The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Twenty
Stepping onto the plains felt not unlike what the first set of plains had felt like: windy, uncomfortable, and barren of trees. Worse, the closer they drew to the palace, the more terrible the landscape looked. Nothing remained alive in these plains. Not grasses, not plants. Decayed poppies showed where once they had bloomed but now rotted in the sun. For miles in all directions, the plains stretched on without changing. The only differences to be noticed were the beginning of the forest disappearing behind them and the castle looming in the distance.
Emily had been walking beside Tasia for the last hour, and after being quiet for most of it, she finally linked her hands behind her head and asked bluntly, "What am I?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?" came the dry response, followed by laughter and giggles from everyone else.
Emily rolled her eyes toward the sky and smiled wryly. She hadn't intended to phrase the question like that, and she had paid the price. She had just been thinking about the fact that everyone else had figured out their different skills as witches and she was the only one left who hadn't. She had never bothered to ask about it before because it hadn't seemed important, but she had the eerie feeling as the wind whipped at them that she would most definitely need all of her skills in the near future. Even the ones she hadn't learned yet.
This particular wind felt fake to her, but she could still keep it toned down so no one had trouble walking. Hindsight looking back at her life, she could very much see where Shanae had been right about her Seed being frozen having no impact on some things. She had always been drawn to wind-powered devices and loved moving fast. She sort of loved electric carriages actually and would have adored studying them alongside chemistry at university. Maybe she could do that later. Ever since she had accepted she was a Cultivator, she had found it amazingly easy to accept everything else. Tasia was a sorceress, cool. They were all witches, awesome. All she needed to know was what her specialty was so she could work on it, which was what had led to her asking her poorly asked question.
"How about I rephrase that?" she suggested. "What I meant was: what sort of skill do I have as a witch? You said those of us who had never picked one consciously would have picked it unconsciously, so what did I pick?"
"Same as Leslie. Shapeshifting." Tasia nodded her head toward where Leslie was on her other side. "You have the ability to change. Shapeshifting is just one form of it; you also are strong in changing other things. Like that cute spell Leslie did to turn the soldier into a frog. Those sorts of things. I think you'll be stronger in personal shifting, and Leslie in shifting other people. Things tend to balance like that."
"You mean like the fact that there are nine witches, and one sorceress, both sacred numbers in the Faith?" Rachel slid a smiling glance back toward Tasia.
"Precisely like that. Activate Cultivator powers and, poof, instant coven. But," Tasia continued over the laughter of the others, "we don't have much time left for me to train you, Em. All I can do is tell you what you are. You're going to have to figure out the rest on your own. I'm sorry. I can get more in-depth back home if you still need me to. Best I can offer right now is that anything you attempt to shift into, you had better have a good idea of its biology, so stick with basics. Frogs, snakes, and bugs top that list. Hard to mess them up."
Emily shook her head on a smile. "It's okay. I don't feel slighted. What happens if I don't know what I'm doing?"
"Either you'll fail entirely without repercussions, or you might end up partially shifting only one thing and be left human otherwise. It's not like something bad will happen, and if you can't fix it, then I can."
"Or she'll leave it to teach you a lesson," Raine teased.
"I have never—okay, maybe once but I stand by my assessment that Logan deserved to have to deal with his own conjuring mistake fallout."
It made everyone laugh, and Emily could not help but feel joy despite the situation. She truly did love all the friends she had made. She thought back to the marketplace, the day she had met almost all of them, and remembered the sense of connection she had felt to each of them. She hadn't known until then that she had even been looking for that connection at all. Friends, a place to belong, and the knowledge that she wasn't so different, wasn't alone.
She had the power to change. She digested that silently as she walked along with everyone toward the castle looming in the distance. Her majik was more focused on changing herself, so did that mean she could turn herself into animals only, or inanimate objects too? Tasia had mentioned biology, so maybe just critters. She would have to get some design books too, to test the object thing. She wouldn't want to end up with like drawers in her butt or something.
Maybe she could turn herself invisible. Damn, this could have made life so much easier. But . . . how did one go about changing themselves into something, even an animal? Was it a spell, a certain kind of concentration? She hoped it wasn't a spell. She had trouble memorizing stuff other than science-y things, and majik tended to be the polar opposite of science. Maybe she could study ways to make them play nice.
She was so deep in her thoughts that she jumped slightly when a snickering Theo tapped her arm. She blinked. "What?"
"I don't have a tail."
"Yes, you do."
Emily slowly looked over her shoulder to discover she did indeed have a lion's tail poking out from her denims. Her eyes widened to saucers as she swung the tail back and forth. She hastily grabbed it when she saw Striker eyeing it like a cat, and then she grinned and concentrated hard enough that the tail turned to one more like his. Judging from his cheerful expression, she knew he liked it. "This is cool!"
"I'll say!" Beth exclaimed. She conjured up a ribbon and tied it around the end of Emily's tail. "There! That's perfect."
"I am not a ribbon person! Give that kind of thing to my brother," she grumbled while the others laughed. She removed the ribbon again and then concentrated to make the tail disappear. So, at the least, she knew sheer concentration worked for little changes. She would probably need to work at it to change her entire form, and she really didn't want to try that without some books first.
She was distracted from her thoughts when a sudden gust of wind hit them all and forced them to stop in their tracks lest they be blown over backwards. Even she was forced to drop to her knees and make a smaller target for the wind. It had been blowing steadily from the side, but now it suddenly blew directly at them and tried to force them back.
Her temper snapped. Time to fight air with Air! They would see how that gasbag in the castle liked a dose of his own medicine. She did not have attacking Air magic, but she would bet her Air majik would do just what she needed! She didn't want to attack him after all. Just turn back his own efforts on him! She carefully got to her feet and moved beyond the others until she knelt in front of them. She lifted her hands and began to gather her majik in a swirl of gold color.
Something did not feel right. Tasia grabbed Leslie and shoved her flat to the ground. "Down!" she snapped. "And stay there!"
"Yikes!" It was a yelp as Rhya found herself shoved flat as well. "Raine!" she wailed. "I can't see!"
"Stay there!" her twin snapped. She moved over to Storm's side. "What's going on?" she asked in a low voice.
Storm's eyes flickered ever so briefly to Rachel and then back as he talked in a very soft voice even Tasia could not hear over the wind, and Rachel felt the familiar thud of dread.
* * * * *
Armand stood in his castle beside the wind generator and stared at the mirror on the wall. It was his only way of spying on the Cultivators thanks to the removal of the curses. That one still annoyed him. He had spent a long time perfecting that, and it had been easily removed. Just more proof of his lack of suitability for the throne. It burned.
He could see Emily preparing to face him head-on. She could easily destroy the generator, and that was just fine. That was not something he cared about. He casually flipped a few switches on the machine with a little smirk. Things were going exactly as planned.
* * * * *
The wind died suddenly and so swiftly that the Defenders lost their balance and fell onto the ground if they were not already there. Those sheltered at the back—Leslie, Tasia, Rhya, and Rachel—were not hit as hard and therefore more easily got to their feet. "Stay sharp," Tasia warned in a low voice as she let the two princesses stand. "I don't like this."
A sudden burst of powerful wind flew across the plains with such force that it hit the four standing Defenders hard enough to send them tumbling backwards across the field. They landed painfully just out of sight, but the others could not go after them as the wind chose then to kick up wholly with more fury.
"Stay down!" Emily ordered her friends. Her upheld hands cut the wind and made it break around her. "If you stand up then you'll just go flying after them. I'll handle this."
Gold majik began covering her hands anew. At her command, Air gathered in her palms as a swirling, glowing mass of clouds and wind. She released it and it hit the false wind head on. Power clashed with power. The ground shook and ripped open as Aria could not handle the force of the duel.
Emily shifted her feet and braced herself to add more majik, and then she felt Ryan and Beth both put their hands on her shoulders to lend her their strength. Ryan's own Air majik—his chosen second majik Flower Element—joined Emily's, and Beth converted her Glass magic into Air to aid. The force between Emily's hands tripled in potency and then cut through the opposing wind like a swimmer through water. The oncoming wind tore apart and repelled back onto itself as if from a broken rubber band. It recoiled so violently toward the castle that something exploded audibly. Emily just smirked.
Theo, Raine, and Storm stood as well so they could all find their absentee friends, but they did not get to walk far before the ground shook. Ugly magic in putrid colors burst out of the land and made it decay further. A terrible glow welled on the air, blinding most of them, and then they couldn't see anything at all.
* * * * *
Armand carefully pulled himself out of the rubble that had once been the top tower and carefully got to his feet. She had destroyed the generator, yes, but her precision slicing of the generator's wind had recoiled the force back with such power that the tower itself and his mirror had been destroyed as well.
His hands trembled as he tried to smooth his hair down. She had not harmed him, of course. He only felt shaken from the incident. He knelt and picked up a piece of his broken mirror to find the Resurrection Cultivators, and his disheveled appearance greeted him instead. Horror slowly widened his eyes and paled his skin as he watched blood trickle down his face from a gash on the side of his head. His invulnerability was slipping.
Aria had begun to fight back.
* * * * *
Rachel came to and realized her entire body hurt like hell. She immediately placed a hand over her belly and deliberately reached for a vision. Instead, she received a fierce kick against her magic. It reassured her and amused her all at the same time. Her child would have their father's willpower. Gods help the rest of the family for that.
She glanced around and saw Leslie already on her feet looking around. Rhya had sat up and looked a bit as if she had been gut-checked. Ripe agony was on her face. Rachel immediately moved to her side and smoothed her hair from her face. "Rea? What's wrong, honey? Are you hurt?"
"I can't feel Raine," she whispered shakily. Tears welled in her gold eyes. "She was torn out of me!"
Son-of-a-bitch. Had something changed and the vision come true after all? Rachel said nothing in the hopes of being wrong. "Is she dead?" she asked only.
"No . . . no, I don't think so. She's just cut off from me."
"Then we can fix whatever is wrong. Stay here." She moved over to Tasia. The Iris Cultivator had landed face down, and when her body tensed suddenly, Rachel said hastily, "It's me!"
"I don't think I want to know how you know without looking."
"No, you probably don't." She rolled over to her back and then flipped up to her feet with an expert twist of her body. "Where's everybody else? I don't see or Sense them nearby."
Leslie shook her head. "No idea. I could try to look through the land, but with Aria as fragile as she is, I don't want to ask for more than she can give. I think our eyes are a better chance, but I don't see anything anywhere. They couldn't just disappear, could they?"
Rachel's lashes flinched. Yes, they could, especially if her vision had come true. She spotted the sharp look that Tasia shot her, and belatedly remembered that not only had Tasia come into full control of her telepathic abilities, she was also the stronger of them. It took a lot of effort to keep her out. Do you know what's happening?
I have some damned good guesses, that's for sure. I know I was singled out, Rach. A blind man—pun intended—could have seen that. I can see the vision inside you. A glow that captured the others? Even if that wind hadn't been meant to knock me away, no sort of spell is going to have any effect on me. Armand wants me alive now.
Yeah, to secure his throne.
She thought about everything she knew about her bloodline. That's part of it, anyway. The only part he knows. There's something more . . . complicated involved.
Destiny did it.
"Crud," Rachel muttered. She blew out a hard breath. They had gone from a team of ten down to a team of four. The only consolation she could take came from the fact that they had the most powerful member, and three of them had offensive magic while two had defensive; Tasia's Lead status giving her both might be critical, as well as her healing majik. "Can we send Striker to find the others?" She looked around and realized the dragon was missing. "Where did he go? Did the wind send him flying as well?"
"Yes, and no." Tasia shook her head slightly. "He tumbled with us, but I don't know where he's gone. If he has thought of something that will aid me, then that is what he is doing. He will return when he can. He is my partner, not my pet. I trust him to do what is needed."
No wind had returned. The plains felt more dead than ever. The remaining members of the team straightened their backs and once more moved across the plains toward the palace. Rhya clung tightly to Tasia's left hand, desperately needing some—any—connection to her missing soul mate. The priestess merely held on in return and kept her close. Someone would pay for hurting one of her princesses so terribly.
Their first order of business would be to get past any guards on duty and then into the castle itself to make their way to wherever Armand would be hiding. If they had to tear the place apart brick by brick, then they would. It would be a pity if they had to, though. The closer they got to the castle, the more beautiful it became. Or rather, the more they could see the beauty it had once had. It looked worse than their first glimpse on arrival, with life and color leeched away and stone and brick crumbling apart. The gardens beyond the gates they approached looked as dead as the rest of the world.
Leslie shivered as she again felt Aria's mournful wail of death. "How can he possibly think Aria wants him for a Ruler? He would have been born first if so. I feel like he should never have been born."
"Unfortunately, he did have to be born. But you are right that Aria would never want him." Tasia stared at the castle as she felt something teasing her senses. A second sense came, that of being watched, and her eyes narrowed. With enough force and power to send a shockwave across the Ephemeral Plane, she slammed up stronger mental shields to prevent someone spying on her.
"What did you do?" Rhya whispered. "I felt a ripple."
She just smiled.
* * * * *
Armand's new mirror shattered in his hands. He stared at the glittering dust with a bitter sense of failure. Spying had finally gone officially out of the running. He brushed the shards from his hands and walked over to sit on his throne. A glass of his favorite drink waited for him, yet he had lost all taste for it. His interest had changed to obsession the closer she got. He wanted only one thing now.
"Your Highness, you seem troubled," a feminine voice said from the side of the room. "Heavy thoughts?"
"The heaviest," he muttered. He ignored her use of a prince's title for him, rather than a king's, because as much as he hated it, she was right. He was not yet truly the king of Aria; he had not and could not physically claim his rightful crown until the True Born was dead. "I've never before encountered wanting something I couldn't simply take."
"Then . . . think of this as a learning experience and move on," a male voice suggested. "The sorceress is every bit what she seems to be. You will have to treat her as that demands."
"Yes, that is true." Still, he felt uneasy. Uneasy enough that he didn't want her reaching the throne room wholly intact or at full power. That she would reach him was a given, just as he knew another destined meeting loomed ominously ahead. He would soon cross swords with the True Born and have to prove himself at last. He had to have the sorceress on his side before that happened. "Make certain a friend is waiting for them in the maze," he ordered.
"As you command." The two figures in the room bowed and then left silently and shut the door firmly behind them. They stood silent for a few moments out in the hallway, and then the elder murmured, "Isn't the sorceress more than she appears to be?"
The younger linked his hands behind his back as he ambled down the hall. "It will be fun to find out, won't it?
* * * * *
Few to no guards patrolled the castle, and the few that did seemed to not care much for what they protected. Whatever few minions and loyalists Armand had managed to gather had already either been lost or defected. No one wanted him as king except for himself. He had nothing but his evil power to support him, and maybe whatever other monsters he managed to create on purpose or accident.
The four Defenders realized that firsthand when they crept up on the gates and discovered a guard opening them. She then walked away without looking back, as if she had not just literally done the opposite of her job. Tasia waited until no one was around and then led the other three into the gates and beyond into the gardens. She did not need a map, nor did she need to wonder what they had looked like in full glory. She knew. It had been encoded into her very genes.
The mitochondria that had been passed from Anastasia—the first witch in the lineage—to Liena had somehow become . . . sticky, with the addition of whatever blood had belonged to Liena's father, an identity no one in the line had ever been able to determine. That stickiness had allowed for every future daughter who carried it to leave fingerprints of her experiences for her future descendants to pick up. It was also how the power had kept getting stronger. It had reached peak in Jean Kinsley in the Rebirth Era, and Byron Ranunculus' own Cultivator blood had allowed the growth to begin anew. Now it peaked—would stay peaked—inside Tasia. When she and Rodi bore a child, it would not be a girl. The mitochondria ended with her. Their future child, he who would be the next Ruler Cultivator of Iris, would be a boy.
"It is a strange thing," she muttered, "to know some of your future based on things in your ancestors' past that you should not reasonably know." In a lower voice, she groused, "There's a maze on the back side of this place. It has a secret entrance directly into the castle."
"Damn, girl." Rachel shook her head. "Those echoes are going to put you on the road to insanity."
"Too late. I'm already somewhere between Ludicrous Avenue and Asylum Blvd."
Armand stared down into the gardens from a high window and then turned away in frustrated disgust to head back to his throne room. She truly seemed the perfect queen, as if she had always been meant to rule. His obsession with her seemed to keep growing exponentially fast, and it did not make any sense. He scrubbed his hands over his face and tossed himself down on his throne. What was wrong with him? He had never fixated on his wife like this while she was alive.
"You know," the young male voice said near him, "I'm good at finding things. Including answers."
Armand started slightly as he sat up and turned toward where the figure stood in the darkness of the room. "Are you?" He debated and then shrugged. He had nothing to lose. "I am confused by this . . . obsession I have with the sorceress. It came from nowhere and grows more powerful. I wanted her dead until I felt her song. Then I thought she could secure my position. Now it is . . . becoming personal. I don't understand."
"I do." He hopped up to sit on the edge of the window, and the light from outside was bright enough to leave his features in darkness. "It is the call of the blood inside you. It is inside your very genes. She is the daughter of the daughter of the daughter all the way back to Liena Vanguard, or rather, Liena Aria. The mitochondria inside her has evolved across ten thousand years without actually changing, and that's the key. You see, in giving majik to her adopted family, she . . . hmm, imprinted her own code on them however unintentionally. This would allow for future generations to recognize her own future generations."
"How does that explain my obsession? And it begs the question of how I did not recognize her until recently."
"Well, both are connected. You did not initially recognize her because when you first approached her, she was younger than six years of age where majik becomes noticeable by others. You then did not personally approach her this entire time, so it was not until her song, which carried her majik, blasted across Aria that you realized. And in realizing her identity, and her steady approach, that recognition inside you has rather naturally changed into something else."
"It does not feel natural!" Armand muttered.
"To be fair, your presence on the throne is not natural. All that exists inside you is residue of what goes to the Ruler Cultivator of Aria, which, with all due respect, is why you're sort of terrible at magic or majik alike. Yet you, like every other member of the Arian lineage, carries that imprint. It has a curious effect depending on who it is inside, thanks to the first True Born, Kadon Aria, and his terrible difficulties with his . . . adopted sister."
Armanda glanced at the speaker. "So you found and read Kadon's journals."
"They were not hidden, my liege. It seemed if you did not want them read, they would be hidden."
"Mmm." He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "So it is because Kadon could not reconcile that the person he wanted to view as his sister he never could view as such for she was supposed to be his soul mate. Members of our lineage will view members of Liena's lineage as either being like a sister . . . or a potential mate. That does explain a lot," he muttered. "Do tell, though, how Kadon as an Activated Ruler Cultivator produced a child with a woman not his soul mate?"
"Perhaps ironically, the majik his soul mate gave him. Witches are actually different from Cultivators in that. And when you have a Cultivator that is a witch, they could go either way of being able to have children without a soul mate or only with one." He sighed deeply. "Having never met Kadon, of course, I can only guess based on his words but . . . I don't think his heart was strong enough. Perhaps it did not develop wholly somehow. If it had, he may have been able to get past his own troubles and accept what Destiny tried to offer."
"And we would not be here today."
"We would not be here today, with Kadon's lineage and Liena's lineage both being inexorably drawn together if they are in proximity. The more powerful the member of the lineage, the stronger the draw. Both lineages have acted in much the same manner, with the power growing rather than ebbing, resulting in what Aria calls True Born heirs and are called direct descendants for Liena. Three each for each lineage. Kadon, Francis, and Rodi. Liena, Jean, and Anastasia. Kadon and Liena were soul mates but too proud and blind to accept that and so could never be together. Jean and Francis met, echoed as siblings, and found soul mates in others—very carefully selected others who would ensure that those final purely concentrated heirs would be everything their lineages had promised for millennia. And with that promise comes the most powerful of draws for Anastasia and Rodi."
Armand began to feel a sense of rising dread. "It does?"
"One you accidentally started yourself. Twenty years ago. Weakened and recovering from her brush with death, Anastasia stepped onto the Ephemeral Plane at the same moment Rodi did out of curiosity. They would spend twenty years growing closer and closer until that moment when they met here on Aria—again by your own hand—and discovered their souls had interlocked years before, and perhaps in ways more . . . profound than most other pairs. And, if that is not plain enough, I will spell it out: Anastasia and Rodi, like their first ancestors, are soul mates."
He froze in abject horror as the implications of that statement hit. Color began to flee his face. "You lie."
"I'm afraid not. And, unfortunately for you, Anastasia and Rodi may be a great deal like their ancestors, but they are also far different. Liena managed to find love for her heart, some true happiness, in the man she eventually married, but she was not happy through to her soul. A part of her always grieved for what she could not have. Kadon was not even that lucky. He married only for the sake of his world. He and his wife enjoyed each other's company, but they were never in love. A good friendship was the best they managed though they did produce an heir. He never ever forgot his soul mate, and he too grieved deeply for what they could have had. Liena's pride had prevented her from baring her soul to Kadon, and his blind refusal to see the truth had held him back.
"Anastasia and Rodi started that way, proud and blind, but could not stay that way for long. Destiny has worked hard over these millennia to ensure that they have no choice but to come together. Aria depends on it—something that Liena knew without knowing, else she would not have planned for her sorceress descendant to arrive." And he still wasn't certain the entire universe wasn't depending on it, but he did not yet know enough to figure out why. "Anastasia threw away her pride and humbled herself, willing to do whatever it took. Her song recently reached out and threw away the blindness inside Rodi, calling up the Light as strongly inside his soul as Dark. He has let go of what he could not see, and now both are willing to do whatever it takes to claim what Destiny has promised for ten thousand years."
"Are you telling me that the outcome is assured?" Armand demanded raggedly. "That I never had a chance at all of taking the throne that should be mine?! Aria has nearly always only had male Ruler Cultivators! It should be mine!" He hurled his goblet across the room. "I will not accept that! I won't! I will bring the sorceress to my side through any means necessary and then kill the True Born with my own hands! If the sorceress dies because of it, I care not! Ensure that I get what I deserve!"
"As you command." The figure linked his hands behind his back and left the throne room anew. Speaking of the blindness inherent in the lineage! Armand still did not see Destiny behind the scenes. She had an agenda and nothing would stop her. Of course things had happened this way, with Anastasia and Rodi's willingness to fight and not give in. The second descendants of both lines had ensured that they would.
Francis Aria's Caretaker and soul mate had been a woman with a powerfully strong Light core that had met his Dark Shadow and pulled him closer to the True middle. Every following generation had done the same thing, with the Ruler finding a Caretaker of their mostly opposite, until the two forces had perfectly balanced and been born inside the final True Born as the perfect Gray core and True Shadow. Rodi had tried to sway to the Dark, almost as much as Anastasia had tried to sway to the Light, but his existence as Gray meant he could not sway for long. The tiniest push from his soul mate had knocked him right back to the middle where he literally could not remain blind.
Meanwhile, Jean Kinsley had been a Caretaker, and she had found a soul mate in a Defender Cultivator. Defenders fought tirelessly for life and existence, would sacrifice any and everything for the ones they loved. Byron Ranunculus had also been a Deactivated Ruler Cultivator, which had only strengthened his capacity to just love. He had held no pride where love was concerned. He had been willing to fight his sister to save her. He had loved Shanae Protea herself with enough power to be willing to die for her as a Defender despite not being of Blossom Field. His incredible capacity for emotion had blended with Jean's equally incredible stubbornness and had finally resulted in the dangerous combination of a sorceress Lead Defender who was willing to abandon her pride for love in a way Liena never could. She would settle for nothing less than everything, would fight tirelessly to correct every wrong ever created across time. She held the power of Hope inside her, and it may well be the final hope for Aria and the universe.
* * * * *
The four Defenders had made it to the maze, and they let Tasia's sixth sense guide them where the others' instincts would have just gotten them lost. It took very little time to make it to the center and halfway marker, but entering the area came with danger. Fire burst up from the ground and forced them to pull up sharply before being burned.
Shock began to rise as the Defenders beheld what stood before them. The Aster Defender in Mask and armor . . . opposing them. The colors of his armor had washed out entirely, and some sort of ugly magic glowed across his skin as if he had been enrobed. His very Seed felt . . . sickly. Armand had done the near impossible. He had managed to turn a Cultivator toward the side of evil.
Tasia's hands slowly curled into fists as her eyes narrowed and the swirl in her eyes deepened to consume her caramel irises. Armand would pay for this one. No one harmed her friends on her watch.