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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 22

Darker Stars Beta CoverRaven sat cross-legged on Sloe’s bed, her eyes fixed on her striped, fuzzy socks. “So, how are you doing now that the baglamas is in the hands of the cloaked men?”

“Not well.” Sloe sighed. He’d moved a desk chair so it faced the bed. His arms crossed his chest, wishing he still had his bedroom door.

“Did you do what I suggested? Did you tell Silvie the truth and offer to help her get the baglamas back?”

“No.” He rubbed his eyes, letting his dark hair cover his hands and forehead. “Actually, I tried, but she wasn’t around.”

“But the Halls live and work at Edgar, don’t they? Everything they need’s right there.”

His eyes flickered to the open doorway. “Everything but the baglamas,” he said, his voice low. “I went to the hospital to learn whether Silvie knew about the baglamas being stolen—to see if she’d mention it to me, but she and Javis were nowhere to be found. I thought it odd they weren’t working, so I tried to go to the house—”

“And?”

He swallowed and hung his head.

“Sloe, what happened?”

“I tried to go out the front door without being seen, but a group of patients and their visitors came stomping down the hallway. I panicked, Raven. I hid while they passed. When they went outside, I locked them out.”

“You what?”

“I heard one of the recovering Lost mention coming back inside to get something, and I wanted to buy myself some time. So, I locked the door and rushed around the inside border of the hospital until I go to the backdoor—where I could port home using the exit portal on the other side.”

Raven listened with a scowl. “You left all those people and their visitors outside? Why didn’t you go through the gym you’d said was in the middle of the hospital?”

“There were too many people in there. I thought the halls would be quieter, and they were.” He raised his palms. “I felt bad locking them outside, but I figured someone would eventually let them in. I didn’t know if any of them knew about the backdoor, but I hoped it would take them longer to reach it than it would for me to read the exit portal and travel home.”

Raven bit at the edges of a lock of hair she’d twirled around her finger. Finally, she said, “Can’t you see what this is doing to you?”

“Yes. And I hate myself.”

“Sloe, you need to tell Silvie the truth. If you can’t face her, you should explain to Valcas what happened. The baglamas, while important, is just a physical object, a material possession. If you told them our lives were in danger, they’d probably understand.”

He worked his jaw and frowned. “I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of—the cloaked men or the Halls’ disappointment in me.”

Raven reached out and pressed her hand beneath Sloe’s chin, tilting it upward until his eyes met hers. “Is it the Halls’ disappointment your worried about? Or is it Silvie’s?”

Sloe’s brow creased as he lowered his eyes. A heaviness lodged itself in his chest. He was worried about what Javis and Valcas would think of his betrayal, and how it might affect relations between the Halls and his parents. But he’d been relieved when he hadn’t found Silvie at the hospital, when he’d gone home instead of facing her piercing eyes and nervous smile to confess what he’d done, and whatever reaction that would have provoked.

“Sloe?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, shrinking beneath the tears flooding Raven’s dark eyes. “I wish I were as good as you.”

Her lips were pressed together, but he detected a faint trembling in them.

She nodded, then slowly inhaled as he stood from the chair and offered his hand.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll port you home.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 23, to be posted June 13. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 21 Capture

Darker Stars Beta CoverWe grounded to the soothing fragrance of flowers. It would have been difficult not to, seeing as our arms, legs, and faces were buried in them.

“What was that?” Javis was wild-eyed as he brushed pollen from the legs of his pants.

“I don’t know, but we have to go back. Let’s give it a day or two,” I said, pacing. “I need to think this through.”

“A day or two? I don’t trust that man, and we have no idea what type of time scheme his world has.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll go back tomorrow, the same time we left today, if possible. That will give us some idea of the day cycle there; and if it’s around the same time when we get there, we may get to see him outside again. Maybe one of us can distract him long enough to leave behind the baglamas, and the other can grab it. Then we can both transport home using our own pairs of travel glasses.”

“That plan makes more sense than anything else I’ve seen today.” Javis tapped at his head with a fist. “Or heard. How do we get past the dog?”

“You heard it, too? The voice telling us to leave?”

His scowl was replaced with an expression that reeked of I told you so. “That man was talking to the dog, responding to her whimpers and the words she put inside his head. I knew it!”

I huffed, leaving him standing there, ankle-deep in flowers, as I stepped up onto the path. He followed me, mumbling about how smart he was or something. I didn’t know because I’d stopped paying attention.

There was a group of people standing in front of the hospital. I pushed through to find two of the recovering Lost, with tears streaming down their faces, pounding at the door.

I pulled the nearest recovering Lost, a girl named Maya, into my arm as I rifled through my pockets for my key. She yelped when she recognized me, and then fell into a fit of loud, wet sobs.

“What happened?”

“He pushed us out. He—he said we should wait until you return.”

The lock clicked when I turned the key. I held the door open. Javis caught up to me once everyone had scrambled inside.

“Who said that, Maya? Who can’t deal with you anymore?”

“Valcas, I mean…Mr. Hall.”

The spaces behind my eyes burned with the information. How could he?

I placed my hands on the girl’s shoulders and held her out at arms-length. “Explain.”

“Curt and I had scheduled visitors…”

I nodded, acknowledging that the visitors must be the other people who’d been standing outside with the recovering Lost.

“You and Javis weren’t here, so we went to Mr. Hall’s office to check in our visitors. He sent us outside and told us to wait for you.”

Javis and I exchanged a glance.

“But afterwards, I remembered I left my sketchpad in my room, and I wanted to show my drawings to my brother. I tried to go back in to get it.” Her lower lip quivered. “But the door was locked.”

With the baglamas momentarily forgotten, I stormed through the hallway, with Javis at my heels. Father’s door was closed. I peppered the door with loud, angry knocks.

“Come in,” he called from inside the room.

I threw open the door and placed a hand on my hip. “Why did you send two of the recovering Lost and their visitors outside?”

He didn’t bother looking up from his papers. “I was busy, and it is a beautiful day. The flowers and suns help your mood, Silvie. Why shouldn’t they help theirs too?”

I hadn’t expected such a reasonable answer. He didn’t seem upset at all. If anything, he was eerily calm, and his words disarmed me. I dropped my hand from my hip and looked to Javis for help.

“After everyone went outside, one of the recovering Lost tried to get back inside, but she couldn’t.” Javis worked his jaw, as if he wasn’t sure how to raise such a serious accusation against Father. “The door was locked.”

Father looked up from his papers, finally, and gave Javis his full attention. “What do you mean the door was locked?”

“Silvie used her key to let everyone back inside. So, you mean you didn’t do it?”

I winced at Father’s tightly set lips. His eyes were filled with astonishment and pain.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Oh,” Javis said, his voice weak. I would have to thank him for putting himself out there, later. “Then that means…”

Father sat back in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “The hospital’s security has been breached.”

Javis and I checked in on each of the residents while Father initiated a flurry of activity, which involved inspections of both the house and the hospital and the installation of replacement locks on the doors.

When no one suspicious was found on the premises, Father handed me and Javis new keys. I bit my lip, unable to handle the disappointed look he gave us. I couldn’t believe I’d thought Father had locked out the recovering Lost. I’d been so taken back by what we found when we returned to Edgar. Not to mention my state of mind after our attempt to find my baglamas. Still, I was ashamed I’d let these events make me mistrust Father. He’d done nothing to deserve that.

***

Javis and I attempted to retrieve the baglamas the next day, before my morning shift.

I removed the travel glasses from my face to better see our surroundings. I couldn’t decipher any noise over the rumblings that announced our arrival. But by the time we’d finished grounding, a shriek erupted that made my skin crawl and tingle all over.

My gut reaction was to help someone who was in pain.

Javis held me back. “Silvie, no. Remember what the man in the tunic said about no one coming to visit him.”

“I know but—”

“Let’s check it out, carefully. Maybe he’s out for a walk…” He frowned. “In the dark with his creepy dog.”

“Then why would he be screaming?”

My question was answered a moment later when Javis and I stumbled upon the man and his dog. We’d been circling backwards, staying covered behind trees and looking through them, instead of behind us. When we backed up, something caught my foot and I flew backwards, landing on my butt.

The shrieking started again, only now it was right in front of me.

Javis ran to my side and pulled me up and away from the man in the tunic who was lying on his back. He rocked back and forth and pushed at the ground with his arms, struggling to get up. His feet wobbled up and down in front of him, without bending at the knees.

Eurig, his dog, sat at his side. She turned to Javis and me, catching both of us with her glowing eyes, and whimpered.

Your earthquake made him fall. You should not have returned.

She broke eye contact with us more quickly than she had during our last visit. As soon as I regained my wits, I pulled Javis out to an open space where we could run.

“Our earthquake?” I mumbled. “She must mean the impact of our arrival.”

“Yup, let’s bail. We’ll come back at a better time, if such a thing exists.”

“Call for help, Eurig!” the man yelled. “Make sure someone catches them!”

I shuddered at the wolfish howl that followed, a deep grow that swelled an octave higher before scooping back down again.

“Okay, here,” I said, indicating the open space before us with plenty of room to gain momentum for travel.

I slipped on the travel glasses and squeezed Javis’s hand.

We made it three steps before a half dozen men wearing tunics closed in on us and pulled us to the ground. I clawed at them with my fingernails, kicking at them as they tied my hands behind my back. Pain flashed behind my eyes. They’d nearly dislocated my shoulders in the process.

Three of the men dragged me and three dragged Javis through the gate and into the house. Without the brightness of the world’s moon, it took me a moment to adjust to the lack of light inside the house. Flames from torches flickered along the walls, mingling with the light from above—chandeliers filled with lit candles.

The men said nothing to us the entire time, even when they dropped us on the floor in front of a chaise lounge. I wriggled my shoulders to relieve the stiffness that had set in since my hands had been tied. I looked up and scowled. The man in the tunic lifted his head from a pillow and rolled to his side, resting his weight on a propped up arm.

Eurig sat next to him, curled up in a sleeping position, her eyes closed.

“Thank you, men,” said the man in the tunic. “I have something to say to our visitors, and then you will move them to a cell.”

The men grunted and stepped backward in a single file behind us, blocking the only exit I could find in the room.

I pulled at the binding around my hands, a material that had the silkiness of ribbon and the strength of rope. A cell?

The man in the tunic grinned at us. “My home has experienced unlikely weather conditions as of late. I felt the rumblings of an earthquake yesterday evening. Eurig and I went out for a walk this evening to be nearer, should the phenomenon repeat itself.” He grinned widely, showing us his full set of teeth. “And sure enough, it did.”

I bit my lip, frantically trying to figure how to get out of there. He hadn’t asked us a question, and I had nothing to say to him, so I kept my mouth shut. Javis sat with his legs crossed next to me, shaking.

“How did you arrive here?” the man in the tunic said, his eyes pinning me to the ground.

“We traveled,” I choked out.

A flicker of surprise shone in his eyes. “Using what method?”

Javis shot me a pointed look, but it wasn’t necessary. I had no intention of telling our captor about the travel glasses. Or that I knew anything about the baglamas.

“My men have ways of making you answer, children,” he warned. He shifted his weight back slightly.

I glared at him.

“Surely you two are able to speak. Eurig, we heard them outside when the girl tripped over me, didn’t we?”

The dog opened her eyes and tilted her head toward him. I couldn’t see the moon-glow in her eyes from where I sat when she let out a soft whimper.

“Eurig agrees with me, children. She says you can speak.”

My lips pulled into a frown. I hadn’t heard Eurig say anything. I hadn’t heard her words inside my head. But I had heard her whimper. Did Eurig have to be looking at a specific person, capturing them with her eyes, to be able to drop words in their head?

Javis and I exchanged a worried glance.

“I tire of waiting. Take them away.”

The men along the wall rushed forward, breaking out of their single file like marching band members scattering in different directions. Half of the men surrounded me, while the other half surrounded Javis. I don’t know why so many of them were necessary given our hands were tied behind our backs.

One of the men lifted me up in his arms and slung me over his back, with his companions flanking his sides. The more I kicked, the more he pinned my legs to his chest. But I didn’t yell out. I bit my tongue. The man in the tunic did not deserve my words.

Javis appeared not to be doing much better than I was. He was younger than me, but larger and stronger. Two of the men, both a head taller than him, had grabbed him beneath his armpits and were dragging him so that when he kicked, they lifted him up higher, leaving his legs to flail in the air.

Before we left the room, Eurig’s glowing eyes locked with mine. Her whimper was low and gritty, more of a growl.

I told you to leave. You should not have returned.

The man in the tunic stroked her head. “What’s wrong, my pet?”

She broke her gaze from mine and leaned into his petting before curling back into her sleeping position.

The men dragged Javis and me to separate cells, instead of the one cell the man in the tunic had warned us about.

“We’ll untie you,” one of the men said, his lips close to my ear. “But you should fear no less. We can rewrap your wrist as quickly as we did the last time,” he warned.

I twisted my face in horror at the sound of his voice. It was as if he literally gargled broken glass. I’d heard that expression before and thought I had an idea of what it meant, but now I had a real life audio-visual. His words undulated between low and high-pitched sounds, with the awful texture of sandpaper.

He stepped back and laughed at my reaction. “The punishments here are cruel,” he said, rubbing a hand across his throat. Then he clenched his jaw and sneered, as if he didn’t find the joke funny anymore.

His companion kept his strong grip around me while the man with the garbled voice untied and pulled at my bindings. The third man stood guard near the cell’s door, careful to allow himself and his companions to exit while leaving me trapped inside. The guard stayed behind and pressed his back against the opposite wall.

I shook out my arms and rubbed my wrists as I paced back and forth along the cell floor.

I looked out through the bars of the left front corner of my cell, noticing a man in a tunic who stood watching roughly ten feet away from where my guard stood across the wall in front of me.

I took this to mean that our cells were side by side. But I couldn’t see Javis because of the heavy wall between us. I also guessed his cell had metal bars in front like mine.

My teeth gnashed together.

The men had deprived us of being able to communicate in whispers, gestures, and glances. If we had something to say, we had to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear us, including those men who’d stayed behind and stood guard outside our cells.

I blinked at my guard.

He locked his gaze on me. This turned into a staring contest that continued until I began to feel uncomfortable. I switched to averting my eyes every time he caught me looking at him.

I slipped the travel glasses over my eyes and snickered, knowing the lenses were so dark the guard wouldn’t be able to tell whether I was looking at him or not.

“Silvie?”

I blinked and the guard faded from view, replaced by an all-white background. Javis’s face appeared like a cardboard cutout against it.

“Silvie,” he whispered.

“Excellent idea to call me using your pair of travel glasses,” I said, keeping my voice level at a low murmur.

“You too,” he said. “I was hoping you’d think of this, eventually.”

My lips pressed into a guilty grin. I shrugged. I didn’t want to tell him the real reason I was wearing the travel glasses, and the fewer words the guard overheard the better.

I retreated to the deepest corner of the cell and pressed my back to the wall and rested my cheek on my hand so the guard no longer had a head-on view of my lips moving. I hoped he’d think I was sick of our awkward staring contest. I leaned back slightly in an attempt to look like I was trying to get into a comfortable enough position to fall asleep.

“There isn’t enough room in my cell to gain the momentum needed for travel,” said Javis, his lips barely moving.

I peered up, over the glasses, briefly, to gain a sense of how high the cell was—to judge whether we could gain vertical momentum as opposed to running horizontally. The ceiling was no higher than the track on the upper level gymnasium. Even that wasn’t high enough for me to risk dropping to my death before the travel glasses ported me home.

“It’s not high enough, either,” I said. “Not that there’s anything in here I could use to get up there.”

“So what do we do? How do we get out of here?”

“We’ll have to wait until the doors open. Maybe then we’ll figure something out.”

“But we’ll be outnumbered.”

I cringed. He was right. The man in the tunic had too many of his lackeys on us. There was no use trying to mess with the cell door with our guards staring at us, either.

My guard cleared his throat.

“We should stop now, before they suspect something,” I said.

Javis tilted his head in a barely perceptible nod before letting out a huge yawn.

The skin above my eyes twisted. Oh shoot. My painted on eyebrows were probably smeared off by now. I rubbed my eyes anyway, taking Javis’s hint that we should look like we were falling asleep. He didn’t have to be so obvious, though.

He and the white background faded, leaving my cell feeling darker than before.

I left the travel glasses on my face and closed my eyes.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 22, to be posted June 10. 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 12

Sloe panted while staring at the purple sky, his eyes wild and searching. His hands and shoulders hadn’t stopped trembling. He’d been caught and somehow managed to escape. Had he been able to keep his teeth from chattering long enough, he would have smiled. He was going to be able to explore more of Edgar, this time with a pending invitation.

After descending and grounding, he opened the door to the interior of the Clock Tower. With light steps, he ascended the stairs to the upper rooms and cracked the door open. The room was so dark he wouldn’t have known anyone was there had there not been a whisper of snores sounding through his parents’ room.

Grateful he didn’t have to explain the night’s absence, he slipped the door closed and made his way back downstairs.

When he reached his bedroom, his gaze passed between his bed and writing desk. He was too tired to study, but also certain it wouldn’t be a night of restful sleep. He changed anyway, grabbing a set of nightclothes from one of the black and white trunks.

After peeling back the corners of crisply folded bedding, he settled into bed and stared up at the ceiling, his mind still pacing from one set of worries to another. He closed his eyes, his thoughts still full of the cloaked men, of Raven, and now of Silvie, as he tried to fall asleep.

Sloe woke up, sweaty but cold. He’d bolted upright during the middle of the night. He squeezed his forehead in his hands and rubbed his temples. An unsettling feeling washed over him. Prior concerns had been replaced by images of lost memories and connections made while unconscious. He’d seen the man, Valcas Hall, before. Silvie’s father. Prior to having seen him with Silvie at Basileios Plaka’s funeral, and before the glimpses of visits and stories told by his parents.

An image of dark glasses—sunglasses—stretched and grew as they traveled to the forefront of Sloe’s mind. Blotting out everything else. He’d seen them as a young child on a day teeming with so many memories he’d nearly forgotten the man in the dark shades. However bold they once had been, those memories, having been experienced through a child’s mind, they’d begun to fade.

Sloe swallowed, remembering.

He was a toddler, near in age to Silvie when he first discovered his travel talent—that he was a Time Keeper. The Clock Tower, the world he called home felt cozy and small. It was a single tower with cramped rooms on the inside. There were no houses or buildings on the outside of the tower. No neighbors with children to visit and play. But his home was like no other. The tower itself was filled with timepieces, representations of all the worlds in existence—worlds with people besides him, his mother, and his father. Worlds with children, and skies that were different, with grass and trees and creatures that crawled, swam, and flew.

His father could take him to the other worlds, but the visits were short and he was selective about where to go.

Sloe, the child, sat on the dusty ground that spread out on all sides at the base of the Clock Tower. He gazed up at the purple sky. He laughed and clapped as his father swiped his hands and feet along the timepieces on the tower, when they glowed and brightened. He sucked in a disappointed breath each time a timepiece faded, when his father moved on to other objects.

His mother sat beside him, smiling and smoothing down the spikes of dark hair he’d inherited from his paternal grandfather, Coal of Aboreal. His feet itched to sit up and climb the tower, to make the timepieces glow like they did for his father.

“Can you do it?” he whispered, looking up, his lavender eyes shining.

“Me?” Ivory laughed. “Not a chance.”

Sloe frowned.

“Sorry, but I don’t have that talent, kid.” Her gaze shifted to a blue-raspberry jet parked in the distance along the line where the gray ground met the purple sky. She sighed and pulled the boy closer to her side.

“Why not?” he said, squirming.

“That’s your father’s talent. He’s the Time Keeper, not me.”

Sloe’s eyes opened wide. Everything about those words—Time Keeper—were pleasing to him. He had to be that, to be just like his father.

He broke free from his mother’s grasp and padded toward the base of the tower. He reached up to climb, but his fingers were so small that they slid from the cool metals of the clock hands and gears. He tried to pull himself up. Unable to secure a grip, his hands slipped and he landed on his bottom.

The jolt sent tears to his eyes and left him stunned.

Until he spied a round, silver object, so large, it dipped toward the ground. Not wanting anything more than the shine and glimmer before him, he reached for it with both hands. Though it was many times his size, and without knowing what it was or where it went, he frowned with concentration and willed for it to glow.

“Son, what are you doing?” Nick looked down at him from above. The timepiece nearest his open hand glowed bright white.

Sloe squinted and blinked at the distraction. “I want to be a Time Keeper,” he said, pouting.

Nick chuckled, eying the large pocket watch. “Is that so? Then you might want to attempt a smaller object…a starter, of sorts.”

“Nick! He’s too young,” called out Ivory. She twisted her fingers roughly through her hair, and tugged. “I’m not sure I can handle this.”

“Don’t worry, love. I’ll be right here with him.”

Ivory rose from the ground, glaring and crossing her arms as she approached the tower. She frowned daggers at Nick before gently pulling Sloe’s fingers from the silver timepiece.

Nick stretched out an arm. “Come here, son.”

Smiling, Sloe reached up and allowed himself to be folded inside his father’s arm.

Nick carried the boy up to a point higher on the tower. “Let’s try this one,” he instructed. He held Sloe up to a bell-shaped object no larger than his thumb. “This is a tiny new world just starting out.”

Sloe grinned widely as he and his father gazed upon the object with matching purple eyes. The boy pressed a finger to the bell. His face scrunched and lower lip jutted forward.

“That won’t work,” whispered Nick. “A Time Keeper’s got to want the timepiece to do more than glow.”

Ivory rolled her eyes. “We don’t know he’s a Time Keeper. All you’re doing is getting his hopes up.”

“You’re right,” said Nick. “But if he does have the talent, I want to find out with him, before he slips through a portal on his own. This is not something I wish for him to explore alone.”

Ivory’s lips puckered.

“All right, then,” said Nick, “do you remember traveling through portals with me and your mother, son?”

Sloe nodded.

“What did you see?”

“Glowing, and purple, and blue. They tingled and hummed. Then we were somewhere else, and the new door felt shiny before it went away.”

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

Nick dropped his head, holding Sloe more tightly. “You sensed the portal on the other side?”

“Uh huh. And the other door—the one we went through to come back home.”

“You saw it?”

Sloe creased his brow. “Yes, but not with my eyes,” he whispered. “My ears and hands saw it.”

“You felt the portal?”

Sloe bobbed his head up and down.

“Brilliant, son. I’m going to teach you a special trick.” Nick exhaled slowly and pointed to a timepiece. “Don’t think about making it light up. Think about—”

He paused. His eyes searched the sky as he thought about how to explain such a concept to his young child.

“Think about feeling the world on the other side.”

The boy’s nose scrunched up. “Huh?”

Nick touched a finger to his lips. “Shh. Quietly, without saying anything, ask the timepiece to tell you about its world. Ask with your heart and mind. And then listen.”

With a serious frown, Sloe reached for the timepiece with his fingertips. His brow furrowed, the way it did when he thought his parents weren’t taking him seriously or understanding what he wanted.

He focused longer than an average child of his age would.

His parents kept still and silent as they exchanged glances of wonder and surprise. The child hadn’t given up yet.

Sloe’s brow relaxed. His shoulders melted forward at the same time the bell-shaped object took on a lighter shade, lightening and brightening until it glowed.

Nick swallowed and began to breathe audibly once more. He pulled the boy out of reach of the timepiece. “Excellent work, son.”

Ivory stood still, staring at her son. Her bronze skin was three shades paler than before. Stiffened shoulders drooped forward as she glanced at her jet and looked away. “A Time Keeper,” she said. “Not a Chauffeur.”

“I would have been happy whether he had a travel talent or not,” said Nick. “I can’t say I’m not happy about this—having someone to take over my responsibilities as a Time Keeper some day.” He grinned. “I may get to retire earlier than—”

Ivory sucked in a breath.

“What is it, love?”

“Nick, look!” She pointed to Sloe whose tiny hands were stretched toward another timepiece, this one twice as large as the bell-shaped object. It was already beginning to glow.

Nick twisted his arms and legs in a new position to pull Sloe out of harm’s way. “Perhaps we’ve read enough portals for now. Let’s take a break, shall we?”

He attempted to descend the Clock Tower while keeping the portals out of Sloe’s reach, but the tower was so densely covered in objects, his maneuvering got more awkward and cumbersome with each downward step.

After losing his balance more than once, Sloe squirmed from his grasp.

Nick fell, his hands and feet clawing at watch hands, gears, anything protruding from the tower.

Ivory’s screams chilled the air as Sloe slipped and slid from one portal to another. He flopped forward, toward another object, an hourglass, that branched from the tower at a peculiar angle. It was larger than he was and helped to break his fall.

Sloe circled his arms around the center point where the object narrowed, and closed his eyes.

He smiled and murmured something about music as the glass began to glow.

“No!” Nick sputtered as he climbed and reached for the child.

A crackling and buzzing covered Sloe as he pushed forward with his body and stepped toward the world with his mind, and then with his hands and body, before his father could catch up to him.

***

Sloe opened his eyes to a tunnel of blue and purple sparks, and then a sky similar to his own.

He stumbled forward.

A boy with a ball blinked from his seat on the grass. Green grass. Something Sloe had seen and touched while visiting worlds outside the Clock Tower.

“Hello,” he said, waving.

The boy squeezed the toy to his chest, his eyes fixed on Sloe as he neared. “How’d you get here?”

“From the tower.”

The boy frowned.

“It’s my home,” explained Sloe. “I traveled here through that door.” He pointed to the empty space where he’d passed through.

The child gaped at him. “There’s no door there.”

“Yes there is. I can feel it because I’m a Time Keeper.”

“A what?”

“It’s my travel talent.”

The boy grinned, seemingly impressed. “My sister has a travel talent. So does my father.”

Sloe nodded.

“But my mother and I don’t have travel talents. We stay here in Aboreal.”

“Really?” Sloe’s eyes grew wide. “Then how do you find people—to play?”

“They’re all here,” said the boy, laughing. “Animals, too.”

Sloe followed the boy’s gaze across the grass to where two creatures with short legs and pointed ears chased each other. Both had fur as bright and white as when the Clock Tower’s timepiece portals glowed.

A comfortable feeling washed over him, as if he belonged here in this world, in Aboreal. The boy in front of him seemed familiar, too. Like Sloe’s parents, the boy had snowy white hair, so evenly colored it had a certain flatness to it.

“What’s your name?” said Sloe.

“Winter. What’s yours?”

“Sloe.”

“Well, you sound Aborealian. Look like it too. Are you sure you’re not from here?”

Sloe scrunched his nose. Doubt crept into his eyes. His lips pouted as he concentrated on the differences between this world, Aboreal, and the Clock Tower, and how similar his parents were to this little boy.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

Winter’s eyes went wide, the soft, white brows raising above them. “Then where are you from?”

Sloe opened his mouth to answer, when his breath hitched. His feet felt as if someone were trying to move them around on the ground. He raised his arms to his sides to maintain balance as the ground beneath him began to rumble and shake.

Winter squealed. “Someone’s here,” he said. “A traveler.”

Both boys pressed their knees and hands to the ground. The boy without a travel talent slipped one hand behind his neck.

Sloe squinted at the dust raised and at the tears in the grass. Something felt wrong. There hadn’t been shaking when he’d entered Aboreal. And there was no one near the portal he’d come through. He had a vague understanding that his mother had stopped flying and that his father traveled using the Clock Tower. But this was new, and he had no idea who to expect: who the traveler might be, where he’d entered, and where was he from.

When the world stilled, Sloe sat back on his feet and palms. His breath came in rapid gasps. His attention darted back and forth between the boy, the portal, and a figure in the distance—past the streets and the houses. A dark figure, walking toward him.

Sloe sat straighter. The figure approached, taking the form of a man with olive skin and hair that shined of the black of Aboreal. He wore dark clothes, and a pair of sunglasses sat pressed against the bridge of his nose.

“Who’s that?” whispered Winter.

He and Sloe frowned at one another.

Sloe shrugged.

The man stopped before the boys. His head turned to the boy with the white hair for a brief moment before shifting to the right. The dark glasses made it difficult for Sloe to read his expression, but he felt the man staring deeply into his own lavender eyes.

“Your parents will be glad to know you’re safe,” the man said. His voice was flat and even, but his lips twisted at the corners. “You must tell your friend goodbye, and that you must go home.”

“I—I can’t,” said Sloe. His chest sank with guilt for having left home, for leaving his mother and father behind. “I want to, but I can’t see the other door.” Even as he said these words, he felt a pull toward something. A calling, an energy pulling him back to the Clock Tower, to home.

“The exit portal?” The man crossed his arms and smiled, seemingly impressed with the boy.

Sloe stood up from where he sat on the ground. “Can you help me find it?”

The man opened and closed his lips twice before setting his jaw. “No. I can’t see or feel or read them.”

Sloe’s shoulders rounded forward.

“Maybe your parents will come here to get you,” offered Winter.

The man shook his head. “They no longer travel here. I’ve been asked to bring you home, Sloe.”

His head snapped up at the mentioning of his name. “You know how to get to my home? To the—”

“Yes. Take my hand,” said the man with an urgent tone. “They’re expecting us soon.”

Sloe looked back and forth between Winter and the man. Tentatively, he placed his small hand within the man’s larger one.

“Can Winter come with us?”

“No. Now, run,” said the man.

“Goodbye, Winter,” called Sloe over his shoulder. Both he and the man stepped forward. As they picked up speed, the vivid colors of Aboreal were bleached by light, one so bright that Sloe was forced to close his eyes against its painful sting.

When he opened them again, he was standing at the base of the Clock Tower, beneath the purple sky. He let go of the man’s hand. Smiling, the man knelt with one knee and a hand pressed to the ground. Behind him, Sloe’s mother and father were doing the same.

Rumblings similar to those experienced in Aboreal shook the tower and everything below it. When all stilled, Sloe’s parents rushed to him, their words of disapproval softened by their embrace.

The breathing of Sloe’s adolescent-self slowed; his eyes grew heavy and closed with the memory.

Back in his room, safe and warm, he fell asleep again, this time to images of his parents’ hugs and kisses, and tears.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 13. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 10

Sloe returned to the Clock Tower breathless and panting. He’d run the whole way from Raven’s doorstep to Aboreal’s exit portal.

That was some seriously good healing balm. He grinned as he coiled his arms and legs, and then sprang forward from the tower, soaring into a double front flip and landing deftly on the balls of his feet.

So much faster than climbing back down, he thought, still too winded to mutter the words aloud. But that didn’t stop him from sprinting up the stairs to the tower’s upper rooms.

Ivory’s eyes widened when the door sprang open.

“Looks like someone’s feeling better,” she laughed. “Here, eat this.” She passed him a plate filled with slices of meat, fruits, and bread, along with a mug of hot liquid.

He picked up a slice of meat with his fingers and tore off a bite.

“Mom?”

“Yes, my sweet?”

“That funeral we went to earlier,” he began, not believing that it was still the same day. It seemed a lifetime ago since he’d carried a broken Raven back through the Clock Tower portal.

“Yeah?”

“If Silvie Hall, the girl who inherited the healer’s legacy, isn’t from Chascadia, where is she from?”

Ivory chuckled. “After everything that’s happened tonight, you want to know about a girl? And not even the one you took home?” She gave him a mock serious look. “Haven’t you already had one bad date tonight?”

“I can’t believe you said that,” Sloe groaned.

“Good backup plan, though.” Ivory smirked. “Valcas’s daughter is a cutie.”

“Mom!”

“Okay, okay, so here’s the story. Her mother, Calla Winston, was born on Earth and was also half Chascadian. Silvie’s grandfather was Calla’s father, both of which were Remnant Transports with healing abilities. Silvie’s father, Valcas Hall, was born at the White Tower, a world his parents—both World Builders—designed and built. Valcas’s father was from Earth and his mother was from Aboreal. Silvie, however, was born in a new world created by Valcas—he inherited the travel talent of world building, which was not much of a shocker given both of his parents had the trait.”

Sloe raised his eyebrows while sipping hot liquid from the mug.

“Anyway,” Ivory continued, “Valcas being the big, lovey softy we all suspected he was beneath the rough, unapproachable exterior, eventually decided he couldn’t live without Calla, and he built her a whole new world as a gift. It’s where the hospital is now, the one for the recovering Lost. Calla named the world after her time travel mentor, Edgar Hall. So, we all know it as the world of Edgar.”

That’s all I need to know, Sloe thought, smiling to himself. Edgar. He decided against digging for hints as to what the portal for Edgar looked like on the Clock Tower—what the timepiece for the world was. No reason to raise suspicion, even though it was a nice break from being asked what happened during his date with Raven.

“Interesting,” was all he said.

“So, Silvie Hall, huh? I’m sorry I didn’t introduce you to her earlier. We’ll need to go visit Valcas sometime.” She sniffed. “It seems we only see each other after someone has died. He has a son, too, a bit younger than you. But I didn’t see him at the funeral.”

“I think I did, but not until the reception. He sat next to Silvie.”

Ivory smiled. “Yeah? What did he look like?”

Sloe shrugged. “I don’t know…like any guy, I guess.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, kid. Come on, give me the deets—hair color, eye color, something! I haven’t seen any of them since Calla’s funeral, and Javis was so young.”

He scrunched his face and frowned. “I honestly wasn’t looking at him all that much, Mom. Curly hair…brown, I think. Dark eyes.”

Ivory’s lips widened in a huge smile. “I’ll bet he looked like Calla did as a teenager. I should have gone inside to pay my respects, but I was just… I felt I should say something to Plaka, and—”

“I’m sure it’s fine, Mom.” He really hoped they, as a family, would not be visiting Edgar together anytime soon. Guilt twisted at the insides of his chest for what he had to do in Silvie’s world of Edgar, alone. And soon.

Ivory nodded and turned, suddenly absorbed in wiping something from her eye. She grabbed his mug and refilled it.

He’d slipped into a comfortable calm when Nick entered the room from his parents’ bedroom. The tall, gangly man sauntered over casually, placed a book on the table, and sat down. He cast a severe glance in his son’s direction as Sloe shoveled more food in his mouth.

Nick passed clenched fingers through his snow-white hair, the back of which was gathered in a tail.

“I take it your friend has made it safely home, son?”

“Yes,” Sloe mumbled through a mouthful of food. He washed it down with a long draft of liquid, the same broth Ivory had served Raven.

“Good.” He tilted his chin upward and waited, as if expecting an answer, though he hadn’t asked a question.

Sloe looked down at his food and then back up again. “What?”

Nick sat back in his chair; the blue sleeves of his shirt scraped the armrests along the way. He cleared his throat. “I’m waiting to find out whether your memory has healed as well as your bruises.”

Sloe exchanged a glance with Ivory.

“Oh no,” Ivory whispered under her breath. Her eyes rolled toward Nick.

“I was hoping your trip to Aboreal, and a dose of fresh air, would help you remember what world you traveled to, or at least which portal.” He sniffed. “Seeing as that was not the case, I’m simply waiting to learn whether your memory will have a remarkable return once the broth takes effect. So far I guess it hasn’t.”

Sloe chewed slowly before swallowing. “Dad…”

“No, really. It’s not a problem. I can wait. Don’t let my curiosity ruin your dinner. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.” He brought his book to his face and pointedly turned a page. “In the meantime, I’ll be content with my reading.”

Ivory scowled at her husband. “Passive aggressive much?”

She sighed. “Sloe, just tell us what happened. I mean, could you describe the two beings that attacked you? Were they animals? People? Was there anyone else there who saw what happened?”

The food inside Sloe’s stomach churned. He dropped the piece of fruit he’d touched to his lips. Sloe had never seen anyone turn green before; but in that moment, he was sure his face matched the color of the fruit.

“See, Nick, he’s still scared from being attacked. I’ve never seen him like this before.” She placed a hand to Sloe’s forehead, then wiped off the clammy moisture stuck to her hand. “I think you should go to bed, kid. Sleep this off, if you can.”

Sloe nodded. Unable to look at his dinner without wincing, he pressed his plate forward. He rose from the table and pressed his hands to his stomach.

“Not a bad idea. Goodnight.”

Nick frowned as he watched Sloe leave the room. Before his son stepped through the doorway, he called out, “I think you look quite well. But don’t lock your door tonight, just in case.”

Sloe ground his teeth together, angry at the dig that Nick had accented with a wink. He was tempted to turn around and say something, but he didn’t know whether his mother knew about the bedroom portal-door Nick gifted him to begin with. He was in enough trouble as it was.

He trudged downstairs, passed the shower closet and tore back the sheet that hung across his bedroom doorway. He muttered to himself as he paced.

“I absolutely have to go to Edgar tonight, if only to scope it out for when I go back. Then, figure out where both portals are located, gain my bearings, and come up with a plan. Soon. I have no idea where Silvie lives or where she keeps the baglamas.”

Sloe fell backward and landed on his bed. He stared up at the ceiling, frustrated. I’m not much of a spy, and I have no idea how I’m going to pull this off. Raven’s smiling face filled his mind. I have no choice.

He lay like that until he no longer heard footsteps or chatter from the upper rooms. He tiptoed out of his bedroom, sighing when he stopped in the doorway. Now that his door was gone, it would be absolutely obvious, now, to his mother that he was not in his room. He squeezed his forehead with his hands. Think. Think.

“The shower closet has a door,” he muttered. He opened the door and flipped the light switch. The overhead lamp glowed orange. “If they come down to check on me, maybe they’ll think I’m in there.”

He stepped lightly past the staircase that led to the upper rooms and stepped outside.

The sooner I have the baglamas, the sooner I can get the cloaked men off my back, and life will go on. Hopefully, a life with Raven still in it.

Sloe ground his teeth, resisting the urge to rush. He climbed the Clock Tower with the lightest and slowest of steps.

His hands passed along the portals, gliding along Aboreal’s hourglass and Chascadia’s clepsydra, a type of water clock with a funnel through which water droplets dripped into a lower chamber. Neither timepiece responded to his touch; neither sang to him.

He continued reading the portals, searching for the one that represented Silvie’s world of Edgar.

A low hum trailed across the fingers of his left hand.

Sloe turned his head.

A glass timepiece, the shape of a teardrop, warmed and glowed beneath his touch. Sparks of rainbow light showered up from the center of the timepiece and veined outward, touching and trailing along its beveled edges.

Sloe sucked in a breath. This has to be the one. His stomach twisted with the knowledge that Silvie was only a portal’s breadth away. He’d already unlocked it. All he had to do was step through.

He sickened at the thought of arriving unannounced. But as long as the hooded man was out there, there was a threat on Raven’s life. His friend was not safe.

He was not safe.

If the cloaked men were able to build and destroy portals, then perhaps they could also destroy the Clock Tower’s timepieces, maybe even his home. The image of how easily his own father had erased the portal used as a bedroom door came to mind.

A chill ran along his fingertips and extended up along his arms to his elbows. He sucked in a breath and pushed his hands forward, and stepped through.

Bolts of electric sparks in blues and purples pulled and twisted and hummed, singing to him as he traveled from one world to the next.

Sparks faded, replaced by a warm glow. Three suns shone in the sky. Behind them sparkled silhouettes of smaller stars. Sloe rubbed his eyes, then squinted against the brightness of yellow and gold.

A blanket of flowers spread along the ground, surrounding him on all sides. He caught a breath of the fragrance that stung his nose, and paused to take it all in. Red, lavender, white, and blue flowers welcomed him. He smiled.

Two buildings, both with multiple stories, stood up against the golden backdrop of the horizon. One of the buildings gave off an industrial vibe, constructed in blues and grays, whereas the other looked like it could be someone’s home.

A healer, thought Sloe. And a Remnant Transporter. Could this be the hospital for the recovering Lost? The thought didn’t make him feel any better about the reasons why he was there. But, still, he was curious.

He plodded toward the house before changing his mind and turning to the right, in the direction of the hospital. His foot landed on something hard before he looked down to see what it was. The soft crunching of flowers beneath his feet gave way to something more solid. A path. He followed the path, lined on both sides with the sea of flowers, to the hospital.

Ice filled his veins when a person came into view, someone standing in the distance, staring back at him. A young woman with jet black hair and thin eyebrows raised up high—the girl he’d been searching for while reading the teardrop portal.

He stopped with a one foot slightly raised, his toe brushing the ground, wondering what he could possibly state as a reason for his appearance.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 11. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 9 Memory

Darker Stars Beta CoverI curled up in a chair in the family room to read in front of the fireplace. Studying became increasingly difficult the more I devoted time to the hospital, but this book interested me. It related to pre-modern medicines and technologies not used at our hospital, treatments used on Earth, where bodies could be healed with the help of machines and medicines, and without the physical contact of a Healer.

I was so absorbed that a deep sigh startled me. I bookmarked my page with a finger and looked up.

Father stood in the doorway, his gaze shifting back and forth between me and the bookshelves that lined the wall behind me. His hair was slicked back and to the side, and he’d changed into a sweater and jeans.

“Looks like you just got back from the gymnasium,” I said with a yawn. One of the perks of working for the hospital was the use of its exercise equipment and showers.

Father nodded. He walked past me to the shelf. He swiped a finger along titles of books as he searched. I craned my neck, curious to see what he was looking for.

His hand landed on a brown volume with a ragged spine. The gold lettering was faded and too small for me to read from where I sat.

“What book is that?” I said, squinting.

“It’s a journal kept by your grandfather, Plaka.”

Father didn’t provide explanation beyond the question asked. I shook my head and laughed inwardly. That would never change.

“What did Grandpa Plaka write about?” I prompted. I hadn’t read the journal, but I hoped it had something to do with healing. No one had mentioned it to me before. Maybe Grandpa Plaka left a set of instructions, something I could follow and learn now that he and Mother were gone.

“That’s what I’m about to find out.” He leafed through the pages and frowned.

Getting nowhere, I decided to look at the journal later, after Father was finished with it. And if he didn’t return it to the shelf, I’d know it was something important. Maybe something he didn’t want me or Javis to read. Which made me that much more interested in reading it.

Maybe it had something to do with Mr. Calcott’s visit to the hospital today. I took a deep breath, ready to test the waters, and uncurled my legs from beneath me.

“I’ve been thinking about what Mr. Calcott said and—”

“You will not be searching for Mr. Calcott’s sister,” Father said, not bothering to look at me. He focused on the turning pages of the volume wedged in his hands.

I pushed myself up from the chair. “Because I’m a child? Isn’t that what you said earlier, at the hospital?”

“You’re too young to undertake such a dangerous mission.”

“Do you remember what Mr. Calcott said?” I squeezed the book I held to my chest. “The man was from Chascadia. The Lost person he’s worried about is his sister, which means she’s Chascadian too! The last Lost person with Chascadian heritage was Mother.” At least, I hadn’t learned of any since the stories I’d heard from before my parents’ marriage. I hoped it was still true.

Father’s lips tightened. “Yes, and your mother wasn’t much older than you in maturity when she became Lost. She was still in her teenage years.”

I already knew that, but I didn’t want to hear it right now. Mother was older than me in Earth years when she first learned how to travel, but our timelines were different. Mine was longer because I’d been born on Edgar; here, the timeline was longer than Earth’s but not quite as long as Father’s was at the White Tower, where he was born. My parents had somehow managed to marry and start a family despite the difference. But that was far too complicated and not persuasive enough for me. I needed something that appealed to Father’s emotions, his heart, and his pride.

A grim thought flashed in my mind, one so true I couldn’t help pointing it out.

“Mr. Calcott was right, wasn’t he? You didn’t want to be alone—to lose another of us. Don’t you want to see me do what I was meant to do? Do you know how embarrassing it was for me to watch you tell a suffering man to go away?”

Father looked up from the journal. “Silvia, enough.”

“Why won’t you talk about it? Is it so wrong to admit you care for me? That it has less to do with my abilities and how capable I am?”

His eyes softened, but his lips remained firm. “That should have been obvious by my unwillingness to let you go.” He lowered his gaze. “I refused to argue further about this. I need to get back to the hospital. I’ll ask someone else to cover your evening shift.”

“Now you’re firing me?” I huffed. It was my job. How dare he?

“No one’s being fired. I don’t want the recovering Lost to see you like this—out of control of your emotions.” He carried Grandpa Plaka’s journal with him to the door. “I think you need a break. We’ll discuss this again when you’re thinking more clearly.”

With quick strides, he walked out of the room, leaving me in front of the fireplace, my body shaking with rage. How Father was able to do that—push my buttons while still sounding calm and reasonable—was beyond me. It was like he was a robot, detached from the full range of emotions that made one human.

I stomped to my bedroom and threw aside the book I’d been studying. I snatched a pillow and smacked it against my bed, convinced I’d received my compassion from Mother.

After the pillow had been thoroughly pummeled, I sat down on the floor and hugged the pillow to my chest. I had to get my hands on Grandpa Plaka’s journal.

A framed portrait of Mother, propped on my bedside table, smiled down at me.

“You must think I’m crazy,” I whispered in the direction of the portrait. “I have pictures of you everywhere, and I talk to you like you’re still here.” Tears filled my eyes. “I just wish—” I sniffled. “I wish you were able to talk back, that I could hear your voice. One more time.”

By the time Mother died, she’d aged so much more quickly than Father. Some had mistaken her for my grandmother. Her dark, curly hair had grayed so much it matched the color of her eyes. I don’t know how she did it—watched herself age while her husband and father stayed young; cared for children with a body that aged and ached. Yet, she never complained.

Father looked at her the same way he always had, with love, like he couldn’t believe his fortune, that he’d been lucky enough to have such a beautiful wife.

I sighed.

“What good is being a Remnant Transporter if I can’t use it?” I mumbled in the direction of the portrait.

Mother would have supported me. I knew it. We would have gone on the mission together. She could have trained me. Grandpa Plaka would have done the same, the way he had by training Mother. But, now, both were gone. The only person left to train me was Father and he didn’t seem to want to do anything about it. He was completely uninterested.

I’d accepted my vocation as soon as I learned my travel talent. Mother was overjoyed. Father was not. Had he ever supported my talent?

I closed my eyes, remembering. Mother and I had been on an outing. She was pregnant with Javis and had a craving for key lime pie. I gagged, remembering how she’d eaten it with fermented cabbage. How gross I thought that was, even though I was only five years, Edgar time.

Father wasn’t present; it was just Mother and me. We’d left Edgar to travel to a different time and place using Mother’s pair of travel glasses, an unofficial travel object. She hadn’t inherited the baglamas because Grandpa Plaka was still alive, and he was usually off healing travelers and searching for the Lost. Mother did similar work, but when she was pregnant, she traveled less and spent more of her time at the hospital taking care of those who Grandpa Plaka brought to Edgar to recover.

Mother smiled at me as she slung the shopping bag over her shoulder and covered my hand with hers. She slipped a pair of dark sunglasses over her eyes.

“Ready, Silvie? Grandpa’s not with us today, so we’re going to use the travel glasses. You remember how to do this?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, then, put on your pair.”

I slipped on a tiny pair of sunglasses Father had given me. I knew they weren’t filled with magical technology like Mother’s pair, but they helped protect my eyes from the light.

“On the count of three,” Mother said.

I bent my legs at the knees, ready to run.

“One. Two. Three!”

Mother’s feet pressed forward as she pulled me along with her. The world streamed past us in colors tinted by my dark lenses. Mother’s shopping bag fluttered in the breeze of our momentum. I looked up to see if she was smiling, too.

Her lips were pursed in concentration. She whispered words aloud, like she was talking to the travel glasses, telling them where to go.

And then the sky, and everything beneath it, glowed with a white light that would have been blinding had I not been wearing the tiny pair of sunglasses.

When the brightness faded, I handed my sunglasses back to Mother and bounced in place.

She pressed a finger to her lips. “Not yet. First we need to ground.”

She knelt, holding one arm protectively around her swollen stomach, where my younger brother was growing inside her. I mimicked how she stayed low to the ground.

The dirt and grass shook and trembled—a symptom I later learned was caused by tearing into a different place and time. When the ground stopped moving, we brushed ourselves off and entered the pie shop.

Bells jingled, announcing our arrival. A plump lady with thick, red lips smiled at us from behind a counter crowded with bins of lollipops and other candies.

“What can I get for you today? Pumpkin-raisin, or how about the cinnamon cream?” the lady said. She pointed to counter, filled with trays of pies.

I pressed my hands and nose to the glass, searching for a green and white pie, the one I knew Mother wanted. But I couldn’t find any. I hadn’t thought about how different the pies looked before they were sliced, with the citrusy green layer hidden beneath the meringue.

Mother pointed to a pie that was white on top with a candied slice of lime wedged in a dollop of cream. “Is that key lime?”

The lady nodded. “How many would you like?”

“Four, please.”

The pie lady’s laugh was merry, almost musical. She boxed the pie on display, then disappeared through a door behind the counter.

I stared up at the bins of lollipops while I waited. I liked the red ones best, but I only saw orange, green, and pink. Startled by a sucking sound behind me, I turned my head.

A girl, the same size as me, sat at a table, licking a lollipop. She had a round nose and dark pigtails. I smiled and waved.

The girl smiled back at me with orange-stained lips.

I tugged at Mother’s hand.

“You can’t stay and play,” she said. “But go ahead and talk to the girl while I pay for the pies.”

“Hello,” I said when I reached the girl’s table. “I’m Silvie. I can’t stay and play.”

The girl grinned. “My name is Gemma. This is my mommy’s shop.”

My eyes grew wide. Even though my parents had a hospital filled with interesting people, I couldn’t imagine how wonderful it would be to have parents who had their own pie shop, with bins of lollipops. Though, I’d make sure we had the red ones, too.

I decided I liked Gemma. If I couldn’t stay, perhaps she could come home with me. Mother hadn’t said we couldn’t go back to our home and play.

I peeked at the counter to make sure Mother was still talking to the pie lady, Gemma’s mommy. “Want to play a game?” I whispered.

Gemma bobbed her head.

“Follow us when we go,” I said. “Outside, we’ll start running.”

“Why?”

“To get home,” I said. “Don’t let my mother see you’re there. Stay hidden.”

Gemma sucked at the lollipop before answering, “Okay.”

“But when you see us running, you start running too. As fast as you can.”

“Okay.”

“Try to catch us before we disappear.”

The girl’s eyes popped open. “Disappear?”

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Silvie,” Mother said, walking toward us. Her shopping bag was so full the corners of the pie boxes poked through the bag. “Time to go. Say goodbye to your friend.”

“Bye, Gemma.” I waved.

On our way out the jingly door, I turned to the girl and winked.

Mother held my hand and walked me to where we’d arrived and had knelt on the ground. I kept looking back for Gemma, hoping she’d keep her promise to play the game. If she couldn’t come with us, I at least wanted her to see us disappear, to know the special thing Mother could do.

But I hadn’t told her about the travel glasses. If Gemma was behind us, hidden somewhere behind the buildings and trees, I wanted her to see our sunglasses, too.

“Ready, Silvie?” Mother had on her travel glasses and helped me with the tiny pair that covered my eyes.

I looked back for Gemma one last time. Please run with us, I whispered in my heart. At the same time, I felt Mother’s hand tug me forward until we were both running.

My mind whirled with thoughts as the sky turned white. What if I never got to see Gemma again? Mother visited all kinds of pie shops, in different times and places. What if we didn’t come back to this shop in this world? I wanted Gemma to tell me what it looked like when we disappeared, and what she thought of Mother’s talent.

I wanted her to come home with us, to Edgar.

I felt something press against my open hand, the one Mother wasn’t holding. The sunglasses protected my eyes, but they didn’t keep out all the white light. I turned my head to see what was next to me, what had touched my hand. There was nothing but blurring clouds of white.

Whatever I felt went away. I grabbed for the air, to see if I could catch it. My hands clasped what felt like fingers, small ones like mine. Smiling, I held on tighter.

I didn’t let go. Not until the brightness faded and I was standing beneath the warm glow of Edgar’s three suns.

“Wow,” said a voice from somewhere next to me.

A girl with pigtails stood waist-deep in a rainbow of flowers, smiling and staring up at the sky.

I was so excited I forgot to stay low and press a hand and a knee to the ground.

At first, my parents thought it was an accident, that Mother had pulled Gemma through time and space. They didn’t bother taking her home, either. Father told me it was because this version of Gemma was a silhouette, a copy of a person from the past who would eventually fade. He explained that Mother had traveled with me to the past, to a pie shop she’d visited as a child, and that Gemma would be Mother’s age by now.

“Won’t Gemma’s mother miss her?” I asked, confused.

“Maybe for the rest of the day,” Father said. “But all will be forgotten when everyone wakes up the next morning. The past has already been written, and minds of silhouettes cannot be changed without leaving a Daily Reminder—a written reminder intended to change the past.”

After the incident with Gemma, it happened again, and again, usually with other children my age, those I wanted to keep as friends and to know about Mother’s travel talent. Sometimes children from the present slipped through time and space with us and had to be transported home. But most of them were remnants from the past.

Eventually, my parents figured out my game and that I’d willed them to come home with us. They and Grandpa Plaka were stunned because I hadn’t been in charge of the travel glasses and where we were going. Each time, I’d only known and expected we’d be returning home, to Edgar. Who knows what would have happened if Mother had decided on a different course without telling me?

That was how it was discovered that I was a Remnant Transporter—that I could transport silhouettes through space and time, to wherever and whenever I was going.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 10. >>>

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

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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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