Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor's feet automatically began to pivot. He just had time to turn once before the rats were within sword's reach. He'd gathered enough momentum to damage the two coming in on his left — one in the neck and one in the eyes — with the first cut. The person fighting to his right drew off another pair. But a trio of nasty-looking rats was still coming at him.
He dug his sneakers into the grit and stood his ground. These three made Twirltongue's buddies seem like cream puffs. They were larger for one thing, nearer to Ripred's size. A combination of drool and blood dripped off of their fangs. Their scarred faces indicated years of fighting. But it was the look in their eyes, the pure viciousness that told Gregor that he was dealing with a whole new level of opponent. They knew how to fight as a team, too, coming at him with multiple attacks, so that it was nearly impossible to fend off both blows at once. He did, though, he did, because now the rager effect was in full gear, splintering his vision, allowing him only to perceive the deadly teeth and claws and, in rare moments when he was not simply defending himself, get glimpses of their vulnerable eyes and necks where he could counterattack.
The sort of white-noise roar that sometimes accompanied his rager state was there, but a voice was managing to cut through it. Although it was hoarse almost beyond recognition, it could only belong to one creature.
"Oh, look who's decided to show up! Smelling like pudding and bubble bath. Mmm-mmm. So glad you could make it. Had a nice little vacation, did you? While the rest of us were out here breathing sulfur and eating ... well, not eating exactly. Howard had the idea of cutting off the leather pocket on your old back-pack. That gave us something to chew on for a while but I can't really call it filling. No, not satisfying in the way one might have hoped. Oh, and then there's been the little matter of freeing the nibblers. As you can see, the rats didn't especially go for the idea." Gregor wanted to tell Ripred to shut up, tell him he was being distracting. But he didn't have a breath to spare and forming words at the moment seemed very difficult. Like when he was trying to talk to someone in a dream but no sound came out. A claw came within inches of his throat and he took off the rat's foreleg at the joint. It fell back with a scream of pain. Two to go.
"You know, I've been getting to know that girl-friend of yours," Ripred continued almost lazily, as if they had all the time in the world to chat.
"She's not my girlfriend!" Gregor wanted to yell at Ripred, but the words wouldn't come. Besides, Ripred already knew his feelings about Luxa. Denying it would only bring on another speech.
"She's got grit, I'll give her that. You should have seen her taking those nibblers right out from under the Bane's nose. Would have made her grandmother proud," said Ripred.
The last thing Gregor needed now was to think about Solovet, who was Luxa's grandmother, and how she might be reacting to his running off.
"But frankly I'm a bit concerned about her," said Ripred. Gregor caught one of the rats in the windpipe and it retreated. But now Ripred's words had his attention. Why was he concerned about Luxa? Was she sick? Injured? "What?" he managed to bark out. The last rat was a huge brute with teeth gnawed into razor-sharp points.
"She needs some clean air. We didn't have masks until the army showed up and by then she'd been breathing this stuff for days," said Ripred. "I'm not wearing a mask, of course, could hardly fight in the thing. But as a rodent, my lungs are tougher than hers."
"She's sick?" Gregor got out. His opponent was relentless. Gregor had stabbed him twice, but it only seemed to enrage him.
"Sick? Well, yes. Frankly, I'm not even sure she's still alive," said Ripred.
Gregor's hand faltered, and the rat he was fighting nailed his head with its tail. He fell to the right, pinning his sword arm beneath him. The rat immediately lunged for him. Gregor braced himself for the teeth when suddenly the rat was yanked up into the air, howling in rage. Ares had sunk his claws into the thing's rump and he carried it high into the cavern. The rat tried to twist around to attack the bat, but it was hopeless. When Ares released it, it screamed all the way to the ground, and then was still and silent.
Ripred stepped over Gregor, cuffing him upside the head with a paw as he went. "You're going to have to have a little more mental discipline than that, boy. Now get up!"
Gregor rubbed his head in confusion. Was this Ripred's idea of on-the-job training? Had that thing about Luxa been just a test? Was she really okay? Gregor wanted to ask, but he was pretty sure Ripred would knock him into next week if he did.
"Get up!" Ripred repeated with even less patience.
Gregor sprang to his feet. Ripred had the center point of the arc again. On his left was a woman Gregor recognized, Perdita. She had almost been killed the very first night Gregor had fallen to the Underland. He had tried to escape, ran into two rats on a beach, and was rescued by a party of humans and bats. Perdita had been badly injured that night. But she'd recovered from her injuries since then, and Gregor had trained with her. She fought with a sword and a dagger and could hit almost as many bloodballs during drills as Gregor could, which made her one of the Regalians' top fighters. On Ripred's right was a man who Gregor had never seen before. He would have remembered him, too, because he must have been close to seven feet tall. With both hands he wielded a thick broadsword that would easily have come up to Gregor's shoulder. He hollered a lot when he fought.
"By me!" Ripred ordered and flicked his tail to indicate where Gregor should fight next to Perdita.
"She lives, Overlander!" said Perdita as he stepped into place, and she managed to shoot him an encouraging look between attacks.
"Thanks," said Gregor. He was at first grateful, then embarrassed because he realized Perdita now knew about him and Luxa. Maybe everybody knew. But Ripred was right. He couldn't think about that now. He had to focus on the battle.
Gregor wasn't the only one joining up with the forces at the tunnel mouth. Both the humans and the rats seemed to be directing all of their soldiers there. There was no time to ask for an explanation of the battle orders. It was all he could do to keep alive.
He knew Ares was an excellent fighting partner, but the bat was proving to be quite remarkable in his own right. Since so many of the humans were now fighting on the ground, their bats were executing a full-scale aerial attack on the rats. Mainly they would dive down, rip a clawful of flesh from a rat's backside, and whip quickly back into the air to escape damage to their wings. But Ares was one of a handful of bats with the strength to lift a full-grown rat off of the ground and drop it to its death. Again and again he picked off the deadliest fighters, saving many humans besides Gregor. And as the battle continued, Gregor could hear desperate people begin to call out, "Ares!" hoping for a last-minute rescue from a rat attack. Despite the grim circumstances, Gregor could not help taking satisfaction that his much maligned bond was finally getting some appreciation.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed — thirty minutes, maybe forty-five — when people began to call, "The nibblers are in! The nibblers are in!" He guessed this meant that all of the nibblers had made it into the tunnel. He'd yet to get a good look at them, so he had no idea what condition they were in. Pretty bad, probably.
A few minutes later, an order was given to retreat into the tunnel. Ripred took a second out to growl, "Not you, boy!" at him, so Gregor just held his position. This was getting trickier by the moment because he was now up to his knees in bloody ash, and keeping a foothold was harder than ever. Around him, humans and bats carrying wounded began to make for the tunnel. He heard repeated cries of "No torches! No torches inside!" and could only wonder what that was about. Those carrying torches hurled them like javelins into the army of rats, causing some welcome disruption.
Retreat seemed to be something the humans and bats could execute quickly, because in a matter of minutes, only twenty or so were left defending the tunnel mouth. Then they, too, under the tremendous pressure of the rats, began to slowly fall back. Soon, even the front line, still composed of Perdita, Gregor, Ripred, and the giant man Gregor didn't know, was forced into the tunnel.
"Fliers, go!" Perdita called. Ares and the last two bats swept across the rat army, peppering them with torches, and then dove into the tunnel.
Gregor had backed only a few steps into the tunnel when he knew he was going to run into trouble. "Why no torches?" he yelled, but no one had time to respond. Maybe there was some plant in the tunnel that was flammable. Some weird moss or something. The light from the cavern was growing faint. That meant he was going to have to rely entirely on the flashlight taped to his arm to see. He clicked the switch to turn it to high beam and was reassured by the amount of visibility it restored. But what about the others? Ripred didn't need light to fight. He could "see" by echolocation if need be, as could the oncoming rats. Perdita could probably get by on what his flashlight was putting out. But that big guy with the broadsword on the other side of Ripred, he was going to have problems.
"Retreat! It's too dark for you!" Ripred said to the man, whose only response was a string of curses.
Gregor yanked his spare flashlight off of his belt and turned it on. "Hey! You on the end!" he yelled. No response.
"York," Perdita prompted him.
"Hey, York!" said Gregor. The man looked over and Gregor tossed him the flashlight. "In your teeth!" he instructed. There was no time to tape it to York's arm or even explain what the flashlight was. But York seemed to get the idea. He yanked off his mask, crammed the end of the handle between his teeth, and kept hacking away.
Somewhere behind him, Gregor supposed, were backup soldiers, but he never saw them. As the rats drove them deeper into the tunnel, all of the light disappeared except the beams from the flashlights. And between handling his own rats and trying to keep Perdita from falling into darkness, there was no time to turn his head. He was still managing, but in this gloom, could it be that some of his confidence was slipping away? A rat's tail came frighteningly close to taking out his flashlight, cracking the glass. A claw caught the duct tape, almost ripping it free. Gregor realized they were targeting his light. They must know, after his humiliating encounter with Twirltongue and her pals, that he was worthless without it. He ripped off his mask, pulled the flashlight free, and stuck it between his teeth as he had instructed York to do, just barely blocking a tail that came straight for his mouth. The bulb was beginning to dim. He could feel the power draining out of him and the seeds of fear beginning to grow. What should he do? Tell Ripred? Keep fighting? Cut and run? Because frankly, if his rager abilities left him he was just another twelve-year-old kid who'd had a few sword lessons. And, as he was realizing, a really tired one at that.
A rat claw got through his defenses and opened up a cut on his calf. The tip of a tail made contact with his flashlight and knocked the beam sideways. As Gregor straightened it, another claw tore through the laces on one of his shoes.
"I can't hold on!" Gregor wanted to scream, but the flashlight made it impossible to talk, anyway. But he had to at least let someone know that he was fading, that they couldn't count on him, that —
"Hey!" Gregor yelped as his feet flew Out from under him. He landed on his back in a pool of thick, slippery liquid and came up sputtering.
"Run! All of you!" snapped Ripred, and began a spin attack.
What was going on? Gregor scrambled to his feet and saw — by the light of York's flashlight, his own having dropped somewhere into the pool when he cried out — that York and Perdita had not hesitated to follow Ripred's instructions. So Gregor ran after them as well.
That is, he tried to run, but he was doing more wading than anything else. The floor sloped down and the liquid rose up to his chest. It was all he could do to sort of bob forward. York's light showed they were in a shiny, black pool that filled the floor of the tunnel. "Oil," he thought. What else could it be? Gregor held his sword high over his head as he went along, hoping the stuff wouldn't get any deeper. Moving forward, moving forward, until there it was. The light at the end of the tunnel. Literally.
The pool became shallower and now Gregor could run, but carefully, carefully because the stuff was so slick. He went toward the light, breaking out of the tunnel but still up to his knees in oil. Before him lay a huge cavern, at least a quarter-mile long, that was much less dusty than the one they had battled in. At the far end were lit torches but they were placed very high on the walls. Huddled far below on the ground lay hundreds upon hundreds of mice.
Gregor didn't know exactly what was happening, but he got a grip on the blade of his sword and began to sprint. This was one thing he could do, whether he was raging or not. He could hear his track coach's voice coming from what seemed like another lifetime, calling pointers to him. The oil disappeared, his sneakers hit cinders, and he accelerated.
Humans on bats were flying by, picking up mouse stragglers and wounded. Ares flew in for him but Gregor waved him toward the mice, some of whom were unable even to get to their feet. Suddenly the cinders vanished and he was wading again, this time through a shallow river with a current. He plucked a struggling mouse pup from the water and hoisted it onto his shoulder. Fortunately it was able to cling there on its own because his arms were soon full of a second pup. As he came to the bank at the far side, hands reached for the pups and pulled him up onto a beach.
Gregor collapsed, gasping for breath. He looked back across the cavern. The last few mice were being lifted from the ground and flown here. Three humans on bats were jetting toward the tunnel with the black pool. They each carried a bow in one hand and a flaming arrow in the other.
"Shall I give the signal, Your Highness?" shouted a voice.
"Not yet." Gregor could barely make out the hoarse voice. He turned and there was Luxa, just a few yards behind him, eyes fixed on the tunnel. She was drenched in oil and so weak she had to support herself on a rock.
"Now, Your Highness?" The voice was tense with urgency.
"Just give him a few more moments," said Luxa. "There!" Gregor looked back, straining to see the tunnel opening. A large, glistening form barreled out of the mouth and made for them. Ripred. Any second now, the army of rats would be after him.
Behind him, Gregor could hear Luxa whispering, "Wait for them, wait for them." Then, as the first rat heads appeared, he heard her say quietly, "Now."
A signal must have been given because the three archers shot their flaming arrows into the pool of oil spilling out of the cave. As the first made contact, a ball of flame burst toward the ceiling, igniting the rat army. Gregor knew it must have blasted back into the tunnel, across the pool, incinerating everyone in its path. For a moment, he couldn't help thinking of what that must have meant, the rats burned alive, the black smoke suffocating those who had been far enough up the tunnel to escape the fire, the horror of it all.
Then another danger arose. So much oil had been dragged across the cavern that the fire spread toward them as well. Although it was not as fierce, it would be deadly if it caught on any of their oil-soaked bodies.
Gregor sprang to his feet. "Ripred? Where's Ripred?" he shouted, only to see the big rat splash into the river before him. He looked up to where Ares was circling overhead.
Ripred slowly dragged himself onto the beach and surveyed the scene. There was no trace of the rat army, only a roaring fire before the tunnel. The flames had stopped at the far side of the river, cut off by the water. They were safe. "Now whose idea was this?" he croaked out.
"Queen Luxa's," said a nearby Underlander.
Ripred turned his head, spotted Luxa leaning against the rock, and glared at her a moment. Then he gave her a nod of approval. "Good plan."
Luxa opened her mouth to answer but instead began to cough into her hand. It was a horrible, rasping cough that shook her entire body. When she removed her hand from her mouth, it was covered in red. She stared at the blood for a moment, as if faintly surprised, and then collapsed to the ground.