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The Destined Kingdom - Chapter One

(Present: Year 26 Resurrection Era)

She was projecting again. Or was it a vision? There were far too many times where the lines burred, and she wasn't sure where projections ended and visions began. Sometimes she walked the Immortal Fields. Sometimes she walked even further, on a world not her own. It could not be her own, unless it had been run through a filter. The blue sky edged to turquoise instead, and where green would normally be in the landscape, she found white or pink. Flowers of all sorts in breeds she did not recognize save one—the black poppy—covered the tree-line road before her.

Someone moved toward her down the road as pale leaves began to drift through the air. Shadows seethed and murmured at the edges of her vision. The figure stopped close and she knew his face. Knew his eyes so very well. He had been her eternal, secret, companion across two decades. They had talked about so many things as they moved from child to adult, yet never once had they given their names. It had not felt important. It still did not. They knew each other, knew the other's emotions. Even without her Empathy, she would have known his heart and soul anywhere.

Love. Such a small word with such big implications. She had fallen in love before she truly understood what love meant. She loved no one more than this dearest friend she had found. He knew most everything about her, as she did about him. Not the surface, practical things, but the things they would tell no one else. If ever they finally met in the flesh, if there be desire there as well, then she would know truly she had found her soul mate.

He waited for her anew, and this time there was sadness in his eyes as he held out a hand. She reached for his fingers and felt a sudden terror and pain as everything went black around her. The darkness had taken her against her will, just as she had always known it someday could.

Tasia jerked upright into a sitting position as her heart raced madly inside her chest. Her brown eyes looked around a bit wildly, and she saw nothing out of the ordinary inside her room. She could see, if a bit blurrily because of the abrupt jerk back to reality. She blinked it away and everything came into focus.

She blew out the purple candle she had been using to attempt meditation and got to her feet. For someone with so much power, so many gifts, she all too often felt subjected to their whims instead of her own. A full-blooded witch of the Faith of the Goddess from an incredibly long lineage begun ten thousand years before, she possessed a potency that surpassed all of her ancestors. She had mastered all skills associated with witches, and she could call upon almost any element she chose—though she admitted a preference for Ice, Light, and Dark. On top of that, she possessed the even rarer and all but nonexistent gift of All Sight. Only select members of three planetary monarchies had Sight at all, and only three members total had All Sight which allowed for visions of past, present, and future. She had another friend with the rare gift of Future Sight, but she had suspicions on the reasons why.

Sight tended to be the one that tripped her up every time. Nature of the beast. Attempted divination or meditation could and would take a diversion nearly every time if there was something she needed to see. She tried to control her Sight through use of tarot cards, but it didn't stop premonitions from welling out of the depths of her soul. "The whim of Destiny," she murmured. Her musical voice lingered in the air with a mystical power as potent as Light and Dark themselves.

Her bedroom door opened and one of her best friends walked in. "I'm here!" Raine Peacer announced cheerfully. She stopped short and one brow lifted as she beheld her friend. "Bad morning?"

"Don't get me started." She walked over to her dresser and grabbed up a gray ribbon to tie back her thick and unruly hair into her favored ponytail. Unbound, it now hung to her waist. It had never grown normally, so she had stopped trying to control it. The decadent color still resembled sweet milk chocolate, which made more than one of her friends jokingly wish they could snack on it.

Raine had a similar brown on brown coloring, but rather than swing to chocolate tone, she held a muted overtone that made her hair and eyes more ashy in color. Her hair barely passed her shoulder blades in back, and her tanned skin bespoke her love of basking in the sunlight. Despite her taller than average five-eight height, she had a deceptively delicate frame that concealed surprising strength.

Tasia, on the other hand, stood barely shy of six-foot in height and had a blend of sheer muscle and soft curve that caught eyes wherever she went. It tended to be that those of the stronger physical strength had hard and lean bodies while those of the stronger magical strength had soft and plump ones. Tasia straddled the line so perfectly she seemed to have gotten the best of both in order to compliment her possession of both majik and strength.

Raine and Tasia marked the height cap of their close circle of friends, though Raine's younger brother, Storm, had rather quickly crept up on his sister's height as he aged. He had turned twenty-one the day before, and might catch up by the time he reached Raine and Tasia's shared age of twenty-five. Tasia, perhaps humorously, was both the tallest and eldest of their group, with Storm being the youngest though luckily not shortest.

Thinking of birthdays, Tasia lifted a brow. Raine nodded firmly. "You called it, Tasi. One green streak and one yellow streak, one over each eye."

"Bloody hell." Though it was said in Protean, it carried the rhythmic, drawling, flavor of Tasia's native Vericity bloodline. She had to exert real effort to hide her accent, and so she had stopped bothering to try. "He just blithely woke up on his birthday with streaks in his hair? That makes us four for four now."

It had happened to them, too. Tasia had a streak of purple ombre over one eye and a golden yellow over the other. Raine had peach and copper streaks. Their two friends, Theodore Mallory and Bethany Jackson, had them too: orange and bright yellow to Theo, and red and gold to Beth. Semi-ironic, in some ways, since Theo had a naturally dark red hair color, and Beth's mahogany tone had orange undertones.

"It doesn't make sense," Raine sighed. "It has to be something we were exposed to that no one else did. Something weird to make us wake up on our twenty-first birthdays and discover inexplicable hair coloring!"

Tasia kept her mouth shut on her suspicions. She had a particular . . . gift for unraveling patterns among events, and she strongly suspected she already knew the why of the coloring though not yet the how. She would tell her friends when she could be sure—though, to be fair, she had yet to be wrong. "For sure."

Raine shrugged it off for the time being, and plopped down on the floor where she dropped her backpack. She dug inside and emerged with a sketchbook, binder, and a dozen different pencils. "Planning Process Mark Two!"

It made Tasia smile as she sat down across from her friend. They had determined to make a special short story just for Storm's birthday party to be held on the following day. He had demanded it as a gift because he wanted something by the critically acclaimed Cold Steel writing duo that no one else did.

The 'acclaim' part was where Tasia and Raine still stopped and wondered what had happened to them. Tasia was an author, and Raine an illustrator, and they had been creating books together for as long as they had been writing and drawing—at that point, all twenty years of their friendship! Just after their twenty-first birthdays, they had accepted a dare from Theo and submitted one of the illustrated manuscripts to a publisher. Four years and almost ten books later, just about every adult alive in the galaxy knew their name, and they had reached a financial security that meant they could continue doing what they loved without a stipend from the government.

Not that Tasia had needed that additional income. She and her mother still lived and worked their farmland, and their orchards still bloomed all year. They actually were the only farm in the galaxy to produce the very rare apple type known teasingly by locals as the 'Witch's Apple' because of its owners. A Witch's Apple never rotted, could be used to cook anything, and it was used by herbalists and medical providers to treat multiple ailments. The Delphinium and Protea Kingdoms even had standing contracts and would send someone to pick up a bushel or two every season.

Raine's income supported her, her brother, and her father alike, so Tasia turned her excess funds into supporting their other friends. Both the Mallory and the Jackson families knew that if they needed anything, they called the Martines. They had tried to protest, but Tasia had put down her foot with powerful stubbornness. Rarely could anyone ever change her mind, so they had given in. She was compelled to protect and defend her friends, and they had to accept that, really.

That defensive nature often came up in other odd ways. Between twenty-one and twenty-two hours every night, the Delphinium Kingdom could be seen in all its glory from the Protea Kingdom. The planets technically saw each other to the side from varying places at varying times all throughout the day—as well as Hyacinth following—but it was between those hours when the kingdoms aligned enough to see full detail because of proximity. Hyacinth just looked like a colorful sphere of green grasslands from its distance since it was smaller.

Each time Tasia looked out at the Delphinium Kingdom, she could feel a tug toward someone or something. The tug only came sharper if she looked at the palace of Protea. Someone needed her. She just knew it for sure. Once or twice in her life, she had felt what seemed like a voice calling for her. She had tried to reach out with her majik to comfort, yet she had no idea if she had succeeded.

She was the only farm girl among her friends. Raine and Storm, Theo, and Beth all lived inside the city itself. The busy life suited their extroverted personalities far more than it suited their ambiverted authoress. That didn't stop them from frequently spending time on the farm. There was just something about the calm of the land that made them all feel relaxed.

It was a pull that a lot of people felt, and people had been trying to buy the farm away from Tasia and Olivia for years. They had even offered a minor fortune for the land. The two women had stood strong: no sale, no way. Then again, they couldn't technically sell it even if they wanted. The deed was still in Tasia's father's name, since he had bought the land originally, and it would not transfer to her possession until she married.

Her father had disappeared not long after her sixth birthday, and he had done so with such skill no legal investigator had ever found him. They had never seen him again, though divorce papers had shown up on their doorstep without a return address. Olivia had signed them, and Tasia's bitterness had mounted at watching her mother cry. At least she had still had a father figure to turn to when she could not turn to her mother: Raine's father, Tosh, had stepped into that role without hesitation. If Tasia felt anything lacking, it had nothing to do with her family life. It existed solely inside her, born of that accident that had subsequently shaped her life and maybe—just maybe—had driven her birth father away.

Something was still frozen inside her. Something she could feel but not name. It left a sense of emptiness around it that made even her, the one who never felt the cold, feel chilled to her bone. She was not alone in that feeling. Her four friends had all been shaped by similar accidents, been left with a similar frozen feeling. The hair and freezing may well be related, but as to how, not even Tasia yet knew.


* * * * *

The problem with being a High Princess was not the pomp, the palace, or the expectations. It was the tiny problem that the two High Princesses were not allowed to leave the palace without a bodyguard of some sort.

They would get in all sorts of hell if they got caught, and so they had taken pains that it not happen. They had climbed out a window in the back, covered themselves in thick cloaks, and they had even timed the escape to miss the patrol of the Captain of the Royal Army of Protea. Luckily, he was very predictable. They shed the cloaks once they had gotten far enough from the palace to be in the city, and then shared a mutual grin of delight. They were cousins twice over though on first glance they did not look much alike.

Reagan Delphinium, despite being elder, was much shorter than her cousin and had waist length curly white hair. Each strand actually transitioned into black an inch before the end, so she almost had speckled hair thanks to the way her froth of curls worked; luckily for her, they did not have the same sheer fluffiness normally inherent to her lineage. She also possessed cream colored skin and bright gold eyes, and at twenty-four, an all but adult appearance. Her softly plump figure easily drew eyes, as much as her lovely features did.

LeAnn Protea was two days shy of twenty-one, but looked the same age since her Nature Flower Element tended to make people mature faster. She stood a solid half foot taller than Reagan's five-four height, and she had a powerfully muscular and lean frame thanks to being more physically oriented than her magical cousin, but she proportionately had more curve to her bust and hip, which amused her and annoyed Reagan; how unfair.

She had waist length hair as well, but it had only enough wave to keep it from being perfectly straight. The pitch black color had been offset by white streaks striated through it, and she had eyes the same pink as the black protea native to her world. Her golden brown skin had a red hue underneath, and she absorbed the sunlight rather than be affected by it. Truly, the cousins did make perfect opposites, and more than one person in the city got whiplash trying to see the two beautiful princesses walking by. Luckily, no one did peg them as princesses. Strangely enough, just wearing normal clothes and doing their hair differently could entirely throw people off. Not that they were complaining about that.

Castle life suited them well enough, and being High Princesses had definite perks, but they all too often felt a need to just sneak out now and then in order to breathe. They alternated between their kingdoms, and this time they had decided to go past the capitol city of Protea and beyond to the farmlands. They couldn't dare use the public transports that utilized magic because that would get reported to the palace, but they could catch a perfectly normal electric carriage for public transit. Technically they could have also transported themselves, but the journey was more important than the destination.

They made it safely to the farmlands and had been walking happily along the main road that ran through a few of them when they suddenly heard a low, mocking, whistle. LeAnn turned sharply with eyes narrowed to find the source. A regular whistle of appreciation would not have bothered her—she had more than once whistled back at someone—but the sheer taunting nature of this one was what had set off her alarms.

Reagan put a hand on her arm lightly. Her heart skipped over itself with nerves and fear. She had no idea what they would do if they encountered trouble. They did not dare don their Masks as Defender Cultivators lest they give away their identities and be in even more trouble than they may already get. LeAnn had plenty of training in physical combat, luckily, so should be able to protect them both if needed.

"Well, well," a female voice drawled near them. "Look what we've found, friends. A pair of pretty girls all alone in the middle of nowhere. How'd we luck out?"

Reagan's fingers dug into LeAnn's arm, and she turned and looked where her cousin was staring. Her stomach flipped up into her throat, and it was all she could do to keep her face expressionless when all she wanted was to run. Five young adults around their age or slightly older, all dressed in the way rabble rousers tended to dress, and none of them wearing pleasant expressions. Five might be pushing her skills to handle. Two for sure, maybe three, but not all five at once. Not without some damn armor. "Get. Lost," she bit out.

"I could call Racine," Reagan whispered in her ear.

LeAnn felt torn. Racine Statice was their lone protector, the only Defender Cultivator of their generation from the Lower planets, but calling her might make things even worse. There should have been eight total, all dedicated to protecting LeAnn and Reagan, and their presence would have allowed the princesses to go just about anywhere they liked. It had been that way for millions of years in Blossom Field, until this Era. They three were not just the only Defenders, but the only Rulers. The Elder generation had not had children of their own, leaving concern about the future of the worlds. A world could not exist without a Ruler though it could without a Defender.

The Elder generation had been searching, and searching, and searching, and not even the encompassing All Sight belonging to either Shanae, Racine, or Racine's mother, Claret, had found anything. If they could not find anything, then the few others with Present or Future Sight did not have a hope of finding anything personally.

LeAnn and Reagan, on their respective fifth birthdays, had sent out the needed pulses of magic that would resonate off their Defenders to allow the Elder generation to find them, yet nothing and no one had responded. The two-year plus gap between the cousins had already made things unusual, and their Defenders could have fallen anywhere between their ages, but nothing changed the fact that all would now be well past their fifth birthdays when magic manifested. Sheer luck would be what found them.

LeAnn's tumbling thoughts were interrupted as one of the male rabble rousers sniped, "Why should we leave? You're both alone and certainly don't have anyone to help you." His eyes ran over Reagan's body in a way that made her feel sick to her stomach. "You don't look strong enough to handle all five of us."

"They might not be," came an icy feminine voice filled with ruthless power, "but I sure as hell am." The beautiful voice carried a musical cadence that could only be called mystical. It seemed untamed and vibrant . . . and very enraged.

The troublemakers froze. Color slowly bled from their faces as their eyes widened until they looked more white than colored. Knees began to visibly tremble, and sweat bloomed across foreheads as they began to breathe more shallowly.

The cousins looked around for the owner of the voice to figure out how she had induced such terror, and they found her standing only a few feet away. Both caught their breath in wonder. She looked at least past adulthood, and she was utterly gorgeous in a way that seemed to be more than merely physical. Something inside her came out to make her even more breathtaking.

Her figure and frame immediately made LeAnn think she looked like a perfect blend of her mother and aunt, but the sheer force of her presence and personality reminded LeAnn solely of her mother. This woman was . . . just like Shanae. It made a curiously comforting feeling.

She clearly had little care for fashion or style, though, as she looked to have thrown on the first items to come to hand. The odd collection of colors and styles should never have gone together yet she wore them so comfortably that she looked good anyway! A curious gift LeAnn had seen in the queen of Iris, too. Unlike Yvette Iris, though, this woman also had a couple of jewelry piercings, including two in each ear and a little one visible on her bellybutton. They worked as well as the rest somehow.

LeAnn looked directly into her eyes and found they changed from caramel to chocolate depending on the light or shadow on her face. She also found something more: a painful wrenching inside her heart and soul as her loneliness sharpened unbearably as if she had never noticed it before. She froze a bit, transfixed by the instant love overwhelming her. While soul mates of the lover kind could not truly feel the full force and fury of their emotions unless they were adults, twin soul mates recognized each other at any age—possibly because lovers felt desire as well, and only adults could truly appreciate that. However, if this woman was LeAnn's twin soul mate, then she had to be one of the missing Defenders! She could be no one else.

Reagan had not wholly noticed the brown-eyed warrior. She had been transfixed by the slightly more petite, though not much shorter, female beside her. She looked more like an artist than a fighter, though plenty of strength to her arms implied that could be deceptive. She had more style as well, and color splashed her clothes brightly in perfect harmony. A backpack slung over her shoulder had paintbrushes sticking out of it. The tenseness of her grip as much as her churning ash eyes implied she felt as much fury as her partner.

The gut punch of emotion staggered Reagan as she looked into the artist's eyes. Love, loneliness, pride, fear . . . the onslaught was overwhelming. Tears welled up and then spilled down her cheeks beyond her control. She felt an inexplicable urge to run forward and hug her fiercely, yet she felt a surge of shyness because they had not been introduced. Her twin soul mate. She had found her finally—had finally found one of the missing Resurrection Era Defender Cultivators.

Luckily, the rabble rousers had not noticed the two princesses being so transfixed. They did not seem much aware of anything except a desperate need to escape. All five kept slowly edging backward, watching the warrior as if she may be a wild animal ready to attack. "Now, Tasia," a female said carefully, "we're not on your land, right? We promised not to harass anyone on your land."

"You promised not to harass anyone." A wind tugged at her high ponytail and fluttered her bangs. "I told you what would happen if you did. Karma would slap you back in your place." Her body began to move fluidly as she stepped forward. Casual confidence seemed to seep from her very pores. "Well, looks like you didn't listen to me. You pissed off the wrong witch." Her hands slowly lifted. "Let's see how you like it when something bigger and meaner decides to exert superiority. Bring it on, kids, if you think you've got what it takes!"

One of the boys on the team, possessing the most strength if the least intelligence, lunged for her. She somehow just . . . disappeared from in front of him. She moved so fast that he couldn't track her, and before he could blink, her foot connected with the side of his head and sent him tumbling. As he rolled to a painful stop, she turned burning caramel eyes on the others. The promise of great and deadly power swirled inside her gaze. "Leave." The word was not just a command; it was a compulsion.

The troublemakers scrambled away with yelps of terror. The fallen one staggered to his feet and followed woozily behind them. He drew even with LeAnn and made a sudden grab for her, but she dodged easily and her fist slammed into his nose. Blood flew as he howled in pain. "You broke my nose!"

"Your neck is next!" she retorted sharply.

He scrambled away after his friends, and Tasia walked over to LeAnn and Reagan with a grin. "Nice job!" She picked up LeAnn's hand and studied her knuckles. "Calluses. Good." Her touch was tender and feather light. "You didn't let your first two knuckles absorb the impact, though." Her fingers moved up LeAnn's arm. "No tendon damage. Just pain." Something cool seemed to seep from her skin and remove the ache. "There."

LeAnn stared at her with her breath held. "You're a witch." It was a rhetorical statement. She had heard it said, and she could feel the wild power inside her twin. It boiled and churned and made LeAnn feel as if she had touched a live current. She had only once before touched someone with that sort of power in her body. That witch had lived in the Rebirth Era, yet she had not been this powerful. Thinking it, her heart skipping a beat, her gaze lowered to see a silver chain burnished by age wrapped around Tasia's neck, the pendant hidden beneath her shirt. "May I see that?" she whispered.

A chocolate brow lifted slightly and then Tasia smiled. She hooked the chain and lifted it. There, dangling at the end, was a silver pendant in the shape of a dragon blowing flames.

Reagan's eyes flew wide as she recognized it. "No way," she breathed.

Tasia let the pendant drop back where it belonged. Infinite wisdom seemed to move in her eyes amid a strangely diluted swirl of power that never left her pupils. "My name is Tasia Martine. This is my best friend Raine Peacer." She leaned down and said softly in LeAnn's ear, "Don't talk of it for now. My Sight told me everything when I saw you. Things will come soon enough."

Eased, comforted, LeAnn felt her shoulders relax. "Okay." She found a real smile. "I'm Leslie Ann Toulume. Everyone calls me Leslie. This is my cousin, Rhya Chivanti. We're double cousins. My dad and her mom are siblings, and so are my mom and her dad."

"You're almost sisters thanks to that!" Raine smiled at Reagan. She too had sensed and understood what the gut wrenching impact of emotion meant—she herself had found her lover soul mate already. She didn't know all of it, sensed there was more here than mere twin soul mates, but she knew that Tasia did know and would tell her everything when it was the right time.

"You're amazing!" Reagan blurted at Tasia. "How'd you learn to fight like that?"

"Years and years of practice." Her eyes sparkled. "I own my school, too. I've had it for five years now."

LeAnn blinked as that threw her and her cousin for another loop. "Okay," she demanded, "how old are you?"

"Twenty-five." She sighed as both stared at her. "Yes, I opened it before I was twenty-one. Jayden Aster himself came out to test my proficiency." She grinned. "I knocked him on his ass. He was so proud he couldn't take offense. He told High Queen Shanae to accept my request, and that was that!"

At age twenty-one was when people began to start toward being adults, and they began to be allowed to make decisions for themselves. If someone that age wished to open a business, they had to do more than just put in the required paperwork with the kingdom or local operating business of their landmass: they had to be tested by an accepted expert in their chosen field. Anything combat-oriented got personally tested by the Defender Cultivators or Commanders that held the matching skill.

Tasia had not only petitioned early, she had also defeated a Commander literally thousands of years older and more experienced. It was very telling to both LeAnn and Reagan. "You're scary," LeAnn told her solemnly.

"For which you should be grateful!" Raine scolded. She sighed. "Oh well. It's done. Where are two heading?"

"We were just walking the farms but . . . can we maybe visit with you two instead?" Reagan smiled shyly but felt better when LeAnn wrapped a hand around her wrist to give her a little bravery. "We . . . well, we'd like to be your friends too."

"You're so doomed," Tasia murmured in Raine's ear. Louder, she said, "What do you mean 'like to be'? That's done and gone. You're already our friends." She smiled. "Come on. You can come with us into the city. We're meeting some other friends. You'll love them too. We always have room for more."

"Okay!" LeAnn and Reagan exchanged a smile. "Where are we going?" LeAnn asked curiously as they fell into step together.

"The shopping center first."

LeAnn winced. "Don't be surprised if I cling close. I love people and need companionship to recharge, but I get overwhelmed pretty quickly by too much going on at one time."

"Oh, you're an ambivert." Tasia smiled at the startled looks she was given. "It's a real term. Ambiverts tend to have a blend of introversion and extroversion in varying degrees. I'm an ambivert myself, though my blend is that I recharge by being alone rather than with people and yet I don't get overwhelmed by stimulus if in a social situation for too long. I actually take in information very quickly."

"I like that! Okay, so I'm an ambivert. I'm still going to be attached to your side so you can filter that aforementioned stimulus."

"Fair enough."

They walked together in easy companionship back toward the city, and the conversation stayed light. LeAnn couldn't help but dart peeks at Tasia's bellybutton ring, and as they approached the city, Tasia finally laughed and said, "Just ask, silly."

"I didn't want to be rude." LeAnn grinned impishly. "But since you said so, when'd you get it? It looks so neat!"

"Got it on my twenty-fifth birthday at the start of this year."

"Oh, are you the oldest of us?" Reagan tried to ask as casually as possible.

"I am, in fact! And you're not subtle, kid. If you want the specifics, my birthday is January 1 of Year 1 of the Resurrection Era. My mother jokingly calls me the herald." She grinned at LeAnn. "You're just days shy of twenty-one. You want to get one?"

LeAnn had not given her age, yet felt no surprise Tasia knew it. "Well, yes, but even as close as I am to twenty-one, I do sort of still need parental permission. I'm not sure how my mother would feel if I came home with a piercing in a strange place."

"It's not that strange," Raine told her dryly. "I've seen stranger. Why don't you just call and ask?"

"Uhm." LeAnn fought for an excuse, and suddenly heard the Personal Communication Assistant device in her back pocket make the little chirp noise that meant someone had sent her a text message. The PCA devices had been around for millennia—invented by her own father!—and they allowed for all manner of communication between people including audio and visual calls, messages via text, and mail delivery—providing the sender had the recipient's individualized code. It could also take photos and access a thing called the 'spider' that digitally held millions of records and pages called mini-webs that did everything from provide information to providing entertainment.

"Isn't that your mother's tone?" Reagan asked.

"It is!" LeAnn pulled her PCA out, and she smiled as she saw the message on the screen. "'Blanket permission to do whatever shenanigans you are planning to do so long as there will be no screaming, bloodshed, or tears—from either you or your cousin.'"

"She shouldn't know that," Reagan complained.

"She sounds like someone else I know," Raine groused at Tasia.

"You shush."

"You have no idea," LeAnn agreed wryly. She smiled. "Okay. I want one! Will you go with me?" she asked Tasia hopefully.

"Naturally." Tasia tugged on her long braid affectionately.

"Tasi! Rainy!"

They turned as they approached the transit station and saw a man of about the same age approaching. LeAnn and Reagan stared at the older male in fascination. His hair wasn't just any red; it was a dark nearly cardinal color that hung to his waist with a bit of curl at the end. He also looked unfairly beautiful with cerulean blue eyes and fair skin bringing more vibrancy to the red. "That is some hair," Reagan breathed, mostly unaware of the irony.

"Raine has tried for ages to recreate the color in paint," Tasia intoned solemnly.

Her friend scowled. "I'll get it eventually."

Tasia grinned as Theo skidded to a stop beside her. "Hey you! Theo, meet Leslie and Rhya. Ladies, meet Theodore Mallory but Theo for short! His brother is one of my business partners. Actually, so is Raine's fiancé." She squinted one eye. "Who is technically my distant cousin but actually feels like my brother and has been more the latter than the former for all of my life. It's kinda complicated."

"My family is just as weird." LeAnn smiled. "Nice to meet you, Theo!"

"Likewise!" Theo gave a jaunty bow and then smiled at Raine and Tasia. "Beth's waiting for us at the shopping center."

"Beth?" Reagan asked.

"Bethany Jackson. She's our other best friend." Theo tossed his hair out of his eyes. The blend of vibrant contrasting colors had more than one person getting whiplash as they tried to steal a second look at the sultry redhead. "You'll love her, promise." He studied the two newcomers curiously. He recognized the promise of power inside them as easily as he recognized the tug of affection inside himself. It was nearly déjà vu. "Have we met?"

"Not in this life?" Reagan offered teasingly.

"Just tell me you weren't in the Bronze Era with me. That was the worst one."

Reagan paused. "That's not a joke, is it?"

"Yes, it's a joke." Theo laughed. "Ah, new kids! They fall for that one every time." He added to Tasia, "Speaking of Logan, he and Terry are with Beth as well and will be going along."

"Who're Logan and Terry?" LeAnn asked curiously.

"Logan is my aforementioned brother and Raine's fiancé, and Terry is Theo's older brother." Tasia laughed. "I'm surprised they're here willingly. They swear that going to the shopping center with you is a suicide trip. What'd you do to them, Theo?"

"Nothing." He widened his eyes innocently. "Terry just made the mistake of challenging me to a majik duel. I mean, hello? You trained me. So since he lost, I'm making him carry the bags, and since he hates suffering alone, he tricked Logan."

"You're all witches?" Reagan asked in breathless wonder. The three in question smiled at her, and she felt her entire world finally start to align itself properly. She had been so sure she would never have a friend like her parents had once had. Cultivator magic was perfectly complemented by witch majik, because majik could do all the things magic could not and then some. The alliance had existed for over ten thousand years, since Tasia's own ancestor had become the first High Priestess of the Protea Kingdom.

Yet the two forces had never existed inside the same person . . . until now. Both cousins knew it had to have happened. Tasia and Raine were their twin soul mates, and that meant they were Cultivators period. It seemed damned weird, though, that neither LeAnn nor Reagan could feel the Seeds or magic inside them since Cultivators always sensed one another rather easily. It seemed especially odd because both women, and Theo, had clearly been marked not just as Defenders but as Rulers as well: they were Dual Cultivators, too.

The colored locks of hair so odd among their natural hue carried the exact colors of very specific Lower planets, and the dominant color meant Ruler while the secondary meant Defender. Together meant a Dual. Something had happened to their Seeds to prevent them from Activating or being found, and so their Mother worlds had marked them in a way different from the normal Flower Marks that appeared on a Ruler's chest over their heart or a Defender's upper left arm; Reagan and LeAnn's delphinium and protea blossom Marks had been hidden via magic to conceal their identities, but they could be felt if touched. LeAnn had deliberately patted Tasia's on the upper left arm under pretext to check, and she had felt nothing.

Nothing about the scenario made sense, including some of the ways the roles of the planets fell! Raine seemed somewhat typical of a Daffodil Cultivator, yet she was twin to Reagan. Theo seemed somewhat typical of an Aster Cultivator, but he was male—only two male Rulers had ever been born in Blossom Field, and never a male Defender. Tasia herself proved the most different—and the differences could only be deliberate. Everything about a Cultivator of either sort was planned very carefully and very deliberately by Destiny and the worlds.

The descendant of Liena Vanguard, descendant of Jean Kinsley and Byron Ranunculus, showed all of the characteristics and mannerisms of the Resurrection Era's Lead Defender, and she had been born under the planet of Iris despite showing extreme prowess in battle—and she was also LeAnn's twin soul. Something big was happening.

Something very big.

* * * * *

The large drawing room in the Protea Castle had filled with people. It had been specifically designed to hold twenty or more, so they all had plenty of room. All eight Dual Cultivators of the Lower planets and all eight Commanders were present. Sayena and Evan were present. Shanae and Robert were present. It was too damn important a meeting for anyone to not be present.

"We still have no clue, do we?" Sayena asked softly.

"Twenty years," Delilah Orchid murmured. She felt her husband, Ulyen, curl his hand around hers, and she held on. "For twenty years we've been looking for Defenders, have been hoping and praying to have children to be Rulers, and . . . nothing."

Diego Hyacinth glanced over to where Shanae's fingers moved rapidly on the screen of her PCA. "Odd to see you texting in the middle of a meeting."

"I am just answering LeAnn about her message saying she and Reagan are almost home." She put the device on the table when done. "They had a grand time with some contemporaries they met, and they enjoyed thoroughly a day to be normal. Since they were safe, I can't complain they broke the rules—though I will insist they take Racine next time." She got to feet and paced to the window restlessly.

The others exchanged a quick look of concern. She had been . . . unsettled recently. Every passing day made her seem to vibrate with impotent emotions and energy. For over twenty years she had fiercely locked down on her wild spirit and need to be free of pomp and formality, but her soul had begun to stir violently over the last few days.

"What's wrong?" Robert walked over to her and gently began to rub her shoulders.

She let out a long breath that sounded a bit ragged. "I can't breathe lately. It's as if the weight of Destiny is simply . . . flattening me." She was silent for long moments and then added softer, "But it is not my destiny that I feel. The burden has shifted to another pair of shoulders. That is my unease. Someone else . . . someone else is going to have to destroy herself in order to be whole."

The doors flew open, and Reagan and LeAnn rushed in. They were in such a hurry that they hadn't changed from their street clothes. In exactly the same voice, they blurted, "We found some of our Defenders!"

"Holy . . ." It was all Talon Daffodil could say.

Asheria Aster's eyes narrowed as she saw LeAnn's relatively revealing shirt and denims combination. "Excuse me, missy, but you're still too young to wear that."

"No, I'm not. I turn twenty-one in two days and Dad said that means I can completely dress to torment other people's hormones if I want. Also," she tugged up her shirt to reveal her bellybutton ring, "tada!"

"Ye gods, she is her mother's daughter," Robert murmured.

"I have never pierced anything but my ears," Shanae retorted lightly. "You pierced your tongue once."

"And let it grow out immediately," he countered. "You refused to kiss me unless I did."

"You almost chipped my tooth." She tugged her daughter over to a couch and made her sit down. "Reagan, sit down as well. Now tell us what you mean. You found your Defenders? How?"

"Not all of them," Reagan explained as she sat between Veronica Carnation and Veronica's husband, Maxim. "We did not find either Orchid or Hyacinth, but we found the rest! Two siblings named Raine and Storm Peacer are of Daffodil and Gladiolus."

"Blood siblings?" Julianna Gladiolus asked curiously.


She smiled toward Kacey. "Well, not too unusual. Defender sibling sets do pop up randomly every few generations. They don't usually cross the lines like that, though. Are they your age or LeAnn's?"

"Yes." LeAnn winced wryly. "Raine is twenty-five, but Storm is only a few days older than me because he just had his birthday yesterday." Grousing she added, "Of course I'm the baby still."

"You were already born premature," Kacey told her, "and did not need to be earlier than that! You scared me and your aunt enough, thank you."

"Did you say his?" Sayena demanded in surprise.

"You heard me! His. And Theo Mallory is very from Aster, so there's another male there too!" LeAnn nodded firmly. "No mistaking it on any of them. Raine had peach and copper streaks, Storm had green and yellow, and Theo had orange and yellow."

"Duals." Arista Hyacinth glanced at Claret Statice. "That might explain a lot."

Claret nodded. "It very well might, including Racine's own role in things. It can be examined much later. And, no, I did not know any of this. Remember, I am limited by what affects my own future, which has become more entwined to everyone else's ever since I came out of the Hall of Records for good. I do not see much more than Shanae does, except where the flow of Time itself is concerned."

"It's good for you," her husband, Sabin, told her on a little grin. He looked back to the princesses. "What else?"

"Well, Beth Jackson is of Carnation because she had red and gold streaks," Reagan said, "and, uhm, Raine is my twin soul." She winced when everyone stared. "I know! It surprised me too, that additional line crossing. But, er, it's so much more complicated than that and I still don't even know what is happening and oh gosh, Leslie Ann, just tell them because I'm going to lose my mind!"

"Calm down," Evan said dryly. "Breathe." He shook his head in bemusement. Her mother's child.

LeAnn took a long breath. "So. The other Defender. Of Iris, right, because that's all that's left? My twin soul. She . . . her name is Tasia Martine." She looked at Jayden and found his green eyes had widened significantly. "You remember her."

"How could I forget?" He slowly shook his head. "Do you all remember five years ago? That young woman who applied before adulthood to open a physical combat school based on hand and foot skills? The one that terrified me because she was so ridiculously powerful?" He made a helpless gesture. "I'll never forget her name."

"That's impossible," Yvette Iris whispered. "Iris Defenders are not warriors. We have never even gotten offensive magic, and everyone else has fluctuated between offense or defense many times across generations! We always stand at the back to throw magic and offer shields and fogs for our allies. You're saying she's so powerful that she defeated even you, Jay?"

"Defeated me soundly. It was like sparring Shanae, really."

"There's more," LeAnn admitted softly. "It was . . . natural to us. We saw it. Even we deferred to her. She didn't take command. She simply was in command."

"The Lead Defender," Veronica murmured. She knew it well. Every generation had one Defender Cultivator chosen by Destiny to be the best and strongest in order to lead her team. Veronica was the Lead Defender for her team, which meant she carried both offensive and defensive magic of her Glass Flower Element. "Any clue as to why they can't be read by us? Is it possible that most of them being older than Reagan is why we missed them? We weren't looking then."

"That wouldn't make a difference," Sayena disagreed. "They should have responded at any time unless they're under lockdown."

"We're not sure if it's a lockdown. We couldn't even read their Cultivator magic or feel their Seeds." Reagan frowned. "If it hadn't been for their hair and for us recognizing Raine and Tasia as our twin souls, we'd have never guessed. And . . . there's one more thing." She pulled out her PCA and flipped to the photos. "I took a picture when she wasn't looking. This is the necklace that Tasia wears."

Shanae took the phone and felt her stomach drop. Tears stung her eyes against her will as she lightly touched the image. "The third," she whispered. "The last in Liena's line." Her eyes lifted, and stunned shock filled the pink depths. "That's what happens when a witch and Cultivator have a child. Jean and Byron's descendant . . . is the Resurrection Era Lead Defender and the High Priestess of Protea." Her eyes closed. "Destiny," she asked softly, "what are you planning for now?"

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