Gregor and the Code of Claw
Ares had blasted straight into the war zone. Gregor's senses were assaulted by what lay before him, beneath him, and all around him.
They were in one of the Firelands' enormous caverns. The battleground was brighter than Gregor had expected because the walls were studded with burning torches held in globs of something. Clay, maybe? He saw an Underlander woman toss a burned-out torch to the ground and replace it with a new one.
Despite the extra light, it was still difficult to see because the army of rats had churned the volcanic dust on the floor into a choking cloud that rose to the ceiling. Bats swirled around Gregor, carrying their human bonds. Most of the humans had drawn swords. Something obscured the faces of the people and the bats. A person flew by and a packet hit Gregor on the chest. "Don you this!" he thought he heard them shout, but he wasn't sure because the cavern was filled with a din of voices. Gregor unrolled the packet and found two face masks, one for him and one for Ares. That's what everybody was wearing. He quickly positioned the bat mask on Ares and slipped his own over his mouth and nose. The mask was stuffy, but using it sure beat inhaling that junk in the air — and it cut down on the reek of blood.
Blood seemed to be everywhere. Dripping off of people, staining bats' fur, pouring out of rat bodies on the ground. It dawned on Gregor that the main goal of each side was to relieve the other of its blood, thereby eliminating it. For a moment, he felt sickened; then he remembered why he was here.
"Do you see Luxa?" he asked Ares.
"No!" replied the bat.
It was next to impossible to find anyone in this mess. It wasn't just the masks that made it difficult. Where they weren't bloodstained, the rats, bats, and humans were coated in dust, making everyone largely unrecognizable. He could fly around for hours looking for Luxa and still not find her. Then his thoughts turned to the Bane. Even in the dust he might be able to see that monstrous figure. But he could not spot any rat that was larger than average.
Gregor was just going to have to keep an eye out and hope for the best. In the meantime, he didn't exactly know how to join in the battle. Should he report to someone? Was there some plan being executed? Because if there was, he couldn't see it. The whole thing just looked like some big free-for-all.
"What do we do?" Gregor said. "Can we jump in anywhere?"
"Anywhere," said Ares.
But even now, even after all he had been through and witnessed, something in Gregor balked at the idea of simply going down and running his sword through a rat. His ambivalence was interfering with his ability to connect with his rager side. He concentrated hard for a second to establish his place in all of this chaos. The reason he must kill the rats, the reason they must die had to do with ... had to do with ... the gasping mice in the pit and his mother lying in the hospital and Boots and those baby mice in the nursery — and Luxa, who must be, had to be somewhere out in this mayhem. It had to do with what had happened, and would happen, not only to him but to those who were not warriors, if these rats were not stopped.
"Down there! By the right wall!" cried Ares.
Gregor could see a woman trying unsuccessfully to rise from the ground. Blood poured from a gash in her leg. A bat hovered over her, slashing at an oncoming rat with its claws.
The buzzing began in Gregor's veins. "Go," he said.
They had never flown in a battle together, Gregor and Ares. The one real battle Gregor had fought in had been with the ants in the jungle. At that time, Ares had been struggling to survive the plague in the hospital in Regalia. But they had trained for hours and hours in the arena and had been in enough tight spots together to know they could count on each other completely.
Ares dove for the charging rat, tipping sideways to allow Gregor the closest possible range. The rat was leaping for the injured woman just as Gregor's sword made contact. His blade severed one of the rat's ears. The rat turned on him with a ferocious hiss.
"That got its attention," said Gregor, as Ares looped back for another attack.
A look of shock crossed the rat's face as it recognized them. Even in this mess, it would be hard to overlook a bat as imposing as Ares with an Overlander rider. "It's the warrior! The warrior!" the rat screamed.
Gregor could hear the phrase rippling through the army of rats as word of his presence spread. He knew the rats had been laughing at him of late because of an encounter he'd had a few weeks ago under Regalia. Twirltongue, the hypnotically persuasive rat who advised the Bane, had sicced two of her buddies on him. Gregor had been fighting very well until one of the rats had smashed his flashlight, leaving him in darkness and reducing him to helplessness. He had crawled around on the tunnel floor like a mouse cornered by a couple of alley cats and barely escaped with his life.
"Good," thought Gregor. "Let them laugh." Because now, with the numerous torches, there was no danger of being without light. Now he had seen what they had done to the mice. Now everything was different.
The bat they had come to aid had swept up the wounded woman and flown off, so Gregor redirected his attention to the scene below him. A group of about eight rats had gathered beneath him, no doubt eager to claim him as a prize. Ares could easily fly elsewhere, but Gregor wanted to see how high the rats could jump. Ares dipped down and the entire pack leaped up. The most athletic made it a good fifteen feet in the air. Gregor's sword made contact with a pair of claws that was just about to shred a spot on Ares's left wing.
"Watch your wings," said Gregor.
"That is the trick," said Ares. "To fight them we must be close, but if we are too close, I cannot evade them. When things move quickly, you will have to trust my choices."
Gregor understood what Ares meant. In the heat of battle, they could not stop and have some detailed conversation over what target to attack next. Ares was going to have to make most of those decisions, and Gregor was just going to have to go with them.
"Whatever you think, I'm with you," said Gregor.
And with that, Ares threw them into the battle. Wherever they turned, a group of furious rats awaited them. It was less a question of attacking than of countering the attacks of the mobs of rats. He was surrounded by a blur of razor-sharp claws and deadly teeth that all seemed bent on tearing open one of his main arteries. But he had no intention of dying. Not while the Bane was still alive. If he was going out, he was determined to fulfill the prophecy and take the white rat with him. The rager sensation was pulsing through him but he was managing not to give in to it completely. Perhaps all of the hours of training in the arena were helping him stay focused. The movements were so familiar. Mareth had put Gregor and Ares through their paces a thousand times this summer — dive attack, feint right, wing block, loop back — but in the arena, Gregor's sword had been encountering air or strategically placed sand-bags. Sometimes they had worked with cow carcasses that were headed for the kitchen. Mareth had wanted him to get the feeling of driving his sword into a real body. It was a lot harder than it looked. The blade had to pierce the hide, then muscle, and then sometimes ran into bone before it could reach the vital organs inside. It took a lot of power. The lessons with the dead cows had always made Gregor somewhat queasy, but he was grateful for them now. Grateful, too, for the superiority of the sword he had inherited from Sandwich. Sandwich's sword was to a common Underlander sword as a steak knife was to a butter knife. It moved like lightning and slid far more easily across a throat, between ribs, through the joint above a foreleg. It could even cleanly cut off a row of rat teeth in one stroke. At least it could in Gregor's hand. Soon Gregor was covered in blood, and Ares's fur had become damp and sticky with the stuff, but neither of them had more than scratches. He didn't have to think about how to wield his sword; it moved instinctively from target to target. And every time it connected, Gregor became more confident, more powerful. He injured many rats, some of them fatally, he thought, although he couldn't be sure, but the numbers attacking him only increased. If he had needed the images of the mice and his loved ones to propel himself into battle, they were rapidly replaced by the desire for self-preservation. "You really have no idea how much they hate you, do you, Overlander?" Luxa had said to him when they'd been arguing about her starting the war. Well, he did now.
"Man, these rats want me dead!" Gregor remarked to Ares when they had lifted above the fighting to take a breather. On the ground, a snarling group of two dozen rats ran to stay directly under Ares.
"Has this only just occurred to you?" asked Ares, and Gregor could hear the rare Huh-huh-huh that meant Ares was laughing. Gregor laughed, too. They were both in uncharacteristically good moods.
In fact, Gregor felt better than he had in ages. "It's the rager thing," he thought. The last time he had fought — it had been against snakes in the jungle — he had apparently been grinning his head off, which had upset him at the time. But here, with the battle around him, he didn't care.
And as for Ares laughing... for the first time. Gregor had to wonder if his bat might not have a little rager blood in him, too. Or maybe it was just the relief of finally doing something, something real. Of obliterating that feeling of intense frustration they had experienced as they watched the mice suffocate to death while they were helpless to stop it.
At any rate, they were both flying high.
"Ready for more?" asked Ares.
"Yeah, go for it," said Gregor. Then something caught his eye. "No, hang on a minute, Ares!"
For the first time, the action on the ground seemed to have taken on some kind of order. Gregor and Ares were among a group that was dealing with the rats along one front. But there was a second line of intense fighting on the far side of the cavern, nearly blocked out by the dust cloud it caused. "What's happening over there?"
As Ares flew toward the cloud, Gregor began to make out more of the scene. A long shelf of rock jutted out of the cavern wall about twelve feet from the ground. Under the edge of the shelf, a wall of humans was on the ground trying to hold off an intense rat attack. Their bats were performing some kind of strafing maneuver from the air, diving down on the rats and literally ripping chunks of flesh off of their bodies.
"It is the nibblers! Our army is trying to get them to safety!" said Ares.
Gregor squinted into the dust and could just make out a line of mice. The humans were protecting them as they scurried from a cave along the cavern wall to a tunnel opening some twenty yards away. But it was a very dangerous task, since the humans were at a complete disadvantage fighting on the ground. There was no choice, though. Gregor could see that. The stone shelf made aerial fighting unthinkable. The rats would be picking the bats off right and left at that altitude.
At the mouth of the tunnel, the onslaught was the heaviest. Both human and rat bodies were piling up at an alarming rate. The humans had formed one of their standard defenses, an arc. But holding down the center point, the key position in the formation, was a rat. Ripred. He was spinning so fast that a funnel cloud of dust had risen up around him. Any rat that came into his reach was instantly killed. Gregor did not know how long he had been holding that position, but he did know that even Ripred had a breaking point. What was it he had said once? "I start to crack at about four hundred to one."
Just then, Ripred's spin was thrown off as an enormous rat drove straight into him. Ripred still managed to tear its throat out, but he was knocked backward hard and seemed stunned.
"I've got to get down there!" Gregor shouted.
Ares didn't question him, but as he angled in, Gregor heard him call, "I am here!"
The rats had immediately sensed the opening made by Ripred's incapacitation. Seven gathered into a pack, obviously preparing to charge the cave entrance.
Gregor landed squarely in the spot where Ripred had been standing, sinking up to his ankles in the muck of dust and blood. He slashed his blade across the air and then hit a defensive position.
For a moment, the rats hung back, surprised by the appearance of their new opponent. Then the leader let out a growl, and the entire pack went for Gregor's throat.