Gregor and the Code of Claw
Ripred began to pace. "All right. First priority. We split up the code team. If the rats should enter the palace, we can't have you all sitting in one bunch. I want Min, Reflex, and Luxa in the war room. Lizzie, Daedalus, and Heronian stay here. Shred every bit of evidence that we've broken the code. Gregor, Hazard, Boots, and Temp go to the prophecy room. Nerissa is there with a key. Lock yourselves in and don't open it until you've been told to."
"Why? I should be getting on my armor," said Gregor.
"You think you're in any condition for battle? Attack me," Ripred ordered.
Gregor's back screamed as he reached for his weapons. He managed to pull them from the belt but ended up dropping his dagger on the floor.
"You can't fight like that. Even if you could, we'd never waste you in ordinary combat now. We need you to fight the Bane. But don't worry. I don't expect he'll be swimming down the river," said Ripred. "They've got him hidden in a cave more likely, with a team of spinners to keep his tail bandaged."
"I thought the spinners were neutral," Luxa said, eyeing Reflex.
"Neutral meaning they help both sides so when the war ends they've aided the victor," said Ripred. "They're helping you, aren't they? Now move out!"
Gregor retrieved his dagger and took a step toward the door. "No, wait. I want Lizzie with me."
"Really? You want Lizzie in the prophecy room with nothing to do but... read prophecies all day?" said Ripred pointedly.
Gregor knew what he meant. Ripred had taken great care to keep Lizzie from knowing about the real "Prophecy of Time" and what it predicted for Gregor. Everybody had. If she came to the prophecy room, she'd read the truth.
"I'll be okay in here, Gregor. Ripred's right. We have to split up," said Lizzie.
"If danger approaches, I will find a way to fly her to safety," Daedalus said. "I know of a window not far from here."
"All right," said Gregor. Maybe that was better, anyway. Maybe Daedalus could even find a way to fly her home. "How long will this take?"
"No telling. Better grab some blankets and one of those carts," said Ripred, nodding to a group of fresh food carts that had recently been wheeled in.
Lizzie piled a stack of blankets on Temp's back and Boots climbed on to ride. Gregor tried to push a cart, but he ended up having to let Hazard do it.
"I will come see you as soon as I can," said Luxa, giving Gregor's arm a farewell touch.
The group split up, according to Ripred's instructions, and Gregor led the way to the prophecy room. It was very slow going, especially with the cart. Gregor considered abandoning it, but he had no idea what they were in for.
Nerissa was waiting for them. She drew them into the prophecy room, closed the door, and locked it at once. The key disappeared in the pocket of her skirt. She'd made no provisions for eating or sleeping, but there was a stack of new torches by the wall.
"Why did Ripred want us in here?" Gregor asked her.
"It is one of the few rooms in the palace with a door. It will offer some protection," said Nerissa.
"Some," agreed Gregor. But not much. The door was made of thick wood. It would take time, but the rats could eventually claw through it. He estimated that diggers could take it out in less than a minute. At least there would be some warning. He wondered if that mattered much, though. If Gregor didn't heal up pretty quickly, who would defend them? Nerissa had probably never even held a sword. Hazard and Boots were little kids. Temp could fight and would fight if the going got rough. But he'd be no match for rat soldiers.
Gregor decided to put all of his energy into getting better. Howard said he needed to rest, so he would rest. They fashioned the blankets into beds along the walls, and Gregor lay down. If he didn't move, the painkiller Howard had given him made him comfortable enough. He willed himself to ignore what was happening outside the door, and dozed off. Hours passed and then became days. Temp amused Boots and Hazard. The three of them chattered away in Crawler while Gregor ate, took painkillers, and slept. No one came by to give them any word. Occasionally they would hear footsteps running down the hallway and voices shouting indistinct words. But nothing else. As Gregor's back improved, he became more and more anxious about what was transpiring in the palace. Had the rats attacked? Were the humans prepared? Why had no one updated them? He suggested that they open the door and just call out for information, but Nerissa adamantly refused.
"This is not your battle, Gregor," she said. "This is your time to wait."
Waiting, it turned out, was a lot tougher on Gregor than fighting. Nerissa tried to distract him by showing him different prophecies, telling him their histories. He learned a lot about Regalia's past, but not much about its present. "Come on, Nerissa, what's one little peek going to hurt?" he begged.
"Look at this poem, Gregor," said Nerissa. "It is by far my favorite. When all seems lost, I comfort myself with its words."
Gregor sighed and turned his eyes to a short poem on the wall in the corner where Nerissa usually curled up.
On soft feet, by none detected,
Dealing death, by most rejected,
Killed by claw, since resurrected,
Marked by X, two lines connected.
Finally, they intersected, two lines met, one unexpected.
"That comforts you? Why?" asked Gregor. To him it was just more junk from Sandwich, whom he now had a very low opinion of.
"Read you the title?" asked Nerissa.
Gregor noticed the title for the first time. Above the poem were written the words:
"Perfect. The Peacemaker," thought Gregor. What did Sandwich, the digger killer, know about making peace? "So you think a peacemaker's coming? When?" asked Gregor.
"No one knows. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps in a thousand years. But the peacemaker will come. Just as the warrior did," said Nerissa.
Something tugged at the back of Gregor's brain. The peacemaker. He'd heard it before. When? It came to him. A long time ago, when he had just arrived in Regalia for the second time, he'd been walking around the palace at night and overheard Solovet and Vikus arguing over whether or not he was to be trained. Solovet had wanted him armed immediately of course. "And the prophecy calls Gregor 'the warrior,' after all. Not the 'peacemaker,'" she had said.
"Well, it's not me, Nerissa. And I won't be around when whoever it is shows up. But I hope they do," said Gregor. "Now can we open that door?"
Nerissa shook her head. He couldn't wrestle the key away from her. Well, he probably could but he didn't want to. Maybe when Nerissa fell asleep he could slip the key from her pocket and just look out for a second. He had to find out what was going on. Besides, the room could really stand some fresh air. They'd been using an empty pot by the door for a toilet and the place smelled like a sewer. While Gregor waited for Nerissa to sleep, he tried using his swords again. He was still sore, and there wasn't much room, but he could swing his blades. He figured he might be able to fight at about seventy-five percent, if it came to it, and that only made him feel more secure about his plan. Even if a couple of big old rats were sitting right outside the door waiting to pounce, he could take them.
By the time Nerissa had finally drifted off, Boots, Hazard, and Temp were asleep, too. This was just as well, because Gregor didn't really feel great about stealing the key. "Borrowing the key," he corrected himself. "And then I'll put it back before anyone knows it was gone." He crossed to Nerissa and carefully pulled the key out of her pocket. As quietly as he could, Gregor walked to the door and slid it in the keyhole. He was just about to turn it when he heard shouting. There were footsteps, scuffling, and a human cry. Then a tremendous blow hit the door, causing it to reverberate. Scraping, and then another blow followed by a rat claw that punctured the wood directly in front of Gregor's face. He automatically stepped back and pulled his blades. More shouts and footsteps. A gruesome gurgling sound from the rat. Blood seeping under the door. Silence.
Gregor turned and saw the others awake and looking at him in fear. He reached down, withdrew the key, and returned it to Nerissa without a word. She was nice enough not to say, "I told you so."
The seconds ticked by. So rats were definitely in the palace. Possibly right outside the door. There was a small opening, about the size of a peephole, left by the rat claw, but as there was no light in the hall, Gregor could see nothing. His anxiety grew with every passing minute. Rats were in the palace. They had found him. Had they found Lizzie? Luxa? What was going on? When would someone contact them? He could fight now. He should be fighting. But what if he left and the prophecy room was attacked again? That door wouldn't hold long. Who would protect Boots and Hazard and Temp and Nerissa?
Gregor's head jerked up as the claws scraped the door. He took careful aim and drove his sword right through the peephole.
"Well, at least you're useful again," he heard Ripred from behind the door. "Open up in there! The palace is secure!" Nerissa unlocked the door to reveal Ripred, who was bloodstained but not visibly wounded.
Questions began pouring out of Gregor's mouth but Ripred cut him off. "Many are dead, but everyone of significance to you still breathes. We were able to defend the city thanks to your sister's breaking the Code of Claw. The rats have been driven away, but they will regroup and rally around the Bane. We need you in the war room now, boy." He turned to Nerissa. "I will send instructions for the rest of you later. Until then, sit tight."
Gregor followed Ripred through the halls where kids his age were loading dead humans, rats, and mice on stretchers and removing them. Sometimes it took six of them to carry a body. "They're too young to be doing that," he thought. Then he remembered what he and Luxa had been doing lately, and it seemed like a pretty tame job. Of course, he was different. He'd left any vestiges of childhood behind months ago. Hadn't he?
The war room was crowded with people and creatures, but Gregor's attention immediately went to Luxa. She must have been in battle. Although her clothes were clean she wore a fresh bandage on her forehead. Her cough was back, too.
"You shouldn't have fought," said Gregor, tucking in a stray edge of her bandage.
"This is my home," said Luxa. "How fares your back?"
"Good to go," said Gregor.
"Excellent," said Solovet. "We shall be leaving to pursue the gnawers shortly."
"I will send for Aurora," said Luxa.
"No, Luxa. You are unfit. And we need you here," said Solovet.
"You cannot ask me to stay behind," said Luxa. "Not after what has been done to Regalia."
"But stay you must," say Solovet.
Luxa cocked her head slightly. "Must I?" Gregor could feel a battle of wills coming on and felt guilty because he was on Solovet's side. He didn't want Luxa going after the rats for a number of reasons. She wasn't well; he wanted her somewhere safe; and, mostly, he didn't want her to see him die.
Ripred stepped between Luxa and Solovet. "Listen, Your Highness, it's Regalia we're thinking of. We're going out to finish this thing. But when it's over, your people will be desperate for guidance. Rats overran the council room and almost none survived save your grandparents, who are acknowledged to be powerful, but no longer trustworthy. It will be you the Regalians expect to lead them."
"He speaks the truth, Luxa," said Solovet. "With the demise of the council, power will shift to you."
"I am not yet of age," said Luxa. "You know I cannot officially lead."
"It doesn't matter. Not in times like these. Not after the courage and brains you've demonstrated recently. Trust me, it will be you. If they followed you into this war they will follow you out of it. Now can you see how you are too dear to risk in battle?" asked Ripred.
He didn't sound like he was flattering her, just laying it out on the table, equal to equal.
Luxa stared at Ripred, considering his question. Then she dropped her eyes to the ground. "Yes, I do see. I will remain here."
Ripred and Solovet exchanged a pleased look and were turning back to the business of war when Gregor saw the ghost of a smile playing on the corners of Luxa's mouth. "She's lying," he said. Disbelief, hurt, and then rage washed in rapid succession over Luxa's face at his words.
"Why do you say this?" asked Solovet.
"Because I know her. If you want her to stay ..." Gregor had to swallow hard before he could get the next words out. "Lock her in the dungeon."