"Liena!" Genevieve stalked into the rooms belonging to her friend and advisor, Hannah hurrying at her side. "Help!"
Liena looked up with a lifted a brow from where she had been reading a book. "What’d they do now?" was her warm question.
"We’ve lost them, again." Genevieve’s tone was aggrieved as she ran her hands through her short black hair. "Merrily disappeared from out of Shanae's room while everyone had their backs turned!"
Hannah sighed, but with a hint of fondness. "Ashe and Arista are training on their worlds; we can't drag them away just to find the missing High Princesses! They haven't left grounds; Genevieve would have felt it if they had. Please find them? They turned five only a month ago, and they could start developing real power anytime!"
Five years of age tended to be the average where a Cultivator developed magic. It was when Defenders could be found, and when Rulers started to really embody their element. It could happen the day of a birthday, or up to months later. Rarely ever more than a year, though. Sayena and Shanae, both only months past their fifth, and both Apexes, could have anything happen.
Liena got to her feet carefully, yet still with a nearly musical grace despite the sixth-month curve of her pregnant stomach. "Ooph!" she said on a laugh. "Such a lazy little girl I'm carrying. She got her father's love of naps."
Genevieve grinned cheerfully. She had been the happiest one of all when she had realized Liena was letting Lieu court her. The courtship had continued for four years as Lieu waited for Liena to learn if she could love him. The patient captain had finally been at the edges of his vaunted self-control when Liena had finally accepted his suit. Much to the humor of all, their first child would be born only a few months after the wedding. Happiness clung to Liena, and Lieu, in a way that it never had before. "I hope she has your personality," Genevieve told her friend wistfully.
Liena smiled. "The women of my bloodline will be not so different from the ones of the planets, Gen. My sons will carry majik, and their children will as well, but it will be my daughters who carry the full weight of my heritage. Once every era, there will be a firstborn daughter of my bloodline who reaches the peak of her majik for that era. She will be the next High Priestess." She thought about what she had seen when she had realized she was pregnant. "Three. There will be three total, including me. I am of the Royal Era."
It was a strangely comforting thought for both queens. "There won't be a need beyond three?" Hannah asked.
She tilted her head. "You know, I don't know. I just feel there will be three total." She headed for the door with a shake of her head. "I'll find the princesses." She laughed. "First the boys, now the girls. Speaking of traits we hope don't carry on in future children!"
She had a fairly good idea of where she needed to go, and her steps were calm. They were calm enough, in fact, that she could hear a soft shuffling of other feet behind her. She stopped, and so did they. She hid a smile and felt the air, and she caught the trace of magic that was white and Illusory. A flick of her fingers sent a spell winging at the owner, and she was rewarded by a shriek of laughter.
She laughed as she turned and went around the corner to discover Robert wiggling helplessly in the spell. He was only eleven years in age, but his height could quite easily throw people off. His handsome looks had only begun to refine more, and he had bucked the Delphinium tendency toward plumpness by picking up a scimitar as soon as he turned five and working on becoming as strong physically as he was with magic. A softness still clung to him in many places, though, which only added to his growing appeal.
Liena would expect him to be a heartbreaker eventually if it weren't for his inability to dent hearts let alone break them! The boy wore his heart on his sleeve, gave openly and generously of his emotions, and he was the first to jump forward if anyone needed anything. He really was a Delphinium child in every way. "What are you up to, boyo?" she asked as she banished the spell and helped him stand.
He smiled at her and rubbed the laughter tears from his eyes. She was one of his favorite people; she was actually a favorite among all Cultivators. Both young and Elder found her presence utterly comforting and soothing, and she always listened when someone needed to talk. Something about her wonderful majik soothed them all. "I know where Shanae and Sayena are. They're hiding in the protea bushes of the garden."
"Little wonder," she agreed. "Shanae has hid it, but she is struggling with her gifts."
He frowned at her curiously. He stood only an inch or two shorter than her height, and would be taller before the year was done. "None of the rest of us have struggled, not even Sayena, and she's as powerful as Shanae."
"Shanae has a different sort of power." She ran a hand over his thick white hair. "You know the legends, Robert. You know what her being the Apex of Dark means, don't you? What it means as well for Sayena to be the Apex of Light? We have not yet uncovered the price to Sayena's birth, but that may more fully reveal itself when she actually starts developing her power, as she should any day."
His face darkened. "I don't like it. Either of it. But why would it make Shanae struggle and not Sayena?"
"Inside her, the power of Nature and the power of Dark are fighting for supremacy. They have fought inside the Protea Ruler Cultivators for millions of years. Every last Ruler has eventually swayed to Nature—for they cannot embody Dark—and the fight has ended until another child is born. But Shanae is the Apex of Dark. She cannot sway. She has to bring harmony. She will be able to embody Dark and physically control it as an element in a way no other being ever has. Sayena will also embody Light and control it as an element, but Light does not fight against Illusion. They peacefully work together. Until Shanae can create that harmony where Dark and Nature blend and coexist, they will tug from both directions and make her struggle to breathe."
"It's not right." His golden eyes snapped with the familiar sparks of the formidable Delphinium temper on the rise. "Why Shanae? Why does she have to be the one with this burden? She doesn't deserve it!" he added heatedly. "It gives her nightmares!"
She stopped walking quickly. "It does?" He said nothing, and she turned him to face her. "Robert, how do you know it gives her nightmares?" At his further silence, she prompted gently, "Did you share them?"
". . . Yes."
Only a lover soul mate could share the dreams of one connected to the Ephemeral Plane. The role of Ruler would be split between Evan and Shanae for their generation—Shanae would fight, Evan would defend—but that did not change either heir's powerful connection to the Plane. Robert could only have shared Shanae's dreams and nightmares if he had a soul meant to interlock with hers. "Robert," she asked softly as she cupped his cheek, "do you love Shanae?"
It would have been easy to simply say 'of course' because he loved all of his fellow princesses greatly. Yet, he knew what Liena really asked, and he knew it was serious. "Yes," he admitted very softly. "I don't love anyone more than Shanae. I love her as much as my sister."
It was a telling admission. The princes and their sisters shared bonds so deep and powerful that they might as well have been twin souls, too. No one could understand how or why, but there was no disputing the evidence. If something happened to Shanae or Sayena, Evan and Robert felt it as instantly as Arista and Asheria did—in some cases, they felt it faster. "I knew you would," she told him simply.
It made him feel better. "Then, it's okay?"
She smiled. "It's Destiny." She dropped a kiss on his forehead and then took his hand again. "It will make more sense the older you get." She led him toward the gardens, and partway there, they encountered the familiar figure of Evan. He had been about to go out as well, but when Liena saw him, she held out her other hand and called, "Evan, come with us. We're already looking."
Evan waited for them to catch up and then took her offered hand. "I think," he said softly, "that there's something different happening. I can feel something inside Shanae. It feels like the other princesses, but I don't know how."
Robert nodded. "I feel it in Sayena, too."
"And so you should." Liena took them into the gardens and moved toward the shadowy areas where the black protea flowers grew. "Shanae," she called, her voice soft and beguiling, "come out now! You're not alone in this."
There was no response, which was telling. Among Liena's many gifts was the gift of a voice so beautiful that she could compel others. She was known as a Virtuosa, and the music inside her brimmed hotly enough to become additional power. The only two people she had never been able to successfully compel were Shanae and Sayena—but only if they deliberately ignored her summon.
"Shanae?" Robert called. "Sayena? Please?"
Again, silence. Then, finally, Sayena responded, "Over here."
The boys rustled into the bushes and made a path for Liena to use. On the other side, surrounded by a ring of blossoms, sat Sayena and Shanae. Or rather, Sayena sat. Shanae lay slumped in her arms as if she had passed out. The Delphinium princess was quite a bit smaller than her counterpart—Shanae had a height closer to eight years in age—but she held onto her friend with no less fierceness than if she had been bigger.
An odd pinkness clung to Shanae's skin as if she had been sunburned; that in and of itself seemed an oddity for Proteans neither tanned nor burned. They always kept their normal tone no matter how the sun shined upon them. Liena started to reach for her princess but hands closed over her wrists. Her head swung around, and she found herself looking at the familiar face of her husband. "Lieu?"
"Careful," he warned her. "Right now, only Sayena or Evan dares touch her. I've been watching Shanae for a bit now, keeping an eye on her whenever she ran off. Don't," he started to add sharply to Robert, only to break off as Robert touched Shanae's arm without danger. In fact, Dark power swirled around his hands in a nearly caressing gesture. "Ah," he murmured. "So that’s what you meant."
"Told you so," his wife murmured back. She knelt down but took care not to touch any of the children. "Sayena, what happened?"
Sayena looked at her with solemn gold eyes. "She's been hurting. We came here to make her feel better. She suddenly got too hot and fell over. I don't want her alone!" she whispered fiercely, her arms tightening around her friend. "She feels alone!"
A low rumble made everyone look around, but Evan realized first where it originated. "Shanae!" He scooted closer to his sister and touched her arm. "Shanae, we're here. You're safe! Liena!" He looked at the priestess pleadingly. "Make her better!"
"I can't. I'm so sorry."
Power welled up hotly inside Shanae and then spilled into the air. The familiar pink of Protea's Flower Element of Nature, but also the rich black of the Core element of Dark. They seemed to spark off each other violently like two armies at war, and the pained expression on Shanae's face implied the war truly raged inside her soul. And then . . . harmony came. Her eyes opened, and the pink had gone black. The two elements in the air rushed at each other and then abruptly fused into a swirl of gradated color. The pink receded from Shanae's skin as she pushed out of Sayena's arms and gingerly sat up. Her arm muscles trembled as if she had truly fought a war as physical as spiritual.
She looked at Sayena, and Sayena at her. They slowly reached out their hands toward one another with palms facing. The power around Shanae swirled down to her hands, and a matching white/gold gradient swirled up around Sayena's hands. The powers began to coalesce, and finally formed into two tiny Masks. Through the sheer material of Sayena's left sleeve, and under the open petals of Shanae's, a second crowned Flower Mark appeared.
Defender Cultivator marks. The High Princesses were Dual Cultivators.
They took their Masks from the air, but Sayena hastily dropped hers on a cry to catch Shanae as the other girl fell unconscious once more. This time, Liena felt safe to touch her, and gently pressed a hand to Shanae's forehead. She let out a relieved breath. "She will be fine," she promised. "She just needs rest. Lieu, carry her."
Feet came stampeding through the gardens, and Genevieve and Matthew burst around the bushes only to come to an abrupt halt as they beheld the scene. Hannah and Quint, right on their heels, stopped sharply in turn. All eyes riveted to the Masks in their daughters' possession. "So that's it," Quint whispered. "They are Defenders."
Close behind the Rulers came the Elder Defenders and Dual Cultivators, and all also stopped short in surprise. The princesses recovered first and scrambled forward to cluster around their friends. Lieu scooped up Shanae and found himself with several figures hovering at his elbow anxiously. "Calm down," he told them. "She will be fine. She needs rest. Asheria, bring Sayena."
"I'm fine," Sayena tried to protest, only to sigh deeply as Asheria picked her up. "Ashe," she complained, "I can walk!"
"Shush. Captain says you don't, so you don't."
Lieu headed into the castle with the four High children as well as Arista and Asheria, and the others turned to look at the two High Queens. Genevieve was almost not breathing, and Tessa had to force her to sit down. "Don't pass out!" the Daffodil Defender ordered. "She will be fine."
"I can't help it." Genevieve buried her face in her hands, and barely noticed when Matthew sat beside her and wrapped an arm around her waist. "You saw it! She's the one of harmony. She . . . she somehow brought harmony to Nature and Dark after millions of years of refusing to coexist. She and Sayena . . . the Apexes are Defenders as well. Protea and Delphinium have chosen Defenders at last." Her lips trembled as she looked at her husband. "Our baby will have to fight and destroy Nemesis."
"And we will fight beside her!" Veronica vowed fiercely. The mantle of Lead Defender had settled naturally and comfortably on her shoulders. She took command whenever the team worked as a whole unit. Even Claret bowed to her order. "We will aid her and Sayena alike in whatever it is that they have to do! We will help them learn to be Defenders, and we will ensure that they never have to don their Masks unless truly necessary." She looked at her partners. "Let us go see them. It will make Shanae feel better to wake with us around."
Hannah watched the princesses run into the castle and then took a long breath. "This will remain a secret," she told everyone. "No one will know that the High Princesses have become Defender Cultivators. Flower Marks can be hidden at will, and they shall keep theirs hidden at all times. We will release a statement saying only that the Apexes of Dark and Light have come into their power and begun to prepare for their destined battles."
Matthew looked sharply at Hannah and Quint alike. "You know what Sayena may face?"
Quint nodded. "You know we had been watching for Famine. She has been creeping in, gathering worshippers from all worlds. Her evil slowly poisons all that lives. We planted a spy among her worshippers on Iris. He reported to us that when Sayena was born, Famine reacted with utter horror. Famine is born of the purest disgust and disease rendered when evil sloughs into the physical world. What else would oppose her but the pure power of healing inside the Apex of Light?"
"Sayena is a healer?" Melissa asked, and then shook her head. "Silly question, I suppose. She's always acted like one, so it makes sense her powers would go that way."
"They go both ways," Liena spoke up. She rested her hands over her belly. "She is the Apex, as you said. The Apex of Light represents all that is magical in existence. She is both healer and conjuror, and her skills in battle will create either salvation or destruction. Shanae, being Apex of Dark, represents all that is physical in existence. She will soon come into a strength and skill in combat that will make her, literally, unrivaled. Light and Dark cores have always gone in such a way, and Ruler Cultivators of the two worlds have represented it themselves in a lesser fashion. In its purest form, it cannot be hidden."
"I suppose it makes sense in another fashion," Sandra said slowly. "Shanae has always struggled with nightmares, which is evidence of her being the Apex of Dark who will face Nemesis. Sayena has always struggled with illness. Cultivators shouldn't get sick at all, but she seems to get every sniffle that passes through. That's why. Because of Famine. Only when Shanae and Sayena destroy their destined enemy will they finally no longer struggle with that which opposes them."
"To some extent," Liena agreed.
"Interesting about Robert, though," Jessie decided. "Because of what you said about Light cores, and Delphinium. Robert has certainly chosen an interesting route by becoming quite strong within his own right."
Liena hid a smile. "It is actually to be expected, given his destiny."
She instantly had everyone's attention. "What destiny?" Sandra asked. She then aimed a finger at the priestess. "Don’t give us that wide-eyed ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ look. We've known you too long to fall for that one again!"
"Damn it." Liena snapped her fingers lightly. She smiled. "Robert will be the lover soul mate to the Apex of Dark. He must, by the demand of such a role, be capable of pushing her physically in battle in order to keep her happy by meeting her at least halfway."
"Huh. You know," Quint mused, "I wondered about that. And, really, I honestly expected Sayena and Evan to be lover soul mates too. They show signs of it as well."
"I didn't say they wouldn't be."
A pause, and then Genevieve murmured, "No wonder Evan has pushed to learn magic in a way our lineage usually doesn't. He also needs to be capable of meeting the Apex of Light at least halfway so she does not feel so alone. And yet, because he is physically gifted still, and Robert magically gifted, they can also support their sister." She slowly shook her head. "I found it curious enough that a Ruler Cultivator would find a Caretaker in another Ruler Cultivator the way Matt and I acted as Caretaker to one another until he became Deactivated and became the only Caretaker of us two. This is far more curious still."
Slowly, Tessa said, "I feel as if the sheer fact that Evan and Robert are Activated Ruler Cultivators is why they are perfect for Sayena and Shanae. The Apexes possess the rawest form of Dark and Light cores. They balance each other, yes, but there needs to be further balance inside their souls. To make Dark ever darker, and to make Light ever lighter, they have to be joined to their opposite. So . . . Shanae needs the strongest Light core, and Sayena needs the strongest Dark core, in their soul mates. They can't mate to one another, not when they must each produce children to carry on the lineages, so their brothers are the next closest thing. And the boys would not have those powerful cores if they were not Activated."
"A reason for everyone's birth," Matthew murmured. "And with Shanae and Evan being the product of a Cultivator/Cultivator pairing, it makes them much hardier to endure the future—and their future children with Robert and Sayena will be even more so." It made him more than a bit curious as to why such inner strength would be needed, though.
"At the least," Amanda decided dryly, "we can be reassured that we won't have to fuss with suitor lists for the High Princes and Princesses!"
"Don't be so sure," Genevieve reminded her dryly. "Evan and Shanae are of the Dark, and we tend to be a bit blind. Sayena and Robert may have some work to do to claim their soul mates, and that could include the lists! There are plenty of laws for a Cultivator to take advantage of to get the one their soul needs."
Time, as she was wont to do, passed quickly. Shanae proved Liena to be right in short order. The moment she recovered from her internal battle, she launched herself fiercely into training. She tagged at the heels of every Elder Defender to demand they train her in whatever weapon they used. That covered quite a bit of ground, but none of them turned her away. She also unnerved them all as she not only picked up the weapon skills quickly, but mastered them within a very short time of starting.
She could not be satisfied by that, and so she dogged Lieu's heels until he taught her how to use a claymore instead of a short sword. The weapon had to be custom-made for her, but she picked it up just as easily despite the heavier weight and larger stature. Her need for armory appeased, she went right into hand-to-hand training. That proved trickier for her to learn since none of the Defenders had exceptional skills. Minimal ones, to be sure, but not the sort she craved.
Luck turned out to be in her favor. Not long after her ninth birthday, after she had mastered every other style, Matthew caught word of an exceptionally talented hand-to-hand fighter in one of their cities. Jayden Takata was young himself, not yet twenty, but his skills could not be disputed. He also responded immediately to the royal request and came out to train not just Shanae, but also Evan, Arista, and Robert. They four wanted terribly to keep up as much as they could with their Apex of Dark. Veronica and Asheria, given their own particularly special roles, also began to train though perhaps not as feverishly. Sayena benefited from all of the training, too; she had plenty of opportunities to practice her healing by cleaning up behind her loved ones.
Jayden's presence had a much bigger reach than he expected. He and Evan bonded rather swiftly despite the age gap, and he showed a surprisingly protective side toward the prince. Genevieve felt a little moment of clarity as she saw them, and it dawned on her that perhaps the search for guardians for Evan might be easier than anticipated. The sorts of people she needed would surely stand out in a crowd for they would have to be capable of keeping up with an exceptionally powerful and stubborn Ruler Cultivator.
With that in mind, she and Matthew turned their attention to the ranks of their own Royal Knights that made up the bulk of the Protea Army. Lieu more than willingly aided them, and they shortly uncovered three more young men that had exceptional skill and the potential of magical gifts themselves. All were roughly Jayden's age, and by the time the search ended and Genevieve had made her choices, the four men in question would be turning twenty-one. Evan had just passed sixteen himself.
You could be no younger than eighteen to enlist in the army, and once accepted in the ranks, you were considered an adult even if not yet twenty-five—and it was rather rare for anyone under adulthood to make it in anyway. These three young men who had enlisted had proven to be more than exceptional in many ways.
The only real problem for Genevieve and Matthew was that their son rather did not want guardians of his own. He felt perfectly fine to share Arista and Kacey with his sister. "Why do I need personal protectors?" he asked in exasperation as he walked with his parents toward the throne room.
Both mother and son wore the Ruler outfits denoting their ranks, as most Cultivators did when on castle grounds, and they also wore their crowns as demanded by such an important meeting. Matthew had a suit of his own, designed to mark him as the king yet make it clear he came of non-Protean lineage. As a homage to his bloodline, he always wore a forget-me-not on his lapel. He, too, wore his crown as protocol demanded.
"Because." Genevieve scrubbed her hands over her face. "Damn it, Evan. I want your hide to remain intact, and you are too inclined to go charging after Shanae and Sayena if you even think that they need help. Future charging will involve charging right into war thanks to the High Princesses being Defenders, and I want to be sure that there is someone to keep you alive because you will have only your sword and an ability to harmonize with Nature on your side! Do not mistake me; you have proven quite skilled with magic, but it is not attack magic. Rulers do not get such a thing because we have no need. If you were a Dual, we would not be having this conversation. But because you are not, we are, and the Defenders need to focus on the High Princesses and not you!"
"Breathe," Matthew told her dryly.
"I don't see you helping," she shot back.
Evan could only sigh. He found it hard to argue with his mother's logic, much as he might wish otherwise. "I reserve the right to tell these guardians to get lost if I don't like them or they don't suit me."
"And we reserve the right to start the search over again if so." Matthew tweaked his nose. "There is no getting out of this, Evan. We have already promoted them to the rank of Commander, as high as one can go within the Royal Knights, surpassing even that of Lieu as Captain."
"Alright," he sighed again. "Who are they exactly?"
"Well, obviously, you know Jayden with his Light core and affinity for the Fire element," Genevieve said. "He has been joined by Maxim Montague, who uses a mace, has a Dark core, and an affinity for the Glass element; Navidan Arkwood, who uses a broad sword, has Light core, and an affinity for the Thunder element; and Dane Etudele, who uses a lance, has a Dark core, and an affinity for the Ice element. Maxim had already been moving up rapidly in our ranks, and Dane had been on Liena's radar since they both have musical gifts. Navidan is a quiet sort, but he still stood out quite a bit when compared to others."
They sounded interesting enough, though Evan still felt a bit ambivalent. It just seemed like such a useless exercise; he could keep himself safe and help his sister and Sayena at the same time. Robert as well. What possible benefit could there be to adding these newcomers?
Genevieve opened the throne room doors and led her two males inside. Standing partway through the room was the familiar figure of Jayden and three unfamiliar figures. All wore uniforms of black and pink; it marked them as being the highest rank in the Royal Knights. Only those in the highest echelon got to wear the colors of Protea herself.
They made something of an interesting collection. Maxim had silver eyes, opal hair, and brown skin distributed over a height only a few inches taller than Evan's five-nine. Jayden, of course, had emerald eyes and lavender hair paired with fair skin and a height barely less than Maxim. Dane had peridot eyes, yellow-blond hair, and tanned skin across the same height as Jayden. Navidan was the tallest of the lot by an inch or two, and had onyx eyes, auburn hair, and burnished coal skin.
Evan had never been the shy type. He walked forward calmly and told the Commanders, "I won't make your life easy."
The four men grinned in turn, and Maxim naturally stepped forward since the other three had asked him to be lead. He started to speak, but then he looked into the protea pink eyes watching him. A sudden and searing wave of powerful love welled up inside his soul before he could stop it. He had never even imagined it could be there. Evan needed him, and he needed Evan. They two had souls that overlapped. "If we wanted easy," he said softly, "we would not be here, my prince."
Evan looked into the silver eyes facing him, and the wrenching tore through his soul in a familiar tangle. Love that rivaled what he felt for Shanae and Sayena. He had a twin soul. That one special person who would love him most. He hesitated for a moment before walking closer to Maxim. There he paused, not sure of his actions.
His twin made it easy on him by reaching out to hug him tight. The tension left Evan as he held on in turn. It was not always easy for Dark elements to express themselves, especially the more deeply they loved. He turned his head to smile at the other Commanders, and he could feel a sense of happiness that the Dual Defenders had never given him. The princesses were only his friends. The Commanders were his companions and brothers. "I'm glad to meet you," he said simply.
Genevieve could only let out a breath of relief that her Sight had not led her wrong. She and Matthew had been hoping Maxim would be Evan's twin! The two High Princes deserved that sort of love, too. And at least Maxim would find his task easier than whatever may befall Robert's twin! "Welcome aboard, gentlemen," she said dryly, "and may Destiny