The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 14

As February of 5104 rolled around, life had become nearly idyllic. Lux continued to thrive as the biggest city on the landmass, and the one with the strangest overabundance of natural energy. After nearly twenty-five years, still no one could figure out how even things that should not have been suited for the warm climate thrived no matter who planted them, or where. You could not have a brown thumb if you lived in Lux.

Although, Siobhan thought wryly as she stared at the miserable potted plant on her kitchen counter, you could certainly try. She sighed as she poked at the drooping leaves. Her eyes held humor as she looked to where her brother was walking into the kitchen as well. "I think maybe Edgar needs to look at this poor thing. I'm pretty sure it's alive only by sheer stubbornness."

Rocky snorted softly as he went to get coffee. Right on the edge of adulthood for both with Rocky at twenty-four and Siobhan at twenty-three, the two siblings still looked enough alike to pass for twins, despite a rather significant difference in height. Siobhan had settled barely at five-two, and her brother had beaten her by an entire foot. She had never lost her beautifully plump shape, though maturity had added a delicately curved bust and hips. Rocky had also not lost his softness, though his continued love of physical training meant he had earned himself quite a bit of defined muscle to go with it.

Siobhan's fluffy and curly hair also now reached the floor in length, while her brother's stayed short. She had tried to cut her hair, but it had never grown in a normal way to begin with. If she lopped it off, it took only a few minutes to grow right back out. Shana had been like that, too, actually, so at least she had never been alone in her oddness. She had finally given up trying, and now just enjoyed experimenting with different sorts of braids.

Rocky bent a bit to look at the miserable plant and then decided dryly, "You're right. Invite Edgar over under the auspices of seducing him and then make him play gardener."

Siobhan bit her lip but still giggled. "It would serve you right if I did! We try to pander to your sensibilities by never spending the night together here. It's terribly unfair of me to parade my lover under your nose while you still don't have yours!"

"Soon," he intoned, almost like a mantra. "As in literally months now. And I swear to all that's holy and divine, including Destiny, if Shana does not come home in April, I will god damned swim to Axium!"

Siobhan bit back more giggles. "I don't think anyone will appreciate your efforts, and Desiree would be pretty vexed to have to use her Water magic to go save you from drowning." Thinking of the varying gifts of the Cultivators, she ran her hands lightly over her arms and looked to where a trunk sat under a large window. Inside that trunk was only a single object: her Mask. She had never actually worn her Mask, at least not that she could recall from either life. She kept it safely locked away as she had promised, and there had been no need to get it out. Yet, she could not shake the feeling that that time would come soon.

"Hey." Rocky tugged her close and kissed the top of her head. "I'm here. My Sight has not seen anything yet, and it usually keeps me up to date on the trouble you'll be in."

It made her smile as intended. "Lucky you, having Future Sight. I just have Present Sight, so I only know if you're in trouble once you're actually in it!" She glanced at the clock over the stove and then groaned as she realized how late they would be to class. "Damn it."

All of the Cultivators, including Siobhan, attended the same Chivanti University within their city. Everyone suspected a connection to Edgar and Shana, but they had never said one way or another whether they held any relation to the former owners of the Chivanti Corporation that owned the university. Octavia obviously knew, but she had been no more forthcoming about the details.

Rocky followed Siobhan's gaze to the clock and sighed. "Oh, hell. Edgar will not let us live this down." He snagged up his backpack and stayed close on his sister's heels as she ran out of the apartment and down through the complex. He kept one hand free to grab her arm each time she tripped, which happened frequently enough since she had solely magical gifts and no physical ones. He had countered their lineage by training, but he still could be tripped up on occasion.

Which inevitably happened as they reached the pedestrian lane where Edgar stood patiently waiting for them. Rocky's shoe caught the edge of the cement and down he went. He landed right at his brother's feet, and the other male said dryly, "I give it a nine for not taking me down with you."

"I endeavor to try," Rocky muttered. "Damn it all." He accepted his giggling sister's hand and got nimbly back up. "Besides, I would probably do damage if I took you down, unlike Siobhan."

Edgar grinned a bit. He had also all but finished growing and stood at an average enough five-nine in height. And while he certainly possessed a strong frame of his own that seemed pure physical strength, he still wouldn't escape unscathed if the bigger of the two Toulumes decided to trip right onto him. His black hair, which he had normally worn short, now stayed in a neat ponytail at the base of his neck. "I can usually catch us both if she does that."

"Or just let us fall," his lover teased.

"Depends on whether we're alone or not," he teased back as they began to walk down the street together. The university sat only a few blocks away, and they always walked to their first classes together. Rocky and Edgar, and the four Defenders, had roughly a year of classes left. Siobhan had two thanks to being younger.

"Do you mind?" Rocky complained. "I'm still here."

"So walk faster," his sister retorted, sticking out her tongue a bit.

He returned the gesture. "See if I save you the next time you trip. Sheesh." He walked a bit faster to leave the conversation, but not far enough that he left them behind. He actually did not mind when they got to flirting; mostly, he kept hoping that they would finally just decide to move in together and make things simpler. Siobhan practically lived over at Edgar's anyway.

Siobhan studied his back and then looked at Edgar. Solemnly, she said, "I can't wait to see him wrapped around someone's finger the way you've got me wrapped around yours." She hugged his arm playfully. "I mean, since we're so much alike, and you and Shana are so much alike . . ."

Edgar's grin looked a bit wicked. "To say the least! I'm looking forward to it too, and having her share again the frustration of keeping you two from breaking your hearts over every little thing. And, yes, we're still on for two months from now. The process is going so smoothly that I have no doubts it will happen."

"No need for Rocky to swim the ocean?" she asked dryly.

"Thankfully for the heart rate of the Defenders, no."

She rested her cheek against his arm. "You're so strong inside. Stronger than me maybe. I don't think I could handle not having Rocky for most of the time. And as hard as it was for me and Rocky to let her go, you had it just as bad, yet you never once complained. You could have. Maybe not to her, but to us at least."

"You know I try not to burden you."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "One of these days, I will finally teach you that it is not burdening me or my brother when you are bothered by something and need someone to tell."

"Just as one of these days, I will teach the two of you to think before acting?" came the polite, yet amused, retort.

She just sighed. "Got me there. Oh well."

None of the Cultivators shared classes, and they did not all have classes on the same days, but they had staggered schedules for the days they did share so that they could all have lunch together. By the time Siobhan got to the table they had commandeered, she was the last one to arrive. She plopped down between Sherry and Edgar and cracked open her lunchbox. "I'm starving!" she said cheerfully.

"Bottomless pit," her twin soul teased her affectionately. She shot an equally teasing look at Rocky. Maturity had given her a nearly sultry beauty that her custom designed clothes always flattered perfectly. She rather enjoyed making clothes that best suited an individual person. "I sometimes wonder if either of you eat at home."

"We do, thank you!" Rocky scooped up dip with a chip. "Our metabolisms would just be happier if we could snack in class. I haven't dared that since the last time I got crumbs in a keyboard and my computational sciences teacher almost chucked me out."

Juliet looked up from the cookbook she had been reading, and her green eyes sparkled merrily in her olive toned face. Her yellow hair had been tucked under a net where it would stay out of her way in culinary classes. "You have to pass my advanced pastry class on your way to your second classes. We always offer the visually impaired yet tasty food things to hungry students. Pop in for a popover or something!"

"You will never get rid of them again," Virginia noted dryly as she added dressing lavishly to her salad. She always carefully watched her food intake since she had to keep up with her own strength as Lead. Her beautiful features and vibrant coloring had become paired to a strong body proportioned with curves in such a way that she could wear anything, so she had become popular as a model among the artists of all trades on campus. She was actually studying art as well, so she alternated between being in front of and behind canvases. It was for that reason that she aimed her fork at Yvonne and said, "You lost the bet. You owe me a nude study."

"What the hell did you bet that involved being naked?" Edgar asked Yvonne a bit incredulously. Of all of them, she had the most modesty, so it seemed far more a jump than anyone else.

A bit of pink climbed her fair skin, and her golden yellow eyes held sheepishness. Her long hair made of purple ombre shades had been clipped up out of her face in a way that reflected her lack of concern for being stylish. "Let's just say that I learned my lesson and will never doubt her again, okay?" In a grumble, she added, "Why are she and Sherry so obsessed with making me look more fashionable than I am? I save my style for designing the interiors of houses."

Juliet lightly hit her on the top of the head with a napkin. "Because you always entertain us with your ability to literally not give a damn and yet somehow command attention. Making you deliberately command attention, either via Gin's art or Sherry's clothes, always creates a suitably spectacular show."

"One of these days I'll start caring and then you'll need a new target."

"Bet you won't," Virginia said slyly.

"Oh, no you don't! I'm not falling for that again."

Siobhan couldn't help but giggle. Nothing made her happier than to be with these people. They perfectly completed her life, and yet . . . something just felt missing. The other four Defender Cultivators, and her beloved sister. They needed to be there to complete the set. It just didn't seem right without all ten Dual Cultivators, though Siobhan could give some allowance for Clara's need to stay in the Hall of Records. Some. She shook it off as she looked at the large clock affixed to the highest tower of the main university building. It could be seen from any location on grounds. "I have a political sciences class I better not be late for again." She hopped up to her feet, stopped to kiss everyone, and then hurried off.

Rocky and Edgar also had classes quickly approaching and so finished up and headed off after kissing everyone goodbye. The four Dual Cultivators left at the table shared a long look between them before sighing deeply. Yvonne ran her hands over her arms to combat a chill. "I still really don't like that they don't remember each other that well. Alright, they've proven to not need to remember, but . . . they deserve to have all of those wonderful memories."

"With the good comes the bad," Juliet murmured. "What about on the other side? Still extremely fuzzy?"

"To be sure." Virginia sighed. "Our other queen is doing just fine, all things considered. Remembers snippets of Protea, next to nothing of Delphinium and the others. And, like Siobhan, she absolutely remembers nothing of what it means to be an Apex. Yet . . . she has never stopped being obsessively driven to hone her body into the penultimate weapon."

"Which is likely why Rocky's near obsession with continued training hasn't tapered either, nor Edgar's." Sherry drummed her fingers on the top of the table and then went very still. Her eyes unfocused as she stared into the distance, and her friends tensed. Her eyes finally cleared, and her fingertips quivered. "Damn it," she whispered.

"What did you See?" Virginia demanded.

Sherry slowly turned to look at her friends, and a somewhat sad and almost bitter smile curved her lips. "The end of the innocence of Light."

* * * * *

The Ephemeral Plane had become somewhat unknown as far as the general populace was concerned. In the height of the Royal Era, it had been a very well-known location due to being under the guardianship of the Protea Kingdom, as well as the quantity of members of the Faith of the Goddess who had used it for all manner of things, up to and including astrally walking the Immortal Fields or contacting the Hall of Records to uncover information about past lives.

In the five thousand years since the fall of the kingdoms, those of the Faith had not truly re-emerged into the open. Only a handful were known across the surface of the world though their population did still number at least a few hundred. Curiously, while those of the Faith only numbered a few hundred, those with majik numbered higher. Far too many witches had been forced to abandon the Path of the Goddess for their own safety, and that meant their children and further down the lines had either not even known they had majik in their blood, or if they did, they didn't truly know what it meant. Meeting someone with majik who was not of the Faith guaranteed that, at some point, someone in their lineage had been of the Faith.

The Ephemeral Plane had depended on those of the Faith far more than anyone had realized. The diminished presence of good majik within the Immortal Fields lent itself to a lingering and steadily rising unbalance not aided by the lack of a Ruler Cultivator for Protea to provide Nature magic. The unbalance could, to some level, be controlled by Pallas, yet even he could not do it all alone.

Eventually, that unbalance began to creep down through the Plane to the deeper reaches. It disturbed that which had been contained, and it began to make locks and safeties far less safe. Down there, buried amid the most terrible of existences, lurked the two worst of all.

Famine had been pushing at her seals for millennia, and finally, at last, she felt something give way. Savage satisfaction filled her as she pushed harder. Seals cracked, and a shudder tore through the Plane. With a surge of necrotic power, she burst free and tore through the Plane and toward physicality. She broke out into the skies of Delphinium and found a suitably desolate landscape. It had barely recovered at all in the five millennia since she had poisoned it. How perfect.

She flew toward the castle, intent on claiming it as her own, but she came to an abrupt halt as she discovered it had been covered in a protective barrier of some sort. She raged against it, battered her decrepit hands, until something broke and she could enter. A bright glow drew her toward the center, to the grand throne room, and even she felt mesmerized by what she saw within.

The crown of the High Queen. It hovered within a column of light inside the center of the room. Famine rushed to claim it and plunged her hands into the column. Ripe agony made her scream, and she tore away to discover her hands had rendered down to bone, all flesh melted away. "So be it!" she snarled. "When she is dead, this will be mine!"

She turned her gaze toward the sky through the broken ceiling. She could see Protea in the night sky. Where else would all those disgusting creatures have been reborn except on the world of Dark? It could take in and support their power in a way no other world could. She reached out with power to look, and she swept her eyes across the surface of the planet.

Two hotspots lit up as being positively saturated with Cultivator magic. The one they called Axium looked as if it had been cloaked in darkness. Famine made a disgusted noise; as if she cared about the Dark Defenders and their precious Apex of Dark. She would bother herself with them once she had removed the only real threat to her existence: the Apex of Light. She could only be within the city called Lux, for the city of 'light' indeed looked as if it had been bathed in its namesake. The Apex and the Light Defenders surely lived there.

Finding them would not be hard. Cultivators, Ruler and Defender alike, had exceptionally high resistance to disease. Few ever got sick. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she hated them so terribly. She pulled a face and then spat onto the floor. The disgusting ooze began to bubble and then metamorphed into the putrid and monstrous form of a creature she had affectionately named a 'Germ.' It would find her target without any difficulty.

* * * * *

Plagues were so rare that it sometimes took ages for people to even realize that the few cases of sickness were highly contagious. This time, when sickness swept through Lux, no one could mistake it. It infected everyone of every age in any form of health, and those with weaker immune systems got hit the hardest.

Siobhan, unfortunately, still fell into the latter category. Her tendency to be a sickly child had carried over to being a sickly teenager and now a sickly adult. Every passing disease could knock her down for days. She had grown to accept that disease was merely a part of her life, and she would forever spend at least two-thirds of her life suffering in some form or another, so she had learned to carry on as best she could. She also accepted that she would be hospitalized with regretful frequency; at least she took advantage of it by asking all of the professionals who worked with her mother about their jobs, since she wanted to go that direction as well.

The moment the plague hit the city, she shut herself away in the apartment and wore the filtered face mask she had been custom made in order to protect her. Rocky, and anyone who visited, took the full effort to completely change clothes in the laundry room before they approached her—and she stayed away from the laundry room at all times.

It took only two days, however, before every precaution proved ineffective. She woke one morning and felt as if she had been beaten with a stick. Everything hurt. She could barely breathe, and her entire body shook with chills from fever. She could not bite back a whimper as she tried to sit up.

Her brother appeared in her bedroom doorway, a dark look on his handsome face. "Honey." He moved closer and eased onto the side of the bed. She fell forward against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her tenderly. It always abraded against him, deeply, when he could not protect her. "We tried."

"I know." She closed her eyes and let him be her strength. "At least I can't get you sick? I'm the only weird Cultivator who doesn't have any resistance," she managed to tease.

Edgar and Octavia alike still affectionately called the Toulume siblings the 'eternal optimists', and neither had bothered denying it. Rocky smiled and smoothed Siobhan's messy hair out of her eyes. "Let's get you into a cool bath to temper that fever, and then I'll braid your hair and feed you. Okay?"

"'kay." She never really tried to argue when he babied her. It balanced itself since he didn't argue when she babied him. One of the benefits to being so much alike was that they pretty much understood that if one of them had to do something—like nurture and care for a loved one—the other did too.

By the time she had suffered through the painful bath, gotten her hair braided, and managed to eat some mild soup, their closest friends had shown up. They didn't bother with the switching of clothes this time as it was already too late. Sherry sat down next to Siobhan on the couch and had to smile when her twin automatically snuggled close. "I'm the last person you want to cuddle right now. I run a higher temperature as a Fire element. Snuggle Yvonne. She's always colder."

"I wanna snuggle you. No offense, Yvonne."

Yvonne smiled. "None at all taken! But I can probably still help." She blew on her hands, and cold air puffed from her lips to create a fog of tiny ice crystals. She walked over to Siobhan and gently placed her foggy hands on the other woman's neck. She winced as Siobhan yelped. "I know. It hurts. But it will help. One of my gifts as a Ruler lets me regulate temperatures of places and people."

Siobhan didn't argue, but she did tuck her face against Sherry's neck for comfort. Tears ran down her cheeks that she ignored. She knew it would help. It always did. That didn't make it suck any less.

Rocky sat down in one of the other chairs, arms crossed and chin set, and Juliet sat on the arm to hug him comfortingly. "She'll get better," she promised. She rested her chin on his head. "She always does. I know you don't like seeing her sick. None of us do."

"I'm just so frustrated by it!" he told her. "It just does not make sense. Not just that she always gets sick, but that this new plague has come at all! It doesn't seem to be missing anyone! I think maybe five people at school, Edgar, and the lot of us have been spared. That's it. Also, those five? Pretty sure they were getting it when I saw them yesterday. Even Mom is really feeling it, and she's built up a high resistance to most everything from working in the hospital so long."

Juliet looked at the others over his head, and all four Defenders collectively nodded in agreement. They had run out of time to protect Siobhan. "Be that as it may," Virginia finally said, "the fact remains that Siobhan's state is . . . expected." She sighed as that drew both siblings' glares. "I know, I should have said something sooner, but I honestly wanted to keep it quiet as long as possible. Unless she remembered the price of being an Apex, I didn't want to be the one to tell her!"

Siobhan felt better now that her fever had diminished, so she sat up. She tucked up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. "You're saying that this is because I'm an Apex?"

"More specifically, it's because you're unawakened as an Apex." Virginia shot to her feet to pace off her agitation. "Siobhan . . . damn it. I don't know how to tell you this!" She raked her hands through her hair and swung around. "There is a price to be paid for an Apex to exist. The price of your birth lays in the creature known as Famine. She's as terrible as she sounds, and in a way, I'm kind of glad you don't remember. Sure as hell most of us wish we didn't."

"So Famine has finally come after me?" Siobhan asked with a calm at odds with her clenched hands.

"The plague is proof of it. And once you finally pay the price and awaken, your immunities will build properly and you should never get sick again." Yvonne made a vague gesture. "We always assumed the price is fighting and destroying Famine. Which, since you get sick easily, kind of does make sense how it would be classified as a 'price.' In the time of the kingdoms, you got sick with relative frequency, too. Perhaps not as terribly as now, but the illnesses back then were not as terrible as they can be these days. Evolution, I suppose."

"And it has to be me?" she whispered.

"It can't be anyone else," Sherry sighed. "You are the Apex of Light, the epitome of all that is magical, and you possess the greatest of all healing powers. Ironic, I suppose, in these circumstances, but it is what makes you the only being capable of destroying Famine. You can heal disease, Siobhan, and not even Kellie can do that. No other healer can. Famine directly targeted the Delphinium Kingdom specifically because of you."

"Then so be it," Siobhan decided. She shook her head. "You can't keep me cooped up any longer. If I'm going to get sick, then I'll just deal with it. I've already dealt with it all of my life. Now I will confront it face-to-face." Her smile looked a bit sad. "You can't fear what you have always lived with."

Keeping her cooped up no longer did not actually mean she returned to classes. All classes had been canceled for the entire university. In fact, almost the entirety of Lux had come to a dead halt. People with more minor cases of the illness kept running what absolutely had to stay running, but the streets more closely resembled a ghost town. Siobhan knew it could not get better unless and until she confronted Famine, and she could not confront Famine unless they knew where she had hidden herself. They would not figure that out unless they could get Famine to attack directly, and she would not do that unless they revealed themselves. So, despite the protests of her four guardians, Siobhan insisted on going out. Never alone, however. All four Defender Cultivators and her brother alike always accompanied her. She hardly minded that.

The six of them had just settled into a favored park to have a quiet lunch together when the air went biting cold. Sherry's head jerked up as her Sight stirred and told her that danger approached the two Delphinium heirs she lived to protect. Virginia recognized the signal and leapt to her feet. "Masks!" she ordered sharply.

Masks could be shrunk to make transportation easier, especially since calling for a Mask to hand only worked for the two Apexes—and then only if the Mask hadn't been locked away. Virginia and Sherry wore theirs as a charm on an earring; the matching communications mask that allowed them to contact any other Defender made up the other earring. Yvonne and Juliet wore both versions of their Mask as charms on a bracelet. All four pulled off their Mask, and it grew to full size.

Vile ooze bubbled up out of ground and then took shape into the form of the Germ. It did not need to see the Masks to know it had found its targets. Their very immunity bespoke of their identity. It went not after the four with Masks, however. It immediately lunged toward the two without, vicious claws arced to kill.

Siobhan threw her arms over her head on a little shriek that doubled when her brother grabbed her and knocked her down to the ground safely. He very badly wanted to fight, too, but he knew better than that. He stayed low with Siobhan and made them a much harder target to reach through the four Defenders that moved to stand in front of them.

The four exchanged a glance and then put on their Masks. Magic colored the same as their Flower Element swept down their bodies and called up their armor. Each reflected their world's flower in some manner, and literally suited them in an elemental fashion. Virginia took a step forward with a hand held out, and a halberd appeared in her grip. Anyone with strong enough magic could use whatever magic they did have to hold objects of particular importance, and Defenders in particular preferred to use it to hold their weapons. Juliet and Sherry followed suit, and it was a wooden staff to the former and a short sword to the latter. Yvonne, of Iris and purely defensive magic, had no weapon. She instead stayed back a step to cover the others with her skills.

The Germ saw uneven odds not in its favor and began to rip off pieces of flesh. Each that fell became another Germ. In only moments, a dozen confronted the four Defenders. It did not stop them from rushing in and going on the attack with weapons and magic alike. Siobhan very nearly cried out but Rocky hastily clamped a hand over her mouth. "Don't!" he whispered in her ear. "Let them concentrate!"

She yanked his hand off her mouth. "I have to help them! I'm a Defender Cultivator, too! Delphinium chose me! I have to get my Mask!" She shook her head hard. "I'm not feeling well enough to transport alone, not while Delphinium is sick as well. Help me, please!"

He laced his hands with hers and accessed the transport magic his by right of birth as a Ruler Cultivator. It had significantly diminished as well thanks to their world being poisoned, but it did still work within at least a few miles. They tried not to use it unless in dire circumstances, and this counted! He got them safely to the interior of their apartment and then followed his sister as she ran over to the trunk. A part of him, naturally, resented that this burden rode on her shoulders. He resented it on the shoulders of the other women as well. He had to resent it for he loved them and it put them in danger. That did not mean he doubted why they had been chosen, or that there was need.

Siobhan opened the trunk and looked at the white and gold mask within. Its delicate design echoed to the Flower Mark on her chest and arm, both of which appeared anew as she looked at the Mask and felt her Sight stir. Though her Sight had always before been limited to the present time, for once it offered a glimpse of the future. She knew, felt positive, that to put on the Mask would lead to her death. Her fingers trembled only briefly before she picked up the Mask and put it on. White-gold power swirled around her and formed her armor. It felt . . . familiar. Comfortable. Despite her foggy memories, she knew she had indeed worn it before.

She shot to her feet and then wobbled as her illness made her less-than-stellar grace more pronounced. "I have to help the others!"

"I'm going." Rocky stood as well.

"No, you're not," she told him on a scowl.

He matched her scowl equally. "Yes, I am!"

"No, you're not!"

"Yes, I am! And the more we argue about it, the worse things are at the fight!"

Her eyes went wide. "Oh, damn it all!" She grabbed her bigger brother's shirt and dragged him down closer to her height. "You will sit out of the way or I swear I will put you to sleep so you have no choice!"

He seethed a bit. He knew damned well she would do it, and without guilt. "Unless you're in trouble and the other four can't get to you fast enough."

"Fine." Activating her Mask had bolstered her own magic, and she could use the transport herself this time. They landed in the middle of the fight, and she shoved her brother out of the way of a stray blast. It hit her instead and knocked her flat on her butt. "Owie!"

"Damn it, Siobhan!" Virginia knelt beside her and helped her stand. "We had it handled!"

"It's my fight!" Siobhan shouted at her in turn. "Stop trying to protect me from doing what I was born to do! Wah!" The last added as Juliet bodily lifted her and carted her over to Yvonne. Siobhan kicked her feet. "Put me down!"

"Fine!" Juliet plopped her down beside the Iris Defender. "Stay here where you're better off! Defenders solely of magic orientation stay at the back. These are the rules, and you abide by them or else!" She aimed a finger at Rocky. "You! Over here as well. If you're going to be here, stand behind the people who can make shields!"

He nearly stomped his feet over to Siobhan and Yvonne. The Iris Defender wisely hid a smile to the best of her ability. She snapped off a quick ice shield to protect Virginia and then turned to her prince. "Rocky, let me see if I can at least help you to some extent. If we can re-unlock your ability to call up your Ruler suit, it will provide at least some measure of defense. Our Ruler outfits do have some magical aspects to them, else we wouldn't be able to just conjure them up at will. It might give you a few more defenses so that if you continue to insist on being present, at least you will not be such an easy target." She smiled. "Rocky, we fully respect that you are, in fact, physically stronger and more skilled than Gin. However, you must respect that we live to protect you and Siobhan, and we love you enough to give our lives willingly."

"Will you let me fight if I can get a proper weapon?" he muttered.

"Yes," Virginia shot over her shoulder as she stabbed a Germ with her halberd and then ripped it apart. "Until then, behave yourself!"

While Siobhan called up her rod and used it to start sending off magical blasts of her own, Yvonne turned her attention to Rocky. "Shirt," she ordered. After he had removed it so she could see his Flower Mark, she studied the blossom intently. It looked perfectly normal, all things considered, and as he had been playing with and studying his own magical gifts for almost two decades as best he could under secretive conditions, it really should not have been hard for him to access his Ruler suit. She called shenanigans of an ultimate being sort, and most probably Destiny oriented.

She lightly touched the Mark with her fingers and used her own magic to find his. It welled as a swirl of white and gold Illusion Flower Element, and she saw his eyes widen as if he had just somehow figured something out. The magic swept over his body, and his normal clothes immediately disappeared to be replaced by the familiar suit of a male Delphinium Ruler Cultivator. "There!" she said in satisfaction.


She hastily grabbed Rocky by his lapel and yanked him down with her as she dropped flat. Siobhan had already dropped down as well, and the stray blast went harmlessly over their heads. Rocky, smart man that he was, stayed down. The two Defenders leapt back up, and Siobhan swung her rod high. "Please work!" she muttered under her breath.

Under normal circumstances, casting healing magic on an enemy fell under 'not smart' as far as tactics went. But because the Germs had been made of disease power, and were almost effectively undead, healing power could actually be detrimental. The pure white Light from Siobhan's magic became positively corrosive under those circumstances, and rather than merely damage the Germs as she had hoped, she ended up obliterating them entirely.

The additional benefit came in the backwash of the magic hitting Virginia, Juliet, and Sherry, and healing whatever injuries that they had sustained. Virginia, in the process of trying to cut a Germ in half, found herself applying force to nothing and her halberd smacked into the ground so hard it sank in half a foot. She let it stay there as she turned to look at Siobhan. "Why the hell didn't you do that sooner?"

"I didn't know it'd work." Siobhan gave in to her trembling knees and sank down to sit on the ground. "I'm scared," she admitted shakily. "Okay, I'm really scared. But I have to be here. I have to do this. Delphinium made me her Defender Cultivator as fully as she made me one of her Ruler Cultivators. You can't keep me out. I love you for trying, but you can't. I would rather be here with all of you than anywhere else."

Sherry removed her Mask to send away her armor and then knelt in front of her twin soul. "We accept that, just as long as you accept that we will, of course, not ever be happy with Delphinium's choice." She smiled and held on tight when Siobhan threw her arms around her. "I love you too, Siobhan."

Siobhan let go and then sent away her weapon before removing her Mask to send away her armor. The others did likewise, and Rocky went back to normal. At a lifted brow from Juliet, he also put his shirt back on. "Since when do you have modesty?" he grumbled.

"I'm more concerned with you getting cold and tempting Destiny into finally making you get sick."

"Yes, Mother."

Siobhan huffed out a breath. "Famine will now know who I am and where I am." She paused briefly to sneeze. "We can probably expect her to come after me directly now, right?"

"Maybe and maybe not," Virginia disagreed. "She might want to try to handle things via her minions. Why would she expend effort where it isn't needed? We'll just have to hold up until she finally does come after you, and then we'll help you do whatever it is you have to do."

Siobhan nodded. "Which means this could last a while."

"Very probably."

She sighed. "In that case, I'm going to go talk to Edgar. He needs to know what's happening so he can be prepared for any potential fallout." She added in a mutter, "Knowing him, he'll be as bad as Rocky and want to get into things."

Yvonne fought to hide a smile. "He does have less of a temper, Siobhan, so perhaps not. Still, yes, he should be told. If only because he is your Caretaker as much as a Cultivator, and he deserves to know why you will be in danger."

Siobhan smiled. "No Cultivator chooses an inferior mate, right? Guess Shana and I just decided to choose especially special ones."

"Indeed," Virginia murmured.

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

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