Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor was floored. "What? But you ... always do what they say."
"No, I don't. If I really believed in them, would I have run after the Bane and tried to kill him myself? It would have been pointless. I pretend like I believe in them, even try to convince myself I do for short periods, because everybody else down here does. So if you want to make them do something, it has to fit the prophecies, you see?" said the rat.
"Not really," said Gregor. What was Ripred saying?
"Look, there are hundreds of prophecies predicting all kinds of things. If you wait around long enough, numerous events that resemble each and every one of them are bound to come up. Take that plague. We've had loads of plagues down here. Might have been interpreted to fit any of them," said Ripred.
"But you're always trying to interpret them," Gregor said.
" I have to. If I don't come up with some reasonable interpretation of them first, someone else comes up with a foolish one," said Ripred. "And then it's a whole lot of extra work changing everyone's minds."
"What about in the jungle? After the ants destroyed the starshade and we had all given up," Gregor protested.
"I really thought Neveeve might have been right about the starshade being the cure. When it was gone, you were all ready to start digging your graves. The idea that we might have misinterpreted the prophecy was the only way to get you moving. I jumped on it. And we kept thinking. And we found the cure. The alternative was to let everyone sit there boo-hooing until they died," said Ripred.
Gregor frowned. "What about the warrior stuff? And me leaping?"
"Maybe you only leaped because that prophecy suggested that was the thing to do," said Ripred. "Maybe that children's song about killing the mice really only was a children's song. Maybe Sandwich was a madman who locked himself up and wrote crazy poems on the wall. And maybe — you're not going to die."
Not going to die? The words hit Gregor like a truck. Could it be possible? No, everyone knew he was going to die. He would prove it to Ripred. Gregor tried hard to think of one incident that could not be contested. "But... how about Nerissa? When she was a little girl, she told Hamnet he would be in the jungle with a hisser and a kid ten years later."
"I admit that one's hard to explain. Unless Hamnet sought out a hisser because of her suggestion and then didn't say no when Hazard's mother appeared in his life. Or it could be a strange coincidence. They do happen. Anyway, Nerissa is not Sandwich, and it's him we're talking about," said Ripred. "'The Prophecy of Time.' Look how easily we bent it to replace Boots with Lizzie. What does it really call for? A war? We have those all the time. A code? Every new war has a new code. The death of a warrior? Well, if we can swap princesses so easily, why not warriors ? Thousands will be dead at the end of this mess. But I'm not convinced you will be. One rager to another, I think you can beat the Bane. I think you're better than he is. And I don't think any mumbo jumbo of Sandwich's can change that. Unless you let it. So you fight, Gregor the Overlander. And don't you let your guard down for a second because you think anything's inevitable!"
Gregor's head was spinning with this new way of thinking. That they were really fulfilling Sandwich's prophecies on their own. Basing decisions on what his words said. He gave an incredulous laugh. "I thought you were going to tell me good-bye."
"No such luck," snorted Ripred. "But keep this under your hat. If everyone finds out what I really believe, I'll lose what little credibility I have. Come on, let's wake up the others. It's going to be a long day."
Gregor went over and blew raspberries on Boots's stomach, so she woke up giggling. "Stop! I need more sleeping!" she said, and pretended to go back to sleep three times to get more wake-up raspberries. As Gregor hauled her over to eat breakfast, Boots poked him in the chest. "You seem like you again," she said.
"I seem like me again?" Gregor asked. Then he knew what she meant. He hadn't really teased Boots in a while. Hardly ever smiled even. But Ripred's words had given him something he'd abandoned since he'd first read "The Prophecy of Time." Hope. That he might live. That Sandwich was wrong.
He wondered if the rat was lying to make him fight his best. But he didn't think so. Ripred's not believing in the prophecies explained certain things. Not just why he had tried to kill the Bane himself but how easily he had tossed out Boots for Lizzie, and how he had always been so sarcastic about Nerissa's ability to see the future. Probably didn't want her coming up with a whole new room of prophecies to control people. Not that Ripred didn't use the prophecies to his advantage. He had manipulated Gregor repeatedly with them. Even used the warrior's death to get Gregor to let Lizzie stay. But the rat was always doing whatever it took to get his way.
Gregor realized something else, too. He didn't want to believe in the prophecies, either. Not just because they forecast his death but because he loathed Sandwich. Ever since he had learned about how he had murdered the diggers for the land that was now Regalia, Gregor had wanted to distance himself from the man. To discredit him. To reject his guidance. Now Ripred had given him a way. "It's just me and the Bane. And I'm fighting him because he killed all of those innocent mice and people, and I have to stop him. Not because Sandwich says so but because I say so. And Ripred's right. I'm better than the Bane. And I can do it," he thought.
So Gregor was able to get through the moment he had dreaded above all others: saying good-bye to his sisters. He fixed up the pink backpack, refilling the water bottles and putting fresh batteries in his one remaining flashlight, and gave it to them to keep.
"Won't you need the flashlight in battle?" Lizzie asked with concern.
"I cracked that echolocation thing," Gregor whispered in her ear, and her eyes widened in surprise.
"Wow. Will you teach me?" she asked.
"You bet," said Gregor. "And look here." He pulled out the travel chessboard.
"I found it in the museum. It's yours."
"For keeps?" asked Lizzie. "Jedidiah has a chessboard, but not a magnetic one."
"Yeah. He's going to be real jealous," said Gregor.
Boots tried to poke her nose in the backpack. "Where's my present?"
"Your present?" asked Gregor. He dug out the rest of Mrs. Cormaci's oatmeal raisin cookies, still wrapped in foil. "You get the cookies."
"Oh!" said Boots. "All for me?"
"Well, you'd better share at least one with Ripred," said Gregor.
Boots shared with everyone, even tucking two cookies in Gregor's pocket so that he and Ares could have a snack later. Then it was time to go. Gregor pulled both of his sisters into his arms and held them tight. "You guys be good, okay?"
"Okay," said Lizzie.
"I am good," said Boots.
"I know. I love you. See you soon," said Gregor.
"See you soon," they both echoed.
Ripred had already given Ares directions to their position at the Plain of Tartarus. "Remember, Gregor, they think you're dead. So don't let them see you until the Bane appears."
"Got it," Gregor said.
"All right. Fly you high, you two," said Ripred.
"Run like the river, Ripred," said Gregor. And then Ares took off. They flew through the darkness that was no longer darkness to Gregor. While clicks and coughs produced brighter results, he concentrated on using his breathing to see. The images were not quite as clear but they were continuous, since he was either inhaling or exhaling as a matter of course. And the longer he relied on the breathing, the more distinct his surroundings became. In about an hour they had reached their destination. Ares landed on the floor of a small tunnel just before a wall made of a pile of large rocks. Beyond it, Gregor sensed emptiness. He dismounted cautiously and made his way to the wall. Hanging his head over, he let out a deep breath. His mind registered a cavern so vast he could not find the other end of it. The walls sloped up at a steep angle. Far below him, the floor was occupied by the single largest gathering of rats Gregor had ever encountered. There must have been well over a thousand, sleeping, fidgeting, nursing their wounds. Ordinarily Gregor would have been more concerned with them catching his scent. But the air was heavy with the smell of rotten eggs, which he remembered from his first journey, when Ripred had dragged them all through dripping caves, soaking them in sulfurous liquid to conceal their natural odor. This time, the smell seemed to be coming from a mist that rose out of a foul river winding its way along the side of the cavern. Even at this distance, Gregor was pretty sure that there was nothing alive in that water.
"So this is the Plain of Tartarus?" Gregor whispered to Ares.
"Yes. You can see it?" the bat whispered back.
"Yeah. Ripred finally knocked echolocation into my head," said Gregor. "I have to admit, it's cool. You see the Bane anywhere?"
"No. He must be nearby, though. He is the reason they have come here," said Ares.
They settled themselves down to wait. Gregor passed Ares a cookie and ate the other. If he did end up dead, he was glad the last taste in his mouth came from Mrs. Cormaci's kitchen. But he was no longer so resigned to dying. Not after what Ripred had said. Then it occurred to him that he was not alone; he was only half of a team, and it might be important for Ares to know Ripred's thoughts as well.
"Hey, Ares, can you keep a secret?" said Gregor.
"I would say it is one of my few talents," said Ares.
"Ripred doesn't believe in the prophecies. He thinks Sandwich was a crazy fool, and that we're all running around trying to make what he said come true," said Gregor. Ares was silent for a while. "I would be a liar if I said similar thoughts had not crossed my own mind," said the bat.
"Why didn't you say so?" asked Gregor. Were there other Underlanders who had their doubts?
"Because everyone treats his words with such reverence. But who was he, really? Not a kind or wise man. His words are full of doom and only terrorize us into killing one another," said Ares.
"You know, when I first got down here, I didn't believe in his stuff at all. Then, as things happened, it seemed like it was coming true. But what if we did just make Sandwich's words fit? Take 'The Prophecy of Gray.' That whole thing about me leaping and then Henry dying. I could have died and the prophecy would have still made sense. So maybe the only really remarkable thing that happened that day ... was that you decided to save my life," said Gregor.
"I was not thinking of Sandwich's words. I was thinking of what was right," said Ares. He crunched down on his cookie. "Do you know, when a prophecy does not fulfill itself in a coherent manner, we always say it was not yet its time. And we blame ourselves for not realizing it."
"I'm beginning to think the main thing we ought to be blaming ourselves for is letting Sandwich boss us around instead of doing what we think is right," said Gregor. "Using him as an excuse to kill one another. At the end of the day, we're the ones holding the swords."
"There must be better words to follow," agreed Ares.
"Sure there are. You and me, we could make up better words in our sleep," said Gregor.
Suddenly Ares lifted his chin, his ears twitching.
"What? What is it?" asked Gregor.
"It has begun," Ares said.
They rose and looked out over the rock wall. At first, Gregor could detect nothing new, only the army of rats sleeping fitfully in the gaping cavern. Then a faint ripple of air hit his cheek, and the scene in front of him exploded.
It was a well-coordinated attack and unlike anything Gregor had ever seen. The ripple he'd felt came from the beating of a thousand wings as a wave of humans flew through the darkness toward the rats. The bats were carrying large unfamiliar packages of some sort in their claws. When they were over the rats, they released their cargo. The packages exploded into small bonfires when they hit the ground. They must have had plenty of fuel because they continued to burn brightly after they landed.
The rats' warning system was not working well. Ripred had probably sent in soldiers to kill their scouts ahead of time. Gregor had heard a few cries of alarm, but they had not been enough to rouse the Bane's army. So the rats were still sleeping when the firebombs were dropped, and the swords and claws began to assault them.
At the same time, other adversaries were attacking from all sides. Cockroaches and mice were pouring in from the left and right. Spiders — who had apparently decided to join with the humans — began to drop from the ceiling. And then Lapblood's rats appeared from the tunnels behind the rat army, essentially cutting off any possibility of retreat. They had dipped their tails in some kind of glow-in-the-dark coating, something phosphorous maybe, so that their allies could distinguish them from the enemy.
Awaking under these conditions, the Bane's army panicked. Some were on fire, others had already received mortal wounds. The human/bat teams and the rats carried the bulk of the fighting, but the smaller creatures were inflicting a lot of damage, too. The mice and cockroaches targeted wounded rats, swarming them and finishing them off. The spiders would drop suddenly on unsuspecting rats, sink their poisonous fangs into their bodies, and whiz back up their silk lines before their victims knew what had hit them. But the Bane's rats were hardened soldiers, and after the initial shock, they pulled themselves together and fought back.
Silently, from their perch high above, Gregor and Ares watched. By the time the ground fires died down, torchbearers had lit the area sufficiently so that Gregor didn't need to use echolocation to see the hell unfolding below him. The battle soon lost any sense of organization and deteriorated into a killing frenzy. Everywhere, every second, creatures were dying. Human, rat, bat, mouse, cockroach, and spider bodies accumulated on the ground, until those who still survived were fighting on a carpet of corpses. Panic and confusion reigned. Fighters had to be wary even of their allies. A human ran a sword through a nibbler, a rat blinded a rat on the same side, a torchbearer set a spinner on fire. The clear purpose that had taken the soldiers into the battle was becoming muddied in the turmoil. Remote and safe for the moment, Gregor had a hard time making sense of the picture. It seemed unreal, as if he were watching a movie on television and he could make it stop by clicking to the next channel. This couldn't really be happening, this carnage, this waste of precious life. Who would do something like this? Why would they do it? What could they possibly accomplish? They were killing, killing, killing one another and then at the end they would have diminished one another's ranks but... what would have changed? The whole thing suddenly seemed like a ridiculous game that could easily have been replaced by another game, a hand of cards, a chess match, a roll of the dice. A game from which everyone could have gone home alive.
"Gregor! There! Above the river!" Ares said.
Gregor unglued his eyes from the battle and scanned the wall above the river. In the distance, they found Nike's black-and-white-striped wings fluttering in the mouth of a cave or tunnel — Gregor couldn't tell which — as she fended off a rat on the shelf of rock before her. About twenty yards above her, a digger's claws were widening a fresh hole in the steep wall. A stream of rats was emerging from the hole and half-climbing, half-sliding down toward Nike.
"What's she doing here?" asked Gregor. She was supposed to be with Boots and Lizzie, far from the battle as Solovet had promised. If Nike was here, where were his sisters? Stuck somewhere with only Temp, Hazard, Reflex, and Heronian for protection? And why didn't she just fly off? She wasn't big enough to be taking on that rat without a human teammate. What was she — ?
And then Gregor saw something that stopped his heart. A thin beam of light shining out of the opening behind Nike. It was flashing in a pattern that Gregor recognized. Played on the bedroom wall, tapped out with a fork on the kitchen table, the flashlight signaling... dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot...dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot... SOS. SOS. SOS.
"Lizzie," he whispered. Then he began to scream. "My sisters! My sisters are in there!"