Another month went by, and in November the next year at university began. For the older nine Cultivators in school, that meant they began their final year of classes and study and all would graduate in June of the following year. Siobhan still had two years of classes, minimum, and then would move to a specialized medical school to continue toward being a nurse like Octavia. Shana had an even odder schedule thanks to her advanced placement. She technically had the same two years as Siobhan left, but the skewed schedule meant she was still in the middle of her current year while the others changed over. She would switch to her final year in April, months ahead of her sister.
The shuffled schedule meant she never shared any classes with her friends, but she did at least share similar times on campus. She suspected more than one person had deliberately sought to make their times align to hers, but she did not mind. Even introverts liked having lunch with their friends, and hers were always nice enough to find a quiet spot for her and Edgar alike to enjoy themselves.
The siblings would have liked to have shared some classes, particularly since they aimed for a matching degree, but they settled for taking similar ones at roughly similar times so they could share notes and study together. They also could walk together to some classes, and Rocky and Siobhan tagged along since they had decided to take a theatrical illusions class together that ran at the same time—Shana considered it semi-unfair of the two Illusion Flower Elements, but she also thought she would get to take advantage for her photography, so did not complain that much.
The four had gotten halfway toward the building they shared classes in when a fellow student came hurrying up. "Okay," she told Edgar and Shana alike, "I drew the short stick to ask you two: you have the same last name as the university. Are you related to the Chivanti Corporation?"
"Yes," Shana said.
A moment ticked by where that was all she said, and Edgar looked no less forthcoming, so the student sighed. "Okay, fine. I get it. It's none of our business. But you can't blame us for being curious! You don't have a common name and some journalism students were looking at old reports and found stuff that just felt coincidental."
"Whether we are or aren't related to the company is irrelevant right now," Edgar said easily. "We're too busy being students to bother with much else."
The other woman took that as given and walked away with a wave, but Rocky and Siobhan exchanged a brief look. Edgar would graduate the next year, and Shana shortly behind him, and even before her graduation, Shana would have reached full adulthood. The timing felt suspect, to say the least.
Being November, something else of importance other than final years of school came around: Rocky also turned twenty-five, making him the first of the High heirs to do so. He also opted for a low-key birthday party out of deference for his fiancée and brother-in-law. One with their mother and a few other family members, and then just one with other Cultivators (including Clara). As they were enjoying a picnic, he teased to Shana, "At least we don't need big galas in this life."
She snorted at him. "Mine back then would have been much more enjoyable if someone hadn't decided to wait for me to figure things out. You really should have just been much blunter after I turned twenty-one and started noticing you were attractive."
He snorted back. "Pardon me, but you hid that well enough that I didn't see it until it couldn't be hidden at all." He caught her shirt front and tugged her closer so that he could kiss her contently. "I like us being closer to the same age," he whispered teasingly. "I don't have to wait so long for our marriage. It's just a formality, really, but I like some formalities. Like seeing you in wedding attire."
"And just imagine." Her voice sounded no less teasing. "With Sherry around, I'll get to have something . . . special to wear under it. Just for you."
"Does she take requests? I have ideas."
"Break it up you two!" Desiree bopped them both lightly on the head as she stopped behind them. When they looked up, she held out the plate heaped with tasty treats that she held in her other hand. "Food! Juliet went overboard, as usual."
"When feeding this lot, there's no such thing," Juliet countered dryly. "I never have leftovers!"
An hour later, full and feeling lazy, the Cultivators stretched out on the giant blanket to rest. Half of them were asleep, and the other half just rested with their eyes closed. Shana, in the process of playing with her camera, stopped and looked at the image they made. The light through the trees overhead was almost ethereal with little beams of light drifting to the thick cloudy blue blanket. The force of pure Flower Element magic seemed to echo out of everyone in a very subtle color aura. All were so different, yet so alike. She looked down at her camera and then flicked off the flash and adjusted settings to compensate. She wanted to maintain that dreamy effect.
Because the camera was silent, no one batted a lash when she snapped a few quick shots; in fact, most of them weren’t even aware of the photos being taken. Rocky was, however, and he opened his eyes to grin at her. All of them had gotten used to Shana taking their photo, sometimes without them knowing, and her collection of figure studies also continued to grow. Alexandria had started off the set, and Rocky had matched the challenge by going second. She really only had Yvonne, Virginia, and her own brother left to blackmail. Actually, no blackmail for Virginia, really; they had saved her toward the end because Shana wanted a challenge, and the talented model would be too easy to photograph without planning something special.
She suddenly went very still even as Sherry jerked into an upright position from sleep to awareness in a second. "Get down!" the Aster Defender shouted at Shana.
Virginia, barely awake only by the sound of the shout, grabbed Shana's ankle and yanked. Shana landed unceremoniously on the blanket just as a blast of unusually colored magic whizzed past where she had been standing. It woke everyone up, and all scrambled to a kneeling position. All except Rocky and Edgar, that is. Alexandria and Sherry shoved them flat again. "Stay down!" they both snapped.
"Masks!" Shana ordered. As they donned them and called armor, her eyes narrowed visibly. "That magic felt wrong." Not necessarily evil, but not right either. Evil magic existed as a wholly different level from the normal Flower Element magic of Cultivators of both types. "Siobhan?"
Siobhan slowly shook her head. "I agree with the assessment but I don't know how either. It felt maybe like Glass, but it also felt like something else." She sensed more magic approaching and told Yvonne and Clara, "Help me!" Her rod appeared in her hand, and she fired off a powerful Illusion shield around everyone that Yvonne and Clara reinforced with their Ice and Memory magic.
The oncoming magic struck the shield, smashed through as if it did not exist, and landed in the center of the Cultivators with such force it sent everyone flying. Perhaps ironically considering their lack of armor, both male Rulers got the least amount of damage thanks to those who did have armor being directly in front of them. They in no way landed safely, however, and everyone felt bruises blooming.
Dark red blood slid down Shana's face under her cracked Mask as she pushed herself to her feet. Darker red than her friends remembered seeing it last, and it belied her lack of awakening as an Apex. Those of the purest Light and Dark always had blood that echoed to that power. Edgar's blood looked a very dark red that nearly passed for black in the right light; Rocky's looked a very pale pink that nearly passed for white. Siobhan's blood had gone utterly white in her awakening, and every passing fight seemed to be visibly pushing Shana ever closer to fully black blood of her own.
"What was that?" Virginia demanded as she forced herself to her feet as well. Her halberd appeared in her grip as she did. "It hurt all of us equally!"
"Chaos," Siobhan said a bit grimly. "It has to be if it could not be repelled by me or absorbed by Shana." Her stomach churned with sudden nerves that she fought down. Again, her Sight stirred with the future rather than present, almost as if Destiny knew she needed to know. Her hands tightened on her rod as she moved closer to Shana's side. "We can't block it, so we won't try."
"Agreed." Shana's head jerked up as she felt the magic approaching again. "Move!"
Rocky and Edgar dove under the closest picnic table to safety, and their Ruler suits appeared as they did so in order to give them some measure of protection. The Defenders managed to avoid the worst of the blast but all still took damage, and more than one now had either a cracked Mask or dented and torn armor.
"You can't hide!" an unfamiliar female voice raged at them.
They turned as one and found a figure had appeared in the air behind them, held aloft by what looked like Chaos power. She did not look at all familiar in any way, even from the past. Her possibly naturally fair skin had been stained and corrupted by gray, and her eyes and hair alike had gone from some sort of brownish hue to an alarming clash of black and white. Lightning bolts crackled over her entire body, and not the fizzy sort belonging to Thunder elements. These were a terrifyingly familiar chaotic black and white. Her clothing, however, provided the most horrifying evidence of her identity: a tattered and torn gown that loosely resembled some sort of flower, now perverted from whatever its true color should be to mottled black and white and gray.
"Holy shit," Alexandria breathed. "She's a Ruler Cultivator!"
"I am Mania." The nearly empty glaze to her eyes underscored the statement. "I will take the Seeds of Protea and Delphinium to empower my Chaos and become its master!" She started to lunge toward Shana and Siobhan alike but hastily diverted when a pinwheel almost struck. The weapon whipped back around to Desiree, and the Orchid Defender brandished it warningly. Mania merely snarled. "You will never stop me! Chaotic!" She hurled Chaos magic at the ground where it exploded upward into a jittery, terrifying, almost draconic creature. "Tear them apart!" she raged. "And bring me the Seeds!"
She disappeared as abruptly from the scene as she had arrived, and the Chaotic rushed at the two High Queens. Shana shoved Siobhan safely to the side and then shot forward with her sword at ready. She flinched, visibly, as sparks hit skin not covered by armor, but she persisted. "I have it distracted!" she snapped at her friends. "Use an opposing combination to try to destroy it, especially anything with a one-hit kill possibility!"
Of all elements, Ice and Glass had the possibility to one-hit kill enemies thanks to encasing them wholly in the owner's magic. It fell under attacking type magic, though, and therefore Yvonne could not use her Ice in such a way—no Defender of Iris ever had. Virginia, on the other hand, fully could make her Glass liquid enough to encase an enemy and then harden it to a point that it shattered from internal pressure. The most opposite power to Glass lay in Metal, so Kellie linked one hand with Virginia as they mutually called on their magic. Kellie had defensive magic, but did not need offensive skills to enhance the ones Virginia had. The fusion of liquid elements shot through the air and engulfed the Chaotic opposing Shana. It clawed wildly to be free and stretched its fingers toward the Protea Defender's face. It froze only centimeters before touching her Mask.
As the liquid kept hardening, cracks formed across the surface. Siobhan smashed her rod into it with all her strength, and it shattered into billions of pieces that began to dissolve. Nothing remained of the Chaotic in the aftermath. Nothing else came in to attack them, and neither Shana nor Sherry sensed any further evil. The latter slowly lowered her sword and then turned to look under the table she and Alexandria had been protecting. "How are you two in there?"
"Stuck," Rocky muttered.
"No wonder." Alexandria sent her harpoon away and turned to help get him and Edgar alike out from under their cramped and impromptu shelter. "At least you were semi safe in there, especially with us on the outside." Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Shana and Siobhan. "I don't like this. More than any other war, I really don't like this."
"Join the club!" Shana shot at her. She looked at Clara. "You will remain for this war. We need all of us. We can't predict what will happen; Chaos is never predictable to begin with without adding in a corrupted Ruler Cultivator! She has access to not just whatever she has as a Glass-based Ruler, but whatever that Chaos is giving her on top of it." Her eyes narrowed slightly as she thought of what Pallas had said about Chaos boiling on another world. She could not determine which world thanks to Mania's complete corruption, and there would be no time to go looking, but that answer may come as the fight progressed.
Clara had thought much the same, though she already had suspicions. "I will stay with the other Dark Defenders for convenience. And, Shana? Siobhan?" She shook her head. "Absolutely do not combine power. If you must hold hands, pull back your magic. This is not the time for you two to produce even accidental Chaos. Yes, we normally fight Chaos with Chaos but Mania is not in control of that power, and attacking her with more may just make things worse."
"For now," Virginia added as she pulled off her Mask, "we will not strictly confine either of you or demand a constant guard, but expect that to change at a moment's notice depending on what happens over the next few days. Mania may be chaotically crazed, but she's clearly not without intelligence. She knew exactly what she was doing by attacking us when we were most unprepared." Under her breath, she added, "And I am now oddly more grateful than ever that we have two Defenders who can sense evil moving."
"You're welcome," Shana countered dryly. She grimaced as she also removed her Mask. "About as much as I'm grateful my boyfriend got himself a healing skill because we're all a mess and it'll take more than just Kellie and Siobhan to put us all back together!"
Even after they all split up to go home, everyone remained more than a bit on edge. They hid it as best as they could, with those of the Dark cores hiding it best, but it still lurked under the surface as they all headed to class the following day. It was a rare day where all those in school happened to be on campus at the same time, and a rarer one still where Shana had more lecture time than she did lab.
She had just started to flip through her language book when she felt an unfamiliar Glass Flower Element magic brush her skin. In light of the recent events, it should have alarmed her, but it came with such a pure force that she knew it could only be good. She turned toward the door just as it opened, and she slowly lifted a brow as she found an unexpectedly familiar figure in the entrance.
Long hazel hair tied at his neck, matching hazel eyes in a beautiful almond shape, and strikingly handsome good looks that added sultry appeal. The man of the hour, most popular new actor, and generally adored celebrity Byron Rancul. He had a relatively normal height only a few inches shorter than Shana, but he had a frame that looked more muscular than she had expected or seen on screen. Not on par with a Protean, to be sure, but he clearly worked very hard in some fashion or another.
She happened to be the only person in the room at that moment, so he looked at her fairly quickly after glancing around the space. He then walked over and smiled. "I'm torn with how to greet you," he told her, and a slight hint of an accent colored his words that felt familiar. "After all, it's not every day one meets a High Queen."
She grinned as she got to her feet. "Well, thank you for confirming I was right and you're a Cultivator. I felt your Flower Element before you came in, and I can feel your Seed up this close. And as far as greeting me goes, I'm only a High Queen on the random Tuesdays. Just Shana works for me. Shana Chivanti to get the whole thing." She offered her hand palm up.
Rather than place his hand on hers, he instead performed the more formal honor of bringing her hand to his upper left arm where his Mark would appear. It acted as a sign of respect from a Defender Cultivator for a Ruler Cultivator, and it also implied his willingness to fight for her should it ever be needed. He released her hand, and his hazel eyes looked more green than brown with his humor. "Byron Rancul, of course. It's nice to meet you, Shana. And your name is familiar. Are you the photographer that the studio owner has been insisting I need to strip for?"
It made her laugh. "For your sake, I hope so. I'm good at what I do, and I promise no one is ever uncomfortable with me behind the camera!" She sat down and then pulled him onto the seat beside her. Strangely, he did not feel unfamiliar to her, so she didn't feel at all uncomfortable. "I thought you were just coming to Lux to maybe film some things. I wasn't expecting you to be in classes."
"Only one class. To be frank, I've always had a trouble with your language," he admitted, "coming from fairly far away, so it seemed best to brush up on that skill. Why are you in here?"
"Freebie grade toward my degree." She ruffled his hair as if he were her brother. "I'll be your study partner if you like, alright?"
He glanced at her with a bit of surprise, and the smile on her face made his heart clench a bit. She had looked a little aloof when he had first spotted her, but she actually seemed to simply pour out love and acceptance into the air around her. He felt safe and secure. Part of her Dark element? "Thank you," he said softly.
"You do know," she added calmly, "that you came to Lux at a terrible time. And that your timing is in fact a bit suspicious, shall we say?"
"I would never," he started fiercely only to stop when she held up a hand.
"That said," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "know that I trust you. It is so exceptionally rare for Cultivators to ever do evil deeds that, literally, Mania is the only one I can think of ever hearing about. By nature of our blessing as either Rulers or Defenders, or both, by our Mother planets, we just can't do evil. A Cultivator's Seed has to be wholly corrupted by an external force for that to happen, and achieving that is damn hard."
He stared at her for a moment. "That . . . that easily?"
She propped her cheek on her hand. "Well, to be fair, it is almost out of character for me to trust people that fast, but, that applies to people who aren't Cultivators. It's hard to distrust someone who you know is very like you. Are you Ruler or Defender or Dual?"
He hesitated a bit and then said, "Defender."
"Oh!" She grinned anew. "Okay, that explains why your accent seems familiar to me. Good goddess, I think Blossom Field and Ranunculus have been trying to form an alliance since long before my first life!" She pursed her lips. "Lady Yura. I remember her from Evan and Sayena's engagement. Five thousand years ago, so I doubt you know her name."
"Actually I do!" He grinned as well. "Would you believe she is actually one of my ancestors? The universe keeps getting smaller every generation!" He dug in his bag for his book for class. "Maybe when the dust settles, we can finally get that alliance going. I have some weight with Ranunculus."
"As a Defender Cultivator, I imagine so! Even if my Defenders were not also Rulers, I would entirely listen to their opinions on such things." She reached over and flipped pages for him. "We're here, still at the beginning since we're not far into the year. Don't worry." She smiled. "I'm a great tutor."
That little odd clench came again but he found a normal smile. "I believe it!"
Lunch came around after class, and Shana made Byron go with her to meet the other Blossom Field Cultivators other than Clara who was not on campus. No one actually felt surprised to see Shana walking with Byron since they all immediately recognized him, but as they got closer and everyone else could feel his magic, smiles turned into frowns. Eyes narrowed. Only Siobhan, Rocky, and Edgar did not actually feel alarmed, though.
"Oh!" Siobhan brightened and ran over to take Byron's hands. "I'm so excited to meet you! And you're a Cultivator, too! That's so wonderful. I'm Siobhan Toulume! I'm also High Queen Sayena Delphinium, but that's not important right now, okay? We're equals as Defenders!"
Byron blinked at her and then looked at Shana in bemusement. She smiled wryly. "You'll get used to her and her brother. Speaking of!" She gave names and flowers briskly as she went around and she ended with, "Gin is the Lead Defender for Blossom Field. She shares your Flower Element, too."
Virginia reached out, caught Shana's arm, and forcefully pulled her away from Byron. "Look," she said curtly, "I think you will fully understand why none of us are entirely pleased by your presence or the timing of it. Okay, yeah, you've been here on Protea since long before Mania arrived, but you happen to reach Lux the day after she does?"
Byron crossed his arms, and he suddenly looked as much a Defender as the ones around him. No acting; in fact, it felt a little as if he had stopped acting. "I understand your feeling," he responded calmly, "and I appreciate where it comes from. I respect it for I myself protect a Ruler Cultivator of my Ranunculus. However, I am far from a threat to you. I am here to stop Mania. She nearly destroyed my world and killed my elder sister in her mad pursuit of Chaos power. I will not rest until she is no longer a threat. Things she said when she attacked us made me realize she would come here. I determined to get here first."
"And you didn't warn us?" Sherry asked as she shifted slightly to be more in front of Siobhan and Rocky equally.
"Do tell me how I was to find you."
"Alright," Virginia said. "We concede that point. However . . ."
"Ginny." Rocky sighed deeply. "Would you guys please calm down? He's not an enemy! Can't you at least give him a chance to prove it?" He grinned. "Besides, he won over Shana on first meeting. That has to account for something."
Edgar held up a hand. "I like him."
"Delphinians waking at midnight, and now Proteans trusting someone on sight," Alexandria muttered at Yvonne. "The universe is going mad after all."
All four gave her a dirty look, and Byron fought to hide a smile. He opened his mouth to offer more reassurance when he saw matching looks cross Shana and Sherry's faces. He instinctively tensed even as the others did, and he reached up to grab the small Mask he wore on a chain under his shirt. A familiar chill swept down his skin in turn. "Chaotics are coming," he warned. "I can feel them."
The frenzied beasts appeared only moments later, and they landed in the center of the Defenders. Everyone dove for different directions though some landed with less grace than others. "Masks!" Shana ordered. She looked at Byron. "That includes you. We will not turn down any help. Will we?" she shot at Virginia.
The Carnation Defender kept her mouth shut and merely put on her Mask. The others followed in turn, and armor appeared. More than one person studied Byron curiously for his armor looked like nothing the rest of them wore. It resembled a ranunculus, to be certain, yet it had a different overall feel to it by having more cloth than metal. It, strangely, somehow looked oddly familiar, too, especially to Sherry who knew clothing best.
As Defenders scattered into teams to start tearing into the Chaotics, Byron moved to where the two princes had tried to duck back to be out of range. They had on their Ruler suits to help their defenses, and they intently watched their lovers, but they would try their best to stay out of this fight. Byron moved to stand in front of them, and a javelin appeared in his hand. "Allow me to protect you," he told them. "I have built up something of an odd immunity to Chaos power thanks to Mania attacking my world." He glanced at the two queens and then back. "If you have a need to act as a Caretaker, I will follow you to protect you."
"I really like him," Rocky muttered at Edgar. "He gets it."
By the time the dust settled and the Chaotics had been erased, once more the Defenders looked more bloody than not. Byron had taken a fair number of wounds himself, and the sight of them made the seven Dual Cultivators look among themselves. He had visibly risked himself to protect the two High Princes, and they could not help but both respect and appreciate him for it. His efforts had freed them to think only of the enemy and their queens.
Everyone removed their Masks, and Virginia told Byron, "Thank you."
He nodded. "You're welcome, though I don't think I need thanks for doing what I was born to do."
"You're good with that javelin," Alexandria offered by way of compromise.
"And you have good magic skill," Yvonne added.
He smiled as he realized they were attempting to warm to him. "Thank you both as well. I promise that my intent is to help you however I can in defeating Mania. I truly am a valuable ally in this. Chaotics do less damage to me."
"Sure," Shana said, "because you've been fingerprinted. I can see it on your soul as a sort of gray smudge on your naturally Light core. You must have been at the scene of the first direct attack and taken the full hit. Amazing you survived."
"It was not . . . comfortable survival."
Virginia winced. "No details. We've been there, I guarantee it." She looked at Shana and then back on a sigh. "Alright, Byron. We'll try to be more accepting. We'll be watching you, to be sure, but we won't necessarily question your every motive. Do you have a communications mask?" At the nod, she nodded back. "Then you can contact us in case of emergency, and we can contact you."
"Done." He grinned. "And to make things friendlier, I'll take the heat for the fact that you're all going to be late to your next classes."
"Okay," Juliet told the four heirs. "I'm starting to like him too."
Siobhan grinned cheerfully at Byron. "Welcome to Blossom Field!"
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.