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Gregor and the curse of.., p.19
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.19

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "And you led others to believe that the cure was in the Vineyard of Eyes, all the time knowing that you had it in your hands?" continued Luxa.

  "I could not...reveal that....The research was secret and..." said Neveeve.

  "So, to conceal that secret you let it spread and kill and sent an unsuspecting party on a deadly fool's errand. Is that it?" said Luxa.

  Now Neveeve was wildly looking around the room. "I was told to study the plague! My assignment was to find an antidote so that we could use it as a weapon.... I was only doing what I had been told to do!" Neveeve cried out.

  Most of the council members looked stunned. But Gregor couldn't help notice a few faces that reflected Neveeve's fear. "Some of them knew," Gregor thought. "Some of them knew exactly what was going on."

  Vikus rose shakily from the table and nodded to a pair of guards. "Take Doctor Neveeve into custody. And alert the tribunal that their services will be needed."

  Guards took Neveeve by the arms. She did not even put up any resistance. "I was only following orders," she said softly as they led her away.

  "Contact the lab to find out how many doses of the cure they have. And take these down to the hospital immediately," said Vikus, indicating the vials of orange liquid.

  "No," said Luxa, her face as hard as flint. "Our first act will be to send aid to the gnawers. I gave Ripred my word. And it will be done."

  No one in the room dared to object.

  ***

  CHAPTER 26

  After this announcement, a wave of fatigue seemed to wash over Luxa. She looked down at Hazard, who had never let go of her hand. "You must be hungry," she said. He gave a nod. "Have food sent," she said to the guards on her way out of the council room.

  They did not go far. There was a small chamber just across the hall with a couple of couches. Luxa sank into the corner of the nearest one, drawing Hazard down beside her. She rested her elbow on the arm of the couch and leaned her head into her hand. Gregor collapsed on the couch across from her with Boots on his lap. Temp sat at their feet.

  "You did great in there, Luxa," said Gregor.

  She made a noncommittal sound in her throat. He could see she was upset. Vikus and Nerissa appeared in the doorway. Vikus came to Luxa and gently laid his hand upon her cheek.

  "How will we survive this, Vikus? The retaliations from our enemies...and our shame," said Luxa.

  "We will survive it together," said Vikus. "If we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. But we will first try and temper the anger with apologies and aid. Give back land, supply food and medicine. As for our shame, we can only hope to learn from it." He lifted her chin. "It is so very good to see you again."

  "And you," said Luxa. Her eyes went to her cousin. "How did you enjoy the throne, Nerissa?"

  "You can well imagine," said Nerissa with a quivery laugh. She took the small golden crown off her head and settled it on Luxa's. "I think this fits you better."

  Luxa sighed and gave the crown a little shove back on her head. "It seems I only lose one of these to find another. Thank you for standing in for me."

  "It is a truly dreadful job. I do not know how you bear it," said Nerissa. She reached out and touched Hazard's hair. "And you must be Hazard."

  "Luxa says I can live here and be her brother," said Hazard uncertainly. His eyes traveled around the room, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. Gregor realized he had probably never even been in a building before.

  "You are most welcome," said Vikus. He looked at Luxa and said softly, "Hamnet...?" Luxa just gave her head a small shake.

  "He died. He won't come back now," said Hazard. "Right, Luxa?"

  "No, he will not. So we shall have to hold him very carefully in our hearts," she said, wrapping an arm around him.

  Vikus gazed at Gregor, his wounds, the sword at his waist. "So, Gregor the Overlander, how fare you?"

  "I'm still here," said Gregor. He wasn't the least bit interested in talking about himself right now. "So they're alive? They're getting better?"

  For the first time, Vikus smiled. "Come and see."

  The food was just arriving. Nerissa stayed with Hazard, Boots, and Temp so they could eat while Gregor and Luxa went with Vikus down to the hospital.

  "They have been receiving Neveeve's cure for several days, so they are in recovery. Of course, they worsened after you left, Gregor," said Vikus as they walked down the hospital corridor that led to the plague wing.

  Just before they turned the corner to the hall of glass walls, Gregor caught Luxa's arm. "They're going to look really bad. Just so you know."

  "I have seen many disturbing things, Gregor," said Luxa.

  "Okay, but the first time I saw Ares...I threw up," he said. "Your aunt told me people faint and stuff. It's a shock."

  A flicker of doubt crossed Luxa's face. "Well, what can I do? I must see them."

  "I don't know. Here, hang on to my hand, and if you feel sick or something, just squeeze it," said Gregor.

  Luxa looked down at their hands and intertwined her fingers with his. "Let us go then."

  They rounded the corner and immediately caught sight of Ares through the glass wall. He looked dreadful. Most of his fur had fallen out and he was still covered with big purple bumps. But Gregor grinned because his bat was actually up out of bed. "Hey, look, Ares is on his -- ow!" Luxa had squeezed his hand so hard he was sure she'd broken at least three of his fingers. He turned to tell her to ease up and saw her pale white skin had an undeniably green tinge. "It's okay, Luxa. Really, he's a lot better than when I left."

  She couldn't speak. She just stood there, clutching his hand, her eyes taking in the ruin that was her friend.

  "Truly, Luxa, he is mending," said Vikus. "And the sight of you two will be like a tonic." He rapped on the glass, and Ares turned his poor wreck of a head in their direction. His wings fluttered and he took a few hops toward them, but then he had to stop and rest to catch his breath.

  "Smile at him, Luxa," said Gregor through his teeth, attempting to follow his own advice. "Aurora's -- down -- there!" Gregor mouthed the words slowly and pointed down the hallway to indicate she was in the hospital, too.

  Ares's head bobbed up and down a few times to show he understood.

  "Come, we are tiring him," said Vikus. He gave Ares a wave and moved down the hall. In the next room, Howard and Andromeda lay asleep in their beds. They both were covered in the purple bumps as well. One of Howard's burst as they were watching and Gregor lost the feeling in the tips of his fingers as Luxa, impossibly, tightened her grip. "We almost lost Howard the day before Dr. Neveeve began to administer the cure. But he is gaining in strength each day," said Vikus. "Let us see your mother, Gregor, and then you two need medical care yourselves."

  His mom was in bed, but she was not asleep. The fingers of one hand were compulsively stroking a purple bump on her cheek. She stopped when she saw Gregor. They just stared at each other, as if no one else existed. After a long time he saw her lips form the word, "Boots?" He nodded and pretended to spoon food into his mouth to show that his sister was eating. His mom closed her eyes, but he could see tears slipping from under her lashes.

  "She looks really sick," said Gregor.

  "So she is, but now she will heal," said Vikus. "Come, you two, and let us heal you as well."

  "How many others are here?" asked Luxa, glancing down the corridor.

  "More than a hundred," said Vikus. "We have lost about thirty so far. The Fount was hit harder. Eighty have died there."

  Luxa did not let go of Gregor's hand until they were directed into separate bathrooms to wash. Before her fingers left his, she whispered, "Thank you, Gregor. For warning me."

  Gregor bathed, reopening the cuts the ants had given him. Or maybe they had never closed over at all -- some of them were pretty deep. He lay on a hospital bed while a whole team of doctors went to work on him. Besides his battle wounds, he had the vine scratches on his arms and raw, acid-eaten toes. Apparently, he needed stitches -- a lot
of them. One doctor gave him a light-green liquid to swallow and that was the last thing he remembered for a long time.

  When he came to, he was swathed in white bandages from head to toe. For about ten seconds, he thought it was kind of cool to look like a mummy. Then he wanted to rip them all off. As he started to tug at one on his wrist, a voice stopped him.

  "No, Overlander, you will open the wounds again," said Mareth. The soldier was sitting in a chair by the bed, his crutch by his side.

  "Hey, Mareth, how you doing?" asked Gregor.

  "I cannot complain. How are you feeling?" said Mareth.

  Gregor shifted around. "Kind of sore. How long have I been asleep?"

  "Some sixteen hours. They roused you once to administer the plague cure, but you never really awoke," said Mareth.

  "The plague cure? Why did I need that?" asked Gregor.

  "Everyone is being given a dose as a preventative measure," said Mareth. "There were thousands and thousands stored in the caves off Neveeve's lab. Just sitting there, while so many suffered." Mareth shook his head in disbelief.

  "Man. So was I right? About the broken container?" asked Gregor.

  "Yes. Neveeve confirmed it. When Ares was in her lab to receive treatment for his bites, he accidentally upset the container with his wing. It broke, the infected fleas escaped, and both Ares and Neveeve were bitten. She said she could not tell Ares what had happened but that she intended to find some way to give him the cure the next day when she treated his wounds. Only he never appeared. He had gone to look for Luxa and Aurora in the Labyrinth. That is when he unknowingly spread the plague to the gnawers," said Mareth.

  "Where is Neveeve?" asked Gregor.

  "Gone. She has been executed. The tribunal passed judgment while you were sleeping and she was found guilty of high treason. It all happened very quickly," said Mareth.

  "You mean...she's dead?" Gregor had thought they would lock her up in the dungeon, not kill her. What good did that do?

  "Yes. It was the most serious of crimes," said Mareth.

  "Did Luxa go to the trial?" asked Gregor. He knew the queen could stop executions.

  "No, she was asleep as well. But she would have been excluded from the proceedings, anyway. You see, Neveeve was under orders to produce the plague as a weapon. She revealed Ares's accidental infection to no one, so that blame was hers alone. But others knew the plague was there." It was hard for Mareth to even get out the next sentence. "Solovet...for one. And as she is related so closely to Luxa by blood, the queen could not be involved in the trial."

  "Solovet gave the order to make the plague?" asked Gregor.

  "Apparently, she heads a highly secretive weapons committee that approved the research," said Mareth.

  Gregor felt sick when he thought about Solovet being behind the plague. Not only because his family and friends had been victims. It was too evil a weapon to inflict on anyone.

  "Are they going to execute Solovet?" said Gregor.

  "I doubt it will come to that. But she and the rest of the committee are being confined and questioned," replied Mareth.

  Another thought struck Gregor. "Vikus didn't know, did he?"

  "No, but he has always been so vehemently opposed to this sort of weapon that...no one is taking this harder than he," said Mareth.

  "I'll bet," said Gregor. The news that his wife had been instrumental in such a catastrophe for the warm-bloods must be crushing the old man.

  A doctor came by, checked on Gregor, and ordered food for him. Mareth stayed and ate, too. It was bland, but the simple soup and bread tasted good.

  The food energized Gregor and he suddenly felt too restless to stay in bed. "Is Luxa still here in the hospital?" She was probably having a bad time with the news about Solovet, too.

  "They wished her to stay, but she insisted on leaving to be with Hazard," said Mareth.

  "He's a nice kid," said Gregor.

  "So was his father," said Mareth sadly.

  Not being a queen, Gregor wasn't sure he could get the doctors to let him leave the hospital, so he just slipped out when they weren't watching. He had to admit it might not be the best idea. His whole body hurt inside and out. But his muscles loosened up a little as he moved, even if his stitches tugged more.

  It must be the middle of the night. No one was in the nursery, but he knew Dulcet would have made sure that Boots was in good hands. He wandered around until he found a guard and asked for directions to Luxa's room. The guard looked a little unsure, but led him through the palace to the royal wing. It was, as Gregor expected, very ornate and had several sets of sentries posted around. After waiting for a few minutes, he was allowed to enter.

  He'd never seen where Luxa lived. She greeted him in a big living room with a fireplace, and he could see that several rooms led off of it. It was like she had a big fancy apartment to herself. He thought of his bedroom, which was actually a storage space, at home. "Wow, is this whole place yours?" he asked.

  "Since my parents were killed," she said. She adjusted one of her many bandages as her eyes swept the room. Gregor suddenly felt incredibly grateful for his apartment, which was over-packed with people he loved. "But now, Hazard will live with me here." Her face brightened at the thought.

  "How's he doing?" asked Gregor.

  She waved at Gregor to follow her to a doorway. It was a bedroom, softly lit by candles. Hazard and Boots were snuggled together like puppies on the giant bed, sound asleep.

  "It is very hard for him. He is so unused to living indoors. And then, of course, Frill and Hamnet were his whole world...." said Luxa.

  "Yeah, I know," said Gregor. "He's got you, though."

  "Do you know what he said just before he went to sleep? He said, 'My father ran away from here to the jungle. He ran away from all the fighting. But it followed him, anyway,'" said Luxa.

  "Like my grandma said to me about the prophecy. I could try and run away from it but it would find me," said Gregor.

  "Vikus says that wars find everyone," said Luxa. She picked up something from a dressing table and held it out for Gregor to see. It was a crystal. Pale blue. Shaped like a fish.

  "From your first flight with Hamnet?" he asked.

  "Yes. It really does look remarkably like a fish, does it not?" she said.

  It did. But Gregor couldn't think of anything else to say about it. Nothing good, anyway. The little chunk of rock was a reminder of so much tragedy.

  They went back and sat in the living room. Gregor wondered if his next question might be a little too personal, but he asked it, anyway. "Is Vikus okay?"

  "No," said Luxa. "He is devastated by what Solovet has done. Still, he organizes the aid missions, conducts diplomatic matters. The rats are beside themselves with fury, of course. Vikus does what must be done, and I do the same. You must be getting on with your life, too, Gregor. You must be getting home."

  "Yeah. I guess we'll go back in a few days. You know, as soon as my mom's well enough to go home," said Gregor.

  "To go home?" said Luxa in a surprised tone. "But Gregor, that will not be for many months."

  ***

  CHAPTER 27

  He could hear Luxa calling after him as he sprinted down the hall but he couldn't stop to explain now. Many months? They were planning to keep his mom down here for many months! Well, that just couldn't happen!

  As he bounded down the stairs, he could feel stitches popping open, but he ignored it. He scrambled around the hospital until he found a guy who looked like he was in charge, and it turned out he was because the doctor gave one terse order and suddenly Gregor was literally being carried back to his bed. No one was particularly paying attention to what he was saying about his mom; they were far too concerned about the damage he'd done to his wounds. Blood was starting to stain the white bandages. "Listen," he said, "my legs are fine but I need to talk to someone about my mom staying --" He was cut off by an Underlander pressing a dose of medicine against his lips. Taken off guard, he swallowed. The drowsiness bega
n almost immediately. "No...no...you don't understand...." he insisted as the world slipped away.

  When he awoke, who knew how much later, it took him a moment to recollect what had happened. He bolted up when he remembered, but a hand appeared on his chest. A very weary-looking Vikus pressed him back down into the sheets. "Stay, Gregor, or they will have to restrain you."

  "What's that mean?" asked Gregor.

  "Tie you to the bed," said Vikus. "You need to let the wounds heal over. It is for your own good."

  "Luxa's out of bed. She's upstairs, I saw her," objected Gregor.

  "Luxa is not running wildly through the palace -- and she did not fight on the ground. Her wounds are fewer and more shallow," said Vikus. "Please, Gregor, it will not be so long if you will only cooperate."

  Gregor stopped resisting less because of what Vikus said than how he looked. Which was terrible. He had big bags under his eyes, which were bloodshot, and his whole face seemed to sag. Gregor didn't want to give him any more trouble. "It's just my mom," he said, settling back in bed. "Luxa said you're going to keep her here for months. And you can't."

  "We must. She is too ill to travel, even the short distance to your home. And once she was there, who could care for her? This is an Underland plague. If she is not completely healed of it here, she may carry it home with her. What if it began to spread in the Overland? Your doctors would have no idea what it was, let alone how to cure it."

  "But I thought she was getting better," said Gregor.

  "So she is, but the plague has not yet been eliminated from her blood. She must become fully well. And you must help me to convince her of that, Gregor, because you know how badly she wants to return home," said Vikus.

  "The thing is...we need her, Vikus," said Gregor, suddenly feeling closer to Boots's age than his own.

  "I know this. And you will have her back. Only not quite yet," said Vikus. "Will you help me?"

  Gregor nodded. What was the alternative? They couldn't take his mom back and risk starting a plague epidemic at home.

  "Thank you. This is one less worry on my mind," said Vikus. Man, he looked bad!

  "What's going on with Solovet?" asked Gregor tentatively.

  "She is confined to our home while the investigation takes place. As you might guess, things are not easy between us," said Vikus.

 
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