Gregor and the Code of Claw
Something sprinkled across his forehead. Sand maybe. Was he at the beach, awaking from a long, warm nap in the sun? There it was again. People needed to be more careful. Kicking sand around. He should have picked a better spot. But when he'd died in that cave he'd been thinking more about — Wait! When he'd died in that cave? Where was he?
Gregor's eyes flew open. Above him, the hospital ceiling was brightly lit by torches. Boots's face slid into the frame. She took a bite of a cookie, showering crumbs down on his face. "Hi, you!" she said.
Something must have gone terribly wrong. He was still alive.
Boots took another bite of cookie and he shut his eyes to avoid the fallout. "You sleeped a long time. I got tired waiting." She did seem slightly put out.
"You're getting crumbs on him, Boots," he heard Lizzie whisper.
They were both alive. Ripred had gotten them out somehow.
"Gregor?" said a voice he had never hoped to hear again. His dad leaned over him, his face worn, older. "How you doing? How's my little guy?"
His dad? What was his dad doing here? What was going on? Why wasn't he dead? Where was the blue light? Who could possibly have found him in that forsaken place?
"Can you understand me, Gregor?" asked his dad. Gregor could see the concern in his eyes.
"Yeah." His voice was rusty and almost inaudible. "Hey, Dad. You're here."
"I came down just as soon as I could," his dad said. "Come to take you all home."
Gregor slowly became aware of his body. With great effort, he managed to wiggle his toes. Why was he so weak? How long had he been here? He struggled to move the fingers on his right hand but found it impossible. His left arm jerked up in a panic and pain spiked through his arm, his chest, oh, man, his chest! He dropped his arm back quickly. The pain ebbed but was still there. It was better if he didn't move.
"So, you have decided to wake up?" Howard's smile was so warm that Gregor couldn't help smiling back. The muscles on his face felt stiff and unused.
"What happened?" Gregor asked.
"You were rescued from the Dead Land by a pair of daring adventurers, who risked all to carry you back to our doctors," said Howard. "At least, this is how they tell the story. Some, myself included, feel it had less to do with a love of you and more to do with a love of cake."
"Cake?" said Gregor. And suddenly it became clear to him. "Not the fireflies."
"Oh, yes. Our old and dear friends Photos Glow-Glow and Zap," said Howard.
That explained it. The beautiful, blue light wasn't from another world; it was from Photos Glow-Glow's butt. Gregor couldn't help laughing, even though it hurt like crazy. The whole thing was so absurd.
"They have spent the last two weeks gorging themselves in a room off of the kitchen. You see, it is quite impossible for them to leave until they are assured of your recovery. And Luxa indulges them for her own reasons," said Howard. "So, Gregor, just how bad do you feel?"
"Very," said Gregor. "Whole body hurts."
"Good. Then your nerves are working. Drink this," said Howard, lifting his head to help him swallow some medicine and a little water.
"I can't move my fingers." Gregor glanced down at his right side, where he hoped he still had a hand.
"Yes. Well. They will work by and by," said Howard. His face was sober as he gently lifted Gregor's hand into his line of sight. Locked in his fingers, cemented with blood, was Ares's claw. "The shiners were unable to release your grip. Zap managed to gnaw his claw free. We have not wanted to force your hand open, for fear of breaking bones. We can soak it... but you will have to let him go yourself."
Ares. The last horrible moments of his bat's life replayed in Gregor's head and he squeezed his eyes shut tight. Howard asked him more questions, but he couldn't respond.
"In his mind, all of this happened only minutes ago. We must give him time," said Howard to his family. "He must rest."
"Girls, you go up to the nursery. Give Dulcet some help with those mouse babies, okay? I'll sit with your brother," said his dad.
Gregor heard his own voice in his ears. "I've got to get in closer if I'm going to take him out!" Wing snagged. Bane drawing them in. Locking his jaws on Ares's throat. Sword in heart. Chest ripped open. Falling. Dying. "Don't go, Ares, okay? Don't." Lying in blood. Soaked in blood. Dying. Dying.
The darkness began to close in around him again. But through it he heard his dad's voice. "It's going to be okay, Gregor. You don't think so now. You don't see how it ever could be. But one day, I promise, it's going to be okay."
When he woke again, Mareth was sitting in the chair next to his bed. His dad was asleep on a cot. A couple of nurses propped Gregor up a bit with pillows and brought him some broth. Mareth volunteered to feed him, and the nurses accepted and dashed off.
"The hospital staff is still working around the clock," said Mareth. "Come, you need some nourishment." The soldier spooned broth into his mouth and filled him in on the last couple of weeks. The minute the fireflies had brought word of the Bane's demise —along with Gregor's unconscious body — to the Plain of Tartarus, the Bane's forces had fallen to pieces and been easily defeated by the humans and their allies. They were already weakened psychologically, having by that time figured out that the Code of Claw must have been cracked. Lapblood's armies fighting against them had been a significant blow, too. The Bane's death had just been the final straw that had broken their spirit. There would be an official surrender in the arena soon. Terms would be agreed upon.
As for his loved ones, Vikus was recovering but had lost much of the use of his right side. Just as Ripred had predicted, everyone was turning to Luxa for leadership. Her uncle, York, was going to come down from the Fount for the surrender as well. He would bring Gregor's mother with him.
"She's better, then?" asked Gregor.
"Yes. But still very weak," said Mareth. "Your family will have much healing to do."
"Who else was lost?" asked Gregor.
"Many," said Mareth. "Better perhaps to think of who still lives. Your family. Luxa. Hazard. Aurora. Nike. Howard. Nerissa. Vikus. All of the code team survived."
"And Ripred," said Gregor. "I've got a lot to tell him."
Mareth stirred the broth, avoiding his eyes. "No, Gregor, he did not make it."
"What? But everybody got out of that cave," said Gregor.
"It was a tunnel actually. A short one that ran between the Plain of Tartarus and another cavern beyond the walls. The rats attacked from both sides. Ripred was able to fight a path out the back, enabling Nike to flee with your sisters, Hazard, Temp, Heronian, and Reflex. But he was overcome, his body flung into the abyss below. We sent a rescue team when word came. When they arrived, he had already been devoured by the swarms of flesh-eating mites in that nest there. You know the ones. We met up with them on the Waterway."
"The mites who killed Pandora," said Gregor.
"The same," said Mareth.
"Then you never actually found Ripred," Gregor said stubbornly.
"We found rat skeletons. Three of them. One, a large male who had evidently survived the fall and dragged himself some twenty yards before the insects overcame him," said Mareth. "The rescue team saw only this much, as they were forced to flee. But ask yourself, who but Ripred could have managed such a feat?"
"No one," said Gregor softly. Still, it did not seem quite real. That Ripred had died. Ripred couldn't die. He was invincible. A rager. Then he remembered Ripred's words. "Even a rager can be outnumbered, Gregor. I start to crack at about four hundred to one." There would have been more than four hundred mites in a nest. There would have been thousands and thousands.
"Beyond that, we have had no word of him. It is unlikely, having been so instrumental in this war, that he would be silent in the aftermath," said Mareth.
"Yeah," said Gregor. To his surprise, he felt as devastated by Ripred's loss as he had by Ares's. His bond at least knew how Gregor felt about him. He had never showed any gratitude toward Ripred. Never really thanked him. Never once told the rat how much he admired him. Maybe even loved him. It was not the kind of thing they discussed.
"I didn't expect... to have to deal with this. Up until that last morning, I was sure I'd be dead. Then Ripred—" Gregor stopped. He wasn't supposed to tell about how Ripred didn't believe in Sandwich's prophecies. Did it make any difference now the rat was dead? Maybe Ripred would want everyone to know his position. And there was proof now, because he had been right about Gregor surviving the war. But who could Gregor tell this to? Luxa? Vikus? He was too weak to go into it now. "Ripred gave me a pep talk. Told me I could beat the Bane."
"And you did," said Mareth.
"Not by myself," said Gregor. His right hand contracted around Ares's claw, not wanting to let go. But he had to let go. Ares wasn't coming back. Holding his claw wouldn't bring him back. It should be buried with the rest of him. "Howard said I could soak my hand."
"He left you a basin," said Mareth. He placed it at Gregor's side and then guided his hand into the water.
"You don't have to stay, Mareth," said Gregor. "I know they need a lot of help right now. I'm fine."
Mareth seemed to understand that Gregor did not want company just then. "I will check on you by and by," he said, and left.
The water was warm and comforting. Slowly, Gregor loosened his grip. The blood that glued him to the claw dissolved. One by one, his fingers peeled away and he extended his stiff fingers. The claw broke away from his hand and floated beside it in the basin.
Somehow Luxa was beside him with a towel. She solemnly removed the claw and wiped the remaining blood from it. When it was clean, she wrapped it in a white cloth and laid it on the table beside him. Then she sat on the side of the bed, lifted Gregor's hand, and carefully dried it. "It does not seem to be injured. How does it feel?" she asked.
"Empty," said Gregor. Luxa entwined her fingers with his. Her skin was warm, like the water, but alive. "That's better."
There were probably a million things they should be saying to each other, but they just stayed like that for hours, not talking, until his dad woke with a start from a nightmare, and Gregor had to reassure him that everything was going to be okay. "Maybe if we just keep telling each other that, one day it will be true," he thought.
For the next few days there was not much Gregor could do but sleep and let people feed him. He was so weak it was an achievement when he sat up himself, a small miracle when he could walk across the room again. It wasn't until he took his first bath that his condition really hit him. He was so skinny, shaky, and beat up. The wound on his chest was unreal. They had painstakingly stitched closed the stripes left by each individual claw mark. When it healed, Gregor could see there would be five scars to remind him of the Bane's final attack. How would he explain that to someone in the Overland?
His dad kept talking about their new life in the Overland. And Gregor didn't know how to tell him that he didn't want to move to the family farm in Virginia, didn't even want to go back to New York. That the boy who had fallen down the air shaft on a hot summer's day was gone, replaced by someone who could never find a home anywhere. But there was his dad going on about planting extra tomatoes so they would have plenty to fry up green, and going fishing, and how Gregor could join the school band again.
The school band? It took him a minute to even remember what instrument he had played. "Saxophone. I ran track, too. I liked science class. At least, he did. That other kid from that other time," Gregor thought. And what about his sisters? Boots would be fine. She was only three. Eventually she'd stop talking in Crawler and probably forget all of this, which was sad in a way, a blessing in another. But Lizzie ... Lizzie would forget nothing. She would just keep turning it over and over in her mind. She hardly talked since the war had ended. She just sat with her legs tucked up under her in a chair, her face thin and sad. Half the time she didn't even hear people when they spoke to her. Ripred's death had hit her hard.
One night, when their dad and Boots were asleep, Gregor asked her about it. Why Ripred had even brought the code team so close to the battle.
"Because of me. He didn't say it, but I knew he wanted to keep an eye on me. To protect me the way he couldn't —" Lizzie cut herself off.
"The way he couldn't protect Silksharp," Gregor finished for her.
"How did you know about her?" asked Lizzie.
"Heard you guys talking one night," said Gregor.
"It was my fault he died, Gregor," said Lizzie. "If I hadn't been there, he'd still be alive."
And there was nothing Gregor could say to convince her otherwise.
"Oh, yeah, let's move on down to Virginia and plant those tomatoes," Gregor thought. "That's going to fix everything." But he couldn't say something like that to his dad.
By the end of the week, Gregor was taking walks around the hospital. Luxa spent as much time as she could with him, but she was already being consumed by her new responsibilities. With the council members and Solovet dead and Vikus trying to learn to feed himself with his left hand, everyone turned to her for answers. More than a third of the human population had been wiped out, Regalia was a wreck, and the entire nibbler nation was homeless. In public, Luxa was steady and strong, but sometimes when she was alone with Gregor, she would bury her head in her hands, repeating again and again, "I do not know what to do." And he would put his arms around her and hold her, but he had no idea what to tell her. In his mind, Gregor knew how to kill things, not bring them back to life.
At least Luxa had a strong support system: Aurora, Mareth, Perdita, Howard, Hazard, Nerissa, Nike, and several mice helped however they could. York advised her in letters from the Fount. And Gregor had to smile when he saw her in deep conversations with Temp. But ultimately, all of the decisions were landing squarely on her shoulders.
Looming over her was the day of the surrender. Although the Bane's forces had thrown in the towel when they had learned of his death, this was the official acknowledgment of the rats' defeat. But what was to be done with Lapblood and the rats who had sided with the humans in the end? Would they all be lumped together with the enemy rats? That wouldn't be fair, but as some pointed out, Lapblood's armies hadn't fought to save the humans, they had fought to save themselves from the Bane. Besides, there was so much hatred between the species now that anything was possible. Everyone knew the surrender was merely a gesture that would be directly followed by the question "What will happen now?" And Luxa, as the head of Regalia, would be expected to have answers about who would control what lands, and how the living would now pay for the acts of the dead, and if rats could be divided into friends and foes. It was very complicated stuff.
Gregor once walked in on Luxa and Nerissa trying to unravel the last stanza of "The Prophecy of Time" ...
When the monster's blood is spilled,
When the warrior has been killed, you must not ignore the rapping, or the tapping, tapping, tapping.
if the gnawers find you napping, you will rot while they are mapping
Out the law of those who gnaw
In the Code of Claw.
... but they stopped abruptly when they saw him. He wanted to tell them it didn't matter. Couldn't they see that? Wasn't he living proof that the prophecy was wrong? That Sandwich was a fraud? But he didn't know how to convince them to change their minds about Sandwich. They had lived by his words for too long.
The night before the surrender, Luxa was eating dinner with his family in the hospital room, when Gregor's mom walked in. She was way too skinny and unsteady on her feet, but she walked in and opened her arms without a word. They all ran to her and wound up in one big embrace. Boots, who was too little to get in on the main action, began to squawk, "Me! Me! Kiss me!" and his dad scooped her up and everyone covered her in kisses, which only made her giggle and call for more.
After a minute, Gregor noticed Luxa, standing alone by the door, watching his family reunite. He couldn't help thinking of how once she'd had so many people to love her who were no longer here. He reached out a hand for her to join his family, but she just gave him a small smile, shook her head, and slipped out the door. And for the first time in forever, Gregor remembered why he was lucky.
The next morning, Gregor met Luxa before the surrender. She was dressed in a gorgeous gown with a jewel-studded tiara on her head. "Wow, you look so grown-up in that. At least thirteen," he said.
That made her laugh, although he could tell she was pretty nervous. Gregor was just wearing a plain shirt and pants. And his swords. He felt naked without them. Back in the Overland, he couldn't wear them, of course. He had separation anxiety just thinking about it.
His sisters and dad had already flown ahead to the arena, but Gregor had promised Luxa he would walk through the city with her. When the platform lowered them to the ground, Gregor could see the road was lined with people. No one cheered. Rather, they bowed as Luxa passed. A lot of people had tears running down their cheeks. Luxa acknowledged the crowds, nodding, occasionally lifting a hand. She spoke only once when they came to a crossroads where four streets met. She stopped and surveyed the wreckage around her. The rats, with the help of the diggers, had turned buildings into rubble. The paving stones beneath their feet were stained with blood and scorch marks from the fallen torches. A little girl missing an arm stared at them with empty eyes.
"Look at my city, Gregor," said Luxa. "Look at my home."
When they got to the doors of the arena, Luxa paused. Gregor reached out and gave her hand a quick squeeze. Then she took a deep breath and headed in. Gregor followed a few steps behind. The place was packed with delegations from every species that had played a principal role in the war: crawlers, spinners, diggers, nibblers, fliers, gnawers, and humans. Gregor even noticed Photos Glow-Glow and Zap sitting on a bench. He hadn't seen them since the rescue, hadn't even thought to thank them. He would try to remember to after the ceremony. Even though a path had been left for them, it was hard to make a dignified entrance because the floor of the arena was so pitted with the tunnels the diggers had made. But Luxa swept around them gracefully while Gregor sort of hopped along after her. At the center of the arena was an empty circle. Three rats waited before it.
When Luxa stepped into the circle Gregor hung back at the edge. Aurora fluttered down and landed just outside of the circle as well. Nearby, Gregor could see his dad and Lizzie. Mareth, Perdita, York, and Howard stood in a group. Even Nerissa had pulled herself together for the event. Somewhere in a bunch of cockroaches he spotted the tops of two curly heads and knew that Boots and Hazard were watching, too.
As Luxa took her place, what little conversation there had been in the arena ceased. If she was still nervous, it didn't show. She held herself with dignity and her voice was clear and steady. "Greetings, all. We have gathered here to mark the end of an unhappy and costly war. I have come to accept the surrender and present the terms of the defeat. Gnawers, who speaks for you?"
One of the rats stepped forward to reply when there was a commotion. Small stones and dirt began to fly out of the mouth of one of the diggers' tunnels. A general ripple of alarm ran through the arena. Everyone was still so jumpy from being under attack. Then the bedraggled creature nosed its way out.
He was almost unrecognizable. Half of his fur and a good portion of his skin had been eaten away, leaving bloody, oozing places. One of his back legs was useless, trailing behind him. His face had received another diagonal slash, which crisscrossed with the existing scar. But his voice was unmistakable.
"I do," said Ripred, dragging himself into the circle.
"I speak for the gnawers."