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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 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 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.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 20

Darker Stars Beta Cover“You’ve been quiet. What’s wrong?”

Sloe looked up from the game board but didn’t meet Raven’s eyes. “Nothing,” he muttered.

Raven’s eyelids fluttered. She pressed her elbows forward, onto the table, and cradled her chin in her hands. “Somehow I doubt that because I’m winning.” Her smile held a touch of sadness.

Sloe furrowed a brow at the black and white board covered in flattened black and white stones. “I guess I’m a bit off today.”

He studied the board closely. After flipping two stones and moving one diagonally across three spaces, he cracked a smile.

Raven groaned.

“See,” said Sloe, meeting her eyes. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”

She tilted her head and regarded him suspiciously. “Okay, then, if you weren’t thinking about the game earlier, what were you thinking about?”

“What do you mean?”

“When I asked you what was wrong, it seemed you finally focused on the game. And to do that, you had to stop thinking about something else.” She leaned in closer, her eyes narrowing. “What was it?”

He let out a slow, exaggerated breath and looked at her helplessly.

“Oooohhhh. It’s about the men who want the baglamas, isn’t it? What’s happening with that?”

“It’s been taken care of,” he said.

Her eyes grew wide. “You mean they have it? Now?”

He nodded.

“But how?” she sputtered. “And why didn’t you tell me?

“It’s a long story, and now that it’s dealt with I just want to put it in the past—to forget about it. And to be glad you’re safe.”

A rosy glow touched Raven’s cheeks. She smiled at him. Her smile faded when he looked away instead of returning the smile with one of his own.

She chewed on the insides of her cheeks. “Are you feeling bad about taking something that didn’t belong to you and giving it to someone else?”

Sloe’s face paled. “That’s part of it.”

“What’s the other part?”

He tilted the board, letting the stones slide to the table’s edge, where he caught them in a leather pouch. After gathering the remaining stones and adding them to the bag, he slowly folded the game board.

“Sloe?” Raven said more emphatically. “What’s the other part? What else is going on?”

He stood from the table and looked around before tilting his head toward hers. In a low voice he said, “The Clock Tower’s in danger, and it’s all my fault.”

Every last hint of rosy pink drained from Raven’s face. “Does this have anything to do with the cloaked men?”

He nodded. “The hooded man showed up at the Clock Tower. Instead of using a one-way exit portal, he left by walking into the portal backwards—a portal I’d never seen before.”

Raven let out a small gasp. “Where did the portal come from?”

“I don’t know, but do you remember the cloaked men talking about destroying portals?”

“Yes.”

“What if they can build them, too?”

Raven gulped.

“My Dad locked the portal as well as he could, but now that the hooded man has found the Clock Tower, what’s to stop him from creating another one? As the keeper of the Clock Tower, no one is supposed to be able to enter without my father’s permission, and I know he hadn’t given access to the hooded man.”

Raven steadied herself by placing a hand on the table. “This isn’t your fault, Sloe. It’s mine. We need to figure a way to fix this. I have to help you.”

Sloe shook his head.

Light flickered in Raven’s eyes. “I disagree, but if you don’t think I can help, then what about the person who owns the baglamas—the person you took it from, the Healer’s granddaughter? Can’t you explain to her what happened? If they’re so talented and powerful, maybe they can help find a way out of this.”

“No,” he said, his voice small. “We can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Raven’s face colored, her cheeks pinched. “If you hadn’t found the baglamas someone else would have found it for them. Maybe the cloaked men would have taken it from her directly. Either way, it would still be Silvie Hall’s problem, we just wouldn’t have known about it.”

Sloe shook his head. “Don’t you get it? That would have given her more time. We sped up the process and put her in danger sooner.”

“If you feel so bad about taking the baglamas, then why don’t you help her get it back?” She challenged him with a pout.

His lips moved, but all that escaped was wordless sputtering.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 21, to be posted June 6. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 19 Treasure

Darker Stars Beta Cover“What was that about?” Javis asked me the next morning. We were walking back to the house, talking about Father’s gift to us, our pairs of travel glasses.

“Maybe Father needs time alone—to process everything,” I said.

“And that becomes our problem, how? He could travel. Why do we need to be the ones to go?”

“I don’t think that’s the problem. Think about it, Javis. Maybe it’s not as fun for him without Mother or his best friend.” I thought about my recent visit with Mother, in her past. I imagined Father was even lonelier without her.

Javis blinked rapidly and looked away. My eyes stung with tears. We were each other’s best friend. If I’d lost him and Mother, I don’t know what I’d do. Maybe I’d want to hole up somewhere, alone to grieve, too.

“Come on,” I said. “Forget about the travel glasses. You wanted to try traveling to the inter-world racing tracks using the baglamas.”

“Now?”

I knew he’d just gotten out of the hospital, but he looked as if nothing had happened to him. He didn’t appear the slightest bit sick. At least not on the outside.

“Father only gave us the morning off. I still have afternoon rounds, so it will be a short trip,” I said. “And if you suddenly don’t feel well or get tired, tell me and we can come right back.”

He looked at me, surprised. “Yeah, okay.”

With a smile as bittersweet as the chocolate drops Javis used to make my favorite cookies, I trotted up to my room to grab the instrument. It wasn’t leaning against my pillow, so I figured I’d left it on the chair next to my bed. My lower lip quivered as I gazed at the chair’s empty cushion.

“Where is it?” I whispered. I felt nothing but complete, utter disbelief.

I spun around, lifting up blankets, tossing pillows and socks, and checked every corner of the room. Rows of uniforms stared back at me from inside my closet. After rifling through the clothes, I surveyed the shelf above them, and pushed around the shoes that covered the closet floor.

I closed the closet door and turned around, pressing my back to it.

Rising panic filled my stomach and trailed up my chest. “Where could it be?” I muttered over and over again.

Javis’s face poked in through the door. “I’m getting old, not to mention bored, waiting downstairs—” His lips pulled back into a confused frown as he took in the mess I’d made. “What are you doing, Silvie?”

“The baglamas,” I said, shaking. “It’s gone. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Javis stepped over blankets and shuffled a hand through his dark curls as he approached. When he found an uncovered spot on the floor, he raised his hands and brought them down slowly. “Okay, calm down. Where did you last see the baglamas?”

“I thought I left it on my bed. I usually keep it on the chair, but yesterday… I remember moving it over to the bed.”

Javis cradled his chin in his hand. “Who else has been in your room lately?”

“Father never comes in here. So no one other than you, Sloe, and me.”

Javis and I blinked at each other. I knew Javis hadn’t taken the baglamas. He wasn’t home long enough to have done so as a joke. Father had no reason to raid my room while I was away, and had spent most of the day before with Javis. That left—

“You don’t think Sloe took it,” I said, shaking my head, not wanting it to be true. “Why would he? What would he want with the baglamas?” I squeaked. “I hadn’t even told him what it was or what it can do.”

Javis’s lips pulled together tightly. He lowered his eyes. “You didn’t need to. He was at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral.”

My cheeks burned as I blinked back tears. I trusted him. And he stole from me? Javis was right. Sloe had been at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral, and he should have known how much the baglamas meant to me. How could he do this?

“Looks like we’ll get to try out the travel glasses today, after all,” I said, through gritted teeth.

Javis’s eyes widened. “Are we searching for Sloe, specifically, or are we going to search for whoever has the baglamas right now?”

“What’s the difference?” I groaned.

“Maybe it wasn’t Sloe,” said Javis, jamming his hands in his pockets. “What if one of the recovering Lost wandered in here somehow? Sloe’s not the only person who can travel to Edgar from other worlds.”

I glared at him, both because he suddenly seemed to be taking Sloe’s side, and because his ideas were so reasonable. And calm. He was nowhere near hysterics like I was.

Javis smoothed the cover at the edge of my bed and sat down. “Silvie, think about it. Trying to find Sloe because we have a far-fetched reason to suspect him would be a waste of time—especially if we travel to him and find out he doesn’t have it. It would be an extra step, when we could go directly to and confront whoever has the baglamas right now.”

“You’re right,” I said, quietly. “Given Father’s warning about how the travel glasses will affect our eyes, the fewer trips made, the better.” I wanted to reserve as much use of the travel glasses as possible to visit Mother.

“So do we go now?” Javis jumped from his seated position.

“Yeah, let’s clean this mess up first, and then we’ll go outside to gain the necessary momentum for travel.”

***

Since the loss of the baglamas was mine, not Javis’s, I offered to transport us using my pair of travel glasses. I felt I knew the instrument in greater detail, anyway. I also wanted to exercise my Remnant Transporter talent. Even though Javis was not a silhouette, a remnant of the past, I wanted to get more used to transporting others with me through time and space. He’d grudgingly accepted, and had stowed his pair of travel glasses in a case inside his backpack.

We stood side by side on the path between the house and the hospital.

I sucked in a shaky breath. I really, really hoped Sloe wouldn’t be there, wherever Javis and I were headed.

“Are you ready?” I said.

Javis nodded.

“Good.” I grasped his hand. “Run on three. One. Two. Three!”

Our feet pressed into a hard run, thudding noisily against the path. I could feel Javis tugging me forward, his speed far more impressive than mine.

I pushed all remaining thoughts of Sloe from my mind and focused on the instrument, the object I desired to find more than anything in this moment—the baglamas as it existed and where it was right now.

Javis groaned aloud as everything around us went white.

When the brightness faded, we were surrounded by an eerie, piercing darkness.

We lowered ourselves so we could ground. I slipped the glasses back from my face and found Javis, next to me, rubbing his eyes.

I smirked. “You could have shut your eyes, you know.”

You try running with your eyes closed sometime!”

“Not so loud,” I said, looking around. “I don’t want whoever took my baglamas to know we’re here, at least not yet.”

Trees swayed and bent as the ground below us trembled. A fat moon hung in the sky, casting light among the shadows. In the distance, stood a building the size of a mansion with jagged spires. Had it not been for the moon and occasional flicker of light from the building’s many windows, it would have been difficult to distinguish it from the darkness.

I hiccupped, surprised, at the rustle of leaves behind us. Slowly, I repositioned myself so I faced the direction of the sound while still keeping low to the ground. I squatted to the side until there was a tree between me and where the noise had been.

Following my lead, Javis got into position behind me. “Where do we start?” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I half expected to land right next to the baglamas.” I thought of Mother and our trip to the pie shop, remembering how much she wanted key lime pie. She still had needed to go inside the store and buy one. We hadn’t landed in an empty field with a pie sitting there waiting for us; it wasn’t instantaneous. Yet, her task seemed more obvious than this one.

“We could take a look around.” I shuddered. “But I don’t know how we’d get into that house over there without being invited, or how to explain why we’re here.”

Javis let out a slow breath. “Yeah, and I’m sure our explanation wouldn’t go over well.”

“Exactly.”

I stepped backward at the sound of more rustling of leaves. A moment later I heard a high-pitched, twangy chord that was wildly out of tune. I whipped my head around and pressed my back against the tree.

Moments later, Javis and I poked our heads out from behind the trunk. “Where’s that coming from? The trees or the house?”

“The house, I think,” I said, craning my neck toward the sound.

“I wonder if whoever’s playing the baglamas heard and felt the rumbling from our arrival.”

“Maybe.” I shrugged. “What I want to know is why the baglamas is being played, and whether whoever’s playing it is trying to travel.”

“Don’t worry,” said Javis. “If they go somewhere else, we’ll just follow again by using the travel glasses.”

His words gave me some measure of comfort.

“You’re right,” I said. If this failed, we’d keep trying. And as much as I didn’t want to get Father involved, if Javis and I came across obstacles we couldn’t handle on our own, we could always ask Father for help. If he knew someone from a place like this had somehow managed to get their hands on the baglamas, I doubted he’d blame me for being careless. This was already bigger than anything I’d imagined.

The “music” continued, not the tangy and exotic dancing of notes that I’d heard Grandpa Plaka play on special occasions or when he was happy. These notes were an angry plucking that made my ears ache.

“I don’t think he knows how to play it,” Javis whispered.

I stifled a laugh. “Come on, let’s go see who it is. He or she may be trying to travel using the baglamas. What they’re doing won’t work, though, so we should be able to catch up to them.”

After a few more notes, Javis and I shared a knowing glance and began walking in that direction. The travel vortex wasn’t created simply by strumming the strings of the instrument. There needed to be a source of momentum, often created by jumping from a high distance. I remembered how Grandpa Plaka would scoop the baglamas through the air, like it was a giant ladle and the air was its soup. After more than a few swipes, there would be a buzzing in the air, a low sound that signaled the process was starting.

I listened closely for the buzzing sound, hearing nothing but the ongoing tang of a poorly played baglamas.

The moon provided barely enough light for us to see from within the wooded area, but once the trees were behind us, I squinted so much that I considered slipping the travel glasses back over my eyes. This moon was brighter than any I’d seen in any world, anywhere or anywhen. It glowed white and silver. Had there been warmth and golden light, I would have thought it was this world’s sun. I looked over to find Javis’s hand pressed to his forehead, casting a shadow over his eyes.

An open area of grass, rock, and dirt walking paths stretched out before us. The dark house was still in the distance, but not as far away.

I frowned. “Between the flatness of the land and the bright moon, there’s nowhere for us to hide now.”

“But there’s plenty of space to run. Keep your travel glasses ready, just in case.”

The wilder, flatter terrain smoothed further into manicured lawns with hedging and flowers, their petals closed for the night. Brick paths replaced those made of dirt. The largest path led to a gate coated in a shiny substance that reflected the moonlight as well as any mirror. Hedges flanked the gate on both sides. Through its metal bars, the dark house appeared nearer.

Javis slipped his hand through a handle at the side of the gate and slowly turned it back in on itself. “It’s open,” he said as he started swinging the gate toward us.

“Open it quietly,” I said, hoping it wasn’t protected by an alarm.

I held my breath until the gate was fully open and we were on its other side. “Let’s leave it open—in case we have to leave here quickly.”

He nodded.

Now that I’d started breathing again, I was struck by how the air smelled and tasted of smoke, like a candle had been snuffed out.

In addition to the notes from the baglamas, there was a trickle of running water. Our footsteps tapped lightly across the ground, now more fleshed out with brickwork and edged with grass and plants. The greenery here appeared to be strategically placed rather than naturally grown in the wild. In the yard’s center stood a wide, round fountain.

Curious, I approached it. Its clear water was dappled with silver light.

Movement from behind the fountain caught my eye. I squatted, hiding behind the fountain, and pulling Javis down along with me.

That’s when I heard a long, drawn out sigh.

I held my breath, my fingers digging into Javis’s arm. He looked at me wide-eyed and then down at his arm.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

We scooched ourselves around the edge of the fountain to see what was in the yard behind it.

A man sat reclined on a bench, with his legs sticking out in front of him. He wore a tunic, white with a silver sheen, which ran past his knees and seemed to tighten mid-calf. He swiped his fingers across an instrument that sat in his lap. My baglamas.

I gritted my teeth as my chest flooded with anger towards the man.

“A true work of art, isn’t it, my pet?” said the man in the tunic.

A canine with a thin coat of pale, golden fur yawned, its ears twitching each time a sour note was played. Its fur stretched taut against its middle, held up by limbs that were long and lean.

“My only regret is not asking how it works,” continued the man in the tunic. “No matter. Once those fools find they need me again, I’ll request they provide instructions as to how to travel with the Healer’s beloved device.”

The canine whimpered.

The man in the tunic chuckled. “Not to worry, Eurig, my dear girl. No one visits me here. No one knows this world exists, not even the TSTA.” He scrunched up his face. “Only a Time Keeper would be able to find it using portals.”

He looked down at the baglamas. “Or, perhaps, someone with access to unofficial objects of travel. But what business would they want with me?” The way he gazed and smiled at the instrument made me want to vomit.

“Well, that explains why he leaves the gate unlocked,” whispered Javis. “Do you really think he can translate the dog’s whimpers?”

“Shh, focus, Javis. I don’t care about that. We need to figure out how to get the baglamas away from the man so I can get it back.”

“We can’t exactly grab it from him, and he doesn’t seem the type to respond well to Oh, hey, that looks like my baglamas; could I have it back, please?

I rolled my eyes at Javis and frowned before turning my attention back to the thief. A shiver shot up my spine. Had he been in my bedroom? I hoped not.

“What a beautiful thing,” continued the man in the tunic. “To be able to travel with mobile objects instead of portals fixed in time and space. The ability to find anyone, anywhere by searching specifically for them.”

Eurig stretched her forelegs and sat back on her haunches. She whimpered, this time with her face tilted toward the sky.

“It’s getting late, yes. I, too, would like a warm drink before bed. We can study the instrument more tomorrow. I look forward to learning if there are connections between the portal’s song and the inner workings of this object of time.”

The man wriggled his body back and forth until he sat diagonally with his feet resting against the ground and his behind leaning against the edge of the bench. He held the baglamas in one arm as he used his opposite arm to hoist himself up into a standing position.

Each step toward the house was painfully slow. His canine companion showed more restraint than any dog I’d ever seen, especially the way she waited until he took a few steps before catching up to the man, instead of rushing out ahead of him.

“I think we could take him, Javis. He seems pretty slow to me.”

“Yeah, but I feel bad, like we’re taking advantage of someone with an infirmity. Unlike the recovering Lost, this guy’s injuries are purely physical.”

“Seriously, Javis? He and these men he’s been talking about stole my baglamas. This guy knows its value as a travel object. He’s the bad guy, not us.” He’s the bad guy, I repeated in my head, thankful that the thieves were vile men like these, and not Sloe. At least I had something to be relieved about.

“So, what do we do now? Try to follow him inside? Or come back at a better time?” He blinked. “Is there a better time?”

“If that dog makes more noise than a yawn or whimper, I don’t know how we’ll get in undetected.”

“Yeah, that dog is amazing. It’s like…it knows. I really think they talk to each other.”

I glared at him. “Stop worrying about the stupid dog, and help me figure out how to get my baglamas back!”

“Sure, right. Get the baglamas back,” he mumbled, his eyes still trained on the man and his dog.”

When the door to the house opened, I bent my knees, ready to spring forward and follow. If the man is so unworried about visitors that he leaves his gate unlocked, maybe he doesn’t lock his front door either.

Eurig turned and looked directly at us. From this angle, I was able to see something I hadn’t noticed before. The dog’s eyes glowed white, edged with the silver pallor of this world’s moon.

At the same time, Javis gasped and I froze in place. While the man in the tunic walked through the door, we squatted there, unflinching and unbreathing, with the dog’s gaze upon us, her back legs blocking the door from closing.

My heartbeat echoed the seconds that ticked by. Eurig saw us. Was she waiting for us, too? I’d decided that must be what she wanted—for us to follow her. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that she should be running toward us, or at least barking like any other dog would have done.

I pleaded with her, with my eyes, willing her to understand. Don’t give us away. Please.

Eurig’s eyes flashed brighter as she let out a soft and drawn out whimper.

I squinted past the dog, worried that she’d caught the attention of the man in the tunic—that he was on his way back outside where he’d find us.

But then, from inside my head, I heard a female voice, both kind and stern.

Leave this place. Quickly.

The dog turned and walked inside the house, letting the door swing closed behind her.

Javis grabbed my hand. “We need to leave here. Now.”

“I know,” I whispered.

I slipped the travel glasses back over my eyes, and we ran—into the safety of the bright, white light.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 20, to be posted June 3. 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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Cover Reveal and Preorder—new short story collection!

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What a Waist
Just Desserts
Eternity Bound
Counting Sheep
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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 3 Edgar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, cupcake,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Who said I was talking to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, Chelsie,” I said.

She glanced at the cake I held in my arms.

“Would you like some? Javis made it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s frown could be heard in his silence.

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

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

“I understand.”

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 4. >>>

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 1 Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A calm stillness spread across the crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

I pressed the baglamas to my chest.

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

Madam Gazis nodded, eyeing the baglamas.

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

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

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

Father’s face paled, but he said nothing.

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

“Wait!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silvie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this was forgotten when Javis entered the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enough,” I hissed.

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 2. >>>

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

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