The summon was imperious. Incessant. It was also vastly annoying.
Jean had been ignoring it for days. Whether it whispered across the wind, shimmered across the sacred water in her ritual room, or etched itself into a mirror after a shower, she ignored it. She only took orders from the Protea Kingdom. Period. Alright, the Delphinium Kingdom, too, to some extent, but the needs of her Protea Rulers outweighed anything else.
As she was cleaning the mirror, she found herself no longer staring at her reflection. She stared at a reflection of her Ruler wearing her crown as High Queen. She looked so eternally sad that Jean wanted to cry out to her. Her queen turned . . . and the mirror cracked right through her image.
Jean recoiled in horror. When her eyes cleared, the mirror looked perfectly fine. She cursed and threw down the towel to go grab the phone. She would take a few days of vacation and head out to Lux. That was a summons she could not ignore.
* * * * *
It had been a week since the accident, and it had begun to feel as if Shana may never wake again. Rocky still never left her side, but the other Cultivators and Commanders alike made sure someone always visited to both support him and to be hopefully sensed by Shana so she felt stronger and safer. Sam, in particular, spent a fair time at the hospital since it seemed he might be the only one who could make Rocky actually eat or sleep. Not even Siobhan had been able to penetrate her brother's grief.
At all times, at least two Defenders and their according Caretakers were watching the hospital to be sure that no one from Chivanti even came close to Shana. While they did not expect someone to be that obvious, they certainly did not want to be wrong about it! That intent focus was why they noticed immediately as a woman who radiated beautiful majik arrived at the hospital.
Alexandria and Diaz left their spot to approach the newcomer, and they found the older woman had to be from Vericity since she reminded them both of Sam and Aldan alike in her way of dressing. She also did not look traditionally beautiful, yet she had a strong attractiveness aided greatly by the way her majik came out through her skin and just made her radiant in a way beyond physicality.
"Hello," Alexandria said in Vericin.
"Nice to meet you," Jean countered in standard Protean. "I'm multi-lingual, so don't worry." She studied Alexandria just as critically from head to toe. "Blue hair and white eyes, freckles, and I can smell the hyacinth flower inside you. A blue hyacinth, which represents being playful and sporty, and maybe rash, but always constant. Airy as well, to be sure. There's also a black-pink lattice overlaying half your soul, which houses a clear Seed, so you must be Alexandria Urias, former and future Arista Hyacinth, queen of the same and twin soul to Shana. Which means the guy next to you has to be Diaz Francisco, formerly Diego Santiago, your Caretaker who is also the newest Commander of Delphinium."
Alexandria opened her mouth and then closed it, for once in her life speechless. "How . . . you . . ." She looked at Diaz, who looked just as surprised. "What the hell?"
Jean calmly hooked a finger under the chain of her necklace and pulled up the pendant she wore. "This is how."
Alexandria felt her heart stop briefly as she recognized the small dragon charm. "You're Liena's direct descendant," she breathed. "Shana said she'd found you. I honestly wasn't expecting you to be this powerful. I can feel it in the very air around you, even without touching you." It burned in the air.
"So I've been told." Jean tossed back her hair. "Look, I'm not happy. For last week I've been forcefully summoned against my will. I had a vision recently that," her voice broke, then steadied, "that scared the crap out of me. I've traveled a hell of a distance to be here; Vericity isn't around the corner, you know. Do you know why I've been summoned?"
Alexandria slowly shook her head. "No, but I'm not surprised you felt a call. You are the High Priestess of Protea."
"Take her inside," Diaz told her softly. "I'll continue watch out here."
She nodded at him in agreement and then gestured for Jean to follow her. They fell into step together easily as they walked into the hospital. Never one to beat around a subject—rash had been an accurate word—she said, "Shana was in a carriage accident and nearly killed."
Jean's eyes went from auburn to almost gray so fast that Alexandria felt slightly taken aback. Sure, witches had the best odds of that unseen Gray core occurring, but it never had. However, a second look told her that as close as Jean's eyes edged to gray, they did not hit the full threshold. They still had more black than white. Still, unnerving.
"What the hell happened?" Jean demanded in a low voice.
"The carriage in question hit her." That was all Alexandria would say on the subject. It made her furious to know someone had deliberately set out to hurt Shana. If it weren't for the fact that she had been placed under strict orders from Siobhan and Virginia to not do anything, she would have gone and killed the bastards responsible already. "Go find her room—it's A-3—and talk to Rocky. Maybe he knows what summoned you."
Jean nodded curtly and continued down the hall. Her arrival had made her confusion grow rather than ebb. She had thought about things on the boat, and she had been mostly sure the power summoning her had come from Shana. It had felt like Shana's power, that tangle of Dark and Nature. Yet when she considered it now, there had been no harmony between Dark and Nature. The Nature had overwhelmed the Dark. That was not Shana.
Rocky automatically looked up when the door opened. He blinked. Blinked again. "Jean?"
"Yeah. Don't worry, you're not losing your mind." She walked in and studied him critically. "Though it looks like your hold on reality is slipping by the minute." She bent and pressed a hand to his forehead. "You're at the end of your rope, kid." She had just passed thirty, so she only had little less than five years of age on Rocky, but she had always felt older than her age dictated.
He just closed his eyes. "She's a breathing part of me," he said rawly. "I don't think I realized even now how badly I can't live without her. Even when I sacrificed myself to protect her . . . it didn't hurt like this. I could still see her, hear her, have her smile . . ."
She knelt in front of him. "Look at me," she ordered. His eyes met hers, and she forcefully pushed her majik into his soul. "If you waste away, then she will have nothing to return to." Her melodic, powerful, voice became as soothing as a spring breeze. "Take my gift of Illusion. I give it freely."
He could not have resisted the compulsion under full health let alone his weakened state. Her power filled him and began to bolster him in the areas he had felt so drained. Strength started pouring back in, and he took a long breath. "I see now why having a High Priestess is critical to Shana. She knew there were things you could do that we cannot. I didn't know a witch could give her majik to a Cultivator to restore them."
"I can actually do it with anyone by converting one of my elements to match the Cultivator. It's a quirk of majik being much more flexible than magic. It takes a witch capable of resonating with Cultivators, though, and so far it has seemed as if only my lineage has that ability. I guess everyone has a purpose in life." She dug in her backpack and emerged with a healthy meal bar and a bottle of water. "Eat."
"No chocolate?" he complained, but he obligingly began to eat the snack.
"You can be such a baby." She stepped over to look down at Shana, and her face tightened with anger.
"How'd you get in here, anyway?" he asked. "The nurses have been picky about visitors. Shana is pretty special since Mom works here, so while some rules got bent, others are being watched even closer."
"I have Illusion, remember? No one sees me unless I want them to." She gently touched Shana's cheek and sent her majik probing for her friend's soul. She was instantly slapped by a fierce surge of Dark power and snatched her hand back. "She didn't summon me. I was fairly sure when I got here, but I'm positive now. If she didn't then who did?"
The voice sounded so nearly identical to Shana's that both Jean and Rocky looked where Shana was lying. She hadn't moved, and nothing had changed on the monitors watching over her.
Jean sneezed suddenly. Rocky eyed her oddly as she proceeded to sneeze two more times in a row. "Sorry," she said. "Ah-choo!"
A sudden chill swept through the room as if the door had opened. When both looked over, the door still sat firmly shut. They glanced at Shana, then back at the door, and went very still as they saw someone had simply materialized from thin air.
She looked identical to Shana. The same height. The same curvy figure paired with strong musculature guaranteed to stop traffic. The same fine black hair, though it only hung to her waist. The same protea pink eyes. The same golden-brown skin. The same face, down to even the little dimple in her cheek.
The only noted difference was that this woman looked slightly more matured physically. Shana would look just like her by or around her fortieth birthday when a Cultivator's immortality fully kicked in and they ceased aging entirely. The newcomer stepped into the light of the room, and her clothing became obvious and familiar: the gown worn by female Ruler Cultivators of Protea, the outfit generated magically from their Flower Mark that also personally resembled the world's flower. Her Flower Mark could not be seen through the high bodice of the front of the gown, but it glowed through with visible black and pink color. She carried herself with all the casual grace of a queen . . . or a goddess.
Jean sneezed again. "Damn it!" She grabbed a tissue. "You're a goddess, aren't you?" she accused. Another sneeze. "Damn it all to hell!"
"You're allergic to gods?" Rocky asked warily.
"They make me—ah-choo—sneeze!" She blew her nose, then pinched it shut. "Who the hell are you?"
"Her name is Shanta Protea." Rocky got to his feet slowly. "She would be Shana and Edgar's ancestor. She was the first Ruler Cultivator of Protea, born from the black protea flower of the world. She serves now as High Goddess of the Realm of the Gods alongside her mate, Orion, Guardian of Destiny who is the son of Destiny herself. Someday in the very far future, Shana—and I—will take their place."
"Oh, is that all?"
Shanta just smiled. "Hello, Jean. I've been looking forward to meeting you." She looked at Rocky, and her eyes softened. She could not help but love Delphinium children almost as much as her own for they had descended of her beloved almost-sister and fellow High Goddess, Enaya. "Hello, Rocky. You don't seem surprised to see me."
"Let's say that there's little your bloodline could do that surprises me anymore."
"So he says. It's Protea's job to keep Delphinium on their toes, just as it's your job to be our conscience." She turned toward Jean. "I summoned you, priestess. You have an ability that we need in this situation." She stepped closer to the bed and looked down at Shana with grief in her eyes. "It was my weakness so long ago that forced this burden onto my descendant. The sin was borne on the backs of all Protea Ruler Cultivators, yet she suffered the most to remove it. I can only help make amends from here forward."
"What ability do you need from me?" Jean asked. "I have Spiritual Healing—which, yeah, could be useful when she's awake—as well as Sensing and Conjuring."
"You have another skill. One only you have."
Jean's eyes narrowed. "Maybe."
"Beg pardon?" Rocky asked.
Shanta looked at him. "First Liena, and now Jean, and then someday the third of their lineage, are most beloved to the Protea Kingdom. They offered unhesitating allegiance and gave selflessly of themselves. By supporting Protea, they in turn supported the Ephemeral Plane, but they also directly supported the Plane with their majik. The Plane has grown to depend on it, as you know. Well, in return for that dedication and their role, Liena and Jean and then the third have the unheard of ability to actually enter into someone else's dreams."
"No kidding?" Rocky looked at Jean in surprise. "That is very unheard of. As far as I know, the Archon of the Fields, Pallas, is the only person with a similar skill, but he's still limited to watching only and not actually entering or interfering." His eyes suddenly narrowed as he remembered the part of the Chaos War that had happened on Plane that had led to all Defenders except Shana becoming fully bloomed. A majikal force had aided all Defenders in blooming, and it had also formed an impenetrable barrier against Chaos. Rocky had not witnessed the events, nor come into contact with the majik, but he knew of it.
"Yes," Jean said, as if she had read his mind, "that was me." She shrugged one shoulder. "As Shanta said, my role as High Priestess is as much to support the Plane as it is to support the Protea Kingdom. The Defender Cultivators needed me, and there was something I could do. Shana knew at the time it was me, or at least knew it was Liena's descendant, and she asked me shortly after we met for confirmation."
"That's why," he murmured. "Why everyone said the majik felt familiar."
She nodded. "I have been working since re-establishing myself with my kingdom to help Pallas with the balance. The Plane was starved for majik until I was born. Too few members of the Faith of Goddess remained at all, let alone in the open. I ooze majik, really, so I was already helping just by being born, but I cranked it up on purpose lately. Lisa and Alan and another friend of ours are helping. So are two other witches Siobhan put me into contact with." She looked at Shanta. "How is any of that relevant now?"
"We need a Dream Walker," Shanta told her calmly. "Shana is fighting inside her own dreams and nightmares in a way that stymies her chance at physically healing. If we help the internal war end, she can recover rapidly enough to allow for more magical healing to be brought in." Softer, she said, "Some internal wars are the worst we ever fight."
"So we're going in to help Shana fight?" Rocky asked.
"Hold up!" Jean held up her hands quickly. "No 'we' on that one, Your Highness! I'll send you and the goddess in, but I'm useless in a fight of any kind. Okay, yeah, I kind of know some swordplay from working theatricals for so long, but I don't own a sword!"
Shanta lifted a brow and looked so much like Shana for a moment that it broke Rocky's heart. She gave a fatalistic shrug and gestured with one hand toward Jean. "Now you do."
Jean stared in shock at the weapon now in her grip. It was a long sword whose blade had tarnished gray from age, and whose oaken hilt had been carved with ancient symbols of witchcraft. It felt . . . familiar, and it radiated majik into the air. "Uh, what is this?"
"I see that, smartass!"
Shanta laughed. "Only you would have the temerity to call a goddess such." Her smile turned secretive. "But then, only you have the right, I would think. Your bloodline is older than even you know. As for the sword, it belonged to Liena and therefore it is rightfully yours. Someday it will be passed on once more. You have it, you can join us, and I believe there is enough of Lieu in you that you can use it."
Jean sighed. "I'm going to be terrible at this." Still, there was no hesitation for her about going. If Shana needed her, she would do whatever it took. "Everyone sit down. And hold onto your hats."
Rocky sat down in his chair once more while Shanta moved to the other one. Jean knelt on the floor and closed her eyes. A pulsing hum of power rose in the air, and a circle of blue-white majik flames surrounded them all. The power grew stronger, hotter, and somewhere in the distance, a door could be heard opening.
It slammed shut with such force Rocky instinctively opened his eyes, and his jaw dropped. He, Shanta, and Jean no longer existed within the hospital. They had appeared instead inside a place so horrific that even Shanta thought something had gone wrong. It looked as dark as a night without Delphinium, felt as bitterly cold as a winter without sun, and freezing rain as violent as tears fell. It soaked them all to the bone.
Rocky took few steps forward. "Damn it, Shana," he whispered. "Is this what you've been hiding inside?" He looked at Jean. "What is this? Can you explain? How can a dream, even a nightmare, prevent someone from healing?"
She cocked her head. "Survivors' stress is a terrible thing. It effects everything from mentality to physicality. It burrows deep into the soul, like needles stuck into a poppet doll. You don’t feel them if they don't move, but the minute that word is said . . . that memory triggered . . . that echo called . . . the needles are rippled, and the pain spikes right into the soul before spreading out to the flesh. It takes every bit of you. And the deeper the needles are shoved, the more pain there is possible."
She took a long breath. "Shana . . . that carriage hitting her was the last straw. Jarring the needles of her stress from surviving the accident sent off a bloody shockwave. You would expect some nightmares, right, from having the same thing happen to you twice? Especially since she does not actually remember that crash from her childhood, and her mind can only try to guess based on things she was told. Well, unfortunately, nightmares themselves are also a stress trigger for Shana because of Nemesis. So those needles have been pushed too. You've seen how utterly exhausted she gets after a stress attack, haven't you? So now you've got two triggers feeding each other and she's physically injured rather terribly on top of it and . . ."
Shanta bit back rising bile at realizing just how terribly her beloved descendant had been hurt. "I didn't . . . didn't know," she whispered painfully. "How terrible it may be. How do we remove the needles? Can we remove them at all?"
Jean shoved her wet hair out of her face. "We can, actually. And we have to do it, because there's no way we can do anything about the other needles left by Mania unless and until we get these gone first. I will be frank: if I attempted Spiritual Healing of Shana in this condition, it would definitely kill me, and it very might kill her."
A spiritual healer worked not unlike a physical healer did, but with a significant difference: she still took the ailments of her patient into herself, but the spiritual wounds would be converted into something physical that resulted in violent sickness until it had been all removed. It lasted anywhere from seconds to minutes, depending on how much had been taken from the patient and the personal strength of healer. Also like physical healers, spiritual healers had limitations based on their own strength, and they could do permanent damage to themselves if what they tried to heal was just too terrible. Their bodies simply could not keep up.
Jean had immense strength as a spiritual healer, to be certain, but to attempt to remove all of the needles buried inside Shana's soul all at the same time would be more than her body could handle. On top of it, Spiritual Healing tended to be as exhausting to the patient as the healer, so Shana might not be able to handle that sudden release of all the pressure at once. It would just be too damn risky to attempt.
"So what do we do?" Rocky asked.
"Well, we find wherever she is hiding in here, and we get her to cry."
It was close enough to what Sam had told Rocky that he nodded instantly. "Can you explain that too?"
"Crying is the body's way of healing emotional wounds, just like bleeding is to help heal physical ones. Blood flows, clots, seals, and then scabs over to protect the wound until it is gone. Tears do the same. They dissolve the needles, fill the holes, solidify, and protect until the holes can fill entirely." She made a gesture. "Some spiritual or emotional wounds cannot be healed, no matter how many tears flow. Some physical wounds cannot be healed, no matter how much blood flows. That is where healers come in. We can do the work someone cannot do for themselves—up to a point. Some things even we cannot heal. I could never heal the holes punched by losing a soul mate, though I could lessen pain. Siobhan could never heal a lost limb from a person, though she could lessen pain. There are checks and balances, and there are terrible necessities driven by Destiny and by some choices we make. Even the Apexes have limitations, because without them, they could not grow and learn as people."
"Amazing," Rocky breathed. "I never knew any of this. I mean, I guess I did a little unconsciously, but not wholly consciously. So what you're saying is that we need to help push Shana past her normal and natural Dark resistance to crying so that she can start healing herself, and then you can come back in later to finish the task where she can't."
"You know so much, child." Shanta brushed a hand over Jean's hair affectionately. "You do your lineage proud."
Jean felt her cheeks heat though she said nothing. Really, there was nothing she could say. It was a freeing feeling to have a use for all the knowledge she had gained over the years. She had finally found a purpose for herself. She had always wondered if she ever would. "Just to tack on a little note, mostly for Rocky, you know the concept of people who are quick healers and who are slow healers when it comes to physical injuries, right? Well, same goes for emotional wounds. You have quick and slow. Dark types have trouble with powerful emotion, so they have trouble crying, which makes them slow to heal. Light types go the opposite way by usually being fine with crying, so they heal fast. That's why Siobhan could recover with relative speed from what she endured, but Shana just . . . festered."
"So you're telling me that if a Dark type who has trouble with crying gets emotionally injured, we nag and push until they do so that they can heal." He thought about the Commanders and Defenders alike. "I can think of a few who need a push." He eyed Jean. "You're a Black Witch."
It made her smile. "With a fair dose of Light inside her, and who as a spiritual healer gets why crying is important even if it hurts and is scary. I'm a quick healer too." She nodded briskly. "Enough on this. Our bodies are technically vulnerable in reality. We need to find Shana. You can do that, Rocky. You've been in her dreams before."
Rocky had never been in her nightmares specifically before, that did not actually matter. It did not take long for him to recognize the landscape and where to go. He kept his mouth shut about the fact that it resembled the ruins of the Protea Kingdom. Shanta did not need to know if she had not noticed personally.
They found Shana before too long, and she was fighting, claymore in hand, against swarms of monsters sweeping toward her. Rocky recognized most of them from past battles, but some of them looked far newer, built from her own inner pain. He reached out, felt his scimitar come to hand, and ran forward to join his lover. "Tash!" He used the nickname deliberately for it was one only he used, born of secret words whispered inside a darkened bedroom millennia before. Their secret promise.
She looked at him in utter shock as locks of black hair fell into her eyes where they had slipped free of their confining coil. Her hair and clothes had been soaked through from the pouring rain. "Rocky! You . . . how?!" She turned in sharply as Shanta stepped up next to her, and for a moment, she went utterly speechless. "Shanta?! But how?!"
"I summoned your priestess to be of assistance." Shanta nodded to where Jean was looking very uneasy as she watched the monsters. "You've fought alone for too long, granddaughter. Let us help."
"I can handle it," Shana retorted fiercely. "I don't want you here!"
"Well, we're not moving!" Rocky said just as fiercely. He grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. "Damn it, Shana, why won't you let me help you? You'll kill yourself if you keep this up! I was there!" He gave her a quick shake, and both of their swords hit the ground with a clatter. "I was there! I was there at the end so long ago, and I was there recently! I know what he did."
Her sudden stillness and lapse in concentration meant the circling monsters got free of paralysis and came swarming forward. Shana and Rocky hastily took up their swords again and waded into battle. Shanta, as a Ruler, could not use her magic as either an offense or a defense. She was, however, Protean. She hefted her own sword and waded into the middle, and she kept an eye on Jean. The priestess proved unexpectedly good with her own sword, yet she clearly felt at a disadvantage. Too, she did not dare use majik there. Neither of those things stopped her. When a monster went after Shana's unprotected back, she knocked it flat personally, only to get knocked down by another in response.
Shana saw it, and her fury rose to match her pain. "That is enough!" she shouted. She dropped her sword to cover her ears as if to drown out the laughter at the edges of her consciousness. "Just make it stop!"
Rocky caught her face in his hands and forced her to look at him. Her eyes had gone overly bright and her body trembled. "You can make it stop. Don't let him continue to destroy you the way he destroyed our kingdoms! Do you want him to win? It hurts. I know it hurts." He pressed his lips to her forehead and could feel the pain screaming inside. Around them, the rain had begun to lessen. "It scares you. It scares you to hurt as deeply as you do. I know. Let me Light your soul. Let me hold you together. Shatter again if you have to. This time, I will put you back together."
Shanta put a hand on Jean's shoulder quietly, and they stood together as they watched Shana and Rocky. The monsters had stopped attacking the minute the rain ceased, and both of them lowered their weapons. Jean was grateful; not only because it meant Shana had begun to heal, but also because she didn't like sword fighting very much. Her physical body would bear these marks for a while.
Rocky's heart clenched as Shana slowly wrapped her arms around his waist to hold him in return. She pressed her face to his shoulder, and he began to remove the pins in her hair. Even here. Perhaps especially here. She never bound her hair unless she felt bound by Destiny, and he had always decided that that meant it was his duty to remove the weights from her metaphorically by removing the pins literally. Once her hair had been freed, he tenderly combed his fingers through it. "Let go," he whispered.
Very softly, her powerful voice almost echoing, Jean said, "You're not alone in this."
The air began to warm distinctly as the surroundings started to crumble. That low laughter in the distance crumbled. Black-pink power started to well. Jean immediately reached out with her majik and brought herself, Rocky, and Shanta back out of Shana's dreams and into the physical world. They did not dare linger.
They reappeared where they had last been, and the circle disappeared even as Shanta did. Rocky got to his feet to look at Shana, and Jean hastily checked herself only to discover that the sword had disappeared. If she found it in her apartment when she got home, she would probably have a heart attack. This new world of hers was weird.
Shana's eyelashes fluttered faintly, and Jean joined Rocky in leaning over her so that she saw them when she woke. Her eyes opened after a few moments and she looked up at them with groggy pink eyes. Her distaste for physical weakness reared its head, and she tried to get herself into a sitting position. Rocky raised the head of the bed a little and then, careful not to dislodge the tubes that had been placed in her arms to give her nutrients while she slept, he eased onto the side of the bed beside her.
Everything that she had endured, everything she had suffered, and every loss she had survived at the hands of her oldest enemy finally broke free and swept over her without stop. On a low sound of pain that broke her lover's heart, she turned her face into his shoulder and began to cry and finally let go of it all. As the sobs tore out of her with violent force, little needles fell free of her soul and made an echoing sound nearly physical. The needles of her childhood . . . the needles of her oldest enemy . . . they fell away like the pins Rocky had removed from her hair. The tears filled the holes left behind, and healing finally began. And as healing swept through her soul, it finally removed Nemesis' last hold on her.