Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor vaulted onto Ares's back. "Go!" he shouted. "Go!"
Ares didn't object, but he did remind Gregor: "They will know now! That you still have life!"
Ripred had told Gregor to lie low until the Bane arrived, but that seemed of little importance now. He hardly noticed — or cared — that his appearance was a huge shocker for the rats, who began to howl his name the second he and Ares left the cover of the rocks.
Gregor ignored them. He would deal with the Bane later, if the white rat even showed up. Now he had a far more urgent mission. And he wasn't going to make it. He wasn't going to. He had flown on Ares enough now to gauge the amount of time it would take him to travel a certain distance, and they were too far. The rats would beat them. Nike could not fend them off. His sisters would be torn to pieces and —
Suddenly he saw a form streaking up the side of the cavern wall toward Nike. It didn't seem possible that any creature could scale such a steep incline with such speed. But one could. The one Gregor would have chosen. "It's Ripred!" he told Ares. "If he gets in, we can attack the rats from behind!"
Nike fell back out of sight as the rats from the digger's hole began to rain down onto the shelf of rock and lunge in after her. At least twenty had made it when Ripred reached them. Not stopping to fight, he raced over the backs of the enemy rats and was swallowed by the darkness beyond. Seconds later, Gregor and Ares dove in and threw themselves into the battle. It was like old times for Gregor, like when he had first become a rager and the adrenaline rush had obliterated his awareness of his actions. But he was so afraid, so deeply terrified for Boots and Lizzie that he could not contain himself. Every stroke of his blade was a death stroke, every movement designed to kill. He hacked and sliced and plunged his blade into rat after rat, oblivious to all else.
Ares had to arch back and crack Gregor in the face with his head to get his attention. "Gregor!"
"What?" Gregor snarled back. "Get in there, Ares!" His bat was drawing him away. "I have to kill those rats!"
"Try this one!" Ares said. The bat swung around and there was the Bane, right in his face.
To Gregor, who had been absorbed in the fight to save his sisters, it seemed as if the Bane had materialized out of nowhere, as if he had simply sprung out of the ground to exact his revenge. Ares veered sharply to the side just as one of the powerful clawed paws whistled by Gregor's ear and then scraped down the side of the cavern, unleashing a magnified sound like nails on a chalkboard.
"We must have more space!" said Ares. They couldn't fight the Bane trapped up against this wall. They needed room to maneuver.
"But my sisters —!" Gregor began. Then he knew he had to let them go. To trust Ripred and the humans and bats who had flown in to save them. Because wherever Gregor was now, so was the Bane. "All right!"
Ares swiftly flew back toward the heart of the battle, drawing the Bane after them. But Gregor had a few moments to assess his opponent. Boy, the Bane was a royal mess! He was scarred and hurting from their last encounter. The stump of his tail was capped with a huge ball of bloody spider silk. Losing the tail seemed to have done something to the Bane's sense of balance, because he moved unsteadily, almost as if he were intoxicated. But the real change was the look in the white rat's eyes. One glance told Gregor he had crossed over the line from damaged to demented.
The Bane came crashing across the plain toward them as the other creatures desperately fled to escape him. Bodies on the ground burst open under his feet. Anyone in reach of his claws was shredded.
"This isn't like before," thought Gregor. "I'm fighting a whole new opponent." For a moment, he felt a shudder of fear deep inside him. Then he pushed it down. "Where'd he come from?" he asked Ares.
"The tunnel to the right," Ares replied. "I know it. It leads farther into the rats' land."
"Is there much room?" asked Gregor.
"Yes. A large tunnel, then more caverns," said Ares.
"Take it," said Gregor. "Let's make him work for us." A chase would hopefully wear the Bane out a bit and keep him from killing anyone else. It would also give Gregor a less distracting place to fight. He wanted quiet. He wanted one-on-one.
Ares shot down the tunnel, and the Bane was right behind them, bouncing off the walls, roaring. The torchlight was gone, but Gregor's breath was coming in pants and he had no trouble seeing. The tunnel led into a rocky cavern that soared high into the air. Ares flew up higher but the Bane followed, making seemingly impossible leaps up boulders and onto ledges as he followed behind. At first, Gregor could sense other rats in the area, but soon they fell away, either unable or unwilling to pursue them. And still Ares flew higher, finding a strange tunnel with dripping rock formations, and finally coming to rest on a plateau that seemed a million miles from anywhere. He was able to land for a minute and rest. They listened to the sound of the Bane, bellowing in rage and pain as he struggled toward them.
"Will this place do?" Ares asked.
"It's perfect," said Gregor.
As the Bane took one last giant leap onto the plateau, Ares took to his wings. The chase had been a good idea. The Bane was drained, gasping for air, thick foam hanging from his mouth. Several wounds had reopened on his face. The spider silk bandage had ripped off somewhere and blood ran from the stump of his tail.
"Alone at last," Gregor said. But they weren't.
"Take a minute," said the soothing voice. "Calm yourself before you destroy him."
"Twirltongue," Gregor said to Ares. "Where'd she come from?"
"I do not know," said Ares. "She was not with him on the Plain of Tartarus."
The Bane must have picked her up somewhere along the way. She leaped off of his back now, onto a pile of boulders. A nice safe place to observe the match. Gregor could see she was unmarred, not a wound on her anywhere. Her silver coat was flawless and unruffled.
It was all Gregor could do not to take her out right then and there. She was the one who had made the plans and groomed the Bane into this deranged creature. She'd probably ordered Twitchtip's death, too. Twirltongue and her silken voice. How he hated her. "You're looking good, Twirltongue," Gregor called. "A little too good. Seeing much action? Or you just sending the Bane in to lose his tail and such?"
"My tail? My tail?" said the Bane. He began to move in circles, trying to locate it. "My tail!"
"A king does not need a tail," said Twirltongue.
"He's not going to be king," said Gregor. "Are you, Pearlpelt?"
The name distracted the Bane from his tail. "I am king. I am king now! The rats follow me!"
"Then how come they're out there attacking you? Plus the spinners, the crawlers, the humans, the fliers, the nibblers," said Gregor. "Hey, that whole nibbler thing kind of blew up in your face, didn't it?"
"Twirltongue says I'm the king!" said the Bane.
"Yeah? Is that how it looks to you?" said Gregor. "Because from up here, it looks like she's getting you killed so she can take over."
"What? What?" The Bane was so far gone that that was all it took. He turned to Twirltongue, his eyes narrowing into slits. "You will not take over. I'm the king! I'm the king!"
"Of course you're the king. Who would follow a nothing like me?" said Twirltongue with a light laugh. But she was backing away. "He's lying!"
"If he's lying, then why are you untouched and I am like this?!" hissed the Bane.
"Because kings are bold and brave fighters. Your scars are badges of your might. No one would follow someone as untried and feeble as myself," said Twirltongue, edging along a boulder.
"No. You're right. No one will follow you. No one will ever follow you again!" The Bane sprang and, in one bite, ripped Twirltongue's head from her body. It hung in his mouth, teeth bared in a final grotesque grimace, before the Bane flung it at Gregor and Ares, almost hitting them. It smashed into the ground with an awful, hollow sound. The Bane stroked his paws over his eyes a few times, then looked up in confusion. "Where's Twirltongue?" he said forlornly. "Where did she go?"
Neither Gregor nor Ares replied.
The Bane nosed along the ground until he found the head. "Twirltongue? Twirltongue? She's dead...." he began to whimper. "She's dead...." And then his distress transformed back into rage. "You killed her!" he spat at Ares and Gregor.
"Man, he really believes it!" Gregor said in a hushed voice.
"Just like you killed my mother!" said the Bane.
Whether the Bane had just thought that one up on the spot or Twirltongue had planted it in his brain along the way, Gregor had no idea. He only knew that twelve feet of rat was coming at him and the long-anticipated fight had begun.
Ares dodged the rat's first attack. By the time the bat had spun back around, Gregor's rager state was at its peak. But he was not overcome by it. In fact, he could control his actions with a deadly accuracy that left him heady with power. This was a new feeling. This strength. This lethalness. This must be what Ripred felt all the time.
"Go for his face!" Gregor said. This strategy had worked well before and now the Bane had no tail to retaliate with.
But if the Bane had been a challenge back in Regalia, there had been at least some sense to his movements. Now his motions were erratic and unpredictable. He wasn't concerned with his own state, only that Gregor end up dead. The Bane swiped at them again and again, not bothering to block Gregor's attacks, ignoring his own wounds as his claws found Ares's wing, Gregor's arm, Ares's ear.
"Pull back!" Gregor shouted and Ares whipped out of the Bane's reach.
"We need a new plan," said Gregor, trying to twist the sleeve of his shirt into a sort of bandage over a gash on his left arm.
"He has lost his balance," said Ares.
"Use it," said Gregor.
Ares began to dive in wild circles around the Bane. The rat soon became disoriented, lurching from side to side, but was still fighting bitterly. Gregor did some damage to his paws, but that was all that his sword could make contact with.
"I've got to get in closer if I'm going to take him out!" said Gregor.
"Hang on!" said Ares, and suddenly they were spinning over and over, and Gregor found himself directly under the Bane's foreleg. He plunged his sword into the soft flesh. The Bane gave a strangled cry and jerked backward, freeing Gregor's blade.
"Get out!" Gregor cried. "Get out, Ares!" He had a terrible sense of dread. Something was wrong about their position, their proximity to the Bane. Even before his bat opened his wings, Gregor knew there was no way they could clear the claws. He thrust his sword in the Bane's direction but it was too late. "Ares!" Gregor cried. "No!" Everything seemed to move in slow motion as the rat caught Ares's wing, spun him around so they were face-to-face, and pulled him forward. Gregor dropped Solovet's dagger and wrapped both hands around the hilt of his sword. As the Bane sank his teeth into Ares's neck, Gregor's blade pierced the rat's heart. For a moment, they hung there, interconnected, supported by teeth and swords and claws. Then the Bane made an unearthly sound and rammed his free paw into Gregor's chest. Gregor lost his grip on his sword as he flew back into the air and slammed onto the stone floor. His hand went to his breastbone. The claws had torn aside his armor and opened a hot wet hole in his chest. His fingers pulsed with the rapid beating of his heart.
Above him, Ares still dangled from the Bane's jaws. The rat opened his mouth and the bat fell, lifeless, to the ground. The Bane pawed at the blade in his chest, trying to dislodge it. Then he became still and slowly sank down to four legs, onto his side as if to curl up, and rolled onto his back.
He knew they were dead. Both Ares and the Bane. Because only one creature was breathing. And it was Gregor. Despite this knowledge, despite the pain, he dragged himself across the floor to his bond. Ares lay on his back, his wings bent at awkward angles. The entire front of his neck had been torn off. Gregor pressed his face into the bat's blood-soaked chest, hoping in vain for a heartbeat, a chance to revive him. "Ares? Ares? Don't go, Ares, okay? Don't." But he had gone. No one could survive a wound like that. "Ares?" Gregor's right hand reached out and found Ares's claw and latched on to it.
Ares the flier, I bond to you.
The words went through his mind but he couldn't speak them. Not anymore.
Still clutching Ares's claw, Gregor rolled over onto his back and found himself cradled by the bat's wing. The blood was leaving his body fast. Seeping out of his chest and mingling with Ares's blood, then running onto the ground to join the Bane's.
"This is it," thought Gregor. "This is the end." The blood was flowing too quickly and no one who could help even knew where he was. Sandwich was right. He was right after all. The Bane would die, Gregor would die, and they could even throw in Ares for good measure. This is where they would eventually find them, already buried in this sunless hole far beneath the earth's surface.
"It's okay," Gregor whispered to himself. "It's okay. Think of the knight." He remembered the calm, smooth face of the knight in the Cloisters, a face free of all earthly pain, and a feeling of peace slowly descended on him. He realized his death was not only okay, it was for the best. He was never going back to New York, anyway. That had been some laughable dream. How could he go back after all that had happened? After what he had become? Where would a twelve-year-old kid, a warrior, a killer, ever be at home? Not in the Overland. And the Underland? No, he'd eventually end up like Ripred. Like Ares. A dangerous character. Suspicious. Scraping out a life in some desolate place. Because no matter how much the humans loved him during a war, who would want him around on a regular basis? There was no place for Gregor. Over, under, or in between.
He wasn't really so different from the Bane. Both of them were pulled into this whole mess without having any real understanding of it. Both of them were used — the Bane by the rats, Gregor by the humans — to play out this war. And both of them were paying with their lives. To have them dead would be a relief to everyone.
Except maybe Gregor's family... but they had no idea who he had become ... how much he had killed ... and he hoped they never found out....
The images of the cavern were dimming. His breathing became shallow. He could feel the world slipping away. "It's okay," he whispered to himself. "It's okay."
Far away, a pure, blue light appeared. It must be the light people talked about. The ones who'd had near-death experiences. You went down a tunnel. There was a light. People you'd loved who had already died were reaching for you. "Maybe Ares is there," thought Gregor. "Maybe he's waiting for me."
The pain left his body and Gregor had the sensation he was traveling. He was gliding closer and closer to the beautiful blue light. In a few seconds he would reach it. He wanted to reach it. To dissolve into the blueness. He was almost there.
Then everything went black.