(Realm of the Gods)
The Dragonsbane, as it had been called, sat hidden deep within a distressingly convoluted and complex forest normally utilized by members of the Realm who liked to go camping and deliberately get lost for a while. The Bane had been heavily populated by dragons corrupted by Irimara, and nearly all of them had been rendered into almost-mindless drones. None talked. Few interacted.
The only exception to that lay within the six direct reports Irimara had gained. She had not corrupted them as much as recruited them, so they had retained their conscious wills as well as their ability to speak and interact. Each had their own reason for joining, though most had simply wanted the freedom to walk among the living world and enjoy all it offered. Nearly none even remembered or knew why dragons had been kept to the Plane for so long; they just knew the Guardian had issued orders for it to be so.
Linx served as their leader. In Coda form as a human, he had the only full-blooded element of the six minions, and he had brown hair and eyes relevant to his Nature element as well as fair skin. Talla acted as second-in-command, and her blended Glass/Metal had given her gray hair, nearly translucent red eyes, and a vibrant mocha skin tone. Both had ages roughly on par with a human in their late twenties, which meant they had passed over three thousand years in actuality.
Jaslyn followed behind them, with an age roughly around twenty-two, and a blended Water/Ice element that gave her pale blue eyes, hair as green as fragrant seaweed, and nearly ivory skin color. Near about the same age, if a bit older, was Reggie. He had the oddest combination present thanks to multiple elements mixing in his lineage. He technically had a bit of all of the common ones; it made him surprisingly powerful, for despite not having any one or two element in entirety, the sum total of the bits added up greatly. It also meant he had a fascinating mottled hair color of most shades, dark skin, and his eyes literally changed color depending on the magic he used.
The final two minions were identical twins—rare for dragons—who had blended Fire/Thunder elements that gave them light brown skin, orange eyes, and orange hair with yellow stripes almost in lightning bolt shape. The elder was named Siana and the younger was named Sicily. In age, they had just barely passed adulthood.
Talla's boots made soft thumping sounds as she paced in front of the large glowing orb that was the source of the collected power. "I don't like that they went to Protea," she told Linx. "Have you seen those Rebirth Era Cultivators?"
"The Nature one broke my meter," Siana complained. "All I did was point it at her when she wasn't watching and the darn thing broke!"
Linx shrugged. "It hardly matters. We'll fight them when they get in our way, but we won't go picking fights with them. I've read up on their prior wars. Provoking those Defenders seems to be a hazardous pastime. Here," he said to Talla, "catch."
She automatically caught the item he threw to her and discovered herself holding a necklace with a pendant shaped like their symbol: a dragon's eye with its diamond pupil. "And this is . . .?"
"A chip of our main source here." He tapped the orb lightly. "Find a place where you can encounter as many people as possible and take small amounts of lifeforce from each. The larger attacks seem to have drawn notice from the humans, and the last thing we want is for the Defenders to be put on alert. I imagine they've made the connection by now thanks to the goddesses and Elders descending." He started to walk away and then turned around to purr, "And try not to make as big of a mess as you mixed breeds are prone too, would you?"
Talla's hand tightened around the pendant as she visibly bit back a retort. With a swirl of thick gray hair, she turned on her heel and stalked out. Linx stalked out the other way, and Jaslyn popped the gum she had been chewing. "Sometimes I wonder if they hate each other or if maybe they just hate that they really have a serious attraction to each other."
The other three could only sigh. Truthfully, they had wondered it too.
* * * * *
The phone was chirping. It was also only the fifth hour of the morning, so the entire apartment was still asleep. No dawn, no waking, even for the Protea-blooded. Shana was sleeping on top of Rocky's chest and flung out a hand blindly for her PPS. She pulled it to her ear and mumbled, "Hate you so much." Her lover stirred and jostled her, and she held on before she fell over.
"The shopping center is having huge sales," came Virginia's voice. "Since Sherry can't outfit all of the Elders personally, I thought we'd take advantage of the sale to get everyone looking a little more like they belong on Protea. They looked as if they stepped out of a fashion periodical from a few millennia ago, and even in the few days they've been here, they've gotten some odd looks."
"You woke me up before dawn for a sale at the shopping center." Shana rubbed at her forehead as she tried to compute the concept. "You have made your will out, right?"
Virginia knew how to get what she wanted from her friends. "The bathing shop is part of it. Doors open at sixth hour, and everything is up to seventy-five percent off. I thought your frugal nature might appreciate such a thing, you know?"
Shana had few vanities, but one of them was a love for pampering herself with perfumes and lotions. She had a shopping weakness for bathing stores because of it. She just couldn't stay out of them! "Aw, crap." She rolled off Rocky and sat up. "Why pick me?"
"Well, frankly, because you're the only one I know who can wake up fast enough to go along, Nature-girl."
Shana watched Rocky roll over and yank a pillow on top of his head. Her lips quirked. "Fair enough. I'll go roust Shanta." Strangely, while she could easily call Matthew 'Father', she did not actually feel as if Shanta could be called 'grandmother.' Perhaps because they were so far removed in the family tree that, despite shared power and appearance, they did not actually share blood any longer. Better, since Clara and Rachel had been busy, no one in Lux would react oddly to Shana suddenly having a twin, or Siobhan and Rocky having a new relative.
"We'll pick you up in fifteen minutes," Virginia promised, then closed the call.
Shana debated her options. She really hated to suffer alone in this way, so, with a slightly evil smile, she closed the phone and then opened it again to have a new call. "Alexandria Urias," she ordered, and waited for it to finally connect. The other side eventually answered, and she purred, "Lexie, I'm going shopping with Virginia in fifteen minutes, and Rocky won't be there, so Virginia will be aaaaall by herself to protect poor me."
Alexandria groaned and dropped her face back into the pillow as Diaz laughed at her. Shana was not allowed out with just one bodyguard unless it happened to be Siobhan or Rocky; their Illusion magic as Rulers meant they could quickly remove her from a scene in case of danger. She required two Defenders or Caretakers otherwise. The queen's Dark side had shown its head again. She could be such a sadist sometimes.
Fifteen minutes later, Alexandria and Krysta alike arrived in the former's carriage. Right behind them came Virginia in hers with Sara. "No Diaz?" Sara asked. "I thought he loved shopping." Michael had had to beg off because of his own job, much to his dismay. He enjoyed it too.
"He has an event he can't get out of, so he begged out of this excursion," Alexandria explained. As Shana got into the carriage in the backseat, she added in a mutter, "I am going to get you for this."
Shana grinned at her. "I love you too, Lexie."
Krysta laughed out right. "Shana, I love you to bits. It's so refreshing to see Lex getting her own. I have every hope that someday she and Diaz have a daughter just like her so that she knows exactly what she put me and her mother through! It's Hyacinth tradition, you know?" Her eyes twinkled merrily. "Each generation gets revenge on the next."
Alexandria just snorted and drove off down the street with Virginia following with Shanta and Sara. She was wide-awake now and aware she had been manipulated but she hardly minded. Anything that put laughter into Shana's eyes, made her smile more, made those terrible events seem further away, was well worth it. Those moments when her lingering stress over the Chaos War gouged at her only gouged at Alexandria equally. "Damn it," she said so softly only Krysta heard.
Krysta glanced at her but said nothing. She suspected she knew what had caused it—most any Defender would—but she had nothing to say or do to help. No one knew what had happened to Shana at the end. No one except maybe Clara, and Krysta suddenly determined to make her talk somewhere they couldn't be overheard and accidentally trigger Shana's stress. They needed to know so they could somehow help.
The shopper center had already flooded with people even before sixth hour, and the instant the doors opened, it was as if someone had released a dam. Alexandria had never much been one for shopping sprees, so she found herself in the role of valet or the dreaded 'doesn't like to shop and therefore carries the bags significant other'. "Shana," she complained as they exited yet another shop. "Mercy."
"Nope!" Shana peered in a window at bridal gowns. "I can't believe I'm getting married in April. It's such a strange feeling because it feels as if it's been on hold forever, and yet we feel married so it's odd to be so formal!" She grinned. "But I'm okay with the double-wedding thing. It'll be wonderful. Since we can't have our traditional Ruler ceremony for obvious reasons, Sherry is having fun making Siobhan and me wedding gowns that still pay homage to our kingdoms, and of course matching outfits for our men."
"I still say you don't need a corset," Virginia told her. "You're busty enough."
"You're just jealous."
"Actually, I'm just worried Rocky might fall over at the front of the aisle."
"Sam will be there. He can catch him."
They continued down the center, and they popped in and out of any store that struck their fancy. One at the end of the line was new, and Sara brightened when she saw the sign. "A pet store! Let's take a look inside." She grinned when her friends groaned. "Like I'm the only sucker for cute animals. Some people around here have a propensity for animals following her home!"
Shana and Shanta alike coughed. With Shanta now dressed more casually, people were getting whiplash trying to see the two stunningly beautiful Protea daughters. Much to the amusement of their friends, the short sleeves of their shirts had confirmed it: Shana definitely had the better muscle tone to her body. Whether or not her lover's pulse could handle her wearing more revealing or snug clothing remained yet to be seen.
They headed over toward the pet shop and were delighted to realize it was as big as any other store. All manner of creature crawled over cages and containers, and many others wandered the floor openly. Many of those immediately made a beeline right for Shana and Shanta and demanded to be picked up or cuddled. A particularly playful snake coiled around Shana's arm and tickled her ear to make her laugh.
Alexandria suddenly felt the familiar creeping sensation inside her soul that meant her twin was in danger. The protective defense had been built into all twin soul Defenders, allowing them to know when their queen needed them. She glanced around a bit sharply, which instantly alerted Virginia there may be an issue. She yanked off her hat and slapped it down on Shana's head protectively to hide her coloring, and seeing her gesture made Krysta likewise put her hat on Shanta.
Talla was just siphoning the lifeforce off another customer when she sensed a faint tremor in the land beneath her feet. Someone of Nature power had just walked into the shop. She looked up swiftly and spotted nothing out of the unusual until she caught a flash of pitch black hair on two exceptionally tall women—one of which looked very much like a warrior-type. She cursed mentally.
The lights exploded. Alexandria and Virginia tackled Shana down to the ground protectively even as Sara and Krysta took Shanta down. "You know," Shana said wryly, "it amuses me when someone smaller than me tries to bodily protect me." Yet, she was used to it, and so were they. That made it no less amusing overall.
People had begun to escape the store quickly, so everyone stayed down low for safety. Shana could see in absolute darkness, better than in the light actually, and she glanced around as best she could to see what had happened. A puppy pawed her cheek and she whispered, "Get everyone to safety." She watched the puppy round up all those not in cages and get them into a safer place, and felt a little better.
The doors swung shut once the place had cleared, and Talla called, "You can come out now. I know you're there, High Goddess Shanta!"
"Stay down," Virginia ordered Shanta. She grabbed her Mask even as the other Defenders did, and they pulled them on to don their armor. As the lights came back on, she hopped to her feet. "Surprise!" Her halberd appeared in her grip. "I think you know we won't hand over anyone, right?"
Shana calmly stepped forward with her claymore propped on her shoulder. "Hello, Talla. I assume that's who you must be. I'm High Queen Shanae Protea, but I suspect you knew that equally."
"Yes, I—I did." Talla cleared her throat and then tried to bow, but it looked rather awkward, as if she did not know how to hold or carry herself. She clearly just did not entirely know how to handle her human body in any way; her clothes also looked as if they fit wrong and were probably uncomfortable with it. "I am Talla, yes. I follow Irimara."
"You should also know we're going to stop you, right?" Air magic whirled around Krysta's gloved fingers warningly and then shot in a sheering blast across the room.
Talla dove out of the way of the attack and rolled to her feet, lithe like the dragon she was but with a visible wobble at the end. "I'm not ready to play with you yet," she said with dignity. "I have other duties. Next time you meet one of us, we will be ready for you." She turned around and then felt her heart leap into her throat as she realized Shana had somehow gotten behind her. Looking into her pink eyes was like looking into the Heart of Darkness itself. "You!"
Shana stepped closer, and Alexandria would have bristled if Virginia hadn't caught her arm. Ignoring them, Shana leaned down to look Talla in the eye. "When you walk," she said softly, "carry your weight not on your legs, but on your back. Let your arms naturally swing when you walk. It will compensate for the balance."
Talla's eyes narrowed. "Why would you help me?"
"I won't find any enjoyment in this fight if you can't even walk across a room to face me." She eased back and smiled genuinely. "Good luck, fledgling."
Unable to think of a single thing to say, Talla disappeared. The shop disappeared as well, revealing it to be little more than an illusion, and all of the animals looked as unnerved by that fact as the Cultivators did. Shana sighed and turned to her friends. "I guess we should be glad they're not just gunning for us. It's always been so annoying how evil does not realize that getting in our face is the fastest way to be smited. Painfully."
"What do we do with these guys?" Alexandria asked her. She looked down as a puppy tried to gnaw on the bottom of her armor's long jacket. "Tell me not to take it home. I have enough trouble keeping Diaz out of the plants."
Sara almost fell over giggling. "Hey, Krys! Your wife was right: there is still a difference between Caretakers for Hyacinth Rulers and Hyacinth Defenders. She only has a few things in common with Diaz, but he really reminds me of Arista's father!"
Krysta and Alexandria alike glared at her. Shana grinned. "We can find homes for them, or turn them over to real shelters as needed." She pulled her Mask off and sent her armor away. For a moment, it seemed as her power rippled in the air around her and then dissipated. "Let's collect our bags and get out of here. The introvert was burned out even before this happened. Also, we need a meeting."
Sara and Krysta exchanged a look with Shanta as the goddess approached. They could not find anything to say. They had never seen any Defender ripple the air in that manner from removing their Mask, and more importantly, they had felt the ripple inside their souls. They definitely needed to talk to Clara, and soon.
They called a meeting later that day at the Castlera house for the same reason they had been calling it there all along: there was simply no room for all of them anywhere else. "That's it," Rocky told Shana. "Next time I'm going along."
She smirked. "Willing to sacrifice your precious sleep to be dragged around the shopping center by Ginny just to keep me safe?"
He grimaced. "If need be, yes."
"Good!" Alexandria said with emphasis. "Then I don't have to feel like the grumpy significant other! I had five different people tell me that my girlfriend was gorgeous, and I still can't determine which of those nutcases they meant!" She scowled at Diaz as he dropped an arm around her waist. "Don't placate me. I almost brought home a puppy. And that sounds even stupider out of context than I realized."
"At least they know not to underestimate us," Sam said dryly. "That tends to be the downfall of most enemies. The ones who have succeeded in taking down Defenders have either completely overwhelmed them with sheer numbers, or drew things out so long that they literally burned out."
"Yes, but we take them out with us in those circumstances," Tessa reminded him. And she would well know, as it had been the overwhelming force of numbers that had taken her and her generation from the world of the living. They had not gone down quietly, though, and it had mattered most to them that they won and saved their queens and future generation, even if they themselves had not survived.
Tyson eyed Shana. "Someone helping the enemy master a human body isn't going to be very helpful for us, though."
Shana lifted a brow at him. "And where is the honor or enjoyment of defeating someone in battle when I could arm wrestle and win? It's not like she's going to suddenly turn into a master combat specialist. Also, we're less likely to miss her if she won't trip on accident and blasts go over her head. You know, like some others we know."
"You be quiet!" Siobhan groused. "That only happened once."
The conversation changed gears at that point and became a debate over whether Andromedian won for being the dumbest enemy of all time, or if someone could possibly be more stupid in the future. The Elder Cultivators joined in for a bit, and then Tessa caught Clara's eye and lifted a brow. She inclined her head slightly and then led her team and the two High Goddesses away around the side of the house. Clara winced but followed willingly; she still followed Tessa as a Lead Defender as much as she did Virginia, or Shana. She knew what the conversation would entail, and glanced back to be sure they were safe. It looked that way. Sam and Rocky had gotten into an avid argument that had Shana playing referee.
"Alright," Tessa said bluntly. "Clara, you need to tell us what the weighted hells happened."
"There's something different about Shana's power now," Sara added. "It rippled in the air around her oddly when she removed her Mask and then rippled inside us. It can't be because she's an Apex. Siobhan doesn't do that, right?"
"No, she doesn't, and it's only semi-related to Shana being an Apex." Clara took a long breath. "I had a feeling this was coming. The ripple is easiest to explain. When Shana plunged into the Heart of Chaos, it left a fingerprint on her. A sort of . . . connection. It did not change her power, did not make her power different, but it did effect how her power acts now and then. It made this little mark inside her where power bounces away from, and so it ripples into the air and sometimes inside others. It's not dangerous to her or anyone else. The most it does is make her hypersensitive to Chaos power. She'll be able to feel it if it ever exists inside someone. Not even Siobhan can do that, but she could have if she had been fingerprinted."
"Did that happen to Byron, too?" Sandra asked softly.
"It actually happened to him more profoundly because not only is he not an Apex, but he was at the focal point of Chaos erupting from his sister. He not only has the fingerprint, but something of an immunity as well. It's something that has actually touched both his and Shana's very blood, so any children they bear will inherit it. It will never leave either lineage. Protea has been indelibly marked. Shana and Rocky's future daughter will have it, though why Destiny required such a thing is unknown to me—and Rachel hasn't said if she knows."
"So what happened?" Sara whispered. She held Shanta's hand in support.
"We entered into Mania's domain knowing we would sacrifice ourselves for Siobhan and Shana to get to the bottom, because they had best chance of winning." Clara kept her voice even with effort. "Everyone except me fell. Shana forced my retreat before I could sacrifice myself. I . . . had forgotten she had all the same Lead abilities as any other. She so rarely uses them because of Gin." She took a ragged breath. "I didn't see the rest either. I just know of it. Siobhan gave up her Seed to Shana because she would be a liability, and Alexandria fell protecting Shana. At that moment . . . Shana had been punched full of holes. Edgar . . . Rocky . . . Alexandria . . . their deaths had been deliberate motions by Destiny to force Shana to shatter her own soul and reforge herself into the Apex of Dark."
Enaya barely kept herself from throwing up. She had watched terrible, horrible, things happen to Cultivators across all ages. She had watched Siobhan die a painful, wrongful, death to awaken as Apex of Light. Shana . . . she had paid a price worse than death. She had torn herself to shreds and put herself back together. Yet, if she had not, she could not have been strong enough to go into the Heart of Chaos. She had made her Dark power just enough stronger for that moment to protect her. Mostly. She had not emerged unharmed. "And?" she managed.
Clara for once looked as old as she felt. "She had Byron sing to call to Tara and then plunged into the Heart in order to release the Whisper of Hope that had been born inside her. It repelled Chaos back to the universe and saved Tara. You saw everything else after that." The one memory she never wanted to keep, that of seeing her queen so torn and bloody and barely alive, she would never be able to banish.
"Will Chaos ever be a problem again?" Melissa asked quietly. "I mean, it's so potentially dangerous. Could anyone control it?"
"Only a third Apex," Shanta admitted, "and I don't think the universe could support a third for a long while yet. Honestly it all comes down to what Destiny has planned, and not even Orion is ever privy to all of her plans and intents." The color abruptly bled from her face as she stared over Clara's shoulder. "No." It came out as barely a whisper.
All eyes turned, and all faces paled equally as they found Shana had come around the side of the house without being heard. She had Clara's jacket in her hands, and her knuckles had turned white. Tears ran down her face unfelt from her darkened eyes. Echoes of hell moved in her eyes like the black and white lightning of Chaos power.
Tessa approached her on trembling legs and slowly reached out as if trying to tame a terrified wild animal. She had the best hope of reaching her thanks to being Genevieve's twin. "Shana. Come here, baby. It'll be okay."
The jacket fell from Shana's fingers as she whirled and rushed away. She disappeared around the corner with such speed that she made the land quiver in her wake.
Sick, heartbroken, the Elder Cultivators could say nothing. Now what were they supposed to do?