Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 18

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe paced, shivering each time he passed the hole where his bedroom door used to be. His parents were in the upper rooms discussing what had happened and considered him not adult enough to be much help. So, he’d left.

He couldn’t shake the dread he’d felt when his father had wanted him to test the portal—to see where it went. Sloe had never been so grateful for his mother’s interference on his behalf. He almost didn’t care how much of a coward it made him feel.

He was more concerned for Raven. If the hooded man showed up here at the Clock Tower, does that mean he could also visit Raven’s home? Convinced the hooded man’s appearance was a warning, he knew he had to speed up the process. He had to find the baglamas and give it to the cloaked men.

It hadn’t been long since he’d left Silvie’s world of Edgar. Their timelines weren’t as different as the Clock Tower was with other worlds. He needed to go back—as soon as possible.

“If caught,” he murmured, “I’ll say I wanted to see how Javis and Silvie were doing after everything that happened during the hospital tour.” He pressed his lips together tightly. If I’m not caught, then I’ll do some exploring on my own.

With his mind made up, he exited the Clock Tower and climbed to the portal to Edgar.

A quiet calm enveloped him as he slipped through the portal. He stepped over flowers and navigated the path to the Halls’ front door. Building Number One, he thought, smiling. He was sure the baglamas would be kept somewhere in Silvie’s home. And he hoped she, her father, and Javis hadn’t left the hospital.

Sloe knocked on the door. He waited, inwardly reciting the lines intended to explain why he was there.

When no answer came, he twisted the doorknob. He caught his breath when he realized the door wasn’t locked.

His stomach churned with disappointment at himself as his feet crossed the threshold of the Halls’ home. But the hooded man’s warning and concerned for Raven compelled him forward.

He sucked in a breath while attempting to absorb what he found inside the house. The front room was larger than the Clock Tower’s upper rooms put together. There was a sculpture, with a plaque, like dedications he’d seen at museums on other worlds. He considered taking a closer look before giving himself a sharp reminder that he had little time.

Instead of one staircase leading to the next floor, there were two. One led to the left, and the other to the right. He gritted his teeth. This will take forever.

Muttering excuses to himself, he searched the first floor. After ruling out the kitchen, and an adjacent dining room, he found himself standing in a library with a fireplace. The shelves held books and globes. A grand piano sat wedged against a window that was barely visible behind layers of curtains.

Sloe flipped through pages of sheet music, all written for the piano. Glancing around the room, he tried to picture Silvie sitting before the fireplace, strumming the baglamas. He remembered how closely she’d held the instrument to herself at the funeral.

“She wouldn’t play it here,” he whispered aloud. If I had an instrument like that, I’d hang out in my bedroom all day and practice. His eyes widened.

He held his breath as he reentered the front room. His heartbeat pulsed, reminding him of the passing time. One of the Halls could show up at any moment. After snapping his head back and forth between the two staircases, he ascended the stairs to the left.

Sloe swabbed beads of perspiration from his forehead. He kept his steps light as he wandered through the hallway, testing doorknobs as he went.

The first unlocked door creaked open. He flipped a switch along the wall and the room brightened. Squinting, he focused on a stack of shirts, a comb, and a bottle of cologne on top of a dresser. The shirts were dark blue, the same color as Javis’s uniform. I doubt they’d keep the baglamas in here, thought Sloe. He gave the rest of the room little thought before concluding it was Javis’s bedroom and turning off the light switch. The next door opened into a closet with shelves filled with towels and soaps. Next was a bathroom, then a second closet.

Sloe opened a door that led to another bedroom. He flipped a light switch and exhaled. A smile lit his face as he focused on an object that made him lose interest in everything else. On top of a bed, resting against a pillow was a stringed instrument. The baglamas.

He removed his jacket and stuffed the instrument inside, tucking the ends and tying the sleeves into a handle. Despite all the excuses he’d invented to explain his presence there, he didn’t know how to explain why he’d taken the baglamas and hoped no one would ask what was wrapped inside his jacket.

With his heart in his throat, Sloe closed the door to Silvie’s bedroom; he tiptoed down the stairs and out of the house. Outside, the flowers’ scent had faded. He sighed, grateful for a clear path between the house and the exit portal. As quickly as his feet could carry him without crushing petals and leaves, he marched to the exit portal.

He was within three feet of his goal when the ground began to tremble. He sharply released a breath. Someone was coming, or was already there, but not from the hospital or from the house. Another traveler would reach him before he reached the portal with enough time to open it and travel through.

With clenched teeth, Sloe grounded, burying the wrapped baglamas and himself in the flowers.

When he looked up, he saw another figure crouched along the ground, not far from him—someone wearing dark glasses.

“Sorry!” a voice called out a female voice.

Sloe brought himself to his feet at the same time she did, and pressed a hand to his lips.

Silvie had removed the sunglasses from her eyes and was walking toward him, smiling.

He cleared his throat and waved. His foot caught the bundle containing the baglamas, which he attempted to shift to a space further behind him.

Silvie glanced at the space behind him. “Leaving already?”

Sloe felt the heat creeping up his neck and face. “I, um—I wanted to check in on how you and Javis were doing, but you weren’t here,” he lied. “So I figured I’d go home and come back at a later time.”

“You didn’t go in the hospital? It’s right behind you.”

“No, not without you. I knocked at the front door to your house, but nobody answered so I figured I’d try later. I don’t want to bother anyone.”

Silvie smiled brightly. “Not at all! Javis is staying at the hospital overnight. He probably doesn’t need to stay there at all, but Father insists as a precaution.”

“So he’s fine, then?”

She scrunched her nose. “I hope so.”

“Stressful day,” he said with an awkward chuckle.

“Yes.” Silvie blinked, then smiled again. “Well, since you’re here, why don’t you come inside for a snack?”

Sloe winced, searching for an answer.

“I distinctly remember you saying that you came here to check in on me, too, not just Javis.”

“Oh, yeah.” His eyes flickered to the baglamas hidden in the flowers. When Silvie’s smile began to fade, he quickly added, “I can’t stay long, and I’m really not hungry.”

“A quick tour, then? I promise I won’t keep you long. I feel bad about how the earlier tour went, and that you came out here twice today for nothing.”

“Sure, thanks,” he said, caught by his own excuses.

Silvie all but skipped back to the house. “I just came back from traveling, too,” she said, indicating the travel glasses. Sloe wanted to ask why she didn’t use the baglamas, then mentally kicked himself in the head. This was not the time to bring up the instrument he’d nearly gotten away with stealing before her arrival.

He cringed as Silvie slipped a key into the lock, then frowned.

“That’s funny,” she said. “The door’s already opened.”

Sloe attempted to mimic her confusion.

“I was in such a hurry to travel, I must have forgotten to lock the door.” She added in a lower voice, “Please don’t say anything about this to Father. He would not be pleased.”

“Of course.”

Sloe tried to keep himself from suffocating with guilt as he reentered the Halls’ home; but more than that he worried about whether the baglamas would still be near the exit portal to retrieve on his way home. Worse yet, it was wrapped in his jacket—a glaring clue as to who had taken it.

Silvie led Sloe through the entryway and library he’d already seen. He wiped his palms across his dark pants and pretended to admire the room with the fireplace all over again. After he politely declined food a second time, he followed her upstairs.

“Father’s room is farther down the hallway, where the hall dead ends,” she said. “And here is my room.”

Sloe swallowed a lump in his throat. What if she sees the gaping hole on her bed where the baglamas used to be? He attempted to show appreciation, meanwhile trying to find something to talk about—to draw her attention to other things in the room. His gaze fell on the photograph propped on her nightstand.

“Is that your mother?” he said. He instantly regretted it, knowing her mother was no longer living. But as bad as he felt, he hoped it would distract Silvie from seeing what was missing on her bed.

“Yes. That’s who I was visiting before I found you.”

Sloe’s eyes widened.

“Father recently gifted me his pair of travel glasses, and I used them to travel to the past to visit my mother.”

“You traveled to a past version of her? A silhouette?”

Silvie nodded.

He tried not to cringe as she began describing how she’d found her mother’s silhouette in the library. Silvie blinked back tears. “Even though I was away, I really wasn’t that far from here at all…”

That’s where she was while I wandered through her house and stole the baglamas? What am I doing to this family? Silvie’s father rescued me from Aboreal when I first traveled alone. But I’m in too deep. I have to keep my promise to the cloaked men. I’ll need to find some way to make it up to Silvie and the Halls later.

“I, um, Silvie. I really should go.”

“I’m sorry for being depressing.”

He shrugged. “Really, it’s getting late, and my parents didn’t know I left to come back here and—”

“I understand. We can meet up again later.”

The sincerity in her voice cut him like a knife.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, angry with himself that he was lying again, knowing he wouldn’t be able to face her again after today.

Silvie moved to walk him outside.

“No, it’s all right,” he said. “You’ve had a rough day. I can find my way out.” He ignored the crinkling of her nose, unable to breathe again until she stopped at the Halls’ front door and locked it behind him.

When his foot found the baglamas wrapped in his jacket, hidden beneath the flowers, Sloe almost sighed in relief. He slipped his arm through the handle of the bundle and propped it over his shoulder. Then he brought the exit portal to life with his hands and mind.

Moments later, he clung to the Clock Tower. His knee hit hard against a cogwheel, tearing a gash in his pants, when he reached for the sundial portal to make it glow. The air popped and sizzled with purple and blue. He surged forward and pushed through before the impact of his arrival hit and anyone noticed the trembling from the inside of the tower.

The tang of smoke from a campfire reached his nostrils at the same time a high-pitched gurgling reached his ears. He squinted, adjusting to the lack of light.

The hooded man sat laughing. He and his companion were bent over a fire.

“I could taste their terror,” said the hooded man. “I expect the baglamas will arrive soon.”

Sloe sucked in a breath, his veins surging with anger. They were talking about his family, laughing at his fear. He unwrapped the baglamas and pulled on his jacket.

He stalked toward the men, intending each crunch from the ground below him so that their heads turned toward him.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the baglamas forward. “Take it.”

The hooded man gargled laughter as his scarred hands closed around the instrument. He slid a thumb across its strings. “Well done.”

“Now promise you’ll leave us alone.”

“That will require the appropriate confirmation,” said the man who wore no hood.

“What are you talking about?”

“These orders come from powers higher than ours. We will first need to guarantee that this is exactly what we asked for, and that you haven’t given us an imitation, something other than the Healer’s baglamas.”

Sloe’s blood turned to ice in his veins. For the first time he questioned the authenticity of the instrument. Had Silvie had a copy made, just in case someone tried to take the real travel object? His hands shook involuntarily.

“How soon will you know?” he said.

“Soon enough,” said the hooded man. “And if we find out it’s a counterfeit, you and your family can expect another visit from me. Only, this time, I might not be as gracious a guest.”

Sloe clenched and unclenched his hands. “But you’ll let Raven alone.”

“We won’t promise that.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 19. >>>

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