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Check out a chapter or two from Erudessa's stories to get an idea of her different writing styles.

Science Fantasy:

 

PIT Sample
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Power In Time

Prologue

Dual-tinted gaze of one just and fair

With import and power beyond compare

Family bonds bring steadfast strength

Faithful and loyal to whatever length

But a strength can always be turned around

And what is lost will not always be found

—From Evren’s Foundation Prophecies

Chapter 1

The old gentleman stumbled into the dark alley, nose wrinkling from the odors. He’d forgotten how dirty Earth’s cities in the early twenty-first century could be. No one passed by the alley’s entrance, but he pulled his hat low over his eyes, tightened the long black coat that materialized around him, and started making his way toward the faint morning light streaming in from the street. With each step, the small bag slung over his shoulder tapped against his thigh.

    He had to find her before it was too late. He owed her that much. It was his fault she was in this mess. Well, mostly his fault. Now, he was her only hope—as long as he could get them to her. He didn’t have time to invent anything else.

    Pausing at the alley’s entrance, he stopped against a wall and clutched his chest. Poisons could burn like nothing else. He waited for the pain near his heart to subside before continuing on his quest.

    I have to find her.

    That was his all-consuming thought. To give her his one last gift. It would protect her. Help her reach the full potential she didn’t even realize she had.

    Hope surged in him as he heard a young, lilting voice down the street. Carefully stepping around insect-infested piles of trash bags, he peeked out of the alley to make sure of the voice’s owner. It took years for him to get this close. Just as he caught sight of the young woman he was dying for, his view was blocked by an unkempt black T-shirt with a stained skull and crossbones decorating the chest of a man who pushed him back into the shadowed alley. Another man followed behind Skull and Crossbones.

    “Hey, old man.” The larger thug pinned him against the grimy wall with a sweaty, shaky, but strong arm. “Hand over your wallet, phone, everything. Wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

    The trapped man let out a gasp as the deceptively small, poisoned cut below his left collarbone tore open a bit more. He ignored the trickle of blood that began soaking his clothing as he observed the two thieves.

    Tattoos were sported across their exposed flesh. The smaller one was practically skin and bones, with bloodshot eyes and bruises all along his arms from obvious needle pricks. He also brandished a knife and, the scientist thought, looked like he did, too, want to hurt him.

 

*** 

Larkspur Bei stepped out of the used bookstore, a bag bulging with biology textbooks swinging on her arm, and an equally full backpack hanging from her shoulders. As Lark strode down the sidewalk, grunts and thuds, evidence of a scuffle from an alley across the street, broke into her tranquil thoughts of where to get a study snack.

    Lark tried to ignore it.

    Don’t get involved. You’ve got no ties here, no obligations. You’ve got no ties anywhere.

    She gripped the straps of her backpack, resisting the urge to massage her neck.

    You’ve helped enough people around here. You’re leaving today. On to a new chapter.

    “You’ll only regret it,” she muttered to herself, even as she stored her sunglasses away.

    She touched a pair of dog tags tucked under her shirt, then started jogging toward the dark alley.

    More grunts, then, “Now, you’re going to get it, old man!”

    Lark broke into a run.

 

***

 

“I don’t have anything useful to you,” the old gentleman told the thieves truthfully.

    His back was still pressed against the brick of a building, the uneven edges poking through his coat.

    “You’d be surprised how inventive people can be,” the knife holder spat. “Cough it up. Everything you’ve got.”

    The scientist landed a surprise punch to the larger thug’s throat, causing him to stumble backward. The smaller one’s eyes glazed over in pain thanks to a steel-toe boot finding his groin. Dropping his knife, the unfortunate thief fell to the trash-strewn pavement with a gasp.

    It was too much for the bleeding man. Crying out, he crumpled to the ground, hat falling off his head. His chest felt like it was being ripped open with flames. The poison worked quicker now. He could feel himself dying.

    The bigger of the two thieves recovered enough to growl. “Now, you’re going to get it, old man!”

    The thug pulled a gun from behind his back.

    Motion in the corner of his eye caused the old man to jerk his head toward the alley’s entrance, where a dark-haired young woman dropped a bag on the ground, thick books spilling out onto the sidewalk. Reaching the aggressor before he could react, she kicked the gun out of his grasp. She sidestepped the thug’s attempt at a hook. When the man staggered forward, the woman took advantage of his partially exposed back, smashed a downward elbow into the back of his neck, causing him to stumble down on one knee. His dazed eyes didn’t even see her round kick to his jaw, knocking him unconscious.

    The smaller attacker crawled away in the scuffle, a putrid pile of vomit the sole evidence left of him. The woman grabbed a pair of latex gloves from her backpack, slipped them on, and pressed her fingers to the throat of the thief she knocked out. Her shoulders relaxed with a relieved sigh. Using the attacker’s own belt, she bound his arms behind him before stepping to the pistol. She inspected the gun—he assumed to check if it was loaded, but his knowledge of ancient weapon anatomy was limited—then fiddled with a little lever on the side before tucking it into her backpack.

    The young woman kneeled next to the scientist. “Sir? Are you all right? My name is Lark. I’ll—” She paused mid-sentence, belatedly getting a good look at him. “F-Franklin?”

    “Finally,” he whispered, laying a hand on her cheek. He gazed into the face he’d been searching so hard for. There was the mesmerizing combination of blue right eye and gray left eye, both now wide with shock.

    “Dr. Franklin Wright? Is it really you?” She squinted at him. “What happened to your hair?”

    He’d been clean-shaven with his hair dyed white the last time they met. The aquamarine of his legitimate hair interspersed with silver threads would be unnatural for this era.

    “What am I thinking?” Lark berated herself. “Are you hurt?”

    “Merely had the wind knocked out of me,” he lied with a wince as she helped prop him against the wall. “I only need a moment.” He didn’t relish sitting on the trash-strewn ground, but Lark would realize something was wrong if his legs gave out.

    Lark pulled out a cell phone. “Let me call the police and an ambulance while you catch your breath.”

    Franklin watched her dial 911. As she grumbled her way through several automated steps, he discreetly fingered the silver bracelet on his right wrist. He pressed the engraving of a tiger resting under a wisteria tree, and the tree began to pulse with a soft purple light. With any luck, Harold would be there before the police.

    “We’re across the street from Hailey’s Used Books on North Jackson.” Lark peered at the alleyway’s entrance. “Yes. Thank you.” As she hung up, she turned back to Franklin. “You are hurt!” she cried, kneeling back down next to him.

    Franklin glanced down at his chest to find blood soaking through his coat. “Nothing you can do,” he murmured.

    “We’ll see,” Lark said sternly. “Are you having any trouble breathing?”

    “No.” Franklin clenched his teeth when he shook his head. Breathing was fine for now, but any excessive movement hurt like mad.

    Lark swiped fingers around his head, neck, armpits, and groin area, inspecting her hands to see if any blood showed up on her gloves, apparently satisfied when they came away with no red stains. Her movements were methodical, as if following a formula.

    Franklin recognized her brother’s old army backpack as she swung it around to rummage through. She remained almost exactly as she had the last time they met. Her dark hair was still pulled back, the same baggy cargo pants, with a black leather bomber jacket covering a dark purple T-shirt. Her face was a bit more mature, filled out and refined. She was taller and now wore a little bit of makeup, but the confident, strong air around her had not diminished in the slightest.

    Still trying to save his life, exactly like their dramatic first meeting. Memories flashed, filled with gunfire, flares, yelling, dragging her into the ocean for partial protection from explosions.

    He blinked. Didn’t they say your life flashed before your eyes just ahead of dying? No matter if that was true, he was running out of time.

    Pulling out a bag with a bright red cross on the side, Lark unzipped it and set it on the ground beside her. Franklin peeked in, glimpsing a bundle of fabric. As Lark carefully pulled aside the left front of his jacket to see the cut on his chest, he inched his right hand toward his own bag.

    “Do you need something?” Lark glanced at his hand as she pulled a small pair of scissors out of her medic bag.

    “I’m thirsty.” Franklin tried to sound innocent.

    Lark nodded. “Give me a minute to check this laceration, all right? Then, I’ll grab it for you.”

    Franklin relaxed.

    “I’m sorry, I’ve got to cut your shirt to see the extent of this injury.” Lark snipped away, not waiting for his agreement. “Do you hurt anywhere else?” She made quick work of wiping the blood away.

    “Just some minor cuts and bruises.” Aside from the poison, that was true. He was fading quickly. Pushing her hands away, Franklin grabbed his bag.

    “Stop, Franklin. I still need to finish cleaning this cut,” Lark chided.

    Ignoring her, Franklin pulled the long silver bottle out of his bag, opened the lid, and threw the clear liquid at Lark with near-desperation. Most of it splashed square on her face, but the rest soaked her shirt and arms.

    “What on earth?” Lark sputtered. “What was that for?”

    At first, her blue and gray eyes were filled with irritation, but Franklin saw confusion creep in as she wiped her face, fingers almost dry. The oily substance absorbed quickly into her skin.

    “What did you throw on me?” Lark jumped up, patting down all the places the liquid was rapidly disappearing.

    Distracted, Lark failed to see a flash of light behind her in the back of the alley.

Finally, Harold was here.

    “Lark,” Franklin whispered.

    Lark’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, quickly replaced with worry as she crouched down again. “Franklin? You’re awfully pale. Hang on. The ambulance is coming.” Her voice was fading. “Come on, please don’t leave me again. I barely got you back.”

    He stroked her face one last time. It was still such a young face. How old was she the last time they met? Seventeen? Her hand came up to cup his. So young, yet so strong.

    Their time together always seemed to be cut short.

    His heart overflowed, but all he could manage to say with his final breath was a soft, “I’m sorry.”

* * *

Lark held Franklin’s limp hand to her cheek, fighting to keep the tears at bay. She and her brothers had searched high and low for Franklin and Avi when they disappeared three years ago. Despite not knowing the old gentlemen for long, the Bei siblings had welcomed them like the grandfathers they’d never known.

    Focus! she snapped at herself. No pulse. Get the heart pumping.

    Adjusting Franklin to lie flat on his back, Lark heard something behind her as she began to administer CPR. She craned her neck to see if the EMTs had arrived, belatedly realizing they wouldn’t come from the back of the alley.

    Half a dozen well-muscled men swarmed around them, causing a stutter in the smooth rhythm of chest compressions. How had they come from there? Was there a door hidden in the shadows?

    “Wh-who are you?” she asked, almost forgetting to resume her rescue efforts on Franklin.

    One of them stepped forward and held up a box with a red cross on the side. “I’m a medic. Let me take a look?”

    Lark hesitated until she noticed his silver bracelet nearly matched Franklin’s. Perhaps they knew each other. She also realized if this stranger was a certified medic, he was the best chance to save Franklin.

    Stepping back, she tried to study the surrounding men. Her scrutiny didn’t go unnoticed—most of them stared right back at her, more stern than aggressive. These men who appeared out of nowhere carried themselves like military men more than common criminals. Perhaps mercenaries? From where? They all wore the same black uniform with no visible emblems or markings—except maybe the matching silver bracelets. Unlike Franklin’s, there was a larkspur blossom added to the tiger and tree design for most of the men. And these men were big; like they had lived in a gym since they were ten.

One covered the prone form of the unconscious thief with what looked like a toy gun. The barrel was long and too thin to hold a bullet. Another man grabbed Lark’s med kit and backpack she’d forgotten next to Franklin.

    “Hey, that’s mine!” She jumped forward.

    The stranger to her left was on her so fast she barely had time to blink, much less yell for help, before he clamped a firm hand over her mouth. At least it was her mouth and not her throat. She couldn’t afford to freeze here.

    Goodness, he’s fast! And strong. His arm around her midsection resembled an iron bar. Lark struggled in his grasp as hard as she could, but her captor was immovable. Was the man made of stone? Granted, her strengths—kicks and elbow strikes—were far less effective in her current position, but nothing she did appeared to have any effect on him.

    “My name is Conan,” the man holding her said. His voice wasn’t gruff, but it wasn’t soft, either. She couldn’t identify the underlying emotion. Was he also worried about Franklin? “I’m not going to hurt you, but I can’t let you call for help, either.”

    Lark paused in her efforts to free herself when another man—this one with salt-and-pepper hair—kneeled next to the medic examining Franklin. He turned hopefully to the medic. “Raphael?”

    The medic shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

    Lark’s heart dropped. She barely saw the tears trickling down the face of Mr. Salt and Pepper through her own.

    “I’m sorry, my friend.” Mr. Salt and Pepper bowed his head.

    Their whole group stilled with a heavy silence until Mr. Salt and Pepper caught sight of Franklin’s silver bottle on the ground. He picked it up with a gloved hand and studied it.

The man’s head whipped toward her. “Did you drink this?” he asked, voice strangely urgent.

    Lark glared at him despite the sudden wave of nausea that washed over her.

    Don’t show any weakness. You’re outnumbered and overpowered. Keep any advantage you have, even if it’s just an illusion.

    “She didn’t have to drink it,” Raphael said from behind Mr. Salt and Pepper. “As long as it touched her, her skin would absorb it.”

    All eyes turned to study Lark intently.

    “How are you feeling?” Conan asked her.

    Like a creepy dude is holding me prisoner, and a man I used to want as a grandfather exposed me to some suspicious substance. So, just grand. Thanks for asking.

    Since her captor was still covering her mouth, she hoped her narrow-eyed glare at the rest of them sent her message clear enough.

    Mr. Salt and Pepper gave a tight smile as pity softened his brown eyes, but Lark hardly noticed the change as a horrible cramp ripped through her abdomen. She couldn’t stop a groan from escaping through Conan’s hand.

    “We need to go.” Mr. Salt and Pepper turned to the back of the alley. “It’s not safe here.”

     Everyone started moving. Two men picked up Franklin Wright’s body. Conan, maintaining his iron grip around Lark, effortlessly carried her toward a strange light at the back of the alley she hadn’t noticed before. A kind of muddy liquid in the shape of a rough circle splotched itself in front of the gray bricks.

    Lark watched in fascinated horror as, one by one, the people in front of her walked into the now softly glowing circle. Before their figures disappeared, the bizarre, body-eating liquid flashed almost white before fading back to the strangely glowing muddy brown. The rough edges ebbed and flowed, but never got too small to accommodate a person.

    Lark struggled again, but to no avail. Her attempted screams were still muffled by the strong hand clamped around her mouth. She didn’t feel right—sick to her stomach. Cramps like a bad period, weak and shaky limbs, and a headache beginning to roar behind her eyes. Despite that, she didn’t stop fighting until they got to the strange portal. Instinctively closing her eyes, there was a momentary flash of cold. Then, the unexpected sensation of a fresh breeze on her face coaxed her eyes open.

Finding Home

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FH Sample

Prologue

Running.

Panting.

Fear.

Anger.

So much anger.

Hands, covered in blood. Cradling something precious.

Pain crashes in with the tears.

Something precious hovers just beyond consciousness.

Something important.

Something forgotten.

But everything is swallowed up in a black vortex.

The blackness always comes.

Eventually.

Chapter 1

Avi Kynaston groaned into his hands before mussing his untidy white hair. Tattered scrolls, dusty books, and scribbled notes littered his desk. Holograms hovered above it all, filled with the more publicly known—and widely ignored—prophecies he had always loved.

    “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Avi shook his head. “It was supposed to be safe!”

He pushed the book in front of him aside and closed his copper eyes, but the ominous words seemed burned into the back of his eyelids.

 

But a strength can always be turned around

And what is lost will not always be found

 

    He used to think what was lost was the relationship with his mutinous nephew, Casimer Talbot. Maybe, it was the trust of his daughter that he lost.

 

***

 

The first thing Sterling Bei became aware of was a light weight wriggling on his stomach. That couldn’t be good. Then again, almost nothing had been good in what he could remember of the last two years, so he tried to deny reality and go back to sleep.

    The wriggling worked its way up his chest before something soft and fuzzy tickled his nose. Sterling kept his eyes tightly shut, trying not to sneeze.

    It’s a hallucination. There’s nothing there. You’re dreaming. You’ll wake up, and you won’t be in a hospital room with half your memories missing and an overgrown fur ball, that can’t decide if it likes you or not, smothering your rib cage.

    “Snowball! How many times do I have to tell you to leave Sterling alone? His IVs aren’t your toys.” His younger sister, Larkspur’s voice, broke into his thoughts before the weight on his chest disappeared.

    Sighing, Sterling braced himself to face reality. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—ignore his Little Larkie. He opened his eyes to the bare, cream walls of his large hospital room, just in time to see Lark’s pet tiger cub swipe her white and black tail across his face one last time before she was pulled away.

    Yeah. Dogs are so much better than cats.

    Knowing it would add to the aches of his frail body, Sterling fought back a sneeze as Snowball curled contentedly around Lark’s neck.

    He should have let it go. The momentary pain would’ve been better than Lark’s worry about his eyes tearing up, thanks to the tickle in his nose.

    “Sterl, are you okay? Should I call someone?” Lark looked ready to run out and find the nearest doctor.

    “I’m fine.” He wheezed. “Just—achoo!”

    Lark winced as Sterling groaned from the sharp headache that now pounded in the back of his skull. Noticing her helpless expression, the familiar rock of guilt settled in the pit of his stomach.

When would he ever stop causing her pain? He was the older brother. He should be preventing the nightmares, not adding to them.

    “Really, I’m okay. I just needed to sneeze.”

    He moved over a few inches so she could sit on the large bed, sighing with relief when she dropped the subject.

    When he first woke up, it was hard to believe he was in a hospital, due to the room’s size and the luxurious furniture quality. The room was sparse, with no decorations, a single window overlooking a grassy yard, his large bed with satin sheets, and two overstuffed recliners. An entire wall lined with honey-colored wood cabinets, a long counter, and a sink completed the room’s furnishings. It was vastly different from the hospital rooms on twenty-first century Earth.

    Lark settled beside him, her eyes clouded with the dim fear of losing him again. He could relate. While he tried to navigate the crushing mountain of his lost and manipulated memories, Lark was his only anchor. He would rather live with sickening remorse than lose his memories of her. Again.

Memories that were currently limited. So much time had passed since he’d seen her last.

    “How old are you?” Hatred burned in his throat at having to ask her this simple question.

They’d barely talked since he first woke up two weeks ago. After the dizzying round of medical tests, he mostly just slept.

    “Twenty,” Lark said after a momentary pause.

    She was eighteen the last time he’d seen her. Two years of his life were gone. The tiny bits he currently remembered were grotesque. Hellish.

    As for Lark, her face and figure had matured, but the biggest change were her eyes. Her left eye used to match his gray eyes, and her right reflected the light blue of their older brother, Alex. Now, her eyes were a metallic silver and sapphire blue—beautiful, but different.

    Sterling tried to stroke her face, but Snowy batted his hand away with her paw.

    Lark and Snowy shared a mystical Tiger Bond, which no one had been able to define for him yet. He did notice it made Snowy very possessive of his baby sister.

    Lark smacked the cub’s nose. “Snowy, bad girl!”

    Snowy shook her head and glared at Sterling.

    Of course. Sterling huffed. It’s my fault you got punished.

    Since Snowy was being obsessive about Lark, Sterling pointed to his own eyes. “How did this happen?”

    Lark winced as she shooed Snowy off the bed.  “My DNA was changed by these little things called bio-bots.”

    Anger tightened Sterling’s chest, making him cough. After he choked down some of the water Lark handed him, he sputtered, “Your DNA was changed?”

    Who would do that to a kid?

    “Yeah, but they gave me superpowers too, so that’s cool.”

    Something about that statement tickled a memory, but Sterling was instantly distracted when a purple flame appeared above Lark’s outstretched right palm.

    We really are in the future!

    He thought he was dreaming when Lark had claimed they were two-thousand years past twenty-first century Earth, on a terraformed planet called Evren.

    Peering up, Sterling got another shock. Not only had Lark’s eyes changed color, but they glowed! Before he could ask about it, they went back to looking like jewels as the fire disappeared. 

    She thrust her arm at him. “Feel my skin!”

    Sterling obliged, frowning when his fingers met a hard surface, unlike his own squishy flesh.

    “What is this?” he asked.

    “My skin is now a flexible exoskeleton. I’m blade-proof! Probably bullet-proof, too, if they still used bullets. Which they don’t.” Lark shrugged. “Laser weapons have been a thing for at least a thousand years now.”

    Sterling squeezed her arm in fascination. “What else did these blast-o-bits do for you?”

    Lark laughed. “Bio-bots. They enhanced some of my basic abilities, like strength, hearing, eyesight…I also heal fast.”

    “That sounds good.” Sterling studied the silver bracelet on Lark’s wrist, taking in the white tiger resting under a purple tree, before letting go of her arm. “I’m so sick of bed rest.”

    Then it hit him why Lark’s powers sounded so familiar.

    “The Weapon!” he cried, trying to sit up.

    He regretted that action. His vision went white. It was no longer only guilt that tightened his chest.

    “Sterl! Steady breaths. You’re okay.” Lark helped him lean back against the bed’s cushioned headboard.

    His eyesight and breathing cleared after a few sips of water.

    “Now,” Lark said after Sterling refused to make eye contact for nearly a minute. “What did you mean by a weapon?”

    The mere thought of Casimer Talbot brought an onslaught of incomplete memories, predominantly ruled by pain and hate. Sterling’s head pounded as if it would rip apart the longer he tried to remember even the tiniest facts, but he had to keep going. His brother and sister’s safety depended on it.

    Gritting his teeth, Sterling spat out what he could. “I don’t know how, but King Avi’s nephew knows about the bita-bots.”

    The corner of Lark’s mouth twitched, but she didn’t interrupt him.

    “He wanted them for himself, but learned they were already programmed for someone else. We didn’t know who it was, so he always referred to them as ‘The Weapon.’”

    Lark’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “More of a shield than a weapon,” she mumbled, then her voice hardened. “Not that I’m averse to using it as a weapon on him!”

    Feeling his left eye twitch and his limbs seizing in a cramp, Sterling panted. “I can’t talk about this right now.”

    “That’s fine.” Lark’s demeanor instantly softened. “You heal now. We’ll figure things out as slowly as you need.”

    Seeing worry creep back into Lark’s eyes, Sterling returned the subject to something less detrimental to his health.

    “So, you can create fire?”

    The smile she used to give him as a kid lit up her face.

    “Manipulate,” Lark said. “Not exactly ‘create’. I can store the energy in the bio-bots and convert it to fire or electricity. Want to see?”

    “Of course!”

    Lark’s eyes glowed again when she formed another ball of purple flame above her hand. As she frowned in concentration, the ball wavered, stretched, then formed into an “S” before vanishing in a tiny wisp of smoke.

    Sterling gave her an appreciative round of applause.

    “Now for the electricity.” Lark gave him a sheepish glance. “I’m not as good at converting electricity yet. It’s way easier for me to manipulate a source already there.”

    She pointed to a floating ball in the top corner of the room.

    Now that he looked, there was one in every corner, giving the room a soft light.

    “Those are basically the lightbulbs here, and chock-full of electricity.” Lark reached both hands toward the ceiling, taking a deep breath.

    Sparks sizzled around the ball, then a streak of blue lightning jumped to her hands, where it hovered between her palms. In less than two seconds, the hovering ball dimmed, then turned grey as the amount of electric energy between Lark’s hands grew.

    “Ah.” She winced. “I’m still working on finer control. I didn’t mean to take all of it.”

    “Either way, that’s amazing!” Sterling watched tendrils of blue electricity flicker around Lark’s fingers.

    “Now, let’s see if I can send it back.”

    “I have faith in you.”

    Lark squared her shoulders, appearing proud. “All right, here we go.”

    Lifting her hands, she sent a string of electricity to the dark ball, causing it to softly glow again.

    Sterling gave another round of applause. “See? Told you.”

    Lark grinned at him. She must have lost concentration, because the remaining electricity hovering around her hands flew to all four corners of the ceiling. Every glowing ball buzzed and sparked, then sent all their energy straight into Lark’s chest, plunging the room into darkness, save her glowing eyes.

    “Larkie? Are you all right?”

    Sterling thought his heart was stuck in his throat until he heard Lark’s voice, embarrassed but strong.

    “Oops.”

 

***

 

Conan Cynbel sat in King Avi Kynaston’s personal study, trying to focus on the meeting. He had spent hours of his childhood in this room, climbing all over the stuffed bookshelves, desks overflowing with documents, and comfy chairs that begged one to settle in for a nap.

    It was where he turned down the opportunity to become King Avi’s heir, as his life-long dream was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become leader of the Lothar military and Royal Guard, the Wysteria Corps.

    This was also where Avi first told the Cynbel family the startling news he was adopting a trio of siblings from Earth, and where Conan was first informed he would be general of the new crown princess’ personal bodyguards, the Spur Corps.

    He disliked how his view of this room, and Avi, had changed over the last few months. Instead of warm nostalgia, he wondered what dark secrets might be hidden in the surrounding volumes.

    Learning his own father, and the man he practically considered a grandfather, were involved in the skirmish where the princes were thought to have been killed was earth-shattering. The fact they kept this a secret from Lark had her understandably livid.

    Once Conan’s younger brother, Joshua, voiced concerns that their king might have ulterior motives for adopting Lark and appointing her crown princess, Conan’s faith and trust in his leader began to crumble.

    Even now, in the middle of a meeting with Avi, his father Harold, and Josh, suspicion colored every moment of the conversation.

    “Psychology isn’t my area of expertise,” Josh said, “but I think Prince Sterling can start organizing his thoughts and tell us what he remembers of Casimer’s operations. Although, I don’t currently know how reliable his memories are. Casimer really did a number on his brain with the Hypno-Slave conditioning.”

    Hypno-Slave had been outlawed at least five hundred years ago, but Avi’s mutinous nephew had somehow gotten his hands on the technology. The process involved toying with a person’s brain—manipulating, erasing, even rewriting memories. The result left the ‘Sponsor’ with a brainwashed slave, ready to follow any order.

    Conan was all about loyalty, but he couldn’t imagine losing his freewill like that. Sterling and Alex Bei Kynaston were the only two people on record to have survived more than six months of the maddening procedure, much less break out of it.

    No one wanted to rush Prince Sterling’s healing, but the oldest prince, Alexander, was still under Casimer Talbot’s influence. Who knew how much longer he could last?

    “We don’t want to overwhelm Sterling.” Avi sank into the chair behind his desk, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Only a few of us should talk with him as he recalls his days with Casimer. It will be hard enough for him without a large audience watching his every move. I think Josh and Conan should lead the questioning. I’ll assist when I can, but my schedule won’t allow for constant participation. I do look in on him at least once a day, but it’s often while I’m running from one appointment to another.”

    “We’ll take care of it,” Conan said for both of them. “Lark trusts us, so I don’t think we’ll have a problem.”

    He tried not to emphasize ‘us’.

    “She’s going to want to lead the rescue charge herself,” Harold said, “but nothing should be done until the Shield Unit is up and running. She’s powerful, but Casimer obviously has some tricks up his sleeve.”

    Avi nodded. “Yes. I’ll talk to her about that.”

    Josh glanced at his VPhone, then shook his head. “I leave her alone for five minutes…”

    “What happened?”

    Avi looked resigned to most likely having to pay for something Lark accidentally broke—again.

    “Lark somehow managed to damage all the lightspheres in Prince Sterling’s room.”

    Conan sighed.

    People might have whispered about nepotism when he became the second highest general in the country, but he’d earned his position fair and square. Though that didn’t always prepare him for dealing with his unpredictable charge. Being responsible for the crown Princess’s safety was an honor, but she didn’t exactly make his job easy.

    Harold laughed. “She was probably trying to show off to her big brother. I’m sure they’re fine. It’s an easy fix.”

    “We’d better go before she finds more electrical gizmos to fry,” Conan said.

    “We’ll meet here tomorrow morning.” Avi dismissed them with a smile.

    Josh followed Conan out the door.

    “I just hope she hasn’t damaged her bracelet again. I’m tired of fixing it. As soon as I think I’ve got it strong enough to withstand her energy surges, she comes slinking back to me, another smoking technical wonder in her hands.”

    Conan snickered. Lark definitely made life interesting.

 

***

 

Once someone replaced the glowing, floating lightspheres, Sterling listened to Lark tell him about the time she found Snowy.

    Sterling furrowed his brow as he studied the white tiger cub. She was almost too large to fit comfortably on Lark’s shoulders anymore, but she was still young.

    “How long have you been here?” Sterling asked.

    “A couple months,” Lark said.

    “That’s all? How did I—we—get here two years earlier than you?”

    Lark’s face hardened. “That’s a story for another time. Let’s take it slow for now and get you healed up.”

    Too tired to argue with her, and still recovering from his earlier ordeal, Sterling cast around for another subject. “How far did you get into your trauma medic training before coming here to be a princess?”

    Lark’s eyes averted his. “When you two… disappeared, I dropped everything and hunted for you.     Eventually, I apprenticed with the private investigator I hired to help me find you.”

    Sterling knew they hadn’t abandoned Lark on purpose, but that rock of guilt weighing down his chest was growing into a boulder. He was partially responsible for derailing his baby sister’s dreams. How do you fix blowing up someone’s life?

    Lark’s head turned toward the door a few seconds before there was a knock.

    “Come in.” It was harder than it should be to lift his voice, but Sterling’s answer was loud enough for whoever was behind the door to hear.

    Two men and a woman entered his luxurious hospital room. They all appeared to be around mid-twenties, so a few years younger than him. Although, who knew what kind of anti-aging formulas had been created over the last two-thousand years? They could be older than they looked.

    The taller man, with the lighter blond hair, looked vaguely familiar. Trying to remember why brought a dull ache behind Sterling's eyes.

    The other man studied him with light hazel eyes and carried a tablet in his arms.

    “Hello, your Highness.” The red-haired woman, who had visited with Lark before, gave him a slight bow of her head. “How are you feeling today?”

    Uncomfortable with the foreign title, Sterling cleared his throat, then lied. “I’m fine.”

    Anyone could tell he was anything but fine, but he wouldn’t admit weakness to these people, no matter how much Lark appeared to like them.

    “Thank you—Sarah?”

    “Shamira,” she gently corrected, emerald eyes twinkling with amusement.

    Blast his stupid memory. She’d told him at least twice in the last few days.

    “My apologies, Shamira.”

    “Not a problem at all, your highness.”

    “No need to stand on ceremony with me.” He addressed the statement to all three newcomers. “I’m just Sterling.”

    Murmurs of acknowledgment were followed by the two men reintroducing themselves as Conan and Joshua Cynbel.

    Conan, the slightly taller, more muscular of the two, gestured to Shamira. “We’re part of Lark’s personal guard, the Spur Corps.”

    “And by ‘part of’, he means ‘the leader of.’” Shamira laughed.

    “Conan’s and Josh’s father is Commander General of the Wysteria Corps—leaders of the main military of Lothar, and the Royal family’s bodyguards,” Lark said.

    “Lothar is our kingdom?” Sterling asked.

    ‘Our kingdom’ sounded weird to his ears, but if Lark accepted this place and role as her home, so would he.

    “Correct,” Joshua said. “As long as we’re stating roles: I’m Advisor to the Throne, Director of Science and Research, and your main tutor for the foreseeable future. I’ll do my best to help your transition to life here.”

    Sterling tried not to look incredulous. He was only 28, and Joshua appeared even younger.

    “Josh was Franklin Wright’s protégé,” Lark whispered to him.

    “Franklin, the inventor?” Sterling clarified, bursts of memory sorting themselves out in his head.

    When Lark was sixteen, she helped save Franklin and Avi when they were ambushed on Earth. They’d only known them for a few weeks before the two old gentlemen mysteriously disappeared. All three Bei siblings regretted losing their friendship.

    It turned out, they were from the future and couldn’t find their way back to the same time and place again. Lark made a strong enough impression, though, that Avi searched for her to name her as his heir.

    Since it bugged him, Sterling turned to Conan. “Forgive me, but my memory is shot at the moment… You look familiar, but I can’t figure out why.”

    Everyone shifted uncomfortably, and Lark moved to protectively stand between him and Conan, which gave Sterling a sense of dread.

    What was wrong?

    Conan cleared his throat. “My dad and I were two of the hostages you took when trying to capture Lark a few months ago.”

    “I did what?” Sterling’s mouth went dry. His head swam.

    Lark squeezed his hands.

    Conan’s blue-eyed gaze flitted to Lark, then locked with Sterling’s. “I’m aware you weren’t exactly yourself at the time. Honestly, I think you’re a large reason dad and I are still alive. Even as Steele you had your scruples. You made sure we weren’t killed as prisoners.”

    Flashes came to Sterling when Conan called him Steele. He hated that name—Casimer called him that. Images of needles, pain, shackles, and straps were followed by those of caves, explosions, and interrogations.

    Recalling his attack on Conan, Harold, and Lark’s group, he hid a wince. There had been no memory of who she was then. He didn’t even see her until she came to rescue the Spur members he managed to capture, including Conan and Harold Cynbel.

    Sterling wanted to apologize but wasn’t sure how without it sounding hollow.

    Before he could puzzle it out, Josh spoke up.

    “We’re here to talk with Sterling, see what he remembers so far, and begin organizing information to plot Prince Alexander’s rescue.”

    A surge of excitement gave Sterling temporary strength.

    The details of how he and Alex had ended up in the year 4023 from twenty-first century Earth were fuzzy—fine, they were currently non-existent. Which was part of why he and Lark hadn’t talked much about their oldest brother yet. Alex was still brainwashed under Casimer’s Hypno-Slave conditioning. While they burned to break him free, they couldn’t just barge in and rip Alex away from Casimer. If he didn’t die within a couple of days, there could be irreparable brain damage. They were still trying to figure out how Sterling managed to break out of his own Hypno chains.

    Sifting through memories to determine which were real and which were manipulated was almost worse than the yawning blankness of missing moments—and it always brought a monstrous migraine. Still, Sterling pushed through as he searched for any relevant information about Casimer, his plans, habits, and surroundings.

    When sweat beaded on his forehead from the mental strain, Lark insisted he take a breather while they compiled what he’d given them with what they already knew.

    Remembering his earlier reaction, Sterling didn’t protest.

    Joshua’s hazel eyes darkened as he continuously swiped his fingers across his tablet. “We have to be careful of Prince Alexander’s mental state when rescuing him. As a Hypno, his life literally depends on his Sponsor; in this case, Casimer.”

    Sterling winced at the name. Lark glared, though he didn’t think it was directed at Joshua.

    “So, how did Sterling break free?” Shamira asked.

    “I was never fully under Ca—his influence,” Sterling said, still unwilling to say Casimer’s name unless absolutely necessary. “I could always see him for what he was. Alex was blinded to his faults. My trigger was Larkie.”

    Lark’s hand, still on top of his, trembled briefly.

    “As soon as I saw Lark, Casimer’s hold on me fractured,” Sterling continued. “Getting in contact with her shattered what was left. I have no doubt Lark will be key, but since Alex’s brain was affected differently, he might need something more.”

    “Then what’s our first move?” Lark asked.

    “You need to get the Shield Unit up and running before any rescue attempt is made,” Josh said. “We don’t know what you’ll be up against, especially with that mysterious backer Casimer found himself. You should have a team with you.”

    Conan and Shamira nodded. Lark hesitated before turning to Sterling. He couldn’t tell if she was asking for his help to convince them otherwise, or for his thoughts.

    “What’s the Shield Unit?” he asked.

    “My Spur Corp members are going to get the bio-bots,” Lark answered. “Josh said he can make an updated version. They’re specifically made for Element Wielders, which was a prerequisite for becoming a Spur member. It’s nearly impossible to do anything with your elements without the boost from the bio-bots.”

    Sterling thought for a moment. “I don’t want to delay rescuing Alex any more than needed, but if it means you’ll have people with superpowers guarding your back, I agree with them. We have to gather intel, after all, and that always takes time.”

    Lark hesitated, then turned to Josh. “How long will it take to get started?”

    Joshua consulted his tablet. “We can start next week, if we have a volunteer.”

    “I’ll go first—”

    “Let me do it—”

    Conan and Shamira overlapped each other.

    Joshua held up a hand before they started arguing. “Conan, I know you want to, but it shouldn’t be you.”

    “Why not?” Conan’s voice was sharp. “I’m the leader of the Spur Corps.”

    “Which is exactly why you shouldn’t be the first,” Joshua answered calmly. “We don’t have any way to test these before injection. Lark doesn’t completely count because my bio-bots aren’t exactly like Director Franklin’s. I’m less confident in my design than he was. In case anything goes wrong, we need you in shape to lead the Corps and protect Lark.”

    Conan pursed his lips. Sterling could tell he wanted to argue—badly.

    “With that said, are you still comfortable volunteering?” Josh asked Shamira.

    Shamira only hesitated a second before nodding firmly. “Let’s get this done. The sooner we set up the Shield Unit, the sooner we can save Prince Alexander.”

    Sterling snorted lightly in amusement at hearing Alex’s title for the third time that day.

    That’s gonna take some getting used to.

    He studied Shamira, admiration starting to bloom. She’s not bad. No wonder Lark likes her.

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