The two Delphinium siblings found themselves stumbling out the other side of the portal where they tripped over their own feet and landed flat on the ground. Everything felt . . . odd. Familiar and yet not. Distorted from what they thought they should see. Some sort of ash covered everything in sight, including the dirt that had broken their fall.
Siobhan slowly pushed herself up onto her knees and looked around. Even the very air felt dead. Thick. Near impossible to breathe. The sky overhead looked a disturbing shade of acidic yellow. A chill roughened her skin, even through the armor. Death. It clung to everything around her.
Rocky gingerly sat up as well. "Where are we?" he asked in a low voice. He turned to look behind them and went very still. Pain welled inside his heart and soul as tears filled his eyes. "Siobhan."
She turned to look as well. A little cry caught in her chest. Pain. Protest. Behind them loomed the once impressive structure of a castle that must have surely looked glorious in its day. A castle she could see inside her fuzzy memories of her last life. The Delphinium Castle. They had landed not in another dimension, but on the frozen and still infected world of Delphinium.
She put her hands on the ground and her fingers trembled as she felt how sick and tired her Mother was. The world breathed still, but only barely. "How did you even have the strength to bring back our Seeds?" she whispered. Her head lowered, and her shoulders shook. "Who was here to love you? There was no one to make everything right." Tears slid down her face under her Mask and then dripped to the land. Dust puffed into the air. Another tear fell, and the land shimmered softly. A beautiful white delphinium began to sprout, and its glow reflected across her armor.
"We can save our Mother," Rocky told her fiercely. He got to his feet and then drew her up as well. "If we remove Famine, then you can heal Delphinium. It may take ages for her to recover, but we can wait." He caught her gloved fingers in his. "I'm here."
She held on tight for a moment. "I'm not alone. I know." She drew a deep breath and began to walk toward the ruins. Her rod appeared in her hand as she went. Where else would Famine hide except inside the one place she could not claim? Only a true heir of Delphinium, one of its chosen Ruler Cultivators, could ever take the throne. Siobhan had already claimed it, and until she died—permanently—or willingly gave it away to her own future child, it would remain hers.
A hundred feet from the doors, Germs surged out in a violent wave, packed so tightly they moved almost like water across the ground. Rocky shot around in front of Siobhan with his scimitar at ready. "Keep me as healed as you can!" he snapped. "I'll cut through! I can buy you time if you cover me with magic!"
She swung her rod up in answer and sent balls of Light power flying at the Germs. The concentrated elemental power blew the monstrous creatures apart. Seeing it, Rocky for the first time in his exceptionally long existence finally realized why Light had never before been controlled as a physical element. It was positively unstoppable in the right hands. If he ever met someone who could outcast his sister, the universe would change.
The pair of siblings made a perfect combination as they forced their way deeper through the horde. Rocky had the physical skills needed to keep enemies away from himself and Siobhan alike, and she was small enough to stay close enough to him to either heal anything too terrible or simply fire off shields to protect him. When he looked at least remotely healthy, considering he wore no armor, she focused on attacking magic. His own magic channeled through his weapon also added punch.
The Germs just kept on coming like an incurable infection. Rocky gauged the distance to the castle doors and took a quick breath. "I'll hold the field. You have to go straight for Famine!" he told Siobhan.
Her hands tightened on her rod. The idea of leaving him alone made her stomach churn. Yet, unless she did, they stood no chance. She had to place her faith in his skill, and the hope that the other Defenders would be coming after them. "Don't die," she whispered. "I can't lose you."
"Hey." He paused enough to tug on her tightly bound braid. "I'm not going anywhere. Promise."
She gulped a quick breath and then nodded. To aid in the efforts of her brother, she slammed the bottom of her rod onto the ground. A shockwave of Illusion magic rose up and created exceptionally realistic impressions of herself and her brother alike. Confused, the Germs went after the mirages and could not tell real from fake. Rocky took immediate advantage of the confusion to start removing high quantities of the enemy before they realized he was real.
Siobhan kept her head low and ran as fast as she dared toward the castle doors as soon as she saw a pathway open. She made it past the Germs and scrambled into the castle only to slide on the dust covered marble floor and go tumbling to the ground. Now aware of the danger, she more carefully got to her feet and fought the urge to run back outside to help Rocky. Nothing hurt more than to leave him behind when he was neither a Defender nor had armor.
She knew where to go. Just, somehow, knew. She moved as if by memory through the castle toward the grand throne room. The doors hung from their hinges but still mostly stayed in place, so she shoved them open. The first thing she saw was the column of light holding her crown. The second was Famine herself.
Memory stirred anew. A vignette of the past. She stood before the castle with Edgar, in his Ruler suit, beside her. No sign of her brother. Where had he been? She shook it off fiercely and moved slowly across the room toward the crown. The entire room looked as sickly as the sky, proof that Famine had begun to corrupt the entire structure. "Surprise!" she mocked the evil entity. "I found you!"
Hatred glowed from out of Famine's haggard face. "So you did," she bit out. "You think you can destroy me? You're not even awakened!"
"And you are bluffing about your power!" Siobhan shot back. "If you were as powerful as you think you are, I would already be dead!" Light glowed through her eyes and then down her Mask and armor. "It's time this ended!"
Famine laughed at her. "You? You can't even move and cast at the same time, and you have no physical skills!" She gave a sudden yelp as Siobhan abruptly appeared in front of her and smashed the end of her rod into her face so hard that it sent her stumbling.
"Maybe not," Siobhan smirked, "but I can move at the speed of Light, and I can still swing my weapon pretty hard!" She swallowed a yelp and scrambled back as Famine came after her with skeletal hands hooked like claws. She ran desperately to one side of the room and swung around to fire off a blast of magic. It missed when Famine dodged and then came in again.
The pattern repeated, making the fight into almost a non-fight. Siobhan could not run and attack, and if she held still, Famine had time to dodge. Yet, Famine could not get close either for Siobhan could make herself invisible and blink across a room.
One of Siobhan's blinks made her slip and fall on the ground. She looked up sharply as Famine closed in, but the creature never reached her. A scimitar whipped through the air like a boomerang, driving Famine back before she could get close. The blade swung back the way it had been thrown, and Siobhan's head jerked around to find Rocky in the doorway.
He looked ragged and bloody, but he still had plenty of strength, and he proved it by rushing across the floor toward Famine. "Let's see how you do with two of us!" he snarled. Over his shoulder, he added, "I'll distract her! Do whatever you have to, Siobhan!"
Siobhan scrambled up to her feet and started firing off healing blasts. The magic had double duty; it had to pass through Rocky to get to Famine, and that meant it healed him on its way to harm her. Not needing to dodge meant that Siobhan had more than enough time to start casting the biggest abilities in her arsenal.
It did not take long before Famine looked as ragged as Rocky. She could not break through the Delphinium High Prince's impressive sword skills. He also had far more grace than his sister and did not seem to even notice the dusty floor. His blade swung around as she tried to move past him, and it hacked entirely through her arm. She screamed shrilly as the limb fell to the ground and decayed.
Ugly power began to move through her body. "So be it!" she screeched. Her only remaining hand shot out and closed around Rocky's neck before he could dodge. Disease power blasted into him at pointblank range in a way even his Cultivator immunity could not stop. He went a sickly shade and sagged in her grip.
"Rocky!!" His name tore from Siobhan as a pained cry, and she scrambled across the ground toward him. When Famine dropped him to the ground, he did not move. "No no no no!" Siobhan slid to her knees beside him as tears ran down her face. He breathed only shallowly, and he had been brutally sickened. Nearly as terribly as their world. His pain churned so hotly that she felt it echo into her own body. Her skin actually burned from his fever, even through her gloves, when she pressed her hand to his forehead to desperately pour healing magic into him. Nothing happened.
"I can't do this," she whispered. She cradled her brother's head against her chest and ignored Famine cackling as the entity flew around them in mocking circles. "I can't."
Softly, across her mind, she heard an oddly familiar voice say, Siobhan. You can do this. If you reach for the Whisper of Hope inside your soul, and embrace who you are as an Apex, you can create a miracle.
She looked up sharply. "Clara?"
Yes. The world has forgotten Famine. There is hope in the people. Reach out, gather it, and whisper it to the sky. Unleash the Whisper of Hope that only an Apex can and fulfill your destiny. But be warned, Siobhan, that your destiny carries a price. The birth of an Apex always does. A healer heals by taking in that which afflicts others. If you take in that much disease, you will lose your life, and possibly permanently.
"Will my brother live?" she asked softly. If he could live, if perhaps he could carry the promise of future children for Delphinium, then she could be willing to let go.
Only you will not.
"Then so be it." She looked up toward Famine, and her eyes turned white as she reached toward that glowing Light deep in her soul. She let go of every restraint, stopped fighting what bubbled inside her. Her Mask disappeared as her armor began to dissolve until nothing but Light and white-gold delphinium blossoms surrounded her. Her Flower Marks started glowing with more and more force until the one on her arm suddenly took on a second blossom and the crowns of both began to sparkle. Wings of glowing white burst from her back as the crown on her Marks also appeared on her right cheek.
Famine could not move, could not breathe, as she stared at the Apex of Light. Siobhan looked at her for a long moment and then looked down at her brother. She tenderly cupped his cheek and let her magic pour into him. Disease evaporated and the color came back to his skin. She put him down gently on the floor and got to her feet. Her unbound hair fluttered in the force of the power around her as she looked once more at Famine.
Rocky's eyes opened just in time to see Siobhan flying across the ground toward Famine. A sudden realization of her intent made his heart freeze. "No!" He scrambled up to try to stop her, but he only made it a foot before Juliet and Virginia tackled him back down to the ground. He could only watch in horror as Siobhan literally plunged into Famine and disappeared. The scream of primal anguish from Famine made all of them flinch.
The other three ran over to join Rocky and the two Defenders, but no one could say a word. Only Yvonne and Sherry restraining Edgar kept him from trying to go after Siobhan as well. "I can't feel her!" Edgar managed to say. "She's being torn out of me!" A quick look at Sherry and Rocky confirmed they felt it too, yet there was nothing to be done to stop an Apex once unleashed.
"It burns!" Famine raged. She began to release maniacal blasts of necrotic power through the air. "Make it stop!"
Yvonne put up a hasty shield around everyone. "What do we do now?" she asked.
"Wait for a miracle," Virginia admitted quietly.
Siobhan continued to dive deeper and deeper through the disgusting muck that made up Famine's essence. She consumed the disease that tried to force her back and released it behind her as a trail of pure healing energy. When she suddenly could go no deeper, she knew she had reached the very center of her enemy's core. She looked at her hands and then curled them into fists. "Let the Light," she whispered, "shine out with Hope."
A soft voice welled on the air around her as if to repeat the Whisper. The evil power in the area diverted and flooded right at her. It poured into her body and she calmly began to release it as the purest light of healing hope.
No one knew what had happened. Famine had grabbed her head in agony and continued to scream. Her skin began to split and peel to release the light swelling inside her. Her screams spiraled louder and louder until they abruptly cut off as she blew apart and the force inside broke free. It exploded away as a blinding shockwave that seared everyone's eyes briefly. The wave consumed Delphinium entirely, pierced into the frozen Core, and purged it of all illness. Like a prism, the Core then released the wave across the entire Blossom Field galaxy.
The Cores of Aster, Gladiolus, Carnation, and Iris unfroze and healed of illness. Protea herself healed, and all those who had been sick were just, suddenly, not. Any illness. Any injury. Anything not permanent. Gone as if it had never been. The planets that had been healed may take millennia to fully recover and be capable of supporting life again, but now they could.
The light drew back in and revealed Siobhan hovering in the air where Famine had once been. She was still in her Apex form, and her eyes were closed. The power holding her began to release her, and Rocky and Edgar lunged across the ground. She landed safely in Edgar's arms, and he knelt to put her on the ground. He could not speak or breathe around the gaping wounds inside his soul where she had been torn free. Tears ran unchecked down Rocky's face, and Sherry had hunched into herself.
"She's smiling," Virginia managed to say. "Damn you, Siobhan!" She buried her face in her hands. "What price is this?" she asked raggedly. "It should have been our lives, not yours!"
"Can't she come back?" Rocky demanded thickly. "Her time can't be up!! She hasn't had a child for Delphinium!" The others looked at him, and his gut clenched. "But I could?" he whispered. He shook his head hard. "That's not right! It can't be right! My children will be with Shana! They will be Protean! Won't they?" It came out ragged as a sob caught in his chest. "We couldn't have both Protean and Delphinian children! Siobhan has to come back!"
Softly, from the eaves, came Clara's familiar voice, "You are not wrong, Rocky. Your children with Shana will be Protean. Siobhan must come back to salvage Delphinium's future, but she cannot do it alone. Her body—her soul's garden—has been too terribly damaged. But you . . . her Activated brother, you could save her. If you pour magic from your Seed into hers, her body will be able to mend itself as a healer normally does. It has to be your Seed. No other could do this."
"So why can he?" Sherry's voice was thick with tears and pain. "Why not me, or Edgar?"
"That, too, will only be revealed with time." As silently as she had appeared, her presence faded once more.
Rocky took a breath and lifted a hand to cover his Mark. His Mark began to glow hotly, and he reached out with his free hand to touch Siobhan's Ruler Flower Mark. It also began to glow. Without any hesitation, he opened the conduit between them to give her his energy and magic. Such a thing, normally, was done to Activate a previously Deactivated Ruler Cultivator; that was why it made a Cultivator so very weak to do.
Siobhan suddenly took a powerful breath and her heart began to beat. A hint of color returned to her skin. Rocky had no more color than she did. Both Marks stopped glowing, and he began to fall. Juliet hastily caught him and then sighed as she held him in her arms. "Too much alike for our sanity," she groused.
Virginia could only smile wryly. "Lucky us. Stuck with two Delphinium children. One of us is going to either have a heart attack or lose our hair."
Yvonne had to smile toward Edgar as he cradled Siobhan. "Honestly, I feel more sorry for our partners. They have it worse with two Protea children!"
Edgar found a smile and then buried his face in Siobhan's hair. "Honestly, I do too." His arms tightened against his will. He could feel her again, interlocked with his soul where she belonged. Maybe things wouldn't get more powerful after their birthdays. They already felt . . . cemented. Perhaps they had carried over their souls' maturity from their last lives. Maybe that was one of the things that had saved them all.
Unknown to any of them, Siobhan had been conscious just under the surface and able to hear them. She said nothing, but her mind turned over the ramifications of everything said, and everything she had endured.
Only two days later, life had returned to normal for everyone. Very few people knew what had actually happened. Virginia, in full Mask and armor, presented herself to the world leaders on behalf of High Queen Sayena Delphinium and told them that they would not live to see the galaxy restored, but that it would happen eventually. The High Queen had no need nor desire to act as a queen again until her world could once more support life, and so things would remain status quo at least until the High Queen of Protea returned as well and decided how things would proceed. It was accepted as given, and things stayed as they were.
Siobhan bided her time until a week had passed and she could go somewhere without either her brother, lover, or twin needing to be with her at all times. She did not begrudge them that need, but what she needed to do did not need others. After securing some alone time, she took herself on a solitary transport to the ruins of the Protea Castle and walked calmly within. She had known of the ruins, of course, since they sat on the other side of the mountains around Lux, but she had never visited. Most people in her time knew little to nothing of the events from five thousand years before as more than a myth. Which, perhaps, truly was best for all involved.
She moved to the grand throne room and stopped to look at the crown hovering in the center. It looked nearly identical to her own, barring the different metals and gemstones used. Where hers had opals, this had amber. Her own crown sat in the trunk at home where her Mask had once been kept. It would stay there until needed.
She turned around and lifted a hand. Light flashed invisibly across the sky. Only a moment later, a time-space portal opened and Clara walked out. She looked the same as always, of course, but she wore clothes more in line with the common sort of the current time period. It matched to her choice to use a new name. Her two Masks hung from a charm bracelet along with the hourglass that marked her position as Librarian. "Hello, Siobhan," she said on a smile. "I was expecting you to call me."
Siobhan looked at her a moment and then her eyes narrowed. "I need answers, Claret."
The Statice Cultivator sighed, knowing what the use of her real name meant. "I know what answers you want, but I cannot give them. You will not like them."
Siobhan shook her head a bit sharply. "I don't care! I need to know!"
"Your answers will come, Sayena. You know well that there is another who was born with a price to be paid."
A bit of a bitter smile twisted her lips. "Will she have to die, too?" She met Clara's eyes. "The others do not know. I will never let them know. How that feels. To kill your body before your soul is freed, rather than your body fade away by your soul's departure. I remember how that felt at the end of the kingdoms. Dying by the destruction of your Seed . . . that death is peaceful. Painless. What I felt recently was the entire opposite. It felt like being trapped within a dying garden and knowing you will wither all too soon. It hurts unlike anything else." She shook her head hard. "I will never tolerate Shana suffering that!"
Clara's fingers clenched briefly together in an unusual and surprising display of agitation. "You do not speak wrong, but . . . hers . . . I suppose you could call it a fate worse than death."
It made Siobhan feel sick in a different way to hear such a thing. What could be worse than that terrible experience? "I will help her."
At that, a smile returned to Clara's face. "Of course you will. But she won't like that."
Siobhan smiled in turn. "I've handled her and her brother for two decades now. I think I can figure out how to break through any arguments she makes."
Clara thought about things past, and present, and future and just chuckled softly. "I suppose you're right."
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.