Gregor and the Code of Claw
The second they cut through the strap at his wrists, Gregor spun on his heels and stalked out of the door. He was livid at Ripred and Mareth for revealing his feelings for Luxa to Solovet. First of all, it was a personal thing. No one's business but his own! Second, didn't they know Solovet would just use Luxa against him? Like she did everyone he cared about? Didn't they see how it would only give her more power to control him? And finally, what if Luxa found out? He had no idea how Luxa really felt about him. They had never talked about it or anything. Now someone would tell her and the idea was just so embarrassing. He was ready to find Ares and head home and —
A form brushed by him as he reached the end of the hallway, and suddenly Ripred was blocking his way. "Hold on, boy."
Gregor had his sword out of his belt so fast it was a blur. "Move. Now."
Ripred held up his paws in mock surprise. "Oh, dear. Is this where we fight to the death? I didn't expect it so soon."
"Move, Ripred!" said Gregor, and swung at the rat, who dodged his blow but still lost a few inches of whiskers on one side.
"Either I'm getting old or you're improving a good deal," said Ripred. "But I suggest you don't try that again."
Gregor lifted his sword to slice at the rat when a pair of strong arms caught his in some kind of headlock from behind. "Stop, Gregor! You do not understand what service he did you!" Mareth said.
"Get off me, man!" said Gregor, struggling to free himself. But Mareth was too strong and even though he was mad, Gregor could not have attacked him with his sword. He was actually far more hurt by Mareth turning on him than Ripred. Gregor had come to think of Mareth as a friend. Not now, though. So he kept fighting until Mareth flipped him over and pinned him to the ground. Then Ripred climbed on top of him — Ugh! The rat had to weigh about six hundred pounds! — and exhaled shrimp breath in his face. "Just let us know when you're ready to listen."
It didn't take long for Gregor to give up since he could barely get any air in his lungs. Plus Mareth and Nerissa were looking over Ripred's shoulder with such obvious concern that it was hard not to believe they were genuinely upset by his reaction. He forced his muscles to relax, which was not easy because the rager thing seemed to be with him all the time now, bubbling to the surface at any provocation, and even though it came without effort, he could not turn it off at will. "What? What?" he growled at them.
"Gregor, we are sorry if we revealed anything of a private nature back there. But when Ripred opened that door, I followed him immediately," said Mareth. "We did not want you back in that dungeon."
"I was doing all right," said Gregor sullenly.
"After only two days. But Solovet once locked Hamnet up in that very cell for a full month because he crossed her at a war council," said Nerissa. "No light. No human contact. He was not the same when he came out."
"Vikus was fighting at the Fount. The council was completely under her control. There was no one of power to intercede for Hamnet. To suffer this at his own mother's hands ... many of us think it contributed to his insanity at the Garden of Hesperides," said Mareth.
"And if she'd do that to Hamnet, do you think she'd be more lenient on some insubordinate Overlander?" said Ripred. "He was the apple of her eye, and she doesn't even like you!"
"I would have said the same as Ripred and Mareth had I been clever enough to think of it," said Nerissa. "Please, Gregor. Know that we acted on your behalf."
Gregor thought of a month in that cell. Even with his new echolocation skills, it would be unbearable. Poor Hamnet. Gregor remembered how agitated he had been in the jungle when Luxa had suggested that his self-imposed exile from Regalia had been excessive, that he could have returned at least to visit her. Hamnet had said, "No, I could never have left twice. You know how. Solovet works. She would have had me leading an army again in no time." Was he thinking of that cell and how Solovet would have let him rot there until he was either completely insane or so desperate he'd do anything she said? It must have been awful for Hamnet to know in his dying moments that he had no choice but to send his son, Hazard, back to Regalia to live. Is that why he had extracted the promise from Luxa that she would never let Hazard be trained as a soldier? Gregor had always thought that Hamnet had made that request because he was so opposed to war in principle. Now he wondered if he had also said it to keep Hazard as far out of Solovet's reach as possible.
Gregor could feel the tension leaving his muscles for real now, as he began to understand his friends' motives. Still, what if Luxa found out what had happened?
"No one will utter a word of what was said in that room, you may be sure of that," said Mareth. "We will not speak and Solovet would not want it to be common knowledge."
"Okay, okay. You did me a big favor. Now let me up," said Gregor. He still spoke gruffly but he was not really angry anymore.
"Just when I was getting comfortable," said Ripred, giving a luxurious stretch that nearly crushed Gregor's ribs before he got off. "Let's get down to the code room, before that sister of yours drives the finest minds of the Underland completely nuts."
Oh, yeah. The code. He knew it was important, but... "But I'm going to the hospital," protested Gregor.
"Please, Gregor. Luxa sleeps, so you would not be able to truly visit her. And we have real need of your help," said Nerissa. The exertion of the last hour had set her to trembling violently. He didn't want her fainting or something.
"All right, Nerissa. I'll go there first," said Gregor.
Mareth had to return to Solovet's side, but Nerissa and Ripred accompanied Gregor to the code room. They gave him ten minutes to run into a bathroom for a quick wash and change of clothes, and then hurried him up a few flights of stairs to a chamber off of a long, narrow corridor. They walked in on quite a scene.
Although he knew this was not its purpose, the room reminded Gregor of a zoo. It was shaped like an octagon. On one wall was the door through which Gregor had entered. The one directly across from this had a carving of some sort of strange tree. A long table covered with scrolls, books, and long strips of white fabric was set up beneath the tree. The remaining six walls had arched openings of various heights that led to private rooms. Above each arch was the name of the creature that was meant to inhabit the room: Spinner, Crawler, Human, Flier, Gnawer, Nibbler. Some of the rooms were already filled with their designated guests, and this was what had given Gregor the impression of a zoo. A light green spider rested on a web, a heavily bandaged white mouse with black markings lay on a nest of blankets, a bat with creamy white fur hung upside down from a perch, and a roach peered out of an archway that was only three feet off of the ground. Every arch was equipped with a curtain that could be easily closed, but at the moment, all were open, because all of the creatures were staring fixedly at Boots.
She was standing on the back of her loyal cockroach friend, Temp, smack in the middle of the octagon, singing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" at the top of her lungs. The green spider, to whom the song was principally directed, seemed to be cringing. Boots was somewhat off-key, but Gregor was pretty sure it was the loudness that was making the arachnid hunch down and contract. Spiders disliked any loud noises. As she wound up the song, Boots turned to each door and gave a separate bow, saying, "Thank you! Thank you!" although no one had applauded. Gregor knew she didn't care. As long as she had an audience, Boots could go on like this for hours.
"She has been going on like this for hours," whispered Nerissa.
"Days, more like it," said Ripred in disgust. "You've got to get her to focus on the Code of Claw before the entire team bolts for home."
"Next, I will sing one for you!" announced Boots, pointing at the bat, who actually flinched.
"Boots! Hey, Boots, what's going on?" said Gregor, trying not to laugh as he crossed to her. He thought it was funny, but it probably wasn't if you'd been in the audience for days.
"Gre-go!" said Boots, and put up her arms for a hug.
"Come here, you," said Gregor, lifting her up on his hip. "How you doing, Temp?"
Temp bobbed his antennae. One was still bent from an earlier encounter with the rats. "Well, I be, well."
"I am singing to make them happy!" said Boots.
"You sure are," said Gregor. "You know what else would make them happy?"
"What?" asked Boots, her eyes widening in anticipation.
Gregor realized he didn't know. He looked back at Nerissa and Ripred. "What do you want her to do?"
"Well, no one knows, do they?" said Ripred. "She's supposed to be the key to breaking this whole code wide open, but all she's done so far is terrorize the rest of us into total submission."
"I been singing," said Boots proudly.
"You certainly have," said Ripred. "Show him the ropes, would you, Nerissa?"
"I am not even meant to be here," Nerissa confided to Gregor as she led them over to the long table. "But I volunteered to help with your sister."
"So this is your special code room?" asked Gregor.
"Yes, it was built long ago. We have broken many codes here in the past and now we must unravel what we believe to be the Code of Claw," said Nerissa. "It is an unknown code that the gnawers began to use the day we freed the nibblers. So its appearance coincides with other events in 'The Prophecy of Time.' This is a sample of it." She picked up one of the strips of white fabric and showed it to Gregor. It was covered with a series of lines. Some were straight up and down, others tilted to the right or left. "It took only a short time to rule out any usual encryption methods the rats might have used. This is a new and clever code that we must break."
Gregor looked at the lines. They meant absolutely nothing. "Well, if you're expecting Boots to start translating a bunch of chicken scratch into words ... I don't think that's going to happen, Nerissa. She's just learning to read."
"You do not need to worry about the lines. We have the messages written in letters as well," said the bat, flipping off of his perch.
"Oh, forgive me," said Nerissa. "This is Daedalus. The spinner is Reflex. The crawler is Min, and the nibbler is known as Heronian." Nerissa did not look at all well, but she kept going as she pressed the palm of her hand into her forehead. "Perhaps you met her in the Firelands?"
"No. Nice to meet you, everybody," said Gregor, and received a round of nods back.
"These are the finest code-breakers of each species," said Nerissa. "Boots is meant to represent the humans."
"And you represent the rats?" Gregor asked Ripred.
"Well, I wouldn't be anyone's first choice, but times being what they are, I'll have to do," said Ripred. "It's not really essential that a rat be here, but a rat may help. Unfortunately, I have other pressing demands as well."
"Ripred is wanted everywhere. In the war room, on the field, and in the code room. He gives much insight into how the gnawers compose their codes," said Nerissa. "But he will not break this code. That is Boots's role."
Daedalus snagged a white strip with his claw and gave it to Gregor. Above the lines on this one were a stream of regular letters. But they didn't form recognizable words. "She may ignore the lines and only concentrate on the letters."
Gregor shook his head. He hated to disappoint everybody, but he had to be honest. "Listen, as I'm sure you know, this makes no sense. And I don't know what you think my three-year-old sister can do with it, but I wouldn't set your hopes too high." Boots took the strip of code, suddenly excited. "Oh! I know! I know!" Gregor could feel the whole room tense in anticipation, hoping for some kind of break-through. But once she was on the ground, Boots simply tucked one end of the strip in the back of her pants and ran. The fabric floated out behind her. "Look! I have a tail! I have a tail!"
Gregor cracked up. He couldn't help it. The whole thing was so ridiculous.
Then Ripred's nose was in Gregor's face, his lips curled back in displeasure. "You may find this amusing, but if we don't crack this code, we lose the war. Period. Nothing you or I or anyone can do out on that field can compare with the power of knowing what is going on in our enemy's brains. So, if you'd like your little sister to have the chance to continue her singing career, I suggest you help her focus!"
Gregor called Boots over, took off her tail, and settled her on his lap. He didn't know what they were doing, but he had her read the letters on the strip of fabric. She could recognize them all; sometimes a few would actually form a little word like "dog" and she would announce it with delight. But after they had read three strips, Boots had tired of the game and so had Gregor. "This helping anything?" he asked the group.
"No. Perhaps when Vikus returns, he may have some ideas," said Nerissa.
"In the meantime, we'd better proceed as if it is any code, and do our best to break it," said Ripred. "I have to get back to the war room, but I'll keep checking in." With a flick of his tail, he was gone.
"Gregor, thank you, you need not stay. I imagine they will be waking Luxa soon for a meal," said Nerissa.
"Sorry I wasn't more help," said Gregor, and made for the door before anyone could think he was of value. He had no idea how to turn all of that gibberish into coherent words, though, and he had to see Luxa.
Gregor sprinted to the hospital but was not allowed to see her until he had taken another bath in some kind of antiseptic and dressed in sterile clothes and a mask.
"Five minutes," said a doctor who led him into a secluded room. The air was filled with a cool mist that puffed out of small tubes inserted in the walls. Luxa lay on the bed in a gown. Her face, neck, and arms — the areas that had been most exposed to the ash in the Firelands — were a hot, painful red. Her breathing was still labored and he could hear her wheeze each time that she inhaled. But her eyes found his at once.
Gregor crossed to her bedside. He didn't take her hand because he was afraid he'd hurt her. But her fingers lifted and rested on his. She gave him one of her half smiles and whispered, "You stayed."
He gave a shrug like it was no big deal. And at the moment, it wasn't. He was too happy that she was alive, that he was alone with her at last, to think about what his decision to stay was costing him. He would have been completely content to stand just like that for his five minutes, but in less than one, the doctor returned and waved him to the door.
Gregor stepped outside to object but the doctor didn't give him a chance.
"Overlander, you are being called back to the code room. They said there is some emergency with your sister."