The two scorpions were about ten and twelve feet long. In addition to eight legs, each had a pair of pinchers snapping before it. But Gregor knew their most deadly weapons were their tails, which began to swing the moment the bats entered the chamber. He caught a glimpse of a foot-long stinger projecting from the end of a tail as it whizzed by him. Most of the scorpions in the Overland just gave you a terrible sting, but some had poison toxic enough to kill a human. And they were tiny beside these creatures. Whatever kind of venom these scorpions were packing, Gregor was sure one shot would be enough to finish off any of his party.
He could tell the bats thought so, too, because they were expending all their energy dodging those tails, even if it meant taking a dive down into pincher range.
Gregor had his right arm wrapped around Boots and was holding the flashlight in his left hand. He struggled to pull his sword off his left hip without letting go of her, but she was leaning curiously over the side of Nike's neck.
"Who's that?" she said. "Spiders?"
"Sit up, Boots!" he said.
"We need more light!" said Luxa.
"In my backpack!" said Gregor as he finally worked his sword free. Only now he had to hold his wiggly little sister with his flashlight arm. "Can you sit still!"
"Are they spiders, Gre-go?" Boots asked. "Like 'Itsy-Bitsy Spider'?"
"No!" said Gregor. "Boots, turn around! Hang on to me like a monkey!" She obeyed, but she still kept craning her neck around to see the "spiders."
He could feel Luxa digging in his pack and a few seconds later another beam of light brightened the cave. "Geez," he said as he got a clear look at the larger of the two scorpions. He was even more formidable when you could see him better. His body was covered in an armor shell, and he had about five pairs of eyes. That multiple-eye thing always freaked Gregor out.
"Hold on, Boots! I'm going to let go!" he said. This caught her attention. Maybe she remembered the flood and what had happened the last time he'd let go of her, because she locked her arms and legs around him so tightly he could hardly breathe. "Good," he squeaked out.
"Sever their tails!" he heard Howard shout.
"Right!" Gregor said, but he could not get himself into attack mode. What with Aurora flipping right and left to avoid the stingers and Boots squeezing the air out of him ... plus he had very limited motion with his sword arm since he had to fight around her. "I hope Luxa and Howard can take them," he thought. But he soon realized that was not going to happen. Howard had not even managed to draw his sword, because he was still trying to restrain Cartesian. Luxa was facing backward on Aurora, not the ideal fighting position, trying to keep herself and Hazard on board.
"Gregor, can you attack?" said Howard.
"I'm trying," said Gregor, chopping in the general direction of a tail. He missed by a mile. As to becoming a rager - the idea was laughable. He felt none of the intense focus and fear that sometimes brought on the condition. Instead, he felt trapped in a really silly horror movie.
"Baby spiders!" said Boots, as if making a pleasant discovery. "See the babies?"
"They're not babies," he said, and then had the awful thought that these were babies and she had spotted even larger scorpions, like the thirty-foot kind, headed their way.
"Hi, babies!" said Boots.
"Where? Where are the babies?" said Gregor.
"On the mama," said Boots, pointing. "See? Babies."
Gregor shone his light on the smaller scorpion's back and for the first time knew what Boots was talking about. About a dozen little scorpions were squirming around on the scorpion's shell. "Oh, great," he thought. The only thing worse than fighting a giant scorpion was fighting a giant scorpion who was trying to protect her young.
"I sing the babies to sleep," announced Boots.
"Fine, sing," said Gregor, thinking it would be better if she was occupied if he ever did make contact with one of those tails. Any sort of violence upset her. She wouldn't want him to hurt her "spiders." It wasn't until Boots launched into her rendition of the "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" that Gregor realized what a bad idea it was. The song required hand motions as the spider climbed the waterspout, as the rain fell down. And to do them, Boots let go of his neck.
"Hang on, Boots! Hang on!" he cried. But it was too late. Just as the sun was coming up in the song, Aurora did a full body roll to the side to avoid a tail, and Boots fell off.
"Me!" said Boots as she flapped her arms, just as she had back in the arena.
"Boots!" cried Gregor.
Ares dove to catch Boots and managed to scoop the little girl up on his head, but the motion so startled Thalia that she fell off his back, taking Temp with her. Neither Aurora nor Nike had any means of catching the pair, so the little bat and the cockroach landed with a thud on the stone floor.
"Thalia!" screamed Hazard. "Fly!"
"Hold on, Temp!" said Gregor.
Thalia scurried to her feet, and Temp scuttled sideways a couple of yards, unsure of where to go. Ares veered back, claws extended to rescue them, but it was too late. Lightning fast, the mother scorpion attacked and pinned Thalia's wings to the ground with her pinchers. Her tail flipped over her head, poised for the kill. Thalia let out a piteous cry, knowing she was moments from death.
"No!" shrieked Hazard. "No!" He wrenched himself free of Luxa and leaped off Aurora's back. Fortunately, Aurora was only about twelve feet above the ground and he managed to land on his hands and feet. He scrambled straight over to Thalia, kneeled above her head, and extended his hands up to block the stinger. "No!"
Luxa had flipped after Hazard seconds after she'd lost her hold on him. She landed solidly on her feet and made for the scorpion, her sword ready to attack. The scorpion let out an angry hiss and Hazard suddenly turned and grabbed Luxa's sword arm. "Don't! Don't attack her!" he said frantically. "No one attack!" Still clinging to Luxa's arm, he turned his head back to the scorpion and began to make a bizarre series of hissing sounds.
The scorpion's tail quivered in place for a moment, as if in indecision. "Put your swords away! All of you!" said Hazard. Luxa hesitated. "Please, Luxa!" She reluctantly returned the sword to her belt, her hand still clenched on the hilt.
Hazard let out another round of hisses. The scorpion slowly let her tail relax behind her, although she did not release Thalia.
By this time Gregor and Aurora had landed. The first thing Gregor did as he slid off Aurora's back was sheathe his sword.
"Can you talk to her, Hazard?" Gregor asked.
"I don't know. I'm speaking Hisser, like I did with Frill. But I don't think the words are exactly the same for stingers," said Hazard.
A thought struck Gregor. Boots was right about one thing: Scorpions had eight legs like spiders... . They were different species, but maybe ... "Try talking in Spider."
Hazard began to drum on his chest and issued a series of vibrating sounds. The scorpion shifted slightly from side to side, seeming genuinely confused.
"Temp! Temp! Try Crawler speech on it," said Howard.
Temp pattered up to join Hazard, clicking tentatively. Hazard joined in; he was almost fluent in Cockroach now. And of course, someone else would not be left out.
"Me, too! Me, too!" said Boots. She jumped off of Ares's head, and Gregor just barely caught her.
"Hey!" he said. "You can't just jump off-"
But she was already out of his arms, running over to the mother scorpion. "Let me talk! Let me talk!" Boots squealed, hopping eagerly from foot to foot. A stream of clicking intermingled with English poured out of her mouth. It was so frenetic, Hazard and Temp left off and let her go. Boots rattled on for about a minute, gesturing to the babies and singing little bits of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" and click, click, clicking away, and then suddenly she stopped, her hands clasped together, her chin forward, as if she was eagerly expecting an answer.
There was a long pause, and then one of the scorpions behind Gregor made a few clicks. Then everybody started babbling or clicking or hissing until Howard called for silence.
Nike came in for a landing. Cartesian had worked himself into a state of exhaustion and lay limp on her back, glazed eyes staring into space. Howard slid off the bat and took Hazard's hand.
"What is it, Hazard? What do they understand?" said Howard.
"I think that they both understand some Hisser, I can't tell about the Spinner talk, and the big one there knows Crawler," said Hazard.
"All right, then," said Howard. "Ask them to free Thalia. Tell them we mean no harm and only wish to pass."
Hazard communicated this to the scorpion who had clicked. They did not hear him respond. But he must have said something to the mother scorpion, because she released her grip on Thalia. The little bat fluttered right into Aurora's wings and buried her head.
The scorpion began to click again.
"He wants to know how we came here," said Hazard.
"Tell him," said Luxa. "Tell him the rats chased us here, sure that the stingers would kill us."
Hazard transmitted the message and the scorpion replied after a minute. "The gnawers are their enemies, too. They have recently forced the stingers out of some of their lands."
"Have they seen the nibblers?" asked Luxa.
Hazard talked a moment with the scorpion and said, "They have. The rats drove them by here only yesterday. And it does not go well with the nibblers. Many are sick or injured."
Boots, who had been very patient for a three-year-old, could no longer contain herself. She went off again, clicking and singing and pointing at the mother scorpion.
"What is your problem?" said Gregor, scooping her up.
"She wants to pet the babies," said Hazard.
"What? They're scorpions, Boots. You don't pet them!" said Gregor. But he was wrong again. A few minutes later, after some negotiation and assurances that they were too little to sting, Boots was sitting on the mother scorpion's back cooing to the babies as she patted their shells. Gregor guessed he shouldn't be surprised when he remembered how readily she'd taken to the cockroaches. And they were full-grown.
Hazard came over to join her and seemed to be able to talk to the mother some by hissing. Howard and Temp continued to exchange information with the bilingual scorpion. Luxa got out the last, very stale cake and laid it out as a peace offering for the scorpions. All thoughts of fighting were gone. Luxa licked a bit of frosting from her finger and shook her head. "It reminds me of what Hamnet told us in the jungle," she said to Gregor.
"What's that?" he said.
"About how many creatures do not wish to fight," said Luxa.
"But you'll never know if you show up waving your sword around," said Gregor, remembering. "I guess it's a good thing we were all so useless."
"Yes, if we could have actually fought, no doubt someone would now be dead," said Luxa.
"The stingers have agreed to let us stay here and rest before we move on," said Howard.
Ares and Nike got directions to a stream that ran through a nearby tunnel and soon returned with fish. They had a sort of picnic with the scorpions: raw fish and cake, and cold water to drink.
Boots would not eat the fish herself but loved feeding it to the baby scorpions. They took the fish but couldn't really swallow it. The scorpions seemed to need to drink their food like the spiders had. Injecting it with some liquid until it turned to goo. So the babies stole bites from the pile of gunk in front of their mother. Gregor just tried not to look at it. Hazard and Temp continued to act as interpreters.
"We know so little of stingers," said Howard. "Ask them, do they always live here or are they wanderers?"
"They say they have always lived here. Usually it is very peaceful. No one bothers them. But of late, the whole Underland comes to their doorstep. Shiners, nibblers, gnawers, crawlers, fliers, and even killers," said Hazard. He bit into a raw fish as if he'd said nothing out of the ordinary. But Gregor could see the look of shock on Howard's and Luxa's faces.
"Killers," said Gregor. "Who are they? Is there some other monster running around out here?"
"Oh, no, Gregor," said Hazard simply. "It's us. We humans are the killers."