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The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Eight

The others could say nothing as they felt the sudden waiting presence of Destiny and Time hovering close. Rachel had become intimately familiar with the presence of the ultimate powers—being distantly related to a few of them—and she could feel Love present as well. To have all three in one place was unprecedented and terrifying. Something critical was happening, had to happen, or the universe itself would be impacted.

Rodi looked into Tasia's eyes and saw the muted swirl of infinite power that was the only physical evidence that she could be a sorceress. Sorceresses were so rare because their majik was infinite. Witches, even wizards, were limited in the scope of how much majik they could use before they burned out their ability to cast, or even killed themselves. Sorceresses had no such limit; their infinite majik could never burn out. This potential sorceress was as yet unawakened because the swirl looked highly diluted, but she was still so powerful that he felt her majik sweeping across his soul like a lover's serenade.

He also felt her magic—which may also never burn out, given her gifts. How was it fair? He had fallen in love with her across twenty years, shared his deepest soul with that secret friend he had made, and he had longed for a day for them to meet and share love in the physical world. They were soul mates, chosen to be one another's Caretakers. He had been chosen as the Caretaker to a Lead Defender. The honor was humbling, and the complications terrifying. Even as he felt the powerful desire to feel her in his arms, to taste those always smiling lips, pain scored at his soul knowing he did not dare. They would forever stand separated by the needs of two worlds, never able to reconcile, and he could see no way around it.

Tasia felt her throat ache with the hunger to sing the songs he had stirred inside her soul. He had to be her soul mate, just as she had always suspected. No other could touch a Mystic's soul the way he had—with just his presence—and call out the music inside. The song welling inside her promised to tear open the elements themselves with the violent fury of her love and desire. The latter seemed impossible to reconcile or control because it came from too many directions. Even as her mind yelled at her that it would be ridiculous to get involved with Aria's rightful Ruler Cultivator while she was trying to depose his uncle, her heart and soul insisted that she would be an idiot if she didn't grab onto him now and be damned the rest. Her body? Well, it didn't care which way the rest of her went as long as it involved his hands on her at the soonest opportunity. She did not dare. She would never beg for what little she could get; she had too much pride for that.

"Yes," he finally said softly, "we do finally meet. I don't think either of us ever thought it would be under these circumstances."

Raine glanced at Tasia and felt her friend's words about her soul mate dancing in her mind. Destiny had been in one hell of a mood lately. What was she trying to accomplish? What wrong was she trying to right? She looked at the others and found them just as confused as she felt. "Who are you?" she finally asked.

"His name is Rodi," Tasia said. "He's Aevan's son, and Megan's elder brother—and the proper Ruler Cultivator of Aria. That makes sense of a lot. How you gave me black poppies all the time. What you were wearing that first day we met—it was a Ruler suit. Megan said it lately, that your mother had been weakened and captured. She Deactivated her Seed in an effort to make you more powerful, didn't she?"

A Ruler could Deactivate their Seed in order to Activate another. It usually happened when the Ruler wanted to marry another Ruler and needed to ensure their own lineage continued. Neither Robert nor Evan had needed to Deactivate because their sisters carried the lineage, but it had happened with Evan and Shanae's father. He had Deactivated himself as a Ruler of Celia, another world within this galaxy.

Rodi slowly nodded. "The idea being that it would be safer to have just one Ruler for Armand to attempt to kill, particularly since he'll find it damned hard to kill me! He would have with or without Mother's actions, but she has given me extra defenses for doing so." He started to say more, and then spied the clip in her hair. "That's . . ." He slowly walked closer and reached out to touch the clip. A part of him felt reluctantly resigned and even more reluctantly amused. His sister had set them up. "So, I see Megan gave you this."

"She told me to watch out for you and keep you out of trouble. She said the clip was proof." His body radiated more heat than the summer sun. It was all she could do to keep from going into his arms and asking to be held. Her Caretaker. He could hold her soul together. He had proven that even before she had known she would have a Caretaker. "Do you need it back now?"

"No, you need to keep it." He shook his head when she lifted a brow at him. "It's complicated, but since Megan gave it to you, you hold onto it."

She glanced over his shoulder to her friends and found all of them making faces at her. Her eyes narrowed warningly, especially at Leslie who looked positively gleeful. She would have a few words with them later about being smartasses. "I need to have a word with Rodi. You guys get moving and I'll catch up."

Emily lifted a brow. "And leave you with the rogue prince?" She never would have expected love at first sight to happen in the middle of this insanity, but she wasn't such a cynic that she didn't recognize it when she saw it. She kind of liked it, actually. Kind of made everything a little better somehow.

"At least he's also a handsome prince," Beth pointed out with a grin.

Leslie linked her hands behind her back and contemplated her words before asking, "Rodi, are you going to fight the king and die a horrible and terrifying death while the people grieve for your passing?"

He blinked at her and then glanced down at Tasia. "Where did you find her?"

"In over her head with some rabble rousers that I beat the shit out of."

That he believed! He looked back to Leslie and said politely, "I was thinking more of fighting the king and making him suffer a horrible and terrifying death so the people cheer with joy and then claiming my rightful place on the throne so the world will recover and not completely die."

"Everyone needs a goal in life," Tasia snorted. She became abruptly aware of the fact that he had clasped her arm without her notice, and his thumb brushed absently over the sensitive skin of her inner arm. He had held her arm in such a way during their walks, but it had never had such a devastating impact before. Her body ached painfully as every nerve waited in agony for his touch. She couldn't breathe for wanting to taste his breath, and the cold inside longed to be warmed by his arms. She yanked her arm free and took a wary step back.

"Well . . . how about we go on ahead, Tasi, and you catch up after you talk to Rodi, okay?" Rhya offered. She listened as Leslie whispered in her ear and then nodded in agreement. "Raine, you come too."

Raine hesitated slightly and then her lips curved as she moved past Rodi and Tasia to the others. When Tasia started to protest, she turned around and said blandly, "I do what my princess commands." A very rude name was the response to that, and she muffled a laugh as she followed the others down the road. If Leslie was fine with this situation, where did she have a right to complain? Besides, she liked it! Tasia needed a Caretaker, damn it.

"Some friends," Tasia muttered. "Sell me for five pieces and a sale at the shopping center."

Rodi didn't know what items she specifically referenced, but he had a feeling he got the gist of the comment regardless. He smiled. "I'm glad they did, actually. I also needed to talk to you alone, Tasia." He paused and then said, "Tasia. I really like that for your name. You never thought to tell me what everyone called you. You only once ever complained about what no one called you."

"To be fair, you never told me your name either, for the same reason. It never felt important." She tilted her head back to look at his face. He was roughly four inches taller, so her head would probably fit nicely on his shoulder. And she was not going to go there, she told herself firmly. "I accept Tasia or Tasi as my nickname."

"Tasi it is." He skimmed a knuckle down her upper left arm, caressing her Defender Mark as he went in a gesture deliberately intimate. "Are you sure you want to do what Megan asked? You're not obligated to try to be my . . . protector."

"No one is ever obligated to be another's . . . protector," she used the word as deliberately as he did, "but I offered willingly. I hear now this interesting note in your voice. Something worried but hopeful, as if you equally want me to accept or decline this clip." She tapped a finger on her chin. "What aren't you telling me? Give me a clue."

"I'm not that stupid." He smiled. "You're a pattern master. A clue might as well be giving you the entire thing."

Her smile came wicked and beautiful and stole his breath entirely. "You got me."

"If only."

The sensual purr to the words was as telling as the words themselves. She took a slow breath. The look in his black eyes burned her all the way to her soul and felt like looking into a promise of happy endings. In a mutter, she admitted, "I'm out of my league with you."

His eyes softened. "We're both out of our league." He cupped her face in one hand and tilted her face so that the setting sun glowed across her eyes to make them turn to caramel that burned and smoldered with raw potential. How her eyes fascinated him! The swirl that marked her potential boiled under the surface, ready to be unleashed. "Sorceress," he breathed.

His head lowered slowly, and she realized she was about to be kissed, and likely kissed senseless. She hastily flattened her hands against his chest in warning and changed the subject. "I'm not yet a sorceress. I've never actually evolved, though I know I will have to eventually somehow."

He slowly released her as his fingers caressed the line of her jaw. She was impossibly beautiful both outside and in. The majik inside her, the pure force of good, made her radiant beyond the limits of flesh. He wanted her like he had never wanted anything else. Her body, yes, but her sensitive heart and musical soul and complicated mind and radiantly rich power. He felt starved for her. "I knew, but you're close enough to name you now."

The roughness in his voice shivered over her body. She took a quick breath of composure. "If you're going with us, I have two rules."

"And they are?"

"If I tell you to do something for your own safety, do it."

He smiled. "I am merely a Ruler. I can defer to a Lead Defender, though I am not without skill. What's the other thing?"

"Stop looking at me like that."

His lips curved only more. "Sorry, but I'd have to stop looking at you entirely, and I really like doing that. I always have."

That was her cue to change the subject. "There's a storm coming," she said as briskly as she could. "We need to find shelter." She began to walk swiftly down the path toward where the other Cultivators waited. "He's staying around," was all she offered.

"'magine that," Rachel murmured drolly. When Tasia was even to her, she added softly, "Unnerving, isn't it, to have someone look at you as if you're the center of his universe? To know that you have found that perfect Caretaker who can shelter your heart and soul the way no one else can?"

"It's not a common occurrence for me, that's for sure," she said just as softly. "Will my heart ever stop racing?"


Rodi, oblivious to the conversation, said to Leslie, "There's a shelter down the road. I've been staying there for a few days, so you're welcome to wait out the storm there with me."

"There's enough room?" she asked dryly.

"Yes, actually."

Lightning flashed almost directly over their heads and a bolt struck the ground nearby. Thunder roared a second later. Storm let out a yelp and grabbed onto Emily for safety. Emily hadn't a clue what to do with the terrified male, but she still patted him awkwardly on the back. "It's okay, Stormy, promise."

"We need to hurry," Rodi shouted over the next crack of thunder. They all broke into a run, with Emily mostly dragging Storm, and they dashed down the path together. The road veered deeply into the trees, and a few moments later they came upon the old cottage in the woods.

He opened the door and ushered them inside just as the storm broke and torrents of rain began falling. A third roar of thunder had their Storm diving onto the couch and pulling a blanket over his head. The others eyed him in sympathy as Rodi peeked under the blanket at him. "Aren't you Gladiolus?" he asked.

"Yes," came the muffled response.

He straightened up and dropped the blanket back over the trembling figure as lightning struck outside the cottage. Perplexed, he looked at Tasia who made a vague gesture with one hand. "We're used to him," was all she offered as she glanced around the cottage curiously.

It was a lovely place, more home than house, and it looked much like a single room studio. To one side was a kitchen enclosed by a counter, and most of them stood in the center of the main room; it doubled as a family room if the couch and chairs were any indication. There was another high counter to the other side and behind it sat a bed and cabinet for clothes. There was a door across from it, and she suspected that was the bathing room. It was nice to see the place was not too different from back home.

It felt a strangely cheerful place, made more so when Rodi got a fire going in the fireplace. He turned to light the candles and his gaze met Tasia's. Her eyes measured him for long moments and then lowered to the matches in his hand. A hint of a smirk touched her lips. He knew a challenge when it showed itself, and he shot a heated glare at the candles that caused them to flare up.

Ryan blurted, "You're a witch, too?!" Remembering what Aevan had said, he added more thoughtfully, "Wait, that's not as surprising as it should be. Your dad said Activated Rulers of Aria have majik, so that means you're a witch. I guess I just didn't make that connection sooner."

Rodi nodded. "It's new to you, so don't feel so bad. For the record, my majik elements are Shadow, Fire, and Air, and my skills are Finding and Conjuring."

Something dawned on Rachel and she looked at Tasia. "I just realized how right you were back at the castle. A Dual Cultivator with magic and majik is going to be all but unstoppable if you have the same element across all three. Which I know you do. You only have Ice magic, but you have Ice, Light, and Dark majik."

"I technically have all common elements plus the two restricted in majik," Tasia reminded her. "But you're not wrong that the same-element combination of two types of magic and majik is going to make a big difference for our team. It's called magikry for short, actually." Softer, she murmured, "Which may well be why things have happened as they did."

Rodi glanced at the couch. "Mind if I ask a question about the one under the blanket? I'm having trouble with him being afraid of thunder when he's a Thunder Flower Element."

"Hang on," Tasia sighed. "Time for roll call." She began to point around the room. "Raine Peacer, Beth Jackson, Theo Mallory, Rhya Chivanti, Leslie Toulume, Rachel Castlera, and Emily and Ryan Lukan. The one under the blanket is Storm Peacer. Related to his fear, he was hit by lightning when he was about two years old." She froze as the unseen pattern connected. "Shit. When he was two." Her eyes shot to Raine's. "We were five. It was right after we met. That was the year we all had an accident of some sort."

"That's right!" Just remembering it made the old scar ache powerfully for Beth. She rubbed her shoulder, and she saw her friends also pressing hands to their scars. Theo to the side of his chest, Raine's lower arm, Tasia's chest, and Storm's right shoulder blade. Even Emily and Ryan seemed to feel the ache because Ryan was rubbing his hip and Emily had a hand pressed to the back of her head. "You too?"

"Twenty years ago, right?" Emily fought a shiver at the eeriness of the entire thing.

"You have me lost." Rachel sat down next to Storm and gently rubbed his back in comfort. He was barely peeking out of the blanket, clearly listening but not wanting to come out of his cocoon.

"Twenty years ago, we all suffered some sort of accident." Tasia's lashes lowered slightly. Her chocolate colored eyes churned with memories. "We all nearly died. It started with me. I fell through ice and nearly drowned. My lungs were shredded and sewn back together. They had to call Kacey to save me, that's how terrible it was. Barely a handful of months later, I met Raine when she had her accident. Then Beth, and then Theo. Shortly after, Storm even had an accident. And now I can see the pattern. That's what happened. Armand knew we had a connection to Aria somehow, and he acted to freeze all of us who were on cusp of Activation. Storm and Ryan shouldn't have Activated that young, but they must have, out of sheer self-defense, and Armand got them too."

Rodi frowned. "Not that I'd doubt he would do it, but how? He didn't give in to evil until a year ago."

"Rodi." Tasia reached out without thought and cupped his cheek tenderly. "I am so sorry. Evil existed inside him all along. Perhaps his is the worst evil for he plans. He put his coup into motion long before you ever imagined he could. And . . . he acted deliberately last year because you had turned twenty-five. Your grandfather and mother decided to skip crowning her, didn't they? To just move to having you be on the throne."

His hands curled into fists. "Yes. And if I was on the throne, Armand knew he'd have no chance. I . . . I am a True Born, as we call it. The third and final Ruler of my lineage to have the most concentrated power."

"There won't be more?" Ryan asked.

"Apparently not."

"So Armand went after all of the younger Blossom Field Defenders he could find—he missed three because he didn't know to look for them—and then bided his time thinking he could remove the Rulers of Aria so he could become Activated." Rachel sighed at seeing the look on Emily's face. "Em, shut it. We don't want to hear it. There are more important things."

Emily shut her mouth, but she was amused despite herself. The more time she spent around the Statice Cultivator, the more she realized she wasn't that much older emotionally or spiritually than the rest of them. Only in physical age was she the eldest.

"I wonder why Armand didn't try to go after Rodi first if he's the bigger threat," Leslie mused.

"He did," Rodi realized with a little start. His eyes shot to Tasia. "You . . . you told me. Every couple years, when we would meet on in the Immortal Fields, you would notice something wrong with me. Some terrible bad energy. You banished it each time. You were protecting me. He was trying to get to me subtly."

Slowly, she said, "I never really investigated why it happened. All I knew was that the bad energy could make you terribly sick if it stayed, so I removed it. I think you're right." She took a step away from him as she realized how close she had gotten. "At least we have a better idea of how we ended up where we are." Though some questions still remained as to why, she only had guesses as to the answers. She would find the pattern soon enough. "It's late, and night has come." Wryly, she said, "At least trying to embrace the Dark inside me means my night vision is some improved."

Light Flower Elements, be they magic or majik, had a propensity to see exceptionally well in brightness, and the stronger they were, the brighter light they could handle. Sayena could see in absolute light all the way to a full whiteout. Only her Illusion Flower Element allowed her any measure of night vision. Conversely, Dark Flower Elements had a propensity to see exceptionally well in darkness, and the stronger they were, the more darkness they could handle. Shanae could see in absolute dark all the way to a full blackout. Only her Nature Flower Element allowed her to see with relative normalcy during the day; the sun, especially, did not hurt her eyes. She sometimes had to wear sunglasses around artificial lighting, though.

Tasia, having both, should have had equal vision in both. Her rejection of her own Dark inside her core had affected her Dark Flower Element in turn and it had given her barely any visibly in the dark. She now found improvement thanks to trying to embrace the Dark, but she had wounded it across her life—had wounded her own soul. She had never seen the wounds until realizing what she had done. She had no idea if they could be healed, or if they would spread and try to destroy her.

Rodi checked the window locks to make everything secure for the night. "Blankets in the cabinet," he told Tasia.

"Alright." She began to pull some out. "Beth, conjure some pillows."

"Yes'm." In an aside, she told Ryan and Emily, "She delegates a lot. S'how you know she's a good leader."

They snickered. Rodi had finished the locks and he said briskly, "I'm voting for someone to stand guard tonight. I'm no pattern master, but I'm thinking that if Armand is why you're here, assuming you'd be in no condition to protect yourself, then he's likely to try coming after you directly. How are you thawing?"

"We don't even know," Tasia admitted dryly. "It just seems to be happening." Though she did have her suspicions, of course. "I'll stand guard. I'm a strange blend of morning bird and night owl. I function on minimal sleep without any trouble. Probably a result of having so much trouble sleeping at all. I'm also the strongest here and I have armor."

"You," he countered politely, "have also been through hell and back, and you're going to crash when you don't expect it. You're running on pure adrenaline."

"And I don't see how it's any of your business whether I do or not." Her mystical voice dripped with matching politeness. "You have no domain over me, Your Highness."

"Do twenty years of friendship count for anything?"

"No," Raine, Beth, and Theo said in the same voice. "She never listens to us either," Beth grumbled. "Not when it comes to putting herself at risk for the rest of us. I really was not shocked to hear the description of a Lead."

Rodi and Tasia alike ignored them. "I offered to be your . . . protector," Tasia reminded him. "So shut up."

"And, unfortunately for us both, it's mutual by nature of what we are." He paused deliberately. "And by nature of the clip you wear." He slowly walked closer and reached out to touch the clip. "I don't know how things work in Blossom Field, but here on Aria, we did away with suitor lists ages ago. The eldest female in the house may choose a betrothed for the men in the house, and vice-versa. That clip is a betrothal gift, part of a matching set of which I own the other, that has been in our family forever. That Megan gave you the clip is to say she chose you as my betrothed, and as our mother is indefinitely absentee, my sister's word is law for me."

"Holy weighted hells," Raine breathed. "She did set Tasi up!"

"And me as well." He did not look away from his fiancée. "I would apologize that you found yourself in this situation without knowing, but I wouldn't mean it. I would also say you could just ignore it because you're not Arian, but you're on Aria. And apparently Aria really likes this decision—and so does someone else. Look at your clip, Tasia."

She pulled it out and discovered that a few of the labradorites had turned to amethyst, the sacred stone of Iris. Aria had reached to Iris for permission, and Iris had granted it. The worlds themselves had acted like the Mothers they were to attempt to unite their Ruler Cultivators. Why? Her fingers tightened on the clip. Why was it so important she and Rodi be together?! It seemed as if everything pushed them that direction. All soul mates got set up to some extent, but theirs seemed extreme. Did the worlds expect her to chase him, to beg him to go with her when she left? Over her dead body.

A blend of bitterness and temper began to fill her eyes until they glowed almost gray. "How absolutely pleasant to be bound to someone against your will," she bit out. She shoved the clip back into her hair. "I guess I have no choice, do I? I guess I never did. What the gods want, what the worlds want, they get. I'm merely their servant carried along!"

Rodi grabbed her arm, and his hand closed around her Defender Mark. Her magic as much as her majik blasted into him and all the way to his soul in a searing, soothing, and erotic wave. "You are not a servant any more than I am!" he snapped. "And I am no freer than you are! With or without the clips, we were already bound together and you damned well know it, Anastasia!"

Jaws dropped. "He knows your full name?" Theo blurted.

"She has a full name?" Ryan asked incredulously.

Tasia winced at being reminded of the audience as much as the use of her name. "Damn you," she muttered at Rodi. To her friends, she reluctantly conceded, "My legal birth name is Anastasia, but it's rare for someone to call me that. Supposedly, my parents picked it because it was the name of Liena's mother. I'm the last of the female line, so might as well tip the hat to the start." She added in near growl, "Rodi and I shared the deepest parts of ourselves when we met on the Ephemeral Plane, and I told him my birth name because I was complaining about it. It's an old, almost archaic name these days."

"Tasi." He caught her arm and turned her to face him again. "For twenty years, we comforted each other when no one else could. We shared the deepest parts of ourselves, just as you said. I have no friend more dear to me than you. Let us go back to that. We can be just that. The betrothal can be safely broken once Aria is not so . . . fragile. Our worlds will understand that, this time, they can't have what they want. Not all soul mates can be together, and it seems especially true for Arian Ruler Cultivators. The first True Born of Aria couldn't be with his soul mate either."

"Friends," she agreed quietly. "That I can accept. And it is not so uncommon for my lineage as well. The first High Priestess of Protea—my ancestor—could not be with her soul mate. I'm also a third descendant, Rodi, so I know how it goes to feel the weight of expectations on you. This is all we can have."

No one liked it, at all, but even Emily and Ryan knew they had nothing they could say or do to help. Tasia had too much pride, and Rodi seemed to be somewhat typical of Dark types despite his Gray core and was being blind to what the others felt obvious. The should-be lovers would have to struggle through this alone and try to reconcile what the gods and worlds wanted of them—and hopefully not destroy themselves along the way. Because the subject had been shelved, they said nothing more and prepared to get some sleep. It had been a wild ride so far.

It was much later that night before Storm awoke abruptly to an odd feeling in his chest. A spreading warmth that reminded him of Spring coming to frozen land. He did not need to check to know his Seed had thawed and he would now bear sprout Marks. He knew it for sure. As he lay there evaluating things, he heard some odd soft sound. He looked around to check his friends and found all of them deeply asleep. They even had their heads under their pillows to muffle the loud thunder. None of them could have called his name.

He stood and wiggled his feet into his shoes quickly and then walked over to where Rodi stood at the window. Rodi glanced down at him with a lifted brow and then said, "I can feel your Thunder Flower Element and Seed now." He kept his voice down to not wake the others. "I suppose thawing would be the first step to combating your fear." He turned his gaze back out the window. "Your name seems as deliberate as Tasia's."

'Anastasia' in old language of names meant 'resurrection'. A fitting moniker for the Lead Cultivator whose birthday literally heralded her generation's Era. Given it suited her so well, Storm thought then that perhaps they should all use it more, and maybe make her actually like it. He looked out the window as well and said softly, "It always felt a bit ironic for me, really. But . . . someone is calling my name. I don't . . . feel so afraid anymore."

They stood in silence for several more minutes as they watched the rain, and then he suddenly turned away from the window and walked over to the front door. Before Rodi could say anything, Storm opened the door and slipped out into the furious midnight rain. The door clicked softly shut behind him and the cottage fell silent once more.

Rodi saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and his arm snaked out to wrap around Tasia's waist and keep her from following Storm. To his surprise, she did something, some sort of lithe movement, that slipped her free from his grip like a cat escaping a harness. He hastily grabbed her a second time and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. She would have to get violent to get free, and he knew she wouldn't be able to hurt him if he was not hurting her. "Shh!" he said into her ear. "Don't wake the others up. Let them sleep."

Her voice went no further than his ears though she said in a relatively normal voice, "My baby brother just went traipsing into a downpour! I want to be there if he needs help Activating his Seed."

"Well, I'm not letting you traipse off after him because he'll be just fine." He tried to focus on the argument, but it was not easy. She fit so perfectly in his arms, and her hair tickled his nose teasingly. The scent went right to his head. A rich and melting blend of marshmallow and chocolate that perfectly suited the blend of Light and Dark inside her. He barely resisted an urge to nuzzle his nose into the thick locks and breathe deep. "A Dual Cultivator of Gladiolus will return without any issue."

She was silent for a while and then sighed. "Fine, but I have one thing to add."

"What's that?"

"Quit sniffing my hair!"

Storm had no how long he walked in the rain, jumping as lightning struck the ground near him, before he finally sat down on an old rotten stump and tilted his face back into the downpour. He was soaked to the skin but he didn't mind at all since the rain felt warm. He wasn't sure what had provoked him to leave, let alone to walk for so long, but it felt right inside.

Lightning suddenly struck the ground near his feet and he fell backwards off the stump with a startled yelp. Training kicked in and he tumbled safely across the grass before rolling to his feet gracefully. He brushed at the dirt and sticks in annoyance. Grappling and falling were part and parcel of the training his sister gave, and now he could see why. It had a strangely practical application outside of battle.

The sound of a soft laugh inside his mind made him go very still. Sparks of lightning formed before him, and he gingerly reached out to catch them. Somehow they reflected back his image and his memories. Inside his mind, that laugh became a woman's voice saying, Hello, Son of Gladiolus.

He took a long breath. "So you're the one I heard calling." He evaluated things. "Would I be right, if I guessed who you are?"

You may well be. You're not one easy to fool, and I am not trying to fool anyone. I only want to help you help the world. The only gift I can give is to help Activate you. You will have to help me, though. I cannot do everything alone.

Storm jolted as lightning landed near him. "Okay, glad to help you help me help the world, but can we turn off the hazards?"

What makes you so afraid, Storm?

"I got hit by lightning when I was a toddler and it didn't hurt me." Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, he sighed. "Okay, I know, that sounds utterly ridiculous. Let me try to explain. There was this huge thunderstorm that came up when I was two. Rare for Protea, but it does happen. I happened to be outside when it hit." He fought a shiver. He should not have remembered that time, yet he did. His eldest sister had always said that some memories could pierce the subconscious to the conscious even if logic said they shouldn't. "One of the lightning bolts hit me and it didn't hurt me because I absorbed it somehow, but then I felt this . . . terrible burning as if I'd been electrocuted, and I got knocked along the street. Ended up in the hospital suffering shock. The doctor said it was a miracle I survived."

Oh, Storm. The voice seemed to sigh. Can't you see what really happened? Put that wonderful pattern master mind to work.

He opened his mouth and then slowly closed it as the puzzle connected. The lightning had not harmed him; in fact, it had no doubt been intended to Activate him. Defender Cultivators of the Thunder Flower Element could absorb lightning, after all, while Rulers could catch it. In that moment of near Activation, Armand must have struck. He had taken advantage of the moment and used his evil to freeze Storm's Seed. The sudden freezing had disrupted his own gifts, and he had been left shocked. It had never been the lightning at all. "Why couldn't I ever see the pattern before?" he asked softly.

Because your power scares you more than anything else. You have only reluctantly accepted what is inside you.

He could not argue with that, and he was not surprised. When he had first started growing into his Pattern Mastery, Tasia—then only ten!—had told him it was the hardest gift of all to possess. You could not be surprised. Life lost some of its wonder. Miracles were not as commonplace. You had a direct plug into the very movement of all events beyond any level Sensing could reach, and that stole away innocence. "I wanted to be a kid," he whispered. "I didn't want to have happen to me what happened to Tasia." He took a long breath. "I'm done with that. I'm not going to be a kid anymore. My friends need me and everything I can do." He began to smile. "I guess I'll be an early bloomer too!"

His eyes began to glow yellow and green as he deliberately reached out. Thunder magic of the same color leapt and danced around his body, dragging down more lightning from the sky. The sparking over his hands began to solidify and it became the familiar Mask of a Gladiolus Defender. His sprout Marks pulsed hotly and then blossomed at last with gladiolus flowers. He closed his hands around the Mask and then put it on, aware of the weight of the moment as he did.

The armor of a male Gladiolus Defender closely resembled the armor of a female Defender for both had been made to resemble their flower, but there lay differences as well. Comfortable ones. Storm had never felt more comfortable than in his armor and Mask. His hair, too short for a braid, stayed loose. He reached out on purpose, and lightning streaked toward his palm. He caught the bolt without any issue, and he grinned behind his Mask. University would be far less boring if he could start zapping the idiots.

He released the bolt and then pulled off his Mask to send away his armor. He looked up at the sky, and the rain began to lessen immediately. Rulers could also summon or banish storms, and his majik on top of it meant near absolute control in his hands. That, too, may lend itself to helping his Mother world recover.

His Mask shrank down and he held onto it as he made his way back to the cottage. He had nearly entirely dried by the time he got there, and he eased the door open softly. A peek inside said everyone was still asleep. Rodi still stood by the window with a cup of probably coffee in his hands. Tasia seemed curiously absent, but a quick glanced revealed her curled up in a chair and dead asleep.

Not that he had doubted Rodi would be right about the adrenaline crash, but the sight was still surprising given it was Tasia. He could also feel it already settling in on him as well, and he hadn't even had to have a crash course battle. He patted away a yawn as he walked over to Rodi. "I'm back."

"Welcome back." Rodi grinned. "Welcome back entirely, I might add."

Storm looked at him for a moment and then at his eldest sister and then back again. His mind sorted through everything he knew and began to assemble it like a puzzle. "How well do you think you know her? She said you know her better than even her soul-brother."

"I think the only things I don't know are the practical, casual things," Rodi murmured. "The daily things that we don't think about. We talked about the things we could never discuss with others, because we had found no one else we could share those with. I knew, likely long before any of you did, just how terribly she struggles with insomnia."

"That is the thing that always hurt us the most," he admitted softly. "That she so rarely sleeps. She's able to sleep an entire night through maybe once a week? It's just these sporadic naps here and there otherwise. Just an hour or two every night. I think . . . you two walked once a week didn't you?" The startled shock in Rodi's eyes gave the answer. "You were saving her life and her sanity, Rodi. You gave her a black poppy every time, and that night, she could sleep safely." He looked at Tasia. "And here she sleeps again. Safely. Securely. You didn't give her a poppy, but she wears that clip. Labradorite represents sleep and intuition and magic, right? Everything about Aria seems to have to do with rest. Truly, literally, no one else could be her Caretaker but you. And . . . no one could be yours except her. No one else could have kept you so safe over these years. Her wide array of majikal gifts meant she could protect you when you did not know you were in danger."

"Storm." Rodi sighed. "Let go of it."

Storm knew he had said all he could for that moment. "Good night, Rodi." He went back over to the couch and tugged his shoes off again to snuggle under the blankets. He would get a bracelet from Tasia or Beth in the morning. He would also enlist the other Cultivators formally to ensure all were on the same page to make Rodi stop being blind and Tasia stop being so damn proud. They belonged together, and all the Cultivators would make sure it happened.

Rodi glanced at Tasia and then sighed a bit wryly. A woman of her height did not comfortably sleep in a chair, and she had enough trouble with sleep. He stepped closer to lift her into his arms, and as he did, he finally received his first real shock about her. She weighed far more than she should have for someone her size. Nothing about her shape be it her softly plump curves or her powerful muscle should have given that much weight to her frame. He would have hazarded a guess that she weighed a good seventy pounds more than was average for her height and build.

It was when her hair fell on his arm that he realized why, and felt silly for forgetting. That single lock felt like a pound. Majik added weight proportionate to the amount of majik inside a witch's body. The witch never felt it personally, but anyone else certainly did. Tasia, oozing majik, may well be lucky she did not weigh a literal ton. Luckier still for Rodi, majik effected strength as wholly as weight, so he had no issue with physically moving her around. It made him again suspect celestial determination to put them together. Literally no one else could bodily remove her from danger, and only her Caretaker would even dare.

Her arms crept around his neck though she did not wake, and his heart ached with tenderness. He let himself bury his face in her hair for just a moment and then gently put her down on the bed. She almost would not let go—proving she was indeed growing stronger by the day as she let herself embrace her Dark—but he somehow managed to get free and tuck her under the blankets. After a hesitation, he removed his jacket and draped it over her as well.

He skimmed a knuckle across her cheek and sighed deeply. He did not need gods or worlds or even well-meaning siblings and Cultivators interfering in his love life. He was going to do a fine job of getting things complicated all on his own. Damn it.

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