Phantoms (excerpt – chapter 2, part 2)

(Continued from the last post here.)

——-

Nare dragged Daris towards the tower complex and didn’t stop until she reached the door. Not until she looked back did she see what the security team had seen—not a cool-headed man who could think through a life-threatening situation to save them but a Shirukan in black. He had been average, even a bit small for a human, but on Inar’Ahben, he was taller and broader in stature than most males. In that black uniform, Daris could have made her uncomfortable, but having seen him in a suit and tie the first time they met and having spent time around him, she didn’t see him as someone to fear.

But she could see how others might. He needed to get out that uniform.

At the flash of a thought, she realized she had spent too much time among humans. Still, something stirred inside her from it.

Nare shook it away.

Anita was another matter. She stared at everything as they stepped inside. “So, this is Starfire Tower.”

Her presence grated on Nare’s nerves. She took a breath to calm herself before answering, “Yes, Agent Cross. It is. I suggest you stay close and keep your mouth shut if you wish to make a good impression.”

This was her home. She didn’t need the human to go ruining her return by embarrassing her.

The hint of a snarl curling Anita’s lips was priceless.

Besides checking in with her cousin and his mate, Nare had one other goal in mind—finding Saffir. She hadn’t seen her grandmother in over eight Inari years. Saffir was her only grandmother alive and had always made time from her schedule for Nare, loving her as a mother. She took to heart the title of Komaki, Second Mother, for Nare and her two other grandchildren, as well as the grandchildren of her brother, down to Elis. For that matter, Saffir had always taken on the role of mother to all Keepers. But she would always be special to Nare.

Saffir was also the oldest and most respected of all Crystal Keepers, being recognized by all the city governors with the same reverence as the Pope was on Earth. But the Starfire wasn’t a religion based on faith. Rather, it was real and a part of them, accepted by all Inari…except those twisted by the lies of the Shirat Empire.

Nare hesitated at a window and looked out at a passing cloud, struck by her own train of thought.

No. The Starfire was different, tangible, and the time had come to reunite their world with it.

“We should find Saffir,” she murmured to no one in particular.

“She’ll know about the hundreds of Starfire points on Earth?” Anita asked.

So much for the good old days. Anita’s statement snapped her back to the present and the real reason for returning to Starfire Tower. Visiting on pleasantries was only an illusion.

“Maybe.”

“I didn’t agree to this on a whim, Miss Kaershon.”

Nare opened her mouth to argue but caught a curious look from Daris and let it go. “If they’re Keepers, she’ll know.”

“And if they’re not?”

Good question. Nare could only hope Saffir might have some ideas.

“Crystal Keeper Saffir is most likely to have answers about the Starfire.”

Thank you, Daris. The man could keep a cool head in any situation, it seemed. She appreciated that, especially after that cool head had kept them from being killed by Tarolis and the other Shirukan who had taken them captive. It had been Agent Coulters’s—Corou Daris’s—quick thinking that had saved their lives.

Thinking of him as Corou Daris was easier this way—the wings and Shirukan uniform. Coulter was the “human” Shirukan specialist from Earth who worked with Anita Cross at her agency monitoring Inari activity on Earth, or at least in the United States. Nare could separate his two identities far more easily, and Corou Daris was far more interesting.

“You have the data.”

He gave a nod, his glove-free hands clasped before him, a small improvement on the image of a Shirukan all in black.

“Then let’s find Saffir.” She passed her eyes over Anita, who looked satisfied with that answer.

They didn’t have to go far. After a short ride in a transport tube, they crossed one of the skywalks, intending to reach the tower with the meditation room where Saffir liked to be alone.

In a gray flightsuit with a white robe over it, Saffir emerged at the other end of the skywalk and halted. Faded blue wings lifted behind her and the slightly sagging features of the gentle face poured life back into Nare. Eyes widened and a mouth usually curved into an endearing smile dropped open.

["Nare."]

Nare rushed forward. ["Komaki!"]

In that moment, she was a child again, except for standing taller than her grandmother. She held the beloved Crystal Keeper as she had the last time they had seen each other in their last good-byes before Nare had stepped onto the ship taking her and twenty others to Earth.

Once her heart refilled with the joy that had drained away in the years apart, she released her arms.

["I missed you so much."] Nare wiped the moisture from her eyes. Now, it felt like home.

["And I missed you."] Saffir’s eyes dropped to the crystal at her chest. ["I am proud of you, Nare."]

Unable to speak through the emotions clogging her throat, Nare nodded.

Those blue-gray eyes shifted aside. ["And you brought friends."]

She had almost forgotten about the two and turned to them standing behind her. ["Corou Daris, and the human is Agent Anita Cross."]

Saffir tipped her head to each. ["I welcome you to Starfire Tower."]

“I am honored,” Anita said while Daris bowed his head in return.

Saffir’s eyes shifted about the corridor, the smile slipping from her face. ["Where is the boy you spoke of?"]

["Soriel. The energy consumed him as we watched. I've never seen it happen so fast. We absorb the energy from the crystal shards, but he had none. How is this possible?"]

["We absorb the energy every time we connect to their realm, but I too am surprised. For over a hundred forty years have I borne this shard."] She lifted the small cluster hanging at her chest in fully aquamarine hands with tendrils that tapered beyond her elbows exposed by the open sleeves of her covering robe and short sleeves of the flightsuit beneath it. ["Yet even I have not transformed as you say he did. He had no crystal?"]

["None. The Shirukan we brought as prisoners were experimenting on him. They did something that caused the transformation, which accelerated exponentially with each portal."]

["And what has become of him?"] Saffir released her crystal to hang at her chest, a hint of curiosity on that aging face briefly erasing the lines of concern that seemed ever-present from Nare’s memories.

["He...exists in both realms. Once he was assimilated by the energy, he stayed with us only long enough to send Kairalyn home. Then he disappeared."]

Faded blue eyebrows lifted on Saffir’s face. For a second, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the crystal on her chest glowing and fading. ["It seems he is the first to truly blend with the Starfire, a true Keeper."]

["You sound envious,"] Nare teased.

Light blue eyebrows lifted into a suggestive expression. ["I am."]

Oh. Hmm. Maybe Saffir anticipated such a “death” from her body but Nare wanted a long life.

Daris pulled the data crystal from his jacket and held it out to Saffir in his open palm. ["Crystal Keeper Saffir. The reason we came...We found several hundred points of Starfire radiation on Earth and wonder if you might know anything about this."]

Saffir took the crystal from his open palm, her brow furrowing with concern. ["Several hundred?"]

So much for the possibility of Keepers.

["You didn't send them?"] Nare asked.

["No. I sent one ship to drop off settlers—you and twenty others who volunteered. Had I sent others, they would have coordinated with you."]

“Am I to understand that someone else, some other alien species, has…blended with the Starfire and made Earth their home?”

If only Anita would keep her mouth shut!

Nare bit her tongue in Saffir’s presence, even if the Crystal Keeper didn’t understand English. It was probably a good thing, but that confrontational tone of voice the woman used would be interpreted for what it was.

“Yes.” Saffir stared directly at Anita. “That is quite possible.”

["How—You—When?"] Nare blinked. When did Saffir learn English? Granted, she spoke with a heavy accent, but she spoke English.

["Long ago."]

Questions formed on Nare’s lips, but a raised palm from Saffir stayed her tongue.

["Another time."] Saffir’s attention shifted back to Daris and Anita. ["It seems we have more pressing matters to investigate, and I'm sure our human guest would appreciate a thorough analysis of this data concerning her world. I will have our best scientists study it to determine what this could be. You're welcome to stay as long as necessary."]

——-

Note: This is not a final version and may be subject to change before the book is released in September 2013.

If you like what you’re reading, Soriel (Starfire Angels: Revelations Book 1) and Deception (Starfire Angels: Revelations 1.5) are currently available from online retailers.

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