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The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Six

The evil magic that had grabbed them felt nothing at all like normal transport magic. That happened instantaneously and left a lingering warmth. This felt as if it happened forever, and no one could breathe—not even Emily. Racine tried to reach out for her Memory Ankh in the hopes of interrupting the power, but she only succeeded in jolting herself painfully.

The constriction disappeared and lessened the pressure on their lungs, and the black surrounding them faded away. A blend of shock and horror rose as they realized they were no longer within their galaxy. Whatever world they had arrived on was one that possessed a red sun. The infrared light had tinged the landscape with turquoise in the sky and the places where they normally saw green looked white and pink. That is . . . white and pink where the brown and black of death and decay had not crept in.

The world was dying.

It suffocated in the smoke that curled up from the few still-standing cities and it burned by the crimson lava tears that rolled down the side of a close volcano. A magnificent castle loomed in the far distance yet even it looked torn at by . . . something. Someone had thrown off the balance of the world. It cried out with such pain even those with frozen Seeds felt the cry inside their souls. LeAnn, with a Nature Flower Element, heard it the loudest. The anguish of the people rose additionally to choke the three with varying levels of Empathy: Beth, Ryan, and Tasia.

The ten Cultivators had been hovering in mid-air thanks to the power that had brought them, but it abruptly disappeared and they started to fall. Tasia grabbed Reagan's hand and snapped, "Give me your Illusion magic! Hurry!"

"How?" Reagan wailed.

"Just open your magic like you're going to use it!"

Reagan reached desperately for her magic, and it swirled up around her in white and gold color. Tasia immediately grabbed it and took control with her own Illusion majik, and everyone stopped falling a few hundred feet from the ground. Instead, they began to slowly, gently, drift downward until their feet touched and they were safe.

"I didn't know you could do that." Theo gulped in air as he fell onto his knees. His trembling legs refused to hold him up right then.

"There's a particular Illusion magic skill that allows to make people levitate by creating an illusion of weightlessness. I used my majik to grab it and reverse it. Not complicated, not really. Just more proof of how magic and majik work together." Tasia's calm voice was a façade for the unease inside, but she hid it well. Someone needed to remain levelheaded in this. She would deal with the shock of recognition she felt at this familiar world when she was ready for it. "Is there a positive side in this at all, Racine? Can you access the Hall of Records?"

Racine reached out and this time found her ankh. She could not, however, find the Hall, or the Plane as a whole. "Nothing. You're the High Priestess. Can you find the Plane?"

"Nothing." Tasia blew out a hard breath. "What the icy hells do we do now?" She broke off abruptly as she felt a sudden hot surge of warmth inside her soul. "Wha-what is that?" She closed her eyes as the warmth spread, and that long-endured frozen feeling finally began to ebb. It felt like Spring coming to bring life back to sleeping flowers. She closed her hands over her heart and reached back for that tender touch reaching out. Who are you, she asked, but she got no response other than what felt like a very weak hug.

"Tasi?" LeAnn whispered. She stepped closer and then stopped in sheer surprise at suddenly feeling the presence of magic inside her twin. She could feel the Seed inside Tasia, and she could feel the icy yet soothing touch of her Ice Flower Element as a Dual Cultivator of Iris. "You thawed!" she blurted. "Your Seed! It thawed! I can—I can feel your magic!" A shocking amount of magic, actually, that felt near as powerful as her majik, and that was daunting. "Cultivators are always supposed to be able to see or sense or even smell the Seed and magic inside each other, but you seven were frozen so we couldn't. But I can!" Her face brightened. "Tasia smells like irises now!"

Racine opened her mouth and then closed it, thinking back to a premonition she had felt years before while discussing her own frozen Seed. Perhaps it had been more prescient than she had thought, and only time would tell if so. "If Tasia is now thawed, then it can only be a good thing. If she would be in danger from thawing all at once, Iris and Destiny themselves would not allow it. I think doing it herself would have been really dangerous, but not through some external force."

"What force, though?" Storm asked.

"Good question. But it's a hopeful sign! Having been in this position personally, I can say for fact that the first real stress or need will Activate Tasia and she will uncover her Flowers Marks as well as her Mask as a Defender." She walked over and pulled down the collar of Tasia's shirt far enough to reveal the sudden presence of a sprout Mark right over her heart above the swell of her breasts. "See?"

"Thanks for sharing." Tasia swatted at her hand. Thinking, she pulled up her left sleeve, and sure enough, the same Mark had appeared on her upper arm. Possibilities churned inside her mind. "Once I Activate, someone else will thaw. It will keep doing that, with one Activated and putting out a stronger power that will allow the next to thaw and Activate until we're all completely intact as we should be."

"We're not Cultivators!" Emily said heatedly. Fear made her sharper than she intended, yet she did not call her words back.

"Then why would anyone kidnap all of us?" Beth pointed out reasonably. "Look, there's something more than circumstance here; we all met in some way or another before being drawn to the palace. We're all marked somehow, and we all just feel as if we belong together. What more do you need, Emily? You can see the evidence on Tasia right now, and trust me when I say she's incapable of lying!"

"She doesn't always tell the whole truth," Raine added dryly, "but she never lies."

"She really reminds me of your mother," Reagan grumbled to LeAnn.

Emily remained stubbornly silent and the others decided to ignore her for now. "Alright then," LeAnn said firmly. She nodded. "Okay, so here's how this goes, guys. There's a sort of hierarchy that exist among Cultivators of either Ruler or Defender category, and obviously applies mutually to Duals. See, we gravitate toward following the strongest. Among Rulers, here in Blossom Field, that's always been the High Princesses or High Queens. So as Rulers, Reagan and I are in charge of things so to speak. We will make the overall galactic laws and have final say in disputes, and since we support Protea and Delphinium which in turn support the whole universe, we get to be protected as much by Blossom Field's Defenders as the individual planets and Rulers do."

"Duals mix it up by protecting themselves rather than another person," Theo guessed. "That's what the Lower Queens do, right? And basically what we all will do too." He nodded firmly. "That sounds like it would be easier overall, really. I'd rather only chase one wayward Ruler than two."

Reagan giggled. "We promise not to be too bad!"

"And as for Defenders," Racine picked up, "we specifically follow one very special Defender who is right behind the High Rulers in hierarchy. Well, technically, behind the High Priestess who is behind the High Rulers, but I guess that's moot when that person is the same one right now." She looked at Tasia. "Every generation, there is a Defender known as a Lead Defender. She's the one who is the strongest, most powerful, and most natural within the leadership role. She gains both offensive and defensive magic of her element where others always only have either/or." She smiled. "Blossom Field has never had a Lead Defender of Iris, maybe because Iris has never been able to make a Defender capable of using Ice as a weapon rather than defense. But you're already so damn flexible, Tasia, with your majik, that it just sort of makes sense you could do that with magic too."

Tasia shrugged one shoulder. "That's fine, but, I'm not anybody's leader unless they want me to be. I won't lead if no one wants to follow."

"We want you to be," LeAnn told her softly. "I think I speak for everyone when I say we don't want any other. Didn't you notice? Even Reagan and I deferred to you. You're stronger than we are, Tasi. We accept that, respect that, and thank Destiny for giving us someone special to be our leader."

Beth considered that statement. "Is there something you two haven't told us? Because it seems odd to hear a High Princess say she will defer to the Lead Defender."

"Well, we would anyway," LeAnn explained, "because that's what would help keep us out of danger. We have a full and healthy respect and understanding for the need to have Defenders, and that you guys are going to basically be driven to keep us safe at all costs, even if we want to be your equals. That's been the way for millions of years."

"But because you and Reagan are also Defenders, and therefore also Duals," Tasia said, "you are more inclined than most to defer to me because I am as much your Lead as the others'." She added thoughtfully, "My life will be so much easier than Veronica's. Shanae is actually the strongest Cultivator alive, so both Veronica and I are mutually inclined to defer to her, but Veronica is driven to keep her healthy above all. Being a generation removed, that's easier for me to handle, I guess."

Again, no one asked how she knew things she should not. Instead, eyes turned to Reagan and LeAnn who both winced. Since LeAnn's sleeve of her Ruler gown did not cover her arm, and Reagan's could be seen through, when their Flower Marks as Defenders appeared from hiding, all could see them. "We keep it secret," LeAnn confessed. "Because our mothers can't serve as Defenders right now, and there was no need for Reagan and I. We've trained, sure, and we've prepared for being needed, and we did help with one war, but mostly it's kept quiet."

"You two were kept quiet," Racine told them, "because you and I were the only ones of our generation, and, as you said, there's been no real need for us yet. The few skirmishes with evil over the last twenty-five years were handled by the Elder Defenders. When this war, whatever it is, ends, then things will shift. The preference will be for you two to not don your Masks unless absolutely needed, but there may be a likelier chance of it happening."

"We will fight whenever we are needed," Reagan said firmly. "We want to be your equals! We are all Duals. Yes, maybe our roles as Rulers are more important, but if you guys can be at risk then so can we!"

"The universe won't collapse if one of our planets is lost without a Ruler," Storm retorted.

"And I will cry and not forgive you if that happens!" came back from Reagan. "Besides, if we're there fighting beside you then we're easier to protect because you can see all the trouble we're in! I promise to stand back and throw magic, okay, 'cause I'm on the squishy side." She nodded firmly. "I have defensive magic, so I stay back. That's the rule. LeAnn has physical skills and offensive magic so she can get into the thick, but since she has Tasia as her twin, she'll be fine!"

There also lay the future reality of all finding their Caretakers—soul mates—who would certainly join them in battles as needed, offering additional defenses to High and Lower Rulers alike. That, however, could be addressed as it came up.

"Alright." Tasia crossed her arms. "I'll accept that. You will not be barred from battle and both will be accepted as equals on the team with the caveat that your value is still placed over ours, and you will not risk yourselves on our behalf. As long as you want me as your Lead, I will act as such—and I will not follow any order from any High Ruler that puts them in danger." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "And I will expect to be obeyed if I tell any of you to do something for your own good."

LeAnn nodded firmly. "If you command us to do something, we will follow willingly. If you tell us we need to do something, we will know you do it because you love us and want us to be safe. And I will never ever go somewhere you can't go with me, Tasi, I promise. Mom may not really need her Defenders as the Apex of Dark, but I do because I'm not."

Racine looked at Theo on a grin. "Which is almost a shame because it was prime entertainment watching Veronica and Shanae butt heads! They always fell into this 'agree to disagree' thing where Veronica accepted Shanae did not need them, and Shanae accepted they would protect her anyway. There are actually a lot of very specific magical gifts also given to a Lead that Shanae also possessed—because she could have been Lead—but I think she only ever used them once."

Tasia smiled. "Probably, I think, because Shanae and Veronica are actually so very much alike as a Lead, that other than the issue of her own personal safety, she agreed with all of Veronica's decisions."

"Why would there be two, though?" Ryan asked. "I mean, seems almost unfair to Veronica."

"It's worth pointing out that Sayena is also stronger than Veronica," Racine said, "and for the same reason Shanae is: they're Apexes. Sayena is like Reagan though, and squishy, so she better accepts needing Defenders. An Apex is as strong as you're going to find, you know? Sayena represents everything magical, and Shanae represents everything physical, and they have infinite power with it—it actually has the proper term of 'arcanery' because it's more than magic by them drawing on the arcane forces of the universe. And since Sayena can repel just about any attack because she is Light, and Shanae can absorb just about any because she is Dark, that helps make them even stronger."

"Wouldn't it just have been easier to not make Veronica a Lead then?" Ryan realized the answer as soon as he asked. "Wait. Shanae and Sayena basically aren't Defenders anymore, which means their team would have no Lead at all."

"Exactly. Mom always said that because of the very specific duties and roles that Shanae and Sayena needed to fill, they had to be Defenders, but since the very specific duties and roles they needed to fill also meant they couldn't forever act like Defenders, Veronica had to be born to bridge the gap. And things happened," she murmured, thinking of past wars, "where it could have been truly terrible had Shanae not had Lead skills. So she had to be a Lead Defender without formally being one, which did mean she and Veronica bickered across ten thousand years over it, but they always found an accord."

"And entertained everyone," Tasia finished dryly. She looked at LeAnn and Reagan. "Thank you for sparing me that." She dusted off her hands and effectively dusted off the conversation. "Speaking of the war we may be in, let's focus on what's happening right now." She looked around the landscape and again felt that disorienting déjà vu. Not just conscious memories of her visions, but deeper inside from her oldest ancestral echoes. Her eyes turned to chocolate color as shadows moved across her face. "I . . . know this world."

"What? How?" Storm asked.

"I've seen it in my visions." Her hands lifted and majik slowly swirled around her body in a tangle of silvery-gold black and white color.

To those who had never seen her majik before, it looked beautiful to their eyes. Vibrant and full of life. Yet . . . something seemed off somehow about the black and white. It felt unnatural, as if it was not the way it was supposed to be. Thinking about Sayena's words about Tasia's core, they had to wonder.

"What do you see when you're here?" Beth asked softly.

"Nothing important to anyone else but me." Tasia lowered her hands.

LeAnn's eyes narrowed ever so slightly as she realized the 'half-truth' comment had more than a little merit. Tasia definitely knew something important that she felt was personal, but it bothered her either way. LeAnn would be the last person to push her to tell them everything—in public. All bets were off in private. If she needed to know in order to make sure her beloved twin was happy, then damned if she wouldn't not know.

Tasia tucked her hands into her pockets and visibly shook off whatever had been bothering her. "I can smell water not far from here. If it's a stream, it might lead to a town. Most cities would be built near an easy source of water. Let's see if we can find it. And hope we speak the local language."

"Yeah, that might suck." Racine fell into step beside her and happily realized she was an inch shorter than the Iris Cultivators.

Tasia sent a smiling glance at her. "Nice to not be the tallest?"

"It is! I was so happy when LeAnn caught up to me early."

LeAnn snorted. "Proteans are on the early bloomers list with Carnationites."

"Well, that explains why someone got her boobs first," Theo said dryly.

"That was Tasia, thank you," Beth retorted, "and I still hate that hers are prettier than mine."

Racine grumbled, "At least you people have breasts." Even for her height, she had an exceptionally slim figure easily hidden under cloth. It tended to limit her in the things she could wear comfortably and enjoy, so she resented it.

"Why are you still on that?" Reagan asked dryly. "Allister sure likes you as you are!"

"My husband needs to get some damn glasses." Racine grinned when the others laughed. "Of course, that'd be bad for my blood pressure. He's too sexy as it is! That drawl of his . . ." She sighed contentedly. "My Caretaker is gorgeous enough to be a model. I'm so lucky."

"If you want him to model, we could probably get him to do it," Beth offered. "I'm really good at getting what I want. Hey! I design clothes. We'll use that as an excuse."

LeAnn almost fell over laughing. "You remind me so much of Aunt Veronica and Uncle Maxim! You could be their kid so much, Beth!" She grinned at Tasia. "And you could really be Aunt Yvette and Uncle Dane's kid. I can see it in all of you, that you could be the children of the Elders. I guess Destiny just wanted to make sure the bloodlines were refreshed rather than take it a new direction entirely. The lineage got rebooted only so far as magic was concerned. Personalities are a whole 'nother story!"

"I don't want to be royal," Storm complained.

"Join the club," Reagan complained back. She grinned a bit. "But at least we're allowed more freedoms than used to be given. There are only a few laws we're required to abide by, and all are for our own safety and happiness, so it's not hard to agree. We fill duties enough at our kingdoms, to be sure, but our parents handle so much so effectively that they let us do most of what we want on our own. That's why no one is surprised to find me training horses, or LeAnn off beating up some poor punching bag."

"Can I get advanced training?" LeAnn asked Tasia hopefully. "Since you have a school."

"Of course! You'll join Storm in the advanced classes; Raine, Theo, and Beth are already in masters' level. Classes are free to friends and family," she added to Emily and Ryan, "so if you're ever interested in some hand/foot style combat, come by any time."

"You can afford that?" Emily asked warily.

"Oh, trust us, she can." Beth grinned cheerfully. "Tasi doesn't need money. She and her mother own the farm that produces Witch's Apples, and Tasi is a famous author."

Emily stared. "You're not . . ."

"I told you I'd met her!" Ryan said smugly. "Emily's a big fan too, Tasi!"

Tasia smiled as she saw Emily's cheeks turn slightly peach with embarrassment. "Thank you," she said with complete sincerity. She tilted her head. "Speaking of that day, Emily, you looked like you'd had some sort of training yourself. I honestly don't think you needed me that much."

"We picked up what we could where we could," Ryan explained. "I snuck into archery classes, and Emily snuck into classes that focused on spears, but we both picked up a couple more physical things here and there. We could probably be even better with real training. Hint hint."

"You won't lack for teachers of anything in the castles," Beth countered teasingly. "Hint hint!"

As the conversation turned into an argument over whether castle life was worse than no home life—the team ended up divided evenly on that—Tasia felt a sudden shiver down her back that told her someone was watching her.

She slowed her walk and looked up into the trees over her head. She couldn't see anyone there with her normal eyes or her sixth sense, but she was sure there was someone there. She fiercely tried to ignore the feeling as she picked up her pace again. She would not dwell on it. She refused to admit the gaze felt achingly familiar. It was too painful to think. Her soul mate could not be here. They would never be allowed to stay together, if he was who she thought he may be.

* * * * *

He had been sleeping soundly to rest from a long night when the sound of laughter woke him. He nearly tumbled off the tree branch he had been perched on, but he caught himself hastily. "Who the hell has anything to laugh about around here?" he muttered under his breath as he scrubbed both hands over his face.

He sat up and shifted just enough that he faded into the shadows of the trees as he watched the path below silently. It was with mingled shock and annoyance that he saw the ten figures approaching. He knew who they had to be, and he felt sorry for however they may have landed there. It could not have been pleasant.

Sunlight shimmered off of chocolate hair and caught his attention. He turned his head and watched as the woman in the lead slowed her walk with the air of someone who knew she was being watched. Interesting. She had been made leader for a good reason if she had as strong an intuition as she seemed to have strength in her body. It was a beautiful body, and the musculature in her arms and lovely legs appealed as deeply as her curvy figure. Magic, combat, and beauty, just like a legendary sorceress.

He froze at the thought and then stopped breathing as he looked again. That figure . . . he knew it. He knew that lack of style that somehow became its own style. That melting chocolate hair he had played with as a child because it tingled with majik. She turned and looked up toward him, as if she could see him, and he knew her face as well. Those eyes that changed in light and dark, that he had seen full of so many different emotions. Before his breath could come back, she looked away and continued on through the forest with her laughing friends.

Because he was afraid to believe in a destiny so cruel, he silently followed them as they headed further down the path.

* * * * *

"Wow," Ryan breathed as he got a good look at the stream stretching out in front of them. It was about five feet wide, only a foot deep, and shallow enough to see the bottom. The water ran crystal clear and reflected the landscape around them. The waterfall was the same width as the stream and it spilled over the cliffs with a cheerful sound.

The air had been hot but the spray from the water had a cooling effect. It was a lovely, peaceful spot, like an oasis in the center of the dying world. There was barely any bank around the stream, as though it cut through the land. The stream stretched on as far they could see in one direction and ended at the base of the waterfall in the other.

Storm splashed into the stream and over to the waterfall. He stuck his arm into it, and instead of touching a cliff face, his arm went all the way through. Eyes wide, he stuck his head through instead, uncaring that he was now soaked to the skin. It was such a hot day that he would dry quickly, and it wasn't like his clothes weighed too much while wet. And if they did, well, that was what majik was for. "Hey, there's a tunnel here!"

"Oh cool!" Ryan joined him in looking through the tunnel and then he pulled his head out and grinned at all the others. "Someone must have made this tunnel made as a shortcut. This will save us a lot of time."

"Are we in a hurry to go nowhere?" Reagan asked dryly as she followed Ryan and Storm down the tunnel.

"If we don't know where we're going, no one can ask if we're there yet," Theo pointed out cheerfully as he stood up from cooling off and swung around so quickly that his hair splattered Emily and LeAnn.

"He's so profound," Emily said blandly. She watched as the others began running through the tunnel as well. She couldn't help but like all of them, even the mystical and eerie Tasia. Honestly, Tasia's mystical presence alone should have been a tip that she was a witch.

"He's something alright," was that same witch's dry response. "But profound is a new word for it."

Emily laughed and followed her new friends through the waterfall and then came to a screeching halt as she heard a muffled shriek and a curse from behind her. She whirled around and went dashing back the way she had come. "Tasi!" she shouted. The others immediately skidded to a stop and raced after her.

They found a very pissed off Ice Cultivator sitting in the stream and holding her nose. Emily knelt and gently tugged her hands away to see her face. Her nose looked red but not broken or bloody, thankfully. "What happened?" she asked. "You fall?"

Tasia wrinkled her nose a few times. "I can't go through the waterfall. Literally. When I tried to follow you guys, it turned instantly to ice and I basically smacked into what felt like a brick wall. Ow." She rubbed her nose again lightly. "I've had my nose broken once, and once was enough."

"What happened?" LeAnn asked Raine very softly.

". . . Long story."

Somehow LeAnn didn't think she would like the story very much and didn't press for more answers. She would ask Tasia later and pester her until she gave in. "Well . . . what do we do then? We can't just stay here."

"You guys go on ahead and I'll find a spot I can climb over to meet up with you." Tasia arched a brow as everyone frowned. "You made me your leader. Do as I bloody say or the lot of you will sport tails and fins and get to swim upstream instead."

They made a stampede for the waterfall, LeAnn included. Even those who hadn't known her for very long were quite aware that she wouldn't say it if she didn't mean it.

She waited until they were out of sight before she let out a blistering curse. "Cut me from the line," she muttered with a hint of bitterness. "Of course." She planted her feet and put her fists on her hips. Power both magic and majik and more moved across her eyes. "What is it you want from me?" she demanded of the air. "Let's see it! I won't play a passive participant. If this my moment to blossom, then let's see it!"

Once more, the waterfall turned to solid ice, and so did the stream. Snow dropped onto the ground. Literally dropped, and covered Tasia in the process. She did not feel the cold at all. She never had. Even during the random month-long freeze of her farm, she did not feel it. Which, now, made sense. She swiped the snow out of her eyes and then discovered snowflakes falling from the cloudless sky.

A particularly large flake drifted down, and she held out her hands. It landed feather light on her palms and did not melt. Across the face of the snowflake shimmered her reflection then, and reflections of her memories. Inside her mind, she heard a beautiful and oddly familiar woman's voice say, Hello, Daughter of Iris.

Her lips curved as the pattern shifted and connected. "Hello. Is it my time to blossom?"

It is. It is the only gift I can give, this offering to help you Activate. But it will not be easy. A Cultivator blossoms not merely because of an external pressure, but because of an internal. You must help me help you. I cannot do it alone.

A snarl rose on the air, and Tasia sighed. "Of course. Always with a crash course." She looked back over her shoulder as a large beast materialized with a vicious roar. It stood nearly as tall as she did, and it had razor sharp teeth bigger than her hands. Its eyes glowed with evil intent. Her body dropped on sheer reflex into a defensive stance, yet her mind contradictorily screamed at her to run.

That was always your problem, wasn't it? There is so much chaos inside you that you all too easily can't trust your instincts. You would sooner let yourself be hurt than risk being wrong. Pride. How proud you are! You would never ask for help.

Her eyes closed without a word. Not ask for help? Who had there been to turn to? She had been bitterly alone, set apart from all her peers other than her closest friends. Everything about her had made her a magnet for the worst of humankind. Bullying was all but extinct, yet somehow she had managed to find every person who still indulged in it. No two bullies had accused her of the same reason for their hate: her intelligence, her strength, her popularity or lack thereof, her style or lack thereof, her majik . . . they had found any excuse. Some had not even had an excuse. They had just hated.

It had never been physical abuse, just mental and emotional. No one had wanted to actually attack her for, as she had grown, she had continued to get better and stronger and more physically powerful even as her majik had grown, too. She had told no one about the trouble, and her friends had never seen it for they had not been in the same advanced classes. Not even Raine or Logan had known. She had chosen to take the high road and neither respond nor share the nightmare.

The high road had ended abruptly not long after her twentieth birthday. She had been unwillingly cornered at university by some of the worst. They had thrown words like knives, tearing at her deepest insecurities until she had heard nothing but a hissing of venom in her ears. Her lack of response had only infuriated them, and one lost all common sense by punching her right in the nose.

The shattered cartilage had shattered something else inside Tasia. The darkness inside her soul had surged up violently and taken command. With calm and utter precision, she had taken all five abusers apart. Five bloody lips, five broken noses, and five sets of bruises. Nothing done permanently, just enough to warn them to never try to bully another person again. She had walked away with only her initial broken nose, and she had never taken the high road again. In a way, she had not needed to: no one had bullied her again.

"It could have ended so much sooner," she said softly, "if I had let the darkness out sooner. I knew even before Sayena told everyone that I have equal Light and Dark inside me. I shunned what I knew I could do physically, shoved down my body's true potential. I tried so hard to pretend I didn't have Dark! I didn't want to be that different. I didn't want to be alone with my 'special' core."

There is so much greatness inside you. You are destined for great things. To bring forth immense power. You're the third, Tasia. The third in a long line leading to this day. You were meant to be here, on this day. You'll awaken the sleeping majik. Do not fear the darkness inside you. It belongs there, as does the light.

The words spread like a balm through her soul. How ironic would it be that she shun the dark and yet still be so blind? She could try to be both. The Light inside her represented her great majik, and the Dark represented her great physical skill. She had always willingly embraced her majik despite its strength, had mastered all elements and skills without any guilt or fear despite their own oddities. Yet she had shunned the Dark and pushed it away out of fear. Why? She almost did not need to ask now, for meeting Shanae had told her why. More than her own salvation now lay in her embracing the Dark inside, in letting her body become as strong and fast as she knew it could. Could she find the Gray in between before the Dark took her from the Light entirely out of bitter jealousy, and all hope was lost? She had to try!

Her head jerked up, and her eyes glowed equally with black and white. Purple and yellow Ice magic began to pulse around her body. The snowflake dissolved away and in its place appeared the familiar Mask of an Iris Defender. The sprout Marks on Tasia's chest and arm pulsed brightly and then began to change as iris blossoms formed. Tasia grabbed the Mask without hesitation and felt a sudden welling of premonition.

The untapped power inside her soul of raw majik. The power that could push beyond all boundaries to the infinite realm where only a sorceress could exist. Her Sight told her that she would confront that soon as well, and it was a daunting understanding for she, too, knew that she and Shanae were meant to be kindred spirits, and she knew what that meant would happen. But . . . so be it. Her path had been set before her birth. She could only choose to walk it willingly and save herself the additional bruising that fighting would bring. The fight for the Gray inside would do enough damage by itself.

She put her Mask on, and magic rose to call her armor. The monster that had been so motionless began to move again, and she did not bother to wait for it to get to her first. She shot forward as Ice magic welled around her hand. Icicles flew from her fingers and engulfed the creature before it could react. It froze instantly solid, and her heel came around to hit with such force that it shattered into pieces that dissolved. She looked at the icy area around her and smiled. Different magic, that of a Ruler, welled in turn, and the snow and ice melted until it felt like summer again. She walked over to the waterfall and this time through, nothing able to bar her way.

A man stepped out of the forest behind her, and his boots made no sound on the grass. His nearly opaque black eyes studied the land with a blend of amusement and frustration. It looked as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened there; nothing had been disturbed by the magic she had wielded. Her precision control underscored her great potential.

An Iris Defender with skills like hers was beyond rare in Blossom Field, but even in other galaxies, Ice-powered Defenders very rarely took leadership roles. The nature of ice was to shelter and protect, not unlike Dark itself. This particular Defender clearly felt a good offense was a great defense, and would never stand on the side passively. She would be the first in and would obliterate anything that stood in her path. It appealed to him, deeply, for he was not someone to stand idly either.

"Those damned eyes," he said softly, fury tingeing his remarkably powerful voice. "They've haunted my sleep, my dreams, and even my waking hours. They've promised me everything I've ever wanted . . . and she's from Blossom. A Dual Cultivator nonetheless." He threw his head back and glared fiercely at the sky. "Is this a joke? Make her impossible to not love . . . and then make her off limits? I'm not laughing!" There was no answer, but he hadn't expected one. Destiny so rarely ever explained anything.

It would be a long journey, and he could only hope he could avoid her and her friends completely. If he let himself near her, he would not be able to stop himself from trying to be her Caretaker. He would not be able to stop her from being his. If they bonded, then they would both suffer when she left. She could not stay. He could not go. They had set down roots their worlds depended on.

There was just no way this could end happily.

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