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The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 34

Talla was sitting in her room brushing her hair when Linx walked in unannounced. Now used to his new habit of doing such a thing, she didn't even bat a lash as she continued to brush her hair. Then, to her surprise, he crossed the room to haul her up out of her chair. The brush fell onto the floor with a thump as she stared wide-eyed into his face. "Linx?"

"What don't I remember?" he grit out. "I feel it! I can feel in my mind where I can't remember something! It's not that I forgot. I can't remember! It's driving me mad, Talla! Every time I kiss you, every time I feel you in my arms, something is familiar! I know your scent. What did Irimara do to me?!"

She lowered her gaze. She wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him everything. Yet, if she did, then he would want to leave. Irimara would destroy him if they left.

"Talla." He slid a hand up to frame her face. "Are you in danger for telling me?"

"You are," she whispered.

"Let me take that risk. Tell me what she took from me. If you truly love me, you'll let me share the burden."

She could not argue with that. "She . . ." She took a deep breath. "She erased your memories of me."

His eyes narrowed. "Memories of you?"

"From up until she approached us on the Plane to join her." She lifted her eyes to meet his. "We were mates, Linx. Nothing felt new now because . . . it wasn't new. I've loved you for over a thousand years now . . ."

He caught her closer and buried his face in her hair. The idea of how much pain she must have suffered while he held her away destroyed him. Another thought occurred to him, and he leaned back with a frown. "Why in the name of the Realm did she take my memories but not yours?"

"Because she wanted to control me, and to some extent, my body. You've surely noticed that I never wear my hair up." His brows furrowed together, and she turned around to lift her hair up. There, on the back of her neck, softly glowed the circle and star mark of a potential Guardian. "Destiny named me and my sister from birth as being potential candidates to take the role of Guardian to all dragons should it be needed."

"Sister!" His eyes shot to hers as she turned around again. "You have a sister."

"Had one, yes. She was my younger twin. Irimara hates us both. She killed Anjelica a year ago. She couldn't kill me, though, because I was stronger, so she decided to use me instead. She hooked onto you and put a spell on you to make you loyal. And . . . I couldn't leave you. She ensured my obedience by threatening you, and ensured I would bear no child to inherit my mark. So I had to work for her. Work for my sister's murderess."

His eyes narrowed sharply. "We're leaving. No matter what spell she put on me, it didn't stop me from falling for you again. She couldn't put a spell on my heart. I won't tolerate any longer the way you have suffered. She could blind me to the truth for only so long before no spell could conceal it."

"Reggie went to Jaslyn and the twins," she whispered. "We could do the same. I know the Protea Dual Cultivator would take us in until the dust settles." Her color rose. "She . . . she sort of . . ." At his lifted brow, her blush deepened. "She gave me advice."

"Advice on what?" It dawned on him as her blush deepened. He groaned and covered his face with a hand. "You did not."

"I was desperate!"

"I can tell!" He lowered his hand with a crooked smile. "Well . . . I guess I owe her a thanks, but I don't think you needed her help. I would have eventually lost control and pounced on you anyway." He caught her close for a kiss and then simply held onto her for long moments. "I don't care what spell Irimara put on me. If we can defeat her, then it'll break without her magic to hold it."

It was a chance worth taking. She drew a deep breath. "Okay." She stepped back and lifted a hand to cover her heart. Magic flared around her fingers with strong and clean potency. It flowed out and around Linx and a sword materialized in his hand. "That sword," she said, "is made of both Metal and Glass, and I have infused it with my power as a potential Guardian. It can destroy Irimara and her evil magic."

"Then let's do this." He kissed her again, just because he wanted to reassure himself, and then he turned and ran out the door with Talla right on his heels. He felt beyond furious by that point. He had been played for a fool.

Irimara was in her room seething over the recent failures when the door flew open and Linx and Talla stalked in. "What is wrong, my children?" She got to her feet with a benevolent smile, only to feel it fade as she saw the sword in Linx's hand. Her eyes narrowed and landed on Talla. "You told him," she growled.

"You never said I couldn't tell him if he guessed first." Talla's fingers partially shifted back toward her natural form and became powerful talons. "He knew. He knew that you had tampered with his memories. You may have put a spell on his mind, but it didn't touch his heart."

Irimara snarled and threw a blast of evil magic at the two lovers. They both dodged and came at her from different sides. Another ball of evil was able to repel Talla, and Irimara conjured her own sword to meet Linx's attack. "Disgusting!" she spat. "How could you take a half-breed to your bed?"

"Very easily. Human bodies work the same as most mammals, including dragons." His eyes narrowed. "You've been feeding us a line of bullshit about making it so dragons can return to the physical plane. You only want to rule in our god's place. You think you know so much better, are so much more suited? Tch. You hate mixed breeds with multiple elements, and you would sooner erase them than protect them as a Guardian should."

"You agreed with me!" she screeched.

"I lied through my teeth. I thought you were doing something that would be good in the end, so I went along with the farce to protect the kids. I actually believed in you. But now? Bad enough how you hurt my mate, but worse still what you really want!" He shoved her back a step. "Know what? I think mixed elements are the future of all dragons. Don't we already evolve to gain more elements if we bond to witches for long enough? Certainly, mixed elements always do seem to be stronger than their parents. Is that what you really fear? A time where you are not the most powerful?"

"No mixed breed is stronger than me!" she shrieked.

"Are you sure about that?" Talla's voice cut in behind her. Her talons slashed down Irimara's back and made blood fly. "Because I am far more than you could ever be, which is another reason why you hate me." As Irimara screeched and stumbled away from her, she narrowed her eyes with a savage smile. "You would have been so much happier had I gotten all your weaknesses instead of your strengths, but it didn't work that way did it, Mother?"

Linx wasn't as shocked by that information as he might have expected himself to be. There had always been a strong resemblance between the two women. He had mostly chalked it up to their shared Metal element, which, he now knew, was more shared than he had realized. "No wonder you hated Reggie so much," he mocked. "You knew he was also a far more special dragon than you would ever be. Personally, I look forward to what sort of fledgling he and Jaslyn create together."

Irimara ignored him as she stared at Talla. "I warned you," she snarled. "I hope you live, Talla. Live knowing he died!" She lifted her hands as ugly magic swirled around them. The spell shot toward Talla and swept her up from Dragonsbane to hurl her to Protea. Because she had no intent of returning, it triggered the hidden aspects of the spell on Linx. Disease flooded his body and mind, leaving him a state not unlike the feral beasts that wandered between cities, but infinitely more dangerous. The intent had been to ensure that he could not be saved, and the Defenders would have to destroy him.

It backfired. Irimara realized it only when she heard the whistle of a sword through the air and jerked around to see him lunging for her with a snarl on his lips. Shock reverberated through her as she realized that he would turn on the first available target. "No!" she shrieked as she threw her hands up and shot a spell at him to throw him from Dragonsbane as well.

He disappeared, and she sank down to her knees as her breath came in pants. She couldn't believe he had turned on her like that. How could any of this have happened? He should never have guessed that he was missing memories. The others should never have betrayed her. It had been the perfect plan!

You just never understood.

The soft and mocking voice made her bristle. "Understood what?"

To be Guardian of Dragons, you have to love them all. You were doomed from the beginning because there is no love in your heart. Dragons . . . we know instinctively when we are loved or not. We gravitate toward good energy. It was inevitable that Dragonsbane fail when your 'minions' saw that the unconditional love of the Cultivators extended to even those who had once been their enemy.

"Shut up!" she screamed. "You're dead!"

Am I? I've been watching all along. I saw what you did to Talla and Linx. That was also doomed. Your spell . . . it worked, Irimara. Except for the fatal flaw that the Apex of Light fully has the ability to heal disease, and the Apex of Dark can easily hold Linx at bay without harming him at all. You would have done better just to kill him outright. But then, planning was never your strong point, was it?

"No . . ." She covered her head with her hands. Everything was falling apart. The Defenders would be coming for her soon. The only thing she could do was reinforce the wards around her hidden base and pray they held, but deep in her heart she wasn't sure they would. The lingering Defender Cultivators in the Realm had rallied under Tarveel, Shanta's own twin soul and the first Lead Defender in history, and they had begun to see success in fighting back against the corrupted dragons and Draconids. The latter they destroyed, and the former they induced to safe sleep via Illusion magic.

Genevieve, Hannah, Lycander, and Orion had finally found the secret entrance in the Forest of Gloom that led to the Dragonsbane castle and had since stopped anything that emerged, meaning the Defenders cut through the ranks faster than ever without reinforcements being added. There was nothing left to stop the Rebirth Era Cultivators from passing to the Realm with the Elder Cultivators and ending the war.

* * * * *

"You smell funny." Jaslyn sniffed at Jessie as she circled the shorter woman. "I can't put my finger on it. You didn't smell this way yesterday." She sniffed again. "It's nice but weird."

Jessie's brows lifted. "I can't imagine why I would smell different." She patiently stood still as Reggie sniffed too. Aware that the others were snickering at her, even Jon, she crossed her eyes at them. "Smartasses."

They had gathered at the Castlera backyard for what had become a semi-regular meeting. Shana had introduced Reggie to everyone, and they had accepted him with the same ease they had accepted all the others. They had been discussing how long it would take Talla and Linx to get smart when Jaslyn had finally realized why Jessie had been unconsciously bugging her all morning.

Daphne flew over and sniffed at Jessie. Dragons tended to have senses vastly superior to humans, and could smell all manner of ailments. In fact, they could even determine things such as fertile times and chemical or hormonal imbalances. Daphne, being stronger than Jaslyn, pegged immediately that Jessie, for some reason, had changed on both a chemical and hormonal level, and even her magic felt a little different. Suspicion churned. "She's definitely different! Would a healer please come lay their hands on the patient and confirm what I think I found?"

Siobhan and Kellie looked at each other and then at Sandra. Almost at once, all three pulled out coins and flipped them into the air. Whoever landed head side up would win. Shana saw the gesture and laughed outright. "That's what Jean's group does to determine actions! She's been such a bad influence on all of us."

Siobhan had won, so she hopped up to her feet and walked over to check Jessie. Doug leaned forward so that he could see Shana from where he sat on the back steps. "Speaking of whom," he said, "how is Jean? Is Byron winning?"

"Game, set, match." She grinned. "You know how Jean keeps her PPS next to her bed at night? When I called her after bedtime last night to check in, Byron answered her phone." Her grin turned a little evil. "I'm debating how long I wait until I tell her that, you know, certain laws entirely apply to Byron as well because they tend to be, literally, universal."

"Wait until he moves here for good and then is completely under our laws, and then she can't argue technicalities," Clara told her dryly. "At least, that's what your legal advisor would suggest."

Siobhan coughed as she turned around to look at everyone after finishing her exam of Jessie. It had not taken long, but she had checked and rechecked and then checked a third time. "So, uhm. Shana? There are certain contingencies we sort of did not plan for that we really should have, and I think maybe this betrothal needs to become a wedding sort of now?"

Shana blinked as that sank in. "Uh-oh. Well. Huh. Okay, that totally did not cross my Sight."

"What's wrong?" Jon demanded as he moved closer to Jessie and put an arm around her waist protectively. "Is she sick? Can you heal her, Siobhan?"

Siobhan grinned. "No, I can't heal her, but she should be just fine in about, hmm, eight months?"

Everyone, Jessie and Jon included, stared at her in utter disbelief for a long moment, and then Jon gave a whoop of happiness and scooped Jessie up into his arms to swing her around in wild circles. Dazed, she could only cling onto his shoulders in shock. Having thought she would never find her soul mate, she had never once in her long life ever imagined she might have a child.

"And if ever there was proof that you guys are not actually dead, that has to be it," Kellie told Tessa dryly.

"Don't talk to me. I'm in shock. How did this happen?"

Jaslyn linked her hands behind her back innocently. "I imagine it works the same for all mammals regardless of being Cultivators or not."

Shana burst into laughter as she heard almost her exact words to Talla. Everyone shortly started laughing as well, and all moved forward to congratulate a still stunned Jessie and a very happy Jon. "Is this a bad time to mention that twins run in my family?" he murmured in his lover's ear.

She groaned and dropped her head onto his shoulder. "Only one like you. I only want one replica of you. I don't have the energy to handle two!" She still smiled and wound her arms around his neck. If this was the reward for being kicked out of her own home, she really couldn't regret it anymore.

"It does happen," Shanta admitted wryly. "Rarely. Perhaps once every hundred thousand years or so? It's always a Cultivator, though, and—maybe ironically—it's nearly always an Ice Flower Element! Throwing in that Jon became immortal via unusual means and has not yet actually ascended to the Realm where his lifeforce will completely stabilize and highly decrease fertility . . . in a way, this is not actually a surprise. It feels almost inevitable, actually."

"Which is curious in and of itself," Enaya murmured.

"To be sure," her almost-sister murmured back. "I have suspicions, of course. I will be more sure when the children are born."

A sudden bright flash of light had everyone scrambling back out of the way, and Defenders and Commanders alike moved to protect the High Rulers and Goddesses. Chance pulled Rhya and Leslie back, and Rachel and Aldan hurried to protect the dragons. All who had weapons pulled them out just in case, and Masks were grabbed.

Luckily for them, the light did nothing except drop Talla right into the middle of the crowd where she landed on the ground with a painful thump. "Talla!" Siana and Sicily rushed to her side with Jaslyn and Reggie right behind them. "Are you okay?"

Talla carefully pushed herself onto her hands and knees and then sat up. Tears slid slowly down her cheeks. "No." She wrapped her arms around herself. "Linx and I . . . we tried to attack Irimara, but she stopped us and threw me from the Realm." She buried her face in her hands. "She put a spell on Linx so that if I ever left, he would be destroyed!"

The others began to clamor, and Shana held up a hand sharply for silence. Daphne flew forward to land in front of Talla, and then a shimmer turned her to human form. Her young face looked solemn. "She always hated us both."

"For much the same reason." Talla reached out to hug Daphne tenderly. "I am so sorry, fledgling. I'm so sorry I ever attacked you of all people, let alone anyone else. I wouldn't have, if I'd had a choice." She got to her feet and drew Daphne up as well, and she kept the smaller dragon under her arm as she turned to face everyone. "I am Irimara's daughter, which makes me Daphne's cousin. But . . . I am also her half-sister. We have the same father."

"How is that possible?" Siobhan asked curiously.

Sara shrugged one shoulder casually. "Dragons are not like Cultivators. They're more like witches, actually, in that they can enjoy desire and have children without a soul mate, but, they get the possible joy of having soul mate. Dragons also have a relatively normal rate of polyamory like humans, so it's not usual for romantic relationships to exist between three or four dragons together; I believe Sicily and Siana also love more than one person at a time." The twins nodded in quick agreement, and she lifted a brow at Talla. "I can guess you were as much a surprise as Daphne was, all things considered. We didn't even know Irimara had a daughter!"

Talla nodded. "I actually had a twin that Irimara killed a year ago. Daphne's and my father was particularly fertile for a dragon. I and Anjelica were born about three thousand years ago. At the time, Irimara had not given in to evil, and she and Daphne's mother, Touria, were still on speaking terms. Irimara," damned if she would ever call the other woman her mother, "did not mind sharing her lover with her sister. When she realized she would have twins, she left for a while because she did not intend to keep us. She left us in the care of another dragon without ever telling our father we existed. Skip forward to a thousand years ago, and here comes Daphne as another surprise."

Daphne winced. "Irimara did not take it well, especially since Mother wanted to keep me, and Father was very happy to be a father. He tended to my egg very carefully!"

"Mammals from eggs?" Diaz asked in surprise.

Daphne nodded firmly. "I know, it sounds weird, but it's true. It's a magic thing. Dragons who can birth children decide if they want to carry personally like a normal mammal or create a magical 'womb' of sorts that is basically a stone egg. The latter is usually picked for the safety of the pregnant parent, which was true in Mother's case as well." She sighed. "Irimara felt utterly jealous of how Father shifted his attention to Mother."

"That was on her," Alexandria muttered. "She could have had the same care. I also highly doubt he neglected her entirely, and instead simply shifted more of his time to his pregnant-ish lover and future child—as you'd expect anyone to do, really."

"To be sure! But by then, Irimara had been slowly eroding closer and closer to evil." Daphne fought a chill as she cuddled closer to Talla's side. "She killed our Father shortly after I was born, though she made it look like an accident. Fast forward to recently and . . . there you go."

"But why would she hate you so much?" Rocky demanded. "Either of you! Let alone enough to kill her own daughter!"

Talla released Daphne and turned around to lift up her hair. Silence fell as everyone saw the familiar mark. "My sister had this mark as well. Irimara does not have a mark. If something happens to Daphne, the role of Guardian would fall to either I or Anjelica. She killed Anjelica outright and then used Linx against me to for me to do as she wished."

"So much futility in her actions," Shanta murmured. "By now she must surely realize she had been doomed to fail all along. Whatever she did to Linx was not enough to affect his heart or soul, and even something so simple as a heart filled with good can reject the most evil of spells."

Talla gave a sad laugh as she turned back around. "The worst part is that if she had left me and Linx alone, I'd have never gotten involved. If Touria and Daphne alike had died and someone wanted to make me Guardian, I'd have declined! I think Anjelica would have too." Tears burned her eyes. "And now Linx is as dead as my sister."

"No, he isn't." Daphne shook her head hard. "If he was, you would be in far more terrible shape. Also, as Guardian, I can still feel him alive." She looked at Shana and Edgar. "Can you find him if he's on Protea?"

"We can't always see people," Edgar said. "It's usually easier to see places or objects, really."

"If we work together we might be able to." Shana held out a hand and their fingers linked. Together they both knelt and touched the ground with their free hands. A soft hum of power lifted into the air around them, as if Protea herself softly sang with joy.

Even Shanta felt a little shiver down her back in recognition of the strength of the two heirs. Watching them, it suddenly occurred to her anew that if this generation had not been made Defenders, and the two High Queens had not been Apexes on top of it, Rocky and Edgar would have been just as powerful as their generational companions. They had the exact same amount of power as Rulers as the rest. It was a curious realization. Perhaps there may be a deeper meaning to their births than merely empowering their Apex lovers.

The siblings fell into a perfect rhythm. Edgar looked at an area while Shana focused through him to see faded images of the people. It reminded them of watching a film theatrical in fast forward with no sound; everything looked blurred and grayed out. Their eyes moved across the center of Lux's largest shopping center, and she saw the distinct image of Linx. He was in crystal clear color and clarity. He was also preparing to attack someone.

"Shit!" Shana and Edgar both straightened. Shana's eyes were narrowed. "Her spell didn't precisely kill him, Talla. You said it was made to destroy him. Well, since he's getting ready to attack people, her assumption was probably that we would have to destroy him."

"Too bad for her," Siobhan decided. "We prefer to save those we can." She nodded firmly. "I'll go with Shana and Talla to rescue him. I can heal just about anything, so whatever is wrong, I can fix!" She sighed as she saw more than one person of both generations bristle. "Annnnd we'll bring Sherry and Alexandria with us, okay?"

"Good idea," Virginia and Tessa muttered in the same voice, and then exchanged a wry smile.

The four Defenders donned Masks before leaving, and Shana held Talla's hand to ensure she joined them in the transport to the shopping center. They landed out of sight of everyone, but it seemed unlikely anyone would notice them at all, considering the current level of mayhem from Linx somewhat indiscriminately trying to attack people.

"Why here?" Talla whispered.

"Because you were here once, and he feels your magic lingering," Shana whispered back. "Siobhan, what have we got?"

"Disease. And I shouldn't be happy about that, but, gosh, that's so easy for me to handle, all things considered." Siobhan scowled. "You'd think she entirely forgot who and what I am! She would have had far more an effective plan if she had just used evil to completely fragment his mind and then we would have had to find a way to tame him without hurting him badly and then see if Jean could fix him, if at all. Tch. You know how really high fevers make you delirious? This is just the super high-powered version. No big deal at all!"

Talla had never been so relieved. "So what do we do?"

"You stay here," Shana told her. "Sherry and Siobhan will stay with you. Lexie and I will distract Linx long enough for Siobhan to get close enough to grab him. Most of her healing magic she can just aim from her rod, but for some things, she needs to be hands on."

"Which can be very awkward."

"Justin did forgive you for that," Sherry told her, trying not to smile.

Alexandria shot forward with speed as quick as her Air element and interceded in front of Linx before he could strike a human. His talons struck a metal portion of her armor and bounced right off. Before he could recover, Shana grabbed him from behind and planted her feet. He fought and struggled wildly against her grip, but his strength could in no way compare with that of the Apex. Siobhan darted forward as well and slapped her gloved hands against both sides of his face to pour in healing power at point blank range.

As the disease evaporated and sanity returned, he sagged in Shana's grip. She continued to hold onto him and looked to the side. "Talla, it's safe."

Talla ran forward and wrapped her arms around Linx's waist as much to support him as to reassure herself. When his arms curled around her in turn, the tears she had been fighting finally got free. "I thought you were dead!" she whispered painfully.

"How could I ever leave you?" he asked roughly. He held her even closer and buried his face in her hair so that her scent curled around him. He could barely remember anything that had happened. In a way, he felt grateful for it, especially when he glanced around to assess the area. He had hurt a lot of people.

"Nothing I can't fix," Siobhan assured him as she saw his gaze. "In fact," she swung her rod up, and waves of white-gold magic radiated from the opal, "I think this ought to be enough." She winced behind her Mask, though, as she felt an ache or two in response to the quantity of people she had to heal at once. "Owie. A hot bath is in my future. It should clear up anything lingering."

Shana released Linx, and he turned enough to see her and Siobhan alike without releasing Talla. "Your Majesties . . . Queen Shanae, Queen Sayena . . . I hope you accept my apologies. For everything." He shook his head. "I can't believe I was so stupid."

"Evil all too easily can fool people or scare people," Sherry told him. "It can make them do terrible things that, when their eyes clear, they are eaten with guilt over. In history, some have done far worse than what you lot did. No one died in this War." She thought about Jon. "Okay, someone sort of did, but perhaps ironically that was the best thing that could have happened to him, so it doesn't count."

Alexandria nodded. "I think Cultivators as a whole but especially Defenders are gifted with a deep ability to forgive those who unwittingly or were coerced into doing evil. We have to be able to forgive because otherwise we could not save you." She looked at Shana and Siobhan. "Even Irimara. If there is good deep down inside her, our Apexes will find it, and they will create a miracle to save her. She will spend a long time making reparations and will have a karmic debt of enormous proportions to pay off, but she will have that chance. If there's not . . ."

"I don't think there is," Talla whispered.

"Then so be it." Shana put a hand on her shoulder briefly. "Your hands are freed of this, Talla. There is nothing of your mother inside you. Perhaps, if anything, you represent anything good she ever once had."

Linx nodded. "I will agree. And I have information that no one else does, so if there's any way to meet with everyone else, I would like to do whatever I can to help and make up for what I did. Even if I was fooled, I wish to balance the bad with good, and to help pay off my karma personally."

"Back to the backyard we go," Shana decided.

"Sam is so going to start charging rent," Siobhan grumbled.

"Nah, he used it as leverage to convince Virginia to paint him a mural on the back of the house. He says that makes it all even."

A quick transport got all of them back to the yard where everyone else waited, and the four Defenders removed their Masks. Linx looked at the gathered crowd and could hardly wrap his mind around the fact that Dragonsbane had even dared think they had the ability to oppose this many powerful people. They had been trying to oppose the Apexes, for goddess' sake. "I was out of my mind," he muttered.

Jaslyn threw her arms around his waist with a grin. "S'okay. We love you anyway."

"What news do you bring?" Shanta asked him. Her warm smile, so like Shana's, reiterated that he was welcome as a friend and ally and no longer an enemy. "You indicated to Shana that you have information on Irimara that no one else does."

"Did you tell her that?" Alexandria muttered at Shana.

"At range, yes."

The unsubtle reminder that the two Apexes could get into any mind they wished made Sandra suddenly look at Tessa and say, "Shana and Siobhan are going to be far scarier High Goddesses someday than Shanta or Enaya ever could."

"As it should be!" Enaya said firmly, grinning. "You lot still try to get away with too much, even with as powerful as we are. I look forward to my retirement someday!"

Linx shook his head. "You're the only one." He tucked his hands into his pockets. "As to my information, it's very critical. You see, unlike me, the other members of Dragonsbane could only transport in and out of the base, and they never actually knew the exact location of where they transported to and from. I, however, did." He blew out a hard breath. "Irimara's castle is in the valley at the end of the Forest of Gloom."

All Elder Cultivators groaned loudly, and more than one dropped her head into her hands. Shana just sighed at the reaction. "I'm going to hazard a guess that this is a forest of much doom, despair, and destruction."

"And gloom?" Leslie offered.

"Stop stealing my shtick. Go sit with your cousin." Shana ignored the grins flashed toward her. "Before my smartass progeny interrupted, I was going to continue by asking if there were any known or unknown routes."

"If it's an unknown route, how will we know about it?" Leslie asked reasonably. Shana glared at her, and she strove to pull an innocent face. She did not wholly succeed, particularly as her eyes continued to sparkle. "Yes'm."

Shanta covered a smile. "The Forest of Gloom is actually perfectly fine under normal circumstances, except for how utterly confusing and complex it is. Members of the Realm use it for extreme hiking or for getting lost when they really, really want solitude. Most of it is usually safe, too. Only very specific areas held danger, but that was on purpose for bored Defenders and the like." She sighed. "I'm sure most of that has changed by now."

"Gen contacted me just this morning," Tessa spoke up, "to tell me that she and the other three with her found a new exit from the Forest that none of us had known about. Draconids and corrupted dragons had been emerging from it. I intended to mention it at this meeting anyway, but Linx's information confirms it is more than just a transport spot like other areas in the Realm. The exit has since been sealed to prevent anything else from emerging, and that may turn the tide for everyone else."

"So that sounds like where we need to go," Virginia said decisively. She looked at Shana. "All of us, including the two princesses?"

Shana frowned a bit, her gaze almost turned inward. Everyone recognized the look as the one she got when she felt something through her connection to Destiny, so they stayed quiet. After a long moment, she shook her head. "Rhya and Leslie's relevance to the Paradoxal Pivot has ended, so they are not needed any longer in this time. They can return to the future and relative safety tonight. Rachel, however, needs to remain for this just a bit longer as her involvement is just a bit more complex. Look around. We have at least two of every element . . . except Memory."

Rachel straightened her back. She had gotten barely any training, and she was already being asked to jump into a war. She was afraid, but she hid the fear where it wouldn't show. She knew all too often that most Defenders rarely ever got eased into the duties of their role, even as children. "I'll do whatever I can."

"And that," Clara said softly as she ran a hand down her daughter's hair, "is why you will be one hell of a Defender."

The plans swiftly were made, with the determination that all Cultivators and Commanders would leave in the morning. Rhya and Leslie returned to the future with Rachel and Clara's aid right after a goodbye dinner, and everyone decided to just sleep over at the Castlera house to expedite leaving after dawn.

However, in the middle of the night, all Rebirth Defenders left their lovers and headed out back to where those of the Realm had already gathered. Shana was the last to slip out as she stopped to softly kiss Rocky goodbye. He reached for her, and she smoothed her fingers down his cheek soothingly until he feel deeply asleep again.

She stepped out of the room and realized Chance stood in the hall. She didn't look at him. "Do you stop me?" she asked quietly.

"I just want to know something." He glanced at her. "Why say goodbye when it might have woken him and had him stop you?"

She smiled. "That wasn't goodbye. We've never said goodbye in all our lives together. It was a 'see you later' kiss—because I will see him later. Perhaps I'm superstitious, but if I go into battle having promised to see him again, then I will do everything in my power to not break that promise. For the sake of Protea, for the universe, our time to say goodbye can't yet come, so it will always be 'see you later.' Sometimes it's not having Caretaker at your side that is important—it's having them to return home to at the end."

She let him digest that and hurried out of the temple to where the others waited. They all donned their Masks and then formed a circle with their hands linked. Shanta and Enaya called on their power as Goddesses of the Realm, and light swirled down around all of them. They disappeared with a flash and were carried away beyond the sky.

Rocky and Edgar made it out of the temple ten seconds too late. Frustrated, they stared at where the Defenders had disappeared from. Chance stepped up beside them, and Rocky shot him a furious look. "Why didn't you stop them?"

"I couldn't. Something . . . didn't seem right to me, to stop them."

Edgar sighed. "Destiny."

Chance made a disgusted sound. "Destiny can just stay out of my life," he said succinctly as he turned and walked back into the temple.

Rocky smiled wryly to himself as he thought of Chance's clear possession and protectiveness of Leslie. "Yeah, you wish," he murmured. It would worth waiting five thousand years to see that one. With his own sigh, he turned his gaze toward the sky. In a way, he could not be surprised by the events. There were just some things only Defenders could do.

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