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Gregor and the curse of.., p.2
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.2

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "That's it, Eileen's getting candy," said Mrs. Cormaci. "I've got a nice box of chocolate creams, never been opened. Someone gave it to me for Christmas. I hope it wasn't Eileen." She made Gregor stand back while she cleaned up the glass, then gathered up the throw rug and handed it to him. "Come on. We better get this down to the laundry room before the stain sets."

  The laundry room! While she collected detergent and stain remover from the closet, Gregor tried to think of an excuse for why he couldn't accompany her. He could hardly say, "Oh, I can't go down there because my mom is afraid a giant rat will jump out and drag me miles underground and eat me." If you thought about it, there was almost no good reason a person couldn't go to the laundry room. So he went.

  Mrs. Cormaci sprayed the throw rug with stain remover and stuffed it into a washer. Her fingers, still stiff from the cold, fumbled as she picked the quarters from her change purse. She dropped one to the cement floor, and it rolled across the room, clanking to a stop against the last dryer. Gregor went to retrieve it for her. As he bent down to get the coin, something caught his eye, and he bumped his head into the side of the dryer.

  Gregor blinked, to make sure he hadn't imagined it. He hadn't. There, wedged between the frame of the grate and the wall, was a scroll.



  "Are you okay over there?" asked Mrs. Cormaci as she dumped detergent into the washer.

  "Yeah, I'm fine," said Gregor, rubbing his head. He picked up the quarter and resisted the impulse to yank the scroll out of the grate. Trying to appear like nothing had happened, he returned the coin.

  Mrs. Cormaci stuck the quarter in the machine and started it up. "Ready to grab some lunch?" she said.

  There was nothing for Gregor to do but follow her to the elevator. He couldn't retrieve the scroll in front of her. She would want to know what it was, and since she was already suspicious about the stories he used to cover his family's time in the Underland, it wasn't likely he could come up with a believable lie. Shoot, he hadn't even been able to make up an excuse to avoid the laundry room!

  Back at the apartment, Mrs. Cormaci heated up some homemade chicken soup and ladled out big servings. Gregor ate mechanically, trying to keep up his end of the conversation, although he was only half-listening. As they were finishing off some pie, Mrs. Cormaci glanced at the clock and said, "I guess that rug's about ready to go in the dryer now."

  "I'll do it!" Gregor sprang to his feet so quickly his chair fell over backward. He set the chair back up as casually as possible. "Sorry. I can change the rug."

  Mrs. Cormaci gave him an odd look. "Okay."

  "I mean, doesn't take two of us to change a rug," said Gregor with a shrug.

  "You're right about that." She put some quarters in his hand, watching him closely. "So, how come your family doesn't use our laundry room anymore?"

  "What?" She'd caught him off guard.

  "How come you and your mother walk all the way over to use that place by the butcher's?" she said. "It's the same price. I checked."

  "Because...the washers...are...bigger there," said Gregor. Actually, they were. It was not a complete lie if it were not the whole truth.

  Mrs. Cormaci stared at him a moment, then shook her head. "Go change the rug," she said shortly.

  The elevator had never moved so slowly. People got on, people got off, a woman held the door for what seemed like an hour while her kid ran back to their apartment to get a hat. When he finally made it to the laundry room, Gregor had to wait for some guy who had obviously not done his clothes for about a month to load up six washers.

  Gregor stuck the rug in the dryer next to the grate and fussed around with it until the guy left. The moment the coast was clear, he leaned down and yanked the scroll out of the grate. He stuck it up the sleeve of his sweatshirt and walked out. Ignoring the elevator, he slipped into the stairwell and closed the door securely behind him. He went up one flight and sat on the landing. No one would disturb him here, not with the elevator working.

  He slid the scroll out of his shirtsleeve and unrolled it with shaking hands. It read:

  Dear Gre gor,

  It is most urgent that we meet. I will be at the Stair where Ares leaves you when the Overland clock strikes four. We are at your mercy. "The Prophecy of Blood" is upon us.

  Please do not fail your friends,

  Vi kus

  Gregor read the note three times before it began to register. It was not what he had expected. It was not about Luxa and his other missing friends. It did not tell him about Ares. Instead, it was a flat-out cry for help.

  "The Prophecy of Blood" is upon us.

  "It's here," Gregor thought. His heart began to pound as a sense of dread coursed through him. "The Prophecy of Blood."

  He didn't really need a mirror to read it anymore, although looking at the lines sometimes helped him figure out parts. By now he knew the thing by heart. There was something in the rhythm of the words that made it get in your head and stick there, like one of those annoying songs on TV commercials. It played in his brain now, adjusting to the beat of his boots as he slowly climbed the stairs.

  Warmblood now a bloodborne death

  Will rob your body of its breath,

  Mark your skin, and seal your fate.

  The Underland becomes a plate.

  Turn and turn and turn again.

  Y OU see the what but not the when.

  Remedy and wrong entwine,

  And so they form a single vine.

  Bring the warrior from above

  If yet his heart is swayed by love.

  Bring the princess or despair,

  No crawlers care without her there.

  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.

  Those whose blood runs red and hot

  Must join to seek the healing spot.

  In the cradle find the cure

  For that which makes the blood impure.

  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.

  Gnawer, human, set aside

  The hatreds that reside inside.

  If the flames of war are fanned,

  All warmbloods lose the Underland.

  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.

  Gregor had survived two other prophecies by the man who had written this one. Bartholomew of Sandwich. It was Sandwich who had led the Underlanders far beneath what was now New York City and founded the human city of Regalia. When he died he had left behind a stone room whose walls were entirely carved with prophecies, his visions of the future. And not just the humans but all the creatures in the Underland believed Sandwich had been able to see what was to come.

  Gregor went back and forth on how he felt about Sandwich's predictions. Sometimes he hated them. Sometimes he was grateful for their guidance, although the prophecies were so cryptic they seemed to mean a lot of things at once. But within the loaded lines you could usually get the general idea of what awaited you. Like in this one...

  Warmblood now a bloodborne death

  Will rob your body of its breath,

  Mark your skin, and seal your fate.

  The Underland becomes a plate.

  Gregor had figured out it was about some kind of disease, a deadly one, and a lot of people were going to get it. Not just people, but anything that was warmblooded. Any mammal. Down in the Underland, that could include the bats and rats...he really didn't know how many other creatures could be affected. And what was that scary line about a "plate" supposed to mean? That everybody got eaten up?

  Bring the warrior from above

  If yet his heart is swayed by love.

Bring the princess or despair,

  No crawlers care without her there.

  The warrior was Gregor, no use trying to kid himself about that. He didn't want to be the warrior. He hated fighting, hated that he was so good at it. But after having successfully fulfilled two prophecies as the warrior, he had stopped believing they had gotten the wrong guy.

  Then, there was the princess....He was holding out hope that it wasn't Boots. The crawlers -- that was the Underlander name for the cockroaches -- called her the princess, but she wasn't a real one. Maybe the crawlers had a princess of their own to bring.

  Other stanzas seemed to suggest that the humans and the gnawers -- the rats -- were going to have to band together to find the cure for the disease. Boy, they were going to love that! They'd only spent centuries trying to kill one another. And then there was Sandwich's usual prediction that if things didn't work out, there would be total destruction and everybody would end up dead.

  Gregor had to wonder if Sandwich had ever written a cheerful prophecy. Something about peace and joy, with a big old happy ending. Probably not.

  The thing that drove him craziest about "The Prophecy of Blood" was the one stanza that appeared four times. It was like Sandwich was trying to drum it into his brain.

  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.

  What did that mean? It made absolutely no sense at all! Gregor had to talk to Vikus! Along with being Luxa's grandpa and one of the most influential people in Regalia, Vikus was one of the best interpreters of Sandwich's prophecies. If anyone could explain the passage, he could.

  Gregor realized he was standing on the landing of his floor, gripping the railing. He was unsure of how long he'd been there. But now he had to finish up with Mrs. Cormaci and get home.

  If he had been gone too long, she didn't seem to notice. She gave him the usual forty bucks plus a big bowl of stew for his family. As he was leaving, she wrapped an extra scarf around his neck because, "I've got enough scarves to choke a horse." Mrs. Cormaci never let him leave empty-handed.

  Back in his own apartment, Gregor got his dad alone in the kitchen as soon as he could and showed him the note from Vikus. His dad's face became grave as he read it.

  "'The Prophecy of Blood.' Do you know what that is, Gregor?" he asked.

  Without a word, Gregor handed his dad the scroll with the prophecy. It was crumpled and somewhat grimy from many readings.

  "How long have you had this?" asked his dad.

  "Since Christmas," said Gregor. "I didn't want you to worry."

  "I will start worrying if I think you're hiding things from me," said his dad. "No more of that, okay?" Gregor nodded. His dad opened the scroll to read it and looked perplexed.

  "It's written backward," said Gregor. "But I know it by heart." He recited the prophecy aloud.

  "A 'bloodborne death.' Well, that doesn't sound good," said his dad.

  "No, it sounds like a lot of people will get sick," said Gregor.

  "Vikus seems to think they need you to go down there again. You know your mom's not going to let that happen," said his dad.

  He knew. It was not hard to imagine his mom's horror once she heard about the prophecy. After his dad had disappeared, she'd spent endless nights sitting alone at the kitchen table. First crying. Then silent...her fingers tracing the pattern on the tablecloth. Then absolutely still. And it was probably much worse when he and Boots were gone. Could he really put her through that again? "No, I can't!" he thought. Then the images of his friends from the Underland crowded into his brain. They might die -- all of them -- if he did not go.

  "I've got to at least go hear what Vikus has to say, Dad," said Gregor, his voice choked with agitation. "I've got to at least know what's happening! I mean, I can't just tear this up and pretend it never came!"

  "Okay, okay, son, we'll go and hear the man out. I'm just saying, don't be making him any promises you can't keep," said his dad.

  They got Mrs. Cormaci to come over for a while, saying they were thinking of seeing a movie. She seemed to be glad for a chance to visit with his sisters and his grandma. Armed with a deck of "Go Fish" cards and a jar of popcorn, she waved Gregor and his dad toward the door. "You two go ahead. You need a little father-son time."

  Maybe they did. But not this kind.

  Before they left, Gregor made sure he had a good, strong flashlight. He watched his dad slip a crowbar under his jacket. At first, Gregor thought it was for protection, but his dad whispered, "For the rock." The spot where Ares always left Gregor was at the foot of a stairway under Central Park. A stone slab covered the entrance to the stairway. In this weather, it would be frozen in place.

  To reach Vikus by four o'clock, they had to take a cab to the park. Gregor thought the trek to the subway would be too much for his dad, anyway. As it was, he seemed exhausted by the time they took the short walk from the street to the Underland entrance among the trees.

  In the frigid weather, Central Park was almost empty. A few visitors scurried along with their heads ducked low, their hands crammed in pockets. No one took any notice as Gregor pried the stone slab loose and slid it over to reveal the entrance.

  "We're a few minutes early," said Gregor, peering down into the darkness.

  "Vikus may be, too. Let's go on down. At least we'll be out of this wind," said his dad.

  They lowered themselves into the hole. Gregor made sure to bring the crowbar with him -- the rock would probably freeze up immediately, and he didn't want to get stuck underground. He moved the slab back in place, blocking out the daylight. It was pitch-black. He clicked on his flashlight and illuminated the long flight of stairs.

  "Ares usually drops me at the bottom," Gregor said. He started down and his dad moved slowly behind him, taking each step carefully.

  The stairway led into a large, man-made tunnel that appeared to be deserted. The air was heavy, cold, and dank. No sounds filtered down from the park, but along the walls there was a faint scampering of tiny mouse feet.

  When he reached the last few steps, Gregor looked back over his shoulder at his dad, who was only about halfway down. "Take your time. He's not here yet."

  The words had barely left his mouth when a sharp blow landed on his wrist and Gregor felt the flashlight fly out of his hand. He turned his head in time to glimpse a large, furry form leaping at him from the shadows.

  The rat had been waiting for him.



  Gregor swung the crowbar, but the rat caught it in its teeth and yanked him forward. He was airborne for a moment before he slammed onto his stomach in the tunnel. The crowbar clattered into the dark as his hands barely kept his face from smacking into the cold cement floor.

  "Gregor!" He could hear his father's anguished cry as the rat pinned him to the ground with its chest. Hot breath hit his cheek. He tried to swing backward but he was helpless.

  "Pitiful. Just pitiful," a familiar voice hissed in his ear.

  Gregor felt a wave of relief that was immediately followed by annoyance. "Get off me, man!"

  The rat simply shifted into a more comfortable position. "You see, the second you lose your light, you're as good as dead."

  The beam of the flashlight hit them. Gregor squinted and saw his dad approaching them with a chunk of concrete in one hand.

  "Let him go!" shouted his father, lifting the concrete.

  "It's okay, Dad! It's just Ripred!" Gregor squirmed to free himself but the rat weighed a ton. "He's a friend," he added to reassure his dad, although calling Ripred a "friend" was something of a stretch.

  "Ripred?" said his dad. "Ripred?" His chest was heaving up and down, his eyes wild as he tried to make sense of the name.

  "Yes, I try and give your boy survival tips but he just doesn't pay attention." Ripred rose and easily flipped Gregor over with his paw. The rat's scarred face was accusing. "You haven
't been practicing your echolocation, have you?"

  "I have, too!" shot back Gregor. "I practice with my sister."

  This was true, although Gregor omitted saying that he mainly did it because Lizzie made him. She was extremely conscientious about homework. When she found out that Ripred had told Gregor to practice his echolocation, she took it very seriously. At least three times a week she'd drag him off somewhere in the building -- the hallway, the stairwell, the lobby -- and blindfold him. Then he'd have to stand there making a clicking sound with his tongue, trying to find her. The sound of his click was supposed to bounce off her, and somehow he was supposed to know where she was standing. But despite her best efforts, Gregor's echolocation skills weren't improving much.

  Now, with Ripred getting on his case, Gregor felt defensive. "Look, I told you, that echolocation stuff doesn't work for me. Where's Vikus, anyway?"

  "He's not coming," said Ripred.

  "But he wrote me about 'The Prophecy of Blood.' I thought he was meeting us," said Gregor.

  "And I thought you'd be alone," said Ripred. He sat back on his haunches and looked at Gregor's father. "Do you remember me?"

  His dad was still clutching the piece of concrete, but it was down by his side. He stared at Ripred as if he were trying to remember someone from a dream. A long dream filled with hunger and loneliness and fear and the taunting of voices in the dark. Voices of rats. Like the one who sat before him. His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of the jumble in his head. "You brought me food. Down in the rat brought me food sometimes."

  "That's right," said Ripred. "And did anyone here bring me food? I'm famished."

  Ripred did look thinner than usual. His belly had shrunk down some and the bones in his face were more pronounced.

  Gregor hadn't even planned to see Ripred, let alone feed him. But his hands automatically dug in his jacket pockets. His fingers found a stray fortune cookie from the night before and he pulled it out. "Here," he said.

  Ripred reacted with exaggerated amazement. "Oh, heavens, is this whole thing for me?"

  "Look, I didn't even know --" Gregor began.

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