by Shannon Messenger
SOPHIE’S HANDS SHOOK AS SHE LIFTED the tiny green bottle. One swallow held life and death—and not just for her.
Her eyes focused on the clear, sloshy liquid as she removed the crystal stopper and pressed the bottle to her lips. All she had to do was tip the poison down her throat.
But could she?
Could she give up everything to set things right?
Could she live with the guilt, otherwise?
The choice was hers this time.
No more notes.
No more clues.
She’d followed them to this point, and now it came down to her.
She wasn’t the Black Swan’s puppet anymore.
She was broken.
All she had left was trust.
I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE TRACKING Bigfoot,” Sophie whispered as she stared at the giant footprint in the muddy soil. Each massive toe was as wide as her arm, and the print formed a deep, mucky puddle.
Dex laughed, flashing two perfect dimples as he stood on his tiptoes to examine a scuff in the bark of a nearby tree. “Do humans really think there’s a giant hairy ape-man running around trying to eat them?”
Sophie turned away, pulling her blond hair around her face to hide her flushing cheeks. “Pretty crazy, right?”
Almost a year had passed since she’d found out she was an elf and moved to the Lost Cities, but she still slipped sometimes and sounded like a human. She knew sasquatch were really just tall green shaggy creatures with beady eyes and beaklike noses—she’d even worked with them in the pastures at Havenfield, the enormous estate and animal preserve she now called home. But a lifetime of human teaching was difficult to forget. Especially with a photographic memory. Thunder cracked overhead and Sophie jumped.
“I don’t like this place,” Dex mumbled, his periwinkle eyes scanning the tree line as he moved closer to Sophie. The damp, heavy air made his light blue tunic stick to his skinny arms, and his gray pants were caked with mud. “Let’s find this thing and get out of here.”
Sophie agreed. The murky forest was so dense and wild. It felt like a place time had forgotten.
The thick ferns in front of them rustled and a brawny gray arm grabbed Sophie from behind. Her feet dangled above the ground, and she got a face full of musky goblin sweat as her bare-chested bodyguard shoved Dex behind him, drew his curved sword from the scabbard at his side, and pointed it at the tall blond elf in a dark green tunic who stumbled out of the wall of leaves.
“Easy there, Sandor,” Grady said, backing away from the glinting point of the black blade. “It’s just me.”
“Sorry.” Sandor’s high-pitched voice always reminded Sophie of a chipmunk. He dipped a slight bow as he lowered his weapon. “I didn’t recognize your scent.”
“That’s probably because I just spent twenty minutes crawling around a sasquatch den.” Grady sniffed his sleeve and coughed. “Whew—Edaline is not going to be happy with me when I get home.”
Dex laughed, but Sophie was too busy trying to wriggle free from Sandor’s viselike hold.
“You can put me down now!” As soon as her feet touched the ground she huffed away, glaring at Sandor and struggling to remove the giant wedgie he’d given her. “Any sign of the sasquatch?”
“The den’s been empty for a while. And I’m guessing you guys haven’t had much luck picking up the trail?”
Dex pointed to the scratch he’d been examining in the bark.
“Looks like it climbed this tree and traveled in the branches from here on out. No way to tell which way it went.”
Sandor sniffed the air with his wide, flat nose. “I should take Miss Foster home. She’s been in the open for far too long.”
“I’m fine! We’re in the middle of a forest and no one besides the Council knows we’re here. You didn’t even have to come.”
“I go where you go,” Sandor said firmly, sheathing his sword and running his hands down the pockets lining his black military-style pants to check his other weapons. “I take my charge very seriously.”
“Obviously,” Sophie grumbled. She knew Sandor was only trying to protect her, but she hated having him around. He was a seven-foot-tall constant reminder that the kidnappers she and Dex had narrowly escaped were still out there somewhere, waiting for the right time to make their next move. . . .
Plus, it was humiliating being followed by an ultraparanoid goblin all the time. She’d been hoping she’d be done with the bodyguard thing by the time school started again. But with less than two weeks left on her vacation and the Council hitting dead ends on all their leads, it looked like her burly, slightly alien-looking shadow was coming with her to Foxfire.
She’d tried convincing Alden he could just keep track of her with the crystal registry pendant latched around her neck, but he’d reminded her that the kidnappers had no problem tearing it off the last time. And even though this one had extra cords woven into the choker and a few other added security measures, he refused to put her life in the hands of an inanimate accessory.
She repressed a sigh.
“We need Sophie here with us,” Grady told Sandor as he pulled Sophie into a quick, reassuring hug. “Are you picking up anything?” he asked her.
“Not nearby. But I can try widening my range.” She moved away from him and closed her eyes, placing her hands over her temples to focus her concentration.
Sophie was the only Telepath who could track thoughts to their exact location—and the only one who could read the minds of animals. If she could feel the sasquatch’s thoughts, she would be able to follow them straight to wherever it was hiding. All she had to do was listen.
Her concentration spread like an invisible veil across the scenery, and the chirping and creaking sounds of the forest faded to a low hum as the “voices” filled her mind. The melodic thoughts of the birds in the trees. The hushed thoughts of the rodents in the ground. Farther away in a small meadow were the calm thoughts of a doe and her fawn. And farther still, in the thicker parts of the underbrush, were the stealthy thoughts of a large cougar, stalking its prey.
But no trace of the heavy, thundering thoughts of a sasquatch.
She pushed her focus toward the snowcapped mountains.
The stretch was longer than most Telepaths could handle, but she’d reached much farther when she was calling for rescue from her captors—and she’d been half-drugged at the time.
So she was surprised when her body started to shake from the strain.
“It’s okay, Sophie,” Grady told her, squeezing her shoulder.
“We’ll find it another way.”
This was why Grady had brought her along for this rescue, despite Sandor’s numerous concerns for her safety. He’d already tried three other times to capture the beast, and came home empty-handed. He was counting on her.
She tugged out a loose eyelash—her nervous habit—as she pushed her mind as far as she could go. Spots of light flashed across her vision, each one paired with a stab of pain that ripped her breath away. But the misery was worth it when she caught the vaguest whisper of a thought. A fuzzy image of river with mossy green rocks and white, trickling water. It felt softer than the sasquatch thoughts she’d touched when she practiced at Havenfield, but the thought was definitely too complex to belong to any of the normal forest animals.
“It’s that way,” Sophie said, pointing north before she took off through the trees. She was glad she’d worn lightweight boots instead of the flat, dressy shoes she was usually supposed to wear, even with her plain tan tunic and brown pants.
Dex sprinted to catch up with her, and his messy strawberry blond hair bounced as he matched her pace. “I still don’t understand how you do that.”
“You’re not a Telepath. I have no idea how you do any of the things Technopaths do.”
“Shhhhh, they’ll hear you!”
Dex had made her promise not to tell anyone about his newly discovered talent. Dame Alina—Foxfire’s principal—wouldn’t allow him to take ability detecting if she knew he’d already manifested, and Dex kept hoping he’d trigger a “better” talent, even though it was incredibly rare to have more than one ability.
“You’re being dumb,” Sophie told him. “Technopathy is cool.”
“Easy for you to say. It’s not fair you get to be a Telepath and an Inflictor.”
Sophie cringed at the last word.
If it were up to her, she’d drop the dangerous ability in a heartbeat. But talents couldn’t be switched off once they’d been triggered. She’d checked. A lot. Sophie’s muscles burned as the ground became steeper and the cold drizzly air stung her lungs—but it felt good to run.
Ever since the kidnapping everyone kept her closed in, trying to keep her away from danger. All it really meant was that she was the one being held prisoner while the bad guys ran free.
The thought spurred her legs faster, like if she just pushed herself harder, she could get far enough from her problems to make them disappear. Or at least far enough from Sandor—though the goblin was surprisingly agile for his bulky size.
She’d never been able to ditch him, and she’d tried many times over the last few weeks.
The path grew narrower as they moved toward the mountains, and after several more minutes of climbing, it curved west and ended in a gurgling stream. White puffs of mist hovered above the rocks, giving the water a ghostly feel as it snaked up the rocky foothills.
Sophie paused to catch her breath, and Dex bent to stretch his legs. Grady and Sandor caught up as she was checking on the sasquatch’s location.
“You’re supposed to stay by my side,” Sandor complained.
Sophie ignored him, pointing toward the snowcapped mountains. “It’s up there.”
The thoughts felt sharper now, filling her mind with a shockingly vivid scene. Every tiny leaf on the lacy ferns was shockingly vivid scene. Every tiny leaf on the lacy ferns was crystal clear, and she could almost feel the cool water splashing against her skin and the breeze tickling her cheeks. But the really strange part was the warm calm that wrapped around her consciousness. She’d never experienced a thought as such a pure emotion before—especially from a creature so far away.
“No more separating,” Grady ordered as they started to follow the stream higher up the mountain. “I’m not familiar with this part of the forest.”
Sophie wasn’t surprised. The trees and ferns were so thick she was sure no one—human or elf—had set foot there in a very long time.
Squishy green moss coated the ground, muffling their footsteps. It was also slick, and the third time Sophie slipped, Dex grabbed her arm and didn’t let go. The warmth of his hand sank through the fabric of her sleeve and she felt like she should pull away. But he was steadying her balance, which made it easier for her to concentrate on what the sasquatch was thinking.
The beast must have been eating, because a satisfied feeling settled into the pit of Sophie’s stomach, like she’d just had an extra helping of mallowmelt.
She hurried forward—afraid it would move on now that it was full—and accidentally stepped on a fallen branch.
Goose bumps erupted all over her body, and even though she knew the emotion wasn’t hers, Sophie couldn’t ignore the shivering terror. She had no idea what that meant—but she didn’t have time to think about it. From the images flashing through her head she could tell the sasquatch had started to flee.
She jerked her arm out of Dex’s grip and took off after it.
The beast ran so fast its thoughts turned to a blur. Sophie concentrated on channeling energy from her core into her legs, but even with the extra strength she could still feel the sasquatch pulling farther ahead. It was going to get away—unless she found a way to boost her speed.
A brain push. She hadn’t been thrilled when she’d learned that she could perform the incredibly rare telepathy skill. But as she shoved the warm energy humming in the back of her mind into her legs and felt her muscles surge with a tremendous burst of power, she was suddenly grateful for the strange ways her brain worked—even if it did make her headache worse. Her feet barely touched the ground as she raced over the soggy soil, leaving Dex, Sandor, and Grady far behind.
The sasquatch’s thoughts turned clearer again.
She was catching up.
The extra energy didn’t last as long as she’d expected, though, and as her strength drained she found herself barely able to stumble forward.
It’s okay, she transmitted, desperately shoving the words into the creature’s mind. I’m not going to hurt you.
The sasquatch froze.
Its thoughts were a jumbled mix of emotions, and Sophie couldn’t make sense out of any of them. But she took advantage of its momentary stillness, rallying the last of her energy to fumble toward a narrow opening in the thick wall of foliage.
She could feel the sasquatch on the other side of the trees.Waiting for the others would be the safer thing to do—but who knew how much longer the creature would wait around?
And the creature felt calm at the moment. Curious.
Three deep breaths spurred her courage. Then Sophie padded into the clearing.