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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

The 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 portal and go back to the Clock Tower. From there, we can go somewhere else, or I can take you back 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,” snapped Raven. “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 too deep 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 hit more solid ground, 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 that Raven seemed to have finally 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.

“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?”

“No. 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 hate 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 and arms 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, to be posted April 18. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Prologue

The Healer knew he was aging.

His body was too frail to continue traveling through time and space. Soon, he would complete his calling, and his vocation would pass on to someone else. He’d accepted these truths, but that didn’t make being awakened by the pain in his joints any easier.

After completing a routine of bending and stretching, he rose from his bed.

He gathered the spirals of gray that hung to his waist and tied them behind his head. His cloak hung on a chair next to where he’d been sleeping. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder to loosen his back muscles before wrapping the cloak around him and fastening its clasp at his neck.

The Healer buried his hand in a jar filled with chewing sticks cut from a Peelu tree, and pulled out a twig. He peeled bark from the twig’s edge. Placing the peeled end between his teeth, he chewed until its fibers frayed and formed a brush.

He wandered out the door to his home, chewing and brushing as he began his morning walk.

Trees rustled with the song of the morning breeze, and the air held an aftertaste of winter pine.

The Healer breathed deeply. He squinted, his eyes having been uncovered and unprotected from the megastars that brought the morning light. He paused to close and to rub the remaining sleepiness from his eyes. When he opened them, there was a twinkling in the thick of woods that had not been there before.

He blinked and chewed, and rubbed his eyes again.

His knees creaked as he stepped toward the twinkling.

When he passed a hand through the outer edges of the space, his fingers disappeared as if they’d moved through an invisible door. The chewing stick fell from his lips and landed in the dirt.

After testing his opposite hand and a foot, the Healer bent forward and pressed his head inside.

His ears filled with the rush of wind and a faint tinkle of chimes.

Blue-green eyes, the color of shallow waters, struggled to absorb and understand what they were seeing.

Transfixed, the Healer continued forward.

Dark clouds hovered in the sky. Light from stars shone and faded through gaps between the clouds. Wherever he was now, it was no longer morning.

There were more trees on this side of the twinkling, but also a river the Healer had never seen. It was not part of the grounds near his home. It was not part of his world.

He tapped a finger to his lips. “How is this possible? A portal, perhaps—but why now? And in the middle of nowhere, outside my home?”

Still, the Healer grinned as he observed the twinkling from this side, from a viewpoint within a realm unknown to him. It was no more than an outline, wider than his shoulders and higher than the stature of an average man. Lines along the edges of the twinkling shimmered, but so softly that most of the area blended in with its surroundings, a faint light peering through a tear in space.

He stood, with his fists resting at his hips and his eyes glistening, completely absorbed in studying the new world, when two men approached.

Both wore cloaks clasped at the neck, like the Healer, except that one of them had an attached hood that drooped over his forehead and eyes.

“Good eventide,” said the hooded man. His voice was croaky, with the persistent change of pitch of one whose vocal chords had been twisted and scrambled.

“Yes, the evening here is quite good.”

The Healer hadn’t intended his reply to be thoughtless or unfriendly. At any other time, he would have cringed at a voice like the hooded man’s. He would have wanted to help soothe the man’s pain. But he was so rapt by his discovery of the portal he hadn’t thought to press his hand to the man’s throat to heal him.

The hooded man grabbed the Healer by the throat instead.

Choking, the Healer clawed at hooded man’s hand to loosen the vice on his airways. But by the time the bloodied hand let go, the hooded man’s companion had pulled the Healer’s cloak over his head and around his arms, leaving him blind and defenseless.

The hooded man landed three blows to the Healer’s head before kicking him toward his companion. Both men hissed and jeered at the Healer’s attempts to dodge their attacks as he teetered back and forth between them.

With a ringing snap, the clasp at the Healer’s neck opened, freeing him from the prison of fabric that allowed him to be beaten in the dark.

But it was too late.

With one eye open and the other swollen shut, he reached for the twinkling, knowing he would not pass through before his battered body fell. He reached anyway, until his fingernails clipped soil and his teeth cracked against the ground.

Air spilled from his lungs, constricted from the impact. He no longer moved.

Only then did the cloaked men stop to wipe the blood from their fists.

A third man emerged from the shadows. He was masked, and wore no cloak, but his tunic flowed to the ground. A shallow split in the fabric limited his mobility by slowing his stride. When he reached the heap on the ground that was the Healer, he slipped the mask he wore from his eyes. What began as a nervous chuckle grew into a full belly roar.

“Such a great man, but so distracted,” he wheezed, his body shaking with laughter. “Fine work setting the portal trap.”

The cloaked men grunted.

“Get a good look at his face. Be sure it is the right man.”

The unhooded man bent forward and knelt to the ground, something the man in the unwieldy tunic could not do. “I am certain it is he.”

“Basileios Plaka, we have you at last.” The man in the tunic threw his head back. His laughter echoed through the trees.

The cloaked men listened. Neither cracked a smile.

“Why do you stay silent instead of laughing with me?”

Ignoring his question, the hooded man spoke. “Are you finished with us?”

“Almost. Where is the instrument—the baglamas?”

The unhooded man trembled as he raised hands marked with scars, cupping them outward to show they were empty. “I have checked his person. The instrument was not tied to his belt. It is nowhere to be found.”

The face of the man in the tunic went rigid and paled. He attempted to kick at the body, but was caught short by his tunic.

He set his foot back down and paused to regain his composure. “No matter. He won’t need the baglamas where he’s going.”

“No weapons, either.” The unhooded man’s voice was sharper, more controlled, than before. “He couldn’t have defended himself. They will think us animals.”

“I care not what anyone thinks of you. Make sure he is dead, and then remove his body from this place. Have it sent back to Chascadia.”

The cloaked men looked at one another.

“We will do as you say,” the hooded man croaked.

“Good. Once that is finished, you will find the instrument and bring it to me. Then, I will be finished with you.”

The men’s voices traveled through the Healer’s ears. He heard their conversation the way he would have imagined an outsider listening to someone else’s dream. His lack of strength left him unable to speak or move. He hadn’t the breath to groan. He knew he would die, alone and unable to tell his loved ones what had happened or to reveal the identity of his attackers.

Awareness ebbed as his heartbeat slowed.

The worlds as he knew them melted together, enveloping him in waves of peace and embracing him in a curtain of white light.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 1, to be posted March 28. Learn more about the serialization of Darker Stars here.