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Gregor and the curse of.., p.12
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.12

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Water's all very well, but if we do not have food soon, none of us will be reaching the Vineyard of Eyes," said Lapblood.

  "I can't believe that everything in this jungle is inedible," said Mange.

  "I don't think it is," said Gregor. "Probably some of it's fine, but Hamnet didn't think we would be able to tell the good stuff from the bad."

  "Hamnet," spat out Mange. "What does he know? He's human! Of course his nose can't tell the difference between what's poisonous and what's safe. My nose can, though. Even now I can smell a potential meal. I don't know what it is, but believe me, we can eat it."

  Gregor sniffed the swampy air. "I don't smell anything."

  "I do," said Lapblood. "Something sweet."

  "Yes, that's it," said Mange. "I'm going to find it. Anyone else coming?"

  "I'll come," said Lapblood. "Better than lying here dying of hunger."

  "I don't know, I don't think Hamnet would want us looking around the jungle for food," said Gregor doubtfully.

  "Why not? Isn't that exactly what he and Ripred are doing now? The more of us look, the more likely we are to find something," said Mange. "Don't come if you don't want to, but don't expect us to share what we find. Not even with your sister."

  Gregor thought about Boots waking up hungry, not understanding about there being no food and why she couldn't eat, especially if the rats were. She would start to cry and then what would he do?

  "Hamnet said something about the plants attacking us," said Gregor.

  "We've been trampling through this jungle for days," said Mange. "Your sister beat the vines with her hands when she wanted her ball, you've been snapping every other root with those boots, all of us caused damage when we ran from the frogs. Have you even seen one plant make any kind of move to stop us?"

  "No, I haven't," Gregor admitted. "Okay, I'm in." He took another pull on the water and stood up. He took off his backpack to let his shirt dry out. "Hey, Temp, we're going to look for some food. Mange and Lapblood smell something."

  "Not go, I would, not go," said Temp, shifting uncomfortably.

  "Don't worry, we'll be back soon," said Gregor. "Just give a yell if you need us." He did not intend to get very far from the campsite. Even with Frill and Temp on guard, he wanted to be close to Boots in case there was any danger. But the biggest danger right now was starvation. Following his nose, Mange led the way into the jungle. Lapblood went next and Gregor last. He wished he had some bread crumbs or something to leave a trail. Of course, if he had bread crumbs, he wouldn't be looking for food. Just sitting around eating bread crumbs. Whatever.

  They were moving farther away from the campsite than he wanted to go, but since Mange was walking in a fairly straight line, Gregor hoped they could get back okay. After a few minutes, he was heartened by a whiff of something sweet. "Hey, I can smell it, too!"

  "About time," said Mange. "We're nearly on top of it."

  They came out into a small glade. The air was permeated with a strong, sweet odor that reminded Gregor of ripe peaches. He shone his flashlight around the grove of plants. These were different than the vines that lined the path. There were long leafy stems curling high above their heads, but these plants also had big graceful yellow pods dangling horizontally from the greenery. They were at least six feet across and tilted up at the edges like huge, sunny smiles. Along the upper lips of the pods hung round, rosy fruit. Without further examination, Gregor knew that they were the source of the delicious smell. A thin stream of drool slid out of the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin. Out of some vague sense of manners, his hand reached up to wipe away the spit before he grabbed one.

  That same moment, Mange leaned his front paws on the lower lip of a pod and raised his head toward the delectable fruit. The instant his muzzle brushed the rosy skin of one of the spheres, the pod lunged forward, engulfed the rat, and snapped shut.

  All that was visible of Mange, poking out from between the yellow lips, was the tip of his tail.

  ***

  CHAPTER 17

  Lapblood gave a screech and leaped for the pod that had trapped Mange. When she was in midair, a long vine whipped out from another plant and wrapped around her waist. Her claws slashed at the vine, severing it, and the entire grove of plants went wild.

  Gregor felt bewildered as the jungle sprang into action. His fingers fumbled with the hilt of his sword, but it was much too late. Vines twisted around his body and limbs. Roots arched out of the ground and clamped around his boots. He tried to squirm free but the plants were far too powerful.

  Where was his rager reaction? He scanned his body for any sign that he was transforming into a deadly adversary but nothing was happening. No shift in his vision, no rush in his blood. All he felt was extreme fear.

  Mange was still in the pod, as far as he could tell. He could see Lapblood about ten feet away, struggling in a net of greenery.

  A thick vine that had wrapped itself around his stomach began to tighten. It was like he had a giant anaconda squeezing the life out of him. "Help!" he tried to call out, but the sound was pitiful. "Help!" But who would come to help? Ripred and Hamnet were gone. He and Mange and Lapblood were immobilized. For all Temp's courage...well, what could the cockroach do except die along with them?

  Gregor was aware of being drawn forward. The plant was pulling him toward one of the gaping yellow mouths. He thrashed helplessly, feeling his strength waning. He couldn't breathe....The vine was so tight....He could see the inside of the pod about a foot away now. A slimy clear liquid was oozing down the yellow walls.

  Gregor could feel himself beginning to lose consciousness. Black specks swam around in front of his eyes. As the vine tightened one final notch he coughed. His bubble gum flew out of his mouth and into the pod. Stretchy, sticky lines of pink spun up in his vision. He was vaguely aware that the gum was doing something in the pod. Mixing with the clear ooze...creating a whole new bubbly pink goo. The vine around his stomach began to loosen enough for him to get a few good breaths.

  Lapblood's teeth were still weakly snapping as she was about to enter another pod.

  "Spit!" Gregor croaked out. "Spit your gum into it!"

  Lapblood gave her head a little shake. Did she register what he was saying?

  "Spit your bubble gum in it, Lapblood!" Gregor yelled.

  Rats probably couldn't spit like humans did, but she managed to thrust her gum out of her mouth. Since her snout was hanging over the edge of the pod, it landed squarely in the middle. The slimy pink bubbly reaction began in her pod as well.

  Unfortunately, the plants did not free them. The pods with the gum were going into a frenzy. Pouring more clear ooze down their walls, chomping up and down, frothing pale pink bubbles. Temporarily out of order. But there were more pods turning toward them, hungry mouths open.

  "Help!" hollered Gregor, and at least this time his voice carried. Lapblood was giving off high-pitched shrieks, too. Surely somebody would come!

  Gregor saw a zebra-striped flash above his head and the pods tilted upward. Nike, still encumbered with her water bags, was flitting in and out of the vines, raking through the plants with her claws. She held her own for a bit, but there were too many plants shooting tendrils at her. He saw one lasso her back claw and knew it was over.

  The vines started to tighten again; the pods turned back. Gregor was about to abandon hope when a voice reached his ears. "Now what have you done?" Out of the corner of his eye he saw half a dozen vines fall lifelessly to the ground.

  "Ripred," he whispered and felt himself smile.

  The air filled with shreds of plant matter as Ripred went into one of his spinning attacks. Gregor couldn't help thinking of those gadgets they sold on TV that chopped up vegetables at the press of a button.

  His vines loosened; the roots withdrew. Gregor fell to the ground and just lay there trying to fill his lungs as a shower of green rained down on him. One of the giant yellow pods fell at his feet and oozed clear liquid onto the toes of his boots. He wa
tched, a little fascinated as it ate through the leather and began to work on the reinforced steel toes.

  Someone yanked him up and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Hamnet. His face bounced against the reptile skin shirt as Hamnet ran. They were back to the campsite in a minute. Gregor could feel his boots being tugged from his feet. His socks stripped off. Water gushed on his toes.

  "Hazard! Hold this water bag!" said Hamnet.

  There was a pause while the bag changed hands and then more water running over his feet.

  Gregor saw Nike a few yards away. "I am all right. I am fine," she was telling Hamnet, who was examining her leg.

  "The bone to your claw has been snapped in two. I do not call that fine," said Hamnet.

  Someone was crashing through the vines, no longer worried about what he damaged. Ripred dragged Lapblood into the camp by the scruff of her neck. The minute he released her, she tried to crawl back in the direction they'd come.

  "Mange..." she said.

  "He's dead, Lapblood!" snarled Ripred. Lapblood kept moving until Ripred flipped her over on her back and pinned her to the ground.

  "He's dead! I killed the plant that did it! The pod opened and what was left of his carcass fell out! Believe me, he's dead! And the rest of you should be as well!" shouted Ripred. "Who started this? Whose brilliant idea was it to leave the camp?"

  The rat turned his focus on Nike, perhaps because she seemed best able to answer, but she remained silent.

  "Not Nike," said Gregor. "She only came to rescue us."

  "So, was it you?" Ripred's muzzle poked in Gregor's face.

  "Mange smelled food. Lapblood and I went to help him look. We didn't know..." Gregor got out.

  "Didn't know what? That the plants here could kill? You'd been told! You'd been warned! How can I keep you alive if you won't even listen! All you had to do was lie here and drink water! And you couldn't even do that!" fumed the rat.

  "Enough, Ripred. Let me patch them up," said Hamnet.

  "Oh, yes, patch them up. So they can hatch some stunning new plan to save the day. Worthless pack of fools," said Ripred. "You could have gotten us all killed, you know! Following one stupid idea like that, that's all it takes! Goodbye us, goodbye cure, goodbye Underland!"

  "Enough!" said Hamnet. "Just sit over there and calm down."

  Ripred moved off by himself but did not calm down much. He would mutter to himself for a while and then unleash a volley of insults at Gregor and Lapblood. Mutter, unleash, mutter, unleash. It went on for quite a while.

  Hamnet sent Hazard over to pour water on Lapblood's eye. It had been splashed with pod acid. He got the medical pack and daubed Gregor's toes with a blue ointment and then bandaged them with white fabric.

  "Does it hurt?" asked Hamnet.

  "Not really," said Gregor. There was a strange, almost electric sensation on the tops of his toes. That was all.

  "Well, it will," said Hamnet, shaking his head.

  "The water's almost gone," said Hazard.

  "I will get another bag," said Hamnet. He stood up and looked around. "Nike, where are the water bags?"

  "With the plants. The vines ripped them from my back," said Nike.

  "Stop!" Hamnet whipped around and caught Hazard's wrist, but it was too late. The last trickle of water was drizzling out of the bag.

  "What is it, Father?" asked Hazard, puzzled. "Did I do something wrong?"

  "No. No, you did what I asked," said Hamnet, running his hand over Hazard's curls. "It is just...the water. This was our last bag."

  ***

  CHAPTER 18

  "What?" said Ripred.

  "Nike lost the water bags when she went to help the others. We used the remainder of this one on the acid burns," said Hamnet.

  "No water. Just exactly how long do you think we'll last without that?" asked Ripred.

  Hamnet shook his head. "Not long. It will take another couple of days before we will near fresh spring water. We will simply have to do our best."

  "I have some water." Gregor pushed himself up to a sitting position and reached for his backpack. He pulled out the quart of glacier water. "It's not much, I know."

  "It is a great deal, Gregor, if it keeps the pups from dying of thirst. They will be most vulnerable as they will dehydrate the fastest," said Hamnet, taking the bottle. "The rest of us will have to do without."

  Gregor nodded. Of course the water should go to Boots and Hazard. He was okay, anyway. He'd chugged down a lot before they'd left in search of food. He could get by.

  "Did you two find any food?" he asked hopefully.

  "No, nothing wholesome," said Hamnet.

  "Mange said the fruit we found was edible. He could smell it was okay," said Gregor.

  "Oh, why don't I just pop back and grab us a bushel or two?" said Ripred in disgust.

  "Well, at least we have your water," Hamnet said almost kindly. "That may make all the difference. It was good thinking, to pack it."

  "Mareth put it in. He said pure water wouldn't be easy to find," said Gregor.

  "Mareth?" said Hamnet. "Has he managed to stay alive all these years?"

  "Yeah, he lost his leg, though. On the trip to get the Bane," said Gregor. He realized Mareth and Hamnet must be about the same age. "Were you guys friends?"

  "Yes," said Hamnet. He turned the bottle of water over in his hands, but didn't elaborate.

  It was on the tip of Gregor's tongue to ask why Hamnet had left Regalia, where he had family, where he had friends, to live out in this dangerous, lonely place. What was it he had said when Vikus had asked him what he could do here that he couldn't do in Regalia? "I do no harm. I do no more harm." Gregor hadn't paid much attention to that at the moment. But the words had been enough to send Vikus back to his bat without further discussion. What harm had Hamnet done? It was hard to imagine.

  Hamnet rose and put the water with the medical supplies. "I know everyone is spent, but I believe we must keep moving if we are to reach water in time. Can you manage?" he asked Gregor.

  "He can manage," hissed Ripred. "So can Lapblood. And I better not hear any complaints out of either of them."

  Hamnet anointed Lapblood's eye with medicine. For Nike's leg he made a splint with strips of stone and fabric. But when he tried to give her a dose of pain medicine from a large green bottle, she refused. "I do not want to muddy my thoughts. Not in here." Hamnet tried to talk her into it, but she was adamant. "All right. We may need your head clear. But you will ride on Frill," he instructed the bat.

  "I can fly," said Nike.

  "You can fly, but you cannot land well. The foliage is getting too thick for easy access to the ground. Ride, Nike. And try to sleep," said Hamnet.

  Gregor helped Hamnet position Nike lying flat on her back atop Frill. They had to secure her with strips of bandages so she wouldn't roll off.

  "I'm sorry about all this," Gregor told her.

  "But why?" said the bat cheerfully. "Now I get to take a lovely nap while the rest of you walk. I should be thanking you."

  Somehow, her being such a great bat made Gregor feel even guiltier about her injury.

  Hazard climbed up in front of her onto Frill's neck and curled up in the folds on the ruff to go back to sleep. When Gregor laid Boots on her stomach on Temp's back she didn't even stir. He hoped she would sleep for a good long time. With no food and precious little water, he didn't know how he'd handle her.

  His boots had been ruined by the acid. As Gregor was looking down at his bare feet, his bandaged toes, and wondering how he'd walk, Hamnet peeled off his reptile-skin shoes. "Here, Gregor. You must wear these," he said.

  "What will you wear?" asked Gregor.

  "I will be fine. I spent many years without shoes before I came upon the idea of using shed skin. But you must take them now, or your bandages will not hold," said Hamnet.

  "Thanks, Hamnet." Gregor gingerly pulled the shoes over his bandages. They were kind of like short socks really. Thin and clingy. But somehow t
hey made him feel more protected.

  Lapblood still lay where Ripred had left her, as if she had lost the power to move. The ordeal with the plants had been physically exhausting, but Gregor knew that was not what was weighing her down.

  "Hey, Lapblood, are you okay?" he asked. She wasn't okay, though. Mange had just died. All her pups might be dead, too. How could she be okay? "Because we've got to keep moving. We've got to find water."

  Lapblood rolled onto her feet and got in line behind Frill without a word. Gregor remembered his state of shock after he'd thought Boots had been killed by the serpents. How Luxa had been unable to speak when Henry had betrayed her and died for it. He left Lapblood alone.

  The path was gone now. It had progressively narrowed until it had disappeared altogether. Now it was a matter of trying to step between plants. At first, Gregor found it a little easier since he was wearing Hamnet's fitted shoes instead of his boots. Then the pain in his toes began to register. There was a slight tingling, then itching, then he felt like his toes were on fire. He knew any mention of his wounds would only trigger another round of abuse from Ripred, so he gritted his teeth and moved forward.

  Perhaps it was the knowledge that there was no water available that made him so intensely aware of his thirst. The dryness inside his mouth. The skin cracking on his lips. Thirst had never been a problem before in the Underland. Fresh water had been available even in the Dead Land. And there was always plenty of cold, clean water to drink at home. Right out of the faucet.

  They walked for four straight hours, although it felt like forty to Gregor, and then they only stopped because Boots and Hazard woke up. Hazard understood there was little water to be had, but Boots kept tugging on Gregor's shirt saying, "Thirsty! I'm thirsty, Gre-go!" As if he must not be understanding her because he wasn't getting her anything to drink.

  She was so fretful and sweaty. Gregor stripped her down to just her underpants and sandals so she wouldn't perspire any more than was necessary.

  When Hamnet finally held the bottle of glacier water to her lips, Boots gulped down about a third of the bottle before he could stop her. "Slowly, Boots, we must make this water last," he said, gently disengaging her from the bottle.

 
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