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Gregor and the curse of.., p.5
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.5

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Gregor looked through the glass and saw his bat.

  Then he leaned over and threw up.

  ***

  CHAPTER 7

  Gregor crouched over as his dinner spewed onto the stone floor, splattering into the glass wall and onto his boots. Another wave of nausea hit him and he retched again. And again.

  A cool hand touched the back of his neck, and a woman's sympathetic voice said, "Come, Overlander. Come with me." She led him to a nearby bathroom. He found himself gripping the sides of one of the toilets. A stream of continuous water ran through the basin, immediately washing away its contents. For a minute, Gregor thought he was done, but then the image of Ares filled his brain and he began vomiting again.

  Ares had been lying stretched out on his back, his wings awkwardly extended. Large clumps of his glossy black fur were missing. In their place were purple bumps the size of cantaloupes. Several of the bumps had burst and were oozing blood and pus from the ruptures. The bat's tongue, which was coated in white, hung out the side of his mouth. His head was tilted back at an odd angle as he struggled for air. Gregor had never seen anything so frightening in his life.

  He got rid of lunch and probably breakfast, too, and then he just heaved for a while, until nothing else came up. His body was bathed in sweat and his limbs were shaky. Finally, he pushed back from the toilet.

  "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he said. He felt embarrassed and ashamed of his reaction to seeing Ares.

  "Do not be. Many people have the same response when they first see a plague victim. My husband, a great soldier, fainted dead away. Others face it stoically, then wake up screaming from nightmares. It is a very fearful thing," said the woman.

  "Ares didn't see me, did he?" asked Gregor. It would be awful if his bat had seen him throw up just from looking at him.

  "No, he was asleep. Do not punish yourself with thoughts that you have wounded him," said the woman.

  "Here, rinse your mouth." She pressed a stone cup into his hand and he rinsed and spat into the toilet.

  "I'd be okay if I saw him now. It was just the shock," said Gregor.

  "I know this," said the woman.

  Gregor looked up and saw her face for the first time. There was something familiar about it but he was sure he didn't know her. "Are you a doctor here?"

  "No, I am a visitor like yourself. I come from the Fount. My name is Susannah," said the woman.

  "Oh, you're Howard's mom," said Gregor. That's why she looked familiar. She was the mother of one of the guys who had gone with Gregor to find the Bane. That also made her Solovet's and Vikus's daughter. And Luxa's aunt. Was everyone here related, or what?

  "Yes, my son speaks very highly of you," said Susannah. "He credits you with saving his life when he was on trial for treason."

  "They should have given him a medal or something. He was amazing that whole trip," said Gregor.

  "Thank you," said the woman. Then her eyes welled up with tears.

  "Are you okay?" said Gregor. Had he said something to upset her?

  "As well as one may be under the circumstances," she said. She dampened a towel in a basin and wiped Gregor's face with it. He didn't resist. Howard was one of five children. His mom had probably seen plenty of kids throw up.

  "How is Howard? Is he in Regalia, too?" asked Gregor.

  Susannah stared at him a moment. "Of course, you do not know. Yes, he is in Regalia. In fact, he is but a few paces from us."

  "He's in the hospital? He's not sick, is he?" The truth began to dawn on Gregor. "Oh, no, you don't mean he's...he doesn't have...?"

  "The plague, yes," said Susannah. "But he has only recently been diagnosed. The flier, Andromeda, also. So we are very hopeful that you have arrived in time. That the cure may be found and they will not --" She bit her lip.

  So Howard was infected. And Andromeda, too. She was the bat who was bonded to Mareth, the soldier who had led the quest to find the Bane. During that trip, Howard's bat, Pandora, had been stripped to the bone by a swarm of mites on an island. Then the mites had attacked Ares, who had barely escaped with his life. Howard had tended Ares's wounds. Andromeda had slept pressed up against him. No wonder Vikus had had Gregor's family's blood tested the second they landed in Regalia. Boots hadn't been in contact with Ares much, but it must be a miracle that Gregor's blood was clear.

  "I can't believe I don't have it, too," he mumbled.

  "Perhaps, as an Overlander, you have some immunity that Underlanders do not," said Susannah.

  "Maybe," said Gregor. His mom was always really careful about them being up-to-date on their vaccinations. But he didn't think he'd had a shot for anything like what Ares had.

  He took the damp towel and did his best to clean his boots. "Can I see them? All three of them? If I promise not to throw up?" said Gregor.

  "Of course. I am sure the sight of you will be as good as light itself," said Susannah.

  She took Gregor back to the corridor lined with glass walls. Someone had already cleaned up the vomit, and the floor and glass were pristine.

  Gregor braced himself and took another look at Ares. This time, all he felt was agony for what his bat -- his friend -- must be suffering. "Oh, geez," he said. "How long can he go on like that?"

  "We do not know. But his strength is almost legendary," said Susannah.

  Gregor nodded but he wondered if that was a good thing. What if it just meant that Ares would suffer longer than most creatures before he died?

  A shudder ran down one of Ares's wings and he opened his eyes. His gaze was unfocused at first, but when it landed on Gregor the bat came to attention. Gregor mustered every ounce of strength he had and gave Ares what he hoped was an encouraging smile. He pressed his right hand onto the glass and saw Ares lift his left claw a few inches. It was as close as they could get to the locking of hand and claw that signified they were bonds.

  Ares's eyes drifted shut and Susannah placed her hand on Gregor's arm. "Howard and Andromeda are not nearly so ill. Come," she said.

  Gregor followed her farther down the corridor to another glass-enclosed room. Howard and Andromeda were sitting across from each other on the floor with a chessboard between them. Howard had only one visible purple bump about the size of a walnut on his neck. Andromeda's gold-and-black-speckled coat appeared as healthy as ever. Susannah rapped on the glass and the two looked up. The expression on Howard's face when he saw them was so elated that Gregor didn't have to force his smile. Howard and Andromeda hurried to the wall. They couldn't hear each other through the thick glass, but Gregor was sure Howard said, "Gregor! You are here!"

  "Yeah, I'm here," said Gregor.

  Howard turned his head to listen to Andromeda for a moment, then mouthed to Gregor. "Boots?"

  Gregor nodded. "Boots is here, too."

  Just then, a door at the back of the room opened. A woman, swathed in protective clothing, entered carrying a tray of medicines. She ordered Howard and Andromeda into their beds.

  "Is that Neveeve?" asked Gregor. "She tested my blood."

  "Yes, she personally treats all the plague cases," said Susannah.

  "Wow. That's not a job for wimps," said Gregor. When he saw Susannah didn't understand, he said, "You've got to be brave to do that."

  "Oh, yes. Neveeve is extremely dedicated," said Susannah. "She is determined that we will cure 'The Curse of the Warmbloods.'"

  Howard stripped off his shirt and Gregor thought he should give his friends some privacy. And his mom was probably wondering where he was by now. He had to get back before she started getting worried.

  As he made his way back through the hospital hallways, Gregor heard a familiar voice as he passed a room. "Overlander!"

  Inside, he saw Mareth sitting up on a bed.

  "Hey, Mareth!" said Gregor. "Man, it's good to see you!" He didn't add "alive" but that was what he was thinking. The last time he'd seen Mareth, the soldier had been unconscious, bleeding heavily from a bite a sea serpent had given his leg, and a long way from home.


  Mareth grabbed something, swung off the side of the bed, and came to meet him. It was only then that Gregor saw that his injured leg had been amputated. All that remained was a few inches of his thigh.

  "Your leg." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.

  "Yes," said Mareth, leaning on his crutch. "I am working hard to be like Temp, and grow a new one."

  "Yeah," said Gregor weakly. "That's a neat trick." The cockroach had lost two legs in a squid attack, but Ripred said he had grown them back in the Dead Land.

  "They could not save it. The infection spread too deep. But what need have I for a leg when I have Andromeda to ride upon?" said Mareth. As if he had suddenly remembered about his bat, Mareth passed a hand across his eyes.

  "She's going to be okay, Mareth," said Gregor. "The meeting's going to start any minute. There's got to be a cure. They'll find it."

  "This is what I believe," said Mareth, pulling himself together. "They tested you? Your blood is clear?"

  "I'm fine. So is Boots. And I guess you're okay, too, since you're not behind glass," said Gregor.

  "Yes, somehow. It does not entirely make sense to me," said Mareth. "How some of us escaped it."

  "I know. It's weird," said Gregor.

  "Everyone was so afraid you would not come. But I knew you would," said Mareth.

  "Of course I came. I mean, it's only for a few hours," said Gregor.

  Mareth looked confused. "A few hours? Did Vikus tell you this?" he asked.

  "Yeah, he said you guys just needed us for the meeting. Then we can go home," said Gregor. "Someone else is going to find the cure."

  "Vikus said this? That you are not to go on a quest to find the cure with the gnawers? You are certain?" said Mareth.

  "That's what he said." Gregor thought for a moment, and hesitated. "Well...no, I guess Vikus didn't tell me that himself. He sent Ripred to tell me," said Gregor. "But Ripred wouldn't lie about..."

  A terrible realization came over Gregor. Yes, Ripred would. He would lie. If he thought it was the only way to get Gregor and Boots to the Underland, Ripred would lie in a second.

  ***

  CHAPTER 8

  Gregor hurried back up through the palace and ran into Vikus, his mom, and Boots outside the luxury room. He needed to talk to Vikus about this whole cure thing, but he couldn't do it in front of his mom. Maybe Mareth was wrong and Ripred was right. Maybe they were supposed to find the cure in a lab, not on some dangerous quest somewhere. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding.

  "Where on earth have you been?" said his mother. "I thought you just went to the bathroom."

  "I did but...I threw up," said Gregor. "And it took some time for my stomach to settle."

  "You sick?" His mom's hand was instantly on his forehead.

  "No, Mom, I feel fine now," said Gregor.

  "Well, that stew was pretty rich. And then all this flying around. You never did have a strong stomach," she said. "He gets carsick on long trips, too," she told Vikus. "We have to travel with a plastic bag."

  Okay, this was one of those mom-things Gregor had been worried about. His dad would never tell people how the warrior had to travel with a plastic bag. And she didn't even know what she was talking about because flying on bats didn't upset his stomach. Still, this was better than telling her about seeing Ares. "I'm fine, Mom. So, is it time for the meeting?"

  "Yes, let us proceed to the arena," said Vikus.

  Nike and Euripedes, Vikus's big gray bat, flew them all to the oval-shaped arena used for sports events and military training. The playing field was covered in a soft, springy moss and seating for a large crowd topped the high walls. The arena was on the edge of Regalia and shut off from the city by towering, stone doors. Across the field from the doors were a few tunnels, some flush with the ground, others high in the air, which led away from the city.

  When they flew into the arena, the stands were empty. Most of the creatures attending the meeting were down on the field. All three species -- the bats, the cockroaches, and the rats -- stood in their own clump. There was no interaction between them. It reminded Gregor of the beginning of a track meet, when the teams were assembled around the field warming up, each in a different-colored jersey.

  "Ready to make some new friends?" Gregor said to his mom, trying to sound positive.

  She simply pressed her lips together in distaste as she stared down at the menagerie of giant Underland creatures. "Tell me again, who's on whose side?"

  Gregor shook his head. "It's kind of complicated. The main thing is that most of the humans and rats hate each other. The bats are tight with the humans. The cockroaches just wish everybody would leave them alone. But they love Boots. So, if she shows up, they show up. The prophecy says they need everybody here to find the cure."

  Nike and Euripedes dropped them on the field and joined a group of four bats, including Queen Athena, who perched on short, squat stone cylinders.

  Ripred and two other rats sat about ten yards away. All three seemed preoccupied with trying to comb some kind of yellow powder out of their coats with their claws.

  "What's that in their fur?" his mom asked Vikus, eyeing the rats with revulsion.

  "A powder to kill fleas. Just as a precaution. Their blood was clear of plague, but they all had fleas, and we cannot risk the insects entering the city," said Vikus.

  Waiting patiently, a little off to one side, were a half-dozen roaches. The leader had a bent antenna.

  "Temp!" Boots cried out. "I see Temp!" She wriggled out of Gregor's arms and ran for the roaches.

  "Boots!" His mother started after her but Gregor caught her arm and urgently spoke in her ear in a hushed voice.

  "No, Mom, don't! That's Temp! She wouldn't be alive without him! The roaches adore her. Don't mess it up!" said Gregor.

  "Excuse me?" said his mother, raising her eyebrows.

  "I mean, just be polite," said Gregor sheepishly. He never bossed his mom around that way at home. "Please."

  His mother looked back at the roaches and hesitated. She flinched as Temp sat back on his hind legs, and Boots ran straight into his six-leg hug.

  "Hi, you! Hi, Temp! You waked up!" she said.

  "Temp waked up, Temp did," said the roach.

  Boots stepped back and surveyed him curiously. Then she began to count his legs. "One -- two -- three -- four -- five -- six! All there!"

  "Tike you, my new legs, like you?" said Temp.

  "Ye-es! You give Boots a ride? We go for a ride now?" said Boots.

  Temp dropped to his belly, and Boots climbed right up on his back and they took off running around the field.

  "Come on and meet the roaches. They're nice," said Gregor.

  His mother gave him a look like he was insane but allowed him to lead her over to the insects. Temp ran up with Boots.

  "See? This is Mama!" said Boots, sliding off Temp and running over to swing on her mom's hand.

  The roaches seemed rattled by the news. Gregor could hear them whispering to one another. "Be she the swatter, be she? Be she the swatter?" They all bowed low to the ground.

  "Welcome, Maker of the Princess and Most Fearsome Swatter," said Temp.

  "What is it calling me?" Gregor's mom said to him.

  "Um, I think he said 'Maker of the Princess and Most Fearsome Swatter,'" said Gregor.

  "What's that mean?" said his mom.

  "That you're Boots's mom and...let's face it, Mom, you swat a lot of roaches," said Gregor.

  "Well, I'm not planning to swat these giant things!" said his mom, scowling at him.

  "Hey, I didn't make up the name!" said Gregor.

  "All right, listen up, you roaches," said his mom.

  The roaches all sank flatter on the ground, as if being swatted by his mom was inevitable. "Yes, Maker of the Princess and Most Fearsome Swatter," Temp could barely hiss out.

  "From now on, you just call me Grace. Okay?" she said. Then she turned to the rest of the creatures in the arena. "Everybody
here, just call me Grace!"

  She took Boots's hand and stomped back across toward the bats, muttering, "Most Fearsome Swatter. Please."

  While Vikus introduced his mother to the bats, Gregor crossed to Ripred. "Oh, look who's here! I guess your mommy let you come visit after all," said the rat.

  "You better not have lied to me about how long we have to stay, Ripred," said Gregor under his breath. "You better not be planning to take me and Boots on some road trip to find the cure."

  "You've read the prophecy. All it says is to bring you from above," said Ripred. "Now you've made an appearance, it's fine with me if you go home. Trust me, I could do without another quest with your chatty little sister and her six-legged friends."

  "Is that what everybody thinks?" asked Gregor. "That I'm just here for the meeting?"

  "Well, you'll have to ask around, won't you? I can hardly answer for what goes on in the crawlers' pea brains." Ripred dug at the powder behind his ear and called out, "Can we get this fiasco started, Vikus? Some of us have lives to live. However briefly."

  "But where are the nibblers?" Vikus asked.

  "I don't know. Lapblood and Mange were supposed to get word to them," said Ripred, indicating the other rats with two flicks of his tail.

  "Well, we didn't," snapped Lapblood. "Why would we?"

  "She's right," said Mange. "We didn't spend all that effort driving the nibblers out of our land to join up with them now. If they die of the plague, good riddance."

  "Who needs them, anyway?" said Lapblood. "The prophecy doesn't even mention the nibblers." She began to scratch frantically at her shoulder. "What is this poison? Does it kill the fleas or just make them extra hungry?!"

  "You had very specific orders!" said Ripred, grinding his back into the moss to relieve the itching.

  "Well, if you hadn't noticed, we don't take orders from you!" said Mange.

  Ripred sprang to his feet and turned on the two rats. They crouched into defensive positions, waiting for his attack, but he only said, "We'll finish this discussion in the tunnels."

  "This is not ideal, but if the nibblers are not to be present, then we lack only Doctor Neveeve and Solovet," said Vikus. "Ah, here they are now."

  A bat flew in from Regalia and Neveeve and Solovet climbed off its back.

 
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