Grip of the shadow plagu.., p.7
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       Grip of the Shadow Plague, p.7

         Part #3 of Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull  
Page 7

  "When we started fishing for specifics, they clammed up," Coulter said.

  "What could make a nipsie fall?" Grandpa mused, as if speaking to himself. "I've never seen anything like it," Coulter said.

  "Nor heard of anything like it," Tanu added.

  "Nor I," Grandpa sighed. "Normally, my first call would be to the Sphinx. Maybe it still should be. Friend or foe, he has always given sound advice, and none can match his knowledge of lore. Does the condition appear to be spreading?"

  Tanu noisily cracked his knuckles. "According to some of the normal nipsies, after the Fifth Kingdom was invaded, a good portion of those nipsies were carried off and became like the others. "

  "Do you want Tanu and me to skip meeting with the Knights?" Coulter offered.

  "No, you should attend," Grandpa said. "I want all three of you watching over Kendra and learning what you can. "

  "I overheard the fairies saying something strange today," Kendra said. "It might be related. They were talking about a way to be dark like imps, but beautiful. One fairy seemed enamored by the idea. The other flew away immediately. "

  "Strange things are certainly afoot at Fablehaven," Grandpa said. "I had better go make some calls. "

  Grandpa, Grandma, and Warren left the room.

  "Seth, a word, if I may," Tanu said. Seth crossed to the hulking Samoan, who shepherded him into the corner. Kendra lingered to hear. Tanu glanced at her and went on.

  "I noticed some interesting tracks in the meadow of the Seven Kingdoms," Tanu said casually. "Looked like the satyrs had some help gaining entry. "

  "Don't tell Grandpa," Seth pleaded. "If we were going to tell him, we already would have," Tanu said. "Coulter and I figured you were in enough hot water already. Just keep in mind, Hugo is not a toy for helping satyrs steal. "

  "Gotcha," Seth said with a relieved smile.

  Tanu looked at Kendra. "Can you keep this one under your hat?" His eyes demanded a yes.

  "Sure," she said. "I've filled my daily quota for ratting on Seth. "

  Chapter Four

  New Knights

  When the baggage carousel jolted to life, passengers from Kendra's flight pressed to be closest to the opening from which their belongings would emerge. A parade of suitcases commenced, many of them black and about the same size. Several had ribbons tied around the handles to help the owners differentiate between them. Kendra had placed smiley-face stickers on hers.

  It was peculiar hanging out with Tanu, Coulter, and Warren at the baggage claim. She associated them with magical potions, enchanted relics, and supernatural creatures. This setting seemed much too common. Tanu dipped a pretzel into a small plastic container of molten cheese. Warren turned to the final page of his paperback. Coulter penned an answer on the crossword from the in-flight magazine. Around them waited a random assortment of passengers. A pair of business travelers stood nearest, wearing slightly rumpled suits and expensive wristwatches.

  Kendra lunged forward when her suitcase appeared, darting between a nun and a grungy guy in a tie-dyed shirt and sandals. Tanu accepted the bag after she yanked it off the carousel. Their other luggage followed soon after.

  Tanu wadded his napkins into his cheese cup and chucked it into a garbage can, then collected his baggage. Coulter threw out the magazine.

  "Anybody want to read about a genetically enhanced superspy?" Warren asked, waving his paperback. "It's a bestseller. Lots of action. Twist ending. " He held it toward the trash receptacle.

  "I might check it out," Kendra said, uneasy about the thought of discarding an undamaged book. She zipped the rescued paperback into her suitcase, then extended the handle so she could wheel the bag around.

  The four of them headed away from the baggage claim toward a set of automatic doors. A man in a suit and a black cap was holding a sign with the name Tanugatoa printed in marker.

  "We have a chauffeur?" Kendra asked, impressed.

  "For going out of the city, a limousine cost only a little more than a taxi," Tanu explained.

  "Why isn't my name on the sign?" Warren complained.

  "My name is the rarest," Tanu said with a smile. He greeted the man with the sign and waved him off from trying to help carry bags. They followed the man out to the curb and along a sidewalk to where a black limousine with tinted windows idled. The driver, a well-dressed Middle Eastern man, loaded their suitcases into the trunk and then held the door as they entered the vehicle. Warren kept his smaller suitcase.

  "I've never ridden in a limo before," Kendra confided to Coulter.

  "It's been a while for me too," Coulter said.

  She and Coulter sat on one side, facing Tanu and Warren on the other, with plenty of room between. Kendra ran a hand over the plush upholstery. The air smelled like pine, with a faint undercurrent of cigarette smoke.

  After Tanu confirmed the address with the driver, the limousine nosed out into a clogged lane. They made small talk as the driver found the highway.

  "How long is the trip?" Kendra asked.

  "About an hour," Coulter said.

  "Any last-minute tips?" Kendra asked.

  "Don't reveal your name to anyone," Coulter said. "Don't mention Fablehaven, your grandparents, or where you come from. Don't tell your age. Don't show your face. Don't allude to any of your abilities. Don't mention the Sphinx. Don't speak unless you must. Most of the Knights eagerly gather information. Goes with the territory. Whether they're good or bad, I say the less they know the better. "

  "So what can I do?" Kendra asked. "Maybe I should just wear the invisibility glove and hide in a corner!"

  "Let me qualify Coulter's recommendation not to speak," Tanu said. "Feel free to ask questions of your own. Get to know people. The fact that you're new gives you a valid excuse to solicit information. Just try not to reveal much. Gather info, don't dispense it. Be wary of any stranger who takes too much interest in you. Don't go anywhere alone with anyone. "

  "We'll stay close, but not too close," Warren said. "We all know other Knights, a few of them rather well. They will be able to spot us. We don't want to make it too easy for others to associate you with us. "

  "Do we have you wound up yet?" Coulter asked.

  "I'm pretty nervous," Kendra confessed.

  "Relax, have fun!" Warren encouraged.

  "Right, while I try to follow all of my instructions and avoid getting abducted," Kendra moaned.

  "That's the spirit!" Warren cheered.

  Other cars on the highway had their lights on as dusk approached. Kendra settled back in her seat. The others had warned her it might be a late night. She had tried to sleep on the plane, but had felt too anxious, and the seat had not reclined enough. Instead she had used headphones to listen to the flight's different audio channels, including hit-and miss selections of stand-up comedy and pop music.

  Now, in the dim limo, she had a little more room, and drowsiness caught up to her. She decided not to fight it. Her eyelids drooped and she spent a few minutes on the edge of sleep, hearing the others make occasional comments as if from underwater.

  In her restless dream, Kendra found herself roaming a carnival holding a blue cloud of cotton candy on a disposable white stick. At the age of four, Kendra had gotten separated from her family at a fairground for almost half an hour, and the scene before her was quite similar. Calliope music hooted and shrilled. A nearby Ferris wheel ground round and round, elevating riders high into the evening sky before plunging them back down, the mechanism squealing and growling like the ride was about to collapse.

  Kendra caught glimpses of family members in the crowd, but when she tried to shoulder through the throng to reach them, they were gone. On one such occasion, she thought she saw her mom walk behind a popcorn stand. When Kendra followed, she found herself confronted by a tall stranger with a gray afro. Smiling like he knew a secret, the man tore away a big piece of her cotton candy and stuck it in his mouth. Kendra held her treat away from him, glaring, and a fat woman wearing braces plucked at it from behind. Soon Kendra found herself pushing through the multitude, trying to get away from the many strangers devouring her cotton candy. But it was no use. The entire crowd was stealing from her, and soon all she retained in her grasp was a naked white stick.

  When Coulter jostled her awake she felt relieved, although a lingering unsettled feeling persisted. She must be even more stressed about the evening than she realized to have such an obnoxious dream!

  Warren had opened his bag and was dispersing robes and masks. The long robes were constructed of a thin, strong material, dark gray, with a slight shimmer. "We're almost there," Warren informed her. Unfastening her seatbelt, Kendra pulled the robe over her head. Warren handed her a silver mask. Coulter put on his. All four masks looked identical. Smooth and shiny, the simple, grinning mask covered her entire face. It felt a little heavier than she liked.

  Kendra tapped her knuckles against the metallic forehead. "Are these things bulletproof?"

  "They're not flimsy," Tanu said.

  "Use your hood," Coulter suggested, his voice somewhat muffled by his mask. His hood was up, leaving none of his head exposed. He could have been anyone.

  Warren handed Kendra light, snug gloves that matched the cloak. She removed her shoes and stepped into gray slippers. Warren and Tanu put on their masks.

  "How will I know you?" Kendra asked.

  "Tanu will be easiest because of his size," Warren said. "But he isn't the only large Knight. " Warren raised a hand and laid two fingers beside his temple. "This will be our sign. You need never make it. We'll keep you in view. "

  The limousine turned off the road and advanced through open gates along a smooth driveway flanked by white statues of maidens clad in togas, armored heroes, animals, mermaids, and centaurs. Up ahead the mansion came into view.

  "A castle," Kendra gasped.

  Illuminated by numerous lights in the yard and dozens of electric sconces, the fortress loomed bright in the dwindling twilight. Built entirely of yellowish stone blocks, the broad stronghold boasted multiple rounded towers of varying height, a lowered drawbridge, a raised portcullis, lancet windows, arrow loops, and battlements atop the walls. Liveried servants stood at attention at either side of the drawbridge, bearing lanterns.

  Kendra turned to her masked companions. "I know you call yourselves Knights, but seriously?"

  "Fairy collectors," Warren grunted. "They tend to be an eccentric crowd, but Wesley and Marion Fairbanks might take the prize. "

  The limousine pulled to a stop. The driver opened the door facing the drawbridge. They got out, and Tanu pulled the chauffeur aside, speaking softly and handing him some money.

  A servant wearing a powdered wig and red knickers over white stockings approached and offered a dignified bow. "Welcome, honored guests. Please follow me. "

  Kendra saw a battered white van pulling up behind the limo. The driver was wearing a silver mask. Off to one side of the grounds a pair of helicopters sat on the lawn. In another area a few dozen cars were parked, ranging from luxury vehicles to junk-lot candidates.

  The costumed servant escorted Kendra and her friends toward the drawbridge. Her robe reached her ankles, allowing her to take normal strides without feeling too billowy. The mask limited her peripheral vision, but otherwise she could see fine.

  The group passed into a cobbled courtyard, lit by electric cressets. Swirls of insects orbited the light sources. A few clusters of robed figures in silver masks strolled the area conversing. Above them, banners and flags hung limply in the still night air. The servant led Kendra and the others across the courtyard to a heavy, ironbound door, opened it with a key, stepped aside, and bowed.

  Warren led the way into an ornate antechamber at the mouth of a cavernous hallway. A desk sat off to one side of the antechamber, before a pair of curtained booths. A person in a silver mask sat at the desk. Behind stood four robed figures, their silver masks trimmed with gold.

  A short woman wearing a mauve gown greeted them. "Welcome, travelers, to our humble retreat. May you find safe harbor here until duty whisks you elsewhere. " She had an average build, and looked to be in her fifties. Her chestnut hair was plaited in an antiquated style. A ring on her left hand held an obscenely huge diamond.

  "A pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Fairbanks," Warren said with a genteel air. "Our thanks for opening your home to us. "

  She flushed with pleasure. "Anytime. No invitation required!"

  Behind her stood a jovial man in a powdered wig eating chicken and vegetables off of a skewer. "Quite so," he said, juice dribbling down his chin.

  "A pleasure as always, Wesley," Warren acknowledged, inclining his head.

  Biting into a mushroom, the man in the wig nodded back.

  Warren turned to face the four masked figures in front of the booths. "North," he said, jerking a thumb at himself. "West. " He gestured at Tanu and Coulter. Then he indicated Kendra. "Novice. "

  "The novice is East," said the man seated at the desk.

  Warren leaned in to Kendra. "These are the four Lieutenants. They verify who we are under the masks, as a security measure. Each oversees a certain group, named by the points of the compass. The Eastern Lieutenant will confirm your identity. "

  Warren went into a booth with one of the figures in a gold-trimmed mask. A different Lieutenant marshaled Tanu into the other booth. Warren emerged promptly, mask in place, and another Lieutenant, the tallest one, guided Kendra into the vacant booth.

  "Remove your mask, please," said a gruff voice.
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