Byron's ability to track Mania—his sister—made far more sense now that they knew not only of his connection to her, but also Shana's insistence that Tara still lived and could be saved. No one expected that salvation to be easy, though. In fact, they anticipated a bloody battle that would very probably demand something someone should not have to pay.
Following the invisible lines of magic between Activated and Deactivated Ruler Cultivators, Byron pinpointed Mania's hidden location as being somewhere on one of the tiny islands that surrounded the landmass where Lux sat. The little fragments of land had been shorn off over five thousand years before in another war no one liked to remember. Only abandoned buildings remained as a memory of the past.
They used a transport to reach it, but they had no option for catching their breath. The moment they landed, Chaotics erupted into the air around them. Hundreds. Thousands. The Defenders waded right into the horde with weapons and magic alike, and Byron as much as Alexandria stayed near to Shana to help cover her back as she efficiently tore through enemies. Sherry and Virginia mutually stayed near Siobhan for the same reason.
Unknown to either Apex, a plan had been made by the nine Defender Cultivators. Yvonne used a perfectly timed blast of Ice magic to create a thick fog obscuring sight, and Virginia snapped, "Move deeper!"
Everyone dove through the open door of the sole building in the area, and Alexandria threw the door shut. Ice sealed it to keep out the Chaotics, but a low crackle and growl from beneath their feet implied more waited down deeper into the basement levels. Siobhan turned to ask Yvonne if she could maintain the seal at range, and horror rose to choke her as she did not see her Iris Defender. She did not see the Daffodil Defender either.
She jerked toward the door and belatedly noticed the ice on the outside of the door. "Yvonne!" she shouted. She leapt toward the door only to be intercepted by Sherry who held her despite her struggles. "Kellie! What are you doing?" she cried. Her head jerked toward Shana who had neither moved nor spoken. "Stop them!" she shouted. "They're going to die!"
"Siobhan." Shana kept her voice quiet. "They're doing the only thing they can to help us. I . . . I had wondered if they might do this." She looked at Virginia. "It's something I might have determined to do, had I been Lead." Her eyes moved back to her horrified partner. "What are we supposed to do? Keep fighting endlessly in one place and either never advance or become so worn that we don't survive to reach Mania? She can create as many Chaotics as she wants. She can just wait for us to be so tired we can't fight anymore. You and I . . . we have the best shot at saving Tara. We have to make it there to save her, because if we save her, we can save everyone else. If we don't make it then . . . then all of the death is worthless. Without Seeds, no one can ascend to the Realm. It will end. Permanently. And in all too short a time, all of our worlds will end, too. Blossom Field will cease to exist—which will eventually take the rest of the universe with it."
Siobhan stopped struggling, and Sherry let her go. She walked over to the door and pressed her hands against it for a moment. Nothing hurt more than to let the Defenders make this sort of sacrifice. Her eyes flew wide as that terribly familiar glow flared bright enough outside to leak around the door, and she did not resist as Sherry pulled her away. Even in death, strong enough magic from a Cultivator could not be erased. Nothing would get through that door. "Maybe," she said softly, "that's another reason for us to all be Duals. It . . . it gives us such a more powerful need to survive, and the greater and necessary type of magic to survive."
They moved down deeper into the basement levels and found another floor drowning in Chaotics. Shana said not a word as she forged a path toward the next trapdoor and stairs, and only five of the seven remaining Dual Cultivators as well as Byron followed her. She slammed the door closed behind her, and her lashes flinched behind her Mask as Water and Thunder sealed it from the other side. Cracks just seemed to keep spreading within her soul.
Siobhan spared a moment to heal the worst of whatever she could see on those who remained. Tears ran unchecked down her face that she ignored fiercely. As she healed a nasty gouge on Sherry, her twin covered her hand briefly. "I know," Siobhan whispered. "I will make my decision as well. I think . . . I already know. If my Sight told me accurately what is happening now, then . . . I know."
Another floor, and a larger horde. As Virginia and Clara stepped forward, Shana finally spoke up. "Claret." Her Defender turned, and she lifted her chin. "You cannot sacrifice yourself for me. You tried that once before, and Pallas retreated you. You are attempting to do it again here, and there are no words for how terribly humbled I am that you not only want to do this, but that Virginia will even let you. However . . . I will not allow it. You have another duty more important than I."
Clara tenderly cupped Shana's chin. "There is nothing more important than you in my world."
"In that we disagree, no matter how much I love you for saying it." She closed her eyes and reached out with her gift of transporting magic. Clara disappeared abruptly from the scene, and Shana opened her eyes slightly. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Byron stared at her for a moment and then looked at a silent Virginia. "I thought . . . I believed that only a Lead had the power to force the retreat of an ally Defender Cultivator."
Virginia did not look away from the Chaotics tauntingly creeping in closer. "The curious thing about our generation is that Shana should be Lead. But there will come a day when she hangs up her Mask to rule a High Kingdom. That time will happen long before the time when the rest of us may need to hang up our Masks, therefore Destiny made me Lead—but she gave Shana many of the same gifts." She did look back then, and she smiled at Shana. "Maybe the reason we butt heads so terribly is because we are the same sort of Lead." She turned back to the Chaotics and held out her halberd. "We're not there yet. I believe in you, Shana."
Shana's expression did not change as she swung her sword up into an offensive position and then lunged forward. She cut viciously through the monstrous creatures until she reached the next trapdoor. She held it until Siobhan, Byron, and the two twin souls dropped down inside, and then she dropped down as well. She slammed it shut behind her, and only a little sound of pain escaped her control as Glass sealed it closed. Her darkened eyes stared a little blindly at the chunks of unbreakable glass as the future closed in on her.
The deeper they dove down into the building toward Mania, the more powerful the Chaotics became. Each Seed she claimed only empowered her more, and having the Seeds belonging to Rocky and Edgar had already made her terrible enough. Siobhan knew what would come next, and tears already filled her eyes for the oncoming agony. She knew Virginia had chosen to make her final stand sooner rather than later just to buy Siobhan and Shana those precious few moments, and that hurt just as much. Love. So small a word for such a powerful force a Defender could feel.
Shana jumped down the final trapdoor and looked up to see Siobhan hovering at the edge. On a little gulp, Siobhan jumped down followed by Alexandria and Byron. The door slammed shut, and Fire engulfed it before hardening to unbreakable obsidian. Pain punched through Siobhan's already damaged soul with all the force and fury of losing her lover and her brother. She would have fallen to her knees if Shana had not caught her. She clung on for long moments, fighting through the tears to breathe. "It's okay," Shana said softly. "I can be your strength."
Siobhan shook her head fiercely and pushed herself to her feet. "No!" she vowed. "For once I will be your strength!" She turned to look at the empty space, which felt eerily so after everything else they had gone through. None of the four who remained were wholly intact. Masks had been cracked, and armor showed rips, and dents, and tears. Blood stained everyone. "What now?" she whispered.
A door sat at the end of the room. Shana lifted her chin and calmly walked forward. She opened the door only to wince painfully as a flood of Chaos washed out and bit into her body and soul alike. Somewhere inside the middle of the force, a tiny sound that seemed so very out of place made her head come up. Chaos was . . . crying.
The force ebbed enough they could all walk into the final room. Nausea turned Byron's stomach as he beheld his sister's manic form. She had been corrupted only more, nearly no vestiges of her former self to be seen. Her gown had not been mended, so the rip Shana had made still showed her Mark. It had been warped to almost non-recognition. A hot throb from his Deactivated Mark told him they stood on the verge of being too late.
Siobhan took one look at Mania, at the Chaos power wildly whipping around her, and knew one thing with absolutely clarity: her Sight had been right. She turned to face Shana and caught her hands. "Shana," she said intensely, "I am a liability here. Mania will target me first for I am truly the easier target. I can't run and cast at the same time." She drew her sister's hand up to rest over her breastplate and beneath which lay her Ruler Mark. "If she takes my Seed, you will be in terrible danger, because the Light inside Chaos will be so much more than the Dark inside you that you might be destroyed in a single hit."
Shana said nothing, and neither did Byron or Alexandria.
Siobhan shook her head a bit. "Only you can do this, Shana. In fact, only you should do this because this is surely the price of your birth. I don't know what you have to do in order to awaken, or to find the Hope that I know burns inside you, but I do know that I will become the Light that makes you more Dark." She smiled tremulously as she drew out her Seed and pressed it into Shana's hand. "I believe in you. You can do anything."
Shana's fingers trembled as she closed her hand around the Seed and watched Siobhan dissolve into shimmers of color. It burned to hold the Seed, even through her glove, and sparks flew at the connection before ebbing. "I will cover you," she told Alexandria in a low voice. "I will use Siobhan's magic as well as my own minimal skills to cover you. It is less risky for you because Mania wants me."
Alexandria nodded and then looked at Byron. He obeyed the unspoken command and moved to stand closer beside Shana. The Hyacinth Cultivator hefted her harpoon and braced her shoulders for what she knew surely lay ahead. On a shout, she lunged at Mania as concentrated blasts of Light and Dark streaked past her shoulders in a potent double attack.
Mania had been so utterly shocked by Siobhan's action that she did not get a shield up in time to stop Alexandria. The Defender punched past her guard, and her weapon blade slashed across Mania's chest. The pain, as much as the pain of the day before, shocked Mania only more. She had not felt pain in ages. Fury welled up and she fired Chaos power right into Alexandria's chest to send her tumbling backwards. With all the frenzy of the condemned, she began lobbing blast after blast of Chaos power, but not at Alexandria. She aimed right for Shana. If she could take down the Protea Defender, she would claim both her Seed and Siobhan's alike! "You can't stop me!" she raged.
Byron knocked Shana flat and planted himself in the way. What little immunity he had gained served him well as the Chaos power did far less damage to him than it should have, and certainly less than it may have done to Shana. His Mask cracked, and his armor flickered, but it continued to hold. Glass magic welled around him, and he hurled the immolating blast back toward Mania. It punched her right in the chest and sent her crashing into the wall behind her. She landed on the ground with a little thump, her skin burning as molten glass dripped from it.
Her head jerked up and she screamed as she released a return wave of Glass magic. It looked exactly like the blast that had taken Rocky. Alexandria shot to her feet and leapt between the blast and Byron. It shot through her chest as if her armor did not exist and emerged on the other side with a blue Seed in its grasp.
She did not fall as the Glass recoiled to Mania. Somehow she stayed standing. She glanced back only once, and saw tears streaming from Shana's now black eyes. Had she done what Destiny needed her to do? She looked instead at Byron, and he closed his eyes in acceptance. With a little breath, she let go, and she dissolved into shimmers of color.
Even expecting the pain had not prepared Shana for the ambush. She hunched into herself with Siobhan's Seed clutched in her grasp and fought to simply endure. The gaping holes inside her soul wanted to destroy her. She stared a bit blindly at the Seed in her grip and then, without warning, pure fury began to boil her blood. With it came a moment of pure clarity as her sister's Light brightened her Dark.
She slowly rose to her feet and her Mask disappeared as her armor began to dissolve. Without fear, without hesitation, she reached for her own soul and shattered it to pieces. Pain engulfed her as she forced it to reforge, and Dark power surged wildly up her body until it and black-pink protea blossoms were all she wore. Her darkened Marks abruptly cleared and began to glow with more and more force until the one on her arm took on a second blossom and all bloomed wholly. Her crowns began to sparkle. Wings of glowing black burst from her back with such force they cracked the floor, and the crown on her Marks appeared on her left cheek.
The Apex of Dark took one step forward and then lunged for Mania. "Call Tara!" she shouted at Byron, and then she somehow disappeared as she plunged right into Mania's body and the Heart of Chaos. In shattering her own soul and reforging it personally, she had given herself just enough immunity against Chaos to survive.
She dove down deeper and deeper through the muck and mess of Tara's ravaged soul, and she could hear Byron's beautiful Virtuoso voice singing a tender ballad to his sister. She ignored the pain of her dive, focused on finding the Seed so nearly lost. When she finally could go no deeper, she closed her eyes as she felt the Chaos power trying to eat her alive. It couldn't do it, for inside her, Hope had been born. She slowly lifted her free hand and then curled it into a fist. "Let the Dark ring out with Hope," she whispered.
A soft voice welled on the air around her as if to repeat the Whisper, and it merged to the voice still singing in the distance. Hot Glass magic began to well as the Chaos retreated from the Whisper. A hand reached out, and Shana reached out in turn. Their fingers met and meshed, and a shockwave ripped from Shana's body.
On the outside, Byron kept singing, his heart pounding dully with terror. He didn't know what was happening. Mania only screamed over and over again, ripping at her own hair and body as the Chaos power fought against the Dark power spilling from cracks across her skin. The two forces met, and the shockwave erupted free. Byron had to stop singing as he threw his arms in front of his face protectively. Somewhere, inside the rush of hot power over his skin, he almost thought he heard a whisper.
It ebbed and he lowered his arms. Tears briefly choked him. "Tara?" he managed.
Mania had disappeared. In her place stood the familiar figure of his sister, her Ruler gown intact and her coloring returned to normal. Her Mark glowed through the cloth over her chest, and it had no longer warped. The Chaos power in the place evaporated in the air as it dispersed back into the universe, and only the lingering presence of Dark remained.
Byron was running forward before being aware of it. Not just to Tara, but to the one his sister supported. Shana looked . . . horrific. Black blood poured from wounds that should have killed anyone else. She had shifted back from her Apex form, but her clothes looked no better. She did not even have the strength to stand on her own. He caught her arms gingerly around the wounds, and shock filled him when he saw her eyes still open. How was she conscious?!
Tara let him take more of Shana's weight—the delicate Ruler stood quite a bit smaller than her savior—and then tenderly lifted Shana's hand to pry her fingers open and free the Seed she clutched still. Tara lifted it, and the others she had gathered floated into the air before scattering across the floor of the room. Each Seed glowed, and then the lost Cultivator it belonged to reappeared. UnMasked and without armor, and certainly more ragged than normal, but alive and healthy and restored.
Rocky was the first to shove himself up to his feet, and he looked around sharply as he felt writhing pain inside his body that surely came from his lover. He turned, and bile rose when he saw her being held up by Byron and Tara. He took a step forward and then started running, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process.
Shana pulled free of Byron and tried to move forward but her legs gave out. She landed safely in Rocky's arms, and she curled her fingers into his shirt as she felt her reforged soul at last healing as the three she loved most returned to her. Alexandria and Edgar reached her only a moment later, and Siobhan tripped over them both in haste to help with healing magic. Tears ran down her face. "You did it," she whispered. "I knew you could. Sleep, okay? Sleep now. We're safe. You saved us." She pushed the magic a little harder, and Shana's entire body went lax in Rocky's grip. "Oh god, oh god," she managed to say around a little hiccup.
"What happened?" Virginia asked Byron and Tara alike as she and the others walked closer. "We were in the space between the Plane and the Realm, so we saw nothing." Her head turned as Clara walked out of a transport. "Clara?"
Clara slowly shook her head. "I did not see it either, though I . . . have suspicions. The power of Chaos blocked the Plane and Realm alike from viewing anything, so even if you had ascended, you'd have been left blind to the events." She cupped Shana's cheek for a moment. "Pallas will work to keep her dreamless as long as he dares with her need to be filter. It is all we can do."
"And neither of us will talk of the events unless she does first," Byron vowed.
Tara nodded. "It is her choice to share her horror."
Edgar brushed at Shana's tangled and sweaty black hair. "She will never tell," he admitted in a low voice. "She never shares her nightmares, even when sharing them might well save her from more."
"In a way," Byron said softly, "I can't blame her at all. I'll have some nightmares of my own after this." He held onto Tara tightly as she moved to hug him, and he buried his face in her hair briefly. The burn from his Deactivated Mark had faded entirely, and their world would be able to recover. Everyone would.
Everyone except, perhaps, the one who had ensured it happen.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.