Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor inched forward on his stomach so his head hung over Ares's shoulder. Screams filled the air as the rats swarmed through the streets of the city, killing any humans they could find. The majority of the population had already reached the safety of the palace. But there were still hundreds of people en route, on foot, and in carts, as the army of rats swept down upon them. Some drew swords, but they were not prepared to defend themselves against such a vicious assault, and Gregor watched several people literally ripped apart.
"My fault. I didn't finish him off," said Gregor. He struggled to raise himself.
"It was not possible," Ares said. "Lie still!"
The Regalian army's priority changed from fighting to rescuing, as they attempted to carry the victims to safety. Ares dove down and plucked a pair of children from a wagon just as their mother had her throat torn open. He brought them to the balcony of the High Hall and set them gently down. They huddled together shaking and weeping, until someone came and took them inside. The entire hall was filled with bats delivering people and then jetting off again.
"Gregor, I must leave you," said Ares. "There are others I can save."
"Yes. Go. I'm okay," Gregor said, sliding off of Ares and onto his hands and knees. His bat hesitated. "Go. I'll get help."
But as Ares flew off, Gregor knew help would be hard to come by. The High Hall was in turmoil. The air was full of beating wings and the floor was quickly filling with bleeding humans. Gregor was in too much pain to call out over the din or even signal his distress. And there were so many people in dire need of attention. The best he could do was drag himself over to the side of the balcony and prop himself up against a large stone urn. In this way, he could at least avoid being trampled.
That was it. That was all he had. Something was really wrong. The pain in his back was excruciating. Maybe the Bane had killed him with that tail move, damaged one of his vital organs or something, and he was just waiting to die. It was the lower ribs on the left half of his back. The side he was weak at defending. What was on your left side, anyway? The only thing he could think of was his heart, but the injury seemed down too far for that.
Gregor tried to breathe as shallowly as possible. Any movement of his ribs made it worse. He wanted to moan, but even that seemed too difficult. There was plenty of moaning around him, anyway. Moaning and crying and screaming. He wished everybody would be quiet, just for a moment. Then maybe he wouldn't hurt so badly. If he could just have a moment of peace.
The longer he sat there the more convinced Gregor was that Sandwich's prophecy — at least the part about him and the Bane — was being fulfilled.
When the monster's blood is spilled
When the warrior has been killed
He was dying. And probably the Bane was, too. Gregor had seen the blood gushing out of his tail. Even a creature as big as the Bane had only so much blood. Did the rats have a way of stopping it? Or, like Gregor, was the big, white rat curled up somewhere, watching the final seconds of his life run out?
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick . ...
Gregor could just see over the edge of the low wall that rimmed the balcony. The rats were everywhere now. Climbing over the rooftops, shredding the contents of the homes, devouring the bodies of the dead. The human army had regrouped and was back on the attack, but it was nearly impossible to target the rats in Regalia. There were too many doors and windows for them to duck into to hide, to leap out of unexpectedly. With the ornate carvings on every building, there was no structure they couldn't scale, except the palace.
Far across the city somewhere was the arena filled with the nibbler refugees. Gregor vaguely wondered how they were making out. There were giant stone doors that could be closed between the city and the arena, but what about the tunnels that led into the arena from the other side? There was no way to know.
Things slowly quieted down. The light dimmed somewhat. "It's evening," thought Gregor through a haze of pain. "Soon it will be night." Then he remembered there was no day or night down here. Maybe he was losing his sight. Things did look kind of fuzzy. Yes, he was pretty sure he couldn't see right, and that was probably the first sign that he was about to —
"Gregor!" He heard the alarm in Howard's voice. Then it took on a more soothing tone. "Gregor, it is Howard. Can you understand me?" Howard's face swam into focus. "You are injured? What is wrong?"
"Back." Gregor's lips moved to form the word, but no sound came out. Howard must have been used to reading lips, though, because his hands slid around Gregor's body. His fingers found the indentation at once. As they probed his ribs, electric flashes of light filled Gregor's eyes. "No!" This time he was audible.
"Gregor, I know this must hurt you very much, but I think I can help. You must sit up," Howard said.
The idea was almost comical. Gregor couldn't move, let alone sit up.
"Doctor! The Overlander has need of a doctor!" Howard called.
A woman hurried up, felt Gregor's injury, and then they were moving him out from the urn. Now he could moan all right, at least he was making some dreadful sound. He wanted to beg them to stop, to just go away and leave him alone, but that wasn't happening. The woman stood behind him, holding him so that he sat upright by supporting him under his arms. It forced his back to straighten out. She was giving some kind of instructions. Howard knelt in front of him, gripped his hands, and squeezed them hard. "Breathe, Gregor. Take very deep breaths."
"No way!" thought Gregor, whose strategy was breathing as little as possible. "No way!" And he ignored the suggestion.
"Breathe, Gregor! Do it!" shouted Howard. "Inhale!"
Clearly Howard was not going away. Clearly they were going to keep torturing him until he did what they wanted. So Gregor forced himself to take a deep breath and nearly blacked out. Something that smelled sharp and tangy was under his nose. Gregor could feel his eyes and nasal passages stinging.
"Breathe!" he heard Howard command. And so it went on. Again and again. Taking breaths, being brought back to consciousness, only to be forced to try again. Finally when he really thought he couldn't bear it for one more instant, he took a gigantic breath, and suddenly the ribs on his left side popped back into place. The air rushed out of his body in a cry of relief. He could fill his lungs; he could speak again. His back ached, but the blinding pain had lifted.
"Better?" Howard asked, leaning back on his heels.
"Yeah," said Gregor, giving a little laugh. "Yeah."
They eased him out of his armor and cut off his shirt, which was too bloody and torn to be saved anyway. Howard found the new photograph of Gregor and Luxa and slipped it in Gregor's back pants pocket without comment. The doctor swiftly examined the rest of him, prodding him here and there. Compared to what he'd just been through, it was like being tick-led. "I can find no immediate sign of internal damage," said the doctor. "Give him pain medicine, wrap the ribs, and get him to a bed." Then she was gone before Gregor could thank her.
Howard gave him a dose of medicine that was designed to kill pain but not make him sleep. Then he began to wrap Gregor's ribs in strips of spider silk.
"Where's Ares?" Gregor asked as Howard wound the bandage around him.
"I believe he is still searching for those in need of rescue," said Howard. "Although I caught a glimpse of his wing. No one can believe he is flying on it."
"He's stubborn," said Gregor.
"Like you. I hear you severed the Bane's tail after you were hit," said Howard.
"Oh, yeah," said Gregor. It was true. He had made that last cut even after his ribs had been knocked out of whack. "I guess I had a lot of adrenaline pumping through me. What else is going on?"
"Well, we have found you now. Many stories of your fate have been circulating. The fliers have been evacuating the city. Most of the humans are thought to be retrieved or dead by now. The nibblers are barricaded in the arena, but don't be surprised if they decide to airlift them back to the palace. The arena is difficult to defend," said Howard. "The palace is our only remaining stronghold."
"What about the diggers?" asked Gregor.
"No sign of them," said Howard.
"But Vikus said there were more," Gregor said.
"It is likely. We do not know for sure. But tunneling into the palace will take far more effort than reaching our crops. Sandwich had it built on a particularly deep shelf of stone," said Howard.
"But they could still do it," Gregor said.
"If that is their aim, they will do it," said Howard, tying off his bandage. "There. Do you think you can walk now?"
Howard helped him to his feet. Gregor felt sore but it was his eyes that were bothering him. "I still can't see right."
"It is not your eyes. Look out at Regalia," said Howard.
Gregor stared out into the city and realized the problem. Of the thousands of torches that usually kept it aglow, only a handful remained. Once, shortly after he had arrived in the Underland, Gregor had asked Vikus why the humans didn't throw the city into darkness when there was to be an attack. The old man had said, "We need our eyes to fight, they do not." How would the humans fight now?
They watched in silence as, one by one, the remaining lights went out. The last torch arced like a shooting star from the top of a tall building before it was snuffed out on the ground.
Just as the city fell into total darkness, the scratching began.