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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 16

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe returned to the Clock Tower, his thoughts filled with Silvie, her family, and what he’d seen of her healing talent. She’d helped her brother Javis and the girl Madeline without hesitation, almost without fear. The hint of fear she had shown, he assumed, was due to seeing her family member unwell.

He shivered as he opened the door to the tower, wishing he could take back his promise to the cloaked men. He didn’t want to betray Silvie anymore than he wanted to endanger Raven.

When he reached the top of the stairs, he found his parents talking, their shoulders hunched over plates of food. Ivory turned and squinted.

“You look serious tonight. What’s on your mind, kid?”

Sloe sat near his mother and exhaled. “I’m thinking about travel talents, mostly.”

Nick snorted. Ivory’s arm jerked as if trying to elbow him in the ribs, but he was too far away.

Ignoring his father’s jest, Sloe replied in a slow, measured tone. “Even though we can do amazing things, I’m beginning to understand how dangerous our talents are—how they lead to difficult situations as much as they are necessary to help with difficult situations.”

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

“Is this your way of leading to an apology? Or are you trying to tell us you’re in trouble you cannot handle alone?”

“I’m sorry for worrying you, Dad.” He thought about how Nick had been in hiding since before Sloe was born. “But there must have been times you felt lost and helpless about something you didn’t want all the worlds to know.”

“What are you getting at, son?”

Sloe bristled. “Take for instance when we first discovered I was a Time Keeper and ended up in Aboreal. You weren’t who brought me home. Another man did.”

Nick’s eyes softened. “You’d suddenly slipped from my hands. You’d fallen on top of an Aborealian hourglass and disappeared.” He looked away, his mind somewhere else. “Your mother and I were stunned.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Ivory. “One moment you were there and then poof gone! I’ve never been so scared in my life, and trust me, kid, I’ve seen some things.”

Nick sipped at his tea before sitting further back into his chair. “I knew I couldn’t follow you through the portal to Aboreal. The society had rejected me and I was still in hiding. I’d grown complacent now that I was confident the TSTA would never find me here—that they were locked out and unable to enter without my permission.”

He sighed. “He could still return through Aboreal’s exit portal, back here to the Clock Tower, is what I told your mother, not realizing how stupid I sounded in that moment.”

Sloe’s attention switched to Ivory’s frowning face.

“I told your father he was crazy if he thought you were going to wander over to the exit portal,” she said. “You were so small, and I had no idea how far away the exit portal would be from where you entered. It’s not like I’d ever seen or sensed it.”

Nick pointed his chin toward his wife and smiled. “But thank goodness for old friends.”

“I immediately thought of Calla and Valcas,” said Ivory. “Your father scrambled along the tower, reading faster than I’d ever seen him, trying to find the world of Edgar that Valcas built. Timepieces glowed left and right.”

“Once I’d arrived in Edgar and found Valcas, he agreed to retrieve you for us—using his travel glasses. He knew Aboreal well, so I had no worries there. More than anything, we were concerned for your safety and didn’t know what you would think or do once you realized you were in a new world, alone.”

“I was fine,” said Sloe, remembering. “I met a boy there. We talked until a man arrived—a man in dark clothing who wore sunglasses.”

The Clock Tower shook softly on the inside as if struck by a heavy wind. Timepieces clanged and chimed.

Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Someone’s here.”

“But who?” muttered Sloe as the family scrambled downstairs.

“Maybe it’s Valcas,” Ivory offered. Her words were light and carefree, but her forehead was wrinkled in waves. “It could be his ears were burning from us talking about him. Or Silvie? Her grandfather Plaka was able to get here using his baglamas.”

Sloe cringed at his mother’s mentioning of the instrument.

They opened the door.

A cloaked man was crouched outside, grounding. He turned around. A hood covered his eyes and nose, leaving only his lips exposed.

Sloe sucked in a short breath, his limbs suddenly rigid and difficult to move as he and Ivory followed Nick outside.

“How did you get here, friend?”

The hooded man grinned in the direction of the greeting, where Nick stood with his thin arms overlapped in front of his chest.

“You tell me, friend,” he laughed, his voice warbling between high and low-pitched tones.

“This is our home,” said Nick, offering nothing further, no details about the Clock Tower or what it was. “Which means we are entitled to know why you are here,” he added, this time subtly leaving off the word friend.

“I’m exploring,” said the man. “Finding my way around the worlds. Keeping track of my debts and debtors.” He laughed again, a sickening shriek of hiccuping tones.

Ivory caught up to Nick and stood at his side. “What’s going on?” she said under her breath. “I’ve never seen anything like this… At least not with a stranger.”

“Don’t worry love,” he responded. His tone was soft but prickly. “Please, go upstairs, and take Sloe with you.”

She nodded and attempted to catch Sloe’s arm on her way to the door. He was frozen so solid, he didn’t budge, causing Ivory to bounce backward. “Come on, kid. Let your father deal with this.”

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

Ivory screwed up her face and huffed before turning sharply about-face. “Then, I’m not leaving either,” she whispered.

Nick stepped toward the man. “Are you lost?”

The hooded man sucked in a breath and fell to the ground, hard on his knees. He writhed and moaned, until the sounds tapered off into a series of gagging sounds. His hands squeezed at his face before wrapping around his throat. “No. Not. Lost,” he sputtered.

Nick approached the man, his hand raised as if intending to free him of his hood. “Are you hurt, friend?” he said, his glance filled with caution.

The hooded man laughed again. “Only temporarily,” he said, sucking in an extended, rattling breath. “Only…temporarily.”

Nick’s stuck out his chin and frowned. He offered his hand to help the man up, which the man accepted. “Unless you can explain why I should let you stay, I think it best you leave now. Do you need me to help you exit this world? To take you home?”

Sloe wiped his sleeves across his brow, mopping a trail of sweat beads. His palm shook as he lowered his hand. If he asks to return through the sundial, it’s over for me. Dad might find out where I was the night Raven got attacked. Nausea overwhelmed his stomach, increasing the clamminess of his hands and forehead.

“No,” said the hooded man. He looked up at the Clock Tower, curiosity barely visible beneath his hood and gurgles of pain. “I’ve stayed too long.”

He let go of Nick’s hand and reached out with both of his own.

Sloe cringed as one of his hands reached up toward the Clock Tower. No. No, no, no. Please don’t go up there. He exhaled as the man dropped his hands and walked around the west side of the tower, along its base.

Nick, Ivory, and Sloe followed him to the rear of the tower, the opposite side of where the door was that led to the tower’s interior.

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

“There’s a portal here,” said Nick. His fingers were curled forward, reaching toward something. “A new one. Not a timepiece like those on the tower, but one like those Sloe and I use to return to the tower from other worlds.”

“You can see it, too?” Ivory said, catching a glimpse of Sloe’s scowl.

“Not see. I can feel it. How is this possible?” But then he remembered the hooded man’s words, from the night of the attack: We see the portals, not because we feel them, like you. We see them because we build them.

As much as he wanted to call out to the hooded man, to ask if this was one of the portals he built, he knew he couldn’t reveal having met the man previously. There’d be too many questions asked, questions he didn’t want to answer. His insides shook. What if that portal takes the man back to the river, and what if Dad decides to follow the man there?

He watched as the hooded man circled the new portal, trailing his fingers along its edges. The man’s lips and jaw were clenched tightly. Sloe expected that it would work like any other exit portal—that the hooded man would walk through and return home. But instead of walking forward, the hooded man turned his back on the portal. Then walked through it, in reverse.

“What was that?” Ivory sputtered, her words cutting through inhales and gasps. “Did he just walk backwards into mid-air and disappear?”

“It would appear so, love.” Nick glanced down at Sloe who stood there slack jawed and still shaking. “It would appear so.”

“Take a look at it, Nick,” Ivory said, her voice growing higher. “I would, but as you both know I can’t see the portal, or feel it, or whatever it is you Time Keepers do. Read it, Nick. Tell me where it goes! And…and find some way to lock it so he doesn’t come through there again.”

Nick took her hand in his and pressed it lightly. “I was about to do that, love.”

He cast a questioning glance toward Sloe’s still, barely breathing form before approaching the portal and reaching toward it with both hands. “Interesting,” he murmured, looking back and forth between it and the Clock Tower.

“I feel nothing, but here, our home, the Clock Tower.”

“Can you go through it anyway? Forwards, backwards, something?”

Nick trailed his fingers along the portal’s edges, letting the thin branches of electric charge flicker and flow over his hands. “I’ve never tried going through a portal backwards,” he said. “Perhaps I should try your other suggestion, first.”

He pressed his hands forward until everything up to his elbows disappeared. The portal crackled and popped and buzzed, causing loose strands of his white hair to stand on end. After a deep breath, he pushed, and then was gone.

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

“No,” said Ivory as Sloe reached out to touch the portal’s edges.

“He’s right,” said Sloe. “Reading it is weird. I don’t feel or hear anything other than…here.”

The ground trembled and quaked, resulting in the Clock Tower’s familiar jingling and clanging of timepieces.

The skin of Ivory’s jaws slackened. Shadows cast across her face made her wrinkles look deeper and more pronounced. “Now what?” she said, looking around.

She and Sloe lowered themselves to the ground until the rumbling subsided.

Something similar to a heavy sack of flower smacked against the ground, from the other side of the Clock Tower.

Ivory and Sloe scrambled to their feet to explore the other side.

“Nick!” Ivory shrieked. “Are you okay? Say something.”

He lay on the ground; his hair and the edges of his clothing were blackened, scorched. More of his hair stuck out from his head, as if caught in the midst of an electric shock.

“That was new,” he said. Coughing, he sat up.

Ivory lay her hand against his cheek. “Were did you go?”

“Nowhere. I stepped through the portal, and it brought me back here.”

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

“I don’t know, love. I’m still working that out.” He rose from the ground.

Sloe followed Nick around the other side of the Clock Tower. “What are you doing, Dad?”

“This time, I’m going to try what that odd fellow did—enter the portal backwards.”

Ivory grabbed his arm. “Are you sure about this?”

He nodded and held up a hand.

Sloe’s heartbeat thudded in his ears. He wanted to scream out, to tell his father not to attempt to go through the portal. But to do so would reveal that he was worried about more than Nick’s health. He’d reveal his connection with the hooded man and possibly the world where he and Raven had been attacked. He clenched his hands, his nails digging into his palms as he watched, helplessly.

Mimicking the hooded man’s method, Nick stood at the rear of the portal and turned his back on it. And stepped backwards. His feet slid through the air, and the portal, as if nothing were there.

Sloe’s hands relaxed, his limbs loosened, and he began to breathe again. It didn’t work.

Nick turned to his wife and son, frowning. He rubbed his chin and stepped around the space in front of him.

He attempted to access the portal, backwards, once more. He stepped through and landed on the gray-brown soil that surrounded the Clock Tower.

Nick gritted his teeth, and pressed his hands forward, facing the rear of the portal head-on. Instead of the familiar crackling and popping sounds there was silence. “I can’t read it,” he said, finally. “But, maybe…”

After stepping through, forward instead of backward this time, and with no change in the result, he exhaled. “I hate to ask this, son, but—”

“Absolutely not,” croaked Ivory. “You’re not sending Sloe through that…thing. Who knows where it leads? I’m freaking out enough as it is wondering what will happen if you port through. And how you would make it back to us. You can’t possibly think having our only son try this is a good idea.”

Nick sniffed. He paced back and forth. “Perhaps not. But there is something I can do.”

He changed positions again until he stood at the front of the portal—the side that sent him back to the Clock Tower. He pressed his hand to it and closed his fingers, making a fist. A crackling sheet of current from the outer edges of the portal peeled back and then folded in on itself with a sharp sucking sound.

Ivory brought her hands to her ears. “What was that awful sound?”

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

He threw up his hands. “I cannot read the other side, but I’m not as concerned with it if it’s an exit as opposed to the entrance I’ve locked. All this time, I’ve been using separate doors. What is this new form of portal? This new talent? And where did it come from?”

“I don’t know,” Ivory admitted. “But I don’t like it.”

“Me either, love. And I’m not sure if it would be more comforting to know whether the TSTA regulated it, or not.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 17, to be posted May 23. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 14

Deep in the forest, two men crouched over the crackle of fire. The pale light of the flames highlighted hands lined with scars. The unhooded man pulled his hands back and sat on his heels.

He turned to his companion.

“How long do we wait?”

“It won’t be long. If we hide, he’ll find us. It will only make matters worse.”

The hooded man grunted. He stared in the direction of the world’s entrance portal. Instead of sitting on his heels, he squatted, ready to pounce. His hand rested on the hilt of a weapon hidden beneath his cloak.

A hand, followed by a pair of arms, and a body emerged from the portal.

The man in the tunic smiled broadly.

“Do you have it?” he called out as he worked his way to the fire. Slowly. He tugged at the tunic that tugged at his steps.

The cloaked men stood from the ground. The unhooded man’s lips remained silent in a face as cold and hard as stone. His companion did not move.

Sharp eyes glittered through slits in their visitor’s mask. “Well, where is it? Where is the baglamas?”

“We will have it soon,” said the hooded man. “It’s not in our possession, but we have found someone who will retrieve it.”

The man in the tunic squeezed his chin before responding with a roar of laughter. “We have found someone who will retrieve it,” echoed the man in the tunic, his voice mimicking the blood curdling pitch of the hooded man’s voice. “That,” he said sharply, “is what I have asked you to do. You were to retrieve the baglamas and bring it to me.”

He turned from the fire. The rear of his tunic shook violently.

The heads of the cloaked men turned toward one another, snapping back in position when the body of their unwelcome visitor stilled.

The man in the tunic inhaled deeply and turned to the cloaked men. The pallor of the fire reached his face, highlighting the redness there. It was not clear whether the sudden flush came about through anger or glee. Or, perhaps, a little of both.

He scratched his head. “So, let me get this straight. You asked someone to go and get the baglamas for you, and they’re going to do that and bring it to you?”

“It was an order accompanied by a threat,” said the hooded man.

“Ah, good!” The man in the tunic clapped his hands. “It seems you’re finally learning something.” He glanced at the ground as if considering how he would seat himself by the fire. “That boulder over there,” he said, pointing. “Bring it here, and place it in front of the fire. I’d like to hear more about your plan, and who it is that will retrieve the baglamas.”

The hooded man grunted. He pulled the boulder from the earth. Soil and vine clung to it as he carried it to the fire and dropped it before the man in the tunic.

The man in the tunic bent forward and brushed off the top of the boulder before easing backward into a semi-seated position.

“Go on, tell me,” he said with a wave of his hands.

The unhooded man crossed his arms. “We found a Time Keeper.”

The mouth of the man in the tunic dropped open. “One who reads and unlocks portals?”

“Yes. He arrived here with a girl. We captured both of them and threatened the girl’s life if he did not agree to find the baglamas.”

More clapping came from the man in the tunic. He squinted up at the cloaked men. “Does he—the Time Keeper—know where it is?”

“He has seen the instrument. He attended the Healer’s funeral. We overheard him talking about it. He has a lead, and if he knows what’s good for him, he is currently looking for it.”

“Why didn’t you ask him where he thought it could be? It could have shortened the process, and then you could have gone and looked for it yourselves.”

“We couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t warn whomever he was going to take it from. It would have been necessary to threaten the girl’s life either way. And if he was a guest at the funeral, he has an insider’s advantage.”

“You know very well we can’t leave here for long periods of time,” added his companion.

The man in the tunic nodded. He grinned widely. “And where is the girl?”

“She was of no use to us. She has no travel talents, so we let her return with the Time Keeper in exchange for his promise.”

“In other words, you let both of them escape. You fools!”

“But he cares for the girl,” gargled the hooded man. “If he doesn’t deliver the baglamas soon, we will catch her. We could use a portal trap. The Time Keeper may not be fooled, but she will be.”

His companion grinned. “Especially if we make it nice and sparkly.”

“She has no travel talents. She will want to impress the boy—to be like him.”

The man in the tunic sat still with his hands clasped at this lap. “To impress him.” He smiled. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then we find the girl and bring her here.”

“No.”

The hooded man made a choking sound before speaking. “Why not?”

“I don’t trust you to keep her here. If and when she arrives, whether by portal trap or brute force, you will bring her to me.”

“She is not part of the deal.”

“Oh, but you see,” said the man in the tunic. He pulled at the lower half of his garments as he struggled to bend and stand. “You have made her part of the deal. By bringing her and the boy into my problem, my secrets—”

“Your secrets?”

“I had no intention of making my desire for the baglamas known to anyone except to you, whom I’ve arranged to help me with this task.” The clenching and unclenching of his jaw made small crunching and popping sounds. “And now there are two others who know about this. I ask you again: what were you thinking?”

“We didn’t tell them about you. For all they know, we want the baglamas.”

The man in the tunic chuckled. “Is that what’s happening here? Are you planning to betray me by keeping the instrument for yourselves?”

“No,” growled the hooded man. He towered over the man in the tunic, with his face so close that his hood grazed the smaller man’s brow. “We agreed that we will give you the baglamas, and then you will set us free. Your terms, not ours. Trying to confuse us won’t work.”

The man in the tunic stepped backward. His lips formed an indignant smile. “Be sure to keep your end of the bargain.” He scanned the dark woods, stretching his neck toward the river that flowed through it, and smiled more graciously. “Because if you don’t, you will be tied to this world, to this wasteland in time and space, for always.”

The crunch of bone chomping bone or teeth gnashing teeth could be heard from beneath the hooded man’s cowl. He cracked the knuckles along his hands. “Enough of your talk and your reminders. If you’re finished here, let us be. We’ll contact you when we have the baglamas.”

“Strong words for someone with less power than he thinks. But I sense I’m not welcome here. I will leave for now. Don’t keep me waiting.”

The man in the tunic clasped his hands and shot a simpering grin in the direction of the river. “Have you been able to open that portal?” he said. “The one atop the island of stone?”

The hooded man grunted. “No. We’ve tried. It’s locked, and we’re unsure where it leads.”

“That’s too bad,” he said with a wicked grin. He looked down at his tunic and then wistfully toward the river. “On the other hand, had you been able to leave this place through that portal, the pain would get to you, eventually. I’d try it myself, of course, but I have other means…”

The cloaked man who wore no hood snorted, his gaze fixed on the cumbersome tunic. “I’d like to see you try to navigate the river and climb the rock.”

“Enough,” said the man in the tunic. “I’m overstaying my welcome. You must be delirious with sleep. You no longer make sense.”

He turned and walked back to the portal he’d entered, only instead of stepping through the way he came, he walked to the space behind it, and turned his back toward the portal. Then, with small steps, he walked backwards until he disappeared.

“It’s a good thing he left,” growled the hooded man, cracking his knuckles again. “I grow tired of him more quickly each time we meet.”

“Agreed, though it would have been worth it to see him try to get to the portal on the rock.” He chuckled darkly.

“To see him smack his face on the water?”

“Exactly.”

“Then to see him curse at not being able to open it.” The hooded man lazily threw more wood on the fire. Warmth and light spread, throwing shadows across him and his companion.

“And what if he could? What if the portal opened for him—what would that mean?”

“That he’s a talent like none seen before.”

The man who wore no hood stretched forward and rubbed his hands over the revived blaze. “It is frustrating that we can build portals and travel through those we build. But we cannot unlock this one. If he’s right—that temporary separation from this world will cause us pain—it would be worth seeing where it goes. Even if we got lost.”

The hooded man grunted. “That’s the only reason keeping me from destroying the portal on the rock. I’ve seen others like it, in other worlds. It’s as if each entrance portal has a companion portal that cannot be unlocked by anyone but a Time Keeper.”

“What do you mean?”

“The entrance portal here can be accessed because it is not locked on this side. But its companion portal, and others similar to the portal on the rock, are always locked.”

The man who wore no hood cleared the grit from his throat and sat back on a log. He stared at the portal, thoughtfully. “If the boy, the Time Keeper, was able to take the girl through, then he could port us, too.”

“I have no doubt of that. In fact, I’ve already considered it. But first, we must collect the baglamas.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 15, to be posted May 16. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 11 Travel

After the huge blowup with Father, I went outside to cool off. How dare he replace my shift—replace me with someone else?

I pulled at the opening to my jacket and pulled it tightly around me as I wandered down the path from the house to the hospital. I inhaled deeply, attempting to pull in the scent of the flowers that calmed me the most: lavender and rose, and chamomile.

I counted under my breath as I exhaled, and I closed my eyes during each inhale.

One moment my eyes were open, and the flowers in front of me swayed in the night sky, some of their petals already tucked in for the night.

On my next breath, when I opened my eyes, a figure appeared at the edge of the path. The person appeared to be male, with dark hair. And he was walking toward the hospital.

Frowning, I changed direction, and began walking across the flowers, careful not to crush their delicate stems and leaves. But the ground was thick with them, and bunches flattened beneath my feet as I walked.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, trying to fluff as many back up along the way.

I stopped where the path curved and stepped onto its solid layout of bricks. With my hands resting at the back of my hips, I stopped there and waited. Could it be one of the recovering Lost who’d wandered off while I wasn’t working? How did they get out here without someone accompanying them? If it was one of the Lost, Father would surely hear about it. Part of me couldn’t wait to complain to him about what happened. He needed to know the seriousness of what could go wrong when he pulled me off a shift.

As the person neared, his features became clearer. His dark hair wasn’t just black; it was the flat, even black of Aboreal. My jaw tightened when he finally noticed me and stopped walking.

His eyes opened into round circles before narrowing. Irises of purple ice glared at me. I’d seen his face before, only it had been smiling at me from across the room in Chascadia, at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral.

The way he looked at me now made me feel as if I should apologize for intruding, even though I lived here, not him. My lips twisted to the side as I continued to study him. This was my world, not his.

“Hello?” I called out. Maybe he was in trouble. What I took to be an unfriendly gaze could be one of pain. He certainly didn’t look happy to be here. But I had trouble believing that he’d somehow gotten lost. Entering Edgar required the ability to travel through time and space, and from what I could see, he wore no visible object of travel.

He pulled back the foot he’d been in the process of stepping forward with when he froze. I thought I saw a slight tinge to his cheeks. Like he’d been caught.

“Can I help you with something?” I said, hoping it didn’t come across as too smug.

He suddenly seemed interested in his feet. “I, um.”

His discomfort relaxed me. Maybe he had a friend or family member in the hospital. I couldn’t think of any recovering Lost who were expecting a visitor, but then Father’s interference with my later shift could have prevented me from learning about it.

I forced a smile that I hoped was welcoming. “Are you here to visit someone at the hospital? Because if you are, I’m happy to escort you there.”

He frowned at the building at the far end of the path. “No, I don’t know anyone there, I’m sorry.” He exhaled. “The hospital…”

“Who are you, and why are you here?”

His body physically jerked backward from me. I narrowed my eyes.

“Yeah, sorry. My name’s Sloe.”

I crossed my arms and waited for him to answer the second half of my question.

He stared at me, his face stricken. Yep, definitely pain.

I approached Sloe to get a better look at him and to see if I could figure out how he’d arrived. I’d figure it out one way or another, even if he refused to tell me.

Directly behind where he stood on the path, lay a trail of trampled flowers. I wrinkled my nose.

“Sorry,” he said, following my gaze. “I came through over there. Unfortunately, the entrance portal isn’t on the path.”

“What entrance portal?” I passed by him, struggling to avoid the flowers he’d smashed with his feet. He followed me, but stepped carefully, mimicking my steps.

I’d never seen a portal on Edgar. My family and I always traveled with either the baglamas or a pair of travel glasses.

The trail of trampled flowers stopped, suddenly, as if he’d fallen from the sky and landed in the spot where I stood now. No larger than the rest of the path, it just ended.

“From the size of this space, it doesn’t even look like you’ve grounded.” I turned to face him. “How did you get here, Sloe?” I said, my voice low.

He gulped. “Through the portal.”

“What portal?” I said, waving an arm at the empty space. “There’s nothing here.”

He gaped, visibly panicked. I’d seen the expression before, on the faces of the recovering Lost who’d been caught wandering the halls during quiet hours when they were supposed to be in bed, with no explanation of how they got there.

“Do you need help?” I cringed at the tinge of condescension in my voice.

He shook his head. “You can’t see the portal because it’s invisible to you. The entrance portal, and also this world’s exit portal, can only be read or unlocked by a Time Keeper.”

“You’re a Time Keeper?” I couldn’t believe it. Faced with such an extraordinary talent, I almost forgot how annoyed I was with him. “Where’s the exit portal?”

“I haven’t found it yet,” he admitted. “But I’m happy to search for it now and get out of your way.”

I winced. “I’m sorry. I haven’t given you much of a welcome. But you showed up unannounced, and it surprised me.”

“I can see that.”

We stood there, sizing each other up for a moment. The only Time Keeper I’d heard of was Ivory’s husband, Nick. And that he was the only one, having taken over when the prior Time Keeper moved on.

I cracked a smile that was only minimally haughty. “So, let me guess, you were portal hopping for fun and decided to show up here and see what was on the other side?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes I do that.”

“You do?” Okay, I hadn’t expected my joke scenario to be on point.

His face relaxed into a smile. “Do you mind if I take a look around for the exit portal?”

“No, but—” I took another look at where the trampled trail stopped. I bent down, inspecting both sides of it. “Didn’t you have to ground here?”

“Grounding isn’t necessary upon arrival when going outbound from the Clock Tower.”

I felt my eyes widen. Mother had told me about the Clock Tower—stories about how she and Father, Ivory, Nick, Grandpa Plaka, and Ray had used the Clock Tower for the most massive rescue of the Lost in history.

The Clock Tower?”

“Yeah, that Clock Tower.”

“You’re Ivory and Nick’s son?”

“Yes.”

I grinned. “Ivory of Aboreal. And Nick of Time? So, that would make you…”

He rolled his eyes. “Sloe of Time. Yeah, that’s what they call me. Terrible, I know.”

I pressed both hands to my mouth. I didn’t like that I felt sorry. Nor did I want to apologize for something that wasn’t my fault.

The skin above my left eye pinched and twisted. Who he was also didn’t make up for, much less explain, what he was doing here. But maybe he had only been exploring. I couldn’t blame him for that. I liked traveling, too, and I couldn’t imagine having all the worlds at my fingertips in quite the same the way he and Nick had—the ability to read and unlock portals unseen by others, all without the need for a travel object.

I lifted a hand toward him. “I guess I should officially introduce myself, if it’s not too late. I’m Silvie Hall.”

“I know.” He smiled, gathering my hand in his for a quick shake. “I remember you from your grandfather’s funeral, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to you there.”

I pulled my jacket more tightly around me, noticing the drop in temperature now that the suns had faded. “I need to go soon,” I said, glancing at the house. “I have to work in the morning, at the hospital. If you come back tomorrow, I can show you around.”

“Thanks.” He smiled again. “As soon as I finish my morning lessons, I will.”

“Great.” I cringed at the trampled flowers. “You’re sure you can’t land on the path?”

“This is the only entrance portal to this world,” he said, gesturing toward an empty space above the flowers. “I can’t fly, but I can promise to step more carefully.”

I squinted past where he indicated with his hands, but there wasn’t anything there. Nothing I could see. Not the tiniest glimmer or ripple in the air.

“Thank you, Sloe,” I said, wishing my grin wasn’t so wide. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, unsure whether I should go inside or wait to see him home. I was curious to watch him disappear from the exit portal, and also wanted to see where it was.

He treaded carefully across the flowers this time, possibly for my benefit; either way, his consideration warmed me. Maybe he wasn’t so bad, after all.

“Do you mind me following you?” I said, shadowing his steps across the expanse of flowers toward the back of our house.

“No, it’s your place anyway.” He managed to shrug with both arms raised in the air. He wriggled his fingers and waved his hands around, like he was feeling for something.

Sloe of Time paused and closed his eyes. I bit my lip to keep a straight face. His actions were amusing to me, and I still couldn’t get past his goofy name. Javis would have been spellbound by this if he were here, and would likely tease me later about the smirk on my face—a look I’d inherited from Father.

I crossed my arms and exhaled, allowing Sloe what I figured would be the appropriate seriousness for the occasion, though at the moment he was parting the flowers like he was looking for bugs or something, and pressing his hands to the ground.

“What are you looking for?” I whispered. I couldn’t help it. He’d come through an invisible portal in the air. What business did he have rustling up our flowers and palpating the ground?

“I can sense the pulse of electricity in the air. The portal’s calling to me, but I can’t see it yet. Sometimes it helps if I feel along the ground, where its energy spreads out like roots or tentacles that lead to its center.”

“Interesting,” I said.

Though I didn’t have his Time Keeper talent, something about Sloe’s explanation calmed me. There was something identifiable in his words. There was truth. The pulse and energy he spoke of sounded similar. Like waves of music, of song. I thought of Grandpa Plaka’s baglamas sitting in my room, nestled against the pillows on a chair near my bed.

Sloe smiled slightly, still squatting forward, as he made a half-turn to the right. “This way,” he said.

I followed him across the rear of our house. My eyes bulged open. We were headed toward the hospital’s rear entrance.

I shivered. “Sloe, is it possible for someone to step through one of these invisible portals by accident?”

He shook his head. “Anyone else will walk through it as if nothing were there, they wouldn’t feel it and they wouldn’t be transported. Even if the person could see the portal, it would still need to be unlocked before he or she could enter and pass through.”

I released a breath, grateful that none of the recovering Lost were Time Keepers who could wander through a portal located behind the hospital’s back door.

He looked over and up at the building next to us. “Concerned for your residents?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t worry. The exit portal is right here.” Again, he pointed to something I couldn’t see. “And I doubt anyone has noticed it.”

I squinted, then blinked. “Can we install an alarm on it, one that can be connected to the hospital, just in case?”

His lips pulled up in shy grin. “I don’t think so, but it’s not a bad idea.”

“Well, if you think of anything, let me know. I wouldn’t mind having something similar—at least a doorbell—for our entrance portal.” I smirked.

His entire body stiffened as he caught a sharp breath. I couldn’t help wondering whether he was impressed by my idea, or if it frightened him. The poor Time Keeper wouldn’t be able to slip inside others’ worlds like a spy if the portal contained a mechanism that announced his arrival.

Sloe pressed his hand to the air and looked over his shoulder at me with narrowed eyes. “A portal bell?”

His jawline clenched and sharpened as he stared at me.

My eyes locked with his. “Exactly.”

“Hmm.” His features softened, but he still didn’t seem either impressed or excited about my idea.

“Is there a problem with the portal?” I asked, waiting.

“No, I—” He dropped his hands and turned to me. His eyes glanced slowly back and forth between the house and the hospital, as if he were trying to memorize their positions.

He shrugged. “Thanks for inviting me to visit again tomorrow, Silvie. Sorry for dropping by so late. And, um, have a goodnight.”

I tilted my head, absorbing his words, trying to figure him out. Sure, he was nice enough and kind of cute, but there was something I couldn’t lay a finger on. Something he wasn’t telling me. He’d admitted that others who couldn’t unlock the portals couldn’t travel through by accident. He’d slipped into our world, which obviously meant he’d unlocked our portal. Who does that without it being on purpose? Even if he truly was exploring at random, as he’d suggested, he hadn’t stayed long to explore. Had he already seen enough of Edgar to satisfy his curiosity?

I needed to find out.

“Goodnight to you too, Sloe,” I said through a smile I hoped radiated warmth rather than suspicion. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He furrowed his brow as he nodded and pressed his hand to the empty space in the air. His body stiffened and trembled slightly with an energy or force I could imagine but couldn’t see. Then, he stepped forward into an invisible wall, into nothingness, and disappeared.

I touched the space where Sloe disappeared, reaching for the pulse and the song, sensations similar to traveling with the baglamas. My fingertips quavered through the empty air. A slight tingle spread across the palms of my hands, vanishing as quickly as it came.

I was left wondering whether I’d felt anything, or whether it was only in my mind.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 12. >>>

Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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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. >>>

Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Beacon (Lantern, #2) Cover Update!

I’m excited to share Beacon‘s new cover, featuring the main character, Serah Kettel.

When Serah’s life in Havenbrim becomes unbearable, she accepts an apprenticeship with a celestial mechanic and glazier. Her master assigns her the task of opening a globe framed in copper. But the glass and seal are unbreakable. The solution to the puzzle traps Serah inside the globe, and transports her to a world where she longs for home.

Download Beacon for: Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and more! (Only 99 cents through the end of March!)

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Help me find the aces. ♣ ♥ ♠ ◆

yaces-profileYAces is an indie young adult book club that went up on Goodreads yesterday.

Join us for monthly group reads featuring books by YA indie authors! The focus will be on fiction of various genres including fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary books, but nonfiction suggestions are also welcome.

We expect to begin the first group read in early March. Nominations are now open.

I’ve started this group for a couple reasons. First, I’m grateful because my books have been featured as group and buddy reads in multiple Goodreads groups. Second, who doesn’t like book clubs? I love reading in a group setting and would like to see more indie authors get discovered this way.

Help me find the hidden gems, the aces.

🏮Beacon (Lantern, #2) is live!🏮

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Return to Havenbrim and meet Machin’s next apprentice! I’m excited to share a new novella set in the world of my YA fantasy, Lantern. The release price is $0.99 for a limited time!

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Lantern #1 is FREE for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Wattpad. Learn more at chessdesalls.com.

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Upcoming Release—Beacon (Lantern, #2)

beacon-desalls-ebookwebWhen Serah’s life in Havenbrim becomes unbearable, she accepts an apprenticeship with a celestial mechanic and glazier. Her master assigns her the task of opening a globe framed in copper. But the glass and seal are unbreakable. The solution to the puzzle traps Serah inside the globe, and transports her to a world where she longs for home.

Read Lantern #1 FREE for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Wattpad!

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Galactic YA/NA Sci-Fi Giveaway

A Travel Glasses paperback is one of many author-donated prizes in the Galactic YA/NA Sci-Fi Giveaway*, sponsored by Ripley’s Booklist. Get inspired for fall reading!

Ends Oct. 31!      >>> ENTER HERE <<<

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*Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

 

Time for the Lost—Live on Audible and iTunes!

Book three of The Call to Search Everywhen, narrated by Jamie Dufault, is now available as an audiobook. Click to listen to the audio sample, a conversation between Valcas and my favorite new character:

time-for-the-lost-audio-releaseListen on Audible ~ Listen on Amazon ~ Listen on iTunes

Calla’s disappearance leads her family and friends to suspect that she’s lost. In a desperate attempt to find her, Valcas seeks help from a man he betrayed. A new search begins, one that sounds promising, even if it forces Valcas to confront his past.

The travel team reunites for a mission they never saw coming: a journey to a world caught between life and death, and hidden within the deepest recesses of time. Ivory rediscovers a friend and Ray learns the meaning behind his tattoo. But the connections they make between travelers and the lost may twist the core of the Time and Space Travel Agency inside out.

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