Above my desk, two sentences loomed over me. They had been painted in my bedroom before I was even born; it was the one thing I wasn’t allowed to change in the room. According to my parents, these two sentences were my destiny.
“At seventeen, this young hero will save the world. At twenty-one, she will be mourned by all for she will die a legend.”
My seventeenth birthday was tomorrow. I was pretty sure my parents were conducting a psychological experiment. So far it hadn’t pushed me to greatness. Too clumsy to play soccer or any activity that required outstanding coordination, my magic powers were underwhelming, dropped out of magic lessons by age eleven.
Magic and sports: the two staples of our society, and I was bad at both. Yet, a psychic had declared I would save the world, die a young legend? What a joke.
“Vella, are you listening at all?” A pillow hit me in the back of the head. I turned away from my desk. Jeniwynn, my half-elf friend, who was staying the night in celebration of my special birthday.
“You know I’m trying to finish my homework.” I rubbed my eyes and smiled.
She frowned. “How can you focus on schoolwork when your destiny is so close?”
I shrugged. “Everyone has one of these, right? It’s a load of shit.”
“That’s not true, and you know it.” She sat up; her legs buried under her. “You know I don’t have a destiny on my wall.”
I looked away, exhaling deeply. “I know. Sorry. I don’t believe in this stuff, you know that. I would gladly give you mine.”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t say that. You’re an amazing person, and you’re special whether you realize it or not.”
“You’ve known me since we were ten.” I gestured to my body. “I’m scrawny, and I’m not powerful in any way society views as traditional.”
She sighed. “But you’re smart. You’re clever. You’re the one who always knows things.”
I laughed. “I read books, Jeni. That’s all. I just read.”
“No, no, no. You read and you remember the things you read better than anyone I’ve ever known.” She kicked her legs out from under her and crawled off my bed. “Look. You’re the smartest, most cunning, human. I don’t care if you don’t believe in you being a legend. I do.”
She stood in front of me; I had to look up at her from the chair. I folded my arms across my chest. She placed her hands on my shoulders.
“You should meet more people; you’d find plenty of people who can read and remember things as much as I can.” I shut my eyes.
She exhaled deeply. She hugged me to her, my head rested on her stomach. “Vella, you are amazing. You will be a legend. I know you don’t believe it, but will you just please celebrate this exciting day with me? I’ll only have you around for a few more years, and I know it’s selfish, but I’d really like to spend as little of that time squabbling over your destiny as possible.”
I hugged her tighter. “Fine. I’ll call it a night for my homework. They excuse your work being late for destiny birthdays anyway. I’ll take the night off since I already have the day off tomorrow anyway.”
“Yes.” She pulled me away just enough to see my face. “Let’s celebrate. We’ll eat and then see about what mischief we can find.”
After dinner with my parents, Jeniwynn and I wandered around Valewick. It was one of the biggest cities in the area, and there was plenty of trouble to get into, but I hated trouble. I didn’t like looking for anything that took me out of my comfort zone of a bookstore.
“Let’s go look at the books selection at Rhymes and Seasons.” I pointed to my favorite place to hole up on most nights I didn’t have to dedicate to schoolwork.
“I knew you’d say that.” She sighed with great over-exaggeration, but her smile peeked through the false disappointment. “How about we make a deal? We go get our fortunes told, and then I’ll buy you whatever book you’d like from Rhymes and Seasons?”
I paled. “Why would we need to get our fortunes told?”
She shrugged. “I figure, mine will be boring and yours will just be your standard ‘you’re gonna be amazing, but also die young,’ but the nerves leading up to that will be fun. The jitters that hang on that what-if, there’s nothing like it.”
I pressed my lips together tightly and inhaled deeply through my nose. “It’s just for fun?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s not like the psychic that foretold your destiny to your parents. It’s just someone with lesser ability doing it for fun.”
I looked at the shop and then back to her. Maybe it would be different now. Things had happened in the years between the initial destiny and now. Maybe something would be different?
She looked at me with big eyes and a pouting lip. “Please?”
I fidgeted with the end of my braid. “All right. But I’m picking out the most expensive book possible.”
She laughed and grabbed my hand. “That’s fine with me.”
Pulling me along, she led us into the small shop called The Fateful Way; my eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness of the room. With her superior dark vision, she held my hand in the dark, guiding me to whatever awaited us in this darkened room.
Tiny, candle flames appeared in a circle, lighting up a small, wooden table in the center of the space. An older woman sat at the middle-most seat; her completely white eyes stood out in the dimness.
Jeniwynn tightened her grip on my hand slightly. Whether it was out of fear, excitement, or concern I’d run away, I wasn’t sure. But I knew I held her hand a little tighter out of fear.
The woman gestured to the seats nearest us. “Join me if you wish.”
Jeniwynn pulled out a chair as I did the same, still holding her hand. We sat next to each other; my hand felt clammy in hers, but I didn’t let go.
“What is it you want to know, dears?”
Closer to her now, she looked incredibly old. I wondered if she was a real hag; I’d never met one, but I’d read plenty about them. Their powers were not a diminished sort. I glanced at Jeniwynn who looked delighted despite a slight touch of unease in her posture.
I frowned and looked back at the woman who had asked us a question. I took a breath ready to call it quits on this endeavor; I’d buy my own book.
“We’d like to know our futures, please.”
Startled by the thrill in her tone, I looked again at Jeniwynn; she’d beat me to speaking.
The woman nodded and shut her eyes. “All right. Now are you here about your combined futures or individual futures?”
I frowned and looked at Jeniwynn; this time, she was looking at me, too.
“Do you want to hear both?” she said, smiling.
I sighed. “Sure.” I looked back at the old woman. “Is that allowed?”
Eyes still closed, she nodded with a smile that showed off her yellow, snaggled teeth. I eyed her the best I could in the dark, I knew I was missing details, but everything about her screamed ‘hag,’ and I wanted to tell Jeniwynn, we needed to leave, but something stopped me.
“You, the uncertain skeptic, you are destined for great things. It is the eve of your destiny; it unfolds as soon as you leave here. You, the delighted friend, you will help this disbeliever become a true hero, and you will be great simply by association.
“Together, you two are bound by fate. It is unclear whether both will die or if she lives to tell the story. A decision has yet to be made.”
I swallowed; it sounded amplified in the silence. Jeniwynn’s head was tilted; she stared at me. Even though I could only see so much in the dark, I recognized the expression. She held me in her eyes this way when she was trying to fathom what my destiny would be.
The old woman chuckled. “Ah. You two are more than friends; that’s the decision to be made. I see now.”
Jeniwynn’s eyes widened; she looked away from me, turning back to the old woman.
“Oh, sorry, dear.” She opened her eyes, but they were still fully white.
My skin broke out in goosebumps; I was suddenly very cold, and my eyes watered. Jeniwynn stood, pulling me with her. She tossed some money on the table and tripped over the chair. I caught her and she held on to me.
“Sorry, let’s go.” Her demeanor had shifted completely.
I turned back to the woman. “Thank you for, uh, for whatever this is.”
“Always a pleasure. Best of luck, ladies.”
Jeniwynn’s hand was still in mine, and I was letting her pull me from the room since I could hardly see without the candles in the hallway.
Jeniwynn kept us at the brisk pace until we were outside of Rhymes and Seasons. She stopped abruptly and I slammed into her. She wiped her eyes.
“Sorry, I thought we were still walking.” I steadied myself and looked at her. “You okay, Jeni? She seems to have really rattled you.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine. She just ratted me out is all.”
“What do you mean? That bit about you liking me?”
She paled and her eyes stopped tearing up. “You know?”
“Of course, I know. I’ve known for a couple of years, but I didn’t want to press you on it or anything.” I shrugged. “It’s nothing unless you want it to be.”
“What do you mean? Wait, you like me, too, then?”
“Well, yeah, I haven’t been dating anyone, have I?” I laughed lightly. “How could I not like you? You’re the bravest person I know.” I licked my lips; I wouldn’t tell her about the possibility of the woman being a hag and not some crackpot pedaling surface fortunes. “And you don’t have to have any magic to know there’s a spark between us.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. Worst kept secret, I guess.” She smiled and gestured to the bookstore. “Do you want to go in here still? Your destiny was supposed to unfold after we left her shop, so I don’t know how that fits into our night, but either way, I owe you a book.”
I laughed. “Yeah, let’s go in and look around. Maybe we’ll find something interesting.”
Upon walking through the door, the smell of books wrapped around me like a warm blanket. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.
Jeniwynn sighed. “I swear you’re weird.”
“Doesn’t that smell comfort you?” I took the lead and wandered down the first row of shelves where the newest books were displayed.
“I guess. But most likely, only because it reminds me of you.” She laughed.
“Ah, hello, Vella, Jeniwynn!” Rhyme, an older halfing man, stepped into view. “How are you two this evening?”
“Oh, we’re all right, sir. We’re just looking at the new selections. How are you doing?” I smiled and motioned to the row of books in front of me.
She nudged me and shook her head. “Don’t let her fool you. We’re celebrating her birthday. It’s tomorrow.”
“Ah, why yes! Happy birthday, Vella!” He clapped. “Is there anything I can help you find or are you just here to pick up the book waiting behind the counter?”
I frowned and looked at Jeniwynn who shrugged, clueless as I was. “I’m sorry, Rhyme, I didn’t request any books be held for me, what do you have?”
“Oh, when I got my books for the week, this one had a note attached, saying it was to be held for you. I assumed you’d asked one of my assistants to hold it for you.” He motioned for us to follow him. “I can’t recall the title, but here, I’ll show you.”
We walked over to the counter with him; he walked behind it and we watched as he pulled a giant, leatherbound book from one of the shelves. It didn’t look like anything I’d ever requested; books of that size and quality were often extremely beyond my price range.
He examined the book for a moment before hefting it on to the counter between us. “Ah, yes, that’s why I couldn’t recall the title.” He ran his finger over the binding. “The title is absent on both the front cover and on the spine! It seemed unusual, but I know you’re a reader of all sorts; I assumed it was simply an obscure volume that I’d yet to run across.”
Curiosity fully peaked, I stuck out my hand and simply touched the book. Jeniwynn squeezed my other hand. I looked at her; her expression was apprehensive this time. I smiled and looked back at the book.
Touching the cover, my fingers tingled slightly. I licked my lips. She gripped my hand a little tighter to get my attention again, but I was already turning the cover, opening up the first page of the book.
A sudden rumble beneath my feet, the lights flickered in the bookshop; I looked up, startled. Jeniwynn and Rhyme were unphased and I wondered if they’d missed it, or if my mind was playing some sort of trick on me. I looked back at the book.
On the first page, in a clean handwriting, it read, “Greetings, Vella. Welcome to the League of Owls. Bring your friend, bring yourself, your meeting begins in one hour. Directions are included in the following riddle. See you soon.”
For the second time that evening, my body grew cold and my eyes watered. Looking up from the book, Rhyme and Jeniwynn looked at me curiously.
“Well, what is it?”
I frowned and nodded to the first page. “Don’t you see this message here?”
Jeniwynn let go of my hand and leaned over my shoulder and Rhyme leaned in from across the counter. Looking up, they both held concern and confusion in their features.
Rhyme glanced at her and then back to me. She looked at the page again.
“Vel, we can’t read whatever that says.”
I frowned and look again. “It’s written in the common language.”
Rhyme shook his head. “No. It’s, um, there’s just…”
“Symbols.” Jeniwynn stared at me. “When did you learn a new language?”
I thought of the invisible earthquake and the flickering lights, and how they’d been unphased. I realized they probably hadn’t seen those things happen either. My mouth dried up.
They shared another glance and then looked back at me.
“Vella?” Jeniwynn reached out for my hand.
I ran my hands through my hair. “Shit. This—this isn’t happening.”
Rhyme’s features shifted slightly. “Jeniwynn, is this her destiny birthday you’re out celebrating?”
“No.” I spoke quickly. “No.”
“Yes,” Jeniwynn said after a moment. “Why?”
Rhyme looked once more at the handwritten message. “I think this book was left for her by Fate.”