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Gregor and the curse of.., p.4
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.4

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Gregor was afraid to leave the door to join them. Afraid the bolt would give way under the pressure of the rats. He braced his back against the door and looked at his family helplessly. There was no leaving the building. What were they going to do? Something caught his mom's attention and she seemed to stop breathing. Gregor followed her eyes to the wall off to his right. At first he didn't see anything. Then a puff of plaster dust floated out near the baseboard. A small clawed paw broke through the wall and a rat's nose poked through.

  "All right!" screamed his mother. "All right, they can go!"

  It was like someone had thrown a switch. The rat noise stopped instantly. Gregor could hear only Lizzie's ragged gasps, the hum of the fluorescent lights, and the distant sound of traffic from the street. He looked down at the glass door. Not a rat in sight. But he knew they were there, in the walls, in the bushes, waiting and watching.

  "We can go?" asked Gregor.

  "You can go," said his mother in a hoarse voice. "But this time, I'm going with you."

  "Come on. Let's get back upstairs and talk about this," said his dad.

  Gregor went over to Lizzie and helped her up. "You okay, Liz?"

  "My -- fingers -- got -- pins and -- needles," she choked out.

  "I think you're having a panic attack, honey," Gregor's dad said softly. "And no wonder. When we get upstairs, I'll get you a paper bag to breathe in. Fix you right up." He jabbed the elevator button with his elbow and the doors to it opened at once. Like it had been waiting.

  His family stepped inside.

  "I can do button," said Boots. His mom held her out so she could press the number for their floor.

  "See?" said Boots proudly.

  "Good girl," said Gregor's mom dully, and the doors closed.

  Back in the apartment, the clock on the wall said eleven-thirty. "We've got a half hour," said Gregor.

  His dad settled his grandma back in her bed. Then he sat Lizzie on the couch and taught her to breathe into a small paper bag. "Too much oxygen getting into you, pumpkin. Just take it slow."

  Lizzie nodded and tried to follow his instructions. But she looked miserable. "I don't -- want Mom -- to go."

  "I think she's right," said Gregor's dad. "We need you up here. I'll go down with Boots and Gregor."

  "No," said his mom. "I have to go."

  "Why can't dad go?" said Gregor, a little too forcefully. His mom shot him a look and he began to backpedal. "I mean, he's been before. People know him."

  This was true, but it was not the real reason Gregor wanted his dad instead of his mom. For starters, she was furious. No telling what she'd say to the Underlanders. There was something else, too. Down in the Underland, Gregor had an identity. He was the warrior. Even if he didn't always buy into that himself, it was important that everybody else did. And somehow, he didn't think it was going to look so hot for the warrior to be showing up with his mom. Especially when he knew she'd have no problem saying stuff like, "Now go wash your hands and find your manners while you're at it," or sending him to bed even if there was a bunch of people around.

  "I can't be the one waiting and wondering what's happening to the rest of you. Not this time." His mom set Boots down and wrapped her arms around Lizzie. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you, Lizzie?"

  Lizzie nodded. "I could -- go -- too," she said bravely. But the very notion was so scary, it caused her to start panting again.

  "No, I need you to stay up here and keep an eye on your dad and grandma. We won't be gone long. There's just one meeting, and we're coming straight back," said Gregor's mom, stroking Lizzie's hair.

  "And then -- can we go -- away?" said Lizzie.

  "That's right," said his mom. "How'd you like to move down to your uncle's farm in Virginia?"

  "Good," said Lizzie, looking a little better. "That'd be -- good."

  "Well, you better start packing while I'm gone. Okay, baby?" said his mom.

  "Okay," said Lizzie. And she actually smiled.

  Gregor felt like a jerk. Here he'd been worried about how cool he'd look having his mom around in the Underland. He wasn't thinking about her at all. Or about the rest of his family. He reached out and gave Lizzie a pat. "We'll be back in a couple hours, Liz," he said.

  "That's right." His mom kissed Lizzie and gave her a squeeze, then turned to him. "So, what do we need to take?"

  "Light," said Gregor. "That's the main thing. I'll get it, Mom."

  While his dad took the crowbar down to the laundry room to pry open the grate, Gregor dug around the apartment for a couple of flashlights and all the batteries he could find. His mom just sat on the couch, an arm around each of his sisters, talking in a soothing voice about what their new life would be like in Virginia.

  Gregor went into the bedroom and saw that his grandma wasn't asleep.

  "You need to go back down to that place," she said to him. It wasn't a question.

  "I'm in another prophecy, Grandma," Gregor said, and showed it to her.

  "Then you got to go. You can run away, but the prophecy will find you somehow," she said.

  "That's how it seems to be working out," said Gregor. He straightened her quilts. "You take care of yourself, okay?"

  "You, too. See you soon, Gregor," she said.

  "See you soon," he said. He kissed her on the forehead and she gave him a smile.

  They had to risk leaving his grandma alone for a short time, while they went to the laundry room. But it was doubtful she would try and get out of bed, anyway. And the rats weren't coming back. They had what they wanted.

  His dad had pushed the dryer over. Now there was some space in front of the grate, which was propped open. Wisps of white vapor were curling out of the darkness inside the wall. "Looks like the currents are active," said his dad. "You could probably ride them right down to the Underland. But Ripred said there would be a bat."

  The words were not out of his mouth when a large, furry face appeared in the opening. The bat was extraordinary looking -- white with dramatic black stripes radiating out from its nose to its ears.

  His mother gasped, and Lizzie let out a sharp cry. It was the first Underland creature either of them had ever seen.

  But Boots immediately put out her little hand to stroke the bat's fur. "Oh, you look like zebra. Z is for zebra. Hi, you!"

  "Greetings," purred the bat. "I am she called Nike. Are you ready to depart?"

  Gregor's family looked at one another, then wordlessly exchanged hugs.

  "How do we...get on you?" his mother asked the bat.

  "You must fall. But do not worry. The current is such that you will ride safely to the ground with or without a flier. I am only here for your ease of mind," said Nike.

  The bat dropped out of sight. Boots started eagerly for the grate. "Me next!"

  Gregor grabbed her and almost laughed at her excitement. "I think I'm going to hold on to you this time. Ready, Mom?"

  His mom kneeled down by the grate and stuck her head into it. "We're just...supposed to jump?" She pulled her head out, looking bewildered.

  "Wait a sec," said Gregor. He set Boots on the floor and climbed out into the mist, hanging from the edge of the grate opening by one hand. "Now pass down Boots," he said. His dad swung Boots into his free arm. She latched on to him like a baby koala bear. "Come on, Mom. You jump, grab on to us, and we'll all go down together."

  His mother bit her lip, gave one look back at his dad and Lizzie, and scooted herself, feet first, out of the laundry room. As she came through, her hand latched on to the wrist that was supporting Gregor, and he released the grate.

  Within seconds, the swirling mist blotted out the light from the laundry room. He locked his fingers around his mom's wrist and could feel her pulse going a mile a minute. He tried to block out the terror he felt of heights, of falling, but it wasn't really something he could control. The first time he'd taken this trip he had calmed himself down by telling himself this was just a bad dream.

  But the little voice sque
aling delightedly in his ear was all too real. "Gre-go! Mama! Boots! We all go wheeeeee!"

  ***

  CHAPTER 6

  "Gregor! We're going to be killed!" cried his mother. "No, Mom, we'll be fine," said Gregor, sounding calmer than he felt. "Hey, Nike?" he called. "Do you think we could ride down?"

  He didn't know if the bat had heard him, or if she was even still around, but suddenly he was sitting on her back. Nike gave a twist and his mom was riding behind him.

  "Certainly you may ride," said Nike. "Whatever manner is most comfortable." Her voice had a pleasant, cheerful quality that seemed unusual for a bat. Of course, the main bat Gregor talked to was Ares, and he was usually pretty depressed. Not that his friend didn't have good reason to be.

  "Thanks," said Gregor. He settled Boots in front of him and clicked on a flashlight. The beam caught the swirls of mist. It gave the impression that they were surrounded by a beautiful, spooky white forest. But through the vapors, Gregor could make out the walls of the wide, stone tube they were descending.

  "I can ride bat," said Boots, rubbing her hands on Nike's striped neck. "Z is for zebra. Z is for zoo. And zip!" She'd been a little obsessed with the alphabet lately.

  "I expected only yourself and your sister, Gregor the Overlander. Could it be that this third human is your mother?" asked Nike.

  "Yeah, she wanted to come see the Underland," Gregor said. To himself he added, "like she wanted a hole in the head."

  "Oh, there has been much speculation in the Underland as to the greatness of she who is mother to both the warrior and the princess," said Nike. "What an honor to meet you, Warrior's Mother!"

  "You, too," said his mom stiffly. "And you can just call me Grace."

  Gregor grinned into the mist. He could tell his mom was thrown by both the friendliness of the bat and how complimentary she was. "So, I don't think I met you before, Nike," he said.

  "Oh, no. We did not meet. But I saw you in my homeland when you were fulfilling 'The Prophecy of Gray,'" she said.

  "When we went to see Queen Athena?" asked Gregor. That was the only time he had visited the bats' land. There had been hundreds, maybe thousands hanging from the ceiling of the cavernous place. He could only remember the queen.

  "Yes, my mother," said Nike.

  "Your mother? Then you must be a princess," said Gregor, a little surprised. She had not introduced herself as Princess Nike.

  "I am, yes. But I hope you will not hold it against me." Nike laughed.

  When they finally landed, they had to climb off Nike's back so that they could squeeze through the crack in the side of the tube to the tunnel.

  "It won't be far now to Regalia," said Gregor, as they all climbed back on Nike.

  "Good. The sooner we get this meeting over with, the better," said his mom.

  It had taken Gregor about twenty minutes to jog to Regalia after his first fall, but the trip was much shorter on a bat. Before he knew it, Nike was waved through a guarded entrance and there beneath them was Regalia. It was morning, and the city was just stirring to life.

  "Oh!" he heard his mom exclaim under her breath. The gorgeous stone city with its ornate towers and intricate carvings could impress even her.

  Nike flew them into the High Hall of the palace where Vikus was waiting for them. The old man's face was careworn, and his eyes had lost their brightness. Luxa's disappearance and probable death had taken their toll. But when Vikus saw Gregor, he smiled with relief.

  "Gregor the Overlander. I knew you would not forsake us," he said. "And here is Boots as well!"

  "Hi, you!" said Boots.

  Gregor and Boots slid off Nike's back, revealing their mother. She got off Nike and grabbed Boots before she could run off. "You stay right here with me."

  "If my eyes do not deceive me, this must be the woman to whom the Underland owes its very life," said Vikus. He gave a low bow to Gregor's mother. "Welcome, and deepest gratitude, Mother of Our Light."

  "You can just call me Grace," said his mom tersely.

  "Grace," Vikus said, as if savoring the word. "A fitting name for one who has so aided us. I am Vikus."

  "Uh-huh. So, where's this meeting?" said his mom, shifting Boots to her other hip.

  "Now that you have landed, the preparations may begin. The delegates' blood must be screened for the plague. Forgive the intrusion, but we must examine your blood as well," said Vikus.

  "But we don't have the plague!" said his mom, visibly alarmed at the idea.

  "This is my hope. But our doctors have put forth the theory that Ares contracted the plague when he was attacked by mites on the journey to the Labyrinth. As both your children were present when he was bitten, and Gregor was in close contact with him for several days that followed, it is essential that we test their blood," said Vikus. "We must also rule out that the children may have passed it on to you."

  It had not crossed Gregor's mind that he and Boots could have been exposed to the plague. Now, he remembered examining Ares's skin with Luxa so they could dab medicine on the spots where the mites had eaten away the bat's flesh. His fingers had been covered in Ares's blood. And, at the time, open sores from a squid-sucker attack had covered his forearm. The bat's blood could have gotten into his wounds.

  Warmblood now a bloodborne death ...

  His mother's free arm reached for him and pulled him close. "But...if they'd been exposed to the plague, they'd have it by now, right?" she said. "I mean, they'd be showing symptoms, wouldn't they?"

  "I cannot say," said Vikus. "Some creatures fall ill within days, others seem to show no symptoms for months. It is an insidious and clever thing."

  His mother kept her arm tightly around him as they followed Vikus down a hall and into a brightly lit room. A small woman was leaning over a table filled with medical equipment. There were glass vials of liquids, an oil lamp with a blue flame, and an oddly designed piece of equipment that Gregor guessed was a microscope.

  "Doctor Neveeve --" began Vikus, and the woman literally jumped. A glass slide flew from her hand and shattered on the floor.

  "Oh," said Dr. Neveeve in a breathy voice. "There goes yet another slide. Do not worry yourselves, it was free of contagion."

  "Forgive me for startling you," said Vikus. "The outbreak of 'The Curse of the Warmbloods' has us all on edge. This is Doctor Neveeve, our foremost physician in the study of the plague. Neveeve, may I present Gregor the Overlander, his sister Boots, and their most honorable mother, Grace."

  Neveeve's intense, pale-violet eyes darted over them. "Greetings. You cannot imagine how welcome a sight you are."

  "They must be cleared for the meeting," said Vikus.

  "Yes, yes, let us proceed with all haste," said Neveeve, pulling a pair of skintight gloves over her hands. She pricked each of their fingers with a needle and examined their blood under a microscope. With one glance, she pronounced his mom and Boots plague-free. But when the doctor peered at Gregor's slide, she frowned and adjusted the microscope several times.

  "Just say it," Gregor thought. "I've got the plague. I know I do."

  To his relief, Neveeve lifted her head and gave them her first smile. "All clear."

  Gregor let out his breath in a huff. "Now what?"

  "Now if you sit, I will check your scalp for fleas," said Neveeve.

  "Fleas? That boy doesn't have fleas," said his mother indignantly. Gregor couldn't help laughing. "We don't even have a pet."

  "I am sorry, but it is essential we do this," said Vikus. "The fleas carry the plague from creature to creature. Neveeve's early recognition of this explains why we have only three cases in Regalia, and hundreds of rats have been stricken."

  Suddenly, being checked for fleas wasn't so funny.

  When they had all been pronounced flealess, Vikus invited them to rest before the meeting. "It will be at least another hour before all those attending are tested. Come and refresh yourselves."

  Vikus led them to a beautiful room. The walls were carved with soft, swirling
patterns. Elegant furniture circled a roaring fireplace. There were even potted plants dripping with pink flowers. Underlanders appeared with trays of pretty food and a couple of musicians came in with stringed instruments and asked if Gregor's mom desired music. Gregor figured all the hoopla must have been for her benefit. He and Boots had never received this kind of attention.

  "You didn't tell me it was this nice," said his mother.

  "It's not, usually. I think somebody's trying to impress you...Mother of Our Light," said Gregor. She rolled her eyes but he could tell she was a little pleased.

  Gregor looked at her sitting on the couch, still in her waitress uniform, and thought that if anyone deserved a little star treatment, if was his mom. He would have liked to stay himself -- the music was unlike any he'd ever heard -- but there was something he had to do.

  "I'm going to run down to the bathroom," he told his mom.

  Once he rounded the door, he did run, but not for the bathroom. He took the first flight of stairs and started down it, two steps at a time. The hospital was on one of the lower levels. That must be where they were keeping Ares.

  Either he was getting better at navigating the palace, or he was just lucky, because he made it to the hospital quickly. The Underland doctors were surprised to see him, and even more surprised by his request.

  "Yes," said one doctor doubtfully. "It is possible to see him. But you will not be able to converse. He is quarantined behind thick walls of glass."

  "Okay, well then, I'll just, you know, wave or whatever. I just want him to see I'm here," said Gregor. If Ripred was right and Ares was hanging on only because he thought Gregor was coming, then he had to make contact.

  The doctor led him to a long corridor. "There. He is to the passage on your right. You do know...he is very ill."

  "I know," said Gregor. "I won't do anything to get him worked up or anything." He knew you were supposed to be quiet around people in hospitals. Before the doctor could change his mind, Gregor hurried down the corridor. He was suddenly excited at the prospect of seeing his friend after all these months. He wanted Ares to know that it would be okay now. He was here. A cure would be found. They would fly together again. His feet picked up speed, and he had to suppress the impulse to run. He whipped around the corner into another hall. On one side was a long glass wall.

 
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