The park sat close enough to make walking a feasible option. Byron very much stood out, though, with his unusual hazel hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes that both shifted from green to brown and back depending on the light he stood in. He had been famous enough that just his face may have given him away, but his hip-length hazel hair would not help. Out of sympathy, Jean conjured him up a hat and sunglasses.
Shana studied the hat and then smiled. "Vericity style at it again! Sam has that hat, I think. It's pretty identifiable."
"Sure." Jean tucked her hands into her back pockets. "Byron Rancul started out in Valerian Heights, so making him look like he's from Vericity widens the recognizability gap." She snorted rudely. "You mean I have to explain that to you? I thought you could read my mind, Shana."
"You are the one with Telepathy, and why would I want to read your mind anyway?" was the polite retort. "I'm pretty sure it's stuffed with a blend of cuss words, theatrical jargon, and the mysteries of the universe."
"I'll have you know I don't cuss that much, thank you."
"Ladies!" Byron bit back a laugh as he stepped between them. "Play nice, will you? I've only been here ten minutes. Give it another ten before you make me play referee." He had never been quite so entertained before, at least. "So you're from Vericity?" he asked Jean. At her nod, he snorted softly. "That explains your attitude, and your pattern of speech. I remember that city well."
"Bite me, flower brain," she retorted.
"Anytime you like," he countered immediately.
She actually dropped her jaw in shock. Shana bit her lip and desperately tried not to laugh. She had never seen Jean speechless before. Byron, though, she could not be overly surprised by. He had neither a shy nor a hesitant bone in a body—though the speed with which he had decided to start flirting did seem a little intriguing. Then again, seeing new sides in people was sort of a hallmark of seeing soul mates meet for the first time. "Okay, you two," she said as they entered the protea garden area of the park, "now you play nice."
"Hrmph!" Jean tossed herself down onto a park bench with a dramatic flair well suited to her love of theatricals. The autumn sun brought out unexpected red highlights to her auburn hair, and added gold to her eyes. Her still-tanned skin almost glowed as if the sun loved her nearly as much as it loved Protea Cultivators. Worn gray denims showed off her legs, and a blue bodice clung to her lush figure. She walked somewhere between plump and fit, almost reaching an accord between Shana and Siobhan for figure, and her clear contentment with her body's shape just made her more appealing.
"You're going to melt Glass at that rate with the way you're looking at her," Shana murmured in a voice only Byron heard.
"You can't honestly blame me," he murmured. "I don't think she could blame me. She has to know she's stunning." He sat down next to Jean on the bench and got the sheer delight of watching her edge away despite the several inches he had left between them. The attraction between them was fierce, powerful, and only growing more so—and he knew well what that must surely mean. He kept it to himself for the moment for something more important loomed. "Will this place work for our talk?"
Shana looked around at the area. It had memories for her as well. Not all good—she had regained her memories and donned her Mask for the first time here—but her first memory of the place had to be her best. She had meet Siobhan and Rocky here when all had been around the age of five. It had changed her life in the most beautiful way.
The area also dripped with Nature power. Lux certainly was known for its quantity of parks, but this one in particular had always gone a little crazy. This area with the black protea blossoms could not be controlled; they grew over most every surface. Gardeners worked around them, and signs hung all over the place begging people to cut flowers and take them home. Since black proteas only grew on Protea, people never had issue with the request.
"Yes," she said softly. "It's perfect."
Jean got gracefully to her feet as silvery majik welled over her body. She made a gesture with her left hand, and a circle of blue-white majik flames appeared around all three of them. Silence fell as if they had entered a pocket. "My familiar will turn back any who approach. Here there be peace, healing, and love. An' it harm none." She turned around, and her eyes glowed silvery with her majik. "Blessed be."
Shana moved forward on trembling legs and knelt in the middle of the circle. Byron knelt across from her, and Jean knelt to their side. She put a hand on Shana's leg in support, and Byron took Shana's hands in his to lace their fingers together. "Just talk," he said softly. "Let it all out."
Shana's entire body quivered, and Jean braced her shoulders as she reached for her queen's soul with her majik. The whiplash of agony made her eyes flinch yet she did not waver. She slowly began to remove the needles to lance the festering wounds. Her stomach churned as the sour backwash filtered into her body. She just kept going.
The words began to spill out of Shana like acid. The more she talked, the faster the words came as if they had been bottled too long. Tears began to roll unseen down her cheeks. Jean moved through her soul and mind to keep removing the needles and heal the holes left behind. It was far uglier than even she had thought from taking that dive into Shana's dreams to deal with Nemesis.
Byron was as strong as his element yet more flexible. He said nothing at all. He knew too well the value of this overdue purging. He supported Shana physically when she finally doubled over, and he held her closer as she began to sob violently against his shoulder. He had been helpless to help her during the fight, but he would be damned if he failed her now.
Jean looked almost as pale as Shana by the time the tears turned to hiccups. The priestess slid a tender sleeping spell over her queen that dropped her deeply unconscious, expediting the inevitable exhaustion and much needed rest. "There," she said with as much calm as she could around her pained and rebellious stomach. "She'll sleep for a bit and wake much better. The sleep helps the healing cement and ensures she doesn't do fresh damage." She made another light gesture and banished the circle.
Byron gently eased Shana onto the grass in a patch of sunlight and plucked a black protea to place near her face where she could smell the scent. "Thank goddess," he managed to say. He felt more than a little sick that he and his sister had not noticed the condition Shana had been left in. "Damn her," he said softly. "Why can't she ever tell anyone when she's hurt?" His head jerked up sharply at the sound of retching, and he saw Jean doubled over a garbage can. "Jean!" He rushed to her side to support her when her legs would have given out. "What did you do?"
"Spiritual Healing." She leaned against him gratefully, strangely unembarrassed to have him there. "We have to take the pain and convert it to something physical in order to expel it." She broke off for another wave of sickness. "Unfortunately," she managed, "it seems to like our stomachs since it's easiest to expel bad stuff from there." Another wave, and she sagged in his grip. "Also, the worse the wounds, the worse we suffer." She could only pray this ebbed quickly. She had always had a high recovery rate, thankfully, thanks to her strength as a healer. "Weirdly, we spiritual healers usually have indestructible stomachs. Maybe that's another reason it works the way it does." The nausea alleviated with a suddenness that had her losing her remaining strength and nearly falling from his grip. "Okay. That's the end. I'll be okay now."
"The hell she says." He lifted her with utter care into his arms only to have his eyes widen. She weighed far more than she had looked. Almost unnaturally so, and it oddly did not feel like physical weight somehow. Since he could still carry her without too much difficulty, he put it aside to revisit later and instead carried her back to where Shana slept. He put her down in a patch of shadow and then sat beside her. He felt more than a bit frantic to comfort and cuddle, but he also knew that she would go for his eyes if he tried. The consuming emotion he felt for Jean was in no way like the gentle love he felt for Shana. "Please don't pass out or I might have a panic attack."
"I'll be fine now. Shana won't even notice when she wakes." She brushed at Shana's black hair. "Thank goddess I'm not a Defender Cultivator," she said wryly. "Being her priestess is hard enough most of the time."
He studied her. "Her priestess? Is that why you know everything about us? I didn't think she would have told everything to just a casual friend since she covets her normal life so deeply. The world leaders don't even know."
"My family goes back a long way with the Protea Kingdom. My ancestor Liena was priestess and council to High Queen Genevieve Protea and her husband, Matthew. Now I am council to High Queen Shanae Protea and her future husband, Robert." She smiled suddenly. "Someday in the far future, my own descendant will be council to Shana's daughter. I don't pity her job considering that future princess will have lots of Rocky in her too."
"So you're married?" he asked as casually as he could. She did not wear rings on either her thumbs or her pinkies, but it never hurt to be sure.
"No, not yet. It's just an inevitable thing, really, if I'm going to have descendants." She fell over on her back in the grass with arms under her head. "Before you ask, I'm entirely single right now as well. I had a boyfriend a few months back but it didn't work out. Every time we tried to kiss, one or the other of us would start giggling. Put a damper on the whole thing, really."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty." She sat up to smirk at him. "That makes me six years older than you, doesn't it?"
"Five," he corrected mildly. "I turned twenty-five a month ago. I'm very much an adult, Jean, capable of recognizing . . . certain things."
She ignored that. "So what does Byron Rancul do when he is being Prince Byron Ranunculus? Do you still act, or sing?"
"The former not as much, the latter I could not stop if I wanted." He studied her and thought about the cadences he could catch her voice. She had an incredibly powerful and beautiful voice that he could happily listen to for eternity. "Do you know anything about the classifications of singers with power?"
An auburn brow lifted. "Kid, I'm a witch of ancient lineage. How could I not? Master Singers start the list, and they're mostly just very talented but able to sing most anything they put their mind to. The next level up at one in ten thousand are Shamans like Sherry or Doug who were born with a power that resonates musically, allowing them to summon emotions or powers already existing inside people. Upward from there at one in a hundred thousand are Virtuosos who were born with so much music inside them that it became power, allowing them to awaken hidden things inside others. Shamans can subtly influence people with their voices, and Virtuosos can outright compel obedience."
"I have been schooled!" he teased. "That was more than I expected from you."
"Hey, I'm a priestess. I teach people this stuff as part of my duty in that role." She thought about it and then added, "There's actually a final level. As rare to the musical list as a sorceress is to the majikal one. A Mystic. Someone whose very soul is made of music, and they so thoroughly embody majik and everything good in the universe that they can bend existence via a mere song." She tilted her head. "You're a Virtuoso."
"Correct." He leaned back comfortably on his hands. "And I don't think I'm the only one sitting here."
She winced. "Busted."
"I believe that legend says only a pair of Virtuosos have the one in a billion chance of having a Mystic descended of them, right?"
Her heart skipped merrily into overdrive again. She didn't think she was imagining that was, rather subtly, an offer to try propagating. "If I marry a Virtuoso," she told him as smoothly as she could, "I'll let you know what happens." To change the subject quickly, she asked, "Curiosity prompts me to ask whether you enjoyed stage or film theatricals more. I work in the former, as a stage manager mostly, so I'm just wondering."
He thought about it. "I think film, but maybe I just did not get enough chances to work a stage." He grinned, and his hazel eyes turned green. "Tell me your favorite story from working a stage theatrical, and I'll tell you my favorite from working a film one."
She had to grin back. She always loved sharing theatrical horror stories. "You first!"
"Alright. Have you seen any of my films?" A nod. "Okay, so there was that one called Serenade I did near the end of my time here. That sort of sappy but feel-good musical romance. There was this beautiful scene where I and the female lead have this romantic musical number and then sort of fall into bed together, right?" He dropped his head into his hands. "The takes. Do you realize how actually hazardous it may be to fall into a bed with someone like that? We banged our heads, my chin hit her nose, her knee hit . . . somewhere tender. We almost missed the bed entirely. That beautiful freefall in the final version was the result of three hours, too many bruises, and two actors nearly crying from a combination of pain and frustration and humor."
Jean could not stop laughing. "Oh gods. That's so terrible. Okay, let me see if I can help you feel better. We were in the middle of an actual performance. Several actors had multiple quick changes. I'm running around backstage keeping everything in line, and it seems just fine, right? I went up into the booth that looks over the stage and all of a sudden my PPS's mobile headset is filled with the costumer saying 'Jean, we have an emergency.'"
"I bet that was a lovely feeling."
"Speaking of my ability to cuss." She snorted. "Turned out that one of the actors had split his pants. Two minutes before he had to be back on stage. And we're talking split in a way that meant tape and sewing were not an option. Resa was digging madly through the closet trying to find a comparable pair that would fit but no go. Seconds ticking away, we're all panicking, and finally my best friend Lisabelle blurts 'Jean, conjure something!' So I did. We stuffed Jake into the new bottoms and got him on stage a second before his cue. We're all standing there in the aftermath, and out of my mouth comes, 'I just conjured pants.'"
Byron buried his face in his hands as he laughed. "Oh dear gods."
"There is now a running gag at the studio. Every so often, you hear someone bust out 'I conjured pants' and everyone who knows the story falls over laughing. Long story short, we now keep multiple backups of everything for every show." She had honestly never had more fun than sitting there with Byron, trading war stories of a different sort. She had never felt so comfortable with anyone in her life. It felt a little as if they had been friends forever. Maybe that was why they had connected so easily on the Plane, and how he had felt so known to her. If only she didn't have such an incredibly powerful urge to tumble him into the grass! "If ever you decide to swing by Protea again and do a stage theatrical, come to my studio! We always do fun shows, and we run the gamut from comedy to tragedy to musical and back again."
"I think I'd love that." He scooted a little closer and felt warmed when she did not retreat in any fashion. If anything, she seemed to lean a little closer to him turn. "I'm glad to meet you, Jean. I hope you know I mean that."
She did not get a chance to respond. Shana suddenly stirred with a groan and sat up. "I feel hungover," the Cultivator complained. "I swore I'd never get that away again."
Byron and Jean exchanged a grin. "You've been drunk?" the former asked politely.
"Siobhan's twenty-fourth birthday party." She rubbed her forehead. "Got into a contest with Juliet. I won. Sort of." She slumped over against Jean gratefully as her friend placed her fingers on her temples and melted away the pain. "I didn't know you have Physical Healing skills as well. I love you."
"Super minor ones," Jean assured her. "Mostly just for pains leftover from Spiritual Healing. And I love you too, though that sounded more like the majikal equivalent of cupboard love." She smiled as Shana straightened up. "Better?"
She took a long breath and felt nothing hitch or hurt inside. The pain was a distant memory. She could see healed little scars, not needles buried so deep to never remove. "Someone say a trigger word."
"Chaos? Mania?" Byron offered.
"Byron singing a rendition of Color Me With Your Love?"
"It was not that terrible sappy song, thank you!"
Shana grinned. "None of which is traumatizing to me! Not even the latter; I actually liked that musical when he was in it." She took another breath and closed her eyes for a moment. "Thank you. Both of you." She hugged them each in turn. "I owe you both."
"Oh, please!" Jean rolled her eyes.
Byron grinned. "I second the sentiment if not the phrasing."
"You two are a scary combination." Shana smiled. "I wish you could both visit longer, but it's really not entirely safe these days, and I know how busy you are, Jean. Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"Are you actively working on a production?" Byron asked as they all got to their feet. "Talk about coming out on short notice."
"I am," she told him, "but we're not yet at final rehearsals, so they could spare me for a few days. I have a great assistant stage manager to back me up." She patted away a sudden yawn. "Unfortunately, I'm right back into the craziness this evening. I'm going to go emotionally blackmail Virginia into letting me sleep on her couch for a bit and then transporting me home." She turned to Byron and smiled. "It really was nice meeting you. If you ever try to go for a walk in the Fields, say hello. It surprised me how quickly we connected, but some powers do resonate at the right wavelength."
"I might just do that." He tucked his hands in his pockets as he watched her walking away. Her hips moved with a nearly musical gait that entranced him. He had never felt so utterly comfortable and relaxed with anyone while at the same time a little desperate to taste her smiling lips. He wanted to cuddle and protect her, and he wanted to let her shelter his soul and heart when his duty weighed him down. Had he found his Caretaker?
Shana stepped up beside him. "You liked her." It wasn't a question, and she didn't expect an answer. She studied his face curiously. "It . . . makes sense. Jean has this ability to intimidate normal people because she's so powerful both majikally and in her personality. I often wondered if perhaps she needed a Cultivator of either sort. She would make a beautiful Caretaker because she so desperately is driven to shelter and nurture and heal."
"Shana." He tugged on her hair. "You don't need to try to hint at why we might be soul mates. I had already begun to wonder. I admit that there's a hell of a lot of logic to our match that implies it might be one of the more deliberate setups that Destiny has created, but there are also logistics against it. For now. If this is Destiny's choice for me, I can't say I'm upset. I also know that something will bring me back if it is."
"So you'll go home, let it simmer, and see if you can't live without her, and if you can't, you'll figure out a way to make it work?"
"In a nutshell? Yes." He leaned up a bit to kiss her cheek. "If you need help with the war, just call. I will be there in an instant."
"I will." She smiled to herself as she watched him disappear into a transport. The red threads between Byron and Jean felt so strong she could have played them like a harp. She gave it two weeks, tops, before Byron returned to find Jean.
In the meantime, she would go home and kiss her lover senseless. Stubborn and implacable as he was, he had found a way to give her a peace of mind she would never have found on her own. He really did have being her Caretaker down to an absolute art.
* * * * *
Kellie and Tyson were having lunch with Tessa when someone knocked on the door. Tyson opened it and discovered Sherry, Justin, and Melissa on the porch. "It's just the Fire folks," he called over his shoulder. "Can I shut the door in their faces?"
"Only if you want my fist in your own," Justin retorted.
"Now, now, play nice." Melissa nudged him aside and went around Tyson as well. "Hey, Tess. Hey, Kel." She propped a hip against the table. "I was getting bored so we thought we might go check out that new water park that just opened since we scored some discount tickets. You guys want to go along?"
"I do!" Kellie laughed. "I've been running crazy the last few days with my intern schedule at the hospital. Taking my day off to just go have some fun would be a welcome relief! If it works for me, I'll tell Yvonne to take Doug. She's been a little cooped up lately working on designs for Juliet's restaurant."
"Oh!" Sherry brightened. "Did she say how that was coming?"
"Nicely, apparently. She said they don't have an exact location, but she does have rough square footage to work within. Our favorite Dark siblings are very interested in investing, and when I asked them where they thought was best, they acted so vague that I suspect they might be aiming to put the restaurant on the first floor of Chivanti Corporation after the takeover."
Justin lifted a brow. "That sort of location would give Juliet the maximum exposure and simultaneously increase the traffic at the building as well. The lobby is filled with examples of the projects they've done, as well as the things they produce personally and not just through the businesses they oversee. They could get an increase in potential client activity, too."
"You sound like you know the building," Tessa noted.
Tyson widened his eyes innocently. "Are you implying that the Commanders would ever take advantage of their gifts to spy on an enemy for their prince and queen?"
Justin grinned wickedly, and Melissa just snorted. "In a word, yes. Let's go swimming."
Even at that time of year, the water park had gotten busy. It would stay busy until the very center of winter when weather barely dipped low enough to be considered 'cool' but would pick up again quickly. Uwe actually worked there as a water guard on alternating days from his swimming classes. He had gotten the discount tickets for everyone as a gift.
They grabbed lockers to put their items in and then went to change clothes. Justin took one look at the orange bikini Sherry walked out wearing and barely managed to unstick his tongue from the top of his mouth. "Where did you get that?" he demanded. "And why haven't you shared it sooner?"
"It magically appeared on my sewing machine. Strange how that works!" Feeling delightfully desired, she openly admired his bare chest and the strong muscles now on prominent display. "Try not to boil the water."
Sleek and sexy herself in a dark orange tank suit, Melissa grinned. "Let's behave ourselves." She spotted Tessa wearing a dark peach bikini even more revealing than Sherry's and let out a teasing catcall. "Whoo. Look at you, gorgeous." She fluttered her lashes at her friend. "Where have you been all of my life?"
"A few planets down the road." Tessa smiled as she said it. She and Melissa had always been the closest of friends, as much as their planets had been. It was either the result of or had resulted in the fact that Melissa's husband was the younger brother to King Cedric Daffodil, Kellie's father in her last life. Metal and Fire had always been well-suited to each other as companions, though. Only Metal and Thunder or Water and Air worked better as a team where elements were concerned. "Don't flirt too much. Laura might already be a little jealous she missed this."
"How is Laura?" Kellie asked. Having never been the showing off type, her simple peach bathing suit was designed more for serious swimming than catching attention. That in no way stopped Tyson from visibly admiring her, and it warmed her heart. She wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned against him contentedly. If she didn't, she might start petting him. He was too handsome for his own good and her heart rate.
"Good, of course. Even from here, I could feel if she had been hurt or was in danger she could not handle," Tessa explained. "But, to be fair, as it often goes, she's one of the strongest Caretakers of our generation, so I try not to worry excessively."
"Try," Melissa noted. "With little success." In a grumble she added, "Much like me with Jared!"
Justin grinned. "Speaking as a Caretaker who is also a Commander, we rather like the fact that you are so driven to protect us as well, even though we all too often can handle ourselves."
Tessa thought about it. "I've never worried for Laura's physical safety," she decided. "I mean, above the normal. I think I'm so crazy to keep her safe because I so badly need to have her arms to crawl into when I'm weighted down." She rubbed her hands over her arms. "I wish like weighted hells that Jessie and Sara could know that feeling."
"What?" Sherry felt her stomach churn. "Are . . . are you saying that they still don't have Caretakers?" She felt herself reach out to take Justin's hand, almost unconsciously. "I guess I . . . just always thought that maybe they would meet them in the Realm. That time had separated them, and that maybe they did not need their Caretakers until they hit a certain point in their existence. Like Claret."
Melissa shook her head. "Nothing yet. They spent a long time looking but they gave up a thousand years ago." She looked at Tessa, got a nod, and turned back. "We have not told them but we believe that they will find them during this war. It just makes sense, you know? With that still open Paradoxal Pivot, and the sheer oddness of the Realm itself being in a war . . . it feels more deliberate than anything else I've ever seen Destiny throw in our way. While the rest of the universe almost casually fights back evil as it hits their shores, we here in Blossom Field seem to be setting up . . . something. The most terrible wars happen here. The most deliberate events. Destiny demands more of us than she does anyone else."
"We just don't yet know why," Kellie muttered. "I still don't even know how I can hear the Whisper of Hope inside the Apexes." She saw Justin look at her in surprise and explained, "All the way back to my childhood in the Royal Era, I could hear the Whisper. I heard it just before I found my Mask. Beautiful voices whispering inside me that it would be okay. That there would always be hope to find." She reflected back to that moment, and suddenly remembered something odd. She kept it to herself. "I could hear when Siobhan released her Whisper. It echoed inside my ears even in Axium. And even Shana's." Her eyes closed. "Even in limbo, I heard it."
"Do you hear it all the time?" Melissa asked out of sheer curiosity.
"Kind of." Kellie smiled as she thought about it. "Basically, every time we meet, I hear their voices whispering inside my soul that there will always be hope. It's a nice feeling. I've learned to effectively drown it out, though. I barely notice it anymore. Sort of like how you stop hearing a clock ticking if you've been around it long enough."
Sherry nodded firmly. "And on that note, let's go swimming. I bet Justin doesn't have the nerve to go on the Screaming Slide."
Justin looked up. And up. And up. The Screaming Slide was at least three stories high and nearly a straight drop. Without an ounce of shame he said, "You bet right."
They had more fun than they had anticipated. Tessa and Melissa knew it was stolen time to feel normal, but they cherished the opportunity to spend time with their charges as adults. The younger generation had been barely over twenty when the Elders had fallen to protect their galaxy. Tessa and Melissa in particular loved seeing up close the dynamic between Commander and Defender, especially since they had known almost from the formers' appointments that it would happen!
"I am so sorry I could not be there in person for your pursuit of Jayden," Melissa told Sherry on a grin as Justin and Tyson fetched drinks. "But I was laughing from the Realm."
"I had a feeling you might!"
Tessa propped her chin on her hand. "I like them. All of them. I mean, I liked them back when they were appointed to Robert and Evan, but they've more than proven their mettle again and again." She laughed. "Only those eight fascinating boys could keep our two princes out of trouble!"
"We were VERY happy to hand over our duties, for sure," Kellie agreed dryly. She smiled as the men in question returned, and then started to say more when she was diverted by the sight of a little boy running past. He was moving too fast on the wet ground, and before she could say anything, he tripped and fell flat on his face. He began to cry, and she rushed to his side. "It's okay," she soothed softly. "Here." She helped him stand up. There was no damage to his skin, though his knee looked red. "Better?"
"I'm okay." He sniffled and rubbed at his eyes. "I'm just really tired so I wasn't paying attention."
She had been a Defender for too many centuries to ignore vagrant signs. She glanced around sharply and her healer's eyes read the lifeforce level of the entire area. It was like looking at tanks half empty. She touched the boy's forehead and opened herself just long enough to see why he was tired. "Well, then no more running," she scolded gently.
"Okay." He smiled at her, liking her pretty eyes and hair. She reminded him of his favorite daffodil flower. "Thank you, lady."
As he ran off, she stood and looked at the others. The looks on their faces matched the one on hers. Just like they had at the shop, the Dragonsbane had struck out with a subtlety that made them hard to find because they took so little from so many in places where being tired seemed acceptable because of high activity.
Tessa nodded briefly. "Split up."
They paired off with the Commanders going one way, the Daffodil Defenders another, and the Aster Defenders a third. Following their Sight and ability to sense evil deeds happening, Sherry and Melissa headed toward the Screaming Slide. Whatever was happening was happening there.
Sherry got into the line to go to the top; if there was nothing wrong, she knew she could 'chicken out' at the top without anyone looking twice. Melissa wandered over to stand near the end of the chute as if waiting, and she studied the water intently. Her sensitive eyes could see something off, but as water was not her domain, she could not pinpoint it exactly.
Sherry glanced down only once as she climbed the stairs and felt her stomach dip. She wasn't normally afraid of heights, but this felt unnerving. She made it without mishap and spotted a young woman working as the staff support. Danger flashed through her soul as she smelled an evil taint. Not in the girl; she seemed oddly clean of that, but there was definitely evil clinging to her. A second look revealed diamond shaped pupils and a scale-shaped birthmark not wholly covered by her long hair.
Jaslyn looked up with a bright smile to offer to assist the next person when she realized it was a woman with short orange hair and fiery yellow eyes. She briefly admired the style of the other woman's suit; she wanted one of her own. Belatedly, she caught the scent of fire and took a quick breath. "The Aster Dual Cultivator!"
Justin and Tyson were working their way toward the Screaming Slide as well when there came a sudden scream from many people that did not sound like the normal shriek of fun terror. A virtual stampede of people broke out as everyone made mad rushes toward the exits. On the heels of it came a sharp sensation stabbing through Justin's soul. "Asheria!" he shouted as he broke into a run.
Tyson was hard on his heels and spotted the Daffodil Defenders running toward them. "Sherry has the enemy!" he shouted at them. "Or they have her! I can't tell. But she's definitely in danger!"
It wasn't hard to determine why the crowd had gone running. A large, dragon-like monster was tearing through everything. It was armed with a giant water gun that on first glance didn't seem dangerous, but the blasts it fired ate like acid through whatever they hit.
Tessa grabbed her Mask, and that signaled for Melissa and Kellie to grab theirs as well. Kellie deferred first to Shana, then Virginia as her Lead Cultivator, and then to Tessa as the Elder Defenders' own Lead. All three pulled on their Masks to call up armor and went after the Draconid. "Go help Sherry!" Tessa shouted at Tyson and Justin alike.
No argument from them; they had already called up their weapons and started making their way toward the slide. "What do we do if she gets knocked down from there?" Tyson demanded of Justin.
"Hope like flaming hell we catch her!"
Jaslyn ducked the sideswipe of Sherry's hand and gulped a breath. She was only barely able to dodge the Cultivator's attacks. She couldn't manage to get a decent one of her own off. She had been lucky to summon the Draconid before Sherry had gotten to her, but now the monster was busy with the other three, and Jaslyn was stuck with Sherry. Not good. The Aster Defender was in the top echelon of strength among the Cultivators, surpassed only by Carnation, Hyacinth, and the two Apexes. She was a twin soul. They were naturally stronger than their brethren!
As Sherry came after her again, Jaslyn threw up her hands and fired a desperate blast of magic at her. It caught Sherry unaware and flung her off the top of the slide and into open air. Sheer instinct had Sherry grabbing for her transport magic and wrapping it around herself. She reappeared only feet over the Commanders and landed in their combined arms. Her weight knocked them both down, but none of them were harmed. "Oof!"
"That was too damn close!" Tyson passed her fully to Justin. "I'm going to help the others. Hurry and catch up!" He ran off toward the fight.
Justin clutched Sherry closer for a moment. "Are you okay?" he demanded roughly.
She gulped a breath of air. "Scared silly, but I'm okay. My chest hurts though." A glance down told her why. The blast had hit her hard enough to instantly bruise. It had also seared off half of her bikini top. "Damn it, I worked hard on this suit!"
Justin kissed her hard and then stood and put her on her feet. "You can make another one. Put on your Mask and come help. After we're done here, I'll take you material shopping as a consolation." He ran back toward the fight as well.
She could only smile in bemusement as she pulled on her Mask. He really did know how to improve her mood as easily as he could provoke her temper. Now armored, she called for her sword and ran to the fight as well. She jumped right into the middle and knocked the Draconid away before it could grab Melissa. "We're not very effective," she told her former mentor. "Not against water."
The Draconid proved it anew by releasing a wave of water magic that knocked everyone for a loop, and the three with the Fire Flower Element got the hardest hit. Justin would have landed hard without armor, but Tyson managed to help brace him. They both hit the ground again with a thump, but this time Tyson took the brunt of the blow. "My hero," Justin muttered.
Tessa watched intently, waited for the Draconid to be distracted, and then shot forward with blurring speed. Liquid metal swirled around the three-headed spear in her hands and then she plunged it into the Draconid's unprotected back. It tore apart from the inside out and exploded into tiny fragments of metal dust. "There," she said concisely. She turned toward the wall of a nearby snack building. "Come out!" she ordered. "I sense you there!"
Jaslyn peeked around the edge of the wall, and her eyes looked like saucers. "Oh my gosh," she managed to say. "You guys are a lot stronger than we were anticipating."
"Who are you?" Kellie demanded.
"Uhm, Jaslyn. I'm with Dragonsbane. I'm just going to, you know, leave now. Please don't eat me." She saw a fireball approaching and disappeared hastily before Melissa's attack landed. This had not gone according to plan!
Tessa scowled and propped her hands on her hips. "This is not ideal," she bit out. "Waiting for them to attack is going to drive us nuts!"
"But . . ." Sherry said slowly, "she wasn't evil. There's an evil taint clinging to her, but she isn't evil." She leaned back against Justin as he slid his arms around her comfortingly. "We're at a stalemate anyway. They don't dare leave Protea alone because we'll go to the Realm after them, and if we go after them right now, they'll destroy a lot of innocent people. We just have to just take it one fight at a time until we can take them head on."
"Business as usual?" Tyson asked her ruefully.
Her smile looked just as rueful. "You have no idea."
* * * * *
Linx stood in the doorway to Jaslyn's room and sighed. "Get out from under the bed."
"Jaslyn, damn it!" He walked over to bend down and peer under the bed at her. It sat just far enough off the floor for the petite dragon to wiggle under even in human form. "Get out of there. I'm not mad at you!" He caught her wrist, hauled her out, and stood her on her feet. "Now," he said. "You got a full pendant of lifeforce. That's a good job. That means we can get ten more dragons to leave the Plane. As for the Defenders, that was our folly as much as yours."
"Really?" She wiped at her eyes.
"Really. Calm down and stop crying." He shook his head as he left the room and shut the door, but his expression darkened to a frown as soon as he was alone. The Defenders were going to be a problem. They had an unfortunate tendency to gravitate toward troubled spots without even consciously knowing it. Collecting lifeforce would become much harder with that happening.
Maybe it was time to start targeting particularly life-filled humans and using them to power more than one pendant at a time. Risky still, yes, but it stood a better chance of escaping the eye of the Defender Cultivators. The idea wasn't without risks; they didn't know what all the Rebirth Cultivators looked like without Masks so they might potentially end up attacking them instead. Still, at least then they would know. Contemplating the merits of the idea, he walked over to the orb. "Find me a strong human without a Seed," he ordered. That should hopefully narrow the field some.
The orb obediently began to sweep Protea. Seconds later it began to make a high-pitched sound of protest, and smoke came out the back. "Shit! Stop!" He held his breath as the orb stopped smoking and making noise. "What the hell did you find?" he demanded.
The orb began functioning again and revealed what it had found. Scanning Protea had picked up an exceptionally powerful human, and there was no trace of a Seed in the woman now Linx gazed at. In fact, she seemed quite ordinary on first appearance, if oddly attractive. Yet she had nearly accidentally destroyed the orb. She had something particularly potent inside her that had bolstered her lifeforce to ridiculous levels. They could get almost limitless lifeforce from her if they got their hands on her.
Oddly, Linx felt an incredibly strong tug toward her that he could not entirely identify. It felt affectionate, almost as if he just wanted to aid her somehow rather than attack her. "Must be a witch," he muttered. He thought for a long moment, debating over whether or not he really wanted to attack someone with majik, and then finally decided it did not matter. Sure, she would be maybe hurt a little, but not killed. And maybe capturing her, they could convince her to help them. Surely she hated the status quo as well. Her kind stayed in hiding, too. "Reggie," he called loudly.
"What's up?" Reggie wandered over. He was reading a book he had snatched from Earth. Like Jaslyn, he had more comfortably embraced human life than their older partners. "What's up?"
"I need you to collect me some strong lifeforce. Once we have it, we can use it to get a better and more limitless source. It's risky," he warned, "but it should pay off richly in the end."
"Alright." Reggie tucked the book into his back pocket. "I'll see what I can do."
"Do that," he barked. Frustrated, he turned and stalked down the hall. He worked with idiots. "Talla," he snapped as he opened her bedroom door. "I need you to . . ." The words stopped in his throat as his eyes slowly widened. He stopped breathing as well.
Talla was no less shocked and her eyes widened slowly as she stared at him. She was fresh out of a shower and wearing nothing but a towel. Neither of them could say a single word as they mutually stared. Silently, powerfully, the tension rose until it was so thick it could be cut by a claw let alone a knife.