"It makes no sense," Justin said a few days later as he turned over the 'Closed' sign on the front door of his shop. He looked over his shoulder to where his three best friends stood, and he gestured vaguely with one of his hands. "I mean . . . it's Shana."
Doug twirled a yellow candle between his fingers as he mused, "How could a woman that can't hate and can't make enemies be targeted for murder? I've never met anyone who didn't sing her praises. I don't think anyone can hate her. If we were entering into another war, I could possibly see this as a strange route for an enemy to take, but it was obviously a human that did it because no one sensed evil."
"Not that kind of evil, anyway," Michael muttered. The lighter dose of evil inside mankind would forever be his bane until it could be erased as well. "It has us all stumped at the station, too." He stared at the papers he had spread over the top of the front counter. It was technically confidential, but confidentiality could go to hell where the protection of the Protea Kingdom was concerned.
"What theories were thrown out there?" Justin asked.
"The initial favorite was the unfortunately common idea that it had to be her fiancé. And, to be fair, if one half a couple is attacked for seemingly no reason, it is usually their lover. But in this case, that's very not true. To prove it, I brought my partner, Suri, to the hospital. She took one look at Rocky and changed her mind."
Nathaniel sighed. "Of course she did. Rocky hasn't budged from Shana's side for days. Siobhan is almost as hard to pry away, but at least she has Edgar to divert her. If it weren't for Juliet and Sam working in tandem, I don’t think Rocky would be eating. In fact, he really isn't. He's terrified to sleep, too, for fear that even that will make him lose his grip on Shana."
Michael nodded a bit. "Edgar is only in slightly better shape. Gin told me that Alexandria is about the same as Edgar. Exhausted, but they are eating and sleeping. Shana does improve by the day, and Kellie and Siobhan were able to lessen some injuries, but she still won't wake. There's some threshold she just can't pass."
"In the meantime, we have to figure out how we got here!" Doug huffed out a breath. "Do we have anything? Anything that stands out?"
"There's only one oddity I've managed to uncover, which I may not have thought to look at if I wasn't so close to her and Edgar." Michael slid the documents in question across the counter toward Nathaniel. "Take a look, Nate. You've been getting as deeply into a certain situation as Clara has. You know the ropes."
Nathaniel leaned over to look, and his eyes narrowed. "Interesting."
Justin glanced over the counter to see what they were looking at and saw a statement from a trust bank account. "She's used her trust fund for years now, though. She and Edgar have had personal access to it since they were twenty-one, and Octavia had permission to access it for them up until that point. Clara made sure of that one from the start. What's different about this now?"
"She didn't take money out of the account." Nathaniel tapped a finger on the paper. "I'm also aware of how the trust operates. It brings in money automatically from Chivanti Corporation every month as per the stipulations of Randall Chivanti's will. The amount is fixed and does not vary no matter what else is going on. It does not actually have an interest rate on the account because of its formulation, so she has no reason to put anything in. She and Edgar are better off putting their money in personal accounts to reap the government's preference for good saving practices. But . . . she put money into the trust fund recently. An odd move, unless the account would be changing, and it would only change if the company itself changed."
"Well, the company will change," Doug noted reasonably. "I think we all know by now that she and Edgar intend to reclaim their family company once she becomes an adult and can control her portion of the company shares." As soon as he said it, his eyes narrowed as well. "Wait. If the board saw her putting money in the trust as a sign of that intent, and they don't want to give up control, wouldn't that be a viable motive for one of the members to attempt to murder her before she becomes an adult? Per the will, Nate, what happens to her ownership if she dies?"
"It falls first to her children if she has any, her spouse second, and her brother third." Nathaniel reached for his PPS. "Son-of-a-bitch. I'm calling Sam."
"No need to call," Sam drawled from the doorway. "I deliver!" He walked in with his three partners close behind. "We've been holding down things on the outside until we knew you lot would be meeting up. We caught the last end of that. Rocky is in as much danger as Shana or Edgar?"
"Possibly," Michael agreed. "And we will put a closer watch on Edgar if we're right about Chivanti Corporation being behind this. Right now it's nearly pure speculation. We can't forget that Chivanti effectively owns Lux and therefore the landmass as almost a whole. Not only can we not point fingers without incredible evidence, we have to be careful because of Shana and Edgar's intent to take the company back. They haven't even really actually confirmed more than being connected to the company to anyone. They've been all but silent over things until the last month, and even then, they've only just let Siobhan and Rocky into their confidence, as well as Clara and Nate."
Uwe nodded. "I agree about discretion. Which is why I think that perhaps we take advantage of Chance's job and have him get a couple of us in to take a look around. We might be able to lay hands on something useful. I think it's less important right now to prove wrongdoing to the justice system than to prove wrongdoing so we know how to protect our princes and queens. We need to be able to keep them safe for just two months until December when Shana becomes a full, legal, adult."
Tyson held up a hand. "Diaz and I can go with Chance. We tend to be the ones quickest underestimated since we look the youngest." They actually were the youngest, other than Justin. He would be turning twenty-seven in December, and the other two had just had their birthdays in that month. "Maybe Sam, too. We'll get in, look around, get out, and bring back anything we find to you guys here." He grinned. "Want it in writing, Nate?"
"You always were a smartass," Justin sighed.
"And you expected that to change?"
Hard to say fairer than that.
The building that housed Chivanti Corporation sat in the center of Lux and rose up over the city around it like a silent sentinel. At over thirty stories high, with over sixty different branches located within, it was both an interior designer's best dream and worst nightmare. Yvonne had more than once joked she would not touch it with a mile-long pole—unless paid properly. One could not blame her since whoever had done the designing had decided to make all floors mostly identical with only color schemes to tell them apart. People still got lost fairly easily.
The board of trustees had once been merely overseers and advisors who reported back to the owners for actual decisions. After Randall's death twenty years before, the trustees had moved in to take complete control. Ostensibly to make sure no one suffered without the owner of the company, but considering that ownership brought with it more pay and prestige, it seemed unlikely they had acted entirely out of the goodness of their hearts—especially considering what had happened after Randall and his wife's death.
Shana and Edgar had been lucky to get Octavia as their nurse. She had determined to bring them home with her because they needed love, and because she had known even then they would be special to her own children. She had encountered mounds of difficulty from the trustees, who had tried to convince her and the government alike that the two orphans would be better in the Care House. Clara's 'timely' intervention had removed that issue, and Octavia had taken the two children home as her own.
Sam tipped down his sunglasses as he studied the building before him. Neither Randall, nor Octavia, nor Clara had taken any risks with the future of the company or the rightful owners. He sure as hell did not intend to change that personally. None of the Commanders or Defenders would take risks either. When Shana and Edgar walked into the meeting on her birthday, at least one bodyguard other than the two legal advisors would be present.
"Do we really doubt it could be anyone else?" Diaz muttered.
"Not really," Sam admitted. "But we're going to play by at least some of the rules." He smiled as he saw Chance approaching. "There you are. Are we clear?" His smile faded as he realized Chance looked a little more grim than usual. "Chance?"
"Aldan called me," Chance said without preamble as he stopped in front of the three Commanders. "Since he knew I'd be seeing you shortly. It would seem that someone is very like her mother with a strong dose of her father thrown in. Rachel actually knew more than she let on recently, and Aldan just now got it out of her."
Sam tensed. "Shit. A Librarian only withholds that sort of information when she knows she should not change things or interfere even if she could. I don't think Rachel felt at all comfortable with that position."
"That's what Aldan said, too. The long and short of it is that while Rachel did not lie when she said she had not known these things would happen, she neglected to mention then that the fluctuation that had sent off the Hall and smelled like a Pivot that had sent her back, that had effectively frozen the past for almost fourteen years with no one's notice . . . was the fact that Shanae in the Resurrection Era began to flicker."
Tyson tensed. "Flicker? You mean as if she might disappear?"
"That was how Aldan described it." Chance's hands curled into fists briefly. "I don't think the second Pivot had to do with Rachel."
Sam had honestly been wondering the same time. "It did, to some extent, because her presence here led to the events of her finding Aldan and recovering us Commanders, but the Pivot began before she needed to come back. She had even said it, that someone had done something that put the future into a place where it literally hinged on something here. So while she definitely represents the aspect of a Pivot where the future effects the past, she's not at the core of it this time." He took a long breath. "Shit. The second Paradoxal Pivot is around Shana. She is the Cultivator with a choice. Destiny is giving her the choice to take freedom."
"What freedom?" Diaz asked with a hue of bitterness. "There is no freedom for Shana as long as evil will continue to exist. Destiny might be telling her that she can die and be free, but Shana will never be able to accept that. The Apex of Dark, not die in battle?" He shook his head. "The only way she will ever go out for good without completely destroying her soul is if she goes out fighting."
"So we can logically assume she will choose life," Tyson said, "but that doesn't change the fact that we have to ensure she gets to keep that choice. And . . . I'm feeling a little sick. Rachel arrived here months ago, right?"
Sam slowly nodded. "That means that if the trustees are behind this, they've been planning it for a long while now. They just chose to act now when they saw an actual threat. But that might be a good things, friends. The longer they have planned, the more detailed they were, the easier they will be to catch." He turned to Chance. "Let's get inside."
Chance nodded and led the way to the entrance. He used his badge to unlock the door and then he took all three Commanders past the Security Office where he could have them put down as temporary consultants on security issues. It gave all of them a badge they could use to get into most places. That in hand, they split into two teams in order to 'evaluate' the building and where it needed 'improvements.'
Sam and Tyson headed down one hallway while Chance and Diaz went down another. Diaz had been half-hoping to go with one of the others besides Chance, though. Not that he disliked Chance; far from it. They had actually been as much of friends as one could be with Chance back in the Royal Era, and this Era had put that back into place. It just felt . . . a little awkward for Diaz under these circumstances. The whole changing of Commanders, and everything around Chance's own brother. Not to mention Diaz personally knew what had happened at the end to Chance, since he had been there for it. They had gone together to find Vermillion.
Perhaps it may have surprised Diaz, but Chance actually felt fond of him. He always had. Truthfully . . . he had often thought that maybe Hannah and Quint should have just waited until Diego was a little older so he could be appointed. As much as Chance had loved his brother, he had known Vermillion just didn't fit the role of Commander. He himself would not have either. "Diaz. Stop thinking about it."
It made Diaz smile. "Was I that obvious?"
"It was a relatively logical assumption considering the circumstances." He shrugged. "I think we both know my brother was an idiot, and that you should have always been a Commander. I can't work up resentment for you because of that, and I know you won't talk about what happened at the end. So get over it."
"Weirdly, just clearing the air does make it better, so I think I can promise that." He stopped when Chance did and glanced in the window beside a door. "What's here?"
"Her name is Ness. She's a secretary that handles financial paperwork for some of the trustees." Chance glanced in the window. "I don't think it will hurt to see the finances for the last week, and us asking for them is far less suspicious than say Edgar under these circumstances. If we don't see anything, we take it to Nathaniel."
Diaz quirked a brow. "You think she'll just hand them over?"
Chance looked back at him. "If you ask."
"Oh, right. Make me lay on the charm. Why me?"
"Because you can pull it off without looking stupid or coming across as creepy. I won't tell Alexandria about it."
"Ha. She'll just laugh her ass off at me." Diaz smoothed his hair back and then walked into the office.
Chance got the amusement of watching poor Ness nearly trip over her own tongue as the handsome racer turned up the charm to max. Chance could hear nothing through the door, but Diaz returned within a few minutes with a handful of papers. "Dare I ask what you said?"
"I told her we were looking for the recent expenses to see where we could increase security. It would be so terrible if a pretty lady like her might be unsafe because rabble rousers felt the Corporation an easy target. It would break my heart, you know?"
Chance almost smiled. "I'll call Sam." He pulled out his PPS and said, "Samuel Castlera." After it connected, he said, "We have some interesting things. Anything on your side?"
"Nothing expressly useful. We'll hope you've got what we need. We'll meet you downstairs. By the way, tell Diaz that whoever he was flirting with just called her best friend down here, and the giggling has reached maximum force. Nice job."
Diaz coughed, and Chance closed the phone. They made their way back to the security desk, met with Sam and Tyson, and turned the temporary badges back in. The paperwork had been tucked into Diaz's bag for safety. Chance let the three Commanders head back for Justin's shop without him, and instead headed to briefly report to Virginia. He had promised her he would keep her in the loop, too.
Sam walked into the charm shop past the construction in the empty space next door that would soon house Sherry, and he discovered all four of the Protea Commanders looked far paler than when they had left, and so did Uwe. "What happened while we were gone?"
Doug glanced at Michael, got a nod, and then glanced then back. "Rachel went to visit Shana. She went to take her hand, and she had a vision enter right into her mind. Dropped her flat."
Sam would have bolted for the door to go check on his daughter if Tyson and Diaz had not grabbed him. He still dragged them a step. "Let me go," he told them sharply. "It's become rarer for that to happen to her, and it's not a good sign for it to happen to a Librarian under these circumstances!"
"Samuel," Uwe said with all calmness, "calm down. Leave it to her Caretaker, Dad. She woke up fairly short order after the collapse. She's already recovering under the care of both Aldan and Clara alike, and possibly Juliet because someone mentioned hot soup."
Sam sighed and stopped struggling, and his other friends slowly let go. In a mutter, Justin said, "Thank you for not ruining my shop. It's already messy because of the work next door."
"You're welcome." Tyson frowned. "What did Rachel see?"
Doug made a little gesture. "Yvonne said that Sherry tried to help her work through it, but she just could not put it into words. She could only describe it as Shana fighting inside her soul. Physically fighting back against her metaphysical inner demons. Rachel called it a 'nightmarish chaos' at best and the deepest hell at worst."
"Nemesis," Diaz murmured.
"And Mania." Sam took a long breath. "I got Clara to tell me everything, even the things that Rocky himself did not know." He cursed viciously. "It wasn't pleasant. Shana had to go into the Heart of Chaos to disperse it with her Whisper of Hope." He knew from the way the others winced that they understood what it meant. "The things she suffered then have wounded her as deeply as the wounds left by Nemesis. Perhaps deeper. Whether she destroyed him or not, Nemesis is still a part of her. Nightmares, for her, are more than just that. She knows what they can become. She serves willingly as the filter for the Ephemeral Plane to lessen the excess of either good or bad dreams, but she knows. She knows what an imbalance could become."
"He'll never truly be gone for her," Nathaniel murmured sadly. "In some way or another, he'll always exist."
"She needs to cry." Doug nodded a bit as the others looked at him in surprise. "She needs to cry. It's been on my mind for a while now. She bottles it all up inside her and lets it fester in her soul. We've been frustrated by her and her brother for five millennia over the way they just won't cry if they need. Justin, didn't you say that you'd envisioned her soul as a pressure vessel ready to blow?"
"Yeah, right before the accident. Maybe this'll forcefully open the top." Speaking of nightmarish visions; that one had not been pleasant. He looked at Sam. "Report to Rocky with everything we've been thinking. She lets him get away with things no one else can, and he can make her do things that even Alexandria can't. Shana needs to cry." A smile touched his lips. "Everyone needs to cry at some point, but I think Cultivators—especially Defenders—need it more than most. Maybe because they're so much more than most others. I guess that's why they have Caretakers."
"To be sure," Diaz agreed. "We hold their souls together, and we protect their hearts. And speaking of protecting fragile Cultivators," he stepped forward and tossed the packet of papers on the counter, "take a look at what we found.
Nathaniel and Michael spread out the papers to quickly thumb through them. They did not know what to look for, so they looked at everything. Nothing stood out as being particularly significant, until Michael came across an odd little record that would normally be unassuming—if there had not been a witness. He looked sharply at Tyson. "Describe the carriage again."
The memory had been burned so deeply into Tyson that not even Clara could have removed it. "Brand new, dark blue, made in Axium. So squeaky clean it sparkled. Solar engine, as is normal in Lux. I will never forget that carriage. In fact, I think could give you half of the identifying plate. It had L for Lux as its place of registry, A for Axium as its place of origin, and then the numbers 4 and 9 followed by the letter V."
Something not quite a smile tugged at Michael's lips. "Which you could testify to if this went into the governmental court?" He tapped a finger on the sheet before him. "Suri and I will have to go find this the more conventional way, but this is damned condemning. On the date of the accident, Chivanti Corporation purchased a brand new dark blue solar engine carriage from a place that carries Axium models. It was taken out an hour before the accident and returned an hour after. It was put into the garage for dents in the rear bumper and hasn't been used since."
"I'd have sunk it," Sam mused.
"Which is why I'm glad you're on the side of good," the investigator retorted dryly. He looked at Diaz. "Lex works at one of the bigger and more prestigious EC shops in Lux. Ask her to report to me any dark blue model carriages brought in for any measure of damage repair. She might be hot to temper, but she is damn sure not stupid."
"That sounds like a perfectly logical request," Uwe said, "since eyewitness said it was a dark blue carriage. And, oh, how terrible, if she happens to report one, and it turns out to be owned by Chivanti. Which you, as a close friend to Edgar and Shana, know can't be a coincidence."
Michael nodded. "And while I would normally have been removed from this case because of my personal involvement, Suri argued adamantly to keep me assigned because she knows I'm rational and not quick to act without thinking." He shook his head a bit fondly. "I asked to work with the most senior member since I have a lot of skill. They stuck me with a sassy woman old enough to be my mother, and she's a dream to work with. We make a good team. I think we can take just enough time to get Shana and Edgar the takeback they deserve."
Sam nodded. "Good. For now, I'll report to Rocky if you want to report to Edgar. I'll also tell Rocky about what we suspect as far as Shana's survivors' stress is concerned. I think we'd be better off handling that once she is more physically healthy and we can bring in a spiritual healer to help with the potential fallout. Crying is fine, but it's going to be fairly terrible on her if those wounds are soul-deep. Like Physical Healing, sometimes you need help."
"We have a spiritual healer?" Doug asked in surprise. "The only one I remember ever knowing was . . . oh," he added softer, as he remembered who that person had been, and what Shana and Rocky had told him about the quest to find his stone of Dark. "That's right."
Sam glanced around at his friends and then said to Michael, "This is very clearly not going to be the end. Consider it a direct order that we do whatever is within our means to protect the Protea Kingdom, which we of Delphinium will be directly involved with as needed. Once Shana is out of this danger, there may well be another attempt."
Justin nodded, and then smiled a bit. "Those trustees had been damn well hope it is Michael or Suri, or a Commander, that gets to them first. Because if it happens to be one of the Defenders, they may well discover what it means to suffer a fate worse than death."