A few hours later while Clara, Rachel, and Aldan moved boxes and items around, Sam hung out in the backyard with Shana who had done a little work of her own since the meeting so that she could help out her friends in any fashion possible. They chatted back and forth lightly until the others started arriving, and Yvonne was the first to get there.
She walked around the side of the house and then said, "It's so peaceful here! I think I'll like this for a meeting spot." Her golden yellow eyes sparkled as she looked around. "It could use a little decorating though."
"Opportunist," Sam scolded her, but with a smile. He glanced over at a footstep and found the other six arriving as well. "Great timing." He sat on top of one of the picnic tables and grinned a bit as everyone else did effectively the same thing. He honestly didn't think any of them would know how to handle needing formality for any reason. "Alright, let's start at the top. I'll just run down the important things in the order of how I found them."
"Again, thank you," Juliet told him. "I know you'd do this anyway because they're also your friends and you want to help our princes especially, but we're also benefitting."
"Of course," he told her simply. "To start with," he looked at Sherry, "you don't have to go far. Jayden Takata, now Justin Yamamoto, lives right here in Lux. He owns a divination and charm shop."
"That makes sense," Kellie said blithely. "He was always into fortunes and tarot cards even before he let Ashe seduce him and he gained a bit of her Sight. He and Liena were good friends, too. I think she taught him most of what he knew."
Yvonne couldn't help but laugh. "Well, yes. She was always much closer friends with Dane, though. She used to joke that she should have adopted him because he felt more like family than not." Her smile softened. "I always loved listening to him play the piano while she sang. So amazing." She looked at Shana. "Will she . . . ?"
Shana slowly shook her head. "No. She knew . . . she told me once that those of her bloodline would never be reborn. Theirs was a different purpose. I honestly don't know what she meant by it. I just know that eventually I will meet her descendant who will be the High Priestess of the Rebirth Era." She shook it off. "Carry on, Samuel!"
"Right." He handed Sherry a business card. "There you go. Expect to break down the door and yell at him probably. I gave him an earful for being in the same city as you but never approaching you, and he spectacularly ignored me in that way only a stubborn Fire sort can." He turned instead to Yvonne and also offered a card. "You and the rest have to go a bit further out of town."
Yvonne studied the card and found it was for a tavern in a northern city on the same landmass as Vericity. It was also, literally, the only city on Protea that ever got snow since it had been built into some high mountains. "Well, I guess that is logical for an Ice sort. He loved Iris almost as much as I did."
"Dane Etudele is now Douglas Notesong, and he actually owns that tavern. He plays music primarily, but he owns the place where he plays. You'd already know some of his music. He has composed scores for quite a few theatricals by now. Oh," Sam added, "for the record, everyone is right around my age. I'm the eldest, as you'd expect by my being our Lead, but we were all born the same year." He grinned. "Poor Justin. Still the youngest Commander."
"Shouldn't that be Diego?" Alexandria asked curiously.
"You'd think so, right? Well he was the youngest Caretaker back then but not the youngest Commander, and I guess Destiny decided that since Justin is fairly humorous in his grumpiness for being the baby, he might as well stay that way. Like someone else we know."
"Shut it," Shana muttered.
Her friends wisely hid smiles. "Got it," Yvonne said. "So I track down a music composer who owns a tavern and hope I don't lose my nerve before I get in the door. I'm not sure I realized just how terrifying it feels to pursue someone I love."
"Well," Desiree reminded her, "and you have almost as much trouble as Clara with letting yourself not think about things. You fuss and worry over every detail. I really don't want to know how noisy it is in your brain right now."
"You really don't," Shana agreed.
Yvonne let that slide. She knew well that the two Apexes armed themselves with whatever knowledge they needed to help their friends. It didn't make it less creepy, though. "On the other positive, we are all capable of transporting just about anywhere on Protea, so we won't need to worry about trains or ships."
Sam handed Desiree a card next. "Ulyen Nolte is now Uwe Andres. Same landmass as Axium. Professional athlete, specifically a swimmer. He also teaches swim lessons. He might not actually give you that much trouble. He sounded more amiable than the rest when I nudged at the idea of finding you lot."
Desiree smiled as she thought back to her relationship with her soul mate. Unlike so many of their friends, they had never struggled. They had simply flowed together like two rivers meeting at a bifurcation. Naturally, without any hesitation. Of course that wouldn't have changed. "That's reassuring."
Next, a card to Juliet. "This is going to be trickier for you because Navidan Arkwood—now Nathaniel Matica—is in my own home city of Vericity, which means you're going to be out of your depth if you don't know the language. They use a lot of standard Protean, sure, but the city has had its own language as the default for, damn, centuries now."
"Which is why you lot are so identifiable!" Juliet took a deep breath. She felt almost as nervous as Yvonne. More maybe, though for different reasons. "I'll figure it out."
"Well, when you do, weasel good gifts out of him. His family has been extremely successful, so he inherited a lot of money from his grandparents. Maybe a bit oddly for someone with a Thunder element, he's a fire guardian and helps put out fires when they inevitably happen. He also has a legal degree, though, so maybe he and Clara can work together."
Juliet frowned a bit as she looked at the card and thought about the ramifications of pursuing a man that busy. If she had to stay there too long, that might stress her savings a bit. Her job paid well enough for living and some indulgences, but she hadn't been at it long enough to build up a truly decent savings for extended trips. She actually had the least income of all her friends, barely over the threshold before the government stepped in with a stipend to ensure she could live securely. "Hmm."
Shana held out a slip of paper and said, "Take this."
"Huh?" Juliet looked at the paper and found a slip for a monetary transfer between banking accounts. A rather decent transfer at that! "Shana!" she said in exasperation. "You can't do that!"
"Who says I can't?" She crossed her arms. "For one thing, Edgar and I are the most well-off around here for varying reasons. We both have decent jobs on top of our can't-run-dry trust funds from our parents. I also made a bloody fortune taking photos of Byron while he was here, and I've never spent those funds. This right here is something important to us as well, Juli. Especially where Jay or Navi or Max or Dane are concerned because they're Edgar's friends and guardians and truly special to the Protea Kingdom. Let me help bring them home."
Juliet sighed and gave in. Sam just smiled and offered a card to Kellie next. "As you Dark core sorts are wont to be, Talon Kensington, now Tyson Gregori, is also in a more physical sort of job. He plays professional hexball, and he teaches it as well. Another city here on this landmass. Not extremely far, but enough to be out of radar."
Kellie smiled as she tapped the card on her hand. "Well, I won him over in the past, didn't I? I can do it again."
"Beg pardon," Sherry told her dryly, "but I think you made up the third member of the 'use the laws guiltlessly' triad with me and Virginia. You and Talon did get sort of hastily engaged, if I recall."
"No, I guarantee that we were betrothed before I seduced him. At least physically seduced him. I might have been wearing him down emotionally prior. Guiltlessly."
Sam coughed. "And having had the enjoyment of being up close to those events, I will assure you she's not lying. No laws were needed for her plans. Talon was mush in her hands long before she told him to get rid of her suitor list by accepting her own suit."
Yvonne giggled, and Shana grinned. Kellie just whistled innocently. On a snort, Alexandria said, "Alright, where am I going?" She took the card she was offered and lifted a brow. "Huh. Also on Axium's landmass. Just on the edges I see. So what is he up to, and why should I be concerned you're smiling at me, Sam?"
"Well, as always, you two are as much alike as you are total opposites. Diego Santiago, now Diaz Francisco, races ECs." He saw Shana bristle a bit and hastily said, "Slow racing! I had the same reaction. Those fast races are too damn dangerous. He assured me that he only does the endurance races, where it's about getting the carriage a particular distance versus a particular speed. It's all about the mechanics for him." He grinned at Alexandria. "Convenient, then, that his soul mate loves to dig in the mechanics of carriages. Oh, and he's never changed. He actually told me that he wouldn't come to you because he finds it far more entertaining when you get pissed off and bust down his door."
Alexandria scowled. "He won't find it so entertaining when I bend his ear because we actually met already! When we were teenagers. There was an event in Axium that got me interested in working on carriages. He was there. Son of a bitch. I should have realized there was a reason I was so intrigued by him! And he knew. I'll kill him."
"Yeah, well you're not the only one with that issue." Sam turned to Virginia and quietly held out a card with not just a location address, but the name of a specific person there.
Virginia looked down slowly, and the expression on her face implied she already knew. The name on the card almost mocked her, and she felt her head spin a little. She barely noticed when Kellie and Sherry hastily grabbed her arms to make sure she did not fall over. "So," she said softly. "I was right."
"Michael Donahue, formerly Maxim Montague, lives in Valerian Heights on the landmass across the sea from Axium," Sam confirmed softly. "He's a legal investigator, specifically one who investigates the more terrible crimes we all too often see happen. And . . . yeah."
"Ginny?" Shana moved closer to take Virginia's hands. "What is it?"
Virginia's fingers trembled in hers. "When I was twenty-two. Sherry and Juliet forced me to accept a chance to go to Valerian Heights for a summer-long art program. I met Michael there. We . . . well, I knew he was my soul mate. But . . . things happened. So I came home alone." She slowly took a deep breath. "The bottom feeding rat bastard," she hissed. "He knew. I'll murder him in a way to put his cases to shame!"
Shana bit her lip to hide a smile and let her go. "Well, Siobhan and I have pegged the locations of the Light and Dark stones for Jayden. She and Edgar are heading for an island city off the north coast of this landmass. Rocky and I are heading to another city on Valerian's landmass." She grinned at Virginia. "Try not to yell so loudly we hear you, okay?"
Virginia snorted back. "If I start yelling, Sherry will hear me from here."
They dispersed almost immediately thereafter to pack up a bag or two and prepare to transport to wherever they needed to be to start their quest. Sherry had no need to pack nor need to transport. She had only to return home and decide what sort of course of action she wanted to take. Did she charge right in and make it clear she was there for a hostile takeback as needed, or did she play dumb and wander in and start flirting and make him squirm? He did sort of deserve the latter.
She finally decided to just choose her tactic depending on what happened at the shop. She chose her weapons carefully, however, making sure her summer dress flattered her yellow eyes and short orange hair as much as it did her light brown skin. She needed to look as if she had been wrapped in fire. He had always loved that. She wore her two Mask earrings as she normally did, just in case there may be trouble, but she actually did not expect to find it here. Being in Axium, where the Memory-Time branch of the Cultivator/Commander whole had remained, would make things very dangerous for Andromedian, and the evil villain likely knew it. He had proven to be relatively intelligent in many ways.
She found herself standing in front of Justin's shop an hour later. It sat mere blocks from her own place where she sewed things and told fortunes; sometimes at the same time. His large front windows had been decorated with handmade candles and charms . . . and beautiful stone statues and sculptures. The sight of them was nostalgia incarnate. He had always forged beauty from the stones of all worlds, creating nearly song-worthy art. Actually, she distinctly remembered being inspired to write a song because of a particular piece. He had moved her Shaman heart so deeply she had not been able to resist.
One statue in particular drew her eye and she moved closer to see it. It seemed shapeless at first, but the longer she looked, the more she realized she looked at the form of a woman emerging from a cascade of flames. For an object of iridescent cream color, it seemed to breathe yellows and oranges her eyes did not see but her mind registered. The face of the woman also looked eerily familiar, and it wasn't until she saw the title that she knew why.
He had called it Fiera. The word in the old language of Aster had meant singing fire and he had used it as a nickname for her as soon as he learned the meaning. Fingers trembling, she opened the door. She found a place inside that bespoke relaxation and comfort and the haunting scent of incense. The scent was familiar to her for it was the same scent she used in her perfume and soap.
Shelves held books for sale or borrow, and cases held more candles, incense, and other such items. The floor with its old wood creaked softly in that wonderfully timeless way. She felt so utterly at home and welcome that she almost hated the idea of leaving. The space next to his was empty. Maybe she could move next door and they combine their spaces.
"Is someone there?" came an achingly familiar man's voice from the back room. "I apologize for the delay, I was talking on my phone with someone who provides me with dyes for my candles." He stepped into the doorway between spaces and then froze as he saw who had entered his shop.
A powerful longing welled up within her very existence as she looked at him and saw everything she had remembered. Fair skin that never burned because of his element, lavender hair that clung to his cheeks and neck, and jade green eyes that had once inspired his name. A little bit taller than Edgar, which had helped him protect his prince, and a powerfully compact frame from his love of hand and foot combat. He technically did not need a weapon. His hands had been his most potent one; Kacey had instead made him thin metal rings to wear on his fingers that had added to the damage he could already do. Yet those strong hands so capable of tearing apart enemies had also been unfailingly, erotically, tender on Sherry's body.
Justin Yamamoto did not know what to say or do. He had somewhat expected this to happen eventually, especially after Sam had contacted him, yet he now found himself at a loss as the object of his longing stood only feet away from him. And if the look in her fiery yellow eyes was any clue . . . she knew. "Well." Very gracefully, without bothering to go around the entire counter, he leapt over the top and landed a few feet away from her. "Can I help you?"
She found herself smiling. "I think you can." Unable to resist, she sent a mental pulse of energy at him. His shielding came swift and instant enough to bounce her attack back at her, yet with such skill it did not actually hurt her. Anyone with Sight could do such a thing, and he had inherited mild aspects of her gift five thousand years before. "You're very fast. I could have given anyone else a headache."
"Hmm, maybe not. You weren't trying to hurt me. I'm Justin Yamamoto, by the way. Nice to meet you." He put his hands in his pockets. Fast. "You're from the shop down the way. Fire & Needle."
"I am. My name is Sherry Darnigan." She walked a step closer and watched him edge back a step. "However . . . you could call that merely my casual name. My real name, given by birth five thousand years ago, is Asheria Aster." She moved again and made him bump into the counter. "You once called me your fiera. Justin . . . Jayden. I know you know. Sam told me everything."
His breath unraveled slowly. "I rather had that impression, considering you're looking at me like a predator eyeing prey."
A little wicked smile toyed at her lips. "How tempting. It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"
He hastily moved around her and went to lock the door. He flipped over the Be Back Soon sign and then turned around. "If we're going to have this conversation, we had better make sure we're not interrupted. Let's go into my office." He could still barely believe she stood there before him. It took every drop of his willpower to not grab her into his arms and never let go. She looked an incarnation of the hottest fire, too impossibly beautiful and sultry. Temptation itself. His fiera. "Follow me," he said abruptly.
It didn't offend her. She remembered his mannerisms. He had a tendency to get abrupt when he felt defensive, and she had certainly put him into full defense mode because he did not know how to handle her presence or his emotions. She followed him without a word, but when she stepped into the office, she had to smile. Disaster was a polite term for it. "Cleaning crew's year off?" she asked sweetly.
"Very funny." He sighed and cleared off a chair for her before crossing to sit on the front of his desk. "Where do you want to start?"
She smiled. "How about you tell me about your life now? I know your soul and heart, but I want to know who this man before me has become."
He propped his cheek on his hand. "My parents met at university and ended up settling here in Axium permanently. When I graduated personally two years ago, I decided to open my shop." He averted his eyes as he saw her lift a brow. "Yeah. I saw you on campus. I did everything I could to avoid you. I was born with my memories intact, but I could not sense you until I was over twenty-one and I had healed spiritually enough. I . . . went looking for you. Just to see you. You were nineteen." A smile touched his lips. "A terrifying nineteen, I might add. I stayed out of sight so I didn't get your notice. I did go past you once, but you did not sense me. I realized that you did not remember me, and I knew there had to be a reason, so I stayed back. Then, not that long ago . . ."
"Famine," she said concisely. "And Nemesis. And Mania. The Era change."
He nodded. "I guess I don't have to say how much it hurt to stand by. But I . . . I am more a liability than not right now. I can't protect my prince let alone be a proper Caretaker to you, Ashe." Bitterness filled his voice. "How fair is it of Destiny to make us burn with the need to defend and then make it so we can't?" He looked away. "I needed to see you after the fight with Mania. I . . . I just felt as if you had gone away. So I took a chance and tried to see you from a distance. It was like the Royal Era all over again. You dazzled me. You were . . . I have no words for how I felt. The love just . . . overwhelmed me. I came home and created Fiera. It was all I could do."
She got to her feet and walked around the office slowly. "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you that maybe it didn't matter to me? That without memories I would still know and love my soul mate. That even if you could not walk onto a battlefield as a Caretaker, I would love you?" She stopped beside a small table and looked down at a nearly finished tarot card layout. The ancient cards had been used for millennia by Sensing witches of the Faith. The gift of Sensing meant to feel when events moved or held still, and even without Sight, those with it could often still be prophets just by reading the energy of others. When Sight got added, it became all the more potent. This layout and its location implied Justin had been looking at his own future, or at least trying to do so. The only card not flipped represented that future he had been seeking.
"I was afraid," he admitted.
She reached out to touch the back of the card. "So I can tell. Tell me, why didn't you finish this layout? Your logbook here says you started it very recently." Likely the day Sam had called, she would bet. "Are you afraid to see me walking away? What if it shows me walking back? It very likely could."
"I didn't want to take the chance." He started toward her as his eyes narrowed. "Step away from the cards, Sherry."
"Why? Are you so afraid of losing hope? You should know as well as anyone that this is only a possibility. The cards don't tell us what is in stone, just what may be. The future told here can be changed if we try." She snatched the card up and held it against her chest as she backed away from him around the desk. Nearly literal fire had lit his eyes, but she wasn't afraid. They had always done everything passionately: fighting, living, and loving. There was no middle ground for them even when they could be gentle.
"Asheria," he said firmly, following her around the desk, "put down the damned card."
"Not on your life." She dodged his grip, but she was quickly losing ground for retreat. It didn't surprise her in the slightest to suddenly bump into the wall. Inspiration struck, and she stuffed the card down the bodice of her dress.
He pinned her against the wall with his hands on either side of her head and looked down to see the tip of the card poking out of her dress. The invitation could not have been more blatant. But then, that had always been her style. She had burned past all of his protests, dragged him into a torrent of hunger and love and emotion. He had been helpless but to love her for everything about her. "You haven't changed," he muttered at her. His gaze moved to her lips and could not move away. He needed her. Needed everything about her. But most of all . . . he needed to hold her. To shelter her soul when her duties weighed her down. "Sherry."
She reached up, wrapped her arms around his neck, and dragged him down as she rose on her toes. Their lips met with a silent detonation of fire. The fusion was hot and all consuming, tearing through them both equally. She pressed closer and deepened the kiss wildly to tell him without words that she would never leave him again. That she loved him no matter what may come. His hands grabbed her just as fiercely and he returned the kiss with more aggression, enough to make her head go light. His taste. It had been imprinted inside her.
The hunger and desire swept up from the depths of her soul, and the fiery conflagration caused the candles on the shelf over their head to burst into riotous flame. Her previously hidden Marks blazed into appearance on her chest and arm, and she gave a little gasp as he plucked her off her feet to press his lips hotly to the Mark just over her breasts. Nothing could be more intimate with a Cultivator than to directly touch their Marks. "Justin."
His head spun from a dizzying high formed of love, lust, and relief. "Was that your lack of self-control or mine?" he asked roughly.
"Hard to say. Usually only those with majik can immolate things without effort, but—stop tickling me, you fiend!—but Rulers can also create fire from nothing tho' we—we can't control it once we do." She grabbed desperately for his head to make him stop tormenting her Mark, and then she burst into laughter as he came away with the card in his teeth. "Oh, you." She nipped the card and flipped it over to reveal a simple image with two cups filled with water. Such a simple symbol that represented something wonderful: love and commitment. "You had nothing to fear, you silly man." She chucked the card aside carelessly and then framed his face in her hands. "Justin, even as we speak, our queens and princes are seeking the stones of Light and Dark that contain that which you've lost. You will be able to take your place once more by my side." She grinned. "And save my sanity by keeping Edgar safe!"
It made him laugh. He kept his grip on her and headed toward the office door. "I feel like relocating."
"I was thinking the same. But in two ways maybe. I notice the shop next door is open."
"It is! I was considering expanding, but only, you know, if I could find a good partner."
"I guarantee that I'm easy to work with despite my temper. And I'm good at making charms."
"I have always found you immensely charming, my fiera. Shake on it?"
She kissed him instead, but he didn't mind. It had to be the sweetest deal he had ever made. Finally, after so long, they were together again. He supposed he should never have been afraid after all. The love between soul mates could never die. It could only grow and evolve. Sam had been right after all. Then again . . . Leads usually were.
* * * * *
Transporting via Ruler magic meant that Siobhan and Edgar landed securely in a semi-secluded space on the island they had been aiming to reach. They each wore a decently sized backpack with whatever they might need since they had not known how long they may need to stay in each location to find the stones. Anything else, they could buy. Thinking it, Siobhan asked Edgar solemnly, "Do you think Rocky will convince Shana to buy something frivolous in Luminesce? Like most cities on Valerian's landmass, it is all about living life fully. It's the shopping spree capitol of Protea!"
Edgar smiled. "I'm sure he will. You convince me to have fun often enough." He took her hand and headed down the short pathway toward a street. They stepped onto the pedestrian lane and both caught a breath at the sheer beauty of the place. The island city had not bothered to tame nature; they simply lived with and around it, making it almost look as if the buildings themselves had been grown from the land.
Seeing it, Siobhan realized two things. "This . . . this belonged to the Protea Kingdom. It was a preservation land where only this city could be built. Everything else was untamed for animals. Jayden served as the protector of it as part of his duties as a Protea Commander. He had a house here. It's little wonder his stone of Light is here." She felt a sudden pulse of power through her body and then the Mark on her chest throbbed softly. It glowed enough to be seen through the shirt covering it, and she hastily covered it with her hands. "Edgar."
He moved closer to block others from seeing and reached out to cover her hands. The glow ebbed quickly, but Siobhan could still feel a draw. "I know where we're going. I can lead. And I won't get us lost, promise! I think we need to go to Jayden's old home. Wherever it may be. Oh, gosh. Five thousand years is a long time. What if it's completely gone now?"
"It won't be. But it may not be where we remember it to be. Let's find it." He drew her back out of sight between two buildings. "I can ask Protea." He knelt down and lightly touched a patch of bare ground where flowers grew between the walkway and a wall. He held out his free hand in offering.
All Rulers could do such a thing as this, looking through their Mother world's eyes, but it always acted differently to each person, especially depending on the element. She clasped her lover's hand and then caught her breath as she could see what he did. A blinding whirl of black and white choppy motion where suddenly bursts of flowers in color exploded as his view passed a particularly strong pocket of Nature power. The edges held a dark tinge, like a vignette on one of Shana's photos, that emphasized the center they viewed. It had to be one of the more breathtaking things Siobhan had seen.
Edgar found what they sought less than a mile away in a little pocket of unpopulated space. A spot that human eyes had not seen for several thousand years. The shorn remains of a building. It was beaten and weather worn from all the years, but still there. He lifted his hand from the ground and brought Siobhan's hand to his cheek as he stood. He nuzzled her fingers gently. "Up to a walk?" he asked.
"Of course." She ran her fingers over his cheek and then smiled as he held tight to her hand while they began walking together. She had spent so many years walking holding both Edgar's and Shana's hands, and so had Rocky. She and her brother needed that sort of physical contact, and their introverted Protea counterparts never hesitated to share their bubble of energy with them as needed. "I've been here before," she confessed.
"Really?" He looked down in surprise. "When was that?"
"Long ago. Let's see . . . It was the year you and the others of our generation other than me and Shanae had turned twenty-five and became adults." She sighed gustily. "Asheria wanted Jayden. Not that we hadn't all figured it out within, what, days of him being made a Commander? She decided right after her birthday, as we all knew she would, to stop playing nice and finally play dirty. She knew he was her soul mate, and he adamantly refused to even acknowledge the idea because he thought he didn't deserve a princess." She snorted delicately. "So Shanae and I decided we were having none of that and put ourselves on Ashe's side! We wheedled Jayden's address out of Max—not that that was hard—and then Ashe volunteered to take us for a visit while he had taken a brief vacation—at Sabin's insistence, of course."
Edgar fought laughter. He had known most of the story, but not all of the details. Somehow he felt no surprise that Maxim and Sabin had been involved in Jayden's downfall. The Commanders had always had the same relationship as the Cultivators. "And?"
"Oh, how silly of me and Shanae to forget we had an event we just couldn't miss!" She widened her eyes with all innocence. "We just went and transported ourselves back to the Protea palace and left Ashe with Jayden." She started giggling. "Imagine our lack of surprise when the next day the Aster Kingdom put out notices that, gee, the Crown Princess had accepted a suitor and would begin wedding plans."
He started laughing. "I would like to say 'poor Jayden' but he didn't exactly suffer. Is it terrible of me that I enjoyed watching their Fire temperaments butt heads, and I look forward to seeing it again?"
"Not at all!" She spotted the dismal looking building in the distance and gave a soft sigh. "It's ruined because no one was here for it. Poor Justin; we shouldn't tell him what it looks like unless he asks."
"Agreed. Do you sense the Light stone?"
"I think so." She reached out a hand with her power, and the Light around her fingers fired off a beam into the ruins. An echoing glow answered, and she ran forward quickly. She darted into the dismal building without hesitating and looked around the decaying interior.
A glimmer of light caught her eye, and she began digging through the dust and dirt on the ground until she uncovered a glowing white gem that pulsed softly in her hand as she picked it up. She could feel the heat and fire within it and smiled at Edgar as he knelt in front of her and put his hands under hers. "We found it. Now we only need to find the other five."
The gem in their hands suddenly glowed and sent a beam of light shooting out the open door. Edgar put a hand on the ground and tracked the beam through Protea's eyes until he saw it stop somewhere on Lux's landmass, some distance from home. "Alright. Back to a city on Lux's land."
She smiled wryly. "I have never been so grateful to have transporting magic as I am now."
* * * * *
Rocky had not only convinced Shana to buy something frivolous, he also got the benefit of seeing her wear it. They had arrived at their chosen hotel in time for the place to hold a one hundredth anniversary of its opening—classic of the cities on Valerian's land to celebrate everything. Neither had had anything resembling formal attire, so they had gone shopping. Rocky had settled for a white male formal piece, and Shana had indulged in a snug formal black dress with sparkling pink beads. She normally didn't do sparkles, but the pink had appealed.
Their immediate arrival had not revealed a direction to go, and by sundown they still had no clues. So, the check-in had been to establish a resting spot until they figured out where to go. They had checked in as an engaged couple, and since Shana would be turning twenty-five in only a handful of months, she already looked mature enough that no one questioned it.
Unfortunately, neither her engaged status nor her clear lack of interest kept some of the people at the party from making more than one pass at her. She had walked in looking like a warrior queen, so Rocky kind of couldn't blame anyone for their interest, but he did not like it one bit. He seethed and kept his jealousy and possessiveness as under control as he could. He refused to make a scene. She had it handled and either ignored or turned down offers with regal and sometimes disdainful grace. He still didn't like it.
He kept his cool for a good hour before one woman got a little too friendly and ran her hand over Shana's arm without her permission. Rocky's temper flared through the roof, and he had had enough. Before Shana could react personally, he walked over and picked her up to toss her across his shoulder. "Sorry," he said to the startled room as a whole, "but I'm the only one she permits that close." That said, he walked out of the room with Shana cursing the entire time.
"I can't believe you did that!" she shouted as she struggled to get free while she was unceremoniously carted upstairs. "I will never live that down! You do realize half those people know who I am because my photos of Byron made me semi-famous, right?" Her working relationship with the Ranunculus Defender Cultivator had resulted in her photos being printed across the world, run in dozens of periodicals, and even strewn all over the spider-web. They had used their real names at check-in, so people had made the connection.
"I guarantee you that every person in the room loved it. I saw clapping." He unlocked their door and carried her into their room. "I'm sure it'll be spoken of as a perfectly romantic accent to their celebration."
Her eyes narrowed sharply as she was put on her feet. "You know I rarely tolerate being moved anywhere against my will, whether from you or Alexandria!" Only her two soul mates actually had the physical strength to manhandle her six-foot tall and very muscular frame. Well, Sam likely could as well, but he would be far too smart to try it. "I also don't find jealousy becoming in you." She would absolutely die before admitting that she had found it the tiniest bit thrilling to be carried off like a prize. She would never let him know she might just have enjoyed it. He would think he could get away with it more frequently!
He locked the door behind him and shrugged out of his jacket. "You'll have to accept it," he told her calmly. "I can't change who and what I am. And you must admit, I did an admirable job of controlling myself until that redhead started getting too friendly."
She reluctantly conceded, "I admit, I was impressed with your control. You Light sorts are not known for being even-tempered." She looked down at the dress she wore. "I think it's cursed."
"It's that beautiful body poured into the dress that's doing the damage," he told her, his voice slightly rougher. He impatiently jerked off his ascot and unbuttoned his shirt. He hated wearing the formal wear that had become standard over the last few centuries. He far preferred his Ruler Suit as a High Prince. "You'd still be dangerous if you were plain, though. It's that damn spirit of yours that gets people."
She rolled her eyes. "Be still my heart, oh prince of mine." She sighed and kicked off her shoes. "You take my breath away with your romantic words."
He took a gliding step toward her. "If it's romance you want . . ."
"Don't touch me, you fiend!" She was smarter than that. She ducked and put the table between them. "I'm not budging until I get an apology for your hauling me off!"
"I don't think so, my queen." He edged around the table toward her. He felt resigned to a future full of these fights. They were perfect opposites. Even as they were magnetically drawn together, they produced fierce sparks. "I won't apologize for something I can't change."
"You could change. You just choose not to!"
He nearly got his hand around her wrist before she darted away. They had started pacing each other around the table at that point, and it felt ridiculous. Yet, possessing powerfully stubborn wills, neither was likely to give in no matter how ridiculous things got. She suddenly shot away from the table, hoping to get the bed between, and he shot after her.
Luck proved to be on his side. His bare feet had better traction on the carpet than her stocking clad feet. He also had longer legs. He caught her around the waist in a few steps and hoisted her high. He turned and tumbled her down onto the bed and pinned her bodily. He lowered his head until they were nose to nose and then said softly, "I'm sorry."
Just that easily, the fight drained out of her. She sighed and closed her eyes. "You Delphinians are the ones who can easiest make me mad, and then I just can't stay mad at you for long." He freed her hands, and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "And since you're willing to apologize for understandable behavior, I guess I can admit it was a little bit exciting."
He softly trailed his lips over her stubborn chin and up over her soft cheek. "What would you have done if people had been hitting on me?"
"Precisely what I was doing. Ignoring it." He lifted his head to stare at her in shock, and she bit her lower lip to hide a smile. "You didn't notice? By the Realm, Rocky, how could you not have noticed those people fawning over you? You walked in looking like anyone's secret fantasy prince!"
His mouth opened, then closed. Faint red tinted his cheeks. "I did not," he muttered. He released her and swiftly sat up.
"You are so cute." She reached behind her for a pillow. "I guess naiveté is a Delphinium trait too. Or maybe you and Sam are more alike than you admit!" When he glared at her, she popped him right in the face with the pillow. "Gotcha back!"
"Well, brat, if it's a fight you want . . ." He snatched up the other pillow and returned the smack. They both went on the attack and swung their pillows with all the skill they swung swords. Both were laughing so hard that many strikes made it through that never would have otherwise. Finally, they had to just stop because neither could see straight.
They ended up flopping on the bed beside each other to catch their breath. She had never been happier in her life. There was no one who made her happier. Even when he managed to make her mad, he made her happy.
He propped himself up on an elbow to look at her as she lay beside him. He hadn't heard her laugh like that in a very long time. He leaned over her so that the light bathing her came not from the lamp but from his soul. "I love you," he said softly, intensely.
Her eyes softened and she reached up to pull him down for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, her power throbbed through her body warmly. Her Marks appeared and began to glow darkly. "Rocky."
"Damn it." He rolled to his feet and swiftly changed into denims and a sweater. From the corner of his eye, he watched wistfully as she exchanged her dress for a pair of black denims and a black sweatshirt. She looked unbelievable in anything she wore, but he had been hoping to peel the dress off her personally. Then again, there was always time for that later.
They moved out onto their balcony, and Shana closed her eyes to see what her Mark was trying to tell her. A pull came from the balcony right over their heads. Of course. She looked up and saw the bottom of the balcony less than twenty feet over their heads. A look around implied no one was in the area to see them.
A little application of Nature magic as a Ruler made the flowering vine on their balcony begin to flower much more enthusiastically, and the vines climbed up to the balcony over their heads. Shana lithely climbed up and peeked over the edge. The room looked dark, and it felt empty when she reached out with her magic in a sensing manner. She climbed up entirely, and Rocky climbed up behind her. "Looks clear," he murmured softly, "but the door is probably locked."
She pulled an odd-looking piece of wire out of her back pocket, and he watched in fascination while she easily and quickly picked the lock. As she opened the door and slipped inside, he eyed her curiously. "Where the hell did you learn that?"
"Sam taught me," she told him cheerfully. "I'll check the sitting room, you check in here." She went through the door of the suite and into the sitting room without another word.
He just sighed wryly and decided he didn't want to know why his best friend had dabbled in lock picking. He headed for the dresser to look for anything out of place, but then heard Shana make a satisfied sound. "Got it?" He walked over to where she had been looking at the other dresser, and there on the top sat a glowing black stone. "That must be it."
"It is, for certain. And since I don't feel like a fuss, I'm going to replace it."
"You can do that?"
"Sure, it's a stone made of raw Dark power, right? I can make those personally. I'm an Apex, remember? Siobhan and I have infinite power that is special enough to get the name of 'arcanery' to describe how we can use arcane forces of either Light or Dark or Hope to do things. Actually, there are a lot of things we can do outside the scope of our normal Ruler or Defender magic that no one else can do. We just usually don't need to do them. Also, it's actually easier to see when I'm doing Apex-like things because I have limited magic as a whole since I'm physically oriented. Siobhan oozes magic, so it's harder to tell when she's being all Apex-y." She closed her free hand and then opened it again to reveal another stone nearly identical to the glowing one. "There we go." She put it where the other had been and then pocketed their find.
Rocky shook his head as he followed her to the balcony and back down to their own where she decreased the vine back to normal. "Since I've never thought to ask, how does the arcanery thing come into play? Is it connected to the Whisper of Hope that allows you to create miracles and do the impossible in a way no one else can?"
She tossed the stone of Dark on the bed and heeled off her shoes anew. "Having arcanery means we can't burn out, hence the 'infinite' aspect. We never run out. Any Cultivator will eventually run out of magic as their bodies just can't produce anymore fast enough. If they don't kill themselves doing that, then they'll probably at least pass out and sleep for ages. It has happened more than once. In fact, it's a not uncommon way for previous generations to have removed themselves in an effort to save the galaxy. Siobhan and I . . . we can't do that. Literally cannot run out of magic. We cycle the forces of the universe, Rocky. Not just the raw force of Dark or Light, but Hope as well. Our bodies are . . . different from the rest of you. As a result, we also can do unusual and different things from all of you as well."
He rarely liked looking back on the price paid by either Apex to exist, but he had to ask, "Then . . . then how did Siobhan kill herself defeating Famine?"
"The sheer nature of how a physical healer heals others," Shana said simply. "You made yourself a healing gift, so you know how it works. A healer takes the damage into themselves from their patient and it becomes pretty terrible bruising proportionate to how bad their patient was injured. That bruising clears up with a speed that varies on the strength of the healer, just as much as the amount that can be removed from someone does. Healers can't heal themselves because, to do so, a healer would have to somehow take their injury from one place, convert it to bruising, and put it somewhere else to be cleared up almost instantly. Someone would have to have a power capable of doing the same thing twice at the same time, and that is as rare as any type of infinite power. In fact, I think that sort of thing might actually fall under majik not magic because witches are the only people I've ever known who could do the same thing twice at one time. A strong enough witch might eventually pull it off."
He considered that. "So Siobhan's arcanery meant she could gather the hope to release the Whisper that created a miracle that allowed her to literally take in everything Famine produced, but her inability to do the same thing twice at the same time meant her body just could not keep up with what she was doing to it, and she—she died for the attempt." It dawned. "That's why only I could save her. Because by my giving her magic, she could use my gift to heal herself. And I couldn't do that without being Activated. That's why Clara said it had to be me."
Shana thought about things she had always suspected about the ties between herself and her brother as well as Rocky and Siobhan. She had no proof but she had strong hunches. Only time would eventually tell her if she was right. "That's probably the biggest part of it," she agreed. "And it's worth noting again that, honestly, Siobhan is the only healer who can actually remove disease at all. Not even Kellie can do that. But no body, not even an Apex's body, could survive what Siobhan had to do. We are still flesh and blood in the end."
Rocky did not yet know what Shana's miracle as an Apex had specifically entailed—no one but Clara and Byron did—but he did know she had used it to plunge into Chaos, repel it back to space, and save Tara Ranunculus. She had also emerged from the ordeal near dead, torn and bloody and perhaps making a second miracle by even being alive. It might well have been her Protean heritage so focused on physical strength that had allowed such a thing, while Siobhan as a Delphinian had far less physical strength or stamina. "Okay," he finally said. "Thank you for explaining."
She smiled. "You have right to know, Rocky. Because you are powerfully connected to both Apexes, soul connected, so you and Edgar have more right than most." She felt her Mark pulse and turned to look at the stone on the bed. It glowed and fired off a beam of dark color into the night sky. Shana closed her eyes and tracked it across Protea with her mind only. Apex evolution of her natural Ruler gift, and one quite useful when she did not have easy access to touching the ground. The beam stopped and swirled around a familiar city, and she opened her eyes on a wry smile. "Dane's stone of Dark is in Vericity. Because of course it is. Do you speak the language?"
"I do! I had already been learning it for fun at university, and Sam recently gave me more lessons. I should get by well enough. However, we will go tomorrow." He swept her up into his arms once more and headed toward the shower. "You have something much more important to do right now."
She just smiled and looped her arms around his neck. "If you insist."
His golden eyes sparkled. "I do."