Home > Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(9)

Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(9)
Author: Brandon Mull

There was a knock at the door. "Masks," Dougan said, covering his face. "Enter," he called, once the others had done likewise.

A figure in a silver mask peered in. "Time for the gathering," a nasally male voice announced.

"Thank you," Dougan nodded at the speaker. "Off we go, then."

Chapter Five

First Assignment

Dougan and Warren led the way down the lavish main hall. As Kendra passed a suit of armor, she glimpsed her warped reflection in the breastplate, an anonymous silver mask under a hood. Gavin fell into step beside her.

"Nice how we got to know each other so well," he said bitterly.

"They didn't leave us much time," Kendra agreed.

"I don't always stutter, you know. It gets worse when I'm uncomfortable. I hate it. Once I get going, I focus on my words too much, and the problem snowballs."

"It isn't a big deal."

They advanced down the hall in silence. Eyes aimed downward, Gavin rubbed the sleeve of his robe between his fingers. The quietness became awkward. "Kind of a cool castle," Kendra said.

"Not bad," he replied. "It's funny, I thought for sure I'd be the youngest Knight, and then pretty much the first person I meet has me beat by two years. Maybe it will turn out that the Captain is really just a freakishly tall third-grader."

Kendra smiled. "I turn fifteen in October."

"Eighteen months younger, then. You must have quite a talent."

"I guess somebody thinks so."

"Don't feel any pressure to talk about it. I can't really share mine either." They were almost to the end of the hall. Gavin rubbed the side of his mask. "These masks are the worst. Instant claustrophobia. I'm still not sold on the idea. It seems to me like masks would make it easier for traitors to hide. But I guess these guys have been at it longer than I have. The system must have some benefits. You know what the assembly is about?"

"No. You?"

"A little. D-d-d-dougan mentioned they're concerned about the Society and tightening security."

At the end of the hall they passed through a grand doorway into an airy ballroom. Strands of tiny white lights illuminated the room, the glossy wood floor gently reflecting the mellow luminance. Twenty round tables stood around the ballroom, positioned to make every seat as close as possible to a lectern on a stage. Each table had six chairs, and most were occupied by Knights. Kendra estimated there were now at least a hundred present.

Only the tables farthest from the stage had vacant chairs. Warren and Dougan claimed the last two seats at a table toward the middle of the room. Kendra, Gavin, and Estelle crossed to the rear table farthest from the entrance, filling in the remaining three seats. Kendra had scarcely scooted her chair forward when the Knights arose together. The Captain, spotlighted, strode to the lectern, golden mask flashing. The Knights burst into applause.

The Captain motioned for the Knights to be seated. The clapping subsided and the Knights sank back into their chairs.

"Thank you all for assembling on such short notice," the Captain said into a microphone, his voice now a dignified male with a clipped English accent. "We try to keep united gatherings to a minimum, but I felt recent circumstances warranted a special convocation. Not all eligible Knights were able to attend. Seven were unreachable, two were hospitalized, and twelve were engaged in activities that I granted priority over today's gathering."

"You know I do not relish wasting words. Over the past five years, the Society has become more active than during any other period in history. If preserves keep falling at the present rate, none will be functional within two decades. Furthermore, we know that our brotherhood has been infiltrated by members of the Society. I am not referring to leaked information-I am referring to full-fledged members of the Society wearing masks and robes among us."

This last remark caused a stir as Knights throughout the room murmured to each other. Kendra heard more than one exclamation of outrage. The Captain raised his hands. "The confirmed traitor has been apprehended, and the worst damage she intended to do was curtailed. Some of you may have noticed old friends who are not present tonight. Some of those may be among the twenty-one Knights unable to attend for legitimate reasons. Others may be among the seventeen Knights I have discharged over the past two months."

This announcement initiated another round of hushed comments. The Captain waited for the whispered remarks to end.

"I am not saying all seventeen of these Knights are traitors, but they are Knights with suspicious ties, who have spent too much time fraternizing with questionable individuals. They are Knights who have been unnecessarily free with covert information. Let their fate serve as a warning to us all. We will not tolerate the sharing of secrets, and we will not endure even the appearance of disloyalty. The stakes are too high, the danger too real. Allow me to read the names of the discharged Knights, in case they try to solicit further information from any of us." He went on to list seventeen names. None were familiar to Kendra.

"If any of you know concrete reasons why I should reconsider the ruling against a certain individual, please feel at liberty to consult with me after this meeting. I take no joy in disenfranchising allies. All of these Knights could have been useful to us in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. My intent is not to deplete our ranks. But I would rather be weakened than crippled. I ask each of you to set a new standard in loyalty, in discretion, and in vigilance. Do not share secrets, even with other Knights, unless the information is desperately relevant to the recipient. Please report any suspicious activities, along with any new intelligence you encounter. Despite our most diligent efforts, traitors could remain among us."

He paused, letting his words sink in. The room was silent.

"I also gathered you here tonight to petition you for information. Each of you is familiar with the preserves hidden across the globe. Beyond these, there are certain refuges not commonly known, even among the Knights of the Dawn. Not even I know all of them. Some of you know about some of these places. To my unspeakable alarm, even our most hidden sanctuaries are now coming under attack. In fact, they are rapidly becoming the focus of Society activity. I ask those of you who can identify the locations of any of these special refuges, or even rumors as to where they may be, to report such information to your Lieutenant or directly to me. Even if you feel sure we are already aware of all you know, I encourage you to come forward. I would rather hear redundant reports than risk missing anything. Since the Society is successfully finding these most confidential refuges, it is time for the Knights to take a more active role in protecting them."

Another round of discussion began. One of the masked figures at Kendra's table muttered, "I knew this was coming."

Kendra did not like it. If the Sphinx was the Captain, as well as a traitor, this would all be working to his advantage. He would be able to pass along everything the Knights of the Dawn knew to the Society of the Evening Star. All she could do was hope she was wrong.

"Allow me to conclude my remarks dwelling on the positive. All signs indicate that we are entering the darkest chapter of our long history. But we are rising to the occasion. Amid our increasing trials, we continue to score key victories, and we remain a step ahead of our adversaries. We must not relax our efforts. Only with relentless diligence and daily acts of heroism will we overcome our opponents. They are determined, they are patient, they are smart. But I know each of you, and I know we are up to the challenge. The coming season may be our darkest, but I am convinced it will also be our greatest. Preparations are in motion to weather the coming storm. Many of you will receive new assignments tonight. Much has been asked of you. Much is being asked of you. Much will be asked of you. I salute your past, present, and future valor. Thank you."

As the Captain strode away from the lectern, Kendra rose to join the standing ovation. She clapped with her hands but not her heart. Were they really a step ahead of the Society of the Evening Star? Or had she just heard the leader of the Society preaching in disguise?

Gavin leaned toward her. "Pretty good speech. Nice and short."

She nodded.

The applause died and the Knights began strolling away from the tables. Gavin and Estelle wandered off, and Kendra found herself surrounded by masked strangers. She moved toward a nearby curtained wall and found glass doors that opened to the outside. Kendra tried the handle, found it unlocked, and slipped out into the night.

Overhead, beyond a mesh roof, stars brightened a moonless sky, countless pinpricks of light. Kendra found herself in a small, screened room with a screen door on the far side.

Passing through the door, Kendra entered an enormous screened cage. Lush foliage, including numerous trees and ferns, thrived all around. A man-made stream wound among the vegetation, bridged by meandering paths. A rich perfume of blossoms saturated the air.

Throughout the caged wilderness, glowing softly among the branches and fronds, glided an exotic variety of fairies. Several congregated above a place where the stream pooled, gazing down at their luminous reflections. Most of the fairies had extravagant wings and unusual coloring. Long, gauzy tails shimmered in the darkness. A fuzzy gray fairy with mothlike wings and tufts of pink fur perched on a nearby branch. A white, sparkling fairy drifted into a bulbous blossom, turning the flower into a delicate lantern.

A pair of fairies sped over to Kendra and floated in front of her. One was large and feathery, with elaborate plumage fanning out around her head. The other had very dark skin and fanciful butterfly wings with tiger stripes. At first Kendra thought they were paying her unusual attention, before she recognized that they were enjoying their reflections in her mask.

Kendra remembered that Mr. and Mrs. Fairbanks were fairy collectors. Of course, the fairies could not be kept indoors-if a captured fairy remained inside overnight, she changed into an imp. Apparently the vast cage did not qualify as indoors.

"The curve of the mask makes your head look fat," the feathery fairy giggled to the other.

"From my perspective, your rump looks rather blimpish," the striped fairy snickered.

"Now, girls," Kendra said, "be kind."

The fairies appeared dumbstruck. "Did you hear that?" the feathery fairy said. "She spoke in perfect Silvian!"

Kendra had spoken English, but something about her being fairykind caused many magical creatures to hear her words in their native tongues. She had conversed that way with fairies, imps, goblins, naiads, and brownies.

"Take off your mask," the striped fairy ordered.

"I'm not supposed to," Kendra said.

"Nonsense," the feathery fairy insisted, "show us your face."

"No humans are around," the striped fairy added.

Kendra raised her mask, giving them a peek before covering her features again.

"You're her," the feathery fairy gasped.

"It's true, then," the striped fairy squealed. "The Queen has selected a human handmaiden."

"What do you mean?" Kendra wondered.

"Don't play coy," the feathery fairy chided.

"I'm not," Kendra said. "Nobody ever said anything about being a handmaiden."

"Take off your mask again," the striped fairy said. Kendra lifted the mask. The striped fairy extended a hand. "May I?" she asked.

Kendra nodded.

The fairy laid a tiny palm against her cheek. Gradually, the fairy grew brighter, until she was beaming orange stripes onto the surrounding foliage. Kendra squinted her eyes against the fiery brilliance.

The striped fairy removed her hand and drifted away, the intensity of her radiance fading only slightly. Other fairies flocked to them, hovering curiously.

"You're dazzling," Kendra said, holding up a hand to shield her eyes.

"Me?" the striped fairy laughed. "None of the others are looking at me. I'm barely the moon reflecting the light of the sun."

"I'm not glowing," Kendra said, noticing that the twenty fairies surrounding them were indeed all staring at her.

"Not on the same spectrum as I am," the striped fairy said. "But you shine much, much brighter. If you were radiating on my spectrum, we would all be blinded."

"Are you all right, Yolie?" the feathery fairy asked.

"I may have overdone it, Larina," the striped fairy answered. "Care to share the spark?"

The feathery fairy streaked over to the striped fairy. Yolie kissed the feathery fairy on the forehead. Larina flared brighter as the striped fairy dimmed. When they parted, their luminance was about equal.

Larina examined the intensified vibrance of her multihued feathers. A bright aura shone around her like a rainbow. "Magnificent!" she cried.

"This is more manageable," Yolie said, still gleaming.

"Is she truly a mortal handmaiden?" asked the sparkling white fairy who had illuminated the blossom.

"Can there be any doubt?" Larina exclaimed.

"You got brighter because you touched me?" Kendra asked.

"You are a reservoir of magical energy like I have never encountered," Yolie said. "Surely you can feel it?"

"I can't," Kendra said. Yet she knew she had magical energy inside of her. How else could she recharge depleted magical relics? Kendra glanced over her shoulder at the screen door behind her and the curtained glass doors of the ballroom. What if somebody came out while her mask was off and she was speaking to fairies? Kendra replaced her mask. "Please don't tell any of the other people about me. I have to keep my identity a secret."

"We won't tell," Larina pledged.

"We had better diffuse our energy," Yolie suggested. "We're too bright. The difference is too plain."

   
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