The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 35


The Forest of Gloom was nearly five miles in length at its longest point. The valley at the end of that point was where Irimara had set up her hidden castle, and it was from there that she issued her army. Unfortunately for Irimara, for all her evil magic, she still had limitations. Neither her Draconids nor the corrupted dragons could transport right from the base to the Realm's Palace of the Gods. They had to leave the forest and then transport. With the land route now locked down, the skirmishes across the Realm had begun to end quickly.

Genevieve and Hannah called it sheer dumb luck that they had found the hidden route. They had been pursuing a Draconid when Hannah had tripped over her own feet and taken Genevieve down with her. From the lower angle, they had spied an odd strafing of light through the trees, and that had led to finding the previously unknown route. Together with Lycander and Orion, they had since kept the exit blocked and stopped anything emerging.

But both were tiring. They were only Ruler Cultivators, after all. No armor, no magic to be used in battle. Genevieve had quite a fair bit of skill and strength with a sword, and Hannah had remarkable accuracy with a bow and arrows, but that made them no less tired after months of fighting a war they had never been equipped to fight. Even Lycander and Orion showed exhaustion, though they held up far better for being demi-gods and in possession of a range of different holy powers and skills outside the normal magical scope.

"How does she do it?" Genevieve finally complained to Orion.

He covered a smile. "My wife or your daughter?"

"Either." She raked her hands through her hair. "I'm at my wits end here. We can't last much longer like this, and if we fall, then the ones we fight for will be overwhelmed."

"How about asking for help?" came a dry female voice behind her.

"And who would we . . ." She broke off on a gasp and whirled around to see her daughter standing behind her with a smile on her beautiful face that her Mask could not at all hide. "Shanae!" She surged forward and caught her in her arms and held on fiercely. She hardly cared that Shana stood a few inches taller than she did; nothing would change the fact that this woman was her baby. "I hoped I would see you soon!"

"It would have been sooner, but, you know. Busy busy!" Shana hugged her back and then let go on a grin. "I brought Dad with me. Sorry, no Edgar. I'm sure he and Rocky are a little pissed at us right now, but at least they can't say they did not really expect us to ditch them!" She contemplated things. "They'll probably take it better than Mike or Sam, too."

Orion snorted softly. "Speaking as a Caretaker, I don't expect any of them to take it well. We exist solely to support our Cultivators."

She snorted back. "You exist for other reasons, too!" Having never met him before, she studied him with immense curiosity. A fair bit of height, of course, and a visibly strong warrior frame that suited the massive halberd he carried. Brown skin with a hint of red beneath. Most interestingly, he had hair that looked like a complete and utter striation of all colors in the rainbow, and his eyes looked white with rainbow iridescence overlaid. He had, of course, a Light core, and his particular Flower Element appeared to be Metal, though he very plausibly had some flexibility there as a demi-god, and the son of Destiny with it. He at the least had a sort of 'tang' to the scent of his magic that echoed back to the Memory element belonging to his father, Horatio.

Lycander also looked both like what she had expected and yet had not. His Flower Element could best be called 'Love' even though it was not technically an element since whatever elements he did have had thoroughly blended together and rather than exist separately had become something unusual and new. She did at least recognize aspects of Fire and Nature, though, and Illusion. He had very fair skin, thick gray hair with matching gray eyes, and a lean frame for his normal enough five-and-change height. He looked only an inch or two shorter than Edgar.

Orion lifted a brow at her scrutiny and then asked dryly, "Do I pass muster?"

"Don't sass me, old man. I have an in with your mother. I can get you grounded."

Shanta burst into laughter, and even Orion grinned. "You are very like your ancestor," he told Shana. "And I leave it to you to decide whether I reference my mate or my mother—because it could go either way." He eyed Genevieve and Matthew. "Though there are a fair number of . . . particular quirks we can blame on someone else around here."

"I am denying nothing," Genevieve said staunchly. "And Matt literally asked for it, so he can take the blame."

Siobhan had been studying the area around them while they talked, and it looked like an utter wasteland. The evidence of a battle fought long and hard for an extended period could not be missed. "Are we winning?" she asked.

Lycander snorted softly as he slung his arm around Enaya's waist. "Speaking of someone reminding us of someone else," he murmured.

"You be quiet." She elbowed him lightly.

Hannah pointed at Quint. "And there's the reason for the additional quirks on top of ancestral echoes!"

"I also deny nothing," he said firmly, but on a grin. He tugged her into his arms, and he followed her gaze as he saw her watching someone in particular: Rachel. Like the other Defenders, she moved around the area to get a feel for the land and establish a sort of comfort level with the Realm versus the living plane. Only an Activated Cultivator could successfully pass from living plane to the Realm without having to die along the way, and then return again without ill effect. Her blossoming and Activation had literally been mandatory for her to be there.

What intrigued Hannah most was the unnerving realization that Rachel was stronger than her mother. As Rulers, they matched perfectly evenly, but Rachel's Defender magic clearly showed signs of more potential for evolution until fully blooming, and she had the same extra something on top of it that Rhya and Leslie had shown recently as well. If the two princesses' mothers had not been Apexes, they too would have surpassed them.

"Yeah," Quint murmured, "makes one wonder why, doesn't it?"

"So." Shana perched on the top of a rock like a bird of prey. "Explain about the forest. I presume that if we're going in, and something has been continually coming out, eventually the twain will meet."

"It's been a combination of Draconid monsters and corrupted dragons." Orion crossed his arms as a disturbed look filled his handsome face. "The monsters we have been destroying. The dragons Hannah was able to induce to sleep by using her Illusion magic as a Ruler. We've been transporting them to the Plane for Pallas to guard."

Daphne's eyes glittered from where she sat on Krysta's shoulder. "There will be much pain and guilt among the dragons when this ends, but I will serve as best I can as Guardian, and I will help them recover. We can replace the bad with good!"

"Well said!" Tessa looked at Hannah and Genevieve. "We need you to come with us. The four Caretakers can hold down things out here as we go in. Shana had a feeling that two of each element would be needed, and I think we should hedge our odds by having three of Nature and Illusion so she and Siobhan are free to act as needed."

Virginia had been looking at the forest, and she said, "There are two routes. I can see where they diverge partway into the trees. If we split into two teams, we will have higher odds of reaching the end successfully—especially if we encounter the traps I expect we will."

Shana nodded. "I'm in agreement. We will split into Light planets and Dark planets since that is usually the default line drawn to split us into two, and we have built up strong combinations based on that. It also allows for a Lead Defender on each team."

"Two on the Dark side," Tessa murmured, but got ignored—which she had expected. She had no objections to taking the lead on their side, though she also had no objections to letting Shana actually be in charge because it was inevitable she grab for it even unconsciously and the others fall in line. Tessa, being a generation removed from Shana, could easier handle letting the Protea Defender do as she needed, and it would actually free her to better protect Genevieve and Shanta who had no armor. Interesting how that worked. Almost . . . prophetic, really.

They split into the two decided teams and entered the forest. The Light Cultivators found it relatively quiet for the first hour of walking, as if there may not be danger at all. The first sign of trouble came as they rounded a bend and discovered a solid wall of ice. It rose so high it seemed impossible to fly over even if they could, and it looked to go on forever in both land directions. Directly in the center of the wall sat two carvings in the shape of the celestial symbol of the Ice Flower Element.

"I hate it when she does that!" Virginia complained. "And I bet that that we find four more wards just like this, but with the rest of our symbols as well."

"No bet," her partners muttered.

"Have I ever told you I'm grateful you married Lycander and not Orion because then I don't have that strong a Sight?" Siobhan grumbled at Enaya.

"You and me both, sweetheart," the goddess grumbled back. "Though your brother is no slouch himself. I blame Destiny for that."

Jessie glanced at her former charge. "Yvonne, let's see if we can't bring this thing down."

Yvonne walked over to join her, and they both lifted their hands to touch the wall. Purple and yellow magic flowed down their arms into the wall, causing the symbols to glow brightly and the wall to slowly begin sinking into the ground.

The lowered wall revealed an immensely large and viciously ugly Draconid charging right for them. Enaya and Siobhan yelped as one, "Put it back up!"

Both Iris Defenders leapt back from the wall and it slammed back upward into place. A second later, the monster smashed into the wall hard enough that the ground shook. "Oops." Siobhan winced as everyone glared at her and her ancestor.

"Thank you," Sara muttered to her twin, "for withholding your own shriek."

"I didn't." Hannah winced. "You just didn't hear me over them.

"Okay, people," Virginia said. "Let's keep our heads here. Jess, Yvonne, put down the ward again. When you do, we'll get the monster." She eyed the two twitchy Delphinium Cultivators. "And try not to screech like that this time."

Siobhan winced as she called up her rod. It had been entirely involuntary, really, and she hoped as much as the others did that she did not do it a second time. She really wanted Shana there, to hold her hand and borrow some of her courage, but without her sister, she would just have to dig down for her own bravery. She felt Sherry's hand suddenly cover her wrist and glanced at her twin soul quickly. A little boost, just a little surge, of bravery entered her and made it easier for her to square her shoulders. "I wish I was as brave as the rest of you," she whispered.

Sherry smiled behind her Mask. "You don't have to be our sort of brave. You have a different bravery. And I think that you'll find it long before your hang up your Mask someday, meaning that if ever you have to don it anew, you will be able to walk tall without us to hold your hand."

It felt a little prophetic, which meant it felt a little scary, but Siobhan knew all too well that it was a very probable future. Her generation might be the first to enjoy their immortality, but that did not mean the other eight Defenders may not go out in the way so many, many before had gone out.

Yvonne and Jessie took breaths to compose themselves and then touched the wall again. Once more it began to sink back into the ground, and this time it revealed the very pissed off Draconid on the other side.

It lunged forward as soon as the wall lowered and made a direct line for Juliet. She caught its arm, flipped it over her head, and slammed it into the ground. Molten glass flew from Virginia's fingers to encase the Draconid wholly, and fireballs from Melissa and Sherry shattered it into fragments of sand.

"There!" Hannah said. "Now we can move forward."

"We have a problem," Yvonne announced, bringing eyes toward her quickly. "While, yes, we could keep this wall down long enough for all of us to cross through, my magic is tingling in a way that means there may be a circuit between this and another ward later. It is possible that that later ward has to be lowered via this one."

"So you're saying that you and Jessie have to stay here to hold it down?" Virginia asked.

"That is my best guess based on what I can feel, and based on how sure Shana felt that we needed two of each element, and also Tessa's instinct saying that we needed three Illusion and Nature. Honestly, I'm not entirely surprised." She looked at Siobhan. "I get the feeling that Irimara wants to isolate you and Shana away from us Defenders. Which is semi-ironic, I think, because you are more dangerous together than not, with or without us."

"Nothing about this has shown pre-planning or research on Irimara's part," Amanda admitted. "She knew enough not to go gunning for us on Protea, but as her control slips, she doesn't think things through." Musingly, she added, "More proof she is not suitable to be Guardian of anything. We have to stay cool under pressure."

Siobhan straightened her back with a genuine smile. "Shana and I can do anything together. I'm not going to let myself slow her down." She took a deep breath and walked past the wall. "Let's go." She leveled a look at both Iris Defenders, and she looked every inch the High Queen she had become. "If something happens to either of you, I'll be mad."

"Yes'm," Jessie smiled.

Everyone hurried past the first wall and continued through the forest. Not to their surprise, they encountered a second wall half a mile away. This wall looked identical to the one prior but made of fire. The two carvings of the celestial symbol of the Fire Flower Element showed clearly in two places. Sherry and Melissa stepped forward without hesitation and touched the wall. It shimmered and slowly lowered.

This time there were no Draconids on the other side, so they swiftly continued on their way. Another quarter of a mile down the road, they found a wall of lightning with two celestials symbols of the Thunder Flower Element. Juliet and Amanda stayed to keep it open. Even further down the road was a wall of glass with two celestial symbols of the Glass Flower Element. Virginia and Sara brought it down and then stayed to keep it down.

The final ward had been made of shimmering white and gold magic that reflected back trace images like lost mirages. The celestial symbol of the Illusion Flower Element sat twice in the middle. Hannah turned to her daughter and said, "You'll be fine." When Siobhan looked at her, Hannah smiled and cupped her cheek. "You may not have had enough of your father's strength in you to overcome our Delphinium physical shortcomings, not like your brother did, but you got something just as valuable from Quint: his willpower. You can and will succeed, Sayena, because you just don't know how to quit."

Siobhan took a deep breath, then smiled. "Okay."

Enaya and Hannah lowered the ward and Siobhan hurried through it quickly. She could see the exit to the forest ahead of her and was sure Shana would be waiting for her. They would get this done together. They had done it before, and they could do it again. They could make miracles alone, let alone together.


The route through the forest for the Dark Cultivators started very differently. Almost right from the start, they encountered Draconids of all shapes and sizes. Rachel felt more than a little at a loss. As confident as she had felt confronting Irimara, as comfortable as she felt in her armor and Mask, she could not help but feel very inadequate as she looked at those around her. She was barely younger than the Rebirth Defenders at that moment, yet they vastly outclassed her in all ways.

Shana looked at her after so long and deliberately asked, "Is there an issue, Statice?"

She sighed. "I'm just . . ."

"Feeling useless." Alexandria wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her lightly. "We all start that way, no matter what age we start at." She considered that. "Okay, most of us start that way, but I still argue that Shana doesn't count."

Krysta grinned. "You do."

"Shut up, Krysta."

Daphne perked up from where she rode on Genevieve's shoulder. "What did she do wrong?"

"Where would you like me to start?" the older Hyacinth Defender said dryly. "Now, in her defense, I will say that Air is one of the more finicky Flower Elements to control, especially when under the offensive category, but Arista had more issues than most. You know how Delphinium folks trip over their own feet? Arista basically had the magical equivalent."

Even behind her Mask, Alexandria's cheeks went visibly pink. "Do we need to discuss this?" she muttered.

"Yes," Kellie and Sandra told her dryly.

Shana grinned. "I didn't see her initial mistakes, but I got to see the most infamous! You know that one law of science, that thing about forces having equal and opposite reactions? It's basically why you get that recoil from shooting a bow if you don't brace yourself, right? Well . . . magic kind of sort of does the same thing but exponentially bigger. If we fire magic from our hands in either ball or stream fashion, we have to plant our feet.

Rachel bit her lip. Hard. "She didn't?"

"Sayena got her first go at mending a broken arm," Desiree confessed, trying not to smile.

"Do you mind?" Alexandria demanded. "Should I start telling everyone else's horror stories?"

"Let's not!" Kellie protested hastily.

Clara told Alexandria in a sotto voice, "I could always tell the horror stories about the Elders."

"Don't you dare," Tessa muttered.

Rachel felt immensely better already. "I guess Leslie is her mother's child, since she's so far taken to things really naturally. Rhya, too, actually."

"It's actually hit or miss," Clara told her. "I've seen an entire generation just hit the ground running and be amazing out the door, needing only to hone what they are given. And then I've seen an entire generation just, oof, fall flat. Scrambling around, desperately trying to get it together as they get older, and eventually figuring it out in time to be really needed. I think it comes down to necessity, and what will be asked of them. For Leslie and Rhya, their apparent need to be here meant they needed to be natural right from the start. For you, our unusual Cultivator who had to be thawed, there has been no rush at all. I think you are far more than you believe you are, and that there are some amazing things you will do that I never could."

Before Rachel could respond, Draconids lunged out of the trees at them. The Defenders scattered swiftly and waded into battle with magic or weapons, and Shanta and Genevieve wisely stayed back with Tessa to protect them. There were enough of the beasts to mean that more than one Defender ended up facing one solo, and Rachel landed in that predicament as well. Instinct kicked in, and she used her ankh like a mace to send the Draconid stumbling away.

It whipped around on a roar with bloody claws extended and came Rachel with such speed that she froze briefly in sheer terror. A moment before impact, Clara knocked into her and sent her sprawling, and the Draconid's claws struck her in a non-metal portion of her armor. Even the cloth or leather portions of Defender armor could be exponentially durable and block most weapons or magic, but they could not block everything. The claws pierced cloth and then continued through to her flesh. Clara sagged in its grip under the impact, and blood began to flow rapidly.

"Mom!" Rachel shouted.

Shana's head jerked around. "Defender down!" she shouted at Kellie and Sandra. She swiftly rushed through the area and hacked at the Draconids they were fighting. "Help her!" she ordered as all three monsters came at her instead.

Neither had to be told twice. They turned and rushed to the scene with Tessa on their heels to help. The Lead Defender got there first and her spear cut right through the Draconid's hands, severing them from its body. Clara would have hit the ground but Rachel and Kellie caught her and lowered her gently. While the others swiftly destroyed what remained of the Draconids, Kellie and Sandra healed the wounds. "It's not too terrible," Sandra told Rachel. "Really. We've certainly seen far worse."

The others had just walked over to join them when Clara opened her eyes on a wince. "That was more painful than I expected."

"Yeah, those claws are brutal," Alexandria agreed. "We all got a bit surprised I think. They even punctured metal in places."

"I'm so sorry!" Rachel blurted to Clara. "I almost got you killed! I'm going to be useless if I freeze at the sign of trouble!"

"Honey," Shanta planted her hands on her hips, "if something ten foot tall, fanged, scaly, and bloody, comes charging at you, you are entitled to be afraid!"

Clara carefully sat up. "Agreed." She hugged her daughter. "Now, stop that. It'll be fine." She got to her feet and helped Rachel up. "If you hate the freezing idea, convince yourself to scream and throw wild blasts. It's much more effective."

"Siobhan has done it more than once," Shana agreed dryly.

Rachel was not entirely convinced but pushed it aside as they continued on their way. The worst of it seemed to be behind them finally, and the path smoothed out. However, another quarter a mile in, they encountered a wall of magic that blinked in and out in a familiar way. The celestial symbol of the Memory Flower Element sat in the center twice.

"Don't do that!" the Water and Air twins said to Shana who just smirked. "It's creepy!"

"Welcome to our world," Desiree and Alexandria retorted.

Clara and Rachel stepped over to the wall and put their hands on it. Pink and lavender magic flowed and rippled down their arms and made the symbols glow. Slowly the wall began to lower. As it did, Rachel's eyes suddenly went blind, and she began to slump toward the ground.

Tessa quickly shot forward and caught her. "Whoa! What the hell?"

"She has a higher propensity than most for her Sight to enter directly into her mind," Clara said as she removed her hands and the ward shot back into place. "Which is actually true of me as well, I have to say. She's been stabilizing over her life, though, as she moved toward Activation. She should hit a relatively normal balance in short order, where her stronger connection to the Hall of Records means she needs fewer visions since premonitions are enough. She'll still find herself knocked flat two out of three times for the former, though."

"I'll take my 'next to never' for that," Shana grumbled.

"Well, to be fair, you have a far hardier constitution than anyone else with Sight, and your 'rubber brain' processes faster, so you don't need to have a vision enter right into your mind, because you can process just about any amount of information without it," Clara told her. "I think if you ever did have a vision knock you out, it would have to be particularly terrible, so we will all hope that never happens."

"I want to be added to the 'only terrible things list', okay?" Rachel said as she held up a finger. She regained her feet with Tessa's help and then shook her head hard. "In and amongst the really weird things that make me think I need to cut sugar out of my diet," she said as she rubbed at her aching forehead, "essentially I saw two wards. Two Memory wards. But they were tied together. Literally."

Shanta frowned. "So perhaps lowering this one lowers one later." She realized suddenly. "Ah. I see. Divide and conquer. Leave members of the team behind to keep the wards down so that the castle is accessible, thereby isolating Shana and Siobhan."

"That has to be one of the stupider things I've heard an enemy do," Daphne groused. "And I've seen some stupid things."

"No, no," Shanta assured her. "Trust me, in my many years I have seen far stupider. Remind me to tell you about the time someone thought it would be a good idea to deliberately empower Defenders before fighting them."

Shana winced. "And I thought Andromedian had issues." She waved it off. "Alright, let's get on with this. Statice Defenders, please bring this ward down."

They did as ordered, and the rest of the team continued on. A quarter of a mile in, they encountered a wall of solid metal that bore two marks of the celestial symbol for the Metal Flower Element. Tessa and Kellie stayed to keep it down and let the others continue. Further in, a wall of solid water that had the two marks of the Water Flower Element. Desiree and Sandra stayed behind with it. Another wall-like ward beyond had been made of sheering wind and had the celestial marks of the Air Flower Element. The two Hyacinth Defenders, still bickering as always, stayed to keep it open

Much further down, close to the exit, a wall of solid vines and soil barred the path, and it had been marked twice by the celestial symbol of the Nature Flower Element. "It would have to be me," Genevieve murmured, "and not Leslie Ann. It would be too dangerous to leave a child, even a Protea Defender one, alone by herself. As much as Destiny demands from us, she still protects her Cultivators. Truly, she loves us more than anything else, I think. And I have often thought that the more she loves you, the more she demands, for she knows you can do it." She looked at Shana. "She demands more from you than any other. She gives you something in return related to what she takes. I think . . . that if it were possible . . . she loves you more than even I or Octavia. That she loves you as a mother would, and she weeps for what she makes you do, but she knows that only you can do it."

Shana slowly nodded as Daphne landed on her shoulder. "I yell at her. I curse her name. But I know what it means for her to place burdens on me. And I know that, someday, she will send me the first sign of my promised freedom, and everything will be easier to bear."

Shanta and Genevieve placed their hands on the wall, and black and pink magic moved down their arms to lower the ward. "Be safe," Daphne told them, and then held on tighter as Shana ran toward the exit. She felt no surprise for them to emerge and immediately see Siobhan emerging alone from the trees further down. She felt less surprised by the massive single ward of glowing Dark and Light magic still surrounding the decrepit and ugly castle. The Realm itself had been tearing at the blemish on its landscape.

"How did she use Dark and Light?" Siobhan whispered to Shana.

"Same way she used all the rest," Shana sighed. "Evil magic. How else? That's what makes evil power so seductive to so many. It perverts the natural order and gives access to things either normally restricted, or that should just outright not exist. Even we two Apexes have some limitations, right?" She studied the ward as she felt a premonition shiver across her mind and soul. "I think if we meet someone with no limitations, she will instead be held back by her own driving need to only ever create good, and that what she will need to learn to grow will be part of her desire to aid those she loves."

"She would be nice to know."

"I think she will be." Shana smiled and held out a hand to Siobhan that her sister clasped. Sparks flew between their grasp as normal, but rather than dissipate, they began to grow. The Chaos power grew hotter and stronger and then fired almost of its own will at the wards. The backwash made both Shana and Siobhan wince painfully, but they did not fall. With a tremendous crack, the ward collapsed as the Chaos neutralized Dark and Light equally. In the falling of the ward, a horde of corrupted dragons of all sizes, shapes, and washed out colors came rushing out.

Daphne flew forward and landed bravely on the ground. "Stop!" she ordered, her voice carrying an audible ring of command. "By order of the Guardian!"

The entire mass stopped as one. Confusion reigned high as they tried to understand why they had stopped. Siobhan lifted her rod and sent out waves of magic that began to put all of them safely to sleep. It took little time until the danger had passed. She nodded firmly at Shana. "That should hold them until we finish this." She scooped up Daphne under her arm and hurried behind Shana as her sister ran toward the entrance to the castle.

For such a sprawling place, it did not take long to find the center where the orb had been housed. Talla and Linx had been meticulous in describing its location and appearance. It radiated outward with the lifeforce it had collected, and a crackle here and there gave indication of the few accidents of nabbing magic or skills with it.

"Destroy it," Daphne said firmly. "It will release everything back to everyone stolen from over the last while. Some people might get a sudden overload of strength or energy, but there are others who will stop feeling sick, so it'll all balance out."

"You think Jon wants his Past Sight back?" Siobhan mused.

Shana grinned. "He says he wants it because he likes being able to look at history and know how to better change the future. Also, he said something about finding things in the Hall of Records about how to handle being a parent to children of a Defender. I can't imagine why he is worried."

Siobhan giggled. "He could just ask Dad or Uncle Matt."

"Ha. I think we're worse than most others." She spun elegantly on the ball of one foot, and her other heel smashed into the orb. It shattered into billions of pieces that slowly fluttered toward the ground. The flood of lifeforce rushed past her and Siobhan and out into the sky to return to where it belonged.

"What have you done?" Irimara snarled from behind them. They turned toward her, and she stared at Daphne in hatred. "You should never have been born!"

"But I was." Daphne's eyes narrowed slightly. "Do you hate me, Aunt Irimara, or do you hate my father?" A snarl was her response, and she flew over onto the table where the orb had been. "Don't you get it? Even if I'd never have been born, you'd never have been Guardian! Tananeen chooses those who are worthy, and you're not even close!"

Irimara screeched and lunged toward her. She was brought up short as Shana stepped into her path and brandished her claymore. "You will not touch her," Shana said in a dangerously soft voice. "She is all but a part of my family now, and I don't let anyone hurt my family."

"Why?!" Irimara's hands contorted and became talons. "She's a mixed breed!"

"Yeah? So am I."

Siobhan thought about it. "Actually . . . yeah. So am I. Basically. I mean if you're going on the idea of two separate elements existing wholly together inside a single person, yeah, we really are." She brightened. "Hey, does that make us more like witches for that?"

"Other than that they got to pick their elements, you bet!" Shana had not taken her eyes from Irimara, and she could see the other woman reaching the edges of her self-control. She looked deeper, all the way down into the core of Irimara, and she saw . . . nothing. Emptiness. If ever there had been good inside her, it had been long since lost. "Do you even want any kindness in your heart?" she asked quietly.

With a shriek that was also a growl, Irimara glowed brightly and her entire body transformed into a giant, monstrous, Draconid shape. Her teeth were as long as Shana's hand, and her size was twice that of the Apex's, despite her own lack of being small.

Shana did not wait for the first attack; she made it herself. Her hand shot up and black-pink magic swirled around her fingers before firing as massive vines at Irimara. The attack hit hard enough to blow the Draconid clear through the wall behind her. She still managed to shrug off most of the attack and came lunging back into the room with a swipe at Shana.

The Defender dodged swiftly, and Daphne leapt agilely out of the way as Irimara crashed through the table. Irimara rounded on Siobhan instead and charged toward where the magic user had moved herself, she thought, to be out of range. At the sight of the beast bearing down on her, Siobhan gave a little shriek and instinctively shot a blast of Light magic right into Irimara's eyes that sent her tumbling. She heard a snort of laughter and glared at her sister. "What?"

"Never mind." Shana rushed forward and slashed at Irimara with her claymore. Her attacks came with enough force and fury to piece scale and skin and drive the Draconid further and further back. The few times Irimara managed to claw her hard enough in return to draw blood, Siobhan healed her immediately.

Irimara finally broke free and crouched close to the ground. Sensing she was outmatched, even in this form, she changed back to her human form. Blood slowly slid down her body from dozens of wounds, all of which could have been fatal if they had gone just a little deeper. "You're toying with me?" she snarled at Shana.

"Yeah, I am. How does it feel to be on the receiving end for once?"

"Why?" Irimara beat her hands uselessly on the broken ground. "Why can't I win?!"

You never stood a chance.

The softly feminine voice had everyone looking around sharply. Neither Shana nor Siobhan had sensed a hostile presence, and Daphne was sure she knew the voice somehow. Irimara clearly knew it as well because she screeched, "Stop talking to me! You're dead! I killed you!"

"And where do the spirits of powerful beings go when they die?" The voice, this time, came from the doorway behind them. When the others turned, it was to find themselves staring a beautiful woman who looked perfectly identical to Talla except for her reversed coloring; rather than gray hair and red eyes, she had red hair and gray eyes.

Irimara's own nearly matching gray eyes widened with shock. "Anjelica," she managed to say.

"Of course," Daphne whispered. "Those who are powerful come to the Realm when they die. Anjelica is not just a dragon, but a dragon marked as a possible Guardian; of course she wouldn't go right to rebirth!"

Anjelica walked further into the room and dozens of dragons followed her. Her eyes glittered fiercely. "I've been here the entire time," she said. "Watching. So, you see, even controlling my sister you never stood a chance, Mother."

Irimara stared at her and saw her hopes and chances crumbling before her eyes. She had been destined to fail from the start. Unable to bear it, she lunged toward Anjelica with her talons bared. Shana stepped into her path halfway there. Irimara couldn't stop in time and impaled herself on the claymore Shana carried. And as she looked in Shana's eyes, she realized she looked into the Heart of Darkness itself.

"Consider this," Shana said quietly, "like putting down a rabid animal."

Irimara slumped over and her body began to dissolve. She would not be reborn. She was of the Realm, and when those of the Realm died again, there would be nothing left.

The entire building disappeared without her power and left the three women standing in the middle of a field full of dragons. Anjelica could only laugh as she watched the dragons swarm the two Defenders and try to be the first to either hug them or thank them. Siobhan took it in stride and started giggling, but Shana looked both unnerved and a bit skittish.

Daphne sat on Anjelica's shoulder and said solemnly, "Introvert problems."

Destruction of Irimara had also permanently removed her other wards, so the rest of the Cultivators caught up in short order. Shanta could only eye Anjelica in consternation. "How did we not know you were here?" she demanded.

Anjelica coughed. "I hid my presence behind Talla's. Twins can do that, you know."

"Does this make the Realm War officially over?" Rachel asked. She picked up a pretty copper dragon sniffing at her boots and got an affectionate bop on the nose from a wing in response. "I know they're not pets," she told Clara, "but I really want to say 'can I keep one'?"

The dragon told her quite seriously, "To be fair, we say that about humans a lot, too."

"The answer is still no," Clara countered dryly.

Shanta and Enaya looked up at the sky and saw the storm clouds parting. They had been there since the start, and their disappearance meant things had truly ended. "Yes," Enaya said on a sigh. "It does mean the war is over. We will have a great deal of work to do in the coming months, but it is truly done. Everyone can now return home to where they belong." In a murmur, she added, "In more ways than one."

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