Everyone stayed on edge for a day or two since they did not know whether or not more Projections would leak out into the physical world, or if Pallas would be able to push through finally to contact either Shana or Edgar. Not even Clara really knew what to expect; she had not been back to the Fields in a very long while, and as always, events that directly affected her own future would forever remain hidden from her Sight.
With everything out in the open, Rocky and Siobhan found themselves no longer effectively barred from spending the night with their lovers. Rocky got more disgruntlement out of it than his sister, however; he had to share cuddling of Shana with Bastian. Luckily enough, the ferret liked him almost as much as he did his owner. Shana found it strangely soothing and also utterly adorable to wake in Rocky's arms in the middle of the night and find Bastian curled around his head instead of hers.
On the third day out from the fight, Shana had been enjoying a dreamless sleep when she felt a familiar presence and sense of Nature power sweep over her subconscious mind. A hand held out to her that she accepted, and in the next moment, she found herself consciously within her own unconscious mind and looking at a familiar figure she had not seen in five millennia.
She had to smile. He looked the same as ever with his matching green eyes and hair and sun-kissed skin. He also still stood slightly over half a foot shorter than herself. On the surface, he did not bear much resemblance to either his full sister or even his half-brother who had helped start Shana's own Protean lineage but if the three had been put together one could have found similarities in their eyes and especially their smiles.
He placed his broom on the ground between them and then kneeled respectfully. "Greetings, my queen," he said formally. "It has been too long."
"Oh, enough with that." She rolled her eyes. "You know that we aren't big on the formality with you. You've always been more like family than not." She snorted softly. "And definitely don't try that when you inevitably meet my hu—betrothed, or my brother's betrothed. They're even more casual than we are. Friends with everyone!"
Pallas scooped up his broom and straightened on a smile. "So I had observed." The smile faded from his face. "I wish I would be meeting them under better circumstances." He gestured with his broom. "As you can imagine, things are terrible right now. I have been trying to reach you or Edgar for over a month now, ever since you destroyed Him." Pallas, too, knew of Shana's scars and would be damned if he cut them open anew. In many ways, he understood better than even her own brother just how deep they ran.
She nodded. "Yeah, that was my feeling." She took a long breath. "Alright. How terrible is it? Can we transport there? And what do we need to do?"
"To answer the last first, it will take you and Siobhan." He nodded when her brows shot up. "Nothing short of a pure cleansing of Dark and Light will aid the Plane in regaining its balance. Not even the harmony of the Dark and Nature inside you will work now thanks to the Chaos already formed in the imbalance wrought by evil."
She cocked her head slightly. "Chaos? Why would that be present?"
"Because the Light power exuded by Siobhan in defeating her enemy joined the Dark power exuded by you in defeating yours, and there is nothing and no one to control it." He sighed. "How very like the power of Chaos to do this. Its presence was almost . . . mandatory. Five thousand years without a Protea Ruler Cultivator for the Plane and the planet, the loss of majik from the Faith, and then the two worst of evils tearing free of the Underbelly only to be erased in the shockwave of Light or Dark." He hesitated and then added softer, "Too, there is Chaos power boiling on another world outside Blossom Field. It is sloughing into the Fields as well, meeting that which is here, and making it worse."
Shana rubbed her hands over her arms. "What happens beyond Blossom is the work of other Defenders. I hate saying that, but it is true. If they seek aid, we will give it, but for now, my duty and the duty of my fellow Blossom Field Dual Cultivators is to protect our worlds and the Ephemeral Plane for all depends on it. We have to help here before we can plausibly help anywhere else. You just need Siobhan and me to cleanse the Plane, then?"
He hesitated anew. "That would be potentially detrimental to you both unless the other Cultivators can support you better. They need to enter into their final tier and fully bloom in order to have personal cores strong enough to support the two of you so you are not destroyed by the Chaos power."
She winced. "It's that bad?"
"Worse. Chaos is born where Dark and Light strike against one another. That's what happens when you and Siobhan hold hands, in fact. Those sparks are the tiny birth of Chaos. Nothing dangerous as long as you two are not actively using power. If you were, then it could be devastating to you both. Because Chaos is both Light and Dark, you are both very weak against it."
"Yet it is as critical as Dark and Light themselves," she murmured as she thought about what she had learned from her Sight across her very long life. "It completely encompasses all that involves emotion, stripping away all lies until the rawest truth is bared. It is both magic and combat, a harmony even more difficult to obtain than my own." She grimaced. "No wonder Mother and Aunt Hannah were pushed to become so close and reunite the two worlds."
"Trust me," Pallas said almost ruefully, "any of us observing from the outside had some nightmares of our own at the idea of the worlds being at war when you and Sayena were born. You two being at war would have created a Chaos power the likes of which would have destroyed all existence without a third Apex to control it—and the universe just can't handle three."
Yet. The word hovered unspoken between them, and their eyes met. "I know something of my own future," she said softly, "and I accept whatever may come. In some ways . . . it comforts me. I think you can understand why."
"Yes," he agreed even softer. "I can." He shook it off. "The solution stands. In my best knowledge as Archon of the Immortal Fields, you and Siobhan must enact a cleansing that can only be successfully achieved so long as the four Dark Defenders empower you and the four Light Defenders empower her. To empower you, they must enter into their final tier and fully bloom. It likely would not hurt Siobhan to do the same."
He shook his head. "I truly, honestly, do not know, my queen. I would grant you any knowledge of why you have not evolved or what the true price of your birth is if I knew. But I just do not. My best suggestion is to see if what works to evolve the others will work for you, and as to the process of that evolution as an act outside of being forced within combat . . . that is in my sister's realm of knowledge as Librarian."
She smiled. "It's okay, Pallas. I know you would help me however you could if you could. Sometimes we just have to do things on our own. And that's not just the Dark person being all self-sufficient! Sometimes there really are things only we can do." She lifted her hands in farewell. "We will return shortly. I assume, then, that we can transport providing we are strong enough to deal immediately with Chaos?"
"Then we will do our best."
As Pallas began to disappear, he murmured, "The best you can obtain is far more than what any other can. You are truly special, my friend."
Shana abruptly opened her eyes and found herself staring at Rocky's chest as he slept contentedly beside her. A ball of fur that was surely her ferret had curled up on his stomach, and his arm had somehow tightened around her unconsciously. She did not lift her head from his shoulder as she turned over everything.
Her lover suddenly murmured sleepily, "Did you know that I can sort of hear you talking in your dreams inside my own?"
She looked up at his face and smiled. "I imagine that was odd."
"Like hearing an unrelated voice over a speaker and not understanding a word." He tugged her as close as he could and gently pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Pallas get through?"
"Mmm. To me only; possibly because I am more powerful than Edgar." She sighed. "And things are, of course, complicated and terrible and chaotic. After dawn, we'll call everyone. Go back to sleep."
He pointedly moved Bastian to the end of the bed and then shifted to lean over Shana. Even inside the dim room, the Light inside his soul swept out to caress her skin and illuminate her. "I'm starting to be fond of very early morning," he murmured as he nipped at her stubborn chin.
Her lips curved. "You've certainly made me fond of late evening, so I feel that's a fair trade."
Not long after dawn, Shana got breakfast started in the kitchen. Edgar hadn't had the same dream of course, but he had certainly felt something odd from his sister so had woken even earlier than usual. Siobhan proved the last to stumble out yawning, but became much more alert when brought up to speed.
After they had all eaten, they once more contacted the Dual Cultivators to have them meet, though this time at the Chivanti apartment. Shana called Clara as well this time, with the direct order to report in. The Statice Defender showed up last, and walked out of a transport without any shame or care for bothering with the door. "I expected the call," she admitted as she sat down on the couch beside Desiree and Yvonne. "I had a feeling I would be needed."
"Well, I always need you," Shana told her, "but this time enough to call you into action." She ran down the events and conversation with Pallas very briefly and then said, "And that's the other reason we need Clara, because she can tell us how to do what we need to do."
Clara nodded as eyes turned. "Under the most normal of circumstances, a Defender can only evolve under the pressure of battle when he or she needs to access more magic to drive back evil. I have never actually evolved personally because my partners have always forced my retreat right at the time when it seems most likely I would most need that magic. Perhaps, too, my very age lends itself to my particular potency. I am the only one of Statice after all." She crossed her arms. "There are a couple other methods of evolution that can be had, and a couple are too extreme to ever be needed. The best one for our course of action is for a Defender to astrally walk on the Plane to my Hall of Records and access the knowledge of the Cultivators before her in order to force her magic to evolve via their blessing."
"That sounds a tiny bit dangerous," Juliet muttered.
"Actually, under normal circumstances, it would have barely any repercussions." Clara winced. "But the imbalanced and chaotic Plane makes things particularly dangerous this time around because I can't say whether or not the Projections will attack an astrally walking Cultivator. They haven't yet actually gotten into the Hall—I'd have noticed—but if they even exist at all then that means the Hall is under pressure anyway."
"Alright, that sounds fair enough, but . . ." Virginia studied Clara. "As you said, you are the only one of you. How will you evolve? Do you even need to?"
"To answer the second, yes." She looked right at Shana. "For Shana, I will do anything needed to keep her safe, and I will push myself to a final tier I've never before needed if it ensures she survives." She looked back to her Lead. "To answer the first, I will not petition to my forbearers but instead to Time herself. My grandmother whose power I protect."
Glances exchanged among the others; it was not the first time they had noticed Clara's love for Shana went beyond what she had felt for Genevieve, or even Siobhan. Shana just walked over and leaned down to hug Clara fiercely for a moment. Lavender eyes widened briefly and then filled with powerful emotion as the eldest Cultivator hugged her queen back. "I would do anything for you," she murmured. "I hope you know."
"I do." Shana let her go but only to sit beside her on the couch. It could just barely hold four, and Desiree scooted over as much as possible to give her space. "What about Siobhan? She's sort of in your shoes as well, being the only Defender of Delphinium. And . . . can I do this as well?"
"Siobhan can petition directly to Delphinium herself and ask her Mother for the power she needs to enter her third and final tier. Unfortunately, the state of the Plane means you cannot petition Protea to do the same. You're going to have to go as you are, and we will all hope that we four Dark Defenders are enough to support you until whatever price you have to pay is finally revealed." She laced her fingers with Shana's. "I would tell you if I knew, Shana. I swear."
Clara glanced back to the others. "I will do this first as I have the best understanding of how it should work, so I can tell you what oddities to expect if they occur. While I am doing so, it should be safe and simple enough for Siobhan to travel to Delphinium and petition there. She doesn't need to astrally walk for her potential evolution—but I highly suggest someone go along just in case."
"As if I'd let her go alone!" Sherry groused.
Siobhan grinned at her. "As if I'd go without you! At least I know I'm squishy and need extra protection, unlike someone else we all know and love."
Shana ignored her pointedly. "Then that's the plan. Clara and Siobhan start things off and then everyone else will follow suit. Once everyone who can fully bloom has done so, we'll brace ourselves and drop into the Immortal Fields to cleanse it."
Clara took that as her cue and got to her feet. She opened a transport to return back to her comfortable home within the Hall of Records and then moved far deeper beyond. The location would intrigue her friends when they visited. She knew it to be an unusual and fascinating place; as her title of Librarian implied, it resembled an endless library. Infinite rows of billions of books that stretched endlessly into the distance and loomed miles into the air. Seemingly no ceiling other than a soft wisp of foggy air, and the ground reflected back echoes of important historical events.
She moved ever deeper to where a nearly hidden space at an odd dead end held nothing but a candle that cast flickering lights and shadow. She reached out to touch the candle and felt the distant presence of the omniscient force who watched over almost as much of her life as Destiny herself did. "Time," she said softly, "I beseech you."
A soft swirl of color lifted from the flame, and a feminine voice answered. "I am here, my child. What do you need to ask of me, Claret?"
Clara shook her head a bit. "I need to evolve. I need to reach full bloom in order to support my queen. There has never before been a need for such a thing from me, but there is now."
"Why is that?"
"Shana is . . . special to me, Grandmother. More than any other Protean Ruler." Her voice softened unknowingly. "From the moment she was first born, I knew I would love her more than any other. I don't know why."
"It is a sign of change," Time answered. "Great changes soon enough. You will know them as they happen. In the meanwhile, I grant your request for it is more needed than you may yet understand."
Warm power swirled down around Clara in a swirl of statice blossoms. Her two Marks burned briefly and she looked down to see the one on her arm changing. Not only did it gain a second blossom, but both they and the one of her Ruler Mark opened into full bloom. The sparkling edge to both Marks, present since she had been claimed by her Mother, seemed to sparkle only brighter. A new, stronger, magic moved inside her body that she could nearly taste.
A feeling of evil swept over her body. She swung around sharply and found cracks forming in the reflective floor. A Projection rose from one and clawed at her with razor tipped fingers. She hastily dodged out of the way and grabbed her Mask from her bracelet. A second dodge had her moving deeper into the Hall, and the Projection followed her by moving from crack to spreading crack. She pulled on her Mask as she swung around, and her armor formed.
Magic welled up around her hands and created a shield around her just as the Projection got close, and it smashed into the barrier hard. It immediately shattered into a half dozen pieces that reformed and came after her again. Before she could prepare to call for backup—she had neither offensive magic nor real weapon—a different power entirely surged into the Hall. The feel of majik swept down her arms so hotly that she felt goose bumps rise. The silvery majik shot toward the Projections in a tangle of Ice and Illusion and Nature, and the evil entities shattered to bits. Clara bypassed her magic entirely for her gifts as a Librarian to erase all remaining fragments from her Hall, and they luckily disappeared.
The majik also ebbed as swiftly as it had arrived, and she slowly looked around the now empty and silent Hall. Only the briefest surprise inside her turned quickly to more thoughtful speculation. "I didn't know you were out there," she murmured. "But then, perhaps I just did not think to go looking. Thank you."
Knowing better than to not warn her partners, she grabbed her communications mask. "Open all," she ordered. A pause, and then a swirl of gradient color began to move over the mask. "Successful evolution, however, I indeed encountered resistance from a Projection. Don't be alarmed if it happens, though. It would seem we have some . . . unexpected alliance from someone. Someone majikal."
"Shana?" Virginia's voice asked.
Silence from the obviously open Protea line.
"Fine," Virginia sighed, "we get it, it's not important right now other than just being grateful it's here."
Clara fought to hide a smile though no one could see her. "Indeed. Siobhan, for certain have Sherry go with you to Delphinium. When you're done there, Sherry can then undertake her own Walk and evolution. Each one of us who completes this task needs to notify the others because it would be a bad idea for us to all go at one time."
"What would it do if we did?" Kellie asked curiously.
"You really don't want to know. Get moving, everyone. We're on a borrowed clock right now."
Without time to spare—and Clara would be the expert on that—Siobhan gulped down her nerves and accepted Sherry's hand for support. Sometimes she thought she only managed to be brave because of those so willing to hold her hand. Her twin, her lover, her brother, and even her sister. It was as if they somehow just gave her a bit of their own bravery just by holding her hand. And if Shana couldn't do this yet, then Siobhan damned well would work all the harder for her!
Delphinium looked almost no better than the last time either Cultivator had visited. Barren, empty, and struggling to heal. In a few places, life had begun to push through, and little sproutings pockmarked the ashy ground with bits of green. Siobhan's hand trembled briefly in Sherry's grip, and the Aster Cultivator tightened her hold. "Hey," she said softly. "I'm here. I won't let anything hurt you."
Siobhan moved closer as they walked toward the empty castle. "I know. I also know that because you love me is why you always push me to do better. You nag and nag and nag until I get things right. I'm so terrible with numbers but you just kept feeding them to me until I yelled at you about it and then I ended up passing my class with high marks."
"I just know you and your brother have a propensity to run from the things you feel hold you up, so I made sure you could not run far. I yell at Rocky too, you know."
Siobhan had to giggle. "But not as much as at me."
"Well, to be fair, that's not necessarily my being nice to him. If he actually gets to that place where he needs a push, then Shana is the one to do it, and she's much scarier than I am because she doesn't even have to raise her voice." She grinned. "And Gin will kick me for admitting it, but I do sort of take a perverse humor in watching her try to give Shana orders."
"We all do," Siobhan confessed in a mock whisper, "but that's okay because Ginny knows we do and doesn't really mind. She's really aware of her own personality and shortcomings and strengths, so she knows when she's getting her just desserts."
"I look forward to seeing who she ends up with as a soul mate."
Siobhan bit her lip briefly as she thought about Maxim Montague, the second-in-charge of all Commanders, the head of Evan's contingent as well as his twin soul, and the only person who had ever made the Carnation Defender give as much ground as she demanded from others and made her stand on the side safely. Mentioning him would open a can of snakes she had no desire to stir yet, so instead she focused on something else that had bounced in her mind since getting her memories. "I think she met him already."
Sherry glanced at her, more with speculation than surprise. "When Juliet and I convinced her to do that summer-long study abroad in Valerian Heights across the sea from Axium. She came home very . . . subdued for a while after. I admit, I wondered as well if maybe her heart had been broken—which, really, could only mean she met her soul mate—but she never spoke about it. You think so too, then?"
"I really do." She giggled. "When we have a free moment, Shana and I will get her drunk and make her spill the truth. Then we can fix it!"
"Okay, you and Shana in cahoots is almost as scary as you and your brother. You lot really, really like to have your way." She let go of Siobhan's hand as they entered the castle. "Okay, kneel down." She knelt as well and automatically supported her twin when she inevitably slipped on the still ashy marble ground. "Close your eyes and imagine yourself getting very light, so very light you're flying," her Shaman voice took on a beautiful cadence that could not be ignored, "and think only of Delphinium."
Siobhan could do nothing except obey as she never had a desire to ignore her twin's gift; it only got used for good. She could feel her head going light, her entire body feeling as if it had been made of cotton, and she thought of delphinium blossoms floating on the wind. A little chill touched her skin and she opened her eyes on a gasp to discover she no longer knelt in her castle entry.
Nothing but pure white filled the space around her, though golden sparkles floated through the air now and then. At the feeling of a presence near her, she swung around and tripped over her own feet only to land on nothing. She floated for a moment on a scowl. Only she could manage to trip over her feet in a place where she did not actually have feet!
What she had sensed, she saw then, was an immensely large and beautiful bush of flowering delphiniums. Her eyes lowered, and she caught a little breath as she saw it growing out of a giant opal.
What need have you of me, my Daughter?
The soft voice seemed to whisper from all around, sounding tired and old and yet so very full of love that Siobhan's eyes filled with tears. "I'm so sorry," she said urgently. "I know you're still so hurt and that you need to heal more, but I need you to help me so I can help everyone else! I have to fully bloom. There's something really bad happening, maybe more than even Famine, and I have to be ready to deal with it." Even quieter, she added, "And I need to be ready to help Shana. Do—do you know how terrible it will be?"
When that was all that was offered, Siobhan could only sigh. "Okay. I get it. I'm just scared! I'm so scared for her!"
Be there, Siobhan. Be there for her. Give her the Light she needs when she is lost inside her own Dark. You are as critical as your brother in her continued sanity. A brief pause, and then, I grant your request, my Daughter. Let yourself rise as the first fully bloomed Defender Cultivator of Delphinium.
Siobhan's heart skipped a beat. To say she was the first seemed to imply there would be at least another. Her future daughter with Edgar? The idea scared her more than a little, and suddenly she had a whole new respect for Hannah and Genevieve alike in knowing that terrible things may befall their children. "Thank you," she said only.
Warm power swirled around her, and her two Marks burned briefly. When she looked down at her arm, she could see that a new blossom had added, and all three had opened into full bloom. She had to smile for it almost looked as if her crowns had become planters of sorts that held their flowers. One to her chest, and three to her arm, all in bloom. Freshly charged magic moved under her skin with a tingling force that she recognized yet knew had gained strength. "Thank you," she told the sheltering bush from which her Seed had been birthed. "I am honored to be your first Defender."
The voice belonged to Sherry and she blinked. In the space of the blink, she abruptly found herself back in her body, in her castle, staring at her concerned twin soul. She looked down hastily and saw her Mark over the top of her v-cut shirt. It had fully blossomed, just as she had seen it do in her visit to her planet's Core. "That . . . that was strange and sort of wonderful and I have no words so don't ask me to describe it!" she said in a rush.
Sherry smiled. "I don't need to ask." She got to her feet and drew Siobhan up as well. "We will return to Protea for safety. If a Projection is to attack me while I Walk, I would rather it on Protea where the world is more stable."
Siobhan nodded and accepted her offered hand to reach for transport. She paused, thought of the ramifications of what she had learned, and then put it aside. It would be important soon enough, and she more than anyone knew that no one could change destiny. Well, almost no one, but the one person who had ever managed it had long since passed. They would have to muddle through Destiny's plans on their own.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.