Back at the Castlera house, Jaslyn needed a break so she wandered into the trees that surrounded the backyard. She didn't think she had ever been happier in her life. So much good energy around the Cultivators and Commanders, and they had accepted her into the 'family' with humbling swiftness. Even that Captain of the Royal Knights seemed sort of nice to her; as much as he could be, anyway. He had a good heart, so she did not mind.
As she perched on a tree stump, she realized she was being watched. Her head whipped around, and she saw Siana and Sicily watching her from the trees. Her shoulders tensed until she saw that they were waving a peace flag. She relaxed slightly in turn. "What?" she asked.
They walked over and looked around carefully to make sure they weren't being watched by those two Resurrection Era Defenders. When they felt fairly sure the coast was clear, Siana said, "We wanted to talk to you. Irimara said you had been deceived by the Cultivators, and she implied you would not leave willingly, but . . ."
"I guess it depends on the definition of 'willing.'" Jaslyn swung a foot lightly. "I messed up big time when I went after that professor. And . . . I was scared of Irimara." She looked at her former friends intently. "I heard her. I heard her with Linx. She has some sort of spell on him to take away some memories he has of Talla. She's using us. Worse still . . . when I failed at getting the professor's lifeforce, she tried to kill me at the same time as the Cultivators!"
Neither twin wanted to believe it, but they had always been subconsciously aware that something was off inside Irimara. They had been willing to do bad things for a good reason, but if that good reason did not really exist . . . "You're . . . happy now?" Sicily asked carefully.
"Yeah." Jaslyn smiled. "Shana is wonderful. She told me that if I can be patient, then someday everything will be better, the way we want it. That we can't fix what's wrong overnight, but by the Resurrection Era, everything can be better." She looked out into the distance. "I want to see it. I want to see humans fix what they made wrong. Because if they fix it, then they won't be so likely to break it again. I'm going to help Lady Daphne do our best to guide dragons to that day when we can be friends with more than just witches!" She looked at the twins earnestly. "Come join me. Please! Irimara could turn on you too!"
"We . . . can't. We're happy for you, but we can't." Siana shook her head sadly as she and Sicily began to disappear. They trusted Jaslyn, but they couldn't just leave until they felt sure.
Talla met them in the center room when they got back to Dragonsbane. "We've got another target," she said. "A child this time, but still frighteningly strong. We hope that her age will lend to her not being so resistant or dangerous. Get as much from her as you can. We need to appease Irimara. She's in a terrible mood."
Siana took the pendant that was offered and studied it for long moments. On a sigh, she and her sister turned to head back to Protea again. Their hearts just weren't in it this time. Jaslyn's words haunted them, and they couldn't help but wonder if and when Irimara would turn on them as well.
* * * * *
The next two days became a flurry of activity. While Edgar and Shana moved to take control of their company, Clara and Nathaniel worked to get all paperwork in order and ensure all legalities had been closed. Clara took it upon herself personally to reclaim the waiting Chivanti family home located in the mountains right outside Lux, and she enlisted Yvonne's aid in getting the place renovated as needed. Twenty years of abandonment had taken its toll on the large manor, but nothing overly detrimental. Yvonne and her crew would have it whipped into shape within a few days to allow for a short move-in time. Finally, after a long wait, Shana and Edgar could go home, and they would take their fiancés with them.
The company employees very shortly got used to seeing Edgar and Shana periodically show up on different floors in different offices to get to know the people and to see what was currently being worked on. Older members remembered their father being the same way, and it warmed them to see it return. Word had spread quite quickly about the actions of the trustees thanks to their arrest, and Michael jokingly told Shana they were grateful to be in prison since they had gotten more than one threat from one of Shana's fans. She just snorted at him.
Chance stayed on as a member of the security team, and then he sighed as Edgar promoted him to the head of the entire division. The High Rulers had a terrible propensity to issue promotions arbitrarily if they thought they knew best—and they always thought they knew best. Rocky took over the division on the ninth floor that focused on computational and technological practices, and when he saw how terribly the space was lacking in everything, the first floor could hear his cursing. The fifth brought him coffee and cookies as a peace offering.
Siobhan and Rhya also became a relatively common sight around the building. Siobhan visited frequently to make sure that neither Chivanti overworked themselves; they needed a dang babysitter, and she was the only one available to fill the role. Rhya had been passed off as a distant Toulume relative, so her resemblance to either Siobhan or Edgar got glossed over, as much as Leslie's resemblance to Shana and Rocky had been ignored as well.
Octavia had finally been brought into the confidence of the Cultivators in order to maintain the farces, and she had felt no surprise. She had been a bit suspicious anyway. She just felt only more humbled that Clara had trusted her with something as precious as the raising of and caring for the four High Rulers. She also very much loved the short chance she would have to spoil her two granddaughters, and took advantage of it as much as she could.
Leslie became a relatively common sight at the Chivanti building as well since she loved to tag along at both parents' heels to see what they were doing. She even more commonly could be found tagging along behind Chance, asking him a million questions that only his closer friends felt no surprise to see him answering with utmost patience.
It was that sheer proximity that meant he noticed first when she began to be sluggish near the end of the first week. He chalked it up initially to the overstimulation of the events and the change in things—the couples had just moved into the manor the very day before—and did not initially worry. It was when she stopped following him everywhere that his concern stirred. Feeling more than a little bereft, he could not fight back his alarm as he went to find her.
He shortly discovered her curled up in a break room where she had wrapped herself in his jacket and appeared to be napping. When he knelt beside her, her eyes opened instantly. "I can't sleep," she said fretfully.
Warning bells rang in his mind. "How long has this been happening?" He pressed a hand to her forehead. She felt slightly warm as if feverish.
"Couple days. I didn't want to worry everyone."
"Unfortunately, you get that tendency from both sides of your family." He tried to ignore the fear in his heart as he scooped her up and headed for the lifter. "We're going to see your mother and you are going to be confined to your house. I think you might be the new target of Dragonsbane."
"I don't want to." Her chin moved into a stubborn line. "I can fight. I'm a Defender, too."
"Just be quiet." He walked right into Shana's office without knocking. "Guess who is too much her parents' child and hasn't thought to worry anyone by mentioning she's been getting unnaturally tired lately?"
Shana shot to her feet as her eyes narrowed. "Leslie Ann!" she snapped. "You're not a fool! I know you understand what those symptoms mean!"
Leslie just sighed and closed her eyes. "Yes, Mom." Chance felt so wonderfully warm and his heartbeat sounded so soothing that she was tempted to fall asleep. And, curiously, now that he held her, she didn't feel as if she wouldn't be able to. Snuggling closer, she tucked her head on his shoulder. Maybe she could finally take a nap.
She was shortly confined to the manor with an alternating Elder or Rebirth Defender bodyguard. Rachel, discovering she hadn't been included, showed a rare fit of temper by yelling at her mother and slamming into her bedroom. It shocked no one. Rachel's two sprout Marks had begun to change rapidly, and they had turned a familiar dark color that meant evolution hovered. She would blossom soon enough, and her reaction to the events underscored that. Any Defender would have felt the same in her shoes.
However, when everyone discovered that they all had an inescapable prior engagement that meant they couldn't protect Leslie for a day, the young girl found herself temporarily alone with Rhya and under strict orders to not leave the house. Since she was still tired, she wasn't going to argue. Every time she managed to get a quick nap, she was immediately re-energized only to feel it drain off within an hour.
"This sucks!" she said suddenly as she kicked her feet where she sat on the couch in the family room. "This sucks, sucks, sucks!" She crossed her arms mutinously as Rhya held out a cup of tea. "I don't want it. I don't drink tea."
"Shut up and drink it anyway." Rhya shoved the mug into her hands and then sat beside her. "You know . . . even though we fight, I love you. I always thought you felt like a sister, not a cousin." She smiled. "Maybe that's because we're twice related."
Leslie looked at her for a moment and then muttered and drank the tea. Truthfully, she felt the same way. There were times when she felt older, but at the same time, Rhya was also like a big sister. Weird how that worked. "I'm just tired of being babied."
Movement outside the window caught her attention, and she hurried over to look outside. Rhya joined her and they peered as hard as they could at the sprawling gardens behind the manor. They had not been fenced, so various fauna frequently wandered in to visit the three Proteans in residence. Rhya and Leslie hoped to spy the mother deer they had seen previously, but that was not at all what they saw. Instead, they spied the familiar dragon twins hiding around some trees, and Siana wore a pendant that glowed.
Leslie gave a soft growl. "She took my lifeforce!" In pajamas and robe, she went running out into the gardens. "You bullies! Why are you attacking me? What'd I do to you?!"
"Leslie Ann!" Rhya rushed after her cousin. "Your mother's going to kill me!"
"We're Defenders, too!" Leslie snapped. She skidded to a stop in front of the two very shocked twins. "You!" She aimed a finger at Siana's face. They were nearly the same height despite the large difference in their ages. She had already hit five feet in height and was still growing. "What are you doing attacking me? Are you trying to get yourselves in trouble?"
Siana's eyes widened to saucers as she finally realized why the two kids felt so familiar. "You're the Resurrection Era Defenders!"
"Well no kidding." Rhya threw her hands in the air. "Did you see any other kids running around here, and did you really think that the younger Protea and Delphinium Defenders wouldn't be the daughters of the older ones, and gosh, besides that, Leslie's lifeforce probably tastes like chocolate!"
Leslie eyed her cousin. "Chocolate?"
"The darkness thing? Dark people are chocolate, Light people are marshmallow. That's what Dad said anyway. I refrained from asking how this had been discovered."
"Ugh." Leslie put her face in her hands. "Sometimes I don’t know how to respond to you, seriously." She leveled a finger at Sicily. "Give it back, go away, and I won't beat you up!"
Siana touched the pendant she wore. She was very tempted. She hadn't liked the idea of hurting a child at all. It would be easy to make an excuse. Leslie was a Dual Cultivator, after all. She opened her mouth to speak when Irimara's voice suddenly cut in, "So you're as weak as Jaslyn!"
They all turned to see Irimara hovering in the air near them, and her face had twisted with hate. "Fine then!" she snapped. "I'll kill you all! I have no use for weaklings!" She gestured with one hand and several large and vicious Draconids appeared. "When you're all dead, I'll retrieve that pendant myself!"
"No, you won't!" Siana yanked the necklace off and slapped it against Leslie's arm to return the stolen lifeforce to her. "Jaslyn told us that you were using us and now we believe it! We'd sooner throw our lot in with the Cultivators! At least we won't fear that they'll kill us!"
Rhya grabbed her Mask off her earring, and Leslie grabbed hers from her bracelet. They donned them to call their armor, and magic swirled over their hands to bring up weapons. A rod designed to focus magical skills for Rhya, and a set of dual daggers for Leslie. Rhya's magic lay solely in defensive skills, but Leslie had offensive ones, so they paired well. Especially when the fact that Leslie had been training in multiple combat styles since she could walk got factored in. The twins also aligned beside them, determined to pull their weight, and then all four rushed in on the attack.
It was not easy going. It would have been difficult even for fully grown and fully bloomed Defenders. It did not take very long before one of the Draconids broke through and struck Leslie hard enough that she went flying backward. She hit the ground and rolled to a stop under a tree. Her armor had taken most of the abuse, but she still felt dazed and shaken. She cautiously looked up as Irimara approached her but there was nothing she could do. She couldn't catch her breath.
Irimara lifted her claws, and a shadowy blast of magic slammed into her with such force that she smashed into a tree on a shriek. As she tried to regain her footing, she looked around for the source of the attack. She found it shortly. It had come from a red haired man standing at the edge of the garden. "You!"
Pure fury blazed in Chance's blackened eyes. "You won't touch my princess." The sword in his hands seethed with the power of shadow as even the blade turned black in the molten force of his rage.
Leslie carefully pushed herself up to her feet. She started to take a step forward only to walk right into Chance's back as he stepped in front of her. "Chance?" she whispered. She had never seen him lose his temper before, but she felt curiously unafraid. He would never hurt her. She felt it at the bottom of her soul.
"Stay back," he ordered quietly. His lips curved into a very slight smile. "At least until you get your bearings back. I know I can't stop a Defender from fighting."
Rhya suddenly flew toward them on a yelp, and Leslie shot forward to catch her. They both went down hard, though without injury. Chance would have assisted them, but the monsters suddenly lunged for him instead and he had his hands full keeping them at bay. The twins did not appear to have any more luck than he did, either.
A different blast of shimmery-gray magic striking a monster had Chance's head turning to see Aldan running across the yard to join the fray. Rachel hovered close behind him with her ankh in hand. "Good timing," Chance muttered.
"Never any thanks from you, is there?" Aldan slashed at a Draconid with his sword and it warily moved back.
Rachel knelt beside her princesses and looked them over swiftly. They seemed mostly unharmed. "Are you okay?" she demanded.
"We're okay." Rhya's eyes widened. "Look out!"
Nobody was able to heed the warning in time and the blast that Irimara lobbed detonated in the middle of them all and sent everyone flying. Rachel hit the ground hard and could only lay there for several moments as her entire body throbbed. She had no armor to protect her, and blood trickled down her face. Gritting her teeth, she rolled to get her feet under her.
Irimara ignored her. What threat could she be without being Activated? She slowly crossed toward Leslie and Rhya, and evil magic gathered at her hands. Both girls were sprawled motionless on the ground. "I'll kill you both," she growled.
A brilliant pink and lavender glow caught her attention, and she whirled to see Rachel on her feet and producing a light so bright that it seared the eye. Memory magic pulsed in the air around her as she clenched her hands into fists at her sides. Her shirt had been shredded in the attack, and the sprout Marks on her chest and left arm could be seen. They pulsed with dark color and then abruptly cleared. The sprouts began to change, and statice blossoms formed. As they pulsed in rhythm, the magic around Rachel coalesced before her into the familiar Mask of a Statice Defender.
She reached out without hesitation to grab it from the air. This was what she had always been meant to be! She pulled it on, and the armor of a Statice Defender appeared on her body. Her formerly loose hair constricted into the familiar tight braid of convenience, and she scooped up her ankh from where she had dropped it.
As Irimara scrambled back, Rachel walked over to stand in front of the two fallen princesses. "Try me," she taunted softly.
Irimara knew all too well that Memory magic tended to be the fastest on the field, and Rachel leaned to the offensive side. Too, newly Activated Cultivators could be exponentially more powerful for a brief period. Then, on top of that, Rachel now clearly radiated the same force and fury of power that the two High Princesses did, proving unequivocally at last that the entire Resurrection Era set of Cultivators represented the final peak of growth in Blossom Field before it would drop off again to slowly climb anew—if it could. Each peak progressively seemed to be a higher one, and higher than this sounded impossible. "Don't think you've won!" Irimara raged as she disappeared with what remained of the Draconids.
Rachel lowered her ankh and let out a long breath. She then burst into laughter as Rhya and Leslie leapt onto her from each side and hugged her enthusiastically. "You were so amazing!" Rhya said happily.
"You're the best!" Leslie agreed. "Now we finally have a Defender!"
Aldan and Chance painfully got to their feet and sent away their swords. "You were incredible, Rachel," Aldan said softly, pride in his voice. "The Cultivators are going to be pleased as hell." He reached out to touch the Flower Mark on her chest, just barely visible above the edge of the top line of her armor. No sparkling edge to either Mark because she and Claret were equally Activated—though the future Claret's Marks would now stop sparkling for the same reason. "And I am proud to be your Caretaker," he told her softer.
She smiled visibly since the bottom half of a Statice Mask did not cover the mouth. "I feel better than I have in a long while. I think I've stopped fluctuating finally." She took a long breath. "However, my Sight tells me that we can't just yet return to the future. There's something else I still need to do here, possibly something else for my princesses. They'll return before we do, that much I can be sure of, but . . . the Pivot is not quite yet done."
Rhya tugged on the bottom of her armor. "Rachel."
Rachel looked over and found Siana and Sicily sitting on the ground. Both looked at if they had lost everything in the world that mattered. "Go to them," she murmured to Leslie.
She didn't need to be told twice. Leslie walked over to them and propped her hands on her hips. "So," she said. "Do you want to stay with us? Because if Mom doesn't want to give you a safe space, I do, and I usually get what I want when I ask for it. Maybe 'cause I don't ask for a lot." She lifted her chin and looked so much like her mother that even Chance had to smile. "I'm not going to watch you get killed, got it? I'll protect you myself. Me and Rhya and Rachel."
The twins exchanged a long look and then both turned back to Leslie and smiled. "We would be honored, princess," Siana said. Her eyes widened as Leslie bent and hugged her and Sicily both. Suddenly she thought she could understand better the Defenders of the smaller planets. Protecting a High Ruler who loved so generously . . . it was a gift of its own.
* * * * *
Deep in Dragonsbane, Reggie stood with Talla and Linx as they stared into the orb. They were watching as Siana and Sicily ran around chasing Leslie and Rhya with pillows. All four were shrieking with laughter. Jaslyn had hidden under a table and grabbed the ankles of anyone who got too close.
Irimara had told them that the twins had been deceived as well, that they had been brainwashed into thinking they were accepted. She had assured them that in the end the three would only be betrayed and that they would be able to bring them home where they belonged.
Not even Linx bought it anymore. He had begun to feel the emptiness in his mind again and was once more sure that his memories had been tampered with. All of them could tell that the laughter they heard wasn't something forced. Their friends had never looked happier.
Irimara was lying to them. And if she lied to them about this, what else had she lied to them about?