Gregor gripped Ares's fur and immediately assumed the worst. If rats were in Regalia, they must have come for one thing: Boots!
"Hurry, Ares! Please!" said Gregor.
"Yes, Overlander, I will hurry," said Ares. His powerful wings were beating up and down in a blur. "And Luxa and Aurora will go straight to your sister."
It was only a few minutes, but it seemed to take forever to get back to the arena. Gregor had visions of an army of rats ripping their way across Regalia with one target in mind. Maybe the giant white rat itself had come to kill her!
As they sped into the stadium, a guard shouted at them and waved at the massive stone doors that separated the playing field from the city. "There are just the two! There, by the doors! Stay back!"
Ares put on the brakes, but they were close enough to get a good view of the battle on the ground. In front of the doors were two rats fighting for their lives against a dozen humans on bats. The smaller rat seemed to be able to leap amazingly high off the ground. It was not getting a lot of action, though, because a much larger rat was shielding it from the brunt of the attack.
The big rat was moving so quickly that Gregor couldn't tell much about it. It was spinning in a circle, springing from its front feet to its back feet, lashing out at anything that came within reach of its claws and teeth. He could see bats and humans getting wounded, but not a single blow was landing on the rat. It was like watching one of those martial arts movies where no one can touch the main sensei or master or whatever, it was like watching -
"Oh, no!" Gregor exclaimed. "It's him. It's got to be -"
"Ripred!" Ares cut him off.
"Stop them!" said Gregor.
Ares was already diving. He swooped in from the side, knocking two riders off the front line. He did a figure eight that disoriented a few more, and did some strange hovering motion in the air over Ripred's head.
"Stop!" yelled Gregor. "Stop, he's a friend!"
The Underlanders pulled back to avoid hitting him, and began to shout angrily at Ares to move.
"No, you don't understand! He's on our side! It's Ripred!" Gregor hollered over the din. They heard the name Ripred, and the Underlanders pulled back in silence.
The big rat stopped spinning and fell almost lazily on its back. Its scarred face broke into a big, fanged grin, and it started to laugh. "Oh, look at them, Overlander. Are they not priceless?"
Gregor wanted to laugh, too, because some of the Underlanders' mouths were literally hanging open, but he stifled the impulse. "Stop it," he said to Ripred. "It's not funny."
Ripred just guffawed even louder. "You know it is! You know you want to laugh, too!"
It was such a silly thing to say in the midst of all the tension that it caught Gregor off guard, and he did kind of laugh. He stopped himself quickly, but it was too late. Everyone had heard him. "Just shut up, okay?" he said to Ripred, who ignored him completely as he chortled in glee.
"Can somebody get, like, Vikus, or Solovet, or somebody?" Gregor asked. None of the Underlanders answered him or flew off. He noticed the smaller rat hunkered back against the doors, wide-eyed and panting. He figured it was a friend of Ripred's. "Hey, sorry about this. I'm Gregor. Nice to meet you."
The rat pulled its gums back from its teeth and hissed viciously at him, causing both Gregor and Ares to flinch.
Ripred was beating his tail on the ground in a spasm of hilarity. "Oh! Oh! You needn't try to sweet-talk her," he gasped. "Twitchtip hates everybody!"
The smaller rat, Twitchtip, snarled at Ripred. Then she tore a hole in the moss with one slash of her paw and buried her nose in it.
Okay, well, she was weird.
"Ground formation," commanded a voice, and Gregor turned to see Solovet on a bat coming in for a landing. The Underlanders brought their bats down in a tight diamond pattern. Ignoring Ripred, Solovet walked through the soldiers and bats, sending the wounded off to get medical attention. Then she dismissed the rest.
By this time, Ripred had pulled himself together and was stretched out comfortably on his side. Twitchtip still had her nose buried in the hole in the moss. She was breathing through her mouth in short, distressed puffs.
Solovet crossed to the rats, signaling Ares to land as she went. She surveyed the invaders stonily. "I have just sent eleven of my ranks to the hospital."
"Oh, I barely scratched them. I was just giving them a little live rat practice, and I think we both have to admit they need it," Ripred said with a significant nod.
"You were supposed to meet an escort guard at Queenshead tomorrow," said Solovet.
"Was that tomorrow? I felt certain it was today. And we waited and waited and poor Twitchtip was so eager for her first glimpse of Regalia that I didn't have the heart to disappoint her another minute. Right, Twitchtip?" Ripred said, poking the rat with the tip of his tail.
Twitchtip yanked her nose from the moss, snapped at Ripred's tail, which he whipped out of reach just in time, and shoved her nose back in the earth.
"Isn't she a charmer? Isn't she just irresistible?" said Ripred. "And I've had her all to myself on a journey from the Dead Land. Imagine the fun."
Twitchtip glowered at him but didn't attack again.
"And for what reason do we have the pleasure of her company?" Solovet asked, eyeing Twitchtip.
"Why, I brought her as a gift. For you, for your people, and for Gregor here. Yes, especially for Gregor," said Ripred.
Gregor looked at the seething rat with alarm. "For me? She's a gift for me?"
"Well, not literally. It's not as if I own her. But I made a bargain with her. She's agreed to help you find the Bane, and I've agreed to let her live with my merry little band of rats in the Dead Land if she succeeds," said Ripred. "You see, she was driven out of the gnawers' land years ago and has been surviving on her own."
"Because she is mad," Solovet said, as if that were obvious.
"Oh, no, not mad. Twitchtip is gifted. Show the people what you can do, Twitchtip," said Ripred. Twitchtip just glared at him. "Go on, show them, or it's back to living with me, myself, and I for you."
Twitchtip reluctantly lifted up her head and brushed the moss and dirt from her nose. She tilted back her chin, took a deep sniff, and grimaced. "The boy's sister is located on the third level of a large circular structure in a room with eight other pups and two grown ones. She's just eaten cake and milk. She's cutting a new tooth. Her catch cloth is wet, and her shirt is pink," Twitchtip spat out. Then she crammed her nose back in the moss.
Solovet's eyebrows shot up. "She is a scent seer?"
"Yes, her sense of smell is so unnaturally heightened she can even detect color. She is one in a million. An anomaly. A fluke. A pariah because her own species finds her gift so disquieting. But very, very useful, I think, to you, my dear Solovet," said Ripred.
"She is not a bad fighter, either. If she has survived alone in the Dead Land." For the first time, Solovet smiled. "Can you stay to dine, Ripred?"
"I can be persuaded," said Ripred. "Have them make the thing with the shrimp, won't you? And no skimping on the cream."
"No skimping on the cream," agreed Solovet.
"And give Twitchtip plenty of food, but make it bland. Handle it as little as possible. Your scent is repulsive to her," said Ripred. Solovet gave orders for Twitchtip to be taken to a remote cave outside Regalia, where the city's smells wouldn't be so torturous to her.
Before they left, Solovet turned to Gregor. "I have not had time to welcome you properly, Gregor. I hear you made quite a stir at training today."
"I guess," said Gregor.
"He hit the total," Solovet said to Ripred.
"Did he?" Ripred said, surveying him with interest. Suddenly Ripred's tail came up out of nowhere and sliced at Gregor. To Gregor's surprise, he found the rat's tail clenched in his hand. He had reflexively blocked it inches from his face.
"Well, you can't teach that," Ripred said, slipping his tail out of Gregor's grasp.
Ripred went off to the palace with Solovet through some secret passage to avoid causing a panic in the city.
Ares flew Gregor back to the palace. Guards greeted him at the High Hall and, after a moment of discomfort, they greeted Ares as well. Maybe Aurora was right. Maybe things would be better for the bat now that he was bonded to someone who could hit a lot of blood balls.
In the bath, he scrubbed and scrubbed at the fake blood, but it still left a stain on his skin. He finally gave up, hoping it would wear off before he went back to school - after the white rat was dead or whatever.
He went to get Boots from the nursery and was happy to see Dulcet, the really nice nanny who had cared for the toddler the first trip down. "How's she been doing?"
"Oh, Boots has had a very good day. I think it has been somewhat trying for Temp, though," said Dulcet, nodding toward a corner.
For the first time, Gregor spotted the giant cockroach. He was being decked out in dress-up clothes by a group of little kids. Each of his insect legs wore a different kind of shoe. His head poked out of a long purple gown that bunched up around his neck. Pink ribbons festooned his drooping antennas. Boots plunked a fuzzy hat on his head, and the kids all jumped up and down, squealing in delight.
"Temp have hat! Temp have hat!" she beamed at Gregor as he came to get her.
"Ohhh," Temp said mournfully. "Ohhh."
"He sure does," said Gregor. "He looks real good, too. But now it's time for dinner, Boots." He knelt down and whispered to Temp, "Don't worry, buddy. I'll get you out of here." Trying not to laugh, he began to untangle the poor insect from the clothes. He'd been the object of Boots's dress-up games often enough to feel sympathetic. This had probably been going on for hours.
Unhappily, dinner turned out to be a reunion of sorts for those who had gone on "The Prophecy of Gray" quest - those who had survived it, anyway. Of the eight who had lived to tell the tale, only Gregor's dad was absent. Gregor, Boots, Luxa, Aurora, Ares, Temp, and Ripred were all there, with Solovet and Vikus presiding over the table. Maybe Vikus had thought this would give them some kind of comfort, but if the memories it brought up of the dead - the two spiders, Gox and Treflex, the cockroach, Tick, and Luxa's cousin, Henry - were painful for Gregor, they had to be excruciating for some of the other survivors.
It didn't help that this was the first time Boots seemed to notice that Tick was gone. Boots had been asleep with a high fever when Tick had given her life to protect her. When they'd gotten back home, Boots had talked about Tick as if she were fine. Gregor let her because he didn't know how to explain to a two-year-old that her friend was dead and, besides, he'd never planned on coming back here, anyway. Now her little voice going, "Where Tick? Where Tick?" sent jolts of sadness through him.
After several minutes of "Where Tick?" almost everyone had given up eating. Without even excusing himself, Ares just up and flew out of the room, and Temp hid under the table, making odd clicking noises that Gregor thought might be some kind of cockroach crying.
Even Ripred seemed to raise an eyebrow at the guest list. "Really, Vikus, did you think we were going to swap war stories?"
"I thought it might be healing," said Vikus. "That it might help some accept their losses."
At that, Luxa sprang up, kicking her chair back onto the floor behind her. She and Aurora were gone in seconds.
"And it's working beautifully," said Ripred. "Ah, well, more for me." The rat hooked his paw around a huge serving dish of shrimp in cream sauce and pulled it in front of him. He stuck his entire face in the dish and sucked it down. At least this distracted Boots, who was so fascinated by his eating methods that she dipped her own face in her plate to imitate him.
"Mm," Ripred said dreamily as he pulled his dripping muzzle from the dish.
"Mm," Boots echoed. She giggled, dropped her face back in her dish, and slurped.
Ripred's long tongue swept around his jaws, cleaning off the cream. "Nothing like that in the Dead Land. Nothing much of anything these days, of course. Since the humans have cut the gnawers off from their main fishing grounds."
"Perhaps a little hunger will help them reflect on their poor judgment in attacking us," Solovet said, helping herself to a large serving of mushrooms.
"Surely the gnawers are not really starving?" asked Vikus.
"Aren't they?" said Ripred. "You have driven them back to the border of the ants. The rivers left open to them are dangerous to fish and are downstream from the crawlers, so the catch is small. What, in your mind, are they feeding on?"
There was silence.
Gregor tried to imagine being a rat and being hungry. In his experience, being hungry didn't make you think about anything but getting food - or maybe, in the rats' case, getting even.
"It's not helping the grand plan. I have enough to overcome as it is. And you reap what you sow, Solovet," said Ripred.
"Is this what you came to tell me, Ripred?" Solovet said, unmoved.
"No. You know what you're doing. Or at least you flatter yourself you do. I came to deliver Twitchtip and to teach Gregor another trick he can't learn from you." Ripred stuck an entire loaf of bread in his mouth and pushed back from the table. "Ready, boy?"
"For what?" Gregor asked, watching the crumbs fly out of Ripred's mouth.
"Your first lesson," Ripred said with a big gulp. "It starts now."