Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

As Lucia slowly drew closer to the crystal city she’d only ever seen in her dreams, she recalled some advice her mother had given her once. It had been before a banquet. Lucia was no more than ten years old and wishing desperately that she could stay in her chambers and read instead. She always tried her best to avoid social gatherings, certain that no one liked her, that they thought the daughter of King Gaius was an awkward and uninteresting girl who wasn’t worth their important time.

“It’s when we feel the most uncertain,” her mother had told her, “that we must appear at our most confident. To show weakness is to allow others to prey upon it. Now brush your hair, lift your chin, and pretend you are the most powerful person in the room.”

Lucia now realized, with an unexpected thud of sympathy in her heart, that this was precisely what Queen Althea Damora had had to do every day of her life.

She hadn’t realized it at the time, but this was truly excellent advice.

With a lift of her chin, a straightening of her shoulders, and the thought that she was both powerful and confident beyond all imaginings, Lucia quickened her pace across the lush green landscape of the Sanctuary toward the city, where she would find Timotheus and ask for his help.

If he said no and cast her away, the mortal world would surely perish.

The city became more impressive the closer she got to it. She didn’t know what the citizens of the Sanctuary called this place or if it even had a name; she called it the crystal city because, from afar, in the meadow where she walked, the metropolis appeared to rise up from the emerald-green grass, shimmering like an unexpected treasure against a cloudless blue sky. It wasn’t a treasure in the way people said the Auranian palace, which was set with threads of real gold, was. Rather, this city was white and sparkling, ethereal from end to end, made up of spires and towers of varying heights. The image of it before her was like an intricate illustration ripped right from the binding of a confiscated storybook.

She fought to maintain her composure even though she wanted simply to stand there in awe at the sight of it.

Lucia would allow herself only one thought now: Find Timotheus.

The immortal had warned her about Kyan. It was a warning that Lucia had foolishly ignored. Kyan had so convinced her of his own struggles—struggles that, she’d thought at the time, had paralleled her own. She’d been so full of vengeance and hatred when she finally met Timotheus that not even the most glaring truths could have penetrated the steel wall she’d built around herself, let alone have made their way to her heart or mind.

No, she hadn’t been ready to hear the truth back then.

If only she could be more certain that she was ready to hear it now.

She reached the end of the meadow and stood before the threshold that led into the crystal city. For a moment, Lucia just stood there, eyes closed and breathing.

“Timotheus despises you,” she muttered. Then, after one more breath, she took a step and entered the city. “And, if necessary, you are going to fall on your knees and beg for his help.”

The thought of begging didn’t exactly sit well with her. As the daughter of King Gaius, Lucia had never needed to beg for anything, not once in any of her seventeen years alive. The very thought of doing it now put a rancid taste in her mouth.

But she would swallow what little pride she had left and do it. There was no other choice.

The shining archway that led into the city itself dwarfed her, and as she walked through it, she saw her wide-eyed gaze reflected in its surface. The arch was etched with symbols—squiggles and lines that she didn’t recognize, but she felt something from them. A cool, shivering sensation moved through her from head to foot, momentarily stopping her in her tracks. Then she moved closer to the surface of the archway, tentatively pressing her hand against one of these markings.

There it was again—she felt the power of this gate through her fingertips. She pulled her hand back, remembering the crystal monolith in the Forbidden Mountains, only that had been a warm sensation. She knew she could have absorbed that magic to help Kyan draw Timotheus out of the Sanctuary to his doom.

This magic was the opposite—cold instead of warm. If she’d left her hand upon its surface, could it have stolen her magic the way Alexius had taught her to steal Melenia’s?

The thought sent a shiver of fear though her, but she ignored it and pressed on, passing under the archway to fully enter the crystal city.

At first glance, it was difficult to take in the view of the city. It was so bright, Lucia put her hand on her forehead to shade her eyes. From a distance, it had appeared to be made of diamonds. Closer up, she saw a city of white buildings and glass structures that reached up to the sky. The pathways were pebbled with small iridescent stones, and she followed one such pathway deeper into the city.

She’d yet to see a single living creature in this place, be it bird or person. There was an eeriness here, she realized. A quiet that challenged even the strict rules of the sternest librarian in the Limerian palace library.

The only sound she could hear was the beating of her own heart.

“Where is everyone?” Her whisper sounded more like a shout, nearly making her jump.

Lucia squeezed her hands together and reminded herself again of her mother’s advice: pretend to be confident.

And so she continued deeper into this place. All the buildings looked almost identical, polished and gleaming, but Lucia couldn’t tell what each one was.

Still, the city felt strangely familiar to her.

The ice maze, she thought. Yes, this city reminded her of a large version of the ice maze on the Limerian palace grounds that a friend of her father’s had gifted to her for her tenth birthday.

And, she realized with a sinking feeling, she was already lost within it.

“Who are you, mortal? And how did you get here?”

Lucia started at the voice, like a crack of lightning waking her from a deep sleep. In the span of one heartbeat, she spun around and summoned her magic without a single thought.

Immediately, a bolt of fire lit up her right fist. She tried not to feel dismayed that she’d unconsciously chosen to defend herself with Kyan’s element.

The trigger of her defensive instincts stood before her: a young woman in a long white robe, regarding Lucia with a stunned expression. Her hair was as red as the fire blazing up from Lucia’s hand.

An immortal, beautiful and eternally young.

As soon as the immortal moved her gaze to the fire, her eyes widened with shock. “I know who you are.”

Taking a shaky step backward, Lucia doused the flames. “Do you? Then who am I?”

As the fire gave way to smoke, the girl appeared to compose herself, blinking rapidly. “The sorceress reborn.”

“Perhaps I’m just a witch.”

“A mortal witch could never enter the sacred city. No mortal has ever entered this city.”

The last thing she wanted was to scare anyone, especially this immortal who could help her find Timotheus in this labyrinthine city. In recent weeks, violence and intimidation—not to mention her newly acquired magical ability to extract the truth from mortal tongues—had been the primary tools she’d used to survive, and it seemed she still had a ways to go in terms of breaking that habit.

“Then there’s no reason for me to deny who I am,” Lucia replied slowly, carefully.

A smile spread across the girl’s face, chasing away Lucia’s fear. “Melenia told us that you would walk among us again.”

The name made Lucia’s back stiffen. “Did she?”

She nodded. “She promises that we will all be able to leave here soon and be free to come and go as we please, finally, after all these centuries.”

Melenia seemed to have made a lot of promises to a lot of different people.

Before Lucia killed her, that was.

She took a deep breath, forcing away memories of the evil immortal so she could focus entirely on the present moment.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Mia.”

Though this girl had so far appeared to be nothing other than sweet and friendly, Lucia would not allow herself to forget that Mia was an ageless immortal, a Watcher, not born of man and woman but created from elemental magic.

“My name is Lucia.” She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and tried to feel powerful. “And I’m here because I need to see Timotheus. Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, of course.” Mia nodded, but the mention of Timotheus had dulled her gaze, and a distasteful look appeared on her beautiful face. “I’m on my way now to the city square, where he’s called for a gathering. He’s agreed to emerge from his current life of solitude and give us a few moments of his time”—she said this with an edge of disdain that Lucia couldn’t miss even if she were deaf—“to answer our questions.”

The confirmation that he was here, that the immortal hadn’t suddenly disappeared just when she needed him most, drew a deep sigh of relief from her lungs.

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