The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 26

Shana pulled Byron into the house and shut the door behind him. While she did, he knelt down to Leslie's height and smiled. He had never thought he would get a chance to meet Shana's daughter, and he was glad that it had happened despite the circumstances. "Hello. My name is Byron Ranunculus."

She smiled. "High Princess LeAnn Protea of the Protea Kingdom, but here everyone calls me Leslie Ann. Or just Leslie." She offered her hand to him palm up as manners dictated.

Rather than place his hand on hers, he performed the more formal gesture of bringing her hand to his left arm where his Mark would appear. It was a gesture of deep respect given from a Defender to a Ruler, and it also indicated that he would protect her if needed. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Leslie," he said.

"Likewise." Her smile faded to a frown. "Who is Jean and why is she in danger?" At least she now knew why he had felt and looked familiar. She had been told about his role in the Chaos War. She could even feel the fingerprint of Chaos inside him. It felt strangely comforting for some reason.

"Jean is the High Priestess of Protea for the Rebirth Era," her mother offered. "A very powerful witch of the Faith. As for the danger, that's a damned good question." She crossed her arms on a matching frown. "What sort of nightmares, Byron? Are they specific or more of an impression? The nightmares Cultivator can get in regards to their Caretaker vary from person to person. And I think we will just skip over me saying 'I told you so' because this makes it very obvious she's your soul mate."

He let out a hard breath. "It started last weekend. I had a nightmare that she was being slowly bled out. I assumed it was just because I was so miserable from missing her. The very next night, another nightmare. Daymares of her dropping wherever she stood. I gave in and tried to reach out for her on the Ephemeral Plane yesterday, but her mental wavelength was so weak that I barely saw it. I nearly had a panic attack. Tara immediately ordered me to get out here as soon as possible. Quote my beloved big sister 'quit your damn moping.'"

Shana had to grin at that. "Hey, if it was me dealing with Alexandria, I'd have sent even her packing if she had found Diaz in another galaxy." At least his having support from his sister Ruler would help make the hurdles easier to get over. The only hurdle left would really be Jean herself. She sobered as she thought about the ramifications. "The enemy wants lifeforce far as we can tell. If they latched onto her as a source . . ."


Rocky had come up behind them while they were talking, and a frown had darkened his normally cheerful face. "What's this about Jean in danger?"

"Exactly that." Byron tucked his hands in his pockets. "I am prepared to transport to Vericity and scour the city until I find her and reassure myself that I'm just imagining things."

"Nothing that dramatic is needed," Shana assured him. "I have her address. You can come with us to the Cultivator meeting where we'll tell everyone what is going on, and then I'm going with you to find Jean." Her eyes narrowed dangerously as they turned black in her rising temper. "If someone is targeting my priestess, there will be darkened hells to pay."

Everyone else was already present when the Protea family and Byron showed up at the Castlera house. Leslie immediately went running across the area to climb up onto Chance's back where he stood near the side wall, and not even he batted a lash at it. It had become quickly obvious that she had a distinct preference for him, even borderline a crush, and the others found it adorable. They also hid their own suspicions of the future, especially since Chance seemed utterly oblivious.

Neither the Elder Cultivators nor the Commanders immediately recognized the man with Shana and Rocky, but the Dual Cultivators did, and there rose a collective gasp of surprise and delight. "Byron!" Siobhan hopped to her feet and ran over to hug him. "What are you doing here? If you're just visiting, this is a bad time!"

Byron returned the hug and smiled wryly. "Trust me, I know. I actually was here recently to help Shana heal her survivors' stress. But this time . . ."

"Jean is his soul mate," Rocky intoned.

"And you thought you had it bad," Uwe said dryly.

Shana ignored that. To the Elder Cultivators who still looked a bit puzzled, she explained, "Since I know you don't babysit us all the time, Jean Kinsley is the direct descendant of Liena for this generation. She has many of the same abilities and majikal gifts, but vastly stronger. She helped during the quest to get the stones for the Commanders back. She helped when I had my accident, and she recently came out again when Byron did to help me heal permanently from the Chaos War."

The others had really only known that Shana had somehow miraculously healed. The details made it all make more sense. "Ah!" Krysta lifted a brow. "Alright, I think we know who you mean now. We did see her around the time of the stone quest." She studied Byron. She remembered him from the battle against Mania, as all those of the Realm did. His status as a Defender Cultivator, and a Deactivated Ruler Cultivator on top of it, meant that Jean was even more special than they had all assumed. "I assume Jean is in danger."

"Good call." Byron let out a breath. "I've been having nightmares, and considering that she and I touched minds not too long ago, I get the feeling I'm picking up from her."

"I think we've confirmed by now that the Dragonsbane is trying to be subtle about getting lifeforce," Virginia said. "Is it possible they have decided to switch from little bits from lots of people to lots of lifeforce from one person?"

"It's very possible," Daphne agreed. "And Jean as a witch would be a nearly infinite source! Witches are basically walking rechargeable batteries. Her lifeforce will automatically replenish itself. She can literally never be drained. The moment the drain effect lifts, she'll bounce right back. You'd have to drain her completely dry in a single swipe to do real damage."

Something tickled the back of Clara's mind but she pushed it away. She had learned that dwelling on things didn't often change the future. "So that means she's not technically in danger?"

"I didn't say that. In fact, she's in more danger than the average type because she can't not do things. She could do serious damage to herself if she tried to use too much majik after extended draining to her lifeforce. Think of trying to rev a carriage engine when it is almost on empty."

Diaz winced. "They normally explode when you do that."

"Exactly." She cocked her head. "It is a bit curious, though, that they would attack any witch let alone one that powerful. Dragons are drawn to witches. The Bane must be both desperate and also maybe thinking they could bring her onto their side. I think she's definitely more in danger from herself than them, but . . ."

"An attack on Jean would explain why it was quiet last week." Justin looked at Shana. "Jean's Sight is nearly as strong as yours. She probably knows she's under attack. I say we call her and ask."

"Before you do," Rocky spoke up, "I have the new toy I've been promising everyone for months." He hefted the bag he had brought and started handling out the new PCA devices. "Once I made one, it was really easy to make more. Prototyping is my least favorite part of the job. Yeesh. Anyway, everyone of the Rebirth Era gets one. Rachel and Aldan can just borrow Clara or Sam's if needed, because I'll bet I've long improved it by the time of the Resurrection Era, so they should just get them there." He briefly ran over what he had built them to do, as well as the 'special' features just for their team. "It might have a new learning curve," he admitted, "but I think I've removed all of the bugs. And I went ahead and programmed them all to have your personal PPS codes, as well as brought over your contact list, so you shouldn't feel as if anything has really changed."

"It has a camera function!" Virginia said in delight. "I can take photos?"

"Not on par with Shana and her professional beast, but yes!"

"I just want to be able to take pictures of gestures and expressions I normally need to use a mirror for," the artist assured him. "And maybe photos of Mike when he isn't looking."

"Bite your tongue," her lover muttered. "How did you get our contact lists, Rocky?"

"Don't ask," Tyson told him dryly. "It probably isn't legal, and you don't want that on your conscience."

Rocky wisely said nothing. Shana happily flipped through the various functions of the PCA and opened the program that would allow her onto the spider. Small it may be, it still did everything a PCM could. He had even included a program for writing down things, a clock, and a calculator. "This is my new favorite thing," she told him. She glanced briefly at Edgar who smiled and then turned back. "I think it has . . . promise."

The PCA began to chime in her hand, and Shana recognized the sound even before the screen lit up to show Jean's name—that was new, too! It used to be that PPS contacts could only be identified by the sound or song assigned to them. She would not have to get creative to assign everyone their own personal sound. She found the receive button and pushed it. "Jean? Are you okay?"

There was a startled pause before Jean said wryly, "Gut instinct or insightful premonition?"

"A little of both." Shana glanced at Byron and then angled the phone so that he could hear as well. If she put it on full speaker, Jean would notice the difference. "What's going on, Jean?"

"I think I'm under some sort of attack. I can't sleep, Shana. I haven't been able to sleep for a week. I'm barely eating, and it's all I can do to keep my eyes open sometimes. The minute my eyes close, I'm inundated by nightmares—which is damned weird because I rarely have dreams of any sort at all. I tried to do a protection ritual, but it didn't work, and Haeth's best attempt to shelter me also appeared to be ineffective. Whatever is after me is not vulnerable to majikal attacks."

"You might be a target of our enemy," Shana said on a sigh.

"Lovely! Kindly come get rid of them! I'm starting final week rehearsals tomorrow night; I can't afford this!"

She winced as Jean disconnected her side of the line. As she slowly lowered her PCA, she said, "If they are unreceptive to Jean's defenses, then that means they countered for them. It's definitely our enemy. Rocky and I will go to Vericity this evening via transport. Byron is going along, and I'd like to bring Leslie as well. Just my gut feeling."

"If Leslie is coming, so is Chance," Rocky said. "I don't want her unprotected."

"Fair enough." Shana glanced at the others. "Anyone else tagging along?"

"I'd like to," Doug said quietly. "I've never really had a chance to repay her for the help she offered in getting back my stone of Dark." His fingers laced with Yvonne's tighter when he felt her fingers tremble lightly. "So I guess you can count on Yvonne and me going along. Jessie, are you in as well? Might as well since you know the enemy better."

"Gladly," Jessie said. She smiled. "I haven't had a chance to meet this Jean yet. I'm looking forward to it. She sounds very interesting!"

* * * * *

Jean would have normally been preparing that evening to attend another night of Life Stories with all her friends, but the show had forced her to opt out for a while. Her character was on a brief vacation, and she would get caught up when she returned. That evening, though, she did not have a rehearsal either. She was left to pace at home and worry and struggle to endure the pressure.

She knew she needed to eat something, yet she could barely keep food down. She had already lost several pounds she'd had no intention of losing, and it showed no signs of slowing. She groaned and went into her bedroom, and she fell face first onto her bed. She wanted sleep. Blessed, wonderful, sleep where she was not tormented of nightmarish images from another Era. Living through Liena's eyes during the final fall of the Protea Kingdom. She was losing her mind.

In more ways than one. The empty space on her wall made her grimace. She had been forced to take her poster of Byron down. Just looking at it had made her heart and soul painfully ache to see him again. Damn it, they were not soul mates. Destiny would be out of her mind to put them together.

Her doorbell rang, and she rolled to her feet. "Coming!" She opened her front door, saw Byron, and promptly closed the door again. "Go away!"

The group in the hall were left in varying degrees of humor. Jessie and Yvonne bit back giggles, Doug and Rocky exchanged a grin, and Shana snickered. Leslie stared with wide-eyed fascination at the door and breathed, "She's so amazing."

Even Chance's eyes warmed at that. Byron just signed and banged on the door instead. "Open the door!" he called in Vericin. "Is that any way to treat someone who literally crossed galaxies to see you?"

"Drop off, flower brain!"

Shana shook her head. "Jean," she called in exasperation, "open the bloody door! We brought him with us!"

Jean yanked the door open anew and glared at her queen. "I sometimes wish I could hate you."

Now that the door was open for more than a few seconds, those who had seen her recently could only stare at her now. A week ago, her hair had been long enough to skim her lower back. It now hung around her face in a feathery crop of curls. "You cut your hair," Byron said in surprise. He told himself that getting his hands into the auburn locks would be a damn bad idea but that didn't stop his desire to do so.

"I usually do around this time of year," she retorted. She sighed and stepped back to let everyone inside. "It kept getting in my way."

"I think it looks good on you," he told her with all sincerity. Somehow, the curls had done something to her features to make them a bit more conventionally beautiful, and he knew he wasn't imagining that her inner beauty had deepened after what she had done for Shana. She nearly glowed.

"Yeah, thanks." She ignored him to turn toward the others present. "I'm Jean Kinsley," she offered. "It's nice to finally meet you, Yvonne and Doug. I think I've met just about everyone else except for you two until now." She studied Jessie. "You must be the Elder Defender Cultivator of Iris. You have the Ice Flower Element tag. And . . ." she turned her head to sneeze, "you're a Goddess or Guardian type."

Jessie's brows lifted. "How'd you know?"

"I always," another sneeze, "sneeze when I'm near one of you lot for the first time." She grabbed a tissue and pressed it under her nose. "Give me a few minutes, I'll be fine."

Shana grinned. "What do you know! Liena got itchy if a goddess was around the palace. Until she was there, we had no idea they would visit invisibly to get involved. Once she did show up, they learned to stay away!"

"Genetics. Fun." She studied Chance and then looked Shana blandly. "What's with big, bad, and brooding, and who is the kid clinging to his back? She bears a striking resemblance to someone. I can't imagine who."

"This is Chance," Rocky said, hiding a smile. "He's the newly appointed Captain of the Royal Knights of Protea. He's been assigned the protection of two very special girls. This one here is High Princess LeAnn Protea, who traveled here from the future with her cousin, High Princess Reagan Delphinium, to aid Rachel in Activating. They go by Leslie and Rhya while here. She only speaks a bit of Vericin, though she fully speaks a good five other languages from the future!"

Jean turned toward Leslie as Chance put her on her feet, and her smile became softer and more beautiful. She knelt to the girl's height and said in standard Protean, "Then, let's talk in a language she fully knows. Vericin can be such a pain to learn, even for us native speakers. It's sometimes a relief to use something as simple as Protean!"

Leslie could only stare in breathless awe at Jean. Her majik felt wonderful and comforting, and somehow strangely familiar. She just felt safe in some way. "Are you in danger, Jean?" she asked on a frown. Her pink eyes turned a warning darker color as if she might have a Dark core strong enough to make them turn wholly black, but little flickers of white appeared as well.

"Oh that's interesting," Shana said as she noticed.

Leslie looked up at her. "What?"

Jean smiled. "Well, you have a Dark core as expected of a Protea Cultivator, but it looks like you've got little speckles of Light, too! Sort of like Chance in that, but it's not enough inside you to give you the Shadow Flower Element. It'll take some special people to be your two soul mates." She sighed as she straightened. "And, yes, it seems like I'm in danger. I tried to repel attacks toward me, but it didn't work. Whatever is after me is not on a majikal wavelength. I can't fight what I can't identify." She scrubbed at her eyes. "First day of final week rehearsals is tomorrow. I just can't afford this." She began to sway a bit on her feet. "I'm at the end of my rope."

Byron shot forward and caught her in his arms safely. She was so exhausted that she didn't even offer a token protest. Her head fell tiredly onto his shoulder as her eyes closed. Dark circles lurked under her eyes, and there was a pallor under her tanned skin. "Easy," he told her softly. "We're here. I'm here." He wrapped his arms around her more snugly. "I'll do whatever I can for you."

Some spirit still moved inside her. Her eyes opened slightly as she muttered, "You're an ass."

He smiled. "I don't see you pushing me away."

Challenge issued, and accepted. She pushed herself out of his arms and straightened up with a strength of will they could all nearly taste. "Everyone can sleep in the living room. There's plenty of room. Leslie could even probably sleep on the bean bag. Well, bean is a misnomer. It's actually filled with fluffy foam." She scooped up Leslie who shrieked with laughter as Jean tossed her onto the sack. "It's much more comfy."

Leslie sank halfway into the sack. It looked bigger than she was by twice. "Mine!" she announced in Vericin.

Again, even Chance smiled at that. Only Leslie seemed to bring out the truest emotions inside him. Jean had no energy or desire to evaluate the whys or wherefores of it. She just shook her head. "I was going to go to bed soon anyway, so time for everyone else to do the same. It'll be a sort of early day tomorrow, sorry. Let me get some blankets and pillows for everyone."

As she disappeared down the hall, Doug's smile faded into a frown. "You can smell the taint. Something has a latch on her. Or it seemed more like a cloud around her. We've got to get rid of it. I think she's holding on by her teeth."

It was the twenty-fourth hour of the night before Byron gave up pretending to sleep. The others had easily succumbed and were contentedly curled up with blankets, but he just could not do the same. He laid in his blankets and stared at the ceiling with his hands tucked under his head. Finally he sighed and sat up to look down the hall. A clear light could be seen under a closed bedroom door.

He gave up and got to his feet. He didn't bother to knock before opening the door. Jean looked up sharply, and then guardedness entered her eyes. A sense of vulnerability clung to her that broke his heart. She was not supposed to be scared of him. Ever. The potency of the emotion between them certainly deserved some caution, but never fear.

"What do you want?" she asked warily.

He walked over and sat companionably beside her on the bed. Her silky pajamas had a dragon scale print and looked somehow both adorable and sexy. But, rather than say so, he looked at her Visuality and smiled as he recognized the film theatrical showing. "That's always been one of my favorites. I loved the story."

"It's my go-to for feeling good," she admitted. "I bought the recording of it to play whenever I needed." She tensed as he picked up the remote and turned off the device. "Byron."

He lightly put his hands on her shoulders to turn her to face him. The vulnerable line of her mouth broke his heart. "I'm not going to let anything hurt you," he urged softly. "I am not going to hurt you. I couldn't." He slid a hand up to cup her cheek. "You know that. You know you are safe with me. I'm a Defender Cultivator. I couldn't hurt anyone, let alone you, even if I tried."

She covered her racing heart by looking away. "Maybe I'm not attracted to you," she said as calmly as she could. "Did you think of that?" The moment the words left her lips, a stirring of the Past aspect of her All Sight made her briefly disoriented. Had she said those words before? Or had someone else said them?

His finger slid down to brush over the rapid pulse in her neck. "No." The finger slid around to under her chin. "What are you scared of? Tell me to walk away and mean it, Jean. I will. Why are you afraid to let me love you?" The tip of his finger trailed to her lips. "Let me kiss you. I bet you won’t be giggling this time." Her lashes closed as she tilted her face more toward his in invitation, and his breath hitched. "Jean."

Giggling was the last thing on her mind when his lips lightly settled on hers. Sheer heat flooded her nerves on a wave of wicked pleasure. Her lips parted to invite a deeper kiss, and her entire body clenched with painful desire as he obliged with a lazy curl of his tongue. She wound her arms around his shoulders without conscious thought, needing only to have him closer, and his hands moved to her waist to pull her against his body. She grabbed for his arms for balance instead, and her right hand closed around his upper left arm. It felt like grabbing a live wire, though not painful, and his magic seemed to rush inside her body in an oddly erotic wave. She broke from the kiss on a gasp. "What did you just do?"

He fought to think around the raging need to tumble her down onto the bed. He had expected the powerful desire, yet he had not at all been prepared for the way it would burn more powerfully through his soul and heart than even his body. Craving. He thought he might better understand it now. "I have no clue," he managed to say a bit roughly. "But please notice where your hand is."

She slowly pulled her hand away to discover his Flower Mark with its sparkling edge under her palm. She hastily snatched her fingers back. "Sorry! That's, uh, kind of personal." She held a breath as he caught her wrist and brought her fingers to his lips before pressing her hand to the Mark again. The gesture that served to offer protection to a Ruler became something very different with a Caretaker: a request for love and support. Her heart pounded with a potent combination of lust and longing. He gave. He gave so generously. How terribly she wanted to protect his heart and soul!

Sudden utter and complete exhaustion flooded her so sharply that she slumped over. She landed in his arms once more but this time did not pull away. "You did something to me," she murmured drowsily. "I can feel it. I . . . think I can sleep.

"Hmm. Must be they can't block magic. Or they did not think to with you." He maneuvered them into a lying position on the bed without releasing her from his arms. "You'll be able to rest in my arms tonight."

"This doesn't change anything." The words were a bit slurred already, and her eyes had closed. She was so tired, and he was so wonderfully warm. Safe. He felt so wonderfully safe, yet her arms tightened unconsciously as if to give safety as much as receive it. "Once the enemy is gone, you can leave."

She was asleep almost before the last word left her lips. He leaned down and tenderly kissed her, and she sighed softly into the embrace as her subconscious acknowledged it. Leave when the enemy was gone? Only if he was forced to do it. He needed to steal every minute he could until the inevitable moment he had to go home. But only temporarily. He would find a way to come back to stay. He had finally found where he belonged.

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