The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Twelve
"Tasi." Leslie walked over to kneel in front of her twin soul. "Tasi?"
Tasia said nothing as she got to her feet and then disappeared silently into the forest. Leslie lowered her hands helplessly to her side. She felt slightly gutted inside herself where her shared half a soul connected to her twin's half. The two halves overlapped like pieces of paper, and the gouges torn on Tasia's side caused strain to Leslie's side. Twins could not feel physical pain the other endured, but soul-deep emotional pain always transferred.
She would make that bastard pay for hurting her beloved twin! Her eyes slowly began to turn black with flecks of white that showed the promise of deadly fury from her Dark core. Those of the strongest Dark or Light cores would find their eyes turning black or white in their fury, and so far it had only be found in Leslie, Rhya, their parents, and one other. Unlike the others, however, Leslie did have flecks of Light inside her core that affected her eyes in moments like these. Not enough to give her Shadow power, but enough to underscore her perfect opposite parents producing her, and to prove why only Tasia—she who was equally half and half—could be her twin soul mate.
Theo's hands clenched into fists. "He dies!" he snarled softly. "I don't care if he helped us. No one does that to my friend!"
"Is she okay?" Emily asked Beth softly. "You're the empath."
"No, she's not." Beth could barely force the words out around the pain consuming her. "It's like she's been gutted, Em. If you took a knife and cut her open, it would be nothing compared to this. They had already fused together, more than any of us realized. He left and it . . . it tore her apart. To shreds. And her soul is already so sensitive because she's a Mystic . . ." When Emily put an arm around her shoulders, she turned to hug her tightly. "Thank you."
"It's what friends are for. I may not know what else I believe, but I believe that. I belong with you guys." Emily met Leslie's eyes. "After you're done with him, leave something for me. I wouldn't mind kicking his ass too."
Raine bared her teeth in her smile. "He only hopes Leslie gets to him first. If it's Tasia, it'll be worse. She doesn't go down without a fight."
Rachel rubbed the back of her neck and told her stomach to stop rolling like the ocean. She didn't have the time to be sick that morning. "Look, Romalia is still with us. She has to know why he left. She knows him, right?"
"She's his mother," Storm murmured.
"I was wondering," Leslie muttered. "She felt like a Deactivated Cultivator, but I figured I had to be wrong because that didn't make sense. That explains why she feels older than she is. Getting captured after being weakened like that must have forced her to grab strength she normally could not find. At least that explains why I felt lingering majik in her well, and why Aevan had magic of his own." She had more respect than even before for the older man, given he had gone against every Caretaker instinct to let Destiny play out her plans.
Rhya nodded. "There has to be a reason. Rodi wouldn't risk breaking the betrothal with Aria in this shape, and . . . and I believe it. That he loves Tasia more than anything." Helplessly, she said, "He's the chosen mate of a Lead Defender! She's his chosen mate as a Ruler! Cultivators don't choose inferior mates! Why would he walk away now, long before he thought he had to walk away?"
Softly, Storm said, "Because she asked him to stay." He rubbed his hands over his arms as the others glanced his way. "That has to be it. It's the only answer I see. She asked him to stay, and he could not see a way to make it work. So . . . he walked away."
"Oh because that helps so much," Theo muttered.
Ryan glanced the direction that Tasia had gone. She had been gone for a while. It worried him more than a little. He didn't want her off crying alone. The crying thing was okay, but not the part where she would be alone with it. He edged away from the group and then headed into the forest to find his friend. He had liked her from the first time he had read one of her stories. He had grown to love her within a short time of meeting her. No one hurt his friends. EVER.
Tasia found a peaceful clearing in the forest and sat down on a tree stump. The peace seeped into her slowly but surely and helped bolster her flagging strength. Though there was no real noise made, she still knew when someone approached. She looked back, saw Romalia, and deliberately turned around again. "I have no desire to see you."
Romalia smiled to herself. Rodi had told her the entire story, and she was not surprised with his sister's interference. Destiny found many ways to make things happen. "I don't blame you for being furious with me." She walked closer. "There was just nothing I could say to stop him. He had made up his mind."
"I had been expecting that, really." She looked at the older woman, and her eyes turned a deep chocolate in the darkness of the trees. "And I can't say I'm surprised that he left me. I went to him knowing he would very likely reject me entirely and run. He can't see an answer, and when he realized we literally cannot fuse any deeper, he chose to leave now to thwart Destiny. Yet, perhaps ironically, he continues to play into Destiny's plans for me. The damage he did to my soul is a necessity. It had to happen." She rubbed her hands over her arms. "Tell me something I don't know, Romalia."
Romalia lifted a brow. "You're married."
"I beg your pardon?!" She stared at her apparent mother-in-law and braced her feet before she fell off the tree stump. "What the hell do you mean I'm married?!"
"She's what?!" Ryan squeaked behind them. He had only just walked into the scene. "B-but they didn't have a ceremony or anything like that! He only kissed her once!"
"Twice," Tasia muttered.
"Go you. Twice then. STILL."
Romalia smiled wryly. "They didn't need a ceremony, although one could argue that first kiss was the ceremony. All along, haven't you been told how sensitive Aria is? Well, because of that, Rulers tend to take some things very seriously. A marriage for a Ruler Cultivator happens when he or she kisses their betrothed in front of a member of each family and at least five witnesses. Those sparks we witnessed? Proof that what Aria saw legally, their souls accepted spiritually as well. It would not have happened had I not been there, and I wish I could apologize for that, but I just can't."
Ryan stared at Tasia. "I am now deeply confused. You said you were the only child of a single mom, though you have a soul-brother who is more technically just a distant cousin—but he's not here." He blinked as he remembered something else. "Wait. You and Raine and Storm call each other siblings. Is that literal or just like me and Emily?"
Tasia laughed wryly. "Here's where we flip a coin as to which way this applied. Logan is related to me by blood, however distantly, so Raine as his fiancée is my family. However, Raine and Storm alike have been my siblings since we met, and we share bonds majikally that literally look no different than the bonds between them. And on top of that, Raine's accident as a child that led me to meeting them resulted in her needing blood transfusions, and guess whose blood she was given. Because of our majik, my blood literally still exists in some shape inside her."
Ryan slowly shook his head. "I'm not sure I can wholly comprehend just how . . . deliberately Destiny has been interfering in your life." Trying to find the humor, he added, "And though I've heard of involuntary manslaughter, involuntary matrimony is new!"
Tasia snorted softly. Romalia smiled and kissed her forehead. "If I could have chosen his soul mate for him, I would have chosen you." Hands tucked in her pockets, she headed back to the campsite.
Ryan walked over and sat down next to Tasia. He didn't know what he could say to make things better, but he was driven to at least try. "You can't continue to grieve like this, Tasi. You're our Lead Defender. We need you to help us get out of this in one piece. You're all we have, you know."
Tasia smiled. "I'm actually rebounding to some extent. Remember I can heal myself? Well, that's spiritually as much as physically. I can't remove the wounds—no one could—but I can effectively put on a balm that numbs the pain to where I can function." She shook her head. "Let's go get breakfast and I'm going to pretend that I don't know I'm married. If I don't, I'll get furious that my husband ran out on me. I have issues with that kind of thing."
Ryan paused. "Am I not going to like this?"
"Likely not. As you just accurately remembered, I'm the only child of a single mother. She became a single mother because my father abandoned us. He just up and left one day and we only knew he wasn't coming back when the divorce papers showed up on the doorstep."
It seemed to explain a lot about his friend. Ryan thought for a moment and then said firmly, "Give Rodi hell when you see him again. He's earned it. We both know you'll see him again. He loves you and you're soul mates. The question is, how long will he be stupid?"
"Depends on how long his blind stubbornness lasts." She got to her feet and stretched with a deliberate motion that made the sunlight move over her body. "Or how long it takes until he can't fight the desire between us." She glanced back over her shoulder toward the trees where she distinctly could sense a familiar presence. "Right?" Feeling better finally—she had numbed her soul enough—she headed the rest of the way to the camp and got her breakfast before the others ate it for her.
As they later made their way down the road, a familiar sound began assaulting their ears. Because it had been a long time since they had heard it, they were uncertain at first what it was until Ryan got an odd look on his face and sniffed the air. "I smell salt water."
"Ocean!" Storm brightened and then his eyes widened as he stared at Ryan. He wasn't the only one. All eyes slowly shifted.
Ryan blinked in response. "What?" As soon as he said it, his stomach dipped in understanding. Orchid. The world with barely any land and only water where cities floated on the top. The Water Flower Element world of Blossom Field. He took a sharp breath as he felt warmth moving through his soul and something so very cold thawed. That lingering chill he had felt all of his life just melted away.
Emily, standing beside him, said softly, "Hey, uh, you smell like orchids now."
Leslie walked over and grabbed Ryan's shirt to pull it down and reveal the sprout Mark now on his chest. "Yup. You thawed your Seed."
"Must you strip me to be sure?" he asked dryly. "I'm sure you sensed my magic already!"
"Sure, but that's what friends do."
"Strip each other?"
Beth held up a finger. "I will admit that I am the most notorious for this, but if you people would just willingly put on the clothes I design you, I wouldn't have to get tough with you. Besides, naked is a normal state of being. Are you two modest?" she asked Emily and Ryan alike. Modesty was highly unusual as a whole, but it did show up in some people and so got respected. Both shook their heads at her, and she grinned. "Good. That'll make things easier overall if I need to strip you to put you in clothes."
"Don't you dare," Emily muttered.
"Trendy clothes," Theo teased her.
"Well . . . okay, maybe for that."
Striker shook his head at the lot of them and then flew off ahead. He returned a few moments later and caught Ryan's sleeve in his claw. He began to tug the Cultivator along, and Ryan blinked at realizing he did not lose much strength in his Coda size. "Uh, Tasi? What's he doing?"
"Taking you to the ocean, of course. Where else would you Activate?" Though she addressed Ryan, her eyes stayed on Emily. "The rest of us will wait here for you. It should not be difficult, though it may be traumatic. It's been a mix of that across the board for all of us." She saw Emily start to protest before firmly shutting her mouth and sealing her lips. Knowing how hard it was for her, Tasia touched her arm gently in understanding. Emily paused only briefly and then covered her hand with her own.
Ryan gulped and followed Striker down the path. He knew why Emily had let him go, and he knew why Tasia had insisted on it. That did not make it easier to move forward when he still felt as if he didn't have an anchor on anything in his world.
The shift from land to beach was signaled by a transition from dirt to sand. The tree line broke, and he could see the ocean stretched out. Like the sky above, it reflected a deep turquoise hue that looked rich and beautiful to Ryan's eyes; he honestly had always loved all water in any forms. It stretched out for miles in a sparkling line of color.
A smile lit his face and he ran down the sand to where the waves washed ashore. He didn't even notice when Striker flew off. He was too enthralled with the warm water washing over his feet. He felt tempted to take off his shoes to really enjoy it. He had only ever gotten to see the ocean once, and it had been imprinted in his memory in a way he wanted to erase. This most important thing, this vast body of water, should have more good than bad for him.
The soft whisper made chills go down his back, and he looked around quickly. As he stared out over the ocean, he felt again that longing he had felt in the castle. He walked deeper into the blue-green water and let the waves tug him further and further out to sea until he couldn't touch the bottom and was treading water. Oddly, he felt no fear.
A sudden strong wave washed over his head and yanked him under. He could hold his breath for ridiculously long, and as Shanae had said, he could all but breathe underwater. He had never actually tried that for fear of drowning, but as long as his lungs held air for him, he had always wondered if maybe his skin absorbed the oxygen from the water.
A large bubble suddenly formed around him, and his ability to breathe became a non-issue. It also allowed his eyes a filter to see through, and they slowly widened with shock and wonder as he beheld what lay before him. The stagnation had not reached the ocean yet; here, Aria could still thrive. All manner of sea-life swam past, from fish to other odd-looking creatures. Sea anemone, coral, and sponges were scattered along the bottom of the ocean and made the area alive in a riot of colors. "It's beautiful," he breathed. "I always wanted to see the ocean like this."
Softly, that same voice of before said gently, Hello, Son of Orchid.
He curled his hands into fists to brace himself. He had believed all along, but now that he stood at the moment of truth and felt it become real, nerves fluttered. The bubble around him became more reflective suddenly, and he could see echoes of his memories. "Who are you? You've been helping us all along, haven't you?"
I have. I am a friend, Ryan. I wish to help you help this world. Let me help you Activate. It is all I have to give. We must work together. You must, here in this special place, bare your soul to the element that birthed you.
That was easier said than done. He drew a deep breath and then admitted, "I don't know my parents, or really even how old I am. I barely remember my parents as more than just being angry all the time, and they just argued about me a lot. They walked out one day and never came back. A neighbor heard me crying and broke down the door to find me. I ended up in the Care House after that, but that's not so bad because I met Em there, and she became my sister. Sometimes I'm afraid of her," he confessed. "She's so strong and certain of what she wants."
What do you want?
"I honestly don't know. I want to be special and have a lot of friends, but I don't want to be different because then people will be afraid of me. It's so much easier to be quiet and let others make decisions for me. I look at everyone around me and know I'm just . . . me. Ordinary. There's nothing about me that should complement them. But then I look at Tasia and Raine and see something inside them that . . . that I think might be in me. I've been too scared to ask." He took a long breath. "I don't want to be scared anymore. I want to prove I belong with my friends. I want to be special like them." He began to smile as his eyes glowed ultramarine and purple. "I think being quiet might make me special just because no one else in our team is!"
There is more in you than you know. You were never ordinary. There's majik in you. A majik just waiting to be claimed.
Water pierced the bubble and began to pour around him. It swirled up his body like magic and then pooled in his hands to form the familiar Mask of an Orchid Defender. The majik the voice had mentioned suddenly bubbled under his skin as well, and its presence did not feel surprising. He had healing powers, too, of some kind. No wonder he felt similar to Raine. As for Tasia . . . he was beginning to think he might understand that, too.
The sprout Marks on his chest and left arm blossomed with orchids and he calmly pulled on his Mask to call his armor. His armor as a Male Defender of Orchid of course resembled the female armor, but he didn't get to keep the cloak. He did not mind that! The surge of his magic felt very offense-oriented, so maybe the cloak would just get in his way.
The bubble popped around him but the rush of water did not bother him; he could literally breathe in it now! He even laughed as the ocean swept him back toward shallow ground. He put his feet down and walked up the shore and then simply tumbled onto the sand and lay on his back contentedly. He would have happily laid there for a long while to soak up the sun and the sheer joy in the knowledge that had found where he belonged in life, but he felt a shadow cover his face and opened his eyes to see Emily shaking her head. "Hi.
"I was getting worried and it turns out you're napping in the sun. Lazy." Emily pulled her shorter brother to his feet and then helped brush the sand off his armor. She smiled only slightly. "Looks like you are a Cultivator after all, huh?"
He pulled off his Mask. "You're next, Em." He caught the brief look of stubbornness over her face and grabbed her hands quickly. Annoyance churned at last over his sister's sheer ridiculous fear. "Why don't you believe? What are you afraid of?"
"It's all too good to be true, that's all. Hey, we're Cultivators, and guess what? We get to live in the castle and be treated like royalty. Things like that don't happen, Ry." Emily frowned as she realized that it had just happened, and to Ryan at that. "If, and I stress if, I thaw some Seed inside me, I will figure out what to do then."
He sighed. The fight was not worth fighting when Emily would inevitably get the truth fed to her a bit painfully by Destiny—or that mysterious person helping them. "Suit yourself." He hugged Emily tightly and smiled when he was hugged in return. "You're an aggravating person, you know that?"
"Yeah, but what are sisters for?" Smiling now, Emily grabbed his hand. "Let's go show the others."
Later that night, after a long talk with Raine, Ryan went looking for Tasia. He found the older Defender sitting at the edge of the camp on a rock and watching the two moons in the sky rise higher and higher. She and Theo were on first watch that night, and she was wide-awake for the moment. Ryan was a bit surprised she hadn't asked for both shifts; her ability to sleep had likely plummeted even further by Rodi's departure.
He sat down next to her and looked at the sky as well. He was almost used to seeing two moons in the sky, but he still wasn't used to not seeing Delphinium or its kingdom, or even Hyacinth. After a few moments of silence he asked, "Does it still hurt?"
"Did you think it would stop?"
"Your music is silent again."
"Sheer self-control." She swung one foot lightly and tapped her booted heel against the rock. "I'd like to stop hurting, but it won't until he either comes back or I kick his ass."
"Or both." He gently reached out and covered her hand with one of his.
She immediately pulled her hand away on a smile. "You are a very fast learner, Ry, and your gift could aid me, but attempting that will make you very sick. Spiritual Healing is brutal on the one who has it, especially the more painful the wounds you attempt to ease." She leaned down to kiss his temple. "I can endure on my own."
He sighed. "I wanted to help. When I realized I had majik, I went to Raine and she helped me figure out I had already picked Spiritual Healing with a much smaller dose of Physical Healing with it. With makes sense since Beth also confirmed I have Empathy, which isn't a skill so isn't related to being a witch."
"Yeah, we really never count Telepathy, Empathy, or Telekinesis as witchcraft skills since they function very differently and don't get chosen by their owner. You get stuck with them mostly. They just have a higher propensity to be in witches since our brains work very differently because of the majik in our blood." She cocked her head. "I've always thought that those who have those skills but not majik surely did have majik in their lineage at some point that died out."
"Sensing is a skill, though, but does also show up in others."
"Very rarely, and only in a Cultivator or Caretaker, actually. And I can count on both hands the few who had that happen."
Ryan hugged her. "You make a good priestess. Thank you for teaching me things." He tightened his grip fiercely for a moment. "I don't like you hurting. It's so funny, but I just feel closer to you than the others, other than Em, but in a way even more than Em."
Tasia just smiled and hugged him back. A part of it was because of their similar sources of magic—Ice and Water—but there was something much more elemental as well. It was something Ryan would have to discover on his own. It could not be told. "Thanks, hon. Why don't you go get some sleep, huh? It's getting late." She glanced over to the side and a smile tugged at her lips. "But before you do, make sure Leslie and Emily don't kill each other. It's not Leslie I worry about, mind you. It's Emily."
"Oh gods." Ryan hurried in that direction, but when he drew closer, he realized in surprise that they were enjoying their argument and were purposely trying to outdo one another with insults. He blinked and looked at Rachel helplessly.
The older Cultivator just smiled and said dryly, "It's a Protea and Hyacinth thing. You'll get used to it."
* * * * *
It was only the crack of dawn when something disturbed Beth's sleep. She muttered uncomplimentary things under her breath and rolled over under her blankets. The sensations lingered. And lingered. She sat up in confusion and scrubbed at her eyes. Not only were her empathic senses going crazy, but she also felt as though she was in a florist shop—which was both ironic and damned weird considering she and her friends did in fact smell like flowers! This seemed more tangible, though, like real flowers and not Flower Element magic infusing someone's personal scent.
She turned her head to look around camp, and her eyes slowly widened as she beheld the problem. Well, that certainly explained why her empathic senses were acting funny, and why she felt as if she sat in a florist shop. Tasia slept—actually slept—a few feet away, rolled snuggly within her blankets, and those same blankets had been covered with irises of all colors, even the Iris-specific purple iris. A single, beautiful, black poppy had been tucked behind her ear, which may well be why she had remained asleep through the shower of flowers.
Beth rubbed her forehead. Someone, and she wasn't naming names of course, was going to die.
She began waking all the others except Tasia up and soon they were all staring at their leader. No one felt really certain of what to do, so Rhya finally decided to make the executive decision. "Right, okay, well, let's wake her up. We could remove the flowers, I think, and she'd never know but . . . darn it, she's a light sleeper and has been barely sleeping at all! How did he manage to get that poppy on her without waking her?"
"Nature of his being her Caretaker," Romalia commented from where she and Raine had joined them a few minutes before. "He is so thoroughly a part of her that she wouldn't notice him invading her sleep, and once she did wear the poppy, she would have slept even better, so . . . yeah. He knew what he was doing, to be sure. She still needs to be woken up."
"You know she's going to kill your son, right?" Theo asked her dryly.
She grinned wickedly. "He deserves it."
Raine knelt next to her friend and reached out a hand. Even before she touched her shoulder, Tasia's eyes opened and she blinked in confusion. "Something wrong?"
"Well . . ." Raine sat back on her heels and watched as she sat up and looked around in absolute shock.
Tasia felt her heart come to a stop in her chest. She knew. Oh, she knew even before she looked at her friends who had done this. Almost the moment she had opened her eyes, she had known he had done something for she had slept deeply, peacefully, beyond her own visions. Her eyes moved around her blankets, and her fingers curled into them briefly. A beautiful and deliberate apology for stirring painful childhood memories. Her husband clearly still was the one who knew her best.
She started to rake her hands through her unbound hair and encountered the flower over her ear. She touched it delicately and struggled to bite back the tears that burned her eyes. She looked away for long moments and then slowly looked back. As she did, the glitter had changed from pain to fury. She got to her feet with painstaking care and disappeared into the trees.
The others watched her go warily. Moments later all winced as they heard the assorted colorful words and phrases coming from the trees. The curses crossed over many languages, several of which no one else spoke. They didn't need to. The tone of her mystical voice was telling.
"And I thought Shana had an interesting turn of phrase," Rachel murmured.
"Those," Leslie said in awe, "have got to be new words."
"Don't you dare repeat them!" Emily and Rhya both ordered her and then blinked at one another in consternation.
Tasia returned to the camp a few moments later and offered them all an easy smile. "Since we're all awake, we might as well get breakfast going and get an early start." Fingers pointed, and she realized the flower was still behind her ear. She plucked it free and studied it. It may well have been one of the prettiest poppies he had ever given her.
She flipped it up into the air and froze it solid. It landed on the ground with a soft thud as she dusted off her hands. "I'll cook, how's that? I'm not great in a kitchen, but so far campfires haven't given me any issue."
"Holy crap," Beth murmured. Tasia still hurt pretty badly, but it had been overlaid by waves of sheer determination. Rodi, she thought with growing delight, had better watch himself because Tasia had set her sights on him and wouldn't settle for anything short of unconditional surrender. The battle had begun and she would put all her money on Tasia.