beta draft

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Her lips dropped open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe raised his eyebrows, then nodded.

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

“What? No!”

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

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

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

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

“Who? When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silvie grimaced each time the adults used the word children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shivering, Raven shrunk into Sloe’s open arm.

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

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

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

“Javis!” she gasped. “What’s wrong?”

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

“The white… I don’t… I don’t know.”

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

“I’m already here.”

“Oh, Valcas, will he be okay?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 27 Heartbreak

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

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

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

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

Javis eyed me warily, then shook his head.

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

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

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

“I’m not going.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” called out a familiar voice.

“Ivory! Hi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“Um, okay.”

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

“I will.”

Ivory nodded before closing the Clock Tower door.

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

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

***

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

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

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

Aboreal.

What is Sloe doing in Aboreal?

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

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

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

And, then, what if he answered yes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lumps formed in my throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two pairs of eyes darted in my direction.

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

“It was you?” I spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I had a surprise for him, too.

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

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

“Silvie, let me explain.”

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

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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 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 13 Meeting

I opened my eyes to streams of glittering light and groaned. I glared at the blinds that covered my bedroom windows. No matter how tightly I pulled them shut, they didn’t keep out the morning light. I’d tried wearing a mask over my eyes at night, to help me stay asleep until my alarm went off, but it hadn’t worked. I’d only wake up the next morning to find the mask buried in my bedsheets or slung across the room. Every blanket I tried to cover the window with had been bleached by the suns. Perhaps it was time to invest in a heavy set of curtains.

I grumped as I left the warmth of my bed and opened my closet door. Hangers covered in blue uniforms, my work clothes, made up the greater part of my wardrobe. I stared longingly at the soft, comfortable sweaters and dark pants before grabbing one of the uniforms. It wasn’t the cutest look, style wise, but it would have to do for showing Sloe around the hospital.

It wasn’t like I had the day off…ever. Unless, of course, my Father decided to declare vacation time as a punishment. I gritted my teeth. I saw no way around introducing Sloe to my Father while making my rounds, though I was still annoyed with him. I considered asking Javis for help until I remembered that I was annoyed with him, too.

What I wouldn’t give for a few female friends, or a sister. I’d gotten close to some of the recovering Lost who were roughly my age, but their visits were temporary. Our goal was to help them heal so they could go home. Few of them ever came back to visit us on Edgar. My lips pinched into a frown as my eyes passed over the photograph on the table next to my bed. Things would be different if Mother were still here.

After getting ready for the day and grabbing a light breakfast, I stepped outside to a bright, warm sky. Another beautiful day. I pressed my hand to my brow, careful not to smudge my newly drawn eyebrows, and searched the field of flowers. My eyes shifted to the spot where Sloe had said there was an entrance portal to Edgar. No one had come through it, yet.

I tiptoed through the flowers to meet him there, hoping I wouldn’t have to wait long. I breathed in the fragrance of the flowers and tapped at my timepiece. I guess it wouldn’t hurt for me to start my shift later than usual. Sloe was a guest, and the recovering Lost perked up in general when we had outside visitors, which wasn’t often. This could work, I told myself, even though I still couldn’t shake a shade of suspicion that lingered, an intuitive feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I hoped I was wrong, but I knew I had to test the feeling, to protect the residents of Edgar—my family and the recovering Lost.

I rubbed at the bare skin of my forearms. They were already beginning to sting from the heat of the triple suns. I considered running back inside the house to grab a jacket or parasol. Tiny beads of perspiration formed across my forehead, dangerously close to my “upper eye” makeup. I swiftly dabbed them away with the handkerchief I kept in my pocket for that specific purpose.

“Come on, Sloe,” I muttered. “I can’t bake out here all day.”

Moments later, a pair of hands, followed by a pair of arms, and then the rest of a person stepped forward, not toward me but at an angle in front of me. It was like someone had walked through a blade of glass that had been empty on both sides. And instead of seeing the person walk through from behind the glass, there was no entrance, just an exit, as if the person had been invisible and then took form on the other side.

Sloe hiccupped when he saw me. “Oh, hey. I didn’t realize you’d be waiting for me.” When his face and body relaxed, I noticed how the sun’s light made his features more visible than they had the night before. Aborealian-black hair framed his face and made his eyes pop a glossy, lavender ice. His face was more angular, his cheekbones higher and more pronounced than I remembered. I’d seen him in full daylight only one other time, and that was at my grandfather’s funeral. But that was from farther away.

“Well, no portal bell, you know.” I smiled at him, more shyly now that he was this close, realizing that the brightness of the suns also made me more visible to him.

He smiled back at me, but there was a touch of wariness in his eyes. The expression went away when he looked down at my uniform. “So, you are a healer?”

“Yeah, though it feels like I’m still in training. So, um, ready for the grand tour?”

“Sure.” He smiled again, more relaxed this time.

“Right this way,” I said with an exaggerated arm flourish. “Edgar has only two buildings, and today we will be visiting Building Two.”

Sloe chuckled as he follow me onto and across the path. “That’s twice as many than the Clock Tower has. But, given how many portals there are attached to the outside of the tower, it doesn’t take me long to find more buildings if I really want to.”

I smiled. “My father grew up in world kind of like that—the White Tower. One building, but with an interior hallway that never ends. Each door on the inside leads to a new place.” I looked up at the suns. “I guess that’s kind of the opposite of your world, in a way.”

He scratched at the back of his head. “That’s different.”

“Father doesn’t visit there often, but maybe I could take you there sometime.” I blinked, surprised by how eagerly and effortlessly I’d said that.

“Really?”

I shrugged. “Just an idea.”

“I’d like that,” he said. He turned and kept his eyes on the path while walking.

“Do you have brothers or sisters?” I asked, wondering if they’d been at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral, too.

“No, it’s just me, Mom, and Dad. You?”

“One brother, Javis. He was at the funeral, but he got there late.”

Sloe nodded. “He was the guy who sat next to you at the reception, right?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised he’d noticed. “You’ll get to meet him here at the hospital. He should be making his rounds.”

I opened the door to the hospital, frowning. It sounded lonely at the Clock Tower. If that was his home, and the portals were on the outside of the tower, that meant he didn’t have neighbors like we did—a hospital full of recovering Lost. I felt ashamed of my earlier pouting over not having enough females around. Poor Sloe didn’t have much of anybody—male or female.
Several of the recovering Lost were walking along the hallways, some staring at the space before them; others attempted conversations with each other. I wrinkled my nose. Sometimes they confused each other with their stories about where they’d been searching and who they were looking for. By the time they were able to discuss more intelligible topics, it was almost time for them to go—to move on and to go home. This usually made me sad seeing as it seemed I was just getting to know them. But I was also happy for them—proud in a bittersweet way.

I looked sideways at Sloe to measure his reaction. His lips were set in a tight frown.

“Are these people similar to the lost travelers my mom told me about?” he said. “Like the Lost in Susana?”

I sucked in a breath. Father had told me that story, about how the TSTA had sent talented travelers on impossible missions to find their lost loved ones and then became lost themselves; only, their tortures were deeper and led them to a place of suffering: Susana.

“No,” I said quickly. “The recovering Lost here in Edgar are very sick, but Mother told me they’re nothing like the Lost were in Susana. She was,” I gulped, “one of them, actually. Before Father and Grandpa Plaka found her.”

Sloe frowned. “Sorry. I’m not sure I’ve heard the whole story—only pieces.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “You probably haven’t seen people like our recovering Lost.”

His lips quivered slightly.

Whoops, that was awkward. Where was Javis? He was so much better at putting people at ease through talking instead of touch. I balled my fists, half tempted to reach out and press my hand to Sloe’s shoulder, to calm him with my healing talent. But I didn’t want to freak him out.

“Down this hallway…” I pointed. “This is where I start my rounds. The recovering Lost like visitors, but we should probably do that in the gymnasium or in one of the common rooms.”

He held up his arms and his eyes went wide. “Yeah, no, I mean—I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal space.”

I rubbed my chin. “Maybe we should check in with Father, first.”

My eyes darted back and forth along the hallway. I frowned as I passed rooms I should have visited already. Where, oh where, is Javis? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I could do this—juggle showing Sloe around with getting my morning shift work done. But I’d promised.

I figured it would be easier to visit Father with someone else there to help break the ice, anyway. “Yeah, let’s start with Father,” I said awkwardly.

His door was cracked open. I knocked softly below his nameplate, Valcas Hall, Superintendent, etched deeply in brass.

“Yes?”

“We have a visitor,” I said, making my voice sound as official as possible, which sounded ridiculous as soon as I heard myself aloud. “I thought we’d check in with you before I make my rounds.”

“Come in.”

I pushed the door open. Father sat at his desk, pen in hand, his desk scattered with documents. Glowing electronic devices covered the desk’s back corner, one of which had a red light that was blinking. He pressed a finger to the screen of the blinking device and looked up.

“This is Sloe,” I said. “He’s visiting us from the Clock Tower.”

His gaze flickered across me briefly, then landed on Sloe. He pressed his lower lip forward before standing and offering his hand. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Yes, sir,” said Sloe. Even though he was taller than me, he had to look up to meet Father’s eyes. His hand pressed firmly into the one Father held open as they shook. “Sorry if I’m keeping Silvie from her work,” he said, releasing their grip.

“If you’re from the Clock Tower, then you must be Nick and Ivory’s son.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are they well?”

Sloe shrugged. “They seem to be.”

“Give them my best. Your mother and I are old friends; I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to speak with her at the funeral.” He narrowed his eyes, sizing up Sloe’s appearance. “You resemble her father, Coal, but you have Nick’s eyes.”

“So I’ve heard.” Sloe smiled.

I suppressed a grin. I’d wondered why Sloe’s hair was Aborealian black when both of his parents had white hair. It made sense now that Ivory’s father had dark hair, especially if his name was Coal. What was weirder was how everyone standing in Father’s office had the exact same hair color. Father and I got our dark hair from my grandmother, Sable.

Father’s eyes passed between me and Sloe again, expectantly this time, almost as if he wanted to ask us why Sloe was here, now that it had been established that his parents were well.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “If you’d told me in advance that you were going to have a visitor, I could have found someone to cover your shifts.”

I frowned. “That’s not necessary. After a quick tour, I’ll catch up on both shifts. I’m sure Sloe has other plans for today, too. Well, I guess we should start—”

The rumbling of rolling wheels sounded from the hallway. The sound grew louder, then stopped. I suppressed a groan. Now you decide to show up?

Javis’s smiling face poked through the doorway, then scrunched up when he saw Sloe in there with us. “Hey,” he said. “You’re that guy from the funeral.”

Sloe’s eyes widened. “You remember me?”

“Yeah, you were the one checking out—” He grew quiet when Father’s eyes bored into his head. Javis cleared his throat. “You stood out because of your eye color. Purple’s not very Chascadian.”

Sloe exhaled and laughed.

I felt my cheeks warm. Had he known what Javis was going to say before changing his sentence? That Sloe was ‘the one checking out’ me? I really, really hoped he and Father hadn’t filled in the rest of the words in their own minds.

“Yeah, the purple eye color usually gets attention. I’m Sloe, by the way. Good to meet you, um…”

“Javis,” my brother said. He rolled his bin to the side of the hallway and stepped through the door. He raised a hand covered in a rubber glove before dropping it. “Sorry, caught me in the middle of my rounds.”

“No problem. You work here?”

“Yup.”

“Wow, all of you then.”

“Speaking of…” Father nodded toward the door. “I have some items I need to attend to. If you need anything, let me know.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hall.”

“You’re welcome, Sloe. Send your parents my best, and please remind them they are free to visit Edgar anytime. You are all welcome here.”

“Will do.”

As we turned to leave, I thought I heard Father mutter something under his breath. It was a soft whisper, difficult to hear, but I couldn’t help but think I heard the words, No use waiting for another funeral. Wow, Father. Depressing much? I frowned, thinking of Mother and Grandpa Plaka, and how much I missed them.

On our way out the door, Father added, “Silvie, are you sure you don’t need coverage for your shift?”

“No, I’ll be fine.” I slipped into the hallway, hoping my face cooled off before anyone else noticed.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 14. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 4

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

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

He entered a room with little resemblance to the scene on the illusory door.

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

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

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

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

After shaking the tension from his hands, he turned to leave the room. From this side, a space on the wall gave the appearance of an entrance to an unlit tunnel. Sloe pressed his hand to the space and stepped through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She slipped her arm through his. “Ready?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven nodded slowly.

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

“Then how do we choose?”

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

Raven hesitated.

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

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

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

“Where does it go?” whispered Raven.

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 5. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 2

Darker Stars Beta CoverDarkness cast a hush over the burial grounds. The teardrop moons of Chascadia shined more brightly as the sun faded. Shadows that stretched across the Healer’s grave melted away.

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

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

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

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

A tear slipped from her eye.

“I will miss you.”

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

Footsteps interrupted her thoughts.

“Mom?”

A young man ambled forward, stopping when he reached the stone. His dark hair blended in with his robe, the black and gold funeral garb of Aboreal. Beneath the light of the moons, his eyes of purple ice shined warm and gray.

“Some event, wasn’t it, Sloe?”

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

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

He nodded and stared at the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s ready, Mom.”

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

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

The last of the sparks faded beneath an amethyst sky.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a chance.”

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

“How’s that for sticking my landing?”

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe frowned.

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

“But you still have your talent.”

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 3. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 1 Legacy

Darker Stars Beta CoverInheriting 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 glanced 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 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 people. 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 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 only child, 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. “Isn’t 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 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 when 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 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 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 carrying 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 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, 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.

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.