Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 29Shannon Messenger
Edaline made a strangled sound.
“Sophie, we’d be honored to have you live with us.” He looked at Grady and Edaline. “Sorry, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you.”
Grady glanced at Edaline, then at the floor. “No—that’s . . . great. I’m glad to hear it.”
Edaline choked out something unintelligible. It might have been her agreeing, but it was hard to tell. She turned and fled before anyone could ask her.
Alden sighed and held up the bottle. “I should bring this to the Council, get this process going. We’ll worry about adoption concerns if . . .”
He didn’t finish, but Sophie knew what he meant.
If she wasn’t exiled.
ACTING NORMAL AT SCHOOL THE next day was easier than Sophie thought it would be. Dex still wasn’t speaking to her, Marella and Jensi were relatively oblivious, and Fitz and Biana already knew. She got a little choked up when Biana hugged her and told her things would be okay—and Keefe made a few jokes about what he kept calling her “mystery illness”—but other than that, it was like any other day.
Until study hall.
Sophie was sitting alone with Biana—ignoring the way Dex kept glaring at her from the next table over—when Stina plunked her beanpole body in one of their empty chairs.
“I never knew you were such a good actress,” she sneered.
Sophie froze. “W-what do you mean?”
“Not you, Foster—you’re not good at anything. I meant Biana. I know your secret.”
Biana glared at her. “Oooh, I’m really scared.”
“You should be.”
Something about Stina’s confidence seemed to get to Biana, because she shifted in her chair and her eyes darted to Sophie.
“She doesn’t know anything. She’s just trying to trick you into admitting something.” Sophie grabbed her things and stood. “Come on. Let’s sit somewhere else.”
Stina slammed her bony arm across Biana’s books. “Oh, but I do know something. See, since you’ve been ignoring Maruca lately, she and I have become quite close—and she’s had some great stories to tell. This morning she told me the most interesting thing about the reason you and Sophie became friends.”
All the color drained from Biana’s face.
“What is she talking about?” Sophie asked quietly.
Stina flashed a wicked smile at Biana. “Should I tell her, or do you want to do it?”
“Tell me what?”
Biana sat pale and lifeless, like a statue.
Stina giggled. “It’s really quite funny. She was forced to be friends with you. Her dad wanted to keep a closer watch on the freaky human girl who practically killed his son in a splotching match, so he ordered Biana to be your friend so you’d come around their house.”
Sophie saw the panic in Biana’s eyes and felt a little sick. “Is that true?”
“Of course it’s true,” Stina interrupted. “She hated you before that, remember? Did you really think she suddenly wanted to be best friends for no reason?” She studied Sophie closely. “Hmm. I guess you did. You’re even dumber than I thought.”
Biana sprang to life and reached for Sophie’s arm.
Sophie jerked away. “Don’t!”
Her mind was spinning, making connections she should have made a long time ago. She’d wondered if someone put Biana up to it. She’d just never considered it might be Alden.
“Sophie,” Biana pleaded.
Sophie shook her head as traitorous tears pricked her eyes. The last thing she saw was the look of I told you so on Dex’s face as she turned and fled.
She raced around a corner and plowed straight into someone.
“Sophie? Are you okay?” Fitz asked.
Of course she would run into him. And he was with Keefe—perfect. “I’m fine,” she muttered, resisting his help as she struggled to regain her balance.
“Hey.” He grabbed her arms. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
She shrugged out of his grasp and tried to push by, but he blocked her path. “Let me go.”
“Tell me what’s going on first.”
“Uh, Fitz.” Keefe tapped him on the shoulder. “I’m feeling some pretty serious rage right now. It’s probably not a good idea to annoy her.”
She glared at Keefe and he took a step away from her, holding out his hands in peace.
“Tell me what happened,” Fitz pleaded.
The concern in his voice pushed her over the edge. “Ugh,” she screamed, shoving away from him. “Just stop already.”
“Stop pretending like you care. I know your dad put you up to it, okay?”
“That’s crazy.” Keefe looked at Fitz to back him up.
Fitz looked away, his whole body rigid. “What did Biana tell you?”
“Nothing,” she hissed. “Neither of you had the decency to be honest with me. I had to hear about it from Stina.”
Fitz muttered something under his breath. “Sophie, it’s—”
“I don’t want to hear it.” Her voice cracked.
“Better leave her alone,” Keefe said, pulling Fitz away. He glanced over his shoulder as he dragged Fitz down the hall—his eyes asking if she would be okay.
She shook her head, pulled out her home crystal, and leaped back to Havenfield.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” GRADY CALLED WHEN he spotted her, but she didn’t acknowledge him. She threw her satchel on the ground and ran straight for the caves.
“Sophie, wait!” Edaline called.
Sophie kept going, but Edaline was faster than she looked, and in a minute she’d caught up with her. She offered a small furball. “In case you need a friend.”
Iggy fluttered to her shoulder and Sophie wiped away a tear. “Thanks.”
Edaline nodded. “Be careful down there. Looks like a storm’s coming.”
Sophie hadn’t noticed the gray sky, but it seemed appropriate given her mood. She climbed down the cliff and wandered deep into the cave, reveling in the thick, gloomy darkness. She noticed a shard of rock on the ground and hurtled it at the wall. The clatter as it shattered into smaller bits was oddly soothing.
She threw another stone, and another, relishing the clang of each as they were pulverized to smithereens. When there were no rocks left, she kicked the edge of the nearest boulder until her foot throbbed. Dirty, panting, and in more than a little pain, she collapsed to the ground, feeling the tears she’d been holding back bubble over. She buried her face in her hands and gave into them, letting the violent sobs shake her body. She felt Iggy trembling next to her, frightened by her irrational behavior, but she didn’t care.
Her life had officially fallen apart.
She had no friends. No family. Facing exile and expulsion.
She was totally and completely alone.
It was at that moment—when she thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse—that they did.
A pair of arms pulled her to her feet and smothered her scream with a meaty hand. She tried to fight back, but a cloaked figure swooped out of the shadows and shoved a cloth over her mouth and nose. Something sickeningly sweet burned her throat and nostrils and her head instantly clouded.
She held her breath and kicked with all her might, but she couldn’t escape the iron grasp, and she couldn’t hold her breath much longer.
“Sophie?” Dex called, his voice echoing against the walls. “Are you in here? Fitz told me I should come find you.”
The figure holding her cursed, and Sophie rallied her concentration.
Run, Dex! she transmitted.
She was too late.
She heard the scuffle, but her head was swirling too much from the drug to make sense of it. Then the arms holding her jerked away, and she crump
led to the ground as someone yelped. A ball of fur scuttled away.
He must’ve bit her captor.
Go get help! she transmitted, hoping he understood what she meant. He scurried out of the cave, so she took that as a good sign.
She tried to get up, but she was too weak. One of the figures grabbed her arm, squeezing so hard it cut off her circulation. “Let go,” she rasped, surprised at how the drug affected her voice. Dex moaned behind her and she turned toward the sound.
A third figure had Dex with a viselike grip, and clearly no amount of struggling or fighting would help him escape. She held Dex’s panicked stare as her captor pulled her to her feet and covered her mouth with his hand. “Drug them now!” he ordered in a deep voice.
“Both of them?” the figure holding Dex asked. “I thought we only wanted the girl?”
“We can’t leave any evidence!” He turned to the second figure, who was already soaking the cloth with a small vial. “You said she only came here alone!”
They’d been watching her.
She watched in horror as the figure covered Dex’s mouth and nose with the drugged cloth. His eyes held hers as he struggled against the sedative, but after a minute his head lolled and his body fell limp.
“Get his pendant,” the one holding her ordered.
There was an ominous snap as Dex’s registry necklace came free in his hand. Then he returned to Sophie, holding the cloth over her face. “Let’s try this again.”
Her nose burned and her head spun, and the last thing she felt was a tug on her neck as her pendant—her only hope of being tracked down and rescued—was ripped off her neck.
SOPHIE DRIFTED IN THE DARKNESS, UNABLE to separate nightmare from reality. But the pain pulled her back to consciousness. Cold, thick cords sliced into her wrists and ankles. Bonds.
She was a hostage.
“They ordered a search and rescue,” a strange voice whispered from far away. “They believed the tidal wave.”
“Staging a suicide would have been better,” someone else hissed.
“No one would’ve believed they both jumped.”
“I know. The boy is an unfortunate complication.”
Two men—or maybe three. She couldn’t tell. She wasn’t even sure she was awake. The mental fog felt so thick she could barely think through it.
“What are you going to do with him?” he asked.
“We’re not here to answer your questions,” a new voice hissed. A ghostly whisper. “Just do your job and wash the girl’s recent memories.”
Please, Sophie thought, scrambling to make her muddled mind concentrate. She transmitted as far and wide as she could. My name is Sophie Foster. If anyone can hear me, please send help.
She listened for a reply, but there was only silence as the darkness swallowed her again.
LOUD VOICES YANKED HER OUT of the haze. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t have the energy. Her body felt like one giant bruise. At least the pain meant she was still alive.
“Funerals are being arranged.”
“They didn’t care that there were no bodies?”
“They found the pendants at the bottom of the ocean. Everyone believed.”
No! Her brain screamed. We’re not dead. Please, someone hear me. We need help!
“Have they decided what to do with the boy?”
“They have to get rid of him.”
Please! she transmitted. Please help us. She pushed the message as far as it could go.
“The girl’s awake. I can hear her transmitting for help.”
A strong hand squeezed her arm like a vise. “Stop it, Sophie! Do you hear me?”
“Relax. She can’t reach anyone from here.”
“I don’t care. Knock her out.”
Sharp sweetness tickled her nose, and she sank into the dark oblivion.
TIME LOST ITS MEANING IN the blackness. Each second felt like the next—until a burning in her nose jerked her back to reality. She wanted to sneeze and gag with every breath.
“Are you sure this is necessary?” The voice loomed over her.
“It’s either this or give up.”
A very loud sigh.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Her chest constricted, heaving into a cough—but a cloth blocked her mouth, keeping the cough in. Her body thrashed in pain.
“The gag is choking her.”
“She’ll live,” a gruff voice insisted. “I don’t want her talking.”
“This better work,” someone else added.
The choking grew worse and she started hyperventilating.
“Wonderful. Well, go ahead—before she suffocates.”
It felt like they pulled off her lips when they ripped the gag away. Her throat was dry and a sick, sour taste coated her tongue, but the cool air felt wonderful. She gulped as much as she could, coughing and hacking until her chest calmed down.
“Don’t even think about screaming, Sophie. No one will hear, and you will not like how we’ll punish you. Nod if you understand.”
Her head felt like lead, but she managed a couple weak nods.
“Good. Now let’s get this over with.”
Rough hands pressed against her temples, squeezing her already throbbing head.
“Why?” she croaked. She tried to open her eyes, but something covered them. “Why are you doing this?”
“You’ve served your purpose,” a ghostly whisper hissed. “Now alter her memories so we can relocate her.”
She held her breath, wondering if she would actually feel her memories being stolen—if it would hurt. But she felt nothing.
“Is it working?” the gruff voice demanded.
Silence, followed by an exhausted grunt.
The single syllable echoed through the room.
Something heavy hit the wall. Then a sweet cloth pressed over her mouth, and the drugs pulled her back to the darkness.
“WAKE UP, SOPHIE,” SOMEONE CALLED through the swirling mist of her mind. Her nose stung again. Then the coughing started.
She wasn’t gagged this time, but her eyes were still covered and she was strapped to a chair, bound by her wrists and ankles. “Who are you?” she whispered, struggling to pull her mind from the haze of the drugs.
“That’s not important,” the ghostly whisper informed her.
Shivers tickled down her spine. “What do you want?”
“Me? Oh . . . many things. Would you like me to list them all?” His voice was hollow, empty. She wished she could recognize it, but she’d never heard it before.
“What do you want from me?”
“Ah, see, that’s much more specific.” He laughed an eerie, breathy laugh—more like a wheeze. “I want to know why you’re here.”
“You tell me,” she spat. “You’re the one who captured me.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean here. I meant why you exist at all. Why anyone would go to so much trouble to create such a unique little girl? And what are they hiding in that impenetrable little brain of yours?” Venom seeped into the last words as hot hands brushed across her temples, leaving a trail of warmth everywhere they touched. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me what you’re hiding in there?”
“Get your hands off me.”
Another breathy laugh. “You’ve got gumption—I’ll give you that. But you leave me in quite a predicament.”
Steady footfalls told her he was pacing.
“The easiest thing to do would be to kill you and your little friend and be rid of you both. But it’s never easy, is it? Sure—it is with your friend. He’ll be disposed of soon enough.”
“Why? It’s me you want. Why don’t you let him go?”
“And cast suspicion on your disappearance? No, we can’t have that. Don’t worry, he won’t feel a thing. I’m not a monster, after all.”
“You’re worse than a monster!” she screamed. “You kill innocent children and don’t even have the guts to show your face.”
“Innocent? Innocent?” She could feel his hot breath on her face and pressure squeezing her arms. “If you’re so innocent, how did you know the location of Elementine? How do you know about Everblaze?” He released her arms and the blood rushed back in a throb of pain. “No, Miss Foster. You may be ignorant, but you are certainly not innocent. The Black Swan made sure of that.”
“Wait. Aren’t you part of the Black Swan?”
He laughed—louder this time—almost a cackle. Apparently, that was all the answer she would get.
“So what do I do with you?” he asked, mostly to himself. “Do I keep you here so I can see what you can really do?”
“I can’t do anything,” she screamed. “I’m not special—I’m just me.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. You’re their little puppet. So maybe I should just get rid of you and take their precious toy away.”
Panic made her shake despite the bonds. Would he kill her now?
“You’ll never get away with this,” she whispered. “I already gave the Council the sample of the Everblaze. They’ll come for you.”
“How will they know it was me?”
“Because you’re the only one who can ignite Everblaze.”
“Am I? And I suppose you think you know who I am.”
He laughed. “I guess you’ve got it all figured out, then.” He rushed her, gripping her arms again. “Tell me what your mind is hiding and maybe I’ll let you live.”
She screamed as the burning increased—like her skin was melting. “Please, you’re hurting me.”
His breath was hot on her face. “This is your last chance.”
Please! She tried to concentrate so she could send out one last desperate call for help. She had no idea if she could reach anyone, but it was her only hope.
Her mind buzzed with a reserve of energy as she pictured Everglen until it was all she could see. Fitz, she transmitted, imagining him inside, eating dinner in the dining room. It seemed so real she could see his beautiful eyes widen in surprise. Please, Fitz. I need your help. If you can follow my voice, please find me.