The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Eleven
"I smell coffee," came a muffled voice from under blankets.
"I smell bacon," came another. "Do they have hogs here?"
"They have Rodi, don't they?" came a third voice, followed by giggles from everyone else.
Rodi glanced over at the no longer sleeping forms and lifted a brow in amusement. And here he had thought he had been a perfect princely host by giving them conjured feather blankets so that they wouldn't have to sleep out in the cold. And hadn't he also given Tasia his jacket to wear? Then again, he had also stuffed her into it and told her if she took it off before she was completely warm, he would majikally sew her into it. She might have been a bit entitled to call him names.
Rachel was the first one to actually shove the blankets aside and sit up with a yawn. She sniffed the air to catch a whiff of her favorite pork product, and she found herself utterly shocked as her stomach unexpectedly rolled. She hastily dashed into the bushes as the nausea grabbed her entirely.
Rodi winced slightly in sympathy. Considering the stress levels and upheavals, he was surprised no one else had stomach issues; he had not exactly been able to keep much down in those early days of the coup himself. Perhaps the others internalized it different from the way they did. He brewed up a cup of tea and offered it to Rachel as she returned and sat down out of the way of the cooking meat.
The others had stirred as well, and Leslie and Storm began hunting around for something besides bacon, or whatever it was, and the odd blue and green eggs to go with it. Rachel needed to eat something, too, but they would not let her near the pan. They found a tree laden with fruit not too far away, and they tried to climb up the trunk. Despite their collective skill at climbing trees, the bark was too slippery to get purchase. They could only get partway up before sliding down again.
Tasia walked over and looked up at the branches overhead. She was just a bit short to reach personally, and though she could probably lift Storm or Leslie high enough, she did not get a chance to offer before a pair of hands closed around her waist. She barely stifled a startled yelp and looked back quickly to find Rodi lifting a brow at her. With a casual strength that set her pulse fluttering, he lifted her up to where the fruit hung. She picked plenty for the younger Cultivators to gather, and he began to lower her down again. Uneasy because she was not used to being lifted in that manner, she turned in his grip and braced her hands on his shoulders.
It seemed a long time until her toes touched the ground. Her breath had caught somewhere in her chest and she could not look away from the magenta shadows in his eyes. His gaze dropped to her lips. Sparks nearly literally leapt from her skin to his and back again but did not actually form. The very majik inside their flesh, the very force of the Light and Dark inside them, sought to be one. It seemed to occur to them at the same time just how precarious their emotions were, and they broke apart hastily.
From where they had been watching avidly, more than one Cultivator muttered, "Damn it."
It was almost funny, and Tasia blew out a breath. "Thanks," she said grudgingly. "And color me impressed. You lift me as if I weigh nothing."
"To me, you don't. You surprised me the first time, but I don't notice it anymore."
She stared at his back as he walked over to tend to the food. She knew the laws of majik better than anyone else there, and now she began to study him anew. If he didn't notice the difference her weight made, then he may be packing more power than perhaps even he knew. The fact that he had, in fact, three majik Flower Elements without being a wizard underscored his great potential as well. A witch should normally only be able to pick one or two elements and one or two skills. Wizards could gain up to three more elements and two more skills. The presence of more than two elements or skills in a witch implied the potential to evolve into a wizard, which were very rare at only happening once every few hundred thousand witches. Tasia could actually name on one hand the few that had appeared in history—and all had been related to her at some point.
She could even see the logic, really, in her Caretaker being powerful enough majikally to become a wizard, especially if she was to eventually evolve into a sorceress. It could actually be dangerous for him otherwise because lovers traded bits of power when they made love, so if he could not handle absorbing bits from her—she who literally had it all—then he could be destroyed. "You plan for nearly everything, Destiny," she murmured. "But some things just can't happen the way you want. I'm sorry."
Beth started to say something to Rodi, but he shot her a snarling look that warned her off. She bit her lip and hid a grin. Not that he had come across as the most even-tempered man on the planet, but his self-control clearly thinned with every passing day. Tasia showed the effects more clearly because she was normally even-tempered, and Beth had seen more of her anger in the last few days than she had seen in their lives. Beth hoped they would just lose it entirely and jump each other, but she was willing to help them get there if necessary. She was still pondering the subject as they closed up the camp and headed out on their way around a very large and nasty looking chunk of forest.
"Why aren't we going through it?" Rhya asked curiously.
Rodi snorted. "No one's come back out in one piece within the last hundred years thanks to the predators living within. Our best efforts to tone down the dangers has done nothing, so most everyone just goes around it. Kingdom's rules are that if you go in, you can't complain if you get eaten."
"There are cliffs beyond the forest but they're hard for even a dragon to get to. Coming back's a cinch; it's downhill on the air currents. But going up? Nothing doing. We're better off going the long way around."
He and Tasia may have been walking at the front together, yet they seemed to be deliberately keeping a foot or more of space between them and would not look at one another directly. Beth drummed her fingers on her arm impatiently. She had a powerful urge to shake them both until they stopped being proud and blind and just took what happiness they could until they figured out the rest.
After a moment more of silence, Theo remarked absently, "I am adjusting with surprising ease to this strange landscape."
"Strange?" Rodi blinked at him. "Strange how?"
"Our planets cover a wide gamut of landscapes," Leslie offered, "but because of our sun being different from yours, we have blue skies across all of them, and our grasses grow green when they grow."
Theo peeked around at Tasia. "What makes the suns different?"
"Different energy output. They have a red sun where we have a yellow sun, therefore they receive more infrared light than we do. The plants are technically getting the same sort of nutrients but react differently to the chemicals. We could take one home and it would turn green, and if we brought one of ours here, it'd go white or pink. Leslie's Nature magic is sun-based, so it will work normally here, but any plants she grows or throws are going to look like the rest on Aria. And, for the record, the extra infrared won't hurt us. In fact, it might be good because it's a lower frequency and those prone to sunburning probably won't."
"Says the one who neither tans nor burns."
"To be fair," Leslie said dryly, "I don't either! Proteans never do. Actually," she thought about it, "I don't think Aunt Yvette is ever affected by the sun either. Must be an Iris thing as well."
"You know, I've been wondering." Beth looked at Leslie and Rhya. "Do Shanae and Sayena still train as Defenders? I know they haven't worn their Masks in ages, and most people have even forgotten Protea and Delphinium have personal Defenders, but have they abandoned it entirely?"
"No." Rhya shook her head. "They still train as hard as they can. For Mom, she keeps herself magically sharp. For Aunt Shanae, she trains physically nearly every day. She has to get up ridiculously early to fit it in, but she does it. I think . . . a part of her soul would die if she didn't." Softer, she said, "And we already worry that she may have already killed enough of her soul anyway."
"If she is not who she is supposed to be by the time we return," Tasia said in an equally soft voice that carried an underlying steel, "I will force her to find the balance she needs, as is my right and duty as High Priestess of Protea."
"You think she might be happier by the time we get home?" Leslie asked hopefully.
"Your mother is a waiting explosion of stifled emotions. It's going to blow sooner or later. Hopefully sooner rather than later."
The conversation abruptly halted at the sound of loud screeching overhead. They all looked up in confusion and found a flock of birds flying past. The flock was on its way to the cliffs in the distance, and most looked bigger than even Rodi. "Get down!" he snapped. "Those are creatures of Armand's creation!" It hurt. Aria had been a world of beauty and rest, and now it decayed in its sun as monsters infested its lands.
Everyone dropped down instantly, and several of them narrowly missed getting nabbed by sharp talons. Beth wasn't that lucky. One of the birds got its claws into her jacket and hoisted her into the air. She struggled to free herself, but nothing worked. "Let me go!"
The Defenders who had their magic didn't dare attack for fear of either hitting Beth or getting her dropped from too high a height. The flock was climbing in altitude quickly, and they headed directly over the top of the forest toward the cliffs.
Tasia flipped to her feet and said briskly, "Looks like we go in the forest after all. Armor is a great deterrent for sharp teeth, and so are flying magical projectiles. Emily, you and Ryan will stay here with Rodi." Her caramel eyes narrowed warningly. "I do not want to hear it, Emily. I know you still don't believe, but I am still your Lead so keep your mouth shut!"
"I didn't say anything!" Emily protested. She was unwillingly amused, though; Tasia knew her a lot better than she had assumed. "Just be careful, okay?"
Rodi reached out and caught Tasia's hand before she could turn away. She looked up at him patiently, and he struggled to find the words he needed. "I don't like you going where I can't protect you," he admitted softly.
"And I don't necessarily like leaving you here without me," she told him gently. "But you are safer here than with me, and I need you to protect Em and Ry. You have Shadow majik. If needed, you can grab them and hide all of you inside some shadows until I can get back to you. I'm counting on you to prove why Destiny would make you the Caretaker of a Lead, and I will prove why she would make me the Caretaker to a Shadow prince." She slipped free of his grip and ran into the forest. The other Defenders immediately fell into step behind her, and Striker followed in their wake.
"Hide in shadows?" Emily asked curiously.
Rodi glanced at her and Ryan. "Yeah. It's an ability that crosses all branches of skill with Shadow, so Rulers or Defenders or Caretakers or just majik would have it. It means the person with that element can enter or exit from shadows and hide within them. It can work as another form of transporting, actually. There are limitations depending on the type of Shadow you possess, though."
"There are different types of Shadow?" Ryan's brows shot up.
"Three types. A Light Shadow is born of a Light core inside someone that has bits of Dark as anchor points. A Dark Shadow is the opposite. So a Light Shadow can only enter/exit where Light touches Dark, and Dark Shadow is the opposite. The Ruler Cultivators of Aria have alternated between Light and Dark Shadow since the world came into being until I was born with a Gray core that made me True Shadow, which means there are no limitations to the shadows I can utilize, and I can create and control and manipulate them via my majik."
Emily hesitated and then asked, "Can . . . can Tasia do that?"
"But she could."
"If she can force the Light and Dark inside her core to merge as they should have all along, then she will be True Shadow as well."
"Is that . . . safe to do?"
"No," he admitted softly. "It won't be."
* * * * *
"Let go of me you overgrown turkey!" Beth shouted as she struggled wildly against the grip holding onto her. "You're SO going to get it when my friends come after me, if I don't Activate and get to you first!"
The birds laughed at her and continued on their flight toward the cliffs. They had only managed to grab one of them, but that was a start. The king would reward them well for removing the trespassers on his land. He had told them that they could either kill or keep the trespassers, and the birds had thought they would make better slaves than cadavers. "No harm will come to you," the bird told her.
"Oh great. It talks." She crossed her arms and scowled as they flew over the forest. She highly doubted what the birdbrain said, but she could not do anything about it at the moment. She was better off waiting for a better opportunity that didn't involve plummeting a few hundred feet to her death.
When they arrived at the cliffs and the bird put Beth down carefully, she peered over the edge of the cliff, found a straight drop down, and scrambled back hastily. Climbing down while no one was looking was out of the question. She looked around curiously and found an entire bird city set into the cliffs. The only land exit had been blocked by two guards armed with shields and spears. The spears seemed superfluous considering their sharp beaks, but it was a deterrent regardless. She could only sigh. Unharmed she was, able to escape she was not.
She spent the hours until nightfall examining the city intently. The blocked exit was indeed the only way out, and it was never left unguarded. There was a curiously high population of humans in the city, and they eyed Beth oddly since she was visibly not Arian. None of them said anything, but it still made her uncomfortable. She hunched her shoulders and hustled past a few of them before leaning against a prison wall for some peace.
"Are you a Defender?" a voice whispered behind her.
She jumped and spun around to peer through the barred window at the woman who had spoken. The older woman had hair that may have once been another color, but now looked a soft gray. Her eye color had faded, too, to a grayish-red color. Curiously, despite the effects of age on her hair and eyes, her face itself seemed younger than should be expected, her mocha skin untouched by wrinkles. She looked to be around fifty, not seventy or more. Perhaps Arians aged differently, or she had been through a lot of stress. Either way, she was almost impossibly beautiful, and in an oddly familiar way with it.
"I'm supposed to be," Beth whispered, "but my Seed is frozen." She broke off as she felt warmth flooding her soul and warming the coldest parts like Spring's arrival. Her heart skipped over itself as she pulled down her collar and discovered a familiar sprout Mark on her chest just above her breasts. "Or . . . or not. Now I just need to Activate." She shook it off and looked at the woman. "Why're you in there?"
"They took offense to my repeated attempts to escape. I was weak when I arrived, but I've been gaining strength rapidly. They did not want to risk losing me, so in the prison I went."
Beth studied her. "How did you know I was a Cultivator even though I was frozen? Because of my being not from Aria?"
"That, and I recognized certain other things inside you. Cultivators are . . . singularly unique creatures that even frozen or Deactivated can have a sense about them that others with enough experience will recognize." She smiled. "If you get me out of here, I think I can take you somewhere to help you Activate. There's a treasured glass orb these creatures keep, and since you now smell like carnations, I'm going to guess you likely have the Glass Flower Element."
"Good guess!" Beth looked around quickly to make sure no one else could see them and then studied the bars curiously. She yanked on them, found them holding firm, and then shoved against them. She had hoped to make them loose, but she nearly tripped as they swung inward easily. She blinked and held them open while the woman climbed out. "That was SO not up to code," she said. "The architect needs to be fired."
The woman laughed at her. "I would have said something, but you figured it out. They were just too heavy for me to hold and climb out through. I've regained most of my strength but gravity was working against me there."
Beth studied her and couldn't shake the feeling that she had met her before. That laugh sounded eerily familiar too. She shook it off and smiled. "I'm Beth Jackson."
"Romalia," the woman said in response. "Let's go, Beth, and I'll show you to where they keep that orb."
They took off quickly through the courtyard and snuck among the buildings and shadows until they drew close to a locked storage room. Romalia quickly and efficiently picked the lock with a bit of wire, and then pulled the door open to usher Beth inside. She quickly shut the door behind her to make it look less suspicious and then ducked back into the shadows to be out of sight personally.
Beth moved into the room deeper and looked around. A hot glow suddenly caught her eye and she ran forward a few steps. There, behind some trinkets of labradorite, she found the pulsing glass orb. She gingerly touched it with the tip of a finger and found that though it was hot, it did not burn her. As she scooped it up into her hands and saw her reflection, she heard a lovely woman's voice say inside her mind, Hello, Daughter of Carnation.
She took a long breath. "Hello, whoever you are. My friends . . . they told me there was someone helping us Activate, that you want to help us help the world, and that we have to look deep into ourselves to create the pressure needed."
That is so. Some of you needed more pressure than most in the form of battle, or a need from your friends. And as each of you Activate, you make it easier for me to help you in turn, so those who follow do not need to be pushed as hard. Tasia and Raine . . . they who are twin souls . . . I had to push them the hardest. I regret that.
"I'm sure they don't, because you've made it so we can protect our princesses." She smiled. "How funny, right? To meet someone and just love them so much you'd be willing to put down your life for them. And I would. Rhya and Leslie just . . . love. Unconditionally. I'd do anything to protect that. I need to be loved, you know?" Softer, she said, "I want to be loved. Maybe I'm addicted to it. Empaths often are. Emotional sponges, we get called. I . . . there's someone I love. I've always loved. My most beloved person other than my princesses. I didn't even think . . . he could be my soul mate until everyone started talking about what it felt like to have one. I just assumed it was unrequited love on my side, and that my desire should have to someday fade."
But you know you are a Cultivator now.
"And we only feel that sort of emotion for our soul mate," she whispered. "Witches get the best of both, able to enjoy desire without a soul mate but still possibly getting a soul mate, so I never once imagined that he could be . . . my everything. I never tried to fight for him." She laughed, but it sounded sad. "I'm such a coward. I don't fight for anyone. I hide and let others fight my battles for me." It was painful to admit. "Maybe because I feel the emotions of others, I have more trouble feeling my own. It's so much safer to hide. But . . ." She straightened her back. "I want to be done with that. I want to fight beside my friends. I don't want to be someone I'm not. I want the strength to listen to my heart and to have the bravery to tell the man I love how I feel." She smiled as her eyes began to glow gold and red. "I'm a Defender Cultivator, and of all the things we fight, the thing most important is that we fight for love."
The glass orb melted away to reveal the Mask of a Carnation Defender. Magic swirled up around her body like molten glass as she closed her hands around the Mask. Her sprout Marks burned hotly for a moment and then blossomed into carnations. Her majik had changed as well, somehow, but she could evaluate that later. The sound of fighting outside jerked her head around, and she calmly pulled on her Mask to call her armor. Her magic felt defensively based. Well, that suited her fine. Fighting beside her friends was as much keeping them shielded as it was going in personally.
She rushed out the doors to find Romalia using a sword with amazing skill to keep attacking birdmen at bay. Beth paused as she stared at Romalia for a moment, now suddenly sensing something familiar that she could not place, and then shrugged it off. She hurled glass at Romalia, and it formed a powerful shield that the birdmen painfully bounced off as if hitting solid rock. "Are you okay?" she demanded.
"Just a few nicks and dings," Romalia assured her.
"Stay behind me," Beth ordered. "I have armor. How do we get past the birdbrains on guard duty? I am not opposed to making some magical glass orbs that can explode fairly painfully on impact." Thoughtfully, she added, "This blend of Ruler magic and my majik is going to be useful."
Romalia did not have a chance to offer a suggestion before the entire area suddenly filled with bitingly cold ice mist. The thick fog became impossible to see through—except for Beth. Realizing it had to be Tasia's magic, Beth grabbed Romalia's hand to run toward where the guards had been. Sure enough, she could see and hear the sounds of both Tasia and Raine fighting with brutal efficiency. She winced. Ice was good for a bruise only when it was applied, not hurled.
A figure stepped into her path, and she collided with them hard enough that they both crashed to the ground painfully. Theo groaned and rubbed his aching hip through his armor. "Damn it, that's twice in two days." He got to his feet and pulled his best friend up as well. "Found you," he said dryly. He glanced at Romalia curiously. He, too, could sense something strangely familiar about her. "Who's your friend?"
"Romalia." Beth looked at her new friend and asked, "Want to go with us?"
"Do birds fly?"
"Not when they're frozen!" Theo snickered.
They hurried toward the others, and they ducked the flying blasts from Storm and Leslie alike. Rhya stood nearby confusing the enemies by creating realistic Illusory duplicates. As soon as the team reunited, Tasia turned and whistled intricately. Striker flew up over the side of the cliff, and Beth's jaw dropped. The small dragon had returned to his natural form, and all she could manage to say was, "He's a small dragon?!"
"They normally reach closer to thirty feet," Raine countered dryly.
His ten-foot length (not including his tail) was more than big enough to carry all of them. They climbed onto his back, and he flew over the forest in a downward glide that was far faster than the birds could manage. Eventually the avians gave up the chase, and Striker angled lower toward the campfire visible at the end of the trees.
At the campsite, Rodi furiously threw a stick into the fire and got to his feet to stalk a few paces away. Emily and Ryan shared a look but neither said anything. They felt sorry for him, yet they also understood that he might bite their heads off if they said anything, and then he would just feel guilty after. Better to just not talk to him. They were worried, too, though, and kept looking at the forest in the hopes of seeing their friends come out.
They were friends now, and the best they had ever known. Emily had once thought the rabble rousers her friends, but she now knew that had been a lie. As afraid as she felt to believe she might be a Cultivator—that still sounded too good to be true—she could not deny how strangely happy she felt despite the danger and fear. She just felt so close to the others now, especially Tasia. From the moment Tasia had helped her on the overpass, she had felt the uncanny connection to her. They were much alike in many ways, and she didn't fight against the friendship that had bloomed. She would have been a fool to turn it down, and that was something she was not.
A shadow passed by overhead and then Striker landed not too far away. Everyone slid off his back, and Tasia grinned as Striker turned back into his Coda size and flew in a loop before heading over to the fire to get warmed up. "Show off."
"You're so lucky," Beth told her. "I didn't expect him to be that big!" She broke off and her eyes began to widen as she saw Rodi approaching. "Whoa." She didn't need to see the look on his face to know what he felt; apparently that change to her majik had been her Empathy exponentially increasing with her powers. She could actually identify every emotion in the air around her from more than one person at a time. Oh, that would suck if she could not learn to control it!
Tasia had not much less strength in the same category, and she turned swiftly. Her eyes widened as Rodi closed in on her. He jerked her into his arms and held on fiercely, and her breath whooshed out on an almost laugh. It felt both foreign and comforting to be held after a fight. She could endure anything if his arms could be there to hold her after. "Hey," she said softly. She ran a hand over his back soothingly. "You'd think you didn't trust me to handle anything."
He pulled her away and his black eyes narrowed warningly. "You have been nothing but trouble since I met you!"
Her temper flared. "Now look here, you—"
The words halted halfway when he yanked her onto her toes and kissed her with the frustrated hunger of an entire lifetime. Maybe more. It felt like he had been waiting for millennia to have her in his arms. Her hands lifted and then fell weakly to her sides as the searing wave of hunger stole every bit of strength she owned. He eased back a bare breath and their eyes met. Before she could say anything, her Sight stirred and the past rushed past her gaze in a blur of images and emotion.
Pain scored at her soul as she saw her ancestor's own suffering. Liena had found happiness with the man she married, had felt fulfilled enough in her heart, but she had spent her life feeling her soul grieving and crying out for more. A pain that could never be assuaged because she had been too proud to tell her soul mate how she felt.
Pride. The bane of the lineage Tasia carried. How proud they had always been! As she stared into Rodi's eyes, she realized she faced a future without him where her soul would forever cry out to feel him near. Where they might not even be able to visit on the Plane for fear of hurting more. A future without the one who completed her. A future where they married others to ensure the Ruler lineage of their worlds—if they even could. Her stomach churned at the idea. Never. Would she have to beg to convince him to work with her to find a way? Yes. Did she care any longer? No.
She had been silent only for a moment, for it had all happened instantly inside her powerful mind, but it had been a moment enough for Rodi to feel a sudden shame. "I'm sorry," he started, "I shouldn't have—"
The words halted as she caught his face in her hands and kissed him with a wild fury not unlike what he had shown, causing real sparks to fly where their skin touched. Neither even noticed the sudden cheer from their friends in the background. His arms banded around her waist to keep her as close as possible, and the feel of her body tormented him. Emotion welled from his very soul and seared his throat, and then spilled into her soul in turn. The violent stirring of nearly chaotic emotion in her soul could not be contained, and music spilled into the air around her as a surge of romantic violins and sultry saxophones. There was no longer anything but this man inside her mind and heart. Nothing but him inside her soul. They could do anything if they were together. Miracles. He brought them back to her life.
The laughter and applause did finally reach them, and Rodi reluctantly released Tasia of the kiss through his arms kept her pressed close. Every curve and plane of their bodies perfectly fit together without any discomfort, like two halves of a puzzle aligning. He ached from head to toe to soul with desire for her, and her music seemed to have imprinted itself inside his very soul. Her shimmering eyes reflected the same tumultuous emotions, and they had reached a blend of chocolaty caramel in hue. The urge to carry her away rose powerfully strong, but he resisted it. There were laws about that, damn it.
"My tender eyes!" Ryan was peeking through his fingers and distinctly giggling.
"Your eyes?" Storm complained. "My eyes! That's my sister!"
Rodi blinked, then snorted softly. Tasia's lips began to curve with wry humor. Oddly, she felt no embarrassment. She carefully freed herself and stood on her own, if slightly shaky, legs. She absolutely would not have objected with his idea of carrying her off. In fact, she regretted a bit not being able to just carry him off. There was supposed to be some tradition about a Caretaker always doing everything in their power to seduce their Cultivator. She could get behind that, really.
The question still remained, though, of what to do next. She had determined to throw away her pride, to ask him to find a way to be with her always, but she only made up half the equation. She even thought she knew exactly what had to happen to get the outcome Destiny so clearly wanted, but even if she told her soul mate what she knew to be true, he might remain stubbornly blind. For a Gray core, he did lean a little strongly to the Dark. Perhaps he had some evolving of his own to do to be perfectly balanced—and maybe that onset of Light might clear his eyes.
"Well," Beth suddenly drawled, "Romalia, meet Rodi. He and Tasia are betrothed, and I think they might be officially accepting that now!"
"Yes," Romalia murmured, "it's probably best that they do."
Rodi stared at her in stunned shock and then his cheeks slowly turned red. "Er, hi."
"Do you know each other?" Rhya asked.
Tasia's sharp eyes swept over Romalia and then seemed to look deeper into her soul. A little smile touched her lips. It was a smile not dissimilar to Storm's. Both pattern masters didn't need more than a small hint of anything to unravel any sort of scenario.
Romalia studied Tasia equally. She had been afraid Rodi would never meet the woman he had spent his life befriending on the Plane. She had been more afraid that he would be disappointed by her not being his soul mate. In a way, Romalia did not feel surprised for it to be confirmed of them being mates, and somehow she did not feel surprised to discover his mate would be a sorceress who arrived wearing the Arian Draconis. This powerful Lead Defender was everything she could have wished for in a Caretaker to Rodi. "You'll do nicely," she said softly.
Rodi felt his heart clench at that. He was glad that she approved even though there had really been no say in the matter. There was next to no choice about anything happening, and he knew it for sure now. His eyes had just been painfully opened by Destiny. No matter how he fought, he would only get in deeper if he stayed. The bonds between them kept getting stronger. Destiny would keep finding ways of tying them tighter together. He needed to leave before it was too late.
The sun had long since set, and everyone was exhausted. They went ahead and made camp right where they stood. Rodi and Romalia took the first guard shift. Tasia didn't go to sleep the way her friends did, however. She stayed up and sat staring into the fire. The two Arians let her be; Rodi had noticed that, as time passed, even the labradorites in her clip could not help her battle the insomnia. Her mind refused to settle, and the struggle deep inside her had made her visions only more unpleasant. Bitterness welled. He could save her from her own sleepless nights, yet he did not dare.
She held up a hand and her deck of tarot cards appeared in her grip from where she had been storing them majikally. She cut them one-handed and then dealt out a single card. He couldn't see what it was, but he saw her face grow still and quiet. She closed her eyes for long moments before she put the cards aside and got to her feet with lithe grace.
He straightened from the tree he had been leaning against as she stopped in front of him. He tenderly tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. "You need to rest," he told her softly. "You may have a long endurance, but you're rushing right toward a breaking point."
"I know," she admitted softly. "And it's a break that I cannot avoid. I will shatter entirely, Rodi. I can't avoid that fate." A little shiver roughened her skin, and she smiled as he immediately wrapped his jacket around her shoulders. "You know I can adjust for being cold."
"Why waste the effort?" He rubbed a knuckle over her cheek. "Why will you shatter, Tasi? What need is there for that to happen?"
"A good one. Everything . . . in my life connects. There's someone who needs me to shatter myself and be reborn as a sorceress. A Gray Sorceress. A True Shadow Sorceress. I just don't know how long it will take to reach there, or how intact I will be after." She closed her eyes. "I made the decision to try to accept the Dark inside me, but it isn't . . . happy. I forsaked it for too long. I have visions of it consuming me and devouring me, taking me entirely from the Light. They fight for control of my soul. I know if I dive deep enough, fight hard enough, I can make them merge into one. I just don't know how to see through the . . . the chaos. It's chaotic inside my soul. It confuses me."
He reached out to call a black poppy, but when he went to tuck it behind her ear, she pushed his hand away. "Tasi?"
"Not yet. We need to talk, Rodi." She met his eyes directly. "I'm tired, yes, but tired in other ways as well. Tired of pretending I can accept walking away from you. I should have done this the first day, but I was too proud. Pride is a poor comfort through years of your soul grieving, and the pain ahead of us will be so much worse because we have already interlocked together. We can be no closer, Rodi. We are already lovers; we just have not consummated the relationship physically yet."
"I . . ."
She cupped his cheek and ached at seeing the turmoil in his eyes. "I am here, humbling myself, begging you, to find a way. To open your eyes to what could be. I will take anything you can give, and give you everything in return. I love you too much to hold anything back." She rose up to kiss him and gave him the generosity of her love, poured her very power into it so that he could taste it on his lips. The intimate gift of her majik spoke more than her words.
His arms curled around her, and he deepened the kiss with the same generosity. His power rose to meet hers, and majikal sparks flew where their skin touched. One last time to hold her. To savor her. One last memory . . . Her hands framed his face soothingly as she instinctively sought to comfort. His sorceress. He slowly released her entirely and moved her back a step. "Take this." He tucked the poppy behind her ear. "And get some sleep." His voice came out thick with the effort to hold back what he really wanted to say.
She said nothing as she walked back over to her blankets. She remained silent as she pulled his jacket around her shoulders and curled up. He watched her for long moments as a vicious war raged inside his heart. Unable to take it, he turned and walked over to where Romalia stood on the other side of the camp. "Mom," he said quietly. "We need to talk."
Tasia felt him leave. How could she not? He tore out entire pieces of her soul and gouged the rest viciously. The pain welled up endlessly in burning agony that stole her voice entirely. Not even her ragged breathing made a sound. Her Mystic soul could not easily endure the damage. The Light and Dark raged inside her violently and dug at her deeper. They had seen the weakness and now fought harder for control. She reached for all of her strength and pushed the pain down so she could function. "Damn you," she whispered thinly, and the aching tone made even the night weep in response.
When the other Cultivators awoke the following morning, shock welled at finding Rodi gone. Any signature from either his magic or his majik had been erased entirely, and there was no trail to follow for he had used the shadows—and Tasia did not yet have that ability in turn. The only thing that showed he had ever been present was the jacket draped around Tasia's shoulders. She was awake when the others woke, and she sat on a rock facing the sunrise. Tears slid soundlessly down her cheeks, and the music that rippled through the air around her sounded like a broken love song on the verge of shattering entirely.
The Tower tarot card seemed to stare mockingly at the sky where it sat on the rock beside her, with a withered black poppy at its side.