Edgar had just finished washing dishes when his doorbell rang. He quirked a brow as he felt a familiar presence, and he walked over to open the door. "You should be resting!" he scolded her. "Get in here and warm up!"
"I have a fever. I'm warm enough." Siobhan still hustled into the apartment. "We really, really need to talk, Edgar."
"I assume this is related to you being in danger earlier that I could feel?"
Her eyes went wide. "You felt that? But-but . . . Ginny said that only Defenders could feel their Caretaker in danger, not Rulers, and you're only a Ruler and not a Dual like me. Okay, though, because you're my Caretaker, maybe that's why you felt it because Caretakers to Defenders always do feel if their Defender needs them." She began to frown. "Wait. That still doesn't explain anything else about how Rocky feels me in danger, or me sensing him, or you and Shana, so maybe it's because we have special gifts we don't even know about, and okay this going to be so much more trouble because evil is here and I have to fight!"
He could only stare at her in a combination of shock and unintentional amusement. He had long before learned how to keep up when she or her brother entered into one of their tirades, but they still could stir his sense of humor. "Breathe." He smoothed wisps of hair out of her face. "Remember, we all knew this surely had to be inevitable because Defenders don't exist without need. Did Virginia finally explain why?"
Her shoulders relaxed a little at his touch. "Yeah, more than we had really gotten out of her before. As an Apex, I'm . . . I'm sort of an ultimate being, right? The epitome of all that is magical. Well . . . that means I have to fight and destroy something called Famine." She deliberately said nothing of what she had seen through her Sight, but she did tell him what Virginia had explained. "She really wouldn't explain more than that, though, and I definitely know there has to be more. Something terrible about the fall of the kingdoms, I think."
He slowly nodded. "Alright. At least we have some sense of things for now. Anything else we need to know, I guess we will figure it out on our own. I will try to stay out of things, I promise, but if you need me as your Caretaker . . ."
Her fingers smoothed across his beloved face. "Nothing would stop you, I know." Humor lightened her gold eyes. "Now teach that sort of patience to my brother, will you?"
He snorted. "You don't ask for much, do you? I'll be glad when Shana is here to divert him, and I can focus solely on being your Caretaker." Black and pink magic swirled down his arm and formed into a delicate black protea blossom. He tucked it over her ear. "I've always thought that I had magic just for you, so I can understand you."
She sighed softly and deeply with contentment as his lips teased hers. Her Caretaker. How perfect he was just for her. She could be his Caretaker in turn, putting him back together each time his need to get physical inevitably got him hurt. They worked so well together. "What if you manage to finally get sick if you kiss me, you silly man?"
"That's alright. I know a healer."
* * * * *
Things seemed to settle a bit for the next day though all remained on edge. Being among the only healthy people in town, the four Dual Cultivators picked up whatever spare jobs they could do. They refused all pay, however. None of them really needed the funds; they either received support from their family—Sherry and Yvonne—or had scholarships that covered living expenses—Juliet and Virginia. Juliet also worked part-time in the campus bakery as a paid internship as part of her degree, so, like Rocky, she had additional income from a job. He still worked part-time on the horse ranch just outside of town just because he enjoyed the work.
Edgar had no need to work a paying job unless he wanted, thanks to the trust fund's inability to run out of money because it came directly from the company. Being unable to get sick himself, he also picked up a few jobs just to help as needed.
At all times, at least one Defender accompanied Siobhan and Rocky. They really wanted to slap a guard on Edgar, but that would split their ranks too much for safety. Virginia had to trust that he would continue to behave himself and stay out of things, though she did not expect it to last forever. While he was a Ruler Cultivator, he had always seen himself as Siobhan's Caretaker first and foremost. She did not look forward to when Shana awoke as the Protea Defender Cultivator. Rocky was already enough trouble where his sister was concerned, let alone adding his soul mate!
The third day out from the first attack, all five Defenders were together with Rocky to walk home from some jobs they had done when Sherry stopped dead in her tracks as a chill swept over her body. They all knew the signal this time and grabbed their Masks. Siobhan wore hers along with its communication counterpart on a necklace now.
Slime oozed up out of the ground and became the familiar, putrid, shape of a Germ. It again tore off pieces of itself to make more, and this time it shortly created a horde of a hundred that swarmed in to surround the six Cultivators. In a low voice, Virginia told Rocky, "I will make you a path. Take it, get to a safe corner, and stay there. Are we clear, Robert?"
The use of his Ruler name made him wince. "Yes'm."
The five Defenders donned their Masks and called their armor, and Virginia summoned her halberd. She lunged forward on a shout and immediately drew the ire of many Germs as she cut down a set with a single attack. Even Yvonne ducked right into the middle, choosing to take direct damage if only to serve as a distraction. As soon as a path formed, and Rocky ran out of the way, Yvonne dropped back with Siobhan to resume her role as a magical defense.
The fight should have been lopsided in favor of the Germs, yet it actually swung to the side of the Defenders. Siobhan proved positively lethal as she began firing off blasts of Light magic and Illusory deceptions. Five thousand years of waited destiny rode on her armored shoulders, and she would be damned if she let anything stop her! None of them could tolerate the idea of losing, and it made them especially potent.
When the bodies and the dust finally settled, all Defenders looked more than a little ragged at the edges once they took their Masks off and sent away their armor, but Siobhan took care of healing everything except her own minor injuries. She tugged off her Mask and put it on top of her head, and the injuries revealed themselves as a minor constellation of cuts on her outer right leg where a Germ had managed to get past her guard and pierce the armor. Even cloth armor portions to Defender armor were exceptionally strong, but they had limitations.
"Can you heal that?" Yvonne asked after quickly checking the severity of the wound. "You usually don't get injured, so we've never had this problem."
"And you wouldn't have been injured if I hadn't been distracted," Juliet groused.
"Don't worry about it, Juli! And I can't do anything for it in either case," Siobhan sighed. "Healers can't heal themselves, sorry. We heal by taking in the wounds of others and mending them. Kinda can't do that to yourself. I mean, someone probably could if they had a way of making their magic do the same task twice at the same time, but I've never heard of it." She half winced as her brother moved closer and hovered a hand over the wound. "Which means Rocky gets to practice healing. Fun. Please don't mess up this time. It's a strange thing to have you heal me and then I have to heal you where you couldn't mend what you took from me!"
Rocky shot her a dirty look but couldn't say much. Much to his relief, he could remove the wounds and mended them safely on his side without damage. "Healing isn't really my specialty," he apologized.
"No surprise," Sherry told him. "Your gifts as a Ruler usually fall in line with the normal Delphinium ones where you basically act like a magical battery and can boost the gifts of those around you, or making an illusion so strong that it eventually becomes real. How did you unlock healing?"
"That thing about making illusions that become real?" He smiled wryly. "I kept trying so hard to use healing magic that I basically created it inside myself over time. I just really worried about Siobhan because she was our only healer without Kellie present. So, I just kept at it until I could do at least the most basic of things."
It underscored his great gift for magic that he had actually conjured an illusion of a skill and made it real. It had taken years, certainly, where his other illusions would take days to months of constant maintenance, but he had still done it. "Not bad, kid," Virginia told him.
He scowled. "I'm barely a year younger."
"Still applies. And you're still not allowed to jump in fights. No weapon, no fight."
"Do my hands and feet count?" he asked hopefully.
"Come on, Ginny!" Siobhan threw her hands in the air. "You know he's just as good at weaponless combat as he is with a weapon!"
She did, in fact, know such a thing. She also knew that until he had full memory of all of his past life, including the ability to use what magic he did have to enhance his physical skill, he would actually be at a disadvantage without a weapon in hand. He was still of Delphinium. He needed that edge. "My word is final as Lead Defender."
Two sets of gold eyes started to turn white with temper. Sherry smoothly stepped forward and linked elbows with both of them. "Let's go to my place and get ice cream! I'll make your favorite chocolate chip kind." She hid a smile as they both looked at her with interest. Leave it to their nearly bottomless bellies to divert them from being mad at Virginia! "Come on."
Virginia watched them walk off and then tugged her PPS out of her back pocket. "Kellie Yu," she ordered her phone. It beeped in response and she waited. When the other side clicked over, she said without preamble, "It's Gin. Roust Clara to be courier. Our prince needs your services."
Kellie just laughed. "I'll take care of things, promise."
* * * * *
Things did not improve over the next week. The illness had begun to spread beyond Lux, and the world leaders issued a lockdown. No one could enter or leave the city, and those in the worst stages of the disease had to be quarantined. Siobhan had not gotten worse personally, but she had certainly not gotten better. She spent her time curled up on the couch at either her own home, or Edgar's. What few part-time jobs had been available were ceased as the entire town went into lockdown. Only the hospitals remained active, but even they moved slower.
The four Defenders opted to spend more time with Rocky and Siobhan at their apartment, if only to keep Siobhan from being too stressed. Edgar came over frequently enough as well, and after he had left one day, Siobhan grumbled, "I swear he's finally going to get sick if he keeps kissing me."
Juliet didn't look up from the stew she had commandeered the kitchen to make. "I'm fairly sure the threat of death won't make him stop kissing you, which is really how it should be."
"Eh, you know he's safe enough." Virginia was flopped in one of the overstuffed bean bags and had control of the remote that controlled the Visuality in the place. Over two hundred channels and yet there often still seemed to be nothing interesting on. "Besides, Juli is right. You really wouldn't stop him even if he didn't have Cultivator immunity." She found one of the world-wide channels showing a musical film theatrical debuting a new actor and stopped there. He was quite attractive, and he had a hell of a set of vocal skills. "Ah, better."
"Oh he's good!" Yvonne noted. She stretched and then leaned back against the couch. "Sounds like a Virtuoso. He should go far." She tilted her head back to look at Siobhan. "The waiting is eating us too. Famine should not wait much longer. She's trying to weaken you but it isn't working. She just can't override a Cultivator's immunity entirely, not even your compromised one."
"Just how does that work anyway?" Rocky asked as he looked up from the book he had been reading. "I've never really understood, and it's not in our few memories."
"It's a byproduct of having a Seed," Yvonne explained. "We're kind of like gardens, so we're supposed to be able to treat disease like something biodegradable and break it down. Siobhan basically has weeds in her garden throwing her off."
"Makes me wish I had a lawn clipper for my inner garden," Siobhan grumbled. "Or a sword. I'd settle for a sword."
"The idea of you with a sword gives me a chill. But on a related note!" Virginia rolled lazily up to her feet. "Rocky, I have a present for you." She walked over to him and held out her hands. Red and gold magic flowed over her fingers and materialized a beautiful scimitar of supreme craftsmanship. "Here you go!" She handed it over.
He could only stare at the blade. "It's gorgeous." He held it up to the light and watched as the sunlight passed right through the blade. Testing, he called up his magic and watched it also pass through the blade in a swirl of white and gold. His head swung back to Virginia. "This was made by a Metal Flower Element, so it's got to be from Kellie!"
"It is," she agreed. She sat down again on her bag and lifted a brow. "I know you all too well, Rocky. With or without my order, you would be trying to charge in. It's just how you are. And since I know I can't entirely stop you, I decided to make sure that at least you have some more level of defense and therefore called Kellie. She made this and had Clara deliver it to save time."
He felt a bit humbled to be reminded that Virginia fully respected his skills in battle despite her driving need to protect him. "Thanks, Ginny," he said softly. He thought about things and then asked, "Does Shana know what's happening?"
"No. She has no need to know for now, especially if you and Edgar behave yourselves."
Siobhan couldn't help but giggle. Later, after everyone else had gone home, she told her brother, "Speaking of Edgar, I'm going over to see him. It keeps him happy because he's trying so hard to stay out of things, and he's driven by a need to help me if needed."
"Fair enough," Rocky said. "Spending the night?"
"Very probably. I want to live my life as much as I can, you know?" She grabbed her coat and keys and hurried out of the apartment. It felt so frustrating to have no control over her life! She did respect the four other Defenders' need to protect her and her brother, but they needed to have a bit more respect for her need to know what was going on around them. She, like the two men, chaffed more than a bit at the restrictions.
Later snuggled together on the couch with her lover, she rested her head on his shoulder and asked, "I'm not sure I ever asked when you and Shana figured out you had magic. You two were very not surprised when I used mine to heal you up after that fall. I and Rocky found ours out very quickly after I found my Mask. You?"
"We were still in the hospital. Weird things were happening." Edgar thought back to those painful days. "The very day she found her Mask was the day of the accident. We'd both been sensitive to nature before, and after I turned five, I discovered I could enhance and influence flora and fauna alike, though more specifically flora. Didn't really see it as being magic until after the accident. Shana started talking to the birds that would fly in our window. We got curious and started experimenting when you two were away for whatever reason."
She still felt a little awed by both Chivanti siblings and their utter bravery. Despite losing their parents in a terrible accident, they didn't run in complete fear from the vehicles that had caused it. To be sure, Edgar couldn't handle the idea of driving a carriage and had never bothered to learn, but he still allowed for them to be in his life. If he couldn't walk or take the common public transportation versions, he just asked someone else to drive. Usually Siobhan volunteered. She still wondered how he managed to get into a carriage at all. Shana could drive single-person ECs, but anything beyond that, she had the same issues as her brother. "I wonder why we never mentioned the magic to each other."
"Probably just never crossed our minds. And if you weren't so driven to heal all that moves, it might have been ignored for longer."
She teased back, "If someone didn't have a propensity for getting hurt, maybe I wouldn't have that driving need." She smoothed a hand across his chest and felt his Flower Mark tingling her skin. They never hid their Marks from one another when alone. "It bothers you. Staying out of things."
"Of course it does."
"So why are you doing it? Let's be honest, Virginia might growl and snarl at you and Rocky, but she does understand your feelings."
Frustration eked into his tone. "I want to help, Siobhan. More than anything. But I know that I am not supposed to interfere. I knew that as soon as you told me the why's of your existence. This is a matter of Delphinium Royal House, and I am Protean. Besides," he muttered, "Gin scares me, whether she understands or not!"
She was still turning over those words when she went home the next morning. She walked into the apartment and found Rocky in the sitting room with his Personal Computational Machine. He had both a love for and a knack with anything related to the machines, and deciding to study it at university had only taken it a step further. PCMs did just about anything and everything imaginable that could be possibly electronically related, and they had helped create the culture of the last two centuries by introducing the ability to store data electronically. People affectionately called that data storage the 'spider' since the hubs that maintained it tended to make a spider-web shape when viewed from above.
The spider allowed for people to communicate, share, and connect with others across the world. Siobhan liked to follow mini-webs run by people who did art things because then she could admire their hard work. Really, the only downside to the spider was that people with exceptional skills—her brother included—could sometimes find ways to get into other PCMs and mess with the settings. She usually pretended she didn't know what he was doing; he normally used his powers only for good.
"I was looking up information on that new actor," he told her when he saw her enter the apartment. "His name is Byron Rancul." He grinned. "Big following starting up. His official mini-web is only just started. Sherry wants to meet him since she's a Shaman and he's a Virtuoso. His sort is even rarer than hers!"
"Well, she's 'only' one in ten thousand. He's more like one in one hundred thousand." She sat down on the couch beside him. "Last night, Edgar said something that was very true and got me thinking about everything happening. About why he strives so hard to stay out, and maybe why you're so driven to get in. This is a matter of our Royal House, not his."
Rocky put his PCM aside and turned to face his sister. He gently laced their fingers together. "Then," he said quietly, "we should handle this ourselves. When Famine finally makes a move, we'll make one back. In fact, I think I might already have an idea. I noticed something at the last fight." He smiled wryly. "The benefit of standing back is seeing what those in the thick might miss."
Her brows lifted. "This ought to be interesting."
* * * * *
Famine stared malevolently into her scrying mirror and fought the screams of rage welling inside. Why wouldn't that cursed queen die?! Hatred swelled as she shifted her gaze toward the figure of Edgar walking home from somewhere. The Caretaker of the Apex of Light and a Ruler Cultivator of Protea. He could not evolve. He did not have armor. Moreover, he was endeared to not just Siobhan, but also Rocky, and Famine hated the High Prince of Delphinium nearly as much as she hated the High Queen. Perhaps it was time to weaken the Royal House by striking at someone empowering them both. If she could take down the Delphinium Defender Cultivator's soul mate, then she increased her odds of winning.
Nothing would stop her from claiming what was rightfully hers! This 'destiny' would never come to pass.
* * * * *
Edgar of course had Sight thanks to his Protean lineage as a descendant of Orion. It was Present Sight, like what Siobhan possessed. The only people he knew with All Sight—seeing past, present, and future alike—were his sister and Clara, and Rocky and Sherry were the only ones with Future Sight.
Present Sight meant he could see things happening in real-time in other locations, or things happening invisibly in his own. He stopped dead in his tracks as his Sight stirred and his eyes unfocused while he watched inside his mind as ooze crept down the walls of the buildings near him. He swung around and leapt backwards just as the ooze materialized and a Germ lunged toward him with hooked claws. Black and pink swept over him to put him into his Ruler suit, giving him additional defenses, but his hand flexed in frustration at his lack of a weapon. He would have to get hands on, which he had plenty of skills in.
It would just hurt a lot without armor.
Siobhan and Rocky had just met up with the four Defenders when Siobhan went deathly white and clutched at the hidden Mark on her chest. Rocky and Sherry grabbed her arms when she staggered and kept her on her feet. "Siobhan?" Sherry asked. "What's wrong?"
"Edgar," she managed to say. "He's in trouble!" Fury turned her eyes from gold to white in a blink. Only those of the strongest internal Light cores could have their eyes turn white in temper. Likewise, the strongest Dark cores went black. "How dare she?!" she snarled.
She ripped away from her brother and twin and ran off down the street as quickly as she could manage. If she cared that she tripped more than once, no one noticed. They had enough trouble keeping up! And, truly, their fury went just as deep. Virginia took the attack almost as personally as Siobhan did.
They skidded around a corner to discover Edgar more than a bit bloodied but still holding the Germs at bay with skill. "Thank goddess for him being Protean!" Virginia muttered. If he had been from a magically oriented world rather than a physically oriented world, he could have already been killed; Rulers just did not get to use magic the same way Defenders did. Edgar certainly did use magic in ways Proteans normally could not—he could actually conjure up plants of all types—but he still did not use magic in a way that could produce attacks or shields.
Sherry's hand shot up and snapped off a powerful fireball that incinerated the Germ lunging for Edgar. He wisely took the chance to dive back out of the way so the Defenders could move in. All five donned their Masks and armor and got to work, though Siobhan scrambled to her lover's side to heal him. She didn't bother to ask if he was alright; the answer seemed obvious in the dark red blood staining his skin and clothes. She asked only, "Is there anything I can't see?"
"Sore ribs, but otherwise everything is rather visible." He let out a breath as her magic erased the wounds and took away pain. He regained his feet and sighed. "I really did not intend for this to happen. I'm sorry, Siobhan."
She shook her head. "It's fine. Just stay here!" she ordered him. "I mean it!" She hurried over to join Yvonne, but she glanced briefly at her brother before doing so.
The look had Edgar on his guard. "Do I want to know what you two are planning?" he muttered at his friend.
"Very probably not," Rocky muttered back. "I'm going to help as best I can. Siobhan's right. Stay here." He called up his Ruler suit and scimitar and moved forward to help cover the two magically oriented Defenders when anything got too close. They could spend less time dodging and more time casting that way.
Edgar felt frustration bubble and looked down at his hands briefly. He looked up again when he heard a yelp and saw Juliet kicking a Germ away from Sherry. Juliet had minimal hand and foot skills herself; maybe she would let him teach her some more advanced things. She had never really gone to those classes with them, but it couldn't hurt her to pick the skills up.
He felt a sudden presence behind him and froze. Familiar power touched him, and his shoulders relaxed again. "Why are you here?" he asked softly.
"I'm just a courier," the figure behind him said in amusement. "Try not to get hurt again. Alexandria and Kellie had a devil of a time distracting your sister."
He felt something put in his hand and looked down to discover he had just been handed a weapon. The long sword showed remarkable, and familiar, Metal skills. Some of the tension left his soul. He turned to say thank you, but discovered the 'courier' had already disappeared. A smile touched his lips. She literally never changed.
The Germs not only numbered more, but they had been made stronger. Famine fed on the illness in the people, and it made her creations extra potent. Even just destroying one of the Germs had hazards as they released a backwash that could also do damage. It also seemed to evaporate loose debris in the area.
When Yvonne moved a few steps away, Rocky said in a low voice to Siobhan, "You think you can use that?"
"I've been watching," she whispered back. "You were right about her yanking back the bits of the Germs not entirely destroyed so she doesn't have to spend extra energy making new. That backwash isn't evaporating things. It's transporting them.
"So if we jump in, you can absolutely use your magic to transport us to wherever she is."
"I'm sure of it. You were right about everything else, so I trust this too."
"Someone," he did not name names, "will kill us even if we survive."
"Yeah, well, I'm literally sick of this." She caught his sleeve when she saw a Germ about to go down only a few feet in front of them. "Move!" She ran forward and threw out Light power that struck the backwash and opened an oddly colored sphere that vaguely resembled a time-space portal. Before the others could react, both Siobhan and Rocky dove through it.
"Damn it!" Virginia snarled. "I should have realized they were too complacent! We're going after them!"
"I'm going too," Edgar demanded as he walked closer.
"The hell you will! Same rules apply to you as your cohort, kid: no weapon, no fight!" Her eyes narrowed as he pointedly held up his new sword and she recognized the skill that had made it. "Some people should most want you to stay safe."
"Some people," he countered politely, "know I would go with or without a weapon. We Dark types don't usually sit on the sidelines, Gin. You know that." He smiled. "If I promise to do what I'm told, will you feel better?"
"Only a bit," she muttered. "As you said, I know Dark types!"
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.