Home > Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(6)

Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(6)
Author: Brandon Mull

"Cool," Kendra said. She continued to feign disinterest, eyes scanning the shapes of words. It rarely took Seth long to crack.

"If you knew something that might be dangerous, but telling people about it could get you in trouble and make you lose a lot of money, would you tell anyone?"

"Grandpa!" Kendra called. "Seth has a secret to tell you about the nipsies!"

"You're a traitor," Seth grumbled.

"I'm just helping Smart Seth defeat Idiot Seth."

"I guess Smart Seth is glad," he said reluctantly. "But be careful. Idiot Seth is the guy to watch out for."

"So," Grandpa said, taking a seat behind the desk in his office, "how is it you know about the nipsies, Seth?"

"Common knowledge?" He felt uncomfortable in the large armchair. He silently vowed to make Kendra pay for this.

"Not very common," Grandpa said. "I keep quiet about them. The nipsies are abnormally vulnerable. And they live very far from the yard. Do you know a secret about them?"

"Maybe," Seth hedged. "If I tell you, will you promise I won't get in trouble?"

"No," Grandpa said, folding his hands on the desk expectantly.

"Then I'm not saying another word until I consult an attorney."

"You're just digging yourself in deeper," Grandpa warned. "I don't negotiate with delinquents. On the other hand, I have been known to show mercy for forthrightness."

"The satyrs told me the nipsies are at war with each other," Seth blurted.

"At war? The satyrs must be mistaken. I don't know of a more peaceful society in all of Fablehaven, except perhaps the brownies."

"It's true," Seth insisted. "Newel and Doren saw it. The Sixth and Seventh Kingdoms were attacking the others. The bad nipsies say they have a new master. They look different from the others, with gray skin and red eyes."

"The satyrs were very descriptive," Grandpa noted suspiciously.

"They might have shown me," Seth admitted grudgingly.

"Your grandmother would go through the roof if she knew you were spending time with Newel and Doren," Grandpa said. "I can't say I disagree. It would be hard to think of a worse influence on a twelve-year-old boy than a pair of satyrs. Follow their lead, and you'll grow up to be a hobo. Wait a minute. Were the satyrs stealing from the nipsies again?"

Seth tried to keep his expression composed. "I don't know."

"I've spoken with Newel and Doren before about taking from the nipsies. I had been apprised that the nipsies had managed to remedy the situation. Let me guess. You've been selling the satyrs more batteries, against my wishes, which compelled them to find a way to reenter the Seven Kingdoms?"

Seth held up a finger. "If they hadn't, we would not know the nipsies were at war, and they might have gone extinct."

Grandpa stared at him. "We've spoken before about stolen gold. Around here, it has a way of causing more trouble than it's worth."

"Technically, it wasn't stolen," Seth said. "The nipsies gave it to Newel for fending off the Sixth and Seventh Kingdoms."

Grandpa's lips pressed together into a thin line. "I'm grateful that you shared this with Kendra, and that she helped you bring it to me. I'm grateful to learn that there is an unusual situation with the nipsies. However, I'm disappointed that you went behind my back to sell batteries to those eternal adolescents, that you accepted dubiously acquired gold as payment, and especially that you strayed so far from the yard without permission. You will not be permitted out of this house unaccompanied for the duration of the summer. And you will not go on chaperoned excursions for three days, which means you will miss joining Tanu and Coulter to check up on the nipsies this afternoon. Furthermore, you will return the gold to me, so I can restore it to the nipsies."

Seth lowered his eyes, gazing into his lap. "I knew I should have kept my mouth shut," he mumbled miserably. "I was just worried..."

"Seth, telling me was the right choice. You did the wrong thing in disobeying the rules. You should know by now how disastrous that can be."

"I'm not a moron," Seth said, looking up fiercely. "I made it back just fine, and with useful information. I was careful. I stayed on paths. I had the satyrs with me. Sure, I made some mistakes before I knew much about this place. Terrible ones. I'm sorry for that. But I've also done some things right. Lately, I roam around here all the time on my own without telling anybody. I stick to places I know. Nothing bad ever happens."

Grandpa picked up a knickknack from his desk, a tiny, humanlike skull encased in a crystal hemisphere, and absently passed it back and forth between his hands. "I know you've learned a lot from Coulter and the others. You are more capable than you once were to safely negotiate certain areas of Fablehaven. I can understand why that would increase the temptation to ignore boundaries. But these are dangerous times, and there are many perils within these gated woods. Journeying as far from the yard as you did, to an unfamiliar location, relying on the judgment of Newel and Doren, shows a disturbing lack of common sense on your part.

"If I ever choose to expand the areas of Fablehaven where you're allowed to venture alone, I'll have to make you aware of many forbidden but intriguing regions that must be avoided. Seth, how can I ever trust you to keep the more complicated rules if you stubbornly refuse to follow the simple ones? Your repeated failure to keep the basic rules is the main reason I haven't given you more freedom to explore the preserve on your own."

"Oh," Seth said awkwardly. "I guess that makes sense. Why didn't you tell me staying in the yard was a test?"

"For one thing, it might have made the rule seem even less important." Grandpa set down the flat-bottomed crystal with the skull inside. "None of this is a game. I created the rule for a reason. Bad things really can happen if you wander the woods unaccompanied, even when you think you know what you're doing. Seth, you sometimes act as if you think growing up means the rules don't apply anymore. On the contrary-a big part of growing up is learning self control. You work on that, and then we can talk about expanding your privileges."

"Can I earn time off for good behavior?"

Grandpa shrugged. "You never know what might happen if that miracle occurs."

A petite fairy with short hair as red as a ripe strawberry alighted on the edge of a marble birdbath and peered into the water, her translucent dragonfly wings almost invisible in the sunlight. Her crimson slip of a dress shone like rubies. She twirled and peered over her shoulder at her reflection, pouting her lips and tilting her head at different angles.

A yellow fairy with black highlights marking her dazzling butterfly wings stood preening nearby. She had pale skin and long, honey-blonde tresses. The yellow fairy tittered, a sound like miniscule bells tinkling.

"Am I missing something?" the red fairy asked with false innocence.

"I was trying to imagine my reflection with ugly, colorless wings," the yellow fairy replied.

"Funny coincidence," the red fairy remarked, smoothing a hand over her hair. "I was just picturing myself with big, gaudy wings that distracted from my beauty."

The yellow fairy arched an eyebrow. "Why not pretend you have wide, elegant wings that augment rather than detract?"

"I tried, but all that came to mind was a horrid backdrop of clumsy yellow curtains."

Kendra could not resist smiling.

She had developed a new habit of pretending to take a nap outside near a birdbath or a flower bed and listening to the fairies gossip. The fairies did not often speak to her if she tried to initiate a conversation. After leading the fairies into battle and becoming fairykind, Kendra had grown too popular for her own good. All of the fairies were jealous.

Among the happy consequences of the gift the fairies had bestowed was Kendra's ability to understand the language they spoke, along with several other related magical tongues. They all effortlessly sounded like English to her. She enjoyed using the talent to eavesdrop.

"Look at Kendra sprawling on that bench," the yellow fairy muttered in a confidential tone, "lounging around like she owns the yard." Kendra fought back laughter. She loved when the fairies discussed her. The only conversations she liked more were when they bad-mouthed Seth.

"I have no problem with her," the redhead chimed in her tiny voice. "In fact, she made me this bracelet." She held up her arm to display the trinket, thin as a spider's thread.

"It's too small for her awkward fingers to have made it," the yellow fairy objected.

Kendra knew the yellow fairy was right. She had never made a bracelet, let alone for a fairy. It was funny-even though the fairies rarely spoke to Kendra, they often debated over whom she favored the most.

"She has many special talents," the red fairy insisted. "You'd be astonished by the gifts Kendra offers to her closest friends. Those of us who fought alongside her to imprison Bahumat share a special bond. Do you recall that day? I believe you were an imp at the time."

The yellow fairy kicked water at the red fairy and stuck out her tongue.

"Please, darling," the red fairy said, "let's not stoop to impish behavior."

"We who spent time as imps know secrets that you don't," the yellow fairy said slyly.

"I'm sure you're an expert about warts and crooked limbs," the red fairy agreed.

"Darkness affords different opportunities than light."

"Like a ghastly reflection?"

"What if we could be dark and beautiful?" the yellow fairy whispered. Kendra had to strain to hear. "I pay no heed to such rumors," the red fairy replied haughtily, flitting away.

Kendra held very still until, through her cracked eyelids, she saw the yellow fairy take flight. The exchange had ended on a strange note. The restored fairies did not often refer to their time as imps. Those who had been imps normally seemed ashamed. The red fairy had dealt the other a low blow. What had the yellow fairy meant about being dark and beautiful, and why had the red fairy ended the conversation so abruptly?

Kendra arose and walked toward the house. The sun was plunging toward the horizon. Upstairs, her suitcase was packed. Tomorrow she would be driven to Hartford, and then fly to New York to meet a connecting flight to Atlanta.

The thought of meeting with the Knights of the Dawn filled her with worry. It all seemed so mysterious. Even without the threat of traitors, it did not sound like a place where she belonged. Her chief comfort was remembering that Warren, Coulter, and Tanu would be there as well. Nothing too terrible would happen with them around.

As Kendra walked up the steps to the covered porch, she saw Tanu and Coulter reach the yard in a cart pulled by Hugo. When the golem came to a stop, Tanu and Coulter sprang to the ground and started toward the house. They both wore serious expressions and walked purposefully. There was no panic in their movements, but it looked like they had bad news.

"How'd it go?" Kendra called. "Something very strange is going on," Tanu replied. "Go tell Stan we need to talk."

Kendra ran into the house. "Grandpa! Tanu and Coulter found something!"

Her cry brought not only her grandfather but Grandma, Warren, and Seth as well. "Are the nipsies still at it?" Seth asked.

"I don't know," Kendra answered, turning to face the back door as Tanu and Coulter entered.

"What is it?" Grandpa asked.

"When we approached the meadow of the Seven Kingdoms, a shadowy figure fled," Tanu said. "We gave chase, but the scoundrel was too quick."

"It wasn't quite like anything we'd ever seen," Coulter said. "Maybe three feet tall, it wore a dark cloak and ran low to the ground, in a crouch." As he used his hands expressively, Kendra was reminded that Coulter was missing a pinky and part of the neighboring ring finger.

"A hermit troll?" Grandpa asked.

Tanu shook his head. "A hermit troll could not have entered the meadow. And this did not quite fit the description."

"We have a theory," Coulter affirmed. "We'll get to that in a second."

"What's a hermit troll?" Seth asked.

"The smallest of the trolls," Warren said. "They never stay in one place long, setting up temporary lairs anywhere from a quiet attic, to under a bridge, to inside a barrel."

"Go on," Grandpa encouraged Tanu. "We got inside the hill and found the Sixth and Seventh Kingdoms gearing up for war again, in spite of the extensive damage Newel had caused."

"Stan," Coulter said, "you wouldn't have believed it. The Sixth and Seventh Kingdoms are draped in black, with most of the citizens bearing arms. The nipsies in those kingdoms were as Seth described, with gray skin, dark hair, and red eyes. They tried to bribe Tanu and me to assist them, and issued threats when we refused. If I didn't know better, I would say they had fallen."

"But nipsies don't have a fallen state," Grandma said. "At least nothing documented. Fairies can turn to imps, nymphs can become mortal, but who ever heard of a nipsie being transfigured?"

"Nobody," Tanu said. "But there they were. Which leads me to my theory. I think the creature we were chasing was some species of fallen dwarf."

"Dwarfs don't fall either!" Grandpa huffed, clearly perturbed.

"Tell that to this one," Coulter muttered.

"It's our best guess," Tanu said. "We interrogated the nipsies to see how all of this originated. Evidently it began when they were exploring the preserve, looking for ways to keep the satyrs out. That was how the dark ones met their new master."

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