The Cultivators were still debating when Alexandria, Rocky, and Edgar suddenly reacted violently to seemingly nothing. Edgar went white, Alexandria staggered, and Rocky would have fallen if Uwe and Sam's quick reflexes hadn't kept him standing. The sheer potency of what they had felt was so strong that it even rippled outward into their other soul mates. Siobhan, Michael, Diaz, and Sam could all feel a backwash that made them nauseated. "What the hell?" Sam demanded sharply. His head jerked around as he realized what had to have happened. "Where's Shana?"
Shana tore through the area a moment later, and the wake of the trembling ground knocked over Siobhan and Yvonne alike. "What happened?" Siobhan asked shakily. She let Aldan help her up and spotted the Elder Cultivators slowly approaching from the same direction with Clara. "What did you say?" she shouted.
Guilt was written all over Clara's face. "It was my fault," she admitted softly. "I did not know she was there. I . . . I was telling the Elder Cultivators of the battle against Mania."
More faces paled. "She's not ready yet," Kellie whispered. "She's just not yet ready to face it. It's only been a month or two since she dealt with the pain of Nemesis."
Rocky shrugged off his two Commanders and straightened. "You know what?" he said in a low voice. "I'm not waiting for her to be ready. She's in a place where even if she is not willing, she's not in danger of being destroyed—or destroying the one trying to heal her. She can't live like this anymore. As her Caretaker, I won't stand for it." He shot Matthew and Shanta a look. "Stay with someone else this evening. Leave Shana to me."
"He sounds like someone I know," Amanda muttered at Quint, who just snorted in response.
Shanta nodded in acknowledgement of the order. "We are happy to do so." She frowned as she watched Rocky run around the side of the house. Certainly, calling Jean in to handle the healing would take care of much of the issue, but it would lessen the strain on her and Shana alike if only Shana could find comfort in the sort of understanding that could only come from someone who had been there and knew intimately how she suffered for they had suffered beside her. Was that even possible?
The apartment was utterly silent when Rocky got home. He went down the hall and eased open the bedroom door. Shana was curled up in the middle of their bed, and she had her arms wrapped around Bastian. The ferret had cuddled up close in an effort to soothe his mistress. Daphne, in dragon form, was also present, and she had curled around Shana's head.
Rocky sat on the side of the bed and reached out to gather Shana into his arms. He buried his face in her hair for a moment as she clung onto him with all of her considerable strength. He hated when she was broken in ways he could not fix.
Shana closed her eyes and listened desperately to Rocky's heart beating under her ear. It lessened the chokehold of pain but could not remove the bitter taste from her mouth. She would never forget watching him die in front of her. Never! "It's not just what Clara said," she whispered. "It's that she was right."
"Your death being a necessity to force me to reforge my own soul when I was broken." Her voice began to shake. "I've done everything Destiny has ever asked of me! I've spilled my blood and sacrificed my life! Yet she took away from me the one thing I want more than anything else in existence!"
Emotion closed his throat for a moment. "You consider me more important than even your freedom?"
She looked up at him with stark pink eyes. "I will die a million times, fight until time ends, if it means that I have you." Her eyes closed as his arms tightened fiercely around her and his kiss took away the bitterness at last. She had spoken nothing less than the utter truth. Without Rocky . . . she had little reason to continue on. If he and the other Cultivators had not been resurrected after the fight with Mania . . . she would have been willing to take her own life. She would have risked damaging her soul further by not dying in battle as she needed.
They slowly eased apart, and both began to smile as they heard Daphne making a sound not unlike a purr from where she had climbed onto Shana's shoulder. "I'll be okay," Shana told the dragon softly.
"I just hate to see you so miserable," Daphne confessed. Hesitantly, she asked, "Do you think maybe you need to talk about it? Just . . . rant and scream and rave over it? If anyone is entitled, you are."
"I can't." Shana shook her head. "It hurts too much. I don't think any of you could ever understand even if I tried to tell you. You weren't there. You didn't see it." A shudder rippled through her body. "I can't even be sure that attempting such a thing wouldn't do more damage to my soul. The wound . . . festers. I think . . . it cut me deeper than even Nemesis."
That, Rocky believed. Those needles were no doubt bigger and more wicked than the rest. "Then for now," he said softly as he gently laid her down on the bed, "take a nap and rest. Recover from this revisit." He rubbed his thumb over her cheek. "I'll bring you dinner in bed and pamper you outrageously."
She felt so utterly exhausted from the stress attack that she could not resist. "Maybe this once," she murmured as her lashes were drooping.
He brushed his lips across hers and captured her sigh as she slipped into an exhausted sleep. He tucked a blanket over her and Bastian both as the ferret once more snuggled against her chest, and then he got to his feet and headed with determined strides toward the living room.
Daphne flew after him and landed on his shoulder as he picked up his PPS from where he had dropped it. "Who are you calling?"
"Someone I guarantee you'll like. She is a critical component to helping Shana heal, and she can get in touch with someone else who is critical. There is someone who was there. Someone who saw everything. Someone I know damned well would drop everything to come help Shana. He doesn't have a PPS on his world, however, so I need a slightly more . . . metaphysical way to contact him." He opened the phone. "Jean Kinsley."
After a few moments, the line connected and Jean answered, "Do I want to know why you're calling me at this time of day?"
"Do you have some vacation time from work you can use?" he countered dryly.
She groaned. "The current theatrical I'm working on is in the middle of rehearsals!" There was a silence and then she sighed. "Yeah. They can spare me for a weekend; I'll free myself up tonight if you can come fetch me. Is there anything I need to know before I pack a bag?"
"Sit down. This might take a bit."
She was interested despite herself. There was no denying she had been feeling lately as if there was something important she needed to do. She put her PPS on speaker and walked over to sit on the edge of her couch. "Alright," she said. "I'm sitting. What are you getting me into this time?"
Her head spun on its axis by the time she closed her phone. Reluctant amusement had her gaze moving to a poster merrily hanging on the wall across the room. She had been a huge fan of Byron Rancul herself, enough to be willing to hang a poster from one of his theatricals in her room. He looked incredibly dashing in it. His departure from Protea to return to his home world of Ranunculus had upset her more than she had cared to examine. Now finding out he was the Defender Cultivator of Ranunculus and technically a Deactivated Ruler Cultivator of the same, which was why he had to leave, knocked her for a loop.
Rocky wanted her to contact Byron and ask him to help her help Rocky help Shana. "Goddess." She untied her braid and let her thick hair fall free around her shoulders as she headed through her apartment to the spare bedroom she had turned into a sacred space. Inside, invisible to non-majikal eyes, was a little blue and white dragon with horns sleeping on a trunk that had turned gray from sheer age. "Seriously," Jean said, "sometimes I wonder if it is a curse to be connected to the Protea Kingdom."
Haeth's lips curved but she didn't open her eyes. When she spoke, her voice rippled directly into Jean's mind via Telepathy. What will be, will be. We all have a purpose.
"I know, I know." Jean lit candles of varying colors as well as incense around the room and then closed the blinds to shut out the sunlight. A slight gesture of one hand cast a sacred circle around herself as she sat in the middle of the floor. She closed her eyes and let herself begin to relax and drift. She had walked thousands of times in the Immortal Fields of the Ephemeral Plane, though she had never tried to contact someone else through it. She knew how to do it, but she had never had a need to try.
As she walked through the Fields, she reached out to find the Flower Element signature that could only belong to the Ranunculus Defender. The signature of a Flower Element was as unique as a fingerprint, and like even identical twins, no two ever matched. She found Byron's amid the Fields and used that to reach out even further, back toward the physical world but not in her galaxy.
It took less than a minute before she felt the sensation of another hand reaching out to grasp hers. Someone walking beside her on the Plane. She could not see him, nor could he see her, yet they could feel the other and communicate. A premonition rippled down her back that felt like a warning from Destiny. Somehow she just . . . knew this touch. Hello?
Hello. The male voice held nearly as much power as her own, and it sounded familiar in many ways. It also sounded amused. I have to say this is the first time I have ever had someone tap me on my mind and ask me to take a walk where my feet don't move. I've never used the Plane in this manner before, let alone visited the Fields.
I'd apologize but I wouldn't mean it. I contact you on behalf of High Prince Robert Delphinium. Are you . . . are you Byron Ranunculus, the Defender Cultivator of Ranunculus?
There was a shocked pause, then the voice said slowly, I am. Who are you, that Rocky would ask you to contact me? And why does he need me?
I'm not important.
Tough shit. Look, he needs your help. We need your help. Shana is suffering extreme survivors' stress. She can't continue on any longer in this state. We need to get her to heal before she gets an emotional ulcer. She needs a spiritual healer—me—and someone who was there—you. Yay for you, you get to come back to this hodgepodge planet of all the people who can't go anywhere else. Yay for me, I get to pack a bag and get transported to a city that does not speak my language in any fashion. I'm pretty sure you'll have less culture shock.
Byron was both fascinated and slightly charmed by the fast-talking, accented, acerbic woman holding his hand mentally. He would have come back to Protea just for Shana, but now he very much wanted to meet this spiritual healer as well. She sounded highly entertaining. I literally owe Shana my life. I will be there as soon as I can.
Good. And, er, just to let you know, they're in the middle of another war. Bring your Mask just in case. She opened her eyes and the connection instantly severed. Yet . . . she could still feel the ghostly touch of his mind inside hers. "It was just a crush," she said out loud. "I had a crush on him like fifty million other people. Just because our powers resonate on the same wavelength doesn't mean we're like destined or something."
From where she was lying, Haeth just smiled.
* * * * *
Jaslyn wandered aimlessly back and forth through the main area of Dragonsbane. Unlike her partners, she had adapted fairly swiftly to human form and had taken dozens of fashion periodicals from Protea to learn as much about her body as she could. She now dressed with a flare that emphasized her beauty. "I'm bored!" she complained to Linx as he walked into the room.
"This should help then." He handed her a pendant. He couldn't help but smile. It was impossible to dislike Jaslyn. "Gather as much lifeforce as you can. And," he pinched her chin affectionately, "try not to draw the attention of the Cultivators, okay? If you do, you know what to do. Irimara has put her magic into these gems," he handed her one, "that will unleash a Draconid monster."
"Okay." She watched him walk off and then spotted Talla watching with a scowl on her face. "Don't worry," she said cheerfully, "He's handsome and all, but I'm not interested." And with a flounce, she turned on her heel and headed off to go to Protea. If anything, it would alleviate her boredom.
* * * * *
Chaos ripped deep inside her soul and tore her to pieces in its implacable blend of emotion and truth. She could feel the anger and despair and the hate. There was no love. Not here. This Chaos raged. She screamed in her mind and struggled to beat against it, but it just snapped and snapped at her. She turned and saw the man she loved running toward her. She tried to cry out to him but the Chaos swept down and consumed him. He would never come back. Unable to bear more, she closed her eyes and let the Chaos tear her apart.
Shana jerked upright in bed with a muffled scream. Rocky was instantly awake, and he sat up sharply to grab her into his arms. His heart hammered wildly as he tried to calm them both down. Bastian, who had been sleeping on Shana's hip, and Daphne, who had been on Rocky's chest, had been sent tumbling off the bed at the jarring wakeup, and they climbed back up to curl up on Shana's lap. As predicted, the ferret rather liked his new friend.
Shaking so hard it was a miracle her bones did not rattle, Shana burrowed against Rocky tightly and said nothing. She couldn't talk about it. She just couldn't. She didn't want to make him share this nightmare. His Light could save her. "Just hold me," she whispered against his shoulder. "If you hold me, I can't break."
"I'm here." He drew her head back and kissed her as deeply as he could, reminding her that they were there, alive, and together.
It was only the day following the flashback. He had the day off, and she had no class that day. She actually only had three weeks left of her semester; the first week of December, the week before she turned twenty-five, she would graduate. For the two weeks after her birthday until the end of the month, she and Edgar would be the same age, and then his birthday would arrive and she would reluctantly be the baby again.
The kiss was continuing to linger, so Daphne asked politely, though with humor, "Should I leave?"
Shana found a laugh as she eased back from her lover. "No." She scooped up the dragon in her arms. "I notice someone has discovered cuddling humans is nice, and I notice further that someone has a distinct preference for the prince in this bed," she teased Daphne.
Daphne grinned back at her. "I can't help it. We dragons do have a propensity to bond to people, and while it may normally be those with majik, it can be really strong magic types too." She patted Rocky on the face. "Also, we really like good energy, and Delphinium types sort of ooze that, don't they?
"To be sure," Rocky agreed a bit sheepishly. "And, yeah, I'm pretty strong magically. Second to Siobhan, which is sort of scary in a way. I just can't use my magic the way the Defenders can. As far as being a Ruler, though, I'm fully Activated so I can match or best the others in that. So it does make sense you'd like me." He plucked Daphne out of Shana's arms to cuddle. "I don't mind another little sister," he told her. "So feel free to snuggle anytime you like."
Shana glanced at the clock: the sixth hour of the morning, and dawn was coming in the window. "C'mon, Daph." She scooped up the dragon from Rocky's arms and then got out of bed to walk naked toward the bathroom. "Keep me company while I do my hair and I'll explain the hazards of being a member of the Toulume family."
"It's not that bad!" Rocky called after her. He snorted and then got out of bed to grab a pair of pants. It wasn't as if it had ever hurt her or Edgar, right? He didn't bother to be quiet as he headed down the hall since Matthew was already out jogging, and he could see the light under Shanta's door that meant she was awake as well. She and Matthew traded who slept on the couch and who slept in the spare bedroom so that they kept things fair. Rocky was actually the only non-morning person in the household, and he felt just fine with that.
By the time the coffee had brewed, Shana was fully dressed and in the kitchen contemplating breakfast. Shanta walked in a few moments later, and she was patting away a yawn. She stopped to hug her granddaughter, however. "I heard you cry out. Are you alright, love?"
"It's just a nightmare." Shana smiled wryly. "Which is a somewhat ironic thing to say to you, but it wasn't anything worth burdening you with. Nightmares have stopped bothering me. I can filter the Plane without issue. It's just sometimes my own personal ones can dredge up things best not dredged."
As one of the two Ruler Cultivators of Protea for her generation, she acted as a literal filter for the Plane and would receive excesses of nightmares from Pallas in order to keep the Fields balanced. She also received excesses of good dreams, so it balanced out inside her as well, especially now that she had healed from that particular war.
She turned as she heard the front door and smiled as Matthew shortly appeared in the kitchen. "Good jog?" she asked.
"It's the perfect temperature today." He gratefully took the coffee Rocky offered. "But the streets are a little busier than usual. I'd wait until evening for your jog. You'd probably feel a lot more comfortable."
Shana had rebounded quite a bit where her fear of carriages were concerned, but some things still spooked her and probably always would. She felt fine with that, really. It didn't completely interfere with her life, and she could make easy adjustments to account for it. Nearly everyone had some sort of phobia, so she almost liked being that sort of normal. Strange how that worked. "Good to know." After a study of Rocky, she told Shanta casually, "You know, it occurs to me that it's not very hard to tell Rocky is descended of the Guardian of Desire."
Her lover sighed. "I'll put a shirt on." He disappeared down the hall, grumbling under his breath.
Shana grinned. "Thank you!" she called. "He's such a terrible distraction," she apologized to her family.
Matthew just grinned. He was as thoroughly wrapped around Genevieve's finger as Rocky was around Shana's. It tended to work that way with Caretakers and Cultivators, especially when both involved had both roles. He had been the Crown Prince of the planet Celia but abdicated and Deactivated his Seed in order to stay with Genevieve. His sister had been Activated in his place and gone on to continue the family lineage. He still didn't entirely know what had happened to his younger brother, though. He had left home before the end of the Blossom kingdoms, and Matthew had not seen him in the Realm since. Then again . . . considering the size of the Realm . . . that did not feel so surprising after all.
Shana had just poured the first batch of pancakes into a griddle when someone knocked on the door. Puzzled, she handed over the spatula to Matthew and went to the front door. She peeped through the spyhole and her jaw dropped. "What the?!" She yanked the door open and gaped at the figure standing on her porch. "Jean!?" She shifted automatically to Vericin. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Well, it's nice to see you too!" Jean retorted. She dropped her backpack and planted her hands on her hips. "I take it your husband-but-not-actually-husband didn't tell you."
"Tell me what?" Her eyes narrowed as she looked to where Rocky stood in the hall. "What did you do?"
"Hold off on killing him, please. I didn't sleep well last night. That hotel has terrible beds in it!" Jean raked a hand through her hair. "Coffee? Please?" She blinked as a mug was offered to her from a rather shockingly handsome man with coloring reminiscent of a forget-me-not flower. "Er, thanks." She switched to standard Protean without conscious effort. "You have a Nature Flower Element, and you feel like a Deactivated Ruler, so you must be former High King Matthew Protea."
He quirked a brow. "Yes. How did you know?" He rocked back on his heels to study the oddly familiar woman in front of him. Both the powerful majik that permeated the air around her as well as the brown-brown coloring she possessed just felt known. His eyes fell on the dragon pendant she wore, and he reeled. "Good goddess. You're the descendant of Liena!"
"I am. The name's Jean." She gave a quick and graceful bow toward Shanta. "Nice to see you again, and thank you for toning down your power so I'm not sneezing."
"Sneezing?" Shana asked politely.
"Never mind!" her priestess muttered. She gulped down her coffee gratefully. She needed a nap very bad on something that did not feel like a slab of wood. Maybe she could borrow someone's guest room for an afternoon. "Rocky fetched me yesterday afternoon and told me to come by this morning to help you."
Shana sighed. She'd had a feeling that was it. "Jean, you've done enough. I'm not dragging you down into this mess as well. Maybe later. Very later. I don't want to deal with it right now."
Jean put her mug aside with a thunk and got directly in Shana's face despite being many inches shorter than the younger woman. Shana was her queen, but that only made Jean more determined to mend the damage she could see never mind feel. "If I have to break my Faith's creed and take karmic backwash for putting a truth spell on you," she warned in low voice, "then I damned well will. You have to talk about this, and you have to heal."
Shana's eyes slowly widened. "You're the only person I've ever known with the nerve to get in my face. Even Rocky and Alexandria hesitate."
Matthew laughed. "Liena did it to Genevieve all the time. Sometimes even strong people need a slap in the face."
"Strong people more than others." Jean propped a hand on her hip. "So are you going to share and tell willingly or do I make with the witchcraft?" Before Shana could respond, Jean suddenly felt a gaze on the back of her head. Goosebumps rose along her skin as her majik recognized the other person's magic. "I think our other visitor landed."
"Other . . ." Shana eyed Rocky. "Now who?"
"I had Jean contact Byron," he admitted. He reached out to cup her face tenderly. "You were right. I wasn't there. I can't truly understand. But he was there. He could understand. So he and Jean are going to help you face what happened."
Shana visibly hesitated still. Jean made a derisive sound and tossed her hair back as she said, "Coward."
Matthew and Shanta's brows shot up as they backed up hastily. Even Rocky cleared his throat and escaped the area. Shana's eyes slowly widened and then narrowed dangerously as she stepped closer to Jean. "How dare you?" she demanded. "Where do you have the right to call me a coward?"
"Right here." Jean tapped her pendant. Her eyes narrowed equally. "You face down evil on a nearly daily basis. You save lives and struggle to hold up a universe that would happily collapse into itself if someone wasn't watching. Yet you won't confront what you've already confronted and willingly heal? Shana, you're a damned coward. You don't want to heal because healing means moving forward to the next pain. That's what life is. You hurt, you cry, you heal, and you move on." Silvery majik moved across her auburn eyes. "Hate me if you wish," she vowed, "but I will not let you destroy yourself just because you're afraid."
After a long moment, Shana's breath hissed out. "I hate when you're right!" She turned and headed toward the kitchen. "Come talk with me while I get some breakfast. If you felt Byron arriving, he ought to be here soon."
Jean smiled, and it was as if the fight had not happened. "I wouldn't mind some food myself. The hotel's food is nearly as bad as their beds. So much for having a high rating! I'm going to cry and make someone feel guilty so I can sleep on their couch before going home and back into rehearsals. I'm on such a time crunch! It's like that studio would collapse without me."
As the two women disappeared into the kitchen, Matthew could only say, "She's . . . almost completely different from Liena. And strong. Good goddess, she's strong!" He looked at Shanta. "What will happen if the power keeps growing to the Resurrection Era?"
She fought to ignore the premonition shivering down her back. "I honestly have no bloody clue. Even Orion only has speculation about Liena's line. Destiny has big plans for them, and that's all I can say for sure."
Shana grabbed the plate of pancakes already warming on the stove and handed it to Jean. She then poured out more batter. "How have you been anyway? How's Alan? You two still dating?"
"Nope. We broke up even before I came out here the first time." She grinned a bit. "We're still friends, though. We actually never made it past the first few dates. There was no real spark. Just a mild attraction that did nothing to change the fact that kissing each other felt a little like kissing a sibling. On the other hand," she added a bit gleefully, "Lisa showed her true colors by being jealous as hell. I jostled Alan into putting her into 'potential date' category, and his eyes opened with surprising clarity. Now there are sparks enough to light an inferno."
Shana laughed as she served herself and added toppings to her breakfast. "Well, that's one way to keep things good with an ex-boyfriend! Set him up with his soul mate."
"See, that's what I thought!"
"So are we enjoying being single, or are you looking for a different potential companion?"
"Eh, somewhere in the middle of that I think." Jean leaned against the kitchen counter to pour syrup lavishly over the fluffy cakes. "I'm in a weird place where I'm happy to be single and yet I'm feeling lonely because all of my friends are now married or paired off. I just have terrible luck when it comes to dating. I've never been interested enough to make the first move, and those who make the first move on me just don't work out." She pouted a bit. "Do you think I scare people?"
Shana munched on a mouthful of pancake. Swallowed, thought about it, and then said, "Yes."
Jean glared at her but had to laugh. "I can't take offense at the truth." She put the plate aside and started to reach for her coffee mug when her heart skipped a beat and then settled into a faster rhythm. Glass magic tingled down her nerves. "Is there a theatrical star in the doorway?"
Shana looked and her smile spread across her face. "Byron!" She happily ran over to tightly hug the slightly shorter man. "I had missed you! How is Tara? Is she doing well? I hope she will come visit soon, too! You two are always welcome here, of course! You're an honorary Blossom Field Defender, right?"
Byron Ranunculus smiled and hugged her just as tight, but his eyes had riveted to the curvy brunette across the kitchen. She looked like nothing he had expected. Softer than her acerbic personality had implied, and strangely more beautiful. Something inside her came out to make her radiant, and her image felt seared into his very soul. "Tara is fine, she recently found her Caretaker, and I had missed you too."
Shana looked at him and then at Jean, and she felt a smile beginning to well inside. She had known from almost the beginning—even before Byron had—that he had fallen a little in love with her. She had been flattered. He had become her solid support, helping her bear up under losing first Edgar, and then Rocky, and then Alexandria. He had been willing to die for her as any of her Defenders might. She would never be able to pay him back for his unquestioning love and dedication.
Happiness bubbled now at the realization that maybe she could pay him back, however unintentionally. The way he looked at Jean, and the way she very pointedly did not look at him, spoke volumes. The stirring of those incredibly potent sparks between soul mates. She would have arranged this herself if she had realized—and she felt a little silly for not seeing how perfectly they might suit each other! "Jean Kinsley," she murmured, "meet Byron Ranunculus, though you would have known him better by the name he adopted while on Protea originally, which was Byron Rancul. Byron, meet one of my dearest friends Jean."
Jean pointedly ignored her unsteady pulse and told herself that it was just star shock from meeting a secret idol. "Nice to meet you," she said only. "Officially, at the least, since we sort of met already." She held out a hand palm up as manners dictated.
"Likewise." He could not resist accepting her offered hand and bringing her fingers to his lips rather than merely place the back of his hand on her palm. Majik blasted from her skin into his and shot through his lips down into his soul where it spread in an intimate and soothing wave. She smelled like majik and incense and everything good in the universe. Hunger churned deep inside his body with a force and potency to rival her gifts. "You surprised me when you tapped my mind."
The slightly huskier tone to his voice had her heart tripping anew. "So sorry." She tugged lightly at her hand, and he held firm. Temper stirred. She tossed her hair back and narrowed her eyes. "That hand belongs to me. I'd like it back now. Because if you don't give it back, I'll break a cardinal rule in my city and hit a famous person."
He laughed and let her go. Shana grinned. "That's my Jean." She swung an arm around the shorter woman's shoulders, then her other arm around Byron's waist. "Since we seem so determined to make me face what I endured, let's head on out to the biggest park where the protea garden can help me.
It would also give her time to fully evaluate the winds blowing in the area. Her premonition had stirred. She knew, was positive, that she had to ensure some sort of bond developed before Byron left. Somehow not just the universe but existence rode on the balance of this moment. Did it play into the still open Paradoxal Pivot? She did not know. She only knew that she had a job to do.