Home > Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(13)

Grip of the Shadow Plague (Fablehaven #3)(13)
Author: Brandon Mull

"Helping with a covert mission," Grandpa said.

Vanessa laughed. "Is he extracting another artifact so soon?"

"I said nothing about-"

Vanessa laughed louder, cutting him off. "Right," she chuckled. "Kendra's not in Arizona or Australia. Still, hard to believe, after all this time, the Sphinx has stopped pacing himself and is sprinting for the finish line. Any clue who went with her?"

"We've told her enough," Grandma said. "Fine," Vanessa said. "Good luck with the Sphinx. Good luck with the plague. And good luck with seeing Kendra again." She stepped backwards into the Quiet Box, regarding them smugly.

"And good luck with getting out of there," Grandma said. Vanessa's eyes widened as Grandma slammed the door. Grandma turned to the others. "I'll not have her trying to use our fears to hold us hostage."

"We may eventually need her help," Grandpa said.

The Quiet Box turned, and Grandma opened the door. Slaggo and Voorsh took custody of the birdlike man. "I'm willing to work twice as hard in hopes of avoiding that eventuality."

"We lack communication with Warren, so Vanessa's knowledge of possible traitors won't help Kendra in the near future," Grandpa said. "Vanessa can offer no proof that the Sphinx is the leader of the Society. And it sounds like she'd be guessing as much as we are as to how to combat this plague. I suppose we can refrain from further questions for now."

"What now?" Seth asked.

"We need to determine how this plague started,"

Grandpa said, "in order to find a way to stop it."

Chapter Seven

Lost Mesa

The empty dirt road extended into the distance ahead of Kendra until it faded in a blur of shimmering heat. Her view of the desert landscape wobbled as the pickup jounced over the washboard surface of the desolate lane. It was rough country-uneven plains interrupted by rocky gorges and sheer plateaus. Lukewarm air gushed from the dashboard vents, refusing to actually get cool.

They had not stayed on roads the entire time. Part of the ride had taken them over miles of trackless terrain, emphasizing the isolation of their hidden destination. Driving directions from an Internet search were not going to lead a traveler anywhere near Lost Mesa.

The driver was a quiet Navajo man with leathery skin, probably in his fifties. He wore a spotless white cowboy hat and a bolo tie. Kendra had tried to engage him in conversation-he answered all direct questions, but never elaborated or made inquiries of his own. His name was Neil. He had been married once for less than a year. He had no kids. He had worked at Lost Mesa since his teenage years. He agreed that the day was hot.

Warren, Dougan, and Gavin all reclined in the bed of the pickup with the luggage, wearing hats that shielded their faces from the sun. All Kendra had to do was remember how hot and dusty they were to silence any possible complaints about the truck's feeble air conditioner.

"Almost there," Neil said, the first unsolicited words he had uttered since "I'll take your suitcase" back at the small airport in Flagstaff.

Kendra leaned forward, scanning up ahead for a landmark besides sun-baked dirt and turquoise sagebrush. The only feature out of the ordinary was a low barbed-wire fence coming into view, with a battered wooden gate that spanned the road. The three-wire fence stretched out of sight in either direction. A faded No Trespassing sign hung on the gate, red background with white letters.

"I don't see much besides a fence," Kendra said.

Neil glanced at her, eyes so squinted they looked closed. "You see the fence?"

"Sure. Barbed wire. Does it keep anybody out?"

"I've been driving this road thirty years," he said. "I still can't see the fence till after I pass it. Powerful distracter spell. I have to focus on the road. It's tough every time, fighting the urge to turn around, even though I know exactly where I'm going."

"Oh," Kendra said. Her goal had not been to advertise that distracter spells had no effect on her, but she could think of no false explanation to explain how she had seen the fence so easily. There it was, three parallel strands of barbed wire affixed to slim, rusted posts.

When the truck reached the gate, Neil slowed to a stop, climbed down, opened the gate, climbed back up, and drove through. The instant the car passed the fence line, a massive plateau sprang into view up ahead, so dominating the landscape that Kendra could not fathom how she had failed to notice it up until now. The looming mesa was not only enormous, it was striking, with bands of white, yellow, orange, and red coloring its steep sides.

"Welcome to Lost Mesa," Neil said, stopping the truck again.

"I've got it!" Warren called as Neil opened the door to climb down again. Warren ran over and shut the gate. Neil closed his door as Warren leapt back into the truck.

Kendra began to notice that the imposing plateau was not the only variation in the landscape on this side of the fence. Tall saguaro cacti were suddenly plentiful, rounded green arms pointing skyward. Joshua trees mingled with the saguaros, contorted limbs twisting into unlikely shapes.

"There weren't cactuses like this a minute ago," Kendra said.

Neil shook his head. "Not like these. We have a diverse forest here." The truck sped up. The road was now paved. The asphalt looked dark enough to have been recently laid. "Is that the lost mesa?" Kendra asked, looking up at the plateau.

"The table that went missing when the preserve was founded. Here we call it Painted Mesa. Almost nobody knows, but part of the reason the Navajo people ended up with the largest reservation in the country was to conceal this hallowed place."

"Do Navajos run it?" Kendra asked.

"Not solely. We Dine are new here compared to the Pueblo people."

"Has the preserve been here long?" Kendra asked. She finally had Neil on a roll!

"This is the oldest preserve on the continent, founded centuries before European colonization, first managed by the ancient race outsiders call Anasazi. Persian magi actually established the preserve. They wanted it to stay a secret. Back then, this land was unknown across the Atlantic. We're still doing a good job at remaining off the map."

"Painted Mesa can't be seen from outside of the fence?" Kendra asked.
"Not even by satellites," Neil said proudly. "This preserve is the opposite of a mirage. You don't see us, but we're really here."

Kendra glimpsed fairies flitting among the cacti. A few were bright, with butterfly or dragonfly wings, but most were colored in more earthy shades. Many had scales or spines or protective carapaces. Their wings reminded Kendra of locusts and beetles. One furry brown fairy flapped leathery bat wings.

As the truck rounded a corner, new species of cacti came into view. Some had leaves like swords; others had long, spindly arms; still others had reddish needles. Sitting up next to a clump of spherical cacti, nose twitching as it tested the air, a large rabbit with a short pair of forked antlers caught Kendra's eye.

"That rabbit has horns!" Kendra exclaimed.

"Jackalope," Neil said. "They bring good luck." He glanced at Kendra without moving his head. "You had milk this morning?"

"Warren has some buttery stuff that works like the milk," Kendra said evasively. Warren did have a substance like that, derived from the milk of a giant walrus on a preserve in Greenland. He had even eaten some today, so his eyes would be open to the magical creatures of Lost Mesa. Kendra neglected to mention that Warren had not shared any with her because she no longer required milk to observe magical beings.

The truck topped a rise, and the main buildings of Lost Mesa came into view. Kendra first noticed the huge pueblo complex, which looked like two dozen boxy adobe homes artfully stacked together. The windows were dark, with no glass. Wooden beams jutted from the reddish-brown walls. Beside the pueblo stood a white hacienda with a red-tiled roof. The horseshoe-shaped hacienda looked considerably more modern than the pueblo complex. A tall water tower overshadowed the hacienda, built on long stilts. Across a vacant area from the houses stood two other structures. One was a vast wooden building with a curved aluminum roof. Even though she saw no runway, Kendra wondered if it might be an airplane hangar. The other was a low, domed structure that sheltered a wide area. The gigantic black head of a cow even bigger than Viola protruded through a large opening just above ground level. The cow was munching hay from a vast trough. Seeing that enormous head at ground level revealed to Kendra that the domed roof must cover a tremendous pit where the colossal cow lived.

The truck snaked along the curvy road, pulling to a stop on a tiled area outside the hacienda. Before Neil had cut the engine, the main door opened, and a short Native American woman emerged. Her silver hair was pulled up in a round bun, and she wore a colorful shawl across her shoulders. Although her copper skin was seamed, her eyes were lively, and she walked with vigor.

Several other people followed the woman out the door. A potbellied man with narrow shoulders, long limbs, and a heavy gray mustache walked alongside a tall, slender Native American woman with a broad jaw and high cheekbones. Behind them came a freckly woman with short brown hair pushing a pudgy, round-faced Mexican man in a wheelchair.

Kendra dropped down from the truck, while Warren, Dougan, and Gavin hopped out of the bed. "Welcome to Lost Mesa," said the older woman with the bun. "I am Rosa, the caretaker here. We're glad to have you with us."

They exchanged introductions. The tall younger woman was Rosa's daughter, Mara. She said nothing. The gangly man with the mustache was named Hal. Tammy was the woman pushing the wheelchair, and she seemed to know Dougan. The guy in the wheelchair was named Javier. One of his legs was missing. The other was in a splint.

It was decided that Warren and Dougan would go talk to Rosa, Tammy, and Javier inside the hacienda. Neil and Mara helped Warren and Dougan tote their bags into the house, leaving Kendra and Gavin alone with Hal, who had been appointed to show them around the preserve.

"Don't that beat all," Hal said once the others were out of sight. "The sky starts falling around here, and they send us a couple of teenagers. No disrespect intended. First thing an able mind learns at Lost Mesa is that looks can deceive."

"Wh-wh-who died?" Gavin asked.

Hal raised his eyebrows. "If they didn't tell you, I'm not sure it's my place."

"Javier was injured at the same time?" Gavin wondered.

"So I'm told," Hal said, hooking his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans. The movement made Kendra notice his heavy silver belt buckle with a majestic elk engraved on the front.

"Hot today," Kendra said.

"If you say so," Hal allowed. "Monsoon season is under way. We saw rain two nights this week. Things have cooled off a few degrees since July."

"Wh-what are you going to show us?" Gavin asked.

"Whatever you like," Hal said, flashing a smile that showed a gold tooth. "You two are getting the V.I.P. treatment, in part because you could end up with the R.I.P. treatment. Heaven forbid."

"D-d-do you know why we're here?" Gavin asked.

"None of my affair. Some foolishness up on Painted Mesa, I expect. Something risky, judging from Javier. I'm not one to pry."

"Tammy was working with Javier and whoever died?" Kendra asked.

"That she was," Hal affirmed. "Things went awry, so they called in the cavalry. You kids been to a preserve like this before?"

Gavin nodded.

"Yeah," Kendra said.

"Then I reckon you can guess what the cow is for." He jerked his head toward the domed structure. "We call her Mazy. She's been skittish lately, so don't slide up too close, especially when she's eating. A few folks live in the pueblo over yonder, but you'll have rooms in the house, for which you'll be grateful, once you feel the draft from the swamp coolers."

"What about the building that looks like a hangar?" Kendra asked.

"That's the museum," Hal said. "One of a kind, for all I know. We'll save it for the finale." He picked up a covered white plastic bucket with a metal handle and slung it into the bed of the truck Neil had driven. Pulling a set of keys from his pocket, Hal opened the passenger door. "Let's take a ride. We can all squeeze up front."

Kendra climbed up and scooted into the middle. Hal sauntered around to the driver's side, using the steering wheel to pull himself up. "Nice and cozy," Hal said, turning the key in the ignition. He glanced over at Kendra and Gavin. "Don't tell me you two are sweethearts."

They both hastily shook their heads.

"Now, don't go protesting too much," he laughed, backing up the truck before starting down a dirt road. "Aside from the buildings and Painted Mesa, I know this place looks like a whole lot of nothing. But you'd be surprised at the hidden springs and ravines and sandstone mazes. Not to mention that most of the activity around here takes place beneath the surface."

"Caves?" Gavin asked.

"Caverns that would put Carlsbad to shame," Hal exclaimed. "Some individual chambers could house an entire football stadium with room to spare. I'm talking about no fewer than seven elaborate cave systems that go on for hundreds of miles all told. I expect one day we'll find how they all interconnect. If this place were open to the public, it'd be the caving capital of the world. 'Course, as you might expect, you never know what a spelunker might run across in the tunnels below Lost Mesa. Better to stay on the surface, enjoy the gorgeous gorges and the beautiful buttes."

"What kind of creatures are in the caves?" Kendra asked.

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