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Gregor and the curse of.., p.11
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.11

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  When Ripred's nose scooted aside the vines, Gregor had still not moved a muscle. "I need help, Ripred," he said weakly.

  "You seem to be managing yourself all right," said the rat.

  "I can't control it," said Gregor. "Being a rager!" His arm jerked up, and Ripred jumped out of the way of the frog on the tip of his sword.

  "Whoa! Watch where you're swinging that thing!" said the rat. "Get rid of it. Go on, wipe it on that rock over there." Gregor dragged the tip of his sword along the rock and scraped off the tiny carcass of the frog. "And rinse it in the water," said Ripred so Gregor held the point in a nearby stream. "Now sheath your blade but remember its touch may still have poison on it. So, don't be pulling it out without thinking," Ripred said.

  Gregor stuck the sword back in its sheath. "How do I know when I'll pull it out? I don't plan these things!" he said, agitated.

  "I know, I know. Look, just calm down. Ragers feel insane at first. I did myself. The more it happens, the more you'll get used to it," said Ripred.

  "But I don't know when it happens!" Gregor almost screamed. Wasn't the rat even listening to him?

  "Yes, you do. You can feel it in your blood, your eyesight alters, your focus sharpens to exclude anything of unimportance. You're aware of these things?" said Ripred.

  Gregor nodded. "Sometimes. When Ares and I were fighting rats in the maze, I knew it was happening."

  "All right, good. That's good. That's a start. Now when you're in danger, when you feel you might be attacked, pay attention. Eventually, you'll be able to turn it on and off. But it takes time," said Ripred.

  "How long did it take you?" asked Gregor.

  "It's different. I battled so frequently. I had more opportunity to master it quickly," said Ripred.

  "How long?" repeated Gregor.

  "A few years," said the rat.

  A few years! When Ripred probably fought almost every day! Gregor shook his head, already feeling defeated.

  "It's not that bad, Gregor. Believe me, at times you'll see it as a gift," said Ripred.

  "I don't want this gift, Ripred," said Gregor.

  "Well, it's yours," said Ripred. "Come on now, before your sister makes any more friends."

  As Gregor followed Ripred back through the jungle, it struck him how nice the rat had been. Usually, he was needling Gregor or knocking him around. But Ripred seemed to know when he could push him and when he genuinely needed help. Like the time Gregor had cried after Tick died. Or when he had tried to tell him about how he had lost Boots to the serpents. And here, now.

  They rejoined the group some distance up the path from the frog incident. Gregor felt embarrassed, like everybody was staring at him. He particularly didn't want to meet Hamnet's eyes.

  "Don't jump down his throat, Hamnet. He couldn't help it," said Ripred.

  "I could see that, but it is not reassuring," said Hamnet.

  "Well, at least Lapblood's still alive to fight," said Ripred.

  Gregor knew he should probably thank Lapblood for saving Boots's life, but the rats were so hostile, he let it lie.

  Boots was still geared up about her encounter with the frogs, hopping around and making "rib-bit" sounds.

  "She says you have the same kind of frogs at home. She says they sleep in her bed," said Hazard to Gregor.

  "They're fake, Hazard. They're just toys," said Gregor.

  "Strange playthings you choose in the Overland," Hamnet commented.

  It must seem strange to them. Making a toy out of something so deadly. Encouraging a little kid to want to pick one up. But then again, poison arrow frogs weren't exactly hopping down Broadway.

  "What'd we lose?" said Ripred.

  "All the food, I'm afraid," said Hamnet. "The frogs swarmed the packs, and now they're too dangerous to touch, let alone risk eating from. Nike got the water, though. And Frill saved your packs." Hamnet dropped Gregor's two backpacks and the wineskin on the ground at his feet. "Any food?"

  "Just some cookies for Boots. Oh, and this," said Gregor, holding up the wineskin. "It's shrimp in cream sauce. I brought it for Ripred."

  "Now who's my favorite little rager?" said Ripred, running his twitching nose up the bag. "Did you really bring this for me?"

  "Sorry, Ripred. You know it goes to the pups," said Hamnet, swinging the wineskin over his shoulder.

  Ripred sighed. "First that greedy Bane and now these brats. They'll be the death of me, pups."

  "Oh, you will live." Hamnet laughed. "Long after the rest of us."

  They lined up again and continued down the path. Gregor tried to stress the importance of avoiding pretty frogs to Boots, but she didn't really seem to be getting it. In fact, she started snoozing on Temp's shell right in the middle of Gregor's lecture so he had no choice but to let it go.

  There was not much discussion after that. The heat was becoming more oppressive and the loss of the food was troubling. They marched forward until Gregor's feet were so heavy he seemed to be tripping over every root. Then at last Hamnet called for them to set up camp.

  They all gathered in a circle around a lantern. Everyone got a generous drink of water, but there was only food for the "pups." Gregor gave Hamnet the cookies, and he gave a few each to Boots and Hazard. Then, to Gregor's surprise, Hamnet held two out to him.

  "No, no, thanks," said Gregor.

  "You are only eleven, boy, you still qualify as a pup yourself," said Hamnet.

  "No, give it to them," said Gregor. He didn't feel like a pup. Somehow having the responsibility of saving his mother, Ares, and every warmblood in the Underland knocked that feeling right out of him.

  When Hamnet unscrewed the top to the wineskin, the mouthwatering aroma of shrimp in cream sauce made Gregor gulp.

  "Do you think it wise giving that to the pups?" said Ripred. "Cream has a bad reputation for spoiling in the heat."

  "The only thing spoiled is you. You can smell perfectly well that it's fine," said Lapblood.

  "You can never be too careful," said Ripred as he grumpily watched Boots and Hazard dipping their cookies in the sauce.

  When the kids had eaten, everyone settled down to sleep. Frill volunteered for the first watch. Gregor spread a blanket on the ground and lay down with Boots. She snuggled up on his arm and drifted off. He had to wait until she was asleep so he could free his arm from under her sweaty head of curls. Man, it was hot!

  He was exhausted, but the jungle sounds made it difficult to sleep. Plus the heat. Plus the fact that he'd had another rager experience. All of which seemed inconsequential when his mind rolled around to the images of the hospital. His mom lying in that white bed, Ares's heaving chest, the hope in Howard's eyes when he'd seen Gregor's face.

  So he was still awake, staring into the dimly lit vines, when they began talking. Lapblood and Mange.

  "Do you think there's any chance they're still alive?" whispered Lapblood. "Not the two little ones. I know they were dying when we left. But Flyfur and Sixclaw?"

  "Yes, yes, I do," said Mange soothingly. "The yellow powder is on its way and they had no signs of the plague when we left. And you know Makemince will manage to feed them somehow."

  "The two little ones...do you think they suffered much?" said Lapblood. "I can't bear to think of them, calling me, and no one answering. My pups."

  "No, I'm sure they went quickly," said Mange in a choked voice. "But we can't think of that. We have to think of Flyfur and Sixclaw. They still have a chance."

  "Yes. Yes, I know. I will," said Lapblood. "I am."

  "Now go to sleep, Lapblood," said Mange. "Please."

  It was quiet then, but now Gregor knew he was not the only one awake. He knew someone else was lying across the lantern, staring into the jungle, and wondering how long someone they loved had to live.

  ***

  CHAPTER 16

  Gregor dozed in and out of sleep until Hamnet woke him up to continue the next leg of the journey. As he rolled up his blanket, his mind went back to the conversation he'd overhear
d between Lapblood and Mange. So, two of their pups were dead and two might well be dead soon. He thought of the crack he'd made about rats not even liking their own pups, and his face turned hot with shame. Especially since Lapblood had risked her life for Boots. Whether she had done it because she thought Boots was necessary to find the cure or done it simply to save the little girl, he didn't know but the result was the same. Maybe he could talk to Lapblood privately....No. His dad said if you did something wrong to someone in public, you ought to admit it in public, too.

  "Hey, Lapblood," he called. It was hard to apologize. Especially to a rat. He started with the easy part first. "I just wanted to say...thanks for getting Boots away from those frogs yesterday."

  "Forget it," said Lapblood.

  She had not thanked him back for saving her from the blue frog, but maybe she thought he just owed her that as a matter of course. He forced himself to continue. "And what I said...that thing about rats not liking their own pups..." Everybody had stopped what they were doing to listen to him now. "I'm sorry. That was stupid." He crammed the blanket roll in his pack.

  Lapblood didn't respond. Neither did Mange. Oh, well. He had said it, anyway.

  While Hamnet fed Boots and Hazard, the rats and Nike groomed themselves. Even Temp seemed to be tidying himself up with his legs. Gregor wiped Boots down with a damp cloth and ran her brush through her hair. His mom would want him to keep her neat. He wasn't much concerned with his own appearance, but he wished there were a safe stream to wash in, just so he didn't feel so hot and sticky. At least he didn't have fur.

  When it was his turn to drink, Gregor lifted the water bag and gulped down as much as his stomach could hold. It helped to fill the hollow, empty feeling.

  They fell into their lineup and headed deeper into the jungle. The path was noticeably narrower, so much so that he could not walk beside Temp. Frill offered to carry Boots and Temp along with Hazard, and Gregor agreed, figuring they could entertain one another.

  He was a little concerned they'd take off on another marathon A-B-C sing-along, but Hazard came up with another diversion. Learning to speak Cockroach. Hazard had only exchanged a few sets of clicks with Temp when Boots tugged on his arm. "Me, too! I can talk like beeg bug, too!" she insisted. The three settled down on Frill's back and were occupied for hours with the game. It was just as Ripred had predicted. Boots learned the clicks and absorbed their meaning quickly. And Hazard was an amazing mimic. As for Temp, after his initial shyness, it turned out he was a natural teacher. He was endlessly patient and never critical. By the time they broke for lunch, the three were conversing in a strange mixture of English and Cockroach without thinking anything of it.

  At lunch, the water did little to affect the gnawing hunger that had settled in Gregor's stomach. He hadn't eaten in a day, and they'd been hiking for most of that time. When he was digging through the backpack for a toy top Dulcet had packed for Boots, he made a welcome discovery. "Hey, the bubble gum!" he said. He held up the bright pink package to the others.

  "I want bubba gum!" said Boots, hanging on his arm.

  "No, Boots. You're too little," said Gregor. His mom wouldn't let them give her gum because she might choke on it. "But, here, you can have the paper." He carefully shook out the gum and gave her the shiny pink wrapper, which she ran to show her friends.

  "Is that food?" asked Mange.

  "Not food exactly. You chew it, but you don't swallow it," said Gregor.

  "What's the point in that?" said Lapblood.

  What was the point in bubble gum? "I don't know...it tastes good. You want some or not?" said Gregor.

  There were five individually wrapped squares of gum. The kids had just eaten, and Temp could go a month without food. Nike and Frill were managing to catch enough bugs as they traveled, so that just left Gregor, Hamnet, and the rats.

  "Okay, perfect, that's one piece each," said Gregor. He tossed the rats and Hamnet each a square. "Remember, chew it. Don't swallow it."

  He peeled the waxed paper off his gum and stuffed it in his mouth. The burst of sugar was fantastic. He saw the others watching him. "Go on! Try it!"

  Hamnet slowly opened his piece and sniffed it. He tentatively put it in his mouth and chewed. A perplexed look crossed his face. "It is very sweet...and it does not diminish when you chew it."

  "No, it's gum. You can chew the same piece for days. Years probably!" said Gregor.

  One by one, without bothering to remove the paper, the rats took the gum into their mouths. Gregor had to bite his lip not to laugh as they snapped their jaws open and shut, trying to make sense of the stuff.

  Ripred made a slight gagging sound. "Uh. I swallowed mine."

  "It's okay, it won't hurt you," said Gregor.

  "I don't know where mine went," said Mange, running his tongue around his mouth. "Just gone." He opened his jaws wide and Gregor could see the wad of gum wedged up between two of his long teeth.

  Lapblood seemed to be the only rat capable of sustained gum chewing. "It's not bad. Not as good as gnawing, but it gives you something to do with your teeth."

  "Why is it called bubble gum?" asked Hamnet, taking his piece out of his mouth to examine it.

  "Because of this." Gregor blew a bubble and popped it with a loud crack. Everyone jumped.

  "Don't do that! We're edgy enough in here as it is!" said Ripred.

  "Hey, just answering a question," said Gregor.

  His craving for food got worse as they walked along. While the sugar from the bubble gum had given him a brief lift, it had also stirred up the juices in his stomach, making him more aware of his hunger than ever. He wanted cold, icy foods...Popsicles, watermelon, ice cream. And salt...he was losing enough of it sweating.

  He had not taken his boots off the whole trip and his socks were sodden. Unfortunately, he had neglected to pack any extra clothes, even socks, so he couldn't change them. And he couldn't borrow any from Hamnet, since he and Hazard didn't wear socks, just shoes made of reptile skin like the rest of their clothes.

  The lack of food combined with the heat was beginning to drain his energy. Hamnet had taken over the wineskin of shrimp, but Gregor still had the big pack of fuel and medical supplies and his backpack. His knees were buckling every few yards when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

  "I will take the pack, Gregor," said Hamnet.

  Gregor let him slide it off his back without objecting. He wished he had the strength not to accept, but frankly, he was just glad for the help.

  "Thanks," he muttered.

  Hamnet stayed directly behind him and left Ripred at the back of the line. "Ripred tells me you caused quite an upheaval by not killing the Bane."

  "I guess I did. But it was just a baby," said Gregor warily. Most of the humans were pretty mad at him about that.

  "It was a good decision. Else the rats would never have agreed to this journey. Plague or no plague," said Hamnet.

  Gregor had never thought of that, but it was hard to imagine the rats traveling with the Bane's killer. It felt good, too, to have Hamnet approve of his choice, especially when so few others did. "It didn't win me a lot of points with the Regalians. Now everybody hates me. Rats and humans." Hamnet laughed. "Not everybody. Ripred clearly adores you."

  "Oh, yeah, I'm a big favorite of his," said Gregor. "Probably wondering right now how I'll taste for dinner."

  "Might be, if you were something besides skin and bones," called Ripred.

  Gregor blew a bubble and gave it a loud pop.

  "Cut that out!" snarled Ripred.

  "Sorry," said Gregor, but he was grinning. This bubble gum was coming in handy.

  Hours later, when they came upon a small clearing that would allow them to camp safely, the grin had been completely wiped off Gregor's face. His feet had been rising and falling out of habit, but he had lost the sensation of walking miles ago. Utterly exhausted, he lay right down on the ground without bothering to put down a blanket or even remove his backpack or sword belt. The air was so hot and
steamy he was having trouble breathing. He wondered if there was enough oxygen, then he wondered if there was too much oxygen. Something was wrong, because his mind felt gluey and confused.

  As Hamnet fed the last of the cookies and shrimp to Boots and Hazard, Ripred went over to him. "We've got to get some food, Hamnet. Not just for the pups, although the little one will be squawking her head off in a few hours if we can't feed her. But for the rest of us, too. Look at the warrior."

  Gregor thought about raising his head to tell them he was okay, but he became preoccupied with the pattern on a small, green leaf and couldn't take his eyes off it. Possibly he had stopped breathing entirely and the heavy air was just drifting in and out of his lungs whenever it felt like it.

  "Yes, you and I will forage. I do not see any choice," said Hamnet. He lifted Gregor's head and held the water bag to his lips, urging him to drink more than he really wanted. "Try and rest, Gregor. We will be back soon. And drink as much water as you can." Hamnet laid his hand on Gregor's forehead for a moment, and Gregor felt oddly comforted. It was something his mom or dad might do. It was almost like having a parent around.

  The water revived him a little. After a while he sat up. Hamnet and Ripred were gone. Boots and Hazard had fallen asleep in the curve of Frill's tail. Temp stood next to them, cleaning himself. Nike was in a deep slumber a few feet from Gregor -- he hadn't even known she had landed. Most of the water bags were still on her back -- like Gregor she must have been too tired to care. Across the lantern, Gregor saw that Mange and Lapblood were stirring. They looked haggard. They'd probably been near starvation even before they came on the trip. At least Gregor had been eating regularly.

  "You guys want some more water?" asked Gregor. He had noticed the rats, even Ripred, had to rely on Hamnet to open the tops of the water bags to drink. Gregor picked up the bag Hamnet had left by his side and removed the stopper. He went over and kneeled next to Mange. "Come on, Hamnet said we should drink a lot."

  Mange allowed him to pour the water into his mouth. Then Gregor did the same for Lapblood, being careful not to wash her bubble gum down her throat. Where was his gum? His tongue found it tucked up between his molars and his cheek and he began to chew it again.

 
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