The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 25

Byron may have intended to keep his presence low-key on campus, but word traveled fast. In addition to his already intended filming at the Lux theatrical studio, he found himself being in high demand for fashion shoots for local companies and illustrated periodicals. He had the time for them as he only had one class, but the excessive demands made his head spin with decisions. His manager always let him pick his own photographers for shoots, but that meant he received a stack of several dozen to review. He almost didn't bother until the one on top caught his eye. Well, that made the decision easier.

Shana had just finished hanging a background for a shoot when the studio door opened and Byron bolted inside. He shut the door hastily behind himself. Before she could ask, she heard the stampede of feet going past. "You are popular!" she told him dryly. "And either you knew I was in here, or you have better luck than I expected."

"I knew, thankfully. I was looking for you when the horde spotted me." He winced wryly. "Hopefully it will taper off soon." He walked over and peered curiously into the bucket of props she had plopped on a table. A strange array of hats met him. "What are you up to in here?"

"Experimenting with montage." She adjusted a light. "I'm going to bribe someone to wear lots of hats and act differently depending on the hat. It should be a fun little set of images. The assignment is to capture as many differences as I can with minimal change."

"Me!" He held up a hand on a grin. "I could be bribed. Actually . . ." he side-eyed her, "on a related topic, it seems I'm in high demand in Lux, and some nearby other cities. I need to find a photographer with a certain . . . skill set. Not just talent behind the camera, but maybe the ability to juggle multiple projects? Someone who enjoys theatrical and fashion work. Conveniently enough, I think I know that person, and her resume sat on the top of the stack my manager handed me, so I'd guess she might be interested."

"Is she going to be paid?" she teased.

"I can offer both money and my housekeeper's ridiculously delicious flat sweetbread as payment."

"I'll take both!" She turned to smile at him. "Honestly, I had applied as soon as I heard you were coming to Lux because you've always intrigued me, and the owner of the studio somehow got me in his line of view, so I would have been interested anyway. But . . . I like you, Byron. As a person now as much as an actor or model. I don't really make friends easily, except for Cultivators." She shrugged one shoulder almost wryly. "It's hard for me and Edgar to let people in, you know? But there's something about you that just makes me comfortable. I don't think we're wholly kindred spirits because we're not exactly alike, but . . . close. Pretty close."

He reached out to take her hand. "That is a big compliment, and I feel the same. I would be here to ask you to do my shoots even if I hadn't seen your portfolio because I really do feel comfortable with you too. I actually can make friends easily, but you're special somehow." He nodded firmly. "Let's start here! Tell me what to do, boss."

She grinned. "Put on a hat, sit on the chair, and act in a way that somehow befits said hat. And don't be offended if I issue orders arbitrarily."

He grinned back. "From a queen, I would expect nothing less!"

One shoot turned quickly into several others as they both mutually got sucked into the whirlwind of jobs. They had so much fun working together that they both forgot it counted as work. In the space of a week, they took almost a thousand photos together that Shana had to knuckle down to process quick enough to meet short turnaround. Thank goddess she had switched to the digital system. Things went so very much faster. She could also utilize the studio's printing facility to make the review proofs for Byron to go over, which saved on time and cost alike.

As they sat together at a table in the studio, he felt a little speechless as he shuffled through the images. "You take better photos of me than anyone else," he finally murmured. "I'm a little surprised. I just don't look like I'm acting in any of these."

"You're not." She smiled when he looked at her quickly. "Byron, you show me an unguarded you when we're together. That's something I treasure. You don't feel like you have to build up walls because there are things I can't know. I think, also, that you have gotten so used to being what people expect you to be that you maybe forgot how to be you. I don't expect anything of you, so you relaxed with me."

"Maybe I did." He took out an image that came from the hat shoot, and he had pulled a suitably ridiculous expression to match the jester hat on his head. "You know, I can't remember the last time I goofed off like this. I haven't done a comedy before, either. I guess it's another form of letting go."

"You should do one before you go home." She put one of the approved photos to the side. "I assume you will when the dust settles."

"Mmm. I only intended to be here to stop Mania. Still not wholly sure how I ended up in this position. Okay, that's a lie. I was singing for my supper not long after I arrived, and my now manager happened to be present. He grabbed me up."

"Well, you are Virtuoso. Sherry's a Shaman, by the way. She likes your voice and was hoping to maybe work with you when you arrived."

"She doesn't like me much now," he groused.

"Nah, they do. They're just overprotective. By the time the dust settles, as you said, Sherry will be making you new clothes and singing with you, Juliet will be compelled to feed you, and Desiree will be demanding to style your hair."

"I'm not objectionable to any of those, really."

They sorted through the rest of the photos until they had narrowed it down to his particular favorites with a few secondary options. He would pass them to his manager to be handed off to the appropriate parties for final review before being printed in publications. Shana had already been paid for her share of the work, and more than she had been expecting. Her protests had fallen on deaf ears, too; Byron had insisted she be paid like a professional, so that was what she got.

As they walked away from the studio, she offered, "Want to join us for dinner? It's a night out for me and Edgar and Rocky and Siobhan. We alternate nights at our places or with our mother and once a week we go out." She grinned when he eyed her. "The use of 'our' is applicable. Edgar and I were orphaned shortly after I turned five. Octavia Toulume, Rocky and Siobhan's birth mother, became our caregiver in the hospital and then adopted us and brought us home. So she's really as much our mother as a future mother-in-law."

"Well, if they don't mind, I'd love to go along."

The other three had no objections at all, and Byron felt bemused at how both Siobhan and Rocky guiltlessly held his hands to make sure he felt included. For the similarities between the two sets of siblings, there clearly appeared significant differences. He half wanted to meet their shared mother and commend her for surviving to raise four such fascinating individuals. He could imagine it had not been easy with two of them wanting to save every stray and the other two refusing to share their burdens.

They grabbed dinner at a restaurant owned by the Chivanti Corporation, which Byron did not comment on, but both Siobhan and Rocky suspected showed ulterior motives. The fact that the management there seemed to know Shana and Edgar personally also just made the mystery more so. Just what did they intend to do when Shana became legal?

After dinner and dessert, they opted for a walk through the sunset park. Shana said nothing about the steadily growing sense of dread inside her chest but her companions noticed something wrong anyway because she had grown agitated in a very un-Shana way. She barely held still, and her foot tapped on the ground almost unconsciously if they stopped walking. She seemed to all but disappear on them, drawing deeper into herself so the conversation flowed around her.

"Shana!" Rocky stopped and swung around to grab her shoulders. "What is wrong? What do you See that I don't?"

Her eyes stared through him for a moment. "Death."

Chaotics burst out of nowhere and landed on the ground in a closed circle around the five Cultivators. The three Defenders hastily donned Masks and armor, and the two Rulers activated their suits. Both also grabbed their weapons; too many enemies and too few Defenders meant everyone needed to fight until either Alexandria or Sherry felt the danger to their twin and rallied the rest.

A moment ticked past before Shana's communication Mask lit up with blue color. "Lex?" she asked. She hacked a Chaotic in two parts with the sword in her other hand. "Are you on your way?"

"We're trying! We got halfway toward you when we got attacked as well." Something shattered in the background. "Mania is trying to keep you undefended! Here's your chance to remind us why you don't need us, Shana, and for Byron to prove himself. Stay alive."

The connection abruptly cut out, and Shana dropped the mask back where it belonged. She fought off another Chaotic and took in the scene. Siobhan had managed to avoid most damage by staying behind Rocky who physically muscled away anything that came toward them; he looked a little bloody for the effort but nothing critical yet given his sister healed him as fast as she was able. Byron and Edgar alike tore apart anything that was weak enough for an easy kill, leaving the heavier hitters for Shana herself to handle.

It took only a few minutes to begin to see the intent. The Chaotics had a clear goal: Siobhan and Shana. They all but ignored the men entirely unless the men happened to be in the way. As several Chaotics merged to form bigger and more powerful beasts, Edgar grabbed Byron's arm. "Byron," the prince said low, "whatever else happens, you cannot let the two Apexes lose their Seeds. They are more critical than anything in existence, and Mania possessing their power would literally destroy the entire universe. Don't focus on me or Rocky; we're not as important, and as their Caretakers, their safety is our first concern as well."

Byron very did not like it, but he nodded in understanding. "You have my vow."

The newly merged Chaotics released blasts of Chaos power that sent everyone painfully reeling. Siobhan could not manage to get her feet under her and her head throbbed painfully from the blast more than the landing. A sound jerked her head around, and she bit back a yelp as she saw a Chaotic lunging for her with odd magic on its clawed hands. She threw out a shield almost desperately only to see the Chaotic punch through as if it did not exist. On a cry, she threw her arms over her head.

Edgar moved with almost unnatural speed and threw himself over Siobhan protectively. The Chaotic's claws plunged into his unprotected back, and dark blood flew. He slumped against Siobhan, nearly knocking her over, and she watched in horror as the Chaotic pulled its claws away with a glowing object caught in its grasp.

A Cultivator Seed.

Agonizing pain tore through Shana and Siobhan equally as they felt Edgar ripped out of their souls by the root. Shana dropped her sword as she scrambled to reach her brother's side, and tears ran unnoticed down her face. Byron and Rocky moved just as fast, and Byron fiercely blasted other Chaotics when they tried to lunge at Shana's now unprotected back.

A high-pitched cackle of crazed joy had everyone's heads jerking around just as Mania appeared. A glazed look filled her eyes as she took the Seed her Chaotic offered. "Finally!" she crowed. "An Immortal Seed!" She broke off and looked closer at the Seed, and she frowned. It looked . . . odd. Almost as if it had been broken away from something. Still, it glowed with all the Dark radiance she would expect from the brother of the Apex of Dark. She sent a sneer toward the others. "I'll be back for yours next!"

She disappeared just as the eight ragged and worn Dual Cultivators finally made it to the scene. They stopped in sheer horror at what they found, and then they nearly tripped over each other as they tried to get to where Edgar had fallen. Virginia reached out toward him, but not fast enough. His body dissolved into shimmers of color that flowed away just before her fingers touched his cheek.

Siobhan found her arms holding nothing, and her soul gutted. A soft sound of anguish slipped free and then she doubled over in gut-wrenching sobs. Her Mask fell onto the ground with a thump and her armor faded. Shana stared blindly at where her brother had been, and tears slid down her face behind her Mask as pain writhed inside her soul. Rocky yanked her Mask off, and she stared at him for a long moment before her entire control crumbled and she nearly fell to her knees.

Byron scooped up Siobhan into his arms, and his lashes flinched as she only cried harder against his shoulder. "Where do we take them?" he asked Virginia in a low voice.

"The Chivanti apartment." Virginia picked up Siobhan's fallen Mask and handed it to Sherry. She kept her voice even with sheer effort, and only her trembling fingers gave away the potent blend of grief and fury churning inside. "Rocky, carry Shana." Once he had lifted his lover, Virginia opened the transport for everyone. They all passed through, and she pulled off her Mask. "Take them to Shana's room. All we can do is let them cry it out and maybe sleep."

Clara nodded slightly. "I can aid a bit with that if they cannot reach rest by themselves." She slowly sank down to sit on the couch, and her mouth tasted bitter. No, it was never easy to fail to protect a Ruler Cultivator she had vowed to protect, and it had happened more than once in the past. The whim of Destiny.

Rocky and Byron put the two sisters onto Shana's bed where they curled together instinctively. Even Rocky suspected they did not really notice their presence around the newly torn hole inside their souls. He tenderly brushed at their hair equally and then sighed heavily as he followed Byron into the hall. His own grief and pain would stay tamped down as far as it could be. He would cry when he could do it where it wouldn't hurt Shana or Siobhan more.

As they reached the main room, he told Clara tiredly, "Just go ahead and help them sleep. Siobhan might be able to cry herself there, but Shana won't. We know she won't. She'll buckle down and make herself stronger and just bleed where we can't see."

Clara lifted a hand, and pink and lavender magic moved over her fingers before flying down the hall. Of all Cultivators, only she and Siobhan could use sleep-based spells on allies and enemies alike. "Now what?" she asked in a low voice. "And, no, before you ask, I did not know of this. I know nothing important of the coming days. My future entwined inexorably with it the moment Shana demanded I remain for the entire fight."

Juliet's hands slowly curled into fists at her sides and then she abruptly whirled on Byron. "How dare you?" she snarled. "You let Mania take our prince's Seed! What were you doing that was so important that you did not defend a High Queen's soul mate?"

With unexpected fury, he snarled back, "I was doing exactly what the High Prince ordered me to do and protecting his sister and lover!" Temper and frustration turned his hazel eyes nearly brown in the dim lamplight. "Edgar outright ordered me not to concern myself with him or Rocky, that as Caretakers, they were not as important as Shana or Siobhan! Do you think I liked watching that Chaotic steal his Seed, or that I at all enjoyed watching Shana fall apart?! I would sooner have given my own Seed than see what we just witnessed! I will protect the two queens with my life as I vowed, whether you Blossom Field Defenders like it or not!"

Virginia looked at him a little sharply, and then glanced at Rocky. He looked unsurprised by the outburst. In a way, she suspected Byron himself did not fully understand it personally. And hearing it, and feeling the truth of it in her Empathy, she felt her trust finally cement. "Alright," she said quietly. "That's enough out of both of you." She rubbed her hands over her arms as eyes turned. "Byron, I trust you. The way you spoke now as much as the words themselves tell me all I need to know. However, if you truly intend to remain, then you will defer to me as Lead Defender for I am stronger than you."

He slowly nodded. "I will accept that, Virginia." A hint of a smile came back to his face. "But I think you'll understand if I say that I will defer first to Shana, and then Siobhan, before I defer to you."

She managed to match his smile. "Spoken like a true Defender. I accept that condition as well." She slowly sat down on the couch beside Clara. As Shana had so presciently noted, the belief that Edgar could as yet return in the aftermath of the war because he and Siobhan had not borne a child in no way changed the fact that his death deeply gouged them all. The little voice whispering what if could not be hushed. "Here's what we will do. We have it now confirmed Mania cares most for getting to Shana and Siobhan. A Defender will be with them, and Rocky, at all times if they leave their home. With Byron, we can assign three Defenders per each High heir as needed. Would that we could just keep them locked in the apartment, but we really can't. We have to let life carry on, but as safely as we can manage."

Edgar's absence got passed off as an unexpected illness keeping him at home; they would play that lie as far as it could be taken. If anyone noticed how haunted both Shana and Siobhan looked, and Rocky as well to a slightly lesser extent, no one commented. A day ticked by with everyone on edge. Shana herself did not help the tensions any. She had become even more agitated, and she almost stopped speaking entirely to people.

That first evening, when Alexandria and Yvonne joined Byron to keep Shana company in her now empty apartment, all three Defenders spotted something happening to the queen's Marks. Both had turned a dark, almost bloody, red color. Yvonne examined them yet found nothing wrong, per se. As she watched Shana pace between windows, she whispered, "What is going on?"

Alexandria's fingers tightened on her arms where she had them crossed. "She's on the cusp of something. My gut tells me what it is but it terrifies me." Softer, she said, "A price worse than death."

The second day went the same as the first, but that evening, Shana insisted on being alone. No one liked it, but not even Alexandria could batter through her persistence. Rocky did not bother to try. He merely showed up on the doorstep and let himself in with the key he and his sister shared. He found Shana standing at the window across the room, and the setting sun made the darkness inside her almost burn around her body. No light could touch her skin. He could barely even see her. A sense of panic made him move fast, and the moment he caught her arm, his own Light brought her back to visibility. "Shana!" he said raggedly. "You're breaking my heart! I can't fix this. I want to, but I can't." He gave her a little shake. "Let me in! Let me help you! You know what is coming, don't you?"

"You know I have All Sight." The words came out with bitterness. "The most powerful Sight of anyone alive, more than even you. I'm bound to Destiny by her blood and her choice. I have premonitions and visions even when I don't want them. I hate it. I hate it so much sometimes." Her eyes closed as a chill moved through her that the sun could not stop. "The death won't stop. It will keep coming. I can't stop it." She opened her eyes and watched pale blood pour down his chest from wounds that did not, yet, exist. Another nightmare. "Just hold me. I will pay the price to exist soon enough."

Her voice broke on the words, and he jerked her into his arms. His own Sight had told him far too much of coming events, too. Events he now suspected she knew of personally. As her Caretaker, his duty lay in saving her soul, in holding her together when the weight of her duty tried to break her apart. Yet now he saw a terrible truth. Nothing could shatter Shana except her own hands. He would only be able to sweep up the pieces in the aftermath and try to put her back together with his love.

Another day, and tensions ran higher than ever as even Sherry began to become antsy with the sense of evil moving. Byron had been scheduled for a photo shoot that he tried to cancel, but short of an apocalypse, he had no out. A bit of bitterness made him want to yell at his manager that, in fact, an apocalypse did lay on the horizon but somehow he refrained. His unease for the situation became no better when Shana showed up to the evening shoot with only Rocky in tow. "Where are the Defenders?" Byron demanded sharply.

"Whether they like it or not," Shana countered, "I am as capable, if not more capable, of defending myself than they are, and even without armor, Rocky outclasses the others as well. Nature of our own existence and my role within it. You are magically oriented, though physically skilled, so between us, we can handle something if it happens."

"Byron," Rocky said quietly, "I think it fair to tell you as well that I actually trust you more than I trust any other Cultivator besides Alexandria to help protect Shana. You would never let her be hurt."

"I don't think the others would agree with that," he muttered.

A little smile touched Rocky's lips. "Virginia does. And her opinion matters most as Lead."

They headed into the studio, and proof to professionalism and inner strength, both Byron and Shana worked almost completely naturally together. Rocky could almost believe there was no danger or weight of an axe hovering over the back of Shana's neck. Events set in stone. He glanced out the window at the setting sun. Sometimes he hated his Sight, too.

The shoot done, they all three headed back outside only to find a familiar carriage parked outside. Alexandria and Desiree stood beside it, and both had scowls on their faces. "You let her do this?" Alexandria demanded of Rocky and Byron alike.

"I don't like it either!" the Defender retorted.

"Too bad!" Rocky snapped at them equally. "I trust Shana's Sight as wholly as I trust my own, and we both felt this had to be done. Some things cannot be stopped, Lexie, and you know it as much as you hate it!"

No one got the chance to respond. With no warning, as if she had somehow cloaked her presence, Mania appeared in the air. Magic fired from her hands before anyone could blink, and the unnaturally chaotic liquid Glass fired directly at Shana. The attack would surely hit her—she had nowhere to dodge, and no Defender stood close enough to protect her—but Rocky had literally Seen the events coming. Without guilt or hesitation, he shifted his weight to place himself in front of his Cultivator as any true Caretaker would.

The Glass struck his chest, punched through, and emerged on the other side with a glowing Seed in its grasp. It continued its path with enough force to gouge across Shana's shoulder before angling up into the air and bending around to return to Mania. A shout rose as all three Defender Cultivators lunged toward Shana and Rocky. Alexandria and Desiree managed to catch Rocky as he fell, and Byron grabbed Shana's shoulders to keep her standing. She did not even seem to see him. Her darkened pink eyes stared only at the Seed clutched in Mania's grasp. Like Edgar's, it looked oddly shaped, but it glowed hot with Light instead.

Fresh pain boiled through her already gouged soul. New holes ripped open as she felt her soul mate torn away from where he had been interlocked to her. She almost stopped breathing as the agony came from a place she had never imagined could hurt. Her gaze lowered to her lover's form, and she watched as his body dissolved into shimmers of color.

Tears streamed without control as her eyes turned wholly black. Her hands curled into fists at her sides. Byron gave her a little shake but she did not see nor feel him. She barely felt Alexandria inside her soul around the pain, and she certainly did not feel when her twin grabbed her arm to help restrain her.

Mania looked down at her, and her lip curled into a sneer. "Is that all you are, great Apex?"

Dark power erupted around Shana with such force that it knocked Byron and Alexandria back a step. She shot into the air on the force of her power alone, and her sword appeared in her hand. Her first attack cut open Mania's cheek with such precision that everyone knew she could have killed the evil Cultivator on her first strike. Her next attack cut through the cloth over Mania's chest and stopped just short of piercing flesh. Shana looked at the warped Ruler Mark that then revealed itself to her, and then looked into the Heart of Chaos through Mania's eyes. "I wondered about you," she said softly.

Mania felt terror well inside her shredded soul as she could not break away from the Apex's burning black gaze. A little desperately, she reached for her magic and blasted Shana pointblank in the chest with Chaos power. It sent the other Cultivator reeling painfully, and Mania took what little window she had to escape.

"Shana!" Alexandria scrambled forward and managed to catch her queen as she fell. Only Desiree and Byron hastily bracing her kept her from landing on the ground personally. She could physically lift and carry her twin, but having her full weight hit her from several feet in the air could not be overcome. She reoriented herself and briefly nodded at the other two in thanks. "Shana?" she asked softly.

No response came, and it seemed no surprise. The Chaos had done as much damage physically as losing Rocky had done internally. Blood, darker than ever, seeped from dozens of burns and cuts. Her sword fell from her lax fingers and disappeared before it hit the ground. Tears continued to fall even deeply unconscious. Her two Marks that had been so bloody red now slowly turned black.

Desiree's communication mask lit up with bright red. "I'm here, Virginia," she said tiredly. "And it's worse than you may think."

Just as tiredly, the Lead Defender responded, "Based on Siobhan's reaction, I don't think it is. Clara has knocked her out. We're at Siobhan's apartment. Bring Shana." The mask stopped glowing as the connection ended.

Byron reached out with trembling fingers to touch Shana's cheek. "I should have done that, not him."

Alexandria looked at him for a moment. "You're in love with her."

He froze briefly and then pulled his hand back. "I . . . yeah."

"You didn't notice until now?" Desiree murmured. She found a smile. "Byron, don't be upset by it. Everyone is in love with Shana to some level or another. Siobhan, too. There are so many ways to feel love. So many different types. Enjoy loving Shana. She gives as much as she gets. More, really. And someday, when you find your soul mate Caretaker, I guarantee you'll be all the more dazzled by it because you will appreciate it more." Softer, she added, "And I suspect Virginia and Rocky alike knew already. That's why they trusted you. Knowing it now myself, I also trust you."

"As do I," Alexandria agreed. She looked him in the eye. "If something happens to me . . ."

He nodded in acceptance for the duty he knew she offered. "With honor."

They used a transport to get back to the apartment, and Alexandria tucked Shana into bed with Siobhan, whose face looked paler than usual and showed even more ravages from tears. Even in sleep, the two sisters' fingers laced together as if to hold one another when their souls wanted to shred.

Everyone spent the night for fear of leaving either Apex alone. Clara periodically throughout the night would reinforce the sleeping magic to ensure both slept as deeply as possible. A brief contact to her brother had him helping ensure they remained dreamless as well.

Shana awoke after dawn to an emotional hangover the size of her palace, and a sort of numbness spreading in place of the pain. Siobhan stirred beside her, and then opened her eyes and looked up. Shana tightened her grip on her sister's hand. "We'll make it," she said softly. "We'll survive and they'll come back."

"I believe anything you tell me." Siobhan burrowed closer for a moment and then forced herself to let go. "Let's talk to everyone." She studied her sister's face. "You know something we didn't before."

"Yeah. Best to share it at once."

Kellie had gotten to Shana long before dawn, so no wounds remained externally. Just the blood from her lover as well as her own. Everyone kept clothes at each other's place, so she changed into something clean in Rocky's room. Just feeling his presence permeating everything around her cut into her anew.

She reached the living room behind Siobhan and found all other Cultivators awake and alert. Juliet and Clara worked on making breakfast. Shana looked around at everyone for a moment and then at Byron. She walked over to where he stood and reached out to touch the Flower Mark on his arm. It had a sparkling edge, of course, because he was the only Defender of Ranunculus. "When were you going to tell us?" she asked him calmly.

He winced a bit as eyes turned, but at least they looked more curious than hostile. "I really did intend to tell everyone, but it . . . is painful to discuss." He hesitated and then sighed. He tugged down his shirt collar, and there, on his chest over his heart, lay the empty outline of the same Mark as on his arm. The evidence of a Deactivated Ruler Cultivator. "When I said Mania attacked my world and killed my sister, I was not lying. A year ago, my sister, Tara, who was Ruler Cultivator of Ranunculus, started getting curious and experimenting with Chaos power."

Virginia began to get a sinking feeling. "It didn't go well."

"To say the least. No single Light or Dark core could ever handle Chaos. The power went out of control and began to destroy our people and our world. She chose to save our world by sacrificing herself. She absorbed all the Chaos into her own core and only managed to kill herself in the process." His eyes closed. "She became Mania, and obsessed with taking the Seeds of the two Apexes. She disappeared from Ranunculus, leaving it in near ruins. As both Defender and potential Ruler, I had to come here first, to be ready to stop her."

"So that's why," Sherry said. "We all felt it, I think, but especially me, that something about your armor felt oddly familiar. It's because we were noticing its resemblance to Mania's ruined Ruler Cultivator gown." She looked at Shana. "How did you know?"

"I had a gut feeling right from the beginning when I met Byron," she admitted. "But I knew for certain when I attacked Mania last night. I needed to see her Mark, so I went after it. It is horrifically warped, to be sure, but there could be no mistaking for anything less than the same Ranunculus as on Byron's arm. Also, up close, I could see her natural coloring better and it reminded me of Byron's hazel coloring." She turned to Byron. "She can be saved."

He froze. "What?"

"She can be saved. If she was truly dead, if her Seed had been ruined beyond redemption, you would have become Activated as Ranunculus sought to protect its future. Somewhere, deep inside the shell of Mania, Tara is there." Her eyes hardened. "I will plunge into the Heart of Chaos, and I will save her."

A chill swept through everyone equally at the idea. To plunge into the Heart of Chaos would be to open herself wholly to Chaos power and risk destroying herself in the process. And yet . . .

Siobhan moved forward and slipped her hand into Shana's. "I believe in you," she said softly. "And . . . I think that you are the only person who can do this." She looked at Byron. "Can you track your sister?" At his nod, she looked at the others. "Then we'll go. Today. We can't let this drag on." She glanced at Shana's Marks and their dark, angry, color. "We're running out of time."

©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.

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