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Gregor and the curse of.., p.18
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.18

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "'The remedy and wrong entwine, / And so they form a single vine,'" said Nike with an agitated voice.

  "That could be Doctor Neveeve. She could be the vine. Both the remedy and wrong in one."

  "This seems like wild conjecture to me," said Luxa.

  "Really? It seems very plausible to me. But I suppose if we can't convince you, we can't convince the other humans, either. Think harder, boy! What else do you have?" said Ripred.

  What else did he have? There must be something. Gregor was clutching the mirror so tightly it hurt his hands. The mirror! He thought of the hours he'd spent before the bathroom mirror, holding up the prophecy, trying to make sense of it. "The mirror!" he said holding it up urgently for them to see. "You know how you need a mirror to read the prophecy? You have to look in a mirror...and when you do, you see...What do you see?" He flipped it around and pointed it at each of them.

  "Yourself, you see, yourself," said Temp.

  "It was the humans. They had the plague all along!" spat out Lapblood.

  "No, even in the worst times we humans would not create something so destructive to so many. Something that could turn against us," said Luxa defiantly.

  "Turn...yes, 'Turn and turn and turn again,'" said Ripred, his ears sticking up. "That's it! Don't you see? It's like Boots's annoying little dance." Ripred glared into the field. "We started out heading toward the jungle looking for the cure. But if you turn..." He turned 180 degrees. "And turn..." He swung back around to the jungle. "And turn again..." He spun halfway around again. "You're not facing the jungle, Your Highness. You're facing Regalia."



  "I do not -- I cannot believe this is true!" said Luxa.

  "Hope it is, for all our sakes. And if the Overlander is right and you have the cure in your lab back in Regalia, I want your first action to be to send it to us," said Ripred.

  "There is no cure in Regalia," said Luxa stubbornly.

  "But if there is --?" said Ripred.

  "If there is...on my word, the gnawers will be served first," said Luxa.

  "All right then. Fly back to Regalia and straighten this mess out. Lapblood and I will head home to deliver our latest theory. I expect to hear from you very soon," said Ripred. He turned to Lapblood. "I think our best bet will be to follow the ants' trail back. It should lead close enough to the tunnels, and the plants won't have had time to recover yet --" Ripred noticed no one was moving. "What are you waiting for? Get on your flier and go!"

  "What about Hamnet and Frill?" asked Gregor, not wanting to leave them lying there. But the soil was too thin to bury them. And Nike could never carry them all.

  "They belong to the jungle now. Likely the starshade will grow back here. So they'll be in a good place, right?" asked Ripred.

  "I guess," said Gregor. But he did not really feel any better about it.

  "On your bat now," said Ripred, nudging him toward Nike. Gregor and Luxa climbed on Nike's back. "Don't forget the crawler. He may have saved us all," said Ripred, scooting Temp up behind them.

  "If he did, it wouldn't hurt if you spread that information around," said Gregor. Then maybe the warmbloods wouldn't be such snobs about the bugs.

  "If he did, I will become the biggest bore in the Underland, as I will talk of nothing else," said Ripred. "Fly you high, boy."

  "Run like the river, Ripred," said Gregor. And Nike lifted into the air up over the vines and headed out of the Vineyard.

  It was a surprisingly short trip back to the pool in the nibblers' land, where Aurora had taken Hazard and Boots. They had barely touched down when the words were coming out of Hazard's mouth. "Where's my father? Where's Frill? Will they be here soon?"

  Luxa gave Gregor a sad glance. It occurred to Gregor that no one knew better than Luxa what Hazard was about to face. She slid off Nike's back and took Hazard's hands in hers. "They are not coming back, Hazard. We had to battle to try and save the starshade. Hamnet and Frill died fighting the cutters. I am sorry."

  Hazard just looked at her for a moment, uncomprehending. "But...they couldn't have," he said. "They wouldn't leave me here alone."

  "They did not want to. I promise you that," said Luxa. "Only they could not help it. Sometimes, you cannot help the things that happen."

  "Oh," said Hazard. His large green eyes filled with tears. "Like when my mother left me. She didn't want to go, either. But she had to." He tilted his head down, and the tears slid down his cheeks and onto the stones. Boots came over and tugged on Gregor's shirt. "Gre-go, he's crying." She was always thinking he could fix things he couldn't.

  Gregor picked Boots up in his arms and gave her a squeeze. "I know," was all he could say.

  Luxa knelt before Hazard and wiped his tears with her fingers. "The same thing happened with my parents. They both died, too," said Luxa. "My mother and your father were brother and sister. Did you know that?"

  Hazard shook his head. "I don't have a sister."

  "I do not have a brother, either. But I was thinking, that if you would come back to Regalia with me, it would be like I did," said Luxa. "Will you come?"

  "To Regalia?" said Hazard. He seemed so lost. "I live here in the jungle."

  "But who will you live with now, Hazard? Who will take care of you?" said Luxa.

  "I want my father! And Frill!" said Hazard, beginning to sob. "They take care of me!"

  "I know. I know. But they are gone," said Luxa. She wrapped her arms around the little boy, and he clung to her. "Oh, Hazard, Hazard. Please say you will come with me. It is not so very bad in Regalia."

  "My grandfather...lives in Regalia. He said... I could visit...any time I wanted to," Hazard choked out.

  "Oh, yes! Vikus will be very glad to see you," said Luxa, stroking his dark curls. "Everyone will."

  "And you'll be my sister?" said Hazard. He looked over at where Gregor was holding Boots. "Like she's his sister?"

  "If you will have me," said Luxa.

  "All right," said Hazard. His tears didn't stop, but he wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Can I ride on your flier?"

  "Any time you wish. And when we get back, maybe you will meet a flier of your own to bond with," said Luxa. "Would you like that?" Hazard nodded. "Let us go home, then."

  They took only a few minutes to drink from the pool and wash their wounds. There was nothing with which to bandage the cuts from the mandibles. Everything had been destroyed. But at least the lilac goo the ants had doused the field with did not seem harmful to them. It didn't burn like the acid from the yellow pods, and it rinsed off easily in water. No, it seemed it was only destructive to plants.

  A trio of mice appeared and dropped a few dozen plums at Luxa's feet as they were about to go. "Thank you," she said. "I will never forget your kindness to myself and Aurora. Know while I have breath, you will always have a friend in the Underland." She removed the band of gold from her head and laid it on the stone before them. "If ever you have need of my help, present my crown to one of our scouts, and I will do whatever is within my power to come to your aid." Then Luxa laid her hand on each of their heads, and they squeaked out good-byes to her in high-pitched English.

  Neither Nike nor Aurora was in very good shape, but both insisted they could make the journey home. Luxa took Hazard with her on Aurora, and Gregor, Boots, and Temp climbed upon Nike's back.

  Gregor couldn't wait to get back. What if the cure was there, in Neveeve's lab, but it was still a secret? Then his mom, Ares, his friends...if they were still alive, every second was precious.

  The bats lifted high over the vines and sped toward Regalia. Gregor thought of the agonizingly slow progress they had made on foot and shook his head. He guessed it hadn't been realistic to fly in. The rats would have been too heavy to haul very far, let alone Frill, but still. How much time could they have saved? He could have been to Regalia and back ten times.

  "What did you do up here, Nike, while you were waiting for us to catch up with you?" asked Gregor.

  "I went in
circles. Both in the air and in my head, as I was trying to break the prophecy," said Nike.

  "It's broken now, though, don't you think? That we're right about the humans starting it?" asked Gregor.

  "As Ripred says, I must hope we are. But Gregor, when the rest of the warmbloods learn the plague was the humans' fault, it will be very ill indeed," said Nike.

  "What will they say?" said Gregor.

  "Most humans and their allies will be ashamed. Their enemies will say it only confirms what they suspected all along. That humans lie and will do anything to get what they want," said Nike. "The awful thing, one will truly be surprised."

  Although he hadn't been born in the Underland, Gregor felt a natural kinship to the humans down here. He was still mad at them for putting him and Ares on trial when they hadn't killed the Bane, but he had chalked that up to being a misunderstanding. When Nerissa had explained the truth, the humans -- at least the majority of them -- had listened. Gregor's view of the rats was very different. He had always thought of them as essentially the bad guys, with a few exceptions like Twitchtip and maybe Ripred. The idea that the humans could be as bad as the rats, or even worse, threw him for a loop. But was he truly surprised? He remembered the council's attempt to deny the rats the flea powder. No. He couldn't say he was.

  Boots and Temp chatted back and forth in Cockroach while Gregor mulled the whole thing over, trying to make sense of it. After a while, he realized they were coming in for a landing. Shining his light down on the ground, he saw the piles of skeletons stretched out around the Arch of Tantalus.

  "We're stopping here?" he asked Nike.

  "Do not worry. It will only be for a brief time. But Aurora and I must rest," said Nike.

  "Oh, sure, of course," said Gregor. He was impatient to get back, but they needed to give the bats a break, especially since they were both hurt.

  They had no water, but plenty of plums. The seven of them gathered in a tight circle and ate. Four kids, two bats, and a cockroach. Gregor thought they must look like an easy meal, and kept a close eye on the jungle.

  Luxa was so lost in thought, she did not even seem aware of their surroundings. She held an uneaten plum in her hand while she stared fixedly at the skeleton of some large rodent.

  "Luxa? You going to eat that thing?" asked Gregor.

  She snapped back to reality. "Why? Do you want it?"

  "No, you should eat it. But we can't stay here very long," said Gregor.

  Luxa nodded and took a bite of the plum, but her face was troubled. "I have been thinking of what Ripred said. About the value of such a destructive weapon. He was right. Having the plague at our command would give the humans total control over all the warmbloods."

  "So you think I'm right? You think Neveeve started the plague?" said Gregor.

  "It still seems impossible to believe. But there is one way we will know for sure," said Luxa.

  "What's that?" said Gregor.

  "If during your absence she has come up with a cure, then you will be right. For the cradle and the cure will be one, and no other cure will exist now that the starshade is gone. There will be no argument left," said Luxa.

  Aurora said the bats were ready to fly, so they all mounted up. Nike suggested that Gregor sleep on the way back. He lay down with Boots, who soon drifted off, but he could not sleep. In the quiet dark tunnels, the battle was beginning to come back to him. He could remember more of it than the time he'd fought the squids, now almost a complete blank. This time, he could call up very specific images of his sword as it severed the life of ant after ant. Who were the ants, anyway? Not just animals, not just a natural force. Ripred had talked about them as intelligent creatures that had formed a clever battle plan. Did they all have names? Did they have parents and children and friends? Who exactly had he killed?

  He could not sort out his feelings. At the time, he had only thought of protecting the starshade. His own life had been at risk as well -- look at what had happened to Hamnet and Frill. But on the battlefield, Gregor had not been fighting for his own life as much as he'd been fighting to save what he'd believed to be the cure. Sometimes you had to fight....Even Hamnet had agreed to that...and he must have thought today was one of those times. Gregor had done what he had to do....But still...he felt horrible when he envisioned the twisted bodies of the ants in the field. And even though Gregor had raged, they had not succeeded in saving the starshade. Hamnet had fought, too, when backed against the wall, but Gregor knew he hadn't wanted to. That he didn't really think it was a solution to anything. Maybe if they had all taken that approach, they could have still deciphered the prophecy, and there wouldn't be all those corpses waiting to be covered by vines. But what would the peaceful alternative have been? It had been too late to think of one when the ants were marching in on them. A solution would have needed to have been thought up a while ago. And so many parties -- the humans, the rats, the ants -- everyone would have had to agree that it was for the best.

  All of this was complicated by the fact that if Gregor was correct about Dr. Neveeve, the loss of everyone's life today was utterly pointless. Because the thing they'd all gone to battle over -- the starshade -- had never been the cure at all.

  The more he thought, the more his mind reeled in confusion. We were right to fight. It was wrong to fight. We had to fight. It was pointless to fight. He simply did not know where he stood, and it made him feel crazy. No wonder Hamnet had run off to the jungle. After several hours of tormenting himself with the events of the day, flickers of light began to appear in the distance. Regalia was just ahead. A squad of four Underlanders on bats materialized to block their way. Then they saw Luxa.

  "Queen Luxa!" burst out one guard in disbelief. "You live!"

  "Yes, I live, Claudius," said Luxa. "And I must have immediate access to the council regarding the cure to the plague."

  "Yes, by all means," stammered Claudius. "But there are several checkpoints meant to screen those who would bring the plague into the city."

  "We must bypass them in the interest of time. Believe me, even if I carried the plague, that would pale in importance to the news I bring," said Luxa.

  "Yes, but we have very strict orders..." said the guard.

  "Which I overrule now," said Luxa. "Clear my passage to the city. It is a direct order for which I take full responsibility."

  Claudius looked at the other guards in hesitation, then called out, "Clear the queen's passage to the city!" He flew with them, waving aside any resistance they met. "The queen! The queen returns!" he cried out, and the Underlanders fell aside.

  As they flew across the city of Regalia, Gregor could see people on the ground pointing up at them and shouting. He guessed they recognized Aurora by her beautiful golden coat, and were hoping that Luxa might be on her.

  As the exhausted bats skidded on their bellies across the High Hall, two female guards ran up to help.

  "Get Aurora and Nike to the hospital at once," said Luxa. "Both are injured. Is the council in session?"

  "Yes, Your Highness. They have only just convened," said one of the women. Then she quickly placed her hand over her mouth as if suppressing some great emotion. "Oh, Luxa, you are back."

  "It is good to see you, too, Miranda," said Luxa with a half smile. "We must make haste, Gregor." She took Hazard by the hand and headed off.

  Gregor scooped up his drowsy little sister and he and Temp followed Luxa through the hallways to the council room. The full council was there, including Solovet and Vikus, and Nerissa presided at the head of the big, stone table. Doctor Neveeve was in the process of addressing them. Before her sat a large, square rack that held hundreds of glass vials filled with an orange liquid.

  When the five of them walked in, Neveeve stopped speaking mid-sentence and a gasp went up around the table. People were rising, starting to move toward them, but Luxa raised her hand.

  "Please, I have a matter of great urgency that takes precedent over my own happenings. Sit and let me speak," she call
ed. Confused, everyone returned to their seats. Still holding Hazard's hand, Luxa crossed to the table directly across from Dr. Neveeve.

  "We have been to the Vineyard of Eyes and found the starshade. The entire field was destroyed by an army of cutters. The cure is lost," said Luxa. "What say you to this, Doctor Neveeve?"

  "It is tragic news, indeed. But we have been working night and day in the labs to try and create a cure of our own. These vials you see before me are the fruit of our labors," said Neveeve, gesturing to the glass vials.

  Luxa looked down at the vials for a moment, then took a deep breath before her next question. "And have they been tried on the plague victims yet?"

  "The patients in the hospital are responding favorably. Both the Overlander's mother and his bond have shown improvement," said Neveeve.

  Gregor felt his knees go weak with relief. "Oh!" The sound came out of him on its own. They were alive! Somehow they had hung on!

  Neveeve gave him a smile. "Yes, we have much hope that this remedy may be effective."

  There were murmurs of approval and appreciation around the table. The cure was working. Neveeve was a hero.

  Luxa's voice cut through the others like a knife. "I expect it shall be highly effective. I expect it will cure the plague."

  "I hope we may deserve your confidence," said Neveeve, but she gave Luxa a nervous look.

  "Oh, I think we both may be confident. Certainly you look well enough," said Luxa. "And if the cure works for you, why should it not work for the rest of us?"

  Neveeve flushed bright pink. "I do not know what you mean."

  "I mean that you started the plague in your lab. That was the cradle. So it makes sense that the cure came from it as well," said Luxa. There were exclamations and objections from around the table, but Luxa forged ahead.

  "Do you deny, Doctor Neveeve, that Ares was infected in your lab while you were breeding the plague germ?" said Luxa.

  Now the color drained from Neveeve's face, leaving her pale as a ghost. "I...I...did not..."

  "Was he or was he not infected in your lab?" insisted Luxa.

  "There was an accident....It was no one's fault...." said Neveeve. "He was there for something else entirely...."

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