Home > Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(17)

Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(17)
Author: Brandon Mull

"I could lie and say there was," Vanessa said. "You know the link is permanent. I would be happy to take an oath never to use those connections again."

"We know what your word is worth," Grandpa said.

"Considering that the Sphinx is now more my enemy than yours, you can rely on me much more than you know. I'm enough of an opportunist to recognize when the time has come to trade sides."

"And to recognize when you can commit a large enough betrayal for the Sphinx to welcome you back," Grandma said. "Or perhaps the Sphinx really is on our side, and whoever employs you would be glad for your return as soon as you manage to slip away."

"Makes it complicated," Vanessa admitted.

"Vanessa," Grandpa said, "if you don't help us rescue Fablehaven, you might be stuck in that box for the rest of eternity."

"No prison lasts forever," Vanessa said. "Besides, as blind as you seem, sooner or later you'll arrive at the same conclusion I did."

"Let's make it sooner," Grandpa said, raising his voice for the first time. "I'm on the verge of deciding the Quiet Box is too good for you. I could arrange a stay in the Hall of Dread. Your ability to haunt our sleep wouldn't remain a concern for long."

Vanessa paled.

Seth did not know too much about the Hall of Dread. He knew it was on the other side of the dungeon behind a bloodred door, and that the prisoners there required no food. Apparently Vanessa knew more details than he did.

"I'll tell you," Vanessa relented. "Granted, I'd rather go to the Hall of Dread than give away the key knowledge that might buy my freedom. But this is not that information. Nor does it get you much closer to comprehending how the plague began, although it sheds some light on whom to blame. Are you sure the Sphinx took the previous occupant of the Quiet Box off the preserve with him?"

"We watched them drive away..." Grandma's voice trailed off.

"Did you observe them from all angles the entire time?" Vanessa pursued. "Is it possible the Sphinx might have released the prisoner before passing through the gate?"

Grandma and Grandpa looked at each other. Then Grandpa looked at Vanessa. "We watched them depart, but not closely enough to guarantee you're wrong. Your theory is plausible."

"Given the circumstances," Vanessa said, "I'd say probable. There is no other explanation."

The thought of that secret prisoner bundled in burlap roaming the preserve turning nipsies and fairies dark made Seth shudder. He had to admit, it was the most likely proposition they had considered.

"What do you know about the prisoner?" Grandma asked Vanessa.

"No more than you," Vanessa said. "I have no clue who the prisoner was, or how he or she or it started the plague, but the process of elimination sure makes the prisoner look like the culprit. And it definitely doesn't reflect well on the Sphinx."

"You're right, we should have seen this possibility," Grandpa said. "I wonder if, deep down, I still haven't come to terms with the reality that the Sphinx might be our greatest enemy."

"This is still all conjecture," Grandma reminded them, although without much conviction.

"Have you any other information that might help us?" Grandpa inquired.

"Not with solving the mystery of this plague," Vanessa said. "I would need time to study it firsthand. If you let me help, I'm sure I could be of service."

"We're shorthanded enough without having to stand guard over you," Grandpa replied.

"Fine," Vanessa said. "Could you take the shackles with you this time?"

Tanu unlocked and removed the handcuffs. Vanessa stepped back into the box. She winked at Seth. He stuck out his tongue. Grandma closed the door, the box rotated, and Dale emerged.

"I was starting to worry this was all an elaborate setup to get rid of me," Dale said, shaking his arms as if clearing off invisible cobwebs.

"Did it feel like a long time?" Seth asked.

"Long enough," Dale answered. "You lose your senses in there. Can't hear a thing, can't see a thing, can't smell a thing. You start losing all sensation. You feel like a disembodied mind. It's almost relaxing, but not in a good way. You start losing your grip of who you are. I can't figure how Vanessa manages to string words into sentences after spending weeks in that emptiness."

"I'm not sure anything could put her at a loss for words," Grandma said. "She's as slippery as they come. Whatever we do, we must place no trust in her."

"No trust," Grandpa said. "But she may be of further use for information. She acts like she still has a card to play, and she's no fool, so she probably does. How can we discover the identity of the hooded prisoner?"

"Could Nero have seen something in his stone?" Grandma asked.

"Possibly," Grandpa said. "If not, there's a chance he still could."

"I'll go ask him," Seth offered. His previous visit with the cliff troll had been exciting. The greedy troll had wanted to acquire him as a servant in exchange for using a seeing stone to locate Grandpa.

"You'll do nothing of the kind," Grandma said. "A massage enticed him into helping us once. The same offer might tempt him again."

"Knowing Nero, having sampled your skills once, he'll want you to sign on as his permanent masseuse before he'll assist us," Grandpa said. "Last time, he had never had a massage. The novelty of it was the key. You proved that curiosity will motivate him more than riches."

"A special potion, perhaps?" Tanu suggested.

"Something modern?" Seth tried. "Like a cell phone or a camera?" Grandpa put his hands together against his lips as if praying. "It's hard to say what might do the trick, but something along those lines is worth a try. With creatures transformed by the plague lurking about, simply getting to Nero might be the hardest part."

"What if Nero has been affected by the plague?" Dale wondered.

"If it turns light creatures dark, it might turn dark creatures darker," Tanu speculated.

"Maybe we'd have better luck following Coulter," Seth reminded them.

"We won't be able to answer those questions until we make a choice and take a risk," Grandpa said. "Let's sleep on it and decide tomorrow."

Chapter Nine

Pathways

A squeal escaped Kendra when she awoke in the night, the roar of the thunderclap fading. She felt flustered and disoriented. The noise had jolted her out of sleep as abruptly as a punch in the face. Although this was her second night at Lost Mesa, the dark room initially appeared unfamiliar-it took a moment to make sense of the rustic furniture fashioned from knotty wooden posts.

Had the house been struck by lightning? Even though she had been asleep, Kendra felt certain she had never heard thunder that loud. It had been like dyn**ite exploding inside her pillow. She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. A brilliant strobe flickered, bright enough to throw shadows, accompanied almost instantaneously by another deafening detonation of thunder. Covering her ears, Kendra walked to the window, staring out into the dim courtyard. With clouds blotting out all starlight and no lights on in the hacienda, the courtyard should have looked totally black.

She could make out cactus shapes in the dimness. The courtyard had a fountain in the center, tiled paths, gravel paths, and a variety of desert flora. She expected to see one of the taller cacti in flames from a lightning strike, but that did not appear to be the case. No rain was falling. The courtyard was still. Kendra felt tense, awaiting the next flash of light and crash of sound.

Instead of more lightning and thunder, rain began to fall. For a few seconds it pattered lightly; then it really began to pour. Kendra opened her window, enjoying the aroma the rain released from the desert soil. A fairy with wings like a June bug alighted on the windowsill. Glowing a soft green, she had an exquisite face and was pudgier than any fairy Kendra had seen.

"Got caught in the rain?" Kendra asked.

"I don't mind the water," the fairy chirped. "Freshens things up. This little cloudburst will pass in a few minutes."

"Did you see the lightning?" Kendra asked.

"Hard to miss. You shine almost as brightly."

"I've been told that before. Do you want to come into my room?"

The fairy giggled. "The windowsill is as close as I can come. You're up late."

"The thunder woke me. Do fairies often stay up all night?" "Not all of us. Not me, usually. But I hate to miss a rainstorm. We get so few. I adore the monsoons."

The rain was already falling more gently. Kendra stretched out a hand to feel the fat drops on her palm. Lightning flared up in the clouds, farther away than before, muted by the intervening mist. Thunder followed a couple of heartbeats afterward.

Kendra wondered what Warren was doing at the moment. He had departed for the vault with Dougan, Gavin, Tammy, and Neil about an hour before sunset. He might have returned already, for all she knew. Or he could be in the belly of a dragon.

"My friends might be out in this weather," Kendra said.

The fairy tittered. "The ones trying to climb the mesa?"

"You saw them?"

"Yes."

"I'm worried about them."

The fairy sniggered again.

"It isn't funny. They're on a dangerous mission."

"It is funny. I don't think they went anywhere. They couldn't find a way up."

"They didn't climb the mesa?" Kendra asked.

"Getting up there can be problematic."

"But Neil knows a way."

"Knew a way, from the look of things. The rain is relenting."

The fairy was right. It was barely sprinkling now. The earthy, humid air smelled wonderful. "What do you know about Painted Mesa?" Kendra asked.

"We don't go up there. Near the mesa, sure, the whole formation has a lovely aura. But there is old magic woven into that place. Your friends are lucky they couldn't climb it. Good night."

The fairy leapt from the windowsill and buzzed off into the night, veering up over the roof and out of sight. After the company, Kendra felt lonely. Lightning pulsed somewhere above her. Thunder growled a few seconds later.

Kendra closed the window and slid back into bed. Part of her wanted to check if Warren was safe in his room, but she felt uncomfortable intruding if he was asleep. She was sure to hear in the morning about what had happened.

Kendra had never tried huevos rancheros, but found she liked them a lot. The thought of mixing eggs with fresh guacamole had never occurred to her, and she had been missing out. Warren, Dougan, and Gavin sat eating with her while Rosa puttered in the kitchen.

"So you couldn't find a way up," Kendra said, cutting into her food with the side of her fork. She had found them eating after she awoke and showered. None of them had mentioned the mission yet.

"What tipped you off?" Warren asked.

"No bite marks," Kendra said.

"Very funny," Dougan said, checking over his shoulder as if worried somebody might be eavesdropping.

"Seriously," Warren said.

Kendra realized she shouldn't be telling Dougan and Gavin that she could talk to fairies. "One look at your faces told the whole story. You were acting too normal."

"Neil said the mesa can be fickle," Warren explained. "There are many ways up, but none are constant. They open only to certain people at certain times."

"Rent a helicopter," Kendra said, taking another bite.

"Neil says the mesa would never allow it," Dougan said.

"I believe him," Gavin said. "Y-y-y-you can feel the magic of the place; it makes you drowsy. You should have seen Tammy's face when the path wasn't there. She said it was unmistakable last time."

"Neil didn't like it either," Warren said. "I guess his way up has been pretty reliable."

"Ascending the mesa has always been a challenge," Rosa said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel as she approached the table. "I warned you it might not be easy. Especially after the others went and disturbed things."

Kendra thought of the revenant guarding the entrance to the vault at Fablehaven. Here, was the mesa itself the guard?

"The way to the top may be closed for some time," Neil said, coming into the room, holding his white cowboy hat in one hand. He was wearing jeans and hiking boots. "There have been periods lasting fifty years or more when no pathway was available."

"We can't wait," Dougan said. "We need to get up there."

"Forcing the mesa is impossible," Neil said. "Don't lose hope yet. I want to take Kendra and scout around the base." "Kendra?" Warren asked.

"She saw the fence around Lost Mesa before we entered the preserve," Neil said. "If the Twilight Way is closed, eyes like hers might help spot one of the other paths."

Kendra noticed Gavin and Dougan regarding her with interest. "I'd be happy to look, if you think it might help," she said.

"I'll come with you," Warren said.

Neil nodded. "Mara will join us as well. When will you be ready to leave?"

"Give us twenty minutes," Warren said, glancing at Kendra to make sure that was acceptable.

"Sounds good," she said.

Warren hurried through the rest of his food, and Kendra did likewise. When they were done, she followed him to her room. He closed the door.

"How did you really hear we couldn't find a pathway up Painted Mesa?" Warren asked.

   
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