The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 1

All that lived, with few exceptions, had to eventually die. How you lived determined how you died, though there was always some flexibility to the rules. The average person went on to reincarnation after death, and they eventually re-entered life as someone else. Some people went on to rebirth instead, and they came back to a new life almost exactly as they had left it. Reincarnation reconstructed a soul. Rebirth brought it back intact.

But if you possessed power, if you had gifts, then there could be a third option. People with power ascended to the Realm of the Gods where they continued their life as an afterlife, as a new plane of living. They did not truly die, though they seemed as such to the people left behind in the physical living realm. Rules bound the Realm: except under very specific circumstances, those in the Realm could neither return nor reach out. Even Goddesses and Guardians obeyed those rules.

Some people who entered the Realm were immediately turned around and sent back out to rebirth; if you left something undone when you arrived, you went back to complete it. Only those who had finished their destined tasks could remain. Such was the order of the High Goddesses Shanta and Enaya. Orion had a list of names that he wore on his belt, and every arrival was checked against it. If your name was not lined through, back you went.

Shanta and Enaya had ruled the Realm from the moment they arrived. None of their subsequent descendants had held enough power on arrival to take their place. They watched over the land of the living and interfered wherever and whenever they felt it necessary; only they had that authority. They were quite shameless about it, and Claret often had to remind her fellow Cultivators that the two goddesses wouldn't hesitate to use their power if someone needed a push.

Frankly, someone really needed a push. Shanta's foot tapped on the ground as she scowled at her planet through a crystalline sphere. Her husband's arms lightly looped around her waist, and he told her mildly, "Tarveel told me to keep you from causing trouble."

She snorted rudely. Tarveel had been the first Defender Cultivator of Daffodil and was Shanta's twin soul mate. "She knows that will never happen." She leaned back against his chest and sighed heavily. It had been three million, five hundred twenty-seven thousand, six hundred and forty-nine years since she had fought Nemesis. Every year had branded itself into her heart. Every year only deepened her fear that her prophesied descendant would be born. "They grow stronger every generation," she murmured to herself.

He followed her gaze and saw the younger of the two generations of living Cultivators. No more than three generations of Defender Cultivators could exist at once, but it somehow invariably fell that no more than two of either sort would be alive at the same time. Something always happened.

And, as Shanta had said, the magic kept growing. The younger generation of Defender Cultivators as well as the younger generation of Ruler Cultivators were exponentially more powerful than their predecessors, who also held more magic than their forbearers. It was not an uncommon happening: magic would climb, peak, and then drop off before the cycle repeated. It had not dropped off in generations, however, and therefore it had reached some . . . unusual levels. "Mother said it would," he reminded her gently.

"And when it finally coalesces physically," she continued softly, "the Apexes will be born."

"They who will be your heirs," her husband concluded in his deep voice. He buried his face in her fine black hair for a moment. He ached watching her suffer under what could not be changed. They both knew intimately that the Apex of Dark would be a Defender Cultivator as well. She could be nothing else. Being a Defender as well as an Apex would give her the gifts she needed to utilize her power and bring harmony to Nature and Dark in order to destroy Nemesis. Yet, because she could not exist alone, her perfect counterpart would have to be born in the Apex of Light. They would balance each other perfectly. Balance. Such a blasé word for a force so critical.

"It terrifies me," she admitted on a half-laugh. "Enaya, too. The kingdoms have drifted apart after all these years to where they are barely allies any longer. One little misstep and the two High Kingdoms might be provoked to war by evil. They cannot be at war when the Apexes are born!" A shudder went through her body at the very idea. "The Chaos that would be created by the two Apexes at war could not be controlled by anything except a third Apex, and existence itself would collapse under that power! The universe is just too young to support that!"

"Could it ever?" he asked her.

She frowned. "Well, maybe. It would have to be millennia from now." A soft premonition shivered through her that she ignored. Lovers tended to trade bits of power with one another, and she had absorbed the gift of Sight from her soul mate after millennia together. She usually ignored it unless it decided to be specific. Would there be three Apexes? It wasn't worth thinking about. There was too much else riding on the two already known for fact to be coming. "We have to reunite the kingdoms." Her voice sounded flat. "No questions asked."

He sighed with a combination of humor and exasperation as he turned her in his arms. He never ignored his premonitions or visions of the future. He had a personal core of pure Light that conflicted often with his lover's Dark core. Light could always see clearly where Dark tended to be a bit blind. "Shanta." He caught her face in his hands. "Why aren't you and Enaya interfering? The younger Ruler Cultivators of Protea and Delphinium have never actually met, and the Defenders already look for a way to arrange such a thing. At just thirteen, they are the perfect age to become friends and pull the two kingdoms back together."

"Oh. Oh!" Her eyes widened. "Of course!" She gave him a smacking kiss and then got free of his grip. "I'll be back."

She rushed through the castle calling for her sister, and her husband grinned as he heard the First Cultivators groan. There was always trouble when the sisters were in cahoots. At least this time the trouble would be of the good sort! He ambled off to find Lycander and warn his brother-in-law of the events. The Guardian of Desire would have some work of his own to do in the near future. Uniting the kingdoms would be fine, but the bloodlines of the Rulers needed to continue as well. Lycander would need to figure out just who Destiny had created to perfectly match the young princesses' souls.

* * * * *

The Defender Cultivators of the Dark worlds consisted of twin sisters Sandra and Krystaline Mirages, Tessa Chandler, and—as always—Claret Statice. The Defender Cultivators of the Light worlds consisted of Sara Sukio, Melissa Johnson, Jessica Kalri, and Amanda Rai. Sara stood as twin soul to the young High Princess Hannah Delphinium, and Tessa stood for High Princess Genevieve Protea. Tessa also served another role, that of Lead Defender for her generation, meaning that she possessed the strongest gifts and magic and acted as the leader for her team when they would enter battle. Her Metal element served her well in the role; her friends and partners knew better than to provoke her stubborn and unbendable will.

Her generation of Cultivators—both Defender and Ruler—had been biding their time until all hit their teenage years and could begin to act under their own authority. They would not hit full adulthood and control of their lives until twenty-five, but thirteen marked the start of when they could begin gaining personal responsibility. In particular, it meant that the younger Defenders did not need to bring along an older Defender if they wanted to travel, and they could serve as a sole protector to their princesses if one wished to travel—Rulers could not travel alone, period.

All Cultivators had been born within the same year—not uncommon—and Tessa was eldest while Genevieve was the youngest; also not uncommon. Leads were always eldest, and Nature elements tagged along behind everyone else. The moment Genevieve's thirteenth birthday passed in December of Harmonic Era Year 4675, the Cultivators began to plan how to get her and Hannah to meet in person.

Answer came in the form of Melissa receiving a vision through her Aster Cultivator gift of Sight. It knocked her out in the middle of the throne room, but it was entirely worth it to wake and know how to arrange things. It seemed rather simple, when it got boiled down the most basic concept. She just needed to nag Claret into making a distraction. While she did, Tessa and Sara had the task of convincing their High Princess that meeting each other was worth it.

No pressure.

Sara had to comb the Delphinium palace grounds until she finally located Hannah hiding in the gardens. The princess had escaped there to avoid her mother's wrathful eye, and helpful servants more than willingly tattled on the refugee's hiding spot. Sara rounded the heavily-laden flower bushes and winced in wry understanding.

Hannah had a terrible tendency to get clumsy, and it increased exponentially as she got nervous. Delphinium gifts of Illusion lay wholly within magical confines thanks to their Light core, and therefore Ruler Cultivators of the planet tended to be both a bit plump and also not very strong unless they actively worked against it. Hannah had tried, but she had given up before even age ten. Nothing could therefore counter her innate clumsiness.

Sara looked at the rather impressive juice stain on Hannah's Ruler Cultivator gown and winced anew. Nerves had gotten the better of her again. The problem looked only worse since Delphinium's main color happened to be white; her dress often made a tempting target to bad luck. "Oh, Hannah. What happened this time?"

Tears shimmered across Hannah's pale gold eyes. Her naturally fluffy and curly white hair had begun to escape its pins as well and locks hung around her shoulders. Her creamy skin carried a distinct pallor despite its fair hue. "I accidentally tripped over my skirt, bumped a waiter, and sent a tray of fermented juice glasses flying. The juice hit me and the delegate from Ranunculus alike."

Ranunculus was another Flower Planet located in the next galaxy over. They had never been a formal ally though they seemed fond enough of Blossom Field to visit now and then. Sara moved closer and tugged Hannah into her arms to comfort and soothe. She stood barely an inch over Hannah's five-four height, but having trained from childhood to fight in battle as a Defender meant she had developed a stronger frame. Hannah loved nothing more than to be cuddled by her twin.

"I take it your mother unleashed the sharp edge of her tongue," Sara sighed. Not for the first time, her Glass element-based temperament made her anger boil under the surface. Glass elements, like Fire ones, ran hot.

"I'm a disgrace to the Delphinium Kingdom apparently."

"Actually, your mother is just a bitch."

Hannah winced. "You said it, not me."

"And keep it that way! I'm already in hot water from Melody repeating something I said!" Melody Carnation was the princess of the Carnation Kingdom and therefore also under Sara's protection as Carnation Defender. "Hannah, how would you like a distraction?"

Hannah frowned at her twin. "Such as?"

"Meeting Princess Genevieve from Protea."

Hannah winced. "Mother won't like that. She thinks Protea people are savages for leaning toward physical gifts more than magical."

Sara snorted. "Protea's queen thinks Delphinium people are snobs for leaning toward magical gifts more than physical."

"We are not!" Hannah blurted. "That's unfair to judge before knowing us!" She fell silent as Sara lifted a brow at her. "Oh," she said only. She thought for a few moments and then nodded. "Alright, I would like to meet Genevieve. I want to prove that her mother is wrong and we are not snobs, and perhaps I can prove to my mother that they are not savages."

Sara could only smile. It was that very attitude of Hannah's that made her entire kingdom long for the day when she would ascend to the throne as queen. Hannah's mother had a terribly nasty streak inside her, unfortunately. It cropped up only every few generations of Ruler Cultivators but thankfully only lasted for one when it did. "Alright then! Let's get you changed into a fresh gown and head for Protea."

Things, perhaps ironically, were not nearly so harmonious on Protea.




"Yes, damn it!"

"No, damn it!"

Tessa scowled at her princess and was met by a matching scowl as they sat across from each other at the table on Genevieve's bedroom balcony. They had been playing cards until Tessa had dropped her bombshell: she wanted Genevieve to meet Princess Hannah Delphinium. Genevieve, showing trademark Protean stubbornness, had outright refused. Tessa had more than once given thanks for her own Metal element that allowed her to keep up with her twin.

Genevieve and Hannah could so perfectly complement each other if they met, though. Both in personality and even visually. Hannah had the coloring of her maternal bloodline as it had existed for millions of years, and so did Genevieve have her own as well. Her short hair hung fine and straight in the pitch black color of her Dark core, and her vibrant pink eyes reflected the same color as the Flower Mark on her chest. Her Nature magic, being related to the sun in many ways, gave her a lovely golden brown skin color with a soft red hue beneath. She was also tall to contrast Hannah's shorter frame, and she had a both lean and strong build from her years of training. Even Ruler Cultivators of Protea tended to be warriors thanks to Dark cores leaning to physical skills.

One an extrovert, the other an introvert. One the cheerful eternal optimist, and the other the sarcastic pessimist. Really, Protea and Delphinium just seemed meant to balance one another for they each had the strengths and weaknesses the other did not. And while Tessa loved her princess more than anything else, she did sometimes envy Sara's easier task. "Gen." It was sighed. "Please. Just meet her. Do you really want to just pretend Delphinium does not exist? The palaces can see each other every night between twenty-one and twenty-two hours! It's hard to ignore that."

Genevieve scowled. "I have no intents of ignoring Delphinium or its royalty, but I also know my mother would pitch a fit if she thinks I wanted to fraternize with those magical 'snobs'. Tch!" She shook her head. "As if their lack of physicality makes them worth less. I wouldn't mind standing back now and then and shooting things with magic rather than jumping in."

Tessa grinned. "I would pay to watch that. You'd lose your temper partway, grab someone else's weapon, and rush in."

Genevieve snorted at her. "If you didn't tackle me to the ground to stop me."

"Well, someone has to do it. At least I'm bigger than you." By only an inch in height, yet enough muscle and strength to physically remove her princess from danger as needed. It happened that way; twin souls always received whatever strength they needed in order to protect the one they loved most. It usually translated into a taller height along the way, for which they were grateful. Tessa never saw anything funnier than the petite Iris Defender—who stood barely over five-foot even—tackling down Genevieve's five-nine figure in the inevitable dangerous moments that always surrounded high-ranking royals. Rulers did not enter battles against evil, but plenty of other issues always came around. "Gen."

Genevieve sighed deeply. "Are you serious?"

"Dead serious. Claret herself has taken it upon herself to distract both your mother and Hannah's—at the same time. We're not asking how because she already scares us. The Elder Cultivators are pretending they don't know what we're doing. Everyone knows this needs to happen. Evil could too easily take advantage of your mothers and bring us to war."

"Tessa." Genevieve's soft voice instantly commanded her twin's attention. "I had a premonition the other day."

Tessa's body tensed. Every Protea Ruler Cultivator had the gift of Sight thanks to being descended of the Guardian of Destiny. Some were stronger than others, and Genevieve had a particularly potent gift. She did not have the common Present Sight that showed current events; instead, she saw future events, known appropriately as Future Sight. No Cultivator of her generation had ever doubted the things she saw. "What did you See?"

She took a long breath. "The entire prophecy. It scares me a lot. And . . . well, Hannah has a right to know as well. I don't know why it was shown to me," although she feared what it implied, "but she needs to know as well. I was going to make Claret tell her, but . . ."

"What did you See?" Tessa demanded. She caught Genevieve's shoulders, and her copper colored eyes narrowed. They perfectly suited her long peach hair and brown skin, both visual reminders of the Daffodil magic inside her body. "Tell me what I need to know to protect you."

"I can't." Genevieve let her head rest on Tessa's shoulders and took comfort from hearing the heartbeat of the one she loved most. She knew her mother loved her, but it was not the same selfless, unending, love that her twin gave her. When she had her own daughter—if she did—she would love her child with everything she owned. "Alright. Let's go meet Princess Hannah." She smiled wryly as she lifted her head. "Is she as clumsy as I've heard?"

Tessa grinned a bit. "Worse, I'm afraid."

One of the more critical aspects to having a Ruler Cultivator on a world was the ability to use magic in ways both wonderful and yet mundane. Only Cultivators received magical gifts, and nearly all the rest of humankind possessed none. All had an affinity for the elements, but most did not possess actual gifts. Most, but not all. There were a few exceptions—namely, among Caretakers—but they still did not use magic wholly in the way Cultivators did.

The most beloved to all in the galaxy had to be the use of Portalpads, or just Pads for short. These flat discs had been installed in key locations throughout all cities and kingdoms to allow for instant transportation between worlds. You had to pay a fee to use one, of course, but the money went right into the local community to provide improvements to the lives of those living there.

The Pads drew on the power of a Core by directly harmonizing through a Ruler, and that meant that Rulers themselves could use transporting magic without a Pad. Defenders could also use the same magic, but only if they were traveling either to Protea, Delphinium, or their own home world. That very gift therefore allowed Sara to escort Hannah to Protea without anyone noticing they had gone, and it allowed Tessa and Genevieve to meet them at a location well away from the palace.

All four landed at the same time, and Tessa and Sara found themselves staring at one another as their princesses hid a bit behind them. Pink and gold eyes peeked around the arms of the ones they loved most as both Genevieve and Hannah evaluated each other.

Genevieve found Hannah to be lovely and soft and thought she looked like she needed someone to protect her. Hannah found Genevieve to be strikingly beautiful and strong and thought she looked like someone who could handle anything.

Neither said anything for long moments, and yet neither Defender felt any surprise when it was finally Genevieve who spoke first. Curiously, the introverted Protean princess had not a shy bone in her body, and the extroverted Delphinian princess could be painfully shy. Genevieve stepped around Tessa and calmly walked forward to lean down to eye level with Hannah. "I don't bite," she whispered.

All of Hannah's nerves simply melted away. In a matching whisper, she said, "I do, but only if someone tickles me."

Genevieve straightened on a grin and then gave a graceful curtsy that made the pinkish petals of her Ruler gown flare over their black underskirt. "Genevieve Protea, High Princess and heir to the throne of the Protea Kingdom."

Hannah matched her curtsy, though she did wobble a bit on the uneven terrain. "Hannah Delphinium, High Princess and heir to the throne of Delphinium Kingdom." Her gold eyes lit with warmth. "Do the Defenders act as overprotective to you as to me?"

"Worse, probably," Genevieve groused.

"That's because you get in worse trouble!" Tessa and Sara retorted in the same voice.

Genevieve winced but did not deny the charge. Instead, she reached out and took Hannah's hand. "Let's walk! Tell me about Delphinium, and I'll tell you about Protea."

With the two Defenders ambling along behind them, the two princesses walked and talked and laughed for nearly two hours. It took less than a few minutes for them to be friends, and only a few more beyond for them to be dear friends. By the time they realized they really should get home, they may as well have been sisters. The only thing they regretted was that they weren't. "I wish we could have children to marry one another someday," Hannah lamented. "So we could be real family!"

"I do as well," Genevieve sighed.

Only daughters had been born to the Ruler Cultivators for millions of years. No one yet knew why, though many investigated the reasons. Moreover, only one child had ever been born to the bloodlines as well. Ruler Cultivators in other worlds often had more than one child, with the younger ones being considered "Deactivated" because their Seed lay dormant inside and would not be useable unless their elder sibling either died without an heir or deliberately chose to activate the dormant Seed. Neither Hannah nor Genevieve could ever expect to have anything except a single daughter in their lives, not even Genevieve with her deeply fertile Nature magic.

Thinking it, Hannah looked around the lush landscape stretching in all distances. Protea both did and did not look anything like the rest of the worlds. Its abundance of Nature power just somehow made it more beautiful. More fertile as well; agriculture tended to be its biggest export. "Protea is different."

Genevieve knew what she meant. "The one in harmony with all of life." She closed her eyes and tilted her face to the sun. "Just the right amounts of this and that. The heart of the galaxy, I've often thought." She grinned. "Delphinium is the conscience! Keeps us from doing anything we may regret later."

Hannah had to smile as well as she thought of some things she had heard the Defenders saying about Genevieve. Perhaps it could be said that the princess of Protea was also the heart of her world as well as the royal houses as a whole. "I can be your conscience." She took Genevieve's hands. "I think I really love you, Gen. I don't want our kingdoms to barely acknowledge one another! We need to be allies. To be friends."

"I don't know why we aren't," Genevieve complained. She blew out a hard breath. "Yes I do. Our mothers." She pursed her lips. "I may have a plan."

"Uh-oh." Tessa winced as she and Sara drew close. "Is this going to get one of us almost killed? Because last time . . ."

"I apologized to Amanda about that!" Genevieve shook her head. "No, I'm thinking of the laws. A princess cannot become queen until she is a minimum of twenty-five years . . . but she can push to ascend at age twenty-three providing she can prove her mother is unfit to rule." She nodded firmly when the other three stared at her. "Hannah's and my mothers . . . they treat each other as a vile beast and care not about the other world. That is unacceptable. The balance of the universe depends on Protea and Delphinium maintaining the Light and Dark Cores as well as our powers of Nature and Illusion. Protea ensures all worlds can sustain growth, and Delphinium keeps them safely protected within magical shields. To deny one or the other exists would be like someone denying their left or right lung exists!"

Slowly, Hannah said, "So, by denying one another and putting the entire universe in a state where people suspect a war could brew, they are threatening the very balance of our existence. Protea and Delphinium going to war would place the Defenders in the terrible position of choosing one queen and princess over the other, and it would make the perfect target for the forces of evil that our Defenders are already dealing with often enough."

"That sounds fairly damn unfit to me," Sara agreed. Her gold eyes narrowed a bit. "And is more than a little unnerving, really. Is that the plan, then? To take the throne from your mothers as soon as you're twenty-three?" At the nods, she lifted her chin. "So be it. We Defenders will stand by you through that choice."

"What of the Elder Defenders?" Genevieve asked.

"They no more like this than we do!" Tessa shook her head. "They just knew there was nothing they could do about it. They will aid us by not doing anything. They love your mothers and must support them first, but that does not mean they will actively stand against you."

"Then that is the plan," Hannah decided. "And we will all hope we can maintain peace and patience until the day the galactic baby is old enough!"

Genevieve scowled. "Don't you start on me. I get that enough from the others!"

* * * * *

Eleven years passed. Claret frequently provided a distraction to the queens to allow the princesses to steal time to visit together. Their other Defenders aided them as well, arranging times to meet and enjoy each other's company on the other worlds. All Ruler Cultivators of the Lower eight planets simply pretended they knew nothing about it.

The very day after Genevieve turned twenty-three, the coup prepared to launch, but the moment never arrived. As if Destiny herself had interceded, there came a vicious attack on the galaxy by forces of evil. The younger Defenders spirited all of the younger Rulers away within a secret location and stood guard over them. The Elder Defenders rushed into battle to defend all that lived. As fighting grew only uglier, the Elder Rulers began to link their worlds' Cores together. Even the High Queens willingly joined for neither wanted to see their galaxy crumble.

Deep within the secret bunker, the younger generation knew as Elders began to fall. The first signal came in Claret's arrival. She landed a bit unceremoniously in a heap in the middle of the room from a hasty transport. Her armor had been damaged horribly, and her Mask had cracks. Blood stained most surfaces.

"Claret!" Sandra scrambled to reach her side and dropped to her knees. Water magic from her Orchid-based Flower Element glowed over her hands as she called up her healing gifts. At least one Defender per generation had the gift to heal, and while it did vary elements, it usually ended up in the hands of either Orchid, Daffodil, or Iris, for their Water, Metal, and Ice elements adapted best to the skill.

The princess of Orchid, Karalyn, hurried over to give her aid. She had a similar gift on a lower scale—not uncommon among Cultivator generations. Also not uncommon, she and Sandra looked more like sisters than Sandra and her own twin did. All Cultivators shared identical coloring that derived directly from their Flower Element. Both Karalyn and Sandra had vibrant ultramarine hair and haunting purple eyes offset by light brown skin. Krysta and Princess Skyla, being of Hyacinth, had bright blue hair paired with white eyes and offset by fair skin dotted with freckles. Only in facial features did Krysta and Sandra reveal their twin relationship.

The joint magic helped start easing Claret's pain. She reached up to remove her Mask, and her armor disappeared to be replaced by the nearly casual clothing she had been wearing prior to battle, though it looked damaged as well. Her pink hair hung heavy, matted by sweat, and her bronze skin had lost luster. "It's bad," she managed to say. She sat up as Genevieve and Princess Harriet of Gladiolus aided her. "Guilie forced my retreat." It had happened a million times before, yet it never stopped hurting when her partners forced her to retreat for the sake of her life and the future generations she needed to Defend.

Amanda's hands clenched together, and her olive skin took a little flush of combined hurt and grief. Guilie was not just Lead Defender for the Elder Defenders but also of Gladiolus. The two Defenders and Harriet shared their olive skin tone as well as silky yellow hair and bright green eyes. "Then they expect . . ."

Melissa took a sudden sharp breath and lost all color in her light brown skin. She barely noticed her princess, Rebecca, grabbing her in support. The two Aster Daughters had identical orange hair and fiery yellow eyes. "My Seed." She did not need to say more; all could see the Flower Mark on her left arm, and the two blossoms had taken on a sparkling edge that meant she stood as the only Defender. The Elder had fallen.

All younger Defenders had two blossoms to their Mark; the number of blossoms denoted the evolutions their Seed had gone through, something often inevitable in battles against evil. Defenders forced their Seed to evolve in order to gain stronger magic to fight back. Claret only had one despite her long life; she had a particularly potent magic to begin with, perhaps because she was the only one of Statice.

One by one by one the Defenders' Marks gained a sparkling edge as their Seed registered they were the only ones alive. Amanda's went last—nature of her Elder being Lead—but no sooner had her Mark taken on the sparkling than did every princess feel a wrenching in their own Seed. Something rattled the bunker like a shockwave and all felt a sweeping rush of combined Flower Element magic. Into the eerie silence following, every princess found the Flower Mark on their chest taking on its own edging.

Princess Melody of Carnation slowly covered her Mark as tears rolled down her ivory cheeks. She lowered her head and her red hair fell forward to hide her face. "Why?" she whispered. "Cultivators are immortal. Why is it they never live even to a natural human lifespan? History is stained with our blood."

"The simple fact," Claret admitted, "is that no more than three generations of Defenders can be alive at one time. A Core simply cannot support more than three. Rulers are different; they are the lifeblood of a world, so there can be as many as needed. A world must always have a Ruler to last through eternity, but it does not always need a Defender. Some worlds do not have them; we are called on the basis of need in the fight against evil. Therefore Defenders will always be born as long as there is evil. And as long as Defenders are born, they will die young if it will prevent the overlapping of more than three."

Gentle Tokala of Iris shouted, "There were only two! Many of us have not even yet found our soul mates! Until we bear children, more Defenders are not needed! They could have had more time!" Tears fell from her golden yellow eyes, and even her purple ombre hair seemed to have lost its shine. A flush brought only a bit of color to her fair skin, and she barely noticed her Defender holding her. Not even Jessie could comfort her now.

"I don't like it either!" Claret said raggedly. "Do you think I want to be forced to abandon my partners? Be forced to watch my queens die?" She broke off as everyone near her who could reach threw their arms around her. Tension fled her shoulders. "Damn you, Destiny," she said softly. "What is it you want someday?"

The sacrifice by the Rulers and Defenders of the Elder generation had, at least, succeeded. All evil in the encroaching wave had been destroyed. A somber cast hung over the galaxy as the princesses ascended to their thrones and became queens. Genevieve and Hannah became the new High Queens and immediately launched a peace treaty to reunify their two worlds. The galaxy heaved a sigh of relief, and so did all others beyond.

The shift in power, as well as the ascension of new queens not yet fully adults, caused a shift in the very fabric of Time. Eras governed the universe and changed when power levels reached absolute peak. It usually happened within the first few years of the birth of a new generation of Cultivators, with the birth of those Cultivators often being seen as a sign of an Era truly beginning.

Claret saw this shift in the fabric the month following the Ruler changeover and notified Hannah and Genevieve. The Harmonic Era would end in December of Year 4699, and January would start Year 1 of a new Era. The queens, after conferring over the whys of the change, determined the new Era would, appropriately, be called the Royal Era, and the universe accepted it.

Only a week after Genevieve turned twenty-four, the new year and new Era began, and all eyes shifted to the kingdoms in curious wonder over just what sort of future Ruler Cultivators would be born. Some queens had already found soul mates, and had been waiting to be an adult to marry. Others had suitor lists not yet perused, and others had already begun their search. The queens could rightfully choose to wait to twenty-five if they so desired, or they could take advantage of their early adulthood. Most had no desire to rule alone and so began the search early, or got married if their search had ended.

Soon it remained only for the two High Queens to find their soul mates and future kings, and neither of them had any clue of the events about to be set into motion by Lycander himself. Not even Shanta or Orion quite knew just what Destiny had up her sleeve for the royal houses of Protea and Delphinium. It was time for blood outside the galaxy to be added, and events would be set into motion to change all of existence.

The future rode on such a thing.

©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.

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