The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 21

It had been known for a very long time that the Protean lineage had somehow come full circle so that the current High Queen looked identical to the first High Queen, yet seeing Shana and Shanta standing beside one another still managed to be both unnerving and amusing alike. It was also a fascinating thing since both Shanae and Evan alike may have had their maternal lineage coloring yet they had had features more like their father, Matthew, than their mother, Genevieve. It had taken until Shanae reached closer to her late teens to realize that she could stand next to the painting of Shanta in the hall and be mistaken for her. If ever there had been more evidence of Destiny at play with both Life and Love in order to make her Apex of Dark, it had not been found.

The minor maturing left for Shana to do to reach full identical status with her ancestor did not much to help on first look when they stood beside one another. It didn't even help on second or third glances. You had to actively look to see it. The only true way to tell them apart was their clothing—for now—their hair length, and especially their body language.

Shanta stood with regal bearing and of course the familiar Protean grace, but she did move her weight with relative normalcy. Shana did not. She had such precision control over her warrior frame that she picked a comfortable stance and stayed in it unless she deliberately moved around or gestured.

Siobhan and Enaya did not look nearly as identical as their counterparts, with just the normal sort of resemblance born of possessing the same coloring and body type from their shared lineage. Even if they had, their body language also proved telling. Both had the Delphinium propensity to fidget or be clumsy, but Enaya could actually stand still. Siobhan really couldn't, which was why she often sat down where she could tap a foot without being a bother and expend some energy.

And showing the trademark eternal optimism of her lineage as well, she impishly told Shana and Shanta alike, "I think Shana needs to wear either snugger clothing or more baring clothing because I feel safe in thinking she is really more muscular than Shanta. Shanta has only the default strength of the Protea lineage with some normal training standard to that bloodline because being the Dark planet means they are almost wholly physically-oriented. Shana has actively worked insanely hard across two lives to be her most powerful, so she has more muscle than even Edgar." She held up a finger. "Speaking as someone who has seen them both naked, of course."

Shana snorted at her. "Well, you've got the plump tendency of the Delphinium lineage because being the Light planet means being magically-oriented, but you're a smidge trimmer than Enaya because you're much more active."

"I've spent how many years now running after monsters and evil entities? Even we magic-types become more streamlined in those circumstances. Look at my brother for that one." Siobhan snorted as well. "Although that's a redundant statement. I'm pretty sure you've seen him naked often enough."

"And I have the photos to prove it!"

Juliet sighed at them from where she leaned against the side of Sam's house with Nathaniel sitting near her feet. As had become usual, the big meeting was in the Castlera backyard. Only Rocky and Edgar had yet to arrive. "Okay, you two. Enough." She looked to where her former mentor sat on one of the picnic benches with all the rest of the Elder Defenders. "How is this even possible? That you would be here?"

Amanda Rai sighed. "Well, as you all know, dying isn't strictly the end of it all. In fact, 'dying' as the term implies actually only really applies to people without power or those with it who are being reborn. For everyone else, especially Cultivators of both sorts, we technically can't die. We ascend to the Realm of the Gods where we live out a different sort of life. We are 'dead' as far as the physical realm is concerned, but we're not literally dead. Ask ghost-boy. He can confirm that."

Chance had been reluctantly ordered by both Sam and Shana to attend, so he was present as well. He just preferred to stand out of the way of everyone else. "I wasn't a ghost," he muttered at Amanda. "More than Sherry saw me." He relented, however, and said, "Speaking as someone who spent a long time in limbo, there is a very wide difference between the Realm and the living world. Physical isn't really the right word for it either, honestly, because people in the Realm have bodies." He shrugged. "Once you enter limbo, you either actually die and are reborn or disperse entirely, or you ascend to the Realm. I did neither. I just . . . was. So because I didn't die, I technically lived the last five thousand years. But because I didn't actually live, I stopped aging at where I had last been—thirty-four—and did not go any further." Under his breath, he muttered, "And now I am unfortunately immortal as well."

Enaya hid a smile. "Sorry, that could not be helped. As you said, limbo is an odd space. No real effects in short term, but the long term is still being studied. You're the first person to ever be there so long and then come out into the living world versus the Realm." She turned back to the others. "Cultivators as a whole are particularly different where living versus dead is concerned, but those of us from Blossom Field—because Blossom was the first galaxy—have especially important roles to fill even in our afterlives. Cultivators from Blossom can effectively evolve when they ascend to the Realm, and they take on certain duties. A Ruler can become an overseeing Goddess for all worlds that contain her shared element, and a Defender can become an overseeing Guardian for the element itself. As you'd assume, a Dual Cultivator can become both. Whether or a not a Cultivator evolves and takes over directly relates to how powerful they are; if they're more powerful than the last generation, they take over. If not, the last one carries on until a stronger set arrives. We have watched several subsequent generations take over one after another, and then the collective power drops off, and the peak generation stays in charge until things climb high enough again, and then the cycle repeats. That's why Shanta and I have been in charge for so long now, but the others have changed hands many times. Protean and Delphinian heirs have been strong enough to become Goddesses, but not High ones."

"And before you ask," Shanta spoke up, "the role of Guardian to the Illusion and Nature Flower Elements has shuffled through interim hands of other worlds' Defenders, with the intent for the role to belong to Shana and Siobhan eventually when they become High Goddesses in our place. Interim Guardians are actually rather critical sorts. They fill a need at least temporarily until a more permanent person can be found. Usually interims are weaker than permanents, so somewhat limited, but still very needed now and then."

"It is worth noting that Cultivators as a whole also have a higher propensity to be kicked back out of limbo or rejected from the Realm by Orion, so interims can come into play there as well," Clara put in. "This is because Cultivators, of all that lives, are the ones to most have very specific duties that must be fulfilled before we can pass on. Rulers must have an heir—be it a child or a sibling—and Defenders must have fulfilled whatever need was required of them by their world. Defenders do not always have to have a successor since not all worlds always need Defenders. For example, Byron Ranunculus. He is the first Defender for his world in many centuries, and there may not be another one for a long while, if at all. He actually had a higher risk than any of us back then, in that war."

"Knowing that didn't make it easier when you sacrificed your lives," Shana retorted flatly. "Do not put me through that particular hell ever again."

It was the first time she had ever openly spoken about the battle against Mania, and it drew all eyes. Not even those from the Realm knew what she had endured. The Chaos from the battle had prevented them from seeing anything after the Dual Cultivators and the Ranunculus Defender had descended into the hidden space where Mania had waited. Visibility had returned only after Shana had evolved and used her Whisper of Hope to disperse Chaos. Seeing her so terribly mangled and bloody was an image that would haunt more than just Shanta for all time. The Apex of Dark had suffered more than any other in history.

"Damn it!" Rocky snapped angrily as he came around the side of the house. "Who made her remember that? She was happy when I last saw her!" He pulled her tightly into his arms over her feeble protests.

"I was asleep when you last saw me," she muttered into his shoulder.

"Yes, but you were smiling," he countered. He looked around with a glare. "Someone tell me who I have to hit."

All fingers pointed at Clara, including her husband's, and she mock glowered at him. "I thought you vowed to hold me above all others, Samuel."

He retorted, "I am not insane enough to argue with my prince when he's pissed." He thought about it. "Unless he's in danger. At that point I'll drag him away by the seat of his pants as needed."

"It wouldn't be the first time!" Virginia noted cheerfully. "I'll get his ankles this time though."

Shana burst into laughter, and everyone smiled. Sam and Virginia exchanged a low five. They could not heal Shana's wounds, but they could damn well increase the ridiculous in order to make her laugh again. Rocky had been looking for such a thing, and his twin had helped deliver. He eased Shana back and smoothed her hair out of her face. "I have a surprise for you," he told her softly.



"Juliet's cupcakes?"

"She just loves me for my baking," Juliet told Alexandria solemnly.

Her friend grinned. "We all love you for your baking."

Edgar shook his head with wry humor as he wrapped an arm around Siobhan's shoulders and tugged her close. "The surprise is for both of you," he told her. "We had rather unexpected guests at the Ranch, too."

Shana would have automatically guessed Orion and Lycander since they happened to be the Caretakers for Shanta and Enaya—and she sort of wanted to meet them—but when she spied the two familiar men walking into the backyard, she took a quick breath of surprise. One had violet hair and eyes of differing hues, and features not unlike her own or Edgar's. The other had blond hair and pale pink eyes, and features that bore a strong resemblance to Siobhan and Rocky.

Quint Delphinium grinned at where Siobhan could only stare at him. "Still my little troublemaker," he teased her.

On a little hiccup of happy tears, she scrambled across the space and leapt to hug him. "Father!!" She clung onto his neck fiercely. She had always been a daddy's girl in the Royal Era, so seeing him again helped ease some of the lingering pain that had been left from watching him die to protect her mother.

Shana had been unintentionally fixed in place because of her emotions overwhelming her, so Rocky firmly pulled her over to Matthew Protea. "Here you go," he told Matthew dryly. "But I get her back later."

Matthew reached out to cup his daughter's cheek, and he smiled. So much her mother's child, yet he had always been amused by the parts of him that mixed inside her as well. He had suffered watching her suffer over the last years, but being there to help her now made it worthwhile. "I'm proud of you," he said softly.

She took a deep breath. "Damn it. Don't make me cry!" She threw her arms around him and held on tightly with her face against his shoulder. They stood the same six-foot height; a taller height had naturally run in the Protea lineage for ages, but he had pushed the scale just a bit higher. In nice symmetry, she had gotten his height, and Evan had gotten Genevieve's, hence making the younger sister taller than her older brother—much to his chagrin when he could not manhandle her to safety.

"Why Matt and Quint?" Desiree asked her former mentor curiously. "Not that they're unwelcome. They're just unexpected."

Sandra Mirages nodded. "Which is one reason they are here. Another is because Orion and Lycander actually can't leave the Realm of Gods in this current situation since Shanta and Enaya have, and we needed two Caretakers to Cultivators to descend as decoys with the rest of us. All the rest of ours stayed behind as well, under the leadership of Laura—Tessa's own Caretaker."

"Currently," Tessa Chandler of Daffodil spoke up, "we Elder Defenders are serving as the protectors for Shanta and Enaya. We are more powerful than the First Defenders, so we were a better fit. Their twins grumbled a little but agreed it was safest. Especially since we also have a stronger connection to you current Defenders as well." She looked at Virginia. "I am Lead Defender for the Elders, but I will defer to you since you are the stronger of us two." She smiled. "While deferring to Shana or Siobhan first, if needed, of course."

Shana had released Matthew by that point, and she glowered at Tessa and Virginia alike. "I try to be reasonable, you know."

"You're still your mother's daughter," Tessa retorted. Of the Elders, she had always been the one closest to Shanae and Evan because she was Genevieve's twin soul. Likewise, Sara Sukio of Carnation was twin soul to Hannah Delphinium and therefore closest of the Elders to Sayena and Robert.

Shana briefly stuck her tongue out and then looked at the newcomers as a whole. She edged slightly closer to Matthew, almost as if to seek protection. "Okay, so what is happening in the Realm? Shanta didn't mention trouble when she appeared to me recently."

Pause. Then, "Shana!!!" rose on the air from nearly every person present.

She cleared her throat. "Well, no one asked me if I'd seen Shanta. 'Ask not, tell not' you know?"

"It's 'ask me no questions, tell me no lies'," her brother muttered distinctly.

"Same difference," she said with dignity. She lifted a brow at Shanta. "Well?"

The answer came not from the High Goddess, but from a soft swirl of shimmering color that appeared before Shana. It solidified into a small shape that landed with a little plop in Shana's hastily outstretched hands. The petite dragon shook her head a bit to make her fins ruffle and then smiled in a way that made her bright blue eyes sparkle as bright as her deep black scales. "Hello!" she said.

Shana grinned. "Hello! Well, that's a pleasant surprise! I haven't seen a dragon in ages. Not since Liena had Haeth as her partner and familiar. You have all been living on the Ephemeral Plane or in the Realm, haven't you?"

The dragon nodded firmly and then climbed up to sit on Shana's shoulder in a way not unlike a cat. She had four limbs, two front and two back, and her tail curled a solid two feet beyond her body before tapering into a feathery tip. Tiny horns on her head implied she had high status among dragons; only the most powerful or the oldest got horns. "The Plane for nearly all of us, except for a few who are better suited to the Realm for varying reasons."

Krystaline Mirages of Hyacinth grinned. "Everyone, meet Daphne. Remember us mentioning interim Guardians and their critical need sometimes? Meet the interim Guardian of all dragons until Tananeen is restored. Guardian and ruler both, technically. They operate a little differently."

"Tananeen," Tyson said musingly. "That name is both familiar and unfamiliar somehow."

"As it ought to be," Jessica Kalri of Iris agreed. "He is not commonly known to most people, but Cultivators and Caretakers alike have heard his name at least in passing. He was the first of all dragons, is by far the most powerful, and he is technically in the higher levels with the likes of Orion and Alexander. A little higher, I think, because they are Guardians who are children of gods, but Tananeen was himself called the God of the Skies. I don't think we've ever been told where he came from or if he is related to anyone else. I think he just showed up not unlike the other goddesses and gods like Destiny and Time and Life did and became part of the overarching celestial family."

"Interesting." Virginia looked at Shana. "Do you know where he's from?"

"I actually do not! I have a couple guesses, sure, but nothing concrete or important in the scope of things, I think." Shana looked at Daphne on her shoulder. "So what happened to Tananeen that led to a need for an interim Guardian/ruler?

"Toward the end of the Harmonic Era as it approached the Royal Era," Melissa Johnson of Aster said, "I'd say roughly a year or so after we Elders had been born, a war of a very different sort arose. A clash of humans and witches, not unlike what happened at the end of the Royal Era, but perhaps not as . . . ugly. It was less evil than jealousy that made the humans turn on the Faith the first time for their majik use. The queens of that time did their best to quell it, but it became fairly vicious quickly. To this day, we have no idea what set it off. We just know that it happened, and that the dragons naturally got pulled into the fray because they had always been close with witches."

Daphne nodded. "Dragons actually resonate to majik, and use abilities more like majik than magic, so we are naturally drawn most to witches even before Cultivators. It is not uncommon for a dragon to bond to a majikal lineage and just sort of stay with all members of it until it finally dies out—which it will because, unless more majik comes in, eventually it has to thin out. That's just how it works."

Shana and Siobhan exchanged a look, thinking of Jean and her lineage and how it kept getting stronger no matter what added. Proof again of the specialness to the High Priestess bloodline. And thinking of Jean, Shana said, "So Haeth, who was with Liena Vanguard, the first High Priestess of Protea, had bonded to her because they resonated similar, and Liena until recently was the most powerful witch in existence?" She had not thought to ask Jean if Haeth was still around, and now she made a mental note to do so soon.

Daphne visibly hesitated. "Mostly, yes. That lineage is very special to us dragons, actually. We don't really know why either! I've always thought that whatever it is that makes them different from other witches is probably the same reason why we dragons love them. Super concentrated majik maybe?" She shook it off. "Anyway! The Majik War. Humans turned on witches, and the dragons jumped in, and it got sort of terrible. Tananeen's soul mate was killed, and he disappeared entirely. She never ascended to the Realm, though, and we've never found him in the many millennia since. We know they must still exist in some form on some level but . . . we don't know where or how.

"So, until he could return, the dragons needed a new temporary ruler and Guardian. It was my own mother chosen for that, and she issued the order for all dragons to move to the Plane where it would be safer for both us and our witch allies. Only a few remained on the physical level, like Haeth did, and the rest coexisted alongside witches invisibly from the Plane. The war shook up a lot of humans, and they backed off of the Faith entirely until the Royal War and the fall of the kingdoms."

"What happened?" Rachel asked curiously

Shana sighed. "Basically, the Plane had gotten into a terrible state, as you would expect with Nemesis and Famine on rampage. Liena led those of the Faith in trying to help the Plane stabilize, and it just made Nemesis especially hate them more." Possibly also because Liena had been beloved to Protea, but she kept that to herself. "Hate and unbalance had been rising in the people, and they desperately needed someone to blame, needed to try to save themselves. So they turned on the Faith. Thousands were burned or drowned before they went into hiding not unlike the dragons had, which is how we got to where we are today where saying someone is of the Faith automatically means they are a witch, but not the other way around anymore. It used to be synonymous."

Rachel thought about everything and then looked at Daphne. "So who is it who wants your job?"

"Oh, she is quick!" Tessa told Clara. "But, hey, your kid would be."

Clara ignored her, though she smiled. Daphne coughed. "Well, let's answer that by going back to how I took over for Mother. I was a, ah, surprise? Dragons usually have to deliberately have fledglings, but now and then, accidents do happen. I was one of them. Oops. Anyway, Mother had been in charge of things until a year or two ago and then decided she wanted to see what being reborn would be like. So I inherited the position."

"Instead of . . .?" Michael asked.

"Her sister, Irimara. Who is very not fit for the position anyway!"

"Irimara is not . . . very open-minded," Matthew admitted. "She much prefers single-element dragons over mixed ones, like Daphne herself. She hated Daphne enough to begin with, let alone after Daphne got appointed. She also very much hated the idea that dragons hid from the living plane since she thought dragons should have taken over worlds from humans—witches or not—rather than go into hiding. Daphne did not agree with that, so she made the better Guardian. Irimara felt Daphne did not deserve to be Guardian of Dragons because she was 'soft', however, she did seem to accept it finally and left the Realm. That was about a year ago, and we assumed it would be the end."

"Uh-oh," came Yvonne's murmur.

"Yes," Quint said dryly. "Uh-oh is right. The Realm came under attack only last week, though we had been suspecting something would happen for a few months. Irimara had gone to the Plane, found some dragons who also resented status quo, and convinced them to join her. She then launched her attack on the Realm's palace with not just them, but the monsters she had created by giving in to evil magic. Unfortunately . . . well, all dragons are not unlike children of Tananeen, and that makes them exponentially more powerful than average. Even with all the Defender Cultivators running around the Realm, we just got overwhelmed."

"You got kicked out of your own home," Juliet summed up.

"In a nutshell, yeah." Krysta raked a hand through her blue hair. "We're not equipped to fight her army as we are. We don't know how to fight them, and worse still, we're really hesitant to just destroy the corrupted dragons because they may not even know they're doing something wrong! Irimara knew damned what she was doing when she launched the attack she did. To top it off, we can't just go knocking on her door and have it out with her. The Realm is a place without limit. We could literally spend forever trying to find her."

"And she can't take over the Realm itself unless she removes Shanta and Enaya alike," Shana mused, "so it was safer for all of you to come down here with them to remove them from range while waiting for someone to figure out where she's hiding. Father and Uncle Quint acted as a sort of decoy to even get all of you here in the first place. So . . ."

Tessa sighed. "We would love to say this is where we just have to be patient and hang out until we know where to go, but . . . Irimara is still actively building her army, and while normally corrupted dragons can't leave either the Plane or the Realm—safety mechanism made by Tananeen and Pallas alike—she's been sucking lifeforce from humans to overcome that limitation."

"Oh!" Siobhan looked at Kellie swiftly. "That must have been what we were reading about recently. The extreme fatigue that almost resembled a plague as it went through Axium. It lasted a week before disappearing. People just dropping left and right as if they had been exhausted to the bone. There have been one or two cases around here in Lux over the last week, haven't there? No one knew why. She must already be here working on getting lifeforce for her army." She grimaced. "I don't think we want her to have a super-powered army of corrupted dragons. I'm not sure we'd be able to stand up against that, and I sort of don't want to even try unless absolutely needed."

"Our thoughts exactly!" Jessie agreed. "That's why we figure being here is doubly useful. Keep Shanta and Enaya safe, and hopefully manage to keep Irimara from getting more powerful until we know where to go to confront her directly and nip this in the bud—to coin a phrase."

"I wonder how they're doing this," Doug mused. "Dragons can only interact here invisibly with witches, right? So to affect humans physically, they have to be here physically themselves. I imagine we would have heard long before now about dragons running around!"

Sara had to laugh. "To be sure! Actually, dragons have the ability to transform their shape as needed into what is called a Coda form. They're masters of the Shapeshifting ability found randomly in witches as well. Unlike witches who have to be a Nature or Air element to have it, dragons are not elementally limited. All of them have it. So it's very, very likely that Irimara's direct minions—she has six of them, the leads are named Talla and Linx—are actually running around in a human form. Luckily we should have the advantage as they are still only adjusting to using their human bodies."

Daphne nodded firmly. "I intended to take a human form once here, too, at least while in public. I just wanted to introduce myself as my real self first. Well, a smaller version of my true self. This is also technically a Coda form. We dragons are usually a big lot." She flew forward off of Shana's shoulder and landed on the ground. A swirl of blue power surrounded her and then faded to leave her as a human. A surprisingly young one at that! She looked barely seventeen with a petite frame, glossy black hair, and big blue eyes.

She had a darker skin tone not quite all the way to Nathaniel's coal, but instead had more of a mocha hue. Only two things gave away that she might not be human: the interesting birthmarks climbing the side of her face that looked a bit like scales, and her pupils. Human pupils came in round shape; dragon pupils came in diamond.

"You are young for a Guardian!" exclaimed Virginia.

Daphne winced with good nature. "Maybe a bit. But it was me or Irimara and . . . yeah."

Shana touched the back of Daphne's neck where her pulled up hair revealed an interesting glowing mark that looked like a branding of some sort. Its shape, that of a circle with a star in the center, denoted high rank in the Realm. "What's this?"

"That's the mark that means potential Guardian status." Daphne turned to show it to everyone else and then faced front again. "Those of us who are only interim Guardians, or could be, have that mark to set us apart. It means Destiny herself has picked us personally to hold things down for the absent Guardian." She blinked as Shana suddenly hugged her from behind and looked upward at the Cultivator. It felt . . . nice, to be hugged like that. She held onto Shana's arms in turn and smiled. "Thank you. May I stay with you and Rocky?"

Shana hugged her again and then let go. "Sure. Bastian won't mind a dragon around the place."

"What about the rest of us?" Shanta asked everyone in general.

"Well," Siobhan said pragmatically, "why don't we make this easy? Match planet to planet. Melissa stays with Sherry and Justin, my father and Enaya can stay with I and Edgar, and so on down the line."

"She scares me when she does that," Rocky confessed. "It makes me worried that Shana will suddenly say something very ridiculous." He saw a sudden glint in his lover's pink eyes and hastily covered her mouth with a hand. "Don't you dare!" he warned.

"Siobhan makes a good point," Michael decided. "And since every couple here is living together, even the baby . . ."

"I am not the baby!" Shana crossed her arms as everyone laughed at her. "Just because I'm the youngest," she said with dignity, "does not mean I can't kick the collective asses of all those present. And I'm only the youngest for barely over another month, so, nyaa!"

"Isn't it nice to see some things never change?" Amanda asked Tessa dryly.

Tessa grinned. In every generation of both Defenders and Rulers, it always fell that the Lead would be eldest, and Protea with its Nature power would be youngest. Perhaps that was the balance for their tendency to be born prematurely. "Very much so!"

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