Gregor and the Code of Claw
Too much. Too much to deal with. Too many things to make sense of. When Gregor arose the next morning, his mind was in such a fog he couldn't even decide what to have for breakfast. Boots just piled things onto his plate and he ate them, not even tasting the food.
Ripred ordered the room cleared except for the code team. Temp took Boots to the nursery, where they seemed to have a regular job. Aurora and Nike went to assist Hazard with reuniting the nibbler families. Ares headed off to check if he was still needed for the airlift. Gregor and Luxa were lingering in the hall when Ripred brushed by. "You two. Meet me at the city wall in a half hour. You may as well see what we're up against." When he was gone, Luxa looked at Gregor. "Why do you suppose he gave us a half hour?"
"I don't know," said Gregor. Then he thought about the conversation he had overheard the night before. About how Ripred had lost everyone he loved with "No chance to even say good-bye." Was the half hour a gift so that Gregor and Luxa would have that chance? If it was, Gregor didn't want to waste it. He wanted to be alone with her, to really talk to her. But where could they go? The whole palace was overflowing with people. Then he had an inspiration. The museum! Maybe, just maybe, it had been put off-limits. "Come on, I want to show you something."
She looked at him quizzically but didn't object when he took her hand and led her through the halls. They had to go single file for most of it—the place was so packed—but they never lost hold of each other. He was right. Not only was the museum restricted but the entire hallway to it had been cordoned off. They stepped over the rope and slipped into the room.
Once inside, Gregor wasn't sure what to do.
"What did you wish to show me?" asked Luxa.
He hadn't really had anything in mind to show her. He had just wanted to go somewhere where they could have some privacy. Where they could talk without everyone hearing every word they said. But now that they were in the museum, that seemed like an embarrassing thing to say. "Uh, it was just..." Gregor's eyes landed on the stack of photos from Hazard's birthday party. "These pictures," he said. "I thought you might like to see them."
He piled some coats and an old piece of canvas on the floor and they sat, leaning back against the shelves, looking through the pictures. That is, Luxa looked at the pictures. Gregor mostly looked at her. Watching the different emotions slide over her face. Pleasure at how festive the arena looked, all decorated for the party. Laughter at a photo of Boots in her princess costume feeding Temp a bite of cake. Sorrow at the shot of Hazard with his arms wrapped tightly around Thalia, the little bat who had died when the volcano erupted in the Fir elands.
"I think this will help Hazard," said Luxa. "He fears that he will forget the faces of those he loved. His mother's image is already hard for him to recall. He thinks he can remember Hamnet, because he looked so much like me, and Frill is still clear."
"Yeah, it'd be hard to forget Frill," said Gregor, as the image of the striking giant lizard came clearly to his mind.
"But he worries he will lose Thalia," said Luxa. "May I give this to him?"
"Of course," said Gregor. "Take some for both of you."
Luxa went through the photos, selecting a stack, but then she frowned. "There are no others of us together. We should each have one."
She was right. He had given her the photo of them dancing and now wished he had another copy. Something to carry in his pocket until...well, until it was beyond mattering. "Maybe there's still some film in the camera," he said. There was. And since it was an instant camera, they could have the pictures right away. So he held the camera in front of them and they burned through the rest of the roll. For a few minutes, the world outside the museum seemed to go away, and they were just two twelve-year-olds goofing around like they were in a photo booth, making faces, laughing. But when Gregor said, "Okay, last picture," something happened. They moved closer together, her temple resting against his cheek, and their expressions lost their silliness. "Last picture," thought Gregor, as the image slowly developed. "Last picture ever." They had both managed to smile, but their expressions were tinged with sadness as well. This is who they really were. Not two carefree kids whose next big decision would be whether to get ice cream or see a movie, but two people who knew a war lay outside the door, waiting to tear them apart. "I'll take this one," said Gregor. "You keep the one of us dancing." When the war ended, that's what he wanted her to remember, that one time they had been that happy.
"I think our half hour must be nearly run out," said Luxa in a low voice.
"Yeah," said Gregor. Ripred would be waiting for them on the wall. "Luxa, if I don't get a chance to see you again like this ... it's just you should know ... that I..." It wasn't just a matter of being afraid to say the words anymore, it was a matter of how painful they were. Knowing there was no future in them. He couldn't continue.
"I know," said Luxa. "So do I."
What happened next would probably have taken months, even years to work up to if time hadn't been so short, if the war had not sped things up and given them a sense that whatever living they were to do must be done now or not at all.
Their faces were so close together that he barely had to turn his head when they kissed. Something not unlike the rager sensation, but warmer, more tingly, traveled through his body. Their lips parted and he could see her face registering the feeling as well.
There was a scuffling in the hall and Miravet came in with her arms full of his armor. "There you are. I have been hunting for you all over the palace. I have orders to prepare you for battle," said the old woman. She waved Gregor to his feet and began to dress him at once. "Luxa, it would do you no harm to be fitted as well."
"Solovet doesn't want her to fight," said Gregor.
"It will matter very little what Solovet wants if those diggers claw their way into the palace. Every man, woman, and child of us will be fighting," said Miravet. "Better she be suited up beforehand."
"Yes. I must go to the wall first," said Luxa.
"Then you come see me, my dear," Miravet said firmly, but she reached out and patted Luxa's cheek. How different from Solovet, who never seemed to show Luxa any real affection. When he was dressed in his black armor, Gregor and Luxa made their way to the High Hall. Ares was waiting for them, and it was only a brief flight to the wall of the city. Gregor suspected they were a little late, but Ripred didn't make an issue of it. He was too busy surveying the action below him with Solovet.
"Do you want us to go in now?" Gregor asked.
"Not yet, Gregor. But stay close at hand," said Solovet. She caught sight of Luxa. "You are not to be here now. I need you in the war room."
"Ripred ordered me out," said Luxa.
"Ripred was wrong and he sees that now," the rat said.
"I would prefer to stay," insisted Luxa.
"No. Vikus is about to begin negotiations for an alliance with the spinners and the crawlers. We both think your presence would be valuable. Ajax will take you," said Solovet.
"All right, then," said Luxa. She gave Gregor one last look as the bat flew off, and he seemed unable to tear his eyes from her retreating form.
Ripred's tail jabbed him in the side, bringing him back to attention. "Solovet pointed out that she is rather a distraction to a certain member of our army," he said. "And who needs that?"
Gregor didn't say anything. Secretly, he was glad that they'd sent her back. She was a distraction. Even now he was wondering what she was doing. He struggled to focus on the scene before him.
The battle was in progress. It was similar to the one a few days ago, in that the rats seemed to be positioned in some sort of formation on the field below. But in that earlier encounter, they had never come within twenty yards of the command center. Now they were fighting right up to the base of the city wall. It was about thirty feet tall, too high for a rat to leap onto. But some were attempting to climb it. The surface was covered in big slabs of polished stone, but between the slabs was a network of thin seams. Using these, the more agile rats were able to get a foothold.
Ripred's head hung over the side of the wall as he watched one particularly game rat make it about half-way up before a human on a bat swept up and ran it through with a sword. The rat fell to the ground, having climbed its last wall, but this didn't satisfy Ripred. "Now that she has discovered that route, they will all know it can be used." As if to prove his point, a second rat scurried directly up the wall using the same path as the first. It got a few yards higher before a soldier took it out.
"Yes, it is time, then," said Solovet as she gave a signal.
"Time for what?" Gregor asked Ares.
"Time to pour," said Ares grimly.
Then Gregor remembered the children's song that had really been a gruesome prophecy. They had discovered its true nature only a few weeks ago in the Firelands. It had foretold the rats' attempt to completely wipe out the mice. And then it had this stanza:
now the guests are at our door
Greet them as we have before.
Some will slice and some will pour.
Father, mother, sister, brother,
Off they go, I do not know
If we will see another.
For centuries the Underlanders had thought the words were just harmless nonsense and somehow referred to a tea party where cake was sliced and tea was poured. Now everyone knew better. The rats were the "guests" at the door. They were already being sliced open with swords. And so, as Ares said, it was time to pour.
The cauldrons must have been ready to go at a moment's notice. They were made of thick, black iron and had arched metal handles like baskets. Bats flew them up onto the wall, and teams of humans, wearing protective gloves and goggles, tipped them forward, releasing gallons of boiling oil onto the rats below. Horrible shrieks filled the air and the entire enemy line fell back, leaving a half-dozen scalded rats writhing at the base of the wall.
"Shall we torch them?" a soldier asked Solovet.
"Just two, I think," she replied. "I do not want the smoke to interfere with our sight lines."
Burning torches were immediately dropped on the two least fortunate rats, and they became fireballs. They ran in frantic circles then and rolled to put the flames out, but it was useless. Their coats were already soaked in oil. The smell of burnt fur, then burnt flesh, filled the air. Then the rats fell unconscious, probably from shock. But their bodies still lay burning at the foot of the wall.
It was one of the worst things Gregor had witnessed in the Underland. Not as bad as the mice being suffocated in the pit, or maybe that terrifying moment when mites had eaten Howard's bat, Pandora, down to a skeleton in seconds. But this was right up there. He swallowed hard to keep his breakfast down and looked around at the others.
Ripred's face was expressionless. All he said was, "That should discourage them for a while."
Solovet made a sound of agreement but her attention was back on the battle. There was no sense of either triumph or revulsion along the wall in general. The Regalians had seen it a hundred times. Gregor had the feeling they all viewed the act as unpleasant but necessary. The rats had fallen back from the wall. It had had the desired effect.
Gregor clenched his hands on his weapons' hilts to steady their shaking. Maybe he was just green. Maybe after a while this was everyday stuff. Maybe all was fair in love and war. He thought back to the diggers and how Sandwich had poisoned them and stolen their land. That wasn't fair. Even in war there should be lines you didn't cross. And for Gregor, pouring boiling oil on your enemy and setting them on fire fell into that category. He knew they had burned up rats in the Firelands, but it had felt like a desperate act to save themselves and the mice, not a cold and calculated strategy. Could it be that he was the only one who found what they had just done to those rats repellent?
It turned out he wasn't. There was someone else present on whom the event had had a significant effect. Someone else who was not hardened yet. Someone else who still found war new. Gregor didn't know where he had been lurking, perhaps in a nearby tunnel, but the torching of the rats brought him bounding into the thick of the battle. He reared back on his haunches and gave an earsplitting roar. The Bane.
"Ah, so there's my little charge at last," said Ripred.
There were audible gasps even from the veterans on the wall. The Bane had grown several feet since Gregor had last seen him up close a few months ago. He had to be eleven or twelve feet long by now and he dwarfed the largest rats on the field. His iridescent white coat gleamed in the torchlight, throwing off bits of pink and blue.
"Pearlpelt," thought Gregor. Less than a year ago he had been a sweet baby rat shivering in his arms. Of course, everyone had been a baby once. Not everyone grew up and tried to wipe out another species, no matter how difficult their lot had been. Looking at the monstrous creature, Gregor couldn't help thinking about how he had been supposed to kill the Bane when he had first discovered him. Back in the rat's maze as he nuzzled his mother's dead body. If Gregor had done it, would the mice still. be alive? The rats kept down? The war avoided?
"It would still have been immoral," said Ares in a low voice, as if he had been reading Gregor's mind. "We would have committed the same crime the Bane did when he murdered the mouse pups in the pit."
"The prophecy said he would be evil," said Gregor.
"But did we not decide that sparing his life was the actual fulfillment of the prophecy? That you had made the right choice?" asked Ares.
It was true. Gregor placed himself back in the maze. Even knowing what he knew now, he could not have cut the baby's throat. The Bane had been completely innocent then.
And as for fulfilling the prophecies... now that Gregor knew what Sandwich had done to the diggers,-he had to wonder what sort of guidance the man had been giving him all along. He was increasingly conflicted about the prophecies as time went on.
"That's what we decided," Gregor said. There wasn't time to get into it now.
He could see a wide circle opening up around the Bane. Even the other rats scattered to avoid the erratic paws and tail.
"He is even larger than I was led to believe," said Solovet.
"I hear he's been gorging himself on dead nibblers in the Firelands. Feed him and he will grow," said Ripred.
"Can he fight?" Ares asked.
"They say he can. But we haven't seen much of him. The rats have been keeping him somewhat under wraps," Ripred said.
"He can't beat you," said Gregor. He had seen the Bane attack Ripred and come out on the bad end of it.
"Maybe, maybe not. That was a couple hundred pounds ago. Surely they've trained him since then. And there's his sheer mass to consider. And, of course, I couldn't get near him under the circumstances, unless I fought through every rat on the field," said Ripred. "So the question isn't if he can beat me, it's if he can beat you." They were all staring at Gregor now. "Is it time to find out?" he asked. It was.
As Gregor adjusted his armor, Ripred emitted a stream of advice on fighting a creature with a significant size advantage. The Bane would clearly best him in any strength move. Gregor must rely on speed and agility if he was to stand a chance. Remember, too, that the Bane would have a much longer reach than the rats he had previously fought, so they must allow for extra time to move toward and away from their target. And there were some other things, but Gregor stopped hearing them because he was so focused on the Bane.
A few particularly courageous teams were taking dives at him, but he was swatting them out of the air like flies. As Gregor mounted Ares's back, he saw the Bane's claws connect with a bat's wing and shred it like tissue paper. The bat and its rider plummeted straight down and were mobbed by a pack of smaller rats.
"Ares," Gregor began.
"I know. I will watch my wings," said Ares.
Most of the human army was airborne now, but almost no one was fighting. The Bane's arrival seemed to have thrown everyone into confusion. The rats were jubilant, their opponents daunted. And everyone was waiting for Gregor to fly out and take on the Bane.
Then the Bane spotted him. He leaped into a spot directly in the center of the field and waited, tail flicking, ears flattened back against his head, drool dripping off of his fangs. "Warrior. Warrior," he hissed. "Come and get me."
Gregor knew that in a matter of minutes he could be dead. "Ripred?" he asked. "My family?"
"I gave you my word," said the rat.
Gregor squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, calling up the image of the stone knight to give himself strength.
"Okay, then," said Gregor to Ares. "Ready when you are." He could feel Ares's chest rise and fall, as he took one last deep breath, and then they launched into the air. A hush fell over the field as Ares flew out and made a wide circle around the Bane, who crouched, never taking his eyes off of them. Gregor opened himself, inviting his rager side to take over. The Bane's points of weakness began to come to him in a series of quick flashes. Eyes, neck, liver, an artery pulsing beneath the foreleg, the key spot between two ribs that led right to the heart. They were on their second circle, almost directly behind the Bane, when Ares dove. The Bane, who had had his head tilted back to watch them, sprang into the air and twisted around to meet them. Ares veered off to one side but the Bane's front paw swiped after them. In a move they had only just practiced in their last training session, the bat snapped his wings closed and rolled. Gregor swung, sheering off three of the Bane's claws, and then flattened onto Ares's back as he whisked them out of range.
The humans shouted words of encouragement, but the hit had only needled the Bane. He began to track them now, turning to follow their path, making it harder to find an opening. They didn't need one, though, because suddenly the Bane attacked. He snagged the edge of Ares's wing and swung them in toward his teeth. But before he pulled them into his mouth, the Bane had to get them past his nose. Gregor's sword sliced through one nostril, causing the Bane to jerk his head back and roar. Ares took that opportunity to rip his wing free and the fight began in earnest. It was hard to break down the moments, they came so thick and fast. They stayed almost entirely in the Bane's range, with Ares twisting and diving and flipping as Gregor took on the claws and fangs. Forget about power, the Bane was fast. Maybe not quite as fast as Gregor, but pretty close, so Gregor couldn't let down his guard for a second. What seemed to throw the rat the most were assaults on his face, so Ares began to direct them right into his eyes repeatedly. If they got in close enough, Gregor could use the dagger to attack as well as defend, and he had just ripped open a foot-long gash over the Bane's eye when it happened. The rat dropped onto his forelegs and whipped his tail over his head, catching Gregor on the left side of his back. The unexpected blow knocked him off of Ares and sent him headfirst toward the ground. The pain was initially paralyzing. Gregor was unable to inhale, let alone twist into some convenient position for Ares to retrieve him. Ares barely made it under him at all. He could literally hear his bat's claws scrape the ground as his chest slammed onto Ares's neck, forcing the last remaining air out of his lungs. Fortunately, the Bane was taking a moment to recover from his last wound. Blood was pouring down over his face, staining the pure-white fur crimson. With both his nose and eye damaged, the Bane was becoming disoriented.
Something bad had happened to Gregor's back. He could tell when he placed his hand where the last blow had landed. The area wasn't covered by metal armor but by a thick leather panel. When Gregor pressed on it, he had difficulty locating his two lower ribs. No, they were there, but wedged a couple of inches too far into his body. No wonder he couldn't get any oxygen. But he was just going to have to make do without it. "Tail," Gregor gasped in Ares's ear. It was all he could get out but Ares understood. The bat dove straight down over the Bane's head. As the tail came reflexively up in defense, Gregor mustered every ounce of strength he could and swung. His blow cut the tail cleanly in two, leaving just a two-foot stump behind. A fountain of blood spurted from the wound, soaking Gregor as he collapsed on Ares's neck.
The Bane could not immediately register his loss. He circled around to find his tail again and again and finally, when he saw the severed part lying on the ground, pawed at it for a full thirty seconds as if he could bring it back to life. Seeing he could not, the Bane tilted back his head and gave a wail unlike any sound Gregor had ever heard a rat make.
That's when Gregor realized what he had done. He had wanted to take out the tail because it was such a powerful weapon. But it was so much more than that to the Bane. Gregor flashed back to the time he had watched the rat nearly have a nervous breakdown under Regalia. To calm himself, the Bane had first sucked, then gnawed on his tail until it was a bloody mess. It was his comfort, his security blanket, the thing he reached for when he could not cope. And, man, was he ever not coping well without it!
The Bane went completely insane, whirling around in a circle, snapping at anything in his path. Then he caught sight of Ares, who had turned and was heading for Regalia as fast as his damaged wing would allow. It made sense, since Gregor was clearly unable to continue fighting. But rather than retreat as well, the Bane bolted after them. The rat ran at a breakneck pace toward the wall and, with one astonishing leap, landed on the top. His huge body knocked a dozen or so humans to the ground as he came in. The others vaulted onto bats and fled, as the Bane ran back and forth along the wall, screaming unintelligible words.
Ares, who had cleared the wall only seconds before his pursuer, turned back to face the scene. As the Bane continued his rant, paws and noses began to poke up over the edge of the wall. In less than a minute, the front line of the army had joined the Bane, and more heads were appearing.
A beautiful silvery-coated rat climbed right up onto the Bane's back. Gregor knew her. Twirltongue. The rat that was so persuasive she had almost convinced him to betray Ripred. He'd always suspected she had great power over the Bane. Anyone could see he was a complete mess, that he could never organize something like the mass murder of the mice, or even this war, on his own. But seeing Twirltongue riding the Bane's back, talking in his ear, confirmed Gregor's worst fears. If the Bane couldn't think coherently, Twirl-tongue would do it for him.
"Take the city! Leave no one alive!" bellowed the Bane.
And on his command, the rats poured into Regalia.