Gregor and the Code of Claw
An Underlander met Gregor at the end of the hallway with his armor. While he dressed, someone roused Ares and the two of them went to the arena.
"Have a good nap?" asked Gregor.
"All twenty minutes of it," said Ares tiredly.
"Maybe we'll get some time after training," said Gregor. He knew he should probably try to get some sleep, too. It was so hard to keep track of night and day down here, without the help of the sun.
When they flew into the arena, they found it was jam-packed with mice. It had become a kind of refugee camp for those who had survived the ordeal of being driven from their homes and sentenced to death by the Bane in the Firelands. A thick layer of straw had been strewn on the moss-covered ground. Stations for food, washing, and medical treatment were along the walls. There was an area set aside for the mice to relieve themselves. The place reeked of disinfectant but it was not enough to overcome the smells of waste and sickness and too many bodies in too small of a space.
While they were circling around, a bat flew in carrying a half dozen mouse pups and a small boy with a head of curly black hair. "Hey, there's Hazard. Let's go say hello," said Gregor.
The bat with Hazard landed in an area by the wall. Gregor had barely touched down in front of him when they were swarmed by a group of frantic, squeaking mice. Ares stretched out his wings, forming a protective barrier between the crowd and the bat carrying the mouse babies.
"What is it? What's going on?" Gregor shouted to Hazard.
"The babies. We are trying to reunite them with their parents," said Hazard. "But it is a difficult task."
Gregor bet it was. There were hundreds and hundreds of mouse pups in the nursery. Their parents could be anywhere — lying dead in Hades Hall, in the Regalian hospital, still waiting to be airlifted from the Firelands — but they might be here in this mob, desperate to know if their babies had survived.
"Hey, quiet! Quiet!" shouted Gregor, standing on Ares's back and holding his arms in the air. The mice settled down a little. "No, you've got to be really quiet. And back up before someone gets hurt!" By this time, a few people had run over to help them. They made the mice move back to give the bats some breathing space. "How did you plan to do this, Hazard?"
"We are starting a list. I am to bring the babies, six at a time, and call out their names to see if their parents are here to take them," said Hazard.
"They're sending you to do this?" Gregor asked. They must've really been shorthanded if they had given the job to a seven-year-old.
"I am the best one. Because I can speak to the babies," said Hazard. But his lime-green eyes were full of doubt. "They can tell me their names. But you are louder than I, Gregor. Will you call them out?"
"Of course. Who's that?" Gregor asked, pointing to a small gray-and-white-speckled pup.
"This is Scalene," said Hazard, handing him the pup. "She is all alone." Gregor lifted the shivering pup up over his head. "Okay, this pup is named Scalene," he called. "Anybody know who she belongs to?"
There was an immediate cry. "To me! To me!" The crowd opened up as a mouse ran forward. "She is my baby!" At her mother's voice, Scalene began to wriggle to get out of Gregor's hands, whimpering and squeaking.
Ares dipped his nose to the ground and the pup ran straight down his neck and bolted between its mother's forelegs. She nuzzled it quickly, but then looked pleadingly at Hazard. "There are two more. Euclidian and Root. Do you have them?"
"Not on this flier. But there are hundreds in the nursery. They may well be there," said Hazard.
The mouse nodded and led her lone baby away.
Gregor helped pass out the rest of the pups. Two pairs of siblings were instantly claimed. When the final pup's name was called, no one answered,
"His name's Newton." Gregor held the squirming black mouse high above his head and tried to raise his voice so it filled the whole arena. "Newton!" But there was still no reply.
"I believe he is from the jungle colony," said a voice. Gregor had a bad feeling about that. Luxa had told him the mice they had seen gassed to death at the volcano had been from the jungle colony.
"Any of us will take him," said a mouse near the front.
"I can only give him to his parents now," said Hazard. "And they may still be in the Firelands."
The mice did not protest. No one wanted to further complicate the situation.
"I'll take him back to the nursery and start bringing the others," said Hazard.
"Okay, listen up! Hazard's going to be bringing in more pups. But you have to leave this space open and not rush up when he lands. All right?" said Gregor. There was a general murmur of agreement from the crowd.
Two of the Underlanders volunteered to take over Gregor's job and assist Hazard when he returned. "They await you, Overlander. At the south tunnel," someone told him.
When Ares lifted into the air, Gregor could see that none of the mice had moved. They would wait there in agonized silence as long as there was any chance their children might show up. He felt that awful helplessness that had consumed him as he'd watched the mice dying in the pit. This was just an extension of it. And at that moment, Gregor knew exactly why he was going to kill the Bane.
"Let's go train," he said, now anxious for any advantage the dagger might be able to give him.
"Yes," said Ares. "Ajax had a point. I must learn to use my wings better."
When Gregor slid off of Ares's back next to Perdita, she began to launch into a spiel about how they had all been called out of battle for further training, but Gregor cut her off.
"No, you guys are right. It would be better if I had a dagger. So how do I use it?" he asked.
Perdita clapped him on the shoulder in approval and went right into his training. They concentrated mainly on defense positions, although she did show him a couple of basic attacks. "You would have to be almost in physical contact with the gnawer to kill it," said Perdita. Gregor could see that because the dagger blade was so much shorter than his sword, this would be true. He was rarely in such close proximity to the rats.
The lesson went well. It was much easier to fight with two weapons. He remembered how having the torch in his left hand in the jungle during his spin attack had probably made the difference between life and death.
"Good, Gregor. Excellent. Now let us try you out on your flier," said Perdita.
Ares had been overhead, working with Ajax on minimizing his wingspan on different moves. He must have done well, too, because Ajax grudgingly told Perdita, "At least he is able to take instruction."
Gregor could feel the difference in Ares's flight maneuvers. They were sharper, more abrupt. Perdita and Ajax ran them through a series of drills and then Ripred showed up and they got some real practice. They dove down at him pretending they were in actual battle. At first, Gregor held back, but Ripred kept snarling at him to fight. And while Gregor knew Ripred wouldn't try to kill them, the rat had no trouble leaving a scratch or small puncture wound anytime he got through their defenses. By the end of the lesson, Gregor and Ares were pretty bloody, and even Ripred had a couple of cuts where Gregor had tagged him.
"Better," said the rat as he waved them in. "But you have a tendency to forget that dagger's in your hand and compensate with the sword."
"Yeah, I could feel myself doing it," said Gregor.
"And Ares, when you're down and decide to open those wings, do it! Bam! You can break necks with those things if you use them," said Ripred.
"So I have been telling him," said Ajax.
"I will keep working on this," said Ares.
A messenger bat arrived with an order for Ares to join the next airlift team.
"He's pretty tired," said Gregor.
"So are we all," said the bat.
"I can do it," said Ares.
"What about training?" asked Gregor.
"He's done for now. Let's see your spin," said Ripred.
After Ares took off, Gregor tried to show Ripred his spin attack. It was hard to do without the real threat of death before him. His feet felt awkward and he got dizzy almost immediately. "I was better in the jungle," he told Ripred.
"Well, you stink now," said the rat. "Let's start with the dizziness. You've got to learn how to spot."
Ripred showed him how to pick a spot somewhere and find it with his eyes each time he turned. "I do it with sound, by echolocation but, of course, that's out."
"Oh. Yeah. Maybe not," said Gregor.
"Can I assume by that smug look on your face that you've finally had a breakthrough?" asked Ripred.
"Kind of. In the dungeon," said Gregor. "I mean, something happened."
"I'll take him from here," Ripred told Perdita.
Before he knew it, Gregor was under the palace in their old practice space, fighting off Ripred's attacks in complete darkness. Except it wasn't darkness anymore, because he could do that thing, that echolocation thing, and somehow "see" things around him. If he clicked or coughed or even spoke in a certain direction, he could register detailed shapes and heat and movement.
"We should have thrown you into the dungeon months ago," said Ripred.
"It's weird. It's like having a whole new sense," said Gregor.
"Yes. Let's try that spin attack now. Pick a distinctive spot on the wall and keep coming back to it," the rat instructed. "Wait, use me to start." Gregor tried. He could find Ripred with echolocation on the first few spins but then he started to get confused and dizzy. It was too many new things — spinning and spotting and seeing with his ears — for his brain to compute all at once. Finally he tripped and his feet went out from under him.
"All right, all right. That's enough for today," said Ripred.
"No, it's not. I haven't got it," said Gregor.
"We'll get it next time," Ripred said.
"There might not be a next time!" said Gregor. "Or next time might be in a cave full of rats!"
"You're too tired. It's counterproductive," said Ripred. Gregor began to object but the rat cut him off. "Gregor! You've made excellent progress today. But it's time to stop!"
What a reversal this was from their old lessons, when it was Gregor who was always trying to cut out and Ripred driving him on. "Will you keep working with me?"
"After you've eaten and slept. Let's go check up on Lizzie. You can rest in her room there," said Ripred.
"Yeah, let's see if they've cracked that code yet," said Gregor. He was starting to get concerned about how long it was taking. "So, we'll really lose the war if they don't break it?"
"If Sandwich is to be believed," said Ripred, "And even if the prophecy were not a factor, I would say yes. We need that intelligence rather badly. Come on."
You could sense the frustration as soon as you entered the code room. The floor was ankle deep in those long white strips of fabric marked with encrypted messages. The team was gathered around Lizzie as she hurriedly wrote down some letters on a strip with a bright pink marker that must have been in her backpack. "So then it would be T ... H ... E ... Q ...oh, no ... another H. That's not it."
The team gave a collective huff of disappointment.
"So, how are we doing? Any luck with the Prime Factorial Ciphers?" asked Ripred.
"No luck," said Daedalus. "Heronian thought to try a two-letter inversion, but that just failed as well."
"It is so maddening. There must be some key. Some simple key. Otherwise, the majority of gnawers could not keep it in their heads," said Heronian. "Something they could not forget."
"How's our new player doing?" asked Ripred, curling his tail around Lizzie's shoulders. For the first time, the mood lightened. "Only once, must you show her, only once," said Min approvingly.
"She thinks in unusual ways," said Daedalus, dipping his nose down to touch Lizzie on the head.
"And she does not sing," added Reflex, which made them all laugh.
But despite the praise, Lizzie did not look happy. "I haven't been much help really," said Lizzie. "I haven't broken the code or helped anyone else do it, like the prophecy I read says."
"You read the prophecy?" asked Gregor. He couldn't believe Lizzie was accepting the news of his death so calmly.
"I had Nerissa make her a copy," said Ripred.
Lizzie handed it to Gregor. "Doesn't she have pretty writing?" she said.
Gregor looked at the prophecy. The lines about his death had been rewritten to read:
When the monster's blood is spilled And the warrior's role fulfilled
"Very pretty," said Gregor, glad they knew enough to try to protect her. A fresh cart of food was being rolled into the room. "Okay, you'd better break before you're all useless. Let's clear this mess away. We'll eat. And for the next half hour no one is to utter the words, 'What if we tried ...?'" said Ripred.
Gregor and Lizzie gathered up the lengths of white fabric and piled them into the rat room according to Ripred's instructions so that he could make a more comfortable nest than the one the humans had provided. Food was spread out on the floor, both raw and cooked, and everyone sat down to eat. Ripred, who seemed determined to keep the team's mind off of the code for a while, told funny stories and even had Min laughing, Gregor, who had never seen Ripred try to be likable and charming, was surprised to see he could be both. If you didn't know better, you would think Ripred had a genuine fondness for this oddball crew. But Gregor knew his main objective was getting the code broken. And if the rat thought a few laughs would move him closer to that end, he'd be funny. He'd tell jokes. He'd slip on a banana peel if one were handy.
Gregor ate a huge grilled fish, seven slices of buttered bread, some greens, and most of a cake. Then five minutes later he felt hungry again and finished the cake with a big mug of milk. It had been weeks since he'd had regular meals and he needed to catch up. He looked over at Lizzie, who was picking at some stew. "Eat up, Liz, it's good."
"I know. It is. I am," she said, and took a small spoonful.
"Now I told you everything's arranged with your father, right? He's got round-the clock nurses. He'll be fine," said Ripred.
"I know. I was just... I was thinking about my mom. I know it would upset her to know I was here, but I haven't seen her in months," said Lizzie. Her eyes were bright with tears. "Maybe I could just look at her when she's sleeping."
"That would do no harm," said Heronian.
"And it would ease the child's mind," said Daedalus.
Gregor wasn't so sure about that. His mom's condition might only worry Lizzie more. And if his mom woke up and saw her third kid down here, she'd probably become hysterical, wear herself out, and get even sicker. Still, Lizzie hadn't seen her in ages.
"Just for a minute," said Lizzie.
"Your call," Ripred said to Gregor.
"Thanks," said Gregor. The rat spent ninety-nine point nine percent of the time bossing him around. But here, when he actually could use a little advice, hey, it was suddenly all up to Gregor. "Okay, Liz, I'll walk you down, and if she's asleep, you can go in. If you eat your stew."
Lizzie wolfed down the stew while Gregor prepared himself for what lay ahead. His mom had been healthy and strong when she'd left the Underland. Now she was bedridden, way too thin, and had scars from the plague. He was pretty sure he could count on another panic attack from his sister.
The palace was a new and, therefore, potentially frightening place to Lizzie. She held tightly to Gregor's hand as he guided her down the many flights of stairs to the hospital level. It didn't help that things were so grim now, the people so stressed and sad, the air so heavy with medicines and disinfectants and the smoke from the extra torches that burned everywhere these days.
Gregor had Lizzie wait at the end of the hospital corridor that led to his mom's room. He was half hoping she was awake and he could just say a quick hello and take Lizzie back upstairs. Maybe he could even try and wake her, although that didn't seem quite fair. But when he reached his mom's room, he encountered an entirely different problem. Eight badly wounded mice lay on mats on the floor and his mom was nowhere to be seen.
"They must have moved her to a smaller room," was his first thought, and then it hit him. "Oh, no," he said. "I want to see a doctor!" he shouted, running into the hall. "I need a doctor here!"
He shot down the corridor past Lizzie, ignoring her questions, and grabbed the first doctor he met by the shoulders. She was a small woman with dark rings of fatigue under her eyes. "Where is she? Where's my mother?"
"Oh, the Overlander!" said the woman.
Gregor could see alarm in her eyes. Then he realized he had pinned her up against the wall. But he didn't let go. "Where is she?"
"Gregor! Gregor, release her! She had no hand in it!" Howard appeared from somewhere and pulled him off of the doctor.
"In what?" demanded Gregor.
"Solovet sent a team of guards in without warning. They had orders to take your mother to the Fount," said Howard. "There was nothing we could do."
"But why? Why? I'm staying. She knows I'm staying!" said Gregor.
"It can only be further insurance," said Howard. "You are but a short flight from your home."
A short flight? A million miles was more like it. Across the universe to the end of time and back again. Gregor didn't feel he could possibly be any farther from his home.
"I'm going after her," said Gregor. "I'm getting Ares and I'm — man!" He just remembered Ares had been sent on the airlift. "Where can I get another bat?"
"You cannot. You must know that," said Howard. "Gregor, the Fount may be safer for her at any rate. It is not under attack, the hospital not so crowded." Lizzie was tugging at his hand. "What did they do with her? Where is she?"
Gregor pulled her in for a hug. "It's okay. It's okay," he said, forcing himself to be calm for her sake. "They just moved her to another hospital."
"Up to the Fount. That is my home.... Is this Lizzie?" asked Howard.
"I was — going to — see her," said Lizzie.
"Here comes that panic attack," thought Gregor.
"My mother lives at the Fount. She works in the hospital, as I do. I am sure she will take very good care of her," said Howard.
"I'm going to go talk to Solovet," said Gregor. "Where is she?"
"I believe she is overseeing the battlefield," said Howard.
"You go back to the code room, okay, Liz?" said Gregor.
"I don't — know the way!" said Lizzie.
"I could take you," said Howard gently. He was the oldest of five kids. Gregor remembered how great he was with Boots and Hazard.
"Please. Take her back. And I'll go see about Mom," said Gregor.
Getting to the battlefield was no easy matter. Even finding a way out of the palace took some doing. Usually he came and went on a bat. The lowest doors and windows were two hundred feet in the air. The guards at the platform that lowered to the ground flatly refused to give him a ride. Finally he found an unsuspecting young bat in High Hall who agreed to carry him to the arena for "training." Going to the arena would at least get Gregor outside of the palace, but it was in the opposite direction he needed to go. So, once the bat had flown off, he ran back across the city. The streets were congested with wagons pulling food and supplies to the palace. He dodged people and questions and kept moving past the palace until he reached the northernmost part of the wall that surrounded the city.
He was in luck. A door had been opened to allow the farmers to bring in the harvested crops. At least he did not have to find some way over the wall. But he knew the guards would recognize him — as an Overlander and, therefore, as the warrior — and they'd have strict orders to keep him in the city. Rather than risk being turned back and reported, he stowed away behind some baskets in a wagon heading back out to the fields. This would at least get him partway to the battlefield.
As the wagon rolled away from the city, he worked out what he would say to Solovet. He would tell her, in no uncertain terms, that either she would bring his mother back or he would not fight for her. Period. He knew he could end up in the dungeon. But eventually she would need him to fight the Bane. And she'd want him better trained and willing to follow orders. Wouldn't she? Or would she just see the whole thing. as another challenge to her authority and make an example of him? Maybe he'd get better results if he approached it from another angle and told her Lizzie couldn't work without her mom nearby.
The wagon came to a stop several miles from the city. The fields were well lit with a system of gaslights, so he still had to take care not to be seen. Gregor slipped out the back and found himself waist deep in some kind of wheatlike plants. He ducked down and continued to move through the field until it simply ran out. The Underlanders were harvesting their way toward the city. He had reached the end of the crops and nothing but stubble lay between him and the wall from which the war was being waged. He decided to run for it. Who was going to stop him out here, anyway? A couple of farmers?
Gregor did hear some shouts as he sprinted across the barren fields, but no one was actively pursuing him. He guessed they figured he'd be stopped by the wall and, since he didn't have a flier, pretty much stuck there. That was okay. If he made it to the wall he'd make it to Solovet. He did see a bat fly over him, probably to report his presence, and for a moment he was distracted watching it, wondering if guards would be sent to carry him back.
That's when he tripped. He thought he had just caught his foot on some stubble, but when his hands hit the ground he could see the thin layer of earth cracking beneath him and the rock floor giving way under that. "It's another earthquake!" he thought.
But as the three-foot claw broke through the field and slammed within inches of his arm, he knew this was no earthquake.