The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Ten
It grew hotter and hotter as the day progressed on. It came as no surprise. The volcano they had seen the day before was nearly right on top of them. They walked near the base of it and the heat from the bubbling lava affected them all except Tasia. As an Ice Ruler, she could adjust her own body's temperature at will to compensate for eternal temperature. She could also control the atmospheric temperature as well as the temperature of others, so she actively worked to keep her friends from overheating. Theo was the only one she did not worry about; he soaked up the heat like the Fire Flower Element he was.
The ground began rumbling under their feet and sent everyone lurching around. They tried to keep their balance by grabbing onto each other and the trees sparsely dotting the area around them. An explosion rattled the air, and everyone looked up to see lava seeping over the top of the mountain. "Okay, that's bad," Leslie said.
"Let's get out of here before it catches us!"
With the volcano erupting behind them, they could only go forward. Most were at least somewhat decent runners and could cover the ground swiftly. Rhya tripped over her own feet more than once, but Raine kept an arm around her to keep her moving forward. They quickly left the shelter of the trees behind and broke into what had once been a forest but was now nothing more than scarred and scorched ground. As they caught their breath, they belatedly realized they stood in the scant remains of a city and the air filled with not only the smell of fire, but also the horrible scent of death.
The ground began to shake again as a signal of a second eruption. Rather than risk falling down the close by hill or stumbling into one of the holes pocking the land, everyone ducked down low and stayed there. With various curses and muffled shrieks, the Cultivators fell into and over one another until the rumbling faded. Smoke gathered thickly in the air and made it difficult to see or breathe, and more than one person coughed before covering their mouths with their shirts. A sharp stabbing sensation in Rodi's chest startled him deeply and he tried to evaluate what it meant. It came from his soul and just seemed to say there was something terribly wrong somehow. "Head count!" he shouted into the smoke.
"Emily and I are here!"
"I've got Theo and Leslie!"
"Me—Oops! Ow!" Pause. "I'm fine!"
To his horror, the only voice or name he didn't hear was the intensely powerful voice of his mystical sorceress. "Tasia?" Silence. "Tasia!" Still silence. "Striker!" He cursed and began majikally using wind to blow away the smoke. "Answer me, Anastasia! This isn't funny!"
Stop shouting at me, you asshole, and help!
"She's fine!" Rachel shouted. She fought an urge to laugh. "I think she felt down one of the holes!" The smoke cleared, and she was able to see the rest of her friends. The only one missing was indeed their leader. "We need to find her quickly!"
Leslie grabbed Rodi's arm. "You're her Caretaker," she told him urgently. "You can feel if she's hurt or in danger. I can't. I'm just her twin soul. She can feel danger to me by nature of my being a High Princess, but not the other way around. You're a Ruler, and you normally wouldn't feel your Caretaker in danger but because you are hers as well, you can. And I know you do! I can see it on your face."
It daunted him more than a little to realize what that stabbing sensation meant. More daunting still to realize it implied, as he had worried, that they had interlocked deeper than may be safe for either of them. Perhaps they had begun interlocking on the Plane, and it just kept happening faster in person. "Damn you, Destiny," he whispered. He followed the pull of his soul and ran toward the nearby hill. Once close, he could see where someone had likely tumbled head over heels.
At the bottom of the hill sat a deep crater, and Tasia was inside it. She had her back pressed against the far wall. She wore her Mask and armor, and magic flowed around her hands as she projected a powerful shield of ice around her that blocked three equally icy monsters from getting to her.
"Oh, shit," Rachel said as she and the others caught up and saw the scene. "She's not going to be able to attack those with Ice magic."
"It's worse than you think," Rodi told her grimly. "Those are Icewings. They eat the lifeforce of those with an Ice Flower Element. If they get their claws on her, they'll try to drain her dry. The only thing that has any effect on them is fire. When they go after cities, the people have to build huge bonfires around the edges to drive them away. Fire majik doesn't do anything because it lacks the ability to cause damage unless, you know, you set something on fire and hope the monsters fly into it!"
Theo took a sudden sharp breath as he felt warmth moving through his soul. He lifted a hand to pull down the collar of his shirt, and there over his heart he found the sudden presence of a sprout Mark. His short sleeves clearly revealed the same on his upper left shoulder. "I think that's my cue," he said softly. "That it's my time to Activate. If only fire will work, then I need to find my Mask and Activate as a Defender of the Fire Flower Element. And hope I have offensive magic and not defensive!"
"If it helps," Rhya told him, "as rarely as Ice is ever offensive, Fire is ever defensive. The odds are good in our favor! And if not, well, defensive may still be useful somehow. We can do anything if we try, okay?"
Theo had to smile. "Eternal optimist."
"Someone has to be!"
"Leslie, I, and Rachel will help Tasia." Storm tugged on Rodi's arm to get his attention. Urgently he added, "The rest of you hurry to the volcano to help Theo Activate and then come back to help us. We might not be able to damage the beasts, but we can at least hold them off and keep Tasia safe."
Rodi was torn with the urge and need to help his mate as her Caretaker, and the understanding that he would be more a liability than not if he tried. If only he weren't a Ruler! If he had been just a witch, he could have felt safe helping no matter the danger, but he did not dare risk himself with Aria's dying state and Armand just waiting for a chance to be Activated by all other Rulers dying. "Alright," he said curtly. He met Rachel's eyes, and she nodded briefly in understanding. It made him feel a little better, and he ran toward the volcano with those still Deactivated as well as Rhya and Raine for protection.
Rachel all too well remembered how it felt to be helpless when the one you loved was injured. She would not let Rodi, or Tasia, down. She drew her ankh out of the air before sliding down the hole and running over to Tasia. Storm followed her quickly and Leslie slid down into the hole on the other side. The Icewings found themselves diverted by two dangers and slowly backed up a bit. It would buy time, but not a lot.
It took the others thirty minutes to get up the side of the volcano. It got horrifically hot and suffocating, and only protective air bubbles conjured by Rodi allowed any of them other than Theo to endure. The Aster Cultivator could handle the heat but not the noxious gases in the air. He stopped everyone not far from the top and ordered, "Stay here." He didn't wait for their agreement and scrambled up the last of the volcano by himself.
As he peered over the edge into the volcano and saw the lava bubbling below, the rocks under his hands gave way and he tumbled headfirst into the opening. He gave a shout of pure terror and then landed on an outcropping of stone hard enough that he lost his breath for a few moments. It was the proverbial falling like a ton of bricks and damn did it hurt.
It took a few moments to get his breath back, and he finally was able to sit up and rub his bruised posterior. He didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do now, but he was there, and that was a start. Of course, being at the start was all fine and dandy, but he would rather have been in the middle, or the end, so he knew what the hell to do.
He sat for a moment staring at the bubbling lava, safe inside his bubble, and then watched a bit of lava spit out a glowing stone on fire. It flew at him and then stopped right before him. Slowly, carefully, he reached out to catch it. Thanks to his majik, it could not burn him, and he could see his reflection and memories inside it. Inside his mind, he heard a sudden and unfamiliar woman's voice say, Hello, Son of Aster.
His heart skipped a beat. "Hello. So. I am in the right place."
It could happen nowhere else. The only gift I can give to aid is to help you Activate, but you have to help me help you. There is pressure outside you, but there needs to be pressure inside. A pressure only you can build in confronting who you are. Tell me who you are.
"Me?" He sat back against the rock behind him. "I'm a hotheaded brat with a big mouth and bigger temper. I love to shop and meet girls." He huffed out a breath as he realized he only skimmed the surface with that. He had to dig deeper. "I'm selfish. I always get what I want and I don't let things stop me. I don't want to be alone so I make everyone my friend."
Why don't you want to be alone?
"I just don't like it. I just don't fathom how Tasia recharges by hiding in her room without anyone around. It's so much better to be around others because—" He broke off as he realized what was at the core. "Because," he added softer, "then they can tell me how great I am. I need reassurance. I never feel as if I can live up to my potential."
There is so much more potential in you than you know, Theodore. You just need to find courage, and, if you can't, be brave. Do you know the difference?
"Yeah. I think I do." He took a long breath. "I need to be brave right now. My friends need me. I can be anything for them, especially Tasia. Rhya and Leslie depend on me as well. I love them so much, you know?" Orange and yellow began to glow across his eyes. "I want to protect them always and support my Lead. So even if I have to be alone, I'm going to do what I can!"
The fire stone exploded into a shower of sparks and left behind the Mask of an Aster Defender. Magic the same fiery hues as what glowed in his eyes swirled around his body as he grasped the Mask and felt his Seed finally Activate. The sprout Marks pulsed hotly and then blossomed with aster flowers. He pulled the Mask on, and his armor formed. It also strongly resembled the female version, but with its own unique differences. To his delight, he got to keep the cape. He had always liked that.
In Activating, he gained something more, however. Understanding. He could finally understand why he had always had Future Sight and Ghost Sight—both related to his Aster magic and heritage—and he could also finally understand why twenty years before he had been drawn to befriend the quiet little girl recovering from terrible surgery. Theirs was a history that spanned five thousand years.
He took a deep breath and realized how normal and natural he felt. How much more secure he felt than before in his life. He also realized something about his magic as a Defender: they had rolled the wrong dice. He had defensive Fire magic. But . . . he thought he might know how to turn that to their advantage, especially when he evaluated what he now knew about his Ruler magic.
Using his majik, he grabbed heat from the volcano until it calmed down and quieted. He stored it as reserve for later and quickly climbed his way back out. He scrambled over the edge and hurried down the side to where he had left his friends. It saved Rodi and Raine from pacing into each other as they both stopped and turned to look at him in surprise. "Let's go!" he shouted as he ran down the mountain past them. "I'm on the defensive side of the fence, but I've got a plan anyway!"
Storm continued to hold a shield of Thunder majik around himself and his friends that zapped the Icewings each time they tried to get through. Like concentrating their majik into a blast, a strong enough witch could also concentrate it into a shield. Unlike attacks, shields could still contain an elemental effect. That took more practice and a higher strength since it needed to be maintained and not just fired. Storm had trained at Tasia's knee for nearly his entire life; he had both skill and strength in spades.
Leslie and Rachel knelt beside Tasia and the former held her twin in her arms. Ice coated most of Tasia's armor, and her Mask had been cracked. Her entire body shivered violently. Striker hovered over her, desperately using what little Fire magic he had to try to melt the ice but it went slowly.
"I'm so sorry," Leslie whispered. "I shouldn't have left the shield to try to attack. I should have known it wouldn't work."
Rachel shook her head. "Leslie, you had a shot. You took it. It was worth trying. We can't know how much longer Tasia could have held the shield anyway. Her magic isn't as nearly infinite as her majik."
"Are we sure about that?" she whispered. "She feels . . . she reminds me of Aunt Sayena. I think she rivals her as much as she does Mom. If she has limits, they're not going to be easily found."
"Yeah, I had that feeling too. And I wish I could tell you why, but I actually don't know. Same issue as Mom with the Elders; the more involved we are in our friends' lives, the less we can see of their futures because it affects us. Also, I'm still just the Apprentice, so I may not even know if I wasn't involved directly." She winced as a blast of ice got through the shield and shattered rock near her head. "Tasi, keep talking. Stay with us. Can you regulate your temperature yet? That blast you took for Leslie hit you hard enough to make compensating near impossible, but you have to try."
"Am." It bit out between teeth. "Better me—than you . . . or Leslie. You'd . . . be frozen. I . . . have some . . . endurance . . . for my element." Her lungs constricted painfully as she tried to take a deep breath, and her entire body convulsed as she began to cough with horrifying violence. The gasping sound she made at the end of each fit only terrified her new friends more.
"Damn it!" Leslie desperately tried to hold onto her. "She can't breathe! What's wrong?" she demanded of Storm.
"Remember we mentioned the scarring?" He fought to keep his hands steady as he held the shield. He would burn himself out if he had to in order to protect his princess and his sister. "Her lungs. Th-they got it the worst. She drowned, Les. She completely drowned and was revived again—repeatedly." He shuddered lightly. "Her lungs were torn to shreds. She's had asthma ever since. She can't heal that, and neither can Raine. She fought to strengthen her lungs so that exertion doesn't trigger the cough, but, maybe ironically, cold still can. Knowing better now about how and why it happened . . . I think there's still something evil in her lungs. It's in all of us somehow. I don't know if we can ever remove it wholly. But it—it could kill her before Armand ever lifts a hand physically."
The Icewings pulled around suddenly and made the familiar motion of preparing to attempt to punch through the shield. Storm braced himself, but Fire magic suddenly poured into the crater and covered his shield with a new one entirely. Storm cut off his majik quickly before he exhausted himself, but he still staggered a step before moving to kneel beside the others with Tasia. The coughing had stopped, but her breathing was more labored than before. The only consolation was that the coughing had forcefully warmed her anew and she had started shivering again.
The Icewings did not manage to pull up in time, and they plunged right into the shield only to emerge on the other side as little wisps of steam. The shield dissipated shortly after. Rodi leapt down into the crater as soon as it was clear and rushed over to snatch his mate into his arms. He wrapped his jacket around her, and his mouth went dry with terror when she simply slumped against him. "Tasi?"
"Awake," she whispered.
"Hang on, my iris. Let me see if this will help." Fire majik swirled around his hand and began swiftly melting through the remaining ice clinging to her armor. She began to shiver so hard her teeth chattered, but that was a welcome sign. As soon as the ice had been removed, he yanked her Mask off—unaware of the significance that he could—and grimaced at seeing the damage that had transferred to her normal clothes under the armor. He curled his hand around hers. "Shadow, solidify into Ice."
Gold Shadow majik welled and then became an icy mist as it sank into Tasia. The gift bolstered her magic, allowed her to better use her Ruler skills to regulate her temperature. She managed to raise it again to at least normal, and her entire body went lax in his arms as she stopped shivering. She tilted her head enough to feather a kiss across his chin but that was all she could manage. Thank you.
Emily could not stop herself from hovering at hand. She had been feeling useless the entire time, and now she felt it more. She cared about these people despite her best efforts. "Here." She pulled off her jacket and put it over Tasia. "This may help. I mean, okay, she can control her temperature, but let's externally control it too. How'd you do that anyway?"
Rodi glanced at her. "You mean give her magic? Any witch can do it if their majik resonates with Cultivators. It's rare for that to happen, but if you have a Cultivator that is a witch, then it's a given. I basically converted my Shadow majik into Ice and gave it to her as magic. Any of us can do that."
Rachel nodded. "For the record, thus far in history, Tasia's lineage has been the only one to resonate with Cultivators in such a way, even without being one themselves or being a High Priestess. Again, no knowing why, but that line has always been really special." She let out a long breath. "Storm?"
"He's fine," Raine assured her from where she knelt beside her brother. "That conversion of majik to magic? Can also work as a direct transfer of majik to majik between matching elements. Storm and I share the same majik Flower Elements of Metal and Thunder, though we each take the obvious as our dominant."
"Let's get out of here," Rodi ordered. He carried Tasia with him as he made his way out, and she didn't argue. She just closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. She felt only vaguely aware of Theo following them. Everything hurt after that, especially her lungs. Nothing had been damaged, though, so she did not bother trying to heal it.
"You okay?" Theo gently touched her cheek.
"Cold. Tired." She found a smile for him. "Good job. You look amazing. I knew you'd be just fine."
"Thanks." He pulled off his Mask and sent away his armor. "On the positive, Activating means that I can now sense evil coming, so maybe we'll have more warning before we go tumbling into craters. Though maybe I need to apologize, because that felt deliberate to help me. Sorry, Tasi."
"Eh." She did not lift her head. "You've gotten me nearly killed more than once in our lives."
"I still apologize for it every time," he countered staunchly, smiling.
Rachel sat down on a tree stump with a sigh. Her stamina just hadn't been up to snuff lately; she got tired far too quickly. "The convenience of being of Aster! That's why Aster Defenders always have Future Sight; goes hand in hand with the evil sense so you know where and when the danger will be approaching from. It's two separate skills but sort of symbiotically connected. The Ghost Sight is because Aster as a world had a huge amount of ghosts and spirits living on it because the orange aster flower and the Fire Flower Element itself are both connected to spirits and rebirth. All Rulers had it."
"We want to take stock and make sure we aren't gaining new skills in our majik as well," Tasia murmured. "Or awakening and/or strengthening ones we did not know we own. I already had that one with the Telepathy."
"Shush," Rodi told her. "Rest.
Raine nodded. "I feel normal over all, so nothing new here. Which makes sense when I had two skills already."
"Storm just gained himself Telekinesis, though," Rachel offered, "so now he has two, if you count it as a skill. Telekinesis is like Telepathy and Empathy in not necessarily needing to belong to a witch, but it's most commonly found among them."
Storm blinked at her. "Telekinetic? How do you figure?"
Rachel lifted a brow at the rocks that hovered in the air just behind him. When she had first gotten the skill personally, she'd had no control either. She smiled. "Call it a hunch."
"I like your hunch. It means I can move things with my mind, right?" Storm slanted a look at his sister.
"Don't even think it," the Daffodil Cultivator muttered.
Storm just grinned. It would be more fun to use that when no one was expecting it. He glanced over at Rodi and found he had sat down on another tree stump with Tasia still in his arms. He had his cheek on her hair, and the look in his eyes made all of them feel their hearts ache. Love. It seemed somehow an inelegant word for what existed between these two soul mates.
It was late, so they all decided to make camp right there. As Beth helped Theo build a fire the old-fashioned way, she remembered what Tasia had said back at the cottage about the order in which they had all been injured. Activating had thus far followed the same order, other than Storm as the odd bogey—necessity, she now thought—so if things resumed normal order, then she was next. She just hoped she had the same strength as her friends. She refused to let them down now.