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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 31 Locked

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

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

“Looking for something?”

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

“I…um.”

“What’s wrong, Silvie?”

“Nothing—I—”

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

I grimaced. “I hope you’re right.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m worried about you,” I said.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

A huff escaped my lips.

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

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

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

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

“What did your mother say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you haven’t done anything wrong!”

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 25 Suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think we should do?”

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

“I’d rather not show up uninvited.”

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

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

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

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

I winced. “Freshen up?”

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

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

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

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

His features were burned in my mind.

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing, Silvie?”

“I saw something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have it,” I growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arms around me tightened.

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

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

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

The hooded man held out his hand.

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

I took a few step backward and reached for Javis.

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

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

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

And disappeared.

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 23 Discord

Darker Stars Beta CoverFootsteps jolted me awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I couldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when he realized his mistake.

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

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

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

“I said stop,” he growled.

My fingers paused above the strings.

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

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

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

“No!”

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

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

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

The guard nodded without taking his eyes off me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready?” I whispered.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Javis?” I wheezed.

“Over here.”

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

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

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

“What happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 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 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“What are you getting at, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They opened the door.

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

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

“How did you get here, friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded and held up a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 17. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 15 Calling

Darker Stars Beta CoverOnce we were in the hallway, Javis snapped the edge of his rubber glove and offered Sloe and me a sad smirk. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Sloe waved a hand. “Have fun.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Javis. “Fun.”

I shook my head. “He likes his work more than he lets on,” I said, keeping my voice low. “He’s rather popular here.”

“Popular?” The scrunching of his face made me laugh.

“The female residents love him. Some more than others.”

I blanched at narrowed eyes.

“He keeps it professional, though,” I said, raising my palms. “And his presence here seems to make people happy.”

Sloe didn’t say anything. He stared across the hallway, his brow furrowed and eyes alert, as if he were searching for something.

“So, you’re here now. What would you like to see?”

His lower lip puckered, and he passed a hand through his dark hair.

“Whatever you’re willing to show me, I guess.” He said this with what seemed like a forced calm. Was he nervous, too?

I didn’t think it appropriate to take Sloe into the residents’ rooms, to have him shadow me on my rounds. But the kitchens weren’t exactly interesting. Neither was the gym.

“Let’s walk around the perimeter of the building and poke our heads into some of the common areas,” I said. “That shouldn’t take long, and if we get bored, I can show you the house, where Father, Javis, and I live.”

He smiled.

Taking that as my cue to begin what would likely be the most boring, and awkward, tour in the worlds, I stepped forward and gestured for him to follow. He walked as if stepping too loudly would wake up the recovering Lost.

“We don’t have to be so quiet,” I said. “The days here tend to be calm and uneventful. Twice a day, I go from room to room to check in on the residents. And then—”

As if catching me in a lie, someone wailed a high-pitched scream.

Sloe looked at me, worried and visibly puzzled.

“This is unusual,” I breathed.

I ran forward, following the screaming, and stopped when I reached a bathroom situated in the hallway. I turned to Sloe who’d caught up with me and asked him to wait outside. It was a ladies’ room.

My heart thudded against the insides of my chest as I pushed the door open.

Past the stalls, a young woman alternated between sobbing and screaming. Her back was turned away from me, and her shoulders shook the braid that trailed across her back.

As I approached, I reached out with my palm.

“You’re safe, Carmen” I whispered. My fingers curled around her shoulder. “Catch your breath, and tell me what’s happened.”

She turned and looked at me over her shoulder, with watery eyes and tear-stained cheeks. “No, no, it’s not me.”

“If it’s not you, then who is it?”

She wiped a trail of tears and pointed to a stall.

The stall door was wedged open. A bundle of ropes fanned across the floor. It looked like the bottom of a mop. My heartbeat rose into my throat as I pushed the door further.

Next to the mop’s pole was a shoe. I had trouble swallowing a scream of my own. Draped over the toilet was the body of my brother.

“Javis! What happened?”

He didn’t respond, but Carmen murmured at my shoulder. “I was in one of the other stalls when he came in to clean the bathroom. He mustn’t have known I was here.” Her eyes darted to the mop. “I heard something fall.”

I tried to lift Javis, then thought better of it. There was no way Carmen and I could carry him out of here.

I stepped into the hallway. Sloe stood, hunched over with his hands in his pockets. He stared at me wide-eyed. “Silvie, what happened?”

“It’s Javis. He fell over in one of the stalls.”

His cheeks paled and slackened. “Can I help?”

I nodded, hating the lump in my throat that kept me from replying with words. It was then that I noticed Javis’s cleaning bin parked against the wall. I’d completely missed it on my way to find out the source of the screaming.

When we reached the stall, Sloe propped Javis up over his shoulder and backed out of the stall. He had more strength than I gave his thin and gangly body credit for.

“Wrap your arm around his side,” he said.

As I did, I heard the whisper of Javis’s breathing, for which I gave a silent thanks.

“Help me get him out to the hallway.”

Gently, we helped Javis onto the floor. He fluttered his eyelids. Through them, I could see recognition in his eyes before he closed them again.

“It’s okay, Javis,” I said, wrapping my hands around his shoulders. “Breathe.”

Sloe stood and took a step backward, then leaned against the wall. I could feel his lavender eyes staring at me. I fought the urge to look up and measure his reaction, and focused on Javis, instead.

I reached out with my healing talent. In my brother, I felt weakness—something dark and sweet that was different from the pain of external wounds, of bleeding. I’d expected there to be pain since he’d fallen over and landed on a toilet. But there was something else, something I didn’t recognize because I’d never felt it in the injured or the Lost.

I pulled Javis’s shirt back and frowned. A bruise across his stomach was already beginning to turn purple.

“Will he be all right?”

I looked up and blinked. I’d almost forgotten Sloe was there.

“Yes,” I said sharply. There was no way I wasn’t going to let Javis be all right.

I reached again with my healing talent, finding the strength within my brother and pulled at it, stretching and spreading the life in him across whatever internal and external pain I could sense. The darkness within began to fade, along with pain and injury. It was as if two forces were at play, and both were at war with my brother. Pain and injury continued to subside.

Beads of sweat formed along my temples and in the space between my brow bones. The life and strength within Javis was stuck, unable to extinguish the darkness or push it out.

I sucked in a breath and pressed harder.

Javis shook with my efforts, his eyes still closed.

Then he bolted upward and yelped.

Sloe and I gasped at the same time.

“Javis!” I called out, hugging my brother to me. I cringed. The darkness was still there, inside of him.

I pulled back, holding him at arms-distance. His eyes were bloodshot, his lids half-closed.

“What happened?”

He frowned. “I don’t know.”

I propped him up to where he could lean against the wall, then pressed my finger along the handrail until I found an emergency button. I was certain Javis could walk, but it was good practice to call for a gurney anyway, to have someone else look him over and to convince him to rest before going home.

Footsteps sounded from down the hall, earlier than expected.

I turned my head, doubtful that the orderlies were already here with the gurney.

“Madeline,” I said under my breath. My heart twisted. She rarely left her room.

The Detail Technician stared directly at me as she approached, her bright orange hair curling around her face and fanning across her shoulders.

“I thought I heard screaming,” she said softly.

I frowned as she looked down.

A look of pain clouded her face when she saw Javis on the ground.

Sloe dipped his arms forward to catch Madeline’s thin frame before she fell.

I clasped my hand across my mouth when I caught a glimpse of Javis’s reaction. The look on his face was not good. I couldn’t tell whether he was jealous of Sloe’s arms around her or upset with himself for having been weak in that moment and unable to help Madeline. I knew it wasn’t pain that I’d already helped him take away.

After a deep breath, I sighed and reached out a hand, ready to start the healing process all over again. I touched my palm to Madeline’s shoulder, searching for the calm within—her own tranquility and peacefulness and pulled it forward, growing it inside her until the anxiety melted away.

This type of healing I was more used to—an overwhelming of emotion. There was no physical injury or pain. And none of the darkness I’d felt earlier from healing Javis. By the time I was done, all trace of worry melted away and vanished from her face. But her eyes sagged with exhaustion.

Footsteps, followed by more footsteps and the rolling of wheels, rumbled across the floor. I turned, wishing I’d ordered two gurneys, one for Javis and one for Madeline.

My breath caught. Father stalked with purpose toward me, with two orderlies and a gurney behind him.

Father pressed his hand to his chest as he took in Javis on the floor, and then Madeline who still dangled from Sloe’s arms.

“What happened here?”

“Javis fell in the bathroom,” Sloe said, surprising me. “After we pulled him out here, this girl saw him and passed out. Silvie helped them both. She was…amazing.”

I found it difficult to keep my expression professional and serious. Instead, I gave Father a meaningful look, as if to say, See, I am ready for this!

His jaw tightened.

My jaw tightened, too. But then I let my lips curl upward into the smirk I’d tried to suppress—a shadow of Father’s own smirk that I’d seen on many occasions.

As we squared off, the orderlies scrambled to lift Javis onto the gurney. Flashes of the teardrop emblem of Edgar from the patches on their uniform sleeves blurred past me.

Father squeezed his forehead with his hand. “I’m sorry you had to see this, Sloe.”

“It’s a hospital.” Sloe shrugged. “I understand.”

After responding with a slight nod, Father turned to me. “I’ll take over from here. Make sure our guest departs safely.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 16. >>>

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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 7 Talents

Darker Stars Beta Cover“Hey, Silvie.”

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

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

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

“Rounds?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled. “She might have mentioned it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

My chest tightened. “He said that?”

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

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

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

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

Javis hung his head. “I see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silvie, I’m sorry—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 8. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. It was ridiculously loud.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

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

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

“Apparently,” he said softly, grateful she’d changed the subject.

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

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

“Neither. It was weird. The family is a mix of people from different worlds.”

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

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

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

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

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

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

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

“Totally creepy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven had gone silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

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

“Let her go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Through a portal.”

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

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

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

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

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

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

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

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

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

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

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

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

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

He lifted his arms in the air. I tensed, thinking he was going to circle them around my knees, but then they fell and he clasped his hands together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do I do?” I whispered.

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

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

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

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

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

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

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, and swung the door open.

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

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

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

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

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Javis made it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For Javis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6. >>>

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

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