Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor's body felt weighed down by the conversation. Although he had admitted to himself while he was in the museum that he would die, he had been waging a psychological campaign against the idea ever since. Denying it, dodging it, immersing himself in the present to avoid thinking about the future or, more specifically, how he wasn't going to have much of one. There was no other way to keep functioning. But sometimes, like now, reality came right up and slapped him in the face. There was nothing to do but keep moving forward and make the moments count.
As he walked through the halls, Gregor could see his resolve reflected on many other faces. There was a war. He guessed the Regalians didn't need a prophecy to know there was a good chance they'd be dead at the end of it. And they had family and friends to worry about, too. Gregor felt a little less alone knowing that others were experiencing the same emotions he was. Less alone, but no better.
He was unsure of where he should get the body armor Ripred had mentioned, but there was a big supply room filled with nothing but weapons and stuff, so he thought that would be a good place to start. When he arrived, the armory was buzzing with people suiting up for battle. Even though it was crowded, an old Underlander woman with a tape measure was at his side in a moment.
"You have come for protection?" she asked. Gregor nodded. "I am called Miravet. I can assist you." And then she was whipping that tape measure around him so fast it was practically a blur. "You fight how? With only the sword? In the right hand?"
"That's right," said Gregor, wondering how many other options there were.
"What does your left hand do?" she asked.
"Nothing. Sometimes I tape a light here to help me see," said Gregor, indicating his forearm.
"That is all?" Miravet gave his forearm a slightly disapproving look, as if it wasn't holding up its end of the bargain somehow. Then she led him to a wall covered in breastplates hanging from hooks. "For the chest," she said, and took down a highly polished number made of silver metal and mother-of-pearl.
As Miravet was holding the breastplate up to him, a voice came from behind him. "No, Miravet, I want him entirely in black."
Gregor didn't have to turn to know Solovet was coming up behind him. He gritted his teeth at the prospect of seeing her again.
"Why is that?" asked Miravet with a frown. Gregor found himself liking her for not immediately jumping to do whatever Solovet suggested.
"To blend with his flier and give an overall impression of darkness," said Solovet.
"The gnawers will not be impressed by an impression of darkness," Miravet said, still stubbornly holding the breastplate she had chosen.
"No, but the humans will. It implies deadliness and strength and will give them confidence to follow him," said Solovet.
"As you wish," said Miravet. She returned her breastplate to the wall and chose another of black metal and some kind of shiny ebonylike shell. "This?"
"It should do nicely," said Solovet. She stood by silently as Miravet made Gregor change to a black shirt and pants. Then she dressed him in the breastplate and other bits and pieces of armor. None of it was particularly heavy, which was good because he didn't need anything slowing him down.
As he was being fitted for a helmet, Gregor caught sight of himself in a mirror, dressed from head to toe in black. "Great. I couldn't look more like the bad guy if I tried," he thought. And here he was going in to fight the Bane, whose coat was so white it almost hurt your eyes. If he were in a movie, Gregor would definitely be the one the audience was rooting against. On the other hand ... on the other hand ... there was something powerful about the blackness, and part of Gregor couldn't help thinking he looked pretty cool.
But Miravet shook her head as she examined him. "You only emphasize his youth by dressing him so. He has not the hardness of countenance to wear this."
Gregor was not sure what she meant. He thought countenance had something to do with your face.
"He will," said Solovet. "Come with me, Gregor." When they had left the armory she added, "My sister is an expert in armor but not in character." Her sister? Solovet. Miravet. The names sounded kind of the same, and it explained why Miravet was not afraid to stand up to Solovet.
"Speaking of sisters, I hear another of yours has joined us," said Solovet. "Remind me of her name?"
It was just the two of them, walking down a quiet empty hall. Gregor felt he could no longer refuse to answer her without making a really big deal of it. He didn't want to wind up back in the dungeon, especially now that he had to keep an eye on Lizzie, as well as Boots and his mother.
"Lizzie," he said.
"And you have no issues with her staying?" asked Solovet.
Sure he did. Plenty of issues. But he had made the deal with Ripred. "Not if she's the code-breaker," said Gregor gruffly.
"That remains to be seen. I myself am not convinced that it is not Boots who will be the key." They walked along in silence for a while. Then Solovet spoke up again. "Perhaps it was too harsh of me to put you in the dungeon. But you are part of our army now and, in essence, you disobeyed a direct order. In an army, one head must give direction to the rest of the body. If not, there is chaos. That is why discipline is so important. If we lose it, we lose everything."
Gregor considered this. He guessed you probably did need someone making a plan and other people who could be counted on to carry it out.
" Do you think yourself capable of following orders ?" she asked.
"Maybe. Maybe not," thought Gregor. "It would depend on the circumstances." For instance, if Solovet had ordered him to secretly develop the plague as a weapon, he would never have done it. But he only said, "Seems like I'm always following Ripred's."
"Well, let us see if you can follow mine today," said Solovet.
When they reached the High Hall, Solovet's bond, Ajax, was waiting for them. Gregor knew him mostly by sight. He was a massive brute of a bat with fur the color of dried blood. Once Gregor had asked Ares what he thought of Ajax. "I do not care for him. Almost no one does. Of course, very few care for me, either." So Gregor tried to keep an open mind about Ajax.
Gregor and Solovet flew out of the palace, over the high wall that signaled the end of the city, and headed north over the farmlands. Half the people of Regalia seemed to be in the fields, working at a frantic pace. "It is our policy, when the gnawers are so close, to harvest or destroy all we can. We do not wish to leave them any food sources," said Solovet.
The farmlands ended at another wall. This one was not quite so high as the one that bordered the back of the city, but it was at least twelve feet thick, providing a sturdy base from which to launch the army. It was packed now with heavily armed humans mounted on bats. An area in the middle of the wall was relatively empty, apparently having been reserved for the commanders.
When Ajax landed in the command center, Gregor got a clear view of the cavern beyond the wall. He had flown over it several times before, but it had always been shrouded in darkness. However, the humans had been at work here, as they had in the Firelands, peppering the cavern walls with burning torches in preparation for the battle.
In the flickering light, Gregor could see that the fighting had not yet begun. Hundreds of rats had assembled on the ground outside of the wall. They weren't milling around in their usual fashion but lined up in rows. Except for the occasional twitch of a tail or ear, they were perfectly still. Overhead, humans on bats flew in a crisscrossing pattern. Solovet's arrival brought several in to report on the number of rats, their condition, and the generals who were leading them.
Ares soon arrived carrying Ripred on his back. The rat burst out laughing when he saw Gregor. "Oh, no. Who are you supposed to be?"
"I ordered his armor myself," said Solovet with a slight smile. "Do you not approve of it?"
"He looks like he fell off of a chessboard!" said Ripred, and Gregor could see some of the nearby soldiers trying not to laugh. "Do you like that getup?" he asked, circling Gregor.
The truth was, Gregor had kind of liked it until Ripred started making fun of it. "What do I care? I don't have to look at it," he said.
"No, but the rest of us do," said Ripred. Then the rat seemed to forget all about him and got caught up in some war council with Solovet.
"How's the airlift going?" Gregor asked Ares.
"Well enough. There are still many nibblers to bring in from the Firelands," said Ares. "But the ones left behind are stronger at least."
"You doing okay?" asked Gregor.
"A bit tired. And yourself?" said Ares.
"Oh, I'm great. Solovet slapped me in the dungeon for a few days. Then my sister Lizzie showed up and Ripred decided she's the code-breaker. And apparently I look like an idiot," said Gregor.
"You look well. The black suits you," said Ares.
"Whatever," said Gregor. "Luxa's better. I got to see her for about thirty seconds."
"I was not allowed to see Aurora and Nike. But the doctors in the hospital say they mend as well," said Ares.
"Man, I didn't even get a chance to check on Howard," said Gregor, suddenly feeling guilty that his concern for Luxa had blinded him to his other friends' conditions.
"He is much improved," said Ares.
They stared for a while at the ranks of rats. "So, why aren't we fighting?" asked Gregor. He was a little impatient to get started.
"Solovet is still assessing the rats to see how we should engage. There are two main types of battles in the Underland. The first is a surprise attack, in which case we counterattack immediately in self-defense. The second is a challenge. Both armies assemble and we meet on the field at an appointed time. This is a challenge," said Ares.
It reminded Gregor of those movies set hundreds of years ago, where two groups of soldiers would line up across a field from one another and then one side would charge. Today's arrangement did not really seem to be to either side's advantage. The humans had more than ample time to decide how to battle the rats, but they would have to leave the security of the walls to do so. The rats could arrange a battle and possibly weaken the humans' army without having to attack the walls, but they would make themselves vulnerable to do it. There was a plus and a minus for both sides. Maybe that was why they both agreed to this kind of warfare.
Still, it seemed as if the humans had a slight edge. "I don't know. Seems like it might be smarter just to sit here," said Gregor.
"We could. But then we must live with the knowledge that an army of rats, which is likely to build, sits on the edge of Regalia," said Ares.
Yeah, that wasn't a particularly calming thought.
Gregor noticed Solovet and Ripred were looking at him and consulting in low voices. Then Solovet crossed to him. "Gregor, Ares, we are going to position you in the second wave at the right fifth point. Ripred suggests this and, as I have never seen you fight, I must follow his recommendation."
Gregor realized this was true. Solovet never had seen him fight, with or without Ares. On his first trip to the Underland, he hadn't even had a sword. When he came back to supposedly assassinate the Bane, she had not gone on the sea voyage. Although Solovet had been planning to join in the jungle expedition to find the cure for the plague, Hamnet had refused to act as their guide if she came. When Gregor had returned from the jungle, Solovet had been confined to quarters because of her role in starting the plague. No, she had never been around when he was in battle or even in training. Well, he could show her a thing or two now. Maybe if she realized what a good fighter he was she would back off a little.
He had no idea where she had placed him in the ranks, but "second wave at the right fifth point" seemed to mean something to Ares. When the command was given to assume their places, Ares flew directly to their assigned spot on the wall. They were in the second of three rows of soldiers mounted on their bats. Gregor was annoyed to find Marcus and Horatio positioned on either side of him. "Great," he thought. "She's sending me in with bodyguards." But even the annoyance couldn't override another emotion that was building up inside of him ... excitement. He was looking forward to the battle. Right now, his life was a depressing, confusing mess. At least when he fought he knew what he was doing and, for a while, he could forget about the rest of it.
A tense silence fell over the cavern. The air seemed to be quivering with anticipation. Then he heard Solovet quietly say, "Now."
The first wave of bats took off and the rats rose up to meet them. They had barely engaged in combat when Gregor felt Ares lifting off. There was no circling around and choosing targets this time. The bats flew in a tight formation and dove as one into the fray.
Fighting was now becoming second nature to Gregor. His rager side kicked in and he fought wherever Ares positioned him. They had less room to maneuver than they'd had in the Firelands. The ceiling was not as high and the rats were positioned in close, even ranks. This was not as big an issue for Gregor as it was for Ares. The bat's wings were so long that when he would dive, any number of rats might be in striking range. Even with his sword fully extended, Gregor did not have the reach to protect his entire wingspan. And at the moment, the rats seemed more determined to take out Ares than Gregor. In no time, Gregor had run through two rats that had been specifically targeting the bat's wings. But a third had managed to get a claw into the delicate skin near the tip and sliced a six-inch tear into it.
"You okay?" Gregor shouted to Ares.
"Yes, it can be stitched later," said Ares. "It does not much affect my flight."
"Good, let's go get the rat who did it," said Gregor.
Just as they were about to dive, an Underlander flew up and ordered them back to the wall. Gregor wanted to argue but Ares followed the command at once. He guessed this was probably a good thing, though, since he was supposed to be proving he could follow orders. Still, when they landed before Solovet, Ajax, and Ripred, Gregor couldn't help saying, "He's okay. It's just a cut."
"Dismount," said Solovet. "Signal Perdita and Mareth," she told a guard. Gregor slid off of Ares's back, somewhat confused. If she thought Ares was hurt, then the thing to do would be to send him directly to the hospital. She didn't need Mareth and Perdita to do that.
Perdita flew in from the battle, and Mareth appeared from somewhere down the wall. He was not actually fighting, now that his leg was gone, but Gregor assumed he was acting as some kind of general or something, since he'd been working so closely with Solovet in the war room.
Although Gregor did not expect a lot of praise from Solovet, her next words were a shock. "He is woefully unprepared for battle. This is not meant as criticism; I know your time with him has been very limited. But his left side is noticeably weak. Can we not double-arm him?"
"We can," said Mareth. "I do not believe two swords are the answer. He so favors his right hand."
"A dagger, then," said Solovet. "He must at least have it to block attacks. Perdita, you will attend to that."
"Yes, Solovet," said Perdita.
"Now, I dare not risk testing him alone on the ground. Has he a rager spin attack?" asked Solovet.
"Haven't seen it if he has," said Ripred. "He runs mainly on nerves and is still easily distracted —"
"I can spin!" objected Gregor. "When I fought the snakes in the jungle, that's how we got out of there!"
"Hmm," said Ripred. "And you were able to control it?"
"Yes. At least... well, at the end I was sort of dizzy," admitted Gregor. That had to be the understatement of the year. He had completely lost control, reeled into the jungle vines, and vomited. He had barely been able to climb onto Ares and it had taken quite a while for the dizziness to pass.
"Ripred?" said Solovet. "This sounds like your area."
"As if I don't have enough to do," said the rat.
"Your opinion of Ares," Solovet said to Ajax.
"Far too reckless with his wing space. Acts as if he is half his size. Lucky that tear is his only injury," said Ajax sourly.
"That's not true!" said Gregor, jumping to his bat's defense. "You should have seen him in the Firelands."
"Plenty of space in the Firelands, but that isn't usually the case," said Ripred. "And don't be so touchy. We're just trying to keep the pair of you alive."
"What style of dagger shall I give him?" asked Perdita.
Solovet stared hard at Gregor for a moment. Then she pulled the dagger from her own belt and offered him the hilt. "Take this."
It was a thing of beauty, that dagger. Not just because the hand guard seemed to be almost entirely composed of polished red jewels but because of the strong, sleek blade. He could tell by the expressions on the others' faces that something unprecedented was happening.
"I can't take that. It's yours," said Gregor. But he wanted it. If he had to have a dagger, he wanted the one right in front of him.
"I rarely battle now. I would not have it grow rusty from disuse," said Solovet.
"Take it. Add a little color to your ensemble," said Ripred.
"Thanks." Gregor's fingers closed around the hilt and he could not help hitting the dagger blade into the blade of his sword. There was a satisfying ring of metal on metal. When he examined the blades he saw neither had been nicked. It was a first-class dagger, maybe even as strong as his sword. He couldn't help liking Solovet just a little for giving him this weapon. The feeling was short-lived.
"So, should we go back in now?" Gregor asked, tucking the dagger in his belt on his right hip to have easy access to it. He was dying to try it out.
"You two? No," said Solovet, as if the very idea was preposterous. "I am sending you both back to training."