Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor jerked his arm back and instinctively rolled away from the claw. He was on his back, about to spring up, when the earth at his feet burst open and a massive paw shot into the air. He yanked his legs in and scuttled backward like a crab, as the paw, with its five ivory-white claws, descended, leaving a deep furrow in the ground.
For a second, it crossed Gregor's mind that the thing was attached to the Bane. That the white rat had grown so disproportionately large that it now had these deadly, shovel-like paws. But this was no rat paw. Even the Bane couldn't grow claws a yard long. So what was it?
As Gregor twisted over onto his feet, hoping to make a run for it, the area before him erupted in a fountain of dirt. He caught just a glimpse of a bizarre, pink flower about the size of a manhole cover before it was on his face. "It's one of those killer plants! Like in the jungle!" he thought. The fleshy tentacles brushing over his lips and eyes made his skin crawl. "Eugh!" he cried as he jumped up and stumbled back. His hands gripped the hilts of his weapons, but he stopped just before he drew them. He was not under attack.
For the first time he got a good look at the creatures coming out of the ground. They definitely weren't plants. Or rats, either, although he was pretty sure they came from the rodent family. They had large bodies covered with dark, bristly fur and long, powerful tails. Each had four paws equipped with five killer claws. The back paws were noticeably smaller and weaker looking than the front ones, though. Coming out of the place where one would expect a nose was a large rose-colored blossom rimmed with waving tentacles.
Strange as they were, the animals seemed somehow familiar. But why? And then Gregor remembered.
It had been a warm summer day when he was about seven. His family was down at the family farm in Virginia. Gregor's dad had been teaching him how to play Ping-Pong in the basement. He'd been chasing down a ball that had landed under an old armchair, and when he'd stood up, there it was. Trapped in the window well where it must have fallen. Unhappily crawling along the gravel. A star-nosed mole. Of course you could measure its weight in ounces instead of hundreds of pounds, but otherwise it was remarkably like the creatures surrounding Gregor now. He had loved the mole, so they had watched it for a while. His dad had explained how it usually stayed underground, how those front feet were amazing at digging and, even though it couldn't see well, that bizarre nose was so sensitive to touch it could basically feel what something was. They had finally gotten a shovel from the shed, gently scooped it out, and set it free. But Gregor had been left with a warm feeling about the funny little creature.
"Wow, check it out," said Gregor, and gave a laugh. "I think I met a friend of yours back home."
But what were moles doing in the Underland? No one had ever mentioned them to him before. Surely he would have heard of them when the plague was running rampant because they were mammals — they would have been affected along with the rest of the warmbloods. Could it be that no one knew they existed down here? That they'd been living far deeper in the earth than the rest of the Underlanders and had only just surfaced? He wanted to communicate with them, but they just seemed to make a quiet wheezing sound. Did they know English?
Four moles had tunneled out into the field by this point. They were sort of snuffling around him, touching his sneakers and his body with their tentacles. They seemed to be trying to figure him out. Had they ever even met a human? Certainly not an Overlander. That was a big distinction down here. Everybody he met knew he was not from Regalia. There was his skin for one thing, and his smell for another.
Gregor opened his hands and held them out to the moles. As their noses gently caressed him he felt a stab of concern. It didn't matter if they were harmless or if they had dug into this field by accident. They were tunneling in behind the humans' line of defense. If Solovet knew they were here, she'd probably treat them harshly. Gregor didn't like to think how harshly. He knew he had to do something fast.
"Hey!" he said. "Hey, you moles! You've got to get out of here!" He began to gesture to the tunnel openings. "Go on now! Shoo! Go on back to wherever you came from!"
Gregor had the moles' attention now. They had stopped nosing around him and had their heads directed toward him. But none of them were leaving. Gregor spoke more urgently. "Listen, man, you got to go. You understand what I'm saying? There's a war on. They won't want you here." He attempted to push the nearest one toward a hole. It was like trying to move a bus.
While they didn't leave, the moles were beginning to stir in an agitated fashion. Gregor had the feeling that they did understand at least part of what he was saying.
A scout on a bat flew overhead close enough for Gregor to see the look of shock on her face. The bat made a beeline for the wall where Solovet was overseeing the battle. Gregor knew it was just a matter of minutes before soldiers would be diving down at these poor animals.
"Get out!" he shouted at the moles. "Get out before you get hurt! They don't want you here! This land belongs to the humans! The humans!"
Those last words were barely out of his mouth when the moles went nuts. The wheezing sounds they were making became loud and angry and they began to snarl at him.
"What? What did I say?" said Gregor, whipping out his blades. He did not want to fight with the moles — he had been trying to protect them! — but it didn't look like he was going to have any choice.
Vikus's words from the prophecy room ran through his head. "Remember that even in war there is a time for restraint. A time to hold back your sword." This seemed to be one of those times. Gregor didn't know what had caused the moles to attack, but he was sure there was some kind of misunderstanding. He didn't want to kill them. He just wanted them to leave. He made every effort to keep them at bay without wounding them.
The moles had transformed from mild and confused creatures into rabid beasts. They could move a lot faster than Gregor would have guessed. Immediately he was encircled and had to fend off swipes from those fearsome claws from four sides. There was nothing to do but start spinning. He tried to remember about using the echolocation to spot, but it was still too new to depend on. He would have to count on his eyes. So he chose a wagon in the distance, burned its image into his brain, and tried to lock on it for a second each time he rotated around. It was hard, though, because his eyes had plenty of other stuff to pay attention to.
Four moles times ten front claws equaled the equivalent of forty blades coming at him. "These things need their nails trimmed," he thought. But he quickly learned that wasn't going to happen. Whenever he hit one of the claws with the full power of his sword, he met with solid resistance. There was a clang, almost of metal on metal. He could block their attacks, but he could not cut through the claws. "What are those made of?" he actually said aloud. Then he remembered that to reach the field the moles had had to dig through solid rock. Maybe a lot of it. Their claws must be made of very hard material. After that he just concentrated on blocking and hoped that his sword would hold up.
He spun for another minute before he realized this would not be enough. He. couldn't just stay on the defensive; they would wear him out fast and then one of them would slice him in half. On the next round, he managed to clip a few tentacles off one of those pink noses. The mole gave such a wail of pain that Gregor almost stopped to make sure it was all right. That's when a claw caught his left side, ripping open his shirt and cutting through his sword belt. It dropped around his feet and he lost a step kicking it free. Another claw made contact, leaving a deep gash on his left hip. Boy, Solovet had been right about his left side being vulnerable! And the moles had sensed it right away. The pain gave him an extra rush of adrenaline and he forgot about spotting, forgot about the moves Perdita had taught him with the dagger, forgot that he had actually liked the moles, forgot about everything except staying alive.
The pink flowers! The waving tentacles! Those were his targets now. Then the occasional small shiny black eye or soft underside of a lifted paw as he whirled around. For a guy who couldn't dance much, he was pretty amazing. His feet were moving in some intricate pattern of steps that he was sure he could never replicate in a calmer moment. He could smell the blood, the moles', his own, before he saw it. But then it began to fill the air, splattering his face, and somewhere in his brain he knew he wasn't fighting alone anymore. Soldiers on bats had descended, driving their blades into the moles' backs and faces, killing them. Gregor slowed to a shaky standstill in time to see the last one beheaded with a single blow from Solovet's sword. Then she was shouting orders in a voice so furious he could not make sense of what she was saying. He caught words like Overlander...hospital...breach...diggers.
Gregor was dizzy. Sick. Someone hiked him up onto a bat and he cried out. The wound on his left hip was excruciating. In minutes he was back in the hospital, stretched out on an operating table. A bitter taste filled his mouth. Then nothing.
The pain in his hip woke him later. It was not so sharp now, more of a hot throbbing. He opened his eyes groggily. Before they had operated, they must have drugged him with that fast-acting stuff Howard said they reserved for emergency surgery. Vikus's face floated into focus beside his bed. Gregor felt better just knowing the old man was back in Regalia. He was the only one who might be able to shield him from Solovet. Keep him out of the dungeon, anyway.
"Who?" was all Gregor could get out. But Vikus understood him.
"They are known as diggers. We had thought them all to be long dead," said Vikus. "But some must have remained in the Underland, living in secrecy. Those four in the field cannot be the entire population. Others are out there. And they have allied themselves with the Bane."
"Why?" asked Gregor.
"This land, the land upon which Regalia is built, belonged to them many years ago," said Vikus wearily. "When Sandwich arrived, he wanted it. The diggers would not leave. So he began a war."
"He won," said Gregor. Even in his foggy state, he could feel the injustice of it all. It was a nice chunk of real estate, Regalia. Rivers. Springs. Relatively easy to defend. How long had it been the diggers' home before Sandwich had descended from the Overland and laid claim to it?
"He won. First there was battle, and when that threatened to fail, he poisoned the diggers' water supply. This was not a tactic they had any knowledge of. Only a few were thought to have escaped, none to have survived," said Vikus.
"Killers. You," said Gregor. That was the name Hazard had said the other creatures in the Underland used for the humans, but not to their faces. "That's why."
"Yes, that is why we are known as killers," Vikus said. "Why so many still hate and fear us. Why the diggers still want us dead."
"Didn't attack me," Gregor said. "Not at first." Not until he'd said they were on the humans' land.
"They must have realized you are not one of us," said Vikus. "At least, they gave you the benefit of the doubt."
Gregor closed his eyes and let the information swim around inside him. So Sandwich, the founder of Regalia, the eerily accurate visionary who had created this new world far below the surface of the earth, was first and foremost a butcher. And yet, they all still struggled to understand those fancy words he had carved in the prophecy room. How they lived and died by them. The prophecies were held in such reverence that Gregor had never even thought to question whether their author had been a good or bad person. But now he knew. He'd been risking everything under the direction of a man who had set out to slaughter an entire species to get his hands on a good piece of property. And Gregor carried his sword.
"Not good," Gregor said.
"It is horrendous. It is a shame that we have never lived down," said Vikus.
"What now?" asked Gregor.
"Now we pay for it," said Vikus. "For it is only a matter of time before the remaining diggers will tunnel into the palace. And then the Bane will follow."