As Gregor's eyes flutter open, he swears he's back in his apartment. Going back to the Underland, meeting all his old friends again- it had all been some kind of cruel dream. And for a moment, he believes it. He's still suspended from school, so the apartment is quiet because everyone else has already left. But he's not in his apartment. He shoots up, taking a good look around. He's still in the same bed he went to sleep in the previous night. He's still in the palace in Regalia. He's still in the Underland.
He swings his legs over the side of the bed, and gets to his feet. Yawning, he wanders over to the table where the clothes had been left for him the night before. Now that he thinks about it, Gregor didn't get a bath last night like he usually does. He grabs a set of clothes and exits the room. He turns right, makes his way down the hallway, and descends a flight of stairs. He still remembers where the bathes are.
As he continues on his way, a couple of the palace workers step to the side as he passes, giving him a small bow. Gregor nods to each of them in turn, feeling slightly embarrassed. It's weird, he decides, that the Underland still holds him in such high regard. It had been four years, and he had left, thought to never return again. He had always thought he had abandoned them, but apparently the Underlanders always knew he'd return.
The thought brings a smile to his face. The Underlanders still needed him; at least, for one final time. Honestly, Gregor's life had been fairly mundane since leaving the Underland: helping around the house, school, playing video games. There was nothing in the Overland like the adventures he'd been on. He wonders if that's the reason he really wanted to come back. Just to have that kind of rush in his life again, never mind everyone he had left down there. Gregor frowns. Maybe that was his rager side talking.
He turns to enter the bathrooms.
"About time, boy!" Ripred calls as Gregor enters the dining hall a half hour later, squeaky clean and in Underland clothing. The rat's face is stuffed with food. "It's almost midday!" He takes a sniff of the air. "And about time you got that stench off of you."
Gregor slides into the seat across the table from Ripred. He takes a second to examine the table, and then starts to fill his plate. "I had a big day, yesterday. You should've just woke me up."
Ripred rolls his eyes. "I tried to. Twice. You can thank the Queen that you didn't wake up to my breath on your face. She made it very clear I was to let you sleep."
Gregor silently plans to thank Luxa later. "So what's the plan for today?" he asks, digging in to his food.
Ripred is doing the same. "I told you last night. We're going to the arena to brush you up on some combat skills, and to meet the others who'll be joining us." He lowers his voice. "I also need to see you rage."
Gregor's hand stills. "I'll be fighting you, right…?"
Gregor relaxes. The fact he'd be fighting Ripred calms him greatly. "Where is Luxa?" he asks, the thought crossing his mind.
Ripred chomps down on a whole fish in a single bite. "She's already at the arena. We're assessing everyone's skills for the mission."
"So she's gonna watch me fight?"
Ripred takes a good look at the human. "Of course. You don't want her to? She told me how she's seen you rage before."
Gregor frowns. "It's not that. I…just don't want her to get worried."
Gregor looks up. "I'm warning you, Ripred. When we start fighting, I won't be able to stop." He clenches a fist under the table.
Ripred laughs. "Trust me, I'll let you know when I start worrying about you beating me in a fight!"
"I'm telling you, Ripred!" Gregor replies, voice raised.
Ripred waves his tail at him. "A joke, boy..." He gives Gregor another odd look. "I'm just trying to lighten the mood."
The arena is just as Gregor remembers it. Tall and magnificent, it harbors no damage left by the previous war Gregor had witnessed. The first thing Gregor notices is the couple of different species in it. Humans, rats, crawlers, fliers, spinners, and even a digger or two. There were several groups of creatures jumbled together, all either sparring or running courses. Several Regalian soldiers were also present, ever watchful.
On a raised platform to their right, Gregor finds Luxa. She is sitting on a rather luxurious looking chair, Aurora seated beside her. She's wearing another pale white gown, and her hair has been pulled behind her in a tight bun. Her eyes find Gregor's, and she gives him a smile.
Ripred leads him over to a particular soldier he seems to also be overlooking the gathering. He's leaning on a crutch.
"Mareth!" Gregor announces.
Mareth turns around, grinning wildly. "Gregor!" He replies, clapping a hand on the Overlander's shoulder. "I gained word of your arrival last night, but I could not make time to come and see you. I am sorry."
Gregor places a hand on Mareth's shoulder as well. "It's all good, man. How're you holding up?"
"I am well," Mareth says. "I was pronounced General of Regalia's forces shortly after your departure." There is an undertone of pride in his voice.
"That's great!" Gregor says. If anyone deserves it, it's Mareth.
"And a fine general, he is," Ripred interjects. "Mareth, can you get the boy a sword? I'd like to make a few rounds, myself." Mareth nods as the rat walks away.
"Right this way, Gregor," Mareth says, leading him over to a table that Gregor had not noticed before. All kinds of weapons lay on it. From blades, to bows and daggers- there are even some Gregor doesn't recognize.
"Wow…" he mumbles.
"Take your time," Mareth tells him. "Of course, you will find none here that can be compared to Sandwich's sword…"
Gregor feels a tinge of sadness at the memory of snapping Sandwich's sword in half to "kill" the Warrior. It had been a fine weapon. "Yeah, okay…" He scans the table. What kind of sword should he pick? He's older now; should he get one of those large broad swords he's seen before? There's some on the end, but he doesn't take one glance. Something has just caught his attention.
There, a little to the left of the middle of the table, a sword glints under the torchlight. He reaches forward and grasps it in his hand. His rager side is buzzing in his head, but this time, he doesn't try to fight it. It comes flooding in. The sword is a perfect size for him. He holds it in the air, examining the blade. It's extremely sharp, and comes straight to a point on the end. It is almost impossible to tell the hilt from the blade, as they are identical in silver color. He spins it in his hand, smiling. There's nothing in the way of his hands. It is simply hilt then blade. He smiles; the rager in him approves.
"Overlander…?" Mareth's voice.
Gregor snaps back to reality, shaking his head slightly. "Yeah?" he asks.
Mareth nods to the sword in his hands. "I was asking if that blade meets your liking."
Gregor tosses it in between his hands. It's incredibly light. "I think so…" he replies after a moment. "Yeah, Mareth."
Mareth nods and holds a dagger out to Gregor. "I remember your left side is weak," he says, nodding to Gregor's empty left hand. "I took the liberty of picking this out from the armory last night."
Gregor takes the weapon and marvels at the golden handle as his fingers wrap around it. "It's nice," he says, smiling again. "It's really nice. Thanks, man. "
Mareth bows slightly under Gregor's compliment. From under the table, he pulls out two sheathes. Gregor takes them, and slides his blades in. He slings the sword around his shoulder so it rests on his back, hilt over his side. He attaches the dagger to the right side of his waist as well.
Mareth tells him to turn in place, and as Gregor spins, he notices Mareth nodding out of the corner of his eye. "They suit you well, Overlander."
He and Mareth start walking across the arena. The General begins explaining the situation to Gregor. "Those accompanying you on the mission have been decided by only Queen Luxa, Vikus, Ripred, and myself. This is based not only on their fighting prowess, but any other special ability or talent they may also possess that could add value."
"So who's coming?" Gregor asks. The question had been burning his tongue for some time now. "Anyone I know?"
"Obviously Ripred," Mareth answers. "But other then that, just Temp the crawler, Howard and his bond, Nike."
"Just the five of us?!" Gregor says, openmouthed.
Mareth laughs. "No. But you merely asked who all you knew."
"Fair point," Gregor admits, taking a noticeable sigh. "Wait… Why those three?"
Mareth smiles. "I knew you would ask. Well, Howard is one of the best doctors in Regalia, and knowing what you're going up against, it makes since to have someone who knows the practice. Also, Howard knows his way around a sword as well, if it comes to that. Since Nike is his bond, you would not be able to keep her here if you tried." He pauses. "Now Temp… Ripred was quite adamant about him joining."
"Really…?" Gregor asks, a bit skeptical. If anyone was completely indifferent to the crawlers, it was Ripred.
"It is beyond me as well," Mareth admits. "He came with us on the boat, yes, but from what I understand, he is quite the crawler. Brave, willing to sacrifice himself, Ripred tells me he even held his own against cutters in the jungle."
"I guess he is pretty awesome…" Gregor says, really thinking about everything Temp had been through with all of them. "But if we're going up against giant crocodiles…" Gregor just didn't know how useful the cockroach would be this time around.
"I agree, Overlander," Mareth tells him, nodding. "But Ripred was very clear on the subject."
"What about Temp?" Gregor asks.
"He has agreed. Even the crawlers feel threatened by the biters." Mareth suddenly stops, looking to the right at a nearby group. Gregor pulls up beside him. "Ah. Here is the first who will be joining you."
Gregor looks to find an extremely tall human surrounded by a group of rats. They were all snarling at him, crouched low to the ground, ready to attack. Gregor makes to move forward, but Mareth pulls him back. "Calm yourself, Overlander," Mareth says, his voice joking. "They are only sparing," he confirms.
Gregor looks back, and finds the man has started spinning an extremely long spear above his head. Using both his hands, the man spins and spins it. It's moving in a blur, but Gregor can see it has a sharp looking point on either end. One of the rats signal, and they all lunge forward in a circle. The man is completely surrounded!
However, the man quickly twirls with his spear, ducking low to the ground. He stretches his long arms around him in a flash, spinning on the ball of his heel. He deflects every single rat's claws, and they're all sent flying backward, landing in awkward humps on the ground. The man continues to spin on his heel, slowly climbing back to a standing position. He impales the spear in the ground as he stops. It all happens in less then three seconds.
Gregor can hardly believe his eyes. "Wow…" He swallows, blinking once. Twice.
Mareth nods. "My star pupil," he replies proudly. "This man will be General after I, Gregor. Of that, I promise you."
But Gregor was thinking about something else. He had spun just like Ripred, just like himself. He had spun like a rager.
The man begins rolling the rats over, helping them back to their feet.
"Damn you, Sebastian," one of them says, shaking his head.
The man smiles as he helps the other rats up. "You came close this time, Sheer," he replies. "But not close enough." He waves to the rats, and upon seeing Mareth, retrieves his spear and jogs over.
"Gregor the Overlander," Mareth says, gesturing to the man. "Meet you Sebastian. He will be joining you on this mission."
Gregor finally gets a good look at the guy. He stands a good two feet taller then Gregor, and he is extremely fit, his arms especially buff. His hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Sebastian nods to Gregor, who quickly returns it. "So you are the bane of the Bane?" Sebastian asks. "I have heard stories, Overlander. I mean no offense, but I expected a bit…more."
"None taken!" Gregor assures him. "I get that a lot, actually. I need to eat more protein or something…" He laughs nervously.
"Sebastian is the pride of the Regalian army," Mareth says. "He can even hold his own against Ripred."
"Really?" Gregor asks, genuinely impressed.
Sebastian laughs. "Mareth exaggerates. I have never even actually wounded the rat in any of our practice matches."
"I have told you, Sebastian," Mareth replies, moving again. "You are not expected to wound a rager in a one on one fight."
Gregor follows Mareth, and after a moment, Sebastian trails them as well. They walk for a few more seconds before Mareth stops, turning toward a group of spinners and crawlers. Gregor comes up beside him, scanning over the collected creatures. Suddenly, a pure white spider jumps from the middle of the group. It hovers in the air for a moment, and then shoots a web to a flier that is passing by overhead. The web wraps tightly around the flier's feet; the flier looks confused at first, but upon glancing down, relaxes.
The spinner swings into the air, coming up in a high arc. When it reaches the apex of the swing, it breaks off from the flier, shooting another string of web at a second flier not to far away. The spinner shoots off after the flier, its web pulling it along gracefully. After a little bit, the spinner breaks off from this flier as well, shooting its web at another. Soon, a dozen fliers are in the air, each trying to avoid the spinner's web in every way they know how. Some are ducking, some are spinning, others are twisting in the air, but they can't escape. The spinner moves through the air at an alarming pace, from flier to flier, quickly shooting and breaking off its web as needed.
Once it reaches the center of the arena, it breaks its web once more, slowly beginning to fall to the ground. However, to Gregor's surprise, the spinner starts to spin rapidly, and as it does, it begins shooting web after web at every nearby flier. Once they attach, thanks to the spin, the fliers are dragged to the spinner, spinning in the air as it twists. After half a dozen fliers have been webbed, the spinner stops, and seems to relax as it hangs in the air, the captured fliers keeping it airborne by its single string as they beat their wings.
"I'm not sure what just happened…" Gregor manages, still looking at the site in awe.
"That is the spinner that wants to be a flier," Sebastian replies. "She is called Feerent."
"She is the most agile spinner you will ever meet, Overlander," Mareth adds. "And besides the Queen of the spinners herself, there is no other spider alive that can spin web faster."
Gregor considers this. "I always thought the spinners never really allied with anyone…ever."
"Ha!" Sebastian laughs. "Overlander, you speak of a fact that will always reign true!"
Mareth casts Sebastian a stern look. "It is only the looming threat of the biters that brings the spinners to our cause," he says to Gregor in a low voice. "But," he adds, raising his voice. "We are grateful for their presence. They have even agreed to send Feerent to aid in the mission."
"I figured," Gregor mumbles, looking back to the white spider. The fliers are lowering her back to the ground, looking quite ashamed of themselves. Mareth leads them forward, and they finally meet back up with Ripred, who is now accompanied by Brookmark.
"Ah!" Mareth exclaims, raising an arm. "Gregor, meet you the gnawer, Brookmark. He will also be joining on the mission."
"Yeah, we've met," Gregor says. Truthfully, he was glad Brookmark was going. He hadn't known the rat very known, but he liked him.
"Really?" Mareth asks.
"He brought me to the palace when I first came back," Gregor explains.
"Really?" Mareth asks again. "I was told that Ripred retrieved you from your descent. He said he even had to fight through hundreds of cutters to do so."
"It was terrible!" Ripred suddenly exclaims. "They had gotten to the boy first, but I wasn't going to let them take him away." He lets out a sigh, shaking his head. "We barely got out alive…"
"Uh-huh…" Gregor smiles.
"Anyway," Ripred suddenly says, swishing his tail out behind him. "You ready, boy?"
"You are going to spar?" Sebastian asks, leaning forward.
Mareth nods. "It is imperative that we see if Gregor has retained any of his combat training. Although…" He gives Gregor a look. "I am sure he has."
Sebastian still looks slightly worried. "Are we sure we should pair him with Ripred, Mareth?" he asks, obviously concerned for Gregor's safety.
Mareth laughs. "I forgot you did not know, Sebastian! No… I think the match up is fine. The Overlander is a rager as well."
Sebastian's mouth drops wide open as he looks back to Gregor, who rubs the back of his head nervously. Finally, after a moment, Sebastian seems to have gathered himself. "This I must see," is all he says.
Ripred leads Gregor over to a fairly open space in the arena. Mareth, Sebastian, and Brookmark hang back. As the two ragers stare each other down, other Underlanders, human and non-human, begin to gather as well. Out of the corner of his eye, Gregor sees Feerent, the spinner, is among them. Glancing to his left, Gregor finds Luxa has stood from her chair and is standing on the edge of the platform.
"We couldn't do this in private?" he hisses to the rat opposite him.
Ripred scratches his nose. "We could have," he agrees. "But we can't disappoint the crowd, now can we?" Gregor frowns, but then Ripred adds, in a hushed voice, "Besides, not everyone is convinced you're the true Warrior of old. Let's show them you are."
Gregor sighs, defeated. Ripred crouches low, his eyes glaring into the Overlander. Slowly, Gregor unsheathes the sword off his back with his right hand, while at the same time, unsheathing the dagger with his left. He can't deny the sensation building up in the back of his head. Despite himself, the edges of his lips curl into a tight smile. He comes to the sudden realization that he's been anticipating his fight with Ripred.
His grip on the sword and dagger tightens. Ripred suddenly lunges forward, and Gregor takes a deep breath. But he's not sure if he even exhales. He's suddenly lost track of his breathing as his surroundings blur. He brings the sword in front of him, blocking Ripred's dangerous claws. He holds his blade there, bringing the dagger down over his head, aimed for the rat's exposed back. Ripred, however, rolls away. His dagger only hits air, but he spins with his miss, bringing the sword up behind him to block another attack he somehow knows is coming.
He pushes Ripred away as he completes his turn. He rushes forward this time, swinging the sword in a wide slice. Ripred bats the blade away with a set of claws, and twists inward, coming up on Gregor's left. Gregor grins and thrusts his dagger forward. Ripred turns his head at the last second though, stopping the smaller blade with his teeth. In one movement, he rips the dagger out of Gregor's hand, tossing it away. Ducking low, he flips over the boy, whipping his tail towards Gregor's back.
Gregor sees the attack coming, and he rolls forward, tumbling along the ground. Ripred did not throw his knife very far, and he grabs it off the ground as he spins back to his feet. He rushes forward once more, Ripred doing the same, and they meet in the middle, both pushing at each other. Ripred slashes and claws, while Gregor blocks his efforts. Then, Gregor goes on the offensive, swinging his two weapons in arcs and circles as he steps forward. Ripred is just as talented, though, and blocks every one of Gregor's attempts.
They continue like that for some time. The sound of metal striking claw rings through the air like a violent sound of thunder. Gregor is moving as fast as he can, spinning, dodging, countering, but it doesn't matter. Ripred is just as fast, if not faster. Once, he breaks through Gregor's defenses, cutting him in the shoulder. Gregor steps back in surprise, looking down at his shoulder. He's so confused. He's bleeding… He was cut… Ripred got through…
He's vaguely aware of Ripred saying something, but he doesn't register it. Sinning the blades in his hands, he yells, and charges forward again. He slashes with even more skill then before- twirling and adjusting his strikes to get better reach. Ripred is still blocking all his attacks, but Gregor notices him slowly starting to back up. He grins as he spins again, aiming his sword high. Ripred shoves his claws forward, blocking his strike. He yells something else, but Gregor doesn't care. This is the rush he's missed!
He can feel the blood rolling down his shoulder as he continues to attack. It doesn't bother him. Ripred is still backing up as he blocks Gregor's strikes, and Gregor laughs. Ripred spins quickly, bringing his tail round to slam Gregor in the side. Gregor manages to dodge it though, leaping backward in the last moment.
He's still laughing as he lands, spinning the blades again. Blood is dripping off his left hand. "Come on!" he yells. His voice sounds so foreign…but at the same time, so familiar. "The Bane put up a better fight then this!"
Ripred snarls, running at him again. Gregor is expecting him to lunge with one of his claws, but the rat fakes him out. Quickly pulling back, Ripred ducks low, spinning. His tail sweeps across the ground, knocking Gregor straight off his feet. Gregor's body starts moving on its own. In midair, he quickly stabs his sword into the ground, and using it as a weight, twists himself back to a normal position. He swings around the hilt, kicking Ripred away.
Ripred tumbles across the ground, but quickly gets back to his feet. He growls as Gregor pulls his sword from the earth. He smiles again, pointing the edge of the blade at the rat. Ripred starts forward, but quickly stops himself. Gregor sees his mouth move, but he still can't hear a word.
A part of him doesn't want to. He's having way too much fun right now! He still can't feel his own breathing, and his heart is beating a mile a minute. The buzzing in his head feels good, almost calming. His whole body is relaxed, but ready. He hits the blade of his dagger on the blade of his sword, and the resulting sound sends a comforting shiver down his spine. He rushes forward, holding the weapons out in front of him. Gregor can't help the grin he knows is plastered across his face.
Ripred meets him once more, and they're clashing with each other again. Gregor is tilting his body and swinging his blades in an extremely controlled style he didn't think he was capable of. No swing is misdirected. None of his footwork is out of place. No movement is wasted.
He no longer wants this battle to end. The rager sense pulsing through his body feels good, and he doesn't want it to go away. It's always felt natural, but it suddenly feels so right.
Somehow, Ripred suddenly speeds up. Gregor's thankful for the extra challenge at first, but he notices he's beginning to take small steps backward. His steps grow. And grow and grow. Ripred is moving so fast now! He's tearing through Gregor's defenses; the cut on his shoulder is joined by much smaller cuts on his arms and legs as Ripred repeatedly breaks through. Ripred is the only thing he can focus on, but it's not enough! The rat has become a blur as continues to attack, and Gregor is forced to continue to back up.
A wave of panic spreads over him. He's going to lose. "No!" he shouts desperately, trying to quicken his own speed. "No!" He's going to lose…
In one final swift movement, Ripred knocks Gregor's sword away. He watches as it sinks into the ground behind him. But it's okay! He still has the dagger! He can still fight! He turns back to face the rat, but Ripred sends the knife flying out of Gregor's hands as well. It skims across the ground, stopping near the sword. Both his weapons are out of his reach.
He quickly makes off for them, but Ripred's tail comes out of nowhere, tripping him. He face plants into the soft earth, but it's not over! He starts crawling. With every pull of his arms, he gets closer. Suddenly, something heavy crashes on his back, stopping him in his tracks. Turning his head he finds Ripred.
"No!" he screams again, desperately trying to claw his way out from under the giant rat. He reaches an arm for his blade, fingers outstretched. "No…!"
Ripred leans forward, putting his face right next to Gregor's, but he doesn't move his body. Gregor can hear the rat's breath hit his ears as he speaks.
Gregor closes his eyes, arm still held forward. Slowly, he can hear his breathing return, but the rager sensation is still lingering throughout his body. The buzzing in his head is still ringing.
"…enough, boy! Enough!" Finally, he can hear Ripred's voice, gruff and hollow. The rat is panting heavily. "Calm yourself! Get a grip on your surroundings."
Gregor opens his eyes, and slowly, everything that was in the background comes back into focus. It seems their spectacle gained a few more onlookers as it went. He takes deep, shallow breathes, turning his head from side to side on the ground.
"Slow your breathing…" Ripred says with an edge of calmness Gregor isn't used to. "Slow your mind…"
As Gregor lays there, he tries to take longer breathes, and as he does, he can feel his rager sense defiantly retreating. His head stops spinning.
"That's it…" Ripred says, cautiously getting off the boy. "Everything's fine… You're fine."
Gregor rolls over on his back. His chest slowly moves up and down with his breathing. "Ripred, I…"
"Don't talk," the rat replies, still oddly calm. He's looking down at Gregor with an emotion he can't place. Concern? Pity? "Don't speak until I tell you."
So Gregor lies there. The silence of the crowd is a little eerie, and he wishes someone else would say something. Anything.
No one does.