(Realm of the Gods)
Orion went looking for his wife, and he found her and Enaya sitting together under a tree. The First Defenders had gathered around them in comfort and solidarity. Lycander stood nearby as an additional support. Orion raked a hand through his hair tiredly and then just outright said it. "It's done."
Shanta's hands clenched together. "As you knew it would be done?"
"As much as I could know, yes. They made a few choices I did not wholly anticipate, but I assume my mother did."
"Did Claret sacrifice herself for her princess—I mean queen?" Tarveel asked him quietly. "It shocked all of us when we saw she had not been forced to retreat. But then, I suppose Shanae is different in many ways. I hope we figure that significance out soon enough."
"She actually intended to," Orion admitted readily, "but Pallas retreated her to the Hall of Records against her will at the last moment."
"He can do that?" Eriline, the First Defender of Gladiolus asked curiously.
"He can. Surprised me as well, I admit. He says he requested the skill from our grandmother as soon as Shanae was born and he saw how much Claret loved her. I can hardly blame him, nor be surprised the request was granted." He took a long breath. "Claret is recovering. Slowly, but still recovering. I went to see her, to see how she would possibly endure millennia without Sabin, but . . . I discovered a curious presence."
"Time and Love. Grandmother has blunted Claret's memories and removed aspects of Sabin's presence. Love blunted the wounds of his absence and has effectively returned Claret to a state not far from what she had been in before meeting him."
Enaya's mouth opened and then closed. "Then Claret won't have to suffer until his rebirth?" She let out a breath of relief and leaned her head on Shanta's shoulder as much to give as receive comfort. "That is something, then."
"Is there anything else?" Shanta asked softly. "I need something to hold onto, Orion. I can't bear to look at Protea!"
Her husband walked closer and held his list of names out where they could all see it. "Here is the promise of the future you need, my love."
Many familiar names had been crossed out through the list, but that was not the significance. The significance lay in what names were not lined out on the list: the names of the other nine Dual Cultivators, Robert, Evan, the eight Commanders, and Diego had not been marked as complete. Their time had not ended. Their souls had arrived, but they had been rejected.
"How long?" Lycander asked.
"That I cannot say," his brother-in-law sighed. "The Apexes minimized the damage to their Seeds by joining with their lovers, but that does not change the fact that they all burned themselves out. Well, Robert and Evan burned out. Shanae and Sayena, by nature of their infinite power, cannot actually burn out. It is more accurate to say they tore their Seeds into pieces to unleash the full force of their power as unawakened Apexes."
"If they had been awakened . . .?" Enaya trailed off.
He nodded. "The outcome would have been very different. However, given the state of the universe, their awakening now was simply an impossibility. Not enough hope for them to utilize. They could not awaken, therefore they could not destroy their destined enemy, therefore . . . they did what they had to in order to ensure the future." His Sight stirred, and he gazed into that very future in a way only he could see. "It will take millennia," he murmured. "At least five. That will be enough for their Seeds to recover to where they can be reborn, and it will be more than enough for people to, as Shanae so accurately put it, believe that they won. Nemesis and Famine will have nothing to feed on when they return, and what little they will muster before the Apexes awaken and destroy them will not be enough."
"What will happen to Protea in the meanwhile?" Tarveel asked of him and Shanta alike. She squeezed her twin soul's hands tighter in support. "The other worlds are frozen; they will breathe without living until their Rulers return. Protea both breathes and lives still. What will become of a world not frozen who does not have a Ruler?"
Shanta got to her feet and walked a few steps away with her arms crossed tightly around her body. "Under normal circumstances, terrible things would happen. Slowly, bitterly, painfully, Protea would become just like the other worlds. Barely breathing. Not living. Everything decaying and dying. Eventually it would completely collapse into itself and cease to exist entirely. But . . . Shanae took the effort to plan for such a thing, to prevent it from happening. She bolstered the Core of Protea by using Robert's Illusion magic to . . . mimic, I suppose is the word, her own power of Nature and create a false Seed that should be just enough to help Protea endure. It will fade when either she or Evan are reborn and bring back a Ruler to the land." She drew a long breath. "As to the general state of Protea, I just do not know. I suppose we will learn that as time passes." She turned around and at last found a smile. "Are Genevieve and Hannah reunited with the others?"
"They are." Orion smiled in return and moved to tug her into his arms. "But they are not strong enough to take yours and Enaya's places, either. They can take their mothers' places as the Goddesses assigned specifically to Protea and Delphinium, but you two will just have to stay in charge of the entire Realm for a while longer until Shanae and Sayena finally come to the Realm of the Gods to stay."
"Lucky us," Enaya grumbled.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.