You are hereby summoned to the Seeing Mountain by the Watchers of Fate.
Make haste and tell no one of this letter.
The future of all Ignolia depends upon it.
We await your arrival…
No mortal man had ever stepped foot within the ancient cave and lived to tell the tale. Luckily for Lucius, he was no mere mortal.
The old wizard descended deeper into the darkness, trailing his gloved fingers along the rocky walls, examining the charcoal drawings depicting his world’s history.
Imagery of kings and queens, mages and werewolves…
He recognized one of the figures, he thought. A little black heroic smudge facing what appeared to be…a dragon.
Lucius bit back a snort, pulling out his flask and taking a long, hearty gulp. It’d been many years since Lucius was that wizard. He was only here now because the Watchers of Fate had demanded his presence.
The three powerful witch sisters were not to be trifled with. No one had come to this mountain in centuries. And the reason for this letter, this invitation…it puzzled Lucius.
He hadn’t been performing magic for decades. What could they possibly want with an old drunk like him?
The dark pathway twisted and turned until, at last, Lucius saw it: an opening into a large cavern, illuminated by strange glowing stalactites above.
It was a throne room, Lucius realized. Sitting upon three identical marble thrones were three identical women.
The sacred sisters.
The seeing witches.
The Watchers of Fate.
The one in the middle, who he guessed was Severina, slowly stood up. She had silky white hair that reached her knees. Her skin was the color of dark honey and her lips an even darker shade. Her silver robes hugged her slender, ethereal frame.
Although she was identical to her sisters, there was an authority to her tone that told Lucius she was in charge.
“It has been a long time since we’ve seen you…” Severina said.
They had never met, of course, but the Watchers of Fate could see anyone anywhere in the kingdom. In the present, past, or future.
Lucius smiled with a grimace. “I have been busy.”
He noticed then why he was squinting. The witch on the right was holding a bright white orb full of incandescent energy.
It was the only source of light in the cave. It was magnificent and terrifying at once, as if even the slightest movement might cause it to explode.
Severina continued, “My sisters and I have something urgent to share with you.”
“If it is a quest,” Lucius said, shaking his head, “you know, there are other, younger magicians better suited—”
“This order does not come from us, Lucius,” Severina cut him off.
“But from the Gods…”
At this, Lucius went deathly quiet. The will of the Gods was never to be questioned. Still, Lucius didn’t like the sound of it. The last time the Gods interfered in mortal affairs, a century-long war had been the result.
A war in which Lucius had lost too much.
“What could the Gods possibly want from me?” he asked.
Severina turned to her sister holding the orb and nodded. All at once, the witches closed their eyes, hummed in unison, and the orb rose mid-air…
Lucius felt the hair on his arms stand on end. Never in his life had he felt a magic as powerful as this.
The orb began to shake wildly mid-air, growing brighter and brighter, as if it was about to detonate. Lucius held up a hand to shield his eyes.
Finally, the orb floated to rest on a stone altar and, with a deafening crack, split open, leaving only a white melting substance…
“Behold, Lucius,” Severina whispered. “Your quest.”
Within the milky substance oozing off the altar, there was a small pink shape. And now a strange sound echoed off the walls of the ancient cave.
The sound of a baby’s cry.
There, lying on the hard surface, born from the orb itself, was an infant. Lucius couldn’t believe his eyes as he took a shaky step toward it.
“Why…?” he stuttered. “Who…?”
“She is no ordinary child, Lucius,” Severina said. “She is a Slifer.”
That was the last word Lucius ever expected to hear. A Slifer?! They were mere myth, he thought. Wizards who could control one of the four elements of nature.
That elemental power was something only Gods could do…
“What do you expect me to do with her?” he asked.
The last time he’d seen a child, it had ended with heartbreak. Hearing the sound of this one’s cries, seeing her innocent little body…it unsettled him to his core.
“Hold her, Lucius,” Severina demanded.
He reluctantly picked the child up and looked down at her.
“You will guard her. Nurture her. For eighteen years. Until the fateful day when her destiny will become intertwined with the King’s.”
So that was why she was so important. Lucius shook his head. He couldn’t possibly raise a child. What were these witches and the Gods thinking?!
“I know this must be hard for you,” Severina said knowingly. “But you must do it, Lucius. For Ingolia. For your people.”
Lucius looked once more at the child. He promised himself then and there he would do as the Gods demanded, but he would not grow attached.
She would be his apprentice, nothing more.
He would call her…Lydia, for it seemed a wholly unremarkable name. And for a child of destiny such as this, the appearance of normalcy would be most important.
“Do you see what she is, Lucius?” Severina asked. “Her true power?”
The baby gazed up at him with big innocent eyes. They were the color of flames, a mixture of gold, red, and orange. The fiery shades swirled and danced almost like real flames, glowing unnaturally.
“Fire,” Lucius whispered. “She will burn the world if I’m not careful.”
“That’s right,” Severina said, nodding solemnly. “You hold the destiny of our world, Lucius. The daughter of flames.”
EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER…
“Focus your senses, Lydia! Aim with precision!”
Although she could hear a man’s distant voice, Lydia only saw darkness. Emptiness. And in the void, a long, thin wooden post began to take shape.
“You mustn’t be stiff! The magic will only bind if you are at ease…”
She curled her fingers into a fist, trying to drown out his drunken advice. His slurs were only making her angrier.
Maybe that would help.
Already, Lydia could feel the hot steam slithering between her fingers.
A pop and a sizzling sound followed. Lydia didn’t need to open her eyes to recognize the orange fire enveloping her entire fist.
It was working. She could do this!
“Do not waver! Unleash your power, Lydia! NOW!”
Damn it, old man! She wasn’t wavering until he’d had to mention it. Now, as she flung the fireball through the air, she snapped open her eyes, and…
The ball of flames flew just past the wooden post, singeing the wood, but hardly burning it. The fire blew out mid-air with a deflated fizzle.
Enraged, Lydia turned to chastise her guardian, but he wasn’t even paying attention. Lying on the grass beneath a tree was the once-great magician Lucius Voltaire.
Lydia’s guardian and only family.
Lucius was guzzling what was left of a cheap bottle of elven rum, neck craned back, oblivious.
“Seriously?!” she asked, crossing her arms with a glare.
At this, he turned to consider her, bleary-eyed. “You’re not practicing enough, kid. What can I say?”
Lydia hated when he called her kid. It was so condescending.
“Maybe if you actually trained me instead of drinking all the time…”
“Excuses, excuses,” he said, waving his hand and taking another gulp.
His jade-colored eyes flashed with sudden sober intensity. “I told you not to call me that!”
Lydia smiled. This was the one way she knew how to get a rise out of him. “What’s the matter? You’re nine-hundred-and-eighteen years old anyway!”
The truth was, even though he’d raised her, he’d always instructed Lydia to call him Lucius. Why? He would never say. But every year, around October—on Lydia’s birthday, to be exact—he’d get a lot drunker than usual.
Lydia’s eighteenth birthday.
“If you ask me, you did great, Lydia.”
Lydia looked down to see Lux curling around her foot. He was a black cat with piercing yellow eyes and a sociable side. After all, the feline could talk.
“Thanks, Lux,” Lydia said with a sigh. “But you also think fish goes perfectly well with cake.”
He jumped into Lydia’s arms and nuzzled against her as she scratched behind his ears. Lux had been her best friend since she was five years old. She’d found him in the back alley behind a potion merchant’s shop.
Lydia assumed Lux must have had a sip of something magical to give him the power of speech. But she’d never asked him.
“So, what are we doing for your birthday?” he purred affectionately.
“Good question, Lux,” Lydia said, turning to Lucius. “Any ideas, Grandpa?”
But she was surprised by the tormented expression on the old wizard’s face. It looked like he was hiding something deeply and profoundly painful.
“Go get ready for school,” he muttered.
Then, he got up and left Lydia and her cat alone in the backyard. She petted Lux’s head.
“That’s all right, Lux. We’ll come up with something.”
“You’re eighteen! It’s a big deal.”
Lydia nodded. Perhaps. But why was it such a big deal to Lucius?
Their house was on top of a hill in a town called Vera, on the outskirts of the Imarnian Kingdom. From Lydia’s bedroom window, she could see the towers of the faraway palace.
The palace where the King, Gabriel James Imarnia, lived and ruled.
The most handsome man in the world.
Or so they said.
The truth was, Lydia knew very little about the King herself. But she’d always been curious. He was three-hundred-and-thirty-nine years old apparently, but because of his wizard magic, looked no older than twenty-eight.
And he had never married for some reason. So, he was still without a Queen.
Sometimes, Lydia would find sealed letters between the King and Lucius and wonder what they could possibly be corresponding about. Lucius hadn’t been practicing magic for years other than to train her how to use her Slifer powers.
So, what was that about?
She got dressed, putting on her hideous school uniform—a dull, long, gray pinafore, with a white short-sleeved shirt and an even uglier red and gray bow tie—and tried to add a bit of glamor by throwing on as many bracelets as possible.
Even though she had to wear the same outfit as everyone else in school, everyone knew she was different.
From her olive skin to her hair, streaked with fiery reds and deep blacks, Lydia had always stood out.
Her eyes, alight with fire, told everyone in town that she was a Slifer, whether she wanted them to know or not. At least the mark on her wrist, two intertwined glowing S’s, she could hide with sleeves or accessories.
Mostly, people looked at her strange because of the drunk wizard who happened to be her guardian. Lucius had always made her promise to save her virginity.
Why? Honestly, after all these years, Lydia had grown tired of even asking. But she’d obeyed with the hope she might one day understand.
When she was finally ready, Lydia ran downstairs with Lux bounding behind her.
“Okay, we’re ready!”
“Good,” Lucius grumbled, holding out a hand. “I’m in a hurry. So…”
Lydia knew the drill. When Lucius didn’t feel like traveling on foot, he would teleport them wherever they needed to go. She took his hand and opened her bag so Lux could jump in.
“Let’s go,” she said.
With a sudden whirl, the world spun around them, and they were transported.
Lydia blinked, adjusting to her new surroundings, then frowned.
“Grandpa…” she said, confused. “Where…?”
“I told you not to call me that,” he said, stern.
He turned a corner and Lydia quickly followed, shocked to see the massive gates of the Imarnian palace before them. What were they doing here?
“Maybe it’s a surprise!” Lux purred from Lydia’s bag. “For your birthday!”
“Lucius,” she said, using the name he preferred. “Will you tell me what’s going on?”
Lucius turned and sighed, eyes cast downward. “There’s something I need to tell you, Lydia. Something I should have told you years ago…”
Now, Lydia felt her stomach tightening into a knot. Whatever was coming wasn’t good. That much, she could tell.
“What is it, Lucius?” she asked in barely a whisper.
He turned to consider the palace. “Years ago, I was told by three powerful witches that this day would come. The day when yours and the King’s fates would become intertwined. On your eighteenth birthday.”
“Intertwined?” Lydia asked, head spinning. “What does that mean?”
He turned to consider her, his green eyes brimming with unkempt emotion.
“Lydia, today…you are to be claimed by the King.”