Gregor, Luxa, Ares, and Aurora retreated quickly to the flat rock. Their attack had brought the entire canopy to life. It was a writhing, hissing mass of snakes. They were a variety of sizes. Some as thin as pencils. Others as fat as baseball bats. So closely did they resemble the vines that Gregor could still not distinguish them from the plants unless he saw the heads. And there were plenty of heads to see. The decapitation of the first reptile had triggered a full-scale attack. Snake heads were shooting out at them from all sides. Flicking tongues, flashing fangs. Suppressing his fear, Gregor gritted his teeth and counterattacked with his sword. He thought of the blood-ball training back in Regalia. It was the same principle. Incapacitating the missile before it struck you. What he couldn't hit with his sword he deflected with his torch.
Only the largest snakes could cover the distance to the rock, but it was all Gregor and Luxa could do to keep them at bay.
With relief, Gregor felt the rager sensation begin buzzing through his body. He welcomed the adrenaline rush, the heightening of his senses, the giving over to his instincts. Ripred had been right when he'd said that there would be times that Gregor would be glad of the gift of being a rager. Maybe he was getting a better handle on the phenomenon, because today he was able to fight without losing awareness of his actions and without fear at his transformation.
Now, for instance, he was quite cognizant of the fact that Ares was trembling behind him. The bats were utterly helpless. Trapped in the dome, they could not take to the air to flee or even to fight with their claws.
"Make yourselves small!" Luxa ordered them. Ares and Aurora pressed tightly together. "The twisters cannot reach you with Gregor and me here!"
He hacked off head after head, but the onslaught only increased. Smaller snakes had joined in as well.
"The jungle!" cried Aurora. "It is shrinking!" She was right. The snakes were closing in on them. The dome was still intact but several feet closer on each side. Soon every snake would be able to reach them, and there would be no way to fight them all off.
"To the cave!" Luxa shouted to the others. "There is only one entrance; we can defend that!"
Moving as one unit, the four of them inched their way to the mouth of the cave. Gregor caught a glimpse of Luxa's blade and torch, whirling in some crisscrossing pattern as she held off the snakes while Aurora and Ares fluttered inside. Gregor and Luxa stood angled out, shoulders touching, backs to the opening, as the assault continued. For every snake they killed, another two seemed ready to take its place. It was only a matter of time before one broke through, one set of fangs made contact, and their defenses fell.
"This is no good!" shouted Gregor over the hissing. "They'll just keep up until we're beat!"
If only Ripred were here! Much as the rat infuriated Gregor, there was no better companion in a fight. Ripred would know how to get out of this alive!
Ripred ... Ripred ... what would he do? Gregor tried to picture the big scarred rat beside him at this moment. But he couldn't. Ripred wouldn't be standing in the cave mouth swatting at snakes. He would be, he would be ...
"I'm going to try something!" yelled Gregor. "Get the bats out if you can!"
And before Luxa could object, Gregor was slashing his way back to the rock. He had no more than an image in his head. The image of Ripred, fighting off the humans in the arena, shredding the plants that held the yellow pods, in battle with the ants. When he was far outnumbered, Ripred always relied on the same fighting technique. He spun. He spun in a circle so fast that no matter what adversary reached him, they would encounter his claws. Gregor had only one sword, but he had a torch and he was a much smaller target than Ripred. If he could just spin quickly enough ... !
The second Gregor's feet hit the rock they began to turn him in place. He spun with his sword in front, his torch straight behind his back. Faster and faster until there was only a blur of shooting heads, spurting blood, and twisting bodies. He stopped thinking, abandoned himself, and let his rager senses completely take over. At some point, the number of snakes lessened, but he did not let up. It was Luxa's sword, thrust out to block his own, that finally brought him back to reality. The clash of metal as their blades made contact had such force that he broke hers in two. The second he stopped spinning, he was reeling wildly around the clearing, overcome with dizziness. He crashed into the vines, which were entangled with headless snakes, and grabbed hold of anything he could as the world careened around him. It was one of the worst feelings he had ever experienced. He thought he vomited but could never clearly recollect the moment.
Then a pair of claws lifted him into the air and deposited him on Ares's back. "No," Gregor said. "Too dizzy."
"Hold fast to my fur!" ordered Ares. "We must be gone from here!"
Gregor clutched Ares's fur and just wished for the whole thing to be over.
Time passed. The world steadied. Ares landed somewhere and Luxa helped Gregor off the bat's back. Gregor sat on the ground and tried to get his bearings. Luxa held up cupped hands filled with water to his mouth, and he eagerly drank. His heart slowed down. He was all right. They were no longer in the jungle. Gregor gratefully felt the stone floor of the tunnel beneath him. He dipped his whole face into the cold stream, less to drink than to clear his head. When he sat up, feeling refreshed, the other three were staring at him uneasily.
"Are you ill?" asked Ares.
"No, not now," said Gregor. "I just got a little dizzy spinning around."
"Your mind ... it is calm?" asked Luxa tentatively.
"Think so," asked Gregor. "Actually, I feel pretty good." He did. Like when he'd run miles in track and then gotten a buzz. Only this was a much deeper sense of well-being. "Why?"
No one answered.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"When you fought, it was as if something had possessed you," said Aurora. "Your face changed. You made sounds that were not human."
"I was fighting off about a zillion snakes. It was just that rager thing," said Gregor.
"I have never seen it before," said Aurora. "Except when you hit the blood balls, but that was not the same."
When Gregor thought back, he realized that was true. Aurora had never been around when he was actually in battle. "Well, that's how I always get. Tell her, Luxa."
"No, Gregor, it was different this time," said Luxa. "Not like when I saw you fight the cutters."
"How?" asked Gregor. It had not felt that different to him. He'd felt a little more in control for a while.
Luxa chose her next words carefully. "You seemed ... to be enjoying it."
"What? Well, I wasn't!" Gregor said. "And that's a really rotten thing to say."
"I did not mean to -" Luxa began.
"Let's just go home," he said. They scrubbed the gore from their skin in silence and mounted the bats. Not until he was up on Ares's back, away from Luxa and Aurora, did Gregor dare to ask, "What did I do?"
"You fought magnificently. You will one day be every bit the warrior that Ripred is," said Ares.
"See, that's what I was thinking about. How would Ripred get us out of there? That's how I came up with the spin!" said Gregor excitedly, and then stopped. Why was he excited? The whole thing had been a terrible, bloody encounter. It must just be the relief of having survived it. Or was it something else? "Why did Luxa say that about me enjoying it?"
"Because, as the fight progressed, you began to smile," said Ares.
"I smiled?" said Gregor. His skin crawled at the thought. At home, he never got involved in fights unless he was forced to. He had never liked physical violence and had a low opinion of kids who did. It sickened him to hit another person. "I smiled?"
"Overlander, do not make too much of this. Everyone knows being a rager is not a choice," said Ares. "Only it took us by surprise to see you so. As we know you do not revel in death."
Gregor didn't say another word the rest of the trip to Regalia.
They had left the torches in the jungle. Gregor ripped the duct tape off his arm and returned the flashlight to his belt, flipping it off. He wanted darkness to hide in while he tried to understand this new thing that had happened to him. But he didn't understand it. His postbattle exhilaration drained away, leaving him feeling empty and quietly afraid of himself.
He had a desperate desire to see Ripred, to talk to the only other rager he knew about what he had just experienced. But he had no idea where to find the rat. Ripred had taken off after the Bane; they could be anywhere....
It was only when Gregor and Luxa were climbing back into the old nursery that he realized he had another problem.
"Listen," whispered Luxa, grabbing his arm. Footsteps were coming down the hall. They had been gone all night and well into the day. Both Gregor's mother and the Regalian council would freak out if they knew about the secret trip.
"Lose your weapon," Luxa told Gregor. They both quickly unhooked their belts and set them down on the stairs. Luxa flipped the turtle's shell closed, shoved Gregor onto an old pallet, and dove onto one about ten feet away. "Sleep," she told Gregor, and immediately pretended to do so herself.
Gregor had just flattened out and shut his eyes when the footsteps stopped at the door.
"Did Mareth have them check the old nursery?" he heard Vikus's voice say.
"I do not think this wing was checked at all. It is so rarely used," Howard replied.
"I believe I see a light," said Vikus. Gregor had switched on his flashlight so he and Luxa could climb into the nursery and never thought to turn it off. Too late now, though. He could hear Vikus and Howard entering the room.
Vikus gave a chuckle of relief. "Ah, here they are. Slept the whole night here by the looks of it. Luxa, awaken," he said softly.
Gregor felt Howard's hand give his shoulder a shake. "And you, Gregor. Before the council sends out the army to find you."
"What?" said Gregor in his best sleepy tone. He sat up and gave a fake yawn. "What's going on?"
Luxa rubbed her eyes and blinked up at her grandfather in confusion. "Oh. Have we been here all night? I was showing Gregor the nursery. He started telling some endless tale about his bravery in the Labyrinth. I must have dozed off."
It took Gregor a second to realize she was trying to capture their normal banter. Trying to act as if they had not experienced the awful night behind them. He could play along.
"Yeah? You should hear yourself go on about how rough it is to be a queen," said Gregor, stretching. "What time is it, anyway?"
"Nearly luncheon," said Vikus.
"Good. I am famished," said Luxa.
"Come then, and eat. And I shall instruct Mareth to call off the search for you. What would you have me tell the council, Luxa?" said Vikus.
"Something very dramatic. Tell them I sneaked out at night, evaded the guards, and ran off to the jungle," said Luxa.
Gregor shot her a look, but she knew what she was doing.
"Yes. Very witty. See that you take better care where you sleep tonight, Your Highness," said Vikus. Then he left the nursery.
Howard remained behind. He was examining them closely. A little too closely. "That was a lively story. About the jungle. And it would have explained one thing," said Howard.
"What's that, Howard?" said Gregor, suddenly feeling cautious.
"This," said Howard. He reached his hand up to Luxa's hair and removed a piece of vine. It was small, only a couple of inches long, with three tiny greenish-gray leaves. Gregor had not even noticed it. Unfortunately.
"Oh, that?" Luxa coolly took the vine from Howard's hand and curled it around her finger. "I must have picked it up when I visited the fields yesterday morning. The council has asked me to familiarize myself with the maintenance of the crops, so that when I am queen I may quickly distinguish a good year from a bad one."
"Really? I know of no crop we grow that resembles that vine, Cousin...." said Howard. "What is it?"
"Well, I am not yet an expert, Howard. That is why I must visit the fields," said Luxa matter-of-factly.
Howard's eyes moved back and forth between them. "You two look tired. You should get some rest." He gave them a smile and left.
Before he went to lunch, Gregor washed up in the bathroom and put on fresh clothes. The dark fabric and dim light in the nursery had concealed the fact that his garments were splattered with dried snake blood. Then he went to see his mom. By the time he got there, Vikus had been to see her, so after a brief scolding about being irresponsible, Gregor was allowed to go eat.
When he reached the dining room, he found Vikus, Howard, Luxa, Hazard, and Boots gathered around the table. The servants began ladling stew and passing bread.
They were just starting to eat when Mareth appeared at the door, speaking in a rapid, breathless voice. "Vikus, pardon the intrusion, but there is an occurrence of which we can make no sense," said Mareth.
"What is it, Mareth?" Vikus asked.
"Our scouts were patrolling the river that runs from the Fount," he said. "They pulled this from the water. It was wedged between two rocks along the beach." Mareth gestured to someone in the hallway. Two Underlanders came in hauling a large, round basket between them. It was covered with a tight-fitting lid. Water still dripped from its woven exterior. They set the basket carefully on the floor, and Mareth eased the lid off.
Inside the basket were half a dozen squirming baby mice.