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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“What are you getting at, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They opened the door.

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

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

“How did you get here, friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded and held up a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

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

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

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

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 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, to be posted May 13. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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. >>>

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

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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. >>>

Learn more about the serialization of Darker Stars here.

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