The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 11


Juliet stood on the edge of a pathway that curved around the waterfall inside one of Vericity's many lush parks and watched the water quietly. She still hadn't quite gotten up enough bravery to approach Nathaniel Matica even though she had been staying in the city for the last three days. She just . . . felt so unsure of herself whenever she would draw close to where he worked.

She honestly had a rather terrible track record where men were concerned. It was not uncommon for Defender Cultivators of any gender to be more than a little intimidating to normal people, but she had often felt she took it to an extreme. The few times she had tried to go on perfectly normal dates with the hopes of finding her soul mate had only ended with said date running from her as fast as they could, sometimes almost literally.

Of course, hindsight said that she might have been subconsciously warning them off because her soul knew they were wrong, but hindsight had little effect on over six years of emotional scarring. Logic said she should absolutely not scare off Navidan—he had never been intimidated by her—but logic so rarely ever penetrated nerves.

She had felt Shana and Rocky pass through the city. She had really, really almost contacted them to ask for interference, but damned if she wouldn't do this on her own! She was a fully grown adult woman, the Defender Cultivator of Thunder, and the Dual Cultivator of her beloved Gladiolus. She was a queen. This bundle of nerves really did not belong, damn it. Not for the first time, she emphasized with Clara and Yvonne alike. She really, really understood how they felt when anxiety tried to take over. At least she seemed to be better at shrugging it off than they were.

She swung around and began to walk back into the city. Honestly, she still did not entirely know how things had happened in the Royal Era where her soul mate was concerned. If she reflected back to their first meeting, she had to admit it had been under terrible circumstances and she had very not been at her best. In fact, she had been sort of beating the hell out of a would-be burglar or kidnapper on the Gladiolus Kingdom grounds. How very princess-like of her! Navidan had seemingly not noticed her messy and dirty state, or perhaps he had not cared. He had simply given her that . . . slow heart-melting smile of his and calmly introduced himself.

He had been only recently appointed as Commander. Very recently, so she had not met him yet. She had also been just sixteen, so she hadn't really had the capacity to be attracted to him, or really he to her. Yet something had been there. Something special. And how she had resisted things when desire had come into play on both sides! But he had waited. Patiently, and after she had become an adult, he had calmly gone to put himself on her suitor list. Her rather empty list, she reflected then wryly, but that had been okay because he was the only one she had really wanted.

Thinking about the past only made her fret more about the future. She needed to act. She could at least again walk past where he worked and maybe get just a glimpse of him. It couldn't hurt to do that. No one would notice her out there.

Nathaniel Matica had the bothersome distinction of being as handsome as he was wealthy. He had gotten the right permissions to be a legal advisor, but since Vericity had a propensity toward catching fire, and he had a protective nature, he had instead decided to work as a fire guardian and help put them out. Or rather, while his coworkers put them out, he undertook the far riskier task of going into burning buildings to rescue those trapped inside.

His softly glowing coal skin, short auburn hair, and black eyes had attracted more than one person in his life, but he had turned down all offers. People had finally accepted that he just did not feel a need for that sort of companionship, but the truth was more complex: his soul still felt the claim of his Cultivator from five thousand years before, and he could not stomach the idea of even unintentionally cheating on her.

He scraped both hands over his face before dropping his head on his desk. He tried not to think of the past while on duty, but sometimes it was hard to make himself forget entirely. It had been difficult enough before Sam had tracked him down and, in his own unique way, bent his ear about coming home. Nathaniel wanted to go home, wanted to be where he belonged with his lover and his prince, but . . . without his Thunder magic gift or his weapon, he may as well have just been a liability.

A low whistle of appreciation caught his attention, and he looked up to see several other guardians trying to crowd around a window. They were attempting to look outside without being seen. "She's gorgeous," one said distinctly on a sigh.

"She looks legal," another said a bit hopefully. "We could draw straws to see who goes to talk to her."

Nathaniel lifted a brow and walked over to them. "What are we on about now?" His accent had the familiar warmer and thicker sounds of Vericity's higher class living, echoing back to his life growing up, but he actually had picked up some of the more rhythmic edges of his coworkers, so he almost reached a halfway point between the two. Rather like himself personally, really.

"We don't know her," one said cheerfully, "but we sure would like to! Take a look." She moved aside so Nathaniel could squeeze in. "Isn't she beautiful? You rarely ever see hair that particular shade of yellow, and she seems to have really lovely green eyes. I'm such a sucker for green eyes. She's been out there every day for the last few days, but she's never come in. Maybe she's shy." Absently she added, "Do you think we could coax her in with some iced tea? It's pretty hot out there."

Nathaniel ducked his head to look out the window and felt his heart stop dead in his chest. "Julianna," he breathed in shock. She looked almost the same as she had in the Royal Era. Her olive skin absorbed the sunlight without ever once changing hue, and her body looked as graceful as it did strong. She used a staff in battle, but she had always guiltlessly used her hands and feet as well. She could be as unpredictable as her stormy element.

Her gaze shifted to the window and their eyes locked. She went pale, her eyes widening. Her lips parted as if to say something and then she whirled and ran away down the street. He cursed sharply and ducked around his friends as fast as he could. "Julianna!" he shouted as he jerked the front door open. He was too late. She still moved as fast as lightning.

"Uh, Nate?" One of his friends walked over and cleared his throat. "You want to explain that?"

"It's a very long story." He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to find the easiest way to explain. Carefully, he said, "I knew her a long time ago. We were . . . together. Some terrible things happened, and we were forced to part. I've never forgotten her though, and I guess she never forgot me."

"You know," a woman said musingly, "that starts to make sense of a lot about you. I just felt as if you missed someone rather than that you didn't need anyone." She grinned. "Go find her, and bring her here to meet us! She must be special if you love her that much."

Alarms began to blare over their heads. Through a speaker came the secretary's voice, "Fire on East Riverwalk Street. Two carriages report as well as two paramedics and one rescue. I repeat . . ."

Nathaniel cursed and grabbed his jacket as he ran toward the garage. Of all the damned timing! He jumped into one of the carriages outfitted with hoses and tanks of water, and held on tight as they set out into the streets and then into the lane specifically for emergency vehicles. Every call, he missed the old days of heavy magic use for it had allowed for the removal of fire much faster and more safely. At least they had regained some ground with the special carriages.

The house already resembled a blazing inferno by the time they arrived, and people had gathered outside. Letting those fit to use the hoses do their job, Nathaniel instead went over to where a legal officer stood with a crying couple. "Rescue fire guardian," he told them. "I was called specifically. Who am I rescuing?"

"Our son!" the woman sobbed. "He's three. I couldn't find him when the fire started! I called and called and he didn't answer and the fire kept spreading and we had to leave. But—but," she drew a hiccupping breath, "there's someone else in there! A woman. She went in after him."

"There was no stopping her," one of the officers said helplessly. "She didn't understand Vericin and I don't understand Protean. She understood hand gestures though."

"She was worried. I tried to tell her why I was crying." The woman turned her face into her husband's shoulder. "I didn't expect her to go into danger! Please! Get them both!"

Nathaniel grabbed his gear as terror coiled in his heart. Curses echoed viciously inside his mind as he pulled on his specialized face mask that had a tank of air attached to protect him from the smoke. He knew who had gone in. Who else would it have been? Who else in the area was a protector to her literal core, chosen by a planet to be Defender of all that lived? If they came out of this intact, he would yell at her until she promised never to do this again.

The flames and smoke looked not as strong on the back of the house. He knocked the door open and then began to make his way inside. The hoses had already begun their job and kept things from getting worse. He had to pray to the gods that the worst had not already happened. He moved methodically, though quickly, and checked all rooms. "Julianna!" he shouted, using her old name not just because he did not know her new one, but because it would be the quickest to gain her attention despite language barriers.

Finally, faintly, he heard, "Navi!"

Relief nearly brought him to his knees. He followed her voice until he found her kneeling on the floor of the living room with a little boy clutched protectively in her arms. She had used her jacket to cover his face, and she had donned her Mask to call armor to protect herself. She burned with yellow and green magic as storm clouds moved around her protectively to keep the fires at bay. Calling the clouds as a Ruler had been her only option since her Defender magic lay in solely offensive categories.

"Juli," he said a bit hoarsely as he moved to her side. He switched to standard Protean in hopes of being understood. "You should have . . ." He trailed off as he saw that the metal of her armored boot had been melted away, and the skin beneath had been burned terribly. In fact, she had been burned to the bone. He felt sick wondering how bad it may have been without the armor. "Shit. We need to get out of here. Can you hold the clouds if you unMask?"

"Yes," she answered him, relieved he spoke more than Vericin. She removed her Mask and returned it to the bracelet where it belonged. She then took a little breath of surprise as Nathaniel lifted her and the boy alike into his arms. He stood at Shana's height, and didn't look that powerful, but he had an impressive amount of strength packed into his body. She flashed suddenly back to watching him literally haul away a kicking and struggling Shanae, and she found herself smiling.

He ran them back through the house as fast as he dared, and he dove out the back door just before a piece of flaming roof fell and struck them all. He stumbled a few steps and then fell to the grass with her sheltered in his arms and the boy safely caught between them.

"Nathaniel!" The paramedics had been standing near and they rushed over swiftly. "You are insane sometimes!" The woman knelt and took the boy from Juliet. "Good job," she told the other woman warmly, knowing her tone would convey her meaning more than her words.

The other paramedic knelt with a frown to look at Juliet's ankle. It was even uglier without the armor to hide it, and her denims had been burnt fairly terribly too. "This looks pretty nasty. Let's get it cleaned up." He began to clean the wound as gently as possible, and he knew from the way she winced that it hurt like hell. "You're a brave woman. Maybe as insane as Nate here, but brave."

Juliet looked at Nathaniel helplessly. "I don't speak Vericin," she told him in Protean. It felt easier to focus on her language barriers than the urge to throw herself into his arms and never let go again. When she had seen him burst through the door ready to rescue her against all odds, she had been overwhelmed by the well of love inside. Nothing had changed. Ever. He was still her perfect Caretaker.

Unaware of her turmoil—he had his own—he told the paramedic, "She only speaks Protean."

"Well, hell, I failed that class." The paramedic frowned. "Can you translate for me? We have plenty of staff at the hospital who speak Protean, so she'll be fine there, but I want her to know she needs to go there for stitches, and I'm worried about potential blood loss and shock."

Nathaniel obligingly translated, and Juliet scowled. "I hate hospitals." She would have much preferred calling Kellie or Siobhan, or, hell, even Rocky! Still, she knew she had no choice. "Fine," she sighed.

He had to smile as he brushed her hair out of her face. It had become a tangled mess. "I will come pick you up from there as soon as I can. Wait for me, alright?"

She turned her face into his touch almost unconsciously. "I will."

The paramedic covered a smile. He did not need to know the words to read the body language. About time Nathaniel made the fall so many worthy folks before him had! And certainly, he had fallen for a woman capable of meeting him halfway. "Are we good?" he asked mildly.

Nathaniel snatched his hand back guiltily. "We are." He asked Juliet, "Him or me?"

Knowing what he really asked, she winced wryly. "You." She held onto his shoulders as he gently picked her up and carried her toward the medical carriage. "I promise to wait for you," she told him softly. "I've been waiting long enough already, haven't I?"

He made haste anyway through everything he had to do. It was still almost the twenty-fourth hour of the night before he finally showered away the grime and smoke and made his way to the hospital. He half-expected her to not be there, but he found her curled up in a chair in the lobby with a blanket tucked around her shoulders. Crutches leaned against the wall beside her.

Softly, a night nurse said, "She refused to take a room when she was nearly perfectly fine except for her ankle. She had agreed to wait for you, so asked for a place where she could do so. She fell asleep a few hours ago so we just tucked her in. She's an amazing woman, Nate. Lot of people talking about how she probably didn't even need your rescue."

"To be sure!" he agreed. "It's why I love her. She so rarely needs me to protect her physically. Mostly, I've always just had to protect her heart and soul. Do you know where she's staying?" He took the card offered, and saw that it was not far away. "Perfect." He stuck the card in his pocket and then walked over to gently gather Juliet into his arms. She was still soot streaked and grimy but just holding her again made a painful relief. She didn't wake, and instead just curled up against him as if she knew who held her.

The nurse carried the crutches out to his carriage and put them in the backseat for him. He gently tucked Juliet into the passenger side and shut the door as quietly as he could. "Thanks again," he told the nurse softly.

Juliet stirred as they parked at the hotel. "Navi?" she asked drowsily.

Desire punched hard into his body but he ignored it as much as he could. "I'm here, love." He went around the carriage and lifted her into his arms. An attentive hotel employee grabbed the crutches and was more than happy to show the way to Juliet's room. She said nothing at all as she kept her head on Nathaniel's shoulder with her eyes closed.

"Here you go," the girl said. "Ring if you need anything."

"Will do." As he let the door shut behind him, he said warmly in Protean, "I'm sure everyone in the entire city is talking about our suitably fiery and romantic story."

Her lips curved. "It's not my fault you turned all dashing Caretaker on me." She sighed. "Let me hobble my way into the shower, please. We can talk once I'm clean."

"First thing's first." He lowered her to her feet and kept one arm around her waist for support. He framed her face with his other hand and bent his head to kiss her as he had dreamed of for years.

Her arms wrapped instantly around his neck as a soft cry of joy locked in her throat. She arched up to deepen the kiss and let the waves of hunger rise and swell inside. It had been too long. Far too long since she had felt this way. Every minute had been worth the wait. He was there with her again. Her chosen mate. Her lover. The one person who would protect her heart and hold her together.

He very slowly broke the kiss. Thickly, he said, "Unless we want to be intimately acquainted before we even know each other's new names, you need to get into that shower. Fast. I'll stay here and torture myself with thoughts of you naked and wet."

She reluctantly let him go and hobbled her way into the bathing room. Her anxiety had evaporated. That kiss had reassured her of everything left for her to worry about. She glanced over her shoulder, saw his black eyes nearly smoldering as he watched her, and felt the answering burn inside herself.

She wasted no time in carefully washing away all the dirt and soot. She couldn't get her bandages wet, but she was creative enough to manage without. First thing she would do as soon as she got home was make one of the healers earn their keep, damn it. She had luckily kept her suitcase in the bathroom, so she dried off her body and hair thoroughly and then picked out an extremely silky nightgown that Sherry had made her as a birthday present. She had always seen it as her 'pick-me-up' because she just liked how she felt in it, but she was realistic enough to know it really flattered her—of course it did since Sherry had made it. She debated perfume, decided it might be overkill, and then left the bathing room.

He had sat down at the small table in the room to flip through an illustrated periodical, and he looked up with a smile at hearing her. The smile faded as every working thought evaporated and his pulse spiked through the roof. "You," he managed to say, "are a devious woman."

"I just felt like making sure you knew exactly what I'm offering. I'm here to coax you home, of course." She sat in the other chair and smiled at him. "You're my Caretaker, Navidan. You are my soul mate. Of course I want to have you with me."

"Nathaniel." He smiled as he said it. "Nathaniel Matica."

"Juliet Diario."

They solemnly clasped hands and then both began laughing. He brought her fingers to his lips and held them there for a moment. "Why did you stand outside the station so long, love? You should have come in to me."

"I was scared," she admitted. "You know me. Anxiety is a creeper. And, well, I've had your normal run of fairly bad luck as a Defender where trying to find a soul mate is concerned. I've been scaring off people, especially men, left and right. Sure, hindsight can tell me probably why, but . . ."

"Hindsight is an asshole that does nothing shut up a mind prone to anxiety. You worried I might spook as well, even though I certainly never did in the past." He smiled. "Juliet, I am not intimidated by a Defender's powerful strength of will. It is impossible for someone Destiny chose to be a Caretaker to be intimidated by any Defender." He thought about it. "Although, to be fair, Shanae is fairly intimidating to everyone."

She laughed. "She's worse now, trust me!"

"I bet." A smile tugged at his lips. "But I will note that as far as you're concerned, you're not as intimidating to people as you think. You had the single folks in my unit going bonkers each time they saw you outside." Her eyes went wide and he laughed. "Seriously. They were going to try to bribe you with tea to come inside and meet everyone."

She winced wryly. "Okay, lesson learned. Next time I just march in and throw myself at you." She huffed out a little breath and turned to something more serious. "Nate, our queens are right now looking for stones of Light and Dark that have your magic and weapon. You will soon be whole and be able to reclaim your rightful place." Her eyes met his. "However, I am here to ask you to reclaim that place now because it is your ability to support me and love me that I need most, and that could never be taken from you. Will you come home to Lux with me?"

He took a long breath. "I can't let you go," he said simply. "Never again. I will come home, and even if my magic could not be regained, I would do everything I could to be a proper Caretaker to you, and a Commander for my prince." He saw lightning move through her eyes suddenly, and his shoulders tensed. "Juli?"

Calmly, she said, "Get down, Nathaniel."

He dropped down out of chair without questioning. A Phantasmat appeared in the room a split second later, and it shot past where he had been sitting. It instead diverted and went after Juliet. She lifted her hands sharply and her staff appeared in her grip just in time to block the claws aimed at her. Sparks crackled over her hair as yellow and green moved up her body. Before the Phantasmat could either power through or get away, lightning bolts shot from Juliet's hair and fried it to ashes that dissolved in the air. She calmly put her staff on the table as the sparks began to dissipate.

Nathaniel slowly gained his feet, torn before laughter and horror. "I, ah, did not know you could use Defender attacks without donning your Mask. Or that you could shoot lighting from your hair."

She shot him a grin. "Defender magic exists inside us at all times and we can use it anytime we need, just like Ruler magic. We just usually put on our Masks first because it's much safer to be armored before pissing evil things off by trying to electrocute them. And because that magic is basically inside us everywhere, I don't need my hands to fire lightning. To aim lightning maybe, but not just fire it."

He picked her up out of her chair and moved her to the side of the bed where he could sit beside her. "So you're in the middle of a war."

"We have been for a bit now. And it is very complicated. I could not wait to come find you, Nate, because you were in trouble. That thing came after you, not me. My presence just made you safer." She rested her head on his shoulder. "We should be safe for now. We can discuss it more later. I'd rather talk about you coming home. Clara says you and she could work together as legal advisors."

"Hmm, I could be willing to do that."

"And Sam said I was supposed to weasel good gifts out of you."

He smiled as he nuzzled at her hair. "I could also be willing to spoil you. What would you like?"

"You, mostly." She laughed as he tumbled her down onto the blankets. "But maybe I wouldn't mind feeling a little more secure. Shana paid for my hotel because I'm barely over assistance threshold. How about you pick us out a home we can share until the Resurrection Era? That would be a nice spoiling gift."

She had always been practical, and it had often been a source of amusement. She and Shanae alike had never been ostentatious and had adamantly refused to wear more than crystals in their hair for formal gatherings. Still, he thought she deserved something sparkling and sassy like herself, so he would have to find something not practical to spoil her with. "That's a fair deal," he told her. Wistfully, he added, "Could I maybe get you to spoil me? I really miss the meals you used to make . . ."

She laughed and threw her arms around him. Only this person was the right one for her, and, finally, she had him back where he belonged. She would never let go of her Caretaker ever again.


* * * * *


"Edgar, it's trying to eat my hair!"

"Ignore it," he responded absently as he read over the map he held.

"Ignore it?!" Siobhan repeated indignantly. She swatted at the large bird that was still trying to get a beak full of her hair. "How do I ignore a bird that's as big as I am and trying to chew on my curls?"

He looked up at that only to discover a large plains bird was indeed gnawing on her hair. The immense feathery beasts happened to be quite docile and like people, so people hiking the plains often got accosted in a friendly manner. He had never quite seen one trying to eat hair though. "Hey!" He swatted at the bird but it just squawked at him indignantly. "Leave off!" he ordered. "Damn it, where's Shana when I need her?"

"Hey, do you two need some help?"

The lively voice had both Siobhan and Edgar looking around in surprise. Quickly approaching on horseback was a vibrant woman with thick mahogany hair stuffed under a wide-rimmed hat. She wore well-used and rugged clothing perfectly suited to the plains, and her vest implied she acted as a warden for them as well by preventing poaching. A whip sat on her hip as additional warning to would-be poachers.

"Yes," Edgar said with relief. "This stubborn ball of feathers won't leave my fiancée's hair alone!"

"It's some fine hair!" The woman stopped her horse and leaned over to swat the bird. "Off with you!" she laughed. It squawked at her, and she swatted at it again. "You heard me! Get along there!"

The bird reluctantly released Siobhan and loped off. With a sigh of relief, Siobhan pulled on her hat again and safely tucked as much of her hair under it as she could. She should have braided it like she normally did! "Thank you," she grumbled.

The woman grinned. "You're welcome." She tilted her hat back on her head. "Sorry 'bout that. He's friendly enough but don't realize some people just don't like being a chew toy. What're you two doing out 'ere, anyway? You're quite a bit off the normal road. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it's a bit odd."

"We're lost," Edgar admitted. "We were looking for some ruins and got lost. We stopped to look at the map and . . ."

"Ha!" She moved her horse closer and held out a hand. "Jane Jackson. It's a pleasure to meet you. My husband and I are wardens of this part of the plains, so we have a house nearby. We also oversee some ruins not far from our home that I think are what you are seeking."

Edgar put the back of his hand on her palm, and his eyes went wide as he felt the unmistakable jolt of majik under her skin punching into his soul. She lifted a brow at him as she sensed his magic in return and then she smiled. "You're . . . not normal," he said carefully.

She tipped her hat at him slightly. Her teal eyes sparkled merrily. "I could say the same. Not every day I find such unique . . . flowers blooming in my plains. Follow me." She turned her horse toward a barely visible path. "I'll take you to the ruins of a home once considered part of the ancient Protea Kingdom."

Edgar and Siobhan followed her down the path, and Siobhan whispered, "How did she know us?"

"She's a witch," he explained just as softly. "Her majik all but punched me. Since witches are primed to recognize magic as well, she knew me."

"Oh." She smiled. "I'm glad we found her then."

"I'm not entirely positive," her lover murmured, "that she didn't find us first."

The ruins sat only ten minutes away. The old, dilapidated building had crumbled to almost nothing, but some of the walls still stood. Siobhan could clearly sense Navidan's presence as she got close. It felt like a crackle of lightning and a rumble of thunder. Without waiting for her Caretaker, she went into the part of the building that still stood.

Edgar started to follow, but Jane put a hand on his arm. "Easy, friend," she said. "She's safe in there. This place is under my protection as well." Power glimmered across her eyes. "Few think to cross me, even your Mother planet. She considers me a friend."

Siobhan didn't notice they stayed outside as she walked around the room slowly. She began to glow softly when she reached the center. It was a glow echoed by another buried partially in the floor. She knelt and began to dig quickly and shortly uncovered the softly pulsing white gem. It crackled with static in her hands as she lifted it.

Quite suddenly, she realized she wasn't alone. She stifled a yelp and turned so fast that she lost her balance and fell on the floor. The man in white stood behind her. "You!" she accused. She started to say more, but the words died as she finally realized why he looked familiar. "You," she said again, but softer. "Are . . . are you dead?"

"Not exactly." His eyes seemed to soften as he looked at her. "Please, hurry. There's not much time left for me. The door is closing."

"Wait!" She scrambled up but he dissolved into the sunlight coming through the ceiling. "Ooh!" She stamped a foot. "I'm going to kick you!" she shouted at the sky. "You know I will! And if I don't, I'll have my big brother do it! He's done it before!"

Irked, she stalked outside. Dead or not dead, he hadn't changed. He was still the big, bad, and brooding pain in the butt he had always been. She had definitely liked him more than Vermillion, sure, and had sort of wished the younger brother had been a Commander instead of the elder, but that made him no less annoying with his inability to show emotion!

"Problem?" Jane asked.

"Long story," Edgar admitted. "Did you find it?" he asked Siobhan.

She held up the stone triumphantly and it let off a pulse of light into the sky. Edgar knelt and touched the ground so that he could track the beam, and he saw it disappear somewhere over a city on Vericity's landmass. "Back to the land of the language you don't speak. Sorry, love."

She groused, "Leave it to Talon to be a weird Dark sort and like cities. Okay, fine." She knelt and wrapped her arms around his neck. "We're almost there though. Just a few left and then you and Rocky will have your Commanders back, and you can enter battle if you need or want to because they'll already be there as Caretakers to the Defenders!" She rested her cheek on his shoulder. To have him be happy, she would go anywhere it took, honestly. They really did have a give-and-take relationship as each other's Caretaker. She looked at Jane and then smiled as she said, "Thank you."

Jane tipped her hat a bit with a matching smile. "You're welcome."


* * * * *


Rocky had thought that there was nothing about Shana that could possibly ever surprise him again.

He was wrong.

When they landed in the middle of the rainforest after using a transport, black-pink power instantly flowed up and over her without control. Her two Marks appeared, as did the crown on her left cheek that echoed to the crowns wrapped around her Flower Marks and identified her as an Apex. The ground burst into riotous bloom with flowers. Animals of all shapes and sizes came running out of the trees and gathered at her feet.

He almost stopped breathing. She looked like a woodland goddess. Like the Daughter of Protea that he knew her to be. When she knelt and wrapped her arms around a large and wild feline's neck, he couldn't find a word to say. A bird landed on the feline's back, but no snarling came. There, with Shana, even natural predator and prey found harmony.

"I can't control my power," she admitted. "Not here. The Nature power is so potent that I can't siphon it off." She stood and began to shimmer darkly. Her clothes dissolved into a swirl of raw darkness and black-pink protea blossoms. Black wings opened from her back and she lifted a bit off the ground. "Do you mind?" she asked softly. "I know an Apex can be a little . . . daunting to others."

He had honestly, legitimately, never seen her in this form for she had taken it after he had died during the Chaos War. He did not feel daunted. He felt humbled. Awed. "How could I mind?" He cupped her cheek tenderly. "Do you know how special I feel to be chosen by the Apex of Dark as her Caretaker?" He kissed her lingeringly and then smiled. "Did I ever tell you Dark power tastes like chocolate?"

"You've mentioned it once or twice." She nibbled on his lip. "Light tastes like marshmallow. I still say we're some crackers shy of dessert."

"You don't like crumbs in bed."

"So itchy!" She began to head through the trees and drifted over the land without touching it. Flowers followed in her wake, and so did the animals. "For the record," she informed him, "this would happen to Siobhan anywhere on Delphinium where either Illusion or Light power excessively overflowed. Just a wee bit too much for us to filter under normal circumstances, so Apex form is easier."

"I had suspected." He crossed his arms and blew out a breath. He felt tired, irritable, and a bit done with the entire ordeal. As terribly as he wanted all of the Commanders back, the constant travel and moving had begun to wear on his not-so-stellar patience. Damn Destiny for making them deal with this! "Let's hurry and find Navidan's stone so we can then find Talon's and then Maxim's and then go home!" he complained. "I want to get some rest. It hasn't even been a real vacation!"

The Apex tucked her tongue in her cheek. "Yes, love."

"I can't tell which hour of the day I'm in anymore, and I can't even remember the day of the week! Protea is too big. It has too many different hours and days."

"It has just the same as Delphinium once had. And it's Thursday. We left on Sunday from Lux."

"Precisely my point," he said in aggravation. "We've been traveling for five days, and we only have roughly four left before my vacation is up at work and I have to go back. I'd like to spend at least a fraction of that time at home with you."

"Mm-hmm."

There was a long silence before he sighed. "Damn it. I'm whining, aren't I?"

She hid a smile. "Well, yes, but since you're really adorable when you do it, I don't mind so much." She looped her arms around his neck and rested against his back to let him carry her along as they walked. She had no friction with the air in this form, so it didn't slow him down.

Silence surrounded them as they walked and only the sound of the forest was audible. It was warm there, and the sense of calm and peace was so strong it felt as though it could literally be absorbed through the skin. The trees packed thick around them, and the branches overhead became a thick canopy of green that let in filtered sunlight that became shadows where they encountered obstacles.

After about an hour of walking, Shana suddenly stopped and closed her eyes as her power hummed around her again. This time it glowed with purpose and there was a second glow from farther ahead of them. They moved quicker and ran toward the source of light to discover a glowing sunflower.

She knelt down next to the flower bud and closed her hands around it. When she opened them again, the bud burst into bloom and revealed the glowing black gem it had been hiding within. She smiled as she picked up the stone and felt it crackle with power in her hand. It shot a beam of dark into the sky that she tracked with her mind's eye until it stopped over, of all places, Axium itself. "Huh. Axium. The city itself. Want to see my first university stomping grounds?"

"No, I want to go home," he grumbled.

"The sooner we find the stones, the sooner we do that."

He sighed. "Axium, it is! But I'm going to make sure the boys know they owe me for this."

She bit back a laugh. "I think that's fair."

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