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Gregor and the curse of.., p.14
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.14

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Get up, Lapblood! You've got to get that sand out of your fur before it's too late!" ordered Ripred. She didn't even react to his voice. He tried a few different methods of persuasion, but got no results. Finally, he snorted in frustration. "Fine! If you're just going to lay there, I'll throw you in myself!" With that he grabbed Lapblood by the scruff of the neck and dragged her into the pool. She floundered around in a daze, as if she wasn't quite sure what was going on, until he pulled her back out. "Now groom yourself! The water doesn't get in by your skin! You've got to clean the rest of the sand out with your claws before it rubs you raw!" said Ripred. But Lapblood seemed no more inclined to groom herself than she had been to bathe. She just lay on her belly, indifferent to the world. Ripred began to threaten her, and had actually opened his jaws to bite her on the flank when Gregor intervened.

  "Stop it!" Gregor said.

  Ripred looked at him in surprise. "Excuse me?"

  "Stop it. Just leave her alone. She feels bad, okay?" said Gregor.

  "Tell you what. Later, when we're all safe and sound, I'll make a point to be extra sympathetic. But at the moment, I can't have her checking out," said Ripred. "I need her. She can fight and chances are we're going to run into at least a few more things that want to eat us in the Vineyard. And who do I have as backup? A handful of pups, a lame bat, a crawler, a couple of pacifists, and a rager who freezes up. All of you in bad shape, to boot. Oh, Lapblood will clean her fur, if I have to yank every piece out to convince her!" He opened his teeth to tear out a hunk of her fur. Gregor's fingers closed around a plum Temp had set aside for Boots, and he beaned Ripred between the eyes with it.

  The rat looked at him in disbelief. It couldn't have hurt; Gregor hadn't thrown it hard. But it was so rare that anyone defied Ripred that it genuinely took him aback. "What was that?"

  "I'll do her fur," said Gregor.

  "What?" said Ripred.

  "I'll groom her myself," said Gregor. He took out the brush Dulcet had packed for Boots and crossed over to Lapblood.

  "You? You're going to groom her?" said Ripred with a laugh.

  "Why not?" said Gregor. He'd brushed dogs before. How different could it be?

  "This I've got to see," said Ripred, and settled himself back comfortably to watch the show.

  Water was still dripping off Lapblood. She had not even given herself a shake when she'd come out of the pool. While the swim had rinsed away the big chunks of sand, her fur was still gritty to the touch. Gregor wasn't exactly sure how to start. For one thing, she was way bigger than any dog he'd ever brushed. Plus she was wet. Still, he had to give it a shot.

  Gregor got his clean shirt, which was mostly dry, and patted a patch on her back so it was at least not soaked. Then he took the brush and began to work through the fur very gently. Ripred was right. It was matted in places and the grains of sand were already beginning to rub sore spots on her skin. It took him a while to get a patch the size of his hand clean.

  "Man, this will take forever!" he thought. But he didn't stop because Ripred was watching. So were a lot of other creatures. As they awoke, his traveling companions seemed fascinated by the sight of him brushing Lapblood's coat. A dozen pairs of shiny black mouse eyes peeked out from the vines. And though he could not see her, he felt certain Luxa was somewhere in the jungle watching him, too. Disapproving, no doubt.

  As the fur dried, the job became easier. His arms ached but his fingers loved the feel of the silky coat. Who knew rats had such soft fur? There was something soothing about the whole thing.

  When he'd finished her back, Gregor moved around so he was facing Lapblood for the first time. She seemed startled by his appearance. Confused.

  "I'm going to brush out your belly now. You've got to lay on your side," said Gregor.

  As if in a trance, Lapblood rolled over on her side. But she kept her eyes trained on Gregor. He wondered if at any moment she might come to her senses and bite his head off. She didn't. She was too far gone. Too weak. Too sad. And a little crazy, or why would she ever ask Gregor what she did just then?

  "Do you think they're still alive?" whispered Lapblood. "Flyfur and Sixclaw?"

  It was almost the same question she had asked Mange.

  "Sure. Sure, I do," said Gregor. He tried hard to remember what Mange had said to her. "They'll have the yellow powder by now. And --" What was that other rat's name? "And Mincemeat will feed them." That name wasn't exactly right, but it must have been close enough.

  "Yes, she will feed them," said Lapblood. "My pups."

  "Now you should try and get some sleep, Lapblood," said Gregor. "Okay?"

  She blinked at him a few times and then, amazingly, fell asleep.

  Gregor's thoughts turned to his own mother. She must be very sick by now. Howard as well. Neveeve said the bats didn't get sick as quickly, so maybe Andromeda was still okay. But Ares? Face it, Ares must be dead. Gregor was blindsided by pain for a few moments, and he struggled to push it away. He couldn't afford to give in to it now. Like Lapblood, he had others to save.

  He brushed her coat until every inch of it was as smooth as velvet. It was funny...how he and Lapblood were like two sides of one coin. A mother fighting to save her kids. A kid fighting to save his mother. Despite their differences, he felt they'd had a special link from that first night, when they had lain awake together in the darkness, wondering about their loved ones. At the moment, Lapblood was past being able to bear what she had to bear. He knew what that was like and he could not watch Ripred abuse her. That's why he had stepped in. He would like to have explained that to all the spectators. But he didn't have the words.

  So instead, without bothering to clean out the brush, he groomed his own hair.

  ***

  CHAPTER 20

  Food, water, and a good night's sleep produced a miraculous change in Boots. She woke up cheerfully and demanded breakfast. By this time, both Hamnet and Ripred had gone foraging for food and there was plenty. Dozens of fish, piles of plums, and big heaps of mushrooms.

  Hamnet made a small fire on the stones using chunks of dead vines for fuel.

  "Are you sure you should be building a fire?" asked Gregor, looking nervously around at the jungle.

  "Take ease, Gregor, the plants are harmless in this part of the jungle," said Hamnet. He grilled several fish basted in plum juice. Gregor thought it was the best thing he'd ever tasted. Everyone packed away a huge breakfast except Lapblood, who was still dead to the world.

  "Let her sleep," said Hamnet. "There will be food when she wakes."

  Boots was begging to go swimming so Gregor took her in the pool. She rode on his back, jumped off the bank into his arms, and practiced blowing bubbles. When she got tired of the water she ate again and then pulled Temp and Hazard into a game with her ball.

  Hamnet called Gregor over so he could examine his feet. "They are healing, but you must take care to keep them from infection," he said. He painted Gregor's toes with the blue medicine, bandaged them again, and made him put the reptile shoes back on. Then he turned his attention to Nike's leg. "How is the pain?" he said.

  "Not too bad," said Nike, but she let out an involuntary squeak when Hamnet ran his fingers over the break.

  "We will have to camp here at least a day, Nike," said Hamnet. "Take the painkiller. It will allow you to rest." This time Nike did not object so Gregor knew she must really be hurting.

  Hamnet dug through the medical supply pack, then emptied it on the ground and ran his hand over the contents. "Where is it? Where is the medicine?" The big green bottle was not among the supplies. "Has someone taken the painkiller?"

  Gregor looked around the group but no one spoke up. It was unlikely that any of them would have taken it. Boots and Hazard were just children. Temp, Nike, and Frill wouldn't have been able to even open the container. The rats might be able to break the bottle. But Lapblood was in a state of shock. And Ripred? He wasn't in pain, and he probably wouldn't be interested in something that fogged your mind. Gregor saw Ha
mnet looking at him and realized that he was the most likely suspect. He had fingers to open the bottle and painful toes to motivate him to want the medicine.

  "You know, Gregor, if you had asked for the painkiller I would have given it to you," said Hamnet. "It is just that we usually save it for those in the greatest agony."

  "I didn't take it. Honest," said Gregor. "You can look through my stuff."

  Ripred crossed to where he was sitting. "Open your mouth," he said. Gregor did, not sure what was going on. The rat took a deep sniff of his breath. "He hasn't swallowed any of it."

  "My apologies," Hamnet said to Gregor. "Well, that does not leave us many options."

  Before Gregor could ask what he meant, Boots threw one of her long high balls into the surrounding jungle. Hazard started after it but Gregor caught his shoulder. "No, I'll get it, Hazard." He didn't want either of the kids running around out there, even if the plants were supposed to be harmless.

  It took a little while to find the ball since there was no path and the vines were thick close to the ground. He finally spotted it wedged between two roots. "Heads up!" he called and winged it back into the clearing. That's when he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. She was sitting motionless up in the vines and must have been watching him the whole time.

  While he spoke, he examined a hangnail that was bugging him. "So, you were just going to stand there and watch me die."

  "I thought you and Ripred were here to attack the nibblers," said Luxa. There was nothing apologetic in her tone.

  "Why's that?" said Gregor.

  "The rats have always hated the nibblers because they are on good terms with the humans. The nibblers fought on our side in the last war. So the rats drove them into the jungle, hoping they would starve and be eaten by predators. However, the nibblers are stronger than the rats give them credit for," said Luxa.

  "That could be a reason why the rats are here. What about me?" said Gregor.

  "You did not kill the Bane," said Luxa. "When I saw you and two rats in the jungle, I could only assume you had crossed over to their side."

  "Okay, you got me. I've hooked up with Ripred, and we're taking over the Underland and splitting it fifty-fifty. Because, you know, I just can't get enough of the place." Gregor bit off the hangnail and spit it into the vines with disgust. "Geez, Luxa." The whole time he was down here all he ever wanted to do was get home to his family in one piece. She knew that. The idea that he had some big plan with Ripred was ridiculous.

  "You may sneer, but that is not so different from what Henry tried," said Luxa.

  Henry. He'd been her cousin, her best friend, and the guy who had sold her over to the rats for some crazy scheme where they would all share power. Gregor admitted Luxa had cause to be suspicious. But still.

  "I'm not Henry," said Gregor. He sighed when he thought of what an impossible task it was to get Luxa to trust him. Probably the only one she trusted was her bond. If the bat was still alive. "What happened to Aurora?"

  "She is injured," said Luxa.

  That was a relief, anyway. To know Aurora hadn't been killed. "Injured how?" asked Gregor.

  "It is her wing. It has been pulled from its socket. She cannot fly and I cannot leave her. She suffers greatly," said Luxa.

  Something clicked in Gregor's head. "So, you took the painkiller?"

  "I did not know Nike needed it. I will bring some back," said Luxa.

  "You know, your uncle should look at Aurora. He's pretty good with medical stuff," said Gregor. Luxa didn't answer. She had not made a very good impression on Hamnet. And who knew what she thought of the guy? Showing up after ten years when everybody believed he was dead. As things stood, Gregor realized she would never be able to ask him for help. "I'll talk to him. See if there's anything he can do. But you have to come with me." After a minute, she slid down a vine next to him. Her eyes were so sad and tired. Suddenly, it was hard to stay mad at her. "What happened here?" he asked, drawing a line from his temple to his chin to indicate her scar.

  "A rat clawed me in the Labyrinth," said Luxa.

  "Thanks for getting Boots out of there," said Gregor.

  "It was Temp," said Luxa.

  "It was Temp who ran. It was you who fought so he could," said Gregor. She just shrugged. "Come on, let's talk to Hamnet."

  When Gregor told him about Aurora, Hamnet slid the pack with the medical supplies on his back. Gregor and Hamnet followed Luxa a short distance through the jungle. She pushed aside a thick swath of vines and revealed the entrance to a cave. Inside were a few mice and Luxa's golden bat, Aurora. The poor thing was lying on her belly, probably the last position a bat would choose to rest in, with one wing extended at a grotesque angle. Her eyes had a dull, remote expression that Gregor had never seen in them. He hoped it was just from the pain medicine.

  "She has dislocated the wing," said Hamnet with a frown. "How long has it been out of the socket?"

  "Many weeks," said Luxa.

  Hamnet shook his head. "Even if I can maneuver it back into place, the damage may be lasting. But we can do only what we can do."

  Just getting Aurora into a standing position caused the bat to shriek.

  "Can you not do it while she is lying down?" said Luxa, stroking Aurora's face to calm her.

  "No, even this may not work," said Hamnet. He instructed Gregor to hold Aurora securely by the chest. Gregor couldn't wrap his arms around her, since her wings interfered. The best he could do was to clutch large handfuls of her fur on each side of her body.

  "Sorry, Aurora," he said.

  She blinked at him, dazed. "Overlander? You are here?"

  "Yeah, I'm back again," said Gregor.

  "And Ares? He is with you?" asked Aurora.

  "No, he...he got the plague," said Gregor.

  "The plague?" Even though Aurora was in a drug-induced stupor, he could hear the horror in her voice. Images came rushing back into Gregor's mind. Purple lumps bursting...white sheets stained with blood...his bat...his mother...

  "Oh, not Ares..." said Luxa hollowly.

  "It is time." Hamnet had moved behind Aurora and taken hold of her twisted wing near the top. "Brace yourselves!" he ordered and then gave a quick, sharp tug on the wing. Gregor lost his grip on her fur, and the bat gave a heartbreaking cry.

  "Stop it!" screamed Luxa, and Gregor could see she was about to lose it. She grabbed Hamnet's arm and tried to pull him away. "Do not give her any more pain! She cannot bear it!"

  Hamnet caught her by the wrists. "If you do not want her to die here in the jungle, there is no other way, Luxa. You do not help by objecting. Go outside the cave."

  But Luxa wouldn't. She pressed her back into a wall and refused to move.

  "Again, Gregor," said Hamnet grimly. "And you must hold her tighter. I must have something to pull against."

  Gregor wiped his sweaty hands and latched on to Aurora's fur.

  "On the count of three," said Hamnet. "One -- two -- three!" There was another yank, another screech, but this time Gregor managed to hang on. And this time, wonderfully, beautifully, Aurora's crooked wing popped back into place and folded neatly up against her side.

  "Ohhhh!" Aurora let out a gasp of relief. "Ohhhh!"

  "Good," said Hamnet. "Very good. But it is not healed. You are not well. No doubt damage has been caused by its displacement. Use it too quickly, and it may dislocate again. But the pain is much less, I believe."

  "Much less," whispered Aurora. She gingerly opened and closed her wings a few times. Luxa wrapped her arms around her bat and pressed her face into the golden fur. Gregor was sure she was crying and didn't want them to see.

  "Rest now. I will come back and check on you in a few hours," said Hamnet. He picked up the green bottle of painkiller that was lying against the cave wall and returned it to the medical pack. "Come, Gregor."

  As they walked back to the camp Gregor said, "I guess they've had a pretty bad time."

  "It could not have been easy," replied Hamnet. He
stopped to strip a vine of a dozen of the yellow plums. "You know my niece better than I. What manner of person would you say she is?"

  "Luxa?" said Gregor. He tried hard to think how to describe her. "Well, when I first met her, she seemed stuck-up. That's when she was hanging out with Henry all the time. Then we sort of became friends." It seemed so weak, his impression of Luxa, when she was so strong. He thought of her killing the rat, Shed, to save his life. Flipping through the air with Aurora as they destroyed a funnel spiderweb with a move called the coiler. Secretly flying out after the boats on the Waterway so that she could help him find the Bane. How to describe Luxa? "She's brave," said Gregor finally. "Brave as anybody I've ever known. And I know this might sound crazy...what with the quicksand thing and all...but I trust her with my life."

  "That does sound crazy," said Hamnet, but he smiled.

  Back at the campsite, Hamnet administered the painkiller to Nike. It affected her almost immediately. "Ah. I can barely feel my leg. Well, I have not been able to unravel 'The Prophecy of Blood' with a clear head, perhaps I can do it when everything seems unreal," she murmured.

  "Yes, 'The Prophecy of Blood,'" said Hamnet. "It has been many years since I studied it in Sandwich's room. How goes the repeating stanza?"

  It was still so fresh in Gregor's mind that he answered automatically.

  Turn and turn and turn again.

  you see the what but not the when.

  Remedy and wrong entwine,

  And so they form a single vine.

  Hamnet had him say it a few more times so he could commit it to memory. While he recited it for the fourth time, Gregor realized Boots was by his side, doing a little dance to the words.

  "'Turn and turn and turn again,'" she said. Every time she said "turn," she'd spin in a half circle. "'Turn and turn and turn again.' 'Turn and turn and turn again.'" She went on until she got dizzy and tumbled over, giggling.

  "Okay, it says, we 'see the what,'" said Gregor. "So, what's the what?"

  "Presumably, the plague," said Ripred.

  "We 'see the "plague" but not the when,'" said Gregor, swapping in the word. "Then what's the when?"

 
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