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Gregor and the curse of.., p.7
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.7

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
 
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  He shook the thought from his head and turned to Neveeve. "I need your help. I really need to know everything you know about the plague," he said.

  "I am now headed to my laboratory where I study this sickness. Would you like to accompany me?" asked the doctor. "It is outside of Regalia, but it will take some time for them to resume the meeting to discuss the cure."

  Nike flew them out of the palace, over the city, and high above the arena. The body of the bat had been removed and the moss of the playing field had a yellow coating of flea powder. They went down a tunnel, picking up a few torches from the holders on the walls. As the tunnel began to fork, Gregor knew he'd been this way before.

  "Isn't Ares's cave out this way?" he asked.

  "I believe it is. I have never visited it," said Neveeve. "It is said to be well hidden. This is why it took Howard and Andromeda several days to find Ares and bring him into the hospital,"

  "He didn't come in because he felt sick?" asked

  Gregor.

  "No, Vikus had not heard from him for weeks. So

  Howard and Andromeda flew out to search for his cave. He was so ill already, they had to carry him in,"

  said Neveeve.

  Gregor thought of Ares, alone and sick in his cave. His few close friends were dead or missing. And Gregor, his bond, was unreachable. "Poor Ares."

  "Yes," said Neveeve. "Ares has been greatly persecuted through no fault of his own, and this is the result."

  This surprised Gregor because there was not much sympathy for Ares in the Underland. He was deeply mistrusted and most people and bats wanted him dead. He felt a surge of warmth toward Neveeve for her compassionate view of his bond.

  "Did you know him well?" asked Gregor.

  "Not well. After you left Regalia, Ares would not return to the city, fearing they would imprison him again. On Vikus's instructions, I continued to care for the mite wounds on his back at my lab. Even then, Ares would only come very late at night when I was the only one present."

  "I appreciate you doing that," said Gregor.

  "As I said, I believe his treatment has been unjust," said Neveeve.

  Her laboratory was housed in a series of large connecting caves. Long stone counters were covered with a variety of lab equipment. A stream had been diverted into a narrow channel that ran through the back of one of the caves. A handful of people in gloves moved about their duties. A few bats were there as well, peering into microscopes, consulting with the humans.

  Neveeve guided Gregor into a room that was separated from the rest of the lab by a heavy stone door. "This is where I conduct my research," she said, carefully shutting the door behind her.

  There were test tubes and beakers and several microscopes. Along one wall were four large glass containers that fitted into stone cubes. They reminded him of water coolers. Gregor moved in to examine one. Little black specks were crawling around inside it. Fleas. His torchlight reflected off a shiny red pool at the bottom of the container. Gregor realized it was blood and gave a little jump backward. His arm caught the adjacent container, causing it to tip sideways, but he managed to catch it. Fortunately, this one was empty.

  "Sorry! Man, I'm sorry," said Gregor, steadying the container.

  "That was well caught," said Neveeve with a high-pitched laugh. "Thank goodness, as these are made specially for the plague and not easily replaced. It took me several months to receive this one when its predecessor was broken. I am about to use this new one to test out a most promising antidote."

  Gregor put the torch in a holder and stuck his hands in his pockets so he wouldn't bump into anything else. All he needed now was to be busting up some experiment that could save everybody's life.

  The doctor told him what she knew about the plague. It was bloodborne, not airborne, which meant you couldn't get it if somebody just sneezed on you, only if their blood got in your veins. That was where the fleas came in. They transmitted the disease from warmblood to warmblood.

  "In many plagues, the insects would die as well. Not as the warmbloods do, but the germs would multiply in their bodies and kill them. Not so with this one. We believe that no insect has died. No fish or scaled creature, either. That is why it is called 'The Curse of the Warmbloods' and not 'The Curse of the Underland,'" said Neveeve.

  "Ripred said you could treat the symptoms in Regalia," said Gregor.

  "Yes, we can ease discomfort, lower fever, give medicines to induce sleep, but these do not kill the plague," said Neveeve. "We are attempting to come up with our own cure in the event that your search is not successful. Although almost no one really believes we can do it," said Neveeve with a weak smile. "I have faith that we can, but it will take time."

  Time. It was all going to come down to time. "How long do you have after you're bitten?" he asked.

  "It varies greatly. Ares, for instance, was the first Underlander to fall ill, but he shows remarkable resistance. It seems the fliers do not sicken as quickly as the humans do. Howard and Andromeda have only become symptomatic in the past few days. But then, we do not know if they contracted the disease from the mites or when they brought Ares into the hospital. Your mother...as a human who has had a flea bite from Icarus, clearly an advanced case..." Neveeve hesitated.

  "I need the truth. How long would you give her?" said Gregor.

  Neveeve lowered her gaze and massaged her forehead with a trembling hand. "If things go badly...we could lose her in two weeks."

  ***

  CHAPTER 11

  The stone floor was cold. Gregor lay on his side holding a small mirror by the handle. He was trying to read "The Prophecy of Blood" but it wasn't easy.

  "You know, I've already got this thing memorized," he said.

  "We know, Gregor, but Nerissa and I feel it is important for you to examine the original," said Vikus. "There are clues you may pick up from the way it is written."

  So Gregor peered back into the mirror.

  The first two prophecies that had involved him had been carved in big letters right in the middle of the walls of the stone room that held all of Sandwich's visions. This third one was almost impossible to decipher.

  In the first place, "The Prophecy of Blood" was on the floor, which might have been okay if it wasn't crammed into a corner. Secondly, the letters were very tiny and had a lot of confusing curlicues and junk coming off them. Then, of course, the thing was written backward.

  No matter how he twisted and turned his body or positioned the light or squinted to make out the letters, Gregor could never really get a clear shot of it. He seemed to spend more time looking at his own face than at the prophecy. When his mirror arm began to cramp, he finally gave up.

  "What's the deal with this thing? It's like Sandwich didn't even want us to be able to read it," said Gregor.

  "He did want us to read it, Gregor. Or he never would have written it," said Vikus. The old man knelt down and rubbed his hand over the prophecy. "But Nerissa believes he purposely made it difficult to read."

  "Yeah? Why's that, Nerissa?" asked Gregor, sitting up to look at her.

  When Luxa had disappeared in the rats' tunnels, Nerissa, as the last living member of the royal family, had been crowned queen. Many people had opposed her coronation because she had visions of the future that made her seem crazy. Others simply doubted if she had the physical strength for the job. At present, she was curled up in a cloak on the floor, leaning against the wall for support. Now that she was queen, she was better dressed and her hair was neatly pinned on top of her head. But she was as bony and tremulous as ever.

  "Because the prophecy itself is difficult to read. Its meaning -- it is hard to understand," said Nerissa.

  "There's only one part of it that really seems confusing to me," said Gregor. The first stanza said there would be a plague. Okay, it was here. The third stanza said to bring Gregor and Boots. Okay, they were here. The fifth stanza said the warmbloods had to find the cure. Okay, they were going to try. The seventh stanza said you do it or you die.
Okay, they knew that.

  But those words that appeared in the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth stanzas. The repeating stanza. That was the confusing part.

  Turn and turn and turn again.

  you see the what but not the when.

  Remedy and cure entwine,

  And so they form a single vine.

  "'Turn and turn and turn again,'" said Gregor. "What's that about?"

  "Before I burden you with several centuries of scholarly opinion, what is your interpretation of it, Gregor?" said Vikus.

  Gregor considered the stanza again, rolling the words around in his mind. "Well, it sounds to me like Sandwich is trying to tell us...we're wrong. Like whatever we think is happening...it's not."

  "Yes. Not only wrong now. But as we 'turn and turn,' we are still not seeing the truth," said Nerissa.

  "So...if we're wrong...then why are we doing anything?" said Gregor. "Why are we even going to the Vineyard of Eyeballs or whatever it's called?"

  "Because the alternative is to do nothing," said Vikus. "And a journey is indicated. We must go to the cradle to find the cure. It seems likely that the 'single vine' would grow in a vineyard, does it not? So we go, and perhaps along the way we will unravel this stanza as well."

  "When you say 'we' do you mean 'you and me'? Because you're coming with me this time?" asked Gregor hopefully.

  Vikus smiled. "No, Gregor. I confess, I was using a more general 'we.' I cannot go. But if it is any consolation, Solovet is planning to travel with you."

  "Well, that's something," said Gregor. He'd rather have Vikus to help unravel the prophecy, but he knew Solovet would be better at fighting. And if this place were as dangerous as everybody thought, he would need her. "And Ripred. Is he coming?"

  "He says he would not miss it for all the world," said Vikus.

  Gregor felt his heart lift a little. With both Ripred and Solovet along, they might just make it.

  An Underlander knocked on the door and announced that they were needed.

  "The rats and crawlers must have returned," said Vikus. "We are going to continue the meeting within the walls of the palace. Come, let us go."

  As they started down the hallway Gregor tried to give the hand mirror back to Nerissa. "Keep it," she said. "You may have need of it again." He stuck the mirror in his back pocket absent-mindedly.

  The moment they crossed the threshold, he recognized the place. How could he forget it? He took in the stone bleachers that rose up around a stage that sat right in the middle of the circular room. On that stage -- that was where he and Ares had made the vows that bonded them together. Now the stage was empty, but the bleachers held clusters of creatures. The human council occupied one section of seats. The bats sat to their right, the roaches to their left, and the rats were milling around the benches directly across the stage from them.

  Vikus and Nerissa went to join the humans but Gregor had that odd feeling he'd had in the cafeteria one day when both Angelina and Larry had been sick and missed school. He did not know where to sit. Not with the rats, that was for sure. But he didn't much like the Regalian council, which was probably still thinking about tossing him off a cliff for treason. The bats had made Ares's life miserable by shunning him. Finally, Gregor went over and sat with the roaches. They were the only ones he really felt comfortable with.

  Vikus opened the meeting by greeting everyone formally. Then he got right down to business. "So, it seems the journey to the Vineyard of Eyes becomes more urgent with each passing minute. We must begin at once. The proposed members of the quest are currently Gregor and Boots, as the warrior and the princess are called for. Nike will be their flier, also providing us with a backup princess in case we have misinterpreted Boots's role. Solovet and her bond, Ajax, complete the humans and fliers. Ripred, Mange, and Lapblood will represent the gnawers. And as Sandwich specifically mentions the crawlers, Temp has valiantly offered his services."

  "We don't really have to drag that crawler along with us, do we?" said Mange.

  "I suppose we can always eat him if the supplies run low," said Lapblood.

  There was laughter from some of the bats and humans at the comment. They were always making fun of the roaches.

  Temp said nothing, but gave a slight tremor of fear at Lapblood's comment.

  Gregor locked eyes with the rat. "Or maybe we'll eat you. I've never had rat. But with the right sauce, who knows?"

  Only one creature was laughing now. Ripred. "Well, at least the trip isn't going to be dull!"

  "At present," hissed Lapblood, "there is no trip. We have yet to be convinced that it is to our advantage."

  "The council has agreed to open the fishing grounds to the west," said Vikus. "That should provide the gnawers with enough food."

  "And the yellow powder?" asked Mange. "To kill the fleas?"

  There was only silence from the humans. Then Gregor thought he heard Vikus sigh.

  "No powder, no deal," said Lapblood.

  What? Was the whole quest going to fall through because the humans wouldn't send the rats flea powder? Was it really so much to ask? Gregor thought of the purple bumps bursting, oozing out pus and blood....

  He sprang to his feet and shouted at the council. "Send them the powder! Geez! Have you seen Ares? Have you seen what the plague does? No matter how much you hate the rats, do you really want them to die like that?"

  His question hung in the air a long time before anyone answered.

  "You have a very forgiving heart, Gregor the Overlander," said Solovet.

  It wasn't true. Maybe Gregor didn't want the rats to die such a gruesome death. He thought of the expression "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy." But he had not forgiven them for his father, for Tick, for Twitchtip, for Aurora, or for Luxa. He had a whole list of things he would never forgive them for.

  "No, I don't," said Gregor bitterly. "But I've got a mom and a bond with the plague. Your hospital is starting to fill up. We need the rats to find the cure. So, what's it going to be, Solovet?"

  ***

  CHAPTER 12

  There was no choice, ultimately. They had to agree I to send the rats the flea powder. Gregor did not think this was much of a concession, given they were all supposed to be on the same side, fighting the plague. But it was obviously a wrenching decision for the humans, who whispered furiously among themselves for several minutes before Solovet announced they had given in. By that point, three people were crying and one had left the meeting in protest.

  The way they hated the rats -- the degree to which they would sacrifice to have them dead -- was beyond anything in Gregor's experience. That guy who had left the meeting, would he really rather see everybody dead than help some rats survive? Apparently, the answer was yes. The next point of contention was the execution of the journey to the Vineyard of Eyes. For the first time, Gregor saw a map of the Underland. Four Underlanders unrolled the enormous scroll flat on the stage and secured the corners with marble pyramids. You could see it clearly even from the bleachers. The map was divided into many sections, each painted a different color and labeled in black. Gregor found Regalia in the north. The gnawers had a region in the south, although part of it had been painted over and had the word "occupied" spread across it. The Waterway took up a large portion of the center of the scroll. To the southwest of Regalia, Gregor picked out the lands belonging to the fliers and the crawlers, but there were many names on the map Gregor didn't recognize.

  Gregor's eyes lingered on the portion of the map labeled "occupied." He could see a large river curving through it. By the different paint colors, he could tell it had belonged to the rats, but now the humans controlled it. A river that size would supply a lot of fish. This must be the river that Ripred had talked about when he said the humans were trying to starve out the rats. No river, no fish. But now the humans had agreed to give back the fishing grounds so that the rats would go on the quest. Solovet came to the stage with a pointer and drew everyone's attention to a large triangle of green that ex
tended from the rats' current territory halfway up the eastern side of the Waterway. "By our best estimates, the Vineyard lies in this general area." She tapped a spot that was so deep in the jungle it was almost off the map. "It is very near the Firelands, but any entry from the east would be blocked by the cutters."

  "Who are the cutters?" Gregor asked Temp. The roach consulted with a few of his friends in clicking sounds.

  "Ants, some call them we think, ants," said Temp.

  "Why would the ants block our way?" asked Gregor.

  "Hate warmbloods, the cutters do, hate warmbloods," said Temp.

  Gregor would have liked to ask more about the ants, but he didn't want to miss what was going on in the meeting.

  "That jungle goes on for days," said Mange. "How are we supposed to find the Vineyard in a sea of vines?"

  Nerissa cleared her throat and spoke for the first time. "I have arranged a guide for you."

  "You...have?" said Ripred, and looked to Vikus for confirmation. But the old man looked as surprised as Ripred sounded.

  "When did you do this, Nerissa?" asked Vikus.

  "Quite a long time ago. But I have every confidence he will be there," said Nerissa. "I have seen him with the Overlander in a vision."

  Uh-oh. Vision talk was never good. While everybody seemed to take Sandwich's prophecies very seriously, Nerissa's visions were not given much respect.

  If the humans refrained from doubting her to her face, the rats did not.

  "A vision?" said Lapblood, over-enunciating as if she were speaking to a very small child. "I thought I had a vision once but it was only some very bad mushrooms. Have they been feeding you mushrooms lately, Your Majesty?"

  "Nerissa has no taste for mushrooms, and while her visions may not always be complete, we have gained much of value from them," said Vikus sharply.

 
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