Grip of the Shadow Plague

       part  #3 of  Fablehaven Series  by  Brandon Mull / Young Adult / Fantasy
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Grip of the Shadow Plague
Chapter One

Nipsies

On a muggy August day, Seth hurried along a faint path, eyes scanning the lush foliage to his left. Tall, mossy trees overshadowed a verdant sea of bushes and ferns. He felt damp all over-the humidity refused to let his sweat dry. Seth checked over his shoulder periodically and started at any sound in the undergrowth. Not only was Fablehaven a dangerous place to roam alone, he was terrified of getting spotted so far from the yard.

His skill at sneaking into the woods had improved over the long summer. The excursions with Coulter were fun, but not frequent enough to satisfy his appetite for adventure. There was something special about venturing out onto the preserve alone. He had become familiar with the woods surrounding the main house, and despite the concerns of his grandparents, he had proven to himself that he could explore safely. In order to avoid deadly situations, he rarely strayed far from the yard, and he avoided the areas he knew to be most perilous.

Today was an exception.

Today he was following directions to a secret meeting.

Although Seth felt certain he had interpreted the instructions correctly, he was beginning to fret that he had somehow overlooked the final marker. The trail he currently trod was one he had never roamed before, quite a distance from the main house. He remained intent on the shrubs along the left side of the path.

Many people had come and gone from Fablehaven over the summer. At breakfast, Grandpa Sorenson had notified Seth, Kendra, Coulter, and Dale that Warren and Tanu would be returning home that evening. Seth was excited for a reunion with his friends, but knew that the more people who were at the house, the more eyes would be watching to impede his unauthorized expeditions. Today was probably the last time he would be able to slip out on his own for a while.

Just as he was losing faith, Seth observed a stick topped by a large pinecone planted in the ground not far from the path. He should not have worried about missing it-the tall marker was unmistakable. Standing beside the stick, Seth took his compass from his emergency kit, found northeast, and set off on a heading not quite perpendicular to the meager trail.

The ground sloped mildly upward. He swerved to avoid some thorny, flowering plants. Birds twittered in the leafy branches overhead. A butterfly with wide, vibrant wings bobbed on the breezeless air. Because of the milk he had drunk that morning, Seth knew it was actually a butterfly. Had it been a fairy, he would have recognized it as such.

"Pssst," a voice hissed from the bushes off to one side, "over here. "

Seth swiveled and saw Doren, the satyr, peering over a glossy shrub with broad leaves. The satyr motioned him over.

"Hey, Doren," Seth said in a low voice, trotting over to where the satyr crouched. He found Newel hiding there as well, his horns somewhat longer, his skin slightly more freckled, and his hair a bit redder than Doren's.

"What about the brute?" Newel asked.

"He promised to meet me here," Seth assured them. "Mendigo is covering his chores at the stables. "

"If he doesn't show, the deal is off," Newel threatened.

"He'll be here," Seth said.

"Did you bring the merchandise?" Doren asked, trying to sound casual, but unable to hide the desperation in his gaze.

"Forty-eight size C batteries," Seth said. He unzipped a duffel bag and let the satyrs inspect the contents. Earlier in the summer, Seth had given the pair dozens of batteries as a reward for helping him and his sister sneak into his grandfather's home under dire circumstances. The satyrs had already depleted their bounty watching their portable television.

"Look at them, Doren," Newel breathed. "Hours upon hours of entertainment," Doren muttered reverently.

"The sports alone!" Newel cried.

"Dramas, sitcoms, cartoons, soap operas, talk shows, game shows, reality shows," Doren listed lovingly.

"So many lovely ladies," Newel purred.

"Even the commercials are amazing," Doren enthused.

"So many technological marvels!"

"Stan would flip out if he knew," Newel murmured gleefully.

Seth understood that Newel was right. His Grandpa Sorenson worked hard to limit the amount of technology on the preserve. He wanted to keep the magical creatures of Fablehaven unspoiled by modern influences. He did not even have a television in his own home.

"So where is the gold?" Seth asked.

"Not far ahead," Newel said.

"Gold has become harder to find since Nero moved his hoard," Doren apologized.

"Accessible gold," Newel amended. "We know about plenty of treasure hidden around Fablehaven. "

"Most of it is cursed or guarded," Doren explained. "For example, we know a wonderful nest of jewels stowed in a pit under a boulder, if you don't mind chronic flesh-eating infections. "

"And a priceless collection of gilded weapons in an armory protected by a vengeful family of ogres," Newel added. "But up ahead there's lots of gold with almost no strings attached," Doren promised.

"I still think I should get paid extra since you need my help collecting it," Seth complained.

"Now, Seth, don't be ungrateful," Newel chided. "We set a price. You agreed. Fair is fair. You don't have to help us retrieve the gold. We can just call the whole thing off. "

Seth looked from one goatman to the other. Sighing, he zipped up the duffel bag. "Maybe you're right. This feels too risky.

"Or we could up your commission by twenty percent," Newel blurted, placing a hairy hand on the bag.

"Thirty," Seth said flatly.

"Twenty-five," Newel countered.

Seth unzipped the bag again.

Doren clapped his hands and stamped his hooves. "I love happy endings. "

"It isn't over until I have the gold," Seth reminded them. "You're sure this treasure will truly be mine? No angry trolls will come to claim it?"

"No curses," Newel said.

"No powerful beings seeking retribution," Doren asserted.

Seth folded his arms. "Then why do you need my help?"

"This stash used to be free money," Newel said. "The easiest payday at Fablehaven. With the help of your oversized bodyguard, it can be a bargain again. "

"Hugo won't have to hurt anybody," Seth confirmed. "Relax," Newel said. "We've been over this. The golem won't need to harm a fly. "

Doren held up a hand. "I hear somebody coming. " Seth heard nothing. Newel sniffed the air.

"It's the golem," Newel reported.

Several moments later, Seth detected the heavy footfalls of Hugo's approach. Before long, the golem crashed into view, crunching through the undergrowth. An apelike figure fashioned out of soil, clay, and stone, Hugo had a thick build and disproportionately large hands and feet. Currently one arm was somewhat smaller than the other. Hugo had lost an arm in a battle with Olloch the Glutton, and despite frequent mud baths, the limb had not quite finished reforming.

The golem came to a stop towering above Seth and the satyrs, who barely reached his massive chest. "Set," the golem intoned in a deep voice that sounded like huge stones grinding together.

"Hi, Hugo," Seth replied. The golem had only recently begun attempting simple words. He understood everything anyone told him, but rarely sought to express himself verbally.

"Good to see you, big guy," Doren said brightly with a wave and a broad smile.

"Will he cooperate?" Newel asked out the side of his mouth.

"Hugo doesn't have to obey me," Seth said. "I don't officially control him like Grandma and Grandpa do. But he's learning to make his own decisions. We've done some private adventuring together over the summer. He'll usually go along with whatever I suggest. "

"Fair enough," Doren said. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. "Newel, my fellow gold digger, we may be back in business. "

"Will you finally explain what we're doing?" Seth begged.

"Have you ever heard of the nipsies?" Newel asked.

Seth shook his head.

"Tiny little critters," Doren elaborated, "smallest of the fairy folk. " The satyrs watched Seth expectantly.

Seth shook his head again.

"They're most closely related to brownies, but stand at only a fraction of the height," Newel said. "As you know, brownies are experts at mending, salvaging, and inventively recycling. Nipsies are also master artisans, but they tend to start from scratch, tapping into natural resources to acquire raw materials. "

Doren leaned close to Seth and spoke confidentially. "Nipsies have a fascination with shiny metals and stones, and a knack for finding them. "

Newel winked.

Seth crossed his arms. "What will stop them from taking their treasure back?"

Newel and Doren burst out laughing. Seth frowned.

Newel placed a hand on his shoulder. "Seth, a nipsie is about this big. " Newel held his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. Doren snorted as he tried to resist further laughter.

"They can't fly, and they have no magic to attack or harm. " "In that case, I still don't see why you need my help getting the gold," Seth maintained.

The chuckling subsided. "What nipsies can do is prepare traps and plant dangerous vegetation," Doren said. "The little nippers apparently took umbrage at the tributes Newel and I demanded, so they erected defenses to keep us away. Hugo here should have no trouble getting us into their domain. "

Seth narrowed his eyes. "Why don't the nipsies get help from Grandpa?"

"No offense," Newel said, "but many creatures at Fablehaven would endure considerable hardship to avoid human interference. Don't worry about the pipsqueaks appealing to Stan-he won't hear about this from them. What do you say? Shall we grab some easy gold?"

"Lead the way," Seth said. He turned to the golem. "Hugo, are you willing to help us visit the nipsies?"

Hugo held up an earthen hand, the thumb and forefinger almost touching. He gave a slight nod.

They tramped forward through the undergrowth until Newel raised a cautionary fist. From the edge of a clearing, Seth saw a wide meadow with a grassy hill in the middle. The sides of the hill were steep, but ended abruptly about twenty feet above the ground, as if the top were flat. "We'll need Hugo to get us into the hill," Newel whispered.

"Would you?" Seth asked the golem.

Hugo effortlessly placed Newel on one shoulder, Doren on the other, and cradled Seth in his larger arm. The golem set off across the meadow, crossing to the hill with long strides. Near the base of the hill, the weeds at Hugo's feet began to writhe and snap. Seth saw thorny vines curling around the golem's ankles, and the green heads of carnivorous plants striking at his shins.

"Part of the problem right there," Doren pointed out. "The little nippers cultivated all sorts of venomous plants around the outskirts of their territory. "

"Underhanded vermin," Newel grumbled. "I was limping for a week. "

"We were lucky to get away with our skins," Doren said. "We need to reach the other side of the hill. "

"The slopes of the hill are full of traps," Newel explained. "A sealed entrance awaits on the far side. "

"Take us around the hill, Hugo," Seth said.

The aggressive plants continued lashing and squirming and biting, but Hugo strode forward heedless of the onslaught. On the far side of the hill, they found an irregular boulder as tall as a man embedded at the base of the slope. A gooey mass of yellow slime pooled around the stone.

"Have Hugo shove the stone aside," Doren suggested.

"You heard him," Seth said.

Hugo stepped onto the slick slime, which slurped against his huge feet. With his free hand, Hugo thrust the boulder aside as if it were made of papier-mache, revealing the mouth of a tunnel.

"Put us down in the entrance," Newel said.

"And then keep the slime at bay," Doren added.

"Do it, please," Seth implored.

Hugo placed Seth at the entrance to the tunnel, then set the satyrs beside him. The golem turned and began kicking away the slime, which splashed through the air in sticky globs and strands.

"He comes in handy," Newel acknowledged, nodding toward Hugo.

"We need to get one for ourselves," Doren agreed.

Seth stared at the walls of the tunnel. They were made of polished white stone with veins of blue and green. Intricate carvings etched the entire surface from floor to ceiling. Seth traced a finger over the elaborate designs.

"Not too shabby," Newel commented.

Seth stepped back from the wall. "I can't believe all the detail. "

"Wait until you see the Seven Kingdoms," Doren said.

The three of them proceeded along the short tunnel. The roof was just high enough that none of them needed to crouch.

"Watch your step," Newel said. "Take care not to crush a nipsie. Their lives are just as real and valuable as anyone's. If you accidentally kill a nipsie, the protections of the foundational treaty of Fablehaven will no longer be yours. "

"He's just saying that because of the time he stepped on a supply wagon and knocked the driver senseless," Doren confided.

"He made a full recovery," Newel replied stiffly.

"I don't see any nipsies here in the tunnel," Doren reported after bending down to study the smooth marble floor. "Then tread lightly at the far side," Newel recommended.

When Seth emerged from the far end of the tunnel, he unexpectedly stepped out into the sunlight. There was no top to the hill-the entire center had been excavated, leaving the slopes to form a circular wall around a unique community. "Look at that," Seth mumbled.
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