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Gregor and the curse of.., p.9
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       Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, p.9

         Part #3 of Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins
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  "I be Temp, I be," said Temp, rearranging his wings so that they lay flat against his body. Boots scampered up on his back and tossed the ball. Off they ran, as if no stranger, no giant lizard had appeared out of the blue.

  Hamnet turned back and surveyed the group. The half smile still played on his lips. There was a long silence.

  "Oh, look. It's Hamnet. He's not dead," said Ripred finally. The rat picked up what appeared to be a human skull and started to gnaw on it.

  "The skull is a nice touch, Ripred," said Hamnet.

  "I thought so. How've you been?" said Ripred.

  "Remarkably well, all things considered," said Hamnet. He looked back over his shoulder at the lizard. "It is safe. You may come down."

  The leaves stirred and a small boy slid off the end of the lizard's tail. He did not land so easily as Hamnet had, but had to take a few hops to keep from falling over. Something was wrong about the boy. "No, not wrong, just different," Gregor thought. Then it struck him. The kid had that super-pale Underlander skin, but his head was covered with jet-black curls, and his eyes were the green of a lime lollipop. Who was he? He didn't look like he came from either the Underland or Gregor's world.

  The boy intertwined his fingers in Hamnet's and took in the group one by one with those strange green eyes. "This is my son, Hazard," Hamnet said.

  "Not only alive but with a Halflander child," said Ripred. "You do know how to make an entrance."

  Halflander. Did that mean half Overlander and half Underlander? That would explain how he didn't seem to come from either place.

  Vikus slowly released Solovet and crossed over to the newcomers. He knelt down in front of the boy and took his free hand. "Greetings, Hazard. I am your grandfather, Vikus."

  "My grandfather lives in New York City," said Hazard simply. "My mother was going to take me to see him, but she died." His accent was somewhere between Gregor's own and the clipped formal speech of the Underlanders.

  "You have two grandfathers. I am your father's father," said Vikus.

  Hazard looked up at Hamnet questioningly. Hamnet gave a small, noncommittal nod. "I didn't know I had two," said Hazard. "Where do you live?"

  "I live in Regalia," said Vikus.

  "I don't know where that is," said the boy. "Are we going to visit you?"

  "You...are always...welcome...." Vikus had to let go of the boy's hand because he was starting to cry now. He walked back to Solovet and stayed facing away from Hamnet and Hazard, his face buried in a handkerchief. Gregor had seen him cry a couple times before -- but this time he didn't understand what was going on. If Hamnet was Vikus's son, why had Gregor never even heard his name? Where had he met an Overlander woman and had a son with her? What was he doing way out here in the middle of nowhere? How come Nerissa had known about him, but everybody else had...what? Thought he was dead? It occurred to him that maybe Hamnet had been banished, and that's why the whole thing was such a big secret. People only got banished for really terrible things. Of course, since Ares was almost constantly about to be banished and Gregor had been on trial for his life a few short months ago, he couldn't make any snap judgments about that.

  "Why come you here, Hamnet?" said Solovet hoarsely. "You have done well enough without us for ten years. Ran off and cared so little for us you let us believe you dead. Why come you here now?"

  Ran off? Gregor didn't know anyone "ran off" from Regalia. It was generally considered to be a death sentence to be outside the city's protection. But here was someone who had run off and appeared to be doing okay. Why had he left? Gregor was dying to know, but this seemed like a really bad time to ask. In fact, it was sort of embarrassing being here at all, during such a personal moment.

  "I am here because I promised I would be," said Hamnet. "Ten years ago when I was leaving Regalia, a little girl crept after me and made me swear to be at this spot at this time. She told me I would be in the company of a hisser and a Halflander child. Thinking she was mad, I agreed only to quiet her. But ten years later, still alive and indeed finding myself in the company of a hisser and a Halflander child, I thought she might have true vision. Where is Nerissa? Does she still live?" said Hamnet.

  "Not only lives, but reigns, Hamnet," said Ripred.

  "Reigns?" said Hamnet. "But what of..."

  "Your sister, Judith, and her husband were killed by rats. Your niece, Luxa, vanished battling in the Labyrinth some months ago. She is presumed dead," said Solovet. "But you have lost your right to mourn them, Hamnet. Your twin, Judith; her husband; your niece -- you forsook them when you turned your back on us."

  Whoa. Now Gregor really didn't want to be here. There was a whole lot of bad family stuff going on.

  "You do not command me, Mother," said Hamnet. "Not what I do, not what I think, and never what I mourn."

  "So, are you our guide?" broke in Lapblood, impatiently whipping a pile of bones aside with her tail.

  "I do not know. Am I?" said Hamnet.

  "According to your crazy queen," Mange said. "She said you're going to get us to the Vineyard of Eyes."

  "Did she? And what business could a mixed pack like yourselves have there?" said Hamnet.

  "'The Prophecy of Blood' has reared its ugly head," said Ripred. "Supposedly the Vineyard is the cradle." His teeth broke through the top of the skull he was gnawing on and protruded through the eye sockets.

  " 'The Prophecy of Blood'...well, I have been gone a long time. So, where's your warrior?" asked Hamnet.

  "Over there, with his boots in the bones," said Ripred.

  Gregor, who was still trying to quietly work his feet out of the rib cage, stopped under Hamnet's gaze. Leave it to Ripred to introduce him when he looked like a complete fool.

  "That is the warrior? Are you sure?" asked Hamnet.

  "Quite sure. Been through two prophecies already. Don't worry, he's a lot more competent than he seems. A bit cocky, though. He's even spreading rumors that he's a rager," said Ripred.

  "A warrior and a rager. My mother's dream come true," said Hamnet, eyeing Gregor with positive loathing.

  Gregor kicked angrily at the rib cage and finally managed to get his feet free. He hated Ripred for bringing up the rager thing. What was it Twitchtip had said a rager was...a natural-born killer? Who wanted to be that? Not Gregor! And he certainly wasn't going around talking it up!

  "Well, in the jungle, being a rager will only triple your difficulties," said Hamnet. "I hope you have gotten your 'powers' under control." He said this last part sarcastically.

  "Yeah? Well, I hope you know where you're going, because I don't have a lot of time," Gregor shot back. He really didn't need this right now.

  "I do not remember agreeing to take you anywhere," said Hamnet.

  "And I don't remember asking you to," said Gregor. Man! He felt like he'd spent about half this trip mouthing off to somebody, but everybody just kept messing with him.

  "Then it's settled. We have no use for each other," said Hamnet. "Come, Hazard." He began to lead the child back toward the lizard.

  Mange gave a growl of fury and turned on Solovet. "You're worthless! All of you! You drag us out to this ridiculous spot and for what? Your own son will not help you find a cure for this plague!"

  "We do not need his help," said Solovet dismissively.

  "You don't think you need anyone's help. It would serve you right if we all left you here to rot in the jungle, Solovet," said Lapblood.

  "Go, then. Return to your caves. We will find the cure without you," said Solovet. "But do not come whining to our doors that your pups are dying!"

  "That's a promise. And here's another. They will not die alone!" hissed Mange and he crouched to attack.

  The next moment was a blur. The guard nearest Solovet drew his blade as the second guard jumped on a bat and shot in the air. Lapblood sprang into place beside Mange.

  Gregor knew that in a matter of seconds somebody was going to be dead.

  Suddenly, the guard on the ground flipped onto his back, and
Hamnet stood in place, the guard's sword in his hand. As Mange lunged, Hamnet threw the sword so that the tip of the blade plunged into a crack in the stone, directly in the rat's path. Mange sheared off all his whiskers on one side of his face as he veered sideways to avoid running straight into the blade. Then he plowed into Lapblood, knocking her off balance. The two rats slammed into a heap. As the guard on the bat swept down at the rats, Hamnet leaped in the air, grabbing his sword arm, and yanked him to the ground. The guard landed on his stomach with a grunt and his sword blade snapped in two on the stone. It all happened so fast. Nobody knew what had hit them. The rats and the guards slowly sat up, looking dazed.

  Gregor's mouth fell open. He wasn't sure exactly how, but Hamnet had stopped the fight and no one had lost anything but some whiskers. Gregor looked over at Ripred, who was still crunching on his skull, unimpressed by the scene.

  "I knew he'd take care of it," Ripred said with a shrug, and popped the rest of the skull in his mouth.

  Hamnet plucked the sword from the crack and examined it. "Nothing ever changes, does it?"

  "You changed," said Solovet softly. "Or why does that gnawer live?"

  Hamnet placed the lower end of the blade across his wrist and offered her the hilt of the sword. "Why do you, for that matter?" he said.

  "Because I never cease fighting," said Solovet, taking the sword.

  "Stop," said Vikus. "Stop this, please." He mopped his face with the handkerchief and turned to his son. "Hamnet, the plague is upon us. Our hospital fills with victims. The gnawers are nearing an epidemic. We must get to the Vineyard of Eyes. Can you not do this one thing for us?"

  Hamnet, his head already shaking, was on the verge of replying when Hazard tugged on his hand. "You know where that is. The Vineyard of Eyes."

  "Hazard, you do not understand the --" Hamnet began.

  "We could take them. I could talk to the bats. And the crawler," Hazard said. "Is he really your father? Like you're my father?"

  The question pulled Hamnet up short. He just stood there, holding Hazard's hand, his face pained.

  "Is he?" insisted Hazard.

  "Yes, yes, he is," said Hamnet. "All right. All right, then. Who am I taking? Not this entire mob."

  "No, just a handful. We three rats, the two Overlanders, the crawler, a couple fliers, and your mother," said Ripred.

  "Not my mother, nor her flier," said Hamnet flatly.

  "We might actually need her, boy, if we run into any trouble," said Ripred.

  "No! Not if you want my help!" said Hamnet. Now he turned to Solovet and addressed her directly. "Not if you want my help."

  "Is that lady your mother?" asked Hazard, wide-eyed.

  "Clear out! The rest of you clear out, you have drawn half the jungle here as it is!" shouted Hamnet, waving his arms as if to brush them aside. "Kill that fire and be on your way!"

  The human guards looked to Solovet, who gave them a nod. The fire was quenched; the guards and Solovet mounted their bats. Vikus was about to follow suit when he suddenly moved to Hamnet and locked him in an embrace. Hamnet's arms stuck out awkwardly, not returning the gesture but not resisting it.

  "You may come home at any time. Know this. There are many ways to occupy yourself. You would not have to fight!" said Vikus.

  "Vikus, I cannot --" stammered Hamnet.

  "You can! Only think about it. Think of the child. If something should happen to you." Vikus pulled back, almost shaking Hamnet by his shoulders. "What do you do here that you could not do there?"

  "I do no harm," said Hamnet. "I do no more harm."

  Vikus slowly released Hamnet and nodded. He crossed and mounted his bat. "Fly you high," he said to no one in particular.

  Solovet gave a signal and the party of bats and humans left.

  "Bye! Bye, you!" called Boots, waving good-bye.

  "Glad that's over," said Ripred. "Always some big scene with your family. You're miserable to have dinner with."

  "I know," said Hamnet. "Is Susannah dead, too?"

  "No, she's fine. Whole castle of children now. The Overlander knows one of them," said Ripred. "What's his name?"

  "Howard," said Gregor. He was a little overwhelmed by everything he had just witnessed.

  "I know Howard. He was about Hazard's age when I left," said Hamnet. "So how is he, Rager?" The last word was heavy with disdain.

  The admiration Gregor had felt when Hamnet stopped the violence faded. "He's in quarantine," said Gregor. "But I'll tell him you said 'hi' if I get back. You know, if he's still alive."

  Ripred's tail smacked Gregor on the back of the head. Not hard enough to knock him over, but hard enough to hurt. "Watch it," the rat said.

  Gregor rubbed his head and scowled at Ripred, but he shut up. After all, he really didn't know what was up with Hamnet. He obviously didn't get along with Solovet. She obviously was mad he'd left Regalia. But maybe he had a good reason for leaving. Maybe Gregor should find out what had happened. Or maybe -- now here was an idea -- maybe he should just mind his own business and get on with finding the cure.

  Hamnet called them all together. They made three distinct groups. Gregor, Boots, Temp, and Nike, that was one group. Hamnet, Hazard, and Frill were another. The rats were the third.

  "So, who's in charge of this thing, anyway?" asked Gregor. Hamnet was their guide, but it was hard to imagine anyone bossing Ripred around.

  "Not you, and that's all you need to know," said Ripred, which made Hamnet and the other rats laugh. "You had something to say, Hamnet?"

  "Thank you, Ripred. Now before we enter the jungle, let me make one thing clear. It is not a place for swords and claws. Eat only what you carry. Take care your flame singes nothing. Crush no berry, bruise no leaf, tread as gently as possible on the roots," said Hamnet.

  "What? I can't even eat a vine?" said Mange.

  "You can," said Hamnet. "If you wish to risk your life."

  "They're just plants," said Lapblood.

  "Some are just plants. But the ones that are harmless mimic the ones that are poisonous or constrictive or hungry," said Hamnet. "Look like them, smell like them, act like them. Can you tell the difference between what you can eat and what can eat you?"

  "They can't really eat us," said Gregor uneasily. "Can they?"

  Hamnet just gave him that half smile. "Ask the skeletons."



  While Gregor was wondering if he had enough nerve to walk into a jungle full of deadly plants, Hamnet organized the more mundane aspects of the trip. Light was the first order of business. Instead of the usual open-flame torches, the Regalians had provided glass lanterns with handles. They were half-filled with a pale, slightly sweet-smelling oil and had wicks. Unless one of them broke on the ground, the fire inside would not damage the plants.

  Gregor's flashlight batteries died just as he was getting his lantern lit. Much to his surprise, he could still see! Not very well, not as if he were in daylight. But well enough to make out the silhouettes of the individual vines around him. Although the campfire had been extinguished, his flashlight was off, and the lanterns were unlit, the entire jungle was visible. He set the lanterns down and went to investigate. What was the source of light? It seemed to emanate from the ground itself. It grew fainter higher up, then dissolved into blackness about twelve feet in the air.

  He moved to a spot where the light seemed strongest and found a narrow but deep stream. Along the bed, flashes of light came and went. He had seen something like this before in the crawlers' land -- a stream with small volcanic eruptions on the bottom -- but the bursts weren't as large or explosive as the ones before him. Gregor dipped his fingers in the stream and felt the warm water roll over them.

  "There are hundreds of those streams crisscrossing the jungle," he heard Ripred say behind him. "Don't step in them, don't drink from them, and try not to use your fingers for bait."

  Gregor jerked his hand out of the water as a set of spiky teeth snapped together in the space his f
ingers had just occupied. "What was that?" he asked, stepping back from the stream.

  "Something that thinks you're yummy," said Ripred.

  "Is that why we can't drink from them? It's too dangerous to get water?" asked Gregor.

  "No, the water's tainted. Drink it and you die," said Ripred.

  Gregor immediately went back and explained to Temp how scary the streams were so the cockroach would know to keep Boots clear of them. "Stream bad," agreed Temp.

  But when Gregor told Boots to stay out of the water, she looked around eagerly and took off for the stream squealing, "Water? We go swimming?"

  He chased after her and caught her by the arm. "No! No swimming! Bad water, Boots! You-don't-touch-water!" He said this so sharply that the sides of her mouth pointed down and her eyes filled with tears. "Hey, hey, it's okay. Don't cry." He hugged her. "Just stay away from the water here, okay? It''s too hot," he said. "Like in the bath?"

  This seemed to make more sense to her. When the oil heater worked in their building, sometimes scalding water came from the tap.

  "Ow?" she said.

  "Right. Ow." He picked her up and carried her back to the others. "You going to ride Temp?" said Gregor.

  "Ye-es!" said Boots. She wiggled out of Gregor's arms and onto the cockroach's back. "You don't touch water, Temp!"

  That made Gregor feel a little better. "Or plants!" he added.

  "Or plants!" Boots told Temp severely.

  The humans had also left behind several packs of supplies. One contained first aid supplies and fuel for Gregor to carry. Three larger packs of food were designed for the rats to haul. They had straps for the rodents' forelegs and a belt that fastened under their bellies. Nike was in charge of several heavy leather water bags.

  Gregor surveyed the dense tangle of vines doubtfully. "How are you going to get along in there, Nike?" She would not be able to fly much, and travel on foot was very taxing on the bats.

  "Up higher, there are places where the foliage is not so heavy," said Nike. "I will fly above the vines when I must, and join the party when I can. Will you and your sister ride?"

  Gregor didn't think it would be fair to ask her to carry him and Boots along with all the water bags. Besides, Temp wouldn't want to be left on the ground without them. "We'll just walk," he said. He lit a lamp and prepared to travel. As a backup to the lamp, he hung a flashlight from a belt loop at his waist. The big pack with the first aid supplies and oil went on his back. The smaller backpack that Mareth had filled with flashlights and stuff, he wore on his chest. It also contained some items Dulcet had included for Boots -- a change of clothes, a blanket, some toys, some cookies, a hairbrush. Gregor took the mirror Nerissa had given him from his pocket and put it in the backpack, too. He didn't even have a copy of the prophecy with him, but Boots liked to play with mirrors, and she might need a distraction. He slung the wineskin full of shrimp and cream sauce around his neck. Initially, he'd asked for the shrimp as a treat for Ripred. He still intended to give it to the rat, but now he thought it might make a good bargaining tool. It would be nice to pull out the rat's favorite dish if he needed a favor in the jungle.

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