The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 25

Jaslyn was wandering down the hall wondering if she wanted a snack when she heard a very loud shriek. "Wah!" She fell back with her own yelp as the prior sound echoed down the hall. Her eyes went wide. What in the name of the Realm could have made Talla screech like that?

She got her answer when Linx's voice snapped, "You didn't have to scream at me!"

"Whoo boy." She hustled down the hall the other way and passed the twins. "Don't go that way!" she warned. "They're in a fight."

The twins, wise to how Talla and Linx could snipe and snarl with their eyes let alone their voices, wasted no time in following Jaslyn away from the site. They would all stay out of the way until there was less chance of someone getting clawed.

Talla clutched her towel tighter around her body as her heart pounded madly. "Of course I screamed!" she snapped. "You scared me! Get out of here, you ass! You weren't invited in!" Her breath caught as he slowly crossed toward her instead. "What are you doing?"

He reached out to cup her chin and searched her red eyes. Her scent was driving him mad. Had been driving him crazy for weeks. His ferocious desire for her just kept getting more and more powerful. He had never experienced anything like it before. Or had he? He couldn't seem to remember. "Somehow I know you," he said softly. "I can't make sense of it."

Her fingers curled into claws in her towel. The urge to grab him and hold on was painful and strong. It would only hurt her more in the end. She had made the deal, and now she suffered the price. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying want you like hell on fire," he retorted bluntly. He released her and walked away. "I did not want this complication," he muttered. "Why can't I stop how I feel? It's not just my body. My heart aches."

"You think I like it either?" she challenged. When he turned in surprise, she leveled a cool look at him. "You're not the only one who aches. I've wanted you from the beginning. Now get out of my room."

He visibly paused as he was torn between an urge to pounce on her and an urge to run. He finally chose to leave and shut the door behind him. He could not get involved with her. He had to continue to play the 'dislike mixed-breeds' card lest Irimara replace him with someone who actually did. He would not put the two younger ones, especially, in that sort of predicament. He needed to forget about his desire for Talla before one or the other of them did something they regretted.

* * * * *

Days ticked by without any activity, and the Cultivators continued on with their lives. Rocky had had his birthday earlier in the month, but another one came around in November as well: Rachel, in the middle of the second week. She had not yet hit the adulthood mark—that would be the following year—so like Rocky, she insisted on it barely being observed. She really just wanted to spend time with her family, and everyone had no trouble with that.

Although, for someone who had perfected timing, she really did love to sleep in. She had grown even more fond of it since she and Aldan had become lovers. Sleeping in now meant that she could snuggle in his arms even longer. He always held her tightly while they slept, as if he was worried she might get away. She had no desire at all to attempt any such thing.

She sighed and cuddled even closer against his warm chest. His arms seemed to automatically tighten, and she felt utterly safe and cherished. "You ought to," came his sleepy murmur, his drawl more distinct with his drowsiness. "You are cherished."

"Shaddup and go back to sleep," she murmured in return. "It's my birthday, so we can do whatever we want today."

He did not get time to respond as their bedroom door suddenly opened to admit Sam saying cheerfully, "The morning is wasting! Time to be up and about! I thought you were the ones who wanted to go to the festival to celebrate Rachel being twenty-four!"

Rachel yanked the covers over her head even as Aldan muttered something rude in Vericin and rolled over to pull the pillow over his head. Sam just grinned. "I'll let you be, but if I have to come back in here, I'm hauling your naked asses out of bed."

Aldan freed one hand and made a gesture as rude as the name he had used. As the door shut on his brother's laughter, he pulled the pillow off his head and sat up. "He's a pain in the ass," he said in annoyance. "I hope he eventually realizes I'm almost an adult."

Rachel muffled a snicker as she sat up and held the sheets to her chest. "Sorry, but I think that's the father side of him showing. He treats me the same way. He doesn't want to let go, you know? Maybe also in my case because he didn't have me a kid." She closed one eye. "Here. He didn't have me as a kid here. Because he does in the future for like almost fourteen years. This 'changing the ground I'm standing on' thing is weird."

Aldan tugged her closer and bent his head to kiss her thoroughly. "I think you've got a handle on it," he whispered. "I think I'm the one who will be most unnerved by the changes. Then again, maybe not. The only thing that ever has been odd about Sam being so much like a father to me rather than a brother is the small age gap. In the future, he'll be far older than me. It's so odd how all four of us intersect together."

"The nature of Memory and Time," she said softly as she framed his face with her hands. "We who are so different, so often alone, come together into a single unit."

He had to smile even though his heart ached with emotion. "Sounds like something a Librarian to the Hall of Records might say." He gave her a hard kiss. "You'll make one hell of a Defender Cultivator, whenever you finish getting to that stage."

"I want to be there now." She slid out of bed and crossed over to the window. Their house was three stories high so no one on the street could see her. "I want to protect LeAnn and Reagan. I have to." She looked at her hands. "I'm meant to be their protector."

He walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist snuggly. "I suppose it makes sense that I am your soul mate since you're as much a Defender as a Ruler." When she tilted her head back to look up at him, he smiled. "My unusual gifts could be very useful to you as your Caretaker. I can do things some other Caretakers certainly can't."

"Cultivators don't pick inferior mates," she said loftily, then dissolved into giggles as he began to mercilessly tickle her.

Both were fully dressed and downstairs in the kitchen less than twenty minutes later. Clara, knowing her daughter, covered a smile and handed her a plate piled with food. Aldan and Sam had gotten used to Rachel's seemingly limitless stomach, but still couldn't help but eye the amount in reluctant admiration. She was eating more than they did. "Where do you put it?" Sam demanded of his daughter.

"Hollow legs." She took a large bite of toast. "That and I metabolize really well. I never gain weight. I spend it when I get it."

"I've begun to suspect it's her magic," Clara commented as she sat down as well. "As she moves closer to her full potential, her body needs the fuel. I've seen it before, though it is harder to peg it in child Defenders approaching discovery of their Mask since they are already eating a fair bit to help their growing bodies. Rachel is also different in that she is doubly in need of Activation since neither her Ruler nor her Defender Mark have appeared at all. What will be interesting will be to see if her appetite eases off once she is fully Activated."

"How does it normally work?" Aldan asked curiously.

"Rulers are born Activated and their magic begins to manifest and develop around the age of five. About the same age, Defenders will find their Mask and Activate as they also start developing magic. It happens so young because it gives Defenders especially a longer time to train and be ready for the inevitable wars they must fight. Rachel is beyond odd in many ways for being born in the wrong Era, her Seed being so frozen she was not born with her Ruler Mark, and she has had to thaw her Seed over the last many years in order to safely Activate." Clara smiled. "I suppose that is fitting when I am technically odd myself. I was about fifteen when I Activated as both at the same time."

Sam grimaced. "I hesitate to consider the explosive potential of someone thawing a frozen Seed by themselves all at once."

A premonition shivered through Rachel. "What if . . . a planet did it? What if the Mother Planet to a Cultivator thawed their Seed for them? Would that be safer?"

Clara considered it. "It likely would be," she decided. "The magical Cores of the worlds that give them life can do many odd things even I am unaware of. The only thing I can say for positive is that if it happened, it would have to be safe because no world would ever want to harm its Children."

After breakfast, they got into Sam's carriage and headed toward the festival. It was the same one where he and Clara had once had a date, and it would run until the end of the year where it would close for four months before opening again in late April after a thorough cleaning and maintenance period.

Rachel had actually never been to the festival before because she had missed it while at the Care House, and it had long since ceased to function in the future. That did not mean she had not done her homework and knew exactly what it offered! "I'm going on the Tilting Wheel until my eyes spin my head!" she announced. She pointed at a particularly large and wicked looking ride. "But first I'm going on that."

Aldan looked up and grimaced. "Have fun."

"You big baby!" She grabbed his hand and hauled him along as she headed for the line. "Don't you want me to have an excuse to grab you?"

"Something tells me I'm more likely the one to do the grabbing. I hate rides like this." He glowered at Sam as he heard his distinct snickering. "Shut up, Dad." Still, because he loved Rachel, he let her drag him along on the ride.

Sam and Clara opted out and sat on a bench to watch. "I give him hell," Sam admitted, "because I wouldn't have the nerve to go on this thing. I have some limits to my intake of death-defying loops and drops. You saw all of them when we last came here."

Clara lifted a brow at him. "So you wouldn't go on this even for me?"

"Not even for you and I would very willingly die if you asked." He kissed her quickly and then murmured against her lips, "We'll instead go on one of the nice, quiet, and dark rides, and I'll steal some kisses when no one is looking."

"We're not twenty, Samuel." She was still smiling. The idea held far more appeal than it should and she knew it. He had been teaching her how to play again, and he somehow made all of her years simply evaporate to where she could not feel them anymore.

"You know," he decided, "I can't seem to picture you at twenty. I know you had to have been there at some point, but I just can't picture it."

She smiled wryly and gestured toward where Rachel was running toward them again. "Picture her just a tiny bit younger. Other than coloring, she's a dead ringer for me at that age in more ways than one." She got to her feet and grinned as she saw Aldan looked as green around the edges as his eyes were naturally. "A little queasy, Aldan?"

"Ooph." He was already heading for a concession stand for a bubbly drink. "Never again, Rachel. I swear it."

Rachel could only snicker.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, Rocky had taken a day off from working at the Ranch to finish working on a project he had been slaving over for months. He had begun it as part of his degree and continued working on it in his free time. A new device he hoped would be a little revolutionary and maybe, just maybe, might be the flagship item for when Chivanti Corporation came under new management.

Siobhan and Quint sat down on the floor next to him where he had been surrounded by all manner of tools and computational and phone bits they could not identify. He had taken over the apartment living room, and since Matthew and Shanta had gone out for the day, his sister and father had come over instead. "So what are you doing?" Siobhan asked. "I've never really been sure."

"I have built a hybrid PCM and PPS that basically will let people do both on the same small device. Help me think of a damn name, will you?" The tip of his tongue stuck out as he fiddled with something on the device in his hand. "I made two versions, actually."

Quint snorted softly. "Impressive enough to make one, but two?"

"Sure. One is for normal people. The other should draw on the magic inside a Cultivator or Caretaker to do more than meets the eye. I borrowed Shana's communications mask to work on it." The small mask sat right by his leg, in fact. "The communications masks allow for multiple connections at one time, which is useful enough, but a PPS can't do that, so the Defenders can only call each other and hope everyone is relatively near to each other and that they don't get seen. The device I've made will allow that for anyone, but the one for us specifically will be able to read and access the magic inside its owner to do other things."

Siobhan had to grin. "So that's why it's so convenient that you know magic in a way no one other than I do, and for you to be a rubber brain with it!"

"Shut up," he groused.

"Both of you behave," their father warned, but on a smile. Hannah had always blamed their personalities on him, and he could not deny it. He also had no objections to it! "What other things will it do?"

"Tracking device. If, for example, Virginia was in trouble and couldn't answer her phone, after so many attempts to connect, her phone would begin transmitting her location to the one calling."

"But what if she's just preoccupied?" Siobhan asked.

"That's why it is so important the device accesses our magic. It looks and feels very different depending on us being in a normal state or in a state of danger. You Defenders especially burn hotter when wearing your Masks, and the device could read that and send that as data as well. So if you were calling her, you'd see a little map with her location as well as a little bar indicating how likely she is to be in danger."

"That's so amazing!" Siobhan gushed. She threw her arms around him. "You're so amazing!" She rested her chin on his shoulder to watch him fiddle with things. "So basically the device can access the spider and spider mail, but it can also do the normal calling of each other like PPS's can, and ours can do even more by using our magic. It definitely needs a name! The Rubber Phone, because it's so smart it learns everything?"

"You may as well just call it a 'smart phone' then," Quint told her dryly. "Personal Computation Assistant? Ah! Personal Communication Assistant!"

Rocky brightened. "I like that! A PCA it is!" Almost absently, he added, "Seems like the sort of device a landmass-controlling company would produce, don't you think?"

Siobhan bit back a giggle. "To be certain."

* * * * *

"I challenge you to a duel, sir!" Sam announced.

Aldan scoffed. "I'll wipe the floor with you."

Rachel sighed. "Mom, the boys are being weird again!"

Clara covered a smile. "In my vast experience, parents and children have a tendency to do that when competition enters the picture. Parents like to prove they are still stronger than their children, and children want to prove themselves equal."

They happened to be standing in front of a strength game, which had the most basic of rules: you took a mallet and hit the pad to see how high you could force the meter. The stronger the hit, the higher the meter went, and the higher your score.

Sam eyed his wife. "Are you implying that I have any motive other than sheer fun, and that I would ever want to show up my beloved baby brother and completely embarrass him by my being better?"


Rachel burst into laughter, and both Sam and Aldan had to grin. As much as Sam had Clara's number and could all but read her mind, it very much went the other way as well! Deciding to take sides just for fun, Rachel said loyally, "I would bet on Aldan. I mean, Dad is so much older."

"You're only as old as you feel," he groused, "which is why I am in fact ancient. Now move back while I make your fiancé cry. He can go first and pretend he has a chance."

The two Cultivators stepped back obligingly as Aldan hefted the mallet. He swung it with what looked like little effort and yet still rang the bell merrily. The man operating the game could only gape; he had just seen a man twice Aldan's size barely score half that. His confusion doubled as Sam took his turn and scored the same as his brother. Both males looked quite strong but not that strong.

The competition began to move across the midway, and Rachel and Clara found themselves collecting a cadre of strange prizes that included giant stuffed fish, garishly beaded necklaces, more stuffed animals, a wooden parrot on a stick, and a terribly ugly canvas bag.

They were having so much fun that no one noticed anything wrong at first. Only a light and niggling sense of danger kept making Aldan's skin crawl. He spotted Rachel sitting down for the fifth time in a short amount of time, and he sat beside her to feel her forehead. "Are you getting sick?" he asked in concern. "I thought someone said Cultivators couldn't get sick, but you're still thawing, so . . ."

"I'm just tired for some reason." She leaned toward him and rested her head against his chest. "I just want to sleep."

Clara and Sam realized it at the same moment. "Rachel!" They both lunged toward her, and Sam got there first. He grabbed the beaded necklace she wore and gave a hard pull. The string snapped as if it wasn't even there and didn't leave a mark on her skin as it fell onto the ground.

Her skin almost immediately lost its pallor. Clara was mildly stunned by it and more so when she pressed her hand to her daughter's forehead. She had never known anyone, Cultivator or not, who could replenish their own lifeforce. It made her begin to wonder anew about that unknown something inside Rachel, as well as what may lay in the rest of her generation. In a way, she actually felt as if she had seen something like this before, though she was not sure where.

Shadows churned in Aldan's eyes as he looked around the festival. Sam said nothing. Chance had been helping Aldan begin to utilize and hone his abilities as a Shadow Flower Element, and it had resulted in his being able to pinpoint hidden forces and energies at play so long as those forces hid in the space between light and dark. He could also walk in and out of shadows not unlike Chance did, though they could only use certain types of shadow. Chance needed shadows where Dark touched Light, and Aldan needed the exact opposite; a result of their differing sort of Shadow magic and opposing inner cores.

Sam had never questioned where his brother came by his powers; he simply accepted them. He also knew that eventually there would be an explanation for them that would make sense of everything. Until then, he made a particularly powerful Caretaker for the one Defender without any armor.

The harder Aldan looked, the surer he was that he could see the nearly invisible flowing lines of lifeforce. They appeared to be coming from every person who had on one of those brightly colored necklaces. "The obvious," he told Sam.

Sam immediately began to pinpoint the booths that had been giving out the necklaces as a prize. There was only one, and it was being run by a young man in his early twenties. Around his neck hung an odd pendant shaped like a dragon's eye. The young man himself wore sunglasses, and an oddly familiar birthmark covered parts of his skin. "Clara."

She tugged her Mask off her bracelet, just in case. "Let's check."

Reggie was beginning to feel proud of himself. He had filled the pendant completely and that meant that Linx would be pleased. A happy Linx meant no shouting matches between him and Talla. Reggie grimaced. Well, no shouting matches over work. Talla and Linx very clearly had a different sort of compatibility issue going on, and he intended to let them sort it out themselves. They did not need a non-adult meddling in their literal affair. Besides . . . he had his own romantic interests to consider. He kind of sort of had his eye on Jaslyn, really.

A sense of imminent danger had him turning around sharply. At first, the two adults behind him appeared to be perfectly normal, and then he felt a distinct presence of magic. He also belatedly recognized Clara's rather distinct coloring. "Statice!"

Clara and Sam leapt back out of the way as he suddenly collapsed the booth and it came flying for them. People screamed and ducked out of the way and then went running as the booth shuddered and reformed into a Draconid. It took a swipe for Clara, and Sam yanked her to safety.

The festival shortly cleared of everyone as people ran for safety. Reggie had hidden himself behind another booth when he felt another, different, presence behind him. He jerked around and then dodged hastily as an ankh almost hit him in the head. He landed on his ass for his effort. "Ouch!" He scowled at Rachel. "Are you a Defender or Ruler Cultivator?"

"Yes." She aimed the ankh at him. "I don't have my Mask yet, but I do have some magic. Unluckily for you, it appears I'm an offensive oriented Statice Defender. Also, I should mention I trained physically at the knee of the Protea Defender." She let him scrambled away, if only because he just did not feel evil to her. "So who're you?"

"Name's Reggie." He ducked when she swiped at him with the ankh only to swing around and find himself staring down the deadly length of a long sword held in the confident hand of a man with shadowy green eyes. "Yikes!" He backpedaled a step. He would be disinclined to tangle with any Caretaker, let alone one related to the Lead Commander.

Aldan took a swing but he wasn't surprised when Reggie scrambled out of the way with the grace of a dragon in flight. "I take it personally when you attack my Cultivator," he said menacingly.

Reggie waved his hands in the air. "If it's a consolation, I had no intention of attacking any Cultivator or almost-Cultivator. That sort of thing is dangerous! Now, you go have fun with the Draconid and I'm getting the heck out of here. I have enough lifeforce for Linx to go after his 'limitless source.'"

Rachel lowered her ankh as he disappeared. "I don't like the sound of that." She heard a sound and whirled to see Clara and Sam flying into nearby booths where they crashed to the ground. Clara's armor protected her well enough, but Sam looked a little worse for the wear as he tried to regain his feet. "Mom! Dad!" She rushed forward with her ankh lifted and fired off a blast of Memory magic that blinked in and out of the air.

The Draconid took the hit hard and went tumbling, but it bounced right back up and lunged at her before she could dodge. She took the hit hard without armor and smacked into another booth. Aldan tried to take advantage and attack from the blank, but his sword blade bounced off the Draconid's scales, and it whirled to thump him into the booth with Sam.

Clara slowly lifted her hands to attempt a paralyzing shot, but she was not slow enough. The Draconid whirled on her. It opened its mouth to gather evil magic . . . and a time-space portal opened over its head. A girl wearing the armor and Mask of a Delphinium Defender Cultivator came tumbling out of the portal and landed square on the Draconid's shoulders. They went crashing to the ground. A second girl, this one wearing the armor and Mask of Protea, came tumbling from the portal as well and landed on the heap. In a complaining tone, she said, "I'm driving next time!"

Clara could not find her voice at first. Rachel could. She snapped, "Get out of there, you idiots!"

Rhya Chivanti and Leslie Ann Toulume looked down at what they were sitting on, and they realized it happened to be a monster. Both scrambled free on a yelp and moved to be several feet away. While it could not be entirely determined yet which parents either took most after, one thing could be seen: the young Protea Defender stood several inches taller than her older Delphinium cousin, and she had a familiar physically powerful frame inside her armor. Rhya had a familiar more plump shape inside her own.

Rachel was not a happy Defender as she got to her feet. She pressed a hand to the bleeding wound on her arm and narrowed her eyes. "I knew I felt something!" she snapped. "Are you out of your minds?! What are you doing here?!"

"Hello, déjà vu," Sam murmured as he carefully got to his feet. "I guess if we hadn't known she was a Defender before, we'd have really known it now."

The Draconid lurched to its feet and let out an immense roar. Rhya hastily cast Illusion magic shields around everyone just as Nature magic welled up around Leslie. Huge vines with wicked thorns shot from her hands and merged seamlessly with the magic Rachel fired. The combined blast proved too much, and the Draconid exploded. Safely inside shields, no one even lost their balance.

Leslie dusted off her hands and then grinned at Rhya, only for both of them to gulp as they felt Rachel step up behind them. They tried to jump forward but she grabbed both of them by the back of the neck. "Oh no you don't!" she scowled. "I love you both and would literally die for you, but see if I don't beat you silly for this!"

Aldan limped over and smiled wryly. "That sounds like something Juliet would say."

"She has," Sam admitted dryly. He looked at Clara. "Did you feel them coming back?"

She slowly shook her head. "No. However, they could have only come back with my aid in the future, so I am not worried. It's significant that Rachel felt them, though. More proof of where she belongs." She found herself smiling. "I can't complain. I have long wanted to meet them in person, and felt a bit sad about waiting so long to do so. I knew of them of course, even before I came out of the Hall for good." She removed her Mask and put it on top of her head. "I think we had better call Siobhan and Shana and Rocky and Edgar, and then we'll alert everyone else."

"And maybe have my mother heal people?" Rhya offered on a little wince as she saw the blood on everyone except Clara. "I kind of don't have that skill."

"That too!"

* * * * *

Shana had been having a strong feeling for hours that there was something she didn't know that she ought to. So when she got the call from Clara that she was coming over with 'someone important' and that the other three High Rulers needed to be there, it almost made sense. She walked into the living room where the mess had been cleaned up and said, "Call your sister. I'm calling Edgar. I guess something weird happened today."

"Do we need Uncle Matthew or Shanta?" Rocky asked as he picked up his phone.

"I guess not yet." She shook her head. "I just have this weirdest feeling we're about to see something we've always wanted to see. How odd is that?"

Their siblings arrived very shortly thereafter, and they felt just as confused. All four killed some time together by watching an old film theatrical on the Visuality, but Shana turned it off when she heard the doorbell. Shoulders braced, she walked over to open it. She found Clara and Sam right in front of her, with Rachel and Aldan to the side, and two smaller figures hidden behind the latter two. Pink eyes peeped around Rachel's arm, and Shana slowly began to grin. "Uh-oh. Oh gods. Don't tell me this is the actual third Pivot!"

Clara had to smile. "I feel that is a safe assumption."

Shana led the way back into the living room and told Rocky solemnly, "Congratulations. It's a girl."

He blinked. "What?"

Leslie popped out from behind Rachel and grinned with all the charm of her Delphinian lineage, but her status as the future Ruler Cultivator of Protea dominated most everything else about her. The Flower Mark visible over the top of her shirt as well as on her left arm clearly had black protea blossoms. However, both she and her cousin alike showed proof that the combined bits of intergalactic blood from both of their parents had safely rebooted their lineage before the inbreeding reached critical. Leslie did indeed have the familiar protea pink eyes and golden brown skin of her maternal family, but her waist length black hair had more waves than her mother or uncle's perfectly straight hair, and stripes of white had been striated through it.

Rhya still made a perfect opposite to her, as the worlds always did. She had the gold eyes and cream skin of her maternal lineage, as well as the Delphinium Flower Marks, but her shoulder length froth of white curls had a much looser feel than the sheer fluffiness her mother and uncle shared. Her hair also transitioned into black right at the ends of each strand, resulting in an almost speckled effect across the entire mass. She also proved to have inherited the Delphinian shyness, as she clung a bit to Rachel's arm.

Edgar looked at her and then at Siobhan. "Did your genes have to completely override mine? You are enough trouble. Am I going to spend years sweeping up behind our daughter's broken heart as well?"

She retorted, "At least I won't worry about her never telling me if she's upset about something!" She marched over to Rhya and bent to hug her fiercely. "I'm happy," she whispered. "I know I will see you later someday, that I will get to hold you then, but I'm happy I will get this memory to sustain me until we meet again."

Tears welled and then ran down Rhya's face. Her mother had never changed. Ever. It did not feel like meeting a stranger as she had so feared. She hesitated and then clung on tight to Siobhan in return. Once released, she took a little gulp of air and rushed over to hug Edgar as well. Her father had not changed either. She loved them more than anything.

Leslie looked at them and then at Shana and Rocky. Solemnly, she said, "I promise not to cry. Or make you cry. Okay, maybe the last one a bit." She gave a yelp of laughter as Shana plucked her off her feet and then held onto her mother tightly. Her mother did change, but not in the important ways. She still made Leslie feel as if nothing could ever hurt her again. She found herself handed off to Rocky and held onto him just as tight. "I might be a little bit a daddy's girl," she told him, "but I'm also sort of a mommy's girl, so you shouldn't worry too much. I cry. Not like Rhya, but I do. And I don't always break my heart over stuff. Okay?"

Rocky felt his stomach quivering with a blend of laughter and horror. He looked at Shana. "I think our genes beat each other into a truce and somehow actually did give us a kid perfectly half of each of us."

"So that's what happens when opposites attract, mate, and produce offspring," Sam told Rachel dryly as he let Siobhan finish healing his wounds. She had pounced on him as soon as she released Rhya.

Rachel grinned at him. "I didn't tell anyone because I thought you all would have more fun finding out after they were born, but since there's the Delay, I guess it's not so bad. Oh, and Rhya is thirteen. Leslie is eleven. They have two names like me, and the rest of us. Reagan Delphinium is also Rhya Chivanti, and LeAnn Protea is also Leslie Ann Toulume."

Siobhan nodded firmly and moved to heal Clara next. "Which makes sense! Shana and I had decided to do what Clara and Sam did, where we and our mates trade last names. Mostly because we really want both the Chivanti and Toulume family names to stick around, and also because it will just be really funny watching people get confused. Or less confused." She thought about it. "Maybe less."

"Definitely less," Rhya promised her. She huffed out a little breath. "Aunt Claret sent us back because of Racine—I mean, Rachel. She hasn't returned in so long, and we were really worried, and we didn't feel as if she had Activated and we probably would feel that, and we just thought maybe we might be able to help because she belongs to us so Aunt Claret said it might be a Pivot and sent us back and we landed on the monster I'm so sorry!"

Siobhan started giggling as Edgar sighed. "At least you're used to us?" Rocky asked him, trying to hide a smile. He snorted. "Oh this will be amusing when the others meet you two." He frowned though and looked at Shana. "I don't want them running around without protection. Even if Rachel was fully Activated, I'd be itchy in this . . . particular situation."

Shana nodded. "I agree. And I think this is a perfect job for someone who hasn't really had a role to fill yet?"

He grinned. "You're right! And I am entirely unashamed to foist them off on him." He grabbed up his PPS. "Rubeo Chance." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw sheer delight fill Leslie's face. Even Rhya looked a little happier. Not that that surprised him; humorously, Chance had always had kids drawn to him. The other side answered, and he said, "You. Apartment. Now. That's an order."

"Alright." Chance had always taken things somewhat literally, so only a few moments passed before he walked out of a darkened shadowy place in the living room. "You called?" he asked with a hint of dryness. "What's so—" He broke off in sheer shock as a sudden small figure leapt on him and clung onto his neck. "Uh!"

Sam hastily turned around before he started laughing, and the others looked no better. Shana coughed. Hard. "Chance, meet Leslie Ann Toulume, and over here is Rhya Chivanti. As the names imply, they're our daughters from the Resurrection Era. They're the Pivot in place apparently as they're here to help Rachel." She desperately fought laughter. "Apparently Leslie is very fond of you?"

"Hi!" Leslie told him as she dangled from his neck. Though taller than average for a child her age, she was still vastly smaller than the Shadow user and looked even smaller dangling from his neck.

His eyes widened. "Uh, hi there." He shot Shana a helpless look.

Tongue-in-cheek, she said, "I think she wants a hug."

"Yes, please!"

He hesitantly folded his arms around Leslie to give her a hug. Terror stabbed into his heart as he realized how small she was despite her build. She felt terrifyingly fragile, and no matter how many times he told himself it was deceptive, he couldn't shake his fear. Keeping a child safe during a war would not be easy, but he would damned well do his best. Something in those large pink eyes had tugged at his heart in a way he had never felt before.

Rocky spotted a smug smile curving Shana's lips and felt a light go off inside his mind as he began to realize what premonition she might have had about Chance. He contemplated it, decided he liked it, and put it aside for enjoyment in the future.

Siobhan had not known of the premonition, but she sure had eyes! She bit her lip, looked at Shana to see her little smirk, and then looked at Rhya. Her daughter only smiled at her a bit wryly. She cleared her throat before she started giggling. "Chance, Leslie and Rhya only have Rachel to protect them, and even if Rachel were at her best and we did not have a war, things could be very dangerous. Rocky and I have just been bumped from protector to protected ourselves. So . . . you get to play Royal Knight!" She brightened. "Actually, I'll just go ahead and make that official, okay? You're the new Captain of the Royal Knights of Delphinium!" She paused. "Wait." She looked at Shana. "Protea?"

"Probably Protea. He's more comfortable with me and Rocky, so I figured he would be installed at our palace."

"Good point! Protea it is!" She nodded firmly and ignored the way Chance stared at her. "So now you're Captain of the Royal Knights of Protea. We'll have Sherry make you your uniform, okay? And your first task is going to be the protector of the High Princesses of Protea and Delphinium. Okay?" she asked Shana.

"Sure," Shana countered easily. "We make decisions for each other all the time, Sayena. Benefits to knowing each other so well." She looked at Rachel, and was not surprised to see the younger woman trying very hard not to laugh. Everyone had varying levels on their faces. No one really felt sorry for Chance, though. "Hopefully you'll Activate soon, Rachel, with them here now."

"And hopefully I can make Chance's life easier in the process?" she added more dryly. "Don't worry, Chance. You'll do great!"

He had to take that as given, and hope she was being literal since she knew the future, rather than just trying to make him feel better. "I'll do my best," he said on a sigh. He should have known that his queens were sadistic enough to dump both kids on him. He also did not want to contemplate why he felt possessive of Leslie, and would have balked at turning her care over to anyone else. He did not feel that way about Rhya. Somehow he was getting in over his head, and he could not tell why.

* * * * *

In Dragonsbane, Reggie presented the pendant to Linx. "The good news is that I got the lifeforce you wanted. The bad news is that two Defender Cultivators of the future came to the past to help. They're kids, but they're damned strong. They and the Not-Yet-A-Statice-Defender obliterated my monster, and it had been doing really well until then."

"Hmm." Linx filed that away mentally as he took the pendant. "For now, this should work. Targeting a single individual should be less likely to draw their eye. And with luck, this particular person I have in mind will be able to provide us with more lifeforce than any ten crowds could."

Siana peered into the orb as it reflected the image of the target. "This woman is the one you want us to go after? She's sort of pretty."

"She is," Sicily agreed. "I like how her majik feels. How do you want us to go about this, Linx?"

"Be subtle. She's strong. If you can, drain her down subtly until it should be fairly easy to capture her. Once we have her here, we can use her as an endless source. And be careful!" he added as the twins ran off. "Strong powers are often dangerous ones!"

* * * * *

There was no way to hold a mass meeting over the next couple of days because everyone's schedules were hectic, and Rocky hadn't handed out the PCAs; it was on the agenda for the next meeting. Everyone at the least knew about Rhya and Leslie, and they would all probably meet them over the week as the Defenders and Commanders rotated their roles as bodyguards for Shana and Edgar.

A week passed and the third week of November rolled around. Shana, in particular, became extra busy as she worked on her finals due the following week, but she cleared up her entire weekend just in case. The meeting got set for the afternoon of Saturday, and the morning of that same day, Shana and Leslie took turns tag-teaming Matthew and Rocky at a card game they liked that they had gotten Matthew hooked on. He had utterly fallen in love with his granddaughters and looked forward to whatever shenanigans they decided to surprise the kingdoms with in the future. It would carry on another tradition if they did.

The doorbell rang, and Leslie leapt to her feet. "I'll get it!" She grabbed the chair next to the door and climbed on it to peer through the spyhole. Tall as she was, she could not quite reach the spyhole without assistance. She spied an oddly familiar man with long hazel hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes, and she tried to rack her brain where she might have heard of him.

Putting it aside, she hopped down again and tentatively opened the door a bit. "Yes?" The moment she could feel his presence, she immediately felt the strong and familiar sensation of a Cultivator Seed and the Glass Flower Element held therein. "Who are you?" she asked curiously. "You're one of us."

Byron stared at her for a moment, surprised not just that she had answered the door but that she looked so much like Shana and Rocky! He could see pieces of both of them jumbled in a nearly even mix across this perfect little girl. However, the magic he could sense from her in turn was purely that of the Nature Flower Element. "Uhm."

Shana came up behind Leslie, and her eyes widened in surprise. "Byron!" She nudged Leslie back and opened the door further. "It's okay, Les. He's a Defender Cultivator from Ranunculus, and a very dear friend. He's basically an honorary Blossom Field Defender." He was also just about on time for when she had assumed he could come back, but he sure as hell looked more worried than lovesick. "Byron, this my daughter from the future. It's complicated. I'll explain later what's going on, promise. Tell me first why you look so scared."

He let out a quiet breath. "I had to come back. I've been having nightmares for a week. Shana, I think Jean's in danger."


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