, some even splashing on Brookmark, and the two portions of Hookshade's body fall on either side of Shatter.
Brookmark has no time to take in anymore of the event. He turns and is immediately off once more. The tunnel is so close now, but he can feel Shatter and the other right on his tail. Thinking of his tail, he does his best to curl it toward his body as he runs. He's so close to the tunnel now! Shatter knows it as well, as Brookmark can suddenly hear jaws desperately snapping behind him.
Suddenly, something hits him on the side, and he's sent rolling to the right. As he rolls, he looks and finds that it was a tail from a spinning creature that caught him. They're advancing on him now as he gets back on shaky legs. It feels like he has broken a bone or two but he can't say for sure. One of the creatures has moved to block the tunnel, and Shatter and two other ones are advancing on him.
The rumbling escapes Shatter's throat. "Goodbye… Brookmark."
As Shatter snaps his jaws forward, Brookmark gets an idea. He doesn't know if it will work, but he has to try! In one leap, he soars high into the air, right over Shatter's harmful jaws. He lands squarely on his head, and in the next instant, is running down his back. Shatter tries to shake him off, but the rat's grip is to tight. As Brookmark nears the second creature, he jumps, securing placement on this one's back as well. Still running, he jumps again to the third creature.
This one, a bit smarter, tries to roll to force him off, but Brookmark keeps moving, hopping as it rolls. The roll has actually propelled him closer to the tunnel, and he jumps onto the creature that is blocking it. He runs right down the length of its back, sprints down its tail, and safely hops into the tunnel. Extending his claws as to not slip and fall, he stars to climb.
He can hear angry rumbling below him, and can only assume it's Shatter. "Run as fast as your legs will carry you, Brookmark!" Shatter's words painfully echo all around him as he climbs. "Your warning will not save the Underland!"
Brookmark pushes the words aside as he focuses on the climb. Shatter's words didn't matter to him. All that mattered was getting back to the rats, and indeed warning them of the threat. Even if he died trying to get there.
Ripred slouches on his side lazily as he chomped on a fish. He watches a mother play with her pups, unable to help the small smile that has played on his lips. He tries to focus though. It had been some time since he sent Brookmark and his team out to find the source of the stench that has infested their territory. Even now, he could still smell it. Perhaps he should have gone with them. Absentmindedly, he runs a claw lightly across the X shaped scar on his face.
Suddenly, the burning sensation of the stench is clawing at his nose. It is closer… No. It is getting closer. The stench is headed right for the colony at a breakneck pace. He is immediately on his feet as he notices other rats recognizing the smell as well.
"Prepare yourselves!" he calls out, turning to one of the tunnels leading to the colony. The tunnel that the smell was strongest. "Get the pups to safety!" Had Brookmark and his team been killed? A band of rats has gathered just outside the tunnel, all crouched low, all ready to attack. But what came barreling out of the tunnel surprised everyone.
It was a rat.
He sprints from the mouth of the tunnel, past the band of rats that had gathered there. He lumbers right to the middle of the colony, and collapses. Ripred is bounding over to him immediately.
"Brookmark!" Ripred says. He crouches over the rat. Brookmark is obviously the source of the stench, and he's so thin you can see his ribs. Dried blood is caked throughout his fur. His breathing is rapid. "Brookmark…" Ripred says again, softer this time. More rats have gathered around them now. "What happened?"
Brookmark tries to slow his breathing. His voice is cracked and strained. "Runningfur…Hookshade…dead. The stench…creatures…Underland."
"Calm down…" Ripred says steadily. "Get me some water!" he orders a nearby rat. As the rat takes off, Ripred turns back to Brookmark. "Slowly, Brookmark…"
Brookmark takes a few, ragged, deep breathes. "Runningfur and Hookshade are dead... The stench…was coming from the creatures down through a steep tunnel." The rat breaks off in a coughing spell before he looks Ripred right in the eyes. "They've sworn…to take back the Underland."