The words floated around her mind, starting out muffled and growing louder and louder. Sophie wanted to shove the voice away—wanted to curl up within herself and never be dragged back to face whatever reality was waiting for her. But then the voice added, “There’s no reason to worry,” and she rushed back to consciousness in a wave of fury.
She only knew one person who used that expression. The same person she wanted to punch as hard as she could—which was pretty darn hard, thanks to the Sucker Punch gadget clamped around her wrist.
A pale blue glow stung her corneas as she ripped open her eyes and found herself in a dimly lit sitting room filled with fancy furniture that was so pristine, it looked like it had never been used. Alden sat across from her in a plush silver armchair, and his hair and clothes were uncharacteristically disheveled.
“Where’s my sister?” Her head felt like a T. rex had been chewing on it, and her mouth might as well have been covered in fur.
“Sleeping peacefully in the next room,” Alden promised. “Grizel brought Fitz and Keefe back to Everglen. And Sandor—of course—insisted on staying by your side.”
Sandor nodded from the shadows in the corner.
“As for your sister’s pets,” Alden added, holding up his arms to show her the shredded sleeves of his tunic. “We brought them with us—though they were not happy about it.”
“At least they could put up a fight,” Sophie muttered.
“I thought that might be your response. So let me assure you that your sister’s memories have not been altered.”
She waited for him to say, yet. When he didn’t, she relaxed her grip, realizing she’d been squeezing a velvet cushion from the long black sofa she lay stretched out on.
Alden handed her a bottle of Youth—the special water that elves drank for its unique enzymes. “You must be thirsty.”
“Yeah, that happens when someone drugs you.”
She was tempted to dump the bottle over his head. But her throat felt like it had been lined with crumpled paper, so she sat up and chugged a huge gulp, letting the cool sweetness clear her foggy mind.
“I know you’re angry,” Alden said, “and you have every right to be. But your sister was seconds away from a breakdown, and it would’ve been impossible to leap her in such a frantic state. Fitz wasn’t exaggerating when he said that light leaping with humans is risky—even under ideal circumstances. Not only is their concentration weak, but they tend to panic as their bodies split apart and their instincts tell them to fight our assistance. So given her hysteria, the only way to move her safely was to render her unconscious.”
“That doesn’t explain why you drugged me,” she argued.
Alden leaned back in his chair. “Tell me this: Do you think your sister would’ve ever willingly taken a sedative?”
“I agree. And who do you think she’ll be more likely to forgive after being sedated without her permission? A sister who was drugged right along with her? Or a sister who stood by and let it happen?”
Sophie really hated that he’d made a good point “And what happens now?” she asked, studying the dim room again. Most of the elvin houses she’d seen were bright and airy, with tons of windows and chandeliers. But the only light came from a single sconce set onto the crystal wall, flickering with a small flame of blue balefire.
“Now we wait for your sister to wake up—which should be soon—and then you’ll explain all the arrangements I’ve made. It took me most of the night to get everything settled.”
“Wait—how long was I unconscious?”
“A little more than fourteen hours.”
“Don’t worry,” Sandor said from the corner. “I let Grady and Edaline know you’re safe and that I’ll be bringing you home later.”
“Thank you,” Sophie told him, glad to hear her adoptive parents weren’t worrying. “But why didn’t someone wake me up sooner? I could’ve—”
“Done what, exactly?” Alden interrupted. “Contacted Keefe’s mother?”
Sophie refused to flinch, even if she was surprised that he’d guessed her plan. “Lady Gisela’s the only one who knows where Nightfall is.”
“Indeed. And I believe she warned you that the next time you contacted her, you needed to use her son’s blood.”
Keefe’s mom had altered his Imparter, adding a listening device and a special sensor that accessed a secret channel when smeared with Keefe’s blood. Dex had bypassed the blood sensor once, but Keefe’s mom had made it clear during their brief conversation that she wouldn’t answer again unless they reached out the creepy way.
“I have no doubt that Keefe will do anything to help,” Alden continued. “But that request does not bode well for what her assistance will cost. Let’s also not forget that there’s a good chance the abduction of your family was part of her original plan.”
“I know,” Sophie mumbled, choking down the sourness in her throat. “I’m still figuring out what to do about all of that. Maybe I would’ve made more progress if I’d been able to talk to my friends, instead of being drugged for the last fourteen hours!”
Alden fidgeted with his shredded sleeves. “I truly am sorry for the lost time. But I didn’t want to wake you until I had your sister settled. I know you wanted to hide her with the Black Swan, since you’ve grown to rely on their order—”
“I’m part of their order,” Sophie corrected, holding up the swan-neck monocle she’d earned when she swore fealty several months earlier. “So are your son and daughter. And your wife.”
“Which makes me very proud of my family,” Alden said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the Black Swan is in turmoil. After losing Mr. Forkle”—he paused, as if mentioning the name merited a moment of silence—“the remaining Collective members need time to put into practice whatever contingency plan he mentioned. I reached out to Tiergan tonight, and he assured me that the Black Swan will work tirelessly to help you find your human parents. But he also agreed that the order is currently incapable of providing any sort of stable home.”
“If Tiergan doesn’t think my sister should stay with the Black Swan, I wouldn’t have argued.”
“And what about when I tell you that the only reasonable alternative is to place her somewhere that will be very difficult for you to visit?”
He pointed to the crystal set into an etched silver loop in Sophie’s choker-style necklace—an elvin registry pendant, which tracked and recorded her every move. “The Black Swan’s Technopath has scrambled our signals for the next few hours. But we can only pull that trick so many times, and this apartment is an incredibly valuable secret. Tremendous lengths were taken to keep this fifty-first floor concealed—and how long do you think it would take before the Council came to investigate why you’ve been frequenting this building?”
“If you think I’m going to leave my sister alone—”
“Of course not,” Alden interrupted. “I’ve arranged for her to live with guardians—temporary guardians,” he clarified when Sophie cringed. “None of these arrangements are meant to be permanent. I’m simply trying to create a safe, stable environment for your sister until we reunite her with her parents.”
“And then what happens?” Sophie had to ask. “Are you going to wash their minds again?” “I haven’t planned that far ahead. And neither should you.” He reached for her hand. “I know how painful it was for you to let yourself be erased last time, so I understand why you don’t want to live through that again. But—”
“This isn’t just about me,” she jumped in, pausing to chase down the words to explain what she was slowly realizing. “My family is a part of this—whether we want them to be or not. And I think they need to know that. Maybe they would’ve done something differently when they heard the Neverseen in their house if they’d known that someone might come after them. Think about it. My sister found a way to keep her thoughts quiet enough that Gethen couldn’t find her—and the only reason she was able to do that is because you gave her a way to understand what they were saying.”
“Yes, but allowing them to have a subconscious knowledge of our language is a very different thing than leaving them consciously aware of our world. Do you really think they could keep that kind of secret and go about life as normal? Or that they’d be okay with the fact that someone else has adopted their daughter?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie admitted, hating how complicated the whole mess was. “But erasing their minds doesn’t feel like the right answer anymore.”
Alden leaned back in his chair. “No. I suppose it doesn’t. But this isn’t the time for us to be figuring these things out. Right now there’s an eleven-year-old girl in the next room who’s just discovered that everything she knew about the world is wrong. You remember how that feels—and you didn’t have the added trauma of watching your parents be abducted. She needs someone to help her understand what’s happening. And I need you to convince her that this apartment is the perfect place for her to be—because it is. Tell her you’ll visit when you can, but that you’ll also be busy working to find her parents and bring them back to her safely.”
“You really think she’s going to agree to sit around while I hunt for my family?”
“She won’t have a choice, given the limitations of her species. And do you honestly want her in that kind of danger?”
Especially if Keefe’s mom was involved.
“Perhaps if you help your sister to understand exactly how vicious the Neverseen can be, she’ll be grateful for the safe hiding place,” Alden suggested.
“Right, because hearing that the people you love are in danger always makes you want to do nothing.”
Alden sighed. “I never said this would be easy. But I have the utmost confidence that you’ll find a way to convince her. Please, Sophie,” he added when she opened her mouth to argue. “I know you’ve gotten out of the habit of turning to me for help. But you used to trust me to handle things like this. I put a lot of thought into the best solution for both you and your sister. She cannot light leap safely. Cannot defend herself. Cannot even fully grasp the intricacies of our daily lives—not to mention that her very presence in our world is illegal. All she’ll do is slow you down, limit where you can go and how you can travel, and give you one more—very vulnerable—person to protect. And your time is already going to be strained between school and—”
“School?” Sophie interrupted. “You think we won’t have this settled before school starts?”
“I . . . think it’s wise to prepare for the long term—just in case.”
She wrapped her arms around her stomach to fight the rush of nausea. “I’m not going back to Foxfire while my family’s missing.”
“I think that would be a mistake. Your education has been interfered with enough, between your banishment and this midterm break extension—not to mention all the time you’ve missed in order to recover from your various injuries. And Foxfire is going to be on an accelerated curriculum when it resumes, so each day will be even more crucial. I promise, while you’re at school, others—including myself—will be hard at work looking for your family, or doing whatever else needs to be done to resist the Neverseen. That’s the advantage to being part of an order. Everyone in the Black Swan has other facets to their lives, and they trust others in the organization to take up the reins while they tend to them. You and your friends are no different. But let’s not argue about it until we’re to that point—if we get to that point, okay? Can we agree that in the meantime, the responsible thing to do is to keep your sister here, where she’ll be safe, hidden, and cared for?”
Once again, he’d made a bunch of annoyingly valid points. And there had to be ways to visit her sister more often than he was saying. Maybe she could—
“I see those mental wheels still spinning,” Alden interrupted. “And if you find an alternative solution, I’m open to suggestions. But for now, our focus needs to be on convincing your sister that as long as she stays here, everything is going to be okay.”
“But what if it isn’t? What if my parents . . . ?”
She couldn’t say the rest.
Alden leaned closer, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. “We both know I can’t promise that there won’t be challenges ahead. But I can promise that whatever happens, you’re strong enough to handle it.”
Sophie knew he meant the speech to reassure her. And it did help a little. Except . . .
“Sometimes I get sick of being strong.”
“I don’t blame you. You’ve endured more in these last few years than most of the Ancients have in their long lives. And it’s forced you to grow up far too soon and shoulder responsibilities no one your age should ever need to bear. I can’t tell you to keep fighting, but . . . the only alternative is giving up, and—”
“And then they win.” Sophie finished for him.
She stared at the swan’s neck curving around her monocle and reminded herself of the oath she’d sworn in order to earn it.
I will do everything in my power to help my world.
“Where exactly are we?” she asked, switching to a subject that didn’t make breathing feel impossible.
“Of all the places you can think of, where would be the most naturally suited to house a human? Hint: It’s also in a city that the Council rarely visits because it’s such a tedious process to access.”
“You brought us to Atlantis?”
“Yes—and the cat did not enjoy the journey.”
Sophie had to smile at that, imagining Alden holding Marty’s thrashing body while sliding down a gigantic whirlpool to the bottom of the ocean. No wonder his sleeves were shredded!
The elves had originally built Atlantis to serve as the union between the elvin and human worlds—a place where both species could live together and learn from one another. But several thousand years ago, the humans started planning a war to take over, and the Ancient elvin Council decided the smartest solution would be to disappear. So, they sank the city with a massive tidal wave and shielded it inside a dome of air, letting it thrive in secret under the water while humans forgot that elves were real.
“You really think it’s a good idea to hide my sister in the middle of a city?” Sophie asked, remembering the crowded streets and bustling canals she’d seen during her visits.
“So long as she remains here, no one will be able to find her.”
Sophie stared at the windowless walls again. They were shimmery and smooth and actually quite pretty. But the room still felt like a prison.
“It’s a big apartment,” Alden promised. “And it’s filled with all kinds of luxuries to keep her as comfortable as possible. I also took the liberty of packing some of her human things before I brought her here.”
“But what is she going to do all day?”
“Whatever she wishes. She’ll have her guardians. And her pets. And she’ll have an Imparter, so that you can check in with each other whenever you want. I’ve also arranged to bring in a supply of books and games to entertain her. And Quinlin and Livvy have been working on a schedule to educate her about the complicated history between elves and humans.”
Fun as that sounded . . .
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