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Gregor and the curse of.., p.3
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.3

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  "No, please. Don't apologize." Ripred's tongue darted out and flicked the cookie into his mouth. "Oh, yes, oh, my word," he raved as he chewed and swallowed. "I'm absolutely stuffed!"

  "How come you're so hungry?" asked Gregor.

  "Well, what with Solovet bent on starving the rats out --" said Ripred. Gregor vaguely remembered Ripred bringing this up at dinner in Regalia once. The humans had taken one of the rats' rivers or something.

  "And having to feed that gluttonous baby you dumped on me --" said Ripred.

  "The Bane?" interrupted Gregor. "How is he?"

  "He's a royal pain, frankly. He eats three times as much as the rest of us, yet he can't seem to get the knack of hunting. If we don't feed him he whines. So, of course, we do feed him and then he grows another six inches and whines louder. Believe me, he's doing a lot better than I am," growled Ripred.

  The rat found an old two-by-four by the stairs and began to gnaw on it. Strips of wood curled away from the board like apple peel.

  "What about Luxa? Is she home?" asked Gregor, almost afraid to hear the answer.

  "No, she's not home," said Ripred, a little less brusquely. "I have it on good authority that she's not being held prisoner by the rats. It's possible she did escape the Labyrinth but...I wouldn't be too hopeful there, if I were you."

  Gregor gave a small nod. It had been months. If Luxa had escaped the rats, why wasn't she back in Regalia?

  "And the others?" he said.

  "Her bat's still missing. And the lovely Twitchtip's unaccounted for as well. Oh, you know who did show up? That crawler who was carting around your sister. What's his name, Tock...Ting...?" said Ripred.

  "Temp?" said Gregor's dad.

  "That's it, Temp. He got home a few weeks after you left, as good as ever. Spent some time in the Dead Land growing a new leg or two," said Ripred. "He's very excited about seeing 'the princess' again."

  Gregor and his dad exchanged a look. Even if they could somehow convince his mom to let him go down, getting her to let Boots return to the Underland would be impossible.

  Ripred caught the moment that passed between them. "Well, you do know she has to come back? I mean, you've read 'The Prophecy of Blood,' right?"

  "I've read it," said Gregor evasively. "I'm just not sure what happens next."

  "I'll tell you what happens next," said Ripred. "Vikus is sending a bat up to your laundry room at midnight. He expects you and your sister to be waiting for it. We all do."

  "And if we're not?" asked Gregor.

  "If you're not, there's very little chance of any warmblooded creature surviving in the Underland. There's a plague running around down there causing all kinds of trouble, or didn't you hear?" said Ripred.

  "Yeah, that plague thing, that's not going to be a real plus when I ask my mom if we can go," said Gregor.

  "The plague. Tell us about it," said Gregor's dad.

  "Oh, it's some kind of pox," said Ripred. "High fever, pustules on the skin, eventually shuts down the lungs. They call it 'The Curse of the Warmbloods' because it only affects warmblooded creatures. The rats are dropping like flies. The bodies of a few bats who were scouts were found in the Dead Land. And nobody's heard from the nibblers yet."

  "The nibblers?' said Gregor.

  "Mice. That's what we call them. But listen, they've only had three plague cases in Regalia, and they're quarantined, so you'll be perfectly safe there. That's all we really need you for, the meeting in Regalia. All the warmbloods are sending representatives. Every creature's blood will be tested for the plague by the humans before they can participate. Just show up for that and you can go right home," said Ripred.

  "I can?" said Gregor. Usually a prophecy required a lot more of him.

  "Why not? All the prophecy says is to bring you from above. After that, what use will you be? You're eleven. No one expects you to personally whip up some cure for the plague with your chemistry set," said Ripred.

  The rat was right. Curing a plague was really more of a job for doctors and scientists than for warriors.

  Gregor looked at his dad hopefully. "It's just for one meeting, Dad. And no one with the plague will be there. That would be okay, don't you think?"

  "I don't know, Gregor," said his dad with a shake of his head.

  "Oh, the warrior will come. We know that. It's his sister we're worried about," said Ripred.

  "What makes you so sure I'll be there?" asked Gregor.

  "Because of that bat of yours. The big moody one," said Ripred.

  "Ares?" said Gregor. "What's this got to do with Ares? Are they going to banish him if I don't show up?"

  "It's worse than that, I'm afraid." The board Ripred was gnawing on snapped in two. He spit out a mouthful of wood shavings and looked at Gregor tiredly. "Those three plague cases in Regalia? He's one of them."

  ***

  CHAPTER 4

  "Oh, no," said Gregor softly. Of all the horrible possibilities that had been running through his mind in the last few months, this was not one of them. "How bad is he?"

  "He's bad. He was the first case in Regalia. They think he contracted the plague when he was attacked by those mites in the Waterway. Then he must have passed it on to the rats in the Labyrinth," said Ripred.

  "Mites? But, I thought only warmblooded animals could get it," said Gregor's dad.

  "Yes, but bloodsucking or carnivorous insects can carry it and spread it from warmblood to warmblood," said Ripred.

  "So, he's going to die?" Gregor said in a cracked voice.

  "Well, let's not write him off yet," said Ripred. "They've got medicines in Regalia that can at least ease his symptoms, which is more than the rats have. And he's strong."

  "That's true," said Gregor, feeling slightly more optimistic. "He's the strongest bat down there. And he's stubborn, too. He'll fight it."

  "Yes, he'll try and hang on because he believes help is on the way. Because the warrior, his bond, will come. There will be a meeting. Then a search for the cure will begin. Of course, if you take that hope away..." Ripred let the sentence dangle on purpose.

  "I'll be there, Ripred," said Gregor.

  "Don't bother coming without your sister. It's a waste of time. According to Sandwich, the crawlers have to be involved, and they've only agreed to send a representative if Boots is there," said Ripred.

  "I don't know how I'm going to get my mom to let her --" Gregor said.

  "Your mom. You tell your mom this from me. If you and your sister don't show up, the rats will send an escort," said Ripred.

  "What's that mean?" said his dad.

  "It means, be there at midnight," said Ripred.

  "But --" Gregor began.

  The rat gave a groan of pain and hunched over for a few moments. "Argh, I've got to find something to fill my belly. And in another minute it will be one of you," he snarled. "Go on. Go home! You know what you have to do! So do it!"

  Ripred turned and vanished into the shadows.

  Gregor and his dad climbed back up to the park, pried the stone slab loose, and pulled themselves out. They quickly repositioned the rock and headed toward the street.

  "What are we going to do, Dad?" Gregor asked, as they stood on the curb, trying to hail a cab.

  "Don't worry, we'll figure out something," said his dad. "Just don't you worry."

  But Gregor was very worried, and he could tell his dad was, too.

  His mom was home from waiting tables when they returned. She was still in her uniform, with her feet propped up on the coffee table, looking beat. She worked seven days a week, every week, unless it was one of those major holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas when almost everybody was off. She joked that Saturday and Sunday evenings were her days off because she got finished at four o'clock. She never mentioned how she also had to show up for work at six in the morning on the weekends. No, his mom never complained. Probably because she was so grateful to have them all home again. And now he was going to have to tell her they were going back to the Underland.<
br />
  "How was the movie?" she asked with a smile as they came in.

  "We didn't see a movie, Mom," said Gregor.

  His mom raised her eyebrows questioningly, but before Gregor could continue, the door to the kitchen swung open and Mrs. Cormaci stuck her head out. "Good, you're back. Dinner in three minutes," she said and disappeared.

  "What's she still doing here?" Gregor blurted out.

  "I invited her to stay for dinner. She made the stew after all. Then she and the girls wouldn't let me help," said his mom. "What's with you, anyway? I thought you liked Mrs. Cormaci."

  "I do," said Gregor. "I do."

  "Then go wash up and find your manners while you're at it," said his mom. The kitchen door swung open again and Lizzie and Boots stuck their heads out. "Two minutes," said Lizzie importantly.

  "Two!" Boots echoed.

  "Go ahead and wash up, Gregor," said his dad. "We can tell your mom about our afternoon later."

  Gregor understood. There could be no talking about the Underland until Mrs. Cormaci cleared out. But who knew when that would be? There weren't that many hours left until midnight.

  He was fidgety the whole meal, wishing Mrs. Cormaci would go home. He felt kind of guilty because she was obviously having such a good time. They all were, his sisters, his mom, and even his grandma had come out and sat at the table instead of eating off a tray in her bed. There was stew and warm bread, and Mrs. Cormaci and his sisters had baked a cake for a surprise. It was practically a party. But Gregor could not join in the fun; he could not think of anything except getting to the Underland to help Ares.

  The meal dragged on endlessly. Then everyone sat in the living room to talk for a while. Gregor gave big yawns, hoping Mrs. Cormaci would pick up on the hint, but she didn't even seem to notice. Finally, at around nine-thirty, she stood up and stretched and said she better get home to bed.

  Everyone was so keyed up, it was another hour before his grandma, Lizzie, and Boots had settled down in their rooms. When his mom came out from kissing them all good night, Gregor grabbed her hand and without a word led her into the kitchen. His dad was right on their heels.

  "What? What is going on with you two?" said his mom.

  "I heard from the Underland today. We went and talked to Ripred under Central Park, and Ares is dying, Mom, and Boots and I have to go back down to save him! At midnight! Tonight!" The words that had been pressing on Gregor's chest spilled out before he could stop them. He instantly regretted his impulsive delivery. The horrified look on his mom's face told him this had not been the way to break the news.

  "No, you do not! You are not! You are never going down to that place again!" she said.

  "Look, Mom, you don't understand!" said Gregor.

  "I understand all I need to understand! First your father locked up down there for years. You and Boots disappearing like that. Giant roaches stealing my baby! There is nothing to understand and there is nothing to discuss! You are not going down there again! Ever!" His mom was gripping the back of a chair so hard her knuckles had turned white.

  His dad intervened. He sat her down at the table and tried to explain the situation in a calm, rational voice. The more he talked, the larger her eyes grew in disbelief.

  "What did you tell him? Did you tell that rat they were coming? Did you tell Gregor he could go?" she asked.

  "Of course I didn't! But it isn't so simple, letting a whole civilization die! There are a lot of good people down there. Good people and animals, too, who risked their lives saving me, saving the kids. We can't just turn our backs on them!" said his dad.

  "I can," said his mother bitterly. "You just watch me."

  "Well, I'm going," said Gregor flatly.

  "Oh, no, you're not. You're not going anywhere but to bed," said his mom. "Now go brush your teeth. And I don't want to hear another word out of either of you about this." His mother's face was set like stone. Gregor felt his dad's hand on his arm. "Better go to bed, son. I don't think we're going to change her mind."

  "Nothing will change my mind," said his mom.

  And that's when it started.

  At first, there was just a faint scratching in the wall. Then a skittering sound. And suddenly, it was as if the kitchen were alive. Scores of small, clawed feet were running around and around inside the walls. Only a thin layer of plaster separated Gregor and his parents from them.

  "What's that? What's that sound?" said his mother, her head darting from side to side.

  "It sounds like rats," said his dad.

  "Rats? I thought they couldn't get up here!" said his mom.

  "The Underland ones can't. But I guess the regular ones can. And they know each other," said Gregor. He looked anxiously at the walls. What was going on?

  "Maybe this is what Ripred meant by the rats sending you an escort," said his dad.

  The creatures began to squeak now, as if to confirm what his dad had just said.

  "That must be it," Gregor thought. "The rats are going to try and scare my mom into letting us go." But how far would they take this? The Underland rats believed their whole existence was in jeopardy. That they would all die if Gregor and Boots didn't come. "They'll kill us before they let us stay here," he said aloud, without thinking.

  "I'm calling the police. Or the fire department. I'm calling 911!" said his mother. She rushed into the living room, and Gregor and his dad went after her.

  "It won't do any good, Mom!" said Gregor. "What's the fire department going to do?"

  The rats began to pour into the living room walls. They were louder now.

  "Oh, my. Oh! Get the girls! Get Grandma!" Gregor's mom grabbed the phone receiver and dialed the emergency number. "Come on, come on!" Then a look of shock crossed her face. "The line just went dead."

  "Okay, we're getting out of here!" said his dad.

  They all rushed into the bedroom for Gregor's grandma and sisters. His mom swept a sleeping Boots right out of her crib. "They're not getting Boots again! They're not getting her!" said his mom shrilly.

  His dad pulled back the covers on the main bed and wrapped his grandma in a quilt.

  "What's going on?" said the old woman in confusion.

  "Nothing, Mama. We think there might be a fire in the building, so we're just getting out while they check," said his dad. He struggled as he lifted her out of the bed like a baby.

  Gregor shook Lizzie's shoulder. Her eyes flew open and she was instantly wide awake. "What is it, Gregor? What's that sound?"

  The rats had not followed them to the bedroom, but they were still making a racket in the living room walls.

  "That's rats, isn't it?" she said. "They're in the apartment!"

  "No, not in the apartment. Just in the walls. But we got to get out of here. Come on now!" He guided his sister out of bed and into the living room. As the full impact of the rat noise hit her, Lizzie began to tremble all over.

  "Come on, Lizzie! It'll be okay once we're outside!" said Gregor, and propelled her across the room. He grabbed their coats as his mom flung open the front door and ran. Gregor pulled Lizzie along after her. His dad brought up the rear with his grandma.

  "Nobody get on the elevator," said his mom. "Take the stairs." Clutching Boots, she led them to the far end of the hall and yanked open the door to the stairwell.

  At the top of the stairs, his dad had to set his grandma on her feet. "I'm going to need your help, Gregor. I can't get her down myself."

  Gregor thrust the coats into Lizzie's arms. "You carry these." Lizzie stared back at him, her pupils huge, her breath coming in short, painful pants. "It's okay, Lizzie. It's okay. Listen, you can't even hear them out here."

  You couldn't hear anything. The stairwell didn't border anyone's apartment. It was sandwiched between the outside wall of the complex and the elevator shaft. It was quiet at night where they lived, anyway. Most people in the building had small kids or were elderly. Even on a Saturday night it seemed like everybody went to bed by ten.

  Lizzie clutched th
e coats against her chest. "I -- can -- carry -- them," she got out.

  Gregor locked forearms with his dad behind his grandma's back and legs, and they lifted her in a sitting position. They had carried her this way before around the apartment, when her arthritis was particularly bad.

  "Stay right with us, honey," his dad said to Lizzie. "Hold on to my arm so I know you're there."

  His family moved in a tight clump down the stairs. They had gone down about two floors when the rat noise started up again. It wasn't much at first. But it increased in volume at every step until they had to raise their voices to be heard.

  "Hurry!" said his mom. "It's not far now!"

  Finally, the door to the lobby came into view. His mom backed into the door, holding it open as Gregor and his dad stumbled by. "When we get outside, we go straight to the avenue. Get a cab. Then the bus station. Come on, Lizzie! Come on, baby!" said his mom.

  Tears were coursing down Lizzie's cheeks now. She had stopped at the bottom of the steps and was gasping so hard she couldn't speak. Shifting Boots to one hip, his mom got an arm protectively around Lizzie's shoulders and they fled for the entrance.

  The clamor of the rats was worse than ever. The rodents' squeaks had evolved into horrible shrieks. Claws were scratching now with purpose, trying to dig through the plaster. Gregor and his dad reached the entrance first. It was a double door made of thick, warped glass. They set his grandma's feet on the ground, and Gregor's dad reached for the handle. He had opened it only a crack when Gregor saw something. Gregor let go of his grandma and threw his shoulder against the glass, slamming the door shut.

  His dad fell to his knees as he caught his grandma. Gregor could see his mom yelling at him, but he couldn't really hear her over the din of the rats. Knowing he couldn't be heard, either, Gregor pounded his fist into the glass near his knees, drawing everyone's focus to the base of the door.

  Pressed against the outside, smearing the glass with saliva as they tried to gnaw through it, were hundreds of rats.

  ***

  CHAPTER 5

  Gregor's family staggered back from the front door and huddled in a knot at the center of the lobby. Lizzie was crouched down in a ball, panting, her palms shining with sweat. Gregor's mom kneeled on the floor, one arm wrapped tightly around Lizzie, the other around Boots, who had started to wake. The toddler rubbed her sleepy face in her mother's shoulder and blinked into the fluorescent lights of the lobby. His dad had gotten back to his feet, holding his grandma, who had her eyes squeezed shut and had her hands over her ears.

 
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