Deep within the underground of the Protea Castle, Nemesis raged and screamed and tore at the walls. Vermillion stayed clear out of fear for his own life. The evil entity barely remembered his presence. She had awakened! She knew of him, would find him! She would destroy him and he could not stop her!
He stared sightlessly into the distance and listened to the eerie silence. He felt her the way she felt him. It had always been such. The one creature he could not claim. The one creature he wanted most to claim. He would be a nightmare not confined to the night if he could just take her power. "I will not go down easily, Apex."
His voice echoed off the walls as a sinister threat that even his minion flinched to hear. There was no escape for anyone at all as long as this beast lived.
* * * * *
Shana awoke with an abrupt start as nausea churned in her stomach. She sat up straight and looked around a little wildly. She was in her bedroom, at home, and Bastian slept as a ball of fur on her pillow. On the floor of her room, she spied blankets and sleeping bags holding a few of her friends. She could sense the others in the apartment with her.
She gingerly got out of bed and found someone had put her in her favorite pajamas. The fluffy material felt soothing on her skin as she carefully tiptoed over to her balcony. She eased the door open and went outside to sit on her swing. She could not determine the specific time, but it had to be between twenty-three and twenty-four hours for she could clearly see Delphinium's palace from her window. Not as big as from her own palace two hours earlier, but still there on the edge of what she could see of the other world in the sky.
She did not hear anything, but someone sat down beside her on the swing. Strong arms curled around her waist. On a little sigh, she leaned back against Rocky's chest and closed her eyes. "Isn't it a sign of the end of existence if a Delphinium child wakes easily at midnight?"
He smiled and rocked the swing lightly with one foot. "I sensed you wake up, and that you needed me." He nuzzled his nose into her hair. "I had thought about snuggling you in your bed while you slept, but you were fairly restless for once so I let you be out of worry you'd wake if you didn't have enough room. I'd rather you have restless sleep than no sleep." He laced his fingers with hers and watched his home world in the sky. "Did you sense him?"
"Mm. He's afraid and furious. He'll send some Nightmayres after us next time, of course. He would not dare try to show his face to me." She let the rocking of the swing and her soul mate's warmth comfort her where nothing else ever could. "The sins of our ancestors," she murmured. "It must infuriate him how much I resemble Shanta."
"His obsession with you doesn't seem like Famine's obsession with Siobhan," he admitted. "I feel as if . . . he wants you. Not strictly in a dead sense."
"It's a strange area," she agreed. "You're not far wrong. He wants to claim me and my power. Why wouldn't he? I represent everything he needs. Dark power to make him stronger, and Nature power to destroy him. The conflict of my own elements created him. Protea's elements created Evil. It was our sin, and so I must cleanse it."
"Because you alone created the harmony between Dark and Nature, created a way for the sun to burn even in the middle of darkness."
"Me alone for now." She tilted her head back to smile up at him. "Any child we bear will have a harmony as well. She may not be able to use Dark as an element, only I could do that, but it will still flavor her Nature magic in the way Light will flavor her as it comes from you. It'll take a special Defender Cultivator to be her twin, to be sure. An understanding of both Dark and Light."
"Positive of a girl are we?"
"True, we both carry intergalactic blood, so we might get an oddity like you and my brother, but my gut says that we're in for a girl. Maybe because I can only think of girl names. Mother always said that should have been a clue she was carrying Evan; she could not think of his name because she was focused on the wrong gender. She got close though. She had liked Evelyn best. I'm kinda partial to Leslie Ann. You can think up a shorter version for her Ruler name. She'll probably need both. I admit, this thing of pretending to be perfectly normal is appealing."
He nuzzled at her ear again. "I've got plenty of time for that. And I agree. This life is more enjoyable in many ways. More freedoms." His heart ached a bit that she would not get to keep her freedom forever, though. Someday, inevitably, she would have to don her crown and rule as High Queen. Until then, he would do whatever it took to ensure she had the freedom she needed in order to be herself. "How long until this is over?"
"Not very. A day or two at most. I'm not at all afraid." She straightened and turned to smile at him. "I'm not even nervous. I don't know what price I will have to pay, but I accept it. I will survive, Rocky. I have to, if we're going to have that child we just discussed."
He leaned in and kissed her tenderly until she had almost melted against him. His fingers lifted to caress the Flower Mark on her chest under her shirt, and he felt her heart skip a beat inside his own chest. "I love you," he whispered huskily as he eased back. "And whether it's legal or not, whether anyone understands or not, I am your husband. Our vows have not broken. I am yours." He slid his hand around to caress the Flower Mark on her left arm. The touch was deliberate, a gesture of love and respect for her status as a Defender. "I will always be yours. Eternally. My Tash."
The sound of the old, beloved, nickname made her heart tighten with painful love for a moment. Their secret words. "My Caretaker." She drew him down for another kiss, almost unable to find the words she needed to express how terribly she loved him. She eased back and whispered, "I am always yours. Eternally." She looked up at him with trembling lips. "I wish you could learn to be less tenderhearted, though. It terrifies me."
"Well, I wish you wouldn't hide so much inside," he retorted politely. "We're even." He nibbled teasingly on her lip. "You make me tempted to join you in your bed this time. I'd behave myself, though. I need you to rest for once."
"I only rest if you're there. I want to sleep in your arms where nightmares cannot find me through the light of your soul." She caught a breath as he stood and lifted her up off the swing and into his arms. "It always unnerves me a little when you do that. And it's really kind of sexy. Maybe you don't have to behave yourself."
"There are people sleeping on the floor of your room, you know."
"Damn. Good point. Just sleep it is."
She not only slept more peacefully in his arms, she slept long past sun up—which was as unusual for a Protea child as it was for a Delphinium one to be up in the middle of the night. Protea represented the day; they went to sleep and got up early. Delphinium represented the night; they stayed up and slept in late. Rocky himself woke after the sun rose, but he just continued to hold Shana in his arms. The others hung around as well since they had no classes.
Shana finally awoke closer to noon, and had one hell of a sleep hangover. Her groggy state seemed most evident in that she did not make a peep of protest as Siobhan insisted on helping her shower and wash her hair, and then almost meekly ate the lunch that Juliet prepared. It stayed down, too. She curled up on the couch for another nap after finishing her food, and the others felt downright grateful. Trusting that she was, finally, mending, they all began to take their leave. Siobhan and Rocky left last, and they made Edgar vow he would call them if he or Shana needed anything.
Shana awoke an hour or two after her nap and felt both alert and refreshed again. She finally went to change out of her pajamas, and she coiled up her hair. Feeling a need to do something, she went into the kitchen and got started on the dishes. Normalcy. If she could control nothing else, at least she could control that.
She was elbow deep in soapsuds in the sink when Edgar walked in rubbing a towel over his hair after his own shower. He stopped short and stared at her. His eyes filled with pain as they lingered on her bound hair. Unlike Rocky, he had never been able to remove the binds she felt. He slung the towel around his shoulders and walked over to the fridge to silently get out a fermented drink. How did he apologize for being blind to what she suffered? Only at that very last moment had he understood what she had known all along, and yet hindsight made it seem as if he should have known all along.
"You're almost as Dark as I am," she told him gently as she saw his face. "We both are often blind, Edgar. And, well, I made sure you stayed that way on purpose." To lighten the mood, she teased, "Be careful opening any gifts from Virginia on your birthday this year."
It made him laugh. "I think I ought to be more wary of you," he said dryly. "This time, you might help."
She grinned over her shoulder. "What makes you think I didn't help her back then, too?" As she turned back to the dishes, she added, "Don't apologize for not knowing what I did. I took care that no one would know. It's over and in the past; don't dwell on it."
"You should have still told Robert, Sayena, and me much sooner, Shana." He frowned. "It should not have been your burden alone!"
"It would have changed nothing. Truly, literally, nothing. Why would I steal away what little hope remained? I can endure nightmares far better than any other. Let the burden be mine alone."
"If he managed to defeat you, what would happen?" He hated asking, but he wanted to know, needed to know, the rest of the truth. There was still so much she hadn't told him, and he never wanted her to be alone with those burdens again, no matter how she insisted otherwise. For the first time, he thought he could truly see and understand his sister's powerful strength of will. She had no equal.
She stopped scrubbing and stared silently out the window over the sink. Then, quietly, "Nightmares will no longer be confined to the night. They'll be free during the days. Fear and terror will consume the people and the worlds will slowly rot and decay away until there's nothing left."
A chill ran down his back and he put down his drink can quickly. She just smiled and continued to finish the dishes. He stared at her for long moments before it dawned on him that she genuinely held no fear of losing. After everything she had endured, everything she had been forced to deal with, she had no option but to win. He had seen it with Siobhan as well, where the added weight of five thousand years had pushed her to be unwilling to compromise. Perhaps that, too, had added to the need to be reborn.
"You know I will fight beside you." He moved closer to hug her tight. If he had ever regretted being shorter than his sister, it only came in the moments where he wanted to take her away from the things that wanted to hurt her. Sadly, he could not bodily move her against her will. He had always had to depend on Alexandria and Rocky for that; good thing all three of them tended to think the same way. "This is a matter of our Royal House, not just you. All Protean Ruler Cultivators carry the same sin, Shana. We could not do what you did, either. It is on all of us to help you fix this."
She didn't say anything to that and finished up the dishes. She had just nipped his can to steal a drink when her Sight stirred. Her entire body froze briefly as she stared at nothing.
Edgar didn't bother to wait for what she had seen; he went down the hall, grabbed the necklace that had her two Masks on it, and brought it back. The moment her eyes focused on him, he fastened the necklace around her neck.
Her communication mask lit up with fiery orange. She touched it lightly. "Sherry? What did you See?"
"The protea garden," the Aster Defender responded without preamble. "It was being filled with weeds. I know evil is there. What did you See?"
Sherry didn't ask for specifics. "Then that means Nemesis or Vermillion is trying to draw you out. Do not go alone. All of us will meet you there."
The mask stopped glowing and Shana pulled a face. "You can't tell me what to do," she groused. "I barely let Ginny do that!"
Edgar fought to hide a smile. Some things truly just never changed. Poor Virginia had been banging her head on a wall for two lives in her effort to keep the Apex of Dark in line. Siobhan was more willing to defer than her partner, simply because Siobhan accepted her need to have a physical partner in order to allow her to use magic.
Shana possessed exceptional physical skills even when unarmed and unarmored, and she could also use what magic she did have in particularly brutal ways. Her Nature power could crack open the land under someone's feet, and it could also hurl vines to entrap enemies; her Dark power could form a shield capable of absorbing near anything, and it could also produce projectiles of raw power. All Defenders accepted that she might not really need them, and in turn, she accepted that they still needed to protect her anyway.
As Shana pulled her Mask off her necklace, Edgar grabbed her wrist. Black and pink swirled around him and formed his Ruler suit. Identical pink eyes glared at one another for long moments and then she gave in on a sigh. "Fine. But at the risk of sounding like Virginia, stay out of the middle! Focus on partnering Siobhan. If I need someone to cover me, and the Defenders can't do it, leave it to Rocky. That's his job as my Caretaker." In a mutter, she added, "I will be far happier over this entire thing once we find the eight Commanders. Then the Defenders will not only have their Caretakers, but you and my lover will have dedicated defense!"
Edgar looked at her a bit oddly. "You mean seven. We found one. Where we should not, but we did."
"No. No, we really did not."
He opened his mouth and then closed it. "No," he agreed softly. "We really did not."
She put on her Mask and called up her armor. She clasped hands with her brother and they transported directly to the protea garden. They were the first to arrive, but the others appeared within very short order, including Clara. Her partners and queen had entered battle, and now so would she. The two Delphinium siblings came in last. Rocky and Edgar exchanged a glance and then places so that they stood by the side of the Defender they had been made the Caretaker for.
Nothing at all seemed completely out of the ordinary for the garden. It was certainly a little lusher than it had been the day before, but since it had held the ground zero of an awakening Nature element, no one really felt surprise.
Shana held out a hand and called her claymore to it. No one but Rocky had ever seen the weapon before, and more than one whistled softly. Like the magical rod held by Siobhan, to look at the weapons of the Apexes was to underscore their role. They looked nothing like the weapons held by the others, even the Defenders of the Dark planets. Alexandria possessed a harpoon, Kellie a three-headed spear only a Metal element could control, and Desiree used a throwing pinwheel. Clara used her hourglass as a weapon that focused magical spells, so in battle, she would stay with the other two solely magic users.
Evil surged across the land. Shana and Sherry alike swung around, and Virginia snapped, "Shields!"
Yvonne and Siobhan hastily threw out shields of Ice and Illusion around everyone. The oncoming surge of terrible power smacked into the icy portions and cracked them, but it dissipated when it reached the glowing mirage within. "Brace yourselves," Shana ordered. She shot a look at Virginia. "We are in battle. Do you yield to my command as strongest Defender Cultivator of our generation?"
"Yes—but only until the point where your life is in danger you cannot escape."
Shana had to smile. "Fair enough."
The power had receded back into itself and it began to rise up out of the ground with wispy, monstrous visage. The creatures had no real defined features, no real way to claim they resembled anything. They most resembled whatever the person they opposed feared most, and they rumbled with a sound nearly inaudible that still made hearts quiver with dread. Nightmayres.
Shana looked at them and saw . . . sleep. The one thing she feared was her own sleep for it was haunted by the bloody fingers of the creature she existed to destroy. A tiny smirk touched her lips. Was this the best Nemesis had to offer? He could not scare her with the thing that had become so thoroughly a part of her life.
The Nightmayres rushed in as a whole and the fight began. Shana dove right into the heart of the battle without hesitation, and both Rocky and Alexandria stayed near to her side. Virginia intently watched Rocky for a few moments and then felt a bit of tension leave her shoulders. Her prince could at last use the full breadth of his skills, and it made him nearly as potent as his lover. She still kept an eye on him, though.
It did not take long at all for both Siobhan and Rocky to realize that the same thing happened to the Nightmayres as had once happened to the Germs. When one was destroyed, the backwash transported away lingering fragments so that Nemesis could expend less energy creating more. They kept their mouths shut for fear that Shana might do something like the two Delphinium heirs had. It was all or none this time!
Unfortunately, Shana had already noticed the happenings. While she did not know what her counterparts had done before, she possessed an intelligence that equaled Rocky's. She leapt to the same conclusion he once had, and she also suspected she could use her transporting magic to take herself to wherever those fragments went. She just chose to keep that knowledge to herself.
She waited until she could just get herself a bit away from the others. Even Alexandria let her move as she liked because of her armor and skills, as long as she stayed within the general area, of course. Shana watched, waited, and then spied the perfect opening. She lunged forward and threw out her power in the same moment. Dark power struck the backwash and opened an odd time-space portal. She dove within and swung around at the last moment. Another shot of Dark shut the portal behind her.
"Shana! Goddess damn it!" Rocky snarled.
A bit of frenzy on the side of the good guys obliterated the remaining Nightmayres. No more reappeared. Why would they? Nemesis had what he wanted. No one even knew where to look for Shana, and Edgar could not look through Protea's eyes as long as the taint lingered. "Did you know she would do that?" Kellie demanded of Edgar.
"I didn't." Black seethed across his normally pink eyes. "I had insisted on joining her, that this supposed sin was carried on the backs of all Protea's Rulers, but she never agreed nor disagreed. Did you tell her about that?" he asked Siobhan sharply.
She scowled. "Why would I when she's too damn much like you? Rocky and I planned to go with both of you! I don't want her to pay that price alone, either, Edgar!" She stamped a foot on the ground with a powerful huff of air and then swung around with arms crossed. "Damn it! Why do I have to love two such hardheaded people? Not fair, Destiny!"
"Clara?" Alexandria asked tightly. "Can you find her?"
When that was all she said, Rocky's hands curled into fists. "But you won't. Because you shouldn't?"
"I like Destiny no more than most of you do," the Librarian admitted a bit tiredly. "And I like her less when she makes sure I know where not to interfere—even when I could."
* * * * *
Shana dove out of the portal on the other side and rolled across the ground before nimbly gaining her feet. Her eyes swept over the scenery and realized immediately that she had landed right outside her own castle. It looked surprisingly intact for having been neglected for five thousand years, but Protea herself had tried her best to salvage what she could.
The only thing about the castle that belied what lay within was the bloody hue to the stone. Shana walked forward calmly and reached out to touch the wall. Her gloves did not actually cover her finger tips, and so her skin itself came away stained with blood in a mimicry of her newest nightmare. She did not wipe it away as she turned and walked into the castle. She knew where to go.
Halfway there, she felt a familiar presence join her. She smiled. "Why don't you just escort me to him? Am I that terrifying?"
Vermillion stepped out of the shadows near her, his face expressing a combination of fear and hate, and then he nodded shortly and fell into step beside her. He had always secretly admired her even though he had hated her. She had always commanded respect in many ways, even from those who were her enemy.
"You do realize I will destroy you as well." She watched where they were going rather than look at him. "That is, if Nemesis doesn't do it himself."
"I'm aware of that," he agreed. "I'm not concerned with it since I chose this path."
"Why did you?" She finally looked at him and stopped in the middle of the hallway. "Didn't you feel any remorse for what you did? Don't you realize the pain you caused when you simply disappeared? Robert nearly lost his mind when you could not be found!" Her eyes narrowed sharply. "What did you do to Chance and Diego when they came after you? I know they found you. I could See it."
"Rubeo never should have followed me!" he admitted bitterly. "Nemesis killed him." His face tightened. "I had to pretend it didn't matter. As to where he is now, I don't know that either. I don't feel my brother on the planet."
That would have to be revisited eventually; it didn't bode well that someone of power had not been reborn, and Chance had indeed possessed intriguing gifts. "And Diego? I assume you killed him."
"No. I wanted to! But that idiot . . . he tried to protect me. Said that as long as Robert wanted me as his Commander, that he would do anything to ensure our prince had such a thing. Called me an idiot, but he died protecting an enemy." He made a disgusted noise. "What would he have known about how I felt?! He had everything he ever wanted! Robert loved him more than me, and he would have been a Commander if he had not been too young. I was only second-best!"
"Whether Robert loved Diego more is irrelevant, Vermillion." Her cool voice contrasted the hint of black moving across her eyes. "He did love you. And you betrayed him. But why Nemesis? Why release my enemy? How did I ever offend you?" Understanding suddenly filled her as he shot her a fulminating look. "Because Robert loved me."
"He had nothing left for me or anyone else. You consumed him entirely."
She just sighed as she started walking again. "You really don't understand how love works, do you? It's not a limited force. It's not something you run out of. You can love many people in many different ways. Will Robert only ever love me as a lover? Of course; he’s a Cultivator, and that’s how we work. Does that mean he uses up all of his love on me and has none for anyone else? Absolutely not. It doesn't work that way, especially not for those of Delphinium! They have a well of love to give that will never run dry."
"So you say."
"So I know," she retorted. "Why drag Nemesis into this? You could have just gone after Diego and me directly. Or did your hate expand to include Protea as a whole because I embodied the essence of the world?"
"All I know is that I hated you, hated Protea, and hated Diego." His hands clenched into fists. "I wanted all of you gone. It was easy to hate you, and I knew that if I unsealed Nemesis before you were ready, he could take care of everything. He promised to spare Robert for me if I did his bidding."
"And you called Diego an idiot!" she exclaimed in exasperation. "Damn it, Vermillion." She stopped outside the main door of the dungeons and turned to glower at him. "Nemesis has no care to abide by that promise, and he hates Robert as furiously as you hate me! Even if somehow Nemesis kills me here, he will go after my soul mates next!"
"Then I'll be reunited with my prince in the afterlife."
She lifted a brow. "You think that you'll earn that gift? Think that Robert will ever forgive you for what you've done?"
"He forgives everyone." He opened the doors. "Unlike you who never forgives and never forgets."
"You have to earn my forgiveness, sorry. Hazards of being Dark." She walked into the room lit by bloody spheres and looked around with ease. She could see in absolute dark, let alone where light lingered. Honestly, she actually saw better in the darkness. She often suspected it was only her Nature element that allowed her to see in the light at all, just as it was only Siobhan's Illusion element that allowed her to see anything at all in darkness.
Softly, a voice that had haunted her sleep said, "So, there you are. Just like I wanted."
"There's an old adage from Gladiolus that fits here. Be careful what you wish for." She slowly swung up her sword, and sunlight radiated from the blade. The darkness of the room drew in toward her and flowed over her skin. Nemesis' familiar form revealed itself in the middle of the room, and she shook her head. "Like all nightmares, you're not so terrifying once the dawn comes."
A surge of necrotic power swept over him and he abruptly condensed into a visage not unlike his Nightmayres. He stood bigger than the Protea High Queen by a bit, and acidic blood poured down his body from open wounds. He moved closer and leaned down to be face-to-Mask, and she did not flinch. "Are you afraid yet, Your Majesty?"
She smiled. "No. But you should be." Fear her destined battle? How could she? She had every advantage, including strength, power, and training. After everything she had endured, she couldn't fail now.
She just couldn't.
Back in the protea garden, no one really knew what to do or where to go. It felt like an hour since Shana had disappeared. The only evidence they had to any of the goings-on lay in Rocky. His entire focus had turned inward as if to find the bonds connecting him to his soul mate, and he occasionally flinched as if he had been struck—or rather, Shana had.
"How is that possible?" Siobhan whispered to Clara.
"He is merely extending beyond the natural level that exists between soul mates. Only lover soul mates can do such a thing, however, because they are interlocking rather than merely overlapping. Alexandria can feel when Shana is in danger, but she cannot feel if Shana suffers physical pain, nor deepen their bond to share it."
"I can feel Shana's pain, or share it as well if I try," Edgar admitted, bringing many startled eyes. "We found out as children. It was after the accident. She had been hurt far worse than I. I wanted so badly to make her not hurt, to share her pain, and . . . somehow I did. I didn't even think anything about it until what you just said."
"I can feel Rocky's pain too," Siobhan whispered. "Either if it's so strong it echoes, or if I deliberately want to make him feel better. I never even thought of it as unusual."
Alexandria drummed her fingers on her arm. "Then that means that we were not wrong in thinking that both sets of siblings are soul mates of some sort. But how do you have aspects of a lover bond and a twin bond alike? It's odd enough for someone to have three."
"That I honestly do not know," Clara apologized.
Rocky's head suddenly snapped up. He stood from where he had been sitting on the grass and turned around. Vermillion appeared in front of him a moment later.
A low snarl of rage vibrated inside Juliet's chest. "You son-of-a-bitch!" she snapped. "How dare you betray our prince?!" She would have gone for his throat if Virginia had not grabbed her arm to restrain her.
Rocky fought to keep his voice even. "Mind explaining?" No memories of friendship, of how much he had loved this person, could take away his fury. His own Commander had joined with the creature trying to destroy his soul mate. He barely noticed when Siobhan stepped up beside him and slipped her hand into his.
"You saw me as second-best." Vermillion had only intended to taunt everyone with the knowledge that Shana struggled, but the bitterness had welled up the moment he saw his prince. "You spared barely any time for me compared to the others! Diego and Shanae took all of your attention!"
Rocky suddenly felt old and tired. "No, they really didn't. Diego spent more time with me, sure, because he was my companion-at-arms, but I loved him no more or less than I loved Talon and Ulyen. If anyone took the majority of my attention, it was Shanae as my lover soul mate, Sabin as my twin soul, and Sayena as my soul-sister." He held tighter when she squeezed his hand. "I loved you, Vermillion. As much as I loved the other Commanders? Well, no. But you know what? You never wanted me to."
Vermillion recoiled a bit. "No."
"Actually, yes." He sighed. "Vermillion . . . you don't understand love. And because of that, you always kept a little wall between yourself and others. Of course you were not as suited to be a Commander as Diego. Diego proved himself on the first day with his willingness to try to be a Commander even though he was too young. Would you have ever done that?"
Silence stretched long and painfully. "No," Vermillion finally admitted in a low voice.
"You could have had what you wanted, Vermillion," Siobhan told him quietly, "had you been willing to give what needed to be given in return for such a gift. You cannot ask someone to love you unconditionally if you are not willing to give the same. Defenders and Commanders alike must love without condition, must give all of themselves, to the High Prince or Queen that they are to defend, for you must be willing to die for us if it is needed." Her chin lifted slightly. "You do not deserve to be called a Commander, and is my right as High Queen of Delphinium, I revoke your position."
Shock and pain filled Vermillion's eyes. Millennia of beliefs and hate shook on their foundation. He found himself staring at what he had done through the eyes of another, and self-loathing rose.
Very softly, Rocky said, "If there is any real love inside your heart for me, you will cease to be my enemy. That is the one thing I never wanted."
Vermillion's eyes closed as he felt the rising waves of guilt. What had he been doing? He couldn't even comfort himself with the idea he had been controlled. He had done what he had done willingly. He had deliberately set out to destroy the one person he should have protected for she was critical to his prince's existence. Slowly, he sank down onto one knee with his head bowed. "There is much I have to ask forgiveness for, my liege."
"Stupidity tops the list."
He found his first smile in a long time. "I still can't argue you with you when you're right."
Edgar moved forward. "If you want to make amends, you will take me to wherever my sister is and allow me to help fix what you made wrong."
"Not just Edgar." Siobhan's chin lifted. "Rocky and I as well. She needs us! I won't let her face what I did! If she is to pay a price, then we will be there to help her endure!"
If Vermillion took them to the castle, then he would forfeit his life for a new betrayal. But, so be it. If he could give his life to protect the one his prince loved, then perhaps he might be able to make amends in the end. Instead of standing in Shana's way, he could clear it for her. "Alright. I will take you there."
Shana snapped up a Dark shield in order to protect herself and it absorbed the evil energy Nemesis had just hurled. Dark red blood streaked her skin where a few attacks had gotten through her armor, but the same also stained him. It had become a battle of stamina; neither of them could gain an advantage. She just needed something. Some little thing to take her over the edge.
Magic suddenly swirled around her body with a soft pulse of light. She swung around in surprise and discovered that Siobhan, Edgar, and Rocky had appeared behind her. Edgar moved closer and held up a hand. She laced her fingers to his, and he smiled. "I should yell at you, but I suppose I expected this."
She smiled. "I knew you would find me if I needed you." She looked at Siobhan and Rocky. "Magic only. Cover Edgar and I."
Nemesis could only stare at the scene in mounting shock. For just a moment, he could only think that Shana had sent out a call to the others, but he did not recall seeing her grab her communications mask. They had come of their own will, which meant they had come through his barriers, and there was only one way that had happened: Vermillion had brought them there.
The great evil roared in sheer fury at being betrayed by the great betrayer. "VERMILLION!" The ground rattled in the wake of his rage as he clawed at the walls. "Where are you?! I will tear you apart!" He whirled around and saw Shana and Edgar watching him, and to the side of them stood the two heirs of Delphinium. The absolute forces of Shana's power had just become more absolute by adding her brother to bolster her Nature and her lover to bolster her Dark.
Nemesis began throwing wild blasts of power that forced everyone to scatter and dodge. Neither Siobhan nor Shana could throw shields when they had to constantly move, and Nemesis kept up the barrage with such violence that there proved no time to pause. One blast landed in the middle of the room and created a shockwave that knocked everyone into the walls.
Shana and Siobhan weathered it well enough thanks to armoring, but their brothers hit a bit hard. Both slumped toward the ground and tried to catch a breath in order to get up and make less of an easy target. Nemesis saw his opening and savage satisfaction filled him. He hated the High Prince of Delphinium only slightly less than he hated the High Queen of Protea. Rocky would be the first to fall as punishment for Vermillion's actions, and destroying him would gut the Protea Defender irreparably!
The blast came on too hard and too fast for anyone to react. Rocky tried his damnedest to cast a shield spell, but it refused to form because his magic just did not work that way as a Ruler. Siobhan and Shana had thrown their skills as well, but Nemesis' power had gotten a head start and would land first. Rocky could only brace for the inevitable impact.
The blast never landed. Vermillion interceded a few feet in front of him and took the full strike in his chest. It sent him smashing into the wall beside Rocky where he then crashed to the ground with a meaty thump. Blood pooled under his body.
"Vermillion!" Rocky scrambled over to his side. He blanched as he saw the gaping wounds in Vermillion's chest; the blast had shorn clear to the bone and his uniform now bore blood for reasons other than his master's power.
"Oh gods!" Shana and Siobhan had already been running to reach Rocky, and now they skidded onto the ground beside the fallen former Commander. "You idiot!" Shana shouted. "You only had to ask for forgiveness!" She barely noticed when Edgar knelt beside her and held onto her in support.
"I can't heal him!" Siobhan managed to say. "Why can't I heal him?! Why did he do that?" she demanded raggedly.
Rocky took a long breath. "He knew. He knew he would die if he brought us here, Siobhan. His death was inevitable. The moment Shana destroyed Nemesis, he would have taken Vermillion with him. And . . . he won't be reborn. He abandoned that gift when he chose to betray our house."
"Your visions . . . were always vexing." A tiny smile touched Vermillion's lips. "Could never stay a step ahead of you. Only . . . Sabin could do that." His breath rattled in his chest. "I want you to find Diego," he managed to whisper. "Give him the position he always deserved. It never . . . belonged to me."
Pain blossomed inside Shana's chest as he slumped over and she could no longer sense his life. Too much death. There wasn't supposed to be anymore death in order for her to finish her destiny. Fury erupted. "That is it!" She lunged to her feet and whirled to rush at Nemesis. Her sword came to her hand and she hacked violently into his body before he could dodge. A pink glow began to radiate around her as hot as the sun, and she seemed to disappear as she plunged all the way into his essence.
She bore deeper and deeper through the muck of his existence and ignored the gouges cutting into her armor and skin beneath. When she could go no deeper, she stabbed her sword into the very center of his decayed soul and released the full force and might of her blended Dark and Nature power. Black-pink sunlight exploded away from her body and began to eat Nemesis alive. She listened to his screams without remorse.
On the outside, the other three only knew that Nemesis had begun to scream horrifically. Siobhan desperately clamped her hands over her ears to drown out the sound. The screams spiraled higher, and then Nemesis just . . . evaporated. He disappeared as if he had never existed, and his erasure caused a shockwave of Nature power to rip through time and space. It burned past the Cores of Hyacinth, Orchid, Daffodil, and Statice and unfroze all of them. It may be millennia as well for them to recover to support life, but at least now they could.
In the place where Nemesis had once been, Shana appeared instead. Power still moved over her body. She looked far more ragged than the last they had seen her, and only her sword served to brace her so she stayed on her feet.
Rocky and Edgar moved forward as one, and Rocky caught her safely when her knees buckled. She was already unconscious even before he lowered her to the ground. Edgar removed her Mask, and her armor disappeared. Siobhan moved closer and unfastened the first few buttons on Shana's shirt to yank it partway down her arms to see her Flower Marks. The sight of both stopped them all cold.
They had not changed. No sparkling edge to the crowns, no second blossom to her Defender Mark.
"Sh-she didn't evolve," Siobhan whispered. "I wondered. She didn't change like I did. She didn't awaken as an Apex!" Horror rose. "Does that mean . . . oh gods. Nemesis wasn't the price of her birth?!"
"Then what is?" Edgar asked a bit raggedly. "What more does Destiny want her to do? It wasn't enough to place the burden of the destroyed kingdoms on her, to make her live eternally within a nightmare she cannot escape? What could be worse than that?!"
Rocky's arms tightened around Shana. "Unfortunately," he said softly, "we’re going to find out. But maybe, perhaps, she will have some measure of freedom now. The sin has been cleansed." He glanced toward Vermillion's body. "In more ways than one."
* * * * *
Shanta had been standing in the shade of her favorite fir tree, and at hearing her descendant's words, her eyes closed as her knees buckled. She slowly sank down to the ground and buried her face in her hands. "Finally," she whispered raggedly.
Genevieve knelt to hug her, and Shanta turned to hold on in turn. They grieved equally for what Shana had suffered; as Edgar had said, the sin had rested on the shoulders of all Protea Ruler Cultivators. "There's only one concern," Genevieve admitted in a low voice. "Shana did not awaken as an Apex."
Shanta's head jerked up. "What?" Her eyes slowly widened. "No. That's impossible. Orion said . . ." She broke off as she realized her husband had never said that Nemesis was the price of the Apex of Dark's birth. He had said that there would be an unknown price to the birth of the Apexes, and the one of Dark would destroy Nemesis. They had all just simply started assuming that Nemesis had to be the price. "What could possibly be worse?" she whispered.
Genevieve took a long breath. "I may . . . have a suspicion. Someone came to Protea from another world, under the cover of secrecy. I looked at his world. It is . . . ravaged."
Shanta began to frown. "So then the wars will continue."
"Removing Nemesis does not remove the weeds he already planted. We can only wait, Grandmother."
With a little nod, the High Goddess got to her feet. "Indeed. And in light of that, I need to go find my husband and demand he give me answers for what he does know."
Genevieve watched her stalk off, and smiled a bit ruefully to herself. "Good luck with that."
* * * * *
Life settled down and went on. Shana's crown moved to her apartment and took up residence in a trunk at the end of her bed. Alexandria and Virginia, in full Masks and armor, reported again to the world leaders on behalf of High Queen Shanae Protea to say that the queen had returned, but she would wait to retake her throne until Delphinium arose as well. There was much disappointment at that, yet it was accepted as given. It really did seem only fair for the queens to wait to rule together.
Concern lingered among all of the Cultivators over Shana's lack of awakening as an Apex but no one said anything about it. Talking about it would change nothing, and all they cared about right then was that Shana had healed. She no longer got sick, and she seemed to finally be sleeping every night through even if her lover didn't share her bed—rare as that may be.
As Siobhan and Shana shared a parfait at a shop after classes, the former noted, "You're laughing again. It's nice to hear."
"It feels nice to want to laugh."
"No more nightmares, then?"
Shana smiled. "I'm much better, promise. I feel more rested than I have in a long time." She stretched largely. "Still feeling a bit odd, I suppose, to no longer have him looming over me as an inescapable destiny. I hope to eventually become complacent with the events."
Siobhan highly doubted that would happen for a long time. No one could actually mention Nemesis' name without sending Shana into a heart-racing, palm-sweaty sort of brief terror. She had developed a ripe case of survivor's stress, and they lacked anyone with Spiritual Healing to help her get better. But, at least, they could diminish the effects by carefully avoiding the topic entirely. It was not difficult; no one else wanted to remember. "You and me both."
Shana glanced out the window and saw a familiar figure waiting. She smiled. "If you'll excuse me, I have a date."
Siobhan glanced, saw Rocky, and grinned cheekily. "Well if you're going to be like that, I'm kidnapping your brother."
"Ha! He's all yours." She kissed Siobhan's cheek and then headed outside. She then burst into laughter as Rocky swung her up into his arms and around in a quick circle. He did it just to make her laugh, and she did not mind at all.
Most everyone knew they had gotten engaged, and a flabbergasted Rocky had discovered that more than one person at university had been eyeing him personally since they expressed dismay at the change. Shana had only laughed at him; and they called those of the Dark blind! He and Siobhan alike could be adorably oblivious to those who couldn't help falling a little in love with their generous hearts.
To help make the transition easier, Shana and Rocky had obtained stone rings to wear on each thumb of their hands to mark their engagement. Rocky had gotten the stone for hers from Delphinium, and she had gotten some from near her palace there on Protea. The average person needed no such trappings, but they were both Ruler Cultivators, and they felt the need to uphold the traditions of their first lives. Siobhan and Edgar, seeing what they had done, had also obtained the same stone and updated their own engagement rings. It had never even occurred to them to do such a thing.
"Speaking of," Rocky noted as they walked down the lane toward the studio where they wanted to catch a stage theatrical, "do you still want that wedding band I promised you five thousand years ago? It's not the tradition these days, so no one will be suspicious. I can see the symmetry of rings for our pinkies, though. We'll get those, too, when we marry in this life."
She smiled. "I like that. And, yes, I do still want my band! It feels a little superfluous, sure, but I want it." Her breath caught as he swung around to face her and held out his hands. There, on his palms, were two beautifully made wristbands of shimmering opal. She lightly touched one and felt the soft and tender pulse of Delphinium. "How?" she whispered. "Delphinium barely healed!"
His eyes softened as he began to fasten the bands on her wrists. "I asked," he said simply. "I went there, and I asked my Mother for what I needed. Siobhan came with me, and we were gifted with the opals needed for your bands. And, yes, as that implies, she knows we consider ourselves married. She had been suspicious already." He brought her wrists to his lips and pressed a kiss to the tender skin near her bands. "You wear the jewels of my world, my wife. Will I wear the jewels of yours?"
"Yes," she promised. Her eyes began to sparkle. "If I can find an amber stone as sassy as you are!"
"That could take another few millennia to find," he teased. He released her wrists only to wrap an arm around her waist and begin heading once more toward the studio. "Are you sure you want to be with me that long?"
She looked up at him, and all of her love glowed out of her eyes. "I think I can handle something like that."
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.