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Gregor and the curse of.., p.8
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.8

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "Who is this guide?" said Solovet.

  "I cannot tell you. On my word. Only that you are to meet him some eight hours hence at the Arch of Tantalus," said Nerissa.

  "Are we? Now don't get me wrong, my dear, I love the Arch of Tantalus. Always a bone or two to gnaw on there," said Ripred. "But what if you actually dreamed up this guide?"

  "If I dreamed up this guide, then you will be none the worse than you are at present," said Nerissa. "The Arch of Tantalus is as good a place to enter the jungle as any."

  "Yes, if you ignore the piles of skeletons that seem to collect in the vicinity, it's top-notch!" said Ripred.

  Throughout the room came murmurs of agreement.

  "It is where your guide will be awaiting you, Ripred," said Nerissa. "Whether or not you choose to meet him is your own doing."

  Gregor had to give Nerissa credit. It couldn't be easy to stand up to the rats' mockery, especially when none of the humans was backing her up except Vikus. Maybe Gregor was wrong, and there was a queen inside her after all. Besides, she had saved his life at the trial after "The Prophecy of Bane" mess. He owed her.

  "Well, that's where I'm going," said Gregor loudly. "To the Arch of Tantalus. Nerissa's word is good enough for me."

  "That's that, then," said Ripred. But he shot Gregor a look that seemed to add, "You idiot." The rats, who were making the journey to the jungle on foot, had to leave immediately to make the rendezvous in eight hours. It would take the bats less time to cover the same distance, so Gregor found himself with a few hours to prepare.

  Gregor went back up to the luxury room, since no other room had been set up for him, and asked an Underlander for something to write a letter on. He was provided with three fresh scrolls, a bottle of ink, and a quill pen. Getting the hang of the quill pen and bottle of ink took some doing. In fact, the first two scrolls turned into practice sheets, and when he finally did get around to his letter, it was so full of ink blots and smears that he could only hope it was legible.

  As for the contents...well, he had agonized over what to write, but this was all he managed:

  Dear Mom,

  I'm doing what I think you would do if I were the one with the plague. Trying to find the cure. Please don't be mad.

  I love you,

  Gregor He had initially thought about writing to his dad as well, but somehow the short note to his mom had drained him. Besides, it would take pages to explain how all this disaster had fallen on his family. He would ask Vikus to write and leave the scroll in the grate in the laundry room.

  Mareth came to the doorway. He had a pack slung over the arm that was not using his crutch. His face was flushed and his breathing audible. The exertion of moving around the palace had taken its toll on him.

  "Hey, Mareth. Here, sit down," said Gregor. He made a space on the couch for the soldier.

  "Perhaps for just a moment," said Mareth. He sat down gratefully on the couch, leaning his crutch against the arm. "I am supposed to be gaining strength every day by moving around the palace. But the stairs are still a challenge for me."

  Gregor felt a twinge of sadness as he remembered training with Mareth. How fast he could run, how strong he was. That was before they had gone to find the Bane and Mareth had lost his leg. He wondered what Mareth would do now. He could probably still fly on Andromeda, if she survived the plague, but surely he couldn't be a soldier anymore.

  "What's in the pack?" asked Gregor.

  "Oh, I have taken the liberty of choosing some supplies from the museum for you. You may go yourself as well, of course. But having been with you on the last two quests, I have some idea of what you need," said Mareth.

  Gregor opened the pack and found several flashlights and a bunch of batteries. "Yep, this is exactly what I'd have picked out myself."

  "Here in the side, I placed a roll of this gray sticking strip," said Mareth. He pulled a brand-new roll of duct tape from the side pocket. "Howard said you used this both for securing bandages and making the raft after I had lost consciousness."

  "Great. Yeah, that's duct tape. It really came in handy," said Gregor. He looked in the other side pocket and found a quart bottle of water with a classy label. "Water's always good to have."

  "It says it comes from glaciers," said Mareth, tapping the label. "What exactly are glaciers?"

  "They're, like, these gigantic pieces of ice," said Gregor.

  "I have heard of ice. Water that is hard as stone. So, this glacier water...does it have special benefits?" asked Mareth. What did Gregor know? His family drank water from the tap. His mom made them let it run for a full minute in case there was any lead from the pipes in it. They sure didn't go out and spend four bucks on a bottle of glacier water! Gregor ran his thumb over the price tag on the bottle uncertainly. "Urn, I don't know. I mean, I think it's just water," said Gregor. But Mareth looked a little disappointed so he added, "But I bet it's really clean, because it was frozen a while ago, before there was so much pollution. Yeah, look right here on the label, 'extra pure.'"

  "Ah," said Mareth, gratified. "Pure water is not always easy to find, especially where you are going. I brought one more thing, although I am not sure exactly what it is. But it has a sense of happiness about it. I thought carrying it might remind you of home."

  Mareth pulled a packet of bubble gum from the pocket. The paper was bright pink and had cartoon pictures of pop-eyed kids blowing giant bubbles.

  Gregor laughed. "All right, bubble gum. My sister Lizzie loves this stuff. You know, it does remind me of home. Thanks, Mareth."

  Underlanders showed up with trays of food and began to place them on the table in front of the couch. Mareth rose to go.

  "Don't go. There's tons of food. Stay and eat with me," Gregor said.

  Mareth hesitated. Gregor was pretty sure he was worried about breaking some kind of rule. Soldiers probably never ate in the luxury room.

  "Come on, Mareth. You must be hungry. Everybody knows that hospital food is lousy," said Gregor. Actually, when Gregor would go to visit his friend Larry in the hospital when he had bad asthma attacks, the food usually looked pretty decent to him. But the patients were always complaining about it. Lying around a hospital, especially if you felt bad, probably gave you a lot of opportunity to dislike the food.

  Mareth grinned. "It is somewhat bland," he admitted. "Although one has only to think of eating raw fish on our last journey to appreciate a simple meal."

  "So stay. I don't want to eat alone," said Gregor. "Please."

  Mareth sat back on the couch and put his crutch aside. "This is quite a feast."

  It was. It ranked right up there with the food that had been prepared for Nerissa's coronation. There was a savory egg-and-cheese pie, stuffed mushrooms, steak, tiny raw vegetables with a dip, and a dish Gregor had come across a few times before, shrimp in cream sauce.

  Gregor pointed to the shrimp. "That's Ripred's favorite. Last time I was here he stuck his whole face in a pot of it and scarfed it down."

  "I do not blame him," said Mareth, taking a small serving of shrimp.

  "Shoot, you can eat more than that," said Gregor, dumping another large ladle of the stuff on Mareth's plate. He took a piece of egg-and-cheese pie for himself. His stomach was still rocky and acidic from throwing up, but he knew he had to eat if he were heading out on the road. It helped that the pie tasted amazing.

  "Hey, Mareth, what was the deal with you guys starving out the rats?" he said.

  Mareth took a few moments before he answered. "It was Solovet's way to show them that whenever they attack us, there will be consequences."

  "But that means the pups are starving to death, too. Not just the big rats," said Gregor. "Doesn't that bother you?"

  "Of course it bothers me!" Mareth shook his head and sighed. "It is so hard for you to know what it is like for us here, Gregor. We are raised in a world where one must kill or be killed. Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like if we did not always have to devote ourselves to the possibility of w
ar. Who would we be? What would we do?"

  "Well, what would you do?" asked Gregor.

  "I do not live without war. It seems like...a fairy story," said Mareth. "Do you have those in the Overland?"

  "Fairy tales, yeah," said Gregor.

  "It seems like that," said Mareth.

  When the Underlander came back to clear away the dishes at the end of the meal, Gregor pointed to the rest of the shrimp. "Can I take that with me?"

  The Underlander looked confused. "Take it with where?"

  "On the trip. Can you stick it in a bag or something?" Gregor asked.

  The Underlander stood holding the dish, staring down into the creamy sauce. "Stick it in a bag?" Doggie bags must be a new idea down here.

  "Perhaps you could put it in a wineskin, Lucent, and then it would not leak out," Mareth said helpfully. "The seals are airtight."

  "Oh, yes," said Lucent, relieved. "A wineskin."

  Gregor walked Mareth back to the hospital and asked him to make sure his mom got the letter. A doctor told him he was wanted on the dock. And when he arrived, he saw that everyone was waiting on him to leave.

  Vikus, Solovet, and two male guards were mounted on bats.

  "I thought you weren't coming," Gregor said to Vikus.

  "For safety's sake, the guards and I will escort you as far as the Arch of Tantalus. Then only the designated party will enter the jungle," said Vikus.

  Nike, who was without a rider, was grooming her black-and-white-striped fur. Dulcet stood next to her, holding a sleeping Boots in her arms. Temp sat at her feet. Gregor almost said, "Where's Ares?" before reality clicked in.

  Gregor crossed over to Nike. "So, I guess we're flying together this trip?" he asked.

  "If you have no objections," said Nike. "I am not as strong or large as Ares, but I have a certain agility."

  "You're perfect," said Gregor. She didn't have to sell herself to him. No one could replace Ares, but Nike seemed like a good bat. Suddenly, Gregor felt exhausted. He hadn't slept at all Saturday night; it must have been Sunday evening by now. "Hey, Nike, is it okay if I sleep for a while?"

  "Certainly," said Nike. Gregor slid the pack on his back for safekeeping and lay on his side on Nike's back. The wineskin of shrimp in cream sauce didn't make a bad pillow. He reached out his arms and Dulcet settled Boots down next to him. Temp scampered up by their feet.

  "If we're still flying, wake me up if Boots wakes up, okay, Temp?" Gregor said.

  "Wake you, I will; if wake she, wake you," said Temp, which Gregor took to mean "yes."

  "Fly you high, Gregor the Overlander," said Dulcet.

  "Fly you high, Dulcet," said Gregor and, as Nike lifted into the air, he locked his arms around Boots and fell asleep.

  When he awoke, he was lying on stone. The wineskin was still under his head. A blanket had been spread over him although he didn't really need it; the air was warm. His arms were empty but he could hear Boots chattering away to Temp.

  Gregor could smell food cooking, too. He rolled over and saw a fire with several large fish grilling on it. The bats were clustered together, sleeping. The humans and rats were spread out in small groups, talking. Boots was riding around on Temp, playing some simple game where she'd throw a ball and they'd run after it.

  They were in a big clearing with a dense jungle looming up all around. Gregor got a flashlight from his pack and shone it through the trees. No, they weren't trees. They were vines. Thick, ropy vines that wove in and out of one another and towered high above his head. From them issued a humming sound that was vaguely mechanical. There were clicks and whirrs and taps. The whole jungle buzzed with life.

  Gregor sat up and saw a stack of stark white bones piled a few feet from his head. At first, he thought this was some kind of sick joke on Ripred's part, but as he moved the flashlight beam around he realized there were skeletons everywhere. They must have reached the Arch of Tantalus. Yes, there, at the edge of the jungle, Gregor spotted a pile of boulders whose shape suggested an arch. The rocks looked unstable, as if they might easily fall on the head of anyone foolish enough to pass through them. No wonder nobody had wanted to come here. Gregor hoped Nerissa knew what she was talking about.

  "The whole thing is ridiculous," he heard Lapblood snarl. "We're just sitting here asking to get eaten, and for what? To humor some lunatic girl's fancy."

  "She is not a lunatic," said Vikus.

  "Well, you have to at least credit her with a certain instability. Remember when she told you I was plotting to take over the Fount with an army of lobsters?" said Ripred.

  "You did try and take over the Fount with an army of lobsters," said Vikus.

  "Yes, yes, but it was several years before Nerissa was even born. The point is, she flip-flops in and out of time like a fish in the shallows. Who's to say that this guide, whoever he may be, didn't show up three days ago? Or three years ago for that matter?" said Ripred.

  "They are right, Vikus. We invite trouble stopping in this place," said Solovet. "And how, in your mind, did Nerissa arrange a guide for us? She scarcely sees a soul." Gregor wondered what was up with Vikus and Solovet. They really weren't seeing eye to eye.

  "Only a few more minutes," said Vikus firmly. "Then we will part ways."

  "I throw up to sky!" Boots squealed.

  Gregor turned and saw her wing the ball high into the air. "Well, that's the last we'll see of that ball," he thought. He caught it in his flashlight beam as it flew into the jungle.

  He was right. The ball disappeared. But not in the twisted vines, as he had anticipated. Instead, it landed squarely in the mouth of a colossal lizard.



  All he could really see was the creature's head, a scaly iridescent blue-green face fifteen feet above him. It swallowed and Gregor caught a glimpse of rippling neck muscles.

  "My ball!" said Boots.

  Temp was already chasing after the ball but he put on the brakes when he became aware of the enormous reptile in the jungle.

  Boots was not so easily deterred. She slid from the cockroach's back and ran forward, pointing at the lizard. "You eated my ball!"

  "No, Boots!" Gregor cried. He scrambled to his feet and tripped over a skeleton. "No!"

  "You eated my ball!" repeated Boots. She smacked her hands into the vines at the edge of the clearing, sending a vibration through the jungle. The lizard dipped its head in her direction.

  Temp opened his wings and flew straight at the lizard's face. But the cockroaches rarely used their wings, and he ended up hopelessly tangled in the vines several feet from his target.

  Gregor tried desperately to free his feet from something's rib cage. "Boots! Get back!" He could see the other members of the party springing into rescue mode, but how could they reach her in time?

  "You give Temp my ball!" Boots howled at the lizard. "Yooooouuuuu!"

  The lizard glared at Boots and opened its jaw wide. A frightful hiss issued from its mouth as a rainbow-colored ruff shot out around its neck, making its head look five times bigger.

  "Oh!" said Boots in surprise. Her own arms shot up over her head as if she had a ruff as well. "Oh!"

  For a moment, the towering lizard and the tiny girl were mirror images of each other. Mouths open, ruffs up, eyes wide.

  And then someone started laughing. The sound came from the direction of the lizard, and seemed to be coming from its mouth. But it was a distinctly human laugh, so Gregor knew it must have some other source.

  The blue-green lizard's tail flopped out of the jungle, its tip resting on the ground near Boots. The vines rustled and someone slid down the tail. A pale, violet-eyed Underlander landed easily on his feet next to Boots. He was still laughing as he bent on one knee next to her.

  "So, are you a hisser, too?" he asked.

  "No, I'm Boots," she replied, dropping her arms. "Who you?"

  "I am Hamnet. And this is my friend, Frill," said Hamnet. He indicated the lizard, whose ruff was slowly f
olding down.

  Boots considered Frill for a moment. " I is for ig-ig-aguana," she said. She meant "iguana." It was another one of those animals like a yak. If the ABC books didn't have an ibex for the letter I , they were sure to have an iguana.

  "Yes, I suppose it is," said Hamnet. "Whatever an ig-ig-aguana is."

  "It eated my ball," said Boots in an injured tone.

  "She did not mean to. Let us see if we can retrieve it. Frill, any way to have the ball back?" asked Hamnet. The lizard's neck convulsed and the ball shot out of its mouth and straight down into Hamnet's hand. He wiped it on his shirt and Gregor noticed it was not the woven fabric generally worn by the Underlanders. Hamnet's clothes seemed to be made of reptile skin.

  "Good as new, if you do not mind a little hisser spit," said Hamnet. He held out the ball to Boots.

  What was that thing called? When you thought something was happening that had happened before? Deja vu? Gregor was experiencing a very big one now. He flashed back to Luxa, down on one knee, holding out a ball to Boots in the arena, that very same half smile on her face...the first time they had met. The similarity was so striking Gregor almost said her name. Who was he? Her dad? No, her dad was dead. But they must have been related. And what was he doing here in the middle of the jungle? Could this guy with the lizard be their guide?

  Gregor looked over to the rest of the party for an explanation and found another puzzling scene. The humans were all standing like statues, as if they had seen a ghost. Vikus had his arm around Solovet, and for the first time, Gregor thought they actually looked like a married couple. Boots reached happily for her ball. Gregor remembered how Luxa's fingers had held that first ball tightly, challenging Boots to take it away. "You will have to be stronger or smarter than I am." But Hamnet's fingers opened readily as Boots took the ball.

  "B is for ball," she said with a grin.

  "And for bright. Like you," said Hamnet, and gently poked her in the stomach. She giggled and looked up at Temp, who was still struggling to get free from the vines.

  "Temp! You come down! Ball is back!" called Boots.

  "Ohhhh..." Temp gave a moan. Hamnet reached up and untangled the vines from Temp's wings. He set the crawler on the ground.

  "And what bold crawler is it who flies in the face of a hisser?" asked Hamnet.

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