Shana had long before gotten used to the fact that her world could have some rather strange weather patterns compared to most other worlds; a standard hazard of a world with Nature at its core. She had, however, never seen anything quite like Vericity. While it was normal enough for random storms to show up without warning all over the world, this city could literally go back and forth within the space of mere hours from sun to rain to sun and back again. The poor plants probably never knew if it was safe to bloom, which might explain why she spied so many unseasonal things trying desperately to blossom at the very wrong time.
She clung tight to her umbrella as she hurried back to the hotel where she and Rocky had decided to stay. They had picked a place in the middle of the biggest part of the center of the city since it gave them access to just about anything they needed. The university for the city also sat not far away, which was where Shana had decided to go first since Dane had always been on the academic side like Yvonne. They loved learning.
She felt grateful for bringing the umbrella despite waking to bright sunshine. It had turned into a storm by afternoon. And they called teenagers indecisive! She stopped to let some carriages moving too fast go through an intersection and then hurried across to safety where the hotel entrance sat. She scooted in the door just as the rain gained more enthusiasm. "Phew." She shook out the umbrella and then stuck it into the holder by the door.
Rocky sat on a couch in the gathering space of the lobby, and he looked up as he sensed her. He smiled and stood when she got closer. "How did it go?"
"No luck," she sighed. "What about you?" He had decided to walk through the central part of the city to see if maybe Dane's extroverted tendency might have had his stone drawn to people. "How did it go?"
"What drunken designer," he asked distinctly, "designed the central portion of this city?"
A female voice started laughing, and they turned to see a woman of a couple years older standing across the room. She wore faded denims and a multi-hued sweater that flattered her slightly plump figure, sun-kissed skin, and thick auburn hair. Her eyes had a matching auburn color, though they had a crystal clarity that made them look lighter than perhaps they really should be. Something shimmered just under the surface, boiled powerfully. She did not have a face traditionally beautiful, yet she was unforgettably attractive. Something inside her seemed to come out and make her more beautiful than her appearance strictly implied.
She felt . . . hauntingly familiar to Shana. "You speak standard Protean?" she asked softly in Vericin.
"Well, who doesn't these days, even here?" The woman walked over and smiled. "Don't worry about offending the natives," she assured Rocky. "Believe me, half the city has the same opinion. I don't drive down there unless I'm desperate. I'll walk if I can, or take a public carriage option—which can also be hazardous. Where are you from? I'm thinking Lux based on the way you say things." The words came out rapid fire yet still clearly understandable.
"Has anyone clocked you talking?" he asked dryly.
Her grin came quick with humor. "No. I'd break the clock. Just tell me to shut up and I will. My name is Jean Kinsley." She held out her hand palm up to Shana. "What brings you to Vericity?"
Shana put the back of her hand on Jean's palm and felt a sharp jolt all the way up her arm and into her soul that almost resembled being punched. Shocked, she could say nothing at first. She hadn't felt the flow of majik inside anyone in millennia, and she had never felt it so strongly! Not even Liena, the former High Priestess of Protea, had had such utter potency. Jean nearly felt like majik incarnate. "What are you?" she whispered.
Jean's eyes softened. "I'm a witch," she said simply, and with such calm faith and serenity that it instantly soothed Shana's soul. She pulled her hand back slowly and took a long breath. "I'm afraid I might have misled you. I know it seems as if I met you on accident, but the truth is that I knew you'd be here. I came here to find you." She hooked a finger around the chain of the necklace she wore and lifted a single pendant into the light.
The floor fell out from under Shana's feet. The delicate silver pendant was a dragon blowing flames. She reached out with a trembling finger to touch the pendant. It throbbed and pulsed with power and vibrancy. "You're . . ." Her voice quivered. "You're a descendant of Liena."
"I am the descendant," Jean correctly softly. "I am the firstborn daughter of the direct bloodline leading to the High Priestess of Protea. The daughter of the daughter of the daughter . . . all the way back to the eldest daughter of Liena and Lieu Vanguard." She inclined her head gracefully. "My allegiance is yours. I serve the Protea Kingdom, and you are my queen."
"I knew," Shana whispered. "I knew that someday I would meet someone like Liena. But I didn't expect this." She smiled suddenly. "You're not much like her in personality, I think. Nearly opposites, I'd have to say. But I think that's the way it should be." She cocked her head. "Can we sit down and talk?"
"Sure." Jean plopped down casually on one of the couches. "What would you like to know?"
"Well, about you of course!" Shana sat down beside her on a smile. "Clarification for where my High Priestess stands on things, of course."
Jean held up a finger. "To begin with, I am a Black Witch—meaning I have a Dark core, of course—who chose Ice, Illusion, and Nature as her elements, and Spiritual Healing, Conjuring, and Sensing as my majikal skills."
"So you actually are a lot like Liena," Rocky murmured as he sat down on Shana's other side. "She had Ice and Illusion as well as Spiritual Healing and Sensing."
"Runs in the family fairly strongly," Jean agreed. "On top of those, I also possess All Sight, as you would expect of the firstborn of my lineage since Liena had it, too. I have a few other gifts as well that are not strictly connected to majik or magic but tend to go along with them here and there. We can cover them as I have to use them."
The difference between majik and magic lay in where it came from and how it could be used. Witches, and their evolution wizards, were the only beings other than Cultivators to have full elemental powers. Because it worked in different ways, it got called 'majik' instead of simply 'magic.' In the Royal Era, only members of the Faith of the Goddess had been witches and had majik. The gift had come to them right from Destiny because the Goddess they worshipped was, in fact, Destiny herself. Unfortunately, the Faith had fallen as hard as the kingdoms in the end, and many members had been forced to abandon the Path for their own safety. The result meant many people across the world who did not know they even had majik in their blood, and those that did yet were not of the Faith like Jean absolutely once had had a family who had been.
Majik users could not do the things Rulers or Defenders did with their elements but instead something more comprehensive: they could actually control and manipulate the element itself. Where Sherry could make things catch fire or shoot fireballs, if Jean had had Fire as an element, she could have actively taken control of the fire and used in most any way she desired—though she would not have been able to use it to damage someone as an attack, short of perhaps setting them on fire.
The other difference between witches and Cultivators came in that witches actually did evolve into wizards. A normal witch picked an element or two to specialize in, and then one or two related skills, and never deviated. If she evolved to a wizard, she could pick up to three more elements and two more skills. Wizards, though, tended to be exceptionally rare, with only one appearing every few hundred thousand witches or so. A third level further, known as a sorceress, had never been obtained in history. It required a witch born with infinite majikal ability, and that was literally as rare as the two Apexes' infinite magic.
Yet, sitting there, Shana felt the first suspicion for her priestess lineage. Liena had walked the cusp of wizard, and Jean clearly did as well—in fact, she had picked up skills and elements beyond the normal witch limit without evolving, and that said something. It actually said a hell of a lot as a whole about the potential laying inside her genes.
Shana had never seen a human lineage get stronger the further it went from the origins, yet somehow that was exactly what seemed to be happening. It normally only worked that way with Ruler Cultivators, and even that tended to ebb and flow. It would reach a peak, drop off, and then climb again. Shana herself and her generation had thought they represented a peak, but looking at Rachel had them wondering if maybe her generation would be that instead—a daunting thought.
The sound of Jean's unexpectedly gentle voice made Shana blink. "I'm so sorry. My brain went into overdrive thinking about everything. I'm just . . ." She broke off as Jean softly covered her hands. Her shoulders lost any tension, and she felt so utterly secure that it briefly marveled her. She had forgotten how that could feel. How utterly wonderful a member of the Faith could feel to others around them. They exuded such pure good into the very air, and every deed they did with good majik just made them more beautiful. "Thanks."
"Of course." Jean sat back. "So enough about me! Why are you here? My Sight only said that you would be, not why. I wanted to meet you. Actually, it was kind of a had to sort of thing."
"We're looking for a stone of Dark," Rocky explained. He lightly rested a hand at the small of Shana's back. "A glowing black stone that holds a weapon rightfully belonging to one of the High Prince of Protea's Commanders."
Jean nodded. "You should have said something sooner. I know where it is. It's in a museum in the old part of town."
"You sensed it?" Shana asked.
"Anyone with an inkling of power would sense it," was the dry retort. "It very much wants to be found, I assure you. I felt like it was nibbling on my majik. Oh! Speaking of fang marks," she went on blithely, ignoring Rocky and Shana grinning at each other, "my theatrical group gets together every other night in old town to play Life Stories."
"Life Stories?" Rocky repeated.
"It's pretty popular in Vericity. It's basically an excuse for adults to play make believe. We stand around and act out scenes and tell stories and have fun. It can get pretty fantastical. Someone recently came up with this version involving creatures that have fangs and drink blood. Kinda creepy but I sort of like creepy stuff. You two can come along tonight as my invited guests, and we'll get the stone. We can enlist my best friend as needed. She's a witch as well with Physical Healing and Metal/Thunder as her elements."
"Jean," Shana said softly, "this isn't your fight. You don't have to help."
She smiled. "Yes, I do. By rights of my role, by rights of Liena's promise, my help is yours." She ruffled Shana's hair affectionately and then hopped to her feet. "I'll meet you here tonight. I'll do the driving. I'm very safe amid the craziness around here."
Rocky watched her walked away, her long auburn hair swinging around her hips, and then murmured, "Sensing, indeed. She knew you'd be spooked to ride in this city with anyone else." He smiled. "You can't help but like her. Must be another sort of majik." He looked back to Shana. "Promise?"
"It was a promise Liena made with the Protea Kingdom." Shana glanced at the door and then back. "Once every Era, there will be a direct descendant of hers who will be born with the strongest possible connection to the Protea Kingdom, as well as the peak of power for her Era. That descendant will serve in the role of advisor and be the High Priestess of the kingdom. She said there would be three total." Her smile softened. "In the Resurrection Era, we will meet the third. The last in Liena's line."
"With Jean for an ancestor," he countered dryly, "she's bound to be some interesting character, that's for sure. Why don't we go get some rest before tonight?" He tugged her to her feet and then lowered his head and teasingly nibbled at her ear. "Or we can rest later."
She pushed him away with a smile. "Down, boy." She laced her fingers with his and contentedly walked beside him as they headed up to the floor where their room was located. She unlocked the door and opened it . . . and her body immediately shifted into a defensive fighting stance as she saw someone in the room. "Who are you?" she demanded.
Rocky looked over her head on a frown, but when he saw who was in the middle of the room, all of the tension left his body as shock flooded in. "By the gods," he said softly. "It can't be."
"It's not," the man said quietly. "Not entirely." He made an imposing and alarming presence dressed from head to toe in black. The scar on his lower right jaw and the one over the top of his nose, mostly angled right to left, only made him appear more dangerous. His short red hair looked vibrant in the lamplight, and his crystal blue eyes held utter calm. "Don't lose contact with Jean. Her presence is critical to the future."
Shana huffed out a breath as finally she recognized him as well. "As if I would ever lose contact with my priestess!" She ducked under Rocky's arm and stalked into the room.
Rocky just shook his head at her before looking at the other man. It brought painful nostalgia to see a face so like the Fallen Commander's, yet it brought some peace. All weaknesses inside Vermillion did not exist inside his younger brother. Rocky had honestly loved this person nearly as much as he had his Commanders. He had just felt like family, and he had always been treated that way once Vermillion got appointed. Truthfully, everyone had liked the younger brother more than the elder. "Are you . . . okay?" he asked softly.
The blue eyes watching him softened visibly. "I'm trying to come back. I'm everywhere right now. If you need me, call me." He turned and walked away, and he disappeared mid-step as the gloomy light from outside touched him.
"He was always creepy," Shana grumbled. "Makes sense for him to evolve into a Dark Shadow element." She huffed out a breath. Things she had wondered when Vermillion had before told her that he had not sensed his brother be reborn now suddenly made sense. Apparently they had more work to do than just fix the Commanders!
The rain had stopped pouring by evening and given way to beautiful clear skies. Shana just shook her head over it as she stood with Rocky in the lobby. Both wore slightly heavier jackets with hoods just in case the fickle weather changed its mind again. She was the only one with the hood down; Rocky had pulled his up because people kept fawning over his hair.
He heard her snort and muttered, "Shut up."
"Well, to be fair, I think your hair has magnetic properties because I can't keep my hands out of it, so I can't blame anyone for wanting to compliment you."
"I may not be helping," came Jean's droll voice behind them, "but I kind of agree with her."
"Don't you start!" He turned and his jaw dropped. "Good goddess."
Shana turned as well and her brows shot up. Her new friend had made a transformation so dramatic it almost felt like another majik. She wore a slim black dress with an off the shoulder drape to cover her arms, her hair had been pinned up in a froth of curls, and there was a black choker with a protea around her neck. She looked like a particularly dangerous and mystical princess. "Well!"
Jean smiled. "Thanks."
"Is that how your 'creepy' new species dresses?" Rocky asked dryly.
Auburn eyes twinkled merrily at him. "They do when they used to be sweet upper class girls." The worlds came out drawled in the warmer and thicker accent associated to Vericity's upper class living, versus the more rhythmic version of the regular middle class that she had naturally and that Sam and Aldan possessed as well. "Mah mothuh always sed that ah should nevah go out with them bad boys." She sighed gustily. "Mah mothuh was raiht."
Shana found herself giggling, and it didn't surprise her. Rocky was usually the only one who could bring out the silly laughter, but Jean had enough Light in her to do it as well. Truthfully, though Jean named a Dark core and Black Witch status, she actually had nearly as much Light inside her as Dark. It was a classic trademark of exceptionally powerful witches, and Liena had been that was as well—nearly as much Dark as she had been Light. Shana had always thought that eventually, someday, the two powers would fuse inside someone and become the legendary Gray that counterbalanced herself and Siobhan. "I foresee a lot of fun tonight. So tell us about this story thing."
Jean gave them the rundown as they drove through the city. Everyone followed rules they determined at the beginning and then they all contributed to the storylines that the Master Authors instigated and administered.
"So who are you?" Rocky asked Jean curiously.
"I'm the overseer of the city, which means I keep track of residents coming and going," she offered. "My sort is known for being the fighters of the city, but I'm actually more adept as a seductress when I want to get my way. But, then again," her smile turned wicked, "let's just say I have some sharp claws."
"You're going to have to send me story updates," Shana decided. "I get the feeling I'm going to feel like I'm watching a film theatrical that hasn't ended yet."
"Or one of those overly dramatic episodic theatrics only aired on Visualities. It can get kinda ridiculous sometimes. I'll send you a weekly digest via spider mail. I love writing." Jean parked her carriage in a lot just outside old town. As the name implied, this area of town had not been renovated in over a thousand years, though it was kept in great condition, and therefore it offered a look at how Vericity had been long before.
"Jean!" another woman called. "You're late!"
Not for the first time, Shana and Rocky felt glad to be multi-lingual. It didn't seem fair to make Jean speak standard Protean when they were in her city, which had so carefully made its own language. Now, when she came to visit them, it would naturally be reversed. And she would definitely visit. Shana would be damned sure of that!
"Sorry!" Jean called back. "I had to pick up two new friends. They're just visiting but were curious about the game. Remember? I told you about them earlier."
"Ah! Yes, I remember."
Jean gestured to Shana and Rocky. "Guys, meet Lisabelle Carmain. Lisa, meet Shana Chivanti and Rocky Toulume."
Lisabelle offered her hand, and Shana wasn't surprised at all to feel the powerful jolt of majik under her skin that spoke of stronger than usual gifts. Like always called to like. "Nice to meet you," she said with a smile.
It took less than an hour to become immersed in the story. The collection of players ranged from a sixteen-year-old cousin of Lisabelle's up to a couple of men and women in their mid to late sixties. All of them were superb players who could know something out of character but never bring it into whoever they were playing unless they learned it in-game.
The current story had to do with a rival faction infesting the city. Jean's character was at the center of it, much to her chagrin. She was magnetic and sultry enough that even the rivals were interested in her for more than her knowledge of the city. She argued with the Master Authors a bit on the side about sticking her in the middle, but when they reminded her that anyone in her character's position would be in the same situation, she finally conceded. As if to just torment her more, the players of the other internal factions decided to 'vie for her hand' as well, to keep her out of the enemy's reach.
The leader of the city happened to be a good friend of Jean's, and he felt sorry for her unwilling role as femme fatal, so he proposed in character to pose as her lover and keep the masses at bay. Rocky had always been a fairly good judge of people, so he sort of suspected the man playing the leader might have the tiniest interest in Jean herself. He did not look to be entirely playacting when he flirted with her.
During an obligatory coffee break around eleven, Jean was able to slip away to join Shana and Rocky. She inclined her head at the museum and the two Cultivators swiftly followed her around the building out of sight. They were halfway toward the back entrance when Jean saw a familiar figure leaning against the wall. "Hell," she said softly. Louder, she said, "Hey, Alan. What're you doing back here? I thought you went for coffee."
"I changed my mind." The 'city leader' straightened and studied her. "You've been acting odd tonight. Something's on your mind."
"I won't deny it." She met his eyes evenly. "Go back to game."
The audible compulsion in her voice startled both Shana and Rocky. They had known there was power in her voice, but they hadn't realized that her voice was literally power. Liena had had a powerful voice of her own, but nothing like what Jean possessed. Though both may be Virtuosas, Jean was vastly stronger. It gave her an added potency that no one else could tap. A tiny chill went down Shana's back as she realized that the Resurrection Era might be in for a real surprise if the exponential evolution of this bloodline kept happening in all categories.
Alan, however, just smiled. "Compulsion doesn't work on me." He caught her chin with his fingers. "I knew it," he said in satisfaction. "I knew you were just like me. You've tried to keep it quiet because Saul is really twitchy at the idea of majik, but I just knew you had to be a witch, too."
"Too?" Shana repeatedly politely.
Alan looked at her with a smile. "I'm a White Witch with Water/Thunder as my elements and Finding/Spiritual Healing as my skills. I'm not on the Path of the Faith, though. That left my family ages ago." He nodded briefly. "You want the stone in the museum, right? I got the key from the guard."
Jean snorted derisively. She had actually pegged him from the beginning. No one with power of either majikal or magical origin was able to elude her Sight. "You put a sleep spell on him."
"Better than breaking and entering," he retorted as he unlocked the door and pushed it open to let them all inside. Once they were inside, he shut the door behind them and they plunged into darkness.
At first there was silence, then Jean said, "Alan, get your hand off my ass."
"It's a cute ass," was his response.
They weren't soul mates. Shana could be sure of that because the attraction wasn't electric enough. Even if one of them had been resisting—perhaps especially then—she would have felt as if she was watching a countdown to a spectacular explosion. This wasn't even close. She couldn't be sure if they would realize the sparks weren't strong enough to last before or after the affair, but she did know they would enjoy the road along the way. Witches tended to get the best of both sides of the coin; able to enjoy desire even without a soul mate, but then getting the spectacular version when they did.
Time was wasting. She could see perfectly fine in the darkness thanks to being the Apex of Dark, but finding a black stone in a room full of old stones was impossible with eyes alone. She drew a deep breath and focused on the feeling of power within her body. She began to glow with a dark aura that illuminated the area with sunlight—without actually making it possible to see—and then a second glow came from further in the museum. "We need actual light," she decided. "One that can't be seen from outside."
Jean held up a hand and small ball of light via Illusion majik formed. It cast light only around its immediate area, and it could not be seen in a window reflection. Alan could only complain, "You need to teach me that!"
They moved toward the dark glow in the distance and found the stone embedded in the wall. Rocky tugged on it, but it held firm. A look told them that it wasn't really buried deep, yet it held in as tightly as if stuck with cement. "Now what?" he asked.
"Ask the preparedness guy," Jean said dryly. "He probably has a pick."
"I took wilderness training," Alan said modestly as he handed a small ice pick to Rocky. "I also know that we're here until very early in the morning and things can get dangerous now and then if one of the rabble rousers in town goes looking for trouble. This is a legally accepted weapon for personal defense."
"I have a dagger in my garter," Jean offered.
"That is not legal, Jean!"
"I have a permit."
There was a pause, then he asked, "You're wearing real garters?"
Shana just sighed and stepped back so that Rocky could pick the stone out of the wall. It fell into her hands and began glowing even stronger. It sent off a beam of darkness in the air and she closed her eyes to track it. She followed it across the sky until it stopped over a portside city on the other side of that very landmass. With a smile, she opened her eyes and looked at Rocky. "The port. How fitting for Ulyen!" She looked at Jean for a moment and then leaned over to hug her tightly. "We have to go quickly, but this is not goodbye. You'll have to come to our wedding."
"Aren't you already married?" Jean asked in confusion as she returned the hug. "I can see where the ribbons bound you."
Rocky blinked and then stared at her. "You can see that we consider ourselves married?"
"It's no consideration, kid." She lifted one shoulder in a graceful shrug. "A legal marriage is nothing at all like a spiritual one. There's no divorcing from that. You two did something that married you emotionally. The ribbons of the Goddess and God bind you as one."
"I see it too," Alan offered helpfully. "Any witch would, really." He eyed Jean. "Especially this one, because I'm fairly sure she's not just a witch."
"Until I actually pass a cusp of evolution and become an official wizard," Jean retorted, "I'm a witch."
That was almost verbatim what Liena had said as well, and it surprised neither Shana nor Rocky. Shana had felt the boiling power inside Jean quite clearly. Her own Sight stirred, and a premonition told her that it was very possible the last descendant would be given no choice about evolution. Stifled power could, and would, explode beyond on all restraints if held for too long. "Well," she said only, "we claimed our last night in the kingdoms as our wedding night. We've considered ourselves married since, and we feel more odd than not that our feelings don't match legalities."
"In a few months, it will." Jean grinned. "And damn straight I want to be there. I'll try to come out for a visit prior to that as well. And if you need me . . ." She let it trail off. The words were unneeded.
Shana had to smile. "Does anyone dare get in your way?"
Rocky snorted softly. "No wonder you two get along."