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Gregor and the curse of.., p.10
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.10

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Gregor thought he was done when he felt Temp nudging him. He turned to see the cockroach holding a sheathed sword in his mouth. "Not this, forget, not this," said Temp.

  Where had that come from? Gregor hadn't even seen it until this moment. Solovet must have left it for him. He clumsily buckled the wide leather belt around his hips and tried to slide the sword around to the most accessible position. Somehow he ended up with it on his right hip, the tip angled forward. That seemed wrong. He finally wriggled it around to his left hip with the tip pointing behind him. Now he could grab the hilt and pull the blade out with his right hand easily.

  "Worked that out, have you, Warrior?"

  Gregor looked up to find Hamnet watching him. He wasn't wearing a sword, just a short knife in a sheath on his leg.

  "Guess I'll find out if I have to use it," said Gregor, hitching up the belt like he knew what he was doing. The sword banged awkwardly against his leg.

  "How old are you, anyway?" said Hamnet.

  Gregor thought of saying thirteen or fourteen. He was tall even if he was on the skinny side. If he were older, maybe Hamnet would treat him with more respect. No, probably not.

  "Eleven," said Gregor.

  "Eleven," said Hamnet, and the expression on his face changed. He looked almost sad.

  "I'll be twelve real soon," said Gregor. He said that as if it had some significance, but what did it mean, really? The only thing he could think of was he'd have to start paying full price at the movies. And that wasn't a very warrior-like thought. "Why?"

  "I was just thinking, it did not take long for my mother to get her claws into you," said Hamnet.

  Gregor felt himself bristling again. "Look, I don't know what's going on with you and Solovet. But I'm not here for your mother. I'm here for mine. She's got the plague." Mentioning his mom made him feel upset. To his surprise, he felt his eyes filling with tears. Blinking them back, he looked down and adjusted his belt again. He did not want Hamnet to see. "So, maybe you could just back off, okay?" he said gruffly.

  There was a pause. "I will back off, if you keep that sword in your belt," said Hamnet. "Agreed?"

  Gregor nodded. He took another few moments to compose himself. When he looked up, Hamnet had moved away to fix a strap on Ripred's shoulder. Gregor actually felt a little better. He did not want to head into the jungle at odds with Hamnet. It was enough to have three rats picking on him. And he had no plans to draw his sword, anyway. It wasn't until everyone was loaded up that Frill slid out of her spot in the vines to join them in the open circle. She wasn't fifteen feet tall, as she had seemed at first. In fact, she just about looked Gregor in the eye. He realized she must have been standing up on her hind legs. Even on all fours, she was still an impressive creature. Twenty feet long from nose to tail, with that shimmery blue-green skin covering every inch of her. The ruff had had several other colors in it, but you couldn't see it much now that it had folded down. Frill had wonderful feet, too, each with five long toes that could wrap around anything.

  "You've got a good-looking lizard," Gregor said to Hazard. The boy looked up at him with surprise.

  "Thaaaaank yoooouuuuu," said Frill in a long breathy hiss.

  Gregor should have known better than to treat Frill like she was some kind of pet. He had made the same mistake with the bats on his first visit. Frill was no more a pet than Ares was. She knew what was being said. Hadn't she spit back the ball when Hamnet had asked her to?

  "Sorry," said Gregor. "I didn't know you could..."

  "Thiiiink?" hissed Frill. Hazard turned to Frill and made a long, freaky series of hissing sounds. Frill hissed back unintelligibly, and the two laughed. Gregor had never seen a human speak anything but English in the Underland.

  Frill dipped her head and Hazard hung a large, reptile-skin pack around her neck. They continued hissing back and forth as Hazard adjusted the pack under Frill's ruff.

  "What's he doing?" Ripred asked Hamnet with a frown. "Can he speak to that hisser?"

  "Hazard can speak to anything. Well, at least he will try, if it will give him a chance," said Hamnet with a gleam of pride. "Go ahead, squeak at him."

  "What?" said Ripred.

  "Greet him in Rat," said Hamnet.

  Ripred eyed the little boy and then let out a high-pitched squeak. Almost immediately, Hazard parroted back a sound that was indistinguishable from Ripred's own.

  "What's that mean? Does that mean hello? I've talked to mice sometimes, but they say hello like this...." Hazard let out an even higher-pitched squeak that caused all three rats to grimace.

  "Well, it's about time one of you made a little effort to communicate outside your own tongue," said Ripred. "Gets a little tedious for the rest of us, having to learn Human if we want to talk with you. Can you do it, too?"

  "I can get by in Hisser," said Hamnet. "A word here and there of other creatures. I do not have Hazard's ear."

  "You learned too late. See, this one, start her off now, and she'll be fluent in Crawler by the end of the trip," said Ripred, poking Boots with the tip of his tail. "Even the warrior -- no, forget the warrior. He's been trying to master basic echolocation for months with no result. Just keep knocking your head against that one, okay, boy? Don't want to overload your massive brain with too many tasks at once."

  Gregor said nothing but decided he would dump the shrimp in the stream before Ripred would get one bite. Stupid rat.

  "So, shall we get going?" said Ripred.

  "Yes, we have lingered here too long," said Hamnet. "Frill will lead and I will go last. We will take the path that begins at the Arch of Tantalus, but eventually the jungle overcomes it. Remember, step lightly and hurt nothing. And keep a close eye on your provisions. The fliers did not name the Arch of Tantalus frivolously."

  "What's Tantalus?" Gregor asked Nike, as he adjusted the water bags on her back.

  "He was a who. An Overlander from long ago. He had committed a great crime. As punishment, he had to stand in a pool of water beneath a tree of luscious fruit. He had great thirst and hunger. But when he bent to drink, the water receded. When he reached for the fruit, the branches rose out of his reach."

  "Is that how he died?" asked Gregor.

  "He was already dead," said Nike. "The punishment was for eternity."

  Gregor was trying to wrap his mind around that and exactly what it had to do with going into the jungle as the party began to move through the archway. Frill went first, with Hazard perched on her back. Mange and Lapblood went next. Gregor fell into step with Temp and Boots. Ripred brought up the rear with Hamnet. Nike disappeared up into the vines above.

  Everything changed the instant he was through the Arch of Tantalus, as if he had stepped through some portal into another dimension. The ground beneath his feet turned from stone to moss. The air became thick and pungent with the smell of decaying plants. He couldn't prove it, but he would've sworn the temperature rose twenty degrees. And the jungle sounds, which had seemed a healthy distance away, now clamored in his ears.

  Within a few minutes his skin was damp with sweat and he was thinking of chopping his pants off into shorts. The straps of the packs cut into his shoulders. His nose began to run in the warm, moist air. He had never been hot in the Underland, and only cold when he was wet. Usually the temperature was comfortable if you wore short sleeves.

  The smooth carpet of moss transformed into a tricky web of roots. They popped up at various heights, and the flickering light of the streams made it difficult to judge how high to lift his foot. Gregor had pretty big feet, too, for an eleven-year-old. His parents always laughed about that and told him he'd grow into them. But they felt clunky in the hiking boots Mrs. Cormaci had given him. The boots were hand-me-downs from one of her grown-up sons and a size too large -- he had toilet paper stuffed in the toes to make them fit right -- so he had that extra half inch to deal with. Everyone else seemed to walk so easily -- Frill, the rats, Temp with his delicate roach feet. Gregor glanced over his shoulder to see how Hamnet walk
ed, and he tripped over a root, smacking into Mange.

  "Why don't you take those ridiculous things off your feet?" snapped Mange.

  But Gregor didn't dare. Who knew what kind of creature might be lying in wait? He thought of fangs and stingers, thorns and spikes, and kept his shoes on.

  Boots, riding comfortably on Temp's back, was having a fine time teaching him "The Alphabet Song." The roach held his own up to about the letter L , but that whole L-M-N-O-P run kept throwing him off track. In all fairness, this part of the song was fast and easy to garble, anyway. "Elemenopee!" sang Boots, as if it were one long letter.

  "Elenenemopeeo," sang Temp, off-key as usual.

  For a while, Hazard just perched up on Frill, watching Boots and Temp with great absorption. Finally, he slid off Frill's back and ran back to them. "What are you singing?"

  "I sing A-B-C," said Boots. "Who you?"

  "I'm Hazard," said the boy, skipping lightly over a root. "Will you teach me that song?"

  Would she? Boots loved to teach anything! Soon there were three voices weaving through the song. Gregor thought it was going to drive the rats crazy, but Mange and Lapblood were whispering intently between themselves, and Ripred was filling Hamnet in on what had happened in his ten-year absence. No, the one who was feeling a little crazy was Gregor, as the three conversations joined the jungle chatter already assaulting his ears. He would've liked a quiet moment to think, to catch up his brain to where his body was, to examine "The Prophecy of Blood" in light of everything that had happened, but he wasn't going to get it anytime soon.

  By the time Hamnet called a break, Gregor's clothes were soaked with sweat. Inside his boots, his socks felt squishy. A sharp pain jabbed between his shoulder blades from the heavy packs. He could've drunk the glacier water in three big gulps, but he'd decided to save the fancy bottle Mareth had put in his pack. He wanted to have some water with him, in case Boots needed it or he got separated from the group.

  For their resting spot, Hamnet had chosen a small clearing lined on one side by a strip of mossy rocks. Gregor could hear the gurgle of water nearby, but no stream was visible through the vines. The rats dumped the packs of food by the rocks and stretched out. After carefully examining a spot, Gregor unloaded his stuff and sank onto the ground across from them. Nike swished down from the trees and shook off her water bags next to him. Hamnet opened one and went around, letting everyone drink their fill.

  Hazard helped Hamnet pass out bread, meat, and some raw carrotlike vegetable. Gregor was not all that hungry, probably because of the heat, but he ate what was given to him. Boots munched down all her food and some of Temp's bread, which was standard. The cockroach always let her have whatever she wanted. Then Boots and Temp and Hazard began to play on the rocks.

  " R is for rock," said Boots and soon a chorus of "The Alphabet Song" was in progress.

  Lapblood and Mange, who were gnawing on bones they'd brought from the Arch of Tantalus, winced at the singing.

  "They're off again!" said Lapblood.

  "It'd be one thing if they could stay on key, but that's just painful," said Mange.

  "It's no worse than listening to you guys gnaw on stuff," said Gregor.

  "There must be some way to muzzle them," said Lapblood.

  "None I can think of," said Gregor.

  "Well, I'll think of one, if they keep on like this!" said Mange.

  "You rats...you've got a problem with little kids, don't you?" said Gregor. Ripred had never taken to Boots and had been openly hostile to the baby Bane. "Bet you don't even like your own pups."

  What? What had he said? Something really bad by the way Mange's and Lapblood's eyes were burning into him. Were they actually going to attack him? As tense as everyone had been today, it wasn't hard to imagine.

  "Speaking of needing a muzzle," said Ripred pointedly to Gregor. "Not making many friends with that mouth of yours, are you?"

  Gregor had not taken his eyes off Mange and Lapblood. He could see the muscles in their forelegs tightening. His fingers instinctively found the hilt of his sword.

  "Overlander," said Hamnet. Gregor remembered his agreement with Hamnet and slowly released his sword. "That is better. Remember where you are, all of you. And that you need each other, Warmbloods."

  The sounds of the jungle took over as everyone remembered, but no one relaxed.

  Then a little voice piped up, " F is for fog! Oh, Grego! F is for fog!"

  Gregor didn't want to look away from the rats, but something was wrong. There was no fog in the jungle. What was she talking about?

  When he turned his head, Gregor felt a whole new coat of sweat break out over the one that had never dried from the hike. Boots was sitting up on the highest of the rocks, clapping her hands in delight. Temp and Hazard were frozen in the act of climbing after her. Dotting the rocks like brightly colored jewels were about fifty little frogs. Green and black, sunset orange, grape-soda purple. Poison arrow frogs. Gregor recognized them from the Central Park Zoo. Only there, you had to view them from behind a thick pane of glass.

  There was a good reason for that. If you touched one of them, you could die.

  ***

  CHAPTER 15

  As if to illustrate Gregor's worst fear, a hapless lizard slithered onto the rocks. Not a big lizard, like Frill, just a foot-long one like you might see in the Overland. It shot out its tongue toward one of the frogs. The instant it made contact with the orange frog skin, the lizard went stiff as a board. Paralyzed by poison. Dead.

  "Don't touch, Boots! Don't touch!" cried Gregor. Oh, this was bad. Really bad. Gregor had once bought her a tube filled with plastic poison arrow frogs that looked very much like the ones around her. She spent hours lining them up on the arm of the couch. The frog set was one of her favorite toys.

  Boots giggled and clasped her hands together. But she was so excited that her little feet drummed on the mossy rock. " F is for fog! I see red, I see yellow, I see blue!" The frogs were hopping around, not wildly, but still, it was only a matter of time before one landed on Boots, Hazard, or Temp.

  "Hazard, can you jump clear?" said Hamnet in a ragged voice.

  The boy flexed his legs and sprang out over the packs of foods. He landed unevenly and tumbled into Ripred, but the rat didn't even seem to notice.

  "You can't help her up there, Crawler. Clear out of the way so the rest of us stand a chance," said Ripred.

  Temp hesitated, as if trying to take in what Ripred had said. Gregor knew Temp would sacrifice his life for Boots, but how could he protect her from that tiny army of amphibians?

  "He's right, Temp, just get out of there," said Gregor.

  Gregor's words seemed to decide him. Temp spread his wings and flew off the rock onto the path. Now it was just Boots, sitting happily among the frogs.

  "Rib-bit! Rib-bit! Fog says rib-bit!" she said. "And tongue goes like this!" Boots's tongue darted in and out of her mouth and she imitated a frog catching flies. Gregor had shown her that. "Rib-bit!"

  A red-and-black spotted frog leaped into the air and landed right by her hip.

  "Ooh!" said Boots. "Red fog says 'hi!'"

  "Don't touch it, Boots! Do not touch!" ordered Gregor. He was slowly moving in toward her.

  Another frog, a salmon-pink color, hopped over her shoe. "Hop! Hop!" Unable to contain herself, Boots scooted her feet under her and assumed the classic frog position, knees bent, hands between her feet. "Hop! Hop! I am fog, too!" She bounced up and down. The vibration of her movement seemed to stir up the creatures. They began to spring around with more energy. "Hop! Hop!"

  "No, Boots...no hopping!" pleaded Gregor.

  He was at the base of the food packs now. The frogs had spread out from the rocks onto the packs. Two orange frogs and a green one were within inches of his stomach. Boots was about a foot above him, five feet away. His arms reached out for her. "Just jump out to me. Like at the swimming pool? You jump, and I'll catch you. Okay?"

  "Ye-es!" Boots agreed. She straightened h
er legs and bent her knees to jump into Gregor's arms, but at that moment, a particularly dazzling sapphire-blue frog leaped right for her arm.

  The next few moments seemed to happen in slow motion. The sapphire frog sailing at Boots's arm, Lapblood's body twisting into the air, her tail catching Boots on the behind and catapulting her up over Gregor's head, Hamnet's voice as he caught her, the frog landing, leaping again directly for Lapblood's face, Gregor's arm in motion, his sword skewering the sapphire skin inches from Lapblood's ear.

  "Get back!" Ripred's sharp command reached his brain. "Get out of there!"

  The whole party staggered backward as the frogs began to invade the path.

  "Stay together!" he heard Hamnet's voice, but it was too chaotic. Everyone was crashing into the jungle, forgetting about the path as they fled the tiny, fatal frogs.

  Gregor was some twenty yards into the vines before he realized he was stampeding over the plants like a buffalo. He looked around the gloomy jungle and could spot no one. "Hey!" he yelled.

  "Stay where you are!" he heard Ripred call. "Everyone hold your position!"

  It took fifteen minutes for Hamnet and Ripred to reassemble the group.

  Gregor could hear Boots and Hamnet talking about the "fogs," so he knew she was okay. He stood very still, holding the dead frog out in front of him on his sword. His blood was still buzzing in his veins. His vision was oddly fragmented. It had happened again. The rager thing. Somehow, he had drawn his sword and stabbed this frog with deadly accuracy without even thinking about it. He couldn't have stopped himself if he had tried, because he didn't even know what he was doing. His "powers," as Hamnet had called them, were not under control. And he had no idea how to master them.

 
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