Darker Stars Beta

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 15 Calling

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

Sloe waved a hand. “Have fun.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Javis. “Fun.”

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

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

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

I blanched at narrowed eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled.

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

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

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

Sloe looked at me, worried and visibly puzzled.

“This is unusual,” I breathed.

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

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

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

As I approached, I reached out with my palm.

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

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

“If it’s not you, then who is it?”

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

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

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

“Javis! What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Help me get him out to the hallway.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Will he be all right?”

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

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

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

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

I sucked in a breath and pressed harder.

Javis shook with my efforts, his eyes still closed.

Then he bolted upward and yelped.

Sloe and I gasped at the same time.

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

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

“What happened?”

He frowned. “I don’t know.”

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

Footsteps sounded from down the hall, earlier than expected.

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

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

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

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

I frowned as she looked down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened here?”

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

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

His jaw tightened.

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 16, to be posted May 20. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 14

Deep in the forest, two men crouched over the crackle of fire. The pale light of the flames highlighted hands lined with scars. The unhooded man pulled his hands back and sat on his heels.

He turned to his companion.

“How long do we wait?”

“It won’t be long. If we hide, he’ll find us. It will only make matters worse.”

The hooded man grunted. He stared in the direction of the world’s entrance portal. Instead of sitting on his heels, he squatted, ready to pounce. His hand rested on the hilt of a weapon hidden beneath his cloak.

A hand, followed by a pair of arms, and a body emerged from the portal.

The man in the tunic smiled broadly.

“Do you have it?” he called out as he worked his way to the fire. Slowly. He tugged at the tunic that tugged at his steps.

The cloaked men stood from the ground. The unhooded man’s lips remained silent in a face as cold and hard as stone. His companion did not move.

Sharp eyes glittered through slits in their visitor’s mask. “Well, where is it? Where is the baglamas?”

“We will have it soon,” said the hooded man. “It’s not in our possession, but we have found someone who will retrieve it.”

The man in the tunic squeezed his chin before responding with a roar of laughter. “We have found someone who will retrieve it,” echoed the man in the tunic, his voice mimicking the blood curdling pitch of the hooded man’s voice. “That,” he said sharply, “is what I have asked you to do. You were to retrieve the baglamas and bring it to me.”

He turned from the fire. The rear of his tunic shook violently.

The heads of the cloaked men turned toward one another, snapping back in position when the body of their unwelcome visitor stilled.

The man in the tunic inhaled deeply and turned to the cloaked men. The pallor of the fire reached his face, highlighting the redness there. It was not clear whether the sudden flush came about through anger or glee. Or, perhaps, a little of both.

He scratched his head. “So, let me get this straight. You asked someone to go and get the baglamas for you, and they’re going to do that and bring it to you?”

“It was an order accompanied by a threat,” said the hooded man.

“Ah, good!” The man in the tunic clapped his hands. “It seems you’re finally learning something.” He glanced at the ground as if considering how he would seat himself by the fire. “That boulder over there,” he said, pointing. “Bring it here, and place it in front of the fire. I’d like to hear more about your plan, and who it is that will retrieve the baglamas.”

The hooded man grunted. He pulled the boulder from the earth. Soil and vine clung to it as he carried it to the fire and dropped it before the man in the tunic.

The man in the tunic bent forward and brushed off the top of the boulder before easing backward into a semi-seated position.

“Go on, tell me,” he said with a wave of his hands.

The unhooded man crossed his arms. “We found a Time Keeper.”

The mouth of the man in the tunic dropped open. “One who reads and unlocks portals?”

“Yes. He arrived here with a girl. We captured both of them and threatened the girl’s life if he did not agree to find the baglamas.”

More clapping came from the man in the tunic. He squinted up at the cloaked men. “Does he—the Time Keeper—know where it is?”

“He has seen the instrument. He attended the Healer’s funeral. We overheard him talking about it. He has a lead, and if he knows what’s good for him, he is currently looking for it.”

“Why didn’t you ask him where he thought it could be? It could have shortened the process, and then you could have gone and looked for it yourselves.”

“We couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t warn whomever he was going to take it from. It would have been necessary to threaten the girl’s life either way. And if he was a guest at the funeral, he has an insider’s advantage.”

“You know very well we can’t leave here for long periods of time,” added his companion.

The man in the tunic nodded. He grinned widely. “And where is the girl?”

“She was of no use to us. She has no travel talents, so we let her return with the Time Keeper in exchange for his promise.”

“In other words, you let both of them escape. You fools!”

“But he cares for the girl,” gargled the hooded man. “If he doesn’t deliver the baglamas soon, we will catch her. We could use a portal trap. The Time Keeper may not be fooled, but she will be.”

His companion grinned. “Especially if we make it nice and sparkly.”

“She has no travel talents. She will want to impress the boy—to be like him.”

The man in the tunic sat still with his hands clasped at this lap. “To impress him.” He smiled. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then we find the girl and bring her here.”

“No.”

The hooded man made a choking sound before speaking. “Why not?”

“I don’t trust you to keep her here. If and when she arrives, whether by portal trap or brute force, you will bring her to me.”

“She is not part of the deal.”

“Oh, but you see,” said the man in the tunic. He pulled at the lower half of his garments as he struggled to bend and stand. “You have made her part of the deal. By bringing her and the boy into my problem, my secrets—”

“Your secrets?”

“I had no intention of making my desire for the baglamas known to anyone except to you, whom I’ve arranged to help me with this task.” The clenching and unclenching of his jaw made small crunching and popping sounds. “And now there are two others who know about this. I ask you again: what were you thinking?”

“We didn’t tell them about you. For all they know, we want the baglamas.”

The man in the tunic chuckled. “Is that what’s happening here? Are you planning to betray me by keeping the instrument for yourselves?”

“No,” growled the hooded man. He towered over the man in the tunic, with his face so close that his hood grazed the smaller man’s brow. “We agreed that we will give you the baglamas, and then you will set us free. Your terms, not ours. Trying to confuse us won’t work.”

The man in the tunic stepped backward. His lips formed an indignant smile. “Be sure to keep your end of the bargain.” He scanned the dark woods, stretching his neck toward the river that flowed through it, and smiled more graciously. “Because if you don’t, you will be tied to this world, to this wasteland in time and space, for always.”

The crunch of bone chomping bone or teeth gnashing teeth could be heard from beneath the hooded man’s cowl. He cracked the knuckles along his hands. “Enough of your talk and your reminders. If you’re finished here, let us be. We’ll contact you when we have the baglamas.”

“Strong words for someone with less power than he thinks. But I sense I’m not welcome here. I will leave for now. Don’t keep me waiting.”

The man in the tunic clasped his hands and shot a simpering grin in the direction of the river. “Have you been able to open that portal?” he said. “The one atop the island of stone?”

The hooded man grunted. “No. We’ve tried. It’s locked, and we’re unsure where it leads.”

“That’s too bad,” he said with a wicked grin. He looked down at his tunic and then wistfully toward the river. “On the other hand, had you been able to leave this place through that portal, the pain would get to you, eventually. I’d try it myself, of course, but I have other means…”

The cloaked man who wore no hood snorted, his gaze fixed on the cumbersome tunic. “I’d like to see you try to navigate the river and climb the rock.”

“Enough,” said the man in the tunic. “I’m overstaying my welcome. You must be delirious with sleep. You no longer make sense.”

He turned and walked back to the portal he’d entered, only instead of stepping through the way he came, he walked to the space behind it, and turned his back toward the portal. Then, with small steps, he walked backwards until he disappeared.

“It’s a good thing he left,” growled the hooded man, cracking his knuckles again. “I grow tired of him more quickly each time we meet.”

“Agreed, though it would have been worth it to see him try to get to the portal on the rock.” He chuckled darkly.

“To see him smack his face on the water?”

“Exactly.”

“Then to see him curse at not being able to open it.” The hooded man lazily threw more wood on the fire. Warmth and light spread, throwing shadows across him and his companion.

“And what if he could? What if the portal opened for him—what would that mean?”

“That he’s a talent like none seen before.”

The man who wore no hood stretched forward and rubbed his hands over the revived blaze. “It is frustrating that we can build portals and travel through those we build. But we cannot unlock this one. If he’s right—that temporary separation from this world will cause us pain—it would be worth seeing where it goes. Even if we got lost.”

The hooded man grunted. “That’s the only reason keeping me from destroying the portal on the rock. I’ve seen others like it, in other worlds. It’s as if each entrance portal has a companion portal that cannot be unlocked by anyone but a Time Keeper.”

“What do you mean?”

“The entrance portal here can be accessed because it is not locked on this side. But its companion portal, and others similar to the portal on the rock, are always locked.”

The man who wore no hood cleared the grit from his throat and sat back on a log. He stared at the portal, thoughtfully. “If the boy, the Time Keeper, was able to take the girl through, then he could port us, too.”

“I have no doubt of that. In fact, I’ve already considered it. But first, we must collect the baglamas.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 15, to be posted May 16. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.