Gregor and the Code of Claw
Solovet studied Luxa a moment and then gestured to a pair of guards. "Do so. Confine her flier, as well."
Gregor forced himself to watch as they seized her and carried her, screaming, down the hall. She was beating at the guards but her words were for Gregor, full of hatred at his disloyalty. The things she said cut right through him. That she should never have trusted him. That he was as bad as Henry had been. And while it was not included in her rant, Gregor felt sure that he had lost all of the affection she had ever felt for him. His feelings, on the other hand, had only intensified when he betrayed her. So he watched until the guards turned the corner at the end of the hall, taking her out of his life forever. Even the sight of Luxa despising him was precious to him now.
When she was gone, his hand fumbled in his back pocket to make sure he still had the photograph they'd taken in the museum. It was there. He didn't pull it out. But later, in some tunnel or cave, while the others slept, he would spend some time with it. Tell the picture of Luxa what he would never have the chance to explain to her in person.
"It was a wise move, Gregor. She will always hate you for it, but with time, she will understand its necessity," said Solovet briskly. She went back to study the map on the wall.
Somehow having Solovet's approval didn't make Gregor feel any better. He disliked her so much. And she thought things like turning the plague into a weapon and setting rats on fire were wise moves. He would much rather have had her condemn him.
Vikus came up and patted his arm. Gregor hadn't even known the old man was in the room. "She will not always hate you. If she still cares for Henry, who put her life in jeopardy, will she not care for you who tried to save it?"
"I doubt she sees it that way," said Gregor. "It's done. Let's not talk about it."
"We shall depart from the river in one hour. Gregor, you must go to the armory to prepare," Solovet said.
One hour? Was that all that was left? "I'll dress. on the trip. I want to be with my sisters," said Gregor.
"They will be accompanying us," said Solovet. "Lizzie still may have use as a code-breaker. Boots will rally the crawlers. Rest assured, I shall keep them at a good distance from the battle."
There was no arguing with Solovet. And her reasons for taking his sisters were valid. Still...
"They'll be safe," Ripred said. "Count on it. One rager to another."
When Gregor went to the armory, food had been brought for him. After he ate, Miravet sent him to a nearby bathroom to bathe. Everything had a feeling of finality to it. Last hot meal, last bath, last set of clothes. As he was dressing, Howard came in to treat his wounds. "You look a lot better," said Gregor.
"Because I slept for two straight days," said Howard.
"Oh, man! I was supposed to wake you. Sorry, Ripred sent me down to the prophecy room and I totally forgot," said Gregor.
"Do not trouble yourself. I am practically the only coherent person in the hospital. There should be at least one," said Howard. "Your wounds are much improved." He removed the stitches from Gregor's calf, although he left the ones on his hip, and put on fresh bandages. Then he refilled Gregor's bottle of painkiller. "Well, then," said Howard, rising. "I must get back."
"Last time I'll see Howard," Gregor thought. He stood up and hugged him good-bye. "You'll keep an eye on Luxa, right?"
"As if she were my own sister," Howard said. "Fly you high, Gregor."
"Fly you high," said Gregor. He wished he could have said more. About how grateful he was to Howard for all he'd done, about how if he'd had a big brother, he would have wanted him to be just like Howard. Someone who was kind and brave and not afraid to say he cared about things or to admit he'd been wrong. But now Luxa would have Howard for a brother, and that was more important. Gregor's armor had been retrieved from the balcony, cleaned, and repaired. Miravet had made some adjustments to make it fit more comfortably over his injuries. When he was suited up, a little girl hurried in with the pink backpack Gregor had taken on his last trip to the Firelands. He had tossed it somewhere in the hospital, forgetting about it in his worry for Luxa. It contained the flashlight York had returned to him, batteries, duct tape, water bottles, Lizzie's cookies, and the travel chessboard. "Howard bid me bring you this," said the little girl. "He thought you might need it."
"Tell him 'thanks.' It will be a big help," said Gregor. The girl gave him a shy smile and ran off.
When Gregor arrived at the dock on the river, he found a solemn ritual going on. The Underlanders were doing funeral rites for the dead. Each human, bat, or mouse body was placed on a small raft of some kind of woven plant fiber. A torch was inserted in a holder at their shoulder. A woman softly chanted some words Gregor couldn't catch. Then the raft was set in the river and released. Although it was not as fierce as it had been before the earthquake, the current was still strong enough to quickly carry the rafts away. As far as he could see down the river tunnel, torches reflected off of the water.
So this was how they buried their dead. Sent them on a lit raft down the river to the Waterway, the giant sea, where they would be swallowed up by the waves. It made sense. There was little earth to bury them in. Gregor had seen what he would call soil only in the jungle and in the farmlands. Stones might work, but it would have to be somewhere outside of the city. You could burn the corpses, if there were only a couple, but hundreds? The air would be thick with smoke. There were no strong winds here, like there were in the Firelands, to blow it away.
The six kids he had seen earlier hauled in a stretcher with a dead rat. It was dumped into the river with no ceremony.
Ares landed on the dock next to him. "Lot of dead," said Gregor.
"Yes," said Ares. "Hundreds have made this journey already."
"How did you fight the rats?" Gregor asked. He wanted to know what had happened while he was in the prophecy room.
"When word came of the invasion, the gnawers were just entering the water from the tunnel north of here. We waited until they were swimming and attacked from the air. It was very difficult for them to swim and defend themselves, but they had great numbers. Many were destroyed but some made it into the palace. A group raided the hospital, killing the patients. Others swarmed through the halls, fighting where they met resistance. Eventually they were driven back out to river, and those who could swam for safety," said Ares.
"No Bane?" asked Gregor.
"No Bane. He has retreated toward his own land. The others will find him and regroup their army," said Ares.
It took Gregor a moment to recognize the mouse they placed on the next raft. He looked smaller, more vulnerable, dead. "Is that Cartesian?"
"He died defending the nursery," said Ares. "But the pups are safe."
Gregor felt sadness well up in him. He hadn't known the mouse well, but they had traveled together. Witnessed the nibblers dying at the volcano. Played hide-and-seek with Boots and the mouse pups. He went over and patted the mouse's soft fur before they lowered his body into the water. Ripred had said, "Everyone of significance to you still breathes." By that he must have meant Gregor's family and Luxa. But there were many others who Gregor cared about. Who knew if they were alive or dead?
The rest of the traveling party arrived. Lizzie, Hazard, and Boots were blindfolded and being carried by guards. "No point in giving them nightmares," said Ripred. Gregor thought of the grisly halls and was glad of the precaution.
Ares was best suited to carrying Ripred, so Gregor, his sisters, and Temp joined Vikus on his big gray bat, Euripedes. Solovet was beside them on her bat, Ajax.
"Greetings, Pincess," Gregor heard Boots say behind him. He turned around and saw her peeking at Nike from under her blindfold.
"Greetings, Pincess," said Nike, lifting her black-and-white-striped wings.'
"We are both Pincesses," Boots said with a laugh.
Gregor pulled the blindfold down over her eyes. "Stay in there, you." He turned to Nike. "Good to see you. You coming with us?"
"I am carrying some of the code team," said Nike. Reflex and Heronian climbed on her back. "Daedalus and Min remain here."
"Isn't their job done now?" asked Gregor.
"There's still plenty of information to decipher," Ripred said. "And the code could unexpectedly change."
As they lifted off, Gregor realized there were so many friends he hadn't said good-bye to. Mareth, Dulcet, Nerissa, Aurora — well, forget Aurora, she was locked in the dungeon with Luxa, and probably cursing him, too. Maybe it was just as well. Even that one good-bye with Howard had drained him. And there were still more painful ones in the hours ahead. He thought his friends would understand.
They flew down the tunnel and out over the Waterway. It twinkled with the flames of the torches on the rafts of the dead. About fifty soldiers on fliers joined them, and there were several mice traveling as well. "Are the mice coming to fight?" Gregor asked Vikus.
"Not these. They have a special purpose. The rats are still receiving information from their spies in the area. We have chosen four lines of communication to sabotage. We will disable a rat who transmits the code, replace it with a nibbler, and feed false information to the rats," said Vikus. Gregor saw a group of soldiers and a nibbler peel off and disappear into the dark.
"There goes the first team now."
"What sort of information will you give the rats?" Gregor asked.
"Lies. We will tell them that our losses are higher than expected, that no force can be assembled to follow them, that you have died due to injuries inflicted by the Bane," said Vikus. "Since the rats do not know we have broken the Code of Claw, they will take these things as truth."
"That's why Ripred wanted to keep it a secret," said Gregor.
"It is the most powerful weapon we have. The difference between losing and winning the war," said Vikus. "The rats will believe they are safe for the moment. But soon we will attack them on the Plain of Tartarus, where they now gather."
"A surprise attack," said Gregor.
"When they are asleep, with no plan for counterattack," said Vikus. "It is our best hope. Regalia still teeters on the brink of destruction. The diggers have created paths to our arena and possibly elsewhere. We destroyed the ones we could find but who knows how many exist? If the Bane lives and the rats attack again, I do not think we can hold the city."
By the time they broke for a rest at the mouth of a tunnel, their party was somewhat diminished. All of the nibbler code transmitters and their guards had left them. The soldiers had stopped at a landing a few miles back. Solovet had not been on the ground more than five minutes when she announced she was going off, too.
"Where?" asked Gregor.
"The spinners are still conflicted about whom they choose to side with. They require my personal guarantee of their safety when the war ends," said Solovet.
"I will rejoin you in two days' time on the Plain of Tartarus. If you battle before then, do not forget that your weakness is your left side."
And then she took off on Ajax with Gregor's old bodyguards, Horatio and Marcus, flanking her on their bats. It was just like her to up and go with nothing more than a combat tip.
It turned out they were making camp for a while. Ripred and Vikus had their heads together, poring over maps. Lizzie, Reflex, and Heronian were busy decoding messages that came in on bats. Nike, Ares, and the two remaining guards and their bats took turns patrolling the area. Boots, Temp, and Hazard were playing one of their games in Crawler.
Gregor was left to his own devices. He went deeper into the tunnel and practiced with his sword and dagger. His back was still sore, but he didn't think he would even notice it in battle. It felt good to use his muscles. When he was warmed up, he added in his echolocation, running through the tunnel in darkness and then striking points on the walls and ceiling. It was very freeing not to be constantly worried about his batteries running out.
After about a half hour he was good and loose. He decided to try to get Ripred to spar with him for a while. Maybe he could use a break from those maps. But when Gregor reached the mouth of the tunnel, no one was doing anything. All of the activity had stopped.
"What's going on?" asked Gregor.
"We just intercepted a message. The rats know of Solo vet's trip to the spinners. They mean to ambush and kill her," said Ripred.
"How do they know?" Gregor asked. "Did they spot us?"
"No. One of the spinners must have leaked the information. Perhaps a lowly soldier, perhaps the queen herself. Their loyalties are very divided," said Vikus. He looked calm, but his skin had a strange gray cast.
"We'll go after her. Ares and me. We can overtake them. We've got, like, fifty soldiers with us and—" Gregor began.
"No, boy. We can't," said Ripred.
"But she's got next to zero backup. You're just letting her fly to her death?" said Gregor.
"Yes. We are. We must," said Vikus, as if trying to convince himself.
"Okay, I don't know what's going on. I mean, I don't even like Solovet, but I'm not going to just sit here and let her die!" said Gregor.
"You have to, Gregor!" Lizzie said. "Don't you see? If we rescue her they'll know we've broken the code."
"What?" asked Gregor.
"The only way we could have read the message is if we had broken the code. If they find that out, there will be no surprise attack, because they will instantly change their rendezvous point. All of the lies we are planting will be suspect. And they will issue a new code immediately that may take weeks to break," said Ripred.
"But you found out about the rats attacking from the river and you acted on that," said Gregor.
"That was simple to explain. They were so close; we had only to send some scouts up the river and pretend to discover them. This is entirely different," said Ripred.
"She would not want us to try to save her," Vikus said hoarsely. "Not at this price."
"But... maybe we could ... maybe we could make it look like we were just going after her, anyway," Gregor suggested. "That wouldn't be suspicious."
"Wouldn't it? If she had wanted to travel with an army she would have traveled with an army. One showing up at the eleventh hour will point directly to the breaking of the Code of Claw," said Ripred.
Gregor was still not quite ready to accept this. "There must be something we can do."
"There is," Ripred said. "We can sit here and wait."