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Gregor and the curse of.., p.17
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.17

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "Who?" said Gregor, grabbing Boots up in his arms. "Who ate their way in?"

  But before Nike could answer, Gregor saw the red wave beginning to seep into the field. They were so close together that they appeared to be one entity, a thick bloody liquid oozing toward him. He shot the beam of his best flashlight in that direction and could see the wave was made up of individuals.

  Ants. Hundreds of red ants were descending on the field, destroying everything in their path.

  ***

  CHAPTER 23

  Ripred took command of the situation immediately.

  "You!" he called to Aurora. "Get those pups and fly out of here. Take them to the nibblers and then back to Regalia if we don't show up in twenty-four hours!"

  Hamnet swung Hazard and Boots up onto Aurora's back. "You look after Boots for us, all right, Hazard?" he said, giving his son a hug.

  Gregor began to object. "No, I don't want Boots to go!"

  "Aurora and I are bonds. We do not separate!" said Luxa.

  "Your sister, Overlander, is about to be torn apart by cutters," said Ripred. "And I need you on Nike, Your Highness. Your bond is in no condition for battle."

  "Battle?" said Gregor numbly. "The ants are here for a battle?"

  "Well, they aren't here for a picnic! They're here to destroy the starshade and all the warmbloods along with it! Now move!" Ripred snapped his teeth at Aurora's shoulder and she shot into the air.

  "Boots! Hang on!" cried Gregor. He caught a glimpse of her puzzled face peeking over Aurora's neck before Ripred pushed him hard.

  "Wake up, Warrior! You've got your sword. What about light?" said the rat.

  Gregor glanced at the flashlight he usually kept at his waist. That would be worthless to him in a battle. He remembered a trick he had used on the last quest. "Luxa! Here, quick!" he said. He pulled out two flashlights and duct-taped one to each of their forearms.

  "Five-point arc!" shouted Ripred. "I'll take the tip. I want the Overlander and Lapblood on my right, Hamnet and Frill to my left." The rat turned to Hamnet, who seemed suddenly to have frozen to the ground. "You are fighting, right?"

  "I -- I --" Hamnet stuttered.

  "The cure is at stake. Think of it as a way of redeeming past actions," said Ripred. "Think of it as a way of saving your son. Think of it any way you like, but arm yourself or get out!"

  Hamnet looked over at the sea of ants coming down the field. Already, a quarter of the starshade plants had been shredded, chewed, trampled to bits. "Yes. Yes, I will fight," said Hamnet. He ran to Frill, ripped open the pack under her neck, and pulled out a sword.

  "Fight cutters, too, I will, fight cutters, too," said Temp.

  "Oh, Temp," said Gregor. "You should have gone with Aurora." Gregor knew the cockroaches weren't known for their ability to battle. They were good at fleeing. That was how they survived.

  "Fight cutters, too, I will, fight cutters, too," insisted Temp.

  "All right, Crawler, position yourself in that stack of starshade. If they make it in, do your best to disable them," said Ripred. Temp scurried to the pile of starshade and concealed himself. "In the air, Your Highness, give us as much cover as you can," said Ripred. Luxa's face was grim as she mounted Nike's back and took off, her sword already drawn. "The rest of you, take your positions." Ripred bounded toward the ants and crouched down about ten yards from the oncoming army. Hamnet took his place about five yards behind Ripred off to the left, and Frill backed him up by the same distance. Gregor looked around in confusion.

  "Do as Hamnet does!" said Lapblood. "I'll be behind you."

  So Gregor ran up as far as Hamnet was, but on Ripred's right side. Lapblood fell into place behind him.

  "Hold your positions as long as you can before you fall back. When we reach the stack, circle around. Don't save each other, save the plants! Remember, it's the starshade we need. Defend it at all cost!" said Ripred.

  Gregor stared at the ants. Each was about five feet long and about two feet tall. Apart from their size, they seemed to be anatomically like the ants in the Overland. Each had six legs, two antennae, and a pair of razor-sharp mandibles that opened and closed horizontally, shearing the starshade to bits. They were aligned in a clear formation, shoulder to shoulder, like a well-trained army. Hundreds of soldier ants. Headed right for them.

  "Warrior!" Ripred shouted. "Look at me!" Gregor tore his eyes off the ants and turned to Ripred. "If you can rage, do it now! This is life and death, boy! Life and death, understand?"

  Life and death? Not just for the handful here in the field, but for all the warmbloods, for Lapblood's pups, for Howard and Andromeda, for Ares, for his mom. The ants were only a few paces from Ripred when Gregor realized he had not even drawn his sword. It came out now, in a smooth even movement. The buzzing swept through his body and his vision splintered as the rager sensation roared through him.

  "Take off their legs, decapitate them, drain them, do whatever you have to do to stop them!" bellowed Ripred. And with that, he sprang straight into the column of ants.

  In the period that followed, Gregor lost all sense of where he was, of his companions, of himself. There was heat, sweat, the taste of his own blood in his mouth. His sword knew where to go -- to the joints of the legs, napes of the neck, the thin waists. But there were so many...so many! Where each ant fell, another appeared to take its place. Slowly, reluctantly, his feet shifted, as their sheer numbers forced him back. Eventually, he could feel the starshade bundles scraping the backs of his calves as he took one final stand at the stack...and then they swarmed over him, knocking him into the bundles of plants.

  "No!" he heard himself scream. "No!" Gregor fought his way back to his feet and plowed after the army as he tried to stop the demolition of the plants, but it was no use. The stack was gone in less than a minute, and the rest of the field was completely vulnerable. As he staggered behind the disappearing army, a pair of teeth caught his shirt from behind and dragged him quickly back from the jungle. He struggled to free himself, to follow the enemy in among the vines, but whoever held him was too powerful to resist.

  "Let them go! It's over, boy! It's over. We've lost," said Ripred, as he yanked him onto his rear end.

  The force of the impact helped bring Gregor back to reality. He was sobbing in fury at the ants, in revulsion at the battle, and in despair because the field...oh, the field was a wasteland! Ruined bits of plants lay ground into the earth, which was sodden with an evil-smelling lilac goo. He scooped up a handful of the stuff and watched the last shreds of the starshade dissolve into greenish liquid and vanish.

  "It's gone," Gregor wept. "The starshade is gone. The cure is gone."

  "All gone," said Ripred quietly. "It's all gone now."

  Luxa and Nike landed beside them. Through his tears, Gregor could see the blood streaming from the cuts on Luxa's pale legs. He realized he was covered in stinging wounds himself, where the mandibles had found their way through his defenses.

  "If it's any consolation, the jungle has finished our work for us," said Ripred.

  Gregor looked up at the jungle where the remainder of the ant army had disappeared. It had plowed into the area that Hamnet had raced their party through. Into the pretty white blossoms that made you deliriously happy. The ants must have been susceptible, too, because the jungle was filled with vines ripping obliging insects to bits. It didn't take long. In minutes, the ants were dismembered and dropped to the jungle floor where the roots shifted and covered them. And the silence returned.

  Gregor wiped his eyes and struggled onto his feet. Ripred and Lapblood were hunched behind him. Luxa still sat on Nike's back. Surrounded by dead ants, Frill's beautiful blue-green body lay sprawled across the field, the skin scored with hundreds of cuts. Gregor looked for motion in her chest, but it was still as a stone.

  Temp was hovering over something at the edge of the jungle. Gregor realized the form on the ground was Hamnet.

  "Uncle!" Luxa cried, and then she was sprinting across the field
to him.

  When they reached him, they could see Hamnet was not long for this world. A gaping hole just under his ribcage was pumping out blood so it formed a pool around him.

  Luxa knelt beside him and grasped his hand. "Judith," he whispered. "Judith..."

  "Yes, it is Judith. I am right here," said Luxa.

  "Hazard...Promise me...he will not be...let him be... anything but a warrior," said Hamnet.

  "I promise," said Luxa. "Hamnet? Hamnet?" But his violet eyes were vacant now. He had slipped away.

  "Anything but a warrior. Like me," thought Gregor dully. "Oh, let him be anything but me."

  Luxa slowly reached up and shut Hamnet's eyes. Then she trailed her fingers along his cheek, removing a spot of blood.

  "Now cracks a noble heart," said Ripred. He brushed Hamnet's head with his nose. "Take a lock. For his parents," he told Luxa. She cut a wave of Hamnet's hair and tucked it carefully into her belt.

  They all sat near Hamnet's body in the wasted field, mindless of the blood and viscous lilac substance that the ants had spread. Their friends were gone. The starshade was gone. And with it went all of their hope.

  ***

  CHAPTER 24

  Gregor stared at the ground for a while, before he realized he was looking at something he recognized. Obscured by the muck was the mirror he had given to Boots to play with. She must have dropped it. He pried it up and slowly wiped it clean on his shirt. "At least Boots and Hazard didn't have to watch the battle," he thought. Hazard hadn't seen his dad and Frill die. And Boots hadn't seen Gregor hacking away at the ants.

  "Why did they do it?" Gregor said finally. "Why did the ants want to destroy the cure?"

  "They view us as an enemy," said Ripred. "All of us warmbloods but the rats in particular. Hasn't helped much that the humans pushed us up against their borders." Gregor vaguely remembered Ripred talking about this, when was it? Before he had gone after the Bane. At dinner in Regalia, a long, long time ago. Ripred had accused Solovet of starving the rats, of driving them up against the ants' borders.

  "It was an excellent plan, you have to give them credit for that," said Ripred. "All they had to do was come, obliterate this field, and their problem with the warmbloods would soon be only a memory."

  "How did they know where it was?" asked Gregor.

  "Oh, that wouldn't be hard to find out. Probably the whole Underland knew we'd gone after the cure. And you can't take a mixed pack, as Hamnet called us, into the Vineyard without causing a lot of gossip. All they needed to know was when and where we'd found the cure. Any number of insects would have been happy to supply that information, right, Temp?"

  "Any number," agreed Temp. "Hated here, the warmbloods are, hated here."

  "Why?" asked Gregor.

  "We have the best lands. The most plentiful feeding grounds. What we do not have and covet, they say we take. We are thought to be lacking in respect for other creatures," said Nike with a sigh.

  "Well, you are. I mean, you all treat the cockroaches like trash," said Gregor. "Like when everybody laughed at Temp at that meeting. Do you make fun of the ants, too?"

  "The ants are a completely different situation. They have little sense of self. Everything they do is for the collective benefit of the colony. So you see there would have been no trouble sending an army into the jungle. If they lost a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand soldiers, it would be nothing if it meant our destruction," said Ripred. "And every one has such blind loyalty to the queen...No, we don't make fun of the cutters much. They can be too dangerous, as we have all just witnessed."

  Gregor's eyes wandered across the field. It was littered with dead ants. But they had done their job. Not a stalk of the starshade was left standing.

  "What shall we do now?" said Nike.

  "What is there to do but go home, and choose a good place to die?" said Lapblood. "The starshade is gone."

  "It does not make sense," said Luxa. "We did all the prophecy asked. Brought the warrior and the princess. Joined with the gnawers to seek the cure. Why have we not succeeded?"

  "I do not know. But I do not believe we have ever understood the prophecy. Possibly we fail because we still do not see the when," said Nike.

  "What?" said Lapblood.

  "'You see the what but not the when,'" Nike quoted from the prophecy.

  "I've seen the when. It was when the cutters destroyed this field, and we didn't see it coming," said Lapblood.

  "Maybe, but if you are wrong..." Nike trailed off.

  "What are you thinking, Nike?" said Luxa.

  "Perhaps, the cure still exists somewhere. Perhaps there is more starshade right here in the Vineyard," said Nike.

  "Doesn't seem likely somehow. Doctor Neveeve said there was only a single field. I think we're sitting in it," said Ripred. "If this is the cradle, then this was the cure."

  "Then there is no hope at all," said Luxa.

  A long silence followed. Gregor could hear the tinkling of the white flowers and thought how easy it would be to walk into them and never come out. So much easier than going back to Regalia to watch his mom die. So much easier than watching Ares, if by some miracle he still lived, give up when he found out Gregor had failed. He didn't know if he and Boots would ever make it home. Probably they'd been infected with the plague. Would that handful of leaves they'd eaten be enough to keep them safe?

  "Not the cradle, unless this be, not the cradle," said Temp.

  Since everyone had drifted into their own dark thoughts, Temp's comment made little sense. Besides, no one ever much listened to the crawlers.

  "What, Temp?" asked Gregor, more out of politeness than anything else.

  "Not the cradle, unless this be, not the cradle," repeated Temp.

  It took Gregor a bit to swap Temp's words around and make sense of them. Unless this be...not the cradle. The last one who had spoken before Temp had been Nike, who had said there was no hope. Unless this be not the cradle. Yes, Temp was right....

  In the cradle find the cure

  For that which makes the blood impure.

  The cure could still be somewhere if the Vineyard of Eyes were not the cradle!

  "But this is the cradle," said Lapblood.

  "Is it?" said Ripred. His eyes began to come back to life. "Who says it is? Some dusty book written by humans years ago? Why, we don't even really know if this is the same plague, or just one with similar symptoms. And if Temp is right, it would explain one thing."

  "What?" asked Luxa.

  "The point of having a crawler on this whole hellish trip! Honestly, how has he added to anything of significance? No offense, Temp, you've been a real champ about babysitting, but what have you contributed? Nothing! Maybe this is it! Your big moment! Maybe this is why Sandwich put you in the prophecy," said Ripred. "To see this wasn't the cradle!"

  The big rat began to pace back and forth, the wheels turning in his head. "Let's roll it around the ground a bit and see where we get. All right, say this isn't the cradle, and the starshade wasn't the cure. We saw the what, which is still the plague, but not the when. So, what is the when? Think, everyone! Just say anything that comes into your head!" said Ripred. "You saw the plague but not when --!"

  "Not when it would take my pups," said Lapblood as if she could not help herself.

  "Not when the cutters would use it against us," said Nike.

  "You saw the plague but not when--!" Ripred turned sharply to Luxa.

  "Not when Ares got it," Luxa burst out. "I mean, if he caught it from those mites, none of us saw that. And not only when but why? Why don't Gregor and Aurora and I have it?"

  "That's what Mareth and I were saying. Especially me. I rode on his back for days with open cuts on my arm and he was bleeding and...and...how can I not have the plague if he got it when the mites bit him?" said Gregor.

  "Let's say he didn't," said Ripred. "Let's say your other mates, Howard and Andromeda, they caught it when they brought him in sick from his cave. So, where did Ares get the plague?"<
br />
  "Well, the answer could be anywhere!" snapped Lapblood in frustration.

  "No," said Nike. "It could only be somewhere Ares had been."

  "Somewhere he had been and somewhere that the plague could exist," said Ripred. "Luxa, you know his habits best. Where would he have gone?"

  "To find Aurora and me, probably," said Luxa. "Back to the Labyrinth. And his cave...the flier's lands...Regalia."

  "No, he did not go into your city or the flier's lands," said Nike. "After his trial, no one saw him in either place."

  "Yeah, he was afraid he'd be executed. He wouldn't even go to the hospital to have his wounds treated. He went...He went..." Gregor found his eyes locked on the pool of Hamnet's blood that had spread almost to his toes. He could see the light reflecting back from the red surface. It was strangely familiar. "Where did I see that before?" he wondered. And in an instant, everything began tumbling into place. Somewhere that Ares had been...and somewhere that the plague could exist..."Oh, geez. Oh, geez," he said.

  "What, Overlander? What?" said Ripred.

  But Gregor couldn't speak his thoughts yet. The red pool of blood in Neveeve's office...The fleas gorged on blood...The empty plague container...brand-new...because the old one had broken. Not that day, or the day before. Neveeve had said it had broken months ago. She had had the plague months ago, before Ares had even gotten sick!

  "Ares went...he went to the lab...for his bites...to get medicine..." he stammered.

  "Yes, so what?" said Ripred.

  "Neveeve, she had the plague there," Gregor said.

  "She had the plague germs there, yes, to study them, to try and find a cure," said Nike. "After the plague started."

  "No, I think...I think she had it way before," said Gregor. "She said a plague container broke months ago. Ares must have been there in the lab when it happened! That's when he caught it! And that's why I don't have it! Or you, Luxa! Or Aurora!"

  And Neveeve -- jumpy, twitchy, nervous Neveeve. She wasn't just stressed because there was a plague, she was stressed because she had started it!

  "That makes no sense. What use would the plague be to the humans?" said Luxa dismissively.

  "A great deal, Your Highness, if they had the cure as well. They could wipe out every gnawer, every warmblood who displeased them, safe in the knowledge that none of them could die!" said Ripred. "Oh, that's a fine weapon indeed to be brewing up in your labs."

 
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