Flashback – Shannon Messenger

SO IS IT STRANGE COMING here and not being the one on trial?” Keefe asked, checking his expertly styled blond hair in a shiny facet on one of the jeweled walls before he followed Sophie into Tribunal Hall. “Because I’d be happy to help you break a few laws if you’re feeling left out.” “Me too!” Ro—Keefe’s bodyguard—jumped in. Her pierced nose crinkled as she surveyed the empty auditorium, which was built entirely out of emeralds. “Ugh, you guys have really out-sparkled yourselves with this place. It’s basically begging me to smash something.” “No one will be smashing anything,” Sandor—Sophie’s bodyguard—warned. “Or causing any other problems!” The threat didn’t sound all that terrifying, thanks to Sandor’s squeaky voice. But he backed it up by being a seven-foot-tall goblin warrior—and by folding his gray arms across his bare chest and flexing some seriously impressive muscles. Ro flashed a pointy-toothed smile and patted the rows of daggers—a recent addition to her ogre arsenal—strapped to her toned thighs. “I’d like to see you try to stop us.” “Believe me, I’d enjoy every second,” Sandor growled, gripping the hilt of his giant black sword. “I still can’t believe the Council is allowing you into these proceedings.” Neither could Sophie. Then again, she hadn’t expected to be invited either.

The Tribunal was supposed to be restricted to members of the Vacker family, since it was only a sentencing hearing—and mostly a formality. Alvar was already being held in the secret prison the Black Swan had designed specifically for him. The Council was simply deciding how many years he’d have to stay there. But Alden had stopped by Havenfield that morning and explained that he’d gotten permission for Sophie to attend. And when she’d light leaped to Eternalia, she’d found Keefe and Ro already waiting. Keefe looked dressier than usual, in a starched white shirt with a fitted black jerkin and an embroidered gray cape—and Sophie was relieved to see it, since she’d decided to show her support with a dusty-rose gown that was much more Biana’s fancy style than hers. She’d also used the gold-flecked eyeliner Biana had been telling her would bring out the glints in her brown eyes—even though she hated drawing more attention to their unique-for-an-elf color. “What?” Sophie asked, wiping under her lashes when she noticed Keefe staring. “Did I smudge it?” “No, Foster. You look .

perfect.” She blushed at the slight catch in his voice—and then wished she hadn’t when he flashed his trademark smirk. “Did Alden tell you he wanted you to be here for moral support too?” she asked, stopping in the center of the hall as she realized she didn’t know which of the hundreds of seats were theirs. His smile faded. “Yeah. He said Fitz was going to need a friend today.” “He said a lot more than that,” Ro muttered. “Relax, Foster,” Keefe said, shooting Ro a glare before he pointed to the crease that had formed between Sophie’s eyebrows. “No need to get all crinkly on me. Nothing’s going on.

Alden’s just . worried about how Fitz is going to handle this.” “So am I,” Sophie admitted. Anger was often Fitz’s crutch in emotionally fraught situations—and nothing brought out his fury more than his traitorous older brother. “Yeah, well, now I’m stuck listening to a bunch of stuffy, know-it-all elves arguing with each other,” Ro groused as she twisted one of her choppy pigtails, which she’d recently dyed the same vivid pink she’d painted her claws. “It almost makes me wish I were still bedridden. Seriously, who thought having twelve Councillors was a good idea?” Sophie was tempted to point out that the system was much more balanced than having a single power-hungry king. But since Ro was the daughter of the ogres’ fearinspiring leader—and the elves’ alliance with King Dimitar had become rather shaky after the Neverseen almost killed Ro during their attack on Atlantis—she decided it was smart to avoid that particular conversation. Especially since the elvin Council was far from perfect. She turned toward the twelve jeweled thrones that filled a large platform at the front of the glinting green room.

Each had been ornamented to reflect the style and taste of the Councillor whose name was displayed along the top: Clarette, Velia, Alina, Terik, Liora, Emery, Oralie, Ramira, Darek, Noland, Zarina, and Bronte. Sophie knew some of them better than others, and there were a couple she’d even grown to trust. But she would never stop wishing that there was still a simple, sturdy throne for Councillor Kenric. Kenric had been kind. And funny. And one of Sophie’s most loyal supporters. And he’d still be alive if it weren’t for her. She tried not to let herself think about it, because the guilt might shatter her sanity. But she could still feel the stinging heat of the flames—still hear the crunches and crackles and screams as the jeweled tower melted around them. And she’d never forget Fintan’s taunt as he’d ignited the Everblaze to prevent her from retrieving his memories.

Sophie had only been in Oblivimyre that night because of a direct order from the Council. But if she’d been stronger, faster, smarter than Fintan . “You okay?” Keefe asked, flicking a strand of her blond hair to get her attention. “And before you answer, remember: You’re talking to an Empath. Plus, you’ve already pulled out two eyelashes since we got here, and I can tell you’re dying to go for a third.” She was. Her eyelashes itched whenever she felt anxious, and tugging on them was such a relief. But she kept trying to break the habit, so she held her hands at her sides and forced herself to meet Keefe’s ice blue eyes. “I’m fine.” When he raised one eyebrow, she added, “I’m just frustrated.

I wish the Council was holding a Tribunal for Fintan, not Alvar.” Keefe leaned slightly closer. “I wouldn’t let the Fitzster hear you say that.” “I know. Or Biana.” The younger Vacker siblings had been counting down the days to Alvar’s sentencing— and Sophie didn’t blame them for wanting everything settled with their older brother. But . She glanced over her shoulder, grateful the auditorium was still empty, so she could ask the question she’d been trying not to say. “Doesn’t this feel like a waste of time?” “Because Alvar can’t remember anything?” Keefe asked. Sophie nodded.

Alvar had been a longtime member of the Neverseen, involved in many of their cruelest schemes before Sophie and her friends found him drugged, bleeding, and trapped in a cell in an abandoned hideout. And when he’d finally regained consciousness, he couldn’t even remember his own name. He didn’t seem to be faking, either. Sophie had checked. So had Fitz. And Alden. And Mr. Forkle. And Quinlin. And Councillor Emery—along with every other Telepath the Council trusted.

None of them could find a single memory in Alvar’s head, no matter how deeply they searched. The Black Swan had even brought in Damel—a trained Washer— who’d told them that Alvar’s past had been scrubbed cleaner than he’d realized was possible. And Sophie had tried using her unique telepathic abilities to perform a mental healing, but it hadn’t made a difference. Neither had any of the elixirs a team of physicians had given him. Alvar’s mind wasn’t broken or damaged. It was . blank. Sophie had never felt anything like it—and she’d experienced some pretty bizarre mental landscapes over the last few years. There was no cold, suffocating darkness. No sharp, fragmented images.

Just soft, fuzzy gray space. “I don’t understand why the Council is focusing on someone with amnesia,” she whispered to Keefe, “when they have Fintan in custody and they’re doing nothing.” The former leader of the Neverseen had been captured during the raid on Nightfall. But Fintan had cut a deal with the Council for his cooperation. So he was currently being held in a prison built specifically for him, in exchange for sharing the location of a small supply of the antidote to soporidine—a dangerous sedative the Neverseen had developed for some still-undetermined purpose. He’d also demanded that all Telepaths be kept far away, to ensure that no one could mess with his memories. And while the Council did at least make him agree to help them gain access to his old cache—a small, marble-size gadget that contained dangerous memories called Forgotten Secrets—either Fintan was sabotaging the process, or caches were flawed inventions, because weeks had passed and they hadn’t recovered a single piece of information. “You think he’s planning something,” Keefe guessed. “Don’t you?” Fintan had already proven that he was the master of long, intricate schemes. He’d destroyed Lumenaria—and freed Vespera from the castle’s dungeon—with a plan that required key members of the Neverseen to allow themselves to be imprisoned.

He could be pulling a similar trick again—and Sophie knew she could find out if the Council would just let her meet with him. But all of her requests for a visit had been denied. And when she’d asked the Black Swan’s Collective for help, they’d told her the Council wasn’t giving them access either. “Why is Fintan still calling the shots?” she murmured. “He already gave us the antidote.” “I don’t know.” Keefe seemed to debate with himself before he added, “But he’s never going to cooperate. So do you really want to do another memory break on him? After what happened with Alden—and Kenric . ” Sophie stared at her hands, tracing her finger along one of the thumb rings peeking through her lacy gloves. The engraved bands had been a gift from Fitz, to identify the two of them as Cognates—and the rare telepathic connection made them far more powerful together than they’d been the last time they’d taken on Fintan.

She’d also manifested as an Enhancer, which meant she could boost Fitz’s mental strength with a single touch of her fingertips. So she had no doubt that they would get past Fintan’s blocking and find whatever he was hiding. But . memory breaks were horrible, brutal things—even when they were necessary. “I don’t see any other choice,” she admitted. “Even if he’s not part of some bigger scheme, Fintan has to at least know what Vespera’s planning.” “But he won’t know what my mom’s up to,” Keefe reminded her. “And she’s the one running things now.” Sophie wasn’t entirely convinced that was true. Lady Gisela had seized control of the Neverseen when she’d tried to destroy Atlantis.

But Vespera only allied with her because Keefe’s mom trapped her in a force field and threatened to leave her there until the Council arrived to arrest her. And Vespera didn’t seem like the type who’d cooperate for long—especially since she’d insisted that she and Lady Gisela had opposite visions. Then again, Keefe’s mom had already clawed her way back to power once, so she must be taking precautions to make sure no one could overthrow her again. “We have too many villains,” Sophie said through a sigh. Keefe snorted. “You’re not wrong.” She wasn’t even counting the other members of the Neverseen. Or the ogres who’d defected from King Dimitar. Or the dwarves who’d disappeared months ago, presumably to join the rebellion. Or— “Hey,” Keefe said, fanning the air the way he always did when her emotions started to spiral.

“We’ve got this, okay? I know it doesn’t feel like it—” “It doesn’t,” Sophie agreed. They’d been trying to come up with a plan for weeks and still had nothing. And whenever the Neverseen kept them stumped like that, people got hurt. Sophie had even risked using Keefe’s old Imparter, which his mom had rigged with a secret way to contact her. But Lady Gisela was either ignoring them, or she’d severed the connection. And the Black Swan had confiscated the gadget in case anyone could use it to monitor them. Keefe grinned. “You’re so adorable when you worry. I’ve told you that, right?” Sophie gave him her best glare, and his smile only widened. He stepped closer, reaching for her hands.

“Let’s just get through today, okay? Then no one will be distracted by Alvar anymore, and we’ll be able to focus.” “Yeah. I guess.” “Hmm.” He traced his thumb over the sliver of skin between her glove and the edge of her beaded sleeve. “There’s something you’re not saying right now. I can feel it.” There was. The other question she’d been trying not to ask, because she was pretty sure she knew what her friends would say. “Come on, Foster.

It’s me. You know you can trust me. And you already know all of my worst secrets, so . ” It was the sincerity in his eyes that made her glance over her shoulder again, making sure the room was still empty before she whispered, “Do you think it’s weird to punish someone for crimes they don’t remember committing?” “Weird?” Keefe asked. “Or wrong?” “Both, I guess.” He nodded and stepped back, running a hand down his face. “Well . everything about this is weird. But, just because Alvar doesn’t remember the creepy things he did, it doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.” “True.

” Sophie knew better than anyone what Alvar was capable of. And yet . the few times she’d seen him since he lost his memory, he’d seemed different. He wasn’t slick, or arrogant, or angry. He was terrified. And desperate. And he’d spent the whole time begging everyone to realize he wasn’t the person they thought he was. “He could still get his memories back,” Keefe reminded her. “Just because we haven’t found the right trigger yet doesn’t mean the Neverseen didn’t plan for one.” That was another reason Sophie wanted a chance to poke around Fintan’s head.

They’d recovered Alvar months before Fintan was arrested, so he had to know why Alvar ended up in that cell. But since the Council wasn’t cooperating, Sophie had convinced Mr. Forkle to bring Alvar to places from his past, like the apartment he’d been living in and the destroyed Neverseen hideouts they’d found. They’d also spent days exposing Alvar to random images and sounds and smells—even tastes—trying to trigger a hint of familiarity. None of it had caused even the tiniest flashback. And she was starting to think that nothing ever would. “I’m not saying I trust Alvar,” she said, turning to stare at the hundreds of empty seats. “But I also know how terrifying it is to stand in this room and face the Council, and I can’t imagine going through it without even remembering why I’m on trial. I mean . Alvar’s future is being decided by a past he doesn’t believe is his.

” “But it is his,” Keefe argued. “It’s not like we’re making this up. He helped kidnap you and Dex, and he helped the Neverseen grab Wylie and torture him, and he helped abduct your human family—and that’s only the stuff we know about. I saw what he was like when I was pretending to join the Neverseen. He was all in. One-hundred-percent committed to their cause, no matter what they asked him to do. And he’d still be just as dedicated if they hadn’t gotten rid of him—if that’s really what happened. Do you want to let him off the hook just because they wiped his mind to keep him from telling us their secrets?” “No. But keeping him locked up in that miserable cell still feels . unfair, somehow.

” “Ugh, you elves overthink everything,” Ro grumbled. “It’s simple: A traitor’s a traitor, and they need to be punished so everyone understands there are consequences for treason. If you’re not willing to end him, lock him up and destroy the key. Or better yet, leave it hanging in his line of sight so he has to stare at it forever, knowing he’ll never be able to reach it.” “For once the ogre princess and I agree,” Sandor added. Sophie sighed. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have to make the decision.” “It is,” Keefe agreed. “ ’Cause I’m pretty sure Fitz is going to have a meltdown if the Council gives Alvar anything less than a life sentence.” The idea made Sophie cringe.

The elves called their life span “indefinite,” because so far no one had ever died of old age. So if Fitz got his wish, Alvar would be spending thousands of years locked away— maybe even millions. And his cell wasn’t just cramped and stuffy. It was buried in the middle of a putrid bog and smelled worse than imp breath. Keefe moved back to her side, leaning in to whisper. “I do get what you’re saying, Foster. Punishing the bad guys is supposed to be easier than this—and way more fun.” “Yeah,” Sophie said quietly. “I’ve been angry at Alvar for so long, I never thought I’d end up feeling sorry for him.” “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand this is why we’re going to be stuck here for hours,” Ro whined.

“Nah, I’m sure the Council already made their decision,” Keefe told her. “They’re just putting on a good show for the Vackers.” “Wanna bet?” Ro’s grin looked dangerous when she added, “I say we’ll be here until sunset—and if I’m right, you have to wear ogre armor to school, instead of your uniform.” Keefe smirked. “No big deal. I would rock that metal diaper. But I say that this hearing will be done in an hour—and if I’m right, you have to call me Lord Hunkyhair from now on.” Sophie shook her head. “You guys are terrible.”

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