Gregor and the Code of Claw
A dozen people ran for her but Gregor reached her first. "Luxa? Luxa?" He could not keep the desperation out of his voice. He rolled her onto her back and gently propped her head up on his lap. She was still conscious, but barely. Another wave of coughing racked her body and fresh blood ran from the side of her mouth.
An Underlander, dressed in white to signify that she was a doctor, uncorked a bottle and held it to Luxa's lips.
"Look at her! She should have been sent home days ago!" bellowed a man. Gregor looked up and saw York striding toward them.
"We could not make her go," another voice rasped out. Howard, who seemed nearly as bad off as Luxa, crouched down to wipe his cousin's face with a cloth.
"You are still here as well?" asked York in exasperation.
"I was needed," said Howard faintly. "So many wounded, Father."
Father? So this giant of a man was Howard's dad? Gregor tried to remember what he knew of him. He was the governor at the Fount. He had been kind to the mice. Not much else.
"You are no help like that. The pair of you! To Regalia! Now!" He raised his head in the air. "I need a flier with some life in it!" shouted York.
Ares fluttered to the ground. "I have life," said Ares. "I have been in the ash but a few hours."
"We can take them," said Gregor. "He's really fast."
York gave them each a piercing look and then handed Gregor back the flashlight he'd used in the cave. "Load them up!" he ordered, and lifted Luxa in his arms as if she weighed no more than a doll.
Gregor scrambled onto Ares's back before anyone could say he couldn't go.
"It would be best if she could remain sitting up," said the doctor. "Easier for her to breathe." York placed Luxa in front of Gregor. "Can you keep her upright?"
"Yeah," said Gregor. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her back so her head was resting on his shoulder. "I can do it."
"Give her sips of this when the coughing resumes," said the doctor, and pressed the corked bottle in Gregor's hand. "Howard will advise you. Other than that, her hope lies in getting to the hospital in Regalia."
As Howard was being lifted onto Ares's back, Luxa began to struggle. "Aurora ..." she said.
"On my own flier, niece. She will be right behind you," said York, smoothing back Luxa's hair.
"Ripred," Luxa got out. The rat appeared and stuck his nose up to hers.
"Right here," he said.
"The nibblers. If I die ..." said Luxa.
But Ripred cut her off. "You? Die? You're too mean to die." Luxa actually managed a smile. "But don't worry, Your Highness, I'll look after them." Ripred nudged Ares with his head. "Fly you high and fast."
Ares lifted into the air and shifted his powerful wings into high gear. They did not need to take the secret, winding tunnels that had brought them here. But even though they flew through the main thoroughfares, the trip was excruciatingly long.
Nothing Gregor had experienced in the battle came close to filling him with the terror he experienced on the flight home. Luxa was so ill — barely able to breathe, wounded in several places, burning up with fever — that at times he truly doubted she would make it home alive. At one point, in fact, when she became very still, he thought he had lost her. "Luxa!" he cried out and gave her a shake, and she began to cough again, bringing up more blood but still with him, still there.
"Talk to her, Gregor," said Ares. "As you did to me in the currents."
Once, when they had been caught in a web of powerful air currents, Ares had nearly gone insane. Gregor had launched into a nonstop monologue to distract the bat and keep his spirits up. And so he began to talk to Luxa about anything and everything he could think of. New York City, funny things Boots had done, a paper he had written on spiders, what winter was like, Mrs. Cormaci's recipe for spaghetti sauce — anything — anything to keep her from drifting away.
Somewhere behind him, Howard lay in the darkness. Gregor was reminded of his presence by an occasional cough or an order to dose Luxa with more medicine. But as poor as Howard's condition was, he was able to stay conscious, unlike his cousin.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, Gregor began to recognize the landmarks around Regalia. They were flying down the wild river that ran from the Fount past Regalia to the Waterway. Only it didn't look as wild as Gregor remembered it. The surface was not churned to a white froth — it was several feet lower than usual. The earthquake that had altered the landscape by the mouse colony near the Fount must have affected the river flow as well.
"Almost there now," he told Luxa. "Almost home." She made no response. She hadn't even coughed in probably an hour. But he could still feel her chest rising and falling.
Ares flew directly to the dock on the river. Even before they had landed, Gregor was yelling, "Help! Doctor! Medic! Help! Help!" Underlanders unloaded Luxa and Howard directly off of Ares and onto stretchers. They tried to place Gregor on a stretcher as well but he pushed them aside and ran after Luxa. She was whisked into some kind of emergency room, surrounded by a team of doctors snapping orders. Gregor tried to see what was going on but was unceremoniously shoved out of the room. A stone door swung closed in his face.
He stood in the hall, panting and trembling, brushing aside the doctors who tried to treat him. It was not until Mareth appeared and grasped him firmly by the arms that he began to come back to himself. "Gregor," said Mareth. "You have need of medical assistance as well. You must come with me."
"Is she going to live?" asked Gregor.
"I cannot say. But she is getting the best treatment we are able to give. You do not help her, or anyone, by letting your wounds inflame," said Mareth. "Come."
Then Gregor was in one of those herbal baths again, soaking the oil and ash from his skin. The rats had gotten him good in a few places, particularly the one who had cut his calf open in the cave. He was stitched up and rubbed down with salve but he pushed away the medicine that he knew would make him sleep. Mareth took care to see that the photograph of Gregor and Luxa made it into the pocket of his new shirt, that his sword was propped up against his bed. But Gregor insisted on getting up. Ordinarily, that would not have been allowed, but the hospital was becoming flooded with human and nibbler casualties and no one had time to deal with him. He prowled up and down the halls, trying to get news of Luxa but hearing very little. Periodically he stood at the window to his mother's hospital room — she looked better at least — watching her sleep. Then he'd pace the halls again.
Finally Mareth took charge of him. "They are overwhelmed in the nursery with pups from the Firelands. We are only in the way here. Let us see if we cannot put ourselves to use."
After exacting a promise from a doctor that he would be sent updates on Luxa's condition, Gregor followed Mareth to the old nursery. It was total chaos. The mouse pups had been among the first to be air-lifted out of the Firelands. While those in the worst state had been sent directly to the hospital, the others had been assigned to the nursery while they awaited care. The shell of Sandwich's hateful turtle was open — Solovet had found the secret passageway as Gregor had predicted — and the babies were being carried in from the Spout. The nursery could hold only a fraction of them, so the entire wing was swarming with sick, frightened pups.
Attempts were being made to accommodate them. In the bathroom in which Gregor had played hide-and-seek less than a day ago, every tub had been filled with herbal bathwater, and a marathon session to clean the pups was under way. Two other rooms that had held supplies had been fashioned into giant nests made of great piles of blankets. Another room was completely devoted to feeding the starving creatures.
Dulcet rushed by them, carrying a screaming pup wrapped in a towel, then did a double take. "Gregor! Mareth! Can you help in the baths?"
"You got it," said Gregor, glad for some way to occupy himself. In another minute he was up to his waist in water in one of the deep tubs, receiving a mouse pup. The baby was trembling so hard its teeth were chattering. Separated from its parents, ill and starving, of course it was a wreck.
"You're okay. You're all right, little guy," said Gregor soothingly. The pup's fur was caked with oil and dust, and it was no easy matter getting it clean. Eventually, with the help of some kind of shampoo and a comb, Gregor got its coat to its normal gray color. As soon as he passed the pup on to be dried, another was placed in his arms.
There were scores waiting to be cleaned and more arriving all the time. Gregor worked tirelessly, bathing the pups, calming them with his words. But his mind was in the hospital with Luxa, willing her to keep breathing. Once, when a doctor came through, he got a piece of real news. They were trying to rid the ash from her body, but it was a delicate process since her lungs were damaged by days in the foul air. At least she was still alive.
Periodically Dulcet or Mareth would try to make him leave his post in the bath, but he couldn't, wouldn't. Then, as he was handing off another mouse pup, he realized Boots was crouching at the edge of the tub with a plate, waving at him.
"Hey, Boots," said Gregor, and crossed to her. "What's going on?"
"I helping Dulcie feed the babies," said Boots. "Now she says I feed you."
On the plate were a slice of meat, some bread, and a mug of tea. Gregor ate, more to please Boots than anything, but he did feel a little better with something in his stomach. "Thanks, Boots."
"I'm going to feed the babies more," said Boots.
"Good work," he said.
"You give baths," she reminded him.
"Right," said Gregor, and reached for another pup. And so it went on for several hours, until Dulcet tapped him on the shoulder.
"Gregor, you are being called to the hospital," she said.
Without hesitation, Gregor gave the mouse pup he was holding to a nearby Underlander and hoisted himself from the water. His skin was wrinkled and tingling from the hours in the herbal bath and his legs felt slightly numb. "Is she all right? Can I see her?" he asked.
"I do not know," said Dulcet. "Only that you were summoned." Her eyes darted over to the doorway and back again significantly. In the entrance stood Horatio and Marcus.
"Oh, my bodyguards are back," said Gregor, buckling on his sword belt. He didn't care. As long as he got to go see Luxa. He walked right past them without a word but he could hear them fall into step behind him. Through the crowds of mouse pups, along the hallways, down the steps that led to the hospital, they followed him. He chose a shortcut, a little-used staircase for the last flight. At the bottom was a small stone door that gave access to the hospital. But Gregor never reached the door. About ten steps from the bottom, Horatio suddenly slammed him into the wall and before he could recover, Marcus had bound his hands behind his back. He started to holler and they tied a gag around his mouth. Then he was being lifted, carried back up the steps, along narrow passages, and then down deep under the city of Regalia. He fought like crazy, but they were too strong for him. Eventually they tossed him onto a stone floor and backed away with their weapons drawn. Gregor was in a small room with a low ceiling. He had just gotten to his knees when Solovet stepped into the doorway.
"You and I must come to an understanding," she said.
The door swung shut, a key turned in a lock, and Gregor was left in complete darkness.