Home > Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(14)

Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(14)
Author: Brandon Mull

"I make a point of not knowing. One of these days I'll kick the bucket, sure enough, but curiosity will not be my downfall. That said, you don't have to go looking to know those caverns teem with every manner of haunt and bugaboo that have plagued the human race since time began. Here we go. Take a gander up ahead."

They came around the side of a bluff, bringing into view an old Spanish mission with a single belfry. The brown walls of the building rose and fell in gentle curves. The truck drove around to the back, where they found a cemetery enclosed by a low wall.

Hal brought the truck to a stop. "This and the pueblo are the oldest structures on the property," he said. "One of the most memorable features is the boneyard. It not only houses the biggest zombie collection in the world, it's one of the oldest to boot!" He opened his door and got out.

Kendra turned to gauge Gavin's reaction, but he was already climbing down as well. She heard the tinkling of many bells coming from the graveyard. "Zombies?" Kendra asked incredulously, sliding out of the truck, soles slapping the dirt. "As in dead people?"

"Not people," Hal clarified. "Not like you and me." He retrieved the plastic bucket from the back of the truck. "They don't have any more brains than a leech. And they aren't any more human either."

"Is this safe?" Kendra asked.

Hal led the way to a short iron gate in the cemetery wall. "Zombies have only one drive. Hunger. Satisfy that drive, and they aren't too harmful. We've got as good a system here as I've ever heard of."

Kendra followed Hal and Gavin through the gate and into the graveyard. None of the headstones were ostentatious. They were small and old, white as bone, worn so smooth that only a few occasional letters or numbers were faintly visible. Planted beside each grave was a bell on a small pole with a cord attached. Each cord disappeared underground. Of the nearly two hundred bells in the graveyard, at least thirty were ringing.

"Took some doing," Hal said, "but they got these zombies pretty well trained. It was done before my time. When the zombies get hungry, they ring their bells. If they ring long enough, we bring them some mash." He held up the bucket. "Long as we satisfy their hunger, they stay put."

Hal walked over to the nearest clanging bell. He crouched, lifted up a clear tube that ran into the ground, and unstopped it. Then he took a funnel from his back pocket.

"Mind holding this?" he asked Gavin.

Gavin held the funnel in the tube while Hal took the lid off the bucket and began pouring goopy red fluid. Kendra looked away as the chunky liquid sluiced through the tube. Hal quit pouring, stopped up the tube, and moved to the next active bell. Kendra noticed that the first bell was no longer ringing.

"What if you quit feeding them?" Gavin asked, inserting the funnel into the next tube.

"I expect you can guess," Hal said, pouring the gruesome sludge. "The hunger would build until they clawed their way to the surface to find food on their own."

"Why not get them nice and full, then dig them up and burn them?" Kendra asked.

"That wouldn't be very charitable," Hal scolded, proceeding to a new grave. "Maybe you don't understand. Unlike some of the undead, zombies have no human spark. Ending the suffering of a human trapped in a state like this, I could view that as mercy. But a zombie has no humanity. A zombie is something else. An endangered species, truth be known. Not pretty or cuddly, not very bright, not very quick. Tenacious predators, deadly under certain circumstances, but not overly adept at defending themselves. We found a way to keep zombies satisfied without letting them harm anyone, a way to preserve the species, so we do it, unsavory or not. We're not much different from a wildlife conservationist trying to protect ugly bats or spiders or mosquitoes from extinction. These refuges exist to protect all magical creatures, the fair ones and the foul ones alike."

"Makes sense, I guess," Kendra said. "Mind if I go wait in the truck?"

"Suit yourself," Hal said, tossing her the keys. They glanced off her fingers and fell to the dry ground beside one of the tubes. After a brief hesitation, Kendra snatched them and trotted out of the graveyard.

As she walked to the car, she fleetingly wished she could trade places with her brother. Feeding bloody meals to subterranean zombies would probably be a favorite pastime in Seth's version of paradise. And she would be more than happy to hang out with her grandparents, read old journals, and sleep in a familiar bed.

Inside the truck, Kendra blasted the air conditioner, aiming the tepid currents from all the vents directly at herself. It was only a slight improvement over trying to cool down using a hair dryer. She pictured herself running from a hoard of ravenous zombies on a hot day, eventually collapsing from heatstroke and getting devoured. Then she imagined Hal giving a rousing eulogy at her funeral, explaining how Kendra's death was a beautiful sacrifice allowing the noble zombies to live on, delighting future generations by mindlessly trying to eat them. With her luck, it could totally happen.

Hal and Gavin finally returned from the cemetery. Hal tossed the bucket into the back and climbed into the driver's seat. "Almost used up all my mash," Hal said. "Good thing I normally bring more than I need. Twenty bells is what I consider a busy day. Thirty-two is close to the record."

"Wh-wh-wh-wh-where to now?" Gavin asked. Kendra noticed one of his hands clenching into a fist as he stuttered.

"We'll hit a few sights, then wind up back at the museum." Hal drove them to an old mill with a covered well out front. Then he showed them the irrigated fields where a group of men and women toiled to raise corn and other crops. He pointed out a bowl-shaped cavity in the ground where a meteor had supposedly landed, and drove them around a tremendous Joshua tree with hundreds of limbs. At last, they came back into sight of the hacienda and the pueblo complex. Hal pulled the truck to a stop in front of the museum.

Kendra and Gavin followed Hal to a small door beside a pair of larger doors on rollers. Hal unlocked the door and they entered. The hangar contained a single cavernous room. Daylight flooded in through high windows. Hal reached over and flipped on the lights, banishing the remaining shadows.

"Welcome to the Museum of Unnatural History," Hal said. "The world's largest collection of freestanding magical creature skeletons and other related paraphernalia."

Directly in front of Kendra loomed a humanlike skeleton more than twice the height of a man. The skull tapered to a blunt point and had three eye sockets arranged like the points of a triangle. A bronze plaque labeled the creature a Mesopotamian Triclops.

Beyond the nearest skeleton were many others: the bones of a horse supporting the bones of a human upper body instead of an equine head and neck; the skeleton of an ogre positioned as if combating nine dwarfish skeletons; a cow skull the size of a motor home; a mobile suspending delicate fairy skeletons; and a titanic humanoid skeleton with curved fangs and disproportionately thick bones that extended over half the distance to the high ceiling.

Kendra also beheld other exotic displays. A huge, scaly skin hung on hooks, limp and dry, apparently shed by a creature with four arms and a serpentine body. A vibrant collection of eggshells, large and small, was arranged inside a glass case. Strange weapons and armor lined an entire wall. Enormous golden antlers branched outward above a doorway.

Despite the numerous eye-catching exhibits in the room, Gavin immediately stalked toward what was undoubtedly the main attraction. Kendra and Hal jogged after him, catching up as he stopped in the center of the room with his hands on his hips.

Protected by a circular railing, taking up one quarter of the total floor space, was the skeleton of an immense dragon.

Kendra gazed at the long, slender bones of the wings, the razor claws on the four feet, the vertebrae of the winding tail and elegant neck, and the vicious teeth on the massive horned skull. The milky bones were semitransparent, as if made of clouded glass or quartz, giving the tremendous skeleton an ethereal appearance.

"Who would dare put actual dragon bones on display?" Gavin seethed through clenched teeth.

"Actual bones is right," Hal said. "Unlike some of the exhibits, which are re-creations and whatnot, this is entirely the original skeleton of a single dragon. Good luck finding another like it."

"Who did this?" Gavin reiterated, eyes blazing.

Hal finally seemed to notice he was upset. "There's a plaque right in front of you."

Gavin stormed forward to read the bronze plaque attached to the railing.

World's only complete skeleton of an adult male dragon

Believed by some to be Ranticus the Invincible

Donated by Patton Burgess

19O1

Gavin gripped the railing, tendons standing out on the backs of his hands. He took a shuddering breath and then whirled, body tensed, eyeing Hal like he was ready to throw a punch. "Have none of you ever heard that the remains of a dragon are sacred?"

Hal returned his gaze, unperturbed. "You have some special connection with dragons, Gavin?"

Gavin lowered his eyes, his body going slack. After a moment, he spoke, his voice calmer. "My-my dad worked with dragons."

"No fooling," Hal said with admiration. "Not many men have the constitution for that kind of work. Mind if ask your dad's name?"

"Charlie Rose." He did not lift his eyes.

"Your dad is Chuck Rose?" Hal gasped. "He's the closest thing we've had to a dragon tamer since Patton himself! I never knew Chuck had a kid! 'Course, he always was a mite secretive. How's your old man?"

"Dead."

Hal's face fell. "Oh. Hadn't caught wind of that. I'm sorry to hear it, I truly am. No wonder the sight of a dragon skeleton would put you ill at ease."

"Dad fought hard to protect dragons," Gavin said, finally lifting his gaze. "Their welfare was his top priority. He taught me a lot about them. I don't know much about Patton Burgess."

"Patton ain't exactly news no more. Passed on more than sixty years ago. Makes sense that your father wouldn't have brought him up too much. Those who love dragons would avoid the subject. Rumor has it-never confirmed, mind you-that Patton was the last living person to slay a full-grown dragon."

Kendra tried to keep her expression steady. If she revealed how she knew about Patton Burgess, it would tie her to Fablehaven. Better to avoid the appearance of knowing anything about the topic.

"Slayed a full-grown dragon?" Gavin asked with a smile, clearly not believing a word. "Did he claim to have killed this dragon?"

"Way my granddad tells it, and my granddad met him, Patton never claimed to have killed a dragon. Fact is, he claimed the opposite. In this case, Patton said he found old Ranticus by following shady merchants who were pillaging his organs and selling them off piece by piece."

"Ranticus was numbered among the twenty lost dragons," Gavin said. "One of the minority who never sought refuge in a sanctuary."

"We don't mean any harm keeping him on display," Hal said. "It's out of respect more than anything. Preserving what we can. Ain't like we charge admission."

Gavin nodded. "B-b-because of my dad, dragons mean more to me than any other creature. I'm sorry if my reaction was out of line."

"No harm done. Sorry I didn't know your pedigree-I would have handled that differently."

"Like not brought me in here?" Gavin asked.

"You're onto me," Hal admitted. "The bones are beautiful," Kendra said, turning her attention back to the fantastical skeleton.

"Lighter and stronger than anything I can think of," Hal said.

Gavin turned to face the exhibit as well. "Only other dragons can properly dispose of them. Time and the elements are no match."

They regarded the dragon remains in silence for several minutes. Kendra felt as though she could stare at the skeleton for the rest of the day. It was as if dragons were magical right down to their bones.

Hal rubbed his round belly. "Anybody else itching for some grub?"

"I could eat," Gavin said.

"How do you eat with that mustache?" Kendra asked as they started toward the exit.

Hal stroked the whiskers lovingly. "I call it my flavor saver."

"Sorry I asked," Kendra said, scrunching her face.

They passed out of the warehouse in silence. Hal ignored the truck and ambled toward the hacienda. "I can honestly say that I'm glad to have met you two," Hal said as they approached the front door. "One of you may be a little squeamish about zombies, and the other a mite sympathetic to dragons, but we've all got our oddities. Come to mention it, I'm doubly glad you're here, since Rosa never lays quite as full a table as when we have company."

"You like Rosa?" Gavin asked.

"Like her fine," Hal said. "What with her being my spouse and all I oughtn't complain. Lost Mesa is different from some preserves in that it has always been managed by a female caretaker. Comes from Pueblo culture, where the women inherit the property. I expect Mara will take over the position before long. She's a tough one-loyal as they come, but none too friendly."

Hal opened the door and led them down a hall to an airy dining room. The hacienda was less hot and more humid than outside. Kendra noticed a large evaporative cooler humming in a window. Warren and Dougan already sat at the table with Rosa and Mara.

"We wondered when you'd show up," Rosa said. "Where'd you take them, Colorado?"

"Here and there," Hal said unflappably. "Fed the zombies and such." He stole a blue corn chip from a basket on the table, jerking his hand away before Rosa could swat it with a ladle.

   
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