Genevieve and Matthew's reason for forcing their daughter's hand became clear only a month after Shanae and Robert celebrated their engagement party, as a new wave of evil began to sweep through Blossom Field. It came in with a potency unseen before in the waves that had taken the lives of prior Defenders. Only Shanae and the four High Queens and Kings knew why, and none of them spoke of the oncoming end of the kingdoms. The other queens of the Flower Kingdoms, however, suspected something. All of them had made it into their fifties in age, and a very near future held another generation of Cultivators, whether Dual or not.
The first real sign of the severity of the events came when the sun disappeared briefly from the skies of all worlds that currently saw it. A low sound like a cry of the planets' Cores echoed across the ears of all Cultivators. Shanae felt suddenly sick to her stomach and went glassy pale. Power whipped around her body as she stood on her balcony and stared at the sunless sky. "Nemesis."
The sun returned as the power ebbed, but she knew what had happened. Nemesis had finally gotten free. He would gather those he could corrupt, would amass an army of evil Nightmayres, and he would feed on the terror of the populace until—gorged and bloated—he came directly after Shanae herself.
He was not the only problem. Famine had gained in strength as well. Her corrupted worshippers had spread out across the worlds. When she felt Nemesis, she did not see a rival. She saw a potential ally. She deliberately sought out the source of all evil and they joined forces. Now, when evil flared, it flared twice as hard.
Battles began to dot the daytime. All Defenders carried Masks at all times, and though Shanae and Sayena carried theirs as well, Veronica still forbade them from entering battle unless there would be no other recourse. They conceded to her willingly enough, but she knew they did so only at their own choice.
Defenders naturally deferred to the strongest in the ranks, which usually was the Lead Defender. However, Shanae and Sayena were technically more powerful than Veronica, and so she would defer to them should they exercise their right to lead. When she had asked Claret why it would happen that she be Lead Defender when the position, by rights, should belong to Shanae, Claret had gently reminded her that, no matter the reasons why both High Princesses were Defenders, there would be a day they hung up their Masks in order to rule. Destiny had known of that, and so had planned for that.
Veronica fervently hoped to have them hang up their Masks before ever donning them, yet she knew it a hopeless wish. They could all feel the oppressive weight of events set in stone, and those with Sight could barely sleep at night.
Two days after Nemesis had awakened, Shanae knew something terrible had happened. She could feel it as a painful jolt into her soul from her fiancé, even while they were still on two different worlds. She immediately transported herself to Delphinium's castle. Her sense of anguish from her soul mate only doubled in proximity, and her racing heart, she knew, did not actually belong to her.
She opened the door to his rooms just in time to hear him demand raggedly, "Am I to lose you, too, Diego?"
She moved to the doorway of the sitting room and found a tear-streaked Robert facing down Diego and a man both familiar and yet unfamiliar. He bore a striking resemblance to Vermillion yet was not the Commander in question. It took her only a moment to place him: Rubeo Chance, Vermillion's brother. He was two years younger than his brother, and therefore two older than Robert. He had been a frequent enough sight in the Delphinium Kingdom after Vermillion's appointment, and despite his rather aloof nature, had become endeared to all Cultivators—perhaps more so than his brother. "What happened?" she asked quietly, and drew all eyes.
Robert took a long breath and focused on her steady heartbeat trying to calm his own. "Vermillion disappeared. We don't know where. He had gone to investigate a flare-up, but he never returned. Chance and Diego want to go look for him. Chance for obvious reasons, and Diego because he has the skills to help protect them both."
Chance nodded a bit at Shanae. "I don't feel my brother is dead. He had not been himself lately, though, and I worry for what trouble he may have bitten off in an effort to prove himself better than Diego."
Diego grimaced. "And as that is no secret, I am going because I'm guilty of aiding in that feeling Vermillion had." He looked at Robert. "If Vermillion is dead, his position as Commander will become mine; Hannah has already made that clear. I hope, for your sake, he is alive. I know you don't love him the way you love me, but I do know you love him. That is enough for me, and should be enough for him!"
"The Chance brothers have trouble understanding love," Robert said a bit tiredly. He buried his face briefly in Shanae's hair when she moved to hold him. "They don't really get the different levels that can exist."
Chance did not deny the charge. "Let us go, Robert. You know I care for your well-being as well." Though his calm and somewhat cool voice did not change, the softer edge to his crystal blue eyes seemed to underscore the words.
Robert let his fingers tangle with Shanae's. "Very well. You have my permission. Do not dare give your lives! I can't lose you as well, especially not you, Diego." He watched both men hurry from the room and then let his head drop onto Shanae's shoulder. "Why must this happen?" he asked painfully.
"Because of me," she admitted softly.
His head jerked up. "Never say that!" he shouted at her. "You are not at fault for the whims of Destiny!"
"But I am the result of her whims," she reminded him. "For me to do what I must, our kingdoms must fall. And that means all of us within them must fall. There must be a rebirth. A restart. I can only destroy Nemesis in a time that has forgotten him for that will take away his greatest power. I'm so sorry." She rose up to kiss him tenderly. "I hate it more than you do."
No one need ask what came of the events; though no one could determine the specifics, Arista felt the moment her husband was torn out of her soul. She poured all of her grief into the will to endure for Shanae's sake, but she began to deeply hold suspicion for the future. She and Diego had not yet borne a child, and as both had entered their thirties, that alone had been an oddity—as much as her mother and father's continued existence. None of the Dual Cultivators had yet had their own children. All had assumed it lay in Shanae and Sayena's younger ages and wanting to keep generations the same age, but now they suspected Destiny had something else up her sleeve.
When the next wave came, it came brutally. Statice and Iris were nearly wiped out as Famine targeted the Light planets and Nemesis pursued the Dark. Dane lost his life in an effort to send Yvette to safety by accessing transport magic he did not naturally possess, and Sabin lost his by physically barring the time-space portal he had opened for Claret to escape through. The two Dual Cultivators only bore up under the loss for the same reason as Arista: someone still needed them. People fled from the ravaged worlds to Carnation and Daffodil beyond, and at last Tokala knew of only one way to salvage what remained of Iris. She tore out her own Seed and used it to freeze the Core until a time when the world could recover. Such an action took her and Taben alike, and Yvette arrived on Delphinium to the news that she was, effectively, now a queen.
Claret did not dare risk her Seed to freeze Statice for recovery. Instead, she used her very power over Time to do the same. Her world, too, would sleep, and someday it would awaken—just as someday her soul mate would return. Knowing such a thing in no way eased the tears that fell at feeling where he had been torn out of her.
Robert suffered just as deeply in losing Sabin for he had lost his twin soul. Sayena and Shanae clung onto him tighter in order to help. There would be no reprieve for anyone. Famine and Nemesis did not stop where they had started. Carnation and Daffodil became their next target. The pattern repeated. Maxim and Talon sacrificed themselves to send Veronica and Kacey to safety, and by the time the two princesses landed, their worlds had been frozen by their mothers' sacrifices, and they had become queens.
It continued to spread. Gladiolus and Orchid repeated the pattern. Navidan and Ulyen lost, Julianna and Delilah sent away to defend the High Princesses and Princes, and the Ruler Cultivators giving of their Seeds to freeze their worlds' Cores and buy more time to stop the evil. Hyacinth and Aster fell next in the same way. Diego had already been lost, however; Skyla herself ordered Arista to flee for Shanae needed her most. Jayden fell on Aster to save Asheria. The two twin souls to the High Princesses landed nearly at the feet of the one they loved most, and before the hour passed, they were queens.
Other worlds beyond tried to send aid to no avail. Other Defenders could not even enter Blossom Field. Vicious storms in space had cut off the center of the universe. Nemesis and Famine, bloated and gorged on blood and terror, reveled in what they had wrought. They parted forces and turned their malevolent eyes on that which they hated most: the legendary Apexes of Dark and Light prophesized to destroy them.
They did not go right for the palaces. Instead, they crept in from the edges of Protea and Delphinium and slowly moved toward the center. Delphinium suffered the hardest for Famine's disease power began to poison the very land itself, and everything began to wither and die. It was the people on Protea to suffer, and not the land, for Nemesis needed people to live in order for them to produce the terrible dreams he fed upon.
Pallas could not keep the Ephemeral Plane stable any longer, and without a Knight, no one could police the terrible dreams. Shanae tried desperately to siphon them off personally, yet never seemed to make a dent. Those of the Faith, led by Liena, did their best to aid the Plane as well, but they only drew Nemesis' gaze directly onto themselves. Rising hate and unbalance among the populace found them turning on the easiest target to find a way to save themselves, and that meant they turned on the witches of the Faith. Thousands were burned or drowned before all others went so deep into hiding that they seemed to disappear entirely.
Liena was among the first to fall, for her position made her the prime target. Lieu fought until his last breath for her life, and his, but to no avail. The royal family searched a bit feverishly for their three children, but Protea herself refused to tell any of them what had happened to the High Priestess' lineage. Only time would reveal if Liena had spoken truly of the descendants to come.
The Defenders had aligned themselves along the borders of the two remaining kingdoms. Shanae and Sayena, against any and all protests, journeyed to visit them every day. Another week ticked by as the two evil armies kept creeping in. Shanae had just woken to a blood red sunrise when she felt . . . something. She scrambled into her clothes and grabbed her Mask before transporting herself directly to where her Defenders stood grimly confronting what could truly only be called a nightmare.
Thousands. Thousands and thousands of monstrous creatures that bore the moniker of Nightmayre.
"I will fight," Shanae told Arista.
"You will not." Arista turned narrowed eyes on her twin. "What do you think to accomplish here? Nemesis is not here. If he was here, I would put the Mask on you personally. He is not, and therefore you cannot risk yourself. You must survive to face Nemesis and destroy him, and then we can all be reborn together."
That Arista had half-guessed the reality did not surprise Shanae. She also did not correct the assumption. She did have to survive to face Nemesis, if only to seal him away until that moment of rebirth. "You try so hard to protect me from what you know you can't stop, and I love you, but let me be with you!" Shanae pleaded.
"Our decision is final," Kacey told her softly, her tone as hard as the Metal of her element. "Claret, remove our princess for her own safety."
"No!" A bubble of time-space magic surrounded her, and she beat her hands on it uselessly. It was this very sacrifice she had so desperately not wanted to see, yet she had caused it by going to her friends' aid as her soul demanded. "Damn you!" she shouted, and it could have been at Arista, Claret, or even Destiny herself.
The last thing she saw before the magic forcefully removed her from the scene was the sight of the four Defenders beginning to glow brightly with magic. Shanae landed hard in the safety bunker, much to her lack of surprise. Only a Lead Defender could force the retreat of a fellow Defender, but any Defender could force the retreat of a High heir in the case of extreme emergency. Either way, the one being sent away always landed in the bunker. Shanae found it bitterly ironic that the one person who had always before been sent away had been the one to send her.
Only a few moments after she arrived, Sayena landed with even less grace in a heap beside her. "Ashe?" Shanae asked tiredly.
"Nica, as a Lead is wont to do." Tears choked Sayena for a moment as she curled her hands into fists. "They wouldn't listen to me! I tried to tell them that it didn't matter, but they were convinced they did the only thing they could!"
Though no shockwave went through the bunker this time, they knew exactly when the Defenders fell for they each felt their twin soul torn violently from them. Nothing could have kept them inside that bunker this time. They rushed out and used their power to take them to the place where the Defenders had been. No sign of them remained, and thousands of monsters had been decimated.
Sight stirred inside both High Princesses, and they just knew. They rushed back to their palaces, only to find the new onslaught had begun there. Yet, neither Nemesis nor Famine had appeared. Shanae's claymore allowed her to cut her way through to where Evan, Genevieve, and Matthew fought as well.
It's terrible! Sayena's voice echoed across Shanae's mind. As Apexes with arcanery, they could not only enter any mind they chose, they could also communicate across any distance with one another. The telepathic skill had stayed on the down low because it unnerved even their loved ones, but it now became a vital tool.
It's terrible here too, Shanae countered. We can't fall yet, Sayena! We have to endure! We have to seal Nemesis and Famine, and they are taking their sweet time, hoping we fall before they arrive!
Then what should we do? Tell me, and I will follow.
Shanae did not have a chance to answer. Genevieve and Hannah had already reached much the same conclusion, and more than even the Defenders, understood how absolutely critical it be that the two Apexes engage their destined enemy. Almost as if they too could read one another's mind, the two High Queens tore out their Seeds.
It was the glow that alerted Evan and Shanae as to Genevieve's action. "No!" Evan tried to lunge toward her, but Matthew knocked him flat to the floor.
The Seed glowed brighter and brighter and then simply blew apart. The shockwave it released rattled the entirety of the world and obliterated every bit of the attacking enemy. Eerie silence fell on both worlds as both High Queens fell.
Matthew, Evan, and Shanae scrambled to Genevieve's side even as Robert and Sayena scrambled to Hannah's. Two worlds, so different, yet so alike, bound by matching destinies. Events unfolded as if Destiny played the same melody with two different hands—an encore of the long forgotten past.
Genevieve felt only peace as her blurry eyes tried to focus on the faces of those she loved. She had done what had been needed, and she had fulfilled her duty. Someday, she would see her children live freely without fear. "Shanae?" she managed to ask softly.
"I'm here." Shanae pressed her mother's hand to her cheek. Somehow this hurt less than losing the Defenders; perhaps because her mother had not made a sacrifice at all. This was her moment to be free. The Defenders had to someday return to carry on the lineages of their worlds, but Genevieve had already done her part, and everyone else of her generation had already been lost. Now she could be with them forever. "I love you, Mother. I am so proud to be your child."
Genevieve's lips trembled a bit. "I am more proud to be your mother." She shifted her gaze to Evan. "Evan. How lucky I was to be your mother as well. To be given two such wonderful gifts . . . I am glad." Her eyes began to close. "I will always watch over you," she murmured softly as her breath sighed out. "Always."
The Mark on her chest faded away, and her body dissolved into shimmers of color. It took only moments before she no longer existed on the physical plane. Black-pink power swirled around Shanae's body and then up toward her head. It coalesced into a familiar crown whose weight felt as if it had been carried since birth. Protea had claimed its new High Queen.
The grief in Sayena's voice only made tears well in Shanae's eyes. She fought them fiercely. I know. She slowly stood and crossed her arms as she stared out into the now-empty distance. Nemesis would come for her directly soon enough. A day, at most. Perhaps that very night. "Father?" she asked quietly.
Matthew took a long breath. Though gaping wounds had been torn into his soul, and the pain nearly felt unbearable, he did not actually feel grief. The tangible effects of losing his soul mate could not be stopped, but his mind and heart had long before accepted just what would very probably happen. "I think . . . my time is here as well. We both know that here or later, my time is done. I have no reason to be here without my Cultivator."
Evan nodded and then slowly stood to move to Shanae's side. "Then go. We will handle the rest." Somehow, he found a smile. "Maybe . . . that is why you are also a Ruler Cultivator, Father. You can burn your Seed as well."
Matthew looked at his children and felt his heart ache no less than Genevieve's had. He reached inside to pull out his Seed, and it materialized in the air before him. Deactivated, it did not glow. Yet it existed. And he could burn what remained in it to follow his mate to the Realm. "Remember," he told Evan and Shanae alike as he began to glow, "that I regret nothing that brought me here. I love you both more than anything. I will be your guiding hand when you need it."
Evan very nearly reached out as Matthew began to dissolve, but Shanae caught his wrists. The two siblings stood watching until the last, until their father no longer existed on that plane and had moved beyond to find not just their mother, but the beloved other members of his generation. Uncle Quint? She asked it of Sayena.
Gone, came the tired response. Before Mother. He threw himself over me before Robert got close. He . . . knew Mother would make her sacrifice if needed. I feel as if I have no control over anything, Shanae!
We always have some level of control. We just have to choose to exercise it. Shanae took a deep breath. "Evan. Go to Sayena. She needs you more than I do."
He nodded, though it bothered him. It did not seem fair that he have to choose between the two he loved most. "Robert will come in my stead, whether you like it or not." He hugged her fiercely for a moment. He cared not that she was both taller and stronger; she was his beloved baby sister, and he would always protect her when she needed it.
She hugged him back and then let go so he could use his magic to transport to Delphinium. She moved silently through the castle toward her rooms, and she only barely acknowledged the servants who bowed in her passing. None of them said a word about what had happened, nor did they try to pierce the invisible barrier she had wrapped herself within. They simply moved quickly to do what they could to pretend, if only for a bit, that things could ever be normal again.
Shanae had just stepped onto her balcony when she felt a familiar presence behind her. Strong arms curled around her waist, and Robert buried his face in her hair. The tears brimmed anew but would not fall. She would not let them. "I made choices leading to this moment," she murmured. "Not everything that happened was beyond my control. Yet the one thing I wanted most, that literally was mine for the taking, I feared to reach out for. I knew that to take what had been offered would bring worse."
"What do we discuss this time?" he asked softly. He let go when she pulled away, and he turned with a bit of a frown as she walked into her bedroom. "Shanae?" He stopped breathing entirely as she began to calmly remove her clothes until she stood before him beautifully nude. How did such a perfect creature want him? "Shanae."
"Just once," she told him softly, fiercely, "I want to be selfish. I want to be unafraid. I'm always so afraid! How do you all think I am so courageous when I want nothing more than to hide? It is not courage; it is only bravery."
"It is both," he told her huskily, "because you have learned to not be afraid of some things and are therefore courageous, and you are also brave because you choose to move forward even though you are afraid." And that she would choose him as her selfish moment was beyond humbling. He crossed to her and skimmed a gentle finger over her lips. "I want everything you do," he said softly. "I have only one condition."
"And that is?" she asked.
Her eyes, as she looked up at him, were so deep that he felt as if he could drown in them. There, right there, lurked his entire existence and the reason for his being. His voice grew huskier with a need as emotional as it was physical. "This becomes our wedding night. Vows or no vows, you’ll be my wife in every sense of the word and I will be your husband. It won’t change, no matter how much time passes, or what our names change to. No matter what lives we live, how different our worlds are."
She slid her arms around his waist and pressed closer. There was no hesitation in her heart and therefore none in her voice as she said, "I think it’s always been that way. Even if you hadn’t asked, it would have been that way. If my destiny is to die, I want to die knowing what it was to truly live." A tremulous smile curved her lips. "It wouldn't be fair if we were the only ones to die without ever once knowing our soul mate's touch."
He tilted her chin up and kissed her deeply as he held her closer. He felt shaken all the way through his soul by the gift Destiny had given him by choosing him for the Apex of Dark. If it was literally the last thing he did, his lover would feel nothing but joy and pleasure until the end of everything. She had earned this, and so had he.
As his hands slid warmly down her bare flesh, he murmured against her lips, "Someday you need to let me undress you. I've dreamed about that." He released her long enough to strip his shirt off and then caught a breath as her fingers skimmed down his Flower Mark. He ran a knuckle down her left arm in intimate retaliation. "Let me see."
Her Defender Flower Mark, always before hidden, appeared anew on her arm. The sparkling edges only shimmered more when he bent his head to press his lips there. A quiver ran through her entire body of desire that consumed her soul and body alike. He was her gift, her reward, for obeying Destiny's commands. If she regretted only one thing, it would be to have not taken him for herself sooner.
Their lips met in another kiss that slowly unraveled. Time could wait for them. She took a step back, then another, bringing him with her. When she felt the bed touch her hips, she sat down and pulled him down with her. His hands beside her hips kept his balance and he released her from the kiss only to nibble at her neck. "You're overdressed," she teased him huskily.
"Just a bit." She tugged at his pants waistband and then let it snap back teasingly. He released her and straightened, and she leaned back on her hands to watch with love and desire as he finished removing his clothes. How could he seem so utterly perfect to her? If he had flaws, her eyes simply did not see them. She loved most how he could have the soft edges of his magical lineage yet have defined muscle from his decades of trying to keep up with her. At least, that also made sense at last. He had truly made himself into her perfect Caretaker.
"What are you smiling at?" He lifted her into his arms and then dropped her onto the middle of the bed to make her laugh. It wasn't the first time they had jumped on a bed together, but the antics of childhood existed on a separate plane from adulthood.
"Maybe you make me happy." She rose to her knees as he knelt beside her, and her hands began to move over his body to memorize all that she could. His hands moved over her in turn, and though hungry desire stirred, it simply could not take away the deeper hunger of their souls to simply know.
Desire did have to be appeased, and it finally began to burn hotter and hotter until fingers trembled. Until breathless sounds were as much a gasp as a sigh. They rolled over the covers in a teasing trade of strength until she finally won and held him pinned beneath her. She stared down into his nearly white eyes and could not find the words for how she felt. There were none in existence that could compare.
She took him slowly, savoring every moment, and felt him trembling beneath her as he fought to let her have her way. His fingers bit into her hips, thrilling her with the reminder that maybe, just maybe, he could be the stronger one. "Next time," she promised against his lips. "You can have your wicked way with me next time."
He buried one hand in her hair and held her closer for a devouring kiss. "Promise?" he asked thickly when he released her a bit. His hand slid down her body in a burning caress before curving around her hip again. He twisted beneath her slowly, tormenting them both, and loving how her pink eyes had turned to black with her power.
She followed his urging and took the lead, taking him again and again until ecstasy finally claimed them as surely as they had claimed each other. Inside that moment of pleasure that radiated as deeply through her soul as her heart, her universe aligned itself and was, at least for a time, perfect.
She lay draped across his chest, her cheek over his Mark, and felt no need to move anywhere anytime soon. When his arms slid around her waist and tightened in a fierce hug, she lifted her head enough to see his face. A smile tugged at her lips as she saw the trace of tears in his eyes that she knew came only from joy. "You Light sorts are always crying."
"It's not our fault that you Dark types make us emotional. Wouldn't do you or Evan any harm to cry now and then, you know." He tugged her up for another kiss and tasted her sigh of happiness as it breathed into his lips. He shifted and rolled over to tumble her onto the bed beside him. "Next time?" he asked huskily. "I don't think we're done yet."
"Not yet," she agreed. Against his lips as she drew him close anew, she whispered, "Not ever."
Some hours later, after the sun had set, and Delphinium had finally begun to appear on the horizon, he thought to ask, "What do you want for a wedding band?"
The covers had been haphazardly tugged over them both, and their empty dinner tray sat on the table. She had been lying in his arms, no desire inside her to be anywhere else even though she could feel her destined enemy finally beginning his approach. Not even an hour remained. "Hmm. We never did get around to discussing that."
"You kept putting it off, which I understood once you finally told me everything. But because I know there will be another time for us, we may as well discuss it now. We exchanged rings of common stone borne of our worlds as an engaged couple, and so now we need wedding bands for our wrists, made of whatever we choose for the other to find. I'm thinking amber for me."
Only Protea's Nature-rich world had trees that produced sap that could harden into the rare gemstone. All worlds had such an item. For Delphinium, it was opal. Only the Illusory word could produce opals from the dew drops of its flowers. The crown jewels of all lineages possessed the coveted stones belonging to their world.
Shanae already wore a ring of common stone from Delphinium, and Robert wore one of common stone from Protea; common meant the type of stone was standard across all worlds, but this piece had specifically oriented on their home world. Thinking of balance, she nodded a bit firmly at her husband. If they had common, they as well have the uncommon found nowhere else but the world of the one they loved. "Then I want opal." She smiled as his fingers played with her hair. In the course of the few hours from when they had become lovers to that moment, it had grown significantly. It now touched the floor where before it had only reached her knees.
"Definitely must be an Apex thing," he decided as he twirled a lock between his fingers. "And it feels . . . stronger, if that makes sense. I think perhaps it truly is that I and Evan stabilize you and Sayena. You are ever more Dark, and she is ever more Light, if we are there to make you so."
"I don't mind, really. I rather like the long hair. And at least my hair is fine and straight." She winced wryly. "You and Sayena do not have my envy as much as my sympathy." She reached up to ruffle his thick hair. "Much as I like to play with it, I don't want to own it." She reluctantly sat up and took a breath. Their time, in that life, had reached its end. "Promise me something?"
He watched her slide from the bed and begin gathering her clothes, and he reluctantly did the same. He could also feel the end drawing near, but, like her, he didn’t feel fear for it. Someday, no matter how far in the future, they would be together again. "What, Tash?"
The nickname tightened her heart with emotion. It was his secret name for her. Their secret words, whispered in a darkened bedroom where only love could enter. "When we find each other again, you won't let me get away with pretending I don't love you. If somehow I am too blind, give me the light to see." She smiled as she slipped her shoes on her feet. "You're good at that, you know." She watched as he finished dressing as well and then went into his arms and held onto him tightly.
He held her just as tightly and let out a ragged breath. How had she been able to stand this foreknowledge? How had she been able to continue to smile and laugh? She was stronger than even he had known, and it made him love her all the more. "It’s a promise."
They headed through the silent castle to the gardens and then to the fields beyond. The encroaching army approached as a force of the condemned, and moving at the front was a figure that had literally haunted Shanae's dreams. Nemesis.
He resembled little more than a writhing mass of . . . something. Some might have called him shadows, but he truly bore no resemblance to the real shadows born where Light and Dark overlapped. He could not be called darkness. He simply . . . was. An ominous figure who loomed over the nighttime and turned natural nightmares into something to be feared and loathed. Who fed on the worst of emotions inside all souls. Evil itself.
Shanae looked at the Mask in her hand and then calmly lifted it to put it on. Black-pink power swept down her body to form armor her planet had never before needed to form. It as strongly resembled her world's flower as her Ruler gown did. She took a long breath to evaluate how she felt for she had never worn it before. "It feels . . . comfortable. Inside and out. I don't feel it. No weight. Now I understand why Arista always said I did not need to train to wear my armor in battle. It conforms to me, not the other way around." She held out a hand, and Dark power swirled down her arm to form into a powerful claymore. A bit of amber in the hilt held a protea blossom. The black blade did not resemble the sword she had always before used for this had been solely born of her Apex arcanery. "So be it," she said softly.
On Delphinium, Sayena and Evan had also spent the entire day together. Sayena barely noticed the crown on her head; she had carried the weight inside all of her life. She stood on the balcony of her room and watched as Protea became bigger on the horizon. "Mother and Aunt Genevieve were crowned as High Queen in a ceremony," she murmured, mostly to herself. "Why did it fall this way for Shanae and me?"
Evan sat on the swing of the balcony and lightly moved it back and forth as he watched his lover. When she was ready to be held, she would come to him. She so rarely pulled back that he always let her go when she did. "Maybe something worse is happening than we think, 'ena. I always felt as if . . . there was something Shanae did not tell us. Perhaps our worlds knew that it needed to crown the High Queens now lest it never happen at all."
Sayena's fingers tightened on her arms and then she went to Evan and curled up on his lap to burrow close. Tears slid down her cheeks. "She would never tell me!" she whispered fiercely. She hiccupped back a sob. "I kept asking her, kept begging her to tell me, to let me share the burden. She never did!"
"Well, when the dust settles, we'll make her tell us everything she kept inside."
Her head suddenly jerked up. "It comes." She shoved out of his arms and grabbed her Mask off the table as she ran toward the doors. Her lover kept pace as she scrambled through the castle as fast as she could, and he caught her each time her own feet tried to trip her. She had always called it a part of his special magic that he could know even before she did when her clumsiness would rear its head.
They stopped just beyond the castle grounds to watch as the army approached. The figure at the front had been a menacing presence looming in Sayena's life since her birth. Famine.
She bore no resemblance to any living being, carried nothing in her appearance to make her tolerable to look upon. Disease ate away her flesh to reveal bone beneath, and putrid color clung to the nettles that made her hair. She left poisonous slime in the wake of her feet, as if it simply could not be contained within her skin.
Sayena looked at her Mask, and her fingers trembled. Yet, she did not hesitate as she put it on. White-gold swept over her and at last produced the armor her lineage had never before made. It as strongly matched her planet's flower as her Ruler gown did, and felt just as comfortable. It had, perhaps, a bit more actual metal armoring than most, but that could be a result of her lesser physical gifts. It usually fell that way.
She held out her hands, and Light swept down her arms to form into a long white magical rod topped with an opal holding a delphinium blossom in the center. If she felt any oddity, at all, it lay in her hair suddenly being braided where it had been loose. She often wore a braid for she liked the complicated plaits, but this braid had been made purely for keeping her hair back and therefore tightly confined even her curly hair. All Defenders who had long enough hair found that hair automatically entering into the bound form as soon as they donned their Mask. Thinking it, she looked at Evan. "Our destinies bind all of us, not just Shanae. I wonder if she is the only one who ever really knew."
Nemesis moved forward of his army and crept steadily closer to Shanae. She held her ground, and even held an arm in front of Robert to keep him back when he would have moved to her side. Pink sunlight rippled over her body as if her Nature power had just kissed her skin. Black darkness flowed in its wake. The combination was promise and warning alike.
"So. We meet at last," Nemesis told her, his guttural voice barely able to pierce the air. Hate and greed churned through his shell as he stared at the High Queen before him. Even he could feel déjà vu for it felt like confronting Shanta anew, but . . . different. His obsession with the first Cultivator of Protea paled now before his obsession with this one. She represented everything he wanted: the Dark power to bolster his own, and the Nature power that kept him from claiming the day. "You are not strong enough to destroy me!"
Shanae did not deny the charge. He had been gorged and bloated on the chaotic emotions of those without hope, and because of it, she simply could not awaken into her true form as an Apex and release the Whisper of Hope inside her soul with enough force to destroy him—yet. "In that," she said softly, "we agree." She looked to the sky, and she could see Delphinium in its full force. She could see the palace, and she thought she might just be able to see Sayena, too.
Somehow Sayena kept her trembling legs from showing as Famine approached. She wanted to run, yet did not want to run because running would doom too many people. Her hands tightened on her rod as she watched her destined enemy move in. Evan started to step forward, and she immediately swung her rod around to block him.
Famine's eyes burned with decrepit flames as she stared at Sayena. "So you're the legendary Apex of Light that is supposed to defeat me," she mocked. "What hope is there left for you to find, Your Majesty? I've eaten all the hope these pitiful lives have to offer."
Sayena knew it was no empty boast, and fear bubbled. If she could not defeat Famine, then what would that do to her world, and the galaxy? To the universe, for Famine would not stop there. She would only spread out and consume the rest. Sayena looked to where Protea hung in the sky in its fullest form. Somehow she just felt as if she could see Shanae standing before her castle, too. Shanae. Lead me. What do I need to do to win?
We can't win, Sayena. Not here. Not yet. She opened her mind and let her voice touch both Robert and Evan as well. They deserved to know. We can only buy time. We must ensure a long enough time for people to forget them. To believe, perhaps, that we have won. To let them be nothing but a legend to scare children. To allow hope to blossom anew, to give us the strength we need.
Delphinium is so terribly poisoned, Shanae! I have sent all who lived upon its surface to Protea. My world cannot support life any more than the frozen worlds can. It needs to be frozen, too, to heal. I can't do this alone. I don't think Robert and I together could, even with burning out our Seeds.
No, but you and Evan together could. If you and Evan burn your Seeds together, you will be able to banish and seal Famine, and freeze Delphinium until it can recover. If Robert and I burn our Seeds together, we will be able to banish and seal Nemesis, and give Protea's Core the strength it will need to bear up until its Ruler Cultivators can be reborn. Only the combination of our opposing elements will do such a thing.
A long silence met her, and then, softly, Sayena said, I believe anything you tell me. Evan agrees. We will do what we must here, and someday we will all be together again. I love you, Shanae. I'm not sure I told you enough.
Somehow Shanae smiled. You told me every day of our lives, you silly girl.
Well, you are of the Dark. You sorts need to be told those things. We Light sorts just always know.
Robert slipped his hand into Shanae's free one, and she looked up at him for a moment. She released her claymore from her other hand and reached up to touch her Flower Mark hidden by her armor. He mimicked her gesture, and their Seeds appeared under their fingers. A black glow radiated around Shanae's hand that could be seen from the other world, and she could see the white glow of Sayena.
Without guilt or hesitation, the four Ruler Cultivators tore open their Seeds and burned the raw potential within. Shockwaves of power ripped across the surface of both worlds that rattled buildings and knocked anyone standing off their feet. Where it was night, it suddenly lit like the day, and where it was day, it suddenly went as dark as the night.
Nemesis and Famine saw the danger too late to escape. They fought and they screamed and they railed against the unfairness, but they could not stop the power from flinging them away from the physical plane. They entered into the Ephemeral Plane, and then they descended below it, down to the deepest and most bitter reaches reserved only for the truly terrible of existences. There they would stay until, inevitably, they found the strength to break free anew.
The Masks fell off Shanae and Sayena and shattered on the ground, and their armor disappeared again. They and their lovers alike fell to the ground behind them. Robert and Evan were already gone, their bodies dissolving into shimmers of color. The two Apexes looked with blurry eyes at the empty lands before them and then let go of their last breath. They, too, dissolved into shimmers of color that flowed up into the skies and then beyond to the Realm of the Gods.
Only their crowns remained behind as a symbol of what had been lost, and what would someday again be reclaimed once more.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.