Crystal Storm (Falling Kingdoms #5)

“I want to be there to hear what he says,” Lucia said. Perhaps he would warn the others about her, if he hadn’t already, as well as the threat of the fire Kindred.

She knew the immortal had visions of the future and could receive prophesies, a gift—or a curse, Timotheus had said—that he’d inherited from Eva, the original sorceress. He could even enter Lucia’s dreams, just as Alexius had, and in those dreams he could read her mind. It was possible he knew every move she ever made, had followed every step she’d ever taken.

The thought made her cringe with shame and embarrassment.

“I don’t want Timotheus to see me yet,” she said to Mia. “And I don’t want to alarm any of your friends with my sudden presence in your world. Will you help me?”

Mia nodded. “Of course I will. However, to remain unseen, I’ll need to lend you my robes.”

Lucia looked down at herself. The dark red cloak she’d been traveling in was torn and singed from her battle with Kyan, and it made her stand out in this city of brightness like a splash of blood on newly fallen snow. “Yes, that would help.”

Mia slipped the beautiful white robe made from a finely woven, shimmering material off her shoulders. Beneath, she wore an equally exquisite silver gown, intricately beaded with small crystals, that bared her arms and hugged her body.

Lucia looked at her with surprise. “You dress far fancier under your robes than anyone I’ve seen attend even most elaborate banquet.”

“Do I?” Mia smiled at this, her eyes shining with pleasure. “I’ve witnessed mortal gatherings in hawk form but have never been close enough to truly experience such grand events.”

“Perhaps I’ll take you to one someday in gratitude for helping me today,” Lucia said as she quickly slipped the robes over her clothing.

“That would be wonderful.” Mia hesitated, as if uncertain what to do next, then slipped her arm through Lucia’s. “Come with me.”

If only Mia knew what Lucia was responsible for, she doubted the immortal would be so welcoming to her. Everywhere she’d gone with Kyan, Lucia had left destruction and death in her wake. She’d run away from her family, hating them for keeping important truths from her all her life—about her prophecy, her magic, and that she’d been stolen from her birth family. She had no friends, no allies, and no possessions apart from the clothing on her back—clothing meant more for a peasant than a princess.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. She had one other possession, a very important one: her ring. She glanced down at her right index finger, upon which she wore a gold filigree band set with a large purple stone.

If not for this ring, she would be dead.

All the more reason for her to be here and to have the chance to speak with Timotheus face to face.

Mia led her deeper into the city. Lucia followed, pulling the hood of the white robes up over her long dark hair. They walked alone for a long while through the crystal city’s maze until, finally, she began to see others. Many wore robes like the one Mia had given her, and they were all moving in the same direction. Disguised as one of them, no one gave her a second glance. She was able to continue to observe these immortals and their shining city without interruption.

Every being here was so beautiful, each more so than the last. Even the most attractive mortals couldn’t compete with these creatures. Their skin, all shades from palest alabaster to deepest ebony, radiated with light that seemed to glow from within. Their eyes were like shining jewels of every color, their hair like the finest strands of the most precious metals.

How strange it must be to live in a world, she thought, where everyone and everything is perfect.

Alexius had been beautiful like this—she’d seen it in her dreams. When he’d exiled himself, he’d become mortal, and that glow had faded. He’d become more three-dimensional, his angles more crooked. He’d become more real.

She saw now that she’d liked that—the transformation of immortal Alexius into real Alexius—more than she’d realized at the time. To be in love with someone perfect beyond compare would have become rather tiresome after a while.

Lucia gritted her teeth as oceans of unbidden memories rose up within her. A wave of grief and rage washed over her as she was confronted by the same memories she’d spent the last few weeks trying to forget.

Alexius had ultimately given his life to save hers.

But from the moment she’d met him in the first dream he’d pulled her into, he’d been deceiving and using her at Melenia’s magical command, attempting to learn her secrets and manipulate her into awakening the Kindred.

No, she thought, and with that one firm word she forced away the memories. She swore she wouldn’t think about him. Not now, not ever again. Not if she could help it.

They reached an expansive clearing in the center of the city. The ground there was laid with reflective tiles. It reminded Lucia of the mirror in her palace chamber where she watched as her attendants readied her to a state of beauty that would please her mother. From beneath her hood, she watched as two hundred immortals converged in the clearing.

“This is like the public square back home,” she said under her breath.

“We meet here for gatherings, and Melenia used to speak to us from the tower regularly to brighten our days . . . until she disappeared . . .”

Lucia bit her tongue. Not even the confused and fearful tone in Mia’s voice would make her regret ending the immortal elder’s life.

She looked up at the smooth crystal cylinder set in the center of the clearing. The structure reached so high up that she couldn’t see the top. “What is this?”

“The elders make their home in this tower. Timotheus hasn’t left it since Alexius exiled himself to the mortal world. Many believe he’s been in mourning.”

Now Lucia’s teeth sank into her tongue so deeply she nearly drew blood.

“How many elders live here?” she asked. She realized that learning about this new place was helping to ease her mind and keep her from spiraling back into thoughts of the past.

“There were six originally.”

“And now?”

“This is one of the questions we have for Timotheus.” Mia’s expression turned grave. “And he must have answers today.”

“Or what? What happens if Timotheus doesn’t come out today with the right answers? What if this crowd he’s gathered is not pleased?”

Mia glanced around at the others surrounding the base of the crystal tower, taking up only a fraction of the space available in the square. “Many feel that the time of elders has passed. At their command, we’ve searched for the Kindred, and to many it has been nothing but a fool’s errand, meant to distract us from the truth.”

“What truth?”

Mia shook her head, her expression tightening. “The fact that you’re here gives me hope that they’re wrong.”

Lucia was about to ask more questions, to get to Mia’s hidden meaning, but before she could, there came a rustle in the crowd and a rise of angry shouting voices.

She looked up from the depths of her cowl. Her breath caught in her chest as the smooth surface of the crystal tower flickered and filled with light. Then the clear image of Timotheus appeared on this bright surface, his face the height of three men.

Her mouth fell open at the sight of this unexpected magical projection.

The image of Timotheus raised his hands, his expression grim as the crowd of Watchers, including Mia, began to chant a handful of words that Lucia couldn’t understand, in a language she’d never heard before today. The sound of it made the chill she’d felt at the gates return to her, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself and tried not to shiver.

Timotheus waited until the chanting ended and a hush fell over the group.

“You asked to see me,” Timotheus said, his voice loud and his tone confident. “Here I am. I know you have questions. That you have worries. I hope to ease your minds.”

The crowd had fallen silent after the chanting, so silent that the city felt as still and empty as it had when she’d first entered it.

“You wish to know more about the current whereabouts of missing elders and immortals. You wish to know why I have rendered the gateway to the mortal world unusable so that you’re unable to leave our home even in hawk form. You wish to know why I haven’t emerged from this tower in recent days.”

Lucia watched Mia’s face and the faces of the other immortals, their gazes transfixed on the gigantic shining image of Timotheus as if he were an omnipotent god who’d rendered them all into silent, immobile marble statues.

She’d never thought to ask Alexius how an elder’s magic differed from other immortals. But now she saw that elders like Timotheus had complete command over others of their kind. The audience was under his spell—everyone was completely still as he spoke.

Yet he had no control over the defiance that still shone in their eyes.

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