The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 4

It was evening by the time Rocky got home, and his spirits were higher than usual, even for him. He walked into the kitchen, saw Shana at the stove, and immediately caught her around the waist to swing her into the air. "Gotcha!"

"Yikes!" She threw out her arms for balance. "Don't DO that!" As she was swung around to face him properly, her eyes softened. The peace inside him made everything right in her world. He now knew the same joy of utter completion that she did. "I love you."

He slowly lowered her down to her feet, and their lips met along the way in a lingering kiss. His hands skimmed slowly over her body as if memorizing her. "Forget dinner," he murmured huskily.

His stomach let out a loud rumble, and she grinned. "Your stomach says otherwise." She gave him a hard kiss. "Be good now and I'll let you be bad later." She freed herself from his grip and went back to the sauce on the stove. "Rachel looked to be floating. A sure sign of a happy princess who just met and will probably accept her chosen suitor. He asked her out?"

"I helped." He picked up a piece of garlic toast and bit in happily. "He's just like his brother in many frightening ways. Which, you know, when you look at Clara and Rachel and their similarities just makes so much sense. And Sam and Aldan both say that they've really been more like a father-son pair than brothers, even before their parents died. I smell something that can't be coincidence."

She just smiled. "Hey, no swearing in the house. That 'c' word is off-limits."

"Ha. Good point."

Clara arrived at the house the following afternoon to find Rachel and Shana locked in mortal combat over a card game while Rocky refereed. Bemused, she sat down on the couch to watch. "Who is winning?"

"I've lost track," Rocky admitted. "I'm just enjoying the way they get more creative with the insults. I've learned new words."

Shana snorted at him and put down her cards. Clara's arrival with the Castlera brothers to arrive shortly after meant the game had to be postponed. Rachel helped put things away and then sat next to Clara on the couch. "You are taking this very well that I arrived unexpectedly in the past to events you didn't know happening and now suddenly I'm going out on a date with a man you haven't met."

Clara laughed. "Rachel, why would this bother me? Your reasons for arrival, to be sure, are bothersome only because they are very obviously terribly important—enough so that I am not privy to them." She had suspicions, though, to be sure. "Having you here in any form makes me terribly happy, though, and I would find it quite fitting if you found a soul mate here to take back with you. That might explain a lot."

"How's the suitor list in the future?" Shana asked.

"Eh, it has a few names on it." Rachel cocked her head. "You and Sayena changed the laws so that a Ruler has to actually accept a suitor onto their list. Someone can't just show up and arbitrarily announce themselves. I guess it used to be different?"

"It sure did!" Rocky thumbed through a periodical. "To put it simply, a Ruler Cultivator really had no choice about who was on his or her suitor list. Suitors presented themselves to the queen and king and they decided to add them or not. But we could nix the whole thing by deciding to court someone else, and we wouldn't get a new list until that person rejected us—which, for the record, has not yet happened. Shana and Siobhan had been talking about this recently anyway, so you're not telling us anything new. Skipping right to the Ruler choosing their suitors negates the idea of making a short list to choose from, and ups the odds of finding a soul mate while decreasing stress levels."

"What would you know about the stress levels?" Shana muttered at him. "You put yourself on my list and pretended otherwise."

"If you had just looked at the list," he reminded her reasonably, "you wouldn't have had any concerns either. It's not my fault you're that adorably blind in the way only you Dark sorts can be."

Rachel bit her lip. She had uncovered that story already. "For the record, you also keep the 'force my hand between two suitors if I'm taking too long' thing."

"Well, of course," Shana agreed. "It can be an effective tool if someone is being oblivious—and I am not at all ashamed to say that I'm the one most notorious for that, and it was used on me rather effectively, too!" She pursed her lips. "The majority of the rules still stand as far as we're concerned. Cultivators can only give themselves to their soul mates because of the potential for lovers to trade power, and if they're not already betrothed or engaged, then said soul mate is beholden to marry them. Ruler Cultivators who aren't Duals can't travel alone beyond their kingdom borders without at least one companion, be it a Defender or Caretaker—whichever is applicable—and High Rulers can't travel alone even if they are. I think the only thing we also want to change is that a princess cannot become a queen unless she is at least engaged. Our mothers ruled alone for a while. It was painful for them. And it's very awkward for Siobhan and me right now to be High Queens with High Princes as our betrothed."

Rachel squinted one eye. "I will admit I'm still chewing on that one rule to figure it out. The whole 'if a Cultivator sleeps with someone, they have to marry that person' thing."

Rocky grinned. "It may sound like a strange rule, but it really is for our protection. We have to be willing, and even unconsciously, we're only willing to go that far with our soul mate. Soul mates can be blind or resistant to the idea of forever, but willing to take a physical relationship. A Cultivator—Defender or Ruler or Dual—can use that as a weapon. I had every intention of using it against Shanae, but the 'choose between two' thing made it a nonissue."

"So the fact that I kinda want Aldan's hands all over me is a sign that he's my soul mate?"

Clara bit back a smile. "Very much so. There will come a moment when you know for sure, when you feel yourself fall in love, and it will make everything make sense. Even soul mates get to feel themselves fall in love. It's a wonderful gift." She looked at Rocky and Shana, and her eyes softened. "I've only known two who didn't feel themselves fall in love, but then, they never needed it. They fell in love in Life's garden before they were born."

"And just for the record," Shana warned, "whatever you feel right now is going to exponentially increase once you're both twenty-five. I mean, I had definitely been attracted to Robert from about age nineteen on, but when I saw him at my birthday party after turning twenty-five? Wow." She pressed a hand to her heart. "Talk about going into heat!"

"You should have said something." Rocky nipped at her ear. "I would have happily carried you off for an early wedding night. I could carry you off now if you want."

"Down, boy." The doorbell rang, and Shana smiled. "We have company! I'll get the tea." She got to her feet and headed into the kitchen.

Rachel dashed to the front door and a few moments later came back to the living room with the two males behind her. "Mom and Rocky," she said happily, "meet Sam and Aldan Castlera."

"Sam and I know each other," Rocky said easily. "We're old friends."

"Oh, I forgot about that!" She smiled at Aldan and Sam. "Well, since you both know Rocky," she walked over to Clara, "then I'd like you to just meet my mother, Clara Memoria."

Clara studied Aldan for a moment and then smiled. He had a strangely familiar demeanor and a power that implied he would suit her daughter well. Nothing about him surprised her, really. She shifted her gaze to study his brother, and as her eyes met his, a sudden déjà vu was powerful and dizzying. A wildfire of desire boiled up without warning as if it had been dormant inside. If she let herself, she could envision perfectly how it would feel to be in his arms. She could still taste his kiss. On the heels of those shocking emotions came something more shocking: a suffocating sense of loss. What couldn't she remember?

Sam fought with all his will to stay in one place. One look in her lavender eyes had brought everything rushing back. The love, the desire, the companionship. She was his everything, the only person he loved as much as his prince. He was the mate chosen for the eternal Statice Cultivator, and it was an honor he took very seriously. He had never stopped loving her. Never stopped wanting her. He never would.

The absolute, and visibly strained, silence had Rachel and Aldan slowly looking at each other with lifted brows. They looked at Rocky, and he held a finger against his lips to tell them to keep quiet.

Sam knew the ball was in his court, and he didn't care that Clara did not remember him. They were soul mates. He would simply make her fall in love with him again. He crossed to her slowly with a hand held out, and he drawled softly, "I was under the impression that you would be much older. You shouldn't be old enough to have a near adult for a daughter."

Trying to ignore her scrambling pulse, she got to her feet quickly and found her second shock. He stood taller by half a foot, and it seemed even more significant because had a frame more in line with particularly powerful warrior. She felt . . . safe, all the way to her soul. She placed the back of her hand on his palm to cover her reaction. "I'm old enough," she assured him only. "I'm Clara. It's nice to meet you."

"Sam Castlera." He closed his hand around hers and slowly brought it to his lips. Rather than kiss her fingers, which was intimate enough, he pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist where he could feel her rapid pulse. It was blatantly seductive, and his slow smile promised wicked romance as he asked huskily, "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

No one else present said a word. Shana and Rocky didn't move from the kitchen doorway. Rachel and Aldan gingerly tried to edge back from the scene. Clara couldn't find her voice or her wits, and her eyes had gone wide as she stared at Sam. The feel of his lips on her skin was hauntingly familiar.

For the first time in her life, she wished that time wasn't linear and she could go to the forgotten kingdoms to find out where she knew this familiar stranger from. She was sure she did. But why? Trying desperately to hide her sudden loss of composure, she managed to say, "Do I what?"

His smile softened. "Believe in love at first sight."

"Yes. No!" She shook her head and yanked at her hand. He released her slowly, and her stomach fluttered as she realized that she could not get free unless he was willing. It was a strangely comforting realization, not alarming, and that just made her more disoriented. "I'm flattered at your implications, but I'm far too old for you." He could not be her soul mate! It just could not be possible. She had been so sure she did not have one at all! Why else would she have needed to find Rachel rather than birth her personally?

He just lifted a brow. "Is that supposed to bother me? Are you implying that love has limitations?"

She was smarter than that. She kept her mouth shut. On an exasperated sound, her daughter threw her hands in the air. "Mother! Are you seriously sitting there after everything we just discussed and trying to play off that you don't know what it probably means? You would really dare do that? Don't make me yell at you!"

"You're just like your mother," Rocky told her dryly.

She grinned. "Thank you."

Clara sighed. Rachel was very much her mother's daughter and doing to her what she had done to dozens of friends over the many millions of years she had been alive. Perhaps it just came by nature of being from Statice that one needed to guide and suggest and sometimes, just sometimes, push strongly. "You do realize that our shared work may make things more difficult, or outright different, don't you?"

"What exactly do you do?" Aldan asked curiously. "Rachel was very vague about it."

"It's hard to explain," she said carefully, "but you could say it's time consuming."

Shana bit her lip and then hastily hurried into the kitchen. Rocky grinned as they all heard her start laughing like an idiot, and Aldan lifted a brow at Clara who just smiled. Rachel had to bite back her own giggles as she grabbed Aldan's arm. "Come on. Let's go on our picnic before it gets too hot out." She pulled him over to the door, grabbed the picnic basket waiting there, and then blinked as he opened the door for her. He somehow kept treating her like a member of the royalty without even knowing that she was one! "Oh. Thank you."

Sam studied Clara's face and found her watching him as if he posed a threat to her sanity and safety alike. He knew full well when to push her and when not to, so he turned to his twin and asked, "Are we catching that theatrical or not?"

"Sure are." Rocky grabbed his shoes. "Let's go." He laughed. "Hopefully we won't be late."

"If we are, it's your fault," was the retort.

The door shut behind them, and Clara dropped her head into her hands. Shana sat beside her and gently wrapped her arms around her shoulders. "Scary, isn't it?" she asked her Defender gently.

Clara's laugh sounded low and wry. "That's one way of putting it."

* * * * *

Rachel could barely keep her happiness under wraps as she walked beside Aldan. She felt normal even just a bit, and it was wonderful to be with a man she knew was interested in just her and not her royal connections. He didn't even know she had any! Plus, the lunch smelled decadent; Shana and Juliet had outdone themselves on last minute notice.

"You sure you don't want me to carry that?" Aldan asked as he eyed the large basket. He grinned and held up his hands when she shot him a scathing look. "It's almost as big as you are."

"It is not," she muttered. "And don't make fun of my size!" It was her one bane. Not her height so much as her petite size. She woefully looked down. Her lightweight shirt made it fairly clear she had next to no bust line. She wasn't asking to be built like Shana—she knew her friend had her own issues on that side of the scale—but she would not have minded having breasts more obviously noticeable. There were such pretty things she would have loved to wear if she could just wear them right!

An odd look crossed Aldan's face, and he glanced at her speculatively. The look instantly had her heart beating harder. She had sensed a power inside him, but she hadn't realized it might be similar to her own. Did he have Telepathy too? That would just make it worse! She had no way of hiding how attracted she was to him, and she didn't have a clue what he saw when he looked at her! She was kind of too scared to peek.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose and wondered what idiots had made her doubt her appeal. He had honestly never been into a woman's bust line anyway, even those one or two times he had been barely enough interested to accept a date request. Rachel sure as hell had an appeal all her own, and he liked the delicate frame of her body. Getting intimately acquainted with her slim curves was becoming steadily more important, and her every smile just made his craving for her taste deepen.

It would have been so much easier to handle if it had been only physical. Emotionally, he felt starved. Her smiles and her laughter brought light to his shadowy world, and he just felt as if she needed him in some way. Only he could protect her tender heart from being bruised. Everything. He could be her everything if she would let him.

The widening of her eyes told him that he was thinking too loud. He hastily blocked his thoughts for the moment. He had pegged her as a fellow telepath, and he now suspected she was the stronger of them since he had to make a more concentrated effort to close her out. Not that he would stay out of her mind unless she outright kicked him out. He loved her mind infectious sense of humor.

They had reached a nice clearing in the park, and she asked, "How's this?"

"It looks perfect." He took the blanket and spread it out with a quick snap. He happily sat down as she began to unpack the basket. "I've been smelling that all the way here. Who did you get to spoil us?"

"Shana and our friend Juliet. Juli is a pro! She works at the ranch, but we tell her she needs her own restaurant. She's a goddess in a kitchen." She began to pull out the small containers. "Let's see . . . hmm. I see some classics more in line from Veracity. Probably because of you."

As he watched her pull out familiar dishes, he said dryly, "At least they didn't give us anything to induce bad breath else we have to sit ten feet apart."

She bit her lip, thought about the ramifications of that statement, and decided to be honest even if she was reading too much into his words. "I don't know how to kiss."

He froze in the process of opening a flavored bubbly water. Very carefully, he put the bottle aside. "You've never been kissed," he asked slowly, "or you just don't think you're any good at it?"

She hunched her shoulders and wished she had never opened her mouth. "More the former than the latter. My mother is, uhm, kind of in a position of power from where we live. I've had some people be interested in me, but really only because of what I'll inherit as her daughter. No one has really wanted me."

"Not even one date?" he asked incredulously.

"Not until now." The pink on her cheeks deepened. Even for a Ruler Cultivator, that tended to be a bit unusual. Most experimented with a mild thrill here or there at least as far as a kiss. It usually helped set a benchmark for the real thing. She just hadn't felt a need, and Shanae had assured her that was perfectly acceptable. "Dating is very different from where I live, I guess you could say. It has other ramifications. I just didn't really feel a need to bother with it when I just didn't like anyone enough to even contemplate a basic kiss." She carefully didn't look at him as she reached for a water. "I just wanted to warn you that bad breath is probably the least of your concerns if you decide to kiss me, which I wouldn't mind if you wanted to do. I just felt it fair to get that in the air and not have it be a question."

His hand closed gently around her wrist. His touch seemed to burn through her skin and stir painful longings that radiated from her soul almost as deeply as her body and heart. Her head turned quickly, and she found herself sinking into his turbulent green eyes. They swirled with shadowy promises and emotions that were everything she had ever wanted. A tender smile curved his lips, and his gaze swept over her face as if memorizing it. He slowly brought her wrist to his lips and stayed there for a moment. A wrenching deep inside made her lips tremble as she felt the fall happen, felt her emotional need for this one person outweigh every other concern. He really was her soul mate. Even with another year to go to be sure, she just . . . knew.

His eyes lifted quickly, and there was both hope and shock inside them. Deciding to deliberately test him, she lifted her chin slightly. I want you to kiss me. The words quivered even mentally, belying her nerves and hunger alike. She might well die if she didn't know his kiss sooner rather than later. His grip shifted to begin tugging her closer, and her lips quivered. "You can read my mind," she whispered huskily.

"I've been waiting for you," he whispered against her lips, and then he tugged her even closer and took the kiss he had been craving since the moment he had looked into her brown eyes and known he had found the only woman he would ever love.

The detonation was silent and swift. The hunger rose so swiftly that it staggered them both. She would have retreated in surprise, but his hands tangled in her hair and he kept her close. Don't be afraid, his husky voice whispered through her mind. His accent made the words a caress. This is perfect.

With a little sigh, she surrendered and let him deepen the kiss. She couldn't have gotten free even if she had wanted. In fact, when he lifted his head a long moment later, she had to fight an urge to drag him right back down for another kiss. And then maybe a third. Or maybe he could just not stop kissing her at all. "Wow," she breathed against his lips. "And this is going to get stronger?"

He ached from head to toe and only the fact that they were outdoors where anyone could find them made him find the strength to slowly release her. That 'not stop kissing' her thing was highly appealing. Damn it, he would at least try to be polite and not seduce her the very day after they had met. They could wait a week, at the least. Maybe. "Can you put the picnic basket between us, please?"

She blinked slumberous and frustratingly sexy eyes at him before realizing the problem and carefully edging back to put the basket between them. "Sorry."

"Don't be." He blew out a long breath. "If that's what you do to me when you don't know how to kiss, I'm not going to survive when you do." He grabbed his water and opened it quickly. "Distract me. Fast."

It was a strange sensation to feel utterly frustrated and yet thoroughly happy. A week? They wouldn't make it another two days at that rate. She would need to tell him about certain laws, and very soon! She picked up a bubbly water of her own with a wry smile. "How long have you been telepathic?"

"My entire life. You?"

"Same. I'm also telekinetic." She opened her bottle merely by staring at it and then glanced at the basket where a piece of roasted meat obligingly floated over to her hand. "They're technically my secondary skills since my primary skill is much more powerful."

"What's the primary?"

"We call it Sight. All Sight, to be specific. To put it in the most basic terms, it means I can see events happening across all time frames of past, present, and even future."

"That's appropriate. I can see things happening in the current time even if I'm not there to witness them personally. Sam calls it Present Sight." His brows lifted as she stared at him. "That's almost the exact same look my brother gave me when I told him about my gift. I know that it's extremely rare, but . . ."

"Aldan, it's nearly nonexistent." She slowly shook her head. "Sight is a gift that is literally only given to a handful of people. Some others have really good instincts and sensitivity to the flow of events, but they don't have actual Sight. There's only two possible reasons or ways for you to have Sight, and I'm positive one of them doesn't apply, so it has to be the other and some sort of byproduct to another gift you have that is of critical importance. You've been blessed by the Guardian of Destiny."

Aldan frowned at her. She should have sounded ridiculous saying things like that, but they ran very closely with things his brother said and believed. "To be honest, I don't really know the extent of all my gifts. Sam has gifts of his own, very different ones, but he's tried to help me where he can. I guess there is something I'm missing? A trigger, maybe is the word. Until we figure it out, I just label myself as being telepathic and able to see events nowhere near me."

The trigger might well be herself, in fact. She had not yet Activated, so obviously her Caretaker did not need everything he could do. She actually could not wholly peg his Flower Element either. It wouldn't be Memory, but it might be Time, like Sam.

Time was a secondary element, which meant it had been born of a whole Flower Element—Memory in this case—and while it acted similar, it had a much smaller scope. Only Clara and Rachel had the Memory Flower Element, and it and Time alike allowed for time-space related abilities. Paralyzing of enemies, creating portal gateways, and the like. The former ability fell under Defender category, and the latter under Ruler. Caretakers would get one skill from either Ruler or Defender tree related to whatever need their Cultivator had of them.

She studied the shadows moving in Aldan's eyes, and began to wonder if maybe that element might not be his own. Another derivative, and one even more rare. It might make sense of a lot, though the why still eluded. "I like you as you are," she settled for saying with a smile. "And whatever you might become."

Unable to help himself, he reached out to rub his thumb over her lips. They were still swollen from his. "When I saw you, I knew you were the one I'd been looking for."

"I didn't expect to find you," she admitted softly, her lips tingling as they brushed against his thumb. "Though maybe I rationally should have, with how obvious my need to be here was. Maybe I'm here to meet you." Her lips curved. "Maybe I'm here to help your almost-father and my mother get together."

His grin came wickedly. "Two for the price of one."

"That's just scary!" When he laughed at her, she made a playful swipe for him. He dodged with casual grace, and she automatically tried to pounce on him. The playful wrestling had been a part of her life for as long as she remembered, and it never occurred to her not to include him. He belonged in her life.

To her utter shock, she blinked and found herself flat on her back with him pinning her down. She hadn't even seen him move! "Whoa! I thought I was fast but you're twice my speed!" It had been fast enough that she hadn't even gotten disoriented, and it slowly dawned on her that her wrists were caught in one of his in an unbreakable grip. It made a curiously safe feeling. She didn't feel captured as much as she did securely protected.

"I'm surprised that I am. You're ridiculously fast yourself! If I didn't have sharp reflexes, you'd have easily taken me down." She was also amazingly strong for her size, and it helped him feel better to know that she could protect herself in most situations. It was just her heart that needed defense! Somehow he just knew she needed him to help hold her soul together.

"I've mastered several styles of physical combat." She flexed her hands but his grip didn't waver. Content, she let herself relax and savor how it felt to be held by him. "I'm strong, but not as strong as other people my size. To make up for it, I'm faster. If you weren't just as well trained, I'd have taken you down without a problem."

"Lucky for my training then." His green eyes turned smoky with male hunger as he looked her over slowly. "You know," he drawled huskily, "you've known some first class idiots in your life. Only a moron would think of position or power when they had you at their side."

"What do you think of?" she asked softly.

His lips curved. "Read my mind and find out."

"I think I better not. It might make me blush." Her lips were curving too. "I'm happy, Al," she said softly. "I've never been this happy. There's something about you that just makes my world right."

Unable to resist any longer, he bent his head to kiss her. Just as their lips were a breath apart, they heard a loud scream from not far away. He jerked to the side and rolled to his feet automatically. "What was that?"

She flipped nimbly to her feet with an expression on her face that he had never seen before but instinctively recognized. Before he could stop her, she was running off through the trees toward the source of the scream. He instinctively gave chase. Something inside, that unknown something he had spoken of, refused to let her enter danger alone. Keeping her safe would be a lifetime commitment, of that he felt sure!

People in the center of the park ran in manic directions from sheer terror as a man unfortunately familiar to Rachel threw out random blasts of evil magic at anyone he could reach. "Where are your champions?" Andromedian crowed. "Come out, Defenders! Prove your worth! The blood of the innocent will be on your hands if you don't!" He spied Rachel and Aldan, and while he did not recognize the former child, he did at least see a seemingly easy target. "You first!" he shouted.

Rachel didn't get a chance to dodge free. Aldan sharply shoved her to the side to safety, and he took the full brunt of the blast in the dead center of his chest. It sent him flying across the cement until he finally rolled to a stop. Blood began to stain the ground under his head, and it spread rapidly from the gaping wound visible through his burnt shirt.

She scrambled to his side and gave him a shake. "Aldan! Aldan!" There was no response, and fury welled up inside her so hotly that it made the air quiver around her. For a moment, the Flower Mark of Statice appeared on her arm and chest alike, and then they disappeared. She shot to her feet and grabbed the hourglass she wore on a chain around her neck. "Statice! I invoke your power as your Daughter! Give me what I need to defend my mate!"

The hourglass grew too hot to handle and she hastily let go. As she stared at her burned palms, a shimmer of pink and lavender magic moved across their surface. It grew and lengthened and then formed into a long staff with a loop at the end. Her heart tripped over itself as she saw the light engravings of statice blossoms across the surface of the metal.

She heard a step and swung around with narrowed eyes. A blinking beam of Memory magic shot from the end of the staff and smashed into Andromedian's chest so hard that he went head over heels across the ground not unlike Aldan. Also like the other man, he did not regain his feet quickly.

Rachel released the staff back to its holding place inside her magic and knelt beside Aldan. "Al?" She eased him into her arms and winced. Even his face had gotten scraped fairly bad. They would need either Kellie or Siobhan to come put him back together. She felt him stir, and her arms tightened briefly. A Caretaker. She was beginning to see that having one might be as frustrating as wonderful.

A sound made her look over sharply, and she saw Andromedian staggering to his feet. Her eyes narrowed sharply. "Don't come any closer," she warned.

His eyes narrowed back. "What are you? Are you a Defender?"

"Not yet I'm not."

The warning hovered unspoken that she soon would be one. Andromedian looked at her even closer, and it finally occurred to him that she looked quite familiar. His eyes lowered to see the hourglass, and then widened. "You! You're that misbegotten child!" He did not ask how she had aged so fast; her very possession of the Flower Element of Memory made it clear. "Tch. This is where your journey ends, brat. Hold still and this won't hurt!"

She tensed, intending to grab her staff again, but then spotted darkness moving in behind Andromedian. She smiled. "I could say the same of you."

He stifled a squeal of sheer terror as he inexplicably felt the darkness closing in. He scrambled forward as fast as he could, and he felt a sword blade hack through the cloak he wore. He knew it had been a deliberate miss by the way she so carefully nipped near his neck without touching him personally. He jerked around once clear and found the Protea Defender negligently propping her claymore on her shoulder. "You! Come here alone?"

"Oh, do you really think anyone would let me?" Shana countered politely. Her pink eyes darkened warningly toward black. Only those of the purest Light or Dark cores had eyes that could change color. Siobhan and Rocky went white; Shana and Edgar went black. And as the two Proteans had immensely long tempers, seeing either start toward black was a sign of truly significant danger. "Or that maybe she's equally beloved to all of us, and if you mess with one, you get all?"

His head whipped around and he watched as several other Defenders smoothly stepped forward. Carnation, Hyacinth, Aster, Statice, and Delphinium. The latter two were already running to Rachel and Aldan. "Ugh. I'm not in the mood to deal with you right now. Unlike Famine, I'm not interested in just rushing in blindly. We'll meet again." He turned around and disappeared mid-step.

"Oh, shit," Virginia muttered. Her gold eyes had narrowed behind her Mask. "That reference to Famine does not bode well. He may have been one of her worshippers in a past life. That might actually be why he hates us so much. Sure as hell makes more sense than what he first spouted! We need a full meeting as soon as possible." She sighed and walked over to where Siobhan competently healed Aldan. "How is he?"

"The idiot jumped in front of me!" Rachel almost shouted. "Like he had a right to!"

"Of course I have a right to," came Aldan's soft voice. His eyes didn't open but his lips curved. "I love you and you're going to have to deal with it." He sighed. "Tell me someone has pain killer."

"Hang on there," Siobhan said, trying her best not to giggle. "Bleeding is more critical than pain. Let me get that stopped and then I'll close things up and ease the pain." In healing him, she could more clearly feel the deep potential inside him, as well as identify what Flower Element he held. She glanced up at Shana and Clara and mouthed Shadow.

Like Time to Memory, Shadow acted as a derivative of Chaos—which, like Light and Dark until Siobhan and Shana, had never been controlled as an actual element. The fight with Mania had certainly proven why. One need to possess a core both Light and Dark to even dare consider having Chaos. Shadow did not require such a thing; it merely needed either a Light or Dark core that had fragments of the other. It was still a limited element, to be certain.

Clara knew of only a single planet in existence, in another galaxy, that held Shadow as its Flower Element and therefore that was what its Rulers had. She had never met anyone else with it. She did not think Aldan was of that lineage, not when Sam certainly wasn't, but it likely related to why he had Sight and what role he had to fill.

Rachel gently put Aldan down and then got to her feet to move a few steps away. She inclined her head slightly and both Shana and Clara moved over to join her. "Okay," she said softly, "is it normal to find a weapon before Activating?"

"Hmm." Shana pursed her lips. "That is actually hard to say, you know? You're a rare one in that you were frozen to begin with and are thawing out so you can actually be Activated. So we can't necessarily say what you're doing is odd compared to normal because, frankly, you are odd compared to normal. I think we have to trust that as long as you're not being hurt, you're doing what you need to do. What did you do?"

"I invoked Statice as her Daughter and asked for what I needed to defend my mate. I ended up with this." She did not dare call the staff with Aldan now conscious—they could discuss the particulars later when he was healthy—so instead put the image of the staff right into Shana and Clara's minds. Both had naturally strong shields, but their trust with her made her able to go past them with ease.

Clara's eyes widened visibly behind her Mask. "That . . . that belonged to my aunt. The Memory Ankh. I thought it lost for all time."

"Aunt?" Shana echoed.

"Ankh?" Rachel asked.

Clara shook her head. "An ankh is a symbol of the gods that represents eternal life. Many members of the Faith used it as well. Moira, the twin sister to Horatio, my father, possessed one called the Memory Ankh. It represented her duty to fight for Time in the way the hourglass has always represented my father and myself and our duty to protect Time. When they both decided to ascend with the rest of the gods, I just . . . assumed that there was no need for someone to fight for Time when I was there to defend it."

"What's the difference?" Rachel wondered.

Shana cocked her head. "An active versus a passive role. Clara responds when events happen. To fight versus defend means to make events happen. Maybe that explains why you've been connected to two Pivots. And why you possess offensive magic versus defensive." She looked at Clara. "You may want to do some digging. Figure out how Rachel fits into the overall scheme. I don't think it's a mere happenstance that you two should look alike without being related, or that she just happens to have been blessed with the Ankh."

Clara nodded. "To be certain. I will start my look very soon." She smiled at Rachel. "I never asked. How did you feel when the future High Princesses were born?"

"It was . . ." Her voice hushed. "It was amazing. I don't really know what happened to me. I just . . . knew they needed me. That I had to protect them no matter what. What was that? It wasn't like anything else I've felt, but it still felt familiar somehow."

Clara looked at Shana, and her eyes softened. "There are many words for what happens when a Defender Cultivator meets a High Princess, but I think the simplest word is the biggest."

"Love," Shana said simply.

Rachel spotted movement from the corner of her eye and saw Aldan getting to his feet. He was moving with the same lethal grace that had seduced her from the beginning. She gave a low cry and rushed over to throw her arms around him. "I just found you!" she said against his shoulder. "You can't do that again!"

"The mate of a Cultivator," Shana murmured very low.

"No Cultivator chooses an inferior mate," was the counter murmur from Alexandria as she joined them. She smiled. "Because there's always still some aspect of choice, even in a life ruled by Destiny. Maybe we just pick them before birth."

The others joined them as well to give Rachel and Aldan a moment, and Siobhan admitted solemnly, "I've always imagined us as little seedlings before birth and we sit there on Destiny's knee and tell her everything we want or need in a mate, and then she obliges. I'm allowed to be that fanciful, right?"

Shana grinned. "I kind of like it."

Aldan didn't notice the conversation. He was too busy holding Rachel and reassuring himself that she was alright. When he finally managed to let her go, his gaze flickered over to Clara. Though Masks obscured all identities rather effectively, it took no effort for him to begin to connect the right dots. It was an effort aided by the fact that one of the Cultivators actually had rather flimsy mental shields he had unintentionally gotten through without actually trying to do so.

At the least, he could now understand why Clara Memoria's job was so time consuming.

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