Keeper of the lost citie.., p.28
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Keeper of the Lost Cities, p.28
 

           Shannon Messenger

  Still, she couldn’t resist whispering, “Show me Connor, Kate, and Natalie Freeman.”

  Light flashed and the Spyball displayed three people huddled together.

  The rest of the world disappeared.

  Her mom’s hair was longer, her dad looked a little thinner, and Amy looked older, but it was definitely her human family. Three echoes of a life where she thought she didn’t belong. But they had loved her—which was more than she had here.

  She wanted to reach through the orb and touch them, but she had to settle for watching as they huddled on the floor of a crowded room.

  Why were they on the floor?

  Her eyes found the words EVACUEE CENTER and she nearly dropped the ball.

  They’d been evacuated. Which meant the fires were near them.

  You must help them.

  The note’s words rang in her ears and she tried to shake them away—tried to remind herself she was being manipulated. But she couldn’t take her eyes off the three people she’d once loved more than anything—the three people she still loved—looking tired and afraid as a deadly, unquenchable fire threatened them.

  You must help them.

  Something inside her clicked into place.

  Her family never would’ve abandoned her. She couldn’t abandon them. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know when, but she would help them.

  For now she would stay with them as a silent supporter, watching from afar.

  FORTY-TWO

  SOPHIE DIDN’T SLEEP.

  She barely blinked.

  The Spyball felt like a magic window that could close anytime, and she didn’t want to miss a second of seeing her family.

  Even though she’d tried to forget them. Even though they didn’t know she existed anymore. Nothing could erase the love she felt for them. So when the sun painted the sky pink and gold, she stashed the Spyball in the bottom one of her desk drawers, dug out her Imparter, and called Alden.

  “What happened?” he asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

  “The fires are near my family, aren’t they?”

  He hesitated before he answered. “Yes, but everything is under control. Why are you asking? Did you get another note?”

  She nodded. “It said, ‘You must help them.’ I know it meant my family.” She left out the names and the Spyball. She wasn’t ready to give up her only connection to her family—not after almost eight months without them.

  “I don’t doubt that’s what they meant, but you must remember that they’re trying to manipulate you. What better way to do that than to use people you love?”

  “They’re in danger, Alden. There must be something we can do.”

  “There isn’t. Without evidence, we can’t make an accusation, and until that accusation is made—or the fires threaten our cities—the Council won’t order an investigation. These things take time.”

  “We don’t have time.”

  “Yes, we do. Listen, I know you’re upset, but promise me you won’t do anything.”

  Her jaw set.

  “Promise me, Sophie, so I don’t feel like I need to send someone to watch you. Come to Everglen this afternoon, and we’ll see if we can’t find a solution you’re more comfortable with.”

  She didn’t want to agree, but she didn’t want a chaperone following her around. “Fine.”

  “You promise?”

  “I promise.”

  “Good girl. I’ll see you after school.”

  She stared at the Imparter long after Alden’s image disappeared.

  She knew he was right. She was definitely being manipulated. But in all of human history there had never been a firestorm like this. Global. Deadly. Clearly organized. With bright yellow flames.

  An elf had to be behind it.

  Which meant an elf had to stop it.

  She wasn’t going to run to the Council like the Black Swan wanted her to, but she couldn’t sit back anymore. Someone had to do something.

  Alden said they needed evidence to make the accusation. She would get it. She didn’t know how, but she would find a way.

  She threw on her uniform and raced downstairs to get Iggy’s breakfast so she could leap to Foxfire early. Her plan was to search the libraries for books on evidence laws.

  She never made it past the front door.

  Another package. Another note. Another pin.

  This time the message was slipped inside a bottle. Her hands shook as she dumped the contents into her palm. The little golden flareadon pin glinted against her skin, and she examined the details, trying to understand its significance. The note only made her more confused.

  “Left three, down ten, right two. You have everything you need.”

  Everything she needed for what?

  She examined the bottle—searching for another clue she was missing. It was short and round, with a fluted neck and a wide opening. She nearly dropped it when she realized she’d projected the exact shape into her memory log.

  Firecatching.

  Lumenite and gold—the way to bottle a generated blaze. The way to bottle Everblaze.

  The moonlark and flareadon pins supplied the metals, and she had no doubt the left, down, right directions told her how to use the necklace to leap where the fires were. Paired with the bottle, the gifts gave her everything she’d need to collect a sample of the fire. What better evidence could she provide?

  But how was she supposed to get close enough to bottle the flame without killing herself—especially without fire-resistant clothing?

  Fire resistant.

  Gildie was fire resistant—probably why they gave her the flareadon pin instead of a piece of jewelry. They’d probably brought Gildie to Havenfield—she wouldn’t put anything past them at this point. Was she supposed to guide Gildie with her mind to fly through the fire and collect the sample? Was that possible?

  You have everything you need.

  The Black Swan seemed to think so.

  But then, she’d be doing everything they wanted her to—breaking several major laws in the process—and she couldn’t claim ignorance like in the Quintessence debacle. This would be willful. They would punish her. Maybe even with exile.

  A huge part of her wanted to leap to Everglen and tell Alden everything so she couldn’t be tempted. The other part wouldn’t forget her family huddled on the floor, clinging to each other. Or the article the Black Swan gave her: FIRESTORM CLAIMS FIRST VICTIMS.

  Whatever consequences she might pay, it was wrong to let people suffer without trying to help. Tiergan said she would make the right decision if the time ever came—and this was the right decision. She knew it.

  Before she could change her mind, she grabbed her satchel and ran for Gildie’s enclosure. The golden pterodactyl flapped her wings as Sophie entered her cage.

  Screech!

  It’s okay, Sophie transmitted, sending images of glowing flames, hoping to calm Gildie’s nerves. Gildie settled on Sophie’s wrist as Sophie dug the leaping necklace out of her satchel. Her arm almost collapsed under the weight, but she held strong.

  Here goes nothing, she told Gildie as she counted the facets the way the note instructed. When the crystal locked in place, she took a deep breath, clung to Gildie’s feet, and let the cobalt blue light pull her away.

  THE SUDDEN BLAST OF HEAT made her stagger. She could barely see through the thick smoke, but she could tell she was on a grassy plain, and the fires were in the hills all around her. Gildie screeched and flapped her wings.

  Steady, Sophie told her, transmitting calming images until Gildie settled down. Stay.

  She set Gildie on the ground and took off her cape, tying it across her mouth and nose to filter the smoke—finally, a use for the thing. She pried the digital displays off the back of the pins, dropped them in the bottle, and created an air seal
the way she’d practiced. It took three tries to get it right, and it wasn’t as thick as the seals Sir Conley made, but it was the best she could do.

  Hold, she told Gildie, sending her an image of how she wanted Gildie to carry the bottle between her talons. Gildie didn’t want to obey, but Sophie repeated the command over and over until Gildie flapped her wings, lifted off the ground, and snatched the bottle, holding it upside down, the way Sophie instructed.

  She wasn’t sure if she would be able to keep the mental connection once Gildie flew away, so she repeated the instructions until she felt Gildie understood. Then she gave her a warning. Danger. Not normal fire. Be fast. She transmitted images that might explain the threat and hoped Gildie’s survival instincts would guide her through.

  A sharp blast of wind blew smoke in her eyes, and she pointed to the fire. Go, Gildie. Remember what I told you—and hurry!

  Sophie held her breath as Gildie flew toward the fire line. She tried to watch as her glinting body disappeared into the flames, but the fire was too bright, burning spots of color into Sophie’s dry corneas. She closed her eyes, transmitting instructions to Gildie over and over.

  Swoop through the thickest part of the flame three times and come back.

  Thick, raspy coughs heaved through her chest and made it impossible to concentrate enough to locate Gildie. She didn’t know how long she’d been waiting, but the heat of the fire was singeing her skin.

  “Come back, Gildie!” she called.

  The wind carried her words away.

  How long was too long?

  Gildie, please come back!

  The shift in the wind put her in the line of the fire, which meant that if the grass kept burning at its current speed, she’d be overcome by the flames in a matter of minutes.

  “Gildie,” she screamed. A coughing fit brought her to her knees, making her voice useless. If Gildie didn’t return in the next minute or two, she’d have to abandon her and escape.

  The horrifying realization gave her a burst of adrenaline, and she was suddenly aware of the buzzing energy at the back of her mind. Could she channel it as she transmitted?

  She closed her eyes and shoved the energy into her mental call. Gildie, come back now!

  She scanned the sky. Nothing.

  Then a faint glint of gold sparkled through the smoke.

  “Gildie!” she screamed, waving her arms. “Gildie, over here.”

  The gold flash changed course and disappeared into the smoke and flame. Seconds later the shimmering pterodactyl emerged from the inferno, circled once, and landed at Sophie’s feet.

  Screech!

  Sophie threw her arms around her. “Ouch, you’re hot!” she yelped, jumping back and thrashing her arms to cool the burn.

  Gildie’s coarse fur looked singed on the edges, and her enormous eyes were clouded and watery, but she seemed okay. Her foot still clutched the bottle, which was filled with tiny yellow beads of sparks and capped with a glowing golden seal.

  “You did it!” Sophie transmitted images of the treats she would give Gildie as she wrapped the bottle in her cape and tucked it under her arm. Then she pulled out her home crystal—glad she hadn’t given it back to Grady and Edaline—and leaped her and Gildie to safety.

  “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” GRADY demanded as he paced the living room. Edaline stayed outside, treating Gildie’s scorched fur. She couldn’t bear to look at Sophie’s burns, and Sophie couldn’t blame her after Jolie. She was surprised Grady could stand it.

  Alden and Elwin were on their way.

  This was the one thing she hadn’t thought through. She knew she would have to confess what she did, but she’d expected to have some time to practice what she would say. Unfortunately, Grady had been in the pasture giving Verdi a bath when they arrived. Gildie screeched before she could even think about hiding.

  “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in?” Grady asked, tearing his hands through his already disheveled hair.

  Before she could answer, the front door burst open and Alden and Elwin rushed inside.

  “You promised,” Alden said, his voice angrier than she’d ever heard. “Just this morning, you promised.”

  “I can explain.”

  “Oh, you’d better—though I’m not sure it will help at this point.” The anger faded from his voice, leaving it flat and empty. Hopeless. “Bronte’s calling for a tribunal.”

  She knew it was coming, but her stomach still contorted in ways that made her very glad she’d skipped breakfast.

  Elwin cleared his throat. “Let’s treat those burns, shall we?”

  He squatted next to where she sat, flashing blue light around her arms. “These aren’t so bad. I won’t even have to use the yeti pee balm.”

  “Yeti pee?” She gagged as she remembered the stinky gold slime he’d spread on the burn from the stellarscope.

  “Takes the sting out of the most severe burn. You’re welcome.” He spread thick purple balm on all the places where Gildie’s scalding fur had touched her skin. “Any other burns you need me to treat?”

  She shook her head.

  He plunked two red medicine bottles and a bottle of Youth in front of her. “Drink up. This’ll fix any damage the smoke did to your lungs.”

  She swallowed the sticky-sweet serums as Elwin wiped the balm off her arms, revealing fresh, healthy skin. “Thanks, Elwin.”

  He gave her a sad smile. “Yeah, well, I would say stay out of trouble, but I think it might be too late for that.”

  Her eyes darted to Alden, and her heart sank when she saw his grim expression.

  “That should take care of her, but if you need anything else, you know where to find me.” Elwin gave Sophie a look that seemed to say, Hang in there. Then he glittered away.

  Sophie stared at her lap, not sure what to say.

  “What were you thinking?” Alden demanded.

  “You said we needed evidence to make an accusation. So I got us evidence.” She pointed to her balled-up cape. “Take a look. It’s unlike any of the flames I’ve bottled in elementalism.”

  It looked like part of him wanted to keep yelling, but he unwrapped the bottle. “Incredible,” he breathed when he saw the tiny beads of yellow flame.

  Grady ran his hands through his hair again and turned away.

  “When the Council sees that, they’ll have to admit it’s Everblaze,” she said.

  “It isn’t that easy, Sophie,” Alden told her.

  “Why? Because Fintan’s their friend?”

  “No, because you broke the law.”

  “People are dying. Losing their homes. My family is camped out in an evacuee center right now afraid for their lives.”

  “They’re humans, Sophie. Elves don’t get involved in human affairs.”

  She pointed to the bottle. “Obviously, one did. I don’t care that he’s friends with the Councillors. I did the right thing.”

  “I hope so. Because there’s no way I can protect you from the Council.”

  “I can,” Grady interrupted, a wild look in his eyes.

  “Grady—” Alden warned.

  “No—it’s not her fault. It’s mine,” Grady shouted. “I mesmerized her into doing it.”

  The words rang through the room as everyone stared at him.

  “No, you didn’t,” Sophie argued. “I didn’t even see you this morning.”

  “You did. You just don’t remember because I told you to forget it.” Desperation filled his tone, begging her not to protest.

  “Grady, the consequences of that would be even more severe than what Sophie is facing,” Alden warned.

  “It’s the truth. I mesmerized her.”

  Edaline gasped from the doorway, and all heads spun to look at her. “What are you doing, Grady?”

  Grady looked away. “I’m telling Ald
en what I did so Sophie won’t have to face a tribunal. I’m the reason Sophie broke the law. I used my ability to make her do it.”

  “No, you didn’t!” Sophie screamed, launching to her feet. “Stop trying to cover for me—I don’t need your help.”

  “Please let me do this, Sophie. It’s the least I can do, after everything.”

  A hint of warmth and love was back in his eyes, but she looked away.

  “I—I think you should listen to him, Sophie,” Edaline stammered. Each word seemed to steal her strength as she spoke it. “Grady’s right.”

  “No. I’m not going to let you lie to the Council and risk exile because you feel guilty about dumping me.”

  “It’s not about guilt,” Grady whispered.

  The tenderness in his voice made her throat catch, but she cleared it away. “Oralie will know you’re lying.”

  “I can be a very convincing liar.”

  “Yeah. I’ve noticed.”

  He sank into a chair. “I’m trying to make things right, Sophie.”

  “This is not the way, Grady,” Alden interrupted. He stared at the bottle of yellow sparks. “Maybe when they see this, they’ll decide her actions were justified.”

  “You know Bronte will never let that happen,” Grady argued.

  “We’ll worry about that once we see how the Council reacts to this new evidence. In the meantime, Sophie has been ordered to act as though nothing happened. The official story is that you stayed home sick today and they expect you back at school tomorrow.”

  Alden sighed and turned to Sophie. “I’m not sure how the Black Swan convinced you to do this, Sophie, but can you promise me you won’t do anything else they ask you to do?”

  “I promise.”

  “I’m going to try to believe that.”

  “I’m really sorry, Alden. I won’t break another promise.”

  “I hope not.”

  She stared at the floor. “I understand if you want to take back your adoption offer.”