Darker Stars Beta

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 31 Locked

Darker Stars Beta Cover“Is there really no cure?” I sniffled, rifling through pages. “There has to be a cure.”

I sat in the library, with notebooks, volumes, papers, and all the journals I could find, many of which Grandpa Plaka had written in, scattered about me. Father must have had the journal with the cure. Why would he hide it from us?

“Looking for something?”

I spun around to see Javis’s outline in the doorway, his hand pressed against the jamb.

“I…um.”

“What’s wrong, Silvie?”

“Nothing—I—”

“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling. “The suggestions given at the Clock Tower will work, though I don’t agree the baglamas should be kept hidden. We’ve heard the stories about Susana and the Fire Falls. This is just another chapter. Courage and good will prevail, like they always do.”

I grimaced. “I hope you’re right.”

“Come on, you’re not getting scared now, are you?”

Sighing, I shook my head. I considered telling him about the Occlusion, wondering whether he knew how sick he was. That I’d felt it—the darkness in him—again, at the Clock Tower after he’d collapsed.

“Then, what’s the problem?” he asked. “You look as if there’s something worse to worry about.”

I sucked in a breath. I was sure Father would fill the role of World Builder on our mission, anyway. I couldn’t stand Javis holding a false hope, or worse yet, that he wouldn’t recover from his illness.

“I’m worried about you,” I said.

He entered the room and nudged one of the notebooks on the floor with his toe. “Me? Why?”

“Obviously because of what happened at the Clock Tower. How long have you been feeling like this?”

“I’m not feeling anything at all, honestly. At least not until it hits me, then afterward.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like I told you before, when I fell over in the bathroom, I didn’t feel it coming. Everything disappeared into whiteness, accompanied by a sudden weakness, like I was empty.”

“You have no way of knowing when or where it will happen again?”

He frowned and shook his head. “Father had a couple doctors examine me. They think it’s something I’ll grow out of.” He slapped his ribs with his hands. “I’m fine now, see. Nothing to worry about.”

A huff escaped my lips.

“Is that what this is about?” He grinned at the floor and gathered papers into a stack. “Are you trying to heal me?”

My stomach twisted. “I’d do this for anyone, especially you.”

“You have enough to do right now, Silvie. You don’t need to worry about me. The doctors who saw me are the best of the best. They’re probably right—whatever’s happening will work itself out and go away.”

“But it won’t,” I blurted, my voice rising. “This is more serious than they know. Mother said—”

“What did your mother say?”

Javis and I froze. We glanced over our shoulders to the doorway. Father stood there, clenching and unclenching his jaw.

I breathed in and out, steadying my heartbeat. “Where is Grandpa Plaka’s journal?” I said. “The one where he wrote about Occlusions.”

“Occlusions?” whispered Javis. “What’s that?”

“Answer my question first,” boomed Father. “What did your mother say?”

“I told a past version of her about Javis falling ill,” I began, shakily. “When I reached out to heal Javis, I felt a darkness there, something I hadn’t noticed in anyone else before. It was there again, at the Clock Tower, only darker…stronger. Like the Occlusion had grown.”

Javis’s head snapped toward me, his jaw slackened.

“Mother had sensed this darkness in others,” I continued. “But she couldn’t tell me much about it. She said Grandpa Plaka studied Occlusions and was interested in a cure.”

“Is this what’s wrong with me?” Javis sunk in on himself and pinched his shoulders upward, then shuddered as if he were disgusted by his own body. “Father, why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“I’m not convinced you have an Occlusion,” Father replied.

“Then why are you hiding the journal?” I said. “If you don’t think that’s what’s making Javis sick, why won’t you give it to me?”

“I’m not hiding anything, Silvie. The journal is on my desk at the hospital. I’m sure you’ll find very little of interest there.” He turned and walked away, with steps as icy and rigid as his voice.

“He’s angry,” I said, stating the obvious.

“But you haven’t done anything wrong!”

“I know. But I don’t think he’s angry with me.” I placed a hand on my brother’s shoulder to still his agitation. “Father is angry with himself.”

“For what?”

“By now, he must have come to the same conclusion I have. That he’s responsible for your illness. Mother told me Occlusions tend to be found in those whose travel talents have been repressed. You rarely get to use your World Building talent.”

Javis’s face had blossomed to a deep shade of red by the time I finished explaining. He tugged at his shirt. “So there’s this thing inside of me, feasting on the erosion of my travel talent? And you’re saying there’s no cure?”

I almost snorted at how much he sounded like Grandpa Plaka. “There’s no known cure, as far as Mother and Father are concerned. I haven’t seen the journal yet. Father may be right that there’s nothing in there that will help. But I have a theory.”

I bit my lip and carefully gathered the remaining books on the floor and set them back on the shelf, leaving Javis to pace back and forth behind me. I knew there was a question on the tip of his tongue. He may have been waiting for me to continue, to tell him my theory. But I wasn’t sure I could fully articulate an explanation in words. It was more of a feeling, an amorphous thought too high level to make sense, even if the solution itself was simple.

Footsteps behind me halted. Followed by the thick plop of a cushion. I looked back to where Javis sat in front of the fireplace with his head in his hands.

“What do I need to do to fix this?” he said, finally.

“You’ll need to trust me when the time comes,” I said. “Your World Building talent wants to be released. Something important needs to be unlocked. To be set free.”

Want to be among the first to read the final chapters of Darker Stars? Sign up for my Early Reader List here.

I’ve been posting chapter updates, mostly copy edits and clarifications, to the table of contents, but I’ve reached a point where I need to consider major rewrites to bring home the ending. Thank you for your patience and continued support during this stage of editing.

If you’re new to this story, read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here. If you’d rather wait until the book has been published, please join my main newsletter to get a message when Darker Stars releases.

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 30

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe hugged Raven goodnight, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Silvie. He envied her ownership of travel objects; first, the baglamas, and now she had a pair of travel glasses like the pair her father, Valcas, used. From what Sloe saw, it could have been the same pair he’d seen Valcas wearing.

He sighed, wishing he could obtain an unofficial travel object for Raven, for her protection. Those without travel talents could at least use unofficial objects. The travel talents he and Silvie had were in addition to the ability to travel through time and space. The TSTA still regulated travel, though its control over unofficial objects had weakened and the line between what was official—such as a commissioned travel vehicle—and what was not, had blurred over time.

Sloe pressed a hand to the exit portal in Aboreal that would take him home to the Clock Tower. A one-way portal that led to a single, specific destination.

If he had a travel object like those Silvie had, he could have gone directly to her by conducting a search. The limits to his Time Keeper portal talent aggravated him. His talent was nothing without the Clock Tower, which acted as a bridge, an in-between. The realization hit him with a force that made him see stars: like his father, he was bound to the Clock Tower.

But those men…the cloaked men. What were they? It was as if their travel talent had mutated, evolved in a surprising new way. They weren’t bound to the Clock Tower. Their portals had a different, sinister quality. Sloe wasn’t sure he could defeat it. At least, not without help.

Sloe arrived at the Clock Tower; he clung to it for the span of a breath before reaching for the portal to Edgar. When the teardrop glowed, he pushed forward and slipped through.

The stars of Edgar gave off a light, a shade of blue so deep it could have been mistaken for black. Yet, the center of each star blazed white. His shoelaces reflected that light, causing them to appear brighter than they should have been.

Expecting Silvie hadn’t gone back to work that night, after her visit to Aboreal, he crept up to the Halls’ home and knocked on the door. He stood in silence, hoping Silvie would open the door so he wouldn’t have to explain his arrival to anyone else. When no one answered, he considered letting himself in.

Sloe reached out a hand, but left it hanging mid-air. I can’t, he thought. Not again.

He didn’t know how late it was, or how long ago everyone had gone to bed. He gave up for the night, mentally scolding himself for traveling there in the first place, and moved toward the hospital, then to the exit portal behind it.

Careful to keep his bright shoelaces hidden beneath the flowers as much as possible, his thoughts shifted back to the idea of travel objects. Silvie and her family could be somewhere else, for all he knew. She could be anywhere.

There were too many doors, too many portals, to step through to reach her.

In his mind, her method of travel was far more direct.

Maybe she’s right about stopping the cloaked men. His lips bowed into a guilty frown. I need her help, even though I betrayed her.

***

Sloe left the Clock Tower early the next morning. He found Silvie at the hospital making her rounds. The way she whistled and talked to herself and the recovering Lost made him smile. Until she noticed him lurking in a corner and caught his eye.

Her lips dropped open.

He pressed his palms forward. “I’m sure I’m the last person you expected to see here, but I’ve been thinking about what you said before leaving Aboreal. And you’re right. We must stop them.”

Silvie rested both fists on her hips, a motion so slow and cautious, Sloe swallowed several times before continuing. “I’m willing to do my part—whatever it takes to fix what I’ve done.”

“Of course I’m right,” Silvie snapped, spinning the world back to a regular speed.

After a glance down both sides of the hallway, Silvie gripped Sloe’s wrist and pulled him into a broom closet. “We need to talk. Now.”

Sloe caught his breath and forced back an awkward laugh. His forehead nearly touched Silvie’s. He tilted his head back, but it didn’t do much to hide how close they were inside the cramped room. He inhaled. Uncomfortably close.

“I have an idea,” Silvie whispered. “But we’ll have to run it by my father first.”

Sloe raised his eyebrows, then nodded.

“And we’ll need to tell your parents, too.”

“What? No!”

Silvie clamped her hand over his mouth. His eyes widened.

“You said you were willing to do your part, whatever it takes. This is your part, Sloe. You got us into this mess, so you don’t get to be picky about the plans for getting us out.”

“Mmm…kay, fine,” he mumbled beneath her fingers.

She let go as if he’d bit her, then frowned. “I traveled to the past to visit someone I trust, and I told her about our situation.”

“Who? When?”

“Don’t worry about it. She’s a silhouette in the past; she won’t tell anyone. She won’t even remember I went to visit.”

Something in Sloe’s stomach twisted at Silvie’s frown. She rubbed her eyes. One finger grazed the edge of her brow, smudging away its edge.

Sloe winced. His fingers twitched to smooth the edge of her opposite eyebrow to see if that would disappear, too.

“Anyway,” she said, redirecting his thoughts. “Moth—um, she suggested we combine our travel talents to stop the cloaked men. All last night and this morning, I’ve been thinking about how to do that. We’ll need to trap them. I have some ideas for how each of us can help, but we need more input, from my father and your parents to form a plan.”

Sloe clenched and unclenched his jaw, biting back another plea to keep his parents out of the matter. But he’d promised, and Silvie was right. Things had gone too far. They were in too deep. And, yet, hope shined in Silvie’s eyes, a hope that there was a way out.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s hear what your father has to say.”

***

Sloe lowered his head, his chin brushing against arms crushed against his chest. He was certain he wouldn’t have his bedroom door back anytime soon, not as long as he lived at the Clock Tower.

“So what you and your friends are saying, Son, is that the dreadful man who showed up here uninvited—the one in the cloak—was someone you’d met before?”

Nick towered over Sloe, next to the invisible portal behind their home. The talk with Valcas at the hospital had gone more smoothly than Sloe expected. Filling his parents in on the situation, on the other hand, was as nightmarish as he thought it would be.

Sloe swallowed. “Yes, I knew who he was.”

“And you didn’t think it wise to mention this before now?”

Valcas kicked up dust as he moved from his inspection of the ground where the portal sat and placed a hand on Sloe’s shoulder. “I expect he didn’t want to worry you or your family if he thought he had everything under control.”

“But he didn’t have everything under control, Valcas!” Ivory scowled. “Our son stole from your family and put both of your children in danger. They could have been killed. Raven could have died. Do you know what the death of an Aborealian would have meant for us?”

“We would have been ruined,” Nick added in a chilled voice. His gaze fell on Sloe. “We should have dealt with this when you and Raven first returned with your injuries.”

“It’s too late for that,” said Valcas. “You are welcome to discipline your son as you see fit, later. For now we must deal with what we have before us. The cloaked men will not be able to recover the baglamas where it’s currently hidden, but they will destroy us and our children in their race to find it. Should they fail, the man for whom they’re retrieving the instrument will either send someone else or come after it himself.”

Silvie grimaced each time the adults used the word children.

“How do we catch them first?” she asked.

“Yeah, and assuming we caught them, how do we keep them from escaping?” Sloe looked from his father to Valcas. “The cloaked men have travel talents different than what we’ve seen before; it’s as if the Time Keeper’s ability to open and unlock portals has evolved or mutated. These men can build portals as well as World Builders can build worlds. That means they can build their own escape.”

Valcas brought a fist to his lips and murmured something to himself. When he exhaled, his lips quirked to the side, forming a smirk. He answered loud enough for all to hear. “The trap need not be too big. It could be a small world just starting out. We’ll need to find something to lure them there, and only leave enough room for them and the world’s inherent entrance and exit portals—both of which could be locked by a Time Keeper.”

Ivory shrugged. “I supposed that could work. Could we put them in a cage or something to make it a little less difficult to squeeze in one of their own portal creations?”

“It will depend on how much time we have, but a trap could be built within the trap.”

“That’s so meta.” Ivory grinned, causing Sloe and Silvie to share the slightest of eye rolls.

“What do we use as bait?” asked Nick. “How exactly do we lure them to this new world?”

Silvie took a long look at Raven before answering. “I was thinking we show them what they want. Plant what we want to lead them there.”

Shivering, Raven shrunk into Sloe’s open arm.

“Not you, Raven,” said Silvie. “The baglamas.”

Ivory shook her head. “That’s sweet, hon, but Plaka left that for you. The baglamas should be kept safely locked away.”

Silvie sighed and turned to her brother, her lips already parted as if she were about to say something.

“Javis!” she gasped. “What’s wrong?”

He stood with one hand pressed against the tower, his other hand clutched at his chest. His knees shook and sagged beneath him.

“The white… I don’t… I don’t know.”

Valcas’s face paled to a sickening shade of white. In a swift motion he lunged forward and caught Javis as he collapsed, his hands cradling the young man’s head an inch above the ground. He exhaled. “Silvie?”

“I’m already here.”

“Oh, Valcas, will he be okay?”

Valcas squinted up at Ivory and the group of faces surrounding him and his family. “We need to get Javis home—to the hospital right away,” he answered. “We’ll continue our discussion later. I’ll be in contact soon.”

“I can whip up a batch of healing broth—”

“No.”

Valcas swallowed. In a tone less harsh he added, “Thank you, Ivory, but that won’t be necessary. Once Silvie gets him in a slightly better state, we’re traveling home.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 31, to be posted July 11. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 29 Dialog

Darker Stars Beta CoverMy chest burned while I ran from Aboreal. It took a great deal of focus to search without thinking about Sloe’s betrayal, his girlfriend, the threat on Raven’s life, or all the trouble we’d found.

I needed a comfort like no other, one I hoped would help me find the best way to discuss the situation with Father and give me the strength to protect those who jeopardized all I held dear.

As the white light faded, I entered a room. A glimpse of dark curls and a flash of orange blurred in front of me, before the ground violently trembled. I cradled the travel glasses to my face, cringing when I heard the crash of broken glass. Then, a yelp.

“Who is it? Who’s here?” The voice calling out was familiar, but alarmed.

Since when would she be afraid of the arrival of a traveler? The groaning and unsteadiness of the ground below wasn’t something that would frighten a seasoned traveler. Unless they didn’t want to be found.

When the rumblings subsided, I stood and removed the dark lenses from my eyes.

She gaped at me as she pulled herself up from behind a lab table covered with tubes and coils. Shards of glass that oozed with a bright, orange liquid littered the floor.

My heart plummeted into my bowels. I knew this room, a laboratory built beneath the home’s lower level; but I’d never seen anyone actually use it before. I attended science classes at the hospital under Father’s instruction and the tutelage of guests.

A trail of orange liquid flowed along the table’s edge and dripped onto the floor. I wrinkled my nose.

“Mother! Is that Edgar’s elixir?”

The woman before me, one I was learning I knew less and less about, wiped her lips.

“Mother?” She shot me a long, hard squint, then looked at the floor as if considering the arrival of a traveler from a different place and time. “Silvie, is that you?”

I exhaled, relieved she understood who I was, until I remembered what I was upset about. The new thing that upset me.

“Yes, here I am, all grown up,” I managed before scowling. “You’ve been making and drinking the youth elixir to extend your life, haven’t you? I thought you and Father had an agreement to live out your natural timelines.” Is that why she was afraid when I arrived—not of the arrival of a traveler, but afraid of being caught?

Her shoulders drooped forward. “This was the only way we could have children” she said, gesturing toward me. “Before I…”

Suddenly, the questions I’d had—and suppressed—about how Javis and I could both exist, and with different ages according to our timelines, began to make sense.

“But,” I sniffled, “using the elixir put you at risk of becoming Lost. Again.”

Mother smiled. “Edgar once told me there are many pathways in life. Some good. Some bad. But only one that will truly be yours.”

“That’s, um, philosophical.”

“I’m sure you’re disappointed in me,” she sighed. “But now that I see you like this, I know I did the right thing.”

Mother pulled a broom from a closet. She collected the glass shards and broken pieces before wiping away the orange liquid from the table and floor. She frowned.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered.

She clapped her hands after a final dab with the cloth. “I can deal with the rest later. Let me have a closer look at you.”

Barely breathing, I stood perfectly still while Mother inspected me.

“You look so much like Valcas.”

My cheeks warmed as her gaze landed at the spaces above my eyes. Her real eyebrows creased.

“Face paint,” I said, knowing her silhouette wouldn’t remember my earlier visit to the past.

“But…why?”

“Everyone else has them,” I admitted. My voice was calm. I’d given this explanation to Father countless times before he’d finally stopped asking. “No use making others feel uncomfortable. It’s not like the hospital gets recovering Lost from Chascadia to help me blend in.”

“You work at the hospital?” She grinned.

“Yes, and I’m a healer. Not that I get to heal much besides calming people down,” I huffed. I almost rolled my eyes at myself. Here I was about to complain about Father when we had far greater problems to deal with.

“Father’s still holding me back,” I said anyway, remembering Mr. Calcott. It was true, and now that the baglamas had been recovered, Father was even more impossible and overprotective.

“Well,” tutted Mother, “for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you.” She opened her arms.

Holding back sobs that seemed to have emerged out of nowhere, I fell into her embrace.

“Oh, it can’t be that bad. I was your age—not long ago, actually. I remember how difficult it was. But things will get better, Silvie.”

“That’s what I thought, until it got worse.”

She pulled back from me and searched my eyes. “What happened?” she breathed.

“I inherited Grandpa Plaka’s baglamas.”

As I explained everything from Sloe’s glance at the funeral to how he ported to Edgar, and how Javis and I retrieved the baglamas from the man in the tunic, I couldn’t help the way my voice rose higher and less controlled. I’d barely finished the part where I’d learned of Sloe’s betrayal when Mother stopped me.

“Silvie, slow down. Sloe and…Javis,” she said, testing out the latter name as if it felt unfamiliar. “From what you’ve told me, they both have remarkable travel talents. Sloe apologized, and he could be helpful.”

My lips pinched together. He and Raven had been so terrified when I spoke to them, by the time I left Aboreal, I’d convinced myself to leave them out of it. We must stop them had become I must stop them in my mind. But Mother was right. I couldn’t do this alone. No one could.

Mother gave me a small smile; her eyes were sad. “I don’t know what I would have done without your father, Ivory, Ray, and their talents to escape the Fire Falls. Or, without them, Nick, and your grandfather Plaka when I needed them the most. In Susana.”

“I get that you want us to combine our talents,” I said. “The tough part will be convincing Father. He’s hard enough on me. He barely lets Javis use his World Building talent at all.”

Mother’s jaw squared beneath eyes that morphed from sad to serious. “Your father sees me in you, Silvie, and in…Javis. But he also knows you must make your own lives, your own contributions to the worlds.”

“So then what do I do?”

She placed her palm beneath my chin. “You’ll need to figure that out. Do what you need to do, but include him in it.”

I swallowed a sigh. Part of me expected Mother would have the answer, a plan that would help me know exactly what to do—how to stop the cloaked men and their master, the man in the tunic. She’d only suggested we combine our abilities. Raven didn’t have any travel talent as far as I knew. Sloe was a Time Keeper, and I was a Remnant Transporter. Father and Javis were both World Builders, though Javis wasn’t often given opportunities to use his talent. Maybe this event would change everything. Unless Father decided Javis wasn’t ready yet and insisted on taking his place. I wasn’t so sure I’d disagree with Father. Given the strange darkness I’d felt in my brother, it was possible he was too sick to help. I certainly didn’t want him to pass out and need to go to the hospital in the middle of our mission.

I squirmed out of Mother’s hold on my chin and exhaled a shaky breath.

“Silvie, what’s wrong?”

“I noticed something odd when reaching out with my healing talent,” I said. “Something I’ve never felt before.”

“Can you describe it?”

“It was a darkness, a cloud that swelled deep inside the person—not attached to a particular organ or body part. But it was there, it was something. I could calm the person and begin healing those parts that were sick, but I couldn’t make the darkness go away. It was, I don’t know…stuck. Have you ever encountered this before?”

Mother paled. “I have, but never at the hospital. It wasn’t something that accompanied the Lost.”

Part of me was relieved this meant Javis was not on his way to becoming Lost. Mother was right. I’d never felt such a phenomenon in any of the recovering Lost. This was new to me.

“What is this darkness, and where did you come across it?” I asked.

“Your Grandpa Plaka called what you’re describing an Occlusion. He studied it for some time, noticing he sensed it in travelers who weren’t exercising the full potential of their talents. If he found a cure for it, he never mentioned it.”

“Oh,” I said, my eyes widening. “So you didn’t feel this in the Lost because they tend to be travelers who overuse their talents rather than underuse them?”

Mother glanced at the table, shaking her head at the remains of Edgar’s youth elixir. “Moderation in all things,” she muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing but an escaped thought.” Her lips formed a tight smile. “Have you been traveling far, Silvie?”

“Not often,” I said. “Other than recent events surrounding the stolen baglamas, I’ve spent most of my time on Edgar.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Then where did you find someone with an Occlusion?”

“At the hospital,” I said.

“But how’s that possible? Who has the Occlusion?”

I sighed. What good would it do to keep the information from her? She’d forget by the time I visited her again, anyway. After a deep breath, I looked into my mother’s eyes.

“Javis,” I said.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 30, to be posted July 8. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 28

Darker Stars Beta Cover“You want the opportunity to explain, after you said you weren’t going to tell me?”

Silvie’s face burned red from the tip of her chin to her forehead.

Sloe withered beneath her stare. He was paler, thinner than when he’d last seen her. He fell back down on the bench and looked up at the girl through his lashes, his stomach twisting with worry.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want you find out like this. I was going to tell you…eventually. I wasn’t sure when, exactly, or how.”

“I’m here now. Explain.”

“I never would have considered stealing anything, from anybody—especially you or your family, Silvie. But it was to protect a life.”

Emerald eyes softened enough to widen. “Those men were going to kill you?”

“No.” Sloe’s gaze shifted to Raven, who swallowed hard beneath eyes that shined with tears.

“Oh. They threatened her life,” Silvie whispered.

He nodded, seemingly occupied with how Silvie’s eyebrow pointed in a perfect arc above her left eye. It had seemed thicker, blurrier the last time he’d seen her.

He looked away. “We were attacked while out…”

“Where?”

“On a date,” filled in Raven.

“I see.” The tip of Silvie’s shoe, the smaller one, fluttered against the ground. “How’d they know you knew about the baglamas?” she added, her voice tart but under such control that Sloe squirmed beneath her words.

He sighed and squared his jaw. “It was the night of your grandfather’s funeral. Afterward, I told Raven about the healer and how you’d inherited the baglamas. They must have overheard us.”

“Before grabbing us.” Raven sniffled. Her tears ran freely, staining the length of her cheeks.

Something in Silvie’s gaze softened. She lowered her head and rubbed the back of her neck.

“Sloe, why didn’t you tell me what happened? I’m sure Father could have—”

“Done what? Stopped them? If I hadn’t brought them the baglamas, Raven would be dead. That would have only bought time, and I wasn’t crazy about the price!”

“The scenario’s no different than where we are now, though, is it? These men want the instrument back, and now it’s hidden. I’m not giving it to them—or you—not after all Javis and I went through to get it back!”

Sloe’s head snapped toward Raven whose shoulders shook. “I understand.”

“We didn’t tell our parents about it, either,” Raven sputtered. “We were too afraid. I—I’m sorry.”

“Why should you be sorry?” Silvie growled, her face pinched.

“It’s all my fault. I wanted to visit a new world—one I hadn’t seen before. I chose the portal at the Clock Tower that led to the cloaked men.”

“You can’t take the blame for this,” said Sloe; his usually deep voice ran an octave higher.

Ignoring him, Raven spoke to Silvie with pleading eyes and a trembling lower lip. “I wanted him to tell you about this earlier, because I know he felt really bad about it. I do, too. But please, please don’t turn me over to them.”

Silvie frowned. “Handing you over to the cloaked men will do nothing to solve this situation. They’ll still want the baglamas, and so will the man they’re working for.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’ll come after Sloe, and me, and my family—anything they need to get what they want.”

“So, what do we do?”

Silvie puckered her lips. “Like your boyfriend almost admitted earlier, we must stop them.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 29, to be posted July 4. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Save

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 27 Heartbreak

Darker Stars Beta CoverJavis and I stood with our mouths gaping.

I turned to my brother and frowned. “What did the hooded man—the one with eyes like Eurig’s—say to you?” I had trouble getting out the words without shaking.

“He said ‘You can thank the Time Keeper for your pain.’”

My fingers clenched. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Javis eyed me warily, then shook his head.

“They came here to make us distrust Sloe,” I said, crossing my arms. “Let’s go to the Clock Tower, the way we’d planned, and we’ll prove they’re wrong.”

He stared, his lips twisted in a frown. Without taking his eyes off me he bent down and fished his travel glasses out of the flowers. He slipped them back inside his pocket and turned toward the house.

“Javis…” I caught up to him in three strides. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not going.”

“Why?”

“Those men came here specifically for the baglamas. If they know Sloe, then Sloe probably knows them, too. They could be working together.”

Tears stung my eyes. I clasped my hand around my own pair of travel glasses. “Then I’ll go alone and find out for myself.”

“Fine,” he said through clenched teeth. “But if you’re not home before I go to bed tonight, I have no choice but to tell Father where you went.”

“You’re going to tell on me? What are you—a child?”

“No, not a child, Silvie,” he said, his eyes warming. “I’m worried you may be falling into a trap.”

My lower lip quivered, more at his accusation than his warmth. He was my brother, but he was abandoning me on my quest to find the truth. I couldn’t help but think this had something to do with the darkness I’d sensed in him. I had no proof, but I wondered whether it was affecting his mind. Yet, he smiled as if he truly cared about me, and with the same cocky confidence I’d always seen in him.

I shoved past Javis and stepped up; my feet stomped against the path. I slipped the travel glasses over my eyes, and ran, ignoring my brother’s cries that I stop, hoping when I removed the dark lenses, I’d have arrived at Sloe’s home, the Clock Tower.

When the white light faded, my gut dropped with the sensation of falling. Haven’t I already arrived? Or am I up in the air? My legs bent at the knees as my feet hit the ground. The crackle and tear of hardened soil was accompanied by a jingling sound that reminded me of bells chiming from the bedroom doors of the recovering Lost. Only, louder.

I placed a hand to my forehead and looked up. A mangled mess of clockwork and timepieces towered above me, swaying and banging together. I expected gears and flecks of paint to spray down at me, but they didn’t.

I stayed low to the ground until the rumblings subsided, then removed my travel glasses. I stood and brushed a velvety gray-brown soil from my legs before stepping forward, toward the tower.

“So, this is where Sloe lives,” I murmured.

The mossy scent of soil was not unpleasant, but it didn’t embrace the comfort and cheerfulness of the flowers at home. While the Clock Tower itself was impressive, the grounds around it, even the purple sky, were lonely and barren.

As I wandered, absorbing my new surroundings, curious how the portals on the Clock Tower worked, a door creaked open from the base of the tower.

“Hello?” called out a familiar voice.

“Ivory! Hi!”

The woman with white hair tilted her head to the side. Her eyes widened. “Silvie Hall?”

“Sorry for dropping by uninvited, but I was wondering…” Warmth filled my cheeks. “Is Sloe here?”

I expected Ivory to chuckle at my embarrassment, or at least ask questions about why I would want to see her son. But the tightness in her lips and the wariness in her eyes suggested something else.

“I’m sorry, hon, but he’s not here right now. I came out here thinking he’d returned early.”

“Oh,” I exhaled, my gut twisting. “Is he all right?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “There’s no need to worry. Would you like to come inside for something warm to drink?”

I looked down; I hadn’t realized I’d been rubbing my palms across my arms. Edgar’s golden suns, along with their warmth, were missing in Sloe’s world.

“Thank you, but I should get going. It was nice to see you.”

Ivory creased a brow. “Are you sure? I don’t know how long he’ll be gone, but you’re welcome to stay here and wait for him, if you like.”

I blinked. “Did he go out for a quick errand?”

“Not exactly. Honestly, I’m not sure how long he’ll be gone, but you’re welcome anyway.”

I smiled at that. “Thanks again for your kindness. I should go.”

“I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“Um, okay.”

“Safe travels, Silvie. Send your father my best.”

“I will.”

Ivory nodded before closing the Clock Tower door.

More nervous to find and see Sloe than when I’d left Edgar, I slipped on the travel glasses. This time, before running, I didn’t focus on Sloe’s home. I thought of his dark hair and purple eyes, and the way he smiled at me when I last saw him.

I searched specifically for him, regardless of where and when he was.

***

I caught a glimpse of violet-blue sky before grounding. Blades of grass tickled my nose while I waited for the rumblings to subside.

The air sang to me. I knew this place, and I’d visited before.

I felt the world’s history in my blood and in my bones.

Aboreal.

What is Sloe doing in Aboreal?

I pushed up from the ground and shrugged. My grandmother Sable was gone, but it was possible Sloe had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who still lived here. I wondered whether I had cousins in Aboreal, too.

My feet padded across a thick lawn. I’d traveled directly to Sloe, so I knew he must be close. What I didn’t know was whether he was alone.

Heat flooded my cheeks. How am I supposed to explain to his family why I’m here? The questions I needed to ask Sloe were personal. I hadn’t worked out exactly what I was going to say. Hey, Sloe, how’s it going? Did you, um, steal my baglamas and hand it over to creepy men wearing cloaks who gave it to an even creepier guy in a tunic? It sounded ridiculous.

And, then, what if he answered yes?

I paused mid-step to breathe, hoping it would loosen the twisting in my stomach. If Mother or Grandpa Plaka were alive, they could have calmed me instantly. But who heals the healer when you’re the only one left?

Shaking my head, I stepped forward and bit back additional self-pity. This was something I needed to face, alone. I would simply ask Sloe to step away for a moment while I asked him my questions. If he appeared genuinely confused, then I could believe he had nothing to do with it. If he admitted to taking the baglamas and being involved with the cloaked men, that’s something I would deal with when the time came.

I wandered onto a street, lined with houses on both sides. As I approached a home of brick and stone, the hairs at the back of my neck lifted. The male voice that swept through the air belonged to Sloe. I couldn’t make out individual words, but the tone in his voice cautioned me that he was speaking to someone else.

I crept along the side of the house, to where I imagined there would be a backyard.

“I don’t know, Raven,” said Sloe. His voice was low and cracked on the last word. Raven?

Frowning, I leaned forward and peered around the wall’s corner.

Sloe sat on a bench, his shoulders hunched over and elbows resting on his knees. Dark locks fell across his cheekbones. And a hand rested on his shoulder.

Lumps formed in my throat.

A young woman sat across from him. Her black hair twisted in a loop above her head, but she was bowed forward so her forehead rested against his. Certain there was an explanation for this, I wondered whether she was a healer, too.

Sloe was thinner than when I’d last seen him, his cheeks more hollow, like he’d been sick. Reaching out, I could feel hurt there, pain. Was that why he hadn’t visited me again—because he was sick? I could have helped him. He knew I was a healer. Why was he visiting her, Raven, instead?

I leaned forward, wondering what could have happened to make Sloe seem so broken, then nearly jolted out of my skin when Raven placed her hand in his.

“I still think you should tell Silvie,” she said, looking up.

My mouth dropped open at the sound of my name. There was a brightness in her eyes, a kindness there buried in the darkness. How did she know about me? Tell me what?

“I can’t tell her I took the baglamas.”

“Why haven’t you done that yet? What are you waiting for? Unless—” Raven’s face crumpled, though I couldn’t imagine why. He’d betrayed me. I waited for his reason.

“She’d never forgive me—not only for what I’ve done, but for what I’ll need to do again.”

Something rubbed against my leg and mewed. I yelped, and glared at a feline creature, white as snow, before looking up and pressing my hand to my mouth.

Two pairs of eyes darted in my direction.

There was no going back. I crossed my arms and stepped forward from my hiding space in the shadows.

“It was you?” I spat.

Shock sizzled in Sloe’s eyes. His lips began to tremble. “Silvie, I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

“From the sound of it, you didn’t want me to find out in any way.”

Raven’s lips were pulled back from her teeth. Her scowl was one of horror and embarrassment instead of shock.

She narrowed her eyes. “You were eavesdropping on us!” she said, finally, after a thorough inspection of my outfit and hair.

“I was looking for Sloe,” I explained. “I traveled here to find him, and I found way more than I expected.”

I shook so badly, I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or wring his neck. He helped the man in the tunic? He stole the baglamas? And he planned to help them take it from me again?

I wanted an explanation, but I was so disgusted I couldn’t look at him. The rip in my heart tore through my trust more than anything. And to top it off, here he was on a date with some Aborelian who seemed to know all about it! Someone he’d never mentioned to me.

But I had a surprise for him, too.

“I got it back the first time,” I said. “The baglamas has been hidden somewhere that cannot be easily accessed, so don’t bother trying to steal it again. The man in the tunic is not happy. I imagine he’ll be looking for you, so expect to refund whatever he gave you.”

Sloe raised his palms and yanked himself up from the bench. This earned a grump from Raven whose hand he’d dropped in order to do that.

“Silvie, let me explain.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 28, to be posted July 1. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Save

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 26

Darker Stars Beta CoverSparks of purple and blue crackled through the tunnel of time and space.

The cloaked man held on to the ankle of his companion.

“The curse must be stronger now, our time shorter.”

“Yannan must be desperate to get his hands on the instrument.”

Struggling against the current of wind and flash of electricity, the hooded man pulled his cowl more tightly over his face.

“We must work faster.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 27, to be posted June 27. Yes, I’m totally serious. 😉 That was it for Chapter 26. Right now, it’s the shortest chapter in the book.

New to the story? Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 25 Suspicion

Darker Stars Beta CoverJavis and I completed our late shift at the same time. Fortunately, my foot wasn’t broken or sprained. My toes had swollen to the point where I couldn’t fit into my right shoe, but after a few days of rest, I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

“Thanks for helping me with my rounds, Javis.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you’ll help me with the toilets when the time comes.”

I wrinkled my nose, my mind occupied with more than bathroom cleaning. Father had been cold with me when I’d asked him to hide the baglamas. And we still hadn’t figured out who’d locked the recovering Lost out of the hospital. Though, we suspected it had something to do with the portals to and from Edgar that Sloe had shown me.

I frowned as I listened to Javis’s attempts at solving the puzzle, wishing my oversized hospital boot thudded more loudly to drown out his droning.

“I still say Sloe has something to do with it,” he said. “No one else knows about the portals, much less uses them.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” I said, surprised by the tartness in my voice. But I didn’t let it stop me from continuing. I inhaled deeply. “Nothing about Sloe suggests he’s capable of such a mean trick. He’s kind, Javis. You’ll understand once you get to know him better.”

He sniffed. “The only way to find out is to get to know him better, which means being around him more.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“We have the travel glasses. Why not stop in at the Clock Tower for a visit?”

“I’d rather not show up uninvited.”

“Why not? That’s how he showed up here.”

A rush of warmth filled my cheeks as I considered the possibility. I wouldn’t mind seeing Sloe again. But as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I didn’t know him well. As far as I was concerned, he was a good person. He hadn’t done anything to suggest otherwise. But I didn’t know where I stood as far as friendship, either. He hadn’t visited Edgar since the day the baglamas was stolen.

“Okay, perhaps we should visit the Clock Tower,” I said, hesitating. “What will Sloe need to do to convince you that you’re wrong about him?”

Javis shoved a hand in his pocket. He pulled out a pair of travel glasses. “I don’t have anything specific in mind; but I’m willing to feel him out a bit. Are you ready to go now, or would you like to freshen up first?”

I winced. “Freshen up?”

“Put on more makeup or change out of your scrubs…whatever girls spend so much time on before going basically anywhere.”

My jaw slackened at his teasing grin. “I’m ready now,” I said through clamped teeth. “Let’s go.”

We stepped toward a long stretch of pathway. I held out my hand. Still grinning, Javis slipped the dark glasses over his eyes.

I exhaled, shaking my head as I took a long look at the field of flowers—to where Sloe had entered Edgar the first time I’d met him.

His features were burned in my mind.

Dark hair. Eyes of pale lavender roses. A grin that tilted to the left. There was no doubt I could do a better search for Sloe to get us to the Clock Tower. I’d had a lot of time to think about him during my days off.

But this was Javis’s idea. Sighing, I decided to let him drive. Since I wasn’t a silhouette from the past, Javis could transport me. I prepared to run by pressing my weight to the back of my heels, trying not to hurt myself while he focused on our search.

“On three,” Javis said. “One. Two. Thr—”

“No, wait!” Instead of running forward, I squeezed my hand more tightly and pulled him back. He fell backward and I fell forward. Our hands separated, and we toppled to the ground. Pain prickled across my kneecaps.

“What are you doing, Silvie?”

“I saw something.”

I stuck out my finger and pointed to a space in distance. “Hands and shoes. Sloe may be coming here to visit us.”

The legs and torso of a person began to emerge from Edgar’s entrance portal.

I scrambled to my feet. “Come on, Javis. Let’s see who it is.”

My heart zoomed as I half bounded, half clomped across the flowers, hoping Sloe had come to visit us. Then I could prove to Javis what a nice guy he was.

I stopped, my heart sinking. A man stepped through the portal, his cloak flapping around him, followed by another figure whose face was covered to his lips with a hood.

Javis’s breath came out in ragged gasps from somewhere on my right. “Who are you?” he called out.

The men didn’t answer; they didn’t have to. I knew they had something to do with the man in the tunic from the world we’d escaped with the baglamas. They were dressed like the cell guards.

I pressed my fingertips to my ears and screamed. Until a hand covered my lips.

“Save your breath, girl. We have questions for you.”

Unable to turn my head, my eyes darted to the left and right, searching for my brother.

Javis writhed against the bulkier man’s grasp. “What do you want from us?” My heart pounded at the panic in my brother’s voice.

“The baglamas.” The words that escaped the lips pressed at my ear were warbled and strange. “We’ve come to take it back.”

“I don’t have it,” I growled.

The man holding back Javis’s arms pressed his brows together. “Where is it?”

“Hidden. I wouldn’t be able to tell you where it was if I tried.” I bit at the hand that half covered my lips. “Let. Me. Go.”

“Not until you tell us who knows where the instrument is.”

I clenched my jaw. There was no way I was going to implicate Father.

Javis strained against the cloaked man who wasn’t wearing a hood. Both stared up over my forehead, presumably at the hooded man who held me.

Javis’s eyes opened wide as he began to shudder.

“What’s wrong?” I yelled out. “Javis, what’s happening?”

“His eyes…they’re like the dog’s eyes. He’s putting words in my head.”

I twisted until I felt my neck would break. The hood was pulled back from my attacker’s face. His eyes glowed white and burned of moonlight.

“Stop looking into his eyes, Javis! He can’t talk to you if you look away.”

Arms around me tightened.

Then, suddenly, the vise of pressure disappeared. Both cloaked men slackened and fell to their knees.

The man who’d held Javis moved for the portal—the invisible space where they’d entered Edgar. “We’ve stayed too long,” he said, his voice thin and choked.

I bit my lip to keep from asking what he meant by that.

The hooded man held out his hand.

“But that’s not the exit port—” I gulped and pressed my hands to my lips, feeling like an idiot for what I’d revealed.

I took a few step backward and reached for Javis.

Both of the cloaked men were in pain. I could sense it—feel it—with my healing talent. As much as I felt the pull to comfort them, I resisted. This pain was foreign to me. I had no idea what it was or where it came from. And I wasn’t about to escort them to the rear of the hospital where I knew the exit portal was located. I didn’t what them anywhere near Father or the recovering Lost.

I set my jaw, watching the hooded man’s hand pass through air. He and his companion crawled across the space where they’d entered; where I imagined the entrance portal would be. Flowers crunched beneath their knees and hands.

Both strained to stand upright, before they turned and walked backwards into the space they’d passed.

And disappeared.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 26, to be posted June 24. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 24

Darker Stars Beta CoverThe hooded man returned to the woods, and fell to his knees.

His companion exhaled and paused in his tending of the fire. “Are you in pain?”

“No. Only relieved.”

“Then it worked?”

“He kept his word.” The hooded man stood and cracked his knuckles. “The curse has been lifted. We are free.”

“Where will you go from here?”

“I will find my way.”

The cloaked man lifted a bucket and spilled water across the fire. Flames crackled and sizzled before burning out.

“Have you anywhere to go?” garbled the hooded man.

“For now it is enough to be free to go where and when I please.”

Both men stood in awkward silence; neither turned to move. Then, as if pulled by the hand of a giant, they walked in unison toward a portal.

“Where do you two think you’re going?” A voice called out at the same time a face and an outstretched arm appeared through the world’s entrance.

The man in the tunic grabbed the hooded man, digging fingernails into his gullet.

Gagging, the hooded man pulled back the cowl that covered his face. His eyes glowed white with the glow of the moon. With a piercing gaze, he locked eyes with the man who held his throat.

“I will not listen to your pathetic pleas.” The man in the tunic stepped forward and smiled as he averted his eyes, breaking the connection. “I asked you to do something and it has not yet been finished.”

“We’ve done everything you’ve asked,” said the cloaked man. “Which is why the curse has been lifted. We are free men. We no longer work for you, and we are not in your debt.”

“Oh, but you are. You see, I am no longer in possession of the instrument.”

“That is none of our concern. We are not responsible for your inability to keep it.”

“I would still have the baglamas if you would have explained how to use it. In that you have failed, and you will not be free until you get it back for me—and this time with instructions! Consider your freedom revoked.”

The smile that burned across his lips caused both of the cloaked men to pale. Seemingly satisfied, he dropped his hand, careful to avoid the glowing white eyes. He pulled the hood over the man’s face. The hooded man became hooded once again.

“When did you last see the baglamas?” said the hooded man, rubbing his throat.

“It was stolen from me,” he snapped. “By children.”

The cloaked man snorted. “You were fooled by children?”

“They were vile creatures trained by Evil itself.”

“Describe them.”

“A girl and a boy, both in their adolescent years. She had black hair and emerald green eyes. She played the idiot—pretending not to know how to play the instrument.”

“And the boy?”

“Dark curls and matching dark eyes. He seemed the more even-tempered of the two. Cautious. Quiet.”

“Their names?”

I didn’t bother learning their names because they were my prisoners!

The cloaked men exchanged a cough resembling joyless laughter.

“Their descriptions do not match the boy and girl who arrived here,” said the hooded man. “The boy who retrieved the baglamas had black hair and purple eyes. The girl’s eyes were not green.”

“But the boy,” added his companion. “You said he had dark curls. Did he have an aquiline nose?”

The man in the tunic seemed to consider the question for a moment before throwing his arms in the air. “Yes, but why would that matter?”

“The Healer matched that description. Perhaps they are Basileios Plaka’s descendants. The rightful owners of the baglamas.”

The man in the tunic clutched at his chest. He tried to picture the Healer in his mind, the way he was on the night they’d trapped him and found that the baglamas was not on his person. The children—the boy in particular—looked much like the Healer, only younger and with dark eyes instead of blue-green. He gritted his teeth at his own lack of observation.

“I had them…within my grasp,” he choked. “But… They… They pretended not to know how the instrument worked.”

“So you’ve mentioned.”

The cloaked men looked down at the ground, not bothering to mask the smirks that formed across their faces.

“We will help,” said the hooded man. “But you will pay us more than our freedom. This task will be costly.”

“What is it that you want?”

“You will return my dog to me.”

“Eurig is mine.”

“Only because you stole her from me,” growled the hooded man. “You forced her into service. You stole her voice.”

The man in the tunic laughed. “I hear her voice in my head each day.”

“You hear only want you want to hear.” The hooded man pulled back his cowl; his eyes glowed bright in the darkness.

With a mocking sneer, the man in the tunic looked away.

***

“We can learn from the Time Keeper who Plaka’s descendants are and where they live. But how do we discover how the baglamas works?”

The cloaked man dragged a stick across a new fire pit and stirred the embers. “Perhaps the Time Keeper has learned that as well. If not, we ask the children to tell us.”

“Why should they tell us?”

“We will make them a promise.”

“What could they want from us?” the hooded man’s voice rasped, tilting to a shriek by the end of the question.

“We will explain who sent us to them.”

“But they’ve already encountered and escaped Yannan—slipped like fish through his fat fingers.”

“We will not mention him. We’ll send the children off course, all while telling the truth.”

“The truth?”

“That it was the Time Keeper who stole the baglamas, and that it was he who sent us to them.”

“How can you be sure that is what they’ll want?”

“They will be curious about how Yannan retrieved the instrument to begin with, and they will be afraid. They’re children. If they are anything like we were growing up, or anything like we are now, they’ll want their revenge.”

The hooded man sniffed. “And we will promise that revenge? In their fight against another child?”

“Yes. But only if they demonstrate how the baglamas makes one travel through time.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 25, to be posted June 20. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 23 Discord

Darker Stars Beta CoverFootsteps jolted me awake.

I bolted to a sitting position and stretched against the cramping in my back and neck.

My eyes focused on a face grinning down at me, through the bars of my cell. The man in the tunic patted Eurig’s head. His smile was upside down from my viewpoint. Drowsily, I goggled for clues as to what made him so pleased with himself.

Pain flashed across my cheeks along with a scowl I couldn’t hold back. Tucked beneath the folds of his opposite sleeve was my baglamas.

“Good morning, children,” he said, glancing back and forth between my cell and Javis’s. “I was hoping we could get along better today.”

He pulled the instrument from his arm and held it out to me. “I brought entertainment.”

Then, as if he couldn’t get any creepier, he slipped the baglamas through the bars of my cell. His grin widened. “Do you play?”

I cradled the baglamas in my hands and stared at it. I wanted to crush it against my chest, to play music, and to travel…to a place far away from here. I wanted to go home and journey the worlds with Javis and Sloe and Father. And then travel back in time to visit Mother—to tell her about our adventures, to see her smile when she learned how happy we were, even though we missed her and wished she’d been with us during each and every moment.

But I couldn’t.

The man in the tunic looked at me expectantly, the same way I must have appeared to one of the recovering Lost when I couldn’t quite figure out what they were thinking or needed in a given moment.

He curled his fingers around the cell bars. “Play the instrument.”

I continued to hold the baglamas, stupidly, as if I didn’t know what it was, then trailed a finger across its strings. My touch made the strings buzz with a soft, tinkling sound, nothing fancy, but it sounded better than what I’d heard the man in the tunic play. Unfortunately, this made him grin again.

Play ugly music, ugly notes, I thought to myself. After taking into consideration his thick, stubby fingers, I plucked a string with two of mine. The string responded with a tart, sassy plink. Motivated to continue, I set aside everything I’d learned about music—all my training—and threw it out the window. I told my fingers to forget, to be temporary idiots attached to my hands. Then cringed at the resulting chaos.

I might have been better at making the baglamas sound bad than the man in the tunic did. Grandpa Plaka was probably rolling in his grave, or at least pressing his hands to his ears. I could only imagine what Javis was thinking in the next cell over.

“Stop,” said the man in the tunic, clearly convinced I had no idea what I was doing.

That’s when he realized his mistake.

I sat in my cell. He stood on the other side, with the bars between us. And I was left holding the baglamas.

He reach out a hand. “Return the instrument to me.”

I shook my head, and pressed the baglamas to my chest. I was trying to look stubborn, but I wasn’t sure he understood. So, I started playing again, this time as if I were truly enjoying making all the horrible sounds with the strings.

“I said stop,” he growled.

My fingers paused above the strings.

As much as I wanted to gage Eurig’s reaction, I did my best to avoid looking at her for fear of meeting her glowing eyes. I didn’t want the dog’s words in my head. She probably would have told me to hand over the baglamas, too.

But now that I’d laid my hands on it, I couldn’t give it up. The man in the tunic wasn’t going to get it back without a fight.

I stood up from my seated position and raised my knee. With both hands, I held the baglamas in front of me and pulled it down, quickly, pretending I intended to break it in half.

“No!”

I stopped, with the instrument just barely brushing my kneecap. Despite myself, I smirked. He’d understood my message: If I couldn’t keep the baglamas, then he wasn’t going to get it either. What he didn’t know was that, in my opinion, the worlds would be better off without such a powerful instrument in his hands.

“Come, Eurig. Let’s have her keep it for a while. She’ll eventually grow tired of the toy.”

He turned to the guard. “I’ll send other men, to take the instrument from her and to bring the boy to me. We may have better luck with the boy, alone.”

The guard nodded without taking his eyes off me.

I sniffed at him and retreated to the back corner in the cell, then slipped the travel glasses over my eyes. “Javis,” I whispered.

His face appeared against the all-white background. He said nothing, but his eyebrows were raised.

“The hallway that runs along the cells is long enough for us to gain enough momentum to travel.”

I detected the slightest nod from him. I interpreted his silence to mean his guard was keeping a close watch on him.

Coughing to disguise some of my words, I added, “When our cells are opened, we’ll need to run. But we’ll need to split up. I’ll run to the left with my travel glasses, and you’ll need to go to the right, with yours.”

Javis’s lips tightened; he released a breath. “Okay,” he coughed.

We sat in silence, staring at each other. His face was pinched, reflecting the same tension I was certain he saw in me. Sorry for having dragged him into this mess, I longed to reach out, into our connection through the travel glasses, and calm him.

Instead, I flexed, loosening my ankles and knees, ready to pounce when the cell door opened.

The cloaked men announced their arrival with the clack of boot heels and the rattling of metal, like chains being dragged across the floor. My back and shoulders trembled.

“Ready?” I whispered.

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes and shook the image of Javis from my mind.

Peering up over the glasses, to where I could better see in the dim light, I glared at a cloaked man who was already twisting a key inside the lock. I stretched my neck, searching for the man in the tunic, but he and Eurig were not there.

Another man passed by my cell; with him, the grating of metal intensified. My gaze lowered to his shoes. One of his ankles was cuffed. A chain of iron spheres and bells that didn’t ring dangled from the cuff and scratched along the floor.

I noticed a similar cuff attached to the man who’d unlocked my door and was walking toward me. Even the guards are prisoners here, I worried. Then smiled. The cuff added a limp to the man’s gait that slowed him down almost as much as the man in the tunic.

I squeezed the baglamas to me and focused on home, on Edgar, opening a search using the travel glasses. The baglamas would have taken too long to ready for travel. I also didn’t want the guards to know how it worked.

The guard sneered and reached for me. I dodged his arm and twisted past him to where I could see the metal tails of his ankle cuff. I gave the chains a sharp kick. Pain pulsed through my foot as he wobbled and spun around. His lips opened as the realization set in as to what I’d done.

He was off balance. I didn’t wait to see whether he would topple over.

I burst through the cell door. Tensing at the crashing thud behind me, I caught a glimpse of Javis running down the other side of the hallway.

I set my jaw against the pain and sprinted in the opposite direction.

***

Tears stung my eyes when the bright light faded. I coughed a lungful of air. I’d been breathing so hard the flowers’ fragrance had overwhelmed me.

“Javis?” I wheezed.

“Over here.”

I steadied my palms and grounded without looking up. I breathed evenly, allowing my heartbeat to slow and throb in sync with the pain in my foot. Javis was with me and the baglamas was safe, for now.

“We’ll need to tell Father,” I said, my voice barely audible over the rumbling. “The man in the tunic will be back for the baglamas. He’ll track us down—he probably already knows where we live.” I swallowed a lump in my throat. “We’ll need to hide it someplace safe.”

Gritting my teeth, I tested my foot’s ability to bear my weight. The pain hit so sharply I couldn’t bite back a groan. I fell to the ground.

“What happened to you?”

“I wasn’t sure I could outrun the guard, even with the cuff,” I said. “So I kicked his chain.”

Javis shook his head and snorted. With both hands, he pulled me up and slung my arm over his shoulders.

“Thanks. The chain was heavier…and harder…than I thought it would be.” I rolled my eyes as I tried to explain myself.

“Running on the injured foot probably didn’t help,” he said. “Let’s get you to the hospital. We can talk to Father about the baglamas while we find out whether you broke anything.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 24, to be posted June 17. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 22

Darker Stars Beta CoverRaven sat cross-legged on Sloe’s bed, her eyes fixed on her striped, fuzzy socks. “So, how are you doing now that the baglamas is in the hands of the cloaked men?”

“Not well.” Sloe sighed. He’d moved a desk chair so it faced the bed. His arms crossed his chest, wishing he still had his bedroom door.

“Did you do what I suggested? Did you tell Silvie the truth and offer to help her get the baglamas back?”

“No.” He rubbed his eyes, letting his dark hair cover his hands and forehead. “Actually, I tried, but she wasn’t around.”

“But the Halls live and work at Edgar, don’t they? Everything they need’s right there.”

His eyes flickered to the open doorway. “Everything but the baglamas,” he said, his voice low. “I went to the hospital to learn whether Silvie knew about the baglamas being stolen—to see if she’d mention it to me, but she and Javis were nowhere to be found. I thought it odd they weren’t working, so I tried to go to the house—”

“And?”

He swallowed and hung his head.

“Sloe, what happened?”

“I tried to go out the front door without being seen, but a group of patients and their visitors came stomping down the hallway. I panicked, Raven. I hid while they passed. When they went outside, I locked them out.”

“You what?”

“I heard one of the recovering Lost mention coming back inside to get something, and I wanted to buy myself some time. So, I locked the door and rushed around the inside border of the hospital until I go to the backdoor—where I could port home using the exit portal on the other side.”

Raven listened with a scowl. “You left all those people and their visitors outside? Why didn’t you go through the gym you’d said was in the middle of the hospital?”

“There were too many people in there. I thought the halls would be quieter, and they were.” He raised his palms. “I felt bad locking them outside, but I figured someone would eventually let them in. I didn’t know if any of them knew about the backdoor, but I hoped it would take them longer to reach it than it would for me to read the exit portal and travel home.”

Raven bit at the edges of a lock of hair she’d twirled around her finger. Finally, she said, “Can’t you see what this is doing to you?”

“Yes. And I hate myself.”

“Sloe, you need to tell Silvie the truth. If you can’t face her, you should explain to Valcas what happened. The baglamas, while important, is just a physical object, a material possession. If you told them our lives were in danger, they’d probably understand.”

He worked his jaw and frowned. “I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of—the cloaked men or the Halls’ disappointment in me.”

Raven reached out and pressed her hand beneath Sloe’s chin, tilting it upward until his eyes met hers. “Is it the Halls’ disappointment your worried about? Or is it Silvie’s?”

Sloe’s brow creased as he lowered his eyes. A heaviness lodged itself in his chest. He was worried about what Javis and Valcas would think of his betrayal, and how it might affect relations between the Halls and his parents. But he’d been relieved when he hadn’t found Silvie at the hospital, when he’d gone home instead of facing her piercing eyes and nervous smile to confess what he’d done, and whatever reaction that would have provoked.

“Sloe?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, shrinking beneath the tears flooding Raven’s dark eyes. “I wish I were as good as you.”

Her lips were pressed together, but he detected a faint trembling in them.

She nodded, then slowly inhaled as he stood from the chair and offered his hand.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll port you home.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 23, to be posted June 13. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.