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Gregor and the curse of.., p.6
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.6

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  Solovet called the meeting to order and asked Neveeve to speak about the plague. The doctor hoisted a large leather book off the back of the bat. She laid it on the moss and knelt before it. The book was only about a foot tall, but it was at least three feet wide and very thick. When Neveeve opened it, Gregor could hear the crackling of parchment.

  "I have been scouring the old records in an attempt to find any similarity between this current plague and one in the past," said Neveeve. "Some two and a half centuries ago there was an epidemic markedly like 'The Curse of the Warmbloods.' Another just over eighty years ago. In both cases, a pestilence brought fever, painful breathing, and large violet buboes on the skin. Thousands died in the Underland."

  "Lovely. Do they happen to mention a cure?" said Ripred.

  Neveeve turned a page in the book and revealed an ink drawing of a plant that had distinctive star-shaped leaves. "This plant. It is called starshade. Only a single field of it exists."

  "I've never seen it," said Lapblood. "It must grow in the Overland."

  "No, according to the records, it grows in the same place from which the plague first emerged," said Neveeve.

  "'In the cradle find the cure,'" said Vikus, quoting from the prophecy.

  "On the island with the mites?" asked Gregor. He didn't see how they'd ever get the cure from there. The mites would devour them in seconds.

  "No, Gregor. That is a new island and, as Neveeve said, the plague has been cropping up for centuries. The mites may have carried the plague to the island, but it is not the cradle," said Vikus.

  "So, where is it?" said Mange.

  "It seems the cradle lies on the floor of the valley in...the Vineyard of Eyes," said Neveeve.

  There was dead silence. Finally, Lapblood spoke, "We may as well just slit our throats now, as enter the Vineyard."

  "Yet you had no trouble driving the nibblers into it," said Queen Athena.

  "The nibblers had the whole of the Underland to choose from," said Mange.

  "Where? The Dead Land? The Fire Points?" retorted Solovet.

  "You're a fine one to talk, Solovet, given the current circumstances," said Lapblood.

  "Please!" said Vikus, cutting off their bickering.

  "Remember all of our lives are now at stake. This plant, Neveeve, it grows nowhere else?"

  "They attempted.to transplant it to the fields of Regalia, but it died almost immediately. We have no choice but to harvest great quantities of it from the Vineyard and distill it into a medicine."

  "You want us to go into the Vineyard and help you find this cure, but what guarantee do we have that we'll ever see it?" said Lapblood. "We gnawers starve now! At your hand! The plague runs like wildfire through our tunnels! Today we learn you have yellow powder to stop the fleas that spread it! But do you send it?"

  "You attacked us," said Solovet in a steely voice. "And now whimper when you must suffer the consequences."

  "Whimper?" snarled Lapblood. She and Mange crouched to attack. Solovet's hand flew to the hilt of her sword.

  Gregor didn't understand exactly what was going on, but he could tell things were about to get ugly.

  Ripred stepped between the seething rats and Solovet.

  "Tides turn, Solovet," said Ripred quietly. "Remember this moment when your own pups cry with hunger and the plague stills their hearts. Even now, your grandson lies behind glass in the hospital."

  "And what of my granddaughter, Luxa? Where lies she, Ripred?" spat out Solovet.

  "I don't know! But you must set it aside, Solovet, or go back and tell your people to make their graves. At this moment, we have great mutual need!" said Ripred.

  Gregor never knew how Solovet would have responded, because at that moment the horns began to blow. The warning came from the tunnels leading away from Regalia. A dozen humans on bats appeared and headed across the arena for the tunnels.

  "What are they blowing that for? No rats are invading," said Ripred in a puzzled tone.

  "There must be some threat, or they would not give the signal," said Solovet.

  "But who would be attacking Regalia now?" said Vikus.

  The answer came out of the tunnels. It was a bat with a bright orange coat that Gregor had never seen before. Something was wrong with it -- its wings beat erratically and it was careening around in a bizarre fashion.

  "It is Icarus! But what ails him?" said Nike. As Icarus swooped down over them, Gregor saw the purple bumps oozing fresh blood into his orange fur, the white tongue wagging from his mouth, the delirious look in his eyes.

  "It's the plague!" he cried. "He looks just like Ares does!"

  Icarus twisted in the air, his wings fluttering out of sync, and then lost control. A general cry of alarm went up as the bat plummeted straight down at them.

  ***

  CHAPTER 9

  As Icarus hit the ground, Gregor could hear the crack as the bones in his neck broke. He died instantly. There was no movement except the leaking of blood from the purple bumps.

  "Do not touch him!" warned Neveeve. But this was unnecessary since almost everybody was instinctively scrambling away from the bat's ravaged body. Gregor backed into a roach, lost his footing, and fell over it onto his rear end. Two bats collided on takeoff. Only his mother, who was within a few feet of the ghastly creature when it landed, hadn't moved. She was clutching Boots in her arms, rooted to the ground in terror. Gregor got to his feet and ran for her.

  "Torch the body!" ordered Solovet.

  "No!" shouted Ripred, but three torches had already left the hands of the soldiers above. "No!" Ripred was literally gnashing his teeth in frustration.

  "Get out of here! Everyone! Run!" he screamed.

  When the torches hit Icarus, Gregor understood Ripred's frantic reaction. The flames had only rested on the fur a moment when a wave of small, black specks began to abandon the dead bat's body.

  "Fleas!" cried Vikus. "Get you gone!"

  Gregor grabbed Boots, caught his mother's arm, and pulled her onto the back of the nearest bat, who happened to be Queen Athena. Probably you weren't supposed to hop on a queen without asking permission, but this was no time for polite small talk. As they rose into the air, Gregor could see the rats and cockroaches disappearing into the tunnels leading to the Underland. All the humans on the ground had been picked up by bats and were airborne.

  The fleas were hopping madly away from the burning bat.

  "To the royal box!" called Vikus. "No one enters the city!"

  Queen Athena swerved in the air and carried them toward a large, curved section of seats high in the arena. It reminded Gregor of the boxes where the rich people sat in Yankee Stadium. This must be where the royal family watched the sporting events.

  As soon as they landed, Neveeve made them spread out. "Put as much distance as you can between one another." Gregor moved away from his mother and Queen Athena, but didn't feel like he could set Boots down. She'd just run off, maybe to the railing of the box, and they were up really high.

  His mom started to follow Gregor and Boots but Neveeve waved her back. "No! Move into a space by yourself!"

  The doctor opened a pouch at her belt and pulled out what looked like a fancy perfume bottle. It had one of those bulbs on the side so you could spray it. She closed her eyes, pointed the nozzle at herself, and squeezed the bulb. Puffs of yellow powder settled on her skin and clothing. It looked like the same stuff the rats had been scratching from their coats. The flea powder.

  Neveeve moved rapidly around the box spraying everyone. "Rub it into your skin, your hair. Cover every inch of your being," she instructed.

  When she got to Gregor, he covered Boots's eyes with his hands while he shut his own. He could feel the powder coating his skin. It had a sharp, bitter smell. As Neveeve moved on to his mother, Boots sneezed and gave him a surprised look. "You yellow," she said.

  "You, too," Gregor said, working the powder through her hair. "And what letter does yellow begin with?"

  "Y!" Boots said. "Y is
for yellow!"

  "And what else?" said Gregor, trying to distract her as he rubbed the stuff over her skin.

  "Y is for yo-yo! Y is for yak!" said Boots. She had never seen a yak, except in her ABC book. Neither had Gregor, for that matter. Probably no one would have ever even heard of a yak if it hadn't been about the only animal that began with a Y.

  In a matter of minutes, the entire party of six bats and six humans had been treated with the pesticide.

  "I think it is safe now to gather," said Neveeve.

  Everyone came together in the center of the box. Below on the field, the charred body of the bat lay in a puddle of water. The fire had been extinguished.

  "Bat sick. Bat needs juice," said Boots. Whenever she had a cold the first thing she got was a cup of juice.

  "He's asleep now. He can have some when he wakes up," said Gregor. He could never manage to work out how to tell Boots someone had died.

  "Apple juice." Boots squatted down and began to draw squiggles in the fine coat of yellow powder that covered the floor.

  "Give orders to disinfect the entire field," Solovet called out to a guard who hovered on his bat near the box. "Wait!" The guard stayed as she turned to the doctor. "Will that be sufficient, Neveeve?"

  "They must also spray the tunnels that lead away from the arena," said Neveeve. "The fleas will not be able to enter Regalia with the stone doors shut, nor jump so high as the seats. But some may already have escaped down the tunnels and into the rest of the Underland. Any who guard there must be recalled and their skin examined for bites."

  "Do as she says," Solovet told the guard.

  "What of the gnawers and the crawlers?" asked Vikus.

  "No flea could penetrate the coat of poison on the gnawers, and they will not bite the crawlers. They are all quite safe," said Neveeve.

  "And those of us here assembled?" said Vikus.

  "If any flea reached us, which is doubtful, it is now dead. We must each be stripped and checked for bites by physicians in Regalia," said Neveeve.

  "We are not..." choked out Gregor's mother. "We are never returning to Regalia!"

  "Please, Grace, I know this to be very unexpected and distressing --" began Vikus.

  "We're going home! We came to your meeting! That's all you said we had to do! So you tell that bat to take us home now!" said his mother as she pointed wildly at Nike.

  "Who told you this? That you were only expected for the meeting?" asked Vikus with concern.

  "Ripred," said Gregor. "He said we just had to come for a couple of hours. That you didn't need us to find the cure. Then he sent a swarm of rats to scare us out of the apartment."

  Gregor could tell by the look Vikus exchanged with Solovet that this was the first they had heard of any of this.

  "I am afraid he was not forthcoming," said Vikus.

  "What do you mean?" asked Gregor's mom.

  "He means Ripred lied," said Solovet.

  "He may in fact have thought their presence was unnecessary for the --" said Vikus weakly.

  "He lied!" repeated Solovet. "Do not defend him. He knows perfectly well there will be no quest for the cure without the Overlanders! He obviously thought there was no other means of bringing them below. I would have done the same, Vikus, if you would not have."

  Gregor bet she would have, too. Solovet would not have cared what Gregor or his family wanted. Not at Regalia's expense.

  "We will not force them to stay, Solovet!" said Vikus. Gregor had never seen him so angry. "They have been brought here under false pretenses. We will not force them to stay!"

  Gregor's mother clutched Vikus's arm as if it were a lifeline. "You'll send us home now, then? We can leave?"

  "No!" said Solovet.

  "Yes!" said Vikus. "Nike! Prepare to take the Overlanders home!"

  "Guards!" barked Solovet.

  Gregor was bewildered at the power struggle playing out before them. He had never seen Vikus and Solovet fight like this, and it rattled him. Who could actually make this decision? What would happen if his family tried to leave? What was he supposed to do?

  "Wait!" Gregor took his mom's hand. "Look, Mom, I've been to see Ares. He's really bad. He's dying, Mom. I can't leave him like this. So, how about you take Boots back and I stay and try to help? Okay? You take Boots and Lizzie and Grandma to Virginia. Dad will wait for me to come back up. Then we'll come to Virginia, too."

  "That might be an acceptable compromise," said Vikus, eyeing his wife.

  "We could put it to the council," said Solovet, although she did not sound convinced.

  "I can't leave you down here, Gregor," said his mom. "I'm sorry about your friend. I really am. But I can't leave you here."

  "Look, Mom, I don't think all three of us are going to be allowed out of here," said Gregor. "Please, take Boots and go home." He squeezed her hand tightly. It took him only a few seconds to register that something was wrong.

  His mom was talking back to him now, but the words weren't reaching his brain. He moved his fingers over the skin on the back of her hand. No, he hadn't imagined it. It was there.

  "Gregor, are you listening to me?" pleaded his mom.

  He wasn't. He was trying to make sense of what his fingers were telling him. And trying to wish it away. But he couldn't.

  Gregor slowly lifted his mom's hand into the light of a nearby torch and wiped off the yellow powder. A small red bite was swelling up on her skin.

  PART 2: The Jungle

  ***

  CHAPTER 10

  His mom stared at her hand and became very still. As the rest of the group saw the bite, all movement and sound stopped. There was not a whisper, not a rustling of a wing or robe.

  Curious, Boots climbed up on a seat to see what everyone was looking at. "You need pink," she said when she saw the bite.

  Gregor knew she meant the pink calamine lotion they put on bug bites in the summer.

  "I need to go home," his mother whispered.

  "We cannot let you," said Vikus with a sad shake of his head. "Not now."

  "If the plague were unleashed in the Overland, it could mean the annihilation of the warmbloods there as well," said Solovet.

  "We must place you in quarantine at once," said Neveeve.

  Solovet touched his mother's shoulder. "We are so deeply sorry this happened." She sighed. "Nike, take her in and report to be inspected for bites."

  Gregor was still holding his mom's hand. He couldn't let go. "Mom..."

  She gently pried his fingers loose and stepped back from him. "You take your sister home."

  Did he nod? Gregor wasn't sure. But his mom got on Nike's back and disappeared.

  "We must all be checked for bites immediately," said Neveeve.

  Somehow they were all on bats. They did not go through the city, but took some tunnels that opened out over the white seething river that ran by Regalia. At the dock, no one assisted them. The yellow powder was enough to keep people at bay.

  They were sent to bathe and then had to stand naked while no less than seven teams of doctors inspected their skin for flea bites in bright light. Boots, who was exceptionally ticklish, giggled through the whole thing. Gregor submitted to the inspection without objecting, but he was almost certain he and Boots had not been bitten.

  "You can run away, but the prophecy will find you somehow," he heard his grandma saying.

  Oh, it had found him, all right. And dug its teeth into him. Into Boots, too. And it would not let them go until the whole terrifying episode had been played out. Their mom was infected with the plague. Now the warrior...the princess...they had to go try and find the cure.

  Gregor wanted to scream out to no one in particular that it had been enough for Ares and Howard and Andromeda to be sick. He would have found a way to go on the quest. But his mother would never have let Boots go to the...what was it? The Vineyard of Eyes? For the prophecy to be fulfilled, his mother had to be taken out of commission. Quarantined. Made a victim. Yes, prophetically speaking, everything
was right on schedule.

  He felt exhausted by the responsibility that lay ahead. He was so sick of being dragged into the Underland. Of being expected to solve its problems. Of having the rest of his family suffer for causes that did not even really involve them. After he and Boots had been pronounced free of flea bites, they were given new silky Underlander clothes. Gregor managed to talk them into letting him have his boots back, but they had to be inspected for fleas and disinfected first. While they sat on a bench in the hospital waiting to hear about the others, Boots nodded off on his shoulder. No wonder, she'd only had a couple of hours of sleep. Vikus sent for Dulcet, the nanny who had looked after Boots on earlier visits.

  Dulcet took the sleeping little girl from Gregor's arms and then touched his shoulder. "I am very sorry to hear about your mother. But do not lose heart. You will find the cure. Of this, I am certain."

  Her tone was so kind that Gregor almost broke down and told her about how he had to find the cure. How his mom just had to live. How his whole family would break apart into splinters if she wasn't there to hold it together. How she could not die because he could not imagine the world without her. And how it would be Gregor's fault...her horrible death...the purple bumps...the struggle for air...because he had wanted to make this trip to the Underland...and she had not.

  But all he said was, "Thanks, Dulcet." When everyone who had been at the meeting had been scrupulously checked, a total of three were sent into quarantine: Gregor's mom and two bats named Cassiopeia and Pollux.

  Gregor saw Neveeve at the end of the hallway, writing something on a clipboard. He walked over and touched her arm.

  "Oh!" she exclaimed. Her arm jerked to the side and the quill pen she'd been writing with left a large blot on her parchment.

  "Sorry," said Gregor. Boy, she sure was jumpy. Of course, spending your days treating plague patients was not exactly a vacation.

  "Can you tell me where my mom is?" asked Gregor.

  "We have her isolated," said Neveeve. "Come, she sleeps, but you can see her."

  The doctor led Gregor through the hospital.

  "Does she know Boots and I didn't get bitten?" asked Gregor.

  "Yes. But she was still highly agitated," said Neveeve, her fingers rubbing her eyelid, which seemed to be twitching. "I gave her a medicine to calm her." Gregor thought Neveeve might benefit from a little of that medicine herself, but he didn't say so. His mom was in a private room on the same hall as Ares, Howard, and Andromeda. Gregor looked through the glass wall and saw that all the yellow powder had been washed off her and she was dressed in fresh white pajamas. She looked small and vulnerable in the hospital bed. It was good she was asleep. If she could speak, she would order Gregor home and he would have to tell her that he and Boots couldn't go back now and she'd go crazy. So he fixed the picture of his mom in his head. What if this was the last time he ever saw her?

 
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