She had never laughed so much in her life. Clara was still smiling as they headed back toward the carriage from the festival. Sam had a competitive streak a mile wide, and he had insisted on trying every game available. Her collection of tacky souvenirs and genuinely cute objects now sat at epic proportions, so she had bought a big bag to carry them all. She would probably just give them to her friends if she couldn't find space to keep them. The giant inflatable mallet that squeaked when it hit things, though, would be saved for her roommates.
They had also ridden all of the rides, and few of the more death-defying ones had made her grab onto her date for dear life; he hadn't seemed to mind. The nice, quiet, ride through an artificial tunnel made to look like space had been her favorite, though. She had glanced at Sam to see if he liked it, only to find him watching her instead with that intense focus of his that meant he wanted nothing else other than her. He had nearly kissed her, and she had been more than willing to accept, but the ride had ended shortly. Thankfully for her blood pressure.
She had never enjoyed a day more. She also thought she more fully understood for the first time why Shana loved her normal life so much. She, too, wouldn't have minded living every day like that. No combat. No royal pressure. Just her and the man she loved. And, that, finally, she knew for fact. She even thought she also knew when it happened, just as Shana had decreed. Yet . . . it didn't feel as much like a fall as a continuation. His every smile seemed to have been permanently imprinted on her soul long before. And truly, she did not care for when it had happened. It had. She just knew she loved him. This wild, unpredictable man who could remind her she was alive. "Thank you," she said softly.
He tugged her into his arms, and she went willingly. Her nerves had nearly entirely faded. "You're welcome," he said just as softly, taking it as seriously as he knew it had been meant. "You strike me as a woman who simply hasn't had enough laughter or fun in her life." He kissed the tip of her nose. "Friends?"
She smiled. "You know, I think we are." She lightly looped her arms around his waist. "Once you stop being so frightening, you're very easy to like, Samuel. I don't want to be afraid of you, or how you feel, or how I feel. I don't think I'm quite so afraid to try for a relationship. As complicated as it may be. There are things I need to tell you. We had better find a quiet place to sit down and talk seriously."
"I don't think it'll be as bad as you seem to believe." He bent his head to kiss her when he felt the familiar sensation of danger. It manifested as a stabbing sensation across his soul. He hadn't felt it in millennia, but he remembered the feeling. The early warning detection system had been built into all Caretakers to alert them if their Cultivator was in danger, and it started occurring almost as soon as feelings were even acknowledged let alone acted upon. The more powerful the pain of the alert, the more danger. It only went back the other direction if the Cultivator happened to be a Defender. Ruler Cultivators could not sense their Caretaker in danger, which had been nearly deadly more than once.
Clara, being a Dual Cultivator, felt a similar sensation and froze. She had very nearly forgotten that there was, in fact, a dangerous enemy still lurking around. One that had a particular hate for her because she and her daughter had been the most defiant. She had intended to tell Sam everything, but not like this!
"Whatever happens," Sam warned her in a low voice, "know that I will never let anything hurt you." His hands tightened on her shoulders and then he yanked her flat to the ground as he dropped. The first shot of evil magic missed them entirely, and he kept Clara low as he rose to a kneeling position. "Your aim is lousy," he taunted.
Clara lifted her head and spied Andromedian nearby with a fresh horde of lesser monsters. Orchid had held an old adage about how water dripping on stone could be more effective than a flood, and she could see now that Andromedian subscribed to a similar method. He had no need to rush in and try to overpower them. He would just lull them into false security and wear them down slowly. She felt like kicking herself for dropping her guard.
Andromedian sneered at them both. "You think you can do anything to stop me like that?" He looked at Sam with a lingering hate that seemed almost out of place. Almost as if he knew the other man was a Caretaker. "You're as useless as she is."
Sam shot to his feet with blinding speed and was across the space before even Clara could blink. His first punch plowed into Andromedian's stomach with such force that the other man coughed out blood. "I wouldn't call myself useless," Sam warned. "Destiny herself chose me for a special duty that meant I had to be stronger."
Clara's eyes went wide as the words echoed and doubled inside her mind. She had heard them before. Five thousand years before. She desperately reached out, and this time she saw something. Herself, in Mask and armor, protecting a young Robert. He looked roughly twenty or so. Standing in front of them both was a man with gray hair, wearing a gold and white uniform that meant he had gone as high within the ranks of the Royal Knights of Delphinium as one could go. He held a long sword with casual confidence in one hand.
She blinked and came back to herself to discover only a second had passed. Her heart beat wildly. He had been there. Sam had been in the Royal Era before the fall of the kingdoms! She did not yet know why or how, but she could at least be reassured that she had not mistaken his familiarity. She also now deeply suspected he knew more than she thought, and therefore she felt safe in donning her Mask. She got to her feet and pulled out her bracelet with its two Masks that she had wisely stashed in a pocket. "Andromedian," she said coolly, "haven't you heard that no Cultivator, especially a Defender, chooses an inferior mate?"
Andromedian staggered back from Sam as blood trickled down his lip. "You're not the same as your partners," he spat at the other man. "They're far more defenseless. And you may empower the Statice Cultivator, but she is not the strongest of her team. I will break down the others one piece at a time! I will erode all of you away!"
Sam held up a hand where Time magic swirled. Andromedian braced himself, but no attack launched from the hand with the magic. Instead, magic suddenly blasted him from behind and paralyzed him. Only his head could move, and he looked around sharply only to discover Sam had opened two time-space portals. One next to a now-armored Clara, and another just behind Andromedian. Clara had fired her magic through one and out the other for the stealth attack.
On a surge of evil power, Andromedian broke the paralysis and lunged for Sam with a sword as his monsters went after Clara. Blasts of raw Light magic began to rain down on the field and evaporate the monsters they touched. Metal magic surged around Sam's hand and then solidified into a sword just in time for him to swing it up and block the attack at his head. He violently shoved Andromedian back several feet and then went on the attack personally.
A bit too late, Andromedian realized that Sam's skill rivaled the best among the Defenders. Andromedian had to scramble to block and counter and finally nipped off a quick blast that, while not accurate enough to do damage, still managed to pause Sam long enough for him to get further away. He saw that Siobhan had effectively erased the field with her potent magic attacks, and Kellie stood aligned with Clara, ready to provide additional defenses.
"We'll meet again!" Andromedian pressed a hand to his throbbing gut and disappeared from the scene. Perhaps it was best he remove future threats before they became a threat. He would remove all Defenders from existence. No one needed them!
Sam lowered the sword, studied it, and then turned to smile wryly at Kellie. Metal Flower Element Rulers had the ability to make weapons, so it could have only come from her magic. "Good guess."
"No guess," she countered wryly. "Delphinium told me what to make, almost as if she knew for sure."
Siobhan coughed hard. "Uhm, so we're just going to be, er, heading back now. Uh, Statice, come meet up with us tomorrow, okay, at the normal place? We really have to all talk." She grabbed Kellie's arm and hustled away from the scene, dragging the slightly taller Defender in her wake.
Clara sighed at them both. "She always thinks we can't tell when she and her brother are trying to hide things." She turned toward Sam and found he had come up on silent feet. She said nothing as he reached out and removed her Mask to send away her armor. His ability to handle the Mask without being given a nasty shock only underscored what she had already seen and begun to understand. Only Caretakers could touch any Defender's Mask for they had been chosen to be the closest of allies to all of them, not just the one they lived to support. "Sam?"
He touched the Mask to her bracelet where it shrank down and reattached alongside her communications mask. All Defenders wore both in some form or another, be it a necklace, bracelet, or earrings. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I should have said something from the beginning, but . . . I guess I was being selfish. Wanting to make you fall in love with me again. To see that moment when you realize you love me . . . it makes you so beautiful." He skimmed a knuckle down her cheek tenderly. "I've looked for you my entire life," he said intensely, the frustration of those lonely years straining his voice. "My whole life I was searching for you. Searching for the woman I'd loved for more than five thousand years. I don't know why you don't remember, but it's been destroying me."
She took a careful breath around the tightness in her chest. "We were lovers before the fall of the kingdoms. The more I've been around you, the more sure of that I became. And just now I saw the past. Saw you. Protecting me as I protected someone else." She searched his eyes. Those wonderful, familiar eyes. "Who were you?" she whispered.
"My name was Sabin Fitzgerald." The words were calm. "I served as Lead Commander over the full team of eight that protected High Prince Evan Protea and High Prince Robert Delphinium. I and my three partners specifically were assigned to Robert. And all of us Commanders, except one, turned out to be the Caretakers and soul mates to the Dual Cultivators of the princes' generation. But me . . . I have always considered myself one of two truly blessed among all Caretakers for not only did I have you as my lover soul mate, but I am also the twin soul mate to my prince."
She pulled away and turned around as she struggled to accept what he had said. She believed him. She had to. She had seen the fierce emotion between him and Rocky and had already identified it as that wonderful, powerful, twin bond that also existed between Sherry and Siobhan or Shana and Alexandria. She also knew which Commander had not been a Caretaker: Vermillion Chance, he who had betrayed them all by joining to Nemesis only to find salvation in the end by sacrificing himself for his prince.
Shana had even referenced the eight Commanders during the revelation of the betrayal, had said they were not yet important so no one remembered them—and Clara had honestly not noticed that she herself had also had her memories tampered with. She had remembered Vermillion, and seven shadowy figures of the others, and had just assumed they were memories she had naturally let go of because of their lack of immediate importance. Now she faced the truth that someone had actually blocked the memories from her entirely. It felt bitterly unfair. How could she remember everything she wanted except this man? This man who was so critical to her existence . . .
He hands settled lightly on her shoulders. He leaned down and his warm breath brushed over her skin as he whispered, "It took me a long time, Claret, but I'm here now. You won't be alone ever again."
Whatever had stopped her from accessing the memories she desired came down with an abrupt surge. She could nearly see books falling onto the floor of the Hall as memories and emotions battered her from all sides. She remembered the appointment of the Commanders, aged just twenty-one, and how half of them had shortly been eyeing a Crown Princess while the other half got eyed in return. Not Vermillion, though. No, the Caretaker and soul mate to the Hyacinth Dual Cultivator had been Robert's companion-at-arms, a boy too young to be appointed Commander but so deeply driven to protect his prince that he had applied anyway.
She could remember being intrigued by Sabin but not really realizing that that very interest had been the first sign. Over four years they had built a deep friendship, and he had made it very clear to her that he expected to be her Caretaker. She had adamantly denied it with the same excuse as now: she hadn't believed she would have one. Only weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, he had gone looking for her anew and he had so very, very enjoyably for them both proven her wrong. Those laws? They had applied to even her, and she had sheepishly but willingly accepted him as first her betrothed and then shortly her husband.
She finally remembered it all. The dizzying and wonderful feeling of falling in love, and the passion and joy he had brought to her. She remembered eloping to a secret location for a ceremony just for them, and the unstoppable wonder of the moment they had put wedding bands around each other's wrists, made from the chrome tourmaline only Statice had produced. And she remembered . . . the pure, blinding pain she had experienced when he had shoved her through a portal to safety, and then had stayed behind to ensure she survived even if he fell. His death had torn open holes inside her soul she now felt anew as if they had never healed. "Sabin . . ." Tears streamed down her cheeks without stop.
She whirled and threw her arms around him wildly, suddenly terrified to let go. He held her just as fiercely and lifted her off her feet as he buried his face in her hair. She was sobbing now, the tears ripping out of her as the delay in thousands of years' worth of pain and grief finally caught up. He just held her and let her cry it out. That, he knew then, was why she had been forced to forget. To spare her the pain of waiting for his return. She remembered only now that they were together and she could heal at last.
When the sobs eased and she took a few deep breaths for composure, he slowly let her go enough that she could look up at him. His control crumbled entirely as he saw the luminous love in her eyes shining at him. He lowered his head and kissed her deeply, reminding her in another way, reminding himself, that they were both alive and together once more.
He slowly released her, and she wondered how she had lived without him for so long. Without the emotion he brought to her. Without his slow, devil-may-care smile that was her secret ticket to a life of love and laughter. "I love you," she said huskily. "You got your wish, Samuel. I fell in love with you again the moment I saw you. How could I have not?"
"No wonder you looked so beautiful to me then," he said just as huskily. "I thought maybe it was just because I had only seen you in my dreams and memories. But maybe . . . it was because I knew, inside, that I wasn't just making a line. Love at first sight. It can happen for soul mates, especially reunited ones."
She caught his face in her hands and smiled. "Marry me again, Sam. Someday, be my king once more—if we rule for any time before Rachel and Aldan are ready to ascend instead. Be a father to my daughter." She laughed softly. "No wonder. Maybe that's why she was so familiar to me. She's a lot like me but . . . there are little pieces of you inside her as well."
"Shall I take your name, my queen?" he teased her.
She thought about it very seriously. In a marriage, one half of the couple took the other's name most of the time. Other times they either kept them the same, or just made a new one together. Tradition said that the one with the higher status kept theirs and the other took it on. Legitimately, that meant he should take her name. Or, at least, he should take her Ruler last name of Statice. "I'm not using my real last name and status right now," she mused. "Clara Memoria is a rather low-key sort, though talented at law and a certain sort of science. Samuel Castlera, however, is a rather well-known model in Vericity."
Hot red flooded his face. "You weren't supposed to know that yet," he muttered.
"Shana ratted you out, I'm afraid. She's planning her attack to make you do shoots with her." She bit back a laugh at how flustered he looked. He had always been aware of his own appeal, yet strangely unsure of how to handle flattery. "Since, in this current life, you have more status, I shall take your family name for now. And then, when the kingdoms rise anew, and we take our old names, you may have mine."
He smiled and lowered his head to touch hers. "It's a deal. Can we go get married right now?"
"Are you kidnapping me even if I want to wait?"
"I could, if you would like."
"I just feel it only fair that sometimes we live up to expectations."
"In that case, consider yourself kidnapped. Tomorrow we'll go to that meet up and get everyone on the same page. Today and tonight are just for us."
* * * * *
Rocky had a tendency to hog their king sized bed, so Shana had developed the habit of sleeping on top of him. She didn't mind. He made an incredibly comfortable mattress since his combination of softness and strength meant her curvy yet very muscular frame could conform to him without awkward squishing. His heartbeat also made the best sort of sound conditioner in creation since it always carried the exact same beat as her own.
Unfortunately, it could not drown out the sound of her PPS chiming at two in the morning. A familiar chime, at the least. She blindly groped for the nightstand where the phone sat. As she pulled it to her ear, she already knew who was on the other side of the line. "You're damn lucky that you're critical to the existence of the man I love!" she snarled.
There was a pause. "Hi, honey." Sam's voice sounded amused and chagrined all at the same time. "Don't shoot me with an arrow. I come bearing good news."
She slid off Rocky's chest and sat up. On a yawn, she raked a hand through her hair. The thin and fine strands rarely ever tangled, but they could certainly get a little messy. She had always been grateful to not be Delphinian for that one; as much as she loved playing with Rocky or Siobhan's hair, she sure did not want it for herself. "Congratulations. Go forth and prosper—or don't 'cause you technically have two kids, and one already is the next Ruler Cultivator of Statice."
"She scares me when she does that," he told Clara as he handed over the phone.
She just shook her head. "Hello, Shana."
"Hi, Clara." Shana patted away another yawn as she studied her fiancé. He had rolled over onto his side and snuggling up against him looked tempting.
Clara thought of all the things she could say that would summarize how she felt. She was sitting in a lovely hotel room with her new husband, and despite the danger in the world, her world felt finally perfect. She also knew full well that Shana had been a powerful driving force for her to be in that position. So, finally, all she could say was, "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Enjoy your wedding night; they're kind of fun. We'll see you later today at the meeting." She closed the phone and laid down once more. As she did, Rocky's arms went around her even in his sleep. Content, she cuddled in. She was beyond happy that Clara would finally know again the peace of resting in arms of her soul mate. There was no better place for a Defender Cultivator than in the arms of their lover.
Clara closed the phone softly on her end and considered her princess' words. "I always wondered about that," she murmured. "I didn't get to see a lot of the end of the kingdoms. Pallas had retreated me against my will, and I was in terrible shape for a long while. I had to access the records of my Hall in order to get the knowledge I needed. I only went with the most important facts, the literal final moments, should I need to know to help my queens. But Shana and Rocky . . . the moment I saw them together again in this life, I saw a sort of cementing between them that hadn't been there before."
"But that you now realize what it is because it's inside us as well, carried over from my last life. That cementing that can only come from a spiritual marriage. Back then, we just happened to have it happen at the same time as the legal one. They split the two events." Sam linked his hands behind his head as he leaned against the headboard of their bed. He wore a sheet thrown across his lap but nothing else. He had never been very modest, which tended to make modeling far more comfortable for all involved. In fact, modesty as a whole tended to be rather rare, so got respected when it was found. "Tomorrow we deal with other lack of memories, I suppose."
"We do." She let out a little breath. "There will be much pain for the other Cultivators soon as they feel the holes inside their souls anew." She closed her eyes. "I wish Shana could steal time like this for herself. To just pretend the world is perfect."
He tugged her into his arms and held her comfortingly. "You'd give her all the time in the universe if you could."
"I'd give her anything." She pressed her face to his shoulder and let herself accept the joy and ease he brought to her heart and soul. "But the one thing she truly wants, I cannot give. If she has peaceful, normal days, they're well beyond what I know of the Resurrection Era. It breaks my heart."
"Rocky will find a way." He knew it for sure.
"Naturally." In the way she so often did because of what she was, she pushed thoughts of the past and future to her subconscious and focused on the now. "She told me to enjoy my wedding night, by the way."
"Did she?" He quirked one of his brows in the way he had that she loved and then he gave her a slow and wicked smile. "Well, why should we ignore an order from our queen?"
"My thoughts precisely."
* * * * *
The 'usual' place for a meeting involving all Cultivators tended to be Shana and Rocky's apartment since it was the larger of the two places owned by either High couple. Shana, as was her way, got up first in the place and got breakfast started while her lover eventually roused. Hiding a little smile, she went to bang on Rachel's door. "You're in this meeting too, you know," she called. "And make Aldan come with you."
A pause, and then a giggle answered her. "Yes ma'am," Aldan countered wryly through the door.
"As if I didn't know," she snorted softly as she returned to the kitchen. "Hard to miss a Shadow element trying to sneak into your territory, especially when he doesn't know how to use said element yet to hide himself." And even then, he might not be able to hide himself from either her or Siobhan since he was not True Shadow and instead more like a Light Shadow.
She made plenty of food, and Juliet showed up soon after, lugging additional food and beverage to help fuel everyone. Others began trickling in short order, and the initial start of the meeting felt as much like a morning after a sleepover as it did an actual meeting. Clara and Sam showed up last, and they walked in the door only to have confetti dumped on them by a guiltless Alexandria and Virginia.
Clara blinked glitter off her lashes and then looked at the mess around hers and her husband's feet. She then looked at Shana. "You let them do that."
"They promised to do the cleanup, so I figured it worth the cost." She grinned. "At least I was nice and didn't have the camera ready to take photos."
Virginia hopped down off the ladder she had been standing on with a grin of her own. "I just felt that since this was so long overdue, it needed a little extra celebration! And Lex, being Lex, was of course willing to help."
Siobhan giggled from where she sat on the couch beside Edgar. "Let us enjoy your happiness, Clara! At least you and Sam get out of the ceremony for Rulers, and really get to avoid the big one for us High Queens."
"Thank goodness for small favors," Sam groused.
Shana smirked at him. "Sorry, friend, but you're not escaping entirely. Lead Commander is a fairly big role to begin with, and you're my betrothed's twin soul. You're going to not just attend but be in the ceremony."
Sam would have retorted, but he kept his mouth shut as he saw the seven Defender Cultivators without intact memories now staring intently at Shana. Not unexpectedly, Virginia spoke up first. "Shana? What don't we know that we should? Is this connected to the memories you once said were not important?" Her eyes narrowed. "They seemed to be becoming more important now, and I think they may have been all along. I suppose we should have asked sooner why we would have had any memories blocked from us, let alone ones about the protectors for our princes. What made them important enough for us to not remember them?" She flicked a glance around the space and saw both Siobhan and Rocky looked guilty, and Edgar seemed intent on studying the floor. "I notice some others also know everything."
Shana curled her hands together. "Leave them alone. I made the decision for us to stay quiet until the time was right. Excuse me for trying to protect you."
"You're always doing that!" Juliet snapped at her. "Keeping things to yourself because you think it's best! You never told us about knowing the kingdoms would fall, and you suffered alone because of it! You've kept quiet about these Commanders, and I can only imagine it must have hurt because they sound as if they were pretty close to the kingdoms! What's with you, Shana? Do you like living alone with your memories? Do you want to suffer the nightmares alone?" The minute the words left her mouth, she hated herself. She hated herself only more as Shana seemed to lose all color in her face, and something hellish moved across her eyes. "Shana. Oh god. Honey. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it."
Shana's hands slowly curled into fists at her sides so hard her nails bit into her palms. Her entire body trembled. "I wanted to protect you from feeling your soul torn. It hurts. It hurts so much. I wanted you all smiling and laughing as long as possible." Something flickered in her eyes like an echo of agony. "I'll suffer alone within my nightmares for eternity, Juliet." Her voice sounded brutally calm. "I still hear his laughter. Did you know that? The way it just sort of . . . grates over my ears. If I close my eyes, I see him staring at me. Did I destroy him? Sometimes I think I did, and others I have to wonder. He'll be there until the day I die. The nightmares I filter for Pallas are nothing. They don't really hurt me. They can't touch me when my own nightmares have already scarred my sleep."
Hands shaking with fear for her fragile twin, Alexandria tried to reach toward her but she shied away. Rocky crossed the room in two long strides and caught her in his arms even when she tried to evade. He held on ruthlessly as her entire body began to shake harder. "I've got you," he said roughly into her hair. "You're not alone. You're never alone."
Yet, truly, she was. None of them understood. Not even Siobhan. They said everyone had a kindred spirit somewhere, someone shaped into the same form by similar experiences. That one person who truly knew you down to your deepest pains. She had never met anyone else who had suffered tearing open their own soul and reforging themselves in the way she had. In a way, she hoped she never did.
"Please tell me she heals," Sherry whispered to Rachel, and felt almost lightheaded with relief when Rachel nodded. They could continue to fight to hold together Shana's fragile soul and mind until that moment came, especially knowing that it would.
After a moment, Shana eased back from Rocky and gave a little nod. "I'm okay." She gave a deep sigh and raked a hand through her hair. "If it makes anyone feel better, Clara didn't remember either until yesterday. Things would have been . . . much more dangerous, and traumatic, if you had been aware of the holes inside you for all of your lives."
Yvonne nodded a bit. "So the Commanders are our Caretakers and soul mates. I had begun to suspect based on the way you talked." She frowned. "Wait. Eight Defenders including Clara, and eight Commanders is logical enough, but . . . Vermillion was a betrayer, correct? He couldn't have been one of our Caretakers."
Rocky shook his head. "He was not. The oddity there is not so odd, though. You see . . . Vermillion was not actually the first choice for his position."
Sam rubbed the back of his neck. "When Hannah and Quint began the search for guards for Robert, they went the direct route to a battle competition." He smiled. "The looks on your faces implies you can guess why. Well, in the final ranking, there were five of us who made the cut. The two in the last spot tied, and having the same element as well as the same weapon meant there was no easy decision."
Rocky sighed deeply. "Meeting them, it was not Vermillion that I wanted most as my Commander. It was the other. A boy named Diego Santiago. He felt just the same to me as Ulyen and Talon—the other two Commanders other than Sabin—did. Sabin was of course special for being my twin. I did like Vermillion, don't mistake me, but Diego just . . . made me happier."
"The problem," Sam muttered, "was that Diego had neglected to mention he was only sixteen. Too young to enter the Royal Knights at all let alone be appointed. I knew his age because I had had the unfortunate duty of turning him down to be enlisted. When I saw him applying to be a Commander, I didn't say anything because I really could see how terribly he wanted to protect our prince. So, a compromise was made. Vermillion became a Commander, and Diego became Robert's companion-at-arms. Sort of a backup bodyguard."
Alexandria felt her heart beating too hard. "He had strawberry eyes," she whispered, and drew startled gazes.
Sam smiled at her. "And if that wasn't obvious enough, I'll confirm it. The boy who should have been a Commander was the one who became Caretaker to the eighth princess not with a Commander: Crown Princess Arista Hyacinth." He looked at Rocky. "Siobhan revoked Vermillion's right to be a Commander. There is a gap in the team, and the position rightfully belongs to Diego. It was always rightfully his."
"Something even Vermillion said at the end," Siobhan whispered. She lifted her chin. "The others live. Sam knows where they are. He went looking as soon as he and Rocky reunited and Rocky told him everything. We put this off as long as we could, but Shana and Rocky alike are twitchy from their Sight telling them that Andromedian might get to them first. He went after Sam, didn't he? So they're all in danger."
"He even outright said something that sounded like a threat to them," Sam agreed. His green eyes churned with temper barely in check. "I don't appreciate that, frankly."
Kellie looked at Virginia and said, "I begin to realize that Leads across any team share some rather . . . salient similarities even if they have different personalities."
Virginia and Sam alike both ignored her, and Shana did as well because she knew damned well she had been included. "The others are in more danger," she said only. She huffed out a breath. "Clara, give them their memories back. They need those before I tell them what I think happened based on what Sam told me about their current status."
Clara pulled her hourglass off her bracelet where it hung with her Masks and held it up. It grew to full size and then began to release waves of pink and lavender color. The locks released on the seven Dual Cultivators, and they all seemed to take a sharp breath at the same time. More than one got tears in her eyes. Wounds they had never known existed now hurt blindingly as they echoed out of their souls where their mates had been torn away.
"They sent us away," Desiree whispered. "They sacrificed themselves to access magic they shouldn't and forcefully transported us away from our crumbling worlds." She curled her hands into fists. "I . . . I am not sure whether I will yell at Ulyen or not let go of him when I find him again. Maybe both."
The idea of the ever calm Water Flower Element actually yelling at someone made the others find smiles. Shana leaned against the wall to take weight off her exhausted legs; those survivors' stress moments could drain her entirely. "That reference to not natural magic is what I was also referencing. Maxim, Navidan, Dane, Jayden, Ulyen, and Talon paid a price for using magic they should not have—namely to transport their Cultivator to safety. Sabin transported Claret too, but he didn't get punished because his Time gift is to make portals."
Alexandria's hands briefly clenched. "And Diego," she said softly, "fell even before the kingdoms did. I never knew where or why; I just knew he had been torn out of me. He had gone to find Vermillion, with Vermillion's brother, Chance, after the Commander had disappeared." She looked at Shana. "Did Vermillion . . ."
Shana shook her head. "He denied it. He said that Diego fell protecting him, that Diego said he knew Robert loved him and so would try to save him. I believe he told me the truth because . . ."
"That would be a very Diego thing to do," Alexandria whispered. "So six of the eight Commanders," she had ceased to refer to Diego as anything but his rightful role, and knew the others would understand, "paid a price for using improper magic. What price did they pay?"
Sam held out a hand and a sword now familiar to everyone appeared in his grip. Not the weapon Kellie had made, but one he had owned thousands of years before. Anyone with strong enough magic could use whatever magic they did have to hold objects of particular importance. Caretakers typically used the ability to hold weaponry, for obvious reasons. The Commanders in particular would have wanted to retain their weapons for they had been carefully forged by Kellie herself to be attuned to each man personally. "I have my old sword, which I could have accessed yesterday but was still trying to keep my identity quiet until Clara and I talked. I also still have my Time magic ability for portals. But the others . . . they don't have any of their magic gifts, and even if they did, their weapons are missing too. All of them—except Diego of course—told me the same thing. They know they should have them, but have never been able to figure out why they don't. It didn't make sense to me until now, either."
Clara nodded as she put her hourglass back where it belonged. "When one accesses magic they should not for the sake of another, they make a sacrifice. Not just their lives, but more depending on the magic. I realized back then this would happen, but that was also taken from me at the end. I too did not have any of that memory or knowledge of the Commanders until yesterday. Effectively, six of the seven other Commanders," she had made the same decision as Alexandria, "split themselves. All of their magic got stripped into stones of pure Light, and their weapons also got stripped and placed into stones of pure Dark."
Virginia looked at Siobhan and then Shana and then back to Clara. "Hmm. How convenient."
"Oh, please. You ought to be used to it by now, Ginny," Rocky told her in exasperation. "We all dance to Destiny's tune." He nodded firmly. "I think it's pretty obvious what we need to do. The Defenders will use the info Sam gives them and go find the missing Commanders. Meanwhile, I and Shana can hunt down the stones of Dark while Siobhan and Edgar hunt down the stones of Light." He grinned when scowls crossed more than one face. "Come on. Do admit this might be the one time we four High Rulers are actually safer not with you. Andromedian is probably not stupid enough to go after the two Apexes directly until he's gotten rid of everyone else. The rest of you, though? He's probably already hunting the boys already. Except maybe Diego. He's not exactly helpless."
Virginia drummed her fingers on her leg and then nodded. "Okay, fair enough. I think I will agree to that plan as well. Sam, do you have the information right now?"
"No, it's not on me. I didn't exactly swing by the house to grab it before kidnapping Clara yesterday, and we were otherwise . . . distracted after." He grinned when more than one person snorted at him. "By the way, the house where Aldan and I live, which will soon be Memory-Time central I suspect, is much bigger. We have a huge backyard that will make these meetings much more comfortable when we add more people. You guys can start using that instead. Let's all meet there in a couple hours. Gives Clara and Rachel alike some time to pack to move."
"Me too?" Rachel asked him curiously from where she and Aldan had been sitting to the side. They had not really felt as if they belonged in this meeting since the events did not directly affect them, but they had wanted to know everything happening. She honestly had no idea how these events would change the future, or how she would personally be effected since the thirteen years she had already lived there should shortly be dramatically changed. Maybe she would return to the point she left and suddenly gain new memories. She would be okay with that, really, since the Delay meant that any of the events leading her to going back wouldn't change her going back anyway. Paradoxal Pivots could be terribly headache-inducing for poor Librarians. At least she was up to the duty.
"Of course you," Clara told her in exasperation. "It really does save time so Aldan doesn't have to sneak in your window." She grinned when both of her kids turned slightly pink. "Sorry, moms know everything. Also, fairly logical? Aldan is a Caretaker."
Siobhan bit back giggles. "And everyone knows a Caretaker takes the duty of seducing their Cultivator very seriously! It's really, really rare for a mated couple to get to the wedding night and not already be lovers. Actually . . . has it ever happened?" she asked Clara.
Technically, yes, if one wanted to count Shanae and Robert's spiritual wedding. But since she knew Siobhan referenced the actual wedding, Clara said with all sincerity, and dryness, "No. Let us all recall some people are more than willing to use a certain law to ensure they have a wedding night."
Sherry and Virginia exchanged a quick grin. For their generation, they took that distinction. "Okay then," Sherry said. "A few hours at the Castlera place." She huffed out a breath. "I keep forgetting how fast a life can change. This last hour has been madness." She felt something stir along her Sight and glanced out the nearby window. She did not know how far her friends would travel, but she knew she did not have to go far. He had to be in the same city. She had felt him for years without ever knowing what she felt. Tender fingers mentally walking through her hair whenever she felt lonely or stressed. Yet he had not come to her. Well, that was fine. She did not mind repeating parts of the past. She would have her soul mate by her side again, no matter what it took.
It was time for all of the Cultivators to be complete at last.