Down deep within the deepest reaches of the Ephemeral Plane, the oldest of evil, the worst of its sort, had pushed against its bonds for millennia. With every passing year, those bonds had gotten weaker. Finally, at last, the creature known as Nemesis managed to break through and tore out of confinement. He surged across the Plane in a violent surge and then burst back out into the physical plane. He entered into a night sky across Protea and violent hatred churned as he looked down on the sleeping cities. She slept down there, and not even Nemesis knew whether he hated her or wanted her more.
He went looking for the perfect place to make his own and he found it in the ruined halls of the forgotten Protea Castle. The moment his essence touched the ground, dirt and grass and even stone began to lose all color save for a bloody hue. He found the throne room but did not dare enter. The glow radiating from the High Queen's crown seemed to cast sunlight into all corners of the room. Nothing could harm him faster than the sunlight buried so naturally within the power of Nature.
He instead moved deeper to the dungeons beneath where neither sunlight nor the light of Delphinium could reach. Only sinister bloody spheres made it even possible to see at all. He reached out with tendrils and grabbed onto that which he had hidden. "You!" he hissed, his guttural voice still unable to pierce the air wholly for all that existed rejected his presence. "You still do my bidding!"
A figure appeared on the floor. The red-haired man had remained unconscious, hidden inside the depths of Nemesis' mired muck within the recesses of Plane, but now he returned to life. He gingerly sat up and looked around. The place was familiar, and a sneer curled his lip. "Protea."
"Do as you promised," Nemesis warned him, "and I will do as I said. Get me what I want, and you will get what you want. Find my enemy and destroy her!"
The man rolled up to his feet and found that his uniform of formerly white and gold had turned bloody red. So be it. "As you command," he said, and reached for the power he had been granted by his master. He would find the one Nemesis wanted, and then he would go after the one he hated most.
Nemesis watched him leave and then let his power burrow down deep into the ground where it festered like an infected wound. He could hear Protea cry out in pain, and it only fueled his power more. The time for reckoning had come. The Apex of Dark would never awaken, and destiny would never be fulfilled.
* * * * *
Shana awoke with a sudden start and dashed into the bathing room and water closet before she became violently ill. The spasms would not seem to pass at first, and eventually left her huddled on the floor beside the basin. Of course, she thought a little sadly. She had gotten one night of happiness, and the very next, misery.
A hand knocked lightly on the door. "Shana?" Edgar asked. "Are you alright?"
"No," she admitted honestly. "Something has happened to Protea. Something that made me sick." She had to break off for another wave of illness. "Obviously," she managed to say. "You?"
"Nothing that terrible, but I'm not a Dual Cultivator. I'll get some bubbly water for you."
Bubbly water, with or without flavorings, had always been good for settling upset stomachs, even those provoked by problems with a planet echoing into its Cultivators. It had happened so very rarely in Shana's life that she could count it on one hand. The other two incidents had involved scientific studies that had not been in the best interests of the world. Clara had taken care of nipping those in the bud on Shana's behalf. This, however, was something else entirely.
She finally found the strength to leave the closet and found Edgar waiting with the water. She accepted it and then sat down on the edge of her bed beside him. Tiredly, she leaned against him and let her head rest on his shoulder. "Just another new nightmare," she murmured. "I wish I knew where they came from."
* * * * *
A week slowly ticked by. Neither Chivanti sibling made any improvement over the course of it. Edgar got by well enough, though everyone knew he was nearly always fighting a queasy stomach, but Shana could not keep anything down at all. Kellie worked hard to try to heal the symptoms, but could only take the edge off briefly. Juliet began to scour her cookbooks for things she might possibly be able to make that Shana could consume.
Siobhan could not stand it. She felt as if she was watching herself from months before; this had to be the firing shot in whatever would lead to the price of Shana's birth. "I have to make her better!" she whispered fiercely to Sherry as they watched Desiree take both Protea siblings home in the middle of a class. "I'll heal her next time! I know I can give her more relief than even Kellie can."
Shana may have been sick, and she may have been a Dark element, but a tendency toward being blind did not make her stupid. After she and Edgar got home, she curled up on the couch with her omnipresent bottle of bubbly water and said, "What haven't I been told yet, Edgar?"
He sat down in the opposing chair with a heavy thump. He let his head fall back and plopped a cool cloth over his eyes. "Please be more specific as I am relatively fried mentally right now and can't figure out what you want to know."
"Siobhan. What happened to her? I know she's a full Apex now. So something happened." She watched his shoulders tense ever so slightly and knew she had hit it on the head. "The last week, I've watched the seven Dual Cultivators close ranks around you and I, which is to be expected since it does seem that we're the target of some sort of attack. It's exactly like what happened to Siobhan, right? Some incident that led you to being hurt and in danger—and probably Rocky too, though I can only now sense him because we're officially lovers."
He sighed and did not sit up. "Yes. It wasn't pleasant. It boils down to there apparently being a price to your births as an Apex. I don't know what yours is, Shana, I swear. No one will tell me anything either. But . . . Siobhan had to die a wrongful death."
She tilted her head back and let her eyes close. "There are things worse than death, really."
Another day came and went. Shana really did not want to be cooped up any longer, so some of her friends agreed to take her out—under the condition that if she got sick, she went home immediately. Since Alexandria was one of the friends in question, and she could physically cart Shana over her protests, Shana had no choice but to agree. The others to join them were Kellie, Juliet, and Siobhan. To at least keep things low-key, they went to the local public studio where the latest theatricals could be watched.
Each time sickness reared its head, Siobhan guiltlessly used her magic to help take the edge off. She really could not do much more than that, but at least she knew she could make her sister more comfortable. She also elected herself as 'bubbly retriever' and always made sure Shana had a bottle on hand. A bemused Shana said nothing about it; Light types needed to nurture and care as hard as Dark types needed to protect and defend.
They had just left the studio when Shana stopped dead in her tracks. A chill rippled over her body. Recognizing it as the exact same look Sherry would get, Juliet hastily stepped in front of Siobhan even as Alexandria and Kellie bodily blocked Shana. "What did you See?" Juliet demanded.
"I can't be sure. It feels familiar. I don't know why. I didn't even really see anything. Just felt it." She crossed her arms tightly to fight the chill.
Someone screamed in the distance, and all five Defender Cultivators looked up sharply. They could just make out the figure of someone firing off magical blasts at people. The blasts looked nothing like elemental magic belonging to Defenders, or Rulers. They looked like evil. The necrotic, bloody, wake they left behind felt far, far too familiar to Alexandria and Kellie.
"What's going on?" Siobhan whispered.
"Someone is trying to find Shana," Kellie admitted a bit grimly. "What better way than to just attack indiscriminately? You know how you repel most magical attacks thrown at you because you are pure Light? Well, Dark is the opposite. It absorbs and takes in. Someone lobs something at Shana, even if she can't block it, odds are that she will just absorb it. Which, yes, can be dangerous as well, which is why neither of you are allowed to just arbitrarily bounce or eat magical attacks. It can have hazards to you or others."
"We're taking Shana home," Alexandria told Juliet. "Get the others and see if you can't drive this attack off."
Shana set her chin. "I have a Mask, too."
"And you will not wear it unless there is no other choice," her twin shot at her. "Period." Sensing the sheer wave of stubbornness, she stopped bothering with words. She merely picked Shana up and walked away. Kellie followed quickly, and she called Desiree with her communication mask along the way. Alexandria and Kellie wore their two Masks as earrings; Desiree wore a bracelet.
Juliet did not have to call the others. Sherry had Seen the danger as well and already gathered Yvonne and Virginia. The three Cultivators caught up with their two partners and all donned their Masks and armor before they approached the scene. It alarmed them all that the enemy had already gotten so close to pinning Shana's location. Only a block closer, and she would have been in range, and her coloring alone may have given her away before any absorbed blast did.
More alarming still was that, as they approached, they all began to feel as if the man in the bloody uniform was familiar yet they could not determine from where. Siobhan felt less alarmed by that fact than her guardians; their memories had always felt intact, but now they faced evidence that perhaps something had been taken away from even them.
The man swung around, and his crystal blue eyes narrowed. "I figured you might show up eventually," he sniped. He shot a little smirk toward Siobhan. "So they finally let you wear your Mask, Sayena?" His sneer moved to include Virginia. "Yet you won't let Shanae don hers, Veronica?"
Virginia merely hefted her halberd threateningly. "Not with the likes of you running around. You want to tell us who you are? We can guess you work for Nemesis."
A brief confusion and almost disappointment filled his face and then disappeared. "My name is Vermillion Chance," he told them with a mockingly courtly bow. "Shame you don't remember me at all, but I suppose I should have expected that." His face tightened. "I was never important enough to anyone."
"You're not making yourself any more endeared by aiding in trying to destroy one of our queens!" Sherry shot at him in turn. "You won't find her, you bastard."
"Don't be so sure of that!" He began to disappear into a transport. "There's more than one way to draw out the Protea Dual Cultivator!"
Siobhan felt a chill through her soul, and, oddly, a deep sense of grief she could not place. She wanted to yell and rage at this Vermillion, and she could not figure out why—it seemed extreme, even considering the danger he posed to Shana and Edgar alike. "Do we tell Shana?" she asked softly. "How much more time can you possibly buy her, Ginny?"
"Not much," the Defender said tiredly. "Not very much at all."
* * * * *
Shana had not been happy to go home, but she had kept her mouth shut. Instead, she focused on trying to be happy to have her friends over for dinner. She had not gotten to cook for them in a while, and no upset tummy would keep her from feeding the ones she loved! She shared that sort of thing with Juliet, really. She hoped to con or emotionally blackmail the culinary school expert into teaching her new things.
Alexandria and Kellie sat at the high counter that surrounded the kitchen island and watched with smiles as Shana began to competently take over things. "Leave it to Edgar to make sure he picked the apartment with a kitchen almost as big as the one from the castle," Kellie joked.
"It's not that big." Though it reflected the apartment as a whole, really. Edgar had not bothered to go for cheap when it had been unnecessary. Hence the double master suites, and the separate sitting and dining rooms from the kitchen. "Besides, we both really love to cook, so it gives us a nice place to work in."
After a moment to watch, Alexandria decided, "You're going to give Juliet a run for her money."
"Nah. She's professional. I'm just a talented amateur. I follow recipes; she invents them!"
The conversation stayed light, and it pointedly stayed away from anything happening outside or with their friends. "You gotten anyone naked yet?" Kellie asked humorously as she was thumbing through some of Shana's recent photos. "Other than Rocky of course, though I'm skeptical if you would be thinking of art in those circumstances."
"Yeah, right now him being naked is definitely a distraction. Give us a little more time to be settled into our relationship and not feel as if we're making up for five thousand years of missed time. As for anyone else, nope, not yet there either. I'm planning out my attacks." She playfully stuck her tongue out at her twin. "I will eventually get you to pose nude for me, too."
"I'd give my life for you," Alexandria said mildly, "but my clothes stay on in photos."
"Damn shame when you have a nice body," Kellie told her.
"Thank you, but stop helping."
Shana knew that she could absolutely capture the airy and untamed spirit of her twin in photos if given half the chance. She also knew her weapons, and how to use them. Her lower lip began to quiver, and tears shimmered across her eyes. "You don't trust me, Lexie?"
Alexandria's head hit the counter with a thump. "Alright! You win."
Pleased, Shana went back to her cooking. She didn't use the lip thing or tears very often. She saved them for special occasions. It was amazing how effective they could be on some people.
As she ducked down to rummage in the cabinet for another pot, a warning rumble from her stomach had her covering a grimace. It took all her concentration to pretend that she was fine. There wasn't even anything except water in her stomach to reject, yet her body continued to insist that there was something stuck. Something had deeply gripped Protea herself.
The front door opened. "I’m home!" Edgar called.
Glad for the distraction, she snorted softly. He was home, but an hour late. "Do I know you?" she called without standing.
"I’m not that late," he laughed as he entered the kitchen, "and I brought a gift."
"Oh really?" She stood up with the pot in her hand and spotted a grinning Rocky standing just to the side of her brother. She put her free hand over her heart and fluttered her lashes. "Gee, I’ve always wanted one. Is it housebroken?"
"Absolutely," Rocky responded, straight-faced, "and I do windows in a pinch."
"Wow, just think, I’ll be the first to own one," she told Kellie and Alexandria. "Once I figure out precisely what he is, mind you. For all I know, he’s as common as a dandelion."
"No, sadly, I'm original."
"Is that what we're calling it this week? You should hear what your enemies call you."
"It can't be worse than what my friends call me."
Edgar started laughing, and that set off the entire room. Over the counter, Rocky exchanged a quick high-five with Shana. They sometimes saved up their banter just to entertain the others. They knew full well it could be a spectator sport, and far be it from them to not keep everyone in good spirits. "I didn't know you were coming over," Shana told him on a smile. She shot him a distinctly flirty look from under her lashes. "I'd have dressed up for you. Or down, as the case may be."
"That would be unfair with polite company around," he groused. He skimmed a knuckle across her cheek. "Actually, I just gave Edgar a lift home from the ranch since he came out to help me today. He usually does on Saturdays, you know. He asked me if I wanted to stay for dinner and I thought I'd stay the night as well. Siobhan and I want to start spending more nights here to support you until this, whatever it is, passes." He leaned down to kiss her and said against her lips, "I even promise to behave myself."
"That's a first for your family," Edgar said dryly.
Shana shook her head in amusement. "I'm thinking of studying genetics. I think there's got to be a reason for the creepy compatibility thing going on, other than the whole Light/Dark aspect." She looked at Alexandria. "Do you think genes can lead to bad taste?"
"Is that a dig at me or Rocky?" Edgar complained.
She grinned. "It was a dig at me and Siobhan."
"Living room," Rocky said firmly, shoving his friend toward the door. "Before she turns the knife on us too."
"That means you too," Shana ordered the two Dual Cultivators. "I need room if I'm feeding a bottomless pit." She watched them file out and then her smile faded as she braced a hand on the counter. It was swelling inside, that thing trying to hurt her, and it made her feel as if she had been covered in the blood of the innocent. She looked at her hands and saw red blood dripping to the floor through her Sight. A new nightmare.
She made it through getting dinner done, but she ate very little. She pushed at the food on her plate silently and let the conversation flow around her. A buzzing in her ears made it hard to concentrate on anything anyone said. Unable to pretend anymore, she got to her feet and picked up her plate to take it into the kitchen.
"Goddess damn it all," Edgar said raggedly. Under his breath he added, "When will this end? I wish I could share how she suffers!"
"Don't even dare think such a thing," Kellie told him sharply.
Rocky and Alexandria suddenly went white, and the color left Edgar's face only moments later. Before Kellie could speak, they all heard a plate shattering on the floor. It was followed by a thump. Alexandria shot to her feet so fast that she jostled the table. "Shana!"
They found Shana lying on the kitchen floor, huddled in a ball of misery with her arms wrapped tight around her body. A power that seemed to be darkness and nature all at the same time seethed over her skin with a black and pink gradient of power. Vines coiled around her legs and slowly climbed her body.
The sight of it stopped Rocky briefly; for the first time in two decades, he had finally realized that Edgar's magic was very different from Shana's. Edgar's magic was black and pink, but the two came as totally separate colors, reflective of how the pink actually produced his Nature magic and the black came as a byproduct of his planet's critical Dark core. Also for the first time, Rocky then realized the very real difference in his own magic from Siobhan's. Hers was also a gradient of white and gold, and his was the two separate colors. He had honestly never actually realized before the differences.
He looked back in his memory and realized also that the other Dual Cultivators may have had two colors as well, but they were not a gradient either. They only had one element, but two colors, because nearly all elements had two sides: attack and defense. Light and Illusion were their own opposite sides, just as Dark and Nature were their own opposite sides. Therefore the gradient could only be a result of the two queens being Apexes. Only the two Apexes utilized Dark and Light as actual elements, and therefore the black and white had fused to their other colors. It felt significant somehow, and his Sight stirred. "Harmony."
"Yeah. It's painful and complicated, and better you remember it yourself later." Alexandria knelt beside Shana but did not touch her. "She's fighting. Damn it, she's fighting where I can't go to save her!"
If Shana heard them, it could not be determined. Her entire body arched as if to escape something, and her eyes flew wide to reveal they had turned solidly black. Another shudder ripped through her body before she went limp in blessed unconsciousness. The vines crept higher up her body.
"Can I touch her?" Rocky asked Kellie and Alexandria alike.
"If anyone can, it's you or Edgar." Kellie let out a rough breath. "Siobhan, too, if she were here. The rest of us? No chance. Not without being badly hurt. We're just not strong enough to touch the raw source of all darkness."
Rocky knelt and eased Shana into his arms, and his eyes flew wide and blind as he abruptly got sucked into a vision. A whirling storm of nightmarish images burned across his gaze and made him bite back a scream of combined terror and anguish. Tears welled in his eyes as he fought to escape, and just as suddenly, he came back to himself. He could barely breathe. "Wha-what just happened?" he managed to ask.
"What did you See?" Alexandria asked in turn.
"Nightmarish things." It dawned. "Did I . . . did I see Shana's nightmares?" He began to feel sick as well. "In my life . . . there have been times . . . I just felt as if I was having nightmares that didn't belong to me . . . were they Shana's?" His voice began to shake. "Has she been having these nightmares all her life and she never told any of us?"
"All her life," Edgar confirmed tiredly. "Every night of her life. A lot of time during the day. You know how Siobhan was always getting sick? Once I learned about Famine and her role in that . . . I began to think the nightmares were Shana's equivalent. I knew about them because it started almost from birth. She made me swear not to tell you or Siobhan or Mom." Softer, he added, "The nights you're here, that you are holding her in sleep . . . she doesn't have nightmares. It's as if they can't find her there, the way that Siobhan always seemed to just get healthier if I held her."
Alexandria nodded a bit. "You are correct about all that, Edgar. And, Rocky, it is not unusual for a lover soul mate to share the dreams of a Protea Ruler Cultivator thanks to them being the Ruler over the Ephemeral Plane as well. Siobhan has probably shared Edgar's dreams often enough but never mentioned it because she didn't realize." She pressed her fingers to her eyes briefly. "We can't buy Shana any more time. She has to awaken. I'll fetch her Mask. We'll take her to the park garden where they have the biggest growth of protea flowers. Kel, call Gin and the others. Everyone needs to meet us there. And that includes Clara!"
Though night had spread rapidly, it took no time at all to get everyone rousted. All had remained on edge anyway, and sleep had been hard to come by for more than just Shana. Word moved quickly from Cultivator to Cultivator, and all made their way directly toward the protea section of the park's garden where, so long before, the four heirs had met for the first time.
Siobhan arrived last, even after Clara. When she spotted her brother and lover standing with Shana in the former's arms, she gave a little cry and rushed over. "Shana?" She took Shana's hand in hers and held on tightly. "I'm here," she whispered fiercely. "I will help you through this!" No answer came, and she abruptly whirled on Clara. "I have had it!" she shouted. Her gold eyes flashed a threatening white. Siobhan and Rocky alike rather quickly went white, but if Edgar or Shana finally got provoked to black, their friends hid. "You will tell us everything, Clara! That is an order as your queen! Give us back our memories!"
Clara lowered her gaze briefly and then removed the hourglass from her bracelet. It rose up over her palm to become full-size and began to spin rapidly. Waves of pink and lavender spread from the hourglass and swirled around Siobhan, Rocky, and Edgar; she could not help Shana unless the other woman awoke.
What had been fuzzy became as clear as the glass of Virginia's magic. Whole and complete memories of their past lives flooded all three Cultivators. Including memories, all three realized, that the other Cultivators—even Clara—did not possess. Rocky and Edgar could see their beloved Commanders quite clear, and so could Siobhan. She took a sharp and pained little breath of realization for the enemy she had confronted without knowing why he felt familiar. She knew now.
Beyond those memories came the sharp and oppressive memory of the weight on Shana's birth. Of the terrible thing she had to do. The literal pressure of millions of years of waiting and expecting her to fix what someone else had broken. She had spent her entire life knowing that life as they knew it had to end in order for her to do what was needed, and that she would just be born again with the same weight.
"How do you demand that of someone?" Rocky whispered. "How can we force her to remember that?"
Shana's eyes abruptly opened. "I have to know." She pushed at his shoulders until he reluctantly let her stand on her feet. He had to keep an arm around her, however, and it was only his strength that supported her. All of hers had been stolen. "I have to know. Destiny is my mistress, and she is harsh." Her laughter sounded bitter and empty of all joy. "I obey Destiny," she said flatly, "because I have no choice. But I will not be her slave. Give me my Mask, Alexandria! Let me be what I am supposed to be! I will pay whatever price is needed! Clara, let me remember!"
"It will not be easy," Clara told her. Despite the calm tone, her hands visibly shook where she held her hourglass. Her queen's pain had gouged her as deeply as the rest. The one she loved most. She had never loved any Ruler Cultivator the way she loved Shana, though Siobhan ran a rather close second.
"Do you think it’s easy now?" Shana demanded. She took a very cautious step away from Rocky and nearly fell. He caugh