Over the course of the next day, all Defenders except for Shana sent themselves into a meditative state that allowed them to astrally walk to the Hall of Records, enter, beseech their predecessors, and emerge fully bloomed. In every instance, the Defender found herself under attack from one or more Projections, and without fail, all found that mysterious majikal force moving in to give aid. It had more than Clara suspicious, to be sure.
Evolution brought tangible changes to Defenders. In those with defensively oriented magical skills, the strength and potency of their shields and blocks and reflects reached new limits. In those with offensively oriented magical skills, the speed and range and strength with which they could strike the enemy also reached new limits. Virginia, as Lead Defender, had access to both the defensive and offensive magic of her world's Glass Flower Element, and she discovered both equally pushing to a new cap.
More than one person felt uneasy about Shana. Observing as she and Siobhan had a spirited discussion over just what the cleansing may entail, Virginia muttered at the others, "I really, really, really am not liking this."
Alexandria shook her head a bit. "In some ways, we can't say we're surprised. Remember, the nature of Dark is to absorb where Light repels. We saw it recently with Shana absorbing that powerful evil energy without even batting a lash. I think because she absorbs so readily and easily that it will take far more pressure for her to evolve. It's going to take one hell of a lot to hit her with something she can't absorb and therefore has to evolve to deal with. Honestly . . . I'm scared of what it will be."
They made plans to transport to the Fields on the following day, but that very night they discovered they had run out of time faster than anticipated. Nightmares flooded the city in an uncontrolled force, and anyone with any measure of majikal or Sensing ability found themselves suffering in all manner of creative ways. Shana made the order to assemble, and this time, Edgar and Rocky demanded to go along.
"I may be needed," Edgar insisted fiercely to his sister. "I am as much responsible for the Ephemeral Plane as you are! Besides, if all Defenders go, then who will be here to watch over Rocky and I in the event the Projections spill out again?"
"Hitting below the belt, Edgar!" Virginia snapped at him before Shana could. "If we're doing our job right, then the Projections won't get to either of you!"
"Argh!" Rocky raked his hands through his hair and made it stand only more on end. He felt sleep deprived and already cranky without this on top of it. "You do remember that at least me but also Edgar are as skilled and powerful, or more, than a lot of you, right?"
"You don't wear armor!" more than one voice retorted.
In a dangerously quiet voice that somehow still carried, Shana said, "I am the strongest Cultivator of our generation, and I am the High Queen of Protea—only Siobhan does not bow to my order. You and my betrothed will stay, Evan. Period."
"Dammit." In a rare display of temper, Edgar stalked away from the confrontation and stood for a moment, visibly seething internally. Arms slid around his chest, and his sister rested her chin on his shoulder. Temper drained. "Let me support you," he said in a low voice. "Too much is asked of you already. You can't hold up existence alone."
"I'm not alone. I'm never alone." She hugged him tighter and then let go. She turned to the others and nodded. "Let's move. Masks on before we land. It'll be safer." She walked over to the other Dual Cultivators and all put on their Masks at the same time to call their armor. Once they had, Shana reached out with her power. "Brace yourselves."
Having never visited the Fields, no one other than Clara or Shana had any idea of what to expect from the largest section of the Ephemeral Plane. Their vision cleared as they landed, and more than one person caught their breath. The Immortal Fields had been well-named. Endless, and endless, and endless rolling fields of every flower known in existence. An eternally sunset sky swept by over their heads, symbolic of the time when light and dark met. It could have been the most perfectly beautiful place ever made . . . if not for the evil that had consumed it.
Projections ran rampant across the flowers, devouring every little wisp of energy they saw. The natural little crystal spheres that dripped from flowers like dew shattered when grabbed, and each little fracture seemed to make a distant voice cry out in pain across the Fields as if the owner had felt their own dreams break. Some crystals turned an ugly blood red and released demonic wisps into the air. Nightmares.
Pallas stood in the middle of the mess with broom in hands and fought to sweep back the violent black and white lightning bolts of Chaos that kept creeping in closer. The uncontrolled Chaos power seemed intent on gobbling everything it could.
Shana took in the entire scene briefly and then ran forward two steps from her friends. "To me!" she ordered. Her lashes flinched as the nightmarish wisps immediately surged to her to be absorbed, but she merely squared her shoulders and accepted them. She lifted her hands, and clean, comfortable, dream wisps rose from her gloved palms.
Horror churned inside Siobhan as she moved closer. "Is . . . what are you doing?" she whispered. "Are . . . are you actually absorbing the nightmares?"
"It's my job." If she felt discomfort from the absorption, it did not show on what could be seen of her face behind her Mask. Her two Marks could not be seen under her armor, but they did glow briefly, hotly, with pink-black color that was quite visible. Nothing came of it, and more than one Defender cursed softly under her breath. What would it take?
The Projections noticed the newcomers and changed course to immediately come surging at the ten Defenders. Siobhan very nearly took a step backward, but Shana's hand curled around her wrist and just that little touch gave her a boost of her sister's courage. Still a few hundred yards from the team, the Projections began to pull together into a single, giant, monstrous creation. Moving in behind it came the force of Chaos, dark and light and mingled gray with wild bolts of emotion.
Pallas ran over to join the Defenders and he brushed off Kellie when she moved closer. "I can be healed later," he told her. "It is nothing terrible right now." The tattered state of his robes and the blood staining them seemed to deny his words, but no one pressed. "I will aid you as well," he told the two Apexes. "My role as Archon as well as my own Nature power and Light core can be of use to you." He took a breath. "This is going to sound utterly crazy to you, but, you have to create Chaos."
"We have to make Chaos to fight Chaos?" Siobhan echoed.
"Unfortunately, it is a power that is only weak against itself, which is why it is so utterly devastating. If you two release Chaos power, and that force is coming in the other direction, the resulting shockwave will form the cleansing we need and erase all of the Projections."
Shana and Siobhan turned to face each other and linked their hands. The four Dark Defenders lined up behind Shana, and the four Light behind Siobhan, and the ten together formed an almost mirror of the way their planets hovered in space. The two Apexes began to draw in their power, and as they pulled from their cores, they could feel as they pulled equally from the ones who supported them. Light and Dark met at their clasped hands and began to produce violent sparks. Black and white became gray as the sparks kept growing into black and white lightning bolts. Matching looks of pain swept across Shana and Siobhan's faces behind their Masks but they did not let go of one another. Pallas fearlessly stuck his hand into the middle of the Chaos and let his own power well.
A wild shockwave released from the power and smashed through the approaching Projection as if it had been made of paper. It collided with the oncoming Chaos force of the other direction and the entire Plane shook as the two forces merged and then exploded outward. As it swept across the land and began mending what had been unbalanced, the Defenders braced themselves for the wave to hit them all.
Silvery majik swirled around the Defenders from out of nowhere and erected an impossibly powerful barrier. The Chaos touched it, recoiled, and diverted. If it could have made it through would forever be a question for it seemed obvious that the Chaos did not even want to try. It went around the shield and continued on as if it had never paused. Gray color welled and blinded everyone, even Shana and Siobhan, and then faded. Into the silence that followed, almost no Chaos remained. Just a few wisps here and there as evidence that unbalance still existed somewhere.
Shana and Siobhan slowly let go of each other's hands, looked at one another for a blurry moment, and then collapsed. Alexandria and Sherry hastily caught them before they hit the ground and held on tight. Desiree and Juliet removed the two Apexes' Masks, and everyone let out a little breath of relief since they looked only tired and not truly injured. Still, unease churned. Without her armor, Shana's two Marks could be seen again, and they had not bloomed. The skin around them looked red and irritated, but nothing had really changed.
"That majik definitely felt familiar," Yvonne finally said. "Even more than when it helped me on my Walk. I mean, I'm not saying I know the witch owning it personally, but maybe I knew someone like them."
A little tiredly, Shana said against Alexandria's shoulder, "You're not wrong. We'll meet them soon enough, okay?"
"Okay." Virginia brushed at her hair and then at Siobhan's. "Both of you just rest." She looked to where Kellie had finished up healing Pallas' wounds. "How are you, Pallas?" she asked. "You took almost as big a risk as our queens did, by sticking your hand in that."
"It just burned me something terrible, though nothing Kellie could not fix." He picked up his broom where it had been dropped. "I could not enter into the circuit you ten had made, so I had to be more direct. Clara and I may be siblings, but our powers are vastly different in all ways."
Desiree grinned. "I honestly keep forgetting that you two are directly related. Not distantly and almost not at all like the relation of Destiny or Love to the two High lineages, but actually literally sharing the same parents."
It made Clara smile. "Most everyone had forgotten within the first few hundred years, let alone after several million. Just as most everyone entirely forgets that Pallas' and my own half-brother is Orion—that figure through whom Protea claims its connection to Destiny."
"Is that why you love Shana most?" Juliet asked solemnly. "Because she's most like Orion?"
Clara thought about it. "Actually, she's not that much like him. She's very like Shanta, though!" She grinned a bit. "Which may be why I am so fond of Rocky, in fact, because he and Orion do share many personality quirks! Perhaps because of their so alike soul mates. At the least, it may also account for why Shana and Edgar alike have always been particularly fond of Pallas, and feel he is more like family than not."
"Out of pure curiosity," Virginia asked, "who is eldest?"
"Orion, myself, and then Pallas," Clara offered.
Pallas snorted very softly. "I wholly sympathize with my queen in being the baby." He turned to Virginia and smiled. "If I may ask, will you please create a few glass orbs? One for all Defenders, other than Shana and Clara who have no need."
She lifted a brow but obligingly lifted her hands where red and gold magic became swirls of liquid glass. The swirls broke into eight pieces and then hardened into colored orbs. Showing off only a little, each orb held the colors of its Defender and a petal from their flower hovered in the center. She collected the orbs and offered them to Pallas. "Why?"
The orbs lifted to hover in the air around him, and he lifted his broom before his face. Each orb glowed briefly and then he gently swatted each to its proper owner. "These are personal portals so you may all come to the Fields at your will. I would not turn away any Cultivator, let alone ones so beloved to my sister."
"Thank you so much!" Yvonne told him for everyone. "If we're done, may we take Shana and Siobhan home now? They need to rest."
"Of course!" Pallas swung his broom up and created a transport for them all to walk through. He watched as Alexandria and Sherry picked up and carried their twin personally, and then all disappeared through the transport. He closed it behind them and murmured, "All of our lives are inextricably entwined in some way or another. My own future connects to yours. How curious."
Shana and Siobhan had recovered within a few days and returned to normal. As per usual, Virginia reported on their behalf to the world leaders to inform them of why the brief nightmare wave had happened. Cultivators had honestly never tried to live their lives in such secret that no one knew what they did; Defenders in particular felt it was their duty to keep the worlds they protected abreast of the evil that tried to harm them.
As they walked together in the park, Siobhan held to Shana's hand and murmured, "So those sparks when we initially clasp hands are Chaos."
"Seems so. Long as we're not actively using our power, it's brief and harmless."
Siobhan grinned a bit. "I guess we're lucky our lovers are only rivals for our Light and Dark cores. If they were perfect matches, then we would be making literal sparks in bed!"
Shana started laughing. "You're so terrible!" She bumped her arm against Siobhan's companionably. "But I guess I and Edgar both need that in you and Rocky alike, that ability to always make us smile when we're so sure we can't smile anymore. Has Mom started in on the 'when do I get grandkids' thing with you as well?"
"She started years ago," Siobhan complained with good-nature. "I sort of danced around it with a 'well we don't know when it will happen because you know medical science" which was the only way to say we literally don't know when the kingdoms will be resurrected and realistically we can't expect to have kids until then anyway, and especially not until the other Cultivators meet their soul mates because the generations are always the same age—and Mom doesn't even know we are Cultivators!" She scowled. "Why didn't you ever tell us you were a nightmare filter?"
The two Toulumes' ability to move from one subject to another without literally a pause had long stopped confusing Shana. After almost two decades, she had following their minds down to an art. "Well, it seemed irrelevant, I guess. It's honestly no big deal. It means I have more nightmares than the average person, to be sure, but Pallas honestly does make up for it by sending extra good dreams as well. It's the nature of my particular role as a Ruler over the Plane. That thing about my particular power helping with the balance. Too much of either sort of dream has to be filtered off, so, through me it goes!" Much softer, she added, "And as much as it explains why I could fight him, it also helps explain his obsession with me. We knew each other down to a molecular level."
Siobhan held her hand tighter. "Well, I know that neither Rocky nor I can help with any of that, but, at least we can help make you feel better. He can snuggle you more, or if I'm the only one there, I will completely get up to make you some tea." She nodded firmly. "Even at midnight. Any time."
"That's how I know I'm loved: Delphinium children willing to wake in the middle of the night!" She abruptly stopped dead in her tracks, and her eyes stared blindly at the distance. A feeling of dread swept through her as she watched Chaos consuming alive everything it touched. It devoured her Defenders in an unending surge and then ate her brother and lover alike. Even her sister. Pain gouged deeper and deeper into her soul as she watched the Chaos bearing down on her personally.
She blinked and found herself sitting on a bench with Siobhan holding her face in her hands. She could feel the tears in her own eyes, and the look on Siobhan's face was a combination of terror and dread. "Siobhan?"
"Oh gods." Siobhan grabbed her around the neck in a fierce hug. "You scared me! I mean, your Sight often does scare me because you never get the happy fluffy good things but you cried!" Her breath hitched. "I always wish you would cry more because it's so bad for you to dam it up, but it's so much scarier when your Sight drives you to tears! What did you see? Tell me! Let me share it!"
"I can't," she whispered. She closed her eyes and turned her face into Siobhan's shoulder for a moment. "Did anyone call us?"
"Then I am the only one who saw it. It will remain my own until it is time to share it, if I have to."
Siobhan intensely hated the unspoken rule that Destiny only shared visions of the future with those who could handle it, particularly when it meant truly terrible things if she only shared with her Apex of Dark, she who could handle anything. She eased back and once more framed Shana's face in her hands. "I will help light your soul when there is too much for Rocky to handle alone," she vowed. "You never let us get lost into our Light. I will never let you get lost into your Dark. I was born to balance you, Shana."
Shana smiled a little. "We are equals, Siobhan."
"No one is your equal, Shana."
She sighed and closed her eyes. "Yeah. I know."
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.