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Gregor and the curse of.., p.13
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.13

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "More," said Boots, pointing to the water.

  "You may have more in a little while," said Hamnet, and gave Hazard a drink.

  Boots was confused. She pulled on Gregor. "Apple juice?"

  "No apple juice, Boots. Try and go back to sleep, okay?" he said. Of course, she didn't. After a short rest, Hamnet had them moving again. Boots rode on Temp's back and kept up a steady stream of requests for a drink. After answering with patience for about the first three hundred times, Gregor finally snapped at her. "I don't have any, Boots! No juice! No water! Okay?" It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Boots burst into tears at a time when any loss of fluids was critical and wailed inconsolably for at least twenty minutes before Hamnet reluctantly gave her another few swallows of water. Finally, she fell back asleep, much to everyone's great relief.

  Gregor's toes were raw, searing, swollen lumps at the end of his feet. Roots stabbed at them through the shoes. Salt from his sweat ate into the wounds.

  And then there was Ripred's voice, taunting him from behind. "It didn't happen this time, did it, rager boy?"

  Gregor knew what he meant but he didn't answer.

  "'Oh, I don't want this gift, Ripred,'" the rat imitated him in a whiny voice. "You thought you could go anywhere and do anything and be safe. You thought you were invincible. Because you're a rager. Well, you're finding out now just how weak you really are."

  "Cease, Ripred, the boy has enough to bear," Gregor heard Hamnet say.

  "He needs to understand how close to death he came!" snapped Ripred.

  "And so he does," said Hamnet firmly. "He knows he did not think well before he acted. Who among us has not been guilty of that? Certainly not you. Certainly not me."

  Thankfully, Ripred stopped. But Gregor knew there was a certain amount of truth to what the rat had said. He had not thought he was invincible, but knowing he was a rager had made him less afraid to go into a dangerous situation. Sometimes he had trouble turning off his rager reaction. He had not known it could desert him in times of need. The knowledge shook his confidence and left him feeling defenseless.

  It was hard to concentrate, but Gregor tried to think back to the times he'd transformed and the times he hadn't. He'd been careful not to get into any fights in the Overland so it hadn't been an issue. When Ripred had knocked him to the ground in the tunnel, he hadn't experienced the rager sensation. But that had happened so fast, and Gregor had stopped feeling threatened as soon as Ripred had revealed who he was. When the infected bat had fallen into the arena, the situation had been dangerous, but there had been no one to fight except the fleas. Then there had been the moment with the frogs. He had known Boots was in peril. The threat had had time to register. But later, the plants had attacked so quickly....Was that the answer? Could he only become a rager if he had time to recognize a threat? No, no, because he had turned into a rager for the first time with just wax balls filled with red dye flying at him. Those weren't dangerous at all.

  "There's no pattern." This was the last clear thought Gregor had for a long while. What happened next was a haze of hours, maybe days, filled with pain, fear, and disorientation. Walking. Lying face pressed to leaves, unrelenting pain in his feet, Hamnet rubbing oil on his bleeding lips, bandaging his toes. Boots crying, whimpering, then finally making no sound at all, just lying limp on Temp's back, with no way to help her. Intense thirst, dreams of water, of frosty white glaciers he could never reach. Walking...walking again...tongue swollen, head aching, heart racing, stomach sick. Collapsed on the vines looking at his sister limp on Temp's back. Boots...asleep...unconscious... dead? Not dead, her chest rising and falling rapidly, her cracked lips, shiny with oil, tinged a faint blue. Then Ripred's voice, hoarse and weak. "I smell clean water...."

  He must have gotten up somehow. Followed Ripred and Lapblood into the jungle on the burning hunks of meat that were his feet. He could hear the water....Not the quiet, teasing gurgle of the jungle streams that had tormented them for days...but a rushing, splashing sound. The rats were running now, Gregor hobbling behind them. He could see the water, bursting out of a rock, cascading into a pool, a sandy beach...water...but then...

  Ripred gave a cry of alarm. "Get back! Get back!"

  Gregor could see Ripred and Lapblood floundering as if the ground was melting under them. Robotlike, he kept coming forward, although he could hear Ripred's voice, trying to stop him, force him backward. His own feet were too heavy to lift and he realized he was up to his ankles in something. Looking down, he watched himself sink to his knees before a wave of adrenaline brought his brain back to life.

  "Quicksand!" he said, and tried desperately to backtrack out of the stuff. It was impossible. He was in too deep.

  "Stop struggling!" Ripred ordered. "You'll only sink faster!"

  "Float!" Gregor cried. "Try and float!" He remembered that quicksand was like water. If he could get on his back he could float until help came. But it was too late. He was up to his thighs and had no way to pull himself free.

  "Hamnet!" Ripred called. "Hamnet, get in here!"

  Ripred was doing okay. He had managed to splay out all four legs and was precariously keeping on the surface. But Lapblood had panicked. Her thrashing paws were digging her rapidly into the quicksand.

  Gregor leaned way out and caught hold of a vine. He lifted himself up about six inches before the vine snapped and the force of the weight sunk him up to his waist in the quicksand. "Nike!" he screamed. "Nike!"

  There was a rustling in the vines to his right. Help had come! But the black, shiny eyes poking through the greenery were unfamiliar. At first he thought they were rats. No, the faces were smaller, more delicately boned. Mice. They must be mice.

  "Help!" cried Gregor. "Help us!" The mice didn't move.

  Someone fell from high in the vines, spinning, flipping, landing neatly in the small space between two of the mice. And Gregor did recognize the newcomer. Her clothes were rags, her pale skin marred with bruises and cuts. A long, curved scar ran from her left temple to the tip of her chin. But she still wore that thin band of gold around her head. And those violet eyes...well, he would know them anywhere.

  "Luxa!" Despite his desperate condition he felt joy spreading through him. She was alive! He smiled and felt fresh blood run out of his cracked lips. "Luxa!" He reached out his hand so she could save him.

  But Luxa didn't reach back. She didn't flatten herself on the bank and stretch out her arm. She didn't even throw him a vine.

  PART 3: The Mirror

  ***

  CHAPTER 19

  "Luxa! What are you doing?" gasped Gregor.

  "What are you doing, Overlander? Here in the jungle in the company of rats?" she asked coolly.

  What was she talking about? What was going on?

  "We need the rats!" sputtered Gregor. "You don't understand!"

  "I understand you spared the Bane's life. I understand he thrives under Ripred's protection. What more do I need to understand?" said Luxa.

  So that was it! How she'd gotten here or why she had remained, Gregor had no idea. But she knew enough of what was going on outside the jungle to have heard about the Bane.

  "Nerissa said I did the right thing!" said Gregor. That was all he could manage because the quicksand was now reaching his mouth.

  "The plague has erupted, you self-righteous brat. We're seeking the cure! Now get us out of here!" Ripred growled at her.

  "The plague?" repeated Luxa. Her brow furrowed, but she did not make any move to help them. "I have not heard of any plague."

  "Really? Well, with all the visitors you must get here, I can't believe someone hasn't mentioned it," said Ripred. "It's the talk of the Underland!"

  "Judith!" Gregor heard Hamnet's voice. "Help them!"

  Hamnet skidded to a stop before he reached the quicksand, but his attention was on Luxa. She looked back at him in shock. As they faced each other in profile, Gregor could see the resemblance was uncanny.

  "I am not Judith," said Luxa, confused.
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  "No, you are not," said Hamnet, recovering and yanking a vine from a nearby tree. "My sister would have never stood by and watched those who had risked so much for her die!"

  Gregor's fingers caught the vine just as his nose was going under. He clung to it with what little strength he had left, and Hamnet slowly pulled him from the quicksand. He lay on the ground, covered in wet sand, sick and dizzy as he watched the rest of the rescue.

  Hamnet had swung another vine that was still attached by its roots out to Ripred, and the rat was managing to inch himself to safety.

  It was Lapblood who looked like a goner. All that was visible of her were a few inches of snout and one paw still feebly clawing at the surface. Hamnet threw her a vine, but there was no way she could see it since her eyes had sunk under the sand.

  "Lapblood!" Hamnet shouted.

  "Lapblood!" hollered Ripred. "Get the vine!"

  It was no use. She was going down.

  The paw was gone and the last bit of her twitching nose had almost disappeared when Nike dove in from above. The claw of her sound leg dug into the quicksand and latched on something. Then her wings began to beat like crazy. Slowly, very slowly, she managed to raise Lapblood's head out of the muck by the scruff of her neck.

  "I cannot lift her!" panted the bat. "You must help!"

  Hamnet threw out the vine again, but Lapblood's eyes were sealed shut with sand. "Lapblood!"

  "Wake up, Lapblood!" ordered Ripred. "You've got to get hold of the vine so we can pull you out!"

  Lapblood's mouth began to work. "No...just let me go....Let me go...." she barely whispered.

  "Let you go? After I saved your sorry hide from those plants? Not likely! Now do as I say!" roared Ripred.

  But Lapblood only gave her head a slight shake. "No...no more..."

  Gregor realized it had all been too much. The months of starvation, watching her pups dying, this torturous trip, Mange's death. And Lapblood had decided that she no longer wanted to live.

  "No!" Gregor said. "Don't give up! Lapblood!" She didn't respond. His words meant nothing. But then he thought of some words that might make a difference. Words that had never been meant for his ears. "What about Sixclaw? And Flyfur? What about them?"

  At the sound of the names, Lapblood's eyes opened. She looked around frantically. "My pups!" she said.

  "That's right! Your pups need you!" said Ripred. "Now pull yourself together and grab that vine!"

  Lapblood swung a claw out and dug it into the vine. Ripred and Hamnet pulled from the bank and, with Nike's help, they finally dragged her from the quicksand. She lay next to Gregor, her fur coated in a thick layer of wet sand.

  "So this is my niece, then?" Hamnet asked Ripred as he turned angrily on Luxa.

  "You know it is. She's the spitting image of your twin," said Ripred.

  "Hamnet," said Luxa. "You are Hamnet. We thought you dead."

  "We thought you dead, too, Luxa. And perhaps better you were, if you can so unflinchingly watch the death of your comrades," said Hamnet.

  "Oh, I can tell we're in for another lovely family reunion," said Ripred. "But it will have to wait. Take us to water, Your Majesty, or I swear I'll rip you and your nibbler friends to shreds on the spot."

  Gregor felt himself being lifted and then began to move. Frill. He must have been the one on her back this time. In a few minutes he could hear water again. Ripred was nudging him in the side with his snout.

  "Come on, warrior. Up you go. Get yourself a drink," said Ripred.

  Gregor slid off Frill's side onto his hands and knees and crawled to the splashing sound. A spring burbled out of a rock and down into a crystal-clear pool. He stuck his whole face in the water and sucked cool mouthfuls into his body. He lifted his head for just a moment to catch a breath and plunged his face back into wetness...into water...into life .. .

  When he had finally slaked his thirst, he looked around. They were on a big stone slab of rock that stretched out beside the pool. Luxa and the mice were nowhere in sight. Ripred, Nike, Hazard, Frill, and Temp were all lined up along the side of the pool drinking with Gregor. Hamnet had filled their last water bag and was alternating between trickling water into Boots's and Lapblood's mouths.

  Gregor crawled over to Boots's side. "Is she okay?" he asked.

  "She will be fine, Gregor, once we get some food and water into her," said Hamnet.

  Gregor pressed his nose into Boots. She opened her eyes and smiled a little. "Hi, you," he whispered.

  Boots's lips moved in response. No sound came out. But she was alive.

  "I can give them water," said Gregor. "You should go drink."

  "I have been drinking from the bag. And I am well enough," said Hamnet. He seemed wiped out but he looked pretty good compared to the rest of them. Gregor guessed that years of jungle life combined with his natural physical strength had made him survive the trip better. "You must go wash the sand off you before it hardens, Gregor."

  "He's right," Ripred said. "This stuff will be like cement soon." With that the rat dove into the pool and began to roll over and over. Sand billowed out from his coat and into the clear water.

  "Come, those of you who are still thirsty, and drink from the bag until the sand settles," said Hamnet.

  When Ripred had pulled himself out of the pool and begun to groom his coat, Gregor got on his wobbly legs and made it to the pond. He thought about undressing, but his clothes were so caked with sand he wasn't even sure he could find the fasteners. So he just jumped in.

  Ahhh! Nothing had ever felt so good as the cool liquid enveloping his body. The water came about chest high on him so it was plenty deep for swimming. He dove under the surface and swam across and back before he came up for air. After a few laps, most of the sand had fallen away from his clothes. He sat on the side of the pool and stripped down to his underwear. Taking off the reptile shoes was a special challenge, since his toes were about the size of walnuts and embedded with bits of sand. He had to soak his feet a while before he could peel off the bandages. Big pieces of skin came off. But, underneath, delicate new skin was beginning to grow.

  Gregor swam over to the spring, stood on the rock ledge, and let the water cascade down his body. He stayed under the flow until he was sure every grain of sand, every drop of sweat, and every bit of dead skin had been washed from his body. Then he rinsed his clothes and climbed up onto the slab to lay them out to dry.

  Luxa appeared, swinging several large fish by the tails and carrying something in the lower part of her shirt. When she released the hem, a bunch of round yellowish fruit fell to the ground. She tossed the fish beside them and selected the largest. "I will grill this for Boots. She will not eat it uncooked," she said to no one in particular.

  It was hard not to dive on the food before Hamnet divided it up. Gregor received four pieces of yellow fruit. His teeth split the skin of the first and a delicious plum taste filled his mouth. He decided it was safe and ate it in three bites.

  Propping Boots up on his lap, he tried to coax her to eat. At first, she seemed indifferent. But when he dribbled some of the sweet juice into her mouth her face lit up. She grabbed his hand and pulled the fruit to her mouth and gobbled it up. " P is for pum," she said, licking the juice off her fingers. "More pum?" And Gregor was happy he could give her a whole handful.

  The fish was good, too. On his last trip, he'd had a little trouble adjusting to the cold, raw flesh. This time, he scarfed it down without a thought. Luxa brought over some pieces of fish she had grilled over the lantern on her sword for Boots. She had squeezed the juice of one of the golden plums over the chunks to make it more appealing.

  "Will you try some fish, Boots?" she asked, not even looking at Gregor.

  "Ye-es!" said Boots and stuck a piece in her mouth. "Where is rat?" she asked Luxa and then pressed her hand to her nose. "Ow!"

  "Who, Twitchtip?" said Luxa, and Boots nodded. Gregor realized that the last time the queen and his little sister had seen each other had been in th
e rats' maze. Twitchtip had been with them, with a badly damaged nose. "I do not know."

  "Oh, yes, my darling Twitchtip. Where did you leave her, Your Majesty? Dead in the Labyrinth, I'll warrant," said Ripred. "It's too bad, really. I mean, it's not like anyone will miss her, but what an amazing nose."

  "I'll miss her," said Gregor brusquely. He had liked Twitchtip, rat or no rat. He didn't want to hear Ripred running her down now.

  "Sorry, I forgot what chums you'd become," said Ripred. "But she's just another dead rat to you, right, Your Queenliness?"

  Luxa ignored him. She ignored everyone except Boots. But what was she so mad about, anyway? Gregor not killing the Bane? Yes, but he had told her Nerissa said he had done the right thing. Finding him with two rats? Well, there was no other way to get the cure for the plague. Hamnet chewing her out? Yeah, she wouldn't have liked that. Besides, she must have been living out here with the mice in semidarkness for months. When someone finally did show up, it wasn't to rescue her, it was just by chance. Maybe she was just mad at everything and everybody.

  And where was her bat, Aurora? Dead, probably, or why would Luxa be hanging out in the jungle instead of flying home? Gregor started to feel sorry for Luxa until he remembered she had been prepared to watch him smother to death in the quicksand. "I don't owe her a thing," he thought. But he didn't quite believe that. There were times in the past when she had saved his life and, even more important, saved Boots. Still, he wasn't going to beg her to talk to him, if that's what she was waiting for.

  When Boots had finished eating, he gave her a bath. Mostly he just held her and walked around the pool. She was too weak to really play. But he could tell the water felt good to her. After she was clean, he made her a little bed out of a blanket, and she drifted off to sleep. He washed all her clothes, too, and laid them out to dry beside his on the slab. Then he stretched out beside Boots and slid into oblivion.

  He was unsure how long he slept before he was awakened by Ripred's voice laying into Lapblood. She had not moved since they'd arrived at the pool. She'd let Hamnet pour water into her mouth, but sometimes it just ran out of the side. None of the food before her had been touched. And she had made no attempt to bathe, so her fur was still caked with sand. Whatever brief rally she had made to save herself from the quicksand was over. Grief and pain had consumed her again.

 
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