YOU LOOK CONFUSED,” MR. FORKLE said, and the lilt of his tone made Sophie wonder if his lips were twitching with a smile—but she couldn’t pull her eyes away from the round, gilded door he’d brought her to, tucked into the side of a rolling, grassy hill. The place reminded her of a hobbit hole. But Sophie had been living in the Lost Cities long enough to know better than to voice that observation. All it would earn her was laughter. Or perhaps some impossible-to-believe story about how Mr. Forkle had once brought J. R. R. Tolkien there and provided him with the inspiration. “I thought you were taking me to your office,” she told him, shiչing her gaze toward the windblown meadow and searching the swaying wildflowers for clues as to where they were. “I did.” Sophie opened her mouth to argue—then realized what he meant. He’d brought her to his office. Not Magnate Leto’s office at Foxfire, like she’d been expecting.
Which was an easy mistake to make, considering the fact that Mr. Forkle and Magnate Leto were actually the same person—and “Mr. Forkle” was his much more enigmatic side. “So, this is your secret office,” she clarified, feeling goose bumps prickle her skin at the thought. “One of them,” Mr. Forkle confirmed, winking as he shuffled his ruckleberry-bloated body closer to the door. He leaned in and licked a spot on the leչ side of the door, which must’ve been a camouflaged DNA sensor because a rectangular panel slid open in the center, revealing five spinning, fist-size cogs lined up in a neat row: one silver, one copper, one iron, one bronze, and one steel. “Did Tinker design this place?” Sophie asked, remembering the abundance of gleaming gears she’d seen decorating the walls of Widgetmoor, as well as the Technopath’s clear fondness for the number five. But that wasn’t the question she should’ve been focusing on, so she quickly added, “And why are we here?” Mr. Forkle twisted the cogs one by one, entering some sort of complicated combination.
“You said we needed to talk. Isn’t that why you requested this meeting?” “It is, but…” Sophie’s words trailed off as the last cog clicked into place, making the ground rumble and the golden door sink into a slit that appeared in the damp earth. Cold air blasted her face from the dark room beyond, blowing strands of her blond hair into her eyes as she took an eager step forward and— “Stop!” a familiar squeaky voice shouted behind her. Sophie froze. She’d learned that it was much easier to let the seven-foot-tall, heavily armed gray goblin lead the way—along with a hulking ogre warrior and a tiny green-toothed gnome. Sandor, Bo, and Flori were three of her five multispeciesial bodyguards, and they took their jobs very seriously. So did her other bodyguards, of course. But Nubiti kept watch from a position deep underground, since dwarves’ eyes were highly sensitive to light. And Tarina still hadn’t been allowed to return to duty aչer what everyone was calling the “Scandal at Everglen”—though “scandal” really wasn’t a strong enough word. It didn’t capture the shock that came with discovering an illegal troll hive hidden at the estate of one of their world’s most prominent families.
And it definitely didn’t evoke the horror of the genetically altered, bloodthirsty trolls who went on a murderous rampage once the door to the hive was opened. Both the elvin and trollish worlds were still reeling from the disaster, since the Neverseen had managed to broadcast the nightmarish battle to everyone gathered for the Celestial Festival. And no one could agree on how to punish those who’d been involved. A Tribunal had already been held for Luzia Vacker, but her sentence had yet to be finalized. And numerous additional investigations seemed to be endlessly “ongoing.” Foxfire, the elves’ most prestigious academy, had even been put on an extended hiatus because parents were worried the school might be targeted. Plus, treaty renegotiations still needed to be arranged between the elvin Council and the trolls’ supreme leader, but everyone was wary of another Peace Summit after what happened at the last one. “This office is perfectly safe,” Mr. Forkle assured Sophie’s bodyguards. “Watchward Heath is protected by five different kinds of security.
And only six people in the world know how to find it. Well, seven now, given Miss Foster’s knack for teleporting.” “Then the office should have no problem passing my inspection,” Sandor called over his shoulder as he drew his massive curved sword and marched through the doorway, followed by Bo and Flori. He’d always been overprotective, but his paranoia had reached new levels of exhausting aչer the Neverseen’s recent brutal attack—and Sophie couldn’t blame him, since she and Fitz had ended up bedridden in the Healing Center for weeks. Her right hand still ached whenever she pushed herself too hard, and Fitz occasionally walked with a slight limp. But Elwin kept assuring them that they’d make a full recovery. Certain wounds were just trickier than others—and theirs had been some of the worst, thanks to the creepy echoes caused by their exposure to shadowflux. The rare sixth element was darkness in its purest form. Only the strongest Shades could control it. And shadowflux changed everything it touched.
Shadowflux was also somehow so vital to whatever the Neverseen were planning that when their Shade was killed at Everglen, Lady Gisela threatened Tam until he agreed to serve as Umber’s replacement. Sophie and Keefe had begged Tam not to go, but he swore he could handle himself. And Lady Gisela had warned them that any attempt at rescue would only put Tam and his twin sister, Linh, in greater danger. So Tam was on his own with the Neverseen—and it killed Sophie every time she thought about it. Each passing week made her heart heavier. Her nightmares more vivid. Her brain more convinced that she’d never see her friend again. Or worse: that Tam would join the enemy for real. If you hear us out, I guarantee you’ll realize that we are the only ones with an actual solution to the problems in this world, and that you’ve been wasting your talent serving the wrong side, Lady Gisela had told him. And she’d proven time and again that she was a master of mind games and manipulation.
“All clear!” Sandor called, and Sophie squared her shoulders and took a long, steadying breath. She could go back to worrying about Tam later. Right now, she needed to focus on the conversation ahead—a conversation she’d been rehearsing for the last nine days. Ever since she’d gone to Atlantis and… Well. Things had not gone according to plan. She could still see the pitying looks on the matchmakers’ faces as they’d shown her the ugly red words on the screen. Words that would define her—destroy her—if people found out about them. That was why she’d begged for this meeting. If she could convince Mr. Forkle to give her one tiny piece of information—something she deserved to know anyway—everything would get back on track.
She’d been gearing up for a fight, since getting information from the Black Swan was a lot like prying open the jaws of a thrashing verminion. But if he trusted her enough to bring her to his secret office… “Shall we?” Mr. Forkle asked, gesturing to the entrance. Sophie nodded and crossed the threshold, shivering as a blast of cold, metallic-tinged air seeped through the thin fabric of her lavender tunic. The room was too dark to see, but it felt like stepping into a refrigerator, and she pulled her dove gray cape tighter around her shoulders, wishing she’d worn thicker gloves, instead of the silk ones she’d chosen. The light flared to life when Mr. Forkle followed, as if the sensor only responded to him. “You don’t look impressed,” he noted as Sophie blinked in the sudden brightness. “It’s just… not what I was expecting.” She’d been imagining his secret office for years—and she’d always pictured a cross between a spaceship and Hogwarts, with fancy architecture and all kinds of high-tech gadgets and mysterious contraptions.
Plus clues to who Mr. Forkle truly was, and plenty of hints about Project Moonlark. Instead, she’d found herself in a curved white room that made her feel like she was standing inside a giant underground egg. Soչ light poured from a single bulb, which dangled off the end of a thin chain above a round, silver table. The walls were smooth and bare—as was the floor—and several small grates in the ceiling flooded the room with icy drafts. That was it. No windows. No doors—except the one they’d come through, which had sealed silently behind them. Nowhere to sit. No decor of any kind.
Not even any books or scrolls, despite Mr. Forkle’s love of research. “And here I thought you’d learned that things in the Lost Cities are rarely what they seem,” Mr. Forkle said, pressing his palm against the wall. The light bulb flickered twice before it flared much brighter and projected a grid of images across every surface of the room, as if the office was tapping into thousands of camera feeds displaying elves, goblins, ogres, trolls, dwarves, gnomes, and humans going about their daily lives. Every few seconds the images shiչed, making Sophie wonder whether she’d catch a glimpse of the entire planet if she stood there long enough. “Still nothing?” Mr. Forkle asked. She shrugged. “It’s not that different from Quinlin’s office in Atlantis.
And I’m pretty sure a lot of human leaders have rooms like this too—not showing all the other species, but… you know what I mean.” “Do I?” Mr. Forkle tapped the wall to make the images disappear before he placed his palm flat against the silver table. “What about this, then?” The metal surface rippled at his touch, stretching and splitting into a million thin wires that made it look like a giant version of one of those pin art toys Sophie used to play with as a kid. He tapped his fingers in a quick rhythm, and the pins shiչed and sank, forming highs and lows and smooth, flat stretches. Sophie couldn’t figure out what she was seeing until he tapped a few additional beats and tiny pricks of light flared at the ends of each wire, bathing the scene in vibrant colors and marking everything with glowing labels. “It’s a map,” she murmured, making a slow circle around the table. And not just any map. A 3-D map of the Lost Cities. She’d never seen her world like that before, with everything spread out across the planet in relation to everything else.
Eternalia, the elvin capital that had likely inspired the human myths of Shangri-la, was much closer to the Sanctuary than she’d realized, nestled into one of the valleys of the Himalayas—while the special animal preserve was hidden inside the hollowed-out mountains. Atlantis was deep under the Mediterranean Sea, just like the human legends described, and it looked like Mysterium was somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. The Gateway to Exile was in the middle of the Sahara desert— though the prison itself was buried in the center of the earth. And Lumenaria… “Wait. Is Lumenaria one of the Channel Islands?” she asked, trying to compare what she was seeing against the maps she’d memorized in her human geography classes. “Yes and no. It’s technically part of the same archipelago. But we’ve kept that particular island hidden, so humans have no idea it exists—well, beyond the convoluted stories we’ve occasionally leaked to cause confusion.” “Huh.” Lumenaria had reminded her of Camelot when she’d been there, so that must be where some of those legends came from.
The elves liked to play with the lore of their world, weaving in conflicting fantastical details, to make it that much harder for humans to believe in it. She leaned closer, wondering how accurate the map’s details were. She hadn’t been to Lumenaria since the collapse, and it looked like the glowing castle was now fully rebuilt —with much higher walls. A new tree also stood next to the Four Seasons Tree, perhaps as a memorial for those who’d died in the attack. “And humans really haven’t found the island? It’s right by France and the United Kingdom—and boats go through the channel all the time.” “You’ve seen how powerful our illusions are,” Mr. Forkle reminded her. Sophie’s stomach soured. Vespera had designed most of the optical illusions that shielded the Lost Cities from detection. And out of all the Neverseen’s leaders, she was the most ruthless.
She saw violence as a solution—and was always claiming that Sophie and Keefe would never be “ready.” For what, they didn’t know. But it seemed safe to assume it had something to do with Keefe’s “legacy.” “It helps to see our world this way, doesn’t it?” Mr. Forkle asked, moving to Sophie’s side. “I’ve been coming here a lot lately to strategize.” “Does that mean you have a plan?” she asked, even though she was pretty sure she already knew the answer. “It’s a work in progress.” He sighed when her hands curled into fists. “I understand your impatience, Miss Foster.
But some things cannot be rushed.” Her laugh sounded as bitter as she felt. They’d been trying to take down the Neverseen the entire time she’d been living in the Lost Cities. And here they were, years later, still with no clue what the Neverseen were up to or where they were hiding. She and her friends had been trying to figure out how to make their next move ever since Tam was taken, but all they had to go on were the same worthless leads they’d wasted too much time on already. Fake caches. A missing starstone. Way too many confusing symbols. The key to Lady Gisela’s Archetype, but not the book that the key opened. Tiny fragments of shattered memories that didn’t make any sense.
And no matter what truths they pieced together or what risks they took, the Neverseen were always five million steps ahead of them. Put simply: They were losing. And Sophie was sick of it. “The Neverseen have proven to be more formidable than we expected,” Mr. Forkle admitted. “And their changes in leadership have made anticipating their tactics particularly complicated.” “We have too many enemies,” Sophie muttered. “We do indeed. And their individual visions do not always perfectly align, which has caused additional confusion. But we still know far more than you’re letting yourself admit.
” “Like what?” She turned to face him, crossing her arms. “I’m serious. Tell me one useful thing we’ve learned.” “I can name many, Miss Foster. And so can you. You’re simply overlooking them because you’re upset that you haven’t gotten the answers you want—and I understand that inclination. But you’re far too smart for such ill-reasoned logic. Which is why I brought you here, to make sure you’re seeing the bigger picture.” He tapped another rhythm against the table, and the pins shiչed, making new landmarks emerge among all the others: Gildingham, the goblins’ golden capital, which seemed to be tucked among the Andes Mountains—and probably inspired the human myths of El Dorado. Ravagog, the ogre stronghold on the Eventide River, which was apparently hidden in the lushest part of central Asia.
Loamnore, a city Sophie assumed was the dwarven capital, since the enormous metropolis was under the Gobi desert rather than above it. And Marintrylla, an island near New Zealand that was probably the trollish capital and seemed to be an intricate network of caves and bridges. “What do you see?” Mr. Forkle asked. Sophie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m assuming you’re looking for a better answer than ‘a bunch of cities.’” Flori giggled. Sandor and Bo snorted. Mr. Forkle grumbled something under his breath that started with “You kids.
” “Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to say?” Sophie suggested. “Because I’m trying to teach you, Miss Foster. Your friends look to you for guidance, and lately all I’ve seen you display is despair and frustration. If you’re going to lead them, you need to do better.” “Lead them.” The phrase felt heavy on Sophie’s tongue. “Is that your big plan, then? Dump all the responsibility on me, because I’m the moonlark?” “Need I remind you that you’re the one who chose to involve your friends? I’m not criticizing you for that—your friends have proven invaluable to our efforts. But you can’t ignore the responsibility that you took on when you recruited them.” Sophie’s insides twisted. She’d never intended to “recruit” her friends.
They just kept asking questions about what she was doing and offering to help. And eventually, she’d realized she needed them. But now everything that happened wasn’t just her responsibility—it was her fault. Like when Lady Gisela knocked Tam out cold and dragged him away, even though he’d already agreed to cooperate. “I know what you’re thinking,” Mr. Forkle said gently. “And not because I’m violating the rules of telepathy, in case you’re worried. The burden you’re carrying is written in every shadow on your face—and you must not blame yourself.” Sophie forced herself to nod. Guilt was dangerous for elves—almost as sanity-shattering as violence.
But it sure wasn’t easy to let go of. “I want Mr. Tam home safely every bit as much as you do,” Mr. Forkle assured her. “As does the rest of the Black Swan. But that cannot be our only goal. So I need you to step back and remember what we’re fighting for.” “What are we fighting for?” Sophie countered. “It feels like all we ever do is… try not to die—and sometimes we’re not even very good at that.”