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The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 2

Clara returned to the Care House two days later. She stopped at the office for a visitor's pass and then headed for the gymnasium where Rachel was supposedly hard at work. Despite her age, Rachel did not attend regular public school and instead had tutors entirely for her academics because she simply learned too fast; another reason Shana had been an ideal fit for her.

Clara didn't feel entirely surprised to find that schoolwork wasn't all Shana had been imparting to her young friend. Lips curved, she watched as Rachel rather adeptly beat the hell out of a punching bag. The girl had a slender frame to the point of seeming small despite her height, yet she was frighteningly quick. Any strength she didn't have could be compensated for by her agility.

"Well," Clara said with a smile, "I guess I don't need to worry for your safety when streets aren't involved."

Rachel turned quickly, and a bright smile lit her face. "Clara!" She happily ran over to hug her mentor. "I was wondering if you changed your mind!" A little quiver to her voice seemed to bely that, despite her lack of concern for being placed in the House, she felt uncertainty for having never been adopted.

"No, of course I wouldn't." Clara hugged her tightly. As she cuddled close, something shook inside Clara's heart. Her arms tightened and she bent to bury her face in Rachel's hair. She had long, long ago accepted she may never know the joy of having her own child, but here she had suddenly found a child who had long ago accepted she would never have a mother. It felt too good to be true. A cherished dream Clara had not dared voice to anyone.

Rachel finally eased back and smiled up at her. "You really should adopt me. You're the Statice Cultivator, so you're as old as time, right? You're long overdue to be a mom, and sure you'll need one of your blood to carry on your lineage eventually, but you can have me in the meantime so you're all trained for having a baby!"

Clara couldn't help but laugh. "Alright, Shana is a terrible influence on you, and I should not be as happy about that as I am!" She held tight to Rachel's hand and followed her to the room Rachel shared with two other girls so she could change from her gym clothes to normal ones. Then, together, they headed for the atrium to find quiet.

"You ever see it?" Rachel asked curiously.

"No, why?" She got her answer as they stepped into a veritable greenhouse of beauty. The entire atrium overflowed with plants of all shapes and sizes, and in varieties not normally suited to Lux's typically warm climate. "Oh. My. Shana come here frequently?"

"This is where we usually have lessons. She says that being around nature is more conducive to learning. Which, you know, makes a lot more sense now that I know what she is." Rachel hopped up onto a bench and dug into the basket Clara had brought with lunch. She emerged with a small bottle of flavored bubbly water and happily opened it. "Tell me stuff!"

"What stuff?" Clara sat beside her and opened a bottle of tea. Home-brewed, of course. Juliet never did anything by half-measures, even when providing picnic lunches for her friends. "You will need to be specific."

"About time and how it works. Is it linear, non-linear? Is there only one of you across time, or do you have a future self the way everyone else does?"

The déjà vu was, for a moment, disorienting. In a murmur, the Time Cultivator said, "How odd. Those are the very same questions I fired at Grandmother Time when she made me Librarian of the Hall of Records." She considered her words. "Time is linear," she began. "Mostly. It moves through existence with one set route, but because there are places where Eras overlap, sometimes connections are made."

"I get it." Rachel's frown was thoughtful. "Time moves like a train down tracks. Each Era is its own train. Once an Era ends, the train stops forever and the next becomes the main route. But because of those overlaps, a future Era's train is probably already moving to some extent; it just doesn't become dominant until the right time."

"Exactly. My duty is to be conductor." She smiled, liking the analogy. "I keep the trains driving on track and make sure they don't go onto unplanned routes. Under normal circumstances, I can see most of what happens in the current Era, and I can even see many events happening in the future Era, as long as my own future is not directly tied to it. That's why I have All Sight—the ability to see past, present, and future events. Only two other people I know have All Sight, and there's only been one other than them in history. So, yes, there is only one of me because of my choice to remain mostly in the Hall of Records."

"Under normal circumstances you said. What's different?"

Her smile softened unconsciously. "Shana. To be quite honest, I know next to nothing of the next Era other than only a few salient facts. I don't even know when it will begin! You see, because I love Shana so much more than anything else, I . . . became more involved in her life. Which meant my future became more irrevocably tied to hers. To be sure, there is still a lot about her I can see happen and I know some things to come . . . but as the months pass, I can see less around her because I become more deeply entrenched in the events. Her future . . . it is all but my own future now."

"Is that . . . dangerous?"

"Hmm, not that I've seen. It is curious, to be sure, and a sign of great changes I can't predict, but it does not mean that I've lost my control over the Hall or that something terrible will happen to the power of Time that means I've failed. What I cannot see, my grandmother—Time herself—still can, and I am well aware that there have always been plans for me by both Time and Destiny alike that I am not yet privy to knowing."

Rachel pondered that. "Okay, then the next question is . . . can the future effect the present?"

"It can!" Clara grinned a bit. "It has happened more than once in my long lifetime. We call it a Paradoxal Pivot. That means that in order for Destiny's plans to work perfectly, something or someone of the future must effect a change in the past that ensures said future arrives. It's considered a non-linear event, and that means that Destiny is effectively giving someone involved a chance to change things she may not otherwise change. The outcome hinges solely on the Cultivators involved. And, yes, that means that traveling through time does tend to happen, which is why my ability to see the future Era is important. It allows me to see a need for the travel and to oblige."

Learning always made Rachel hungry, so she crunched into a cookie a bit ferociously. "I bet that is always strange for everyone involved. But . . . what if someone involved in the future has Sight or is immortal? Wouldn't they know things would happen before they happened?"

"They would if it weren't for the Memory Lag Delay. Safety functionality instigated by Time when she realized what Destiny would do. It basically means that the start of an Era briefly erases select memories from people if they may be involved with a Pivot. For example, let's say that something in the future Era I cannot see means that, oh, someone's kid travels back in time to this Era. Everything ends and kid goes home. Well, when that next Era starts, the kid's parents will completely forget they ever met said kid in the now past so that they don't change the events leading to the kid going back. But! Within a day or two of the kid returning to their proper time, the Delay is removed, and the parents will remember it happening."

"I sense that this maybe sort of happened before . . ."

"Oh, goddess, yes. A very memorable moment roughly two million years ago. The queen of Gladiolus had completely missed her chance to meet her soul mate. Her future daughter got a chance to travel back to help them meet anew, thus ensuring her own birth." She shook her head. "That was a short jump, but it actually did cross Eras since her birth was actually part of the standard changeover."

"It sounds fun to be in charge of these things!"

After a moment, Clara had to admit, "It kind of is. It's hard work, to be sure, and often lonely, but it can be fun."

"Lonely? Because you choose to stay in the Hall in an effort to be in control of things?" Rachel scooted closer and hugged her. "Do you have to stay there?"

"That is honestly a question I had already begun asking myself even before I met you," she admitted softly. "And in meeting you, I ask it only more." Her eyes stared briefly at a future she could not yet see. "Something will change soon," she murmured. She shook it off and smiled. "Enough of that! Tell me about you instead. You have the gift of Telepathy, which is not dependent on majik or magic—and I'll explain that difference later—but is very uncommon without it. Yet, there is something inside you I can plainly feel."

Rachel frowned thoughtfully. "Well, yes, there's the Telepathy thing. But I also have Telekinesis." She looked at the basket beside Clara and focused visibly. The top opened without a touch and a sandwich inside floated up and over to her obediently. "See?"

"Very good. Anything else you've uncovered? Anything you can tell me might help me peg your origins or exact sort of power."

At that, Rachel's shoulders hunched slightly and she looked a bit away. "Uhm. Okay, please don't get mad I didn't say anything, or that I'm weird, but . . . I . . . have Sight. All Sight, like you. I can see things in the past, present, and future. Though sometimes the visions are really symbolic and vague and I don't know they're telling me about future events until they happen."

Hearing that made Clara pause entirely for a moment. It was a shocking admission. The gift of Sight, especially Future or All, had been so limited to who it had been given to that Clara could literally name them. Those with All Sight included Orion, her own half-brother who was Guardian of Destiny; Shana, who bore a literally genetic connection to Destiny through Orion himself; and Liena Vanguard, the High Priestess of Protea from the Royal Era. No one knew where Liena had gotten her Sight—not even Clara—but there had been no denying she had it as well as some sort of connection to Destiny.

Future Sight actually had an even smaller list: Rocky, whose Light core had become so powerful he literally saw events more clearly; and Aster Defender Cultivators like Sherry who had willingly taken on the burden in order to see and sense when danger or evil approached the galaxy. Present Sight had a similar list including Siobhan, and all Ruler Cultivators of Protea like Edgar. She had gained hers exactly like her brother had, via her literally most powerful Light core in existence, and Proteans had gained theirs the same way Shana had—through their ancestor Orion. That the Sight took different routes in all four High Rulers simply belied that they all had different roles to fill for Destiny.

Yet here sat Rachel. An unusually gifted child who had something inside her as yet unknown, and one who had been given All Sight without a connection to Destiny or a Light core. She felt very of the Dark, in fact. Or . . . did she have a connection? Clara reached out to cup Rachel's cheek gently and this time deliberately used her Seed in order to seek out potential power inside the girl. Whether majik or magic, Clara's Seed could sense it. She just had to actively work to find it if it had been locked down.

Something bubbled up hotly not far under the surface. A potent blend of things, the most surprising of which turned out to be magic that came from the Flower Element of Memory! Something more as well seemed to exist, but she could not determine its origins and so let it lie as she turned her attention to the magic. It did not feel like the sort of magic given to a Caretaker who would be the soul mate of a Cultivator. In fact . . . it felt very like Cultivator magic.

Deeper Clara pushed into Rachel's soul, and then her eyes flew wide as she found what she had been looking for without expecting to see it. A Seed. Not just any Seed, however. A pink and lavender Seed that smelled achingly familiar. Rachel . . . was a Statice Cultivator. A Dual Cultivator, for as Clara examined the magical potential she found trademarks of both Defender and Ruler—just like herself. At almost ten years of age, she should have already developed both powers around her fifth birthday and found a Mask, but she clearly had not. Her Seed looked almost as if it had been frozen somehow, but as Clara tenderly touched it, it shimmered as if to begin thawing.

"Clara?" Rachel whispered. "Are you hugging me? Because you touched something and I really feel like you hugged me. It feels nice."

"I did. Sort of." Clara could feel all of the pieces falling into place and all of the questions being answered. She would need to think about all of them and how best to care for Rachel. Unfreezing her Seed slowly would be positively critical lest she potentially destroy herself. And, more importantly, determining where she belonged. Her presence in the Rebirth Era utterly did not make sense. "Well," she finally said, "I've got some guesses to be sure. Let me think on them, and then I'll tell you. I do know absolutely that I can help you learn to control them."

Hope filled Rachel's eyes. "You mean you'll visit me more?"

Clara tenderly brushed at her hair. "That's a promise. Now, let me take you back to your room. Time's up," she smiled at the choice of words, "for today."

She got her second taste of Rachel's deepest pain when the girl almost didn't let go of her from a goodbye hug. Once freed, she headed immediately across town to the complex where Shana and Rocky had their apartment. Technically, it had once been Shana and Edgar's apartment, but Shana and Siobhan alike had finally thrown up their hands and traded their brothers for their lovers. The four still spent great deals of time together, but they now lived as couples rather than siblings.

Rocky had proposed all buying a house together as soon as both women turned twenty-five, but the two Chivanti siblings had turned it down. No one other than Clara herself knew why, but she kept her mouth shut as well. To be certain, more than just Siobhan and Rocky had begun to be suspicious, but no one asked outright because they knew full well the situation might be both sensitive and dangerous. The other Cultivators had to trust that the two Proteans and Clara knew what they were doing.

Clara knocked on the door and smiled to see the protea and delphinium blossoms growing over the doorframe. They had become inexorably entwined. The door opened, and Clara lifted a brow, "Don't take over the building."

"Nah, they're not that bad." Shana stepped back to let her in. "They like it where they are. What brings the visit? Not that I'm never unhappy to see you, of course." Without breaking stride, she walked into the living room and removed Rocky's feet from the coffee table. "Plebian."

He just grinned at her and then looked at Clara. "I do it just for her reaction. She's cute when she's huffy."

Clara wisely hid a smile. "You and Siobhan always fascinate me with your lack of care for riling up those of the Dark." She sat down in one of the armchairs and considered her words. Finally, she asked, "What can you tell me about Rachel?"

Shana tilted her head slightly. "Not as much as I'd like to. I simply don't know a whole lot. How she came to be at the House is pretty much a blank slate as far as common knowledge, and of course all records are sealed. You'd have better luck getting into them as a legal advisor. As you noticed, though, Rachel's advanced. Maybe not as much as me, or Rocky, but in the right field, she's brilliant. She gets things that a lot of others just can't grasp."

"Quit ratting me out," Rocky muttered.

"Sorry, but it will never not amuse me that you were forced to get tested to skip that core university class, and you only proved me and Mom right that you tip as far into 'rubber brain' as I do." The affectionate term 'rubber brain' applied to those who broke the charts for intelligence criteria as their minds could bend and adapt and adjust to learning anything, and once cured, would never lose it. "At least I'm not telling everyone your exact score."

"How high was it?" Clara asked curiously.

"Don't you dare."

Shana grinned. "High enough to mean I'm the only higher score."

Clara shook her head. "Naturally. Caretakers do tend to share important traits with their Cultivator." Since Rocky was sulking, she moved it back to the original subject. "Rachel. What kept such a wonderful child from being adopted?"

Shana smiled. "I think we both know why she wasn't."

"You really should consider it," Rocky added innocently. "You're so old and all."

"And you have such strong maternal instincts." Shana's eyes twinkled. "I mean, you've been as much a mother to me as a friend, you know."

"I'm leaving," Clara said firmly, and suited actions to words.

* * * * *

It took less than a week for Clara to wave a flag in defeat. She had fallen in love with the little brown-eyed scamp and simply couldn't bear the idea of not having her in her life. She would find herself sitting with Rachel and talking about things far above the level of most any other ten-year-old she had ever seen. Other times they would talk about ridiculous things. Rachel was teaching her to play again.

But . . . her happiness perhaps did not align with what was best for Rachel. Adopting her, to be sure, would make Rachel very happy—she had made that plain all along. However, Rachel just . . . did not belong in the Rebirth Era. Perhaps her very birth had been a Paradoxal Pivot. Surely her future as a Statice Cultivator meant that she belonged in the future Era where the next generation of Cultivators would be born—especially whatever daughters may come to Shana and Siobhan as High Queens. Clara still did not know much of the future Era, but she did know at the least that it would come whenever Delphinium would be ready to be re-inhabited, and that would mark the new kingdoms, and that would mark the new generation to come, and therefore the fabric of Time would shift to make a new Era.

The decision she had looming before her truly did smell of a Pivot for it lay fully on the outcome she chose to create. Hers, and Rachel's as well. She had never before done what she needed to do, but she knew how to do it. Of course she did. She had learned much that she had always thought unnecessary but then learned later that Destiny needed her to know it.

Ultimately, the final outcome lay in Rachel's decision. As Clara sat on a bench and watched Rachel climb agilely over the top of the swing set, she genuinely could not be sure what Rachel would choose. She could potentially live out a safe life with a permanently frozen Seed, but it would never be the life she had been blessed by Statice to know. "Rachel?" she called.

"Coming!" Rachel jumped down to the ground and ran over to her, cheeks flushed and her hair bouncing behind her. Her smile faded as she saw Clara's face, however. "What's wrong?"

"Sit down, honey." Clara gently took one of her hands and laced their fingers together. "Is there any one thing or person you're attached to in this time?"

The beginnings of hope began to move in Rachel's eyes. "No. I mean, there's Shana, but I . . . I don't belong here. I've always felt that way. What . . . what are you thinking to suggest?"

Clara took a long breath. "Something complicated. I . . . want to be your mother. I want to adopt you." She smoothed Rachel's hair back tenderly. "Rachel, inside you is Memory Flower Element magic. There is a Seed. You are chosen by Statice to be a Dual Cultivator like me. You will be the second for Statice—and maybe the last. I wish to make you apprentice Librarian so that someday when you are ready, you will take my position in the Hall as well as my role as queen of Statice. You will protect the future High Princesses of Protea and Delphinium. Not me. That is why I can't see the next Era. It does not belong to me. I don't know how long it will take to unfreeze your Seed, but it needs to be done in the future Era where you rightfully belong."

"But . . ." Rachel frowned. "You belong here. So are . . . are you going with me?"

"I guess . . . in a way, you could say I am." She smiled. "I will explain it to you and the others at the same time. I think the ultimate question is . . . do you want to be my Apprentice, and my daughter, and to someday help protect Blossom Field?"

Rachel hugged her fiercely. "Yes to all of it! Mostly, I just want to be your daughter, but I'll take the rest, too!" She buried her face against Clara's shoulder. "I just . . . really love you."

Heart aching, Clara held her daughter just as tight. "I love you too, little one." She slowly released her and smiled. "Let's go have a meeting with the others, and I can explain everything. This is a Pivotal moment, and . . . I've made my decision, just as you've made yours. After that, I'll get all the legalities taken care of. I'm rather good at those."

"I bet!" She suddenly went very still, and her eyes went dark and blind as she seemed to stare at nothing at all. She abruptly slumped over, and Clara hastily caught her. The Defender's heart skipped over itself. A vision that entered behind the eyes would make the one with Sight stare at nothing except the vision itself. A vision that entered right into the mind tended to knock out the receiver, and sometimes could not be differentiated from a regular blackout. Those sorts of visions usually involved a lot more information, so the mind had to directly process it rather than interpret visual signals.

"Rachel?" Clara kept her voice calm and soothing. "Can you come back?"

There was a long silence before Rachel groaned. "Oooh. My head." She dropped her head onto Clara's shoulder and held up a hand. "Did I neglect to mention my visions can drop me flat? And hurt sometimes?"

"An unfortunate byproduct of our type of Sight. Happens frequently enough to those with All or Future Sight. Present Sight is far more uncommon for visions entering right into the mind. Past Sight doesn't get it at all."

"Lucky them." She straightened. "So, that was another of those weird ones where I seriously need to think about removing stimulants from my diet, but the long story short is that that guy who attacked before is going to attack again. Jerk." She hopped to her feet. "I want to help."

"You can help by staying out of the way," Clara scolded.

Reasonably, Rachel said, "You're solely defensive magic, right? Well, I don't have magic yet or anything, but I do know how to fight. Maybe I don't have armor, but I could be an effective decoy until someone else notices."

Sudden humor made Clara smile at the thought of what the future Lead Cultivator of Rachel's generation may be in for handling. She would have to be particularly strong-willed to deal with this Statice Cultivator! "We'll compromise. You can get involved depending on what there is to be involved with."


A flash of bright color announced the arrival of Andromedian, and his entourage of lesser monsters. "Ha! So here you are!"

Clara surveyed the lot and decided that the monsters could be fairly quickly paralyzed for a long enough time that Sherry would notice the evil and alert others to come help. Andromedian would be the bigger threat, but he really did not look very strong physically. She glanced toward Rachel and nodded slightly.

Rachel immediately ran onto the playground and climbed up to the very top of the swing set. Andromedian automatically followed her path, and then hastily turned back only to discover Clara had already donned her Mask and gained armor. "Very clever," he mocked. "But you can't protect her and yourself, Statice."

"Who says she has to protect me?" Rachel taunted. "You couldn't catch a cold! All sorts of big talk but you're just some dumb evil guy who can't do his own dirty work!"

On a snarl, he sent the monsters after Clara and then went after Rachel personally. He had intended for it to be the other way around, but this kid was starting to piss him off. It was time she got taught a lesson!

The swing set was an impressively large structure that had still been made for children. He may have been slender and not very imposing, but he still had an adult's size that meant he could not get very far on it. She had both size and agility on her side. She ducked and climbed and stayed out of his reach easily. When she reached the other side, she jumped on the bridge so hard that the structure shook and sent him tumbling to the ground.

Infuriated, he went around and began climbing up the outside of the slide for it seemed the only recourse left to reach her. She watched him curiously and then crouched near the top of the slide. As his hands closed around the bars and he struggled to pull his weight up when the slide was both steep and slippery, she said solemnly, "You can't grab me like that, you know. Can you fire magic out of your eyes?"

"Of course not!" he snarled at her, and then a cold sweat broke out on his skin as she smiled with such innocence it felt like a trap. "Why are you smiling?"

"Oh, just thinking of the fact that my physical education tutor is the Protea Defender." She hopped to her feet and delivered a sharp sidekick to his hands where they were wrapped around the bars. He let go on a howl of pain and went flying backwards down the slide. As he landed painfully at the bottom, he heard her say innocently, "You're not supposed to go backwards down the slide. It's dangerous. The rules say so."

"Damn you!" he hissed as he scrambled up to his feet. Something sharp jabbed him in the back, and he froze.

"Go ahead," Virginia warned in a dangerously soft voice. "Make another step toward my niece. I think you'll find you like Lead Defenders even less than you like normal ones."

Contrary to the evidence, Andromedian was not truly stupid. He moved his eyes to see the entire team of ten had rather brutally removed the monsters, and both Protea and Aster Cultivators were also moving in on him personally. "This just the beginning!" he snarled, and again he disappeared from the scene.

Virginia made a disgusted noise and lowered her halberd. "Figures." She shot a grin up at Rachel. "Nice job, kid! You remind me of a Defender!"

"With good reason," Clara said dryly. "She's the future Statice Dual Cultivator. It's a little . . . complicated. Let's decamp to wherever you stashed the boys to keep them out of things, and I'll explain everything."

The 'stash' happened to be at Edgar and Siobhan's apartment, and neither Edgar nor Rocky looked happy with things. They intensely disliked not being able to join the fights as proper Caretakers to Siobhan and Shana—nearly all Caretakers always did—but they had begrudgingly accepted the necessity because being High Princes meant the eight Defenders of the Lower planets were as driven to protect them as the two High Queens, and that made things more dangerous for all involved. Rocky could actually claim to be stronger and more skilled than any Defender other than Shana, but his lack of armor and the others' tendency to intensely hate seeing him bloody meant he still got side-lined.

"I don't like it!" he growled at Shana as she sat next to him on the couch.

She kissed his cheek and murmured for his ears only, "Soon. Soon the balance will be found, and you will be there as you rightfully deserve, my Caretaker." She eased back and smiled as everyone found places to sit on either the other chairs or the floor. Rachel plopped down next to Clara, of course. Seeing them right beside each other, it became clear that a lack of matching coloring did not take away a nearly eerie physical resemblance overall—or the fact that it was something even deeper, nearly elemental, that made Rachel just look and feel like Clara's daughter. A different sort of magic, maybe. "Well?" Shana prompted.

"Alright," Clara said, "here's how it goes."

Five minutes later, Alexandria told Rocky, "Pay up! I told you Clara would adopt her sooner rather than later!"

Muttering, he pulled out his wallet. "You know better than to bet with her," Siobhan scolded her brother.

"Welcome to the family, kiddo." Juliet grinned. "And, hey! Congratulations on being the first of your generation! You're not the Lead probably, but that's okay because Clara is always the oldest though not Lead, so that makes complete symmetrical sense." She cocked her head. "So . . . that does beg the next question."

Clara took a very long breath. "I . . . have made a decision. A big one. I will emerge wholly from the Hall of Records and establish myself permanently within this Era. It should change nothing in my gifts or my duties. I . . . never did have to stay there. I made the choice, to try to help my friends and—and maybe to protect myself." She looked at Shana, and her lips trembled. "But you . . . you changed me. I find I can't stand the idea of not being involved in your future wholly. You need me. If there is a fluctuation in the Hall that needs me, I will be alerted and can respond accordingly."

"But . . . why?" Yvonne asked softly.

"Because someday, not so far away, during the next Era whenever it begins . . . I will end my role as Librarian and it will shift to Rachel. She will carry on in the future. This generation of Defenders," she looked at those in the room, all who felt so beloved to her, "it is my last team of allies. Rachel and I will share Hall duties until she is ready to take over, but duties as the Statice Defender, and eventually Ruler, will be hers as soon as that generation rises."

Desiree smiled. "So does that mean there are now two Clara's, like there are two of us? A future you."

Clara smiled back. "It feels a little as if I finally have a future at all." She turned to look at Rachel and then cupped her daughter's face in her hands. "The past me," she said softly, "loves you no less than the future me will. In fact, the future me may love you more because she will have been waiting for you. Though the Memory Lag Delay would normally take my knowledge of this moment, I believe it won't this once because it is more important that I do remember. I will let you go from me now for the sake of your own health and happiness. The future Era . . . it belongs to you, and you belong to it. I will send you through time, guided by Time herself, to where you belong. You will never be alone, my darling. I will always be there beside you in any time."

Rachel felt less concerned for herself than her mother. "Will you be okay here without me?"

"Hey she has me," Shana offered reasonably. "She's always mothered me to some extent. She has Edgar and Siobhan and Rocky, too. And we all have to wait to be parents too, so now she can enjoy the anticipation with us of when that time will come. So it'll be okay here." She smiled. "You've set into motion more than you know, Rachel. Lots of good things."

Rachel took a quick breath. "Okay." She smiled. "I'll go to the future where I belong, I'll grow up and unfreeze my Seed, and I'll become a great Statice Cultivator!"

"We have no doubt in you," Kellie told her warmly.

It took next to no effort for Clara to effectively erase Rachel's presence from the Rebirth Era. Really, she had been up to that sort of shenanigans for millennia. Once it was done, she passed into Rachel's keeping her own personal Hourglass that marked her as Apprentice Librarian and would allow her to do duties as needed within the Hall.

As they toured the expanse, Rachel had to ask, "Will we meet here? I mean, you not future you."

"Likely not. Places have future selves as well. The Ephemeral Plane as a whole is not unlike the Realm of the Gods: it has a future. For there to have been only one of myself and even Pallas, my brother who is Archon of the Immortal Fields, is technically a little unusual." Clara tilted her head. "Perhaps this will stabilize everything even more, to give the Hall extra support. After all, I am watching it in the Rebirth Era, and then my future self and you watch it in the future. That doubly ensures that things stay balanced, and if a fluctuation effects one Era, perhaps it won't another."

"This is very suspiciously starting to feel entirely like Destiny's plan. Are we sure I'm a Pivot?"

Clara smiled. "Fairly sure, but sometimes the line is sketchy. We simply take comfort in knowing She gives us choices. Oh!" The last added as she thought of something. "This is possibly an odd thing, but you need to think of another name for yourself. You see, Clara Memoria is merely the name I have taken for myself in this Era. In the future, I will return to my true name of Claret Statice, just as everyone else will retake their names as well. So the name we have now is our . . . casual name." She smiled. "You will need a name for yourself as a Ruler Cultivator, and the Crown Princess of Statice."

"I think I know it." Rachel scrubbed her shoe on the ground. "A name I always liked. Kind of wished I had been called it. Do you want to know?"

She shook her head. "Tell me in the future." She hugged Rachel briefly, tightly, and then let go. "May Time carry you home, my love."

A swirling bit of pink and lavender magic that almost looked like a little galaxy opened beside them. Rachel felt strangely no nerves as she faced it. Shoulders squared, she walked right into the center and felt it close around her comfortably and warmly. She could not see where she was going or what was happening. She did not even feel as if she was moving. Yet suddenly another swirl appeared in the black around her, and she could take a step forward. She entered the new portal and emerged onto the other side. Her breath caught.

The Protea Kingdom, in all its glory, sat restored and brilliantly glowing amid the landscape. She stood on a cliff some distance away from it yet could see it clearly. A city sprawled all around it, and encircling the city lay what looked like vast farmlands. Protectively surrounding the farmlands was a beautiful stone wall. Seeing everything, feeling the air, she felt something inside her heart and soul just . . . relax. And something even deeper slowly stirred. Magic. She could feel it inside for the first time.

The sound of a carriage made her turn quickly, and she found a very elaborate electric vehicle had pulled up on the road behind her. It didn't look a lot like what she remembered, yet it did not look so different she did not recognize it. She still could not guess where in time she had landed, but then again, history she had learned implied that technology never had evolved fast to begin with. And maybe it hadn't really been evolving at all, not with magic returned in the Rebirth Era. She would have fun learning more about what had happened.

The back door of the carriage opened, and she caught a breath as a painfully familiar figure got out of the back. Claret Statice literally looked identical to how she had when Rachel had left Clara, yet now she wore a beautiful Ruler gown reminiscent of the statice flower, and the crown of a Lower planetary queen rested atop her hair. "Mom?" she asked softly.

Claret walked closer one step, then another, and then gathered Rachel fiercely against her heart. "I missed you!" she managed to say. "So much! It's Year 2 of the Resurrection Era," she offered. "And it began almost five thousand years after the Rebirth Era did."

Rachel's eyes filled with tears. "You waited five thousand years to see me?"

"I had already waited millions of years. A few thousand more was nothing." Claret caught her hand and brought her along toward the carriage. "It is a time of celebration. High Queen Sayena Delphinium and her husband, Evan, have just had a daughter. As is fitting, I, too, now have a daughter arrive to me in the same year. You will have to be announced formally, of course. What name will I be giving to the worlds?"

Rachel closed her eyes on a smile. "Racine. Racine Statice."

Claret paused briefly and then bit her lip. "Did . . . did you know? That when I let myself wish for a daughter, that was the name I would give her?"

Racine looked up at her mother, and felt happiness bubble up from a place she had not known could be happy. "I guess that means I really am your daughter after all, since my mother named me." She held tighter to Claret's hand and then climbed into the back of carriage. "Am I home now?"

Claret climbed in beside her and smiled. "Always. We've been waiting for you."

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