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They combed the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Sophie was starting to worry she’d guessed the clue wrong, when she realized a long scratch under her feet had a very distinctive curve.
“Over here,” she called, tracing her fingers along the mark. The curve deviated from its design to make a full circle—but she could still tell it was the sign of the swan.
“I feel a latch,” Dex said, pressing his palm against the floor. He twisted his hand a few times, miming turning a doorknob, and a quiet click made the floor drop away.
They stared at the rusty ladder leading down into the misty darkness.
“Okay, so who wants to climb down into the scary pit of doom first?” Keefe asked.
“I’ll go,” Sophie said.
“Nope,” Fitz told her. “You’ve almost died enough times. Time to let me take a turn.”
“Or you could just be careful,” Sophie said.
He flashed his perfect smile. “That works too.”
He slipped one leg into the opening, testing his weight on the rung before stepping onto the ladder.
“Once I see what’s at the bottom I’ll let you know if it’s safe.” He stepped down another rung. Then another.
The darkness swallowed him on the next step, and Sophie kept one hand poised on the ladder, ready to rush down at the first sound of danger.
After an agonizingly long time Fitz shouted, “All clear!”
“Yes,” another voice called—one Sophie would’ve recognized even if he hadn’t started the next sentence with his favorite expression. “You kids took your sweet time getting here!”
SOPHIE HAD ASSUMED the Black Swan would be done with disguises now that they were letting her and her friends join. But when she reached the bottom of the murky tunnel, she found Mr. Forkle looking as shriveled and swollen as ever. His huge belly barely fit between the curved walls, and the cramped space was filled with the dirty-feet stink of the ruckleberries he ate to alter his appearance.
“Not to complain,” Keefe said as he stepped into the ankle-deep sludge, “but you guys seriously need to pick some better hideouts.”
“This is not our hideout,” Mr. Forkle said, handing them each a pendant.
They breathed on the crystals, and the warmth activated the balefire inside. The pale blue glow seemed especially eerie, but that might’ve been because Sophie despised balefire.
The everlasting flames had been Fintan’s trademark—until he learned to spark Everblaze. But Sophie was still grateful to have light in the claustrophobic tunnel. Especially when she saw the shadowy path ahead.
“Well, that looks fun,” Keefe said, pushing Fitz forward. “Lead the way, buddy!”
“Actually, that path only goes to our demolished hideout,” Mr. Forkle said.
“So it was at the Palazzo Vecchio?” Sophie asked.
“No. That was marked as a decoy. But if the Neverseen found it, we knew it was only a matter of time before they located the real one. So I collapsed our grotto before I came here.”
“Where are we going, then?” Dex asked.
“Through our emergency exit.” Mr. Forkle licked one of the slime-covered bricks, opening a secret door hidden in the wall.
Sophie gagged. “That’s gross.”
“It certainly is, Miss Foster. But let that be a lesson. The best places to hide are the places no one wants to go.”
He was right about that. The air in the tunnel smelled like eggs mixed with skunk spray, and cold slimy muck rained down on their heads as they walked.
“Do you know how the Neverseen found your decoy?” Sophie asked.
“I swear it wasn’t me,” Keefe jumped in. “I threw my Sencen Crest into the ocean, and Elwin melted off a ton of skin, so I am aromark free. Remind me to thank my mom for that one, by the way. So awesome of her to let me lead my friends into ambushes.”
The sharpness in his tone made Sophie reach for his hand.
“I’m fine,” he promised. But he didn’t pull away.
“We do not blame you, Mr. Sencen,” Mr. Forkle said. “We assume they used Gethen. We’d been holding him here after we captured him on Mount Everest—but don’t worry, we’ve relocated him to somewhere much harder to reach. And we’ll figure out what enzyme they’re tracking him with so this won’t happen again.”
“Have you learned anything from him?” Keefe asked, voicing the question Sophie was sure they’d all been thinking.
Gethen was the first member of the Neverseen they’d captured. He’d also been one of Sophie and Dex’s kidnappers.
“Not yet,” Mr. Forkle said. “His mind is . . . tricky. We’ll discuss it more later. Right now, I need to get you to your new homes.”
Sophie wasn’t sure which felt stranger—trying to imagine feeling at home with the Black Swan, or the fact that he’d said “homes.”
“Are we going to be living together?” Biana asked, noticing the plural as well.
“Will you be living with us?” Sophie asked.
“No. I live in the Lost Cities. I cannot disappear too long without someone noticing my absence.”
“But you lived with humans for twelve years,” Sophie reminded him.
“Yes, and someday I’ll tell you how I managed to escape anyone’s notice.”
“So wait,” Dex said. “Does that mean we could’ve met members of the Black Swan and didn’t know it?”
“I’m sure you have, Mr. Dizznee. Many of us are fans of your father’s store.”
Slurps and Burps was the Lost Cities’ most popular apothecary. Sophie could understand how a covert group would find their serums handy, since many could alter appearances. But it was strange to think she might’ve passed the real Mr. Forkle shopping in the cluttered aisles.
And if the Black Swan hid among them, surely the Neverseen did as well. Sophie wondered if she’d seen the rebels in the streets of Atlantis, or if their kids went to school with her at Foxfire. She ran through a mental list of possible suspects—the primary being her longtime rival, Stina Heks—as Biana said, “So basically, you’re all two different people?”
“Or three,” Mr. Forkle corrected. “Perhaps even four or five. And yes, that can be rather challenging.” He lifted his double chin, revealing a registry pendant hidden underneath. “A clever Technopath rigged this to communicate where I want the Council to think I am. But it only covers blocks of time.”
“Should I have done that to our pendants?” Dex asked.
“No, you five have already drawn the Council’s suspicion. Better to sever your ties and seek refuge in our hideout.”
“Any chance we’ll be leaping soon?” Keefe asked as a blob of slime dripped into his hair.
“We won’t be leaping. The ogres have a gadget that can follow the trail of a leap to its source. It’s how they restrict entry to their cities and monitor intruders. Now that we know the Neverseen are working with the ogres, we must assume they’ll try to track us.”
“So we can’t leap anymore?” Fitz asked.
“Not here, when they’re so close.”
The words echoed through the tunnel, turning every shadow into a cloaked figure.
“If they’re close, why aren’t we going after them?” Keefe asked.
“We fight the fights we can win, Mr. Sencen. Right now, the Neverseen have too many advantages. They’re hidden somewhere in the city, likely somewhere with great potential for human casualties. That’s why I have our transport waiting downriver, where they’d never think to look.”
“Uh, not to ask the obvious question,” Dex jumped in, “but why not have us meet you there in the first place?”
“We have reasons for working in riddles, Mr. Dizznee, and convenience is never a consideration. But the trail you followed was incredibly secure.”
“Maybe, if you ignore all the human technology I had to handle,” Dex mumbled. “And you’re lucky Sophie remembered all those weird facts about Florence.”
s that what you think it was?” Mr. Forkle asked. “Luck?”
Sophie sighed. “Exactly how many weird memories have you given me?”
“As many as you’ll need.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Fitz asked.
“Very careful planning.”
Sophie stopped walking. “Planning for what?”
“Please keep moving, Miss Foster. We do not have time for such discussions.”
“You’re seriously not going to tell her?” Keefe asked. “Don’t you think she deserves to know?”
“She deserves many things,” Mr. Forkle said. “But most important, she deserves a choice. And in order to give her that choice, she must discover her purpose on her own. There are also things we must keep secret—for her protection and ours.”
“Sandor always says that secrets hinder his ability to protect me,” Sophie reminded him.
“That applies to you keeping secrets from him. Not the other way around,” Mr. Forkle replied. “We must hurry. Our rides won’t wait forever.”
Sophie glanced at her friends, and she didn’t have to be a Telepath to know what they were thinking. After all the risks they’d taken—all the sacrifices they’d made—they’d been hoping the Black Swan would be more . . . cooperative.
But it was too late to turn back. They had to keep moving forward and hope they could convince the Black Swan to work with them.
She clutched the cache in her pocket, glad to know she had a secret of her own as she followed Mr. Forkle out of the tunnel.
The river was empty. No people. No boats. No sign of whatever ride Mr. Forkle had arranged—until he blew into a slim copper whistle. It made no sound, but the brownish water rippled. Bubbles followed, growing larger until a scaly gray-green head popped out of the water.
“Plesiosaurs?” Keefe asked as five more dinosaur heads burst out of the water.
“Eckodons,” Mr. Forkle corrected. “Though Miss Foster likely knows them as Nessie.”
Sophie smiled, no longer stunned when human myths turned out to be based on reality. The creatures did have long, hooked necks like the Loch Ness Monster, but their noses were a bit more pointed, and long gills lined their cheeks.
“These are the dinosaurs that use sound vortexes, right?” Fitz asked.
“Precisely why I chose them,” Mr. Forkle agreed. “They will be slower than light leaping, but faster than many other methods. And the Neverseen cannot track us underwater.”
“Underwater?” Sophie repeated as he handed everyone a clear slimy membrane and told them to wrap it around their bags to keep them dry. “How will we breathe?”
“Yeah, I can only hold my breath for fifteen minutes,” Dex said.
“Fifteen minutes?” Sophie repeated. “How can you hold your breath that long?”
“It’s a mind over matter skill,” Mr. Forkle explained. “One very few take the time to learn.”
“My dad said the stuffy nobles underestimate it,” Dex said. “He made us practice all the time.”
“Your father is wise,” Mr. Forkle told him. “Nevertheless, you will not have to hold your breath today. I brought lufterators.”
He passed them each a T-shaped gadget and showed how they put the longer end in their mouths and let the other piece cover their lips and nose. It felt like sucking air through a teeny straw, and it made Sophie dizzy. But after a few tries, her lungs fell into a slower rhythm.
“Do you have any more lufterators?” Biana asked.
“One is all you’ll need,” Mr. Forkle assured her.
“I’d still feel better if I had a spare,” Biana insisted.
“I can check yours to make sure it’s working, if you want,” Dex offered.
“No!” Biana said, a bit too quickly. “I’ll just . . . wait here and you guys can send someone back for me with another.”
“Don’t be absurd, Miss Vacker,” Mr. Forkle said. “We’re all leaving now.”
Biana shot Sophie a desperate Help me! look, but Sophie didn’t understand the problem.
Keefe grabbed Biana’s wrist. “It feels like you’re hiding something . . .”
“I agree,” Mr. Forkle said. “So let’s see what it is, shall we?”
“You don’t have permission to read my thoughts!” Biana shouted.
“I do not need it if you’re endangering us.” Mr. Forkle closed his eyes and Sophie knew there was nothing Biana could do to stop him. Even she couldn’t block him—and he’d designed her mind to be impenetrable.
Biana turned to her brother. “Please, don’t let him do this.”
“It’s already done.” Mr. Forkle said, staring at the empty space behind her. “It appears we have a stowaway.”
HOW CAN WE have a stowaway?” Fitz asked as Mr. Forkle shouted, “Show yourself!”
Nothing happened for a moment. Then Della appeared behind Biana.
“Mom?” Fitz said, rushing to tackle-hug her before he shouted at his sister. “HOW COULD YOU KEEP THIS SECRET?”
“I made her swear not to say anything,” Della explained. “And I only involved her because I needed to hold on to someone while we were teleporting.”
“Why the subterfuge?” Mr. Forkle asked. “Please tell me you don’t doubt our ability to protect your children?”
“Quite the opposite.” Della straightened her gown, looking like an ocean goddess in aquamarine silk. “I’m here to join the Black Swan.”
The words seemed to dangle, waiting for someone to reach out and grab them.
“Does Dad know?” Fitz asked.
“Of course. He wanted to join, but we decided he’d be more useful if he stayed working with the Council. And my talents are far better suited for covert activities.”
“Ms. Vacker—” Mr. Forkle started.
“Della,” she corrected.
“Your offer is very generous, Ms. Della,” Mr. Forkle emphasized with a slight smile. “But we already have a Vanisher working with us.”
“No one can vanish the way I can. Not even my son—and I’m sure you’ve heard how valuable Alvar has been to the Council.”
She blinked out of sight, reappearing a second later knee-deep in the river. Sophie wasn’t sure what was crazier, how fast Della had moved, or how she hadn’t caused ripples in the water.
“Impressive,” Mr. Forkle admitted when Della reappeared next to Biana and showed how her gown was still dry. “But the question is whether letting you join would be wise. Someone as high profile as yourself—”
“Could be an influential advocate,” Della finished for him. “When the Council finally comes to their senses, do you think the public will instantly trust you? The Vacker name may have had a few controversies lately, but it still holds incredible influence and power.”
Mr. Forkle studied Della. “I see you’ve already removed your registry pendant.”
“I would never put any of you at risk. Plus, I wanted to prove that I’m committed.”
“And yet you make the commitment too lightly.”
“Do I?” Della’s melodic voice hardened. “I’ve trusted my children—and three others who might as well be my family—to your care.”
“Your children’s situation is different,” Mr. Forkle argued. “We both know we can’t leave them to the Council’s caprice.”
“But I could protect them on my own.” Della vanished again, reappearing with a melder pressed to Mr. Forkle’s head. “Do not underestimate me, sir.”
“You’re not the only one with tricks up their sleeve,” Mr. Forkle warned her. He tapped his right temple, and Della’s arm dropped to her side.
“Are you a Mesmer?” Sophie asked, remembering Grady’s similar feats.
“My tricks are more limited,” Mr. Forkle admitted. “But the mind is more powerful than the body—never forget that.”
“I won’t,” Della said, vanishing the same instant Mr. Forkle collapsed.
She reappeared, balanced on his belly with one of her jeweled shoes pressed
against his throat. He kicked and thrashed, but couldn’t throw her off.
“I believe you’ve proven your point, Ms. Vacker,” he wheezed.
She pressed her shoe down harder. “I told you to call me Della.”
“Whoa, remind me never to get on your mom’s bad side,” Keefe said.
“A valuable lesson for everyone,” Della agreed, jumping to the ground and offering Mr. Forkle a hand up. “Everyone believes I’m the fragile beauty hiding in my husband’s shadow. But I’m far more powerful than anyone imagines.”
“I can see that.” Mr. Forkle wiped mud off his long black tunic. “But I alone cannot approve your admittance into our organization. All I can promise is to bring the matter before our Collective.”
“Collective?” Sophie asked.
“Our ruling order,” Mr. Forkle clarified. “Five overseers, each with equally weighted votes.”
“So there are four other leaders we’ve never met?” Keefe asked.
“There are many members you haven’t met. But that is a good thing. The more people we have helping our cause, the more chance we have of making a difference.”
“All the more reason to let me join,” Della said.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Forkle agreed. “I’ll make the suggestion when I speak with the Collective. But first we have a problem. I did not plan for a stowaway, so we are short one lufterator.”
“I can tweak mine so two can share,” Dex said, bending his into a Z-shape. He made a few more tweaks before holding up the mouthpiece proudly. “Now it works on each end.”
“They’ll have to keep their faces very close together,” Mr. Forkle noted.
“Foster and I volunteer!” Keefe shouted.
“Uh, if anyone’s going to share with Sophie it should be me,” Dex argued.
“Wait, why do I have to share?” Sophie asked.
“Yeah, I nominate Dex and Keefe,” Fitz agreed.
“So do I,” Mr. Forkle decided. “Keefe, give your lufterator to Della.”
“Wait—what just happened?” Keefe asked.
Fitz, Biana, and Sophie cracked up.
Neverseen by Shannon Messenger / Fantasy / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating