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Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 4

Shannon Messenger

  “Missed me bad, huh?” he whispered, flashing a cocky smile.

  She felt the blood rush to her face and looked away to hide her blush. “More like you left me alone with a ton of unanswered questions and no way to find you, and then this guy shows up and tries to grab me and—”

  “Whoa—wait. What guy?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Some creepy blond guy tried to trick me into wandering off with him, and when I wouldn’t, it looked like he was going to snatch me but I wasn’t sure because I couldn’t hear his thoughts and I think he might be another elf.”

  “Okay, slow down.” Fitz swept his hair back. “No one else knows you’re here. Only my dad, and he sent me to get you.”

  “Then why couldn’t I hear his thoughts?”

  “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Are you sure you couldn’t?”

  She replayed the scene, trying to remember. There had been a lot of barking and growling. Her heart pounding in her ears. She couldn’t even remember hearing Mr. Forkle’s thoughts—now that she thought about it—and she could always hear his.

  “Maybe not,” she said quietly.

  “My guess is he was human, and maybe his mind is just quieter than the others. But we’ll check with my dad. We’d better move though.” He pointed to a teacher who was eyeing them like she suspected impending mischief. “We can’t leap with people around.”

  “Leap?” she squeaked as he pulled her behind the English building. “I can’t ditch class, Fitz. They’ll call my parents—and after yesterday I think my mom might strangle me.”

  “This is important, Sophie. You have to come with me.”


  “Just trust me.”

  She locked her knees so he couldn’t pull her any farther. She couldn’t keep disappearing all the time. Elf or not, she had a life here, with classes she could fail and parents who could ground her. “How am I supposed to trust you when you won’t even tell me anything?”

  “You can trust me because I’m here to help you.”

  That wasn’t good enough. If he wouldn’t tell her what was going on, she knew how to find out.

  It was strange to willingly use her telepathy, after so many years trying to block it. But it was the only way to find out what he was hiding. So she closed her eyes and reached for his thoughts the way she had the day before. The breeze brushed through her mind, whispering scattered pieces of information—nothing she needed, though. But when she pushed a little further, she found what he was hiding.

  “A test?” she shrieked. “What am I being tested for?”

  “You read my mind?” He dragged her deeper into the shadows, shaking his head. Hard. “You can’t do that, Sophie. You can’t listen to someone’s thoughts any time you want to know something. There are rules.”

  “You’ve tried to read my mind without my permission.”

  “That’s different. I’m on assignment.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  Fitz ran his hands through his hair, which he seemed to do when he was frustrated. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is you could get in big trouble for invading someone’s mind like that. It’s a serious offense.”

  The way he said “serious” made everything inside her scrunch and twist together.

  “Really?” she asked quietly.

  “Yeah. So don’t do it again.”

  She started to nod, but a small movement at a nearby oak caught her attention and she froze, her heart hammering so hard it drowned out everything else. It was only for a second—but she could’ve sworn she saw the jogger’s face.

  “He’s here,” she whispered. “The guy who tried to grab me.”

  “Where?” Fitz scanned the campus.

  She gestured toward the tree, but there was no one around. No thoughts nearby either.

  Did she imagine it?

  Fitz pulled the silver pathfinder from his pocket and adjusted the crystal. “I don’t see anyone—but let’s get out of here. We shouldn’t keep everyone waiting, anyway.”

  “Who’s everyone?”

  “My parents, and a committee of our Councillors. It’s part of the test you heard me thinking about when you broke into my head.” He shot her a sidelong glance, and she felt her cheeks heat up.

  “Sorry,” she mumbled.

  She’d never thought of telepathy as “breaking in” before, but she could see his point. His thoughts hadn’t automatically filled her mind the way they did with humans. She’d shoved her way in and took them. She’d be furious if someone did that to her.

  She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

  It wasn’t like she’d ever enjoyed being a Telepath anyway. Reading minds always caused way more problems than it solved.

  Fitz took her hand and led her into the sunlight. “Ready?” he asked as he held up the pathfinder.

  She nodded, hoping he couldn’t feel the way her arm was shaking. “Can you tell me what the test determines?”

  He grinned as his eyes locked with hers. “Your future.”


  SOPHIE HAD TO SHIELD HER FACE AS SHE surveyed her new surroundings. The enormous metal gate in front of them glowed as bright as sunlight, nearly blinding her.

  “Welcome to Everglen,” Fitz said, leading her toward the doors. “What do you think?”

  “It’s very bright.”

  He laughed. “Yeah. The gate absorbs all the light, so no one can leap directly inside. My dad works for the Council, so he likes his privacy at home.”

  “I guess.” After her stressful morning it was nice to know she would be safe, but she couldn’t help wondering what they were trying to keep out. She doubted King Kong could get past the massive doors.

  A faint click sounded, and the gate swung inward. A striking figure stood in a small, grassy clearing surrounded by the same enormous trees she’d seen growing along the river in the capital. A floor-length, midnight blue cape was fastened across his shoulders with a clasp that looked like a pair of yellow, diamond-encrusted wings. He was tall and lean, with the same vibrant teal eyes and dark wavy hair—it was impossible to miss the family resemblance.

  “Sophie, this is my father, Alden,” Fitz introduced.

  She wasn’t sure if she should bow or curtsy or shake hands. How should she greet an elf? She managed a shy wave.

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sophie,” Alden said with an accent more prominent than Fitz’s. “I see Fitz wasn’t kidding about the brown eyes. Most unusual.”

  She could feel her cheeks flush. “Oh. Uh. Yeah.”

  Alden smiled. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I think the color is quite pretty. Don’t you, Fitz?”

  She couldn’t look at Fitz as he agreed. Her face felt like it might actually be on fire.

  “Did you tell anyone else where Sophie was?” Fitz asked.

  “Only the Council. Why?”

  “Sophie said someone tried to take her this morning.”

  Alden’s eyes widened. “Are you okay?” he asked, scanning Sophie like he was checking for injury.

  “Yeah. He never got close enough to grab me. He just looked like he wanted to.”

  “Humans,” Alden muttered.

  “Actually, Sophie thought he might be an elf,” Fitz told him.

  Father and son shared a look. Then Alden shook his head. “Kidnapping is a human crime. I’ve never heard of an elf even considering such a thing—much less trying it. What made you think it was one of us?”

  “I might’ve been wrong,” she said, feeling silly and paranoid. “I just can’t remember hearing his thoughts—which has only happened around Fitz. And now you.”

  “Yes, Fitz told me about your telepathy.” He reached out to touch her forehead. “Do you mind?”

  “Um.” She didn’t want to be rude, but sh
e couldn’t help taking a step back.

  “I mean you no harm, I assure you. I’d love to see your memories of the kidnapper, if that’s okay?”

  She was surprised he’d asked her permission. Fitz really was right about the rules for Telepaths. Didn’t mean she liked the idea of having her memories searched though.

  She glanced at Fitz and he nodded, trying to reassure her, but it was the kindness in Alden’s eyes that made her agree.

  Alden placed two fingers gently against her temples and closed his eyes. She tried to hold still—and avoid thinking about how good Fitz looked in his dark jacket—but as the seconds ticked by, she could feel her knees start to shake.

  “Well,” Alden said as he pulled his hands away. “You are indeed a fascinating girl.”

  “Couldn’t hear her either, could you?” Fitz asked him, sounding triumphant.

  “No.” Alden took both of her hands. “Well, I’ll look into what happened this morning, but I’m sure there’s no reason to worry. You’re here now, and it’s perfectly safe in our world—”

  He frowned and his head jerked toward Fitz. “I specifically told you not to let her leap again without a nexus.”

  “Sorry, I forgot. Sophie thought she saw the guy who tried to grab her, so we had to get out of there quick. But we’re fine. I had us covered.”

  “That’s not the point.” Alden held out his hand, and Fitz dug a small black cuff out of his coat pocket and handed it to him. Alden clamped the bracelet around Sophie’s right wrist, twisting until it fit snug. “Is that comfortable?”

  She nodded, staring at her new accessory. The wide band had a single teal jewel set into the front, a smooth gray rectangle on the back, and intricate symbols etched all around. She blinked when she realized they were letters. Letters that spelled out gibberish. Which seemed like an odd way to decorate a bracelet. But what wasn’t odd about this world?

  Alden twisted the band again and it clicked with finality. “There. All set.”

  “Um. What is it?”

  “A safety precaution. Your body has to break into tiny particles to be carried by the light, and the nexus holds those particles together until your concentration is strong enough to do it for you. Fitz never should have let you leap without one—even with the stressful circumstances.”

  “But Fitz doesn’t have one.” Sophie pointed to his bare wrist.

  “I got mine off early. My concentration is strong enough for three people—which is why we’re fine. Sophie’s not even a little bit faded, and you know it.”

  “Only fools overestimate their skills, Son. You’ve never had to watch someone fade away. Perhaps if you had, you would be more cautious.”

  Fitz’s eyes dropped to the ground.

  “What does it mean to fade away?” Sophie asked quietly.

  A second passed before Alden answered, and he looked like he was watching a memory. “It’s when you lose too much of yourself in a leap. Your body isn’t able to fully reform, and eventually the light pulls the rest of you away and you’re lost forever.”

  Sophie felt goose bumps dimple her skin.

  Alden cleared his throat. “It’s only happened a few times, and we’d prefer to keep it that way.” He shot a reproving look at Fitz.

  Fitz shrugged. “Fine. The next time you send me on a secret mission to collect a long-lost elf, I’ll be sure to put the nexus on before I leap her here.”

  Alden’s lips looked like they wanted to smile as he motioned for Sophie and Fitz to follow him down the path. “We shouldn’t keep our guests waiting.”

  Sophie wiped her palms on her jeans and took a deep breath before she followed him down the narrow path lined with trees blooming blue and red and pink and purple—every color of the rainbow. The air was so thick with the perfume of their flowers it was almost dizzying, a nice change from the smoky air back home. “How exactly does this test decide my future?”

  “They’re testing you to see if you qualify for Foxfire.” Fitz paused, like that was supposed to mean something.

  “Isn’t that glowing fungus?” she asked.

  Alden cracked up.

  Fitz looked a little insulted. “It’s our most prestigious academy.”

  “You named your most prestigious academy after fungus?”

  “It represents a bright glow in a darkened world.”

  “But . . . the light comes from fungus.”

  Fitz rolled his eyes. “Will you stop saying ‘fungus’? Only those with the strongest talent qualify for Foxfire, and if you don’t get in, you might as well kiss your future goodbye.”

  Alden placed his hand on her shoulder. “You’ll have to excuse my son. He’s very proud to attend Foxfire—and it’s definitely an accomplishment. But don’t let him worry you. The earliest levels are more of a testing ground, to see who develops abilities that qualify them to continue with their studies.”

  The idea of going to an elvin academy made her head spin. Would she have to sneak away every day? She didn’t see how that could work, but she doubted her parents would knowingly let her light leap to a secret elvin school, either.

  If they really were her parents . . .

  Cold chills mixed with sudden nausea as last night’s troubling revelation rushed back, but she shoved the sickening thought to a dark corner of her mind.

  One problem at a time.

  “Is it going to be hard to get into Foxfire?” she asked.

  “Councillor Bronte will be difficult to impress,” Alden admitted. “He feels your upbringing and lack of proper education should disqualify you. Plus, he doesn’t like surprises. The Council had no idea you existed until today, and he’s more than a little miffed about it. But you only need two out of three votes. Just do the best you can.”

  The Council didn’t know about her? Then why did Fitz say they’d been looking for her for twelve years?

  Before she could ask, they arrived at another clearing, and all coherent thoughts vanished.

  Dozens of squat, brown-skinned creatures with huge gray eyes tended a garden that belonged in a fairy tale. Lush plants grew up and down and sideways and slantways. One of the creatures shuffled by, carrying a basket filled with twinkling purple fruit.

  “What?” It was the only word Sophie could come up with.

  “I’m guessing this isn’t quite how you pictured gnomes, is it?” Alden asked.

  “Um, no.” These definitely weren’t little old men in pointy hats, like Mr. Forkle’s lawn statues. “So . . . you have gnomes for servants?”

  Alden stopped to stare at her. “We would never have servants. The gnomes choose to live with us because it’s safer in our world. And they help in our gardens because they enjoy it. We’re privileged to have them. You’ll get your first taste of gnomish produce during lunch, and you’re in for quite a treat.”

  She watched a gnome dig slimy yellow tubers that looked like giant slugs out of the ground. She hoped none of those was on the menu.

  She peeled her eyes away from the strange scene as Alden led her out of the garden to a meadow with a house in the center, one so large, so elegant, she couldn’t believe anyone could call it “home.” Part castle, part manor, it was made almost entirely of intricately cut crystal, and among the numerous turrets and gables rose a tower that resembled a lighthouse.

  They passed through two massive doors made of braided silver, and entered a round foyer, which sparkled like a prism in the sunlight.

  “This way,” Alden said, taking her hand and bringing her down the widest hallway, lined with fountains that spouted streams of colored water over their heads. The hall dead-ended at a pair of doors encrusted with a jeweled mosaic—two diamond unicorns racing across a field of amethyst flowers. Sophie couldn’t help wondering just how rich Fitz’s family had to be to live in a place like this. Though everything she’d seen in the elvin world spoke of wea
lth. It felt very intimidating.

  Alden squeezed her hand. “You have nothing to be afraid of.”

  She tried to make herself believe him as Fitz pulled the doors open and led them into a formal dining room. Sheer silk curtains covered the glass walls, drawing the eye up to an enormous chandelier—a waterfall of long, shimmering crystals—that hung over a round table set with domed platters and fancy goblets. Three figures in jewel-encrusted circlets rose from the plush, thronelike chairs surrounding the table.

  A second too late Sophie realized she should have curtsied—not that she knew how.

  She stared at the silver capes fastened at the base of their necks with clasps that looked like glowing, golden keys and felt horribly underdressed. Everyone wore jewels and lush fabrics except her and Fitz—and he was in “disguise.”

  “Councillors, this is Sophie Foster,” Alden introduced with a quick bow. “Sophie, this is Kenric, Oralie, and Bronte.”

  Kenric was built like a football player, with wild red hair and a big, toothy grin. Oralie looked like a fairy princess—rosy cheeks and long golden ringlets. And then there was Bronte.

  As Sophie met his cold gaze, she could see what Alden meant about Bronte being hard to impress. He was the smallest of the three, with cropped brown hair and sharp features. He wasn’t bad looking, but there was something strange about his appearance she couldn’t put her finger on.

  She gasped when she realized what it was.

  “What?” Bronte demanded.

  Five pairs of blue eyes focused on her and she stared at the floor as she mumbled, “Sorry. I was surprised by your ears.”

  “My ears?” Bronte repeated, confused.

  Fitz’s whole body shook with laughter. Sophie squirmed as one by one the others joined him. Bronte did not look at all pleased to be left out of the joke.

  “I think she’s surprised that your ears are . . . pointy,” Alden finally answered. “Our ears change shape as we age. Eventually it’ll happen to all of us.”

  “I’m going to get pointy ears?” Her hands darted to her head, like they might have already transformed.