Darker Stars Beta

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 8

Sloe yelped through a hitched breath and gnashed his teeth together. Bruises itched and stung from portal sparks lighting them on fire all over again. Muscles ached from his efforts at making sure Raven didn’t get separated from him during travel. She lay in his arms, still unconscious.

Their descent from the tower seemed too short as he weighed his options. Once he reached the tower’s base, he lay Raven gently on the ground, wrapping one arm across her middle and placing a hand beneath her head as he knelt and waited for the impact of their arrival to subside.

Raven murmured during the rumbling, her face round and childlike, in a restless fit of sleep. Sloe placed a hand on her cheek and murmured words of comfort until her breathing slowed again.

He lifted the girl in his arms and brought her inside the tower, cringing at each step taken toward the tower’s upper rooms. His heart pounded; and his breath was labored by the time he reached the top. Slumping forward, he knocked on the door.

“Oh good, you’re back. You probably haven’t eaten since the funeral so I—” Ivory’s face paled; her knuckles whitened at the door’s edge.

“Nick,” she whispered. Her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Nick, come here!”

She opened her arms to take Sloe’s burden from him and carried the girl to a flat, framed piece of furniture topped with pillows. “What happened, Sloe?” she said, checking over the girl’s bruises and brushing matted hair from her forehead.

At Sloe’s pained look, Ivory turned and wrapped his face in her hands. “You’re hurt, too.” She swallowed, gently pulling Sloe to a chair. “And you’re both soaking wet and cold. Nick! Come out here and help me!”

A door opened from the far side of the room. “I don’t see the point of having a separate bath in the loft, love, when there’s never a moment to relax.”

The man who’d spoken stepped into the room, wearing a bathrobe with blue and gray stripes. White hair that was wet and tangled hung past his shoulders. He crossed his arms as he took in the situation. White brows furrowed above eyes of purple ice.

“What happened here, son?”

“R-raven and I went for a walk…someplace new.” Sloe shivered. His attackers, and the scrambled voice of the hooded man, flashed in his mind. He hesitated, knowing he couldn’t reveal the entire story, at least not yet. He didn’t want his parents to be in danger, too. He’d made the promise, for which he was solely responsible; and he was sure stealing the baglamas from the daughter of his parents’ friends would not go over well. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally.

“And may we assume this someplace new was accessed through one of the portals on the tower?” Nick led with his chin.

Sloe nodded.

“Do you know what world it was?”

“No.”

“Ah, but do you remember which portal?”

Sloe kept his eyes fixed on the floor, remembering exactly which portal, and how the sundial had sung to him.

“Well, son, I can’t see how the details of this date would fail to be memorable. Let’s hope your date doesn’t wake with the same form of amnesia you seemingly have right now.”

“Nick,” Ivory spat. “Can’t you see they’re hurt? Sloe’s possibly in shock. Stop talking nonsense, and go find dry clothes for both of them.” She gestured toward the girl. “We can’t send her back to Aboreal like this!”

“Yes, of course, love.” He looked down at his robe and shook his head before heading downstairs. “Son, come with me.”

Ivory frowned. “Nick…”

When his father didn’t answer, Sloe stood up and followed. His socks and shoes left watery footprints behind him.

Sloe’s foot landed on the bottom floor when Nick turned.

“What were you thinking, son?”

“I wanted to impress her, I guess.”

“And you couldn’t find another way to do that, or a different place to go?” He raised his gangly arms with a measure of disgust and disbelief. “You brought a citizen of Aboreal here to the Clock Tower and whisked her away to somewhere else at random because you feared her disapproval more than mine?”

Sloe’s eyes began to sting as much as his bruises. He blinked rapidly to avoid crying in front of his father.

“I will ask you one more time,” said Nick. “What world did you enter, and through which portal?”

Sloe clenched his teeth and remained silent until forced to suck a phlegmy breath in through his nose.

“Very well.” Nick’s eyes darkened. He pressed the palm of his hand to Sloe’s doorway. The scene of a messy room with posters on the wall wobbled beneath his touch. “I can’t remove your talents, nor would I wish them to be taken from you, but they need to be handled with better discretion, son. Until I’m convinced you can do that, you’re losing certain privileges.”

Nick brought his fingers together and clamped them against his palm. The wobbling surface peeled back from the doorway’s edges and shrank until it disappeared behind his fist, revealing Sloe’s room for what it was. He released a breath and entered Sloe’s perfectly kept room.

A tear rolled down Sloe’s cheek at the loss of his door, his custom portal, his privacy. He wanted to shout, why are you doing this? But he already knew the answer, and some part of him agreed with the punishment, a light one considering he’d risked Raven’s life.

Sloe wiped his face with a sleeve that was already damp and followed his father, who was rifling through one of the Aborealian trunks.

“This should do.” A pile of blankets and some of Sloe’s older shirts and pants—things he’d kept but no longer fit him—filled Nick’s arms. “Change into dry clothing and come back upstairs,” he said as he left the room.

Before peeling off his wet clothes, Sloe hung a sheet across the exposed doorway, which was all he’d had before his father had gifted him the bedroom portal.

***

Sloe stood in the doorway to the upper rooms, feeling both better and worse about what had happened.

Raven was propped up on the furniture with pillows. The sleeves of the shirt she’d borrowed was rolled back to her elbows, revealing a series of bloody gashes along her skin. She cradled a mug in her hands and sipped at its contents.

“That’s right, my sweet,” said Ivory. “You keep drinking that broth. It took me several Aborealian years to get that recipe from a stubborn old mule.”

A tiny smile played across Raven’s lips. “It’s good,” she said. The side of her lip was bandaged, too, as well as most of her forehead.

Ivory stuck her finger in a jar and scooped out a glob of blue-green goo. “Though, this stuff was more painful to collect.”

Sloe watched, breathless, as Ivory dabbed the gooey substance across Raven’s arms. He slipped inside the room and sat next to her.

Raven’s lips pulled back in disgust before morphing into a relaxed smile. She set down the broth and stretched her arms out in front of her.

The red cuts slowly melted away.

Blinking, Raven smoothed away some of the blue-green goo. The skin underneath was smooth and free of blemish. “That’s…unbelievable. Where’d you get it?”

“Behind the Fire Falls.” Ivory acknowledged Sloe’s presence with a glance and shuddered, perhaps a bit too dramatically for his benefit. “Like I said, painful.”

Raven’s lips circled in astonishment. “You mean, The Fire Falls? The curtain of pouring fire the healer, Basileios Plaka, ran through and was trapped behind for so long?”

Ivory smirked. “You’ve heard that story already? Fun. Well, I happened to be part of the team that helped find him and bring him back to the other side of the falls.” She frowned. “It’s too bad he’s gone, but I guess all the healing balm in the worlds couldn’t prevent that—even this stuff I went back and collected from the balm layer behind the falls.”

She coughed and caught Sloe’s eye. “Anyway, I suppose you could use some of this, too.”

Sloe held out his arms and tilted his face up as Ivory applied globs of blue-green goo. A chill wrapped the skin where it touched, soothing and calming cuts and bruises. He sighed as the pain dulled, then blinked at dark eyes that were locked with his.

“That must have been some chat with your father,” Ivory said. “He hasn’t left his bath since dropping off clothes for Raven. He’s still in there, probably turned into a prune by now.”

“Sorry,” whispered Sloe. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Ivory clucked her tongue. “No one usually does. Cheer up, kid. After this healing gunk works its magic, you can port Raven home. I’ve been drying her clothes by the oven, and once she’s suited up, it will be like none of this ever happened.”

Sloe stared at the floor and tried not to spit out something sarcastic. Mom has no idea. My problems have only begun.

Raven, however, smiled. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem, my sweet. So, um,” Ivory continued, narrowing her eyes. “What did all this anyway? The cuts and bruises, not to mention the soaked clothes. What’d you do—get into a fight with a water dragon?”

Sloe exchanged a glance with Raven and exhaled. “We were attacked by something. Raven passed out, and I carried her to the world’s exit portal, which happed to be on top of a rock in the middle of a river.”

Ivory frowned. “Okay,” she said, slowly. “Do you know what it was that attacked you?”

Sloe squirmed beneath the glare of his mother’s black, onyx eyes, but he tried not to let it show. He hoped whatever nervousness that escaped through would be mistaken for being shaken up by everything that had happened.

“Beings bigger than we were,” he said, finally.

“So, there were more than one?”

He swallowed. “Two.”

Ivory sucked in a breath. She turned to Raven who sat with her fingers clasped tightly around the edge of the pillow beneath her.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Ivory. “We can talk about this later, when the fear isn’t as fresh. Are you going to be okay?”

Raven nodded. “You helped a lot. Thanks again, but if I don’t get home soon, my parents will be worried about me, and there will be more questions.”

“Of course.” Ivory stood up and grabbed the clothing that hung by the oven. “Here, take your clothes and change in that room,” she said, pointing. “That’s the bedroom Nick built when I’d had enough of this loft being a giant multi-purpose room. Sloe will take you home when you’re dressed.”

“Thanks, Mom,” said Sloe as he waited.

Ivory draped an arm around him and gave him a light squeeze. “No problem, kid.”

He stared at the floor until Raven returned from his parents’ bedroom. Her clothes had a couple of leaves stuck to them, but she was smiling, and her hoodie and matching pants were dry. She’d smoothed her hair back into the dark, shining loop atop her head. But there was less of a sparkle there; something was missing.

“You lost your comb,” said Sloe, frowning.

“That’s okay. It wasn’t expensive.” Raven shot him a sharp look. “And don’t say you’re sorry. It’s not your fault.”

He exhaled a slow, unsmiling breath, and shook his head. “Let’s get you home.”

Ivory followed them down stairs and lingered in the Clock Tower’s front door. “Sloe, when you get back, come upstairs. You should eat something before going to bed,” she said.

“Okay, Mom.” He stood with Raven, waiting, not budging until Ivory closed the door with a firm thud.

His shoulders slumped forward as he and Raven climbed the exterior of the tower. He paused before the hourglass with the black and white sand. He held out a hand. The hourglass began to glow.

“Why didn’t you tell your mother the truth, the full version, about the men who wanted to steal the baglamas?”

“To protect you. If your parents—or mine—find out what really happened, they won’t let us go anywhere. And if I don’t get that baglamas those men are going to…” He swallowed.

She placed her hand in his. “Then I’ll help you get it. I was the one who chose the portal to that world. You can’t take the blame for this.”

Sloe frowned. He offered no response as he stepped through the portal to Aboreal, pulling Raven along with him.

When they arrived, Sloe silently thanked his mother for having used the healing balm and handling the situation with Raven’s clothes. Despite the leaves and the missing comb, Raven looked well. He had trouble not staring at her face and thinking about how beautiful it was beneath Aboreal’s sky.

It was neither night nor day—Aboreal didn’t orbit a sun and so days and work activities weren’t measured, with one exception. Like the purpose of Chascadia’s water clock or clepsydra, Aboreal’s hourglass, or more accurately sand glass, was used to capture a short measurement of time, a device used for fairness in terms of length of speeches and taking turns during a game. Oddly enough, the Aborealians related time to recreation; to them, time was something to play with.

“Sloe,” said Raven softly.

He stared at the house in front of him, surprised he was there already, at Raven’s home, and would need to say goodbye. He shifted from one foot to the other. It was possible this good-bye would need to last a long time. Once Mom gets over her initial freak out, she’s going to be on me about being responsible—just like Dad.

Sloe reached out and rested a shoulder on Raven’s arm. “It was good seeing you. I’m sorry about everything. I’ll find—” He looked around and lowered his voice. “I’ll find the baglamas and give it to the men. I’ll go to Silvie’s world tomorrow. Stay safe, and I’ll visit when I know everything’s okay.”

Raven glanced down at his hand and frowned. She wriggled closer so his arm went around her, then brought her lips to his ear. “I may not be able to pass through portals, but I’m not useless. Please, let me help.”

The back of his neck shivered. “I can’t.”

She pulled away and snorted. “Really, Sloe? You’re going to be my hero now?”

“That’s not what I meant. You know as well as I do that we put more than ourselves in danger anytime we port back and forth between Aboreal and the Clock Tower, let alone getting mixed up in new worlds.”

Raven studied his face. Her expression softened. “You’re worried about your family—your father?”

Sloe dipped his chin.

She squeezed him. “Okay. I still don’t think you should be doing this alone, but promise to let me know how it’s going.”

“I promise.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 9, to be posted April 25. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 7 Talents

“Hey, Silvie.”

I spun around. Though the voice had been familiar, it had come from around the corner. “Don’t do that to me,” I said, catching my breath.

Javis laughed. He tilted his head. “You seem tense. What’s wrong?”

“Besides being snuck up on? Nothing,” I promised. I’d buried the mixed emotions from my visit with Madeline for the time being, and was ready to visit with more of the residents.

“Rounds?”

“Yeah. I already stopped by Madeline’s room. I’m making my way around the perimeter, and then I’ll check on anyone in the gymnasium.”

Javis nodded. The gymnasium was located at the center of each of the hospital’s two levels, surrounded by the residents’ rooms and offices. This way, everyone had easy access from its north, south, east, and west entrances. The layout was Mother’s idea, and it was brilliant.

Since Javis wasn’t a Healer, his daily tasks at the hospital were different than mine. But he often followed the course I took on my rounds. He opened a door, disappearing a moment before he rolled out a trash bin. He looked over the bin’s shelf attachment filled with cleaning supplies and tucked a dusting cloth inside his back pocket. His uniform was a darker shade of blue, but like mine, it had a patch on the sleeve, bearing the teardrop emblem of Edgar, a symbol derived from the teardrop moons of Chascadia that represented Mother’s Chascadian heritage.

After knocking on a few doors to rooms whose residents had already gone elsewhere, I paused in front of another bell-spangled door. This one belonged to my favorite resident, Katrina. From what we could tell, she was an Aborealian with the ability to change her language and accent to match wherever and whenever she traveled. The TSTA or Time and Space Travel Agency, called individuals with this talent Babel Decoders. Not only could she blend in better in different times and places, but anyone who traveled with her had the benefit of a translator.

Katrina fussed with her frosty white hair, which was much like Ivory of Aboreal’s, with the same flat and even hue. But her name wasn’t quite right. I suspected she’d either forgotten or changed it because Aborealians, traditionally, had first names that represented either the black or white color of their hair. Perhaps the more obvious giveaway of her heritage was her eye color, a deep pink, making her appear albino at first sight. But as one neared, the luster of her eyes gleamed like two pink sapphires. Aborealians had eye colors that mimicked the colors of gemstones. Pink was one of the least common colors across all known worlds, possibly rarer than the lavender eyes of the guy at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral.

Javis rolled the trash bin into the room and busily got to work emptying Katrina’s wastebasket and making her bed.

“Thank you, Javis,” she said with a small smile playing across her lips. Like most of the younger female residents, she had an obvious interest in my brother. But she had a way of making me feel like I was still present in the room.

“Do you need anything, Katrina? I left a cake in the east kitchen. You’re welcome to have a slice if there’s any left.”

She smiled, causing a dimple to form at the lower left edge of her chin. “That sounds nice, but I already ate breakfast in the south kitchen.”

I toyed with the idea of telling her Javis had made the cake to see if that would change her appetite. Maybe it would help wipe that smirk off Javis’s face, too. He shook back stray curls from his face, slyly checking himself out in the mirror as he fluffed pillows. Um, yeah, maybe not.

I stifled a laugh by focusing on my work. Katrina was visibly calm today, so I completed the routine tasks of recording her blood pressure and temperature. Her test results confirmed she was quite well. But, like most of our residents, recovering from being Lost was less of a physical ailment and something intangible. Advanced Healers who wrote papers I’d studied referred to an individual’s emotional and mental states, and some considered the effects to be spiritual. Grandpa Plaka had agreed to some degree, though he refused to read any paper I put in front of him.

Mother explained that he was too stubborn to change his thinking on the matter; he felt his time was better spent healing and trusting his instincts—a deep and accurate sense of what was helping and what was not, something he and Mother had called Insight. Even though I had some understanding of this type of awareness, by having felt it myself, the test results captured inside books and papers spoke to me. Something about the fixed words, charts, and diagrams made them seem more believable, more official, somehow.

These thoughts carried the image of Madeline staring at a screen, searching for something captured—fixed—inside her mind, a copy of information she’d seen or heard with her own eyes and ears.

“Javis,” I blurted, before we reached the next door, “did you know Madeline was a Detail Technician?”

He smiled. “She might have mentioned it.”

I pressed my fists to my hips and raised my voice so it could be easily heard over the rolling of the trash bin. “That would have been useful information to tell me, you know.”

“I thought you’d figure it out sooner or later. And you did, so what’s the problem?”

“Do you know who or what she’s been searching for?”

“No, but I’m sure that will be something you’ll uncover, eventually.” He shrugged. “It could be an ex-boyfriend for all we know.”

“Interesting thought,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Though, she’s waiting for you to visit her.”

His eyes bugged out of his head. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether he truly cared for her or not—whether he was nice for the sake of humoring a sick person or if he was oblivious to her admiration.

He paused to rearrange a couple items on the bin shelf. “What did she say?”

“Not a whole lot, as usual, but she has a surprise for you and is waiting for you to stop by for a visit.”

I grinned as he turned about-face and rolled his bin down the hallway.

***

When Javis caught up with me later in the day, we entered the gymnasium’s west side from the first level. I looked up to the second floor where residents made their way around the track that overlooked the main level. Metal bars filled in with safety glass lined the outside of the track. The goal was for the open layout to have everyone there feel more connected and to be active together.

Some of the recovering Lost walked, some jogged. I waved up to Mrs. Pentlemeyer, a sweet older lady who’d stayed on to help with the cooking. She’d recovered years ago, only to find that her husband, the person she’d been searching for, was no longer living. She loved life on Edgar so much that she wanted to stay. We couldn’t turn her away.

Javis dragged his feet as he walked, a sure sign that something was on his mind.

I broke my gaze from Mrs. Pentlemeyer and tilted my head toward him, then blinked. Javis’s lips were creased in a deep frown. His eyes were fixed on the honeycombed mats covering the floor.

“Uh oh. What happened?” I hoped it didn’t have anything to do with his visit to Madeline. My shoulders tensed while I waited for his response, wondering whether I would need to console a lovesick girl.

“Father’s locked himself up in his office. When I knocked to ask if he needed anything, he grumped at me to keep an eye on you, instead.”

My chest tightened. “He said that?”

“No, but it was obvious that’s what he meant when he said I should be farther along on my rounds. He never says that. What did you do to upset him, Silvie?”

“I didn’t do anything.” My words sounded angrier aloud than they had in my head before speaking. I crossed my arms as I scanned the room and thought about how to explain.

The weight machines were empty, but several of the stationary bicycles and rowing machines were in use. The thud, thud, thud of someone bouncing a basketball could be heard across the room.

With a sigh, I told Javis what happened with Mr. Calcott—how he’d practically begged me to use my travel talents to help him find and heal his sister.

Javis hung his head. “I see.”

“What would you have done?” I glanced at him through the side of my vision. “Would you have accepted?”

“Sure.” He shrugged. “But no one asks me to use my travel talent for anything.”

“Seriously, Javis? You’re going to make this problem about you?” I loved my brother, but he moped for the stupidest reasons sometimes. He had an extraordinary travel talent. He was a World Builder, someone who could create entire worlds by filling blank spaces, using only his creativity and his mind.

“You could have taken a few weeks off and left immediately,” he said. “You don’t need to obtain a permit from the TSTA every time you want to use your talents, which, you know, requires a discussion with Father every single time. So, yes, I would have helped the man, like Mother would have.”

I caught my breath, not only at the impact of Javis’s words but at his expression. His curls shook as he peered at me with dark eyes. Javis was more like Mother than I was—confident and guided by the heart, which meant he was often reckless. It also didn’t help that he was physically the male version of her. But he was right. Mother would have gone. No wouldn’t have been an option.

“I’m taking my break now,” I said, keeping my voice low and even. I could feel my ears burning.

“Silvie, I’m sorry—”

Yeah, you’re sorry—for yourself, Javis. It always amazed me how readily everyone was to offer hypothetical help when faced with someone else’s reality. Advice flowed freely where there were no consequences to the adviser.

I grabbed a resistance band someone had left on the floor. Stretching the rubber tubing with my fists, I aimed it above a bin of medicine balls and let go. The band snapped and flew forward, hitting the wall with a smack before it landed inside the bin.

“Um, nice shot.” Javis’s eyes were opened wide, his attempt at a snicker forced and uncomfortable.

I glared, as long as I could still see him, on my way out of the gymnasium. I’d never been happier to complete my rounds for the early shift.

I stopped in the kitchen where’d I’d left the cake before going back to the house. A few crumbs were left sticking to the plate. Well, that went over well. At least the recovering Lost were able to enjoy my birthday. I was glad they’d taken every slice. I had no taste for cake at the moment.

I crinkled the outer packaging before disposing of it, and scrubbed and dried the plate before exiting the kitchen and the hospital.

The suns had begun to fade by the time I made it outside. Outlines from millions of tinier stars were starting to appear. Mother would have called this time of day Afternoon, but Edgar didn’t have a Noon, much less a Before or After. Instead, all the stars, including the three suns, brightened at intervals, replicating day and night.

I walked past the sea of flowers, inhaling their scent and hoping they’d improve my mood.

My feet ached slightly from having walked almost nonstop during the early shift. I looked forward to resting.

Our three-story home stretched up from the flowers and into the sky. The suns’ light glimmered off roof tiles, built from a shining material and tiled in a style similar to those of Aboreal. Father didn’t visit Aboreal as often as he had before Grandma Sable passed away. He’d said that once he’d settled his mother’s estate and sold her parents’ home, there was little left for him there. He’d kept his birthplace, his home-world known as the White Tower, but left its maintenance to someone else. As a child, I liked to play there when Father took us to visit. I remembered running through the hallway and opening silver doorknobs from rows of doors that never seemed to end. Now, Father used the White Tower as a training place for Javis. Many of the white doors were empty inside—the perfect place for a World Builder to create and shape and fill with contents. But, as Javis said—as if he needed to remind me—each of these training sessions required a permit from the TSTA, and Javis’s creations were closely supervised by Father.

I pressed my lips together, squinting at passing lilies and bluebells, as I considered how Father monitored Javis’s talent. I suspected it had something to do with guarding Javis from being charged with a TSTA infraction. Even though Father readily admitted how many times he’d been accused and convicted for breaking the travel agency’s rules, so much so that he seemed proud of it, he was adamant that Javis follow the rules perfectly. What happened today with Mr. Calcott reinforced something for me. What Mr. Calcott had said was true: Father was afraid of losing me. But he was likely more afraid of losing Javis.

I twisted the knob to our front door and sighed. The front room was open and round. A podium at the room’s center held an enormous glass teardrop etched with three suns. A metal plate affixed to the base of the sculpture held the following caption: In loving memory of Edgar Hall. Next to it hung a photograph of an old man with wisps of white hair and round glasses that framed droopy gray eyes. His smile was bright, almost childlike, as if he couldn’t decide whether he was happier about having his picture taken or who was there with him, on the other side of the camera.

Something about the photograph wrapped me in a bittersweet sadness each time I looked at it. Instead of being brightly colored—true to life—the way most photographs were that I’d taken or seen. This one was faded and pale, as if the ink forming the picture was far away.

Mother told me she’d gone back in time to capture this photograph of her mentor and friend, something she wished she’d done while he was still alive. This meant the photograph was of Edgar’s silhouette, and not a living, existing version of him that hadn’t already been fixed in the past. His portrait was a memory of a memory. No wonder it seemed so far away.

I glanced to the left hallway that led to the kitchen, family, and dining rooms. The air still smelled of cake and frosting, sugar and spice. It was as if Javis had somehow planned to make me not be able to stay mad at him. But that wasn’t necessary. It was difficult to stay annoyed with him in general, and I was already feeling better—enough to start thinking about what kind of peace offering I could come up with and have ready for him before my late shift.

Past the sculpture, there were two staircases, one that led to three bedrooms: mine, Javis’s and Father’s, and one that veered off to the east side of the house with four more bedrooms and a shared bath. Sometimes, when the recovering Lost were particularly frightened we let them stay with us before moving them to the hospital. Our house helpers, Kade and Milleg, traveled to our world each day using their travel talents. I smiled at the thought of inter-world commutes as I stepped upstairs to my room.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 8, to be posted April 22. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

The last waves of electricity from the purple-blue tunnel tingled along Sloe’s arms. He’d kept his palm above Raven’s hand and wrapped his other arm around her, holding her close as they ported.

He squinted when the tunnel cleared, until he recognized the jagged outline of trees. The sky was filled with clouds, but the twinkling of stars could still be seen through the gaps between them.

Raven’s shoulders shook. “What is this place?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know of any world that has the crystal sundial as its timepiece?”

“No.”

“Is the exit portal near where we are now?” Her question came as a whisper as she searched blindly in the dark.

Sloe frowned and held out a hand. He waved it in the air before dropping both hands to the ground. “I don’t sense it nearby. But, don’t worry, I’ll feel for it as we explore.”

Raven’s trembling grew more violent. She wrapped her arms around herself.

“What’s wrong?” said Sloe, wrapping his arm back around her again. “I’ve never seen you this worried.

“Something just doesn’t feel…right…about this place.”

“If it will make you less worried, we can find the portal and go back to the Clock Tower. From there, we can go somewhere else, or I can take you back home.”

Raven sighed in relief. “Thanks. Maybe we should. It’s kind of creepy out here.”

The quiet continued. No creature shifted or showed itself. The darkness hid the slightest of whispers, until a loud crack sounded from behind them.

Raven jumped inside Sloe’s arms. He squeezed her more tightly.

“Do you hear that?” he said, looking around.

“Of course,” snapped Raven. “It was ridiculously loud.”

“No, not the snap.” He paused, listening. “It sounds like running water.”

Raven’s body went still. “Maybe I can hear it, a little.”

Sloe let go of Raven and grasped her hand. It felt small and cold in his. He wondered how frightened she was.

“Let’s follow the sound, and take a look. Hopefully it will lead us to the portal.”

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

They passed through more trees and brush. The ground was covered in foliage, with no discernable path. But someone or something had trampled it down so it was walkable. Sloe released a breath after taking another look at Raven’s outfit and shoes. Hopefully she won’t mind getting both of them ruined. Or at least muddy, he thought.

By the time the soil beneath the brush became softer, stickier, glints of light sparkled off something in the distance. The sounds of rushing liquid grew stronger. The air there held more of a chill.

Sloe stepped lightly, trying not to let his feet sink too deep in the mud. Beside him, Raven pulled at his hand; her stride quickened, each step releasing a sucking sound.

A river came into view at the same time Sloe’s foot hit more solid ground, the slippery edge of rock. He stumbled slightly, tightening his hand around Raven’s as he regained balance.

“Are you all right?” she said, her voice low.

“Yes.” His eyes danced along the body of water before him. Clear ripples of water shined gray-blue beneath the night sky. They bent and twisted around rocks that breached the water’s surface.

“A river.”

Raven let go of Sloe’s hand and turned, slowly, all round her, taking in the view. She exhaled in a slow whistle. “Nice work, Sloe of Time.”

He rolled his eyes, despite being relieved that Raven seemed to have finally calmed down, and that she was beginning to enjoy the view. Still, he reached out to feel for the exit portal as he’d promised.

“Had my parents let me choose my own name,” he said, “I would have taken Sloe of Aboreal.”

“Your father must really hate Aboreal to have changed his name.”

Sloe shrugged. “He had his reasons, but they’re complicated.” If only she knew he’d changed his first name too, thought Sloe. Maybe she does. But he hoped she wouldn’t ask about it—how his father Travertine of Aboreal had disowned his home world (after it disowned him) and became Nick of Time. Parts of the explanation were still murky for him, too.

Raven moved closer to Sloe and rested her head on his shoulder. He draped an arm around her and fought against his tendency to grin too widely.

“Your mother kept of Aboreal, though, like my name?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

Sloe sniffed, thinking about how often his parents bickered about that.

“So, tell me about that funeral you went to—for the Healer. Was he really a Remnant Transporter?”

“Apparently,” he said softly.

“Woah.” Raven sucked in a breath. “And his family was there?”

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

“No. It was weird. The family is a mix of people from different worlds.”

“That’s not so weird,” she said, nudging him in the ribs with her elbow.

“It is in the sense that their worlds have different timelines. The man’s daughter was a Remnant Transporter like him, but she’d been Earth-born, and he outlived her natural lifespan.”

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

“His daughter’s husband and children were there. The granddaughter inherited the man’s travel object, a baglamas. According to my mother—and also the whispers and table gossip—she not only inherited his travel talent; she has the ability to heal.”

Raven wrinkled her nose. “Was the granddaughter born of Earth too?”

“No, she was born of a new world, built by the Healer’s son-in-law. Mother said the grandchildren’s timelines are long there, like the father’s.”

“That’s good, I guess. That should mean the new Remnant Transporter will be around for a long time.”

Sloe didn’t answer. He was thinking about the girl, Silvie, from the funeral. She’d caught him studying her at the reception, but he didn’t get a chance to introduce himself before returning home.

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

“Silvie Hall looked Aborealian, with black hair and green eyes.” He passed a hand over the top of Raven’s head, stopping when his finger bumped the clip of flowers. “The same even tone of black, and gemlike eyes. Only hers were emeralds.”

“Interesting,” Raven said tightly. “If her mother was Earth-born, then I suppose the Aborealian features came from her father’s side.”

“That’s what my mother said, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at Silvie’s father, Valcas. When he wasn’t wearing his dark glasses, his eyes were a murky gray.”

“Really?” Raven smirked. “He sounds creepy.”

“Totally creepy.”

Raven chuckled. “I can’t imagine going to an event with so many important people—World Builders, Remnant Transporters… You’re a Time Keeper and your mom’s a Chauffeur. All of you have travel talents. Unlike me.”

Sloe’s shoulders sagged. He wanted to say something comforting, like how people can be talented and important without travel talents. That it was no big deal. But he wouldn’t give up his ability to read and unlock portals for anything. It was his favorite part of himself, and of life itself.

As he floundered for words of comfort that didn’t sound stupid, he sensed a shifting in the shadows, shapes that were rounder, less jagged than the trees.

“Raven,” he whispered. “Did you see that?”

She huffed. “No Sloe. Don’t you get it? I don’t feel and see extraordinary things—not like you and Silvie Hall. I don’t have those abilities.”

“That’s not what I meant. I think there’s something else out here.” Prickles of fear trailed along his arms and legs.

Raven screamed in his ear; he felt her being pulled from him.

A thick arm grabbed Sloe around the middle, from behind. A hand pressed roughly against his mouth and covered part of his nose. He could barely get enough air to breathe or to scream. A pounding thudded in his head. His eyes darted back and forth frantically.

Raven had gone silent.

The arm at his middle pressed painfully tight and he felt himself being lifted from the ground. His shoes scraped rock before everything from his toes to his waist prickled with an icy wetness. He stumbled, half floating, as his lower half was pulled through a liquid that seemed to be pushing him from another direction. Realization set in that he was being dragged through the same river that, moments ago, had seemed romantic.

Splashing and grunting from nearby suggested Raven was being forced across the river, too.

Sloe struggled, only to find that his arms were pinned against his sides. He kicked his legs back and forth, propelling himself forward. His face smacked the river’s cold surface. Water bubbled up his nose.

“Stop being difficult if you want to stay alive.” The words were louder than the rushing water and the voice more undulating as it bounced back and forth between a scratchy baritone and a high, shrieking squeal.

Sloe’s legs grew colder as he was pulled out of the water. His feet had no time to touch the ground before he was thrown forward and landed on his side. Pain lanced through his right arm and leg. But the pressure around his middle and face were gone.

His breath came and went in gasps as he scrambled to his feet, searching for his attacker who’d seemed to have blended into the darkness.

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

He spun around. A man in a cloak held Raven in one arm. His hand was so thick that it covered the lower half of her face. Everything, including her dark eyes, shook with fear.

“Let her go.”

The man in the cloak smiled. “I could, you see, but my friend…well, he wouldn’t like it.”

Another cloaked man, this one wearing a hood that covered his eyes, stepped out from behind the shadows. The lower half of his cloak was drenched with water.

“You,” croaked Sloe. “You were the one who dragged me through the river. What do you want?”

The hooded man stepped closer. “You have information.”

“What do you want to know? Just let her go.”

“The Healer’s granddaughter—you said she is in possession of his travel object, the baglamas, yes?”

Sloe’s teeth chattered. They were eavesdropping in the shadows at the other side of the river. He glared at the men. “Who are you?”

“I asked you a question,” the hooded man half-growled, half-shrieked.

His companion squeezed Raven more tightly. She yelped through his fingers.

A sickness overwhelmed Sloe’s stomach and crawled its way up into his throat. “Yes, the granddaughter has the baglamas. Now let her go.”

“We will, momentarily. But first, tell me, how did you reach this world?”

“Through a portal.”

Raven’s captor grinned. A scar across his cheek extended his lips past their natural ending point. Scars covered his hand that squeezed Raven’s face. “And how do you plan to return from where you came?”

“By finding the exit portal.” Sloe heard his own words, numb to the sensation of having spoken.

The cloaked men glanced at one another. “You have the ability to read and pass through portals?” said the man who wore no hood.

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

“Not yet,” said the hooded man. “In fact, for such a talented traveler as you, I will grant a favor. We will tell you exactly where the exit portal is, and we will release the girl.”

Sloe stood motionless; his breath had stopped, knowing that there would be a condition. These were not the type of men to graciously grant favors.

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

“Find the Healer’s granddaughter, and bring the baglamas to me.”

The sickness in Sloe’s stomach sloshed and twisted in waves. That would be stealing, and I barely know her. Actually, I don’t really know her at all.

“Hurry, boy. If you don’t choose quickly, we’ll choose for you.”

Raven grunted. Sloe snapped his head in her direction as her eyes rolled back in her head and her body went limp and lifeless.

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

“Good. Remember this place and how you arrived here. The next time we see you, we expect you’ll be entering the portal with the baglamas. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

Raven’s body dropped to the ground. The man who wore no hood receded into the shadows before Sloe could reach her.

“There is an exit portal,” said the hooded man, “at the stepping rock at the river’s center.” The finger of his outstretched hand waggled downstream. “Be quick about it. Waiting will make us less…gentle, next time.”

Sloe seethed—his heart a mixture of hate and fear—as he lifted Raven in his arms. “I’m ashamed to be a Time Keeper, if it means sharing the talent with men like you.”

The hooded man laughed. “Our talents differ more than you think. We see the portals, not because we feel them, like you. We see them because we build them.”

Sloe narrowed his eyes. He’d never heard of such a talent, knew of no name for it. “What are you?”

The hooded man tapped a finger to his wrist. “Time’s wasting. You’d better hurry. Because what we build, we can also destroy.” Laughter gurgled from his throat, in hiccups that were as twisted and pitchy as his voice.

Sloe’s back seized with fear. He lumbered forward into the darkness, along the river’s edge. The weight of another person reawakened injuries that had numbed.

He stepped into the water, wincing at how Raven’s legs hung limply from his arms. His shoulders ached with the extra effort he took to keep her head and arms above the rushing water. When he reached the rock, he set the girl down before stepping up. The rock domed from the river and parted the water’s course. His feet slipped along the rock’s edges until he reached its level crest.

He lifted Raven again, adjusting her position so she rested on his left side. He stretched out his free arm. The portal crackled and popped at his touch.

A second fear seized him as he traveled back to the Clock Tower. He didn’t know who would want to kill him more after seeing Raven’s condition—her parents, or his.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7, to be posted April 18. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

Footsteps clapped in my direction, and the door swung open. My shoulders tightened, and my face flushed out of empathy for the man, Mr. Calcott. I knew what it was like to be close to a brother, or in his case, sister. Though, I suspected he hadn’t intended his conversation with Father to be overheard.

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

Father frowned. “Mr. Calcott, this is my daughter, Silvie.”

The man’s lips twitched as he stared at me. I braced myself for words of anger, directed at me for eavesdropping. But, instead, the man knelt down before me.

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

My heart lurched at the rasp in his voice. He sounded like he was about to cry.

He lifted his arms in the air, as if he were going to circle them around my knees, but then dropped them and clasped his hands together.

“Please, please, Miss Hall. I am a Chascadian man, like your grandfather was. I was there for his funeral. I saw you with the baglamas.” His dark curly hair touched the floor and muffled his words as he bent lower and pressed his hands to my feet.

My mouth opened and closed. What kind of person would I have to be not to feel bad for this man? The pain in his heart had torn it in two ragged pieces.

“You are a Remnant Transporter, the only one,” he continued in his thick Chascadian accent. “If what your father says is true, then you can help me. You can find my sister and begin her healing.”

I sucked in a breath. I’d accepted what would become my vocation years ago, but I couldn’t believe it was happening so soon.

“Enough,” roared Father. “Sylvie is only sixteen under our timeline, a child. I will not have this responsibility forced upon her.”

The man sat back on his heels and tilted his head. “Is that so, Mister Hall? Or is it that you are afraid to lose her as well?”

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

My head snapped back and forth between the two men. I wanted to say something, but the onslaught of emotions that tugged at my heart also juggled the words in my brain.

“I’ll see you out, Mr. Calcott,” Father said. His sudden slackness of jaw made his expression alarmingly calm. But the fury in his eyes was undeniable. He pulled Mr. Calcott to his feet and, after a long look at me, he dragged the man through the hallway.

“Remember me, Miss Hall!” called out the man, pressing his hands to his chest. “I beg you—do not forget Chascadia.”

My fingers shook so violently that I almost dropped the plates of cake before he and Father disappeared around the bend in the hallway. My breath came and went in gasps. I left one of the slices of vanilla cinnamon cake on Father’s desk, next to a folder of papers and an instrument that looked like a tiny telescope.

Mother smiled at me from the corner of his desk. I brushed dust from a metal frame that was as cold as it was dusty. This photograph of Mother was from the same year as the photograph of her I kept in the bathroom, one of many Father had taken after they married.

“What do I do?” I whispered.

The cowardice in me wanted to hide behind Father’s explanation that I was too young to undertake the mission Mr. Calcott requested. Mother would have left immediately—as soon as she’d gathered enough information for her search; and the hospital would have a new resident when she returned.

These thoughts followed me as I moved on to Madeline’s room. White hallways streaked past me as ghosts of the man’s voice echoed in my ears—the struggle and desperation in his plea for help. I hadn’t even asked for his sister’s name, and I knew Father wouldn’t tell me.

I stopped at a door lined in chains. Tiny bell-shaped charms dangled from delicate metal links. None of the doors had interior locks, but the residents didn’t seem to mind. What bothered them more was being alone, isolated behind closed doors, which is why many of the residents left their doors cracked open during the day.

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

“Madeline,” I called out with a quick rap at the door. The bells jingled and rang cheerful, high-pitched notes. “Are you in here?”

I hesitated, uncomfortable with opening doors on people, invading their privacy. But also concerned for their safety. Without looking inside, I opened the door a crack, causing the bells to sway and jingle. I enjoyed the music they created almost as much as I appreciated their announcement to Madeline that someone was opening her door.

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

I exhaled a breath and swung the door open.

Madeline sat at the foot of her bed with her legs crossed. Her carrot-colored hair was braided and hung down her back. Edges of bone from her thin frame stabbed at the fabric of her sleeping gown. She faced a screen mounted on the wall.

“Were you watching something?” I said, following her gaze.

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

I frowned and walked up to the screen. It was dark and blank. I pressed a fingertip to the glass. It was cold, as if it hadn’t been powered on recently. When I turned around to face her, gray eyes that were slightly out of focus were looking past me.

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

“A memory? Then why were you looking at the screen?”

“The pictures in my head are clearer when I pretend I’m watching some else’s life projected on a screen.”

My mouth dropped open. This was the most Madeline had hinted at her travel talent, at least to me.

When my lips closed again they stretched into a wide grin. “You’re playing back your recordings?”

Madeline blinked, then nodded. She patted her fists to her head. “I’m trying to remember. It’s in here somewhere.”

“What are you trying to remember?”

She turned and looked into my eyes. Then, as if acknowledging my presence for the first time, she smiled.

Her head tilted to the side as she took in the open door behind me.

I whispered another apology and swallowed. “Madeline, do you have the Detail Technician talent?”

She smoothed her fingers along her braid and stared at me with an intense focus. Her eyes roved from my face to my hands where I still held the slice of cake.

“Yes.” Her breath was quick, her words almost a whisper. “I see pictures, and I know there are more. But I can’t find them.”

I pressed a hand to her shoulder, grimacing at how her bones stuck out from beneath muscle and skin. But my heart thudded against the insides of my chest. Detail Technicians were able to record what they saw and heard by burning sounds and images into their minds where they would remain, stored, for long periods of time. When needed, travelers with this talent could retrieve the sights and sounds and play them back in perfect detail. Learning the talents of the recovering Lost when they were well enough to communicate them to me was one of the best parts of my job.

“It’s okay, Madeline,” I said. “You don’t have to find the pictures right now. You’re here with us, at the hospital, and you’re safe.”

I set aside my curiosity and focused on calming Madeline’s agitation. As much as I wanted to know more about what pictures she wanted to retrieve from her memory, those questions would need to wait. I wondered whether Javis already knew the answers, given how much time they spent together.

“Thank you,” she said, her breath slowing as she relaxed.

I smiled at how her eyes never left the slice of cake. “I brought you breakfast,” I said, pulling my hand away from her shoulder. I offered the plate and a plastic fork.

Her eyes brightened. She brought the cake to her nose and inhaled deeply.

“Javis made it,” I said.

Madeline’s cheeks pinked and her lips quirked into a grin. “For me?”

My shoulders tensed. I took a deep, calming breath, hoping Madeline hadn’t noticed. The recovering Lost were emotionally impressionable, and so those of us who worked at the hospital had to be as calm as possible at all times, which meant making great efforts to keep our own feelings in check.

But how could I tell Madeline that Javis hadn’t been thinking of her when he made the cake? That he’d baked it for me?

The pink in her cheeks gave her a healthy glow, and I liked seeing her feel better. I didn’t want to ruin that.

She looked up at me with concern in her large, gray eyes, still expecting an answer.

“He made it for both of us,” I said while trying to make my smile convincing. “Javis baked the cake for my birthday, but I’m sure he knew I’d share it,” I muttered quickly. I had mentioned to him that Madeline would love a slice, and he didn’t deny it.

She dug the fork into the slice and took a dainty bite. Her eyes widened. “I know these flavors. Vanilla—” She took another, larger bite.

Her brow, red with strands of copper and gold, pinched into a sharpened arch above her left eyelid. “And cinnamon?”

“That’s right,” I said, my voice suddenly sounding far away. “Is there anything else I can get you? Maybe a glass of milk?”

Madeline shook her head. She took one more bite before uncurling her legs from beneath her and carrying the plate to her desk. She opened the bottom desk drawer, which held a small refrigerator and placed the cake inside.

“Are you full? Already?” I grimaced. It was no wonder she was so thin. I would have brought her a few more slices if I knew she’d eat them.

“I want to save some for later, for Javis.”

“For Javis?”

She bobbed her head. Her eyes crinkled at the edges. “If Javis baked the cake for you and me, then he was not thinking of himself. Which means he didn’t get any.”

The skin of my cheeks slackened as I felt them grow warm. I’d been so concerned about myself and getting to the hospital that I never offered Javis a slice. The perception and ability for empathy—the reasoning, even—of the Lost travelers never failed to amaze me. All this from a girl who, moments ago, was staring at a blank screen trying to remember.

I pressed my lips together, taking in short breaths through my nose as I calmed myself—not for anything Madeline had done wrong, but to soothe my embarrassment for what she’d pointed out that was right.

“Javis would love that,” I said, finally. “I need to go—to make my rounds. But if I see him, I’ll let him know to come visit you.”

“Thank you, Silvie.” She wandered back to the foot of her bed and resumed her sitting position.

“Oh, wait,” I said, eyeing her sleeping gown. “Before Javis visits, you may want to get dressed for the day. Is it okay if I close the door so you can do that?”

If I hadn’t been paying careful attention to her reaction, I wouldn’t have noticed the slightest of nods, given before she directed her attention back to the screen.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6, to be posted April 15. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 4

Sloe did not follow his mother up the stairs of the Clock Tower to its lofted quarters. He rounded the hallway at the base of the staircase and passed by the family’s shower room. The door to his bedroom was open, revealing an unmade bed and posters of worlds beyond his own. At least that’s how it was meant to look.

He halted before the doorway and pressed his hand to an invisible barrier. It glimmered and warped at his touch, blurring the scene of the unmade bed and posters. He smiled when he heard a bolt unhitch, the classic kind that signals the unlocking of a door—completely unnecessary for the technology but satisfying to hear.

He entered a room that had very little resemblance to the scene on the illusory door.

Sloe’s bed, positioned in the room’s center, was not only made, it was pristine with perfectly cornered sheets and blanket crafted in dark shades of green. A labyrinth of shelves, black and white Aborealian trunks, and writing desks surrounded the bed and branched outward to the walls of the room.

The wall farthest from the door curved in a half circle, following the interior curvature of the Clock Tower. The walls were bare, except for the strips of light that glowed along the upper angles that met the ceiling.

Sloe opened one of the trunks and pulled out a sweater and an old pair of dress slacks that were faded and worn. He folded the black and gold funeral robe and dropped it, along with his used shirt and slacks, in a basket next to the trunk.

He combed his fingers through his hair and would have considered adding a dab of cologne if he’d had any left. He’d used the rest of it last time he’d visited Raven. Since asking his mother for more would have spiraled into another awkward conversation about dating, he made a mental note to himself to bring it up later with his father.

After shaking the tension from his hands, he turned to leave the room. From this side, there was a space on the wall that looked like an entrance to an unlit tunnel. Sloe pressed his hand to the space and stepped through.

He exited the Clock Tower before beginning the climb, up along its exterior surface. Timepieces glowed as he touched them and faded when he moved on. He stepped over light bulbs and electrical wires, and dodged gears and other fixtures that stuck out from the tower.

Sloe stopped in front of an hourglass. The Clock Tower had many versions of this timepiece, but only one of them represented the world of Aboreal. His hand landed on an hourglass with alternating streams of black and white sand. The glass between the two metal ends of the timepiece glowed brightly, spraying beams of light across the purple sky.

Crackling and popping sounds filled his ears as fingers of electricity wriggled across his hand. He pressed forward, letting the currents absorb him and pull him through, into a tunnel filled with blue and purple light.

When the crackling subsided, he stepped into a world with a violet-blue sky that had no moon or stars. Without a sun to orbit, there was no day or night. The sky swallowed and reflected back light from the vegetation below. Lights from streets and homes added to the world’s brightness.

Sloe breathed in the air and smiled up at the violet-blue sky. In a way that had always made him uncomfortable, this world felt similar to home.

He followed a path toward a horizon of green grasses and trees, colors absent from the Clock Tower’s landscape. Felines roamed the street, mewing and licking themselves clean. Rabbits and other lapine creatures hopped along the grasses, some stopping to eye him curiously before springing forward and scurrying away. Each animal’s fur was either the darkest of night or the brightest of snow, with no shades in between.

The path widened as Sloe reached a village. Though this was not his first trip to Aboreal, he marveled at the likeness of the homes. They were constructed with different building materials, in a range of sizes, but they all had the same basic shapes, with defined tops and bottoms. Pointed roofs sat upon rectangular bases, all houses that looked nothing like the mangled mess of the Clock Tower where he lived. Compared to homes like Raven’s, he often wondered at how his parents had considered it livable.

Sloe reached a house made of brick and stone, built twice as tall as it was wide. A brassy beam ran along the edges of its pointed roof tiled with a material that had been cut from Aborealian trees.

He bounced in place and shook his hands again to release the edge from his nerves, then knocked on the door.

When the door opened, a lump formed in his throat.

Light from inside the home haloed a young woman wearing a fluffy purple hoody and matching sweatpants. Her glossy black hair was gathered in a loop at the top of her head and set in place with a comb of glittering flowers. Shining black eyes, the color of onyx, opened widely with recognition. “Sloe!”

“Hey, Raven.” He scratched the back of his head. “That, um, funeral thing finished sooner than I expected. Want to hang out?”

“Of course. I’ll be right out. I’ll just let my parents know I’ll be gone for a while. Do you know where we’re going, in case they ask?”

“Oh, um.” Sloe frowned, thinking. “I hadn’t planned that far ahead. We can go wherever you like.”

Raven leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. “So, basically, you want me to tell them it’s a surprise?”

“Sure.” He grinned. “That would work.”

“I doubt it,” she said, lowering her voice. “If they knew we left Aboreal as often as we do, we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.”

Sloe swallowed. “Then we’ll stay here, maybe hang out with your parents. We could play cards or something.”

“Oh no, anything but that. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” She spun around, leaving the door open with Sloe standing outside.

He smirked at not being invited inside. The last time he visited Raven and her parents, he felt like he was on a date with Raven’s father. Like he was interviewing for a position to be the man’s best friend. That was the last time Raven let him physically enter the house. She’d made sure they’d gone out ever since.

“Okay, we’re good.” Raven returned smiling and slightly out of breath. “They’re helping Snow with his lessons. That should give us plenty of time.”

She slipped her arm through his. “Ready?”

Sloe smiled as they walked together to the exit portal that led back to the Clock Tower.

“Where’d you tell your parents we were going?”

“They didn’t ask, specifically. So I said I was going out with you and that I’d be back to help clean up whatever mess they were making with Snow’s lessons.”

Sloe laughed. Technology and calculations had changed so much since his parents last had lessons, too. The worlds were different and in a constant stage of discovery and change.

“Well, in that case,” he said, “let’s try someplace new.”

He memorized Raven’s grin, and the way the crackling purple sparks framed her face, as he accessed the portal and pulled them through.

Moments later they were still arm-in-arm, holding on to the Aborealian hourglass attached to the Clock Tower.

Raven smiled up at the purple sky. “This world doesn’t look much different than Aboreal,” she teased. “Should we ground?”

Sloe shook his head. “Not if we leave fast enough. The rumbling will still happen here without us.”

“You don’t want to tell your parents where we’re going either?”

He shrugged. “If we don’t like it, we can come right back and try someplace else. What’s the point of wasting time in between?”

Raven nodded slowly.

“We can always go back to that world with the air balloons,” he said. “You liked that one. But if we do, we might miss out on something better.”

“Then how do we choose?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll have to hurry before the impact of our arrival hits and knocks us off the tower.”

Raven hesitated.

“Which one looks interesting to you?” said Sloe.

Her eyes flashed to a sundial with a clear gnomon—a triangular blade sticking up from the center—with a matching crystal rim along the dial plate. She twisted her body to where she could reach out and touch it. But it did nothing in response.

Sloe placed his hand above hers. The sundial began to glow.

“Where does it go?” whispered Raven.

“I don’t know, but I feel it singing to me. It will be easy to unlock.”

“What kind of world do you think it will be?”

“I really can’t say.” He grinned. “Let’s find out.”

His words faded as the crackling heightened and waves of electricity allowed them to pass through.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 5, to be posted April 11. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 3 Edgar

I splashed my face with water and rubbed away what was left of my eyebrows. The spaces above my eyes worked the same way I imagined real eyebrows did, with muscle twisting skin over the brow bone. But the skin was hairless and smooth.

The skin above my eyelids warped and pinched as I tried to wriggle absent brows. I scowled at the grotesqueness that made me look like an alien from science fiction movies watched by the Earth-born.

Javis and Father both had eyebrows, and so had Mother and Grandpa Plaka. How was I the only person in my immediate family to have manifested this Chascadian gene? The trait was exclusive to females, which made it even less fair.

I opened a jar of face paint and dipped my brush. With sweeping strokes, I drew a fresh pair of arches along my brow bone—full and thick, and tapered at the outside edges, the way Mother’s used to be. She smiled at me from inside a picture frame I kept in the bathroom, where I could see her every day. I painted my skin to match hers as closely as possible.

The dark arches emphasized shining green eyes, the color Father’s once were. This time, when I wriggled my “brows,” I almost looked normal. But, as uncomfortable as I was without them, I felt I was hiding part of myself.

I twisted my long, dark hair in a messy bun and slipped on my uniform, a blue shirt and a matching pair of pants that Mother used to call scrubs. Even though I grieved the loss of Grandpa Plaka, there was work to do at the hospital. There were recovering Lost who needed me. And there was no way I was going to let them down. I packed up my healing kit and made my way downstairs.

Smells from the kitchen made me pause, and my mouth began to water. Vanilla and cinnamon. Mixed together, they reminded me of a flavor of cake Mother used to make for my birthday. My stomach twisted, both out of hunger and regret. Grandpa Plaka’s funeral had been on my birthday, but the closest thing to a birthday cake had been the funeral cake. The taste of lemon still lingered; I wasn’t sure I’d ever eat it again. But worse than that, I felt selfish for being disappointed that no one had said happy birthday.

I stepped inside the kitchen to find Javis sitting at the table, drumming his fingertips against the wood. When he looked up, a smile stretched across his face, ending in the faintest of dimples.

“Good morning, cupcake,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Who said I was talking to you?”

I frowned. “If you weren’t talking to me, then who were you talking to?”

He curled his upper lip and stared at me. “Did something happen to your ears? Didn’t you hear what I said?”

Crossing my arms. I scowled back at him. Javis was my best friend, but his sense of humor was maddening.

“I blame your lack of maturity on having been born later in time than me,” I huffed.

He scratched at the curls that covered the back of his shirt collar. His dark eyes sparkled. As much as he looked like Mother, his mischievous grin was all Father’s—the way he’d smiled before Mother died.

Javis touched a finger to his lips and closed his eyes, presumably instructing me to listen.

“I don’t have time to stand here all day.” I slouched forward, indicating my uniform. “As you can see, I’m on my way to the hospital. I stopped by for a snack.”

His finger stayed pressed to his lips, the sides of which curled at the edges.

A bell rang. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and then audibly sucked in a breath. “You set that up!”

Laughing, Javis opened the oven door and removed a round baking pan. He set it on the table.

“No!” I screeched, scrambling through cupboard drawers. “You need to put a cooling rack or trivet down first or the pan will burn the table top.”

He chuckled. “I would have, if the pan were hot.”

I wrinkled my nose and looked over my shoulder. “What are you doing, Javis?”

“The pan already cooled. When I heard you stomping around upstairs I hid it inside the stove and set a timer.”

He dragged a knife along the inside edge of the pan and tipped the cake forward before setting it on a plate. It was a single muffin the size of a dinner plate.

Smugly, he walked past me to the refrigerator and returned with a bowl of whipped frosting. My jaw dropped and mouth started watering again—not a good combination if you’re trying not to drool all over yourself—as he mounded spoonful after spoonful of fluffy white frosting on top of the cake and smoothed it with a spatula.

With a finishing swipe, he stood back and admired his work. So did I.

“It looks great, Javis. What’s the occasion, and why the secret?”

He gave me that look again, the one with the curled lip, as if he couldn’t believe I was this stupid. His fingers pointed at something in the air like he was calculating figures. He shrugged.

“Okay,” he said, a little too seriously. “Earlier I said, good morning, cupcake, and now here it is. Happy Birthday, Silvie, one day late.”

Tears prickled my eyes. “You did all this for me?”

He hung his head and handed me a paper napkin. “I felt bad about how we spent your birthday.”

I dabbed at my eyes, letting the napkin soak up the moisture before it had a chance to ruin my brow paint.

“Thank you.”

I stuck a fork in the edge of the frosting and dug until I captured a small amount of the cake, too. I popped the forkful into my mouth and chewed. The vanilla and cinnamon shot waves of flavor through me, along with memories of Mother.

“Does it taste bad? What’s wrong?” The space between Javis’s perfect brows creased.

“No, nothing,” I said, though I’m sure my smile was bittersweet. “It’s delicious. If the hospital cafeteria ever needs more staff, you should apply for the job.” I winked.

His eyes were serious, thoughtful. “I miss her, too,” he said, seeing through my attempt at humor.

The cake left in my mouth turned to dust. I nodded, blinking.

Javis handed me another paper napkin, then looked away. I wondered whether he was fighting back tears, too.

“Thanks again,” I said, pulling myself together. “I’m guessing Father’s already at the hospital, so I’ll wrap this and take him some. I bet Madeline would love a slice.”

Javis smiled when I mentioned the girl’s name. She was one of the recovering Lost, a teen girl from Earth, with fiery red hair. Her eyes were gray now, but she told us they’d been blue at one time, before her travels through time and space. Before she’d become Lost. She was a special case, but only in the sense that Javis spent so much time with her.

“I’ll see you later?” I said. “At the hospital?”

He nodded with smiling eyes and a grin that was once again mischievous.

***

I opened the front door and stepped beneath a sky filled with golden light. Three suns hung in the sky. A path of bricks led from our house to the hospital. Flowers flooded the ground along both sides, such that the path was effectively a bridge between both buildings. On other worlds I’d visited, the ground was covered with patches of grass, rock, and soil. But, here, the flowers had outgrown the grass long ago.

Father built the world of Edgar—our world—for Mother. Something new blossomed each day, adding to the air’s fragrance, a mixture of honeysuckle, jasmine, rose, gardenia, freesia, and my favorite, the stargazer lily. The rainbow-studded fields looked and smelled delicious. The flowers and the warmth of the suns lifted my spirits.

I hugged the cake Javis made close to my heart and smiled at the sign above the hospital door. Center for Recovery of the Lost. After taking another, deeper breath of the fragrant air, I opened the door.

A few of the recovering patients walked through the hallway, holding on to hand bars along the walls. Mother insisted on them being available for those that had been weakened by Uproar attacks while traveling through time and space. Uproars were ethereal beings of white light that attacked their victims by knocking them to the ground. Their impact sapped the life out of the travelers until they became sick and ended up in our hospital. But only if we were able to find them.

A woman smiled at me as I passed. Her hair was neatly combed and gathered beneath a headband. She wore a red dress with stripes that matched the silver gleam of her shoes.

“Good morning, Chelsie,” I said.

She glanced at the cake I held in my arms.

“Would you like some? Javis made it.”

Her smiled broadened as she followed me to one of the kitchens. I unwrapped the cake and set two slices aside, one for Father and one for Madeline. I chose a larger slice and set it on a plate.

“This one’s yours,” I said holding it out to Chelsie.

Her murky eyes watered. She carried the plate to a table and broke it into smaller pieces. When I offered a fork, she shook her head and proceeded to eat the sticky gobs of cake with her fingers.

I scooped up the slices I set aside and headed to Father’s office, leaving the rest of the cake behind. Each of the recovering Lost had their issues, but they were not selfish. I expected the cake to slowly disappear throughout the day. The thought made me smile.

I greeted each of the recovering Lost by name as I slipped through the hallway. Father’s office was past the gymnasium and a block of empty rooms. Empty in the sense that he hadn’t reached out with his World-Builder talent to fill them yet. He could create more than rooms behind the doors; he could build what some would consider entire worlds—lands and skies filled with plant life, suns, moons, and stars. It was a talent the Time and Space Travel Agency, or TSTA, still had under its control.

Father’s office door was wedged open, allowing for the mumbling of voices to pass through into the hallway.

“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Calcott,” said Father. “Before your sister can be admitted, someone will need to find her. We cannot begin the process of healing the Lost before they are found.”

“How long will it take for someone to find her?”

Father’s frown could be heard in his silence.

“Please, Mister Hall, we’ve looked everywhere.”

“I will send a traveler to locate her, but I cannot guarantee she will be found, or that, if found, she will be ready to join the center. The safety of our current residents remain our priority.”

“I understand.”

I cringed at the defeat in the man’s voice. More extraordinary than the healing that took place at the hospital was how the recovering Lost arrived there. Until now, Remnant Transporters found and brought them to our world. Healing was a special gift, but there could be no healing until we found those in need of it. And the healing began long before the Lost were brought to Edgar.

My stomach twisted. Now that Mother and Grandpa Plaka were gone, there was no one to begin that process, except for me.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 4, to be posted April 8. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 2

Darkness cast a hush over the burial grounds. The teardrop moons of Chascadia shined more brightly as the sun faded. A shadow that stretched across the Healer’s grave melted away.

A woman with hair as white as snow stood at the foot of the stone. The skin around her eyes and lips crinkled, deepening wrinkles that had grown with age. She drew in a breath.

“I suppose you had to leave us sooner or later, Healer.”

She studied the glint of light reflecting off the crown of laurel and rose gold.

“I’d say nice crown if I knew it would have suited you. But rose gold?” Her lips quirked into a grin. “Overkill, really.”

A tear slipped from her eye.

“I will miss you.”

The woman, Ivory of Aboreal, brushed a hand across her cheek and stilled the trembling of her lips. The Healer’s wife and daughter had been absent from the ceremony. Both were Earth-born with shorter timelines. They’d passed on before him. A pang of loss twisted inside Ivory’s chest. It was the price of having friends from other worlds and time schemes.

Footsteps interrupted her thoughts.

“Mom?”

A young man approached. His dark hair blended in with his robe, the black and gold funeral garb of Aboreal. Beneath the light of the moons, his eyes of purple ice shined warm and gray.

“Some event, wasn’t it, Sloe?”

He shrugged. “It was tolerable—for a funeral. Are you all right? You missed dinner.”

“I’m fine. Not hungry, that’s all.” She nudged him with an elbow. “Chascadian grub’s good though, isn’t it?”

He nodded and stared at the ground.

Ivory wrapped her hands around his shoulders. “Thank you for coming with me and putting up with all this. Let’s go home. There should be time left for you to meet up with Raven tonight.”

Sloe’s lips lifted at the corners. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You could have invited her to join us.” Ivory smacked herself in the head. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You could have had dinner together, and I wouldn’t feel so bad about leaving you at a table with strangers.”

At her son’s expression of horror, Ivory quickly added, “But who invites a girl to a funeral, right? Because that would be dumb, which is why I never should have suggested it.”

She frowned, trying to remember what dating was like at Sloe’s age, unsure whether he and Raven were a couple. Part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Aborealian years were long, and memories of her own teen years had begun to fade.

“It’s all right, Mom.” Sloe laughed. “Let’s just go.”

She smiled at her son, thankful he’d been born in a world with a timeline that was long like Aboreal’s. Sloe meant the worlds to her, and she was certain the Healer had felt that way about his own daughter, Calla. Ivory shrunk beneath the image burned in her mind—that of the pain in the Healer’s eyes at Calla’s funeral. His daughter’s lifetime had progressed rapidly compared to his own.

Ivory dropped her hands from Sloe’s shoulders and followed him to the back of the burial grounds. They passed through a gate and continued walking until they reached the center of two paths that crossed in the clearing.

Sloe reached out a hand and waved his arms through the air before pressing both palms to the ground.

Though Ivory couldn’t see the exit portal, Sloe had left a marking here, in this spot in Chascadia. She recognized the two scratches of dirt in the land that formed the letter x.

When Sloe lifted his hands again, Ivory’s ears filled with the buzzing and popping of electricity, the signal that the portal had been opened.

Like his father, Sloe was a Time Keeper with the ability to unlock portals between place and time. But the talent had advanced.

“It’s ready, Mom.”

Ivory caught her son’s outstretched hand and looped her arm through his. She narrowed her eyes. Waves of electric current traveled across her face and body, tingling her nerve endings and raising the hair at the nape of her neck.

The portal remained invisible and would remain unseen to passersby, to anyone without the Time Keeper talent. But colors flooded the crackling and popping of electricity that accompanied Ivory and Sloe home. Purples and deep blues swirled around them, pulling them along a tunnel of electric charge.

The last of the sparks faded beneath an amethyst sky.

“Home sweet home,” whispered Ivory. Her hands gripped twisted shapes that branched from a mangled tower of clockwork, gears, and timepieces. She huffed. “Well, as sweet and homelike as a Clock Tower can be.”

Sloe chuckled from a space beside her. “Come on, Mom, let’s ground.”

Freeing his hands, he pressed his feet to the tower and kicked, propelling his body backward. He soared into a double backflip before lithely landing on his feet.

“I wish you’d stop doing that. It scares me every time.”

“But it’s way faster than your route,” he called from the ground below. “You should try it.”

“Not a chance.”

Ivory groaned through gritted teeth before repositioning her hands and feet to grasp handholds and reach footholds, a task she repeated every step of the descent. As she scrambled down the tower, she passed clocks of all shapes and sizes—mantle clocks, digital clocks, and cuckoo clocks; some were simple watch faces or sundials. Before reaching the ground, she hopped over a gargantuan pocket watch set in silver.

“How’s that for sticking my landing?”

Sloe sniffed. He’d already pressed a hand and knee to the ground. Ivory knelt next to her son and did the same.

The ground rumbled, sending a wave of jolts up along the Clock Tower. Timepieces chimed from above, clanging and jingling as they bounced against each other and the tower.

When the rumblings subsided, Sloe rose and brushed dust from his knees. He caught Ivory squinting at a mound of raspberry blue metal piled in the distance, the ruined remains of a jet.

“Do you miss it?” he said. “Traveling by flight? Being a Chauffeur for the Time and Space Travel Agency?”

She jutted her chin and wrapped an arm around his neck. “Sometimes. I’d think about it less if we found somewhere to trash that heap of junk.”

Sloe frowned.

“Don’t get old, kid. Your eyesight dulls, and suddenly no one needs you anymore.”

“But you still have your talent.”

Ivory chuckled darkly. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t do much good while in hiding.”

She exhaled and opened a door—not a portal, but a physical door—that led inside the Clock Tower.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 3, to be posted April 4. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 1 Legacy

Inheriting a baglamas that travelled through time would have made me smile on my birthday, had I not received it at my grandfather’s funeral. The rounded body of the instrument shined with centuries of wear. Its wood sat smooth and heavy in my hands. Trailing my fingers across its strings, I lifted my head to Father and frowned.

“I’m sorry, Silvie. I wanted to save this for later, but you’ll be expected to be seen with the baglamas.”

I ran the back of my hand across my eyes, careful to keep the tears away from the spaces above my eyelids. “Another reminder of Grandpa Plaka and Mother,” I said.

Father held his arms open to me. I took a long look at him before falling into them. His hands puckered with wrinkles. The lines of his once smooth face sagged at the edges. His hair had no streaks of gray like Grandpa Plaka’s had, but that brought me no comfort. Father was getting old. Before long, he would be gone too.

“You will be fine,” he said. His voice trembled. “We will be fine.”

“Valcas,” called a woman from outside the door. “Please accept my apologies, Mister Hall. You and Silvia are needed. The laurel ceremony is about to begin.”

Sniffling, I let go of Father and looked up at the woman. Her hair was braided and wrapped in a crown around her head. Combs accented with laurel leaves bound the braids together.

“Of course, Madam Sideris,” said Father. He took my arm in his. “We will go now.”

The bare skin above the woman’s eyelids pinched and twisted in my direction before she left the room. I couldn’t tell whether she did so out of jealousy, or whether she knew my secret.

I exhaled a breath and looked up at Father. He straightened his frown and tugged at my arm. Together, we followed Madam Sideris outside, to the burial grounds of Chascadia.

We passed through thick folds of people, some openly grieving and others looking on with widened eyes, their smiles somber. All were assembled in rows facing a hollowed rectangle in the ground. Dust and dirt gleamed copper beneath the sky’s golden light. A sun eclipsed the teardrop moons that were present both day and night.

A woman stood at the edge of what would become my grandfather’s grave. She looked at me with eyes that lacked expression. Her lips pinched together the way Father’s did, with no hint of smile or frown. Like most of the women present, she wore a loose dress, belted at the waist with braids of gold.

“That’s Madam Gazis,” Father whispered. “The reigning leader of Chascadia chose her to officiate the ceremony.”

I nodded, though I was admittedly not up to date on who currently governed Chascadia. If they were somewhere in the crowd they certainly didn’t flaunt their positions. Mother once told me a story about meeting Spyros and Andriana Tagma who ruled when Mother was still alive. I made a mental note to learn more about Chascadia’s history when I returned home, to Edgar.

I was more interested in what Madam Gazis held in her arms. A chest made of marble lay open, its lid pulling against the hinges. Garlands of fruit, sculpted into the marble and inset with colored glass, decorated the walls of the chest. I craned my neck, looking for what was inside. But it appeared to be empty.

Softly, I brushed my thumb along the strings of the baglamas, enough to absorb comfort from their presence but with too little pressure to produce sound.

Madam Gazis’s gaze flickered in my direction. She, too, appeared to be made of marble, but with the bronzed features of Earth’s Mediterranean. I froze, worrying she’d heard a vibration in the strings.

She looked past me and lifted her chin. “Welcome, everyone,” she called out.

A calm stillness spread across the crowd.

“Today we honor the life and death of a man dear to Chascadia,” continued Madam Gazis. “He was a traveler, a Remnant Transporter, and a Healer. Basileios Plaka.”

Moments of silence followed as those to my left and right bowed their heads. I dipped my chin toward the ground, but my eyes stayed focused on the chest.

Madam Gazis inhaled as she lifted her arms. “I present the burial trunk, the coin for which was donated by the Hall family.”

I turned to Father and frowned. He hadn’t mentioned the trunk to me, and I couldn’t help feeling left out of something important. I wondered whether Javis knew about the burial trunk. My teeth clenched together. Where was he?

“Are there any items that the family wishes to be buried with the deceased?” Madam Gazis spoke loud enough to address the crowd, but she lowered the trunk toward me.

I pressed the baglamas to my chest.

“The baglamas was all Plaka kept close to him,” said Father. The tremble in his voice twisted at my stomach. “He kept no sword or firearm at his belt. He was a man of peace.”

Madam Gazis nodded, eyeing the baglamas.

Father cleared the emotion from his voice and pressed a hand to my shoulder. “My wife, Plaka’s daughter, is also deceased. The instrument belongs to Silvie now.”

A shift in the crowd accompanied murmurs. My cheeks flushed pink as I took in the guests’ awkward glances.

Madam Gazis’s lips formed a polite smile, but not fast enough to disguise the twitch in her nose and pinching of skin above her eyelids. “Do you wish the burial trunk to remain empty?”

Father’s face paled, but he said nothing.

“Very well,” she said, tilting the lid of the trunk forward.

“Wait!”

I whipped my head to the right, searching for who had spoken. One of the guests, a woman with dark eyes and short white hair, pushed her way through the crowd. Studded boots crunched against the ground, sending streams of dust behind her. White locks brushed the collar of her black and gold robe. Her eyebrows were so white that, at first, I mistook her for a Chascadian. But as she neared, they became visible against her copper complexion. Her eyelashes, too, were as frosty as her hair. But nothing was as icy as her demeanor.

I sucked in a breath. “Is she Aborealian?”

Father’s sickened expression transformed to one of relief. “Ivory,” he whispered.

“We can’t let Plaka believe we weren’t thinking of him, Valcas.” The woman—Ivory of Aboreal—held up a clear plastic tube so that it was visible to everyone present. She bent its middle until it popped. The stick glowed orange.

“Put this inside your trunk,” she said to Madam Gazis. “Let the light guide Plaka to the great beyond, in hidden times and places those of us have yet to travel. Or whatever mushy stuff people say at events like this.”

I snickered at Madam Gazis’s look of bewilderment as she watched the yellow-orange light stick land inside the burial trunk. The skin beneath her chin wobbled as if she’d just swallowed something dry and distasteful.

But she didn’t argue or reject Ivory’s offering. She bowed and gently closed the trunk. And then she tightened its straps until the clasp clicked in place.

Ivory winked in our direction and smirked before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Still as a statue, Madam Gazis stood by as four Chascadian men marched forward with a body wrapped in a shroud. A lump formed in my throat as they lowered Grandpa Plaka into the grave. One of the men reached out and accepted the burial trunk from Madam Gazis and placed it alongside the body.

I tried not to look at Madam Gazis who seemed relieved that she was no longer burdened with the weight of the trunk. Her fists rested at her hips, the same way my Grandpa Plaka’s had when he observed something serious.

Instead of covering the hole with dirt, another set of men followed, carrying a flat stone that was as wide and tall as the arm span and height of the largest of the men. On the stone was a painting of a man in a cloak playing a wind instrument, probably an ancient flute. Engraved on the stone, beneath the painting, was my grandfather’s name along with the inscription Healer and Singer of Time.

With the stone set in place, two women stepped forward with a crown of laurel and rose gold. Together, they bent forward and placed the crown at the foot of the stone. The smaller of the two women touched her lips to her fingertips and then pressed her hand to the crown.

“A symbol of this man’s contributions as a healer,” she said. Her voice was somber and sweet. She stood and clasped her hands. “Since we were unable to mark the exact time and place of Basileios Plaka’s death, we commemorate him here where his body will remain and rest.”

An icy chill trailed along my spine. If they were unable to figure out where and how he died, then how were they sure this was his body? And who delivered it to Chascadia? I wanted to ask Father what he thought of what the Chascadian woman had said, but one look at his grief-stricken face told me that now was not the best time.

Gently, Father squeezed my arm. “The last of your family to receive such a burial was your great-grandmother, Dara Plaka, a Remnant Transporter like your grandfather, mother, and you.” His voice was thick.

He pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing. “Are you ready for the exit procession, Silvie?”

Unfortunately, the day was far from over. I still had to make it through the reception. I glanced at my timepiece and sighed, wondering where Javis could be and whether Father would rebuke him for his absence during the burial ceremony. I doubted it, but I suppose everything has its first time, and I looked forward to witnessing such a moment.

“Silvie?”

I managed a smile. “Yes, Father, I’m ready.”

Arm in arm, we followed Madam Sideris and Madam Gazis out of the burial grounds and back inside the funeral hall. Eyes from the crowd gazed reverently, not at me or Father, but at the baglamas I held at my side.

Rows of Chascadian men greeted us inside the hall where we were led to a table filled with delicacies, the same foods Grandpa Plaka brought to Edgar, my home world, during holidays and special occasions. There were plates of sugared figs, sliced and layered with slivers of Chascadian beef, alongside platters of fish stuffed with fried cheeses. Bowls of olives and vegetable salads dotted the spaces between rolls of minced lamb wrapped in leaves. It smelled wonderful, especially the tangy sweetness from the cakes made with lemon and olive oil, the best food I’d ever tasted. I scooped a small slice of cake onto my plate. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t sure my stomach would be able to handle any of it.

I settled into a chair next to Father to soak up the quarter of my heritage I knew the least about. Grandpa Plaka was from this world, Chascadia, whereas my parental grandfather, James Hall, was born of Earth. My Mother, Calla Winston-Hall, was born of a different part of Earth. And then there was my paternal grandmother, Sable Hall, formerly known as Sable of Aboreal. That made me one-half Earthling, one quarter Aborealian, and one quarter Chascadian, a veritable intergalactic mutt.

I sighed and closed my eyes. Tinkling from stringed instruments floated across tables. Though I longed to join the musicians, I’d already tied the baglamas to my belt. Playing the instrument resulted in more than music if one was not careful, and I wasn’t sure how cautious I could be in my present state, especially given how much I longed to be somewhere and somewhen else.

I nibbled at the lemon cake and slouched in my seat. After scowling at Javis’s empty chair, I amused myself by studying the Chascadians. The men who’d greeted us wore what my mother called tuxedos, formal suits with cummerbunds hugging their middles beneath jackets with satin-lined lapels. Matching satin stripes ran down the sides of their trousers. Each man wore his hair tied in a tail, and a sash with a medal over his jacket. It was an attractive combination, so it didn’t surprise me that tuxedos were common to both Earth and Chascadia.

Father’s attire was quite different. He usually wore dark trousers with a shirt and leather jacket. But, today, he wore a jewel-encrusted cloak clasped over a formal suit. The cloak was similar in style to the black and gold robe Ivory wore, but it was brighter and trailed several feet behind him. It looked ridiculous next to all the tuxedos, and I hoped he hadn’t asked Javis to wear something similar.

My own dress was unlike those worn by the majority of female guests. I wore it because I thought—or, rather, I hoped—it would make me invisible. I smoothed my hands across my lap. The dress was a gift from Mother, a simple black sheath with a belt that was perfect for attaching the baglamas. But it didn’t make me stand out any less—for reasons that had nothing to do with the dress or the baglamas. The true culprit was on a place the dress couldn’t hide, something plainly visible and drawn on my face.

Like Madam Sideris, the other Chascadian women did nothing to hide the fact that they had no eyebrows. Most glances cast my way were laced with suspicion. But some of the younger women openly admired the paint applied to the spaces above my eyes, where one’s eyebrows should be.

All of this was forgotten when Javis entered the room.

“Late, as usual,” I grumbled to no one but myself. The seats on both sides of me were empty. Father had gone to get glasses of honeyed kraspota for the toast to Grandpa Plaka.

As annoyed as I was, I couldn’t stop smiling. Javis’s gait of arrogant ease mesmerized the women—young and old—as he looked back and forth among the Chascadians with his deep, brown eyes. I sighed, grateful he hadn’t worn a silly cloak like Father, and then beamed a smile of gratitude as my younger brother approached our table.

“I’ve been waiting forever for them to look at someone else besides me,” I whispered. “You missed the entire laurel ceremony! What took you so long to get here?”

“The hostess out front wouldn’t stop talking about how sorry she was. You would have thought her family member had just died.” He crossed his arms, grinning as he scanned the room. “Tough crowd? I thought Chascadians were known for their warm hospitality.”

“Me too,” I said, shrinking beneath more stares due to my proximity to Javis. “I’m not sure they like me much, though.”

He laughed. “Why should they? You’ve inherited Grandpa Plaka’s legacy. That makes you prime marriage material. Come on, Silvie. Haven’t you noticed the guys looking at you?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Matchmaking at a funeral is disgusting.”

“Not to that guy over there,” he said, nudging me. “Though, there’s no way he’s Chascadian.”

“You’re terrible.” I half smiled in the direction of a figure with coal-black hair falling over his eyes and ears. He definitely wasn’t disgusting, but there was something different about him. Squinting, I added, “You’re right. Are his eyes really light purple? Weird.” Attractive, too, but I wasn’t going to admit that to Javis.

“Yeah, so? You’re one of the few women here with eyebrows.” He snickered. “Well, sort of…”

“Enough,” I hissed.

Before he could reply, Father shoved a drink in Javis’s hand; his eyes were sharp with disappointment tinged with warning.

Madam Gazis raised her glass and offered a few words of kindness before encouraging us to drink to the life and death of Grandpa Plaka.

I thought about the woman who’d knelt at his grave and said they’d been unable to mark the time and place of his death. I hadn’t seen the body beneath the shroud.

If he’s truly dead, I thought as I raised my glass in his honor and sipped at the sweet drink.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 2, to be posted April 1. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Prologue

The Healer knew he was aging.

His body was too frail to continue traveling through time and space. Soon, he would complete his calling, and his vocation would pass on to someone else. He’d accepted these truths, but that didn’t make being awakened by the pain in his joints any easier.

After completing a routine of bending and stretching, he rose from his bed.

He gathered the spirals of gray that hung to his waist and tied them behind his head. His cloak hung on a chair next to where he’d been sleeping. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder to loosen his back muscles before wrapping the cloak around him and fastening its clasp at his neck.

The Healer buried his hand in a jar filled with chewing sticks cut from a Peelu tree, and pulled out a twig. He peeled bark from the twig’s edge. Placing the peeled end between his teeth, he chewed until its fibers frayed and formed a brush.

He wandered out the door to his home, chewing and brushing as he began his morning walk.

Trees rustled with the song of the morning breeze, and the air held an aftertaste of winter pine.

The Healer breathed deeply. He squinted, his eyes having been uncovered and unprotected from the megastars that brought the morning light. He paused to close and to rub the remaining sleepiness from his eyes. When he opened them, there was a twinkling in the thick of woods that had not been there before.

He blinked and chewed, and rubbed his eyes again.

His knees creaked as he stepped toward the twinkling.

When he passed a hand through the outer edges of the space, his fingers disappeared as if they’d moved through an invisible door. The chewing stick fell from his lips and landed in the dirt.

After testing his opposite hand and a foot, the Healer bent forward and pressed his head inside.

His ears filled with the rush of wind and a faint tinkle of chimes.

Blue-green eyes, the color of shallow waters, struggled to absorb and understand what they were seeing.

Transfixed, the Healer continued forward.

Dark clouds hovered in the sky. Light from stars shone and faded through gaps between the clouds. Wherever he was now, it was no longer morning.

There were more trees on this side of the twinkling, but also a river the Healer had never seen. It was not part of the grounds near his home. It was not part of his world.

He tapped a finger to his lips. “How is this possible? A portal, perhaps—but why now? And in the middle of nowhere, outside my home?”

Still, the Healer grinned as he observed the twinkling from this side, from a viewpoint within a realm unknown to him. It was no more than an outline, wider than his shoulders and higher than the stature of an average man. Lines along the edges of the twinkling shimmered, but so softly that most of the area blended in with its surroundings, a faint light peering through a tear in space.

He stood, with his fists resting at his hips and his eyes glistening, completely absorbed in studying the new world, when two men approached.

Both wore cloaks clasped at the neck, like the Healer, except that one of them had an attached hood that drooped over his forehead and eyes.

“Good eventide,” said the hooded man. His voice was croaky, with the persistent change of pitch of one whose vocal chords had been twisted and scrambled.

“Yes, the evening here is quite good.”

The Healer hadn’t intended his reply to be thoughtless or unfriendly. At any other time, he would have cringed at a voice like the hooded man’s. He would have wanted to help soothe the man’s pain. But he was so rapt by his discovery of the portal he hadn’t thought to press his hand to the man’s throat to heal him.

The hooded man grabbed the Healer by the throat instead.

Choking, the Healer clawed at hooded man’s hand to loosen the vice on his airways. But by the time the bloodied hand let go, the hooded man’s companion had pulled the Healer’s cloak over his head and around his arms, leaving him blind and defenseless.

The hooded man landed three blows to the Healer’s head before kicking him toward his companion. Both men hissed and jeered at the Healer’s attempts to dodge their attacks as he teetered back and forth between them.

With a ringing snap, the clasp at the Healer’s neck opened, freeing him from the prison of fabric that allowed him to be beaten in the dark.

But it was too late.

With one eye open and the other swollen shut, he reached for the twinkling, knowing he would not pass through before his battered body fell. He reached anyway, until his fingernails clipped soil and his teeth cracked against the ground.

Air spilled from his lungs, constricted from the impact. He no longer moved.

Only then did the cloaked men stop to wipe the blood from their fists.

A third man emerged from the shadows. He was masked, and wore no cloak, but his tunic flowed to the ground. A shallow split in the fabric limited his mobility by slowing his stride. When he reached the heap on the ground that was the Healer, he slipped the mask he wore from his eyes. What began as a nervous chuckle grew into a full belly roar.

“Such a great man, but so distracted,” he wheezed, his body shaking with laughter. “Fine work setting the portal trap.”

The cloaked men grunted.

“Get a good look at his face. Be sure it is the right man.”

The unhooded man bent forward and knelt to the ground, something the man in the unwieldy tunic could not do. “I am certain it is he.”

“Basileios Plaka, we have you at last.” The man in the tunic threw his head back. His laughter echoed through the trees.

The cloaked men listened. Neither cracked a smile.

“Why do you stay silent instead of laughing with me?”

Ignoring his question, the hooded man spoke. “Are you finished with us?”

“Almost. Where is the instrument—the baglamas?”

The unhooded man trembled as he raised hands marked with scars, cupping them outward to show they were empty. “I have checked his person. The instrument was not tied to his belt. It is nowhere to be found.”

The face of the man in the tunic went rigid and paled. He attempted to kick at the body, but was caught short by his tunic.

He set his foot back down and paused to regain his composure. “No matter. He won’t need the baglamas where he’s going.”

“No weapons, either.” The unhooded man’s voice was sharper, more controlled, than before. “He couldn’t have defended himself. They will think us animals.”

“I care not what anyone thinks of you. Make sure he is dead, and then remove his body from this place. Have it sent back to Chascadia.”

The cloaked men looked at one another.

“We will do as you say,” the hooded man croaked.

“Good. Once that is finished, you will find the instrument and bring it to me. Then, I will be finished with you.”

The men’s voices traveled through the Healer’s ears. He heard their conversation the way he would have imagined an outsider listening to someone else’s dream. His lack of strength left him unable to speak or move. He hadn’t the breath to groan. He knew he would die, alone and unable to tell his loved ones what had happened or to reveal the identity of his attackers.

Awareness ebbed as his heartbeat slowed.

The worlds as he knew them melted together, enveloping him in waves of peace and embracing him in a curtain of white light.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 1, to be posted March 28. Learn more about the serialization of Darker Stars here.

Be a Live Beta Reader for Darker Stars!

I’m going to try something different this year. I’ll be blogging beta chapters of the first book in my new series, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

The chapters will post twice per week. Most will have already had alpha reader eyes on them and some editing, but they are otherwise raw. This means anyone reading or following this blog can be a beta reader and give feedback in the comments for each chapter. The final chapters will go through additional rounds of editing, copy editing, proofreading, and formatting prior to publication. And, yes, do not worrythere will be a replacement cover.

You don’t need to read The Call to Search Everywhen to understand the story, but there will likely be spoilers. You have been warned. 😉

Join me and Silvie Hall in this online adventure! It starts now:

Begin Reading Darker Stars (The Song of Everywhen, #1)

Travel talents have evolved far past what the Time and Space Travel Agency imagined, leaving it unable to keep travelers under their control. Silvie Hall is a descendant of Chascadia, Aboreal, and an ancient Earth. The Remnant Transporter talent flows through her blood, giving her the ability to transport silhouettes from different times and places to help heal lost loved ones. But will it be enough to stop the darker talents that threaten her legacy and her home?