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The Unseen Kingdoms - Prologue & Chapter 1

(Blossom Field Galaxy, someday in the far future)



"Tell me about Cultivators."

"Ha! You act like you don't already know."

"I like hearing about it!" The child in question climbed up onto her mother's lap even though she would soon be thirteen and maybe too old for cuddling. She didn't care. Nothing made her happier than to be snuggled against her mother's side and hear her beautiful voice tell stories. "Please?" As if to add to the plea, her little brother climbed up as well, and quite filled that side of the couch.

"Oh, alright. Let's see. Millions of years ago, when the planets of our galaxy first formed, they birthed very special children born with Seeds inside. Some to Rule, and some to Defend. They would all have magic and be tasked with tending to their world so that it could grow and flourish. All became known as Cultivators, for that was their job, and those who bore a Flower Mark on their upper left arm would be Defenders while those who had Marks on their chest would be Rulers."

"But some were both."

"Very rarely, but yes. Across other galaxies, it happened as there was need."

"But in Blossom Field it didn't happen for millions of years until one special Era."

"Haha!" She snuggled her daughter close. "Who is telling this story?"

"You are!" Content, the girl closed her eyes. "Tell me about the Rebirth Era."

"Why that one specifically? Important things happened in the Royal Era preceding it, too."

"Rebirth was extra special, though, right?"

"Yeah . . . in a lot of ways, it really was." She smiled. "Alright then. We'll start right off in Rebirth Year 1, then. Many Eras do start off with something important happening."

"You would know, right?"

"I wish I could blame your father for that sassy nature of yours, I really do."

(Rebirth Era, Year 1)

Eight months of peace had passed since the end of the most recent War. July of Rebirth Era Year 1 had arrived, and with it came the hotter temperatures associated with summer on Protea. The world always had a warmer temperature due to its Nature element and its close association to the sun, but summer could hit new extremes. Luckily for all who lived there, it could be acclimated for quickly as it always seemed as if the sun would rather protect than hurt those who played and worked under its guiding warmth.

The passage of time showed most notably for the Cultivators that protected the galaxy by the way their schedules had changed fairly dramatically. For the nine older Cultivators, graduation from university had occurred just the month before and almost everyone had been picked up into their chosen careers.

Virginia Tungsten had let herself be scouted for a modeling agency while she continued to produce paintings of her own that more than one gallery leapt to grab. Yvonne Kingfisher had moved into an interior decorating company and all but taken over in a week as the most popular designer. Sherry Darnigan's combination fashion design and divination shop—unlikely combination yet very her—had only just had its official opening a few days before. Juliet Diario had not had the nerve to open her own bakery or restaurant, so instead the newly graduated chef happily created and made meals at the ranch café just outside town.

Desiree Rikavet's skills in hair and makeup design had gotten her grabbed by Lux's largest theatrical studio even before graduation, so she simply shifted from part time to full time. Alexandria Urias had taken her mechanical skills into a local electric carriage shop where she alternated between fixing old and broken carriages and upgrading newer ones. Kellie Yu had graduated with top honors in medicine only to move on to a more advanced school as she headed toward becoming a pediatrician.

Curiously, however, the other two graduates did not actually seem that inclined to use their degrees—which had their friends and family wondering just what they planned for the future. Rocky Toulume had graduated with honors in Computational Sciences yet he had blithely tucked the degree away and instead taken a managerial promotion at the same Springwood Ranch where Juliet had been hired. He had been working there for years already, but now moved from being 'sort of' in charge to wholly so.

His future brother-in-law, Edgar Chivanti, had graduated with a degree in Business Operations and top marks, and had been immediately solicited by several companies to be hired, but he had instead decided to work at the ranch as well. He served as Rocky's co-manager, and primary horse trainer. His love for all nature made it seem plausible, yet his friends speculated deeply. Only time would tell—such as when his sister became an adult in only a few months—just what the two near-twins had planned.

Shana Chivanti had in fact just entered her final year of university and would graduate by her twenty-fifth birthday in December with degrees in both Photography and Business Operations—the latter was what had people so suspicious of ulterior motives. She had been in advanced placement classes since childhood, so her schedule had always remained skewed to everyone else.

Her age counterpart, Siobhan Toulume, would enter her final year of university come September and graduate in the following June. She would then follow in Kellie's footsteps to head for advanced medical school so she could become a doctor. She had once thought to be a nurse, but had instead decided to go even further. Since both Kellie and Siobhan had healing gifts with their Cultivator magic, the focus on medicine seemed more than logical. They liked to put together anyone who had been broken, much like Alexandria and her machines.

Shana's skewed schedule meant that she did not get the same summer break as everyone else. On the other hand, she had only three classes remaining across both degrees, so she still had a great deal of free time. Enough time, in fact, that she nearly got bored. Boredom inside the Apex of Dark meant she would probably find trouble to drag either her brother or her lover, or even her sister, into. To stave it off and spare everyone's sanity, she instead decided to pick up extra credit she did not need by volunteering as a tutor at the children's Care House there in their home city of Lux.

The Care House provided for children who did not have families, and offered housing, schooling, and more. To help ensure the children got the best possible experiences, tutors often got requested from the university and even the regular grade schools to help the children learn new skills or advance in lessons they struggled with otherwise. Shana, with her off the chart intelligence and learning capacity, had been a prime candidate to start tutoring. She enjoyed it at the least, and it kept her friends sane and not worrying about her mental health. Everyone won.

As Clara Memoria parked her carriage outside the Care House, she studied the cheerful building for just a moment. It felt strangely familiar though she had no recollection of ever visiting before—an odd thing for the Statice Cultivator who had the Flower Element of Memory and served as the Librarian to the Hall of Records in the Ephemeral Plane. She had existed as long as the worlds had, and she had learned to selectively let go of memories—but she always could immediately call up something if she encountered déjà vu. This time . . . nothing.

She got out of the carriage and smiled as she heard the sound of children laughing. She had won the delegation to pick Shana up from tutoring that day. Neither Chivanti could stand driving a carriage after the horrific crash that had taken their parents and almost sent them into this very Care House. Shana could actually drive a single-person EC, commonly called an electric bike, but not more than that. Edgar couldn't even manage that. If they needed a drive somewhere, one of their loved ones volunteered. Usually Siobhan or Rocky for obvious reasons, but the other Cultivators often chipped in when free.

Clara had been the most free that day, which made sense since she usually lived inside the Hall of Records and only came out to visit or to push events as needed. Ever since the end of the Chaos War, however, she had spent most of her time in the physical world. Shana had still not wholly recovered. The final battle continued to exist for brief moments in her eyes of an unspeakable hell. She would discuss with no one any of the events that had occurred after Alexandria died. Not even Rocky could pry it out of her.

Though Clara had not been present for those final moments, nor had she been able to view it directly thanks to the Chaos power, she had instead sought the knowledge from the shelves of her Hall so that she could be armed with it if ever Shana had need. She felt queasy just thinking about it, though. The event would forever haunt her almost as much as it did Shana: she had gone into the Heart of Chaos and come out alive. That was dangerous enough for regular people, but doubly so for either Apex since Chaos was both Light and Dark together.

An old adage from Iris said that what didn't kill you would only make you stronger. Shana embodied it wholly. The moment the dust had settled and the two sibling Cultivators of Ranunculus had returned home, Shana had doubled down and thrown herself into her schooling and photographic work with a force just shy of obsession. Her craving for normalcy could be felt by everyone. Rocky especially, but also Alexandria and Edgar and Siobhan had done everything in their power to give it to her.

The summer heat barely touched Clara as she started down the pedestrian lane of the street, though she would always be better acclimated for the much cooler temperatures of her beloved Statice world or the equally cool Hall of Records. She supposed it just meant that you could not love either Protea heir without loving the sun, too.

The thought made her smile, but she stopped quickly as a rubber ball bounced out the open gates of Care House and right into the part of the street reserved for ECs. Right behind it ran a brown haired girl with bronze skin not unlike Clara's own. She looked and felt so shockingly familiar to Clara that all the Cultivator could do was stare. Familiar and yet unknown. It was an eerie feeling.

The girl darted into the street, and Clara leapt forward on sheer reflex. "Hey, look out!" She snatched the girl into her arms and yanked her out of the way just as a carriage went past with its horn blaring loudly. The driver looked utterly terrified as she slowed down to look back, but Clara waved her on reassuringly. The carriage continued down the street, though slower, as Clara let out a breath and put the girl on her feet. "Be more careful!" she scolded. "ECs are so quiet you don't often hear them coming! Look before entering their lanes, alright?"

Large brown eyes blinked at her for a moment, and then girl smiled and offered a hand palm up, as was the common greeting. "I'm Rachel! Thank you for saving me."

Charmed, Clara placed the back of her hand on Rachel's palm to return the greeting, and she returned the smile as well. "You're welcome. I'm Clara Memoria. Do you live at the Care House?"

"Yes, I do. I've lived here almost all ten years of my life. My parents gave me up." No sadness or self-pity filled her voice; just a matter-of-fact acceptance of events she could not change, and an understanding that sometimes children really were better at the House than not. She waved a hand, and when the taller woman leaned down, she whispered, "Can you keep the almost-accident a secret? My tutor would have my head. She's itchy about ECs. And she scares me. She's not yet an adult, but she's great at being in charge of stuff."

Clara knelt down to Rachel's slightly taller-than-average height to study her better. There truly was something very familiar about her face and eyes. Familiar about the power lurking inside her body; it could be felt just by touching her. Not necessarily majik as much as magic—though it could well be the former, just extremely locked down. Either way, the girl had a gift of some sort that made her quite unusual. Something glimmered in Clara's mind but would not form. And because it wouldn't, she let it go. It would come if and when needed. "I have a friend who is much younger than me," she offered, "and I'm scared of her, too. She doesn't hesitate to get in my face where other people wouldn't dare."

"Friends do that." Rachel smiled. "That's what Shana says, anyway."

For a moment, Clara heard laughter in the back of her mind. She ignored it as an echo of the past for forces that liked to have their way. "Shana Chivanti?"

Rachel brightened. "Yes! She's so wonderful. She became my tutor really recently, but it's like I've always known her. I met her fiancé recently, too. He's kind of silly, but nice too, in a different way!"

Clara bit her lip to hide a smile. 'Silly' was certainly one word for the propensity to always be cheerful that existed inside Rocky and Siobhan alike. "Well, as terribly ironic as this may be, it would seem that the person who scares you is the same person who scares me. Shana is one of my dearest people in the world, and I have always been a guardian of sorts to her. In fact, I'm here to pick her up today. Do you know where she is?"

"Sure! Follow me." Rachel tucked her hands in her back pockets as she led the way toward the play area. As carefully as she could, she stole peeks up at Clara's face. There was something hauntingly familiar about this tall woman with long pink hair the color of her favorite statice blossoms. Something familiar about her warm lavender eyes. Just being near her made Rachel feel good. Maybe she had finally found the mother she had always wanted.

Clara suddenly felt a very unschooled touch on her mind and smiled. "If you're going to try to peek into a mind, you'll need to be much sneakier."

"You felt me!" Her eyes went wide. "Wow. I thought only Shana and Rocky could do that!" Sheepishly, she admitted, "I'm learning, and I can't be subtle, but most people don't notice me at all. Shana said that only really sensitive people like her or Rocky could do that." She wrinkled her nose. "I try not to read minds of everyone anyway. I wouldn't want to look in there most of the time. I was just curious about you."

"Then ask me whatever you like," Clara offered.

She smiled. "Boring stuff first! Do you work? What do you do, if you do?"

After a moment to consider her words, she said, "My regular job is, hmm, hard to describe. While in Lux, I work part time as a legal advisor while dabbling in some science that interests me."

"What sort of science?"

"Temporal science."

Rachel brightened visibly. "You study how time works?" She skidded to a stop and swung around to grab Clara's hands. "I want to study too! Can I ask things? I love temporal science. I read everything I can get my hands on, but there's not much written on it yet since it's so magic-based and magic has only just started coming back because of Cultivators. You could maybe study with me! Do you have kids?"

The utter non-sequitur at the end had Clara shaking her head a bit. "I would not mind studying with you if I have time, and, no, I don't have kids." Nor a soul mate to produce such a thing, which as always made a little pang echo in her heart and soul. The Lonely Cultivator. She had borne that moniker for millions of years, too.

"Good." Rachel nodded firmly. "You can adopt me. I think you'd be a wonderful mom, and I also think you need me." She spotted another kid waving at her and waved back. "I'll be right back! Don't run away, okay?"

Clara had the impression that she stood in the path of a tidal wave and there was nothing she could do to move in time. Her Sight teased her warningly, giving her a premonition that her entire life was about to be turned upside down. Nothing would ever be the same again. Past, present, and future alike would be impacted somehow.

Despite her hesitancy with Rachel, she did actually have plenty of time. She held a connection to the Hall of Records that ran through the very power in her veins. She felt fluctuations from anywhere and did not have to constantly be present within the Hall in order to serve as Librarian. It just always made her life easier to do so for varying reasons, particularly because staying out of events meant she could see more of them to come.

No one with Future or All Sight could see their own future as more than hints and premonitions, but they could often see much their loved ones' futures—as long as they stayed out of them. Clara had already found her ability to see the future dimmed from the moment Shanae had been born in the Royal Era, proof of Clara's thorough entanglement to Shanae's future in a way she had never been entangled before. But then, she had never loved any other Protea Ruler Cultivator the way she loved Shana.

A child screamed loudly, followed by another scream from other kids. Her head jerked up and she saw a vile beast of unknown origin going after those on the playground. A monster, though she could not identify what sort of evil had made it. It managed to get a hand on Rachel and held her around the neck despite her struggles.

Clara could count the very few times in her life where she had been truly enraged. All had had to do with protecting her beloved princess. Yet as she saw Rachel's struggles, she saw nothing but red. Fury rose so fast that she couldn't fight it. She had grabbed her Mask from her bracelet before even being conscious of it, and she yanked it on to call her armor and conceal her identity.

Memory magic welled up around her body and then shot through the air in a blinking surge that paralyzed the monster long enough for Rachel to wiggle free. The girl got only a step away before someone else entirely grabbed her, and the unknown man held her in a very similar grip that made her yell in frustration, "This is getting old!"

Her captor snorted in derision. A tap on his shoulder had him blinking, and he turned his head. He had barely enough time to register that there was another Defender Cultivator on the ground before her fist cracked across his jaw and stars exploded in his head. He had to drop Rachel because the force of the blow actually sent him staggering backward several feet, and his jaw throbbed viciously enough to imply it might have been cracked.

Rachel found herself sitting rather rudely on the grass and looked up as a protective darkness swept over her. An imposing figure wearing armor that echoed to a black protea and a matching, beautiful, Mask stood right behind her. Not much of her identity could be determined, other than golden brown skin with a soft reddish hue, black hair in a braid, and a ridiculously tall height. The Protea Defender Cultivator, Rachel remembered hearing. The first of her kind to exist—neither Protea nor Delphinium had ever produced a Defender, only Rulers, until this Era. "Uhm."

The Mask did not cover all of Shana's face, so her smile was visible as she looked down. "Don't you wish kidnappers would be more original?" She offered a hand to help Rachel stand. "Listen to me well, kid," she warned. "Stay with the Daffodil Defender and let her protect you. She and the Statice Cultivator are primarily magic-oriented, and therefore you will be safest near them."

"Yes'm." Rachel fought to keep her jaw from dropping as the Protea Defender called an amazing and nearly mythical-looking claymore from out of pure darkness. Amber in the hilt held a single protea blossom, and the blade itself had been made of black metal. She rushed toward the monster to almost take it out in a single attack, and Rachel stopped breathing. "Wow," she managed.

Kellie's Mask also did not hide her smile as she stepped up beside Rachel, and additional warmth infused the Daffodil Defender's voice as she said, "She impresses us all the time, too." She hastily grabbed Rachel and turned her away from a stray blast of ugly magic. It splashed harmlessly off her armor, luckily. She glanced at the fight, saw that some extra physical strength could be useful, and looked to where Clara approached quickly. "Statice, I'm going in to serve our queen." A three-headed spear made of pure Metal appeared in her grip as she ran forward to jump in the fray.

Rachel looked up at Clara solemnly, not yet recognizing her. "I thought she was magically oriented?"

"Hmm, it can be a bit flexible for some of us, especially those with Dark cores." She smiled as she thought about her friends across her long life. "And some more than others, depending on the need our High Queens have of us. I'm solely magic, and defensive at that."

"You blasted that monster pretty hard, though."

"That was a paralyzing skill, which lays under defensive headings. It didn't do damage."

"That actually makes sense. Does anyone get both offensive and defensive?"

"Our Lead Defender of Carnation, as by rights of her role as Lead, and the Delphinium Defender who is the Apex of Light and therefore all that is magical in existence. Also, the Protea Defender—who should be Lead but is not for complicated reasons—has very little magic, but that magic is technically both offensive and defensive as you'd expect." Clara had to smile. "You really do have a curious mind, Rachel."

"How did you know my name?" Her eyes went wide as the little pieces just went click. The Statice Defender had lavender eyes behind her Mask and her tightly braided hair looked pink. Little above average height, and bronze skin. "Wait, you're Clara!" Her head jerked around toward the fight as she remembered things Clara had said, and her eyes went right to the Protea Defender. As much as her fighting style, her very long though braided black hair and pink eyes paired to her golden skin gave her away. In realizing it, she found could just suddenly see through their Masks as if they did not wear them, and several faces looked quite familiar. "Oh. Wow."

To be fair, the conclusion should be obvious to anyone who bothered to look close enough—though few ever had. Yet the utter ease with which Rachel had made the right connections made suspicions tumble in the back of Clara's mind. She let them simmer. They would be worth examining much later. She spied the fight ending with the monster destroyed, and glanced at Rachel. "Stay here," she ordered.

"Yes'm. I like living!"

Clara moved to join her friends and stayed where she could react quickly if Shana had need of her protection. It seemed unlikely; the Apex had her sword tip pressed under the chin of the man who had instigated the battle. He watched her in return with a wariness that implied he knew full what it meant for her to be the Apex of Dark.

"Who are you?" Shana asked softly. "Why are you here? You deliberately walked onto my territory. You had to know I was here."

Cultivators tended to claim particular territories under their protection by unconsciously leaving echoes of their magic behind. Protea as a whole had of course been claimed by Shana and Edgar alike, but Lux in particular had all but become a garden tended by the two Ruler Cultivators, and the Care House especially felt as if it dripped raw Flower Element magic. Anyone with any sort of gift of their own would feel it just entering the grounds.

The man inclined his head in slight acknowledgement of her words. "I did. I find your existence utterly disgusting. Why do worlds need Defender Cultivators?"

"To protect them from assholes like you who willingly embrace evil for the perverted range of magic it offers?" Alexandria retorted, almost politely. "If sorts like you didn't exist, and if evil was gone, then we wouldn't be needed either. So, you know, it's almost your fault." Her white eyes narrowed behind her Mask. "Get off our world."

"And don't come back!" Rachel shouted.

Shana heard both Desiree and Kellie snort softly, and she couldn't help but grin as well. "I couldn't have said it better!" Dark power moved across her pink eyes warningly. "Your name?"

"Andromedian." He shot a disgusted look toward Rachel. "You should have kept your mouth shut, brat. Now I wouldn't mind erasing you as well."

A sudden deadly aura enveloped Clara so hotly that her aura actually flared briefly pink and lavender, drawing lifted brows from her partners. "You won't touch her!" she warned.

He laughed at her. "You shouldn't show such weakness, Your Majesty! You can't protect her forever!" A rock thunked him in the back of the head, and he turned to scowl at Rachel. "That hurt!"

"That was the point!" she retorted.

Desiree looked at Shana solemnly. "You are a terrible influence on others."

Shana grinned back. "My mother says that a lot, too."

Andromedian snarled at both of them for their levity and then disappeared from the scene entirely to plan out his first real strike. Shana just sighed and propped her sword on her shoulder. "Great. Another war. I want to hope he's fairly useless, but I don't expect to be that lucky. We're going to have to be careful until we figure out his intentions and way of battle. Daffodil, contact Carnation. Tell her what's going on. We'll have a debriefing soon enough for everyone, but damned if I will give her more reason to be temperamental."

Kellie coughed and moved a step away as she grabbed her communications mask. Rachel saw it had become safe and so ran over to jump up and hug Clara tightly around the neck despite her armor having some sharp metal edges to protect her chest and arms. "You were amazing!" she said happily. She turned a scowl on Shana. "Why didn't you tell me you were the Protea Defender Cultivator?"

"You weren't supposed to know." Speculation filled her eyes as she removed her Mask and put it on top of her head to send her armor and weapon away. Her now unbound hair loosely moved in the light wind of the play area. She never bound her hair willingly unless she felt bound by Destiny, and no greater bond existed than her role as Defender. All Defenders whose hair was of long enough length had their hair enter into a powerfully tight braid the moment they donned their Mask. It was a safety feature, of course, but it had . . . symbolic use as well. "How did you realize?"

"I just did. It made sense. And when I figured it out, I could suddenly see through your masks. Does that make sense?"

The others briefly exchanged a look before Desiree also removed her Mask and said kindly, "It does because you are special."

Rachel studied each in turn as they removed their Masks, and in particular looked at Alexandria. She stood an inch taller than Shana, which meant she could properly act as her queen's twin soul mate and closest protector and remove her physically from danger as needed. After a moment, Rachel told Shana, "She does not have horns. Rocky fibbed."

Shana bit her lip as Alexandria scowled at her. "Oh please!" she finally laughed. "Like you're any better!" She reached over and tweaked Rachel's nose lightly. "Since I've gotten to know you pretty well, and you're pretty smart for a brat, I guess we can trust you." She smoothed Rachel's messy hair back and then looked at Clara. "She needs more than she can get from me," she said simply. "What she wants and needs, she can only get from you."

Rachel looked up at Clara imploringly. With a sigh, feeling Destiny hovering near, Clara gave in to the inevitable. "Alright. I'll be her new tutor." Resignation filled her that Destiny had finally decided it was time to meddle in her life in ways other than battle alone. Well . . . Destiny and perhaps a certain ancient queen who, though long dead, still meddled quite heavily in the affairs of those she loved—just like her latest descendent did. Some things never could leave a gene pool, even after millions of years.

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